Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Dreadnought – From the Armada to the Cold War - Part Two

Let us resume the journey through British naval history through the admittedly somewhat haphazard means of focusing on ships by the name of Dreadnought. We find ourselves now in the first year of the Seven Years War. Even as one Dreadnought was gently rotting away another was already in service. Launched in 1742 this 60 gun incarnation would spend much of its time in the West Indies. In 1757 with hostilities resumed with France, Dreadnought found herself under the command of Captain Maurice Suckling, uncle of Horatio Nelson. On 21st October 1757 Dreadnought was cruising off of Cap-Francois in the French colony of St Domingue on present day Haiti in company with two other ships of the line; the 64 gun Edinburgh and the 60 gun Augusta, flag ship of Commodore Arthur Forrest. The English ships were hunting a French convoy which they duly encountered, escorted by four ships of the line and three frigates.

Battle of Cap-Francois
Outnumbered though they were, the British commanders nevertheless elected to engage the French. With the Dreadnought in the lead, they sailed into battle. The battle lasted for two and a half hours with the English battering the French ships mercilessly whilst taking fierce punishment themselves. The French commander Kersaint aboard the 70 gun Intrepide, finally decided that his ship could take no more punishment. He signalled for one of the frigates to tow the Intrepide out of the line. In the resulting confusion two of the other French ships of the line became entangled with Intrepide and were left helpless as the British ships pounded them into submission. Finally the French broke off the action and fled. The British ships were too badly damaged for pursuit. Dreadnought had lost her main and mizzen top masts and the other ships were similarly battered. The butcher's bill aboard Dreadnought was nine killed and thirty wounded. Aboard the three British ships 23 men were killed and 90 wounded in the action. French casualties are estimated at over 500 killed and wounded.

The British returned to Jamaica to a heroes' welcome for a fight well fought. After repairs the French convoy set out once more only for two of the ships of the line and one of the frigates to be wrecked in a storm. Dreadnought reached the end of her useful service in 1766 and like her predecessor ended her days as a prison hulk.

The death of Churraca at Trafalgar - somewhat romanticised
The next Dreadnought was a second rater of 98 guns launched in 1801. She fought at Trafalgar under Collingwood, whose flag ship she had been until shortly before the battle. The admiral had drilled her gun crews to perfection and they were reputed to be the fastest in the fleet, able to fire three broadsides in 210 seconds. With Collingwood’s departure to the Royal Sovereign, Dreadnought was left to the command of her captain John Conn. Dreadnought was involved in one of the bloodiest struggles of the day when she engaged the French 74 gun Indomitable and the Spanish 74 gun San Juan Nepomuceno.  Supported by HMS Achille and HMS Polyphemus, Dreadnought pounded the San Juan for thirty five minutes. The San Juan’s commander, Don Cosme de Churruca, had ordered the colours nailed to the mast and urged his officers not to surrender whilst he still breathed. As six British ships surrounded the San Juan however and poured murderous broadsides into her, the carnage aboard the ship mounted. Churraca’s leg was torn off by a cannon ball and he bled to death on his quarter deck, shouting for the ship to continue fighting. One by one his officers fell to cannon and musket fire until just one remained and at last he ordered the colours struck. The San Juan had taken almost 300 casualties in the battle. Dreadnought next engaged the flagship of Spanish Admiral Gravina, the 112 gun Principe de Asturias and drove her out of the battle with furious gun fire. Remarkably for all of the carnage she inflicted, Dreadnought lost just seven men killed and twenty six wounded.

The grand old lady was put into semi-retirement as a hospital ship at Greenwich in 1827, in which capacity she served for another thirty years.

1801 Dreadnought at Greenwich
The next incarnation of Dreadnought was a very different beast to the mighty ships of the line that had borne the name previously. This sleek ironclad, steam-powered battleship with its four twelve inch guns was launched in 1875 and served in the Mediterranean in the era of gunboat diplomacy. She ended her days as a coastguard ship and was scrapped in 1908.

HMS Dreadnought 1875
Now we come to the eponymous Dreadnought; the ship by whose name all subsequent ships of the same design were known. The brainchild of First Lord of the Admiralty Sir John Fisher, Dreadnought was intended as the ideal battleship; a concept crystalised by the outcome of the recent 1905 Battle of Tsushima between the Japanese and Russian navies. Naval strategists had noted the role of big guns and superior top speed in the decisive Japanese victory and Dreadnought therefore boasted an armament of ten twelve inch guns, eleven inches of belt armour and a top speed of 21 knots delivered by its innovative steam turbine engines. Built in a year, Dreadnought at its launch in 1906 redefined the modern battleship and sparked the international arms race with which its name is synonymous.

Ironically, the ship that started it all was absent from the great clash of the dreadnoughts at Jutland and in fact saw little action during the First World War. She did however lay claim to one more piece of history when on 18th March 1915 she rammed and sank the U-boat U29 in Pentland Firth. Having made an unsuccessful torpedo attack upon HMS Neptune, U29 had the misfortune to surface in the path of HMS Dreadnought which steamed towards it with all speed, striking the U-boat amidships, tearing it in half and sending it to the bottom with all hands. In so doing Dreadnought gained the distinction of being the only battleship to sink a submarine. She was scrapped in 1923; the once revolutionary ship now made obsolete by the onward march of technology.
HMS Dreadnought 1906

The last Royal Navy vessel to go by the name of Dreadnought, in keeping with the association of the name with the innovative and new, was Britain’s first nuclear powered submarine. Constructed as a collaboration between Britain and the US, with an American reactor installed in British-built hull. The hunter-killer designated S101 was launched at Barrow in 1960. Dreadnought followed the latest in submarine design as pioneered by the USS Skipjack. With nuclear submarines designed to spend most of their time submerged, Dreadnought sported a rounded bow as opposed to the more ship-like prow of earlier submarines which spent more time on the surface. The teardrop-shaped hull and tapered coning tower were designed to improve the vessel’s performance beneath the waves.

She proved her capabilities in 1971 when she sailed 1,500 miles submerged beneath the polar ice to become the first British submarine to surface at the North Pole. She retired in 1981 and is still in one piece. It is hoped that one day she may be open to the public.

S101 HMS Dreadnought
Tech spec video for 1906 Dreadnought

S101 Dreadnought facts

S101 Dreadnought video of trip to Pole – with great synth soundtrack!
You may also enjoy: Last of the giants – Yamato and Musashi

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