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Commercial frigate 1820. Painting by Lüder Arenhold after English drawings 1891

According to today's understanding, frigates are the smallest warships that can still carry out independent operations . Above all, frigates serve to supplement other warships with their often specialized combat power. For example, individual frigates can be equipped for underwater hunting, air defense or fighting surface vehicles. All three components are united in destroyers and larger ships.

In the past, the term “frigate” had different meanings. In German-speaking ships were with about the 18th and 19th century full ship - rigging referred to as frigates or Fregattschiff. In the Mediterranean, a type of small sailing craft that could also be rowed was also called a frigate; In terms of developmental history, however, no connection between these and the later warships can be proven. This article only deals with the frigate as a warship.


The word "frigate" derives from the Italian fregata , which is first attested in Boccaccio's Decameron (around 1350). The further etymology is unclear. For example, Pehlgrimm traces the term back to the Latin "navis fabricata" (German: built ship). Over the centuries it has referred to many different types of boats and ships; as a term for relatively small, fast warships, the term has appeared in northern Europe since the end of the 16th century.


Frigates in the days of sailing ships

The characteristic of these ships was initially the lack of high superstructures at the bow and stern, which impaired the sea properties of other types of ships . Otherwise they did not form a uniform type of ship. An early example is the Tygar , built in England for the Royal Navy under Henry VIII , of which a drawing has been handed down in Anthony Roll . The ship carried its guns on a continuous deck and had no fore or aft fort . The draft of a similar ship is contained in the "Fragments of Ancient English Shipwrightry" by the English shipbuilder Mathew Baker . However, since low ships were easier to board in hand-to-hand combat, to a certain extent they returned to fore and aft castles to the detriment of the sailing properties.

Until the middle of the 18th century, a large number of differently designed warships were referred to as frigates, both ships with only one armed deck and those with two. On the other hand, ships that are today considered to be frigates or their predecessors were given different names, such as pinas in the Netherlands . The Constant Warwick , commissioned under Oliver Cromwell , is often referred to as the first “real” English frigate , a 30-cannon ship built as a privateer in 1646 , which was characterized by an unusual length of the keel in relation to the width of the hull. Although the Constant Warwick and the similar Adventure were forerunners of the later ship type, the term "frigate" was by no means used only for such ships, but in general for warships with an exceptionally high speed, which is why the 80-gun ship of the line Naseby (1655 ) (from 1660: Royal Charles ) with this name, which is hardly appropriate from today's perspective.

The English Tygar in the Anthony Roll
In this technical drawing of the Niger the two decks are shown in red. The guns are already on the upper deck and the lower deck is at the same height as the waterline.
Boston frigate

It was not until the 1740s, after the Swedish Vita Ørn of 1715, that there had been a little-noticed forerunner, the classic sailing frigate type. In terms of design, these were two-deckers (two decks running continuously from fore to aft). In contrast to earlier frigates, the lower deck was unarmed, was just above or even below the waterline and had no gun ports . Usually only the armed decks were counted on warships - although the frigate had two continuous decks by design, it only had one armed deck and is therefore a "monoplane".

The armament of the “classic” frigate was only carried out on the upper deck and on the superstructure (i.e. aft deck and stern - these were not counted as decks, by the way). Due to this construction, the frigates had a higher freeboard than many two-deckers, so that despite the smaller number of cannons they had an advantage over smaller two-deckers in heavy seas when they could not use their heavy artillery close above the water and had to keep the lower gun ports closed. so as not to fill up. The first frigates of this type were armed with 24 or 26 nine-pounder cannons . Later there were main armaments of 12-, 18- and 24-pounder cannons, with additional lighter cannons (6- or 9-pounders) or carronades (e.g. 18- or 24-pounders) on the superstructures. The first frigates armed with 24 pounders were designed by Fredrik Henrik af Chapman (1721-1806) and built in Sweden (Bellona class of 1782). According to the number of cannons, frigates were designated as 28, 32, 36, 38 or 40, whereby additional cannons or carronades on the superstructure were not fully counted until after the Napoleonic wars (a 38-cannon frigate of the British Leda class was e.g. B. Categorized as “38” during the war, as “46” after the war).

At the end of the 18th century were in the United States particularly heavy frigates like the USS Constellation and the USS Constitution built, a so-called " spar deck had" d. H. the Kuhl, the space between the bow and the quarterdeck, was largely closed on these ships, so that a continuous deck was created. In practice these frigates were then two-deckers. For a while, some of the American frigates were also equipped with a gun battery on the Spardeck. The combination of heavy armament and excellent sailing characteristics gave these ships a superiority that led to sensational American successes against British frigates in the war of 1812 .

Launched in 1834, the French frigate Belle Poule was a two-decker of a similar type and armed with a total of 60 large-caliber guns on two full battery decks.

The remaining wooden sailing frigates are the Unicorn and the Trincomalee in Great Britain and the Constitution in Boston in the USA. A replica of the Surprise is in the Maritime Museum of San Diego in the United States . The replica of the Hermione was launched in France in 2014 .

Duties of the sailing frigates

In terms of their function, the sailing frigates can be called cruisers . While the main task of the larger warships was to fight as battleships in line (hence the term ship of the line ), the frigates served as scouts for squadrons of ships of the line, as escort ships for convoys and to disrupt enemy trade .

After 1850 new roles emerged for the frigates, in which the combat value was of secondary importance. They served as school ships or as a means of “flying the flag” in distant parts of the world and asserting colonial interests. Often, however, frigates were also sent on a world tour with a research assignment, e.g. B. the Austrian Novara from 1857 to 1859.

With the emergence of modern cruisers, the frigate type became obsolete.

Rigging and sailing characteristics

The frigates were rigged similar to the so-called full ships from the second half of the 19th century . Compared to the most balanced contemporary types of ships of the line , e.g. B. the 74-gun ship , although frigates did not achieve any notable higher speeds, they sailed better (except in heavy weather) and were able to sail away from the heavier ship of the line, especially in lighter winds. Most frigates could achieve 12 knots, and particularly successful designs achieved up to 14 knots.

Steam frigates

Wheel frigate Hanse of the Imperial Fleet around 1850

In the middle of the 19th century, frigates began to be equipped with steam propulsion in addition to the sails. From 1830 so-called wheel frigates with paddle wheel drive were built. In these ships the rigging was often reduced by e.g. B. received a gaff rigging instead of the usual frame . The space required by the paddle wheels reduced the armament on the battery deck to around 14 to 20 guns, mostly supplemented by a few heavy bomb cannons on the upper deck fore and aft (aft). A typical example of this is the Hansa pictured opposite, the flagship of the imperial fleet from March 1850 . From around 1850, warships began to be equipped with the more effective screw drive. These so-called screw frigates could again be equipped with a continuous battery deck and almost completely resembled the sailing frigates except for the steam drive.

The sails were retained for the steam frigates, as the steam engines of that time were still quite unreliable and also very uneconomical, so that they were not suitable as a means of propulsion for long journeys. In this respect, the steam frigates were sailing ships with auxiliary propulsion, which were used when there was no wind, when maneuvering in narrow waters and in combat.

Modern frigates

French frigate Courbet

Towards the end of the 19th century, the cruisers took over the duties of the frigates.

The Royal Navy's need for security vehicles to secure the convoys of World War II rose sharply. At British request, the type was in the US escort destroyer (destroyer escort) developed. At the same time, the Royal Navy itself built an improved version of the corvette, a cheap deep-sea anti-submarine vehicle, which was called the "frigate" for obvious reasons. Both the high-quality American destroyer escort, manufactured according to warship standards with turbine or diesel propulsion, and the British frigate, manufactured according to merchant ship standards with piston steam engine, were referred to as "frigates" in the Royal Navy, which led to some confusion. British ships taken over into the US Navy, however, were called "Patrol Frigate". After the war, however, the British name caught on worldwide.

Since the Second World War, the specialized frigate has replaced the destroyer as a general-purpose unit in most navies . Today, frigates displace between 2,000 and 7,500 tons. A distinction is made between anti-submarine and multi-purpose frigates. The former are designed for escort tasks, with strong anti-submarine components as well as tube and guided weapons for close-range defense. The latter have long-range missiles for air defense and anti- ship combat .

The most modern development in the field of surface warships are the stealth frigates. Due to the design, which is dictated by the surface conditions, the size and armament seem to be the best balance in the capacity of a frigate. In terms of size, the frigates are somewhere between the larger destroyers and the new, small corvettes .

Frigates of the German Navy

F 214 hipper

The designation "frigate" did not exist in the German Navy from 1893 to 1965. The first frigates of the German Navy built after the war were still referred to in drafts as escort boats , a type of the Navy . In line with NATO standards, the German Navy adopted the designation "frigate". During the construction phase of the German Navy, some former British sloops were used as school frigates, such as the Hipper .

Frigate Cologne of the German Navy

The first German frigates after the war were the six Cologne- class escort boats ( F120 ) from 1965. They were submarine hunters with artillery armament without guided weapons. These ships were replaced from 1982 by the Bremen class ( F122 ), of which six, later two more ships were put into service. The best known of the F122 frigates is the Rhineland-Palatinate frigate due to its success in the EU's " Operation Atalanta " anti-piracy mission in the Horn of Africa . In the 1990s, the Brandenburg- class ( F123 ) came into service as a replacement for the class 101A ( Hamburg- class) destroyers .

The currently most modern class is the F124 with the type ship Sachsen , which was put into service as a replacement for the destroyers of the class 103B ( Lütjens class) from 2004. Despite the classification as frigates, these ships are larger and, apart from the reduced artillery armament, also more powerful than the old destroyers. Unlike all other German frigates, the object of this class consists primarily of air defense , while especially the APAR -Radar in connection with SM-2 - aircraft missiles use. This German-Dutch radar and fire control system is comparable to the American Aegis combat system .

In the future, the Baden-Württemberg class (F125) will replace the Bremen class with a significantly different requirement and deployment profile.

Frigate Berlin of the Volksmarine

The People's Navy of the GDR also had a number of ships that NATO designated as frigates. The three ships of the Koni class were the largest ships in the People's Navy. This type had been developed by the Soviet Union as an export model and was also used by Bulgaria , Cuba , Algeria and Yugoslavia , but not by the Soviet Navy. In the People's Navy, these ships were called coastal defense ships. The ships were only taken over briefly after the reunification and then scrapped or sunk.

The smaller ships of the Parchim class were also considered small frigates in NATO, but were referred to as "submarine hunting ships" in the People's Navy. The entire class of 16 units was sold to the Indonesian Navy in 1991 .

List of frigates

Sailing frigates

Modern frigate classes


To honor the victory of the French frigate "Belle Poule" in 1778 against an English frigate, a lady-in-waiting had a complete frigate with a sea on her head hairdos for one of Marie Antoinette's court festivals. This wig hairstyle was called "La Frigatte". This hairstyle was also used as an image to criticize the extravagances of the French court. The Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin keeps a wig head from 1780, which shows this hairstyle with the model attached.

See also


  • Ulrich Israel and Jürgen Gebauer: Warships in the 19th century , Gondrom-Verlag, Bindlach 1989, ISBN 3-8112-0626-5

Web links

Wiktionary: Frigate  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Frigates  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Anatoly Liberman : The undiscovered origin of frigate (Post in his blog The Oxford Etymologist , September 21, 2011)
  2. W. Pehlgrimm: A foray through the history of the seaman's language in Die Seekiste 4/1952, pp. 275-277.
  3. Diana T. Tosh-Green: "The Frigate Hairstyle", Mare 1997, No. 3; Archive link ( Memento from June 6, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) (visited on June 26, 2019)
  4. Wig head in the collections of the Stadtmuseum Berlin Foundation (visited on August 28, 2015)