Queen Elizabeth class battleships

The Queen Elizabeth class ships were probably the best battleships to be built for the Royal Navy. Laid down before the First World War, they survived to perform valuable service during the Second World War. The most important reason for this success and long active life was that they were built for speed but without sacrificing armour. They were able to achieve this for two reasons. The first of these was that after it had been decided to adopt the 15in gun, it was realised that eight of these guns in four turrets would still provide a heavier broadside than the ten 13.5in guns used in the Orion, King George V and Iron Duke classes. The space and weight freed up by removing the awkward amidships turret was used to provide more boilers – 24 instead of 18.

The second key decision was to make the Queen Elizabeth class ships oil burners instead of mixed oil and coal burners. Oil was far more efficient than coal, and so the 24 boilers of the Queen Elizabeth class produced 56,000shp compared to the 29,000shp of the Iron Dukes. The only drawback was that at the time Britain had no native source of oil, and so relied on Middle Eastern supplies. In order to protect these supplies, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, bought shares in the Iranian oil companies, beginning a long entanglement in the Persian Gulf region.

HMS Warspite 15in guns
HMS Warspite
superfiring 15in guns

It had originally been intended to build three Queen Elizabeth class ships and one battlecruisers. With Lord Fisher retired, the battlecruiser had lost its main advocate, and a fourth battleship was ordered instead. A fifth ship was then funded by the Federated Malay States, and named Malaya in their honour.

HMS Warspite from above
HMS Warspite from above

The original design included sixteen 6in guns. However, four of these guns were located under the quarterdeck, and were effectively useless at sea. HMS Queen Elizabeth was built with these guns, but they were soon removed and replaced with a pair of guns above the main battery. This layout was used on the rest of the class, giving them fourteen 6in guns.

HMS Queen Elizabeth was the first of the class to be commissioned, in December 1914. It marks the importance attached to the naval attack on the Dardanelles that she was almost immediately sent there, rather than joining the Grand Fleet. She thus became one of the few British dreadnoughts to see significant action away from the battle of Jutland, serving off the Dardanelles from February to May 1915, before returning to join the Grand Fleet. In May-June 1916 she was undergoing a refit, and so missed the battle of Jutland.

The other four ships of the class fought at Jutland as part of Admiral Beatty’s battlecruiser squadron. Despite being the fastest battleships in the fleet, they were still slower than the battle cruisers and when Beatty clashed with the German battlecruisers they were trailing some miles behind. They arrived after the first of Beatty’s battlecruisers had been destroyed, but in time to prevent the rest of his squadron being badly mauled. They then trailed behind during the chase to the north west, taking damage from the German battleships.

Between the wars, all five members of the class were modernised at least one. In the first series of updates, all five ships had their two funnels channelled together into a single turret, and were given anti-torpedo bulges, which increased their beam from 90ft 6in to 104ft. Warspite was the first to be modified, in 1924, followed by the Queen Elizabeth (1926), Malaya (1927), Valiant (1929) and Barham (1930).

HMS Malaya from the right
HMS Malaya from the right

A second round of more dramatic modernisations began in 1934 (Malaya and Warspite). Queen Elizabeth and Valiant began their refits in 1937, finishing in 1941 and 1939 respectively.

All five ships fought extensively during the Second World War. Warspite, Barham and Valiant all fought in the battle of Matapan (28 March 1941), one of the most one-sided naval battles of all time. 

HMS Queen Elizabeth between her two refits
HMS Queen Elizabeth
between her two refits

HMS Queen Elizabeth was commissioned in December 1914. She was then sent to the Dardanelles, where she fired 86 15in shells and 71 6in shells at the Turkish forts. In May 1915 she returned to the Grand Fleet, joining the 5th Battle Squadron. She was undergoing a refit during the battle of Jutland. In 1917 Admiral Beatty selected her to act as his flagship because of her great speed.

During the Second World War she served as Admiral Andrew Cunningham’s flagship in the Mediterranean. She was badly damaged by Italian human torpedoes on 19 December 1941 and was out of action until 1943.

HMS Valiant served with the Fifth Battle Squadron during the First World War. She fought at Jutland, without suffering any damage. During the Second World War she fought in the Mediterranean, taking part in the battle of Matapan (28 March 1941) and the evacuation of Crete (May 1941) before being badly damaged by an Italian human torpedo on 19 December. She returned to take part in the invasion of Sicily and the Salerno landings. At the end of the war she was serving with the British Eastern Fleet.

HMS Queen Elizabeth from above
HMS Queen Elizabeth from above

HMS Warspite was a member of the Fifth Battle Squadron during the First World War. She was badly damaged at Jutland, taking 15 hits from large shells. She was seen as an unlucky ship, having been involved in a series of collisions. During the Second World War she rather redeemed her reputation. She took part in the naval attack at Narvik that sank eight German destroyers (April 1940). She was then sent to the Mediterranean, fighting at Matapan (March 1941), Crete (May 1941) and during the invasion of Sicily. She also supported the D-day landings.

HMS Barham after her refit
HMS Barham after her refit

HMS Barham fought with the Fifth Battle Squadron during the First World War. She was hit twice at Jutland, but didn’t suffer major damage. During the Second World War she took part in the attack on Dakar (September 1940), fought at Matapan (March 1941) and Crete (May 1941). On 25 November 1941 she was hit by three torpedoes from U-311. In a few minutes she capsized and then exploded.

HMS Malaya also served in the Fifth Battle Squadron during the First World War, fighting at Jutland. During the Second World War she was based in the Mediterranean, taking part in the battle off Calabria (June 1940), before joining Force H based at Gibraltar, from where she carried out operations in the western Mediterranean.

Specifications as built

Displacement (loaded)

31,500t (design)
33,000t plus (as built)

Top Speed

23kts (eventual design)
24kts (overload power)


4,500 nautical miles at 10kts

Armour – deck


 - belt


 - bulkheads


 - barbettes


 - turret faces


 - conning tower



645ft 9in


Eight 15in Mk I guns
Fourteen 6in Mk XII guns
Two 3in Mk I AA guns
Four 3pdr saluting guns
Four 21in submerged torpedo tubes

Crew complement







HMS Barham
HMS Malaya
HMS Queen Elizabeth
HMS Valiant
HMS Warspite

Battleship Warspite –detailed in the original builder’s plans, Robert Brown. Fascinating study of the Warspite based around the original builder’s plans, both from her original contruction and the 1930s reconstruction. Shows the ship in incredible detail, showing just how complex these massive warships were. The details plans are accompanied by excellent explanatory notes, following the design, development and modifications of the Warspite over nearly forty years. Benefits from the use of a magnifying glass to pick out the impressive wealth of fine details!(Read Full Review)
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Warspite, From Jutland to Cold War Warrior, Iain Ballantyne. A history of the super-dreadnaught HMS Warspite, a warship that played a major part in both World Wars, fighting at the battles of Jutland and of Cape Matapan. An interesting story, well supported by a large number of quotes from sailors who served on the Warspite. Also includes brief histories of the other seven warships to carry the same name. [read full review]
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Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (9 November 2007), Queen Elizabeth class battleships , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_queen_elizabath_class_battleships.html

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