The History of Naval Design and Purpose: An Introduction for Beginners

Written by Steve Cobb (, May 1999

©Steve Cobbs, 1999

At the time of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, the Royal Navy consisted of "line-of-battle-ships" (e.g. HMS Victory, preserved by the nation in Portsmouth) and frigates. The former were intended to sail in line of battle, and engage the enemy broadside on, at distances of sometimes 10 metres, with the aim of boarding & capturing, rather than sinking, the enemy. They were graded by "class" - 1st rate to 6th rate - related to the number of guns and decks, so that Victory as a 100-gun ship, outclassed a 74-gun. Small ships below a certain size and gunpower, were "unrated". In battle, the Royal Navy would be "upwind" (having the "weather-gauge" or "to windward") of an enemy, so as to be able to use the wind to catch and engage, and would fire on the downroll, to pierce the hull of the enemy; typically the French would be downwind, to as to be able to use the wind to disengage and preserve their fleet; they would fire on the uproll, so as to dismast the British, and prevent their pursuit.

For much of the eighteenth century, British tactics were dogged by a rigid adherence to "formalism" ­ where opposing fleets would sail past each other in formation, firing, and were only allowed to approach enemy ships, where they were clearly in disarray and fleeing. This rigidity was under a cloud by the end of the century, and Nelson brilliantly developed the mêlée tactics of piercing the enemy line, and isolating elements of the enemy fleet (as at Trafalgar, 1805).

Frigates were the eyes of the fleet, scouting for the enemy, lookouts, running messages, or used individually as commerce-raiders: to surprise and capture enemy merchant ships. The term was rather vague ­ if anything it meant "a ship with 1 deck of guns". The last fleet action of the "wooden walls", was the Battle of Navarino Bay, 1827 ­ where a combined British, French & Russian fleet destroyed the Turks during the War of Greek Independence.

By and large, the Armed Services tend to put their trust in tradition, and what they already know. By 1855, however, several new developments had been addressed. The application of steam power had been taken on board, so that 'line-of-battle-ships' still looked much like the Victory, but had a discreet funnel, usually collapsible when under sail. The RN had also conducted tests ­ literally a tug-of-war ­ to ascertain the rival merits of paddle and screw-propulsion. The latter won hands-down. During the Crimean War (1853-56), the French had fitted iron plates on the sides of some of their warships, and Russian guns had been unable to damage them. The line-of-battle-ship became the ironclad. The first real battleship was the French La Gloire, 1860, closely followed by the British Warrior and Black Prince, 1861.

Ironclads: Hampton Roads & Lissa

HMS Warrior

The best preserved example of these is HMS Warrior (also at Portsmouth near Victory). While revolutionary at the time ­ genuinely invincible for about 6 months - she is still something of a hybrid: in appearance, she is not dissimilar to a tea-clipper like the Cutty Sark (now in reenwich), save for the collapsible funnels, and the guns, some of which were the new breech-loaders (loaded from the back) rather than the old muzzle-loaders. But she is built of iron (like the SS Great Britain, preserved in Bristol) and contained an armoured citadel within the hull to protect the vital parts of the ship in battle. This type of ship could only take 1 deck of guns, and (rather confusingly) was known as an "armoured frigate". In essence, she relied upon a traditional "broadside" for her offensive power, so she was a long ship, and to that extent, heavy and unwieldy. The answer was the revolving turret, invented by Captain Coles, in which guns could be fired in many directions. Battleships could be shorter, and more manoeuvrable.

Warrior never fired a shot in anger, and conflict across the Atlantic generated new developments. During the American Civil War (1861-65), the Confederates built a gunboat on the hull of a burned-out warship. The Merrimac (officially CSS Virginia) was wooden, with angled sides & iron plates, and looked like a large upturned bathtub, low in the water, with a row of guns all round. She inflicted damage on a number of Union warships, until confronted by the even stranger Monitor: a low iron platform, rising no more than a couple of feet above the waterline, save for a tiny conning tower, and a large revolving turret, with two guns. Merrimac could fire a broadside every 15 minutes; Monitor could fire both guns once every 7. Both spent 3½ hours trying to ram each other ­ ramming was a way of penetrating ironclads below the waterline, if the guns couldn't do it: a revival of the methods of classical times. Monitor inflicted greater damage at the Battle of Hampton Roads, 1863, but sank in heavy seas a few months later (Microsoft Encarta will have a reference to this, and you can also see the1991 movie Ironclads). Contrary to the claims of the Americans, Monitor and her successors were little more than river-going artillery platforms, and indeed 'monitor' became the generic term for such inshore vessels. But 'blue water' navies needed something more robust. The British Admiralty had announced plans for building two turret ships a few days before Hampton Roads.

European navies took more note of the Battle of Lissa (1866 ) fought between the Austrians and Italians in the Adriatic. The Italian fleet was brand new (ironclads bought expensively from Britain, France & the USA). The Austrian fleet was smaller, less well armoured (in some ships, not at all), and less well-armed: it had no armour-piercing guns. The Austrian Admiral Tegetthof knew that the Italian fleet, like the Italian state itself, was new, but less well-trained and lacking confidence. Like Nelson at Trafalgar (1805), he chose to accept initial damage in order to close the Italian fleet end-on. He relied on superior training and morale to overcome initial damage, and ordered his ships to sink their opponents by ramming. Lissa was a scrappy & clumsy affair with ironclads blundering about, unable to aim with much precision, and hence missing or colliding with each other. But at a key moment, an Italian armoured steam frigate Re d'Italia was hit on the rudder by a shell, and became unmanageable. She was rammed by the Austrian Ferdinand Max at 11½ knots, and rolled over and sank. A smaller ship trying to cover her was set on fire, and later blew up. The Italians withdrew. Lissa was nevertheless indecisive & insignificant, and typically, the powers took all the wrong lessons from the battle: for the next 30 years all navies were obsessed with ramming, and ironclads had heavy underwater 'beaks' at the bows. Yet ramming was singularly ineffective. Despite the fact that Lissa had featured dense smoke, slow rates of fire, and clumsiness of big ships, designers were obsessed with the 'big gun' that promised a knock out blow, and ignored the problem of how to aim guns and achieve it. What Tegetthof had really had on his side was good discipline and training.

This period found naval designers in something of a quandary, as they tried to combine iron hulls, sails, steam power, turrets and so on, at a time of rapid increases in gunpower, and thus the thickness of armour. Designs were downright ugly, with one or two absolute freaks. In a period of confusion, Captain Coles demanded, and got, the right to build a sea-going turret-ship to his own design: HMS Captain, a high sided, sail & steam ship with turrets, was unstable; the weight of her masts and spars caused her to capsize on her third voyage (1870) during a storm in the Bay of Biscay, taking Coles, and a large crew with her. The French disavowed turrets altogether, placing moveable guns in an armoured tower or barbette. These saved weight, and allowed their ships to ride much higher in the water. But the much-feared French Navy of the 1860s did little to justify its existence against the distinctly inferior Prussian Navy in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Like the Chinese, the French believed that the enemy should be terrified before a battle, and were long pre-occupied with "fierce-face" ­ designing their ships to look aggressive, with built up superstructures, funnels & masts. Having pioneered the "barbette", they abandoned it for turrets, just as others adopted it.

In 1873, HMS Devastation appeared. She was the first "sail-less" sea-going battleship to join the fleet. She was 307 feet long, 62 wide, low in the water, and displaced 9330 tons. She had 12" of iron on the sides, backed with 18" of teak. In the centre of the ship, above the hull, was a citadel, with guns, funnels, bridge, mast, etc, and at either end was an armoured turret ­ 14" of armour with two guns each. The guns were 12" rifled muzzle-loaders. Pessimists thought that her uneconomical and unreliable engines would hinder her ocean-going qualities ­ particularly as the RN had few coaling stations around the world at the time ­ but she had a range of 4700 miles, and could make 13.5 knots. Devastation set the pattern for the next couple of decades (give or take the odd "freak"), though by 1900 battleships would be higher in the water, as the hull by then accommodated a secondary armament. Early in the 20th Century, the British King Edward VII class battleships represented the final development of this form of ship, though this was not clear until 1906!

Italian Battleship Sicilia (laid down 1884)

[Dupuy de Lome]
French Armoured Cruiser Dupuy de Lome (laid down 1888)

In the 1880s, the expectation was that the "ironclad" would be an all-purpose "do-anything" ship. They were however, still fairly slow, and unwieldy. By 1900, the line-of-battle-ship had evolved into the battleship; the frigate into the Cruiser, but performing similar functions: eyes of the fleet, commerce-raiding, protection of the sea-lanes. Some had started to shed some of their armour, becoming faster "protected cruisers" which could obviously threaten commercial shipping. They produced the response of "Armoured Cruisers". The British Powerfuls of 1895 were monsters of 14,000 tons, as big as battleships. "Light cruisers" were fast and unarmoured, distinguished from lighter vessels, some of which would be armed merchantmen, as they had been from time immemorial. The fallacy of this assumption (the proposal to arm large liners such as Mauretania, Lusitania etc) was revealed early in the First World War, though later, and in the 1939-45 War, some smaller vessels were armed to protect convoys against submarines.) There are examples of cruisers of this period in Rotterdam and St Petersburg (Aurora).

Technical Developments in the late-Victorian period

There were no real naval rivals during the Pax Britannica (a period when Britain protected the sea-lanes for a world commerce largely carried in British ships, financed by British banks, & insured by British insurance companies). British policy called for a 2-power standard, such that the Navy should be as large as the two next biggest navies put together. The Navy ossified, lost in a world of spit-and-polish, showing the flag and performing elaborate manoeuvres as a substitute for tactics. The ultimate humiliation was the loss of the battleship Victoria, which collided with the Camperdown and sank in the Mediterranean in 1893, with heavy loss of life, during one such elaborate display. Gunnery practice tended to demonstrate a lamentably poor level of accuracy.

French Battleship Suffren (laid down 1899)

By 1900, gunnery ranges had increased, wireless telegraphy would develop, and the invention of the torpedo led to the deployment of Torpedo Boats, and the response of (Torpedo Boat) Destroyers or TBDs. British and German TBDs and TBs looked very similar, the difference being in the proportion of guns to torpedo tubes being carried.

Long range gunnery required improved optical and range finding equipment. The tradition of the Navy was that individual gun captains sighted and aimed their guns, and that each gun fired when ready. The battleships of 1900 carried such a wide range of guns, that no one could tell them apart in combat. Shell splashes at several miles distance could be from 6", 9.2" or 12" guns. The smoke from steam warships further obscured the view.

French Battleship" Voltaire (laid down 1907)

The development of wireless telegraphy initially suggested to their Lordships at the Admiralty that they could direct naval tactics from their desks in Whitehall. This they could not do, but the technology was not infallible, nor its potential understood, so that even in 1916, communication with(in) the Grand Fleet operated on a mixture of wireless, signal lamps and flags. Whitehall could break German codes, and listen to their signals traffic, but not apparently communicate with the Grand Fleet!

Torpedoes sent a frisson of alarm throughout the fleets of Europe, even before the development of the submarine, so that battleships at anchor surrounded themselves with nets to catch torpedoes; later they were fitted with protective bulges along the sides, or both; anchorages were protected by booms and nets to prevent incursion above or below the waves. Battleships at sea developed elaborate manoeuvres to protect themselves by turning towards, or away from, the tracks of torpedoes. In 1904 the Russian Baltic Fleet fired on British trawlers in the North Sea (the Dogger Bank incident, to be distinguished from the Battle of 1915), convinced that they were Japanese! A single cry of "torpedo" from a panicky lookout (who might easily mistake phosphorescence from a porpoise) could reduce an entire fleet to a shambles!

A revolutionary development in 1906 would reduce the capital ships of the world's navies to the status of pre-Dreadnoughts overnight. British pre-Dreadnoughts never engaged in a fleet action. But those of other powers did. During the Spanish-American War (1898), Commodore Dewey commanding USS Olympia, outgunned & destroyed a decrepit Spanish fleet at Manila Bay. A few weeks later, Admiral Sampson, with 5 battleships and 2 cruisers, destroyed 4 armoured cruisers and 2 destroyers at Santiago, in Cuba.

In 1894, following their naval victory at the battle of Yalu River, Japanese torpedo-boats attacked and destroyed the Chinese fleet in the harbour of Wei-hai-wei. Over the following decade, they perfected the design and use of such boats, which could do 31 knots. During the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, the Japanese attacked the Russian Fleet at Port Arthur, with a flotilla of torpedo boats, sinking 3 ships. The lesson here proved that only one battleship could sink another. Admiral Togo accordingly destroyed the Baltic Fleet in the Straits of Tsu-shima.


With the new century, European rivalries (and hence naval building), convinced the Government that Britain could not afford the 2-power standard. The South African ("Boer") War 1899-1902 had revealed a worrying isolation from the other European powers. In 1902, a 20-year treaty was signed with Japan, allowing the recall of many naval units, and their concentration in home waters and the Mediterranean. In 1904, the Entente Cordiale was signed with France, and another in 1907, with Russia.

"Dreadnoughts" are the generic name given to battleships designed on the principles of their namesake in 1905-6. The revolution in the British Navy refers to rather more than that. HMS Dreadnought was a product of the Naval Arms Race with Imperial Germany. At 17,900 tons, she was designed to render all other battleships obsolete, and to give Britain a lead in building capital ships which she could not lose. Battleships were the main index of Great Power status. Battleship quality depended on the combination of armour protection, gunpower and speed. In 1897, at the Spithead Review to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, the Navy had been made to look foolish by a small, fast demonstration craft called Turbinia (now in Exhibition Park, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.). Dreadnought had turbines. To address the problem of gunnery-accuracy, she was an all big-gun ship. Ten 12" guns provided the main armament. Shell splashes would not be complicated by smaller calibre guns, although after Dreadnought, subsequent classes of battleship would re-instate smaller guns (6") to deal with torpedo boats. Admiral John Fisher, the First Sea Lord, also promoted greater proficiency in gunnery, and the centralization of gunnery control on battleships, high above the smoke and guns. [Gun directors and range-finders, plotting the trajectory of shells from several guns to a point where the enemy would be when they fell - speed, wind, direction etc - therefore represent an early form of computer!] In these matters, Fisher became embroiled in a conflict with Lord Charles Beresford, Admiral of the Channel Fleet. Beresford was the sort of Admiral of whom Gilbert & Sullivan might have been proud: impeccably well-connected, personal servants and good dinners on board; spit, polish and tradition. Fisher retired in 1910, tired of the hostility, but Beresford was sidelined, and the Navy's preparedness was the beneficiary in 1914, as the fleet concentrated at Scapa Flow.

HMS Dreadnought
(the dust jacket of the book published by Conway Maritime Press - an excellent source)

As non-participants in a European Naval Arms Race (in which the French and Russians had dropped out), the Americans took time out to consider the issues of battleship design from first principles. They discovered the "zone of immunity" ­ ranges between which heavy shells cannot penetrate either side or deck armour. Longer ranges meant that shells plunged from above, increasing the hits on deck. Learning from Tsu-shima that where ships were unarmoured, shells tended to pass through without exploding; light armour by contrast, caused shells to explode and cause almost as much damage from splinters. From this, the Americans developed an "all or nothing" approach: armour at maximum thickness, or not at all. The USS Nevada and Oklahoma (1911) embodied these principles, and were as revolutionary as the Dreadnought.

After the dreadnoughts came super-dreadnoughts, with 13.5" or 15" guns, displacing up to 27,500 tons. Two of the latter guns can be seen outside the Imperial War Museum, in London. Fisher was also responsible for the development of the battlecruiser: a concept which evolved from the armoured cruiser of the 1890s: battleships of the time were slow, and could not fire their large guns with great frequency or accuracy. In the 1890s, the latest design of armour allowed ships to be protected with less weight, or to have more widespread protection. Developments in quick firing gunnery meant that smaller guns could fire as far as, and faster than those of battleships. The French Admiral Fournier envisaged a kind of "universal" ship that could fulfil several roles, and outfight a slow battleship with rapid fire, then deliver the coup de grace with one or two bigger (8"-10") guns. Fisher proposed to improve rates of fire with A H Pollen's early computerised system of gunnery control, but the Admiralty jibbed at the cost of it. (Fisher seems not to have considered what would happen when other navies invented their own versions?) What was then left of Fisher's idea was a heavily armed, but lightly armoured vessel which could fight alongside battleships, but be fast enough to catch cruisers and destroy them. An idea looking for a role? Other navies eventually adopted vessels which were heavily armoured, but more lightly armed (Russians, Germans & USA in WW2), which were really "cruiser-killers". Both types of ship were called "battlecruisers".

The Fisher concept worked well at the Falklands (1914), but battlecruisers achieved their speed at the cost of sacrificing deck armour. Thin deck armour was far too vulnerable to plunging long-range shells, and British ships had also deliberately sacrificed the elaborate protection of their magazines, so as to speed up the supply of shells to the guns. The battlecruisers Invincible, Queen Mary and Indefatigable would pay for this at Jutland (1916) with the loss of over 3000 lives, as would HMS Hood in 1941 with the loss of 1500.

In other ways, the Navy was not so prepared. To many, Dreadnoughts were little different, as fighting machines, to the Victory. The goal was still a fleet action, where the German fleet would be dealt a "Trafalgar", like the French before them. Nelson's injunction had been that a captain could do little wrong if he brought his ship close alongside the enemy as quickly as possible. But a Captain in 1805 might take 5 hours to close a ship he had sighted, to use guns with an effective range of 1000 yards; in 1914, battleships closed at 20 knots, firing at ranges of 20,000 yards in poor visibility, and less than 20 minutes might elapse between sighting and opening fire.

The British public did not get its Trafalgar. There was an early defeat at the hands of von Spee at Coronel (1914), quickly reversed at the Falklands Islands. Inconclusive battles at Heligoland Bight (1914), Dogger Bank (1915), were followed by Jutland, where the greater loss of ships nevertheless resulted in a strategic victory. Britain had denied Germany the seas. The prosaic, but unheroic role of the RN, was to organize and maintain the blockade which eventually brought the civilian population of Germany to its knees. On the way, the Navy had to re-learn the lessons of old: to protect its own merchant shipping from submarine and other attack, by the use of convoys. At the very end of the War, the Austrians lost Szent Istvan and Viribus Unitis in separate raids by Italian motor torpedo boats.

There are a few relics from this period. The Americans named their dreadnoughts after states of the Union, and so USS Texas has been preserved in Texas. USS Arizona lies in Pearl Harbor, still the fleet flagship. For those who like SCUBA diving, HMS Vanguard (blewup while at anchor in 1917), Royal Oak (torpedoed 1939), and a few of the scuttled German dreadnoughts from 1919, lie in Scapa Flow. The late-Victorian HMS Hood was sunk as a blockship at Portland in 1914, and is still there.

After 1918

Britain was bankrupt by 1918, and avoided an expense arms race with the Americans by agreeing not to re-new the Japanese Treaty in 1922, and to the Washington Treaty of the same year, which provided for tonnage limits on capital ships, a 10-year "holiday" in naval-building, and to a ratio of 5:5:3 between herself, the USA and Japan. Germany was forbidden capital ships, save for a couple of old pre-dreadnoughts for coastal defence.

By 1939, the Navy was seriously depleted, and smaller than that of the Japanese. In the Interwar period, both Americans and Japanese had devoted their attention to the issue of naval flying, and the role it was to play. Britain had not. Battleships were to prove vulnerable to air attack very quickly. (Taranto, 1940; Pearl Harbor, 1941; HMS Repulse, HMS Prince of Wales, 1941. There were no real fleet actions in the Second World War, save perhaps for the Battle of Cape Matapan, 1941. The battleships took second place to aircraft carriers, to protect them, to be used for convoy protection against German surface raiders, or to protect invasion fleets (Pacific War, Normandy Landings). There were individual ship-against-ship encounters:

HMS Hood (laid down 1916)

Most fleet actions took place in the Pacific, between sets of ships which never saw each other except for carrier-based aircraft, (e.g Midway, Coral Sea). Most Japanese battleships, even those with good air defences, were sunk by aircraft, as were the German Tirpitz and Gneisenau. The last major action was Surigao Strait (1944) , part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, the last throw of the Japanese Navy. Six old US battleships, some raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor, confronted a column of Japanese ships. Like Togo at Tsu-shima, and Jellicoe at Jutland, the Americans "crossed the enemy T", concentrating fire from 6 broadsides against ships that can only fire forwards.

From the Second World War, Britain has the cruiser Belfast (Battle of North Cape, 1943) in the Pool of London. The Americans have preserved the dreadnought Texas, and the super-dreadnoughts USS North Carolina, Massachusetts and Alabama as state memorials. The four of the Iowa class made it, mothballed, via Vietnam, to the 1990s. USS Missouri, which received the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay, 1945,and fired Tomahawk missiles during the Gulf War, 1990-91, survived Steven Seagal in "Under Siege 1", and was de-commissioned.

Further sources

Last Updated: 5 May, 1999.

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