HMS Dreadnought

When she was completed, in December 1906, HMS Dreadnought was the most powerful battleship in the world. She was the first all-big-gun battleship to enter service, and the first battleship to be powered by Parsons turbines. As a result she was two and a half knots faster than her rivals, and carried twice the firepower of earlier battleships.

To put the Dreadnought in context we need to look at the last generation of pre-Dreadnought battleships. In Britain that was the Lord Nelson class, whose construction actually overlapped with the Dreadnought. These were 17,820 tonne ships, carrying four 12in guns and ten 9.2in guns and capable of reaching a top speed of 18kts. The German equivalent was the Deutschland class, 13,993 tonnes, armed with four 11in and fourteen 6.9 in guns and capable of 18.5kts. The 12in guns were perhaps twice as powerful as the 9in guns.

HMS Dreadnought after launch
HMS Dreadnought
after launch

Plans of HMS Dreadnought
Plans of HMS Dreadnought

In contrast the Dreadnought carried ten 12in guns, although could only fire eight of them in a broadside and could reach a top speed of 21 kts, 2.5-3 knots quicker than existing battleships. She was even slightly cheaper to maintain than the Lord Nelson class of ships, a result of not needing to carry and maintain two different calibres of shells.

The all-big-gun ship was an idea that was in the air in the years before the appearance of the Dreadnought. In American work had already begun on the South Carolina class, which when completed carried eight 12in guns. There had been calls to give the Lord Nelsons an all 12in armament.

Dreadnought was the first of these ships to be laid down, in October 1905, and was built at great speed. She was launched just over four months later, in February 1906, and was officially considered to have been completed in October 1906, after just a year. In fact it would take another two months to complete her, but this was still the shortest period of time ever taken to complete a battleship.

The Dreadnought suffered from a series of minor design flaws, some easily avoidable. The tripod mast, which carried the fire control platform, was placed immediately behind the forward funnel, making it useless at high speed, as it quickly filled with smoke (not to mention getting very hot!). The main belt of armour plating was not tall enough, and when the ship was fully loaded was entirely submerged, while the next layer of armour above the belt was also not tall enough, leaving most of the ship protected by 4in armour. The secondary armament, designed to fight off destroyers and torpedo boats, was too weak, using 12pdr guns instead of the 4in guns used in earlier ships. Later Dreadnoughts soon corrected this.

The layout of the 12in guns was also not idea. They were carried in five twin turrets, three on the centre line and two carried to the port and starboard of the tripod mast. This meant that only four turrets could be used in a single broadside, while the middle of the three centre line turrets was carried at the same level as the rearmost turret, giving it a restricted rear arc of fire. This reduced the effective firepower of the ship to eight 12in guns against targets on the same side, the normal case in naval warfare.

Front view of HMS Dreadnought
Front view of HMS Dreadnought

Perhaps the most innovative part of the design was the use of Parsons Turbines to provide power. This was a new design that had not been used in any previous battleship. Indeed in 1905 not large commercial ship used turbines, the first British cruiser to use them had not yet gone to sea and the first turbine powered destroyers were only four years old.

The turbines were the real key to the success of the Dreadnought. The Lord Nelson class ships were powered by four cylinder triple expansion engines, providing 16,750ihp. The 4-shaft Parson turbines in the Dreadnought provided 23,000shp. The real difference was even larger – shp (shaft horse power) reflected the real amount of power provided, while ihp (indicated horse power) tends to over-report available power. The turbines also had a massive impact on the working environment in the engine room, making it a much more pleasant and much less noisy place to be.

HMS Dreadnought was so much more powerful than any other battleship then in existence that she made every older ship obsolete overnight. From 1906 the world’s battle fleets were divided into Dreadnoughts and pre-Dreadnoughts. A new Dreadnought race broke out between Britain and Germany, which helped to raise the level of tension in Europe.

Side view of HMS Dreadnought
Side view of
HMS Dreadnought

Despite the massive amount of money spent on Dreadnoughts over the next eight years, when war came they did not live up to expectations. The “super-Trafalgar” in the North Sea never happened and the nearest the British and German battleships came to each other was the generally disappointing battle of Jutland.

The Dreadnought had a generally quiet First World War. At the start of the war she was sent to Scapa Flow as Flagship of the Fourth Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet. In December 1914 she was replaced as flagship by the newly completed HMS Benbow, an Iron Duke class battleship carrying ten 13.5in guns.

On 18 March 1915 the Dreadnought became the only battleship to sink a submarine during the First World War. The Grand Fleet was at sea conducting tactical exercises, when U 29 fired a torpedo at the fleet. Dreadnought and Marlborough both sighted the submarine, and a chase began. After ten minutes the Dreadnought rammed the submarine, which sank with the loss of all hands.

In May 1916 the Dreadnought was moved to Sheerness as flagship of the Third Battle Squadron. This squadron had been moved south in the aftermath of the German raid on Lowestoft on 25 April, which had seen the High Seas Fleet bombard the east coast without any interference from the battleships of the Grant Fleet.

In March 1918 she returned to the Grand Fleet as flagship of the Fourth Battle Squadron, before being paid off in July 1918. In February 1919 she was placed into the reserve at Rosyth, and in 1920 she went onto the sale list.

Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed



6,620 nautical miles at 10kts

Armour – deck


 - belt


 - barbettes

11 in

 - turret faces


 - conning tower






Armaments (as built)

Ten 12in 45 calibre Mk X guns
Twenty four 12pdr guns
Five 18in submerged torpedo tubes

Crew complement



10 February 1906


December 1906

Sold for break up



W. J. S. Alderson (1915, 1916)

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 September 2007), HMS Dreadnought ,

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