British naval architects hit on a very fine design with the Queen Elizabeth class, a good combination of speed, firepower and protection – and also expense. Iron Duke, lead ship of the previous class, had cost £1.93 million while Queen Elizabeth came in at £3 million. The following Royal Sovereign class trimmed those costs by reducing speed and size.
The Royal Navy ordered no battleships during the first two years of the Great War, but the end of Sir John Fisher’s tenure as First Sea Lord in May 1915 also ended internal opposition to new dreadnoughts. Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet, wanted more new battleships armed with 15-inch guns, as many as could be built as quickly as possible.
The new First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Jackson, placed battleships back on the table and in November 1915 the Treasury approved the expenditure for new ships despite growing financial distress. While the money had been made available for ships, it could not be stretched to cover new docks as well and so Jackson insisted that the new ship could not be longer than Queen Elizabeth.
The restriction also limited the main armament to that of Queen Elizabeth: eight 15-inch Mark I rifles, in four twin turrets. Most of the designs submitted simply repeated the characteristics of Queen Elizabeth, with less speed. The Royal Navy already had such a ship in the Royal Sovereign class; if Jackson had to accept a slower ship, he wanted one with stronger armament or superior protection, preferably both.
To achieve that, Jackson suggested moving to a triple turret for the 15-inch guns; a ship with two triple turrets and one twin turret would have the same firepower as Queen Elizabeth but could be shorter, lighter and less costly. One with two triple turrets and two twin turrets could have 25 percent more heavy guns on the same length, though it would likely displace more. The Director of Naval Construction, Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt, argued against the triple turret on technical grounds, and Jackson relented on the size limit, agreeing to entertain proposals for a much larger ship that became the design for the battle cruiser Hood.
All of the proposals went to Jellicoe for comment, who now reversed his earlier positions. Where he had been willing to accept a 22-knot ship, he now wanted well-protected ships with at least 15-inch guns, fast enough to catch German battle cruisers. The tin-clad battle cruisers like Glorious or Repulse would be shredded by a German battle cruiser. And he now wanted guns larger than the 15-inch Mark I, having apparently heard of testing under way on the new 18-inch Mark I, an enlarged version of the 15-inch weapon.
To satisfy those requirements, the constructors continually modified the Hood design to improve speed and most of all protection in light of the experience of Jutland, or more correctly, inaccurate impressions of the experience of Jutland – British battle cruisers had been destroyed thanks to inadequate flash protection, not thin magazine armor. In May 1918, with Jellicoe now serving as First Sea Lord, d’Eyncourt tasked one of his assistants with studies of the triple 15-inch turret requested by Sir Henry Jackson – in August 1917 the accountants assigned to the Hood project had already suggested a switch to three triple turrets in place of the four twins as a cost-saving measure.
Design studies found that the barbette (the underlying armored “tower” supporting the gun turret) for the new triple turret would be five feet wider than the standard double turret’s barbette. That would require a broader ship. A ship the size of Hood could be built with four triple turrets, at the price of cutting her speed from 32 knots to 27 knots. Alternatively, the triple turrets could be replaced with twin turrets mounting the “15-inch B” gun, the cover name for the 18-inch Mark I.
The single-turret 18-inch Mark I aboard HMS Furious.
After the end of the Great War, pressure to adopt the 18-inch gun mounted as the Americans provided information on their new battleships mounting 16-inch guns and word came that new Japanese ships would carry 16-inch guns as well. A new 18-inch gun, longer and more powerful than the Mark I, had undergone testing and was referred to as the styled the 16-inch 50-caliber. Britain actually had no 16-inch guns under development at the time, but the Admiralty wished to remain a step ahead of its potential rivals in any case and did not wish to merely match their gunnery caliber.
In place of the Hood-derived designs, the constructors now began work on a series of proposals fitted with three triple turrets with the new-model 18-inch guns that eventually became the N-series designs. Hood herself would be completed, but her three sisters were cancelled as the Admiralty decided not to compound the decision to build a flawed ship by completing further units to the same design.
In Great War at Sea: Jutland 1919 we’ve given the Royal Navy two of these designs. First is the ten-gun version of Queen Elizabeth with two triple and two twin turrets, as initially requested by Sir Henry Jackson. She’s slower than Queen Elizabeth, though as Jellicoe complained after Jutland the class could not make their designed speed anyway (and may not deserve their speed rating in Great War at Sea games), and the “fast wing” of the battle fleet turned out to be mostly a myth. The new ship – here called the Ocean class – is a powerful warship, with heavy firepower and good protection. Per Jellicoe’s initial demand, she only makes 22 knots which is good for speed 1 in a Great War at Sea game.
The Hood-derived battleship with 18-inch guns is called the Nemesis class in Jutland 1919 (neither of these designs progressed far enough to be assigned construction contracts, let alone actual names – all eight of these ships in Jutland 1919 carry traditional British capital ship names). She’s a huge ship with enormous firepower and good protection, but as naval architects around the globe discovered it is very difficult to keep a ship’s protection at a scale capable of repelling the fire of its own guns once massive weapons like the 18-inch Mark I have been fitted. For our version, we’ve given her better protection at the cost of horsepower, lowering her speed from the projected 27 knots to something closer to the 22-knot target of the Ocean class.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.