In the early years of the 20th century a unique warship was built in Britain. Her name has been famous ever since and not because of her involvement in great sea battles or heroic actions of her crew. Quite the opposite: she spent most of her service life on mundane patrols and rather boring exercises.
What did make her special was the groundbreaking design that would revolutionize the ship building industry and forever change the very concept of naval warfare. This very special battleship was called HMS Dreadnought.
The pre-dreadnought battleships were built between the 1880s and the first decade of the 20th century. In the 1890s a typical Royal Navy sea-going warship was armed with four large caliber main guns (12 inch guns being the standard) mounted in pairs in forward and aft turrets. The main battery was supplemented by twelve medium caliber guns (typically 6 inch weapons) placed in a broadside arrangement. The lack of effective fire control largely limited the guns’ accuracy and their effective range left much to be desired: in the early days those warships could engage targets at distances that rarely exceeded 2 000 meters. In the meantime the engagement envelopes of torpedoes were growing at a quick pace which forced the warship designers to develop weapons with a long range, stand-off capability. A series of long range gunnery tests began in the Mediterranean in 1898. The guns were fired at targets from 4 500 m to 5 000 m away and led to the development of a fire control method by observation of the shell splash and adjusting the guns in train and elevation before the next salvo. On May 30, 1904 members of the committees established at Mediterranean Fleet and Channel Fleet to study the long range gunnery solutions agreed that using the splash spotting method and suitable fire control devices could yield effective engagement envelopes of up to 7 000 meters. However, there was another issue: how to differentiate between the splashes of the main gun shells and those created by secondary guns? In practice the 6 inch guns would have to hold their fire until the main guns’ broadside and that would rob the secondary guns of their main advantage – a high rate of fire. This dilemma favored the adoption of uniform, heavy armament systems on future battleships.
The concept to arm warships with a single, heavy caliber type of gun was first proposed in 1903 by the chief designer of the Italian Navy Vittorio Cuniberti. Since Cuniberti’s ideas did not impress the senior staff of the Italian Navy, he published an article in Jane’s Fighting Ships presenting his vision of a 17 000 ton battleship armed with a dozen 12 inch guns, protected by a 12 inch armor and capable of speeds of up to 24 knots. Cuniberti also proposed that the key to success in naval warfare was speed and fire power. This was the cornerstone of the “all-big-gun” concept, which quickly gained attention of the Royal Navy brass. Although the British liked the idea, they thought it was perhaps too daring. They believed that the issues of long range fire control would have to be addressed before the true potential of Cuniberti’s ideas could be realized.
In 1904 John Fisher took office as First Sea Lord, the highest post in the Royal Navy. Fisher was brought into the Admiralty with a task of reducing the ship-building budget and ensuring at the same time that the new Royal Navy vessels would be more capable and effective. Amidst massive controversy Fisher proceeded to sell 90 warships and put a further 64 into reserve service claiming they were “too weak to fight and too slow to run”. In January 1905 Fisher became President of the Committee on Designs, a body created to develop the first British “all-big-gun” battleship. Fisher had been actively lobbying for a battleship with uniform weapons since 1900, but it was not until he became First Sea Lord that he finally gained enough leverage to persuade the Admiralty to give the project a green light. Fisher’s plan was to build a battleship armed with 12 inch guns and capable of speeds of up to 21 knots. He claimed the warship could be built in less than a year and the costs of her construction and maintenance would be lower than contemporary Royal Navy vessels. Thus the idea to build HMS Dreadnought was born.
Prior to 1905 the “all-big-gun” battleship concept had been considered not only by the Royal Navy, but also by the navies of Japan and the U.S. Initially the British planned to replace the 6 inch battery with 9.2 inch weapons, thus extending the secondary guns’ range, but the idea was quickly dismissed. Lessons learned from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 – 1905 (especially the Japanese victory in the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905) clearly showed that the only guns that mattered in a naval engagement were the heaviest ones. In his analysis of the battle William Pakenham claimed that the 12 inch guns of the Japanese warships inflicted the heaviest damage, while the 10 inch shells seemed to have almost negligible effect.