The dawn of the 20th century was a messy period of transition for the world’s great navies and the Royal Navy was no exception. Amazingly, modern steam powered warships were still operating alongside warships equipped with a mixture of both steam and sail while the type and number of guns used were a varied mix of large and small. The early 1900s saw the navies of Britain, Germany, Japan, Russia and the USA embark on a re-equipment program to bring their whole fleets up to date and during this period armament in battleships became ever more powerful. Secondary (or intermediate) armament in particular became increasingly heavy with many ships adopting a main armament of 12inch guns and a secondary armament of 9-10inch.
Without a doubt the most influential naval battle before World War One was the Battle of Tsushima between the Japanese and Russian navies in 1905. The battle was the first real test of modern battleships but with no previous experience using such new weapons and ships the battle was largely fought with Nelsonian tactics. The battle was an overwhelming success for the Japanese navy and it established them as the dominant force in the Far East along with Britain’s colonial fleets but it also provided some valuable lessons to assimilate.
One of the biggest lessons from the battle was that the concept of having warships with a powerful secondary armament created fire-control problems. With no systems such as radar warships targeted one another by taking an estimate of the enemy ships position and firing. The splash would be plotted and then adjustments would be made accordingly. What was found at Tsushima was that with two different sized splashes from the different sized weapons the observers often became confused as to which gun produced which splash. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that other ships were firing at the same time and producing their own splashes. Another problem was that the heavier main armament outranged the secondary armament and when firing during the initial encounter at the most extreme ranges they couldn’t put enough firepower on the enemy to destroy them until the secondary armament came in to range.
If there was one person who took note of these lessons it was Britain’s Admiral ‘Jackie’ Fisher. Fisher was one of the most domineering leaders in the Royal Navy’s history and certainly one of the most influential. He pushed forward new ideas with an almost urgent zeal and impressed his views on both the design of new ships and the way they were operated. The lessons of Tsushima were obvious to many even before the battle including Fisher who had informally sketched designs for an all-big gun warship which he named HMS Untakeable. Fisher realized that having all big guns as opposed to a primary and secondary armament had numerous advantages not just with regards of targeting. It would ease the strain on the logistics chain to support the vessel which would only have to produce one type of shell. It would also mean that the all-big bun ship could put superior firepower on to an approaching enemy who could not respond in kind until he got closer to fire his secondary armament. Now that the flaws were proven and Fisher was now First Sea Lord he wanted to address them in a new class of ship that would be the epitome of modern naval design. After several months personally chairing a committee for developing the next battleship class for the Royal Navy the keel of the new ship was laid on October 2nd 1905. Its all-big gun armament comprising of ten 12inch guns was kept a secret however and it was believed by many that the new ship was a development of the previous King Edward VII-class.
Meanwhile on the other side of the world the victors of Tsushima, the Japanese navy, were applying the same lesson to one of their own ships. The Satsuma was to have been equipped with twelve 12inch main guns and work actually began ahead of the British ship with the keel being laid in May 1905. A number of problems with the size, complexity and cost of the gun and placing them on the hull that they were building led the Japanese to drop the idea and in the end eight of the guns were replaced by smaller 10inch weapons resulting in yet another ship with mixed armament. Had the ship been completed with its intended armament however then it is quite possible that the new warship classification could have been the Satsumas instead of the Dreadnoughts.
Around the world again the United States Navy actually put forward plans for an all-big gun ship before Fisher and his Dreadnought in the South Carolina-class. This powerful design was equipped with eight 12in guns, two less than Dreadnought but the South Carolina-class was arguably the better fighting ship because of the way the weapons were laid out. Dreadnought’s design had six of her guns in wing turrets which meant they could only fire on targets on that side of the ship. This seriously degraded Dreadnought’s ability to bring its full potential firepower to bear on to a target. The South Carolina’s however had their turrets mounted on the centreline allowing them to fire on either beam meaning more firepower could be brought to bear on a target. This arrangement was eventually copied by all other Dreadnoughts. The South Carolina-class lost the accolade of being the first all-big gun ships due to the time it took to build them which meant Dreadnought came first. Also, while their guns were better arranged than Dreadnought the rest of the design was inferior to the British ship using old fashioned triple expansion engines as opposed to Dreadnought’s turbines which gave it much greater speed.
In February 1906, HMS Dreadnought was launched and immediately rendered every other capital ship in the world obsolete. She was so instrumental in changing the nature of battleship design and technology that in the ultimate accolade the new type of ship became known as the Dreadnoughts. For the ships that came before it with their mixed calibres they found themselves with the less than flattering designation of pre-Dreadnoughts. While no specific criteria was laid down for what constituted a member of the Dreadnought community three factors had to be present in the design.
- Weapons; main armament had to comprise all-big guns. This meant no mixing of size or indeed calibre (length) of the weapon. This latter requirement has proven the source of much debate amongst naval historians over whether the Japanese Settsu-class, the immediate follow-on to the Satsuma-class and considered by many to be Japan’s first Dreadnought, is a “true” Dreadnought. While she had an armament of twelve 12inch guns they were of two different calibres (8×45 and 4×50) meaning the guns had notably different performances. The term “all-big gun” is a little misleading as Dreadnoughts did have secondary weapons usually in the 3-6inch categories and these were intended for defence against fast attack craft such as torpedo boats.
- Armour; it would make sense that if a country is going to build Dreadnoughts then it is likely to face a Dreadnought from a hostile country. Heavy armour was therefore a necessity. Despite their firepower Dreadnoughts were seldom agile and it meant that if two contemporary designs were to face one another then both would take damage during the exchange. Warships that would meet the other two criteria but trade armour for agility became known as Battlecruisers, an entirely separate naval concept.
- Advanced fire-control; one often overlooked advance HMS Dreadnought brought to the arena was that of genuine fire-control techniques. HMS Dreadnought featured a heavy fighting top consisting of a large optical rangefinder mounted on a tripod. The rangefinder was 9ft long and provided the observer with a fairly accurate sense of direction and distance based on the size of the enemy ship as it appeared to him. This was however reliant on knowing the dimensions of the enemy ship so as to make the necessary calculations before firing but it dramatically reduced the number of wasted shells used to train on to a target and offered a much greater chance of getting that vital first hit on the enemy.
HMS Dreadnought might have given Britain the lead but it sparked a frenzied arms race that produced a number of Dreadnoughts among the world’s naval powers who felt they had to have at least one in their fleet in order to maintain prestige. This lead to a number of impressive and not so impressive ships.
- Germany arguably built some of the finest Dreadnoughts of the era even if their first Dreadnought, the Nassau-class, was armed with 11.1inch guns as opposed to what was clearly becoming the standard 12inch weapon on others. Where German Dreadnoughts excelled was in their armour which meant that at the Battle of Jutland, the greatest clash of Dreadnoughts in World War I, German ships were often able to take severe punishment and remain afloat.
- The Austro-Hungarian Empire only ever built one class of Dreadnought, the Teghetoff-class. These were smaller than most other Dreadnoughts of the era but packed a similar punch with twelve 12inch guns in a rather neat configuration that made good use of space. Much like the Austro-Hungarian Navy at large the ships had a rather unspectacular wartime career.
- Spain has the unfortunate title of building the smallest and slowest Dreadnoughts in the Espana-class. They were also quite under-armed mounting only eight 12inch guns. The three ships were repeatedly damaged in accidents and in combat during the Spanish Civil War leaving their memory somewhat blighted.
- Equally depressing is the story of the once powerful Imperial Russian Navy and their only Dreadnoughts of the Gangut and Marut-class comprising four vessels in total. The Imperial Russian Navy never seemed to recover from its loss at Tsushima its Dreadnought program reflected this. These four Dreadnoughts were seriously outnumbered by Germany and her allies and played only a limited role in World War I before falling in to Bolshevik hands after the revolution and they were seldom used again.
- One of the most controversial Dreadnoughts leading up to the First World War was Brazil’s two British-built Minas Gerais-class vessels. Argentina, Brazil and Chile have a long history of naval competition and this has lead to them being referred to as the “ABC” powers in naval circles. The Minas Gerais was the first Dreadnought ordered by a South American country sparking an immediate arms race but also upon its completion it was by far and away the most powerful battleship in the world with twelve 12inch guns and very thick armour plating.
Leading up to and during the war Dreadnoughts became more powerful and better designed. The term “Dreadnought” was largely killed off however after war by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 which imposed limits on warships. To be labelled a Dreadnought was to imply an extremely powerful ship which was actually what the signatories of the treaty were trying to avoid. Also, the older generation of pre-Dreadnoughts were now being scrapped and so there was no need to distinguish the two types anymore which meant that the blanket term of “Battleship” returned. Nevertheless the ships that followed were true Dreadnoughts in concept and culminated in some of the most awe-inspiring Battleships/Dreadnoughts ever such as the American Iowa-class.