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HMS Dreadnought (1906)
The sixth HMS Dreadnought of the British Royal Navy was the first battleship to have a uniform main battery, rather than having a secondary battery of similar sized guns. She was also the first large warship to be powered by steam turbines, making her the fastest warship of her size. So advanced was Dreadnought that her name became a generic term for modern battleships; whilst the ships she made obsolete were known as "pre-dreadnoughts". Her introduction sparked off a major naval arms race as navies around the world rushed to match her, particularly the Germans in the build up to the First World War. Indeed, the U.S. Navy's similar South Carolina class employed similar philosophies and was begun earlier, but Dreadnought was commissioned first.
Existing battleship designs of the era typically mounted four large guns in dual-gun turrets fore and aft, with a number of smaller guns lining the sides of the ship, in a fashion similar to older sailing vessels. Not only did this limit the amount of long-range firepower to four guns, it also allowed water into the ship through the many openings nearer the waterline. Furthermore, each calibre of gun had different ballistic properties, something which greatly complicated the gunnery process.
The invention by Charles Parsons of the steam turbine in 1884 led to a significant increase in the speed of ships with his dramatic unauthorised demonstration of Turbinia with its speed of up to 34 knots (63 km/h) at the Spithead Navy Review in 1897. After further trials and construction of two turbine powered torpedo boats, HMS Viper and HMS Cobra, the Admiralty confirmed in 1905 that future Royal Navy vessels were to be turbine powered.
Dreadnought was the idea, eventually, of Admiral Sir Jackie Fisher, who became First Sea Lord in 1904. Fisher had originally advocated a Royal Navy based around submarines and fast torpedo boats, and had subsequently tempered his revolutionary ideas with a vision of fast, all-big-gun battlecruisers, which would have the firepower and speed to engage battleships and cruisers, albeit with much less armour protection than the former. Fisher felt that speed was a better defence than armour. Although the battlecruiser concept would become popular in the run-up to World War I, Fisher was nonetheless forced by the Admiralty to create an all-big-gun battleship instead.
The concept was simple, and had been a consideration among naval planners for a few years. Dreadnought would use steam turbines in place of the older triple-expansion engines that had powered almost all previous ships, with a design speed of a steady 21 knots (39 km/h). This would allow her to outrun any combat ship then afloat, making her largely immune to mass attacks by an enemy fleet, or by smaller but deadly craft such as torpedo boats and submarines (HMS Viper and HMS Cobra had maximum speeds approaching 34 knots (63 km/h), but both sank in 1899). Thus protected from smaller ships, lighter guns that would normally be placed along the sides of the ship to deal with them could be removed. This left considerably more room for only the largest of guns, which were placed on turrets on the main deck.
Dreadnought mounted five, two-gun turrets. Three turrets were located conventionally along the centreline of the ship, with one fore and two aft, the latter pair separated by a sizeable gap. Two further turrets were located either side of the bridge superstructure. This arrangement tended to reduce the amount of guns which could be brought to bear on a target; the Dreadnought could, at most, deliver a broadside of eight guns, abaft fire of eight guns, and astern fire of six guns, in each case only in a narrow range of angles. Subsequent designs tended to arrange all of the turrets along the ship's centreline, an arrangement which had been rejected for Dreadnought in order to minimise the suposed risk of concussion damage to the closely-packed turrets. This fear was unfounded and later battleships used a superimposed arrangement, with turrets arrayed in a stair-step arrangement on the centerline. Additional light guns were included for close in defense but were not intended as offensive weapons.
The vessels which Dreadnought was expected to engage could only bring to bear four guns of similar size, plus a host of smaller weapons which would be kept at a safe stand-off distance by Dreadnought's shells. In effect, the Dreadnought's concept was equal to three or more battleships in "real" firepower during combat.
The use of a single main gun size greatly simplifies the task of adjusting fire during combat. As all guns have the same ballistic characteristics, and all guns are pointed by a master director (and fired simultaneously by electrical means) the shells, if they miss their indended target, will fall in a cluster whose size is determined by random variations and whose center is subject to errors in aiming and other deterministic effects such as wind. If the shells are splashing beyond the target the adjustments are made to shorten the range, correspondingly, if the fire is too short the range is increased. If the target is "bracketed" then another round of fire is sent using the same aiming conditions, adjusted for ship speeds and course differences. For a given powder load, the adjustments are made by small elevation adjustments. By contrast, with differing gun characteristics it becomes difficult to determine which type of gun created which splashes.
Another major innovation was the elimination of longitudinal passageways between compartments below the main deck level. While doors connecting such compartments would always be closed during combat it was proven that these were a major weakness in the security of a ship; a collision during fleet exercises had earlier resulted in the sinking of a battle cruiser.
Finally, the typical crew arrangement, whereby enlisted personnel where housed in the forward part of the ship (the forecastle) and officers aft was reversed. Unlike sailing ships, which were controlled from the aft part of the ship, modern warships were controlled from the bridge, high and in the first quarter or third of the ship. By moving "officer's country" forward the ship's officers were closer to their command stations, while stokers and enginemen, now quartered aft, were also closer to their workplaces.
Construction and early years
So convinced that construction of the design would be ordered, Fisher started stockpiling steel for use on the ship before a construction slip was even available. This proved a fortunate decision, as during the stockpiling phase a new hull shape was identified that would decrease drag, and therefore increase speed. Fisher, happy with the original 21 knot (39 km/h) speed, used up the additional performance by further increasing the weight of armor. The final design mounted 11 inches (279 mm) of armor on the sides and turrets, about 3 inches (76 mm) more than designs from only a year earlier. Construction finally started in October 1905, and she was launched in February 1906, after only four months on the ways. Dreadnought went to sea on October 3rd, only a year and a day after construction started. The process had been sped up by using turrets which had originally been designed for the Lord Nelson battleships which preceded Dreadnought. The speed of Dreadnought's construction was almost as alarming to foreign navies as her technical capabilities.
Dreadnought was commissioned for trials in December 1906, and in January 1907 she sailed for the Mediterranean Sea and then to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Her engines and guns were given a thorough workout by Captain Sir Reginald Bacon. His report stated No member of the Committee on Designs dared to hope that all the innovations introduced would have turned out as successfully as had been the case. The Royal Navy's next six battleships were built along essentially the same lines, although Dreadnought was to be the only Dreadnought-class battleship. Returning to Portsmouth, Dreadnought became flagship of the Home Fleet between 1907 and 1912. As such she spent most of her time in home waters, with occasional cruises to Spain and the Mediterranean.
Her building, trials and early service were closely watched by the world's naval authorities. Her design so thoroughly eclipsed earlier types that subsequent battleships of all nations were generically known as "dreadnoughts" and previous ones disparaged as "pre-dreadnoughts". Her time of outright superiority was short, however. Dreadnought had originally been built to show other navies the futility of attempting to go toe-to-toe with the Royal Navy, but as in the past (see HMS Warrior for instance), the Navy underestimated the German fleet's desire to maintain parity. Her construction sparked off another naval arms race, and soon all major fleets were adding Dreadnought-like ships.
Dreadnought was quickly followed by six more almost identical ships, commencing with the Bellerophon_class_battleship, in which several design flaws were fixed.
Decline, The Great War
From 1907-1912 Dreadnought served as flagship of the Royal Navy's Home Fleet, as famous in its days as the Concorde SST sixty years later. In 1910 it attracted the attention of notorious hoaxer Horace de Vere Cole, who persuaded the Royal Navy to arrange for a party of Abyssinian royals to be given a tour of a ship. In reality, the "Abyssinian royals" were some of Cole's friends in blackface and disguise, including a young Virginia Woolf; it became known as the Dreadnought hoax. Cole had picked the Dreadnought because it was the most prominent and visible symbol of Britain's naval might; but even by 1910 it was obsolete.
As ever-faster designs were put into service, Dreadnought found herself increasingly outpaced, whilst her unusual turret arrangement had already been abandoned in favour of in-line turrets. Her lack of relative speed made her vulnerable to smaller craft again, and since the design ignored these as a factor, she was generally underarmored for torpedo attacks. Smaller 12-pounder guns were added on top of the main turrets to help fend off torpedo boats, and a system for anti-torpedo netting was added along the sides for protection while in port. These changes were not enough to convince the Admiralty that she would be safe in the line of battle, what with newer torpedo boats and submarines shadowing the battle fleets. On the outbreak of World War I in 1914 she was flagship of the Fourth Battle Squadron in the North Sea, based at Scapa Flow.
Ironically for a vessel designed to engage enemy battleships, her only significant action was the ramming and sinking of German submarine U-29 on 18 March 1915 - Dreadnought thus became the only battleship to ever sink a submarine. Withdrawn from the fleet because her low speed made it impossible to keep station, from May 1916 Dreadnought was flagship of the 3rd Battle Squadron, based at Sheerness on the Thames, part of a force intended to counter the threat of shore bombardment by prowling German battlecruisers. Dreadnought was undergoing a refit during the Battle of Jutland, and thus missed the Navy's most famous WWI engagement. She returned to the Grand Fleet from March to August 1918. By now in bad condition from constant patrols in the North Sea, she was put in reserve at Rosyth after the war. Dreadnought was paid off on 31 March 1920. Sold to T. Ward & Company in 1922, she was broken up at Inverness, Scotland, in 1923.
Although the battleship is today sometimes spelled Dreadnaught, it was officially Dreadnought. The word means "fear nothing".
- Jane's Battleships of the 20th Century by Bernard Ireland (ISBN 0004709977); a general guide with several useful drawings, although quite limited in scope.
- Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War by Robert Massie (ISBN 1844135284); a substantial book which deals mostly with the political situation which led to WW1, tensions between descendants of Queen Victoria, and the symbiotic relationship between First Lord of the Admiralty [[Winston Churchill] and First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher. Technical information concerning the battleship itself is limited to a single (although quite informative) chapter (28). The strategic and tactical employment of fleets of great warships in WW1 is well documented in the subsequent book by this author, Castles of Steel. Far less involved with the details of politics and more with personalities of commanders this report of naval actions and theaters may be of more interest to students of military history.
- The Royal Navy's official Dreadnought site
- United States military history page on the Dreadnought
- History, with several period photographs
- A project to recreate the Dreadnought as a CAD model
- An illustration of the contemporary naval arms race which Dreadnought sparked
- A thorough guide to the 12 inch guns which made Dreadnought so distinctive
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