World War I: HMS Dreadnought

HMS Dreadnought at sea.
HMS Dreadnought. Public Domain

In the early years of the 20th century, naval visionaries such as Admiral Sir John "Jackie" Fisher of the Royal Navy and Vittorio Cuniberti of the Regia Marnia began advocating for the design of "all-big-gun" battleships. Such a vessel would only feature the largest guns, at this point in time 12", and would largely dispense with the ship's secondary armament. Writing for Jane's Fighting Ships in 1903, Cuniberti argued that the ideal battleship would possess twelve 12-inch guns in six turrets, armor 12" thick, displace 17,000 tons, and be capable of 24 knots. He foresaw this "colossus" of the seas as being capable of destroying any existing foe though recognized that the construction of such vessels could only be afforded by the world's leading navies.

A New Approach

A year after Cuniberti's article, Fisher convened an informal group to begin assessing these types of designs. The all-big gun approach was validated during Admiral Heihachiro Togo's victory at the Battle of Tsushima (1905) in which the main guns of Japanese battleships inflicted the bulk of the damage on the Russian Baltic Fleet. British observers aboard Japanese ships reported this to Fisher, now First Sea Lord, with the further observation that the Imperial Japanese Navy's 12" guns were particularly effective. Receiving this data, Fisher immediately pressed ahead with an all-big-gun design.

The lessons learned at Tsushima were also embraced by the United States which began work on an all-big-gun class (the South Carolina-class) and the Japanese who commenced building the battleship Satsuma. While planning and construction for the South Carolina-class and Satsuma began prior to British efforts, they soon fell behind for a variety of reason. In addition to the increased firepower of an all-big-gun ship, the elimination of the secondary battery made adjusting fire during battle easier as it allowed spotters to know which type of gun was making the splashes near an enemy vessel. The removal of the secondary battery also made the new type more efficient to operate as fewer types of shells were needed.

Moving Forward

This reduction in cost greatly aided Fisher in securing Parliamentary approval for his new ship. Working with his Committee on Designs, Fisher developed his all-big-gun ship which was dubbed HMS Dreadnought. Centered on a main armament of 12" guns and a minimum top speed of 21 knots, the committee evaluated a variety of different designs and layouts. The group also served to deflect criticism away from Fisher and the Admiralty.  


Including the latest technology, Dreadnought's power plant utilized steam turbines, recently developed by Charles A. Parsons, in lieu of the standard triple-expansion steam engines. Mounting two paired sets of Parsons direct-drive turbines powered by eighteen Babcock & Wilcox water-tube boilers, Dreadnought was driven by four three-bladed propellers. The use of the Parsons turbines greatly increased the speed of the vessel and allowed it to outrun any existing battleship. The vessel was also fitted with a series of longitudinal bulkheads to protect the magazines and shell rooms from underwater explosions.


To protect Dreadnought the designers elected to use Krupp cemented armor which was produced at William Beardmore's mill in Dalmuir, Scotland. The main armor belt measured 11" thick at the waterline and tapered to 7" at its lower edge. This was supported by an 8" belt that ran from the waterline up to the main deck. Protection for the turrets included 11" of Krupp cemented armor on the faces and sides while the roofs were covered with 3" of Krupp non-cemented armor.  The conning tower utilized a similar arrangement to the turrets.


For its main armament, Dreadnought mounted ten 12" guns in five twin turrets. Three of these were mounted along the centerline, one forward and two aft, with the other two in "wing" positions on either side of the bridge. As a result, Dreadnought could only bring eight of its ten guns to bear on a single target. In laying out the turrets, the committee rejected superfiring (one turret firing over another) arrangements due to concerns that the muzzle blast of the upper turret would cause issues with the open sighting hoods of the one below.

Dreadnought's ten 45-calibre BL 12-inch Mark X guns were capable of firing two rounds per minute at a maximum range of around 20,435 yards. The vessel's shell rooms possessed space to store 80 rounds per gun. Supplementing the 12" guns were 27 12-pdr guns intended for close defense against torpedo boats and destroyers. For fire control, the ship incorporated some of the first instruments for electronically transmitting range, deflection, and order directly to the turrets.

HMS Dreadnought - Overview

  • Nation: Great Britain
  • Type: Battleship
  • Shipyard: HM Dockyard, Portsmouth
  • Laid Down: October 2, 1905
  • Launched: February 10, 1906
  • Commissioned: December 2, 1906
  • Fate: Broken up in 1923


  • Displacement: 18,410 tons
  • Length: 527 ft.
  • Beam: 82 ft.
  • Draft: 26 ft.
  • Propulsion: 18 Babcock & Wilcox 3-drum water-tube boilers w/ Parsons single-reduction geared steam turbines
  • Speed: 21 knots
  • Complement: 695-773 men



  • 10 x BL 12 in. L/45 Mk.X guns mounted in 5 twin B Mk.VIII turrets
  • 27 × 12-pdr 18 cwt L/50 Mk.I guns, single mountings P Mk.IV
  • 5 × 18 in. submerged torpedo tubes


Anticipating approval of the design, Fisher began stockpiling steel for Dreadnought at the Royal Dockyard in Portsmouth and ordered that many parts be prefabricated. Laid down on October 2, 1905, work on Dreadnought proceeded at a frenetic pace with the vessel being launched by King Edward VII on February 10, 1906, after only four months on the ways. Deemed complete on October 3, 1906, Fisher claimed that the ship had been built in a year and a day. In actuality, it took an additional two months to finish the ship and Dreadnought was not commissioned until December 2. Regardless, the speed of the ship's construction startled the world as much as its military capabilities.

Early Service

Sailing for the Mediterranean and Caribbean in January 1907, with Captain Sir Reginald Bacon in command, Dreadnought performed admirably during its trials and testing. Closely watched by the world's navies, Dreadnought inspired a revolution in battleship design and future all-big-gun ships were henceforth referred to as "dreadnoughts." Designated flagship of the Home Fleet, minor problems with Dreadnought were detected such as the location of the fire control platforms and the arrangement of the armor. These were corrected in the follow-on classes of dreadnoughts.

World War I

Dreadnought was soon eclipsed by the Orion-class battleships which featured 13.5" guns and began entering service in 1912. Due to their greater firepower, these new ships were dubbed "super-dreadnoughts." With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Dreadnought was serving as flagship of the Fourth Battle Squadron based at Scapa Flow. In this capacity, it saw its only action of the conflict when it rammed and sank U-29 on March 18, 1915.

Refitted in early 1916, Dreadnought shifted south and became part of the Third Battle Squadron at Sheerness. Ironically, due to this transfer, it did not participate in the 1916 Battle of Jutland, which saw the largest confrontation of battleships whose design had been inspired by Dreadnought. Returning to the Fourth Battle Squadron in March 1918, Dreadnought was paid off in July and placed in reserve at Rosyth the following February. Remaining in reserve, Dreadnought was later sold and scrapped at Inverkeithing in 1923.


While Dreadnought's career was largely uneventful, the ship initiated one of the largest arms races in history which ultimately culminated with World War I. Though Fisher had intended to use Dreadnought to demonstrate British naval power, the revolutionary nature of its design immediately reduced Britain's 25-ship superiority in battleships to 1. Following the design parameters set forth by Dreadnought, both Britain and Germany embarked on battleship building programs of unprecedented size and scope, with each seeking to build larger, more powerfully armed ships. As a result, Dreadnought and its early sisters were soon out-classed as the Royal Navy and Kaiserliche Marine quickly expanded their ranks with increasingly modern warships. The battleships inspired by Dreadnought served as the backbone of the world's navies until the rise of the aircraft carrier during World War II.



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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: HMS Dreadnought." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War I: HMS Dreadnought. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: HMS Dreadnought." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).