HMS DreadnoghtIntroduction

The Royal Navy did not protect the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) by sailing up and down the canals of Belgium and France - even if it could have. It did so by maintaining control over the seas of the World, and the North Sea in particular, and providing an umbrella of protection. This protection ensured that the men and materials needed to fight the Central Powers on the Western Front, and elsewhere, were safely conveyed to the war zone, be it across the English Channel from the Homeland, or across the sea-lanes of the World that connected the Empire, its Allies and friends.

Key to maintaining this control of the seas in favour of the Allies was a fleet of top-rate warships that could more than match those of Germany and its fellow belligerents. Foremost in this fleet were the battleships; the largest and most powerful of the ships-of-war of the era. This is an account of the largest of the British battleships - the dreadnoughts.

Background

Influenced by French and Russian plans for commerce warfare and by likely demands for restraint by the Treasury, Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher, on becoming First Sea Lord in 1904, sought to create a new class of warship quite different from current armoured cruisers and battleships. In the end he was forced to compromise and the ship which emerged was HMS Dreadnought.  This new super-battleship outclassed any other warship then afloat.  Only the American South Carolina class, in the design stage before Dreadnought was started, came close to her power.

Dreadnought's principal design features were:

  • Driven by steam turbines that were more economical, powerful and reliable, with a much lower between-decks profile, and occupying less space than triple expansion engines.
  • Faster than any other battleship.
  • Bigger in size and longer overall.
  • Armed with a large, uniform calibre main armament (as were the South Carolinas)

Using all the power that his prestigious post as First Sea Lord conferred, Fisher prioritised naval construction resources for the building of the new HMS Dreadnought. Finished in a record time of fourteen months, she was completed at Portsmouth Dockyard on 6 December 1906.

HMS Dreadnought 1906

Once HMS Dreadnought was commissioned, and put to sea, all other warships, world-wide, were technically obsolete - there was no competition at this level. Immediately, other navies, friendly and hostile, also planned their own production of this design.  But Britain had a vital lead that would prove invaluable as the war clouds formed and August 1914 approached. Moreover, British shipyard capacity was greater than that of any other nation.

The special features of HMS Dreadnought may be summarised as follows:

  • Size/Displacement: 527 feet long and 82 feet beam. 18,100 tons load; 21,845 tons deep load.
  • Engines/Power/Speed: Four sets of Parsons steam turbines delivering 23,000shp. and 21 knots.
  • Armament: Ten 12-inch guns (eight in broadside), plus twenty-four 12-pounder guns and five 18-inch underwater torpedo tubes.
  • Armour:  The maximum thickness of HMS Dreadnought's armour belt was 11" (28cm).
  • Crew: 695 - 773.

Such was the impact of HMS Dreadnought that its name came to define the type. Britain's introduction of HMS Dreadnought produced an arms race between it and Germany. From 1906 to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, the Royal Navy acquired nineteen more dreadnoughts and had twelve more under construction. Germany had thirteen with another seven under construction. The other major naval powers also strove to keep up.  The United States had eight and France four. Japan had two and Austria-Hungary three. Italy had one.

On the outbreak of war, on 4 August 1914, HMS Dreadnought was the flagship of the Fourth Battle Squadron of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet.

Deployment of the dreadnoughts, 1914 - 1918

The war plans saw the primary role of the Navy as that of providing a naval blockade, escorting the BEF to France, and maintaining the maritime links with the Empire, Allies and friends. Due to the threat of sea mines, the naval blockade was seen more as ‘observational' and it became even more long-reaching as the war went on, concentrating on the ‘entrances' and ‘exits' of the North Sea.

Two dreadnoughts completed for Turkey in August 1914 were taken over by the Royal Navy in that month and joined the Grand Fleet in September: HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin.

In August 1914, all the twenty available British dreadnoughts were incorporated into the Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, under the command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.

The question arises, therefore, was the British deterrent really as strong as paper calculations would indicate? Certainly, numerically the British should have been able to hold their own. The British biggest guns were certainly bigger and fired heavier shells over a longer distance which was claimed to be synonymous with greater accuracy. But the degree of fire prediction and the accuracy of the gunnery had not kept up with the munitions.  Because of the optical sighting and ranging problems due to smoke, sea-spray, shell splashes and poor visibility associated with darkness and the weather in the event only a few of the British dreadnoughts' broadsides ever reached their intended target.

Also, in the heat of action inter-vessel wireless communication, using Morse code, was often slow. In practice signalling flags were still often preferred for speed at sea when the available light, cordite smoke and water splashes permitted. On these poor communications the outcome of vital sea-battles depended.

The North Sea Battles

1) The Battle of Heligoland Bight, 28 August 1914

The first real test for both sides came at the Battle of the Heligoland Bight on 28 August 1914; but it did not include any of the British dreadnoughts. It was a minor British victory and emboldened the British command somewhat. But it was also rather chastening for them as it demonstrated some only too apparent British technical and organisational deficiencies.

On the part of the Germans, the set back at Heligoland enhanced their reticence to engage with the British unless conditions were particularly propitious and, even then, only if the Kaiser personally gave his approval to proceed.

2) The Battle of Dogger Bank, 24 January 1915

British wireless intercepts enabled the setting up of a trap which developed into the next major sea battle - Dogger Bank - which took place on 24 January 1915. Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty deployed five battle-cruisers and four light cruisers.  Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt was to rendezvous with Beatty on the Dogger Bank with three light cruisers and thirty-five destroyers. Beatty's opponent was Admiral Franz von Hipper with his 1st Scouting Group of three battle-cruisers, one large armoured cruiser, four light cruisers and nineteen torpedo-boats.  A short battle ensued. HMS Lion was disabled and the German battle-cruiser SMS Seydlitz, and the unique armoured cruiser SMS Blücher, were respectively damaged and sunk.

Jellicoe had taken the Grand Fleet, with its dreadnoughts, to sea from Scapa Flow ready to intervene should the High Seas Fleet seek to support Hipper. Also Vice-Admiral Bradford's 3rd Battle Squadron, comprising seven pre-dreadnoughts, had also left Rosyth. None of these forces took part in the battle. Post-mortem evaluations by both sides claimed a success.

The Battle of Jutland, 31 May - 1 June 1916

From February 1916 onwards, both the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet put elements of their naval forces out into the North Sea at least once a month for raiding and reconnaissance purposes.

Since the breaking of the German Naval Code (by Room 40 staff at the Admiralty), the British were usually broadly forewarned of German intentions, if not in all specifics. This, and a huge credit balance in dreadnoughts (twenty-eight British against sixteen German) and battlecruisers (nine British against five German), made the British Navy increasingly confident as 1916 progressed.

It was in this frame of mind that a forewarned Grand Fleet led by Jellicoe left port on 29 May 1916 in search of the German High Seas Fleet commanded by Admiral Reinhard Scheer. What followed came to be known as the Battle of Jutland, and it took place on 31 May and 1 June 1916.

Hipper began the action by opening fire on Beatty at 1545.  Beatty's battlecruisers were soon in action themselves and were soon supported, from 1605, by the Fifth Battle Squadron, comprising four of the new Queen Elizabeth Class super-dreadnoughts, (HMS Barham, Malaya, Valiant, and Warspite).  As the Fifth Battle Squadron, following Beatty towards the dreadnoughts of The Grand Fleet, turned north in succession, instead of together, it came within range of the guns of the High Seas Fleet.  Both HMS Barham and HMS Malaya were hit, but not seriously. They were able to inflict damage on the High Seas Fleet's leading dreadnoughts and battlecruisers - particularly the battle-cruiser SMS Seydlitz.

Later in the day, the Grand Fleet became engaged with the High Seas Fleet by crossing its T (cutting across the head of the German line of ships at a right angle). At 1836, the German High Seas Fleet very skilfully executed its Gefechtskehrtwendung (battle turn-away) and retreated behind black smoke laid by its torpedo boats.

The Grand Fleet regained contact a few minutes after 1900, and skirmishing continued until the High Seas Fleet again broke off the action at 1915.  Intermittent action continued into the night with losses on both sides.

Both sides claimed victory. The Germans had the higher score of ships. On the other hand they never challenged the Grand Fleet again. On their side, the British had to acknowledge they had missed opportunities and had encountered serious technical problems. These included the deadly cordite flash-back phenomenon that had reared its head earlier in the war and was still to be fully resolved.

The tally of the respective sides indicates to some extent the balance of the battle. The Germans lost eleven ships (61,180 tons) out of ninety-nine, whilst the British lost fourteen ships (115,025 tons) out of 151. The German dead totalled 2,551 whilst the British were much more at 6,097.

There were two other notable highlights in the active service of the dreadnoughts from 1914 - 1918.

HMS Queen Elizabeth was deployed in the Dardanelles Operation. On 25 February 1915, she participated, with her eight 15-inch guns, in Vice-Admiral Sackville Hamilton Carden's bombardment of the Turkish defences at the entrance to the Dardanelles Straits. She participated again on 5 March 1915.

The second incident was on 18 March 1915, when HMS Dreadnought rammed the German submarine U29 at full speed in the North Sea and sank it with all hands.

Mediterranean Fleet, 1918

Two British dreadnoughts - HMS Temeraire and HMS Superb - served with the Mediterranean Fleet.

Kiel Mutiny

What might have been a final clash of the dreadnoughts in October 1918 came to nought. Admiral Hipper's plan, as the new Commander of the German Navy Supreme Command, wanted the entire German High Seas Fleet to sail out of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven naval bases on a non-authorised suicidal mission to destroy the British Grand Fleet.  His sailors sabotaged the mission by extinguishing the boiler fires of his ships and the whole dispute erupted into the Kiel Mutiny.

Losses of British dreadnoughts 1914 - 1918

Only one of the thirty-five British dreadnoughts in commission during the Great War was lost at sea. HMS Audacious, a King George V Class super-dreadnought commissioned in 1913, struck German mines laid off the coast of Northern Ireland, near Lough Swilly, on 27 October 1914. Most members of the crew were taken off Audacious, and she was taken in tow by the White Star liner RMS Olympic and the cruiser HMS Liverpool. But, in heavy seas, the tow broke several times. The remainder of the crew was taken off, and two hours later the ship capsized, exploded and sank.

A second dreadnought, HMS Vanguard, exploded, probably due to faulty ammunition, on 9 July 1917 whilst moored at Scapa Flow. She sank at anchor with 804 men lost. There were only two survivors, although fifteen officers were away on a visit to another ship and others of the crew were absent on leave and other duties.

Annexe

List of British dreadnoughts (Dreadnought to Hercules) and super-dreadnoughts (Orion to Ramillies) in service in the Great War; grouped by Class.

* = Name ship of Class.

Year Commissioned

Displacement

Main Armament

1906 Dreadnought*

18,100 tons

10 x 12-inch

1909 Bellerophon*

18,800 tons

10 x 12-inch

1909 Superb

18,800 tons

10 x 12-inch

1909 Temeraire

18,800 tons

10 x 12-inch

1910 St. Vincent*

19,560 tons

10 x 12-inch

1910 Vanguard

19,560 tons

10 x 12-inch

1910 Collingwood

19,560 tons

10 x 12-inch

1911 Neptune*

19,680 tons

10 x 12-inch

1911 Colossus*

20,225 tons

10 x 12-inch

1911 Hercules

20,225 tons

10 x 12-inch

1912 Orion*

22,200 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1912 Conqueror

22,200 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1912 Monarch

22,200 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1912 Thunderer

22,200 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1912 King George V*

23,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1913 Ajax

23,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1913 Centurion

23,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1913 Audacious

23,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1914 Iron Duke*

25,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1914 Marlborough

25,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1914 Benbow

25,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1914 Emperor of India

25,000 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1914 Queen Elizabeth*

27,500 tons

8 x 15-inch

1915 Warspite

27,500 tons

8 x 15-inch

1915 Barham

27,500 tons

8 x 15-inch

1916 Valiant

27,500 tons

8 x 15-inch

1916 Malaya

27,500 tons

8 x 15-inch

1916 Revenge*

28,000 tons

8 x 15-inch

1916 Royal Oak

28,000 tons

8 x 15-inch

1916 Royal Sovereign

28,000 tons

8 x 15-inch

1916 Resolution

28,000 tons

8 x 15-inch

1917 Ramillies

28,000 tons

8 x 15-inch

 

The following three ships were built in British yards for foreign buyers and taken over by the Royal Navy on the outbreak of war.

1914 Erin

22,780 tons

10 x 13.5-inch

1914 Agincourt

27,500 tons

14 x 12-inch

1915 Canada

28,600 tons

10 x 14-inch

 

Acknowledgements

The author and the WFA website are indebted to Mr Simon Harley who kindly took the trouble to point out some errors of omission and commission which occurred in the original article dated 2005. These points were corrected in the second 2009 revision.

This, third, edition of David Payne's article incorporates November 2009 corrections made by WFA Education.


The WFA Web Editor is always pleased to receive comments on the content of articles and suggestions for revision.

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