Friday 30 September 2011

Building small battleships: Some 1920s and 1930s designs

Before the advent of the iron (and later steel) warship, the battleship was limited in size by the fact that it was extremely difficult to build wooden warships over a certain size because of the limitations imposed by the building material.

Once warships began to be built of metal rather than of wood, they increased in size at a considerable rate. This was due both to the advances being made in shipbuilding technology and rivalry between nations. This ‘race’ reached its peak in the period immediately before the First World War, when a country’s ‘worth’ in the World was measured in terms of the number of capital ships she had and the calibre and number of guns they carried.

Even then there were some people who argued that Britain would be better off building lots of small battleships rather than constantly trying to match the leviathans being built – or at least, being thought to be being built – by potential rivals. They argued that during the Napoleonic Wars the mainstay of the Royal Navy’s battle line was the third-rate 74-gun ship-of-the-line and not the first-rate 100-gun ship. This argument was rejected by people like Winston Churchill and the First Sea Lord Admiral Jackie Fisher as well by some newspapers – such as the Daily Mail – and special interest groups like the Naval League. They campaigned for the building of more battleships with the slogan ‘We want eight and we won't wait’.

In the aftermath of the First World War there were international moves to restrict both the size of navies and the size of individual ship types. The Washington Treaty is the most famous of these, and did lead to suggestions – led in the main by the ship designers like as Sir George Thurston and some ‘gifted’ amateurs such as Captain Bernard Acworth – that future battleships should have a maximum tonnage of 25,000 tons and guns no larger than 12-inches in calibre.

This was, of course, a pipedream but it did lead to some interesting small battleship designs being put forward during the 1920s and 1930s. For example, Sir George Thurston proposed a design that was based on a cut-down version of HMS Nelson (whose design was, ironically, derived from a reduced version of the N3 class battleship).

Sir George Thurston’s 1926 design had 6 x 16-inch guns in two triple turrets as its main armament, 8 x 6-inch guns in four twin turrets as its secondary armament, and 4 x 4.7-inch AA guns in single mounts. Its tonnage was predicted to be 26,500-tons.

In the late 1920s the Italians proposed building 23,000-ton small battleships armed with 6 x 15-inch guns in three twin turrets. Interestingly this design certainly looks like a precursor to the later Littorio class battleships.

The British Admiralty did do some preliminary design work on small battleships, and the 1929 Design 12B carried a main armament of 8 x 12-inch guns in four twin turrets and a secondary armament of 12 x 6-inch guns in twin turrets. She was also armed with 4.7-inch AA guns.

Sir George Thurston proposed yet another design in 1933 – he termed it ‘The Battleship of the Future’ – and it had 12 x 12-inch guns in four triple turrets as its main armament and 12 x 6-inch guns in casemates (by then long regarded as a pretty worthless method of mounting guns by most ship designers) as its secondary armament. Its tonnage was predicted to be 25,000-tons.

Captain Bernard Acworth’s contribution was an even more retrograde design than Thurston’s, and was armed with 6 x 13.5-inch guns in three twin turrets. Its secondary armament was 4(!) x 4.7-inch guns. The ship had a designed tonnage of 11,980-tons. (It is worth noting that Captain Acworth thought that radio was of doubtful utility to the Royal Navy and should not be fitted to all warships, and that ships should be coal-powered rather than oil-powered.)

The run-up to the Second World War brought an end to the small battleship ‘craze’, although in 1945 an outline design for a 37,200-ton battleship – armed with 6 x 16-inch guns in two triple turrets – was drawn up by the Director of Naval Construction. It drew on the work already done for the Lion class battleships, and probably would have looked rather like HMS Vanguard, but shorter and with a single turret at either end of the superstructure.

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