The top strange battleships of the world. Strange? I mean British.

Yesterday I listed the top five Google strings that found my blog. Not on that list was a string that found me a while back – ‘strange battleship designs’. Odd. I didn’t have any listed.

Hey – challenge! Although I can’t help thinking about the foolishness of nineteenth and early twentieth century thinking that uplifted these engines of destruction into symbols of national prestige – tributes to the pride and folly of humanity. But the geek in me has to admire the technology. And some of those designs were really, really strange. The British led the way…

HMS Victoria. Her bows are to the left. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
HMS Victoria, looking for all the world like a carpet slipper. Her bows are to the left. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

1. HMS Victoria (1890)

Built to a financially imposed limit of 10,600 tons, Victoria was expected to carry 16-inch guns. The result was this bizarre carpet slipper, mounting just two monster guns in a turret forwards. There was talk of her using these symbols of Britain’s national inadequacy complex to blast through the Dardanelles should war break out with Russia. However, in 1893, off Tripoli, she was rammed and sunk by HMS Camperdown, after a botched manoeuvre always blamed on Rear-Admiral Sir George Tryon.

2. HMS Glorious (1917)

HMS Glorious, 1917. Bizarre light cruiser with battleships guns. Public domain.
HMS Glorious, 1917. Bizarre light cruiser with battleship guns. Public domain.

There was no arguing with the volcanic and charismatic Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher – inventor of ‘OMG‘ – who returned in triumph to the Admiralty in 1914 as First Sea Lord and was able to get five battlecruisers authorised, despite a Cabinet edict against new capital ships. Every one was iconoclastic – including Glorious and her sister Courageous, over-blown light cruisers with a stupid armament of four 15-inch guns.  They weren’t good for anything – the sailors called them the Outrageous class – and the Admiralty lost no time converting them to aircraft carriers. Their gun mountings were re-used, a quarter-century later, on Britain’s last battleship, HMS Rearguard Vanguard.

3. HMS Rodney (1927)
A cherry tree of a battleship. Why? Because she was “cut down” by Washington.

HMS Rodney after refitting at Liverpool, 1942. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
HMS Rodney after refitting at Liverpool, 1942. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

In 1920, the world seemed about to plunge into a new naval race, led by Japan and the United States. The British were the only nation with combat experience, and applied the lessons to designs that outstripped anything in US or Japanese yards. These 48,500 ton ‘G3’ battlecruisers – more heavily armoured than battleships of the day – were ordered in 1921.

All this came as the world emerged from the most devastating war in history, prompting the US to call other powers into a naval treaty, hammered out in Washington, limiting warship size and number. Most of the new ships were cancelled, but Britain was allowed to build two ships to 35,000 ton Treaty limits. Hence Rodney and her sister ship Nelson, sometimes dubbed the ‘Cherry Tree’ class because they had been ‘cut down’ by the Washington Treaty. The bluejackets – cruelly – called them Rodnol and Nelsol, after fleet oil tankers.

Despite being ‘cut down’ they were still the most powerful battleships in the world until late 1941, when Japan commissioned the Yamato.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Regular writing posts resume tomorrow, more geekery (with custard), humour and other stuff. Watch this space.

14 thoughts on “The top strange battleships of the world. Strange? I mean British.

  1. I remember the first time I saw a picture of the Rodney I thought it was a mistake. Is the turret layout something like “A” and “B” turrets facing forward with “X” (or “C”?) turret facing to the stern, even though they are all forward of the superstructure? So the aft turret could train to within what, 20 or 30 degrees of the bow? Meaning you wouldn’t have to turn perpendicular to an enemy to fire a broadside, which might have its advantages. Still, I wonder what kind of motion that imparted to the vessel when they did fire broadsides. I also read that to save weight (to fit that 35,000 treaty limitation) armor was only placed “over vital areas.” Um. Wonder what was considered vital, and what wasn’t?

    But 15-in. guns on a LIGHT cruiser? I’d love to see the weight-and-balance calculations on that one! Wonder what she was like in a seaway? Maybe just a BIT topheavy?


    1. I gather there were blast problems with Rodney’s X-turret, particularly when fired abaft the beam at high elevation – during tests in 1927, 11 psi over-pressure was registered on the Captain’s bridge, where the windows were broken. Arc of fire for that turret was 60-130 degrees each side. During the engagement with Bismarck, apparently a good deal of damage was done to the decks and internal fittings by blast…but she did fire over 380 16-inch rounds in the process, mostly as I understand it via 5-gun broadsides in part because of break-downs (the RH gun of A-turret missed 10 rounds, for instance) – but she still absolutely pulverised the “unsinkable” German warship.

      I don’t think there were any weight or CG issues with Glorious and Courageous – the twin 15-inch Mk I* mounting weighed in at 770 tons, but they were designed with that in mind to the usual range of stability considerations. Normal displacement as completed was 19,500 tons which was a higher figure than (say) Dreadnought, which mounted five 12-inch Mk X turrets at 500 tons each on a displacement of 17,900 tons, on less beam. But the cruisers had problems later when they were converted to carriers – the top hamper needed for hangar and flight-deck DID overbalance the design and they had to have bulges added to restore the CG.

      As I understand it the practical issue was the fact that they didn’t have enough guns for proper fire-control (AND Fisher knew this) and no armour to speak of. However, their half-sister Furious with two single 18-inch guns ran into structural problems. The 827-ton weight of turret and gun was again part of the design calculation, but it turned out that the muzzle blast from the gun was enough to damage the hull, which had been built to light cruiser specification. A few test firings with strained rivets and seals were enough to deter the RN from further adventures & she was selected for early conversion to a carrier.

      Sorry about waxing lyrically at length here…naval architecture is one of my serious geek interests! 🙂


  2. Great post – the HMS Victoria looks particularly bizarre doesn’t it. Almost as if halfway through building a White Star liner someone decided on a whim to turn it into a battleship! Thanks for sharing!

    Out of curiosity, after reading this post I checked out the Wikipedia article on the HMS Victoria and it appears that someone recently claimed that Lord Nelson’s sword was onboard when the vessel sank – apparently the Vice Admiral kept a collection of Nelson memorabilia. Furthermore, a diver claims to have found it in the wreck –

    It sometimes seems like the 1880’s – 1900’s were a particular bad time to be serving in the navy – any navy for that matter. There may not have been any world wars but the number of naval ships lost due to collisions, random explosions, accidental torpedo hits during training and other random mishaps seems particularly astonishing. If not for the loss of life in many of these incidents it would almost seem comical.


    1. Extraordinary! I knew they’d found the wreck but had no idea about the diving, or Tryon’s hobby. There was a NZ connection with the tragedy – one of the survivors was John Jellicoe, who swam out despite suffering Malta fever. He was our Gov-General for a while in the 1920s (my wife’s grandmother worked for him at Government House, apparently he was a very fine gentleman). Tryon had a direct NZ connection too – he was the Rear-Admiral in charge of the Australasian Station during the 1880s. Parliament stood in respect, here, when news of the Victoria tragedy broke. She was certainly a weird ship – definitely more ‘ocean liner’ than ‘battleship’.

      They did lose a lot of ships during the period. I suspect half the problem they had with battleships in the period was unstable munitions – apparently this was certainly the cause of the Maine going down, despite talk at the time of Spanish saboteurs. The munitions issue was true right through the First World War, when I believe at least as many battleships were lost to accidental explosion as enemy action.


      1. That is indeed an interesting N.Z. connection – and a fascinating family link you have!

        You’ve got me curious about Tryon now. I’ll have to add him to my list of historical figures that I need to read more about! Especially his time down here in the Australasian Station. I wonder if he had Nelson’s sword with him then.


      2. Unstable munitions — weren’t they using guncotton as a propellant? Or had cordite come along by the 1880s? Propellants based on nitroglycerin would become unstable over time, especially since climate-controlled storage was a thing of the future.

        Turret design was a specialized discipline within naval architecture, wasn’t it? Something the different navies hadn’t quite worked out until maybe after World War 1 — and I seem to recall the US Navy had a turret explosion on one of its surviving battleships (not sure which one — the New Jersey, maybe?) 20-30 years ago.


        1. I gather cordite was adopted in the late 1890s – pretty much universally though the different navies used slightly different mixes and names for the stuff. The big problem for the British was they kept it in silk bags. They were aware of the risk of flash and designed the gun-houses and ammunition feeds accordingly, but in the heat of battle the sailors tended to over-ride the safeties and it was way too easy for a fire in the gun-house to spread into the magazines. The design of the whole gun and ammunition feed system was hideously complex – flash protection systems and conveyor hoists for shells weighing up to 1920 lb (the 15” Mk I), all required to feed the shells and propellant at a rate of more than one a minute per gun, while the gun-house itself revolved and the guns elevated or depressed.

          As I understand it the British got it basically right for the design of their 15” guns around 1911-12 – both in terms of ballistics and the gun housing, feed system etc – but monkeyed with the successful formula for the 16” fitted to Rodney, and it was no end of trouble – I believe they didn’t iron the major bugs out until close on the Second World War. The 14″ fitted to the King George class was even worse mechanically.

          I believe US designs were broadly similar but didn’t succumb to the temptation to tweak things just that little bit more and push into unreliable territory. I found the Wikipedia article on the New Jersey explosion – interesting. The Iowas were the last word in battleship design and by the 1980s the whole system was completely known and fully mature, so I guess it underscores the generic danger inherent in big guns.


  3. Well, I hope the geek in you posts more like this one. When I saw the title, I immediately thought, “Rodney.” It looks unbalanced to me. And what do they do if an enemy vessel crossed the stern? Two-fingered salutes? This whole post is quite interesting. I didn’t know about the Glorious. Any chance one of her sister ships was the Illustrious? She figured large in the Malta Convoys so I’ve read a bit about her.

    Any chance you’ll do a piece on strange British fighters? Perhaps the Boulton-Paul Defiant and Blackburn Roc?


    1. Yes, there was a big arc across the stern where none of the heavy guns could bear. I gather they accepted the compromise. The logic of the gun-forward arrangement was that the heaviest armour could be efficiently grouped around the guns and magazines, with lesser protection over the engine rooms. In a conventional ship with aft turrets, the heavier armour had to be split – there was a weight penalty, and with only 35,000 tons to play with the British needed to find efficiencies. Later, when they were preparing the King George V class designs, they decided the need for aft fire outweighed the efficiency.

      Glorious, Courageous and Furious were all built to similar design and converted (variously) to carriers between 1917 and the mid-1920s. The Illustrious was a purpose-built carrier of the late 1930s – and quite unique because by the 1930s the Brits figured they might have to fight their carriers under conditions of enemy air superiority. They came up with an armoured design that absolutely paid off in those Malta battles – and later in the Pacific where a Kamakaze hit could knock out a US Essex class carrier for weeks (wooden/thin steel flight deck), whereas the British had merely to sweep the debris aside and carry on, safe under their four inches of armour. The penalty was a terrible carrying capacity – I think they had less than 30 aircraft vs the typical US 100 or more. Also, as you point out, the Brit aircraft were often VERY strange. I really must do a post on them!


      1. Very interesting! I knew about the armored decks of Brit carriers. I didn’t realize the mindset of he Admiralty in the design of Illustrious. Seems kinda whacko to an American. We started off with the idea of purpose-built fighters operating off carriers while the Brits saw them as purely strike weapons loaded with only bombers. The Blackburn Skua did double-duty as recon/fighter but it was terrible in this role. The idea of expecting a carrier to venture into a region with enemy air superiority like this seems insane. They tried the Fulmar as a fighter, but the plane was merely modified from the Fairey dive-bomber (which suffered greatly during the BoF). Eventually, the FAA tried out the Seafire but honestly, that was a failure as a carrier fighter until the mk 47 arrived. The landings at Palermo were terrible for the Seafire which did fine in the air, terrible on landing. The landing prangs alone kept the Seafire mostly non-operational. Eventually, the Brits had excellent carrier aircraft in the Firefly, Seafire Mk 47, and Sea Fury, but these cam very late.


  4. You blog here isn’t even close. The french made an entire string of weird ships, the russians made two round battleships, not to mention that rodnol and nelsol were thoroughly outclassed by the USS North Carolina class in early 1940.


    1. Incidentally, I think the date you want for North Carolina commissioning is 9 April 1941. Also, don’t forget that the North Carolinas may have had similar armament to the Rodney, but they were only armoured against 14-inch shellfire, whereas Rodney was protected against 16-inch. A better comparison is the South Dakota, which was armoured against 16-inch fire, but they didn’t enter service until later. Neither US ship had the same calibre of underwater protection as the British vessel.


Comments are closed.