The 75,156gt ferry Color Magic of Color Line leaving Kiel in August 2022. she was built in 2007 by Aker Yards at Turku and operates on the Kiel to Oslo service. (Nigel Lawrence)

The Port of Kiel grew into one of the greatest naval bases in the world, with much of the German High Seas Fleet based in its magnificent harbour in deep, sheltered, spacious and ice free water. The City of Kiel is the capital and the most populous city in the State of Schleswig-Holstein with around 235,000 inhabitants. It lies on an inlet of the Baltic Sea, the Kieler Fjord, at the eastern end of the Kiel Canal and fifty miles north of Hamburg, and forty miles north west of Lubeck. The Kiel Canal does not follow a straight line, but curves in a north east direction from Brunsbuttel on the Elbe estuary to Rendsburg, and then eastwards to Holtenau on Kieler Fjord. Vessels departing from the two big locks at Holtenau or the two original smaller locks at Holtenau, turn left for the open fjord and the Baltic Sea, or turn right to move down to and enter the busy ferry and cruise ship Port of Kiel.


Normans and Vikings established small groups of settlers along their trading routes, the one at Kiel was established in the 10th century and called Kyle, Anglo-Saxon for a safe harbour. The origins of the Hanseatic League can generally be traced back to the rebuilding of the towns in North Germany in 1159 by the powerful Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, after he had captured this area from Count Adolf II of Schauenburg and Holstein. The Hanseatic League was a medieval, commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds, market towns, and ports stretching all the way from Holland to Kiel and Hamburg in Germany, and the Baltic States of Poland, Sweden, Estonia and Russia.

The Hanseatic League encompassed almost two hundred towns across seven countries that reduced trade barriers and gave protection against pirates and bandits. Duty free trading and a common legal system governing the merchants and their goods were the other chief reasons. By the end of the 13th century, Kiel, Lubeck, Hamburg and the Hanseatic League ports had the cohesive political means of merchant trading, backed up by a small army. Kiel had become a base for merchants from Saxony and Westphalia trading eastwards and northwards, with the word ‘Hanse’ appearing in many documents from 1267.

Kiel gained imperial privileges in 1267, and goods had to pass through the port and be trans-shipped either from the Baltic to the North Sea, or from the North Sea to the Baltic. The Hanseatic League lasted for centuries until power began to gradually drain away in the 16th and 17th centuries as Norse and Baltic States took over their trading routes. In name only, the Hanseatic League towns of Kiel, Lubeck, Bremen and Hamburg remained as the only members of the powerful grouping until 1862. The founding of the North German Foundation in 1867, the German Empire in 1871 under Kaiser Wilhelm I, and German reunification finally ended the Hanseatic League. However, two dozen modern German cities and towns including Kiel still use the words ‘Hanse’ or ‘Hansa’ on their official documents and titles today.

The 10,800dwt Rhön class tanker Spessart of the German Navy at her base in Kiel. She was built in 1977 by Kröger at Rendsburg (Nigel Lawrence)

Kaiser Wilhelm I moved the Prussian fleet of warships to Kiel in 1865, making it an Imperial German port within the German Empire. The population of the port city grew rapidly from 19,000 in 1864 to around 200,000 by 1910. The Port of Kiel at this time was divided into five sections, as follows:-

Old Town Harbour with 7,550 feet of quays


Wik Harbour outside the Holtenau Locks of the Kiel Canal with 3,300 feet of quays

North Harbour inside the Holtenau Locks with 1,760 feet of quays

Kiel Naval Base with many piers for ‘Dreadnought’ class battleships, which moved through the Kiel Canal to join up with the German High Seas Fleet under Admiral Scheer in the Elbe for the Battle of Jutland. This was fought over 36 hours during the 31st May and 1st June 1916 with no victory for neither side as it turned out to be a strategic draw.

Vossbrook Harbour to the north of the canal entrance with a breakwater.

In 1918, the survivors of the German Navy after the Battle of Jutland were forced to move from Kiel and Wilhelmshaven and other German naval ports to Scapa Flow on the surrender of the German Battle Fleet. A revolt among German naval personnel in late 1918 had occurred during the German democratic revolution.

During the inter-war years, imports of the Port of Kiel were coal, oil, oilcake, maize, timber, bricks, salt and fish, while exports were industrial machinery, grain, flour, timber, manure and general cargo. In 1934, 20,636 steamers and motor ships of 7.781 million net tonnage passed eastward through the canal, and 20,601 ships of 8.054 million net tonnage passed westbound. The German Government operated the tankers Hansa, Brosen and Wollin during the inter-war years as naval oilers at Kiel Naval Base and Wilhelmshaven Naval Base, as well as the twin screw steamer Poseidon of 492 grt on marine duties. However, the German city and naval base of Kiel was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, with over 90% of the city buildings left in rubble and ruin, and Kiel Naval Base and Scheer Hafen and Tirpitz Hafen were destroyed and no longer fit for use as they were intended when built. A few military buildings on Arkonastrasse in the Wik district were all that remained of the former Kiel Naval Base.

The 7,200 displacemnet tonnes frigate Nordrhein-Westfalen of the German Navy arriving at Kiel. She was built in 2020 by Blohm and Voss at Hamburg. (Nigel Lawrence)


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