By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Following the Spanish-American War of 1898
and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, warship
designers began to question the standard battleship
design followed by every major navy: a pair
of heavy guns in each of two turrets, sited
fore and aft, and a number of light guns for
protection from torpedo boats, usually placed
in an armored casemate amidshps.
Spain built her naval power around a squadron
of relatively fast armored cruisers, destroyed
off Santiago de Cuba by the American fleet.
A high rate of fire at close range made the
difference for the Americans both off Santiago
and in Manila Bay. Some designers drew from
this the conclusion that a powerful medium-caliber
battery capable of very rapid fire would overwhelm
a ship with a smaller number of heavier guns.
Each hit from the heavier guns might do more
damage, but the sheer number of hits by smaller
shells would more than balance this out.
The Russo-Japanese War seemed to teach a
different lesson: Battleships of both sides
survived enormous numbers of medium-caliber
hits, and at the longer ranges seen at the
battles of Tsushima and the Yellow Sea, spotters
had difficulty distinguishing the splashes
of heavy- and medium-caliber shells. The answer
here seemed to be a ship armed exclusively
with heavy guns.
At the turn of the century, heavy warship
design was dominated by a handful of powerful
figures: Sir William White and Philip Watts
in Britain, Siegfried Popper in Austria-Hungary,
and Benedetto Brin and Vittorio Cuniberti
in Italy. All of them at first heeded the
lessons of 1898 and began to incorporate very
large batteries of medium-caliber guns in
Siegfried Popper’s “ideal
battleship,” SMS Radetzky.
Later known as “semi-dreadnoughts,”
these warships packed huge numbers of 8-inch
to 10-inch guns in amidships batteries, usually
in turrets for faster and more accurate fire.
White’s King Edward VII class,
designed in 1902, replaced the dozen 6-inch
guns of the previous classes with four 9.2-inch
and ten 6-inch guns. For the next class, the Lord Nelsons drawn up in 1904, the
6-inch battery was abandoned altogether and
the ships carried ten 9.2-inch guns —
in both cases, all the 9.2-inch guns were
mounted in turrets. The ships retained the
main battery of four 12-inch guns, in turrets
fore and aft.
Popper designed the Radetzky class
to similar standards, with four 12-inch guns
and eight 9.4-inch guns, all in turrets. The
American Virginia and Connecticut classes mounted eight 8-inch guns in turrets;
the Russian Imperator Pavel I had fourteen
of them in a mix of turrets and casemate mounts.
Cuniberti, however, had different ideas.
In 1899, the Royal Italian Navy charged him
with designing a fast armored cruiser armed
with a dozen 8-inch guns. Before those drafts
had been completed, the navy changed the requirements
to a fast battleship that could outrun any
French or British battleship but would be
more powerful than any of their armored cruisers.
The Regina Elena class, very handsome
ships, easily met the standards. They carried
a pair of 12-inch guns, in single turrets
fore and aft. Amidships they mounted three
twin turrets on either side for 8-inch guns.
At 12,500 tons, they could make 21 knots.
Regina Elena on speed trials.
As part of the design study, Cuniberti also
drafted a 17,000-ton version. An much enlarged Regina Elena, this ship was designed
for 24 knots and 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 12 12-inch guns made
the ship much more powerful than anything
else afloat, with a broadside of eight big
guns against four for any other battleship.
With her speed she could run down almost anything
else afloat. Her profile was very similar
to the fast pre-dreadnought, with a fourth
funnel due to the much larger power plant.
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
“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
Sir John Fisher took over as First Sea Lord
and began a radical restructuring of Royal
Navy shipbuilding. 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. During his time as
commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, Fisher
had already solicited preliminary sketches
of all-big-gun battleships from his crony
W.H. Gard, chief constructor of the Malta
These featured 12-inch guns, but Fisher at
first was more attracted to a design that
Watts, who replaced White as Chief Naval Constructor,
had prepared for Brazil while he’d worked
at the private shipyard Armstrong’s.
battleship carried a dozen 10-inch guns,
a new model Armstrong’s had developed
in its new cannon foundry capable of a rate
of fire three times that of the standard 12-inch
gun. Watts believed he could design a battleship
mounting sixteen of them were he granted a
displacement similar to Lord Nelson.
Fisher’s beloved old flagship HMS Renown had carried 10-inch guns and the admiral still
thought a well-drilled crew with the lighter
but faster weapon would defeat an opponent
with heavier but slower-firing guns.
A “Committee on Designs” appointed
by Fisher recommended that the new ship retain
the 12-inch gun, with no medium-caliber guns
and a speed of 21 knots. Watts delivered five
design sketches; the committee found objections
to all of them, mostly on the grounds of turret
layout that masked the fire of many guns.
Frustrated, Watts handed in a design for an
enlarged Lord Nelson with eighteen
9.2-inch guns. Again rejected, Watts came
back with much more feasible designs in January
The committee pondered two finalists. Design
G, a 21,000-ton ship with the traditional
expansion engines, used the “hexagonal”
turret arrangement of Watt’s armored
cruiser designs for Armstrong’s that
would be adopted by the German navy for its
first all-big-gun battleships. Design H was
much smaller, a 17,850-ton ship with only
ten heavy guns, but giving the same broadside
firepower thanks to better arrangement of
them. Most of the weight saving came from
the radical adoption of Parsons turbines,
until then only used in smaller ships.
Dreadnought is launched, February
The committee chose Design H; she was laid
down as HMS Dreadnought in October
1905 and completed in December of the following
year, a building time considerably shortened
by stockpiling of materials during the design
phase. Even so she had been designed and built
far too quickly and displayed a number of
flaws; she spent most of the Great War operating
with the pre-dreadnoughts of the King Edward
VII class and was considered worn out
before the war was over, just a dozen years
Watts’ Dreadnought changed the
course of European power politics; had she
been built by the Italian Navy, Cuniberti’s
would likely have done so as well. Such a
powerful ship in Italian hands would have
demanded a British response and likely driven
Italy firmly into the Central Powers camp,
changing the course (and possibly the outcome)
of the First World War.
Dreadnought and her siblings appear in Great
War at Sea: Jutland; Regina Elena and hers in Great
War at Sea: Mediterranean Ultimate Edition.
Click here to order Jutland right now.
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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.