British Battleships, Part Two
In the autumn of 1912, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill and his staff began to craft the Royal Navy’s 1913-1914 battleship construction program. The previous construction program had included four fast battleships of the Queen Elizabeth class, plus a fifth unit funded by the Federated Malay States; Parliament had already indicated that the new program would match the previous level of funding, but would not exceed it.
Churchill insisted that the program must include five capital ships, to maintain a superiority of 60 percent over the High Seas Fleet. That precluded his preferred option, to simply repeat the 1912 program of four Queen Elizabeths.
The Director of Naval Construction, Euston Tennyson d’Eyncourt, laid a variety of choices before the First Lord including repeats of the previous classes of dreadnought and battle cruiser (Iron Duke and Tiger) and improved versions of both designs featuring 15-inch guns rather than the 13.5-inch weapons of the older ships. Churchill desired two key qualities – battlecruiser-level speed and eight 15-inch guns – but D’Eyncourt could not deliver both of those in five ships and remain within the budgetary limits. If Churchill wanted five units, he could have slower ships, he could have fewer ships, or he could have weaker ships.
After railing against that hard reality for some weeks, in November 1912 Churchill made his choice: five ships, each with eight 15-inch guns, reverting to the old fleet speed of 21 knots. D’Eyncourt began drafting the design based on an enlarged Iron Duke with four turrets rather than five. This ship would become the Revenge class, sometimes called the R-class or the Royal Sovereign class.
Cleaning HMS Revenge.
A year later, decisions had to be made for the next program. In January 1914 the Canadian government indicated that it would not, as had previously been discussed, fund three units of the Queen Elizabeth class. Recriminations flew over this “broken promise,” but the crux of the disagreement came over Canadian insistence that Canadian dollars be spent in Canadian shipyards employing Canadian workers. In Britain, the politically-powerful Vickers-Armstrong combine wished to see those dollars translated into sterling spent in Britain and exerted its influence to scuttle the deal rather than see battleship-building begin in the Dominions – even though Vickers owned the Canadian yards that would have received the orders.
To make up for the three “lost” ships, Churchill wrangled approval to accelerate the 1914 program, but not additional funding. He could therefore build four ships, and initially selected three repeat Queen Elizabeths and one repeat Revenge, later altering this to the reverse ratio, one repeat Queen Elizabeth and three repeat Revenges. A Revenge supposedly could be built more quickly than a Queen Elizabeth, in theory, anyway – in practice the two types took about the same amount of time to complete (roughly 30 to 32 months) but none of the ships of either class had been commissioned at the time Churchill made his decision.
Contracts for the three Revenge-class ships were placed in May 1914, with two ships at private builders (Repulse at Palmers, Newcastle and Renown at Fairfield, Glasgow) and one at a Royal Dockyard (Resistance, at Devonport). The one additional Queen Elizabeth, to be named Agincourt, was also placed at Devonport but a formal contract doesn’t seem to have been issued for her. All four ships would have had improvements to their design, chiefly to their armor scheme, but otherwise have been nearly identical.
None of the ships of either class had been completed when Britain declared war on 4 August 1914. Three weeks later the Admiralty cancelled the contract for Resistance, but only suspended those for Repulse and Renown – outright cancellation with a private firm would incur financial penalties, so the contracts were only “suspended.” Agincourt’s delayed contract was simply not issued.
While construction of the three Revenge-class battleships halted (no keels had been laid or materials gathered), the orders for the dozen twin turrets for 15-inch Mark I rifles continued in force with Elswick through either bureaucratic oversight or wartime profiteering. Ian Buxton in The Battleship Builders implies that the four turrets for Resistance were cancelled and four new ones ordered later; Norman Friedman in British Battleships is clear that the turrets intended for Resistance were indeed manufactured (which, given the long lead times for these items, makes a great deal more sense).
Lord John Fisher took over as First Sea Lord in October 1914 for a tumultuous six-month hurricane of activity. During his brief reign, he found a legal loophole in the prohibition on new construction of capital ships, using the “suspended” contracts for Repulse and Renown to order a pair of battle cruisers under the same names. These two ships used six of the 12 turrets built by Vickers-Armstrong for the cancelled/suspended Revenge-class ships. Four of the turrets went to the “large light cruisers” Glorious and Courageous (later to be re-used in the battleship Vanguard), and the remaining two were fitted in the monitors Erebus and Terror.
Fisher also took hold of the Revenge project, ordering a switch from mixed coal- and oil-firing boilers to uniform oil power. That raised the ships’ horsepower output from 31,000 to 40,000 and reduced their draft, theoretically raising their speed from 21 to 23 knots. On their trial runs none topped 21.9 knots, even though all five exceeded 40,000 horsepower. When Britain began to suffer oil shortages in 1917 the Revenge and Queen Elizabeth classes had restrictions on their use due to lack of fuel, while the coal-burning battleships continued to operate unimpeded.
Four of the five Revenges at sea.
The Revenge class met none of its requirements; ordered to save money, Revenge herself actually cost only slightly less than Queen Elizabeth (£2,556,368 for Revenge compared to £2,633,103 for Queen Elizabeth, or 97 percent). They proved cramped, slow and nearly impossible to modernize, with their main battery of eight excellent 15-inch Mark I naval rifles about their only redeeming feature. The Royal Navy would have been much better off retaining the battle cruiser Tiger during the 1930’s naval reductions rather than one of these ships.
Repulse and Renown, completed as battle cruisers, became known as “Refit” and “Repair” in the fleet due to their myriad technical problems, and as built they were essentially unarmored: the largest and fastest capital ships in the world at the time, they were in essence a pair of very swift gunnery targets. Near-total reconstruction during the 1930’s improved Renown, but neither proved to be a very goof fighting ship.
While Churchill might have been better off building four more Queen Elizabeths instead, despite Royal Navy propaganda that class had its own flaws and never met its supposed top speed of 24 knots. These were not battleships able to catch battle cruisers, but simply very-well-armed dreadnoughts somewhat faster than other battleships. For the same price, Churchill could have had six more sister ships of the battle cruiser Tiger, which probably would have been a better investment, but then these ships wouldn’t have been “new.”
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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.