Strange times, interesting ships
By Mike Creasy
1906 saw the completion of a revolutionary new class of battleship – the dreadnought.
Lead ship of the class - HMS Dreadnought - brought together the latest technology in guns, armour, speed and endurance. Dreadnought was such a radical advance that all the big naval powers recognized the need to update their now obsolete fleets of pre-dreadnought ships. A naval building boom was on, with England, France, Russia and Japan leading the charge.
Not wanting to be left out, Prussia’s Kaiser William insisted on some new toys for his bathtub. After all, the Kaiser was a grandson of Queen Victoria and a regular at the Cowes yacht race, where he liked to beat his Uncle Bertie – the future King Edward VII. He liked the big ships, and was an honorary Admiral in the Royal Navy……as well as a Grand Admiral of the German Navy, an Admiral of the Imperial Russian Navy, and an Admiral in the Royal Navies of Sweden, Denmark and Norway.
With so many extravagant naval uniforms in his closet, it was no surprise that he wanted his very own rubber duckies, sorry, dreadnoughts.
In order not to lose valuable play time, Kaiser Bill hired Otto von Tirpitz to oversee the construction of a new Prussian/German Navy. Tirpitz did a masterful job, with powerful new dreadnoughts sliding down the ways at a great rate. Of course, the Grand Admiral had a slightly different agenda from the Kaiser. William wanted a suitable flagship and fleet to parade before his Uncle, while Tirpitz wanted to build a serious blue water navy with which to extend German influence.
Regardless, the new German dreadnoughts were some of the most powerful and advanced warships of the new dreadnought era. They were fast (up to 28 knots), well armoured, and had big guns mounted in centreline turrets (as opposed to single guns in side mounts used in pre-dreadnought fleets).
One minor little exception to all this technogical leaping.
Communications. Still done with flags and semaphore as in the days of Nelson. You can almost imagine it – the bushy eyebrowed old admiral saying …harrumph, move the second flotilla to the left flank… and the word speeds down the voice tube to the flag office, the signal hoist is made up, and repeated through the fleet until it eventually gets to the flotilla. What happens if things change, or if the flotilla commander has a question??? Or, if visibility was bad and the signal flags weren’t seen?
You get the picture. Communications were terrible, but they were adequate. Captains were issued fleet battle orders and the admiral’s specific wishes could be signalled because naval battles were generally fought at short range – less than 5,000 yards – where all ships were close together and signal flags could be seen.
Up until now…..
10 to 14 inch guns had been around for over twenty years by the time Dreadnought hit the water. These guns were known to be able to fire a projectile 15,000 yards or more, but were considered to be too inaccurate to use beyond 5,000 yards. Aiming was done by individual gunlayers using the Mark 1 eyeball.
Fleet actions at very short range were the norm because there was no other risk; torpedoes were only lethal at similar ranges (1 to 3,000 yards) and nobody had a better main gun aiming system. Now, two major changes for dreadnought fleet commanders.
First, a new propulsion system (the heater system) made torpedoes lethal out to 5,000 yards or more. Second, a new analog computer system to aid in gun aiming, meaning that big guns could be accurate out to 10,000 yards or more.
Now, fleet commanders had to stay further away from the enemy to avoid torpedo attack while fighting the big gun battle. And they needed to stay away from accurate long-range enemy gunfire. As well, components of each fleet were more widely separated than before, making flags and semaphore almost useless in the smoke of battle.
Mr. Marconi’s recent invention had been taken up by both fleets, but was very limited in it’s application and seldom used in intra-ship signalling. Wireless signalling had its own set of problems, which was one of the reasons it wasn’t more widely used as yet.
The shortcomings of the flag/semaphore system were highlighted during the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, when Admiral Beatty signalled a turn towards the enemy early in the battle. Flag signals were passed along throught the ponderous lines of battleships, battlecruisers, cruisers and destroyers, but one line of battleships missed the signal.
All the other ships in the fleet turned as ordered, but the big new battleship HMS Barham and her three sister ships sailed on.
Aboard Barham, intense oral communications ensued as Admiral Evan-Thomas was urged by his staff to follow suit. But Evan-Thomas was of the old school, and no action would occur without orders! In the ensuing confusion, Beatty’s squadron lost the opportunity to strike an early blow as Admiral Scheer’s small force of battlecruisers disappeared into the haze.
The Battle of Jutland continued for the better part of two days as both fleets struggled to find the enemy. Who won is still a matter of perspective, as the British lost more ships but achieved their strategic objective of keeping the German fleet bottled up in the Baltic for the rest of the war.
Many lessons in ship design and battle tactics were available to be learned from Jutland. Unfortunately, not all were applied to the design of one of the greatest warships ever built. Her keel was laid on September 1, 1916 at John Brown’s Clydebank shipyard and her name is still well known; HMS Hood.
Castles of Steel, Robert K. Massie, Random House, 2003
Big Fleet Actions, Eric Grove, Brockhampton Press, 1998
Naval Battles of the First World War, Geoffrey Bennett, Penguin, 1968/2001