Stranger battleships than British ones, and other odd stuff

I posted a year or two back about some of the oddest British battleships ever built – engineering weirdness that always had a rational explanation but ended up creating some very strange and quirky vessels indeed.

I was careful to specify ‘British’ because their oddities were actually quite sane by comparison with designs concocted by rival nations. A lot dated to the late nineteenth century when technology was in a state of flux. The old age of ‘wooden walls’, with its long-standing certainties, was gone, and nobody knew how the new technology might be applied. Worse, technology was changing at a hectic pace. Last year’s ship was obsolete next year. Mix in funding limits and some of the outcomes were weird.

Novgorod arrives in Sebastopol, January 1873. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
Novgorod arrives in Sebastopol, January 1873. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Later, after the First World War, treaty limits – and funding constraints – led to fresh oddness, even though warship engineering technology was more stable. The British had a huge advantage because in the 1920s – with the dispersal of the German design teams – they were the only nation who had direct information on what actually happened to ships under fire. Some of that data was shared with the US, but one of the outcomes was that even battleships of the 1930s, such as Japan’s Yamato, included flaws in detail; and some ideas – notably Italy’s Pugiliese anti-torpedo system – didn’t work properly at all.

So – the list of weird battleships. These are just a few – there are many more I could suggest, and they’re all valid. If you’ve got a favourite, let me know in the comments – it’s all part of the fun!

  1. Russian coast-defence battleship Novgorod. Built for coast-defence purposes in 1872-74, this has to be one of the oddest warships ever built. Rear-Admiral Andrei Alexandrovich Popov decided to improve the ship’s ability to carry armour, without increasing draught, by instead increasing the beam – this to the point where the ship was circular. Apparently they used to spin on their axis when the rudder was pushed over.
  2. The French battleship Charles Martel, completed in 1897. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
    The French battleship Charles Martel, completed in 1897. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

    French battleships of the late nineteenth century. Just about every French battleship of this period was weird, courtesy of their ‘fierce face’ design concept – in which the upperworks were designed to look imposing – and pronounced tumble-home, an inwards slope of the hull from the waterline. This was done both to reduce top-weight and to increase the arcs of fire of the guns. But it carried a ship-handling penalty and made all the ships of the era look, well, weird.

  3. Japanese_cruiser_Ibuki_ca_1910
    IJN Ibuki around 1910. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

    IJN Ibuki. This ship wasn’t very strange at all – it was quite normal for its day – but the odd bit was the way the Japanese classified it. Heavy warship design, worldwide, went into a fresh state of flux around the turn of the twentieth century with a general rise of displacement and increase in the number of medium-calibre secondary guns to supplement (usually) four heavv guns. This kicked up problems of fire control because the splashes of the secondary guns couldn’t be distinguished from the main armament. The answer was a uniform main armament, which the US Navy initiated with the North Carolina developed in 1904 (8 x 12-inch guns) – but were pipped to the post by the British, whose HMS Dreadnought was designed in 1905 with 10 x 12-inch guns (eight on a broadside) but built more quickly. The British also innovated in other ways, such as speed and turbine propulsion. Other naval powers followed, but several ‘hybrid’ warships also emerged, among them Ibuki which was an armoured cruiser with ‘pre-dreadnought’ battleship armament – 4 x 12-inch guns backed by 8-inch secondaries – modified from the Tsukuba-class design, in wake of the Battle of Tsushima, and completed in 1907. In 1912 the Japanese insisted on re-classifying it as a ‘battlecruiser’, which it wasn’t (this is the odd bit and why it makes my list).

  4. Graf Spee, scuttled off Montevideo after coming off second-best in a battle with a cruiser force that included the New Zealand vessel HMS Achilles. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
    Graf Spee, scuttled off Montevideo after coming off second-best in a battle with a cruiser force that included the New Zealand vessel HMS Achilles. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

    Pocket battleships. These were an outcome of the Treaty of Versailles which forbad the Germans to build warships over 10,000 tons or with more than 11-inch guns. The intent was to force them to replace the pre-dreadnoughts they were allowed with similar vessels. But Hans Zenker, former captain of SMS Von der Tann, proposed a radical welded design that could outrun most heavier ships and outgun most faster ones. The first, KM Deutschland, wowed the world when commissioned in 1928 – although the cheers at German ingenuity would have been quieter had the Germans admitted to flouting the displacement limit by over 20 percent. The Germans called them ‘armoured ships’, but the term ‘pocket battleship’ was picked up by the world press. Alas, the Graf Spee was bested in the first real combat test at the battle of the River Plate in December 1939, against three Royal Navy cruisers (one of them part of the New Zealand Division); and the rationale of outrunning anything more powerful was dwindling in the face of new fast battleships. In reality they were over-gunned and rather slow cruisers, and the Kriegsmarine recognised the point by re-rating them as heavy cruisers in February 1940.

Blue Water Kiwis cover - 150 pxFor the story of that battle, check out my book Blue Water Kiwis – available on Amazon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


7 thoughts on “Stranger battleships than British ones, and other odd stuff

  1. Gawd I hate the description pocket battleship.
    Given the treaty requirements, an 11,700-ton ship was logical (the Hipper class 8-inch heavy cruisers were over 14,000 tons), By 1939 navies were building 35-69,000-ton ships that could make 27-33 knots.
    Early in the war the Germans sensibly re-rated the Deutschland class as heavy cruisers. Graf Spee, with light armour and just 2 turrets, thousands of nautical miles from any support, was always on the back-foot.
    G

    1. Graf Spee’s fate also underscored the fact that industrial age warships needed industrial support. Once damaged they needed a dockyard. The era of sailing raiders that could virtually self-support was long gone.

  2. The French pre-WW2 designs – the Richelieu and Dunkerque classes – with two quadruple turrets forward must earn a few “weird points” as would the IJN conversion of Ise and Hyuga into hybrid battleship/carriers late in the war.

    By the way, you might want to tweak your template. Links in your post body are not distinguishable from the surrounding text.

    1. WordPress won’t let me make that change! Yes, the ‘forward armament’ concept (intended to save weight of armour) was rather picked up by the French, as was the use of quad turrets to save mounting weight – though it risked the loss of half the armament to a single hit. Definitely weird, but the French ships always were, one way or another.

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