King Edward VII class battleships

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The King Edward VII class battleships saw the first major change in the design of British battleships for fifteen years, with the introduction of a battery of four 9.2in guns added to the 12in and 6in guns carried on previous classes. These guns were carried in single gun turrets in place of the 6in guns at the corners of the upper deck. The remaining ten 6in guns were carried on the next deck down, five on each side of the ship. Instead of each 6in gun being protected by its own casemate, the entire battery was protected by an extension of the main belt armour.

Although the 9.2in guns did add to the firepower of the ship, they also made it much more difficult to manage the ammunition of the ship, which now needed to carry five different sizes of shells. It also made accurate gunnery more difficult, as the splashes from the 12in and 9.2in guns were difficult to tell apart at a distance.

The complexity was only increased by the wide variety of boilers use the power the ships. The Belleville water tube boilers used on the most recent ships were abandoned in favour of four different combinations of Babcock and Wilcox, Niclausse and cylindrical boilers. This was done to test out these systems, and did provide information that was used in the design of later ships – the Babcock and Wilcox water tube boilers (together with Jarrow boilers) were used to power the dreadnought battleships that were to follow.

The King Edward VII class ships were given balanced rudders, last used on British battleships during the 1870s. As a result they had a tight turning circle, but were difficult to steer in a straight line, earning them the nickname “the wobbly eight” when they served with the Grand Fleet.

The construction of HMS Dreadnought overlapped with that of the later members of the King Edward VII class. Dreadnought was laid down in October 1905, launched in February 1906 and was complete by the end of the year. She was already afloat before Africa and Britannia were completed, while Hibernia was not ready until January 1907, by which time she was already obsolete!

The King Edward VII class ships served together for most of their careers. They commissioned into the Atlantic Fleet, before in February 1907 joining the Channel Fleet. In April 1909 they joined the 2nd Division of the Home Fleet (King Edward VII joined one month earlier as flagship). In 1913 Africa, Britannia, Commonwealth, Dominion, King Edward VII and Zealandia spent a short time in the Mediterranean before returning to form the 3rd Battle Squadron of the First Fleet.

In May 1912 HMS Hibernia became the first British warship to successfully launch a seaplane while moving when Charles Sampson took off from a platform over the forecastle.  

At the outbreak of the First World War the 3rd Battle Squadron became part of the Grand Fleet. With a number of exceptions the class stayed together with the 3rd Battle Squadron until early in 1918, moving progressively south as it was reduced in importance. In August 1914 the squadron was reinforced by the five Duncan class ships. In November the entire squadron moved south to Portland to guard against a possible German raid on the south coast, but later that month the eight King Edwards returned to Scapa while the Duncans were detached to form a new 6th Battle Squadron.

The first members of the class to leave the squadron were HMS Hibernia and HMS Zealandia. In November 1915 they were detached (along with the Albemarle and the Russell) and sent to the Dardanelles for the final part of the Gallipoli campaign. Both ships would eventually return to the squadron.

On 6 January 1916 HMS King Edward VII was travelling from Scapa to Belfast for a refit when she hit a recently laid German mine. Her engine rooms were flooded, and despite nine hours of efforts to tow her to safety in heavy weather she had to be abandoned. The entire crew was rescued by the destroyers Musketeer, Marne, Fortune and Nessus, and four hours after being abandoned she finally sank.

That left five of the original eight ships with the Grand Fleet. The fleet was now being reinforced by newer dreadnoughts, and by April 1916 the 3rd Battle Squadron had been moved to Rosyth to act as a reserve division. In the aftermath of the Lowestoft Raid the squadron was moved south again, this time to Sheerness. On 2 May 1916 the squadron was officially detached from the Grand Fleet. Admiral Sir Edward Bradford, the commander of the squadron, now had an independent command, consisting of the 3rd Battle Squadron (reinforced by HMS Dreadnought) and the 3rd Cruiser Squadron. His new duty was to deal with any attack on the east coast by the German battlecruisers.

The King Edward VII ships played no part in the battle of Jutland, but in 30 May they were sent to sea in case the German fleet movement was actually the cover for a raid on the east or south coasts. They were also ordered to sea during the German fleet sortie of August 1916.

That sortie resulted in the loss of a number of British ships to submarines. Jellicoe decided that the Grand Fleet should not venture south every time the High Seas Fleet moved. Instead, the defences of the east coast would be left to the forces in the Humber, at Harwich, and the 3rd Battle Squadron and its remaining King Edward VII class ships, at least until the Grand Fleet had enough destroyers to venture further south.  This recognised that the main purpose of the Grand Fleet was to keep the High Seas Fleet bottled up in the North Sea.

The squadron remained in the south throughout 1917. It was finally decommissioned in March 1918 to free up its crews to serve in the anti-submarine forces. At the start of 1918 HMS Commonwealth, HMS Dominion, HMS Hindustan and HMS Zealandia were still part of the squadron.

HMS Hibernia had already been decommissioned. HMS Britannia had been attached to the Italian fleet at Taranto. She was sunk by UB-50 off Cape Trafalgar on 9 November 1918, staying afloat for over three hours, making her the last British battleship lost during the First World War.

HMS Africa had been detached from the 3rd Battle Squadron in April 1917 to join the 9th Cruiser Squadron, supporting the Atlantic convoys after they were introduced. She remained with that squadron until November 1918.  

At the end of the war the six surviving pre-dreadnought King Edward VIIs were amongst the first battleships to be sold off, going in 1920-21, just slightly ahead of the earlier dreadnoughts.

Displacement - design

16,350t

 - load

15,585-15,885t

 - deep load

17,009-17,290t

Top Speed

18.5kt design
18.1-19.3kts trails

Armour – deck

2.5in-1in

 - belt

9in-8in

 - bulkheads

12in-8in

 - barbettes

12in

 - gun houses (12in)

12in-8in

 - gun houses (9.2in)

9in-5in

 - 6in battery

7in

 - conning tower

12in

Length

453ft 9in

Armaments

Four 12in guns
Four 9.2in gins
Ten 6in quick firing guns
Fourteen 12pdr quick firing guns
Fourteen 3pdr quick firing guns
Four 18in submerged torpedo tubes

Crew complement

777

Launched

1903-1905

Completed

1905-1907

Ships in class

HMS Africa
HMS Britannia
HMS Commonwealth
HMS Dominion
HMS Hibernia
HMS Hindustan
HMS King Edward VII
HMS Zealandia*

* Originally HMS New Zealand but renamed Zealandia in 1911 to allow the name to be reused for the battlecruisers HMS New Zealand, launched that year.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (6 November 2007), King Edward VII class battleships, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_king_edward_VII_class_battleships.html

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