Late-Nineteenth Century Naval Gunnery

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Chen Yuen model by Andreas Martin 

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HMS Dreadnought [Battleship) (1907)

The Dreyer Fire Control Table was the Royal Navy’s highest-level Fire Control instrument during World War I.

The capital ships of this era fought in three fleet actions: the Battle of the Yalu (17 September 1894), the Battle of Santiago (3 July 1898), and the Battle of Tsushima (27 May 1905). In the first two clashes, the combatants were considerably unequal, and only one side deployed battleships. Oddly, in the Battle of the Yalu, the losing side had the battleships; in the Battle of Santiago they were with the winner.

The Yalu clash showed that the remarkable resisting powers of armor plate, demonstrated during the U. S. Civil War and in subsequent clashes, had not diminished. The better-trained and -led Japanese squadron of modern and well-protected cruisers could do no real damage to two newer German-built Chinese battleships (Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen), although five unarmored Chinese ships were sunk soon enough. The Japanese commander, with the Chinese battleships intact, had to leave the scene in some disgust, although the Japanese did retain control over local waters. Regardless of their imperviousness, the Chinese battleships, with their slow-firing guns, could not affect the course of the war and remained blockaded in Port Arthur, where one was subsequently sunk and the other captured by the persistent Japanese.

The Battle of Santiago during the Spanish-American War was even more one-sided: The five U. S. Navy battleships and one ar- mored cruiser, products of the U. S. naval revival during the late 1800s, sank or ran aground the four modern Spanish armored cruisers that were present. Only one American had died during the battle. Closer investigation showed that U. S. gunnery had been poor; yet the Spaniards’ had been even worse. It was small comfort that during that same year, Royal Navy battleships had fired 200 rounds at a stationary target 200 yards distant and scored just two hits! Obviously the victors at Yalu and Santiago owed their successes more to superior leadership and training than to their gun laying.

Gunnery itself had finally begun to emerge from its prevailing primitive inaccuracy. As late as 1900, RN warships had difficulty in hitting a target a little over a mile distant. At Tsushima five years later, the Japanese could engage their enemy at 2.5 miles range— and were proud of it. Generally, although the big naval guns were capable of hitting a target at 6,000 yards, they rarely hit one at 1,500 yards, even in practice. By Jutland, hits were scored at 5 miles or more, but nonetheless, hits on both sides averaged an unimpressive 0.33 percent to 4 percent.

Greater improvement was essential if the big guns of the new dreadnoughts were to have any meaning, and it came about due to the efforts first of Admiral Sir Percy Scott in the Royal Navy, and then of Captain (later Admiral) Bradley Fiske and Admiral William S. Sims in the U. S. Navy. More accurate rangefinders, telescopic sights, continuous aiming, salvo firing, analog computer aiming systems, trigometric slide rule, range clocks, and director firing all contributed to this vast naval gunnery transformation. Director firing, the work of Scott in 1905, concentrated control in one man, high on the foremast, who provided firing data for the individual turrets. Nonetheless, the British Admiralty resisted this innovation until 1912, when a director-equipped dreadnought, HMS Thunderer, achieved a hit ratio six times better than that of HMS Orion, the latter using the old individual gun-laying technique. Even then, on the eve of World War I, only eight (or one-third) of the Royal Navy’s dreadnoughts were equipped with director firing. The Germans, by contrast, had fitted their own, albeit inferior, director system on all of their High Seas Fleet dreadnoughts. Widening ranges also called for higher elevations, and Royal Navy battleships’ big-gun elevation increased gradually from 13.5 degrees in the first decade of the twentieth century to 30 degrees by World War I.

The Royal Navy could pride itself on vastly increasing its dreadnought firing range and accuracy, from 3,000–4,000 yards in 1904 to no less than 16,000 yards plus if called for. British firing should have been the world’s best. But the effective fire control table in the transmitting station developed by the civilian Arthur H. Pollen was plagiarized and bastardized by a naval officer who was a close associate of both Admiral John Fisher and the RN fleet commander, John Jellicoe. The result was a distinctly inferior mechanism. But the firing information did come from a single master sight in a revolving director tower high on the foremast (which was by then a tripod for greater stability and was also pioneered by Dreadnought), which followed the target and sent bearings to the fire control table, which, in turn, fed the information to the turrets. The exact moment of fire was determined by the director in the foretop, who waited for the roll of the ship to bring the heavy guns to the correct bearing, then fired all of the guns himself.

There is a myth, carefully reinforced by the Germans, that the British Barr & Stroud range-finding optics were inferior to those of the German Navy. Although the German Zeiss rangefinders could more easily range than their British counterparts, they required more specialized operators, were more affected by temperature and vibration, and their range findings deteriorated in combat.

The naval powers finally began to envision more rational operations of their battleships, and this new sense of reality led, in turn, to new designs. The growing awareness of the torpedo forced commanders to space their battleships farther apart, reviving the traditional line-ahead formation for capital ships—thus reviving the broadside. Increased range also led to a demand for more powerful guns, and so the big-gun broadside also returned.

Yet for all of this technical progress, the world’s navies were still decidedly on a leisurely peacetime routine; smartness in appearance and drill was more valued than gunnery excellence. In fact, the new battleships were decorated more flamboyantly than their predecessors. The Black Battle Fleet of the Royal Navy’s Ironclad Era gave place to the yellow funnels, white upperworks, and black hulls of the early battleships. The U. S. Navy went from the obscure lilac- gray or black of its Civil War monitors to the most attractive white hulls and buff upperworks of the turn-of-the-century “new U. S. Navy.” All naval services greatly increased their gold-leaf gilt work around the hulls and put increased emphasis upon polishing the metal work, even below decks. All of that would change, however, in the first decade of the twentieth century.

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