Launching of the Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The launching of the Dreadnought ushered in a new era in naval technology and improved Britain’s edge in the contest for naval superiority among the European powers.

Summary of Event

By the twentieth century, the battleship was firmly established as the dominant weapon of the world’s navies. The battleship had evolved from the clumsy U.S. Civil War ironclads of the 1860’s into a relatively large and heavily armed vessel. The development of naval technology had been generally consistent in those nations building warships, so the battleships of different navies shared many characteristics. A typical battleship was armed with four main battery guns (generally of 12-inch, or 30.48-centimeter, caliber) backed by a multitude of secondary guns in the caliber range of 6 to 8 inches (15.24 to 20.32 centimeters) that were protected by armor belts 9 to 12 inches (22.86 to 30.48 centimeters) thick and propelled by piston engines. Naval technology was about to take a huge leap forward, however, as circumstances around the world influenced naval architecture. Dreadnought (ship) Ships;dreadnoughts Transportation;sea [kw]Launching of the Dreadnought (Oct. 6, 1906) [kw]Dreadnought, Launching of the (Oct. 6, 1906) Dreadnought (ship) Ships;dreadnoughts Transportation;sea [g]England;Oct. 6, 1906: Launching of the Dreadnought[01720] [c]Science and technology;Oct. 6, 1906: Launching of the Dreadnought[01720] [c]Transportation;Oct. 6, 1906: Launching of the Dreadnought[01720] Cuniberti, Vittorio Fisher, Sir John Mahan, Alfred Thayer William II

By 1900, three elements combined to create an atmosphere in which naval innovation could thrive. The most important of these was the growing international tension between Germany and its European neighbors. Having unified only in 1870, Germany was a late participant in the imperialism of the late nineteenth century. Germany could only watch as France and Great Britain carved up Africa and Asia between them. Having emerged as a European industrial power, Germany believed it was being denied a leading role in world affairs because it lacked an overseas empire. Without foreign possessions, the German emperor, William II, opted in 1897 to use naval power as a means to wield influence, with plans to double the size of the imperial navy in seven years. England, whose economy relied on sea communications, could not allow a threat to its century-old naval domination, and so it prepared to answer Germany’s challenge to a naval arms race.

The second element was navalism, a philosophy that equated naval power with national status. The prophet of navalism was a U.S. officer, Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose book The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890) Influence of Sea Power upon History, The (Mahan) provided naval officers and politicians around the world with justification to build large fleets. Mahan claimed that the most successful societies have been naval powers, with their ability to control sea communications and commerce. To ensure control, navies needed battleships and colonies around the world as supply bases. Because Mahan justified the acquisition of empires and large navies, Europe, the United States, and Japan seized on his theories to ensure large naval budgets.

Naval technology was the final element, as several innovations were perfected at the beginning of the twentieth century, primarily fire control and propulsion. The largest problem facing naval gunnery in 1900 was range finding. Gunners had difficulty hitting targets that were obscured by smoke and constantly moving on a featureless ocean. Anticipated battle range was approximately 4,000 yards (3,657.6 meters), the effective range of a telescopic sight. Battleships thus carried many secondary guns, as battles would take place well within their limited range, much less the longer range of the four main battery guns. New inventions, such as optical range finders and mechanical plotting boards (essentially mechanical computers), allowed accurate fire to beyond 10,000 yards (9,144 meters), the range of the main batteries, by 1905. Propulsion also benefited from new innovation. Turbine engines, which had fewer moving parts and were thus more reliable than piston machinery, were first experimented with in 1897, and smaller warships began to be fitted with turbines by 1905.

With these three elements together, an atmosphere existed in which a technological leap was not only possible but probable. The only thing missing was an event that would shape how the next battleships would appear. That event took place on May 27, 1905, in the Tsushima Strait, between Korea and Japan. Russian and Japanese competition for influence in Manchuria and Korea had led to war in February, 1904, and, following the destruction of Russia’s Asiatic Fleet, its Baltic Fleet was ordered to the Pacific. Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)[Russojapanese War] In May, 1905, the outmaneuvered Russian fleet was decisively defeated by the faster Japanese navy. Naval observers hurried to determine the lessons of the Battle of Tsushima Tsushima, Battle of (1905) and emerged with two conclusions: Accurate firepower at long range was absolutely vital, and the faster fleet had many tactical advantages. Coupled with international tension, navalism, and emerging technologies, the lessons of Tsushima formed the theoretical basis of the dreadnought-type battleship.

The powerful battleship Dreadnought featured turbine engines.

(Naval Historical Center)

The first person to attempt to put theory into practice was Vittorio Cuniberti, a naval architect in the Italian navy. In 1903, Cuniberti published plans for a swift battleship armed with no less than twelve 12-inch guns and no secondary armament. Influenced by the Battle of Tsushima, Cuniberti designed the ship on two premises. First, the large number of heavy guns, aimed by the new range-finding devices, could destroy any current battleship before its secondary batteries could come into range. Second, Cuniberti’s swift battleship could decide when and under what conditions battle would occur. The Italians, with their limited naval budget, rejected Cuniberti’s design, but the project caught the attention of the driving force behind Great Britain’s Royal Navy, Admiral Sir John Fisher.

Fisher was a man receptive to new ideas. Having risen through the ranks from cabin boy to commander of the Royal Navy, Fisher was not constrained by traditional methods of doing things. Cuniberti’s design intrigued him, for it seemed to fulfill two objectives: The new battleship would ensure Great Britain’s technological dominance over the encroaching Germans, and it would increase the Royal Navy’s firepower. To refine Cuniberti’s design, Fisher created the Committee on Designs in December, 1904, to produce a final blueprint for a ship to be named Untakeable. In addition to Fisher, the committee consisted of naval designers, civilian scientists, gunnery officers, and representatives from naval intelligence who reported on the latest German naval efforts.

Untakeable’s design emerged from committee in May, 1905, and it reflected not only Cuniberti’s theories but also particular British requirements. The ship had ten 12-inch guns, which were sited to allow heavy fire in any direction. Fisher had insisted on maximum firepower ahead, presuming that in battle the Royal Navy would have to chase fleeing German ships. Untakeable thus had three twin turrets pivoting on the centerline, with two twin turrets on either side of the bridge, allowing six guns to fire ahead or astern and eight guns to fire on the broadside. Prominent in Untakeable’s blueprint was a fire control tower, where officers could employ the new range-finding systems. The only other armament would be several small, rapid-fire guns to counter enemy torpedo boats; all other armament was dispensed with, causing some controversy among naval traditionalists.

Controversy also arose over the choice of propulsion systems. In order to give Untakeable a speed advantage over contemporaneous battleships (which traveled at about sixteen knots), the Committee on Designs wanted a top speed of twenty-one knots. Piston engines could not achieve this speed; the only way to attain the desired speed on a hull weighing eighteen thousand tons was to use the new turbine engines. Using such a new technology on a project as important as this one caused the committee great concern, but the advantages outnumbered the risks, and Untakeable received turbine engines.

As the ship was laid down at the Royal Navy Dockyard in Portsmouth, Fisher declared that it would be built in one year. A battleship typically required three years for construction, but Fisher had several reasons for wanting to hurry. First, a rapid construction time would generate good public relations for the new ship. Second, completion would forestall opposition to the new design. Finally, the sudden arrival of the new ship might deter the Germans.

The keel of the ship was laid on October 2, 1905, and the hull was ready for launching on February 10, 1906. Rather than using the name Untakeable, King Edward VII christened the ship Dreadnought, the eighth Royal Navy ship to bear the name. (The first had fought the Spanish Armada in 1688, and a later Dreadnought had served with Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar.) The ship then received its guns, engines, and other internal systems before leaving Portsmouth for sea trials on October 6, 1906, missing Fisher’s deadline by only one day.

Significance

The successful completion of this new type of battleship had important effects on naval construction among all the world’s Great Powers. The initial announcement of the Dreadnought’s successful trials was the equivalent of saying that all the other battleships of the world were now obsolete. As a result, most countries stopped constructing battleships while they designed more modern ships.

The building of the Dreadnought has remained a turning point in naval architecture. The ship’s name was appropriated for the battleship types that followed: Any subsequent battleship armed with a single-caliber battery became known as a dreadnought, and those battleships that came before 1905 were pre-dreadnoughts. Dreadnoughts remained the focus of naval doctrine until the emergence of the aircraft carrier during World War II. Dreadnought (ship) Ships;dreadnoughts Transportation;sea

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hodges, Peter. The Big Gun: Battleship Main Armament, 1860-1945. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1981. Discusses battleship armament from the first ironclads to the last dreadnought, with an emphasis on the adoption of single-caliber armament in 1906.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Massie, Robert K. Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War. 1991. Reprint. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. A voluminous study of the political and military impact of the Anglo-German naval arms race.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Padfield, Peter. Battleship. Rev. ed. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2001. A complete history of the battleship by a well-respected naval historian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Great Naval Race: The Anglo-German Naval Rivalry, 1900-1914. New York: David McKay, 1974. The standard reference on this topic of naval history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, John. The Battleship Dreadnought: Anatomy of the Ship. Rev. ed. London: Conway Maritime Press, 2003. A highly technical study of the Dreadnought’s design, with many illustrations of internal systems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sandler, Stanley. Battleships: An Illustrated History of Their Impact. Denver, Colo.: ABC-Clio, 2004. Covers wooden battleships circa 2000 b.c.e. through steamships, dreadnoughts, and later ships, focusing on the impact of the ships on warfare style and effectiveness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simkins, Peter J. Battleship: The Development and Decline of the Dreadnought. London: Imperial War Museum, 1979. A study of the dreadnought era, from its inception to its replacement by the aircraft carrier.

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