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From the King Edward VII to the Lord Nelson:
Royal Navy Pre-Dreadnoughts in Great War at Sea, Part 2
By David Hughes
January 2013

The traditional Royal Navy pre-dreadnought design was modified in 1902-1904 when the ships of the King Edward VII class, known as "the Wobbly Eight" because of their tendency to yaw in heavy seas, were laid down. Although the armour was virtually unchanged, they were heavier (16,000 tons) and with a much more powerful battery. There were still only four 12-inch guns but also four 9.2-inch guns in single turrets, one at each corner of the superstructure, as well as ten rather than the usual twelve 6-inch weapons. In theory they were much more powerful, in practise service opinion felt that three different calibres of gun were one too many, triggering the debate that would eventually produce the all-big gun Dreadnought. One ship, very unusually for the Royal Navy, had her name changed while in service. This was the New Zealand, given the clumsy name of Zealandia in 1911, so freeing up the original name for a new battle cruiser. At the start of the war the squadron was considered capable enough to serve with the dreadnoughts of the Grand Fleet, and all eight (B03-B10) are shown as such in Scenario 12 of Jutland. King Edward VII was still with the Grand Fleet when she was mined in 1916, taking eight hours to sink and in the process providing valuable lessons in water-proofing. The other class member to be lost was Britannia, torpedoed in 1918, the last major vessel of the Royal Navy to be sunk during the war.


King Edward VII in drydock.

 

Neither of the last two classes was built in squadron numbers. The first was made up of two ships, Swiftsure and Triumph, ordered by and then put on sale by Chile. It seems that the Admiralty feared that they would be bought by Russia, taking with them a lot of information on Royal Navy equipment and construction standards, so they bought the ships. They were considered second-class battleships, with 10-inch rather than 12-inch main guns backed up by an impressive fourteen 7.5-inch secondary weapons. The ships were capable of putting on a impressive and noisy display of gunfire, although some experts disparaged them as being incapable of penetrating the armour of the République, the most modern French battleship. The primary weakness was considered to be the armour, as the belt was only seven inches, two inches less than on the King Edwards, coming into service at the same time. Triumph was sunk by a single torpedo at the Dardanelles, capsizing in less than 15 minutes, much faster than either the King Edward VII or the Britannia, demonstrating the problems created when packing heavy fire-power on a limited displacement. The game 1904 displayed the two ships with the names they might have been given, both for the Russian and for the equally interested Japanese navy.

The last Royal Navy pre-dreadnoughts were the two ships of the unfortunate Lord Nelson class, unfortunate because both she and the Agamemnon were designed and laid down before, but completed after the Dreadnought and therefore always considered to be second-class ships. In many respects this can be questioned. They had better armour than the new battleship and in some respects were a better balanced and more powerful design. A Lord Nelson had a broadside of four 12-inch and five 9.2” guns, compared with the eight 12-inch weapons of the Dreadnought. The 9.2-inch guns, all in turrets, were very powerful weapons, especially at the firing ranges expected in the North Sea. Indeed they would be the principal coast defence weapon of the British Army until 1945. Considered opinion felt that she could defeat any early dreadnought-type battleship at ranges of 10,000 yards or less, as the lighter weapons had a much higher firing rate yet were powerful enough to wreck all but the most heavily armoured sections of a ship. The class also saw the end of the 6-inch gun, replaced by 3-inch (called 12-pounder in British service) small quick-firing or automatic weapons to counter the newly developed torpedo-boat destroyers. They spent most of the war in the Mediterranean, both ships showing the quality of their armour by shrugging off several hits by heavy guns during the fleet attack on the Dardanelles.

 


Agamemnon, from a period postcard.

 

Finally, some comments on these great vessels when playing with them in Great War at Sea.  The basic rule is that pre-dreadnoughts cannot fire at a range of three, except for a few specific units. My very unofficial opinion is that this is too restrictive, as later pre-dreadnoughts in many navies were just as capable of long-range fire as their dreadnoughts. Realistic firing practice, manoeuvring as part of a battle-fleet or squadron, and the effective training of spotting and gunnery control ratings all seem to have determined a ship’s ability to fire at longer ranges. My tendency is to give all pre-dreadnoughts half (rounded-up) of their primary value at long range. In addition, one can consider ships operating with a dreadnought fleet as having no restrictions. For the British this would be the King Edward VII class and the two Lord Nelsons. The former served with the Grand Fleet, while the latter had to be capable of long range shooting as they were expected to stop the German/Turkish battle-cruiser Goeben from escaping from the Dardanelles into the Mediterranean. The Admiralty had so much confidence in these pre-dreadnoughts that they allowed a single ship to remain on station, believing that one could handle a dreadnought battle-cruiser.

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