A Rivalry in Invention

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Ivan Bloch describes the rivalry in invention in naval warfare leading into the Great War:

Sometimes armour was uppermost, sometimes projectiles. But no one listened to the voice of the economists who foretold the consequence of this rivalry. To illustrate this we may cite some figures as to the cost of modern vessels of war. The cost of a first-class line-of-battle ship, impelled by sails, did not exceed £115,000. The building of the first English ironclad Warrior in 1860 entailed an outlay of £350,000. But this was but the beginning in the growth in the cost of warships. The German ironclad Koenig Wilhelm, built in 1868, cost £500,000, the Italian Duilio, in 1876, £700,000, the Italia, 1886, £1,000,000. Thus in twenty years the cost of ironclads increased three times. A great part of this outlay is swallowed up by armour. Of £840,000 spent on one of the latest ironclads, Magenta, £600,000, that is, 71 per cent., was spent upon armour.

Let us examine the instruments of destruction of these maritime giants. A battleship of the old type of the first rank was armed with 120 guns, weighing 480 tons. The first ironclad carried only 32 guns, but these weighed 690 tons. On the ironclad Italia, built in 1886, were carried only 4 large and 8 small guns, yet they weighed nearly double as much as the 32 guns of the first ironclad, namely, 1150 tons. Thus since the days of sailing ships the weight of guns has increased more than 150 times. The size and weight of ammunition has, of course, correspondingly increased, and also the destructive force of explosive shells. The diameter of the shells of the ironclad Warrior was approximately 6 1/3 inches, its weight 70 pounds; on the armour-clad Italia the diameter is increased to 17 inches, and the weight to 2000 pounds. In the course of twenty years the power of a shell, taking only its weight into account, has increased 30 times.

It must not be supposed that this is the limit. England continues to stand at the head of the states who seek for improvements in weapons of destruction at sea. Some years ago English ships were armed with guns of a calibre of 12 inches, and armour nearly 12 inches thick. At a later time they carried guns with a calibre of 16 inches, weighing 80 tons, and throwing a shell weighing 1760 pounds. But in view of the fact that Italy had armed her ironclads Duilio and Dandolo with guns weighing 100 tons, the English consider a project of building 200-ton guns which will throw a shell of nearly three tons weight, and pierce armour 35 1/2 inches thick.

What is the outlay on the use of such weapons? Le Progres Militaire, on the basis of statistics taken from the French naval budget, makes the following estimate. The firing of a shell from a 110-ton gun costs £166, which corresponds to a capital of £4160. This sum is thus apportioned: £36 for 990 pounds of powder, £130 for the projectile, total, £166. But this is not all. A 110-gun will stand only 93 shots, after which it becomes useless for further employment. As the cost of such a weapon amounts to £16,480 it appears that with every shot fired the value of the arm diminishes by £174, from which we find that every shot fired will cost £340. Thus with every shot is thrown away the yearly interest on a capital of £8500. A thousand of such shots would represent a capital of £8,500,000.

Passing to arms of smaller calibre it is shown that a shot fired from a 77-ton gun (the cost of which is £10,000, and which will stand 127 shots) costs £184, a shot from a 45-ton gun (which costs £6300, and is useless after 150 shots have been fired) amounts to £98. Only the lives of the sailors on fleets are considered as valueless.

General Pestitch draws a very interesting contrast. He says: “Six Russian ships taking part in the battle of Sinope were armed with about 600 guns, out of which the 300 guns employed destroyed all that was in Sinope, yet the cost of these 300 guns, in the values of that time, did not exceed the cost of a single modern 100-ton gun. What results are to be expected from one weapon which in an hour may be fired no more than five times?” An answer to this question it seems can be given only by a future war. The guns on modern battleships will be able to bombard ports, fortresses and towns, as many specialists declare, from a distance of nearly seven miles.

But this increase of power has not been restricted to battleships alone. Many specialists consider it more advisable to build light and swift cruisers with powerful armaments, and torpedo boats which move almost unnoticed through the water with the speed of a mail train. As soon as the construction of ships was perfected to such an extent that England was able to place on the sea a considerable number of ironclads, armed with powerful guns, and protected by thick steel armour, the question naturally arose: Would it not be possible to direct mines underneath these immense ships, and destroy them by means of powerful explosions in the vicinity of weakly defended parts? For a long time the application of this idea was unsuccessful, many obstacles had to be overcome, and only in recent times has the question been successfully resolved. Then began the construction of vessels specially designed for the purpose of discharging torpedoes. Experience showed that vessels discharging the torpedo ran no risk in employing a mine of 55 to 66 pounds of powder, 13 to 15 pounds of dynamite, or 22 to 27 pounds of peroxylene, if it be not less than 19 1/2 feet distant from the place of explosion, the mine being at a depth of 7 feet. Since from 19 1/2 feet distance there is little difficulty in directing a torpedo against an enemy’s ship by the use of a pole, the problem became simply how best to build vessels which would be unnoticed on approach. In the Russo-Turkish war of 1877, out of nine cases of attack by Russian torpedo boats the Turks lost one ironclad and two steamers, while three ironclads were injured. The loss in men is unknown. On the Russian side three torpedo boats were injured, also three steam sloops, while one torpedo boat was sunken. Two sailors were killed and ten wounded.

Similar results were obtained in the time of the French-Tonkin war of 1885. Two ordinary steam cutters, not more than 46 feet in length, armed with torpedoes, on the night of the 14-15 February, 1885, attacked a Chinese frigate of 3500 tons and sank it. This frigate was hidden in the harbour of Shein under the cover of fortifications, but the French Admiral Courbet was at a distance of several knots from this harbour. Hidden in the darkness the French cutters covered the distance unnoticed, and after destroying the Chinese ship returned uninjured to the admiral’s flagship.

The history of the Chilian war presents a similar case, when, after an attack lasting no more than seven minutes, the Congressionalist ironclad Blanco Encalada was sent to the bottom.

From this is evident the immense danger with which armour-clads are threatened by torpedo-boats armed with Whitehead and other torpedoes of recent design. It must be remembered that not only torpedo-boats, but almost all ships of war are armed with such weapons of destruction to-day.

Leave a Reply