Nelson and Rodney I

By MSW Add a Comment 30 Min Read
Nelson and Rodney I

Because the latest U. S. and Japanese battleships already mounted
16-inch guns, the Washington Treaty permitted the British to construct two capital
ships, Nelson and Rodney, the only battleships in any navy designed and
completed during the 1920s, and the only Royal Navy battleships ever to mount
16-inch guns. These were strange-looking warships, mounting all main guns
forward to consolidate armor and thus keep under the treaty’s tonnage limits.
(The British referred to them facetiously as “cherry trees . . . cut down
by Washington”).

Thursday 17 December 1925 dawned cold and damp, one of those
grey mornings when even the most robust and sturdy shipyard worker seemed
dejected and miserable. But there was a good reason for high spirits because it
was a very special day for the Birkenhead shipyard and a huge crowd had wrapped
themselves up in their warmest clothing and gathered in and around the yard to
await the arrival of HRH Princess Mary and her husband Viscount Lascelles to
perform the naming ceremony of one of the most powerful battleships ever
constructed in a British yard. Indeed, the people of Liverpool and the little
town of Birkenhead, and Messrs Cammell Laird Shipbuilding and Engineering Works
were justly proud of the occasion. Not only had they brought a new concept in warship
design to the launching stage, but they were witnessing the construction of one
of the few British battleships to be laid down during the inter-war years. The
very existence of such a vessel during the depression was something of a
miracle; she was being built under the shadow of severe naval restrictions
which governed displacements and gun sizes. The general public saw the ship as
something of a compromise and hardly knew what to expect because of the
continuous agitation in the Press during the last few years since the
Washington Naval Treaty of 1921, whereby Britain had agreed to reduce the size
of her fleet, abandoning the `two power standard’ and aligning herself
numerically with the USA. In 1921 Britain had laid down four giant 48,000-ton
battlecruisers of which this ship should have been one, but lengthy
negotiations had reduced their size by more than 15,000 tons, and only two
instead if four were allowed to compensate for the latest battleships building
in Japan and the USA at that time.

At approximately 10.15 a. m. on that December morning HRH
Princess Mary and her husband entered the shipyard to be met by The Right Hon
Earl of Derby, KG, GCB, GCVO, and a very vociferous crowd. The Royal party were
introduced to Mr W. L. Hichens (Chairman) and Mr R. S. Johnson (Managing
Director) before making their way to the firm’s main offices.

At precisely 10.40 a. m. Her Royal Highness left the offices
and made her way to the launching platform where the religious ceremony was
then held. At exactly 11.15 a. m., in a moment of hush, a quiet voice called,
`I name this ship Rodney, and God bless all who sail in her’, and the lever was
pulled to release the christening fluid over the bows of the great ship. Thus
the mighty Rodney slid calmly and majestically down the slipway for about fifty
feet before entering the cold water of the River Mersey.

In the coming months, she and her sister (Nelson, which had
been launched a few months earlier in September) would be fitting out and
taking shape, and the media would get their first look at what had been one of
the most controversial designs of the inter-war years. Indeed, they were to
wonder whether the two ships would be worth £7,000,000 each, when the latest,
and larger, Hood had only set them back a little over £6,000,000. With
hindsight, however, it can be said that Nelson and Rodney proved to be two of
the most powerful 16in-gunned battleships ever built, and the sterling work
they were about to do during the coming war (1939-45) would more than justify
their building; in fact, at the outbreak of war, they were the latest
battleships that the Royal Navy possessed.


During the period 1919 to 1921, a considerable number of
alternative capital ship designs, embodying 1914-18 experience, especially the
lessons of Jutland and the recommendations of the Post-War Questions Committee,
were prepared and considered by the Admiralty, and in 1921, when the large
programme in hand in the USA and Japan necessitated a resumption of British
capital ship construction, a battlecruiser type of 47,540 tons was chosen. The
latest ship to complement the Royal Navy’s fleet at that time (1920) was the
large battlecruiser Hood, and although she had been constructed without regard
to the many lessons learnt at Jutland, her general design and layout was
naturally followed (`K’, `K2′ and `K3′).

Following these sketch designs, there was a serious
investigation into the construction of one of the largest and most powerful
battleships built to date (`13′), but although it reached sketch stage and
gained some Board approval, the Constructor’s department saw it as far too large
and radical at that time. In 1920, however, the NID informed their Lordships
that both Japan and the USA would probably construct vessels of about 48,000
tons armed with 18in guns in the near future, and it was reluctantly agreed
that the Royal Navy would have to follow suit to meet any threat. It was
realized, however, that ships of such a size would introduce severe problems
not only for designers, but in docking accommodation as well.

During the next few months various designs were prepared for
both battleships and battlecruisers, but unfortunately most of the information
(ship’s covers) concerning the battleships has been mislaid, only the
battlecruiser layouts being available (variations of `K’, `L’, `M’ and `N’
Designs were shown). In December 1920 it was decided that the sketches `G3′ and
`H3′ (battlecruisers) should be investigated further, but with modifications on
`G3′ so as to include extra armour protection to the deck area. After viewing
the modified `G3′ layout, the Board accepted it in principle and in February
1921 asked for confirmation and further preparation on four ships of such a
calibre. The DNC (d’Eyncourt) particularly approved of the modified G3 and
wrote to the First Sea Lord on 23 March 1921 pointing out the salient features:

The main armament consists of nine 16in guns in three
turrets with 40 degrees elevation. Two pairs forward and one amidships. The
latter cannot fire right astern.

War experience, and our recently acquired knowledge of
German and United States turrets have been carefully considered in connection
with the main armament; the protection and flashtightness is very complete.

Secondary armament consists of sixteen 6in in eight turrets,
arranged so that supply from magazines and shell rooms is very direct, but is
provided with breaks and other safeguards to prevent flash passing down into
magazines. AA consists of six 4.7in high-angle guns, and mountings embody the
latest highangle ideas as recommenced by Naval High Angle Gunnery Committee.

Armament controls are a special feature. An erection forward
supports the main director control tower, two secondary directors and the
high-angle directors, and calculating positions are free from any smoke
interference. Aeroplane hangars may be considered as a permanent feature but a
decision is pending.

Main armament has been concentrated in the centre of the
ship in order that the heavy horizontal and vertical armour required to protect
it may be a minimum, and also that the magazines may be placed in the widest
part of the ship, and the underwater protection be the best that can be
afforded. Over this central citadel a 14in belt is arranged, and resting on the
belt is a deck of 8in on the flat and 9in on the slopes. These thicknesses and
angles have been carefully calculated after consideration to oblique attack
results with the latest type of shell. Abaft the central citadel a sloping 12in
belt and 4in deck are provided over machinery spaces.

The belt extends over the aft 6in magazine, and here the
deck is increased to 7in. Abaft the citadel a thick deck of 5in is provided
over the steering gear.

Barbettes are 14in and turrets and 17in on the face with 8in

Underwater experience is based on Chatham Float tests and
embodies the principle of the bulge as fitted to the Hood. The side underwater
protection is designed to withstand a charge of 750lb of explosive.

Protection against mines is afforded by a double-bottom of
7ft deep.

By sloping the main belt outwards, not only is the virtual
thickness increased, but protection is provided against attack by
distant-controlled boats containing large explosives. In order that the
stability of the vessel may be adequate, the triangular space between side and
armour will be filled with light tubes. Calculations show that the whole of
this structure would have to be completely blown away before the ship would
lose stability.

Although never wanting ships with such mastodon proportions,
on accepting the `G3′ design and the battleship version `N3′, the Royal Navy
had accomplished what it set out to do, and that was completely to outclass any
foreign opposition for at least five years ahead. The design was far ahead of
its time and showed features which even matched the Japanese giants of the
Yamato class constructed in 1941. Indeed, it may be that the `G3′ plans were
carefully considered by the Japanese when their two ships were under
construction because they certainly reflected many qualities of the early 1921
British design.

With all major maritime powers building along the same lines
it was only too obvious that it would be but a matter of time before the design
was overshadowed by a vessel grossly out of proportion to requirements, with
everyone else being forced to follow. The political implications were too
complex to be discussed here, but the result ended in a Naval treaty called for
by the USA and it would include Great Britain, Japan, Italy and France. An
agreement was reached whereby there would be a battleship holiday for the next
ten years. New ships could only be constructed after existing ships had reached
the age of 20 years, and new construction was limited to 35,000 tons and
calibres reduced to 16in guns rather than the 18in being prepared at that time.
Dozens of older (in Britain’s case not so old) battleships went to the

Contracts for the British `G3′ class (four) had been under
way for some time and when in February 1922 letters had to be sent out to the
four yards involved, stating that the ships were cancelled, it came as a bitter
blow to an already flagging industry during the depression.

To offset the retention of the West Virginia and Nagato
classes by the United States and Japan respectively, which had been too far
advanced to scrap, Great Britain authorized under the Treaty two new designs to
comply with the severe limitations that had been imposed on construction.

As early as November 1921, when it became probable that the
four `G3′ group vessels were to be scrapped, the Constructor’s Department was
asked to prepare fresh layouts within the limits of the treaty, but was asked
to include any of the G3’s features where possible. The first three sketches
(`F1′, `F2′, `F3′) featured 15in guns because the department thought that no
suitable 16in-gunned design could be acquired on such a limited displacement,
but it would appear that the designs received little consideration because both
the USA and Japan now had 16in-gunned battleships (see tables). In January 1922
further proposals were forwarded showing a reduced edition of the `G3′ but
retaining many of its qualities (`O3′, `P3′ and `Q3′) with a speed of 23 knots.

The Controller asked for the designs to be fully worked out,
and it was proposed to Constructor E. L. Attwood that dimensions be 710ft by
102ft (waterline) by 30ft, and that SHP sufficient to reach 23/24 knots would
be needed. The main armament would be the same as in the `G3’s (16in), but
armour plating would be severely thinned down from that design. In order that the
legend weight, as defined by the Washington Treaty, should come within the
35,000 tons limit, the utmost economy was called for, and no Board margin was
possible for any weights added during construction. In September 1922 the final
design was accepted (modified `03′) and it embodied all the essential features

1. High freeboard and good seakeeping qualities, these being
regarded as essential.

2. Armament as in the cancelled battlecruisers (`G3′).

3. Armouring generally similar to that of the battlecruisers,
and concentrated over magazines, machinery and gun positions on the `all or
nothing’ principle.

4. Speed equal to or higher than contemporary foreign

Although having the same main armament and turret
arrangement as the cancelled battlecruisers (whose guns and mounts were
utilized to a certain extent) and resembling them in certain outward
characteristics, Nelson and Rodney were in no sense merely a reduced edition of
those ships, but constituted an entirely distinct `battleship’ type,
representing the nearest approach that could be obtained, within the limits, to
the 48,000- ton plan previously proposed. The battlecruiser design was stated
to have constituted a reply to Naval Staff Requirements for an `ideal
battlecruiser’; Nelson and Rodney, on the other hand, represented the best that
could be done, within treaty limitations, towards meeting the demand for an
`ideal battleship’.

The influence of the Treaty restrictions on the new ships
was considerable, as it was necessary, for the first time, to work to an
absolute displacement limit which could not be exceeded, but which had to be
approached as closely as possible in order to secure maximum value. The history
of these two ships, then, is a complex one, but when laid out in tabular form
it seems straightforward:

1. At the conclusion of the 1914-18 war, investigations were
conducted into capital ship design to incorporate the lessons learnt at Jutland
in particular.

2. Battlecruiser design with legend displacement of 48,000
tons was approved by the Board of Admiralty on 12 August 1921.

3. Orders were placed for four ships on 26 October 1921, but
cancelled on 13 February 1922 under Washington Naval Treaty’s directive not to
exceed 35,000 tons. 4. Investigations into designs for a 35,000-ton battleship
resulted in sketch `03′ (modified) being accepted by the Board, and became
Nelson and Rodney. 5. The Washington Treaty’s 35,000-ton limit led to
development of better quality steel.

6. No further capital ships to be built from 12 November
1921 except Nelson and Rodney.

7. General armour and protection affected (reduction from
`G3′) to save weight.

8. The armour citadel was 384ft by 14in abreast 16in
magazines, sloped at 70° and was so arranged inside the hull that the slope
produced downwards did not meet protection bulkheads. Each belt of armour was
keyed, and individual plates were made as large as possible with heavy bars
fitted behind the butts. Chock castings housing the lower edge of armour also
directed fragments of bursting shells away from the belt.

9: No new construction to be commenced until: United States
1931; Great Britain 1931; France 1927; Japan 1931; Italy 1927[a1] .


With the exception of the 16.25in gun mounted in the Benbow
and Sans Pareil classes, completed 1888 and 1891 respectively, Nelson and
Rodney were the first and only British battleships to have 16in BL guns in
triple-mounted turrets, which made them the most powerfully armed battleships
afloat. An experimental mounting had been produced by Messrs Armstrong and Co. and
fitted and satisfactorily tested in the monitor Lord Clive in February 1921 in
anticipation of their being fitted in the `G3′ group. When the `G3’s were
cancelled some £500,000 had been spent on them and it was only natural that the
money and results of the tests should be used in the new ships of the Nelson
class. Concentration of the entire main armament forward was unique at the time
of their building, and allowed a minimum length of armoured citadel with
maximum protection to gun positions and magazines, while the close grouping of
the turrets incidentally facilitated fire control. These advantages were
considered to outweigh the loss of tactical efficiency caused by the absence of
direct astern fire which at first was a much criticized feature; the design, in
this respect, subordinating tactical principles to severe pressures in
constructional requirements and weight saving. The arrangement was not repeated
after the Nelson pair, although it was later adopted by the French Navy in the
Dunkerque and Richelieu classes (laid down 1932-7 respectively). Although no
direct astern fire was provided, the superstructure was cut away and so
arranged as to allow `A’ and `B’ turrets rather large nominal arcs of fire,
bearing respectively to within 31° and 15° of the axial line astern.

The 16in gun was a high-velocity/lighter shell weapon, but
tests after completion showed that it was much inferior to the
low-velocity/heavy shell 15in gun which had proved itself an excellent piece
during the Great War. Nevertheless, the heavier weight of broadside did have
its compensations (6,790lb heavier than in Queen Elizabeth) and was not
equalled until 1941 when the US North Carolina entered service with a similar

Magazines and shell rooms were grouped together around the
revolving hoists, and the boilers were located abaft instead of before the
engine rooms so that the uptakes and funnel arrangement could be placed further
aft, with a view to minimizing smoke interference to the control positions on
top of the bridge structure. She was an improvement over previous designs, but,
as completed, the funnel proved to be too short, being appreciably lower than
the massive tower and its controls, especially steaming head to wind when the
tower produced considerable backdraught and the funnel gases caused severe

On trials, and during gunnery tests, it was found that when
the guns were fired at considerable angles abaft the beam, the structure and
personnel were affected by blast. In particular, `C’ turret, when fired abaft
the beam at full elevation was to cause severe problems, and special measures
would be needed when firing at these angles (see Captain’s report, elsewhere).
Many officers thought that the blast was too severe, and that the design was a
bad one, but when tests were carried out by HMS Excellent during the early gun
trials, there was a divergence of opinion.

Gun pressures on the bridge windows were recorded and showed
figures of 8½psi when bearing 120 degrees green or red, and it was suggested
that bridge personnel might possibly be moved to the conning tower when the
guns were firing at these angles. Constructor H. S. Pengelly was aboard Rodney
on 16 September 1927 and had this to say when making his report for their

During the firing of
`X’ and `B’ abaft the beam, I remained on the middle line at the after end of
the Admiral’s platform. The firing from `B’ was not uncomfortable, but there
was considerable shock when `X’ fired at 130 degrees or slightly less, but at
40 degrees of elevation. The shock was aggravated by one not knowing when to
expect fire, but apart from this point, it is understood that the blast
recorded at the slots on the Admiral’s platform were about 9lb psi and on the
Captain’s platform about 11lb psi. It was noted that 10 degrees more bearing
aft made all the difference to the effect experienced on the bridge.

The bridge structure
was, in itself, entirely satisfactory, and I was informed by the officers
occupying the main DCT forward, that this position was extremely satisfactory,
and they would have been ready, throughout the whole of the firing, to fire
again in 8 to 10

The only damage was on
the signal platform – 1 x 18in projector at the fore end – glass smashed, and
shutter of another broken.

On the Captain’s
bridge, four windows broken, a few voice pipes loose. On Admiral’s bridge, four
windows broken. Number of electric lights put out of action. General damage was
little, and the extra stiffening inboard after Nelson’s gun trials appear to
have functioned well.

They were the first British battleships to carry
anti-torpedo guns in turrets, which afforded, in addition to the better
protective area for gun crews, substantially wider horizontal and vertical arcs
of fire than the battery system of the preceding classes. On the protection
side, however, the secondary armament failed miserably because of the
restricted weights allowed in the ships, and the whole of the secondary
armament – turrets and barbettes – were practically unarmoured, with nothing
more than 1in high-tensile steel all over as a form of splinter shield.

The turrets were arranged in two compact groups, governed by
the same considerations of concentration to allow magazine grouping, as had
been the case with the main armament. There was some criticism of the close
grouping because a single hit might put the entire battery out of action on any
one side. They were located as far aft as practicable so as to minimize blast
effect from the after 16in guns when firing abaft the beam. Their higher
command (about 23ft against 19ft) meant that the fighting efficiency of these
guns in moderate or rough weather was materially better than that of the Queen
Elizabeth and Royal Sovereign classes, an advantage that was demonstrated
during fleet manoeuvres in March 1934 when units of all three classes operated
together in some of the worst weather ever experienced during practical battle
tests (the secondary guns of the QE and RS classes were seen to be completely
waterlogged and were of no use whatsoever).

The 24.5in torpedo armament was introduced in this class
(21in was the largest previously carried) even though there was a body of
opinion that expressed a wish to discontinue torpedo tubes in capital ships.
The tubes were not trained abeam, but angled forward to within about 10 degrees
of the axial line. To eliminate risk of serious flooding, the torpedo
compartments were located in a separate flat rather than a single flat as in
preceding classes, which was seen a serious fault in those early classes. The
torpedo control positions were located on the superstructure close before the

Given that the design had been restricted in displacement,
the armament in general was more than adequate, but the triple mounting of the
16in guns was not viewed favourably in the Constructor’s Department, which
preferred twin mountings as in preceding classes – a well-tried and proven set
of equipment. The trouble seems to have been the extreme weight of the entire
triple mounting (1,500 tons approx.) which bore down too heavily on the flanges
of the roller path when the turret was being trained. As a result of this and
other small teething problems the guns or turrets never achieved the reputation
of the twin mounted 15in gun which, in hindsight, has been considered the best
combination that ever went to sea in a battleship. After new vertical rollers
had been fitted, and much experimentation on the 16in mountings, things did
improve, but they were never troublefree during prolonged firing.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version