I’m a fan of military history, especially naval history. So today I thought I’d write up a little about the origin of the idea of a battleship.
Although it remains part of the public consciousness, battleships had a relatively short lifetime as the major naval unit. The first one appeared in 1906 and by 1940 they had more or less succumbed to the supremacy of air power, both sea and land based.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the beginning, and I think the best place to begin is the US Civil War. On two calm days in Virginia in March 1862, the naval world changed radically. On the first day, iron decisively overcame wood, and all of the naval vessels in the world were rendered obsolete. On the second day the broadside approach to naval gunfire was decisively overruled by the introduction of turreted big guns. Combined with the already occurring change to steam power, these two changes were the revolutionary factors which were incorporated into all ships of the line for the rest of the 19th century.
On the other hand, one thing that did not change radically was speed. Sailing vessels could sail at speeds around 10 knots, and the bigger ones, like the clippers could reach 20 knots. Steam did not really change this. It simply made it more predictable. On the other hand it also gave the ships shorter legs. The key for ships of the line or ‘battleships’, though, was that it could give those speeds for vessels coated with armor.
After the Civil War, the navies of the world adapted to these two radical changes, but this did not give us the battleship we have grown to know. This gave us what is now called the predreadnought (for reasons explained later). What characterized a ‘predreadnought’? Well, as previously noted, the retirement of wooden warships led to ships with armor, more and more armor. The advent of turrets was also incorporated, but in a somewhat opportunistic and haphazard way. There tended to be two large caliber turrets, one fore and one aft, and a whole slew of smaller caliber weapons in turrets or sponsons placed in various positions. This type of battleship tended to have four large caliber weapons of 10″ or so in bore. The ships were steam powered, but their speeds were still in the range of 10-20 knots, i.e. no faster than what was common for unarmored sailing vessels. In fact, the steam engines were of the reciprocating type, so top speeds could not be maintained for long (typically less than one hour). Consequently, the cruising speed was around 10 knots.
Nevertheless, they were the standard and performed brilliantly in a variety of battles between the Civil War and WWI including the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.
Then at the beginning of the 20th century, two technological innovations again came together to provide a quantum leap in naval technology which finally gave us what we would recognize as a battleship.
The first of these innovations was the steam turbine. The steam turbine for marine propulsion as we encounter it here was the brainchild of the British industrialist Charles Parsons, who demonstrated it in dramatic fashion at the naval review for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 where he literally ran circles around every other ship. This was still a steam engine, but rather than pushing a piston, the steam turned a turbine. The advantage was that the stop and start of a piston produces dramatic amounts of noise and damage to the engine at high speeds, whereas a turbine could just turn faster. In fact, this form of propulsion is still the primary means of propelling naval vessels today.
The second innovation was to specialize the armament and go with an almost exclusively high caliber armament which more than doubled the weight of shot in a single salvo. The result was the HMS Dreadnought, launched in 1906. With an armament of 10 12-inch guns, and the ability to steam for hours at 21 knots, the Dreadnought could outgun any ship it encountered and outrun any ship or fleet that outmatched it. Again, in a single stroke, all previous ‘battleships’ were rendered obsolete and given the appropriate moniker of ‘pre-dreadnoughts’.
I’m going to stop here and recommend a couple of books on the subject which make very nice reads by Robert K. Massie: Dreadnought and Castles of Steel. In them you will find details on the technical stories I’ve described as well as the intriguing cast of characters who created the battleship as we know it and fought them in WWI. I hope you enjoy them.
Footnote: All images were derived from public web sources as far as I know.