Royal Naval Museum


Photo of HMS DREADNOUGHT from the bow

Dreadnoughts: The ships and men who built lived and fought in them

This exhibition is will run until February 2007. It is a commemoration of the centenary of the completion of HMS Dreadnought and also a comparison of shipbuilding techniques between 1906 and 2006. The exhibition has been supported by VT shipbuilding who have brought back the building of ships to Portsmouth after a break of nearly 40 years.

HMS Dreadnought

HMS Dreadnought was the first of her kind. Her construction commenced on 2nd October 1905. The hull was launched on the 10th February and the ship was completed in a record time, officially after only a year and a day in December 1906. HMS Dreadnought gave her name to a new type of battleship, all the ships of her type that followed being known as dreadnoughts. The navies of the world immediately sought to copy and improve upon her design, and she started a naval building race that only ended after the conclusion of the First World War.

Towards the end of the 19th century, battleship design had settled down to give a fairly standard type, which all the major navies followed. It gave a ship of around 15,000 tons armed with two twin gun turrets mounting heavy guns of around 12"calibre, backed up by a battery of quick firing guns of about 6"calibre. They were protected by heavy armour up to 14" thick and driven by reciprocating steam engines to give a top speed of around 18 knots. They had a crew of around 750-800 men

Model of the Pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Albion

A superb model of a typical pre-dreadnought battleship, HMS Albion, acts as an introduction to the exhibition. Painted in a Victorian style livery of green, white and buff, she looks quite different to the purposeful and austere grey of the Dreadnought model forming the focal point for the display.

Model of HMS Dreadnought

A step forward

The design of the Dreadnought was a logical step forward, and utilised existing technology as well as introducing a number of new features.

The most obvious change was the increase in size to 18,000 tons, and the adoption of an all big gun armament. Ten 12" guns were now mounted in five twin turrets allowing eight guns to fire on either side, giving the firepower of two of the earlier ships. No secondary armament was fitted, but a number of 12pdr guns were provided for anti-torpedo boat defence. Propulsion was provided by steam turbines. These had been introduced in the late 1890s and had been used in destroyers, but this was the first use in a large warship, and they were larger than any used before. The engines were lighter and more powerful than the reciprocating type, and required less crew to look after them. They could drive the ship at 21 knots.

HMS Dreadnought  was, therefore, twice as powerful in heavy gun power as any existing battleship, faster by at least 3 knots and only required a similarly sized crew. Once completed she rendered all other battleships obsolete

She was still fuelled by coal and needed the services of teams of stokers to shovel coal into the furnaces by hand, and the control of her guns was still fairly rudimentary. Successive designs would improve the type, re-introducing a secondary armament, changing to oil fuel, and controlling the guns centrally to improve accuracy.

Building the Dreadnought

At the end of the first day of construction of HMS Dreadnought

The speed with which Dreadnought was completed was only possible by ordering a lot of material in advance, by utilising guns and fittings already under construction for other ships, and by an incredible effort. She was a triumph of organisation at the Portsmouth Royal Dockyard. Up to 3000 men were employed on her construction working long shifts, often with the aid of floodlights, which were a new innovation.The exhibition shows the progress of the various stages of the Dreadnought's construction.

Living with the Dreadnought

Many men and their families had connections with the ship during her service and some of their stories are touched upon in the exhibition.

Sydney Hammond was one such man He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 19 in 1903.

Sydney Hammond is one of the men manning the side of HMS Dreadnought

He joined the crew of HMS Dreadnought as a stoker for her first commission on 6th December 1906 and stayed with her until March 1909.His son has kindly loaned some postcards showing Sydney's time on board. He remembers his father telling him how dangerous it was when the ship was coaling. His job was working in the coalbunkers and with the sacks of coal being emptied from above, it would have been very easy to become buried!

The Dreadnought era

The Dreadnought battleship had its heyday in the First World War, reaching the height of power and importance in 1916 when the Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy met the German High Seas Fleet for the first and only time at the Battle of Jutland. HMS Dreadnought was not present at the battle, but she did hold the distinction of being the only battleship to sink a submarine when she rammed U29 in March 1915.

Orion class super- dreadnoughts in line ahead during the First World War

The importance of the battleship declined with the advent of air power. The Second World War saw the development of the fast battleship with radar and heavy anti-aircraft batteries, but by the end of the war they were really only useful as escort vessels and for shore bombardment. The days of the fleet action were over and the battleships replacement by the aircraft carrier as the most powerful type of warship was complete.

The last British battleship HMS Vanguard, still recognisably a Dreadnought was scrapped in 1960, and the type has now disappeared from the world's navies' after a reign of only 40 years.

HMS Vanguard the last Royal Navy battleship

A large-scale model of HMS Vanguard, built for the Admiralty by the builders of the real ship, is the largest item on display in the exhibition, and is on show to the public for the first time

A model of HMS Vanguard

Shipbuilding in 2006

New warships are built in an entirely different way to the ships of the dreadnought era and, with the support of VT shipbuilding, this is reflected in the exhibition. Large sections of ship are built inside huge purpose built buildings. These sections are finished to an advanced stage before being brought together to create an entire ship. The sections can even be built in separate yards. The conditions for the workers are also very different, being inside, away from bad weather and with modern power tools and safety equipment, a far cry from the more hazardous conditions of 1906.

For those visiting the exhibition there is a chance to design and build your own Dreadnought from 1906 and a Daring type 45 destroyer from 2006 with simple block models.

HMS Dreadnought in the Dreadnoughts exhibition. The nameplates are from the nuclear submarine HMS Dreadnought

Back to top