During Queen Victoria's reign "Britannia Rules The Waves" wasn't just a song lyric, but an unquestioned fact. Britain's naval policy was simple - keep the Royal Navy superior both technologically and numerically to any two other navies in the world combined. This doesn't mean that no other nation tried to match Britain's superiority - in the 1850s and 1860s, there was a serious threat from France.
In 1860, HMS Warrior - the world's first iron warship was launched in London. She was a ship which completely revolutionised the way all warships were built, and made all existing warships obsolete. HMS Warrior is now the only surviving iron warship left in the world, and is on display in Portsmouth.
Development of the Ironclad
By the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815, the most powerful ships in the world were wooden three-decker 120 gun 1st rate ships of the line.
The first step towards iron ships had occured in Japan at the end of the sixteenth century.
In 1592, during the Choson dynasty, the Japanese shogun Hideyoshi invaded Korea. Armed with Portuguese muskets he
quickly overran Seoul within two weeks, and conquest seemed inevitable. Japanese contingents promptly set off for
P'yongan and Hamgyong Provinces to complete the subjugation of the country, yet Korea was saved by Admiral Sun-Shin Yi. Yi was a brilliant strategist who had forseen the war and had constructed a small fleet of ships, called Turtles.
The turtle warships, the world's first ironclads, were called Kobukson and looked not unlike a 70 foot turtle. The Turtle galleys were 2.16 metres high, 20.7 metres long, with a 34.4 metre high topmast. They had a low, rounded roof, bristling with iron spikes to prevent boarding. It had both sails and twenty oars, above the oars were ports for cannon, small firearms, and
The bottom was flat, made of boards, and the top surface only had a very narrow walkway for crew to walk on. The
hull was covered by a double layer of iron. Guns could be fired from the turtle head, 22 gunholes on the upper deck or six gun ports on the lower deck, port and starboard. They were equipped with a large iron ram and a "dragon's head" on the prow. The dragon's head poured out smoke, both to frighten the enemy, and to create a primitive, but effective, smoke screen. They were impervious to any weapons the Japanese could muster, and sank large numbers of troops and supply ships, seriously hampering Japanese operations in Korea.
Over a period of months, Yi used his fleet to tear into the Japanese fleet of over two hundred ships, winning victory after victory. The war ended in a truce, with Korea divided politically. Although Admiral Yi had stopped the invasion, he had stirred up jealousy by doing it, and, as a reward, was imprisoned until Hideyoshi renewed his invasion attempts in 1597.
Whilst Yi was in gaol, the Japanese ravaged the Korean navy. Yi finally put in command of the twelve surviving warships. In less than a month, he ambushed 133 Japanese ships with his tiny fleet, sinking thirty-one of them and driving the rest off.
A year later, the Japanese were losing the war. They began a total withdrawal in an armada of five hundred ships. Then
Admiral Yi struck once again with his Turtle ships, sinking half the fleet. Sadly, he died in the battle.
Despite their success, the Turtle ships had their limitations. The first of which was their construction as galleys made them perfect for sheltered waters, but unseaworthy for the oceans of the world. The Turtle ships, and the obvious idea of mounting iron armour on the side of a ship, was abandoned, and the next ironclad was not built until La Gloire in 1857.
Iron had long been considered in Britain as a ship-building material in its own right by the time of HMS Warrior. Iron barges were used before the end of the eighteenth century. In 1821 Charles Manbury built an iron paddlesteamer, the Aaron Manby, and Brunel built the Great Britain, the first large iron ship to cross the Atlantic in 1843. The first armed iron ship was the Nemesis, a paddle-gunboat owned by the Honourable East India Company and had been built in 1839 and was used in the Opium War of 1841. Iron was also considered by the Royal Navy. Between 1843 - 1846, six frigates were built, but it was discovered that their shell plating became fragmented when fractured by shot. They were subsequently converted into troopships. Later, the British Chief Naval Engineer Thomas Lloyd had discovered that 4 inch armour plating solved the problem of the ships' sides becoming fragmented when struck by shot.
A principal problem with iron ships was the effect that they had on the ship's compass, but that was solved in 1839 by the Astronomer Royal, Professor Sir George Airy1.
During the Crimean War of 1854-1856, France and later Britain used iron to build floating batteries. These were floating, but unseaworthy, vessels intended to carry heavy guns and destroy Russian defences2.
Around 1837 Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the Great Western, a transatlantic paddle steamer. In 1843 Great Britain was built, which was an iron-hulled ship. The problem was that, although many small ships were converted to steam, no ship of the line at that time was. Large paddle-frigates, were built, such as HMS Terrible. She was launched in 1845 and fought during the Crimean War. Despite being larger than the 74 gun ships at the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Terrible only carried 19 guns. The paddle-wheel which had to be on each side of the hull not only reduced the number of guns which could be mounted broadside, but also was a vulnerable target. If the paddle-wheel was destroyed, the ship would be helpless and unable to move. Only when the screw propeller was invented were steam-powered warships practical. Cannon would not be obstructed, and the propeller under water could not be hit.
The screw propeller was first used to good effect on a military vessel in 1852, when the first steam-powered battleship, France's wooden two-decker 90 gun Le Napoleon, started a brief arms race. She was built to be fast, but her engines were unreliable. Britain's first steam-powered warship, the 91-gun HMS Agamemnon, was launched soon after as a reply. She was superior in most respects, including engines, design and weaponry, as Britain still had more experience in warship design. Over 100 two or three decked wooden steam battleships were built or converted in Britain and France in the next ten years, 66 by Britain alone, although the introduction of iron quickly made them obsolete.
While France built more and more Napoleon-class vessels, Britain kept re-designing and improving their ships, resulting in the HMS Duncan and her sistership HMS Gibraltar, 101 gun ships in 1858, and the 120 gun HMS Victoria, launched in 1864, Britain's last and the largest wooden warship ever.
Considering the developments in iron shipbuilding, and the introduction of practical steam-propelled warships, it was inevitable that iron warships would soon develop.
The second step towards developing iron warships was taken by the French. In 1857 Stanlais Dupey de Lome started work on a new warship - La Gloire. She was to have a wooden hull, but be armoured with iron-cladding plating above the waterline. As she was not built of iron, merely re-inforced with it, she was a ironclad warship, but not an iron ship3. She was an inevitable leap in shipbuilding, but she had a much larger effect on the way that warships were designed.
Britain's Navy, her first line of defence, seemed for the first time to be challenged and perhaps out of date. It was this that caused the invasion scare of 1858-1859, and a result of this was the building of several forts around the country. People were afraid that the French Emperor, Napoleon III, was seriously planning on invading Britain. He did not, and France was later overwhelmingly defeated in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 by a smaller and less experienced German army.
At the time, though, France seemed a very real danger. Despite her being Britain's ally during the Crimean War, she now seemed distant and had become allied with Russia, the foe Britain had fought against in the Crimean War. It was feared that France and Russia might jointly attack Britain, as Lord Palmerston, the current Prime Minister, wrote in September 1859 to the Duke of Somerset:
"Now we must remember that we might have to encounter not only the French
Navy, but the combined navies of France and Russia."
The Royal Navy soon built a response to La Gloire - HMS Warrior, the world's first true iron warship, but how was she different to La Gloire?
La Gloire was the first of six French iron-clads of the same type, only one of which, the Couronne, was a true iron ship, but was built after HMS Warrior. It had been intended to build La Gloire as an iron ship, but at the time France did not have the technology or experience that Britain had with iron, and so was unable to do so.
La Gloire was essentially a wooden battleship with iron plating, and so despite being a large step forward, was also a dead end in ship design. She was confined to the limits of her wooden hull, and carried a total of 34 guns. These were inferior to the 68pdr guns that Warrior carried and were also crowded on the gun deck. As the gun embrasures were too close together, the prtection the iron armour offered was weakened.
The iron she was made of was of a poor quality, and she was not a very seaworthy vessel. In heavy weather La Gloire was practically disarmed as her gun ports were too close to the waterline. If they were opened during rough seas, there was a strong possibility that La Gloire would flood.
La Gloire was not designed as an ocean-going ship, and spent her time in the Mediterranean and the English Channel. As she was designed to rely primarily on steam, her range was quite short, confined to the limited amount of coal she could carry. She had also only been equipped with a light barque rig. She was also not designed to sail alone, merely be the strongest part of a fleet engaged in traditional broadside battles, and so conceptually was not that different from a wooden warship.
Curiously, France did not spend as much time building her as would be expected. All wooden ships must be built over at least three years, otherwise they will suffer from dry rot. Yet La Gloire was launched without being given time to air.4
So despite being a very advanced warship, she was not as serious a threat as the Royal Navy feared. Not only was the HMS Warrior superior to her, HMS Duncan and her sisterships, when they were later converted into ironclads, also proved superior, especially as far as seaworthiness was concerned.
The simplest solution to the problem caused by La Gloire was to coat existing ships in iron, but this was not the approach the Admiralty took, although they later converted several "woodenwalls", as the Navy's wooden fleet was affectionately known. Admiral Sir Baldwin Walker had previously investigated the possibilities of iron in 1856, even before La Gloire was started. Armour tests showed that 4-inch armour plating would resist the shots of the 68pdr-gun even at almost point blank range. After the tests, Walker wrote:
"I have frequently stated that it is not in the interest of Great Britain, possessing as she does so large a navy, to adopt any important change in the construction of ships of war which might have the effect of rendering necessary the introduction of a new class of very costly vessels until such a course is forced onto us."
Further armour trials in 1858 showed that no weapon could penetrate 4 1/2 inches of iron plating, and it was only later in 1865 that a gun was designed that could. The trials also showed that one shot of Britain's 68 pdr gun had the same effect as five 32pdr shots hitting close together. The 68pdr had been introduced in the Crimean War, and was the most effective gun of the day.
Isaac Watts, a ship designer who had specialised in long frigates such as the HMS Mersey, was called in to design HMS Warrior. She was to have the 4 1/2 inch armour in a reinforced box in the centre of the ship, in a design known as the citadel. The bow and stern were not re-inforced, but it was thought unlikely that any shots to the bow or stern would seriously affect the Warrior. The worst that could happen was a shot to the rudder, which could disable the Warrior's steering, but not permanently.
Warrior was designed to be a fast ship. At a time when most warships had a top speed of between 10-13 knots, Warrior had a top speed of 14-17, mainly because she carried the largest engines yet built. Because of her fine hull, she was able to travel faster and further then most other ships - she was very economical and had a long range.
Warrior was not considered a ship of the line, but a frigate. Most ship of the line at the time were considered to be part of a fleet, but frigates acted independently. Ships were usually designated by the number of guns they carried. Warrior carried only 42 guns, yet the guns she carried were the heaviest guns available, and she had a larger range and heavier guns than any other warship. She carried twenty six 68 pounder guns, ten 110 pounder guns, four 40 pounder and two 20 pounder guns. Warrior's impenetrable armour, phenomenal speed and heavy guns meant that Warrior was superior to any other warship afloat.
There were, however, some drawbacks to HMS Warrior. The first was her size. HMS Warrior was the longest warship afloat at the time she was built, and only one other ship in the world, Brunel's Great Eastern, was longer. Because of her size, only three docks in the world were able to cope with her - Portsmouth, Liverpool and Southampton, all in England. This restricted her to the waters around Great Britain, especially the English Channel, although she did later sail to Gibralter during the American Civil War and Bermuda in 18685
This was not too serious a problem as she had been designed as a response to the French Navy, which would have to sail across the Channel to invade England. To get an idea of how long Warrior was, HMS Victory at Trafalgar was 186 feet long, HMS Duncan - the 101 gun ship built in 1858 and the largest two-decker of her time, was 252 feet long. HMS Warrior was 420.
The trend to build long single-decked frigates had been started by the American Navy with their 275 foot long Merrimac class frigates. The American Navy had no true first rate ships at this time. Britain had built two long frigates in 1858, HMS Mersey and HMS Orlando - the longest, largest and most powerful single-decked wooden fighting ships. These, though, were still only 335
feet long and suffered from the strain of their length, proving too weak to face a ship of the line in close quarters. The Merrimac class also suffered these faults during the American Civil War.
Another of Warrior's faults was her lack of manoeuvrability. She had a far too large turning circle, which made her hard to control. Because of this, she was entirely unsuitable for fleet maneuveurs. In fact, she was even involved in a collision with HMS Royal Oak in August 1868. This was near the Isles of Scilly when she was part of the Channel Fleet.
Warrior's manoeuvrability was partly because HMS Warrior was both a steam and sail ship. All steam ships, in a fight, would need a high centre of gravity to prevent the gun fire forcing a roll. A sailing ship, though, in strong winds needed the stability given by a low centre of gravity. HMS Warrior was a compromise, with a centre of gravity in the middle, and so it is not surprising there were problems.
Despite being a revolutionary ship, many things about the Warrior were old fashioned. One of which was the knee bow and figurehead. This raised front of a ship was necessary on a wooden ship, but not only unnecessary on iron ships, but also increased the weight of the Warrior needlessly. HMS Warrior also had a figurehead on the end of her bow - and she, along with her sistership HMS Black Prince, and the HMS Rodney of 1888 were the last British front-rank ships to carry a figurehead.
Ironclads after Warrior
In Britain, only two Warrior class vessels were built, HMS Warrior and HMS Black Prince. The current government thought that they were too expensive, and so the Navy was ordered to construct four smaller iron warships, HMS Defence, HMS Resistance, HMS Hector and HMS Valiant. These were started in 1859 and finished in 1861. These were smaller than HMS Warrior, and so did not have her speed, or carry her superior firepower, and were not very sea-worthy. The only advantage they had was in manoeuvrability, and the fact they did not have Warrior's archaic bow. HMS Resistance was the first British ship to be equipped with a ram - Warrior also had a strong bow and could have rammed, but as her bow was a knee bow, it would not have been as effective.
The first two cost £237,291 and the second two cost £237,291. Compared to HMS Warrior's cost of £357,291, they cost two thirds of Warrior's price, yet only ofered about a quarter of the military value. Indeed, many converted two-deckers proved superior as they were able to be more heavily armed and were also faster. After having been forced into building them, Admiral Walker, who had commisioned the building of the Warrior resigned in February 1861.
In 1863 HMS Achilles was built, and after she was commissioned in 1865 was considered to be the superior warship in the world. She was a half-sister of Warrior, and had the same speed. She spread the most canvas of any British warship, and all Warrior's faults had been corrected in her design, including more protection for the stern and bow. She remained in service until in the beginning of the 20th century.
Ironclads outside Britain
Many of Britain's woodenwall ships were converted into ironclads. After 1861 the French challenge died out as Napoleon III realised that France's navy was still inferior to Britain's. By 1865, the arms race was over, and instead Napoleon III tried to re-model his army. This had little effect as he lost the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. None of France's ships built before 1870 were any match for HMS Warrior, and no other navy in the world rivalled Britain's position of master of the seas.
France's only ships of note after the twelve Gloire class vessels were the Solferino class ships, the Solferino and the Magenta. They were 50 gun two-deckers, and the only true ironclad battleships. They also re-introduced the ram into naval tactics. They were France's response to Warrior, and quite good seaboats. The reason why they were short and two-cecked instead of one-decked like Warrior was because it was impossible for France to build a larger wooden ship, and France did not have Britain's iron technology. In reply, Britain built the 50 gun Minotaur class, single-decked ironclads that were launched in 1863.
The British Minotaur class ships were HMS Minotaur, HMS Agincourt and HMS Northumberland, which was the last frigate-hulled iron warship. They were larger than the Warrior and Achilles, but also slower under sail, even than the smaller iron warships.
1866 saw the launch of the Bellerophon. She was closer in design to a ship of the line, and the first British iron warship to not be shaped as a frigate. She was smaller, more manoevrable with thicker armour, but less speed and endurance than Warrior.
In 1869, HMS Monarch was launched, the world's first ocean going turret ship. Turret ships had been used before, most noticably in the American Civil War with ships such as the USS Monitor. Yet these were mainly used in coastal waters and were not true ocean-going vessels.
In 1870, HMS Captain was commissioned, a turret ship designed to specifications suggested by the media and public opinion, and the naval experts of the day claimed she would be unstable. They were proved right when it sank only a few months later. The Captain disaster was due to the Navy's pride in it's mastmanship, the handling of the ship's masts and yards. This had grown into a highly competitive drill, and HMS Captain had been designed to have masts perfect for this drill, yet useless, and indeed dangerous, in real sailing conditions. It sank in December 1870 near Cape Finistern, killing 472 men - more than the number who died at the Battle of Trafalger - including her designer, Cowper Coles, who had publicly campaigned to force the Navy to build her.
HMS Devastation in 1873, was the first mastless capital ship, stable in even the heaviest seas. She was the ancestor of the 20th century battleship, and carried four guns.
HMS Warrior in war
HMS Warrior was designed as a deterrent to prevent Napoleon III from considering invading Britain. Napoleon III did not invade. Because of this, HMS Warrior was never involved in action. During the American Civil War she was stationed in British ports such as Southampton and Gibraltar where ships from both the Confederacy and Union were in dock at the same time, in order to discourage them from taking the war into British territory.
HMS Warrior's armour would probably have been almost invulnerable in action. No gun at the time on any vessel was able to penetrate it at over 400 yards, and Warrior had the speed to escape from any ship approaching too closely. We can also judge from the Merrimac - Monitor battle between two ironclads in 1862 that Warrior's armour would have been successful. In that battle, the Confederate ironclad Merrimac fought the Union ironclad Monitor non-stop for a day, with neither of them suffering any substantial damage.
HMS Warrior's main armament was the 68 pdr guns first used during the Crimean War. These were very effective, but were smooth bored muzzle loading guns. This made loading more difficult than with breach-loading weapons, and the lack of rifling affected accuracy. Warrior was also armed with 110 pounder Armstrong guns. These were breech-loading rifled guns, yet it was later discovered that these weapons were inferior to the 68 pounder. They were inaccurate - the very thing rifling was designed to prevent, and the breech mechanism was flawed. They were replaced in 1864.
The idea of ramming was something for which Warrior had been considered. Although she was not perfectly equipped with her type of bow, it could have been an effective weapon. The idea that iron ships could cut through the old fashioned wooden ones was popular in both Britain and France, and worked effectively in the American Civil War, for example the Merrimac6 had rammed and sank the USS Cumberland. It was also used at the Battle of Lissa in July 1866 when the Austrian Admiral Tegetthoff managed to ram and sink the Italian ironclad Re D'Italia. That was the last time ramming was used.
Warrior, though, would probably not have been manoeuvrable enough to successfully ram another ship, and her figurehead would probably have suffered most7. There was no sea war at the time for the Royal Navy to try this tactic out on, but both HMS Vanguard and HMS Victoria were sunk by accidental collisions with a ram.
Overall, HMS Warrior was a revolutionary ship. Although she was considered second-best to HMS Achilles after the first five years of her career, as would be expected with the progression of improved designs, she was still an exceptional ship which changed the way ships were designed, conceived and built.H.M.S. Warrior
both ironclads and ironships were commonly, and often incorrectly, refered to as "ironclads" at this time.4This could show that she was merely a temporary and experimental ship.5When Warrior went to Bermuda, a special floating dockyard, called the Bermuda Dock, had to be designed and towed to Bermuda too.6The USS Merrimac had been built by the Union, yet had been run aground and abandoned, scuttled and burned, when the Federals abandoned the Gosport Navy Yard in April, 1861.The Confederates captured her and converted her into an ironclad, and even re-named her CSS Virginia, yet she was still popularly known as the Merrimac.7Although, in battle, figureheads were expendable.