Laid down during the last months before the outbreak of the Great War, the five battleships of the Revenge class (sometimes called the Royal Sovereign class, or the R class) would be the oldest British battleships to see action in the Second World War.
Initial plans called for eight battleships, built as a single class both to save costs and to finally put the Royal Navy far ahead of the German High Seas Fleet in the so-called dreadnought race. They would be spread over two fiscal years, with five funded under the 1913 program and three for 1914.
The design represented a cheaper alternative to the Queen Elizabeth class built under the 1912 program, with the same main armament (eight 15-inch guns in four dual turrets) but on a smaller hull with much less expensive machinery. Where the Queen Elizabeth class had been designed to form a “fast wing” of the battle fleet (though they did not meet their contract speed), the new battleships would revert to the fleet speed of 21 knots.
Only five of the ships would be completed as battleships; once the First World War began two of the 1914 contracts were converted to battle cruisers before the ships had been laid down and the third was cancelled outright. Two of the completed ships saw action at the Battle of Jutland. After the war, the Revenge class remained in service, surviving all of the naval arms limitation treaties but progressively becoming less and less capable as their machinery deteriorated.
In our Long War setting, war has come to Britain only in 1942, giving another three years for the Royal Navy to enact former Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s directive to refurbish “all useful warships.” Initially the Revenge class fell outside the definition of “useful,” needing far more attention than British resources allowed. While reconstruction would have been difficult and expensive, it would not have been impossible, particularly given a longer period of British re-armament.
The Revenge class was relatively small for its heavy armament, the same length as Iron Duke and actually slightly narrower than the older battleship. Modernizing the old ships would probably start with a new section inserted amidships to increase the space available for the power plant and improve the hull’s length-to-beam ratio. As in the rebuilding of the Queen Elizabeth class, the hull would be completely gutted except for the heavy armored barbettes of the main armament. So adding a new section to the hull during that process would not be as difficult a task as it may seem, but it still would require cutting the hull in half.
Royal Sovereign, Royal Oak and Resolution, sometime during the Great War.
As built, all of the 18 boilers in the Revenge class burned oil. The ships had been designed initially to burn oil in only some boilers and coal in the others, but First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher changed that upon resuming office in 1914 in hopes of improving their speed from 21 to 24 knots. As an odd holdover from their original design their galleys did burn coal so they retained some minimal bunkerage to feed the crew. Thus they are sometimes listed in secondary or online sources as having a mixed-fuel power plant but this is not true.
A quarter-century later, the boilers and engines badly needed a full replacement. But the cramped hull could not accommodate new equipment; this option existed for Iron Duke because of the smaller turrets for her main guns (one of which would have had to be removed). Removing Revenge’s X turret (the third counting from the bow) would have provided enough space and reduced her displacement by a great deal, but the 25-percent reduction in firepower would bring the whole project’s value into question. To become a useful battleship, Revenge would have to become a longer battleship.
Once lengthened, the ships could receive a more efficient power plant similar to that fitted in Queen Elizabeth, doubling her power output from 40,000 to 80,000 horsepower. Together with the lengthened hull that might have been enough to approach the original designed speed of 24 knots. None of the class ever came close to that speed even when new, making 21 knots at best, and by 1939 all five were considerably slower than even that and subject to repeated breakdowns – simple reliability would have been an enormous improvement in their military value.
Otherwise, the modernization would likely have been very similar to that of Queen Elizabeth: a new, tower-type bridge structure pressure resistant to poison gas attack. Added elevation to the 15-inch guns to increase their range. A new athwartships catapult for reconnaissance seaplanes and a hangar to house them. Removal of the secondary battery of 6-inch guns and its replacement with a suite of dual-purpose 5.25-inch mounts, plus additional light anti-aircraft weaponry. Surface search and gunnery control radar. New, reasonably thick deck armor.
Royal Oak departs Malta, 1937.
In many ways Revenge and her sisters would receive a superior modernization to that of Queen Elizabeth, thanks to improvements in electronics and anti-aircraft weaponry (the 5.25-inch gun) while they waited their turn for the dockyards. But one crucial shortcoming could not be overcome: their badly-outdated side armor scheme. As a cost-saving measure, Revenge had slab-sided armor of uniform thickness along her flanks rather than the expensive, carefully-machined tapering armor of Queen Elizabeth. The rebuilding process would have greatly improved her internal subdivision and protection against mines and torpedoes, but she would remain vulnerable to long-range plunging fire.
As reconstructed, Revenge and her sisters would still be no match for a modern German or Italian battleship in single combat. And they would lack the speed to serve with carrier task forces. They would now have the speed to escort convoys of fast troopships, and to operate with the battle fleet. But their cost would be enormous: the modernizations of the three rebuilt Queen Elizabeth class battleships ran over £3 million apiece, and Revenge could expect to cost substantially more thanks to the hull-lengthening. A new King George V cost £7.4 million. In favor of the conversions would be the shorter time-span required as compared to building a new battleship (about three years for the rebuilding, about four for new construction). And as in most democratic societies, funding for repairs might be easier to obtain than money for more new ships: £20 million for five rebuilt Revenges would appear a bargain next to £37 million for five additional King George V class.
We’ve included all five rebuilt Revenge class battleships in Second World War at Sea: Plan Z. They’re much more capable than their historical alter-ego ships found in Bismarck and other volumes of the series, but are not first-line units.
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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.