HMS Dreadnought – the case for propaganda over engineering

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Matthew Wright

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I'm a New Zealand historian with a life-long interest in matters military, particularly naval engineering. My books have principally been published by Penguin Random House. I'm a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.
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It’s just over 110 years since HMS Dreadnought sailed on her first shake-down cruise under Captain Reginald Bacon. She was a remarkable battleship in many ways, one whose name became synonymous with all battleships during the First World War period, and whose design concepts set the pattern for every battleship that followed in many ways.

Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher (1841-1920), inventor of “OMG” and the Dreadnought.

However, to look on Dreadnought as the sole arbiter of that revolution is to buy in to British propaganda of the day – much of it emerging from the finely-honed media sense of Admiral Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord who is usually associated with both innovating the Dreadnought and its cruiser equivalent, the battlecruiser. According to Fisher, the Dreadnought was his brain-child, a revolutionary step that he conceived with input from the Constructor at the Portsmouth dockyard, W. H. Gard, and which was built in just a year and a day once Fisher became First Sea Lord. Every earlier battleship became instantly obsolete.

None of this was strictly true. Dreadnought had many innovations and advantages, but she was not quite the radical innovation that Fisher liked to make out. He and Gard had certainly been dabbling with all big-gun battleship concepts. But so had a lot of other naval designers, and for much the same reasons.

By the early 1890s, battleship design stabilised around ships of about 12,000-15,000 tons with reciprocating engines, capable of 15-17 knots and typically with four heavy guns, backed by lighter weapons. That changed during the decade as speed, displacement and fire-power crept up, mostly on the back of increased naval budgets.

The United States led by the way by adding 8-inch weapons to supplement heavy guns on their battleships, starting with their Indiana (BB1) class of the mid-1890s. The British were late to the party, not adding intermediate guns until the eight King Edward VII class, which were laid down in 1903-04 and carried four Mk X/47 calibre 9.2-inch weapons in addition to their four Mk IX/40 calibre 12-inch and dozen 6-inch guns. A larger battery of intermediate guns was considered, but the time to design the ships would have been extended and the idea was rejected. However, the next class, the two Lord Nelsons, did away with 6-inch and carried four Mk X/45 calibre 12-inch and ten Mk IX/50 calibre 9.2-inch, in turrets.

While 6-inch guns were always regarded as ‘riddling’ weapons, able to destroy unarmoured structures, the Mk X/47 calibre 9.2-inch had been shown to penetrate up to 14 inches of armour plate at 3000 yards, which was regarded as a typical battle-range of the day. By those standards, the addition of this armament created a real step up in offensive punch. However, it was impossible to tell the difference between its shell splashes and those of the 12-inch armament, making fire-control problematic.

By this time battleship sizes were up over 16-17,000 tons, speeds were topping 18 knots, and designers from the US to Japan began looking at other ways of upping fire-power.  This was bandied about in the naval media of the day, such as Jane’s Fighting Ships, where Italian designer Vittorio Cuniberti proposed an ‘ideal’ battleship for Britain with a homogenous 12-inch armament. However, this merely echoed decisions already made in the British Director of Naval Construction’s department, who believed a single calibre main battery was the only option.

Vittorio Cuniberti’s ‘ideal battleship’ of 1903. This same armament layout was adopted for the original design of the Japanese battleship Satsuma. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

There were several false starts. In 1904, British Director of Naval Construction (DNC) Phillip Watts contemplated an all-12-inch armament for the Lord Nelsons before settling on mixed armament. Meanwhile the Japanese designed the Satsuma with a dozen 12-inch weapons in the Cuniberti layout, although supply difficulties and cost led to her being completed instead with four 12-inch and a dozen 10-inch. Meanwhile, US designers came up with the South Carolina, with eight 12-inch and no intermediate battery.

All these ships were in development when Fisher’s Committee on Designs met in January 1905. It comprised Fisher, the Controller – John Jellicoe – and others, including members of the DNC’s department. Although Watts brought expanded Lord Nelson designs to the table, the all big-gun concept was a no-brainer.

HMS Agamemnon of the Lord Nelson class, showing her intermediate armament of 9.2-inch guns in wing turrets. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The remarkable aspect of this Committee’s work was not so much the slenderness of their 121 page final report as the speed with which they produced designs for both a proposed new battleship and an ‘armoured cruiser’ – just seven weeks from January 1905. This underscored the fact that thinking was already well advanced along these lines; but the speed with which they worked out the details, coupled with lack of engineering expertise in the committee, led to errors in the final layout of HMS Dreadnought. It is worth noting that their final report was issued over two months before the Battle of Tsushima which is sometimes cited as an influence on warship design of the period.

In many ways Dreadnought was less revolution than evolution. She was not radically larger than the Lord Nelson class – 17,900 tons normal load versus the Lord Nelson’s 15,925 tons.  This was a lesser proportional jump than between the 12,590 ton displacement of Nile of 1888 and the 15,580 ton displacement of her successor Royal Sovereign class of 1889. Similarly, Dreadnought‘s broadside at 6600 lb was not radically heavier at intended battle range than Lord Nelson’s 5200 lb.

HMS Dreadnought after a 1911 refit. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The point was tacitly recognised by the British; during the First World War, the two Lord Nelsons were stationed off the Dardanelles where they were thought sufficient to tackle the ex-German battlecruiser Goeben, should it emerge.

Having a homogenous main armament gave better fire control at longer ranges – but in this, Dreadnought was simply reflecting existing conviction within the Admiralty and following foreign trends. It is important to differentiate thinking from construction: South Carolina, although developed during 1904-05, was not laid down until October 1906; and the Japanese Satsuma – a 19,300 ton ship designed with 12 x 12-inch guns, Cuniberti style, was developed during 1904 and laid down in May 1905.

HMS Dreadnought under construction – just 36 days after keel laying in October 1905. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Technically, the more decisive jump in battleship power came in 1908-09, when the British introduced 13.5-inch gun armed ‘super-dreadnoughts’, kicking off a sudden escalation of displacement and fighting power. So how did the Dreadnought end up giving its name to every successive battleship?

One reason was propaganda; Fisher was a master at stealing the march on public opinion and sold the new warship as a miracle weapon. But Dreadnought had two other advantages. At 21 knots she was faster than any other battleship of the day, and the first big warship to be turbine powered. Turbines had a better power-to-weight ratio than reciprocating engines, and were one of the reasons why it was possible to power the ship for 21 knots and carry ten 12-inch guns on 17,900 tons. It was a bold step; turbines were a new technology that had not been proven for large ships. But it paid off.

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The other advantage Dreadnought had was speed of construction. The ‘year and a day’ that Fisher boasted about was an exaggeration; the ship raised steam after 366 days but was not complete. However, she was ready for sea in fourteen months from keel-laying – and that of itself was a tremendous achievement. She was pushed through so quickly, in fact, that her completion date – December 1906 – came ahead of the two Lord Nelsons and in the same month as the Hibernia, a King Edward VII class battleship of two classes earlier. The task was achieved largely on the back of an enforced 69-hour working week and was a demonstration of the power of the British ship-building industry at the time. It also meant Dreadnought was the first battleship of its type in the water, anywhere in the world. And that, especially when bolstered by Fisherian hyperbole, gave it popular appeal.

If you would like to read more on twentieth century naval engineering, check out my book Dreadnoughts Unleashed, available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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