Basic concepts

During the decade of 1890 the term ironclad, which covered also those experimental designs known as monitors, was falling into disuse. And when completed in 1891, the ironclad Andrea Doria represented already an obsolete conception. The new battleships had their turrets emplaced on the ends of the hull rather than amidships, and fitted with longer cannons of smaller caliber, which had an increased muzzle velocity and rate of fire. Besides, a complete battery of secondary pieces, tipically installed in hull turrets, was added to the battleships, to effectively counter the increasing presence of dangerous torpedo boats.

At the same time, the production of steel in large quantities had become more affordable and the techniques of alloys and face hardening allowed to progressively reduce the thickness of armor plates. This allowed to reduce weight and therefore to increase speed, a factor which had gained importance as warships should not rely in armor alone for their protection. The French battleship Massena, from 1893, was probably one of the first ships impulsed by three screw propellers. The British preferred to use two until 1906, when they started to use four. Also in that time became habitual the metallic anti-torpedo nets which were deployed on the sides of the hull by a row of booms. These nets were used only when the ship was static or moving at very low speed.

Third generation: the pre-dreadnought battleship

Sir William White led the construction of seven new battleships of the Royal Sovereign class, between 1889 and 1894. Experience had demonstrated that a ship could not take advantage of her speed on strong swell if she lacked enough freeboard to prevent the waves from hitting the deck, and because of this these new battleships were built with a taller freeboard than previous British battleships. The faster ship of the class reached 18 knots. For the first time steel was used in a British battleship, which made possible to build relatively lighter and stronger hulls. The thickness of the waterline armor was 457 millimeters in the center and 356-406 millimeters in the ends. These ships had a length of 115.8 meters, a beam of 22.9 meters, a draught of 8.5 meters and a displacement of 14150 tonnes. At the end of the century, the Victorian livery of distinctive black hulls, white superstructures and yellow funnels and masts was replaced by a uniform grey scheme.

British battleship Royal Sovereign
The heavy artillery pieces, four 343-millimeter cannons, were mounted in open barbettes and there was as well a good array of light pieces and machine guns for short-range combat, for defense against the torpedo boats that were beginning to be used then. The heavy cannons fired a new amunition, made of molten iron, which could pierce the thickest armor without breaking up, and which was propelled by cordite, a new propellant of slow combustion which was smokeless and very superior to the traditional powder charges. It was of more reliable operation and generated higher muzzle speeds. The successive classes of British battleships adopted the new 305-millimeter caliber until circa 1910, when the 343-millimeter caliber was reintroduced.

There existed a strong contrast between the proportionate British units and the monstruous French battleships. On the decades of 1870-1880 these had been built as bizarre fortresses with thick masts and small turrets whose cannons seemed twice long. The hulls were tall, with their sides strongly curved inwards and the cannons arranged in groups, with those of smaller caliber disposed around the larger ones. A typical example of the French battleship construction was the Charles Martel.

This ship had a length of 115.5 meters, a beam of 21.6 meters, a draught of 8.4 meters and a displacement of 11639 tonnes. Her armor, an alloy of steel and nickel, had a thickness of 450 millimeters in the waterline and 356 millimeters in the turrets. The main armament comprised two 305-millimeter cannons and two 274-millimeter cannons, all of them mounted on single turrets, which were typical of French warships on those years. Because of this the two 274-millimeter cannons were installed amidships in hull turrets.

French battleship Charles Martel
The Japanese fleet which had defeated the Russian counterpart on the Battle of Tsushima, in 1905, was composed mainly by ships built in Great Britain. The largest part of the Russian Navy had been built in the own country, but the battleship Tsesarevich, survivor of the Russo-Japanese War, had been built in 1901 in a French shipyard. As other French warships, she had a tumblehome hull and tall freeboard. Her armament comprised four 305-millimeter cannons mounted in twin turrets. In the other hand, the Japanese battleship Asahi, built in 1899 in a British shipyard, was not very different to other contemporary British warships, being her main armament similar to that of the Tsesarevich.

Until the end of the 19th century, the sparse German fleet had played a timid role in the sea, but when in 1897 Admiral Tirpitz was appointed as Minister of the Navy it was started the construction of a Navy in correspondence with the maritime importance and the exterior commerce of the country. The Reichstag approved the naval program proposed by Tirpitz, which accounted for nineteen oceanic battleships, eight coastal battleships, six heavy cruisers and sixteen light cruisers, to be built within seven years.

The Kaiser Barbarossa, launched in 1900, was one of the new German battleships of characteristics closer to that of the French counterparts. This ship had a waterline length of 120.9 meters, a beam of 20.4 meters, a draught of 7.9 meters and a normal displacement of 11500 tonnes. The armament comprised four 240-millimeter cannons, fourteen 150-millimeter cannons and fourteen 88-millimeter cannons. Besides, as it had become generalized in the battleships of the late 19th century, the armament included six torpedo tubes. Her machinery of 13500 horsepower attached to three screw propellers granted a top speed of 18 knots. A characteristic of the German design was the adoption of a rather smaller caliber for the main armament; the difference in weight was used to improve the protection and the subdivision of the hull.

German battleship Kaiser Barbarossa

Basic concepts

In the late 19th century it was estimated that the effective range of the artillery of a battleship did not exceed 3200 meters. After the British naval maneuvers of 1899, Admiral Fisher concluded that future battles on the sea would take place at distances of about 5000 meters, and only six years later, in the Battle of Tsushima, the Russian battleships opened fire at distances of about 18000 meters and the first impacts were seen at a distance of 12000 meters. The danger posed by torpedoes had imposed the combat at long range and the only way to achieve some effectiveness was to fire salvos, which meant that warships should be armed with many heavy cannons of the same caliber. This idea had been foreseen already before the Battle of Tsushima.

Japanese fleet at Tsushima
The new naval tactics required to rationalize the large variety of calibers introduced on the new battleships, as it was difficult to localize and correct the cannons separately when they all fired at the same time. The advocates of monocaliber artillery, such as the Italian Admiral Cuniberti, pointed that these cannons could be fired in salvos directed by a single director. This idea was glimpsed in the new Italian and Japanese designs, but it was its imminent application in the American battleships of the South Carolina class what impulsed the British to take action. They were prepared because Admiral Fisher and his committee had been studying the matter since some years ago. As a result, they achieved the first practical realization of the idea when the revolutionary battleship HMS Dreadnought was launched in 1906.

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