Alternative Dreadnoughts, Part Two

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2020

While First Sea Lord John Fisher had entered the Admiralty’s discussions for a new battleship eager to switch from the now-traditional 12-inch main gun to the faster-firing 10-inch weapon, two Royal Navy captains on his “Committee on Designs” convinced him that the new 12-inch guns coming into production could provide almost the same rate of fire and considerably more hitting power. Around the same time, intelligence reports suggested that the new 10-inch gun could not penetrate the belt armor of the newest French battleships, but Fisher seems to have been far less impressed with this argument.

Meanwhile, Italian naval architect Vittorio Cuniberti had drafted a 17,000-ton enlarged Regina Elena. This ship would be three knots faster than the earlier ship at 24 knots. The design replaced the six medium-caliber turrets with more 12-inch guns: a double turret on each side of the ship, flanked by single turrets. The total of a dozen 12-inch guns made the ship much more powerful than any potential opponent, with a broadside of eight big guns against four for any other battleship. With her speed she could run down almost any existing cruiser. Her profile was very similar to the fast pre-dreadnought Regina Elena, with a fourth funnel due to the much larger power plant.

Pelorous Jack, mascot of HMS New Zealand, has been loaded into a Mark X 12-inch naval rifle. He was not a good dog like Leopold.

Cuniberti suggested the ship for the Italian Navy’s 1902 program, but the Navy Ministry balked at the enormous cost and ordered a second pair of Regina Elena class ships instead. The designer requested and received permission to publish an article about the design in the 1903 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships.

“An Ideal Battleship for the British Fleet” was presented in an unfortunate fractured translation typical of the then-current English attitude toward foreigners; Cuniberti comes across more like a street-corner organ grinder than Europe’s finest naval engineer. “We thus have outlined for us,” Cuniberti wrote, “the main features of our absolutely supreme vessel — with medium calibres abolished — so effectively protected as to be able to disregard entirely all the subsidiary armament of an enemy, and armed with only twelve pieces of 12-inch.”

Cuniberti’s ship could not have made the claimed 24 knots on 17,000 tons; the horsepower required would have meant much larger machinery (increased speed increases power requirements exponentially). But the armament and protection he outlined would have given Italy a powerful warship well capable of the tasks he foresaw even at 20 or 21 knots.

Cuniberti’s article appeared just before Fisher took over as First Sea Lord. Though often credited with igniting the Dreadnought era of battleship construction, Cuniberti’s ideas were the logical outcome of naval developments around the world. The Japanese Satsuma class designed immediately after the Russo-Japanese War originally would have mounted a dozen 12-inch guns, but shortages of heavy artillery forced the replacement of eight of them with 10-inch pieces instead.

British naval constructors had already begun to offer designs with large numbers of heavy guns and no medium-caliber weapons when Cuniberti published his views. And Fisher appears to have been aware of Cuniberti’s concept well before then, if only in broad outline. Where the “Perfect Battleship” (or at least early intelligence reports of Italian plans) influenced Fisher was in its speed.

Lord Nelson’s sister Agamemnon takes on coal and ammunition at Malta.

The first “Dreadnought” designs offered to the Committee (the ship had not yet been named) derived from the semi-dreadnought Lord Nelson, using the same or a very similar hull form, internal arrangements and protection, and machinery. That yielded a top speed of 18 knots, considered the standard fleet speed of the time.

Much like Cuniberti, Fisher saw the battleship and the armored cruiser merging into one unitary type of large warship, combining the protection and firepower of the battleship with the speed of the armored cruiser.

The Director of Naval Construction, Sir Philip Watts, had produced the designs for a Lord Nelson armed with a uniform main battery of 10-inch guns. He detailed his deputy, J.H. Narbeth, to draft new versions of Lord Nelson armed solely with 12-inch guns.

The first version, labeled Alternative A, would carry eight 12-inch guns: twin turrets at either end, the same as the semi-dreadnought design, with single 12-inch mounts at the “corner” positions (where Lord Nelson had carried twin turrets for 9.2-inch guns; the amidships single mount for a 9.2-inch gun was deleted). This ship was otherwise very similar to Lord Nelson, but Narbeth also provided a version powered by turbines that could make 20 knots rather than the 18 knots of Lord Nelson.

The concept of “broadside weight” still held weight in 1904, and Alternative A actually represented a slight decrease in the amount of metal she could throw (5,100 pounds for six 12-inch guns, compared to 5,300 pounds for Lord Nelson’s four 12-inch and five 9.2-inch guns on either broadside). That took no notice of the greater range and striking power of the bigger gun, or the sheer crapulence of the smaller weapon that meant that fewer of its shells would actually hit their target.

Lord Nelson’s sister Agamemnon bombards Turkish positions, March 1915.

Alternative B, a modified version of a design Narbeth had presented in 1902 during the design process for Lord Nelson, gave the ship a dozen 12-inch guns in six twin turrets: one each fore and aft, and one in each of the “corner” positions. That raised her broadside weight to 6,800 pounds. The ship was larger to allow larger engines and finer lines to bring her speed up to 20 knots when powered by turbines. Otherwise, she carried the same armor scheme as Lord Nelson.

Lord Nelson had displaced 15,600 tons. The 18-knot version of Alternative A would have edged upward to 16,000 tons with turbines, 16,500 tons with old-style triple-expansion engines. To make 20 knots would require a displacement of 17,500 tons. Alternative B weighed in at 18,000 tons; to make her speed Narbeth suggested that the engines might be run harder than current practice allowed.

Fisher was not swayed; the new ship needed to match the speed of current armored cruisers. While he wanted a 21-knot fleet speed for battle, the First Sea Lord as always had economic considerations in mind as well. A high speed meant that the ship could deploy faster, meaning that the fleet could cover the same area with fewer ships, resulting in cost savings.

The new battleship would have to be built to a completely new design. It would also have to be larger, which meant construction of new docks and facilities in much of the British Empire. Watts and Narbeth, having expended their designated sacrifices in time-honored bureaucratic/corporate tradition, now trotted out their new ideas.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.

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