Dreadnoughts: The Ships that Changed the World

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, naval military forces underwent a revolution. The old wooden sailing ships with broadsides of smoothbore cannon were replaced by sleek steam-powered steel-plate ships, with breech-loading rifled guns in turrets that could fire in any direction. The “battleship” was born. But it wasn’t until after the turn of the century that the naval battleship reached the full potential of its power.

uss texas

The dreadnought USS Texas

When the US Navy engaged the Spanish fleet in Manila Harbor in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the typical battle cruiser was armed with 6-inch rifled guns, usually two per turret, with a range of a little over a mile. Most naval engagements took place at short ranges of 2,000 yards or so. By 1900 some navies had begun adding a number of larger guns, in 10 or 12 inch caliber, for engaging targets at longer ranges, but long-distance fire was still relatively inaccurate, and most warships still carried a large number of 6 or 8 inch guns for close-in combat.

Then in 1904, war broke out between Japan and Russia, and the two navies clashed in several battles. Both fleets were equipped with new radio-based “range-finders” for better accuracy, and during the Battles of the Yellow Sea and Tshushima Straits, the 12-inch guns were able to hit each other at ranges up to eight miles, far outside the reach of the smaller guns. It was a wake-up call to the world’s navies: from now on, it was assumed that war at sea would take place at long ranges, with large-caliber guns. To meet these requirements, a new type of battleship was needed: an “all-big-gun” platform with heavy armor to protect against enemy shells. Every naval power in the world now scrambled to produce the new super-weapon.

It was the British Royal Navy that won the race. In October 1905, the Royal Navy began plans for a new battleship, to be called “HMS Dreadnought“. On paper, she was designed with the then-incredible armament of a dozen 12-inch guns mounted in six turrets. Later, technical difficulties would reduce this to ten guns in five turrets–one at the front, one at the rear, one in the center amidships, and two on each side.

The traditional secondary batteries of 6 and 8 inch guns, intended for short-range combat, were dropped completely. Instead, the new design included 18 4-inch guns which were used as defenses against small torpedo boats. (There was no provision for anti-aircraft guns, since the airplane had not yet reached the point where it was any sort of effective military factor.)

All those turrets meant that Dreadnought was, at 526 feet long and a little less than 18,000 tons, significantly bigger than any other previous naval ship, and that presented a problem with armor. Previously, ships had been protected by hulls made from steel plates, which were good enough to give some defense against 6 or 8 inch shells. But the new 10 or 12 inch shells could penetrate this easily, and making Dreadnought’s hull even thicker would increase the weight so much that it was unworkable. To solve the problem, the Royal Navy came up with the concept of the “armored box”: the middle of the ship would be enclosed in heavy armor plating that would protect the ammunition magazines, coal bunkers, and the fire control rooms, but leave the rest of the ship relatively lightly armored. The Dreadnought’s armor was particularly thick–about 11 inches–along her hull near the waterline, to protect against torpedos.

The new ship was also powered by new steam turbine engines instead of reciprocating piston engines, which despite her increased weight could push her to 21 knots, making her the fastest warship in the world. When Dreadnought entered service in 1906, she immediately made every other warship obsolete. The very name “dreadnought” became a synonym for “big-gun battleship”. And the battleship was far more than a mere military weapon–it was a symbol of national strength and pride. With enormous effort and expense, Britain began launching new dreadnoughts each year.

Every other naval power scrambled to catch up, in a furious arms race. By the time the First World War broke out in August 1914, Britain had 19 dreadnoughts in service and another 13 under construction, Germany had 13 and 7 more being built, and smaller numbers were at sea with the American, Japanese, French, Italian and Austrio-Hungarian navies.

Until 1898, the United States had possessed only a token military, and preferred to remain isolated from involvement in conflicts with other nations. But after the war with Spain, the US found herself in possession of a series of colonies scattered all over the world, and needed a modern navy to protect them. In 1905, as the HMS Dreadnought was being constructed, the US drew up plans for its own big-gun battleship design, the South Carolina class, followed later by the Delaware class. These were some of the first warships in the world to be oil-fired instead of coal. In 1907, the US sent a squadron of battleships, known as the “Great White Fleet”, on a year-long cruise around the world as a show of American industrial strength and military power.

During the First World War, battleships grew bigger and bigger, with guns growing from 12 inch caliber to 14 inch and then 16 inch. They became so expensive that it began to strain the economies of even the richest nations to produce them, and they were so valuable, both militarily and symbolically, that few commanders wanted to actually risk them in battle, so they mostly sat in port throughout the war.

In 1922, the world’s leading naval powers negotiated a treaty in Washington DC to end the battleship arms race, placing limits on the numbers, size and armament that would be allowed to each nation. Just before the outbreak of World War II, the Japanese withdrew from the Washington Treaty and built the super-battleships Yamato and Musashi, with 18 inch guns. They were the biggest battleships ever built. During the war, the US produced the South Dakota class, a super-fast design intended to escort and protect carrier groups.

But with the rise of naval air power, the battleship no longer had a central role. No navy has produced one since the 1940s (though the US has occasionally pulled its WW2 battleships out of mothballs and used them in conflicts in the Middle East).

Today, only one pre-WW1 “dreadnought” style battleship still exists. The USS Texas, of the New York class, was built in 1911 and launched in 1912. She has ten 14-inch main guns, and was the first US battleship to be fitted with anti-aircraft gunnery. While serving in World War One and World War Two the Texas was upgraded and modernized several times, and is now displayed in her 1945 configuration. In 1948 she was decommissioned and was given to the State of Texas, who docked her in Houston as a memorial ship. Today the USS Texas is a National Historic Landmark.


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