HMS Dreadnought brought about a revolution to warship design - a uniform main battery and steam turbines were some of the qualities that set her apart from her contemporaries.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited:
When she was commissioned in 1906, HMS Dreadnought was the dominant battleship class of her era. Dreadnought was anointed the revolutionary ship of the age even when, in World War 1, she did not sink another battleship in combat or even participate in the famous Battle of Jutland. The reason was based simply on her revolutionary armament scheme, an electronic range-finding weapons system and increased speed technology which were brought together in a modern design for the first time.
For some time, many warship engineers were planning a new type of battleship. In 1903 Vittorio Cuniberti, an Italian naval engineer, wrote of the concept of an "all-big-gun" ship design. British Admiral Jackie Fisher also formulated a like-concept around 1900. However, while others pondered, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) began construction of the first all-big-gun ship to become the IJN Satsuma of 1904. Laid down five months before Dreadnought, she was intended to have mounted 12 of the Armstrong 12-inch (30cm) main guns and displace 19,700 tons. Conversely only 4 of the 12 big guns ordered were shipped to Japan due to the stock on hand at the Armstrong British factory and 10 inch guns were therefore substituted. As such, the British design took center stage and therefore all like-warships appearing soon after would take on the generic name of "Dreadnought" as their type. Conversely, all previous steel battleships of the same era became known as "Pre-Dreadnought" battleships.
The armament improvements on HMS Dreadnought focused on change of the current design discipline which utilized many calibers guns for offense and defense across the armament scheme. Dreadnought was outfitted with 5 x 12-inch twin-gun turrets each having a range out to 14.2 miles (25,000 yards). Three turrets were located conventionally along the centerline of the ship for weight stabilization with one turret forward and two aft. The torpedo control tower, located on a small tripod mast, was mounted between the aft turrets. This blocked any aft centerline fire from the aft turret closest to the superstructure. Two other 12-inch turrets were located on both sides of the bridge superstructure, each able to fire forward and to port or starboard based on which side the turret was mounted on. In all, Dreadnought could deliver a full broadside of eight guns and fire eight guns aft or six ahead - in most cases only within a narrow range. At the time, the acting Lord of the Admiralty - Jackie Fisher - insisted that "end on fire" was more important than broadside fire though, in future battles, this concept was proven to be less effective. Dreadnought had 24 x 12 pounders (76mm) guns with ten mounted on the tops of the 12-inch turrets and 14 placed on the sides of the superstructure, each having a range of 5.3 miles (9,300 yards). The 76mm was used as defense against torpedo boats and was a poor choice as they did not have the range while utilizing a light projectile. Casements on pre-dreadnought battleships of the era also used 12-pounders with a 3-inch shell and were side-mounted to mostly fire port or starboard and did not have full movement forward and aft. The casements required holes in the sides of the ship below the main deck that allowed water to enter during heavy seas - however the scheme was not used on Dreadnought.
Having superior firepower was useless without enhanced gunnery range, aiming and fire control systems. Dreadnought was one of the first Royal Navy capital ships to be fitted with improved electronic range transmitting equipment. The old standard fire control system was the use of a voice pipe system where changes in range and deflection were yelled into a brass pipe from fire control to the awaiting gunnery crew in the turrets. This ultimately proved ineffective in combat situations when operational noise levels affected the spoken order. Also, in the transmitting station found in the bowels of the ship, there was installed a Vickers variable range/speed clock that estimated and projected the changing range between the target vessel and the attacking ship. For greater accuracy of determining the distance, Dreadnought was outfitted with a new type of electrical rangefinder developed by Barr and Stroud.
The use of a uniform main battery without multiple caliber guns greatly simplified the task of adjusting fire in action. All the 12-inch guns had the same ballistic characteristics. If the shells splash was over the target, the range was naturally shortened and, if called short, the range was simply increased. If the target was bracketed short and long, the next volley used the same settings, adjusted by the Vickers clock for the ship's speed and including course changes. Powder loads were made in small increments for range elevation adjustments. This superior fire control was not possible when the big guns were of different calibers simply because observers could not tell which guns created which splashes and by what caliber shell.
The British invention of the steam turbine propulsion engine in 1884 was important for its use in ships by exhausting the fresh water to a condenser that could be reclaimed to feed a boiler as salty, corrosive seawater could not be used. HMS Dreadnought was the first capital warship to replace the proven technology of the triple-expansion engine with the experimental steam turbine, making her the fastest battleship in the world at the time of her launch. The Dreadnought promoted a speed of 21 knots (39 km/h) which allowed her to outrun any existing battleship with like-firepower as well as the ability to outgun a faster cruiser. With that said, prior to and during World War 1 and 2, the triple expansion engine dominated marine vessels when high speed was not essential.
Dreadnought reversed the old sailing arrangement and housed officers forward, closer to the bridge, and enlisted men aft so that both officers and most enlisted men were closer to their action stations. Another major improvement was the removal of longitudinal passageways between compartments below deck. Doors connecting compartments were always closed during combat as they are in submarines to prevent the spread of fires and flooding.
Dreadnought was commissioned for trials in December of 1906 and, in January of 1907, she sailed for the Mediterranean Sea and then to Port of Spain, Trinidad. Her successful trials were observed by many navies from around the world and inspired a naval arms race with all major fleets adding Dreadnought-type battleships in time. At Dreadnought's commissioning, Britain possessed a lead of 25 first-class battleships over the fleets of foreign navies. With Dreadnought, Britain now possessed a lead of only one ship - all other British first class battleships became second class Pre-Deadnaught vessels.
At the start of World War 1 in the summer of 1914, Dreadnought was the flagship of the Fourth Battle Squadron based at Scapa Flow. Interestingly, for a vessel designed to engage enemy battleships, her only major action was the the ramming and sinking of German submarine U-29 on March 18th, 1915, thus becoming the only battleship to ever sink a submarine. As a result, she missed the Battle of Jutland while undergoing refit. Like most of the older battleships she was in bad condition from constant touring of the North Sea and was put up for sale in 1920 and sold for scrap at 44,000 pounds in 1921.
All of the constructed dreadnoughts followed suit and were either scrapped or used as targets after the end of World War 1. Some of the advanced "super-dreadnoughts" continued in service through World War 2 until they had met their useful service lives in turn. The term "dreadnought", therefore, gradually dropped from slang beginning at the conclusion of World War 1. They were superceded by battleships who showcased superior performance and firepower characteristics.