Gangut (Russian Navy, Battleship, 1914)

Russian battleship laid down at the Admiralty Yard in June 1909 and launched in October 1911 as part of the naval building program of 1909, which included three other dreadnought battleships, Petropavlovsk, Poltava, and Sevastopol. These were the first dreadnoughts built for the Russian navy. Gangut was 23,000 tons, armed with 12 x 12-inch guns arranged in four triple turrets, and built on Italian design of the Dante Alighieri with Russian modifications. The result was a dreadnought of great broadside firepower.

Based on experience gained from the defeat of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905, Gangut had armor all over the hull at any point above the waterline. In addition, she also had no scuttles on the sides to add strength to the hull for work in the Baltic ice.

The Russian battleship fleet comprised only two classes of dreadnoughts. The first, the Ganguts (Gangut, Sevastopol, Petropavlovsk, and Poltava—all completed in 1914), had a poor reputation and saw very limited service during World War I. All four cost far more than the original budgets, and they were so delayed by design faults and shipyard blunders that they were obsolete when finally launched. The engines and turbines had to be supplied by foreign firms, although the guns were of excellent Russian manufacture. They were, in fact, something of a combination battleship/battle cruiser and were sometimes referred to as Baltic dreadnoughts, with armament heavier than one-third of contemporary German and Royal Navy capital ships, but primarily designed for close-in waters, such as the Baltic Sea and Black Sea. These four dreadnoughts epitomized the turmoil of the late czarist and early Soviet periods.

During World War I, on 19 October 1915, Gangut’s sailors mutinied by refusing to obey orders and physically attacking some of her officers. The complaints centered around the poor quality of the food. The sailors also expressed suspicion of officers with Germanic surnames and demanded that these be sent ashore. The following day the more radical sailors circulated a petition throughout the ship calling for the crew to finish the job of mutiny. As word of the mutiny spread, the commander of the Baltic Fleet ordered that submarines and torpedo boats surround the Gangut and sink her, along with any other vessel that refused to accept proper authority.

On 21 October authorities suppressed the mutiny and arrested 95 sailors. Out of 34 brought to trial, 26 received banishment to hard labor as their sentence. As a consequence of the mutiny, Russian plans for a naval sortie late in 1915 had to be scratched and Russian minelaying operations were delayed by about a week in November 1915. However, a little later the Gangut, and her sister ship the Petropavlovsk, did leave the Gulf of Finland and operated as far south as Gotland as part of a screening force for minelaying operations. The ship did not encounter the Germans, and it achieved nothing tactically.

The mutiny on the Gangut encouraged Russian revolutionaries in their belief that antiwar sentiment and general dissatisfaction could be used to ignite rebellion in the tsarist armed forces. In August 1917 the Bolsheviks managed to gain revolutionary influence over the crew and exercised effective control of the First Battleship Brigade.

The Gangut was renamed the Oktiabrskaia Revoliutsia in May 1925. Soviet authorities commenced modernization work on her in 1926. This was completed in 1938, and the battleship then joined the Soviet Baltic fleet. She served as a floating battery against the Germans in the siege of Leningrad during World War II. In 1956 Gangut ended service with the Baltic Fleet. She was broken up in 1959.

General characteristics

Type:     Battleship

Displacement:    24,800 t (24,400 long tons)

Length: 181.2 m (594 ft 6 in)

Beam:   26.9 m (88 ft 3 in)

Draft:    8.99 m (29 ft 6 in)

Installed power:

    25 Yarrow boilers

    52,000 shp (39,000 kW) (on trials)

Propulsion:          4 shafts, 4 steam turbines

Speed:   24.1 knots (44.6 km/h; 27.7 mph) (on trials)

Range:  3,200 nmi (5,900 km; 3,700 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)

Complement:     1,149


    4 × triple 12 in (305 mm) guns

    16 × single 4.7 in (120 mm) guns

    1 × single 3 in (76 mm) AA gun

    4 × 17.7 in (450 mm) torpedo tubes


    Waterline belt: 125–225 mm (4.9–8.9 in)

    Deck: 12–50 mm (0.5–2.0 in)

    Turrets: 76–203 mm (3.0–8.0 in)

    Barbettes: 75–150 mm (3.0–5.9 in)

    Conning tower: 100–254 mm (3.9–10.0 in)


Nassau (1909)

Nassau was a beamy ship (beam 0.18 per cent of length compared to Dreadnought’s 0.15 per cent), most of the difference being used for additional protection.

Twelve 280mm (11in) guns were carried, compared to Dreadnought’s ten 305mm (12in) guns. Magazine layout beneath the flank turrets was cramped.

One of the first German big-gun ships to be built after Dreadnought, Nassau carried a substantial secondary armament as well as 12 main guns. Powered by triple-expansion engines rather than by turbines, it was in action with the High Seas Fleet at Jutland.

Plans for ships of this class had been worked on from March 1904 and the final design was completed in 1906. Four battleships formed the class, with Rheinland as the first to be laid down but Nassau first to be completed on 1 October 1909, having been laid down at Wilhelmshaven on 22 July 1907 and launched on 7 March 1908. The others were Posen and Westfalen. They cost around 37.5 million Goldmarks each, and all were in service by May 1910.

Secondary armament

These were large battleships, mounting 12 heavy guns, but unlike Dreadnought a large-scale secondary armament was also included, with 12 150mm (5.9in) guns mounted in casemates at a level below the port and starboard main turrets, and 16 86mm (3.4in) guns in side-mounted sponsons on the hull and superstructure. Foremast and fore funnel were very close to each other, and to the deckhouse, with navigation bridge and chart house. Nassau’s masts had high wireless aerial gaffs set at an angle from the mizzen top of both masts; these were removed in 1911, and during World War I a spotting top was fitted on the foremast. Gooseneck cranes at each side of the aft funnel swung out the boats housed amidships.

The main guns, 280mm (11in), were of smaller calibre than the 305mm (12in) guns being established as the British standard, but extensive testing had convinced the German navy that they were not significantly less effective. They had a barrel calibre of 45 and weight of 47.7 tonnes (52.6 tons) and fired a 305kg (672lb) shell 18,900m (20,669yd) with a 20 degree elevation.

Its best firing rate was three rounds in two minutes. Comparative figures for Dreadnought’s guns were: barrel length identical, barrel weight 51.7 tonnes (57 tons), shell weight 385kg (849lb), range 19,000m (20,779yd) at 13 degrees of elevation and a rate of fire of two rounds a minute. The advantage would seem to be with the British, but the German admirals believed in the armour-piercing qualities of their shells.

Nassau and its sister ships had triple expansion engines with water-tube boilers; the first German heavy ship to have Parsons turbines was the battlecruiser Von der Tann of 1907. Consequently the three boiler rooms and the engine room occupied most of the hull between the masts. In 1915 the boilers were adapted to burn an oil-coal mix, with the oil sprayed above the burning coal. Oil tanks with a capacity of 142 tonnes (157 tons) were installed. The German designers set great store by good underwater protection and Nassau’s hull had 16 watertight divisions, with the placing of armour on the class done on a scientific basis. But the underwater lines had to be modified after sea experience. It had been supposed that the wide beam and the lateral placing of heavy guns would make a stable ship, but in some North Sea swells they rolled violently and bilge keels had to be fitted.

In August 1914 Nassau was one of the eight ships of Battle Squadron I of the High Seas Fleet (there were three squadrons with a total of 26 battleships). Wartime modifications apart from those already noted included the removal of the stern-mounted 86mm (3.4in) guns in 1915 and the removal of all the others in 1916 to be replaced by four AA guns of the same calibre.

Battle of Jutland

The ship saw no action until an unsuccessful sortie into the Hoofden (North Sea off the Dutch coast) on 15–16 March 1916. On 24 April 1916 it escorted a squadron of battlecruisers to bombard the English coastal towns of Lowestoft and Yarmouth. In the Battle of Jutland, 31 May, it was hit twice by shellfire and ran against the British destroyer Spitfire in an attempt to sink it by ramming, but all damage was repaired by 10 July. Subsequently Nassau made three further sorties into the North Sea without any positive result; on the last occasion, with other ships of the Squadron including Westfalen (pictured below) and Posen reaching the latitude of Stavanger (23 April 1918). Not among the ships scuttled at Scapa Flow, it was stricken on 5 November 1919. Intended to go to Japan as war reparation, it was sold by the Japanese government to a British company who had it scrapped at Dordrecht in the Netherlands in June 1920.

General characteristics

Type:     Dreadnought battleship


    Design: 18,873 t (18,575 long tons)

    Full load: 21,000 t (21,000 long tons)

Length: 146.1 m (479 ft 4 in)

Beam:   26.9 m (88 ft 3 in)

Draft:    8.76 m (28 ft 9 in)

Installed power:

    12 × water-tube boilers

    22,000 metric horsepower (22,000 ihp)


    3 × screw propellers

    3 × triple-expansion steam engines


    Design: 19 knots (35 km/h; 22 mph)

    Maximum: 20.2 knots (37.4 km/h; 23.2 mph)

Range:  At 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph): 8,300 nmi (15,400 km; 9,600 mi)


    40 officers

    968 men


    12 × 28 cm (11 in) L/45 guns

    12 × 15 cm (5.9 in) SK L/45 guns

    16 × 8.8 cm (3.5 in) SK L/45 guns

    6 × 45 cm (17.7 in) torpedo tubes


    Belt: 30 cm (11.8 in)

    Turrets: 28 cm

    Battery: 16 cm (6.3 in)

    Conning Tower: 40 cm (15.7 in)

    Torpedo bulkhead: 3 cm (1.2 in)


The commissioning of the Dreadnought in December 1906 rendered all smaller and older armored warships obsolete. Fisher’s dreadnought and battle cruiser designs raised the technological bar for Tirpitz’s challenge but at the same time presented the Germans with an opportunity, as the British had negated their own considerable advantage in predreadnought types. By the time Germany’s Nassau entered service in October 1909, Britain already had commissioned its first five dreadnoughts and three battle cruisers. Thereafter, a supplementary navy law passed by the Reichstag in 1908 enabled Germany to close the gap under an accelerated timetable of construction of dreadnoughts and battle cruisers (or “capital ships,” as the two types together became known). Meanwhile, the Liberal majority in Parliament approved just two capital ships in the naval estimates for 1908-1909, giving Britain twelve built or being built to Germany’s ten. At that pace Tirpitz could achieve much better than the 3:2 ratio of inferiority that he felt would give the German fleet a chance of defeating the British in the North Sea.

The accelerated pace of German naval construction understandably alarmed the British. The same Liberal Parliament that had approved just two capital ships for 1908-1909 authorized eight for 1909-1910, four of which were to be canceled should Germany agree to negotiate an end to the naval race. As of April 1909 Britain was willing to accept a 60 percent capital ship superiority over Germany. At that time, however, Tirpitz was willing to concede only a 4:3 ratio of British superiority. By May 1910 Britain had laid down all eight new capital ships, designs that ensured a qualitative as well as quantitative advantage. The dreadnoughts of the Orion class and two Lion class battle cruisers had 13.5-inch guns rather than the 12-inch guns of the most recent British and German dreadnoughts, and the Lions would be capable of a remarkable speed of 27 knots (compared to the original Dreadnought’s 21 knots). In June 1910 work began on another two battle cruisers, the Australia and New Zealand, paid for by those dominions.

During the same months in 1909 and 1910 when the British laid down these ten new capital ships, the Germans started work on just three, and thus fell behind in the race by twenty-two to thirteen. Tirpitz had assumed all along that he could push the British to a point beyond which they would not or could not maintain their lead. Recognizing his grave miscalculation, in 1911 he offered to accept a 3:2 (15:10) British advantage in capital ships, close to Britain’s goal of a 60 percent (16:10) advantage, as long as the British included in their total the Australia, the New Zealand, and any other ships funded by the British Empire. Meanwhile, following Tirpitz’s earlier logic that a strong fleet would be a “political power factor” supporting German diplomacy, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg attempted to wreck the Anglo-French Entente by demanding British recognition of the territorial status quo in Europe (including a German Alsace-Lorraine) in exchange for German recognition of British naval superiority. The British found such terms unacceptable, and the race continued. In 1910-1911 and again in 1911-1912, the Germans laid down four capital ships and the British countered with five. Following an unsuccessful mission to Berlin in February 1912 by the British secretary for war, Richard Haldane, the recently appointed first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill, proposed a mutual one-year “naval holiday.” Churchill’s dismissive characterization of the German navy as a “luxury” fleet reflected his true sentiments, however, and in March 1912 the Reichstag responded by giving Tirpitz a third supplementary navy law adding three dreadnoughts to the numbers previously approved, raising the authorized strength of the German fleet to sixty-one capital ships (forty-one dreadnoughts and twenty battle cruisers).

The Bayerns

The III. Sqn henceforth comprised the Königs, plus Bayern, which was finally fully operational. She was joined in the fleet by her sister Baden early in 1917, which, once fully worked-up, replaced Friedrich der Große as fleet flagship on 14 March. Friedrich der Große then joined her sisters in the IV. Sqn, relieving Kaiser as its flagship. Baden was the penultimate big ship to join the fleet, the last being Hindenburg, which joined the I. SG in November, becoming its flagship on the 23rd.

The two Bayerns were the most highly developed of the German World War I battleships. Scuttled at Scapa Flow, Baden was raised in July 1919 and used as a target by the Royal Navy, largely to confirm the adequacy of the new generation of post-Jutland shells. These ships introduced the 15in gun to German service. Apparently they were conceived as a response to the British 13.5in gun rather than to the 15in, of which the Germans were unaware when the ships were designed. As in previous classes, the choice was a light, high-velocity shell: 750kg (1653lb) at 800 metres (2624 feet)/second. By way of contrast, the British 15in/42 fired a 1920lb shell at 2450 feet/second. The corresponding battlecruisers, which were never completed, were the Mackensen class, which would have been armed with 35cm (approximately 14in) guns, again to make it possible to build a fast battleship on about the same displacement as these ships. Although the light fast shell might seem intended for shorter ranges, these two ships had the long rangefinders (8m [26ft] base) introduced into the entire German fleet in wartime. Turret rangefinders were, unusually, near the face of each turret.

The Bayern Class

In June 1911, it was noted by the Navy Office that France was now following Great Britain and USA in going beyond 12in/305mm calibre by installing 340mm guns in its Bretagne class. In August, options studies began to consider 350mm, 380mm and 400mm guns, it having been at last agreed that Germany should consider leapfrogging existing big gun calibres, reversing previous preferences for lighter guns. A ceiling of 40cm was chosen because it was believed (wrongly) that British wire-wound gun technology could not support a larger calibre (an 18in [457mm] weapon successfully entered service with the Royal Navy in 1917).

Options were put forward for ships with ten 35cm or eight 40cm weapons, the Weapons Office preferring the heavier gun, as did the Construction Office on the basis that four turrets avoided the complexity added by a midships turret. This latter preference also led to studies into triple turrets to allow ten guns to be fitted in a four-turret arrangement.

In September 1911, the 28,250t eight-40cm scheme D1a was presented to the Emperor, with a 29,000t version developed in early January 1912, along with one of similar tonnage but ten 34.7cm. More work was done on the 40cm variant during the first half of 1912, but in spite of various attempts to cut costs, the ship proved unaffordable under the cash-limited 1913 programme, leading to a switch to the 38cm gun, the design for Battleship T (to be Bayern [ii]) and Ersatz-Wörth (Baden [ii]), being completed in September 1912 for ordering under the 1913 programme.

The armour of the new class was a further development of that of the Kaisers and Königs. While the lower edge of the midships belt now tapered to 170mm, it was now continued up to the main deck 250mm thick. The forward belt was heightened, although in compensation thinned to 75-150mm and terminated 15m short of the stem, where it was closed with a 140mm bulkhead. The aft belt extended to the main deck, 170–200mm, tapering to 120–150mm at the lower edge, closed with a 170mm bulkhead. The battery roof was thickened to 40mm, while the battery floor was now 25mm in thickness. The faces of the turrets were thickened to 350mm, with the roofs also increased in thickness. Barbettes were 350mm thick where not behind other armour, 250mm where screened by another barbette, 170mm behind battery armour, 80mm behind the upper belt and 25mm behind the main belt. The walls of the after conning tower were thinned to 170mm, to give scope for a 80mm roof.

The eight 38cm main guns were superimposed fore and aft in the same way as the contemporary British Queen Elizabeth and Royal Sovereign classes, the latter of which was also broadly comparable with the Bayerns as regards protection against gunfire. The secondary battery had two more guns than the Königs, and was to be on updated C/13 mountings, with higher elevation and thus longer range. Eight 8.8cm AA guns were originally envisaged, but (as in Lützow), both ships completed without any. Eventually, four were installed, around the after funnel in Bayern and a pair abreast each funnel in Baden. The torpedo battery was upgraded to the new 60cm torpedo, the enlarged compartment required, plus the ancillary air-flasks, causing the near-loss of Bayern when she was mined in 1917. Baden and Bayern both had their forward torpedo flat stripped and subdivided following mine damage to the latter in 1917, when its existence had threatened her survival.

Although it had been hoped (again) to install a COSAD propulsion system in the Bayerns, it was decided, given the delays in the diesel development programme, the first two ships should be given conventional three-shaft turbines. Nevertheless, as it was hoped that the diesel would be indeed be proven by the time that a third ship, the 1914 programme’s Ersatz-Kaiser Friedrich III (Sachsen [ii]), was ready to be engined, it was determined that she should receive a diesel. However, on 2 August 1914, it was decided that, in light of the outbreak of hostilities, such a course would be represent excessive risk, and that the future Sachsen should also receive all-turbine propulsion machinery (it was not until April 1917 that the big diesel designed for Prinzregent Luitpold finally passed its tests). On the other hand, Sachsen’s diesel was built and was inspected in the Germania erecting shop by the Naval Inter-Allied Control Commission in 1919.

To protect the top of the tall diesel, Sachsen’s protection was modified by the addition of a glacis over her after engine room, 140mm thick at the ends, 200mm at the sides and with a 80mm top. Otherwise, her protection was the same as that of the first pair, except for a uniform 200mm forward belt (150mm lower edge), extended to the stem with 30mm plating, with all barbettes 40mm behind the main belt; some of the midships deck was thickened to 50mm.

Early in the war the new threat of aircraft led to a progressive replacement of the four 8.8cm guns atop ships’ after superstructures by the same number of 8.8cm/45s on C/13 anti-aircraft mountings. The number of such guns was, however, reduced to two in certain of ships before the end of the war. Even though the Bayerns were designed with no fewer than eight 8.8cm AA guns, Bayern and Baden completed without any, and eventually mounted only four each, suggesting doubts as to their utility. On the other hand, the clear lack of utility of the low-angle 8.8cm weapons led to their progressive removal from operational ships, Derfflinger for example losing those under her bridge in 1915, and those around ‘C’ turret during her post-Jutland refit. The old ships of the II. Sqn had the forward pair of 8.8cm guns on the after superstructure replaced by 8.8cm/45 anti-aircraft weapons during the summer of 1916.

After Jutland, the elevation of main-battery guns was increased to reflect the experience of that battle, by lowering the trunnions of the guns, resulting in a higher elevation but lower depression. The battle had finally shown that the conception of short-range melee that had so long underpinned German capital ship armament policy had been a chimera, a realisation reflected in the upgunning of Ersatz-Yorck and the planning for 42cm armed ships for the future.

“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.

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.

König Wilhelm (1869)

König Wilhelm was also designed for ramming. Between 1862 and 1893 more warships were sunk or heavily damaged by accidental ramming than were sunk in battle.

A deck plan of the ship in its original form. Despite the high freeboard, the weather deck is almost entirely clear of equipment. The battery is on the main deck, below.

König Wilhelm after the 1895–1896 reconstruction into an armored cruiser.

At first the flagship of the Prussian fleet, after 1871 it became the largest battleship in the navy of the newly-unified German Empire, and retained that status for 20 years, until Germany’s naval expansion got under way.

Classified by the Prussian Navy as a Panzerfregatte or armoured frigate, like other such vessels of the time, König Wilhelm was in effect a battleship, the ‘frigate’ being a now anachronistic reference to the single gun-deck, which by now carried more firepower than any former three-decker. It had been ordered by the Imperial Ottoman Navy from the Thames Ironworks at Blackwall, London, but when the Turks cancelled the order, the Prussians stepped in and bought it on the stocks in February 1867 Launched on 25 April 1868, the ship was named after King Wilhelm I.

Specifications and armament

The hull was fitted with the ram-type bow fashionable at the time, though a lengthy bowsprit extended before it, housed in a ‘cubby’ at a lower level than the weather deck. It was a high-sided ship, with 12.94m (42ft 5in) of freeboard. The hull was divided into 11 watertight compartments, and was double-bottomed for 70 per cent of its length. Steam power came from a Maudslay horizontal two-cylinder engine. Eight boilers were set in two rooms, each with a funnel, and the three masts could mount a spread of 2600m2 (27,986 sq ft) of sail.

The original armament, which would quickly become obsolete, was 33 muzzle-loading 32-pounders, smooth-bored. The choice of guns was presumably based on British advice. At this time the Admiralty’s policy on guns was in some disarray. Armstrong breech-loading guns with rifled barrels, intended for armour-piercing, and introduced in 1860, had been a failure, especially the 110-pounders. Discussion of the respective merits of smooth-bore and rifled bore, of loading by breech or muzzle, was intense, and various designs were tried.

In 1865 a 64-pounder muzzle loader was introduced using ‘Woolwich’ rifling, devised at the Royal Gun Factory, but it was not a success. It would be 1880 before the British finally resolved their naval gun problem.

Grand review

It became customary in the age of the steam-powered capital ship to use such vessels for peaceful visits to countries allied or at least not hostile. These courtesy visits were also opportunities to show off the latest in the way of naval design. Naval reviews, with long lines of ships assembled, and visiting warships from other nations, were a favourite way of demonstrating British imperial power and the might of the Royal Navy.

To the grand review organised at Spithead (Portsmouth) in 1896 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, Kaiser Wilhelm II, her grandson, sent König Wilhelm, rather than the new Brandenburg, to represent the Imperial German Navy.

It was perhaps a double-edged compliment to the host-nation, to send a ship originally built in Britain, but radically modernised and improved in Germany: an intimation that Germany had every intention of rivalling Great Britain as a first-class naval power.

Imperial fleet

Prussia was a kingdom with strong military ambitions. In 1870 France declared war on Prussia only to be quickly defeated on land. König Wilhelm was flagship of the Prussian fleet but (despite the much greater size of the French Navy) naval forces played little part in the war, and König Wilhelm was immobilised by engine problems for much of the time.

In 1871 the German Empire was proclaimed, King Wilhelm became Kaiser, and it became the largest ship of the Imperial Fleet, which was simply the old Prussian one, though a new building programme was put in hand. On 31 May 1878 König Wilhelm accidentally rammed and sank one of the new vessels, the turret ironclad Grosser Kurfürst (commissioned in 1875) in a faulty manoeuvre to avoid a couple of sailing craft as they cruised up the English Channel off Folkestone. As one British admiral commented, ‘the ram was more dangerous in peace than in war’.


A complete modernisation was done in Hamburg in 1896. The sail rig was taken down and replaced by two new-type naval masts, with observation platforms, fighting tops with light guns, and signalling arms. A small third mast remained, with a bridge house built in front of it. The cubby where the bowsprit had been stepped was plated over, though the original decorative scrollwork was left in place, and a forward lookout and searchlight platform was installed.

New boilers and triple-expansion engines were installed, and the ship was completely re-gunned. Twenty-two Krupp 239mm (9.4in) and one 152mm (6in) rifled breech-loading guns were installed and supplemented by 18 88mm (3.5in) quick-firing guns. Five torpedo tubes were fitted, above the waterline, to fire weapons scarcely anticipated when it was originally planned.

By 1893–94 the German Navy’s four new Brandenburg-class battleships were being commissioned, and in its new form König Wilhelm was redesignated as a Grosser Kreuzer (armoured cruiser). From 1893 to 1897 it was flagship of Division II of the Imperial German Navy, at the new North Sea base of Wilhelmshaven. After 1897, as the German fleet grew in size and power, it was relegated to a harbour defence and training role until its removal from the active list in 1904. Disarmed, it continued in use as an accommodation ship, at Kiel, and did not go finally out of service until 1921, when it was scrapped at Rönnebeck, near Bremen, having outlasted the German Empire by three years.


Dimensions Length 112m (367ft 5in), Beam 18.3m (60ft), Draught 8.56m (28ft 1in), Displacement 8711 tonnes (9603 tons)

Propulsion (1869): 8 boilers, Maudslay horizontal 2-cylinder engine developing 6000kW (8000hp)

Speed 14.5 knots

Armament (1869): 33 72-pounder ML guns (smooth bore)

Armour Belt 305–152mm (12–6in), Battery 152mm (6in), Deck 50mm (2in)

Range (after 1896): 4148km (2240nm) at 10 knots

Complement 730

Hans von Koester

Koester was promoted to Kapitän zur See in 1881. Appointed commander of the Segelfregatte (sail frigate) Niobe in 1883, Koester next took command of the Panzerkorvette (armored corvette – later battleship) Württemberg in 1884.

In 1887 he was named commander of the Panzerfregatte (armored frigate – later armored cruiser) König Wilhelm, long the largest ship in the fleet.

Hans von Köster (1844-1928) was one of six Großadmirale appointed in the Kaiserliche Marine. In fact, he was the FIRST active-duty Admiral promoted to that rank in 1905. He retired the following year.


The medium displacement unmanned surface vehicle (MDUSV) prototype SEA HUNTER is moored at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. Autonomous USVs like SEA HUNTER are creating a new paradigm for Navy surface forces, as they are capable of carrying a variety of pay- loads and performing many missions, including operations independent of manned Navy ships.

Unmanned ASW platforms are not con- fined to underwater. With the development of artificial intelligence and secure wireless communications systems, autonomous surface vessels have become feasible. The US Navy is currently testing the SEA HUNTER, a prototype medium displacement unmanned surface vehicle (MDUSV). Initially developed by DARPA, the project transitioned to the Office of Naval Research in January 2018 for further development and was recently designated a classified programme. The 135-tonne USV is capable of littoral and high seas operations, with an intended range of 10,000 nautical miles and at sea endurance of 30-90 days. The vessel can carry various payloads, including an ASW suite. Originally designated the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) by DARPA, the unarmed USV uses hull-mounted sonar and an on-board sensor data processing suite to detect and identify diesel-electric submarines. It can track submerged targets for weeks, until they surface or return to port. If the target is classified as a threat, the USV can transmit target coordinates to manned ships or aircraft.

“It is the ability of the Sea Hunter sensors to sense other vessels that might be in the way and then for Sea Hunter to react appropriately and maneuver appropriately around those other vessels in accordance with the ColRegs,” said Dr. Robert Brizzolara, Medium- Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle program director at the Office of Naval Research.

Under the Anti-Submarine Continuous Trail Unmanned Vehicle program, Sea Hunter originally was planned as a USV that would independently trail diesel subma- rines. However, the Office of Naval Research plans first to begin testing a mine-countermeasures payload on the Sea Hunter this summer. An advanced EO/IR sensor will be fit- ted in the fall. In fiscal 2018, an ISR payload is scheduled, to be followed in 2019 by an ASW payload.

The Sea Hunter is equipped with three radars. Brizzolara said it even- tually will be fitted with a stereo camera – developed by Office of Naval Research’s “Swamp Works” – that will allow it to determine distance visually to a contact or shoreline. The stereo camera will supplement a monocular camera.

Automatic target recognition also is being developed for the EO/IR systems.

“For example, we are developing capability where a radar contact bearing will be used to point the very narrow field of view monocular EO camera at the other vessel to get an image of that and then run that image through an automated target recognition algorithm and then come out with a general type of vessel that that other vessel is: a tanker, a sailboat, that sort of thing,” he said.

The Office of Naval Research “and the Navy are really looking at this platform as a multimission platform and it does have the ability to accept many different payloads for different missions,” Brizzolara said. “We’ve chosen MCM, ISR and ASW as examples to demonstrate out on the water of what Sea Hunter can do and what can be integrated on Sea Hunter, but I think that the variety of payloads, in addition to those three in the future, is potentially very large. We are actively working and talking with other commands about other payloads that could be integrated in the future.”

Brizzolara said a rail system is being installed on the aft deck of Sea Hunter with standardized lock- downs for payloads.

He said, “there are still significant [science and technology] challenges that remain to be solved in terms of the technology development. Primary among those is continued development of the autonomous control of the vessel. The other part of it, though, is as we integrate these payloads, there is an implication of a particular payload to the autonomous control in that we have to implement mission-specific tactics in the autonomy for many of these payloads.

“ASW is a great example,” Brizzolara said. “The platform might have to search a defined area for a while. And then, if it gets a contact, it might have to go investigate that contact. And then, it might have to go into track mode and then trail mode. Each of those we call a behavior within autonomy and the vessel needs to be able to do those things by itself and it needs to be able to switch between those at the appropriate time, based on cues that it gets from its sensors.”

DISPLACEMENT: . . . . . . . . . 140 tons

LENGTH: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 132 feet

SPEED: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27 knots

CONTRACTORS: . . . . . . . . . Leidos, Vigor

New Orleans Class Cruisers at Guadalcanal 1942

The Astoria recovers one of her scout planes in the Pacific. In order to do this the cruiser would turn in an arc around the plane to create a flatter surface on the water in the ship’s lee.

Minneapolis shown in November 1942 after taking two torpedo hits from Japanese destroyers. One hit took off the bow as far back as Turret 1 and the second flooded Number 2 fire room. Despite pre-war doubts about their ability to withstand damage, US Navy Treaty cruisers often displayed an ability to take heavy damage, as shown here.

The New Orleans a month after Tassafaronga. The curvature of the face of Number 2 turret is clearly visible after the Japanese kindly removed 180ft of the bow to allow a closer inspection.

At the time of Pearl Harbor the Quincy and Tuscaloosa were in the Atlantic, the Vincennes and Astoria were at sea escorting carrier groups who were delivering planes to Wake Island, the Minneapolis was 20 miles south of Pearl conducting training exercises, and the San Francisco and New Orleans were in Pearl Harbor itself when the attack came. The New Orleans was lightly damaged by a fragmentation bomb, which wounded a score of sailors, but none were killed. Such was the confusion and inexperience of American pilots that the Minneapolis was incorrectly identified as a Japanese aircraft carrier. The Minneapolis compounded the problem by miscoding a message to Pearl Harbor, sending the message `Two carriers in sight’ instead of `No carriers in sight’. Fortunately, the US aircraft sent after these two carriers recognised the Minneapolis and halted their attack.

With the US Navy battlefleet effectively eliminated, the heavy cruiser acquired the new role of big-gun substitute alongside the traditional missions of escorting carrier groups and scouting. As the newest and best of their type the New Orleans class were to become heavily engaged. The Vincennes escorted the Hornet and Enterprise on their daring raid on Tokyo, and the New Orleans and Minneapolis escorted the Lexington and Yorktown for their strike on Rabaul. The Minneapolis, Astoria and New Orleans were all present at the Battle of the Coral Sea, screening the aircraft carriers Lexington and Yorktown, a role that they would assume more and more as the war progressed. When the Lexington was hit, the commander of the US task force, Rear Admiral Fletcher, transferred his command to the Astoria and continued the battle from her. The Lexington was sunk and the Yorktown was damaged but the Japanese invasion force bound for Port Moresby was turned back.

After Coral Sea the Astoria, Minneapolis and New Orleans hastened back to Pearl Harbor with the damaged Yorktown. At Pearl they were joined by the Vincennes, freshly back from the raid on Tokyo with the carriers Hornet and Enterprise. The damaged Yorktown was repaired in four days flat and set out with her two sister carriers to confront the might of the Japanese navy. These four cruisers, along with four others, formed the screen for Task Forces 16 and 17.

The Battle of Midway was a carrier battle where opposing surface forces never sighted each other. The three US carriers surprised the Japanese and sank all four of their fleet carriers at the cost of the Yorktown. Without carrier cover the rest of the Japanese fleet had to turn back from its objective, Midway Island. The cruisers performed valuable duties such as AA support, rescuing downed airmen and lending assistance to the damaged Yorktown. Again Admiral Fletcher had to transfer his flag to the Astoria when the Yorktown was hit.

This battle was the turning point in the war in the Pacific. The US Navy now went on the offensive, with the New Orleans class cruisers spearheading the surface forces.


Battle of Savo Island, 8/9 August.

Six of the seven members of this class were assembled in the South Pacific for the operation to capture Guadalcanal. Only the Tuscaloosa – still in the Atlantic – was missing. This is where the class was blooded and acquired its reputation: by the end of this campaign all six were either sunk or out of action. This was a high casualty rate but these ships were essential to the success of what became a crucial campaign.

This force of cruisers was split amongst those accompanying the invasion force (the Astoria, Quincy and Vincennes) and those escorting the carriers in support (San Francisco, Minneapolis and New Orleans). On 26 July 1942 groups of transports, escorts, and carrier task forces from Pearl Harbor, San Diego, Tonga, Samoa, and New Caledonia rendezvoused off the Fiji Islands. This was the largest concentration of US naval power since the attack on Pearl Harbor, and six of the seven New Orleans class cruisers were present at this occasion.

The Quincy opened the Guadalcanal campaign with salvos from her nine 8in guns, bombarding Japanese positions on Guadalcanal and provided anti- aircraft cover for the transports when they were attacked by Japanese torpedo bombers on 7 and 8 August. The presence of torpedo bombers prompted Admiral Fletcher, who was in charge of the carrier force, to withdraw prematurely, so the invasion force was left without air cover.

To protect the transport from a night surface attack Admiral Victor Crutchley, in charge of the transport screen, separated his available cruisers into three forces. The two weakest cruisers were to guard the eastern entrance of Sealark channel – the least likely direction of attack. The six available heavy cruisers were stationed in two groups at the western entrance of the Sealark channel. The heavy units of the northern force were made up solely of New Orleans class cruisers – Quincy, Astoria and Vincennes.

An attack was not expected – even though a Japanese force was spotted heading in the direction of Guadalcanal earlier that day. The ships of all three forces were patrolling as though it was a routine peacetime exercise. The flagship, HMAS Australia, had even detached herself to take the force commander, Victor Crutchley, to a conference onboard one of the transports. The forces were not on full combat alert; unfortunately the Japanese were. The Japanese force, consisting of five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and one destroyer, slipped past the advanced scouting patrol of two destroyers and hit the southern force hard, and within ten minutes it was destroyed as an effective fighting force. Only one ship – the destroyer Patterson – had even radioed an alarm. The ships of the northern force, ten miles away, observed the action to the south and were wondering what to make of the Patterson’s message `warning warning strange ships entering the harbour’.

Gunichi Mikawa, the Japanese Admiral, was informed that there were ships to the north and he turned north – away from the transports – to confront this new menace. During this turn northward his force had split into two columns and it was between these two columns that the Quincy, Astoria and Vincennes were caught. Even though the Patterson’s warning and the battle to the south was observed by the bridge personnel on all three cruisers, they were not ready for the onslaught. Captain Greenman of the Astoria was not even on the bridge and Captain Moore of the Quincy was also just arriving. Unprepared, their armament not fully manned and ready, caught in glare of searchlights, the three cruisers were sitting ducks for the Japanese force.

Within half an hour three New Orleans class cruisers were fatally damaged by a Japanese force of a similar size – not a good performance for ships that were supposed to incorporate the highest standard of protection and fighting qualities. However, the result was not so much an indication of poor design as it was of battle unreadiness, disorganised damage control, and poor practice – especially in having fully-fuelled floatplanes on the catapults during battle. The highly flammable aviation fuel not only caused massive damage when ignited but it also illuminated each ship as a target. When the lessons of this battle were learned, the remaining members of this class were to able to absorb far greater damage and yet remain afloat.

Survivors of the Quincy, Astoria and Vincennes could take some small consolation from the fact that by turning to confront the northern force Mikawa was deflected from his primary objective – the transports sitting off Lunga Point. The loss of the transport fleet would have meant the end of the Guadalcanal invasion and the probable stranding of the 1st Marine Division. So in this sad way these cruisers ultimately contributed to the success of the Guadalcanal campaign.

There were now only three New Orleans class cruisers in the South Pacific, and within two weeks they were in combat providing screening and anti- aircraft support for the carriers Wasp and Saratoga. A week later the Wasp was sunk by a submarine and its screen, including the San Francisco, was dispersed amongst various other task forces. So it was on 13 October that San Francisco became the flagship of Task Force 64, a surface action group assembled to block a reinforcement group screened by three Japanese heavy cruisers heading for Guadalcanal.

After the firing resumed and the American line became disordered, it turned into a confused action. Admiral Scott was aware that he was hitting his own ships as well as the enemy’s and ordered a withdrawal. Still, the American force got the better of the engagement by sinking the cruiser Furutaka, destroyer Fubuki and severely damaging the Japanese flagship Aoba for the loss of the Duncan and damage to the Boise. The flagship San Francisco distinguished herself in the first of two battles that were to earn her the Presidential Unit Citation.

The Battle of Guadalcanal, 13 November.

This battle was the turning point of the Guadalcanal campaign. For four months the United States and her allies had contested the island with the Japanese. Even though there was almost daily land combat and four major naval battles had been fought, neither side had gained the advantage. By early November both sides were gearing up for one last major push. The US sent two convoys of seven transports from Noumea escorted by five cruisers and eleven destroyers. The San Francisco was flagship of the escorting forces carrying the flag of Rear Admiral Callaghan. The Japanese prepared a convoy of eleven transports in Bougainville, which was to be preceded by a bombardment force of two fast battleships, a cruiser and eleven destroyers to knock out the US airfield on Guadalcanal – Henderson Field – so that the Japanese transports could approach unmolested by air attacks.

The US reinforcements arrived first, defended by the cruisers against air attacks from Japanese bases in Rabaul 600 miles to the north. The San Francisco was hit in her after control station, severely wounding her executive officer, Commander Crouter. Despite his injuries he elected to stay with his ship for the ensuing night battle. Bad choice.

The US had to protect Henderson Field at all costs, so the cruiser force escorting the reinforcement convoys were ordered to stop the more powerful Japanese bombardment force from carrying out its mission, whatever the consequences. Admiral Callaghan led his cruiser force out of Ironbottom Sound with the now empty transports creating the impression of leaving the sound vacant for the Japanese to bombard Henderson Field without opposition. Then, under the cover of darkness, Callaghan detached eight destroyers and his five cruisers – Atlanta, his flagship San Francisco, Portland, Helena and Juneau – and headed back into Ironbottom Sound to confront the oncoming Japanese bombardment force.

The Japanese force suspected nothing – they thought that they would have an uncontested run at the airfield. Callaghan was new to his job – this was his first combat assignment as an admiral in charge – and his Flag Captain, Cassin Young, had just joined the San Francisco five days before. Callaghan had formulated no battle plan nor did he communicate with any of his captains what his intentions were. He just formed a cumbersome line ahead formation of four van destroyers, five cruisers (in the order given above), and four destroyers bringing up the rear, and sailed into Ironbottom Sound. Soon there were reports of contact with the enemy: first by radar, then visual contact. The Japanese had also sighted the US ships but were not sure of their nationality. Callaghan’s task force was not allowed to open fire – they had sailed into the centre of the Japanese formation at very close range. Finally the battleship Hiei turned her searchlights on the unmistakeable profile of the cruiser Atlanta and all hell broke loose.

Belatedly Callaghan radioed the order to his force: `Odd ships commence fire to starboard even ships fire to port’. This was confusing, as his ships were not sure whether they were even or odd and often they were tracking targets on the wrong side. The engagement quickly degenerated into a melee with ships firing away at anything and at very close range. The San Francisco took the battleship Hiei under fire and then switched to the Atlanta. As soon as Callaghan realised what was happening he ordered `cease firing own ships’. This was most likely meant only for the San Francisco but the message went out over radio to the whole task force, creating more confusion. Fortunately, the Japanese were as confused as the Americans as the battle deteriorated even further.

Shortly afterward the bridge of the San Francisco was hit by a 14in shell that killed Admiral Callaghan and all but one of his staff, and mortally wounded Captain Young. Any hope of bringing order to the US task force ended with that and the ships all fought individual battles with each other and the Japanese. The battle degenerated into total chaos; it was, as one historian put it, `like minnows swimming in a bucket – Japanese ships intermingling with US ships’.

The San Francisco’s top command was wiped out: the admiral, captain, exec, first lieutenant and navigation officer were all dead or mortally wounded. The San Francisco was engaging two Japanese battleships at close range. There were over 45 shell hits and 25 fires were raging over the ship. Command devolved to two lieutenant-commanders, Bruce McCandless, the signals officer, and Herbert Schonland, acting first lieutenant. McCandless conned the ship while Schonland in overall command attended to damage control. These two junior officers fought the ship through the Japanese task force whilst putting out fires and leading the other surviving US ships out of danger. For this they were each awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

With the San Francisco retiring and the Hiei immobilised by numerous hits, the battle wound down, leaving six US ships heading back to Noumea, two cripples unable to move out of Ironbottom Sound and five others sinking or sunk by the Japanese. The badly damaged and immobile Hiei was sunk later that day, joining two Japanese destroyers that had been sunk the night before.

Despite all that went wrong, the US forces prevailed that night. They stopped the bombardment force and inflicted as much or more damage on a superior force than they suffered from the Japanese. Quite possibly it was the confusion; US sailors proved better able to cope with the chaotic situation that ensued when the two forces became hopelessly entangled.

The Battle of Tassafaronga, 30 November/1 December.

The last major surface battle in Guadalcanal waters involved the two remaining New Orleans cruisers in the Pacific. They were lucky to survive.

This battle came about when the Japanese were desperately trying to supply their starving troops by sneaking in small, fast destroyer task forces at night. These destroyers were laden with supplies and replacement troops, which impaired their fighting ability, but they were able to slip in under cover of darkness, deposit their cargo and get out before daylight brought on air attacks.

On 30 November the US forces tried to surprise and intercept one of these Japanese task forces. Under Rear Admiral Carlton Wright a powerful force of five cruisers – the New Orleans, Minneapolis, Pensacola, Northampton and light cruiser Honolulu – accompanied by six destroyers was sent to stop a Japanese force of eight destroyers, six of them laden with troops and supplies. To ensure that the floatplanes on the US cruisers were not a liability they were sent to Tulagi before the battle and the gasoline lines drained so as to not be a fire risk. A battle plan was drawn up – the destroyers were to attack first with torpedoes and then the cruisers would open fire on the ships that survived.

The powerful cruiser task force crept into Ironbottom Sound and detected the oncoming Japanese ships on their radar. The lead destroyers requested permission to fire torpedoes; belatedly the answer came back – affirmative. Unfortunately, the targets had passed and the torpedoes had to chase the Japanese destroyers at a poor target angle. Then the five cruisers opened up, but they all went for the lead Japanese destroyer, the Takanami. They scored hit after hit and disabled the Takanami within minutes after opening fire. The Japanese were completely surprised but they reacted resolutely and skilfully. This was a result of excellent night training and the leadership of Rear Admiral Tanaka, one of the best combat admirals of the war. Without firing a shot (which would have revealed their location) the remaining destroyers put over twenty torpedoes in the water, turned close to shore to decrease visibility, and got away as fast as they could, heaving provisions overboard for the soldiers ashore to retrieve as best they could.

Within five minutes the torpedoes struck. First was the Minneapolis, hit by two torpedoes in the bow and losing the entire bow section forward of Number 1 turret. The New Orleans, behind the Minneapolis, swerved to avoid the damaged Minneapolis and was hit in the forward magazine – its whole bow was also blown off, right up to Number 2 turret. So sudden was this that an observer on the stern of the New Orleans saw the bow floating past with its turret pointing to the sky and reported that the ship had just passed the sinking Minneapolis. The Pensacola was next: a torpedo smacked into her aft engine room and set off a fire that shot as high as the mainmast. Last was the Northampton, hit by two torpedoes and sunk as a result. The Japanese destroyers had defeated a much more powerful force for the loss of only one destroyer. Post-battle analyses confirmed the following reasons for the loss:

– the rate of 8in gunfire was too slow to hit fast moving targets at night,

– night training is all-important,

– and the efficacy of the Japanese torpedo tactics was at last recognised.

There were now three very badly damaged New Orleans class cruisers in South Pacific waters. They all made their way painfully back to Pearl Harbor and thence to the West Coast shipyards for repair and rebuilding. The Minneapolis and New Orleans had lost their bows and had to have temporary ones built out of coconut logs at Tulagi just to get them to Noumea.


Within four months of the start of the Guadalcanal campaign all six cruisers of this class in the Pacific were either sunk or out of action. The Japanese cruiser force was similarly decimated, with the entire Kako class out of action and half the Mogami class also sunk or out of action. There was a hiatus on both sides as they repaired their damaged ships. The three surviving New Orleans cruisers active in the Pacific, New Orleans, San Francisco and Minneapolis, were extensively modified during their long stay in drydock. Antiaircraft defence was now a priority as their new role was seen as support for the fast fleet carriers. The bridges were rebuilt to a narrower profile to eliminate topweight and give the AA guns a wider firing arc. New radar and electronics were also installed.

Not only were damaged ships repaired during the relatively quiet year of 1943 but the Pacific Fleet commissioned 5 new fleet carriers, 5 light carriers, 14 new cruisers and 73 new destroyers. The Japanese could not keep up: they were only able to commission 3 light cruisers and 10 destroyers in the same period.

In October 1943 the `Big Blue Fleet’ (Task Force 58) debouched from Pearl Harbor as part of `Operation Galvanic’, the reconquest of the Gilbert Islands. This comprised 6 fleet carriers, 5 light carriers, 6 new fast battleships, 8 cruisers and 44 destroyers. The Pacific War was transformed and the desperate battles of the Solomons were a thing of the past.