Sunday, February 10, 2008

Today In History: Superweapon.

By the opening years of the 20th Century, the battleship had become an increasingly baroque creature. In the fifty years since steel and steam replaced wood and canvas, designers of battleships had crammed them as chock full of guns of all different calibers as they could, mounted in a bewildering array of turrets, casemates, barbettes, and holes cut in the hull. Needless to say, this made something of a hash out of shooting, since every gun crew was more or less on their own; there was no point in even trying to coordinate the ranging efforts of two guns of two different calibers mounted at two different elevations on the ship. Meanwhile, the entire creaky edifice was powered through the ocean blue by an engine only marginally more sophisticated than the one used to push old Number 9 down the tracks.

On this date in 1906, every battleship then afloat became instantly obsolete when the British Royal Navy launched HMS Dreadnought. Powered by high-tech steam turbines, the Dreadnought had only one caliber of main armament. Her twelve-inch main guns, mounted in pairs in powered turrets, were directed by mast-mounted spotting stations that could observe the splashes caused by the fall of shot and transmit corrections to a central control station over the first electric fire direction system used in a capital ship.

Of course, every nation in the world immediately wanted one. Pretty soon, you were nobody if you didn't have a "dreadnought". Banana republics mortgaged the national wealth to have British shipyards make one just for them. They became too valuable to risk, such was the amount of money and national prestige tied up in them. Whole battlefleets would spend whole wars mouldering away in harbor, lest they actually be exposed to the risk of being sunk. In the forty years between their invention and their ultimate eclipse by the aircraft carrier and submarine, dreadnoughts squared off in high seas combat only a handful of times, and usually with fairly inconclusive results.

But they sure do look cool.


Jeffro said...

Yeah, and those pesky little airplanes could sink 'em right off. Just no honor in it at all, dern the luck.

Anonymous said...

What strikes me is how short of a life span it had and how slow it was. Both of which are a modern perspective.

Roberta X said...

Boys (an' tomboys, too) + money + excessive free time = dreadnoughts.

But what Tam said: those things were the bejazus. Okay, okay, way more "floatable art" than deterrent, vulnerable to all manner of asymmetrical attack and yet, still: dayh-yam.

Anonymous said...

With modern anti missile systems, and good surface to air technology both becoming very good, and very cheap, we may yet see a return of the big gun ship.

Nothing, and I mean nothing pours on a barrage like an Iowa class.

Anonymous said...

Yes, imagine the war in the Pacific if it had been the carriers sunk at Pearl instead of the battle wagons.

staghounds said...

Jacky Fisher, who designed Dreadnought, said in (I think) 1916 that they were obsolete. His comment was something like"

"A dreadnought costs about two million pounds, travels at twenty five knots, and has a gun range of about twenty miles. An aeroplane and a torpedo together cost three thousand pounds, travel at fifty knots, and have a range of a hundred miles or more. Q.E.D."

Anonymous said...

They do look cool. My father served on the "Wisconsin" in the late 50's. One aspect of those battlewagons was they could take some punishment, as they were pretty well armored (but not always correctly, as in the "HMS Hood"). I don't think today's naval vessels have much, if any, armor.

staghounds said...

Anything (non aesthetic) a giant floating target can do with guns, something that's not a giant floating target can do better without them.

The jury is still out on modern aircraft carriers. The Admiral commanding one might get a nasty shock one day, if General VanRiper's performance is repeated in real life.

Anonymous said...

Vulnerabilities, practical application, and effectiveness aside, there's a certain majesty to that breed of capital ships. I had the good fortune to go aboard several preserved specimens as a young man. And even now thinking about it, I could almost jump in the car and head for Wilmington to see the "North Carolina" again. She's the closest to me at the moment, only 180 miles away.

Jellico, Scheer, Jutland, "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today." "Hood" and "Bismarck." The giants "Yamato" and "Musashi." The loss of the "Arizona." The formal surrender aboard "Missouri."

And the first shots of the first Gulf War came from an "Iowa" class battleship. Remember Iraqis in droves surrendering to the camera drone spotting for those 16" guns?

Anonymous said...

Yes aeroplanes are more cost effective, and yes they can be every bit as efficacious. However, nothing else on the seas is as intimidating as a Battleship. They have guns that fire VolksWagens fer chissakes. The intimidation factor alone makes them useful. Gunboat diplomacy utilised the intimidation factor of the gunboats, which is not something that can be duplicated with airpower. While I will admit that airpower can be more destructive, it doesn't just float on the ocean or river waiting for you to do something stupid.

Anonymous said...

Can't help but think they'd make a decent platform for some of the larger weapons being worked on.

Buford T Justice said...

The battleship BB62, New Jersey was over the horizon from my Aircraft Carrier (USS Independence, CV62) off the coast of Lebanon, late '83- Feb '84.
That Battleship would light-up the sky firing her 16" guns at Shiite and Druze positions around Beirut.
I'm a little slanted toward the Birds, however, having been a Com/Nav/Wep Tech and flight deck troubleshooter/final checker for an A-7e squadron.
There is something to be said for the ability to lob an Explosive projectile, the weight of a VW, 24 miles, though.
Great story!

alath said...

In what I have read of these ships and their battles, the thing that stands out most to me is how many horrible ways there are to die on board a battleship. Scalding to Death would have to rank up there among the worst possible fates. In the pre-turbine era, Crushed in Machinery could not have been fun. Trapped in Slowly Flooding Compartment Upside Down, Eviscerated by Shrapnel, Roasted in Compartment Surrounded by Fire... these and many others. Incinerated by Flash - the usual fate of turret and munitions handling crews when magazines were ignited - would be realatively merciful by comparison.

Buford T Justice said...

" many horrible ways there are to die on board .."

Dang right!
What many people don't realize is all the inherent dangers associated with *many* weapon systems/ships.
There's a phrase they use on the deck of an Aircraft Carrier, "Keep your head on a swivel". We had safety posters that said there were 19 *easy* ways to die on the deck and none be your fault.

Rabbit said...

We still have an example of a Dreadnought; the USS Texas is at anchor in San Jacinto. She's the oldest remaining example of the class.

Well worth an afternoon if you're around Houston, not to mention the hallowed ground surrounding her.


Anonymous said...


Your kidding?

To do the Texas right you need at least a day if not two. Then go and walk around San Jacinto to remember why at one time Texas did not belong to Mexico, something that cannot be said anymore.

Finally run down to Galveston and view the Submarine they have up on shore. I went through that one with a friends father that served aboard one just like it. He told us all about where his duty station was and what he did. Fascinating!

Cybrludite said...

" many horrible ways there are to die on board .."

One of my cow-orkers is a retired Master Chief. His description of how they would find steam leaks was to has someone walk down the passageway waving a broom in front of him. When the broomstick got cut in half, they'd found the leak.