In the fifteen years between 1889 and 1905 the Royal Navy built fifty-two battleships, which became known as the 'pre-dreadnoughts'. The ships studied here shared a similar layout, with four big guns - two forward and two aft, and a battery of smaller guns ranged along the sides. The idea was that the big guns would penetrate armour while the faster firing secondary guns would destroy the un-armoured superstructures. For most of these ships the secondary weapons were 6in guns, but the penultimate class added four 9.2in guns (giving them three sizes of main guns) and the last class eliminated the 6in guns and increased the number of 9.2in guns. These ships are often rather neglected. When built they were the most powerful battleships in the world, but by the time they saw combat they were seen as obsolete, pre-dreadnoughts, under-gunned and too slow.
Most of the chapters follow the same structure. We start with a look at the design process, looking at the aims of the designers, changes from the previous class, any political motivation for the new design (many of these ships were built in response to rumours of a particular class of foreign warship - Russian, French or Japanese at first, German towards the end of the period, with at least one element tailored to that particular threat), the alternative designs considered and the reasons for the eventual choices. Next come sections on armament, armour, machinery (along with details on speed trials) and appearance changes (very handy for me when I try to identify anonymous photos!). Finally there is a brief operational history of each ship in each class, with more details for any sinkings.
The speed of progress in this period is perhaps best illustrated by the Canopus. When she was commissioned in 1899 she was part of the fastest class of British battleships yet built, armed with four modern 12in guns, the first class to use Krupp cemented armour and the first to have water tube boilers. By the winter of 1914, when she formed part of Rear-Admiral Craddock's squadron in the South Atlantic she was too slow to accompany Craddock's cruisers and her armament not powerful enough to take on von Spee's modern cruisers.
The text is supported by a very impressive collection of photographs and plans. The plans are particularly useful, showing the internal arrangement of the ships and the often complex deck and armament layouts. My favourite picture shows the captain's day cabin of HMS Irresistible in 1905, which lives up to every cliché of the late Victorian navy - the captain is lounging on a rather comfortable looking sofa in a light airy room lined with paints, decorative high quality wooden furniture, a small dog and a large bird cage in the background!
Two other things rather leap out from the pictures - the Victorian navy's paint scheme, with dark hulls, white superstructures and yellow funnels made these powerful battleships look rather like cruise liners (they look far more warlike when repainted in grey), and second how small they look compared to the more familiar Second World War battleships. The ships of the last class of pre-dreadnoughts, the Lord Nelson class, were 410ft long and 79ft 6in wide. Ten years later the Queen Elizabeth class dreadnoughts were 656ft long and 90ft wide, the Second World War King George V class ships were 700ft long and 103ft wide and the famous American Iowa class ships 860ft long and 108ft wide. As a result the figures on deck often look surprisingly large compared to the ships.
This is a splendid reference work, providing a impressively researched in-depth study of these important warships.
Royal Sovereign Class 1889 estimates
Hood 1889 estimates
Centurion and Barfleur 1890 estimates
Renown 1892 estimates
Majestic Class 1893 estimates
Canopus Class 1896/7 estimates
Formidable Class 1897 estimates
Bulwark Class 1898 estimates
Duncan Class 1898/9 estimates
Queen Class 1900 estimates
King Edward VII Class 1901/2/3 estimates
Swiftsure and Triumph Purchase from Chile
Lord Nelson Class 1904/5 estimates
Battleship Forts and Battleship Exterminators
Author: R A Burt
Year: 2013 edition, 1988 original