British Battleships of the Victorian Era


British Battleships of the Victorian Era. By Norman Friedman. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2018.
Reviewed by Tim Coyle

THIS latest book by renowned naval analyst and author Norman Friedman completes his encyclopediac coverage of the British battleship. His previous treatise on the type extended from 1906 – the inception of the Dreadnought generation – to 1946 with the last of the leviathans, HMS VANGARD. In this volume Friedman covers the zenith of the Victorian age and Empire.

It comprises the ‘dominions beyond the seas on which the sun never set’, its domination of world trade through its enormous merchant fleet and the peerless Royal Navy securing the sea lanes and confronting the perennial enemy, France.

In this one weighty volume Friedman provides a ‘tech heavy’ analysis of all aspects of British battle and armoured ships: design and development, armour, machinery and weapons. He balances the rapid technological advances of the era with a background to the political and strategic factors influencing British naval policy and the maritime rivalry with France. French strategic maritime thinking and battleship design are also treated at length. As with all Friedman’s books, hundreds of contemporary images from UK, US and Australian sources proliferate as do weapons and machinery drawings, culminating in twelve pages of battleship and main armament colour reproduction drawings.

The images of the big gun armoured ships from around 1880 to the immediate pre-dreadnought classes feature a riot of booms, spars, rams, protuberances and assorted clutter. The French ‘fierce face’ interpretations might have frightened adversaries into submission! The low freeboards of many vessels – HM Ships NILE and TRAFALGAR being exemplars – must surely have subjected messdecks to an inflow of water in heavy seas. Armoured coast defence ships appear to be virtual rafts. On the other hand, many of the pre-1880 sail and steam battleships featuring muzzle-loaded guns through rows of ports are shown riding handsomely and imperiously at anchor; their vast masts and rigging able to sweep them along silently and pollution-free until the order was made to ‘down screw’ and engage the steam propulsion.

Many of the ships covered in the book, while obliquely referred to as ‘battleships’, were actually a melange of armoured ships: early steam and sail, cut down conversions to all-steam power, ironclads, central battery ironclads, turret ironclads, coast defence breastwork ironclads (Victoria’s colonial pride, HMVS CERBERUS breastwork ironclad, is given due honour) and ‘standardised’ battleships pursuant to the 1888 Naval Defence Act which took the type through to pre-dreadnought. As is usual for a Friedman book, details of all these ships are fully provided both in the text and in the exhaustive notes (45 pages of close type) and 26 pages of ship data and lists.

Steam and weapons enthusiasts and modellers will appreciate the technical analyses and drawings while students of 19th century strategic and political history will also find an authoritative and superbly researched narrative which, for the large part of the period, pitched politicians against naval officers.

Prospects of a European war diminished after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. The British government looked to a Pax Britannia where army spending exceeded that of the navy as the former fought colonial wars to secure the Empire. However, emerging worldwide British interests demanded naval policing of their colonial interests; foreign stations harboured substantial warship numbers. One example was the China Station for which the CANOPUS class of the late 1890s were designed to watch over the burgeoning Japanese navy (notwithstanding the Anglo-Japanese naval treaty). At the same time, for practically the whole of the 19th century, the RN was concentrated on the French threat.

Friedman postulates two distinct naval threats of the era: politicians and commentators considered invasion as the primary threat while the other threat was against British seaborne trade. Britain had ‘out- sourced’ its food production to the colonies – such as Australia and New Zealand – as masses of British agricultural workers migrated to the ‘dark satanic mills’ of industry.

Traditional British naval strategy was blockading enemy ports and attacking enemy ships attempting to leave. A rider to this was pre-emptive attacks on ports thus obviating the need to defend British ports against invasion.

From about 1840 to 1860 rapid technological change made some ships obsolescent after only five to 10 years. Underwater weapons – mines and torpedoes, the latter carried by fleet-footed torpedo boats which the French navy ‘jeune ecole’ favoured – could now defend ports. Floating armoured batteries – coast defence ships – were developed for local attacks against enemy ports.

Friedman spends a substantial part of the book on comparative British and French technological rivalry. While Britain maintained a large battle fleet post the Napoleonic era and into the 19th century, France looked to innovative technology as a force multiplier. Steam power, shell-firing breech loading guns and iron armour were the main advancements from the 1840s. From about 1860 the central turret and ‘monster gun’ became the norm for the ‘new kind of battleship’.

Director of Naval Construction Edward Reed was the progenitor of the ironclad with a centralised armoured battery. Captain Cowper Coles, not a friend of Reed, patented the turret which aided the concentration of fire and allowed very large guns to be carried. Cole’s turrets were mounted in HMS Captain which famously capsized in a February 1870 gale. Captain, a sail-steam vessel, was the only ironclad not designed by the Admiralty; its turret deck was abnormally low, but the ship had a high centre of gravity. A Royal Commission stemming from the court of enquiry investigated the adequacy of existing ships and decided against building any more sailing battleships. The ‘new kind of battleship’ settled on a configuration of barbette heavy gun mountings fore and aft of a central superstructure.

An 1877-78 naval confrontation with the Russian Black Sea fleet in the Turkish Strait, led the RN to establish a naval staff and an intelligence department (NID). The NID analysed what RN resources were required for various contingencies, such as the Baltic, Black Sea and the French threat. These analyses saw the emergence of politically active officers such as Lord Charles Beresford and the Naval Defence Act of 1888-89. The NDA was a watershed as it brought a measure of standardisation to capital ship design and acquisition; the seven-unit ROYAL SOVEREIGN class was model for future classes.

Forty battleships were built from 1891 to 1902. Queen Victoria died on 22 January 1901 thus closing the Victorian era. Friedman ends his Victorian battleship coverage with HMS PRINCE OF WALES (the last of the DUNCAN class), which was laid down in March 1901 and completed in March 1904. The last pre-dreadnought battleships were the eight KING EDWARD VII class battleships (the lead ship appropriately named for the new era) and HM Ships AGAMEMNON and LORD NELSON; these are not covered in the book.

Twenty-seven Victorian era battleships rendered useful service in World War I. They could be more flexibly deployed rather than new dreadnoughts which were ‘locked up’ in the Grand Fleet. Some were sent to foreign stations to supplement cruisers, but 14 were allocated to the Dardanelles campaign. Their main use after the failure of the 18 March 1915 attempt to force the Narrows ‘by ships alone’ was shore bombardment. By 1916 most had been downgraded to ancillary duties such as troopers and depot ships.

There is much more to ‘British Battleships of the Victorian Era’ than your humble reviewer has managed to cover. He eschews the cliché praise words such as ‘magisterial’, ‘definitive’ etc. His recommendation to anyone who finds the maritime 19th century a source of fascination can rightly reward themselves by purchasing this quite splendid book.


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