Paul Brown describes how the Royal Navy’s Dreadnoughts revolutionised battleship design in the early years of the 20th century, and outlines the role they played in the build-up to World War I.
In 1904 Britain’s naval supremacy was unquestionable — the fleet was at least as big as the next two largest fleets put together (due to a policy known as the two-power standard). The possible foes were believed to be France, Russia and, increasingly, Germany. Warning against complacency, the Second Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John ‘Jackie’ Fisher, championed the building of a revolutionary new type of battleship, which would be superior in both firepower and speed to any existing battleship.
By March 1905 the design of the first ship — to be named Dreadnought — was complete. In May 1905 the Russian fleet was annihilated by the Japanese at the Battle of Tsushima. This action highlighted the importance of speed if an enemy was to be overtaken and brought into action, and demonstrated the hitting power of 12-inch guns, thus supporting Fisher’s arguments.
On 2 October the keel of the first of the new battleships was laid on Portsmouth Dockyard’s No.5 slip. By then Fisher had been elevated to First Sea Lord and was able to ensure that construction of the new ship proceeded with extraordinary speed, so that Dreadnought was launched by King Edward VII just four months later, on 10 February 1906.
The guns and engines had been ordered well before the keel was laid, and the frames of the ship were pre-fabricated in Portsmouth Dockyard, allowing them to be erected immediately — with bulkhead erection starting just three days after the keel laying. And instead of the usual 48 hours, dockyard workers worked a six-day week of 69 hours using searchlights to illuminate the work, rather than finishing at 1500 or 1600 each day, and even worked on Christmas and New Year’s Days.
Dreadnought was ‘completed’ for preliminary trials on 3 October 1906, a year and a day after being laid down, although this date was really for publicity purposes — her final completion was in December 1906. But this huge effort was intended to show Germany how formidable the British shipbuilding industry was, and to give Britain an unassailable lead in battleship construction.
Start of the Arms Race
Dreadnought was the largest, fastest and most heavily armed battleship in the world and, for the first time in a battleship, used steam turbines for propulsion. The use of turbines gave a valuable weight saving, but using them was quite a risk since the Navy only had experience of turbines in destroyers, and they were only just being introduced on ocean liners. Dreadnought gave her name to the new breed of battleship and introduced the idea of an all-big-gun battleship, rather than mounting guns with a combination of different calibres, an idea promulgated by the Italian naval architect Vittorio Cuniberti.
However, the new ship meant that, at a stroke, all the pre-Dreadnought battleships were obsolete, and the great naval arms race between Britain and Germany accelerated. There were, however, critics: Britain had the largest fleet of pre-Dreadnoughts, but now had to rebuild the fleet from scratch, to the consternation of the incoming Liberal government. Sir William White, the former Director of Naval Construction, suggested that Britain was ‘putting all her naval eggs in one or two vast, costly, majestic, but vulnerable baskets’, and favoured larger numbers of smaller battleships.
Nevertheless, Fisher was undaunted: between February 1906 and February 1907 six more Dreadnoughts were laid down in Britain. Three were of the Bellerophon class, virtually repeats of Dreadnought, and three of the more lightly armoured Invincible class. The Invincibles were an even more controversial innovation from Fisher: faster and more lightly armoured than the battleships, they were known as battlecruisers, although the term ‘capital ship’ was coined to cover both battleships and battlecruisers.
In the next 12 months three St Vincent class battleships were laid down, and the British press and public were behind the Dreadnought building programme. Meanwhile, Germany laid down her first four Dreadnoughts, of the Nassau class, in summer 1907.
In 1908 the clamour for more ships reached fever pitch in Britain, as a result of the increase in German Dreadnought-building capacity, and rumours that Germany was laying down Dreadnoughts in secret, which would allow it to reach parity with Britain by 1912. A Tory MP coined the phrase ‘We want eight and we won’t wait’ in demanding that the four Dreadnoughts to be ordered in that year should be increased to eight. Given the new German threat, the two-power standard was replaced by a requirement for a 40 per cent superiority over Germany in Dreadnought numbers.
The pace of construction did indeed increase — six Dreadnoughts were laid down in Britain in 1909 and six more in 1910, comprising Neptune, Colossus, Indefatigable, Orion and Lion classes. Dry docks had to be lengthened and new ones built, as the royal dockyards struggled to keep up with the demands of the massive Dreadnought building and refitting programme. Three Dreadnoughts being built in Britain for Turkey, Argentina and Chile were taken over by the Royal Navy, and by 1920 35 battleships and 13 battlecruisers had been built at a cost of £151 million by two royal dockyards and ten private yards.
Improving on Dreadnought
In service Dreadnought proved successful, though there were bound to be ways to improve such a radical design. In the succeeding Bellerophon and St Vincent classes, the tripod foremast was moved forward of the fore funnel to keep the spotting tower free of smoke, and the secondary armament was increased from three-inch to four-inch to give a better defence against destroyers.
However, the problem posed by positioning two of the five twin 12-inch gun turrets in wings amidships (which greatly reduced their arc of fire) was not resolved until the Orion class of the 1909 programme, though the intermediate Neptune and Colossus classes of the 1908 programme did have a somewhat better arrangement of turrets than earlier classes. The Orions were larger ships and were armed with superior guns, of 13.5-inch calibre. Next came the four King George V class ships, which were all laid down in 1911, and were a modified version of the Orions.
The four ships of the Iron Duke class laid down in 1912 were bigger again, and introduced six-inch guns as secondary armament. They were followed by the five ships of the larger Queen Elizabeth class, which were given a 15-inch calibre main armament and burnt oil rather than coal. Finally, British battleship design development in this era culminated with the five Royal Sovereign class: smaller than the Queen Elizabeths but with a similar armament.
Developing the battlecruiser
Battlecruiser design started with the 25-knot Invincible class, which had a longer hull than contemporary battleships, to accommodate the 31 boilers (compared with 18 in Dreadnought). Initially they were known as armoured cruisers, but were reclassified as battlecruisers in 1912, no doubt reflecting the fact that they had 12-inch guns. Their armour was, however, light and would prove to be their Achilles heel. The Indefatigable class were similar but had a better gun layout.
The much larger Lion class followed, and had 13.5-inch guns like the contemporary Orion class battleships. The design was improved in Queen Mary and Tiger, which were bigger and faster still, being capable of 28 knots. The next battlecruisers, the Renown class, mounted 15-inch guns, mirroring the Royal Sovereign class battleships from which the hulls were diverted.
Then followed the three ‘light battlecruisers’, Courageous, Glorious and Furious, with a shallow draft for operations in the Baltic. Mounting 18-inch guns and capable of 32 knots, they were the most extreme manifestation of the battlecruiser concept. Furious, as completed in 1917, could launch aircraft from her foredeck, where a flight deck replaced the forward turret. All three ships were later fully converted to aircraft carriers. The only Dreadnought from the World War I era to be completed after the war had ended, and the largest of all, was the final battlecruiser, Hood.
Preparing for War
In July 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I, Britain had 20 Dreadnought battleships and nine battlecruisers in service, including one battlecruiser of the Royal Australian Navy. A large floating dock had been moved to the Cromarty Firth to allow repairs to battleships which would be stationed in the north of Scotland, because the planned new dockyard at Rosyth had not yet been completed. There was a review of the fleet at Spithead, where the newly-completed Iron Duke joined 54 other battleships (including pre-Dreadnoughts, some of which had been mobilised from reserve), and four battlecruisers, plus a host of cruisers, destroyers, submarines and torpedo boats, in a forbidding spectacle of sea power that eclipsed all previous reviews at Spithead.
The fleet was due to demobilise on 27 July, but instead the Admiralty issued the order ‘Standfast the Fleet’, and preparations for war continued. By August over 53,000 reservists had been mobilised. When the ships dispersed from Spithead, the First Fleet (consisting of three Dreadnought squadrons) sailed north to its wartime anchorage at Scapa Flow, and on 4 August the signal was flashed to all ships: ‘Commence hostilities against Germany.’