On October 18, 1906, every battleship in the world, save one, became irrelevant. On that day, the waters of the English Channel churned under a frightful salvo fired from the eight 12-inch guns of a new British warship, HMS Dreadnought. Naval experts had predicted the recoil from this barrage would damage and perhaps even sink the steel leviathan. But as bluish cordite smoke faded over the waters and the echoes of the guns’ thunder died down, Britannia realized it had not just launched a battleship, it had started a revolution.
The ship that shocked naval ministries around the world was the product of the fertile mind of Sir John A. Fisher, the Admiralty’s first sea lord. Putting to sea in 1854, “Jacky” Fisher had come up through the ranks in a navy that was making the uncertain transition from sail to steam, and in the process he built his reputation as the Royal Navy’s most relentless voice of reform.
Appointed director of naval ordnance in 1886, Admiral Fisher helped develop a quick-firing breechloading gun and sped innovations in torpedo and mine technology. By 1904, when he was appointed first sea lord (director of fleet operations), he was determined to replace the dogma of Queen Victoria’s navy with a technologically advanced fleet.
The Royal Navy of 1904 was dominated by old, slow battleships dating back to the Sans Pareil class, laid down in 1885. Long-range guns were rarely used except in target practice, where they were embarrassingly inaccurate except at short ranges. Fisher’s dream was to scrap the old expensive ships of the line in favor of fast, heavily armed but lightly armored battle cruisers.
The blow fell when Fisher took 154 warships out of active service. In cutting out the venerated battleships that had maintained Queen Victoria’s empire for generations, Fisher repeated his clarion call for reform, enjoining his subordinates: “No pandering to sentiment! No regard for susceptibilities! No pity for anyone! We must be ruthless, relentless and remorseless!” Over the next three years, Fisher’s reforms cut 5.4 million pounds sterling from the navy’s annual budget, and he was about to put the savings into something entirely new.
In December 1904, Fisher formed the Commission on Designs to produce drawings for an ultramodern capital ship. The proposed vessel had to meet two basic requirements: It needed to sustain a top speed of 21 knots, and it had to mount an offensive battery consisting only of 12-inch guns.
The second requirement was a radical departure from the past. The latest battleships of the Royal Navy, the King Edward VII class, typically carried a mixed battery of four 12-inch guns, four 9.2-inch guns and 10 6-inch guns. The problem, as Fisher saw it, was fire control. The trajectory of each gun type differed, so once a 6-inch gun found its mark on an enemy target, the elevation and propellant for that gun could not be transmitted to the others. The heavier guns would have to find the correct angle and powder charge for themselves amid a confusing medley of shell splashes. Furthermore, if the smaller guns were inadequate to penetrate enemy armor, or lacked the range to hit the enemy, the battleship effectively would be fighting with only four guns.
With an all-big-gun battlewagon, only one range needed to be found. The six heavy guns mounted on the ship’s centerline, plus another two at each waist position, could throw a broadside of 6,800 pounds of steel and explosives, smashing an unlucky foe with great precision. For protection against torpedo boats, the new vessel would carry secondary armament of 27 12-pounder guns, five torpedo tubes and side-mounted torpedo netting.
The speed requirement proved tougher to meet. King Edward VII, then the Royal Navy’s most advanced battleship, could only sustain 18.5 knots for short periods before its engines broke down. The navy’s standard reciprocating engines were simply unreliable under the stress of a long cruise. The only engine that could run fast and long enough to meet Fisher’s requirement was the Parsons steam turbine engine. That engine used steam to turn a series of fan blades attached to a shaft, which in turn drove the propeller screws. Although the new steam turbine had proved itself in smaller vessels, it had never been installed in a battleship. But Fisher, caring little for criticism and even less for established convention, quickly approved the steam turbine for his new vessel.
Fisher’s design committee suggested a few other departures from established naval architecture. Whereas for centuries commands had been issued from the quarterdeck, the committee mounted a fire control center on a tripod tower high above the deck, where the vantage point was better and smoke from the big guns would not obscure the observers’ views. The ship’s ram—a throwback to the days of wooden hulls, revived during the American Civil War—was also omitted as useless on a modern gun platform. Watertight doors below decks were eliminated in favor of compartmentalizing, so that each vertical slice of the ship could only be reached from the upper deck, reducing the chance that a single puncture would become a fatal flood.
Once the basic design was settled on, Admiral Fisher had to worry about construction time and cost. In modern times, no vessel had gone from commencement to completion in less than 31 months. Fisher, determined to show the king and Parliament that his new ship design could be built in less time than its predecessors, laid down a nonnegotiable deadline for his builders: The vessel had to be completed, start to finish, within 12 months. In a democracy, cost was always another worry, and Fisher, aware of the political opposition his program would stoke, decreed that the new ship could not cost significantly more than the two battleships ordered just before his appointment as first sea lord.
Construction began at the Royal Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth on October 2, 1905, and the hull rapidly took shape. Prefabricated plates were riveted to ribs, engines were mounted, and decking was laid by a construction crew that would grow to 3,000 workers (the superstructure and guns would be added after the ship was launched). Within 18 weeks the hull was complete. The new ship was christened Dreadnought (short for “dread nought but God”), a name first given to a warship sent against the Spanish Armada of 1588.
On February 10, 1906, King Edward VII launched the unarmed vessel to the cheers of an estimated 60,000 Britons. It was as much an industrial as a military triumph. As the Manchester Guardian remarked after the ceremony, “One felt that the workmen from Barrow and Sheffield and Renfrew who have worked at her armour and machinery and boilers ought also to have been here to toss their caps, for if our supremacy is based upon our constructing improved types of warships, even more than in fighting them, then it is not the sailor and the marine who should have first place in a launching ceremony.”
After launching, the ship’s superstructure was raised, engines were installed, 12-inch guns were mounted on its deck turrets, and Dreadnought pushed off for its sea trials on October 1. Steaming at flank speed—21 knots—for an eight-hour sprint, it performed admirably. One favorable report after another was relayed back to the bridge.
Before gun tests were held on October 18, critics claimed that the shock of eight 12-inch guns fired simultaneously would damage or perhaps even sink the warship. Officers, holding their breath, watched the guns roar and waited for reports from the ship’s departments to come in. There hadn’t been the slightest damage. In fact, sailors eating in the mess hall below decks barely knew what happened when firing commenced.
Dreadnought was accepted into the Royal Navy on December 11, 1906, establishing a modern battleship production record. It was designated the flagship of the Home Fleet, and plans were made to start building three similar vessels in early 1907. Jane’s Fighting Ships, which had obtained key details of Dreadnought’s construction, summed up the conventional naval wisdom of the time: “Dreadnought should easily be equal in battleworthiness to any two, probably to three, of most of the ships now afloat.”
News of the powerful floating behemoth’s rapid completion sent shock waves through admiralties around the world. United States President Theodore Roosevelt, a former assistant secretary of the Navy, hustled a bill through Congress to fund two all-big-gun battleships, South Carolina and Michigan. Japan, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia and France soon began constructing similar battleships of their own. Before long, “dreadnought” became the generic name for any high-performance, all-big-gun ship, and capital ships of earlier design were referred to almost derisively as “pre-dreadnoughts.”
But it was within the Continent’s greatest land power, Imperial Germany, that Dreadnought’s appearance had the most profound effect. Kaiser Wilhelm II, a nephew of Edward VII, had long been jealous of Britannia’s supremacy on the waves. The impressionable kaiser correctly perceived Dreadnought as a great equalizer—Britain’s huge advantage in old capital ships would count for nothing if Germany could keep pace with British production of dreadnoughts.
Wilhelm ordered his naval secretary, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, to match British dreadnought production. Soon work began on his first four dreadnoughts, each mounting 12 11-inch guns and slightly slower but more heavily armored than their British counterparts. In 1908 Germany launched its first dreadnought, SMS Nassau.
The British government was stung by the German challenge. While Pax Britannia was reaching its zenith, Britain had maintained a “two-power standard,” which decreed that the Royal Navy should exceed the might of the next two largest navies combined. As an island dependent on its colonies and sea trade, the British government took as gospel that it could protect its empire only with a fleet that ruled the waves. If Germany, which had the most powerful army on the Continent, fielded a navy that could command the North Sea even for a short time, it could threaten the British homeland with invasion.
Winston Churchill, then first lord of the Admiralty, summed up the British perspective in a secret memorandum to Canada’s prime minister in August 1912:
Great Britain can never violate German territory even after a defeat of that Power at sea, her Army not being organised or strong enough for such an undertaking. Germany with her large Army could, however, if she chose, invade and conquer Great Britain after a successful naval campaign in the North Sea….A decisive battle lost at sea by Germany would still leave her the greatest Power in Europe. A decisive battle lost at sea by Great Britain would for ever ruin the United Kingdom, would shatter the British Empire to its foundations, and change profoundly the destiny of its component parts.
In the face of Germany’s naval buildup, King Edward’s ministers tried vainly to convince the kaiser to scale back his naval program. In the 1907 and 1908 program years, Germany had added four Nassau-class dreadnoughts to its High Seas Fleet. More followed, and by November 1914, three months after hostilities broke out, Germany had produced 17 world-class battleships, with two more under construction.
British ministers believed England had no choice but to enlarge its battle fleet to keep pace. Between 1906 and June 1914, British shipyards added 20 dreadnoughts to the fleet’s roster in seven classes, the largest of which—the Iron Duke class— carried 10 13.5-inch guns and displaced 25,000 tons while still maintaining Dreadnought’s 21-knot maximum speed.
The German naval threat also pushed Britain firmly into the arms of France, by pressuring Britain to pull warships out of other theaters to protect the home waters. As Fisher recognized during the year Dreadnought was launched: “Our only probable enemy is Germany. Germany keeps her whole Fleet always concentrated within a few hours of England. We must therefore keep a Fleet twice as powerful concentrated within a few hours of Germany.”
In 1912 Britain withdrew most of its Mediterranean fleet for deployment in the English Channel and North Sea while France moved its ships from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean to defend against Germany’s allies, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Churchill summed up the matter in his usual melodramatic fashion: “With every rivet that von Tirpitz drove into his ship of war, he united British opinion…. The hammers that clanged at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven were forging the coalition of nations by which Germany was to be resisted.”
When war broke out in August 1914, Dreadnought was serving as the flagship of the 4th Battle Squadron. On March 18, 1915, the great battleship made its first and only kill: the German submarine U-29, which it sank by ramming, an irony surely not lost on the designers who had modernized Dreadnought by omitting its ram bow.
The long-awaited clash of dreadnoughts came on May 31, 1916, at Jutland, in the North Sea between Denmark, Norway and Britain. British Admiral John Jellicoe’s fleet of 28 British dreadnoughts and nine battle cruisers faced German Vice Adm. Reinhart Scheer’s 16 dreadnoughts, five battle cruisers and an assortment of pre-dreadnoughts.
After a battle that lasted for two days, the kaiser’s High Seas Fleet retreated to its base at Wilhemshaven with six damaged dreadnoughts but only one total loss. The pre-dreadnoughts in Jellicoe’s Home Fleet were significantly damaged, but control of the North Sea remained in British hands. Deterred from further offensive operations, Germany’s High Seas Fleet remained bottled up in port for the rest of the war, and in June 1919 it was scuttled by its commanders to avoid surrender.
After the war, Dreadnought was pulled from the 4th Squadron and sent to Sheness as the 3rd Battle Squadron’s local flagship. On March 31, 1920, it was decommissioned and sold to the British shipping firm of T. Ward & Company.
Taken to Inverkeithing, in central Scotland, the massive ship that launched a naval revolution was broken up for scrap in 1923.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.