Battleships, 1900-1922

Today's selection -- from Fifty Ships that Changed the Course of History by Ian Graham.The brief technological supremacy of Britain’s Dreadnought battleship:

“Battleship design underwent a revolution in the early 1900s. Torpedoes had become a serious danger to warships. They were more than capable of hitting ships, and sinking them, over their typical battle separation of about 3,000 yards (2.7 km). All the largest navies were thinking about fighting over longer ranges with bigger guns, but the first person to air the idea publicly was an Italian naval engineer, Vittorio Cuniberti. He wrote an article in 1903 proposing an ‘all-big-gun’ battleship. Just one size of gun was needed, because fighting at long range rendered most of the smaller guns carried by existing battleships unnecessary. Cuniberri's ideal future battleship would be armed only with the biggest guns available. The usual procedure was to design a ship first and then fill it with guns. From now on, the selection of the guns would come first and then the ship would be designed around them.

“The first all-big-gun battleship to be launched was the British Royal Navy's Dreadnought. She was armed with 10 12-inch (305-mm) guns in five twin-gun turrets. Each of these giant guns could hurl a shell weighing 8 50 pounds (390 kg) a distance of more than 10 miles (16 km). Dreadnought was also the first battleship to be powered by steam-turbine engines, giving the massive vessel a top speed of 21 knots (24 mph or 40 km/h) — faster than any other battleship afloat.

“HMS Dreadnought was intended to act as a deterrent to any nation thinking of attacking Britain. She was such a fast and powerful fighting vessel that she immediately rendered every other battleship obsolete. But other navies had been thinking along the same lines and soon built their own dreadnoughts. Japan had actually started building its first dreadnought, the Satsuma, before Britain, but Dreadnought was launched first. America's first dreadnought, USS Michigan, followed in 1908. The United States had been prompted to embark on a new warship construction program by the emergence of Japan as a serious naval power in the Pacific. Meanwhile in Europe, Britain was increasingly alarmed by the number of warships being built by Germany; they represented the first serious challenge to Britain's naval supremacy since Nelson's time. The result was a worldwide explosion in battleship construction, with each major naval power watching what the others did and then marching or surpassing it.

“HMS Dreadnought's technological lead did not last long. The first dreadnoughts were followed by even bigger and more heavily armed ships known as superdreadnoughts. The British were first again, with their Orion-class ships, but other nations quickly followed. They mounted bigger and bigger guns, ultimately 15-inch (380-mm) weapons. During this time there was also a change of fuel, from coal to oil. Oil packed more energy into a smaller volume, so oil-fired boilers could be smaller.

Dreadnought at sea in 1906

“Although she had been built for combat with other surface ships, the only action HMS Dreadnought saw during World War I was with a submarine.The German submarine U-29 surfaced in front of her in the Pentland Firth, north of Scotland, on March 18, 1915. Dreadnought rammed the submarine and sank it with all hands.

“Dreadnought battleships met in combat only once, at the Battle of Jutland during World War I. Ironically, HMS Dreadnought herself did not take part. The battle was fought between the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet, commanded by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, and the German Navy's High Seas Fleet, commanded by Admiral Reinhard Scheer. The Royal Navy was blockading the North Sea to starve Germany of essential supplies and also to prevent the German navy from breaking out into the Atlantic where it could attack British merchant shipping. At the end of May 1916, a group of German battlecruisers ventured out into the North Sea to lure British ships out where the German fleet would be waiting for them. The German navy expected to be fighting only a small number of British ships. However, the British had learned that 40 German warships had left port and so they mobilized the entire Grand Fleet.

“On the afternoon of May 31, a British force of 151 ships including 28 battleships met a German force of 99 ships with 16 battleships.

“The German ships scored first, sinking three British ships. The British had more success in the engagements that followed. 1he fighting went on into the night until, under cover of darkness, the German ships returned to port. The Royal Navy had lost 14 ships and more than 6,000 dead. Germany lost 11 ships and more than 2,500 dead. Both sides claimed victory. The British had lost more ships and suffered higher casualties, but they retained control of the North Sea and stopped the German fleet from breaking out.

“After World War I, Germany was prevented from building new warships by the Treaty of Versailles. Britain, impoverished by the war, could not afford a new warship construction program and looked likely to be overtaken by other countries. However, none of the other major naval powers relished the vast expense of building new fleets. Consequently, the Washington Naval Treaty, signed in 1922 by the United States, Britain, Japan, France and Italy, limited the numbers, types and sizes of warships that could be built. In addition, the treaty required most of the old dreadnought-type ships to be scrapped. HMS Dreadnought herself had already been sold for scrap the previous year.”

Fifty Ships that Changed the Course of History
author: Ian Graham  
title: Fifty Ships that Changed the Course of History  
publisher: Firefly Books  
page(s): 130-133