Royal Navy launches the first 'Dreadnought' battleship
The British Navy had for centuries proved to be an impregnable defence against invasion for the island nation, but when Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher, better known as Jackie Fisher, became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1904 he recognised that the fleet was outmoded and inadequate. Naval technology had moved on. Submarines were a threat to poorly armoured ships. New propulsion systems existed that made the old steamships redundant.
Fisher set up the British Committee on Naval Designs, which met for the first time in January 1905. The committee decided on the requirements for a revolutionary new ship: ten massive 12-inch guns for long range firing, and 27 three inch guns for closer action; a steam-turbine propulsion system giving a top speed of 21 knots, some three knots faster than existing rivals; and substantial improvements in armour. By October 2 1905 the keel was laid, and the vessel’s shell was launched on February 10 1906, a remarkable achievement. The ship, named The Dreadnought, was fitted out and ready for action by October 3 1906.
HMS Dreadnought was 526 feet long, weighed almost 18,000 tons, and was capable of a top speed of 21.6 knots, above the expected rate. Her 12 inch guns could fire almost 20 miles.
At a stroke the vast majority of existing warships were rendered second-class. Such was the impact of this ship that all others of a similar nature were named ‘dreadnoughts’. But Britain’s advantage was short-lived. Japan had been planning similar vessels before the Dreadnought was begun. America (possibly with leaked information from Britain) was on the case; Germany had been working on similar ideas; the Italians and French soon had them too.
Jackie Fisher was working to counteract German naval advances in the expectation of war. He even predicted in 1906 with astonishing foresight that war would begin in August 1914 . The Dreadnoughts were the glamour vessels of the age, but Fisher was not blinkered. At the same time as the fleet of 13 dreadnoughts was being constructed he oversaw the development of what was to prove a more effective weapon, the submarine, by 1914 the British fleet possessing 100 of them.
Rather than stopping the feared war, the naval arms-race between Britain and Germany made it ever more likely. And when it came the dreadnoughts only saw one major clash, the inconclusive Battle of Jutland . The submarines saw far more action, harrying and destroying supply ships and fighting vessels alike.
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