During the two World Wars, Great Britain’s Royal Navy produced a fair share of famous battleships and battlecruisers. HMS King George V and HMS Rodney gained fame and glory, as the co-killers of the vaunted Nazi German battleship Bismarck. On the flip side, HMS Hood is famous for the tragic reason of being sunk by that same Bismarck.
But there’s one British battleship that stands out above all others: HMS Warspite (Pennant #03). As eloquently stated by maritime historian Peter Mitchell, “During her 32 years of service she had endured bombing, shellfire, ramming, mines and a missile attack, and fought all over the world from Jutland in the Great War, to the Normandy Landings in the Second World War … The Warspite … became known to everyone who served on her as ‘The Grand Old Lady.’”
HMS Warspite Early History and Specifications
HMS Warspite was built by the Devonport Royal Dockyard in Plymouth, England, laid down on Halloween Day 1912, launched in November 1913 (which was eventually celebrated in a centenary service attended by over 200 guests), and commissioned on 8 March 1915. Warspite was one of five battleships of the Queen Elizabeth-class, but was actually the sixth vessel to bear the Warspite moniker, with the first one being a galleon built way back in 1596. Supposedly the name originated from “speight,” an archaic word for the woodpecker bird family, i.e. during the Age of Sail, the “war-speight” would peck enemy wooden vessels to death.
The main guns of Warspite were eight 15-inchers divvied amongst twin-barreled turrets, two fore, and two aft. These were backed up by fourteen single 6-inch guns, two single 3-inch antiaircraft guns, and four 21-inch torpedo tubes.
Other specifications included a hull length of 643 feet 9 inches, a beam width of 90 feet 7 inches, a draught of 33 feet, and a displacement of 33,260 long tons. Max speed was 24 knots. Crew complement was 1,284 commissioned officers and enlisted men.
During the First World War’s epic Battle of Jutland; Warspite withstood 15 hits and in turn scored a hit on the German battlecruiser Von der Tann, thus demonstrating her ability to both take punishment and dish it out.
During the Second World War, Warspite served as the flagship of Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham (1883-1963), Commander-in-Chief of Great Britain’s Mediterranean fleet, and a man who was compared by his Royal Navy colleagues to Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. It didn’t take the flagship long to do Admiral Cunningham, and the Royal Navy as a whole, proud.
For example, there was the Action off Calabria, which 19FortyFive colleague Robert Farley includes in his article “Steel Showdown: 5 Biggest Battleship Battles In Naval History.”
Therein, Robert notes that “After several near misses on both sides, Warspite struck with one of the longest hits in the history of naval artillery. The hit, which detonated ammunition on [Italian flagship] Giulio Cesare’s deck, resulted in a loss of speed that forced the Italian ship out of line. This cost the Italians their moment of advantage; with odds at 3-1, the remaining Italian ships retired.”
The distance involved in this remarkable feat of naval marksmanship was 26,000 yards or about 15 miles. Maritime historian A.B.C. Whipple, in his excellent 1981 book “The Mediterranean” – part of the Time-Life Books World War II series – elaborates further: “The Warspite’s long-range hit had failed to sink the Giulio Cesare, but it was to have ‘a moral effect quite out of proportion to the damage,’ Cunningham later observed: Never again would the Italian Navy willingly confront the fire of British battleships.”
As impressive as that feat was, arguably the Warspite’s greatest moment of glory was during the Battle of Cape Matapan from March 27-29, 1941, which was Italy’s greatest defeat at sea. Therein, she contributed heavily to sinking the Italian heavy cruisers Fiume and Zara, as well as the destroyers Alfieri and Giosuè Carducci.
She ended up earning the most battle honors ever awarded to one warship (15).
Sadly, proposals to preserve Warspite and convert her to a floating museum a la HMS Belfast – hero vessel of D-Day – and HMS Victory were nixed, and she was decommissioned in February 1945, approved for scrapping in July 1946 and stricken and sold for scrap in April 1947. But even then, Warspite refused to die quietly, which ended up necessitating the largest salvage operation ever carried out in British waters.
Thankfully, at least some relics of HMS Warspite still live on. For starters, her chapel door and one of the tompions – gun muzzle plugs that is – to her 15-inch guns are lovingly preserved by the National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, as part of its Battle of Jutland exhibit; I myself have viewed this exhibit twice and highly recommend it to my fellow maritime history buffs. Her ship’s wheel is kept in the city hall of Narvik, Norway, thanks to being gifted by King George VI to King Haakon VII of Norway in 1947. Meanwhile, her nameplate was on display for many years at The Lamorna Wink pub in Cornwall but was eventually sold at an auction.
From a personal, sentimental standpoint, I first learned of the existence of the proud ship as a mere 6-year-old lad via a 1978 book titled “21st Century Foss,” a compilation of the works of renowned British artist and science fiction illustrator Chris Foss; on page 42 of that book is Mr. Foss’s painting of HMS Warspite firing her forward main gun turrets. I remember thinking at the time, “What a cool name for a ship!”
The most recent vessel to bear the HMS Warspite sobriquet was a nuclear submarine (S103) commissioned in 1967 and decommissioned in 1991. But as noted by a Royal Navy news release date dated February 9, 2023: “Arguably the greatest warship name in Royal Navy history has been resurrected today as work began on the third next-generation nuclear deterrent submarines: HMS Warspite.”
Christian D. Orr is a former U.S. Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).
Note: The image is of an Iowa-Class Battleship, not the HMS Warspite.
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