Sunday, February 10, 2013

Racing to World War--HMS Dreadnaught Set it Off

HMS Dreadnaught and the Home Fleet under steam.

On February 10, 1906 the Royal Navy launched the Battleship HMS Dreadnaught.  She was the sixth ship of the line to carry that name but she represented a revolution in naval armament.

When John “Jacky” Fisher became First Lord of the Sea of the Board of the Admiralty in 1904 he set out to toughly reform and rebuild a hidebound institution.  He was heavily influenced, as were top naval officers in Germany, Italy, and Japan by the theories of the American officer Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan whose 1890 book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 and subsequent studies of more modern conflicts set forth a new doctrine of achieving world power by the extension of naval power.  Mahan’s book, now known only to military and naval historians, has been called one the five most influential books of the 19th Century because it helped to set off a worldwide naval arms race.

Fisher was also impressed by the technological advances of the U.S. Navy and it Maine class battleships that had made mincemeat of the old fashion Spanish Navy in 1898.  The Japanese, adopting the same model, had crushed the Russians in 1905.  All the major sea powers now had battleships of roughly equal capacity, armament, and speed.

Fisher sent 150 obsolete ships to scrap and began an ambitious modernization and construction program that included the creation of a new class of vessel, the destroyer, fast light cruisers, and experiments with submarines.  But at the heart of his reforms were a whole new class of battleships, of which the Dreadnaught was the first.

The main innovation was the switch from mixed batteries of light and heavy guns to batteries of exclusively heavy guns capable of lethal fire at 5,000 or more yards.  This long range capacity was important as rapid advances in torpedo technology had put battleships at risk of that kind of attack at the 2000 yard ranges and under at which the Japanese engaged at the Battle of the Yalu River against the Chinese in 1894 and the American’s in Manila Bay.

The Dreadnaught featured a main battery of ten 12-inch guns, along with twenty-two 12 pounders as her secondary armament.  The revolutionary ship was also the first be powered by steam turbine instead of reciprocal engines greatly increasing her speed.  The ship was also more heavily armored than previous battleship, and armor extended further under the water line in defense of torpedoes.

Fisher knew that his efforts were not alone.  Both the Americans and Japanese laid keels for similar ships about the same time.  Using techniques he had mastered earlier as Second Sea Lord, Fisher put pressure on the ship yard Portsmouth to speed production.  He wanted to prove to the world, but particularly to the ambitious Germans, that the Royal Navy would be capable of quickly converting virtually its whole main battle line to the new class, thus discouraging, he hoped, attempts to catch up.  The keel was laid in October 1905 and she was launched the following February, an astonishingly short time.  

She was soon fitted, armed, and completed sea trials and was commissioned in December of 1906.  She was made flagship of the Home Fleet.

Far from discouraging a naval arms race, the Dreadnaught set off a frenzied new round of construction.  In Germany Kaiser Willhelm II ordered the Battle of Surigao Strait (Imperial Navy) to step up its own building program.  Most historians agree that tensions between the two empires caused by this naval arms race were a significant contributing cause of the First World War.

The Dreadnaught’s actual service life was brief.  She was quickly rendered obsolete by second generation ships.  She missed the only battle between the main German and British fleets in the war, the Battle of Jutland on May 13, 1916 because she was laid up at base in Scapa Flow for refitting. 

Her only combat action of the war was the sinking of the submarine U-29 by ramming her in March of 1915.  In the summer of 1916 she was posted to the Thames in protection of London and fired her anti-aircraft guns at German bombers.  It was the only time she ever fired any of her guns in anger.

Shortly after the war she was placed in reserve and then sold for scrap in 1921 and broken up in Scotland in January, 1923.  

The age of the great battleships, often called Dreadnaughts in her honor, was itself short lived.  Their effectiveness for fleet to fleet combat was effectively ended in the age of the aircraft carrier.  The last such combat was the Battle of Surigao Strait, part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf in October, 1944 when an American task force destroyed a Japanese force.

The Royal Navy decommissioned its last battle ship, HMS Vanguard in 1960.  The U. S. Navy used the big ships essentially as floating artillery batteries against land targets in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  Some were brought out of moth balls to be used again in the same capacity in Lebanon in 1984 and with the addition of Tomahawk missiles in the Gulf War.  The last four Iowa Class battleships, the last active dreadnaughts in the world, were decommissioned for the last time between 1989 and 1991.

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