“I christen you Dreadnought!”

The bottle of Australian wine failed to break against the battleship’s mighty stem — that in later years was to slice in two one of Germany’s most destructive U-boats — and King Edward VII had to swing the bottle with its garland of flowers a second time. The glass scattered, the wine streamed down the steel plates, and the King, in bicorne hat and full-dress uniform of Admiral of the Fleet, took up the chisel and mallet made from a fragment of timber from Nelson’s Victory, and severed the last securing cord with one strike. The dogshores were released, and at once, with mighty and steadily increasing momentum, the battleship slipped toward the water that was to embrace its hull for the next sixteen years.

Among the distinguished gathering in the enclosed red-and-white-draped platform was Rear-Admiral Carl Coerper, representing the King’s brother-in-law, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Details of this epochal and revolutionary vessel were already known to his Admiralty, and work on existing German battleships had been halted as a result. The vast crowds outside the Royal Box, who had streamed in from Portsmouth or had arrived from London that morning in special trains, witnessed the event from the dockyard quays and from a multitude of vessels offshore. There was everywhere a consciousness of the importance of the occasion, which had in no way been diminished by Court mourning for the late King of Denmark, which forbade the use of all but the most important flags and bunting and restricted the ceremonials; nor by the overcast, dour weather that hung like some chill threat over the sky all day. 

The Dreadnought’s period of freedom was brief. One moment she lay helpless in Portsmouth harbour waters, a 520-foot empty hulk of steel with her cradleways like scattered afterbirth about her; the next she was being hustled by little paddle tugs toward her fitting-out basin, accompanied by packed light craft of all kinds carrying casual sightseers — “a vast multitude of onlookers,” The Times described them — and many parties of schoolboys, dispatched on a Saturday afternoon to witness this new evidence of their nation’s might.

The Dreadnought’s launching was unquestionably the most important naval event leading up to the First World War. The effects on naval opinion and architecture everywhere of this ship’s appearance were incalculable but fundamental. Never before or since has the construction of one man-of-war had such an effect on service opinion, domestic politics, and international relations. H.M.S. Dreadnought, at her time the largest, fastest, and most powerful battleship, by a wide margin, provided not only the generic name for all her imitators, from Japan to Brazil, from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the United States of America, but also presaged a new era in capital-ship design, and naval strategy and tactics. She was the initiator of an age of fearful naval competition. But her influence went far beyond the narrow boundaries of naval architecture and maritime theory and conflict. The Dreadnought was the manifestation in Krupp steel armour plate and Parsons’ turbines and twelve-inch ordnance of the nations’ need to vaunt their power, and their riches, and to instil fear in those who might seek to intimidate, deprive, or deter. She and her successors that sped down the slipways of the world’s shipyards at an ever-increasing tempo from 1907 were the massive representatives of the struggle between the old colonial powers, intent on holding what they had, and the new colonial powers, equally determined to grasp their share of new lands and new markets. She was the first of the jargon-weighted weapons, the Edwardian ultimate deterrent, created in a simpler age and in a form that allowed arithmetical competition denied to a later era of bacteriology and nuclear fission. Dreadnoughts could be counted, watched, and photographed, and the arms races that culminated in the half-time respite agreed on in Washington in 1921 were spectacles the whole world could observe and argue over.

We are not concerned with the morality of the Dreadnought. Her purpose was always ugly and wicked, and she was, like any weapon of violence, a symptom of man’s baser characteristics. But no one can deny the imposing grandeur of the ironclad battleship, which achieved a new scale of grace and splendour with H.M.S. Dreadnought and reached its ultimate, and appropriate, zenith and finale in the Missouri, Vanguard, Tirpitz, and Yamato thirty-five years later. Throughout its brief life the Dreadnought has had more zealous enthusiasts and devotees than any other single weapon. Its detractors were often almost as numerous and were highly vocal. The Dreadnoughts’ theoretical contests were as frequent as their own combats were brief and rare.

The Dreadnought capital ship (a term that embraces both battleships and their swifter cousins the battle cruisers) first fired her guns in anger in 1914, and for the last time off Korea in 1953. The first of her kind was commissioned in December, 1906; fifty-eight years later, as this is written, the future of the surviving United States and French battleships still remains unsolved. The intervening years have been filled with controversy and rancour, praise and condemnation, all of which have played their part in influencing the shape of the vessel. Keen visionaries saw the Dreadnought herself as obsolete before that chill winter day in 1906. Pacifists, and then air and torpedo advocates, endeavoured to prune back her growth and numbers. After engaging with her own kind for a mere hour or two, and doing negligible damage with her mighty guns in the First World War, she again became the subject for hot debate and exhaustive test; was intermittently internationally banned or restricted in size and gunpower; rose again in general esteem when war again became inevitable; and remained a proud and expensive symbol, with more of her kind still being built, even after fleets of Dreadnoughts had been crippled by new carriers of explosive destruction.

That she has survived in the world’s armouries for so long is evidence of the Dreadnought’s power to inflame men’s imaginations, and to overwhelm by her ever-increasing size and ever more massive guns any suggestion that her supremacy has expired.

#

H.M.S. Dreadnought herself, the vessel that set the pattern for all her 177 successors, was the inevitable product of the period in which she was designed and built. She came into existence by a combination of circumstances. For some twenty-five years, since sail had finally been discarded by naval architects, the chief principles governing battleship design had remained unaltered. A main armament of two or four heavily protected big guns, supported by a mixed battery of guns of a smaller calibre, was mounted in a hull carrying great sheets of protective hardened steel, and driven through the water by reciprocating steam engines at speeds from about 12 to 18 knots. The displacement of these battleships — the earlier term “ironclad” was being discarded — was from 10,000 to 17,000 tons. There were wide variations in the arrangements of the guns, which in many cases remained muzzle-loaders; in the siting, thickness, and quality of armour plate; and in the operating range and seagoing qualities. But by the turn of the century the general principles of design of the world’s battleships had set into a tradition of conservatism in marked contrast with the rapid progress in many other fields of design and engineering. One reason for this was the long peace. Almost a hundred years had passed since there had been a major naval war. There had been no fleet actions to arouse speculations and controversies and disturb the nations’ admiralties and navy departments. Radical theories were nowhere encouraged during the second half of the nineteenth century. In addition, naval opinion by tradition is cautious and suspicious of innovation; and governments that were prepared to invest a few thousands in, say, a Maxim gun were not disposed in the comparatively tranquil international scene to upset the status quo and risk hundreds of thousands on a revolutionary battleship. (If a failure, heads would roll; if a success, all existing battle fleets would be rendered useless.)

Long before the first blueprints of H.M.S. Dreadnought were drawn up, the more perceptive naval architects recognized that the ships being laid down to their designs were inefficient and likely soon to be made obsolete in any case. A step toward the next stage of development must eventually have been taken; and it was certain to include fundamental changes. It was taken in the early years of the new century because the temper of the times was conditioning the nations once again toward the likelihood of giant conflicts. For years the seeds of the Dreadnought had remained dormant; they began to flourish and grow roots in the hothouse of international anxiety.

#

The clearest practical expression of the Dreadnought principle emanated from the Italian engineer Vittorio Cuniberti, who was born in Turin in 1854 and died, before the first Dreadnought combat, at Rome on December 19, 1913. With his master Benedetto Brin, whose great work was done in the 1870’s, Cuniberti was in the line of masterly Italian naval architects that continued down to Umberto Pugliese, designer of the last class of Italian battleships. Ever since the Renaissance, the Italian engineering mind has always had a special capacity for viewing a project with a fresh and practical artistry. The Italian talent for stripping down to bare essentials the elements of compromise, which is the heart of all creative design, has never been surpassed; and it was desperately needed to break clear from the archaic form of warship architecture that had lingered on for a quarter of a century. At the age of twenty-three, Cuniberti was a fully qualified civil engineer in the Italian Navy’s Engineer Corps. His first work was in the field of propulsion, and he became one of the earliest pioneers of the oil-burning marine engine and the naphthalene-propelled torpedo. His work on the automobile torpedo, itself an Austrian invention, made him more aware than most of his contemporaries of the new underwater threat, and in the early 1890’s he carried out much close study on the underwater protection of warships. During these years in the corps of engineers, the concept of new designs of all classes of fighting ships had much exercised his mind, and he had developed strong views on their requirements. His opportunity came at last when he was entrusted with the overall design of a new class of Italian battleship.

The pure Cuniberti principle was manifested for the first time in the Vittorio Emamiele class of four light battleships, the first of which was laid down in 1901, and which became the most praised and most controversial warships of their time. Their two 40-caliber 12-inch guns were supported on either beam by no fewer than twelve 8-inch weapons, all on a displacement of under 13,000 tons. By the use of electric power for the guns and their ammunition hoists, by a special girder construction of the hull with ultralight scantlings, by the use of asbestos in place of much of the traditional woodwork (which was also a great fire risk), and by numerous other innovations, Cuniberti kept the weight down to a minimum without a reduction in strength or rigidity, gave his ships a speed, at 21 knots, at least 4 knots better than foreign battleships. The Vittorio Emamiele influence was widespread. “There can be no question,” wrote Fred T. Jane, “but that for a power unable to maintain a large fleet, ships of the Vittorio Emamiele type represent the best possible value for the money to be expended.”

The same 1903 issue of Fighting Ships contained more portentous information than this: and the author was Cuniberti himself. The article was called “An Ideal Battleship for the British Fleet”; and it was to have a momentous effect on the shape of the world’s navies. This was not the first time Cuniberti had expressed his views on the evolution of the battleship. As long before as May-June, 1900, in an article in Marine Rundschau, entitled “The New Type of Armoured Ship,” he called for a moderate-sized, swift vessel with “the greatest possible armament” and protected with a minimum of six inches of armour plate. On this occasion, Cuniberti laid special emphasis on the importance of speed. It appears likely that at this time his ideas had not sufficiently crystallized to allow him to be more specific; it also seems likely, according to Jane himself,[1] that he reached his final conclusions only after exhaustive discussion with a British engineer and friend resident in Italy, Charles de Grave Sells.

The next clear indication of the direction in which his mind was working appeared in a series of articles Cuniberti contributed, now as Chief Constructor of the Italian Navy, to the Rivista Maritima, the official organ of the Ministry of Marine, during 1902. He was manifestly wrong when he spoke of “the propelling power” of the warship probably being “more nearly at the apex of the curve of progress than the artillery”; the reverse turned out to be the case. He showed a great deal more percipience in his belief that the 12-inch gun “is now the least calibre of big guns”; and reached the very heart of the matter when for the first time he came out with the startling prophecy that in future the artillery of the battleship “will consist of from 12 to 16 guns of this same size, bringing with it the well understood advantages of one size of ammunition, which is absolutely necessary … Again Cuniberti returned to the paramount importance of speed, referring to Sir William White’s latest King Edward VII class of battleship as “those monsters with short legs … It cannot be too much insisted upon,” he concluded, “that fast ships are an absolute necessity of the day, and slow ships, however powerful they may be, have everything to lose in the future development of strategic warfare due to the employment of scouts and wireless telegraphy, for, like Offenbach’s gens-d’armes, Ils arriveront toujours trop tard!” 

Cuniberti offered the fruit of his years of study to his own government sometime after these articles were published, but they were refused. “This design,” according to Jane,[2] “was altogether too ambitious for the Italian Navy; but permission was given for him to publish the general idea, subject to official revision.” It was therefore offered to the editor of Fighting Ships for the 1903 edition by Charles dc Grave Sells, who was also a friend of Jane.

Stripped down to its fundamentals — and omitting some romantic analogies with personal close combat to which this great designer was prone — Cuniberti’s “ideal battleship” was to possess numerous 12-inch guns “so as to be able to get in at least one fatal shot on the enemy’s [armour] belt at the water-line before she has a chance of getting a similar fortunate stroke at us from one of the four large pieces now usually carried as the main armament.” Its protective armour was also to be twelve inches thick, in order to resist all but the heaviest of the enemy’s high-explosive shells. An abundant supply of ammunition was called for; but, above all, Cuniberti laid stress on the need for “a very high speed — superior to that of any existing battleship afloat.

“We thus have outlined for us the main features of our absolutely supreme vessel — with medium calibres abolished — so effectually protected as to be able to disregard entirely all the subsidiary armament of an enemy, and armed only with twelve pieces of 12-inch … Without wasting ammunition, secure in her exuberant protection, with her twelve guns ready, she would swiftly descend on her adversary and pour in a terrible converging fire at the belt. Having disposed of her first antagonist, she would at once proceed to attack another, and, almost untouched, to despatch yet another …”

The appearance of this article in the famous annual had a profound effect on naval thinking everywhere. A number of the most influential men connected with the British Admiralty, to whom it had of course been specifically directed, treated it with scepticism or derision. Almost every officer over the age of forty-five had served under masts and yards in the junior ranks. To them, the elimination of all secondary armament smacked of profanity. Sir William White, the Director of Naval Construction (D.N.C.), was outraged. Jane himself considered it a Wellsian fantasy. Little interest was attached to it by the French Ministry of Marine. But among the younger, more intelligent, and more farsighted officers, both in Britain and abroad, the impact of Cuniberti’s theories was immense. It was not, after all, as if he were a fanciful theorist or romanticist. He was a Chief Constructor with a number of notable designs behind him.

The Navy Departments in Washington and Tokyo responded most favourably to Cuniberti’s conception. This was not surprising, for the American and Japanese navies had less to lose by the premature obsolescence of their battleships than those navies possessing large fleets, and a spirit of eagerness to embrace new ideas was more prevalent there than anywhere else. An “ideal battleship” for the Royal Navy could also well be the most suitable type both for the United States and Japanese fleets, fresh from their glories in the Spanish and Chinese wars; and conscious of new threats from Europe and the Far East.

#

The vagaries of chance, the pressures of conservative and radical opinion, the ebb and flow of the tides of militancy, the actuality of war, and above all the influence of one provocative and domineering personality, all played their part in the design and building of the first all-big-gun battleship, and in the revolution in naval philosophy and the massive arms race this brought about. These factors also combined to decide that the first of these vessels to be commissioned should be British, a nation that, it could be argued (and was, hotly), had most to lose and least to gain by the building of a superbattleship.

It now appears clear that Cuniberti’s early Italian articles had little general influence, but caused a number of radical naval minds to break into new lines of thought on the shape of the battleship of the future. Cuniberti confirmed doubts and stimulated controversy. Not until his processes of thought had become more closely defined and more widely disseminated in the 1903 edition of Fighting Ships could theoretical hostilities begin on a serious scale. A few months later the Russo-Japanese War broke out, and theories were at last put to the test of combat in the waters of the Far East. Japanese torpedo boats attacked the Russian fleet outside Port Arthur on the night of February 8, 1904, and other units covered the first army landings on Korean soil. At first neither side showed great enthusiasm for committing its battle fleet to combat, but on August 10, 1904, an action took place that to acute observers appeared to bear out Cuniberti’s theories, made known to the world less than a year earlier. The general belief at the time was that combat between opposing battle fleets would open at ranges of about 5,000 yards, and practice firing was normally carried out at ranges of around 3,000 yards. To the astonishment of a British naval observer in one of the Japanese battleships, the Tsarevitch and Retvizan opened fire with their 40-caliber 12-inch guns at a range of little less than 19,000 yards, and at once caused near misses on the Mikasa and Asashi. With the closing of the range to 13,000 yards, Togo’s flagship was struck forward close to the waterline by a 12-inch shell, causing damage that could have been crippling or even fatal if the seas had been rougher. Later in the course of this leisurely and intermittent engagement, and still at long range, the Russian flagship Tsarevitch was in its turn struck twice in quick succession by Japanese heavy shells. These two hits decided the battle in a dramatic and decisive manner. The first killed the Russian commander in chief, Admiral Witthoft, and his fleet navigator, and severely wounded his chief of staff and flag captain. 

The second exploded against the conning tower and killed and wounded everyone inside, including the steersman, whose corpse fell over the wheel and jammed the rudder hard to starboard, bringing total confusion to the Russian line.

The importance of the lessons of this first exchange of fire between modern battleships was recognized at once by the two belligerents, and there is evidence that both Russian and Japanese naval architects had decided before the end of 1904 that the 12-inch gun was the only weapon likely to prove decisive in future fleet actions, that the intermediate calibers uselessly absorbed space, weight, and personnel that could be better used for more big guns, and that the “splash” from the smaller shells only served to blanket the target and confuse spotting. There is no record that Russia went so far at this stage as to prepare plans for all-big-gun battleships, although later the Admiralty invited Cuniberti to design their first Dreadnought. But before the end of 1904, Japanese plans were complete for their own first all-big-gun ships, and it was later discovered, with considerable astonishment, that the first of these was actually laid down at the navy yard at Kure in March, 1905, some three months before Tsushima was fought, and long before the keel plate of the Dreadnought herself was laid at Portsmouth. Until 1905, only light craft had been built by the Japanese themselves, all their battleships having been constructed in foreign yards. The gun-power of this revolutionary battleship was even more remarkable. It followed almost exactly, in numbers and arrangement, the Cuniberti design, with 12-inch guns, in four pairs arranged in four double and four single turrets: with a total big-gun armament three times heavier than that of any existing battleship, and with a broadside 50 percent more powerful. Her speed of 20 knots was also at least two knots higher than that of the fastest battleship afloat. Only in her armour belt, of nine inches, did she fail to match up to Cuniberti’s ideal.

In fact the Japanese Aki was beset with all manner of constructional difficulties and hindrances, and was not completed until 1911, when the Dreadnought had become a commonplace among the great naval powers. Nor was she, finally, a pure Dreadnought type. Within three months of her being laid down, Japan was victorious, and close to bankruptcy. There was delay in delivery of her machinery from America, and only four 12-inch guns could finally be found for her. In place of the eight 12-inch in her beam turrets, the Japanese therefore substituted twelve 10-inch guns; giving the Aki a most formidable total armament, while lacking the fundamental ordnance uniformity which was the main strength and whole raison d’être of the Dreadnought type. With her half-sister Satsuma, she was officially listed as an anomalistic first-class battleship and semi-Dreadnought, and survived until after the First World War. But a year after her completion she was joined by the Karachi carrying the full quota of twelve 12-inch guns and with the 12-inch armoured belt as specified by Cuniberti, which confirmed the quality of the home-manufactured product and demonstrated Japan’s ambition to become a first-class naval power.

Cuniberti wrote in 1902:

Looking to America, one realises that chaos reigns in the designing department of the United States Navy, and hardly a month seems to pass without a new type being brought out, more and more loaded with guns; and if the Vermont is really to have the announced armament[3] — four pieces of 12-inch, eight of 8-inch, and twelve of 7-inch — one naturally wonders what special advantages they expect to gain by adopting the two different sizes of 8-inch and 7-inch; for from the point of view of general efficiency and rapid delivery of ammunition, it would appear much more advantageous to put them both into a crucible and draw forth twenty pieces all alike of 7½-inches.

Cuniberti’s strictures were rather severe. The position in Washington was not nearly as bad as this. Since the Civil War the responsibility for the design and construction of American warships had been the joint responsibility of three bureaus, the Bureau of Construction and Repair, the Bureau of Steam Engineering, and the Bureau of Equipment. This was not a happy working arrangement, and not until 1940, when the responsibility was unified under the Bureau of Ships, was satisfactory coordination achieved. In spite of this, from about 1885, when the United States Navy ceased to be a fundamentally coast-defence force equipped with ships appropriate to this function, many remarkably advanced features were built into American battleships, and during the Anglo-German Dreadnought race, they at least matched, and in many cases excelled, their European rivals. The renaissance in American naval philosophy occurred simultaneously with the British. Here there was no roaring evangelist to cut a way through the political and defence jungles. Nor could there be the same fiery sense of urgency caused by the threatened imminence of war. A new spirit of enterprise became evident in the United States Navy soon after the re-election of Theodore Roosevelt as President in 1901. Roosevelt was a real “navy” man, and under his influence the radical elements received warm encouragement. Lieutenant Commander William Sowden Sims brought about a complete revolution in United States naval gunnery, and from the outset was a powerful advocate of the all-big-gun battleship, with its advantage of uniform shell splash for long-range salvo spotting. He, and others with the same strong beliefs, warmly welcomed the exciting new plans for heavy ship construction that were rumoured to be under consideration in Washington in 1904. During the previous year the complement of naval constructors and assistant naval constructors was raised to seventy-five. The quality of personnel was also high. For some time their training had included courses in Europe, at Greenwich and at the École d’Application du Génie Maritime in Paris. In the same year a man of brilliant skill and foresight, Washington L. Capps, was appointed Chief Constructor.

The same sharply accelerating curve of progress in battleship design occurred in Washington and Tokyo simultaneously. Cuniberti provided the spark of inspiration, the battle of August 10th between the Japanese and Russian fleets provided the charge: an exchange of shots causing negligible damage to either combatant sounded the death knell of the slow, mixed-battery gun platform and heralded the glorious and last era of the ship of the line. Like the Japanese Aki, the United States Navy’s South Carolina and Michigan were projected at least six months before the first formal discussions were opened in London to decide on the design of the Dreadnought. The two Michigans began modestly enough. A mixed 12-inch and 10-inch battery was first considered, with twin turrets fore and aft and four single turrets arranged two on either beam. Then it was decided that all should be 12-inch, and for this reason she was technically a Dreadnought type. 

But the weight of her broadside was still no greater than that of numerous mixed-battery battleships in the world’s fleets, and was less than that of the preceding Kansas class. But this was soon rectified, and her final design showed the eight heavy guns arranged in four twin turrets, all on the centre line and with one pair superfiring over the other both fore and aft.

The plans for the two Michigans went before Congress and were approved early in 1905: they must therefore be regarded as the first all-big-gun Dreadnought-type battleships to be projected and approved, and later completed as planned. What is more, as we shall see, they were quite as controversial vessels as the Dreadnought herself, and in the arrangement of their main armament were far in advance of the British vessels whose generic name they were to carry through their life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.