The Greek battleship Kilkis, originally the USS Mississippi of the United States Navy, was a significant acquisition for Greece in 1914, symbolizing a modernization leap in its naval capabilities.

Designed as a pre-dreadnought battleship, Kilkis served as a key asset in the Greek Navy during World War I and the interwar period.

However, its operational life ended abruptly in 1941 when it was sunk by German dive bombers at the Salamis Naval Base.


Origins As USS Mississippi

The Kilkis began its life as the USS Mississippi (BB-23), a member of the Mississippi-class battleships of the United States Navy. This class, commissioned in the first decade of the 20th century, represented an important step in the evolution of battleship design. The USS Mississippi, along with its sister ship, the USS Idaho (BB-24), were constructed as part of the U.S. Navy’s efforts to expand and modernize its fleet during this period.

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The USS Mississippi was built at the William Cramp & Sons shipyard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Launched in 1905 and commissioned in 1908, the ship was a significant technological achievement for its time.

However, the rapid pace of naval technological advancements soon rendered the Mississippi-class battleships less competitive. The emergence of dreadnought-type battleships, which featured larger guns and more uniform main armaments, quickly made earlier designs like the Mississippi obsolete. As a result, the U.S. Navy began to phase out its older battleships in favor of more advanced and powerful dreadnoughts.

USS Mississippi under construction in 1907.

Recognizing an opportunity to strengthen its naval forces, Greece expressed interest in acquiring these battleships. In 1914, amid the burgeoning international tensions that would soon culminate in World War I, the United States agreed to sell the USS Mississippi and USS Idaho to Greece. This sale was part of a larger U.S. policy of divesting older warships, and it also helped to strengthen diplomatic ties with Greece.

Upon acquisition, Greece renamed the USS Mississippi to “Kilkis,” after a famous battle site in Greece. This acquisition significantly boosted the capabilities of the Greek Navy. For Greece, a nation with strategic interests in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, owning battleships like Kilkis was a critical aspect of asserting its maritime presence and deterrence capabilities in a region marked by historical rivalries and emerging threats.

Design Of The Kilkis

The Kilkis, as a Mississippi-class battleship, had a conventional pre-dreadnought design. The ship’s hull measured approximately 382 feet in length with a beam of 77 feet, and a draft of 24.5 feet. This size enabled a balance between operational range, armament, and armor protection, crucial for the naval tactics of the era.

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The propulsion system of Kilkis consisted of vertical triple-expansion steam engines. These engines were powered by eight coal-fired boilers, reflecting the naval technology of the early 1900s. This propulsion setup allowed the battleship to reach a top speed of around 17 knots, a respectable speed for a battleship of this class and era. However, compared to the later oil-fired systems and turbine engines, this was less efficient and required a large crew to operate and maintain.

The main armament of Kilkis consisted of four 12-inch/45 caliber guns arranged in two twin turrets, one fore and one aft. This primary battery was capable of delivering powerful broadsides, a key feature in naval engagements at the time. In addition to the main guns, the battleship was equipped with eight 8-inch guns and eight 7-inch guns, providing a layered defense against a variety of targets, including surface ships and torpedo boats.

USS Mississippi pictured in 1909.

The ship also had several smaller-caliber guns for defense against close-range threats, such as torpedo boats and destroyers. This diverse armament reflected the tactical necessity of engaging different types of targets at various ranges.

Armor protection was a critical aspect of Kilkis’s design, as battleships of the era were expected to withstand hits from similar-caliber weapons. The ship featured belt armor up to 9 inches thick, which was intended to protect its hull against enemy fire. The turret armor was even thicker, reaching up to 10 inches, offering robust protection for the main guns. Additionally, the ship had significant deck armor, protecting it from plunging fire and aerial threats, a concern that grew with the advent of military aviation.

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While formidable in its time, Kilkis’s design was indicative of the transitional phase in naval architecture between pre-dreadnought and dreadnought battleships. The mixed-caliber armament and the relatively moderate speed and armor protection were standard for pre-dreadnought battleships but were outclassed by the later uniform big-gun armament and improved propulsion systems of dreadnoughts. This disparity became increasingly evident as naval technology advanced rapidly in the early 20th century.

Service In The Greek Navy

Upon its induction into the Greek Navy in 1914, Kilkis, alongside its sister ship Lemnos, immediately enhanced Greece’s naval capabilities. The battleships became the most powerful units in the Greek fleet, symbolizing a new era of naval strength and modernization. Kilkis was primarily tasked with securing Greece’s interests in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, a region of strategic importance and historical maritime significance.

During World War I, Greece’s role was initially marked by neutrality, but it eventually joined the Allies in 1917. Throughout this period, Kilkis and its sister ship served mainly in a defensive capacity. They were instrumental in asserting Greek sovereignty over its territorial waters and played a deterrent role against potential naval threats. The presence of these battleships helped to secure key sea lanes and protect Greek interests during the turbulent wartime period.

In the interwar years, Kilkis continued to serve as a vital asset in the Greek Navy. The ship participated in various naval exercises, showcasing Greek naval power in peacetime. These exercises were crucial not only for training purposes but also for maintaining a visible presence in regional waters, reinforcing Greece’s status as a significant Mediterranean naval power.

Despite the importance of these battleships, the period between the World Wars did not see significant modernization or upgrades to Kilkis. This lack of modernization meant that by the outbreak of World War II, the battleship was largely outdated compared to newer and more advanced warships. Nonetheless, Kilkis remained an integral part of the Greek Navy, representing its historical journey from a modest naval force to a more formidable maritime power.

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As World War II began, Kilkis, like many other naval vessels of its era, faced new challenges. The advent of air power and the development of more advanced naval technologies had dramatically changed the nature of naval warfare. Kilkis’s role during the early stages of World War II was limited, primarily due to its outdated design and armament, which made it less effective against modern threats.

The Final Chapter Of The Kilkis

The Kilkis met its end in April 1941, at a time when World War II was engulfing much of Europe. It was stationed at the Salamis Naval Base near Athens, a key location for the Greek Navy and a strategic point for controlling maritime routes in the region.

The sinking occurred against the backdrop of Nazi Germany’s aggressive expansion into the Balkans. In April 1941, German forces launched an invasion of Greece, part of their broader campaign to dominate Europe. The rapid and overwhelming advance of the German army left Greek and Allied forces scrambling to defend key positions, including naval bases like Salamis.

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The critical blow to Kilkis came from the air. German Luftwaffe Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers targeted the Salamis Naval Base, exploiting their superiority in the skies. Kilkis, designed in an era when aerial threats were not a primary concern, lacked sufficient anti-aircraft defenses. This shortcoming was a common trait among battleships of its generation, making them particularly susceptible to air raids.

The Kilkis under attack from the German Stukas.

During the Luftwaffe’s assault on the base, Kilkis sustained direct hits from the air. The specifics regarding the number and type of bombs are not consistently detailed in historical records, but their effect was undeniable and catastrophic. The battleship was severely damaged and quickly sank in the harbor while it attempted flee.

The aftermath of the sinking saw a mix of military and potentially civilian casualties, typical of such attacks. More broadly, the loss of Kilkis symbolized the end of an era for Greek naval power and reflected the broader shift in naval warfare tactics. It underscored the increasing obsolescence of pre-dreadnought battleships in the face of air power, a lesson that resonated far beyond the shores of Greece. Kilkis was eventually refloated and sold for scrap in the 1950s.