20–21 July 1921

SMS Ostfriesland at anchor off Cape Henry, Virginia. (USNNMNA 1987.096.004.018)

The captured Kaiserliche Marine dreadnought battleship SMS Ostfriesland was expended as a target during aerial bombing tests conducted by the United States Army and Navy, 20–21 July 1921. The ship was anchored approximately 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Cape Henry, Virginia, at the edge of the outer continental shelf.

An aerial bomb explodes on the foredeck of SMS Ostfriesland, 21 July 1921. (U.S. Air Force 020926-O-9999G-016)

The U.S. Navy wanted to investigate the damage that could be caused to ships by airplanes, and required that the Army aircraft drop 25-pound anti-personnel bombs, and 550- and 1,000-pound demolition bombs. Between tests, Navy engineering officers would examine the ships.

A 2,000 bomb detonates near the stern of SMS Ostfriesland. (U.S. Navy)

Brigadier General William (“Billy”) Mitchell, commanding the Army bombers, had a different goal. He had said that the Air Service could sink a battleship, and that was what he planned to do.

SMS Ostfriesland sinking by the stern, about 12:30 p.m., 21 July 1921. (U.S. Navy)

General Mitchell observed to attacks from his DH-4, with Captain St. Clair Streett, the foremost expert in aerial photography, as an observer. The bombing was conducted by the 1st Provisional Air Brigade, flying Martin NBS-1 twin-engine bombers. (The NBS-1 was soon redesignated MB-2.)

Martin MB-2. (U.S. Air Force 061219-F-1234S-014)

Ostfriesland suffered some damage from the early bombing attacks, but when the Army dropped several 2,000-pound bombs close aboard, the underwater explosions caused severe damage to the battleship’s hull.

If this had been actual combat, the battleship’s crew might have been able to control the flooding and save the ship, but, instead, it began to settle by the stern, rolled over and sank in only 10 minutes.

Front view detail of Martin MB-2. (U.S. Air Force 061219-F-1234S-021)
3/4 aft view detail of Martin MB-2. (U.S. Air Force 061219-F-1234S-022)
Brigadier General William Mitchell, United States Army Air Service. (U.S. Air Force)

The wreck of Ostfriesland is located at latitude N. 37° 09.396′, longitude W. 74° 34.562′, at a depth of 380 feet (116 meters).

© 2019, Bryan R. Swopes

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