On 10 February 1906, HMS Dreadnought was launched amid great fanfare…and consternation. What’s another coal-fired battleship when the Royal Navy already had scores of them afloat?
To begin, Dreadnought, the brainchild of John “Jackie” Fisher, was not just another battleship, but a revolutionary advance on naval architecture. at somewhat under 19,000 tons, she was bigger than the Lord Nelson class that was under construction at the time, and had heavier longitudinal bulkheads. But mere size and bulkheads were not enough. She carried ten 12 inch/45 caliber guns in five turrets for main armament and over her short service life several quick-firing gun arrangements. Other battleships before Dreadnought carried as many as five different sizes of “main” armament, making ammunition supply a nightmare and compromising the most important thing a battleship had to do: destroy other battleships. Before Dreadnought, some commentators doubted that a typical battleship carried enough ammunition to sink their counterparts. With four Parsons turbine engines (Dreadnought was the first battleship built with turbines), she was fast–at 24 knots, close to the speed of some destroyers. With Krupp cemented steel armor in an 11 inch armor belt, she was built in less than a year, albeit with a great deal of stockpiling and prefabrication. Dreadnought represented everything that British naval supremacy and industrial might had meant since Trafalgar.
Navalists for years had talked about combining speed with gun power in a warship, but Fisher was the first to finish his. Japan with the Satsuma class and the Americans with the South Carolina class would closely follow, but it was Germany that became most alarmed. And therein lay the biggest challenge: Wilhelm II demanded that his Imperial German Navy be a challenge–if not a threat–to British naval supremacy, for reasons that are debated still. But British policy at the same time demanded that the Royal Navy be as large or larger than the next two navies combined. This meant that if Germany, Japan, and the United States (other powers had long before given up on the “battleship race”) built fleets of modern battleships in response to Dreadnought, regardless of diplomatic status, the Royal Navy had to build more.
And Dreadnought was only the first. Every battleship completed afterwards–there would be more than a hundred–were called “dreadnoughts” or “super-dreadnoughts” after the introduction of oil furnaces, and every one before her launching “pre-dreadnoughts.”
Germany soon unveiled a plan to build a fleet of battleships and supporting vessels that in twenty years would exceed the dock space available in all of Europe. The competition between Germany and Britain, and soon thereafter between the US and Japan, heated up before WWI to meet the demand for more and more ships, guns, engines, fuel sources and armor plate until the shots at Sarajevo in the spring of 1914 sparked the fire that would end–arguably–only in 1945.
So what happened to Dreadnought? She was the only one of her class built, and throughout her career she was a maintenance challenge. Apparently she leaked rather severely, and spent much of her career in the waters around Britain. She was a notorious sucker of coal, needing her bunkers filled at least every four days even in good weather. She was, however, the only battleship to sink a submarine when in May 1915, she rammed and sank the German U-29. The only shots he ever fired in anger were at German aircraft headed for England. She was broken up in 1923.