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Battleship design 1890 - 1914

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HMS Dreadnought 1906

Dreadnought was the only ship of its class, but it inspired many subsequent battleships and new battlecruisers culminating with HMS Vanguard, launched in 1944.

The launch of HMS Dreadnought, 1906. (RNM)
The launch of HMS Dreadnought, 1906. (RNM)

Shipwrights laid the keel of the new battleship in Portsmouth Dockyard on 2 October 1905. The hull was launched on 10 February and the ship was completed in a record time, officially after only a year and a day in December 1906.

The speed with which Dreadnought was completed was only possible by ordering a lot of material in advance, by utilising guns and fittings already under construction for other ships.

The Royal Navy actually completed the last of the pre-dreadnought classes, the Lord Nelson class of battleships, after the first dreadnought due to its guns and materials being utilised in the construction of the new ship.

HMS Dreadnought was twice as powerful in heavy gun power as any existing battleship, faster by at least 3 knots and only required a similarly sized crew. Once completed the ship rendered all other battleships obsolete.

The design incorporated many new and existing technologies. The naval battles of the recent Russo-Japanese War greatly influenced the new design. After the war all naval observers thought that the big gun was the decisive factor in the battle for the supremacy of the seas.

Furthermore, due to the increasing ranges of battle, the need for a larger calibre of guns also occurred so that spotters could accurately identify the fall of shot.

Whilst a number of the leading Navies in the world were grappling with the concept, the vast resources available to the Royal Navy in terms of design effort and ship building capacity allied to the dynamic leadership provided by Admiral Fisher ensured that Britain produced the first ship.

As a consequence of the successful design, all future battleships are often referred to as ‘dreadnoughts’.

HMS Dreadnought (1906) under construction in Portsmouth Royal Dockyard with wooden scaffolding surrounding the superstructure. 30.12.1905. (RNM)
HMS Dreadnought (1906) under construction in Portsmouth Royal Dockyard 30 December 1905. (RNM)

The ship had five twin 12-inch gun turrets against two twin turrets of previous designs. The disadvantage of the design was the use of wing turrets, which limited arc of fire and reduced the effective broadside to only four turrets.

The Royal Navy did not deal with this disadvantage in the immediate classes that followed since they had reservations about the impact of superimposed turrets when fired.

The gun crew of HMS Dreadnought with the gun layer's test results dated May 1910. The diagram shows where on the target the gun crew hit and that they scored 16.08 hits per minute. (RNM)
The gun crew of HMS Dreadnought with the gun layer's test results dated May 1910. The diagram shows where on the target the gun crew hit and that they scored 16.08 hits per minute. (RNM)

Designers assessed that the ship did not need a secondary armament due to its long-range firepower. However, the threat from close action with torpedo boats ensured that the navy added 12-pounder guns.

After Dreadnought's construction the guns were recognised as being insufficient so the next class of dreadnought battleships, the Bellerophon class, dropped the 12-pounder guns and made their secondary armament up of 4-inch guns.

Aft firing of the main and secondary armaments. (RNM)
Aft firing of the main and secondary armaments. (RNM)

Steam turbines provided the propulsion of the vessel. These had been introduced in the late 1890s and had been used in destroyers, but this was the first use in a large warship and they were larger than any used before.

The engines were lighter and more powerful than the reciprocating type, and required less crew to look after them. HMS Dreadnought was a comparatively massive 18,110 tons but only had a complement of 695 men and was capable of a speed of 21 knots.

The other major advance with this ship was the use of turbine engines driving 4 shafts rather than the 2 of previous classes. This along with changes in the hull design produced a speed of 21 knots – a 3-knot advantage over every other battleship in the world.

These engines also had a high level of reliability particularly over high speeds and also had a lower frequency and length of overhauls.

HMS Dreadnought was one of the first ships to be fitted with electrical range finding instruments. The ship had most of the instruments to give effective long-range fire but the co-ordination of all the instruments was still not achievable.

The Navy fitted a Director Tower housing a Dumaresq device for predicting the rate of change within the range and a rangefinder above the ship in the tripod mast.

They also built a Transmitting Station, or T/S, into the heart of the ship for receiving and calculating ranges for a more centralised gunnery system. It was 1909 before an effective centralised system was introduced on HMS Neptune.

HMS Bellerophon and how she was built. HMS Bellerophon immediately followed the Dreadnought and made improvements to the original design’s secondary armament and armour protection. (RNM)
HMS Bellerophon and how she was built. HMS Bellerophon immediately followed the Dreadnought and made improvements to the original design’s secondary armament and armour protection. (RNM)

The dreadnought battleships really caught the public’s imagination when HMS Dreadnought was completed in 1906. HMS Dreadnought was as famous in its day as Concorde or the space shuttle in theirs. Many types of souvenirs were produced for sale to the general public.

Front cover of a book of music composed by Theo Bonheur to celebrate the launch of HMS Dreadnought (1906). Playing and singing along to music was an important form of entertainment in Edwardian Britain. (RNM)
Front cover of a book of music composed by Theo Bonheur to celebrate the launch of HMS Dreadnought (1906). Playing and singing along to music was an important form of entertainment in Edwardian Britain. (RNM)



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