As an island nation with a global maritime empire, it was vital that Britain had the best navy in the world. But it wasn’t enough just to have the most ships. It also had to have the biggest. That was the thinking of Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, who became the First Lord of the Sea in 1904.
Fisher could see the other great powers working hard to bolster their own navies. He suspected a fight wasn’t far off. The Italians, in particular, had an eye on building bigger and better, and the United States was developing fast, as was Japan. But most alarming of all for Britain was the rise of Germany.
So Fisher lost no time in making every other navy in the world redundant. Just two years later, HMS Dreadnought was launched at Portsmouth on 10 February 1906. It had cost £1,783,883 to build. But what a ship it was.
What made HMS Dreadnought so terrifying was its array of ten 12-inch guns, together with 24 three-inch quick firing guns, five Maxim machine guns and four torpedo tubes.
At 21 knots, HMS Dreadnought was also at least three knots faster than its nearest rival, thanks to its revolutionary steam turbine system. And even if you did manage to catch up with it, you had almost a foot of belt armour to contend with. HMS Dreadnought was built to shake off two torpedo hits.
So impressive was Britain’s newest toy that it gave its name to a whole class of battleships. Either you were a dreadnought – or you weren’t. And if you weren’t, you were a slightly embarrassing ‘pre-dreadnought’.
The public was delighted. Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, boasted “The Admiralty had demanded six ships, the economists offered four, and we finally compromised on eight”.
But what Britain had, everybody else wanted too. It wasn’t long before the other major powers were building their own dreadnoughts. By the time the First World War broke out in 1914, HMS Dreadnought was already showing its age. The once-mighty warship did sink one German submarine in 1915 – but not with any of its powerful weapons. It rammed it.
Also on this day
On this day in 1355, the ‘town versus gown’ rivalry in Oxford boiled over into three days of fighting, dubbed the St Scholastica’s Day riots. Read more here.