This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

The age of great iron naval fleets began with the Battle of Tsu-Shima

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Ships, World War 1 on Friday, 20 December 2013

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about battleships first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 499 published on 7 August 1971.

Super-Dreadnoughts, picture, image, illustration

Japanese, French, Russian and Italian Super-Dreadnoughts (from left to right) by G H Davis

The first battle between ironclad steamships was a slow and ponderous duel between the Merrimac and the Monitor. It was fought during the American Civil War in the placid estuary waters of Hampton Roads. The Merrimac, for the South, was the hull of a burnt-out frigate with a heavily timbered “shed” built on the main deck. This was covered with a double layer of 2 in. thick iron plates. Every 15 minutes or so, if she were in the right position, she could fire a broadside of explosive shells from her 9 in. cannons.

These burst with little or no effect against the heavily-armoured revolving turret built on the Yankee Monitor, a floating raft with an armoured deck a mere 2 ft. above the water line. In return, the Monitor’s solid cannon balls did no more than bang and bounce off the sloping sides of the Merrimac.

The only real damage done to either ship happened when the Merrimac deliberately rammed the Monitor.

As a result, ship-builders the world over put rams on the bows of their battleships for years to come.

Yet, strange to relate, only once was any large warship sunk in battle by deliberate ramming. During the battle of Lissa (in the Adriatic), fought between the Italian and Austrian navies, the Austrian armoured ship Ferdinand Max, travelling at 11 ½ knots, rammed and sank the Re D’Italia.

The Re D’Italia had been stopped by her own captain before being rammed, and this made her an easy target for Admiral von Tegetthoff in the Ferdinand Max.

In spite of all the experts’ advice, other captains in other battles found it almost impossible to ram a moving enemy vessel on the high seas. In the course of their wild, high-speed ramming manoeuvres, captains were almost as likely to collide with friend as foe, and one unlucky Peruvian captain in 1879 missed the enemy and rammed a reef instead, so sinking his own ship!

In those days, the 12 in. was the big gun of the ironclads. A warship would usually have four, sometimes six, mounted in pairs. They had a range of about 6,000 yards and could be fired once every 15 minutes. Gunsights and range-finding methods were very inaccurate and the big guns depended on “lucky hits” at long range. In an attempt to beat off an enemy intent on ramming, it was thought necessary to cram the decks with as many smaller, short range, quick-firing guns as possible.

Some of these small guns could fire as many as 15 rounds a minute, but they could not penetrate armour. Their object was to batter superstructure and exposed deck fittings, and to cause fires.

For a long while, the world awaited battle proof of the usefulness of the big gun over the smaller quick-firer. Was it better to hope for a lucky hit at long range, or to brave the enemy’s big guns and to sail in close and batter him with your own small armament?

At the battle of the Yalu River (1894), a Japanese fleet, relying almost entirely upon quick-firing guns, savagely defeated a big-gun Chinese battle fleet because of better tactics, seamanship and efficiency. The Chinese lost six out of ten ships. Only one Japanese ship was put out of action. She was the Matsushima, which took three hits from the Chinese big guns. One shot passed right through the ship, causing little damage. Another had been filled with cement by mutinous factory workers and exploded in a harmless puff of white dust. But, the third one started a serious fire and caused many casualties.

If the Chinese gunners had been more accurate – or luckier – the Japanese would have fared very badly. . .

Nine years later, at the famous battle of Tsu-Shima (1905), the Japanese annihilated a Russian fleet that had spent nine months sailing from the Baltic to the Sea of Japan. Most of the action was fought out at close range, sometimes down to 1,000 yards, with the heavy and light guns blazing away. Although the quick-firers scored many hits, it was found that only the big guns did real, sinking damage.

But this battle had been a suicidal venture from the start. The Tsar of Russia had sent out his fleet to destroy the Japanese navy. Forty-two old-fashioned men-of-war with inefficient crews, badly trained officers and poor armament sailed half-way round the world to attack the mighty ships of the Japanese navy.

After an 18,000 miles journey – one of the most heroic voyages in the history of the sea – the battered Russian ships met the Japanese in the greatest sea battle of modern times at Tsu-Shima – the Island of the Donkey’s Ears. The result was a massacre. Russia’s tattered ironclads were sunk or captured and some surrendered without firing a shot. Others fought until they were blazing wrecks, and some became a shambles of twisted ironwork.

The lesson was clear.

Heavily-armoured, big-gun battleships would have to be designed.

Thus the Dreadnought was born. It was a super monster of iron and steel, with a water-line belt of 11 in. armour, powered by the latest highly reliable steam-turbine engines, a main armament of 12 in. guns, ten of them paired in five revolving turrets able to fire a broadside twice as powerful as any other ship.

Lord Fisher of the British Admiralty was the man who brought the Dreadnought into being, using the theories for a big gun battleship evolved by the Italian general, Cuniberti.

H.M.S. Dreadnought was built secretly within a year and a day. On that day, the British Empire cheered and the rest of the world gasped with surprise. Overnight every other battleship in the world was out of date, under-gunned, under-armoured and under-powered. Dreadnought’s top speed was 21 knots, and her turbines could sustain her almost indefinitely at. 17 ½ knots – faster than the battlespeed sprint of most ships. Her guns, firing in salvoes, aimed with the latest vastly improved gunsights and fire control systems, could score hits at maximum range.

She was the front-runner in the race for world-wide sea-power. In the nine years from her launching to the start of the First World War (1914), Great Britain built 32 big gun battleships and battle cruisers. In answer, Germany built 22.

Two years later, many of these mighty iron monsters of the deep met in massed battle off Jutland in the North Sea. With devastating effect, they hurled salvoes of one-ton shells at each other at ranges of 10 miles or more. No one tried to ram . . . these were the ultimate fire-breathing dragons.

By comparison, the Monitor and the Merrimac were crabs grappling in a seaside pool.

Yet even these mighty monsters were nervous, and they lived in constant dread of the torpedo!

Even more ominous, before the very first dreadnought was launched, two bicycle manufacturers in America, the Wright brothers, had fixed together a contraption of wood, wire and canvas – the first of a new breed of machines that would hasten the extermination of the naval dinosaurs.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.