Magazine article Sea Classics

America's First DREADNOUGHTS: THE MICHIGAN-CLASS BATTLESHIPS

Magazine article Sea Classics

America's First DREADNOUGHTS: THE MICHIGAN-CLASS BATTLESHIPS

Article excerpt

First of the armored behemoths to boast all big-gun center-line guns, the South Carolina and Michigan-class set the standards for all of the battleships that followed

What student of Naval history is unfamiliar with the title "Dreadnought," descriptive of the type of scores of capital ships, the backbone of the world's fighting fleets for 100 years and two World Wars?

The title "Dreadnought" derives from the "all big gun" battleship of that name, completed by England in 1906. This particular unit was the then latest of several English warships to bear that appellation. Selection of the name was probably deliberate with the astute British nomenclature mavens, realizing that the name itself would conjur up the image of power and strength that they intended to project by the sort of ship they were initiating.

But the real designation of the Naval behemoths should be corrected, to Michigan, which, with its companion, the South Carolina, was actually the first class of "all big gun" type capital ships to be projected.

Michigan? An American - even aboriginal native - name? How presumptuous! Brittania ruled the waves; how could the upstart rustics of the former colonies claim leadership in Naval matters?

NOT PRESUMPTUOUS - CORRECT

By 1905, the major Navies of the world were collectively butting up against the painful realities of capital ship design. Battleships of every land were identical in their essentials: Well-armored, displacing from 12- to 16,000- tons, mounting four main battery guns (11-in to 13-in) in two turrets, fore and aft, and variously distributed medium weapons (7-in to 10-in) and small guns (3-in to 6-in), with a crew of 600 to 900, and able to reach a maximum speed of 17- to 19-kts. The cost of a typical battleship, such as the British Triumph and United States Virginia, begun in 1902, was $3.5 million to $4 million. Scientific advances for defense and offense were increasingly burdening the capacity of heavily armored ships to maintain efficiency and fightability. Naval architects around the world had independently figured out that for the expense and time of construction and the effort of operation and maintenance, the admirals were winding up with not very efficient vehicles for geopolitical efforts.

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 demonstrated that sea battles would be likely fought at much longer ranges than previously believed, making it important that more major caliber guns be in the battle line, and that fights would be under conditions which favored faster ships.

Governments, even military establishments, are required to deal with issues of economy of scale, fixed effort relative to result, and reduction of duplicative labor. Naval experts early in this century dedicated time and energy to these problems.

The logical approach was to significantly enlarge each individual ship, increase the number of heavy guns, and sharply reduce the number of smaller weapons. The architects reasoned that protection could be kept up, cost and personnel dedication and exertion per big weapon diminished, and perhaps the speed of the vessels enhanced.

Japan tried - sort of - to lead the way, when it designed its two Saisuma-class battleships, laid down in May 1905, and originally intended to carry twelve 12-in guns on a displacement of 20,000-ton. Ironically, however, the very nation whose crushing of the Russian Navy had taught about the necessity of many big guns per hull did not follow the lesson. Because of apprehensions about cost, the designs were changed to mount only four 12-in and twelve 10-in weapons.1 The vessels were also thin-skinned, vulnerable to opposing 12-in fire to a greater degree than were potential enemy ships to their artillery. In addition, they were not finished until 1909 and 1911, when they were long outclassed by capital ships of other countries, begun years after them.

The English Dreadnought was begun in October 1905 and completed in one year. …

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