Dreadnought Survival and Renaissance

The Renown class comprised a pair of battlecruisers built during the First World War for the Royal Navy, the Renown and Repulse.

The pace of Dreadnought construction among the naval powers continued for much of the First World War. Some were abandoned when it was decided to divert the materials and labour to other armament manufacture. Others were abandoned when the end of the war appeared to be imminent; still more were scrapped, some at an advance stage of construction, under the terms of the Washington Treaty of 1921. The interim period in the life of the Dreadnought, covering the years before and after this treaty, are covered in this chapter. The aborted ships arouse a special feeling of melancholy nostalgia. They were begun with such high hopes, were worked on for years with the skill and brains of many men, and were even sometimes launched amid the celebration and relief of that ceremony. All for nothing. On one day the riveters were at work in the great empty shell; the next their work was being heartlessly destroyed. But some of these interim Dreadnoughts were completed, and they were remarkable vessels. A few words must also be added about the “Dreadnoughts that never were” because they form an important part of the history of the ship, and strongly influenced future design.

Britain laid down no new battleships during the First World War. In 1914-1915 the 15-inch-gunned Queen Elizabeths and the “R’s” were augmenting the power of the Grand Fleet, and giving it the overwhelming superiority it enjoyed for the rest of the war. Besides, Britain was busily converting itself into a major military power. But there still remained a shortage of battle cruisers, and in the early months of the war they were evidently proving their worth. Nobody believed this more passionately than Fisher, now back in the Admiralty. The victory at the Falkland Islands, and Fisher’s enduring preoccupation with an invasion of the German coast, caused the laying down of five battle cruisers between January and June, 1915. One pair of these were to have been further “R”-type battleships, but their design was changed at the last minute. The other three were referred to by Fisher as “large light cruisers” in order to get them through the Treasury, and they had strange and colourful histories.

Fisher’s orders to the D.N.C. for the Repulse and Renown required the highest speed of any Dreadnought afloat and an armament of 15-inch guns. He was not very interested in how much armour they carried. What the Grand Fleet received as reinforcements twenty months later were two of the loveliest and certainly the fastest ships afloat. But after Jutland the Grand Fleet was less interested in speed, and much more interested in protection — which in the Repulse and Renown was less than that of the late Queen Mary. They were given rude names like White Elephants, and sent back for more protection, especially over their magazines. Both ships could do 32 knots in their early days, but the numerous reconstructions that punctuated their careers in war and peace (they were also nicknamed Refit and Repair) later reduced this by several knots. They were to have had eight 15-inch guns, but Fisher was in such a hurry that the last two pairs were not ready in time, so they went through life with a main armament of six 15-inch — another “first” for this class. Fisher also insisted on going back to small-caliber secondary armament. They were unique triple-mounted 4-inch. Another Fisher legacy, which lasted all their lives, was their high-speed manoeuvrability, which helped the Repulse in 1941 to evade attack after attack by Japanese torpedo planes, before she became the first capital ship to succumb to air power at sea.

But if the Renown and Repulse were unusual vessels and a breakaway from the line of the Dreadnought’s development, their younger cousins Furious, Glorious, and Courageous can only be described as bizarre — or as the “outrageous” class, as they were popularly named. They were later officially classified as battle cruisers, but in fact Fisher’s camouflage description was more appropriate. Courageous and Glorious each mounted a pair of 15-inch guns fore and aft, a secondary armament of eighteen 4-inch, again in triples, and were as fast, and as long, as the Renown and Repulse. Their reduction in displacement by some 8,000 tons was caused by their fewer heavy guns, and their almost total absence of armour plate. This was shallow and of only two or three inches on the belt, an inch or so on the decks, with serious consideration given only to the turrets and barbettes. The same general pattern was followed with the Furious, and provision was made for the same main armament. But instead a new weapon of unprecedented caliber was fitted, one fore and one aft, each capable of firing a shell weighing 3,600 pounds. This size of gun and weight of shell were not equalled until the Japanese Yamato and Musashi went to sea a quarter-century later. Immediately after the Furious was completed, and before she was commissioned, the forward 18-inch was removed and a short flight deck substituted — for seaplanes. “A trolley-and-rail method of launching was employed, the seaplane resting on a trolley which ran down a slotted rail fixed to the deck. On reaching the end of the deck, the trolley was arrested by two arms fitted with shock absorbers.” Later the other gun was removed and both were mounted on monitors for shelling Belgium and then shipped out to Singapore for shelling the Japanese. During her long life she was, then, called a large light cruiser, a battle cruiser, and an aircraft carrier; and in this last guise she sported in turn a flight deck forward, a flight deck fore and aft, a clear single flight deck when her funnels, bridgework, and mast were removed, and finally, for her Second World War service (which she survived), she was given a vestigial mast and bridge. Courageous and Glorious were also converted to carriers in the 1920’s, with the elimination of all their heavy guns and the retention of an offset mast and funnel.

As they were first built, these five curious ships were the epitome of the Fisher battle cruiser. It seemed only just, therefore, that four of them (the Furious was absent) were engaged in the last big-gun action with units of the High Seas Fleet on November 17, 1917. It was only a high-speed pursuit between minefields, and nothing much happened. The Glorious had one further distinction: she was the only battle cruiser which German battle cruisers tried to sink in the First World War and succeeded in sinking in the Second (Hindenburg and Moltke; then Scharnhorst and Gneisenau).

In 1915 three 15-inch-gunned battle cruisers were being built in Germany. The British Board of Admiralty therefore decided to offset the threat of these ships with something more formidable than Fisher’s “large light cruisers.” Four huge super-battle cruisers were therefore designed, and the first, the Hood, was laid down a few hours before Jutland was fought. The building of her sisters Howe, Anson, and Rodney was halted later when Germany gave up building Dreadnoughts altogether in favour of U-boats. The Hood, like the Vanguard of a later generation, was completed for war, but not in time for it. For some twenty years she was the largest, most beautiful, and most esteemed Dreadnought in the world. Few carried a heavier broadside, none were faster, none more graceful nor more formidable in appearance. Everywhere she was the cynosure of the maritime world. When she was sunk by a few shells from a German battleship, it seemed to many Britons that they had been deprived of a part of their naval heritage. As first designed she was to have had a main hull belt 33 percent thicker than that of the first battle cruisers; as she was completed, with the lessons of Jutland seemingly learned, it had grown to 12 inches, and was 9½ feet deep. Other protection was also on a scale with that of the Queen Elizabeths, with special emphasis on the protection of the magazines. This was inadequate to meet the rigors of 1939 artillery, bomb, torpedo, and mine. But there had been no time to give her the planned modernization before its urgent need was catastrophically proved by the Bismarck’s more modern 15-inch guns.

In the midst of a huge scrapping program in 1921, Britain became aware that her naval situation was being threatened by two of her friends, America and Japan, the reason being that these uneasy late Allies were themselves disputing maritime supremacy in the Pacific. Within a few years their vast programs of super-super-Dreadnoughts must wrest from Britain the crown she had worn since Trafalgar. In the face of extraordinary cost, which she could not afford, opposition from militarists, who believed the day of the capital ship was finished, and political pressure from the Treasury, and also the common people (for after all the war to end wars had only just ended), authorization was given for the construction of four battle cruisers. On October 21, 1921, amid great controversy, the keel plates of the four most powerful fighting ships in British history were laid. They were intended to carry the names Invincible, Indomitable, Inflexible, and Indefatigable, were to be of 48,000 tons, and to carry an armament of nine tripled 16-inch guns, all forward of the funnels, and sixteen 6-inch as secondary armament in twin turrets. The protection was to be on the scale, and on the “all-or-nothing” principle, established by the American Oklahoma; speed about 32 knots. They were, in fact, to have been the 1921 equivalents of the 1911 Queen Elizabeths: fast, well-protected, immensely strong, the perfect fast battleship rather than battle cruiser. Three and a half weeks later all work on them ceased, as a result of the Washington decisions. But by arguing at this conference that much of British capital-ship tonnage was out of date, and would have to be scrapped long before the “Battleship Holiday” prescribed by the conference had ended, the British delegate gained permission to build two battleships that would offset the advantage America and Japan had gained with their 16-inch-gunned Marylands and Mutsus. These ships, Nelson and Rodney, were scaled-down versions of the aborted new Invincibles, and were under construction a year after the battle cruisers were scrapped. In order to get down to the displacement limit of 35,000 tons, sacrifices had to be made, and these were mainly in the engine room, the horsepower being dropped from 160,000 to 45,000, the speed from 32 knots to 23 knots. There were small reductions in secondary armament, but the main armament remained the same, and unique in British practice in being disposed all forward, to economize in armour plate over the magazines, the centre of the three triple turrets being raised. Theoretically this disposition should have allowed the guns to be fired well abaft the beam, but in practice it was not possible, owing to blast damage to the bridgework and control towers. The most popular defence put forward for this arrangement, in the best Beatty tradition (he was First Sea Lord now), was that British ships did not run away and were therefore not interested in firing backward. Nevertheless, the restriction was a great handicap, and these two ships came in for much criticism because of their low speed and poor handling.

The last of the Oklahoma school in America were the three Marylands, mounting 16-inch guns and with an immensely high resistance level with their 16-inch main belt on the waterline. The completion of these fine ships spanned the Washington Conference, and the fourth of the class, Washington, although more than 80 percent complete, was used for target practice. These vessels, and their predecessors the Tennessee and California, were the first fruits of an unprecedented program of heavy-ship building in which the United States indulged, through uneasy peace, war and uneasy peace again, for some five years. Japanese naval rearmament, and the battleship race that inevitably followed, closely matched the German pattern. Fifteen years after the German Naval Act in 1900, Japan announced to the world a program of Dreadnought construction that could only presage some future attempt to undermine American influence and interests in Asia, from the Aleutians to the subcontinent of India. America replied with the California, Tennessee, and Maryland, laid down in 1916 and 1917, planned three more Marylands, six Indiana-class battleships, and six Constellation-class battle cruisers. Future construction of 18-inch-gunned battleships and battle cruisers was also in an advanced planning stage before the lunacy was ended.

The success of the British battle-cruiser engagements at Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank, and the Falklands, the German hit-and-run raids against the English coast, and the general activity of this class compared with the inactivity of the battleships, led to a reappraisal of the battle cruiser in America, where it had previously been a despised vessel. In February, 1916, the president of the Naval War College, in the course of testimony before the Senate Naval Committee, gave his opinion that the United States should build no more battleships until two divisions of eight battle cruisers had been added to the fleet. Until the first was laid down five years later, the nature of these ships was debated more hotly and more openly than that of any other class of Dreadnought. The first plans called for ten 14-inch guns in two triple and two superimposed twin turrets, a displacement of 34,800 tons, a speed of 35 knots — and seven funnels. After Jutland, the vulnerability of these ships was criticized, especially as half the boilers were to have been disposed above the main belt. Many other people did not want to have anything to do with them: the battleship was the only capital ship worth having — none had been sunk at Jutland. “I believe the battle cruiser is a mongrel,” wrote a correspondent to the Scientific American five months after that battle. “There are only two real types, the fast scout and the floating fortress. The battle cruiser tries to combine both qualities, and as a result is neither … Pile on that armour,” he pleaded, “fourteen or fifteen inches thick.”

The ships remained in abeyance until after the war and until attention could be again concentrated on the dangers in the East. Then in 1919 new designs were drafted. The merits of the biggest gun and the heaviest armour were taken into account; and, as always, the answer was found in greater displacement. The chiefs of the bureaus of Construction, Steam Engineering, and Ordnance, after an exploratory tour round the European yards and fleets, decided that something closer to a fast battleship of the Derfflinger type would best suit America’s needs. The 1920 design for the Constellations reflected this. The protection and internal strength were increased; the boilers above the belt were placed behind armour, and speed was lowered to about 30 knots with 180,000 h.p.; displacement was increased to 43,500 tons, and the armament increased to eight 16-inch in pairs, supported by sixteen 6-inch. The keel of the first was laid on January 29, 1921.

Four months earlier, as proof of continued American confidence in the battleship, and continuing anxiety about Japanese plans, the United States Navy had under construction no less than nine battleships mounting 16-inch guns, and one new one in commission. Of these, three were of the 32,500-ton Maryland class, and six more were “ultimate Dreadnoughts” of the same displacement as the Constellations, with speed reduced to 23 knots, increased protection, and twelve 16-inch guns in triple mountings, as in the California. These had been authorized in 1917 and 1918, as the Indiana, Massachusetts, Montana, North Carolina, Iowa, and South Dakota.

All that should now be added is that, of these twelve monster battleships and battle cruisers, only two were commissioned by the United States Navy — as the 33,000-ton aircraft carriers Lexington and Saratoga. Finally, a historical note for extremist addicts: the largest Dreadnought ever seriously contemplated for any nation was a mythical vessel proposed as a result of an inquiry included in the 1916 Naval Appropriations Act. The only limitation was that it should be able to pass through the Panama Canal. It was to have been of 80,000 tons, with an overall length of 975 feet, a speed of 35 knots, and a main protective belt of 16 inches. Fifteen 18-inch guns were to have been mounted in five triple turrets. 

The navy that came nearest to building the ultimate Dreadnought of these dimensions and power was the Japanese. Japanese naval architects had already produced some of the most radical, powerful, and effective Dreadnoughts, which denied in appearance and a multitude of radical features the old saw that the Japanese were a race of imitators. Not all their ships — and especially their heavy cruisers — were unqualified successes. And their piled superstructures may have had a frightening effect on the enemy, but they must also have terrified those who endured battle in them.

Japanese naval construction really got into its stride when the Russian war debts had been worked off, and the European naval powers were too busy to take much notice of what was happening. Besides a number of very fast destroyers and light cruisers, a Dreadnought program of vast dimensions was put in hand in 1915-1916. From the meagre information that was given to the world, it could be calculated that within little more than a decade Japanese naval power would dominate the Pacific. But the wording of the famous Navy Laws was so obscure and circumlocutory that it was difficult to tell for a certainty what would be the result. Its basis rested on “the 8-8 standard”; or an establishment of at least eight battleships and the same number of battle cruisers all less than eight years old. As Japan already had ten Dreadnoughts in commission or under construction in 1915, and the sixteen new ships of the 8-8 standard would be by no means obsolete when they were replaced in the first line, then it could be argued that Japan would have the most powerful fleet in the world by 1928 unless something was done about it. One consolation was that the Japanese were unlikely to have either the money or the shipbuilding facilities to manage such a gigantic program; on the other hand, when American intelligence from time to time picked up crumbs of information on new construction, the details were frightening.

The United States Department of the Navy thought it was at least one step ahead of its rival with its 16-inch gun when it was testing it at Indian Head in 1917. But Japanese development of a gun of the same caliber was in step, and the Mutsu and Nagato, with their two-knot superiority over the four Marylands, gave away little to the American ships in protection. What was more, the Nagato had joined the fleet by the end of 1920, and within a few months the Intelligence Department of the United States Navy had discovered the specifications of two improved and enlarged Nagatos (Kaga and Tosa, 39,900 tons, ten 16-inch) already under construction; four giant battle cruisers (Amagi, Akagi, Atago, and Takao, 43,500 tons, eight 16-inch), two of which had already been begun; and finally even larger super-battle-cruisers of 47,500 tons mounting eight 18-inch and sixteen 5.5-inch guns with a speed of 30 knots, which would be ready by 1927.

This news galvanized the State Department into activity and caused the convening of the Washington Conference, one of the shrewdest acts of modern American diplomacy. Under its terms, worked out amid heated controversy, there would be no more Dreadnought construction for ten years, ships would not be replaced until they were twenty years old, and when they were would be limited in displacement to 35,000 tons. Battle fleets were to be limited to the following tonnage: Britain, 580,450; the United States, 500,650; Japan, 301,320; France, 221,170; Italy, 182,000. All Dreadnoughts launched or on the stocks were to be scrapped, with the exception of three of the American Marylands and the Japanese Mutsu, to compensate for which Britain was allowed to build the Nelson and the Rodney. No one was much pleased by the result except America. The Japanese thought they were being frustrated, the British demoted, the Italians and French insulted. But they signed.

The Tosa was in fact launched and used as a target ship, the results being of great value when they tired of the “holiday” and began designing the Yamato and Musashi. Kaga and Akagi were both finished as large aircraft carriers. 

Most of the other naval powers had given up their uncompleted wartime Dreadnoughts long before this. The French Normandie class of five ships to mount twelve 13.4-inch guns in three quadruple mounts, with a speed of 25 knots, remained on the stocks for some eight years. Their guns were purloined by the army; some were bored out to 15.75 inches; others were reputedly captured by the Germans and used against the French. Only the last ship, the Béarn, ever took to the water, and she was finished as an aircraft carrier. The Italians began building in 1914 a foursome of super-Dreadnoughts based very closely on the Queen Elizabeths, but the need for these never arose, as the guns of the Austro-Hungarian battle fleet were as muted as the German.

After finishing repairs to the High Seas Fleet by the end of October, 1916, big-ship construction almost ceased in Germany. The Baden’s 15-inch-gunned sister ships Sachsen and Württemberg were never completed; nor were any of the seven battle cruisers. As improved Derfflingers, these would certainly have been formidable foes indeed. The first class of four, Mackensen, Graf Spee, Prinz Eiten Friedrich, and Fürst Bismarck were laid down in 1913, and would have closely resembled the Derfflingers, but with 14-inch guns. The main armament was increased again to eight 15-inch, arranged as in the Badens of which they were battle-cruiser equivalents, in the Ersatz-Yorck, Ersatz-Gneisenau and Ersatz-Scharnhorst, laid down in 1915. Few were launched; and after 1916 no new German Dreadnought was to take to the water until 1931.

This interim period in the Dreadnought’s life conveniently comes to an end with the 1920’s. The decade had begun in a frenzy of competition, when rumour and counter-rumour of greater and greater gargantuan designs had flooded the world’s admiralties and navy departments, along with argument and counter-argument about the battleship being doomed by the torpedo and high-explosive bomb. The torpedo plane was recognized as a serious weapon; General Billy Mitchell, General Giulio Douhet, General Hermann Goring, and Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard advocated the giant bomber as the supreme arbiter and supreme deterrent of the future. The Grand Fleet and the High Seas Fleet both died, and the Pacific replaced European waters as the area of the future struggle for maritime supremacy. But with the Washington Treaty safely signed, and with the rapid growth of technology and new and more sophisticated weapons, few people thought that there would ever again be battle fleet competition. But the last battleship race had not been run. The Dreadnought — still following the same Fisher-Cuniberti basic formula — was by no means dead. Twenty years after they had been broken up on the slips or sent to the scrapyards, ships as mighty in size and power as the stillborn Takao, Constellation, and Invincible were to join the world’s fleets and take part in the greatest maritime struggle of all time.

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