Two dominant battleship designs and the real sunset of battleships

There was a dominant design for battleships in the mid-18th century; the so-called seventy-four gun or 3rd rate ship-of-the-line. This ship was apparently an ideal compromise between firepower and sailing characteristics for great naval battles.

The even bigger 1st and 2nd rate ships of the line were superior in firepower and staying power (their thick wooden hulls were able to withstand a frigate's cannon shots at relevant ranges) which was most desirable as it led to a greater concentration of power in the line of battleships (the spacing between two ships of the line had to be about the same for any design, so a more powerful ship created a greater concentration of mass and was thus superior in raw power). On the other hand, their poor handling characteristics due to larger size and higher hull structures made them less efficient ships of the line, though.

A 74 was not as versatile as a frigate, but still very suitable for being sent on cruises and missions alone - which was hardly ever done with 1st and 2nd rate ships of the line.

The different 74 classes differed from each other, but there was an understanding that they were at a golden middle and a huge quantity was built by the great powers. There were 107 such ships of the Téméraire class alone.

It took one and a half century for another similarly dominant design to emerge after a bewildering variety of experiments - the pre-dreadnought, pioneered by HMS Majestic.

These steel warships used a main battery turret fore and one aft of the superstructure (often twin turrets with 11" or 12" guns), lots of secondary and tertiary artillery casemate guns, triple expansion steam engines, masts only for observation and signalling and a ramming-capable bow design. They were eventually superseded by the Dreadnought generation of battleships (all big gun battleships) which vastly improved the primary artillery firepower and reduced the other artillery to anti-torpedo boat defences.

This dominant design lasted for a mere decade, but almost all great powers followed it with some variations. Again, there was general global consensus about how to design a good battleship. One can appreciate how much the Majestic class led to standardisation by looking at the variety among earlier battleships and the similarity of the Majestic-mirroring pre-dreadnoughts.

Well, what were such ships good for?

A 74 was capable of frigate cruise missions, though rather expensive in operation for this. An important wartime mission besides fleet-in-being was the blockade of ports. Back in the day before there were effective coastal defence craft a squadron of such ships could blockade a port with a close blockade - anchor in sight of the port. Escape was practical at night, rower-equipped or very fast (or lateen-rigged) ships only.

This close blockade approach had become much less practical by the mid-19th century (long after 74s lost relevance): Armoured and steam-powered coastal defence craft were able to engage such a blockade force at will, and could inflict intolerable damage. Still, one could claim that a slightly less close blockade with battleships that had steam engines themselves for survival in dead calm was possible. The ironclad battleships weren't that terribly vulnerable to coastal defence gunships in the 70's and 80's anyway (hence a short-lived fashion in favour of ramming).
The very early (propelled) torpedoes had little capability. They had to be employed very close up and thus didn't change the general picture decisively, as battleships were able to sustain a blockade at least in daytime against the opposition of torpedo boats.

Yet something had changed by the late pre-dreadnought era just before the dreadnoughts arrived: Torpedo-armed submarines such as the Holland class became operational.

The presence of such submarines made it much too dangerous to maintain a close blockade in daylight; even cruising around in the port's vicinity would sooner or later lead to one or multiple torpedo hits as the battleship would inevitably come too close to the submarine sooner or later.

The battleship's utility had been reduced to coastal bombardment (which cruisers were capable of as well), intercepting slower ships on the high seas (cruisers were faster and thus better at interception) and finally escorting high value convoys against interception by other capital ships and cruisers. Great naval battles with lines of battleships facing each other  had no utility in themselves other than perverse entertainment of newspaper readers. They were a means to reduce the potential to do other, actually directly useful, activities.

The British "R" class super dreadnoughts were used for little more than fleet-in-being, coastal bombardment and protection of large convoys against surface raiders, for example. They exemplified the diminished utility of battleships.

The early "fast" battleships of 24-26 kts speed such as the Queen Elizabeth class were of little more utility, albeit used more in wartime efforts (with relatively little effect). They were still slower than the cruisers of their time and much less suitable as raiders than them.

Battlecruisers have an almost universally bad reputation because of the series of explosions of British battlecruisers at Jutland, but they largely devalued the slower and weaker armoured cruisers (which largely followed the "Majestic" pattern, but sacrificed much armour for a few knots of extra speed and more endurance) and led to their end without actually destroying more than a handful of them (ironically all by the flawed British battlecruisers).

Later battlecruiser designs and really fast (29 kts and more) battleship designs were not able to maintain a relevant (or any) speed advantage over contemporary cruiser designs in other than severe seas, though. They had no satisfactory 6-gun main battery salvo in all directions either and were thus not able to keep a preferred distance while delivering effective long-range fires.*

The commonly-held belief about the sunset for battleships appears to be that the rise of the aircraft caused the star of the battleship to plunge. It's true that aircraft excelled at destroying battleships (as did submarines), and a battle between a carrier and a battleship would usually be won by the carrier (HMS Courageous and early on in the Battle of Leyte Gulf being exceptions). What really changes the balance in favour of the carrier (and land-based aviation, but navies don't want to pay attention to this angle) is the much greater utility, though.

I prefer to call the early 1900's as the sunset of the battleship - this was even before HMS Dreadnought, in the late pre-Dreadnought age. Battleships were at that time reduced to superior convoy protection against large surface threats as their only unique selling proposition. Everything else became largely pointless or impractical because of submarines or done better by (battle)cruisers and/or submarines.
The relative uselessness of the ordinary (slow) battleships such as the 'R' class during WW2 and the utterly indecisive role of battleships in the First World War are powerful evidence.

Navies didn't fully recognize this until the undisputable mass destruction of battleships by non-battleship threats left no option of looking the other way any more.

So I draw two lessons from this:
  1. A confirmation that armed bureaucracies can waste vast fortunes on obsolete paradigms.
  2. People are overemphasizing lethality compared to devaluation. Hardly anyone notices that battleships became largely superfluous long before they faced mass destruction by dissimilar threats.



*: A salvo of six shots is needed according to a rule of thumb, as it's too difficult to observe the centre of the salvo's impacts with fewer water fountains.  This observation is critical to correction of aim for a later salvo and thus the probability of hit at ranges beyond about 10,000 m. Hence there were very few capital ship designs with less than six barrels of the primary calibre once centralised fire control was introduced. This six gun rule of thumb lost relevance in the age of radar and proper fire control computers.


  1. "Hardly anyone notices that battleships became largely superfluous long before they faced mass destruction..." Just like giant aircraft carriers of today? eh?

  2. Its a messy subject. But what about the potentially existential tactic of purposely employing technological stagnation to better control escalation in order to maintain your current superiority. i.e. to avoid an arms race whos outcome is unknown.

    If we continue to equip drawing from the current paradigm where we have superiority, the hope is that the enemy is shortsighted, as you say, and will follow. Battleships are large impressive machines, moot point if you consider most people only ever saw them in photographs in newspapers where scale is lost, they come with a soft power value.

    Re the current situation. It seems to me that if there was any serious engagement, before it went nuclear, the first research programs would be to swarming AI drones on land sea and air. Noone however seemingly wants to shift to that newly opened realm because if you war game it out, the outcome for even the agressor is unclear. (Cant help think of the '90s movie 'Screamers' based on a pretty good short story which discusses this.)

    Control your own actions and attempt to control your enemies response to those actions.

    Look at the Russian debacle in 1905, the whole thing was pointless (and perhaps manipulated into existence by british intellegence) from a certain aspect. From another perspective, not. The psychological, propoganda, 'story telling' dimension of warfare is complicated but does exist and exerts power.

    The other point to note is that warfare does have rules, moreso now than in the 18th century. We witnessed it last night, a charade for the population, so both sides can appear strong. So both sides can avoid nuclear war.

  3. Although cruisers were capable of bombardment, their half sized guns were both far less capable, and had a far shorter range.
    A battleship could sail past at night and devastate a target, and then leave well before any sort of response, a cruiser group runs the risk of a battleship chasing them and catching them in range of its far more powerful guns, and that ends only one way.

    The German 38cm out ranged the 15cm by 13,000m.

    Although Cruisers were faster, only marginally so,
    Majestic had a potential top speed of 16knts, against 23 of Good Hope.
    7 knots would take a full hour to get from max cruiser gun range to max battleship gun range, and the cruiser isnt going to survive an hour.

    "Look at the Russian debacle in 1905"
    A Russian Fleet was lost at anchor, as large (admittedly land) guns sank them from out of range.

    Submarines became increasingly effective capital ship hunters, but the likes of the SMU-13 carried only 5 torpedo, their use as cargo hunters was laughable, large scale destruction required a surface ship, and a surface ship always loses to a bigger surface ship.

    1. 7 kts is a huge speed difference.

      Torpedoboat destroyers can lay smoke to screen withdrawing cruisers. Battleships were thus even in most fortunate situations extremely ineffective against armoured cruisers. Pre-dreadnoughts had marginal gunnery effectiveness past 1,000 m due to poor fire control anyway.

      The real debacle of 1905 was the Battle of Tsushima, not the mopping up at Port Arthur.

      Armoured cruisers had main guns in the 7.5-10" range, easily enough for coastal bombardment from beyond the effective (fire control) range of almost all coastal batteries.