Naval Technology in World War I

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

Naval technology in World War I was dominated by the battleship:

Battleships were built along the dreadnought model, with several large turrets of equally sized big guns. In general terms, British ships had larger guns and were equipped and manned for quicker fire than their German counterparts. In contrast, the German ships had better optical equipment and rangefinding, and were much better compartmentalized and able to deal with damage. The Germans also generally had better propellant handling procedures, a point that was to have disastrous consequences for the British battlecruisers at Jutland.

Many of the individual parts of ships had recently improved dramatically. The introduction of the turbine led to much higher performance, as well as taking up less room and thereby allowing for improved layout. Whereas pre-dreadnought battleships were generally limited to about 12–17 kn (14–20 mph; 22–31 km/h), modern ships were capable of at least 20 kn (23 mph; 37 km/h), and in the latest British classes, 24 kn (28 mph; 44 km/h). The introduction of the gyroscope and centralized fire control, the “director” in British terms, led to dramatic improvements in gunnery. Ships built before 1900 had effective ranges of perhaps 2,000 yd (1,800 m), whereas the first “new” ships were good to at least 8,000 yd (7,300 m), and modern designs to over 10,000 yd (9,100 m).

One class of ship that appeared just before the war was the battlecruiser. There were two schools of thought on battlecruiser design. The first, the British design, were armed like their heavier dreadnought cousins, but deliberately lacked armor to save weight in order to improve speed. The concept was that these ships would be able to outgun anything smaller than themselves, and run away from anything larger. The German designs opted to trade slightly smaller main armament (11 or 12 inch guns compared to 13.5 or 15 inch guns in their British rivals) for speed, while keeping relatively heavy armor. They could operate independently in the open ocean where their speed gave them room to maneuver, or alternately as a fast scouting force in front of a larger fleet action.

The torpedo boat caused considerable worry for many naval planners. In theory a large number of these inexpensive ships could attack in masses and overwhelm a dreadnought force. This led to the introduction of ships dedicated to keeping them away from the fleets, the torpedo boat destroyers, or simply destroyers. Although the mass raid continued to be a possibility, another solution was found in the form of the submarine, increasingly in use. The submarine could approach underwater, safe from the guns of both the capital ships and the destroyers (although not for long), and fire a salvo as deadly as a torpedo boat’s. Limited range and speed, especially underwater, made these weapons difficult to use tactically. Submarines were generally more effective in attacking poorly defended merchant ships than in fighting surface warships, though several small to medium British warships were lost to torpedoes launched from German U-boats.

Oil was just being introduced to replace coal, containing as much as 40% more energy per volume, extending range and further improving internal layout. Another advantage was that oil gave off considerably less smoke, making visual detection more difficult. This was generally mitigated by the small number of ships so equipped, generally operating in concert with coal-fired ships.

Radio was in early use, with naval ships commonly equipped with radio telegraph, merchant ships less so. Sonar was in its infancy by the end of the war.

Aviation was primarily focused on reconnaissance, with the aircraft carrier being developed over the course of the war, and bomber aircraft capable of lifting only relatively light loads.

Naval mines were also increasingly well developed. Defensive mines along coasts made it much more difficult for capital ships to get close enough to conduct coastal bombardment or support attacks. The first battleship sinking in the war — that of HMS Audacious — was the result of her striking a naval mine on 27 October 1914. Suitably placed mines also served to restrict the freedom of movement of submarines.

The North Sea was the main theater of the war for surface action — or inaction, really:

The British Grand Fleet took position against the German High Seas Fleet. Britain’s larger fleet could maintain a blockade of Germany, cutting it off from overseas trade and resources. Germany’s fleet remained mostly in harbor behind their screen of mines, occasionally attempting to lure the British fleet into battle (one of such attempts was the bombardment of Yarmouth and Lowestoft) in the hopes of weakening them enough to break the blockade or allow the High Seas Fleet to attack British shipping and trade. Britain strove to maintain the blockade and, if possible, to damage the German fleet enough to remove the threat to the islands and free the Grand Fleet for use elsewhere.

Major battles included those at Heligoland Bight (two of them), Dogger Bank, and Jutland. In general, Britain, though not always tactically successful, was able to maintain the blockade and keep the High Seas Fleet in port, although the High Seas Fleet remained a threat that kept the vast majority of Britain’s capital ships in the North Sea.

The set-piece battles and maneuvering have drawn historians’ attention but it was the blockade of German commerce through the North Sea, which ultimately starved the German people and industries and contributed to Germany seeking the Armistice of 1918.


  1. Rod says:

    Good Naval history. I spent considerable time on a destroyer in the ’50s and never knew, until now, why they were called destroyers, i.e., what were they supposed to destroy.

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