State-of-the-art battleship armament in the late nineteenth century involved a mix of large- and small-caliber weapons. Naval architects believed that most engagements would take place within the range of the smaller guns, and that a variety of guns would combine penetrating power with volume. Indeed, some argued that large armored ships with small weapons (armored cruisers, which were roughly the same size as battleships) could defeat battleships by saturating them with fire.
However, developments in optics and improvements in gun accuracy at the beginning of the twentieth century began to tilt the balance towards heavier guns. The increased accuracy meant that ships could engage and expect hits at previously unimagined distances, giving an advantage to bigger, longer-ranged weapons. Some were concerned that the high rate of fire of smaller guns was mitigated by the fact that it was difficult to acquire the range by gun splashes when there were so many splashes around the target. This meant that the presence of smaller weapons could make it more difficult to get hits with larger guns. In 1904, the Japanese and the Americans began thinking about “all big gun” ships, which would carry a larger main armament at the expense of the secondary weapons. Satsuma, laid down in 1905, was designed to carry twelve twelve-inch guns, but ended up carrying four twelve-inch and twelve ten-inch guns, because of a shortage of twelve-inch barrels. The slower Americans didn’t lay down South Carolina (which would carry eight twelve-inch guns in four twin turrets) until December 1906, about the time that HMS Dreadnought entered service.
In October 1905 John “Jackie” Fisher became First Sea Lord. Fisher was, in an organizational sense, a committed revolutionary. He retired many of the older ships and set others to reduced commission. His vision of the Royal Navy centered on a new kind of ship—the battlecruiser—that would have the speed and armament to either destroy or run away from any potential foe. This would answer the threat posed by German merchant cruisers (or French armored cruisers), while also providing for a powerful offensive capability. The Admiralty agreed to pursue the battlecruiser project, but also called for significant attention to the line of battle. Fisher compromised on a new design for a battleship, to be called Dreadnought. The Royal Navy has used the name Dreadnought (meaning “fear nothing”) throughout its history (a Dreadnought served with Nelson at Trafalgar, for example), with the 1906 version being the sixth to carry the moniker. The name was later applied to the Royal Navy’s first nuclear attack submarine.
Dreadnought, like Satsuma and South Carolina, would carry a single main armament of large guns, rather than the mixed armament of previous ships. But Fisher wanted more than big guns. What distinguished Dreadnought from South Carolina or Satsuma was the decision to use turbines instead of reciprocating engines, resulting in a higher speed, faster cruising and less vibration. It was this contribution that helped make Dreadnought a revolutionary design. Neither the Americans nor the Japanese had envisioned their new ships as part of a fundamental break with the past. USS South Carolina was built onto the hull of a Connecticut-class pre-dreadnought with what amounted to a rearranged armament. It could have (and eventually did) operated at the head of a squadron of pre-dreadnoughts without difficulty or embarrassment.
Dreadnought, on the other hand, rendered the previous battleships of the world obsolete at a stroke. Displacing 18,200 tons, it carried ten twelve-inch guns in five twin turrets, and could make twenty-one knots. Carrying a large number of heavy, long range guns and having a higher speed than any contemporary meant that it could destroy extant battleships at range. Later battleships would have to be modeled upon Dreadnought; thus, it gave its name to a type of warship.
The British didn’t believe that superfiring turrets (one turret stacked above another) would work, and, in their defense, superfiring experiments in American battleships had yielded poor results. Consequently, they arranged the turrets one fore, two aft and one on each wing. This gave Dreadnought an eight-gun broadside and six-gun head-on fire in either direction. Dreadnought was armored on roughly the same scale as the Lord Nelson class, the final pre-dreadnoughts constructed by the Royal Navy.
Dreadnought became Fisher’s political cause. Fisher began stockpiling material for Dreadnought before finalizing the design, and delayed all other construction to accelerate its completion. Indeed, the construction of the two Lord Nelson–class battleships was so delayed by the concentration on Dreadnought that they weren’t commissioned until 1908. Laid down in October 1905 (five months after Satsuma), it was launched in February 1906, and commissioned in December 1906 (accounts vary as to whether on the third, sixth, or eleventh of the month).
Its construction forced the navies of the world to reinvent their own battleship designs, with the result that Dreadnought remained the most powerful ship in the world for only a brief period of time. By 1910, even Brazil (through British contracts) owned more powerful battleships than Dreadnought. But however quickly other ships might have eclipsed Dreadnought, it so clearly outclassed everything that had come before that the preceding ships were considered obsolescent and virtually useless for frontline service.
Its actual service in war was less consequential. Dreadnought served as flagship of the Home Fleet until 1912, eventually taking a secondary role as newer and larger battleships entered service. Still, it remained a squadron flagship while stayed with the Grand Fleet. On March 18, 1915, the German U-boat U-29 slipped into Pentland Firth (in the Orkneys) to attack the Grand Fleet at exercise. The U-boat inadvertently surfaced after firing its torpedoes, and hunted down by the nearby Dreadnought, which rammed it at speed, sinking the German submarine. Dreadnought is the only battleship to ever sink a submarine. Ironically, the number of dreadnoughts sunk by submarine in World War I is smaller than the number of submarines sunk by Dreadnought.
Dreadnought missed the Battle of Jutland while in refit, and served for a while as flagship of a squadron of pre-dreadnoughts stationed on the Thames, intended to deter German battlecruisers from bombarding English coastal towns. Although it returned to the Grand Fleet in March 1918, it was placed in reserve when the war ended, and scrapped in 1923. It survived Baron John Fisher (who had taken “Fear god and dread nought” on his family’s coat of arms) by three years.
It’s interesting to consider what modern battleships would have been called if another ship had preceded Dreadnought. Would the navies of the world have come to call their battleships “South Carolinas” or “Satsumas”? Unlikely; “Dreadnought” has just the right ring of menace for a revolutionary killing machine.
The notion that a warship could go from being the world class to obsolete in a decade (perhaps less, given how quickly new ships outclassed Dreadnought) is almost entirely alien to modern sensibilities. This essentially happened twice in the ten-year period between 1905 and 1915. HMS Queen Elizabeth was probably as far ahead of Dreadnought in terms of raw power, as Dreadnought was ahead of the latest pre-dreadnoughts, although in the case of the former the innovation was more incremental (fast incremental) than disruptive. This degree of innovation was outmatched by everything except the fighter aircraft design industry during the twentieth century. Remarkably, however, many of the ships built just a decade after Dreadnought remained in service until the mid-1940s.
Robert Farley is the author of The Battleship Book. Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky.