This Day In History, Feb. 10th: HMS Dreadnought Is Launched (1906)

HMS Dreadnought Is Launched (1906)

HMS Dreadnought was a Royal Navy battleship that revolutionised naval power. Her name and the type of the entire class of warships that was named after her stems from archaic English in which “dreadnought” means “a fearless person”.[1] Dreadnoughts entry into service in 1906 represented such an advance in naval technology that its name came to be associated with an entire generation of battleships, the “dreadnoughts”, as well as the class of ships named after it. Likewise, the generation of ships she made obsolete became known as “pre-dreadnoughts”. Admiral Sir John “Jacky” Fisher, First Sea Lord of the Board of Admiralty, is credited as the father of Dreadnought. Shortly after he assumed office, he ordered design studies for a battleship armed solely with 12-inch (305 mm) guns and a speed of 21 knots (39 km/h; 24 mph). He convened a “Committee on Designs” to evaluate the alternative designs and to assist in the detailed design work.

Dreadnought was the first battleship of her era to have a uniform main battery, rather than having a few large guns complemented by a heavy secondary armament of smaller guns. She was also the first capital ship to be powered by steam turbines, making her the fastest battleship in the world at the time of her completion.[2] Her launch helped spark a naval arms race as navies around the world, particularly the German Imperial Navy, rushed to match it in the build-up to World War I.[3]

Ironically for a vessel designed to engage enemy battleships, her only significant action was the ramming and sinking of German submarine SM U-29, becoming the only battleship confirmed to have sunk a submarine.[4] Dreadnought did not participate in the Battle of Jutland in 1916 as she was being refitted. Nor did Dreadnought participate in any of the other World War I naval battles. In May 1916 she was relegated to coastal defence duties in the English Channel, not rejoining the Grand Fleet until 1918. The ship was reduced to reserve in 1919 and sold for scrap two years later.

Background

Gunnery developments in the late 1890s and the early 1900s, led in the United Kingdom by Percy Scott and in the United States by William Sims, were already pushing expected battle ranges out to an unprecedented 6,000 yards (5,500 m), a distance great enough to force gunners to wait for the shells to arrive before applying corrections for the next salvo. A related problem was that the shell splashes from the more numerous smaller weapons tended to obscure the splashes from the bigger guns. Either the smaller-calibre guns would have to hold their fire to wait for the slower-firing heavies, losing the advantage of their faster rate of fire, or it would be uncertain whether a splash was due to a heavy or a light gun, making ranging and aiming unreliable. Another problem was that longer-range torpedoes were expected to soon be in service and these would discourage ships from closing to ranges where the smaller guns’ faster rate of fire would become preeminent. Keeping the range open generally negated the threat from torpedoes and further reinforced the need for heavy guns of a uniform calibre.[5]

In 1903, the Italian naval architect Vittorio Cuniberti first articulated in print the concept of an all-big-gun battleship. When the Italian Navy did not pursue his ideas, Cuniberti wrote an article in Jane’s Fighting Ships advocating his concept. He proposed an “ideal” future British battleship of 17,000 long tons (17,000 t), with a main battery of a dozen 12-inch guns in eight turrets, 12 inches of belt armour, and a speed of 24 knots (44 km/h; 28 mph).[6]

The Royal Navy (RN), the Imperial Japanese Navy and the United States Navy all recognised these issues before 1905. The RN modified the design of the Lord Nelson-class battleships to include a secondary armament of 9.2-inch (234 mm) guns that could fight at longer ranges than the 6-inch (152 mm) guns on older ships, but a proposal to arm them solely with 12-inch guns was rejected.[7][Note 1] The Japanese battleship Satsuma was laid down as an all-big-gun battleship, five months before Dreadnought, although gun shortages allowed her to be equipped with only four of the twelve 12-inch guns that had been planned.[8] The Americans began design work on an all-big-gun battleship around the same time in 1904, but progress was leisurely and the two South Carolina-class battleships were not ordered until March 1906, five months after Dreadnought was laid down, and the month after it was launched.[9]

The invention by Charles Algernon 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 her speed of up to 34 knots (63 km/h; 39 mph) at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee at Spithead in 1897. After further trials of two turbine-powered destroyers, HMS Viper and HMS Cobra, coupled with the positive experiences of several small passenger liners with turbines, Dreadnought was ordered with turbines.[10]

The Battle of the Yellow Sea and Battle of Tsushima were analysed by Fisher’s Committee, with Captain William Pakenham’s statement that “12-inch gunfire” by both sides demonstrated hitting power and accuracy, whilst 10-inch shells passed unnoticed.[11]Admiral Fisher wanted his board to confirm, refine and implement his ideas of a warship that had both the speed of 21 knots (39 km/h) and 12-inch guns,[12] pointing out that at the Battle of Tsushima, Admiral Togo had been able to cross the Russians’ “T” due to speed.[13] The unheard of long-range (13,000 metres (14,000 yd))[14] fire during the Battle of the Yellow Sea, in particular, although never experienced by any navy prior to the battle, seemed to confirm what the RN already believed.[15]

Development of Dreadnought

Admiral Fisher proposed several designs for battleships with a uniform armament in the early 1900s, and he gathered an unofficial group of advisors to assist him in deciding on the ideal characteristics in early 1904. After he was appointed First Sea Lord on 21 October 1904, he pushed through the Board of Admiralty a decision to arm the next battleship with 12 inch guns and that it would have a speed no less than 21 knots (39 km/h). In January 1905, he convened a “Committee on Designs”, including many members of his informal group, to evaluate the various design proposals and to assist in the detailed design process. While nominally independent it served to deflect criticism of Fisher and the Board of Admiralty as it had no ability to consider options other than those already decided upon by the Admiralty. Fisher appointed all of the members of the committee and he was President of the Committee.[16]

The committee decided on the layout of the main armament, rejecting any superfiring arrangements because of concerns about the effects of muzzle blast on the open sighting hoods on the turret roof below, and chose turbine propulsion over reciprocating engines to save 1,100 long tons (1,100 t) in total displacement on 18 January 1905. Before disbanding on 22 February, it decided on a number of other issues, including the number of shafts (up to six were considered), the size of the anti-torpedo boat armament,[17] and most importantly, to add longitudinal bulkheads to protect the magazines and shell rooms from underwater explosions. This was deemed necessary after the Russian battleship Tsesarevich was thought to have survived a Japanese torpedo hit during the Russo–Japanese War by virtue of her heavy internal bulkhead. To avoid increasing the displacement of the ship, the thickness of her waterline belt was reduced by 1 inch (25 mm).[18]

The Committee completed its deliberations on 22 February 1905 and reported their findings in March of that year. It was decided due to the experimental nature of the design to delay placing orders for any other ships until the “Dreadnought” and her trials had been completed. Once the design had been finalised the hull form was designed and tested at the Admiralty’s experimental ship tank at Gosport. Seven iterations were required before the final hull form was selected. Once the design was finalized a team of three assistant engineers and 13 draughtsmen produced detailed drawings.[19]

To assist in speeding up the ship’s construction, the internal hull structure was simplified as much as possible and an attempt was made to standardize on a limited number of standard plates, which varied only in their thickness.

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