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HMS Dreadnought: The Battleship that Changed Naval Warfare

Nearly 530 feet (161 m) long, displacing more than 20,000 tons and powered by steam turbine engines that collectively produced more than 20,000 horsepower, HMS Dreadnought was the fastest, most lethal, and most technologically advanced battleship in existence when she first sailed in 1906. 

In fact, her cutting edge design, impressive performance and abundant firepower were such game changers that her name eventually described an entire class of battleships known as the Dreadnoughts, which aptly means, “fear nothing.” 

Almost overnight ships that had once reigned supreme paled in comparison to the new titan on the block, hence they were referred to as pre-Dreadnoughts.  

This giant leap forward sparked an all out arms race between the navies of America, Germany, France, Russia and Japan, but despite all the hype, Dreadnought’s service life was surprisingly short.  

Concept & Development

Adm. Sir John Fisher

Admiral Sir John Fisher is widely regarded as the father of the Dreadnought. 

Shortly after becoming First Sea Lord of the Board of Admiralty, Fisher commissioned various studies to explore the feasibility of building a one-of-a-kind behemoth bristling with 12-inch (305 mm) guns and capable of exceeding 20 knots (24 mph or 39 km/h). 

In its quest for the most dominant battleship money could buy, Fisher’s committee analyzed a number of naval engagements like the Battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima, both of which were fought just a few years before during the Russo-Japanese War.

During these and other engagements it was determined that the largest caliber weapons with the longest ranges played the most significant roles in determining outcomes. 

As such, Dreadnought was the first battleship to have a uniform battery of 12-inch guns. 

Though some questioned the wisdom of altogether ditching smaller cannons, prevailing conditions seemed to justify this radical departure. 

With ever increasing ranges, gunners and spotters typically had to wait to see where shells impacted before making the necessary adjustments and refiring. 

With rounds of various sizes causing huge splashes around the target, it was nearly impossible to tell which splash came from which size projectile. 

Under enemy fire precious seconds could be the difference between life and death, and it made the process of recalculating fire inefficient. 

To get around this, only guns of one size were allowed to fire at any given time. 

This solved the annoying splash identification problem, but it also temporarily silenced the big guns when they were needed most, and negated the benefits derived from the smaller guns’ higher rates of fire. 

In addition, with new longer range torpedoes entering service it was likely that the distances at which future naval battles were fought would continue to increase, perhaps even out past the distance the smaller guns were capable of firing. 

This meant that ships with big guns only would enjoy a number of distinct advantages over their more traditionally armed counterparts. 

But ironically, the concept wasn’t a British one at all.

In fact, the idea was first proposed by Italian naval architect Vittorio Cuniberti in 1903.  

The Italian Navy wasn’t interested in Cuniberti’s concept, but when he published an article in Jane’s Fighting Ships, the Royal Navy took notice. 

Various navies around the world had been considering this idea for years, but most dismissed it.  

That said, the Japanese began building the all-big-gun battleship Satsuma before construction began on Dreadnought, but though original plans called for the Japanese vessel to be equipped with a dozen 12-inchers, in the end it only got four due material shortages and manufacturing issues. 

At about the same time, designs for two South Carolina-class battleships were on the US Navy’s proverbial drawing board.  

They too were destined to be exclusively big gun platforms, but production wasn’t ordered until after Dreadnought had already sailed. 

A number of designs were submitted to Admiral Fisher’s committee, but though advances in weaponry, propulsion and communication were key, members were also tasked with weighing these elements against how quickly the ship could be built. 

But though supposedly independent, each committee member had been personally appointed by Fisher, and the body was collectively criticized for being biased. 

Nonetheless, in March of 1905 the group settled on the ship’s armament, layout and steam turbine engines, the latter of which produced more power and weighed significantly less than reciprocating engines of the day. 

Another notable element was the addition of more stalwart bulkheads to protect magazines and engine components from mine and torpedo explosions, though this added weight meant that the thickness of the armor at the waterline was reduced by about one inch. 

Construction

World War I was still nearly a decade away, but the Royal Navy considered its new battleship a top priority. 

The unprecedented build time of one year was deemed feasible, but construction would need to be more efficient than ever. 

To this end a number of the ship’s components were standardized, and the Portsmouth Dockyard – already the world’s fastest shipbuilder – would need to double its efforts.  

Workers began fabricating parts offsite even before the keel was laid, and all told more than 5,000 men toiled on the project. 

Much of the work was carried out in secrecy, and to meet the looming deadline the work week was extended from 48 to 69 hours, and when necessary, overtime was mandatory. 

By the end of the first week most of the bulkheads were in place, and by the beginning of January the following year the hull was complete. 

Then on February 10th of 1906, Dreadnought was christened by King Edward VII. 

However, during the awkward and slightly embarrassing event, the bottle of Australian wine wielded by the King withstood multiple attempts to break it on the ship’s hull.

Eventually it did break and everyone had a good laugh, perhaps with the exception of government accountants, because the ship ended up costing about £18 million pounds, which when adjusted for inflation is about £220 million or 301 million USD today. 

Design Elements and Propulsion

Compared to the two Lord Nelson-class ships then under construction, Dreadnought was much larger. 

Originally crewed by 700 officers and seamen, many of the former weren’t particularly pleased with the ship’s layout, primarily because their quarters had been moved nearer to their action stations, many of which were adjacent to generators and other noisy engine components.

This made life decidedly less pleasant, but it also meant that ship and crew could respond to threats more quickly.  

Collectively thumping out nearly 23,000 horsepower, the turbines drove four 3-bladed propellers nearly nine feet (3 m) in diameter.

Together, this combination was capable of propelling the ship past 20 knots as planned, and when reserve power was used Dreadnought was even faster, though she burned through fuel at a much higher rate than ships with traditional engines. 

To heat the water to power the steam turbines, she carried nearly 5,000 tons of fuel-oil infused coal, and decked out for battle she could cruise for more than 6,500 nautical miles (12,000 km) at 10 knots before needing to top off her tanks. 

Guns

Dreadnought’s main armament consisted of ten 12-inch Vickers Mark X guns housed in five double turrets, though only the forward two and the aft one were positioned along the ship’s centerline, while the wing turrets were port and aft of the superstructure.

With a barrel length of 45 feet (13.7 m), including their breaches the guns weighed nearly 60 tons excluding the weight of the turret, armor, loading mechanisms and other equipment. 

Guns could be depressed to −3 degrees and elevated to 13.5 degrees, and most could traverse nearly 100 degrees. 

Firing 800-pound (362 kg) armor piercing shells at about 2,700 feet per second (830 m/s), range was approximately 10.7 miles (17.2 km) with standard charges consisting of four individual cordine cartridges weighing 65 pounds (29 kg) each. 

Rate of fire was approximately two rounds per minute, and each gun had 80 rounds. 

But though one of Dreadnought’s supposed claims to fame was that it did away with smaller cannons, this wasn’t technically true. 

During her short service life, armaments also included 76 mm (12-pounders), 57 mm (6-pounders) and .50-caliber machine guns, all of which were primarily used to provide fire against small vessels and aircraft and intermediate ranges. 

Dreadnought also carried nearly two dozen 18-inch (450 mm) torpedoes that could be launched from five tubes mounted on the sides and stern. 

Fire Control

Great strides in the accuracy of long-range fire were made in the years leading up to the First World War, and Dreadnought was capable of outgunning most of the enemy ships she was likely to encounter on the high seas. 

This was largely made possible by its central mechanical computer that calculated and transmitted range, course and deflection to the individual turrets.

The system incorporated a network of range finders, transmitting stations and control positions, and like a giant switchboard, communications could be routed in various combinations to ensure that the gun crews who needed information first actually got it first.

This was the first such system of its kind in the Royal Navy, but Dreadnought still retained the old voice pipes of its predecessors, because in chaotic battle conditions when the ship’s computer and electrical systems had been damaged, yelling was often the most efficient method of communication. 

Trials revealed that the system worked remarkably well, but years after Dreadnought entered service she received a comprehensive overhaul that included the addition of new gyro-stabilized rangefinders and the rerouting of wiring through areas of the ship that were less prone to battle damage. 

Armor

Dreadnought was largely clad in revolutionary cemented armor that was more elastic than the standard Harvey armor on most capital ships of the day. 

At the waterline the armor belt was between 7 and 11 inches (178 mm and 279 mm) thick, which over the ship’s length accounted for a significant portion of overall tonnage.  

The armor above the main belt was slightly thinner and ended at the level of the main deck, but when the ship was at her heaviest the main belt sat nearly a foot below the waterline. 

This probably wasn’t an oversight, but the fact was that where it mattered most, the ship’s armor was much thinner than design specs indicated. 

Turret faces were slightly sloped and protected by 11 inches (279 mm) of cemented armor, while the roofs had 3 inches (76 mm) of non-cemented armor. 

The horizontal armor on various decks ranged from .75 to 1.75 in (19 to 44 mm).

Like other ships of the era, Dreadnought was originally fitted with torpedo nets, but these were removed because they increased drag and fuel consumption while limiting speed, and newer torpedoes were fitted with net cutters which made them altogether useless. 

Trials

On the third day of October in 1906, Dreadnought steamed seaward for two days of intensive trials. 

With Royal Navy brass and various contractor representatives onboard, the ship was put through its paces and found to be nearly everything she was promised to be. 

However this comprehensive shakedown revealed several issues that needed to be dealt with, two of the most major of which were the need for more powerful steering motors and the addition of more efficient cooling equipment to regulate temperatures inside the cordite-filled magazines.  

Later off the Cornwall coast, Dreadnought exceeded top speed estimates by nearly two knots, and in the following weeks she underwent weapons testing near Portsmouth, after which she set out on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic to Trinidad. 

She arrived in early January, having averaged 17 knots (31 km/h; 20 mph).

Service

Dreadnought served as the Home Fleet’s flagship until 1911, but despite her impressive size, lethal guns and cutting edge technology, her service life was remarkably uneventful. 

However in 1910 she became the center of unwanted attention when flapper and con man Horace de Vere Cole duped the Royal Navy into arranging an onboard party for a group purporting to be members of the Abyssinian royal family. 

However, the “royal” group was made up exclusively of eccentric hucksters, artists and writers like Virginia Woolf, nearly all of whom were decked out in gaudy costumes and donning brown shoe polish on their faces. 

Thereafter referred to as the Dreadnought Hoax, the debacle was particularly embarrassing for all involved since the ship was the foremost symbol of Britain’s global might.   

After her stint as flagship, Dreadnought was assigned to the Home Fleet’s 1st Division, and the following summer she featured prominently in the coronation of King George V. 

The following year she was transferred to yet another division and spent the bulk of her time in the Mediterranean on training exercises. 

By the time the First World War broke out in 1914 she was attached to the 4th North Sea Battle Squadron headquartered in Scapa Flow. 

But though she’d been designed to engage and destroy enemy vessels, her only notable wartime action occurred in mid-March of 1915 when she rammed and sank the German sub SM U-29, which had made the fatal error of surfacing directly in her path after firing a torpedo at another English warship. 

When the crew realized what they’d done it was already too late.

The Dreadnought’s reinforced steel bow sliced through the sub easily, marking the first recorded incident in which a surface ship intentionally sunk a submersible. 

However during many of the war’s most significant naval engagements like the Battle of Jutland, Dreadnought was undergoing extensive refitting and therefore out of service. 

Later she accompanied a number of pre-Dreadnought class ships that were relegated to the waters around the mouth of the Thames to deter lurking German battlecruisers from shelling coastal areas. 

During this assignment she repeatedly fired her antiaircraft guns at German planes en route to London, but the big-cannon slugfests for which she’d been built never materialized, and she was ultimately decommissioned and put on the auction block in late March of 1920. 

Interested parties submitted bids based on her gross tonnage, since the once-mighty ship was destined to be cut up and sold for scrap, ironically because the arms race she ignited rendered her obsolete much more quickly than expected. 

By the time the Second World War rolled around, Royal Navy King George V-class battleships like the HMS Prince of Wales were twice as heavy, had more than four times the horsepower, and were equipped with even larger cannons. 

Now only a few relics from Dreadnought remain, most of which are on display at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

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