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From Majestic to Agamemnon:
Royal Navy pre-dreadnoughts in Great War at Sea: Part 1
By David Hughes
January 2013

This Daily Content series hopefully will help readers and players appreciate the magnificent vessels that, all too often, are regarded as mere feeble substitutes for real battleships. This is not intended to be a technical study - there are plenty of those - but an accessible summary of the main features of each class, together with the reason why any ships in the class were lost. I have started with the Royal Navy as it established, some 10 years before the first Great War at Sea scenario, the standard all pre-dreadnoughts were measured against. The basic concept was first developed in 1884 when the first battleships of the “Admiral” class were completed. They had a two-gun main turret at each end of the superstructure, backed up by medium-calibre guns sufficient to hurt enemy protected cruisers. The armour was concentrated around the turrets and magazines, while the speed was about 17 knots. A few exceptions followed, notably the unfortunate Victoria class with a single forward turret, until the definitive design emerged in the Royal Sovereign class, laid down in 1889.


HMS Majestic, first of the true battleships. Note the funnel arrangement.

 
None of these appear in the series as all were broken up before 1914, except for Revenge which was used as a make-shift monitor in the first year of the war. The Majestic class of 1894 are the earliest to appear in a scenario. They were the first to have much improved, wire-wound guns and Harvey armour, this being nine inches thick on the belt and as much as four inches on part of the deck. Like virtually all British pre-dreadnoughts they had four 12-inch guns in two turrets and twelve six-inch guns in single mountings behind the armour along the superstructure. They were considered to be handsome ships, with their two funnels placed side by side. Due to this they appear, when photographed from the broadside, to be single funnel warships. All nine ships in the class appear in either Jutland or Mediterranean. Majestic was sunk by a U-boat at Gallipoli, a victim of her very limited underwater protection.

 


HMS Irresistible wasn't.

 

The six virtually identical ships of the Canopus class (the name ship was supposed to help fight Admiral von Spee in the Coronel scenario in Cruiser Warfare) followed in 1897. Although their main belt was only six inches thick it was made of much tougher Krupp armour. As an aside, comparing armour values at this period is tricky - you have to know the type as well as the thickness and extent. Ocean and Goliath were both sunk at the Dardanelles, Goliath by a Turkish torpedo-boat. Never underestimate the capabilities of a minor navy! Next came the three Formidable class ships, slightly faster and now with their two funnels fore and aft, creating the classic British battleship appearance. The armour belt was now nine inches. They were an unlucky group, Irresistible was lost to a mine at the Dardanelles, by which time Formidable herself had already been sunk by a U-boat in the Channel. Three identical London class battleships were laid down in 1898, one of which, Bulwark, blew up in a spectacular manner when moored at Sheerness in 1914. It appears that a local fire became a disaster when it contacted loose cordite containers left outside the magazines to increase the rate of fire. Experts now believe that this habit was the primary reason for the massive scale of the explosions that destroyed three battle-cruisers at Jutland.

Usually the Admiralty did not allow foreign designs to influence that of its own ships, but the six vessels of the Duncan class of 1899 were an exception. There was a rumour that the new Russian battleships of the Peresviet class were unusually fast, so the new class was given more speed (19 knots) at the cost of less protection and with the lower level 6-inch gun mountings closer to the sea and therefore prone to flooding in bad weather (the standard arrangement was in two levels each with three guns a side). In the game they are shown with a speed of 1 rather than 1 slow, but with one fewer armour factor. They were unpopular when built and proved to be the unluckiest of any pre-dreadnought class. Montague ran aground in 1906, doomed never to be given a Great War at Sea counter, Cornwallis was torpedoed in 1917, and Russell sank after hitting two mines in 1918, both of them near Malta. A major weakness of early British pre-dreadnoughts was their longitudinal bulkheads, installed without also providing the ability to counter-flood when one side was mined or torpedoed, which explains why so many capsized in a short time.

The two ships laid down in 1901, Queen and Prince of Wales, were similar to the six members of the Formidable class. Design had by now stagnated, and there was very little difference between the Queen and the Canopus built four years earlier, creating a group of fifteen virtually identical battleships, backed up by the nine obsolescent Majestics and the six slightly different Duncans, all thirty of them with a broadside of four 12-inch and six 6-inch guns. This effective but conservative design system ended with the arrival of the more powerful King Edward VII.

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