On this day, 110 years ago, the world changed. The Royal Navy launched HMS Dreadnought. With this single act every other battleship on the planet became obsolete. It is difficult today to imagine the impact a single weapon had on the world.
The navies of the world ordered dreadnoughts and an arms race began. All battle-ships extant were now labelled “pre-dreadnoughts”.
Conceived by Jacky Fisher, first Sea Lord of the Admiralty, this ship was different to all that came before. Primary differences were in her steam turbine engines and her gunnery. She was the first capital ship to be powered by steam turbines, and was immediately the fastest ship of the line in the World. Added to this was the advantage of mounting only 12 inch guns.
Before Dreadnought navies were experimenting with various mixes of heavy, medium and light caliber guns. They often had blind spots for their larger ordnance. A good example of this is the USS Maine which had deck section cutaways to allow large guns to traverse, but did not have all round fire capability.
Dreadnought has clean decks which allow the big guns to sweep and elevate at will. She is a ship designed as a mobile platform, intended to fire on the move at moving targets.
In WW1 the Fischer philosophy proved itself correct. A ship with 12 inch guns could destroy a flotilla of enemies armed with 8 inch guns before the smaller ships could even close to firing range.
But the reign of the battleship was short. In WW2 the Bismarck was lost to a torpedo from an obsolete biplane. The Italian navy was destroyed in Taranto by british aircraft and most famously, the US capital ships were lost in Pearl Harbour to Japanese carrier based aircraft.
The great 12 inch guns were no match in range, power and accuracy for bombs and torpedoes dropped by aircraft. In defending ships from attack by aircraft the big guns were useless. They were replaced by a plethora of pom-poms, ack-ack, ‘Chicago Pianos’, Flak and heavy machine guns.
Channel Firing ; by Thomas Hardy
That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day
And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,
The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:
“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.
“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening….
“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”
So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”
And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”
Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.