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Dreadnought , 1906

The English expression dreadnought (formed from ' dread nought ' , literally "fear nothing ") referred to a new type of warship in the first half of the 20th century , which from 1906 outperformed the lines of the line that had prevailed until then in every respect. The name goes back to the first ship of this type, the HMS Dreadnought , which was completed that year . The predecessor buildings, which were not yet equipped with a standard caliber, were henceforth referred to as "pre-dreadnoughts" or standard ships of the line.

All these terms were only of colloquial meaning, while official bodies further classified these types as "ships of the line" or "ships of the line" or " battleships ". After the First World War , the name was gradually replaced by " capital ship " or "battleship".


In the 19th century, technical advances were made that revolutionized warship building several times. The invention and constant further development of steam drives , HE shells , rapid-fire cannons and armor gave rise to a variety of new types of ships, which were often out of date when they were completed. At the end of the century, the type of "unit ship of the line" emerged, which was to gradually form the backbone of most of the larger war fleets and was called this because it had almost identical features in all countries:

US Navy unit ship of the line Louisiana , 1906

At the beginning of the 20th century there were clearly recognizable tendencies to increase these values: New American ships of the line of 18,000 t were started, while the British Navy introduced a "semi-heavy" caliber of 23.4 cm instead of the middle artillery. This interim solution turned out to be unsatisfactory in terms of uniform fire control and observation and made a uniform caliber of all main guns appear desirable.

The all big gun one caliber battleship

In these last drafts of the ships of the line, the tendency towards a standardization of the main guns with the abandonment of medium or semi-heavy artillery can already be seen. Such a type of ship was thought out as an all big gun one caliber battleship in various navies. As early as 1903, the chief designer of the Italian Navy, Vittorio Cuniberti , published a draft for a new type of battleship with twelve main guns of 30.5 cm caliber, a displacement of 17,000 t and a maximum speed of 24 kn by turbine drive.

Skeptics argued that the large guns, with their lower rate of fire at short ranges, would be inferior to a greater number of faster-firing small guns. At night or in poor visibility through fog or powder smoke, the range advantage would be of little use.

The sea ​​battle at Tsushima in 1905 showed that the heavy calibers could actually decide a sea battle at relatively great distances. If, however, the focus should now be placed on the large cannons, it would be logical, for a variety of reasons (including better observation and assignment of the impact pillars), to completely dispense with medium artillery. In the British Navy, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Fisher , finally pushed ahead with the realization of an all big gun one caliber battleship , the HMS Dreadnought :

Tower arrangement of the dreadnought
  • Ten 30.5 cm guns in twin turrets, three of them amidships and one on each side of the superstructure, so that four turrets in the broadside could fire at the same target.
  • Dispensing with medium artillery, instead 22 guns with 7.6 cm for torpedo boat defense.
  • Turbine drive with a top speed of 21 knots.
  • Displacement: around 18,000 t.

The name of this first standard- caliber battleship became a synonym for all newly built battleships of this type. Ships of the line of conventional construction very soon disappeared from the building programs of the sea powers or were replaced by dreadnought types. From now on one differentiated the main combat ships of the battle fleets in "Dreadnoughts" and "Pre-Dreadnoughts".

The unusually short construction time of 14 months for the ship, which was finally put into service in December 1906, was achieved through extensive preparatory work and shifting priorities. The reason for this was that the United States had also started building two of its own all big gun one caliber battleships in 1905 . However, due to delays in Congress approving the budget, the South Carolina- class ships were not completed until 1910. In contrast to the dreadnought , these ships used the tried and tested triple expansion steam engines as propulsion instead of turbines . A similar project in Japan , the Satsuma class , which was laid down in 1903 , failed because the heavy artillery was not available in sufficient numbers for financial reasons.

The dreadnought era

International arms race

The Dreadnought , which had no sister ships , abruptly devalued the ships of the line built up to then. The Royal Navy hoped that this would preserve British superiority at sea, because the additional financial outlay required to build such ships was considerable, and it was not believed that competing naval powers - France , Russia and Germany in particular - were becoming big dreadnought program. In fact, all of the major naval powers went over to building dreadnoughts. France waited until 1910 to start building the first units, Spain ordered its first units in 1907, Russia in 1908. Cuniberti built the first Italian dreadnought in 1907 , further units did not follow until 1910. In Austria-Hungary the first battleship with a standard caliber was stacked in 1910 Another three units of the Tegetthoff class were completed by 1914. After the South Carolina- class units in 1906 and 1907, the USA laid one dreadnought each year, and from 1908 two dreadnoughts each year.

While these powers were arming, but making no serious attempt to involve Great Britain in an open arms race, this was the case in Germany, the most ambitious challenger to the British naval power, for a long time (see also German-British naval competition ). The German fleet construction soon reached the limits of its capabilities. The first German dreadnoughts of the Nassau class were started in 1907 and these units took the place of the ships of the line provided for by the naval laws . However, Alfred von Tirpitz was no longer able to cope with the additional costs within the existing financial framework. A government crisis developed over the financial issue (tax increases), which cost Chancellor Bülow and the national support for building the navy gradually dwindled. The extent to which British capacities were superior was shown in the context of the “ fleet panic ” of 1909: Great Britain reacted to the transition of the German navy to “four-speed” by building eight dreadnoughts in the same year (despite initial internal political resistance) - in addition to the other units that were built on behalf of smaller sea powers in British shipyards.

Smaller arms races took place in different regions: In South America there was the so-called ABC arms race between Argentina , Brazil and Chile . Brazil ordered two ships from British shipyards as early as 1907 , and Argentina two ships in the USA the following year. In 1910, Brazil “refurbished” a ship, whereupon Chile also ordered two dreadnoughts in Great Britain. Greece reacted similarly, responding to the Ottoman Empire's granting of two dreadnoughts in 1910 with its own ship in 1912. The Greek ship commissioned in Germany was not finished. Of the Turkish ships started at British shipyards, only one was confiscated by Great Britain shortly before completion and put into service as the Erin . This and the simultaneous seizure of Sultan Osman I - originally under construction as Rio de Janeiro for Brazil and bought by the Ottomans - contributed significantly to Turkey's entry into the war on the part of the Central Powers.

Different types of dreadnoughts

The Japanese Kongō , before 1927

Almost simultaneously with the dreadnought as a new type of battleship, Great Britain put the first battle cruiser under construction as a further development of the conventional armored cruiser . This type of ship corresponded to the idea of ​​the all big gun one caliber battleship , but it should not be used with the other battleships in the battle line, but instead fight the enemy reconnaissance cruisers in front of the battle fleet. That is why the focus of the battle cruiser was placed on higher speed at the expense of armor - according to Lord Fisher's motto: "Speed ​​is the best protection" (German: speed is the best protection ). The first of its kind, the HMS Invincible , was also started in 1905 but did not enter service until 1908. With a top speed of 25 knots, it was clearly superior to the Dreadnought in terms of speed - the older ships of the line anyway - but the reduced armor later turned out to be a blatant weakness when the Invincible and two other British battlecruisers exploded during the Skagerrak Battle .

Germany responded, also in 1907, with its first battle cruiser SMS Von der Tann , known within the German Navy as the Great Cruiser . The type of battle cruiser remained essentially British and German "specialty"; only Japan built four units of the Kongō class , the type ship of which, however, was built in England. The US battle cruiser project of 1916 was not completed, instead two of the six planned units were converted into aircraft carriers in the 1920s ( Lexington- class ).

The installation of the main guns developed in several steps and differed from country to country. The HMS Dreadnought and its immediate successors each had two laterally arranged turrets, so that when firing a broadside one turret was not on target. In the first German units of the Nassau and Helgoland classes, the total of six towers were arranged in a hexagonal configuration, with two towers on each side of the superstructure - one broad side only comprised four of the six towers. One of the reasons for this was that the Reichsmarineamt had the turbines thoroughly tested before they could see the benefits for themselves. In Germany, conventional expansion steam engines were installed instead, especially since the consumption of steam engines during the cruise was significantly lower than that of turbines. This ineffective use of firepower resulted in various types of tower erection, the purpose of which was to include all of the towers in broadside fire. With advances in turbine and boiler construction (including special marching turbines or narrow-tube water-tube boilers) and the generally increasing size of ships, it was finally possible to move all towers in midship position. In Austria-Hungary, for the first time in the world, triplet turrets (three gun barrels in one turret) in the Tegetthoff class were used in an elevated midship position. This would later become the standard for several naval forces such as Italy, USA and Russia. There were also national peculiarities in the question of medium artillery, which was fully retained in Germany and Japan, but initially not in the Anglo-Saxon countries.

American superdreadnought Nevada , 1916

Constant improvements to the drive systems and armor made the dreadnoughts more and more powerful, but also larger and therefore more expensive. The ships of the Lion class started in 1909 already displaced one and a half times the original dreadnought and exceeded the construction costs of the last standard liners by a third. For the Orion class commissioned in the same year, the main caliber was increased from 30.5 to 34.3 cm, paired with the arrangement of all turrets in the keel line - these steps heralded the era at the height of the “fleet panic” the superdreadnoughts . Little by little, all naval powers switched to a larger caliber of mostly 35.6 cm, later even to 38.1 cm and 40.6 cm. With the increases in speed gained at the same time, ships emerged to which the namesake of this type, the HMS Dreadnought , was completely inferior again after a few years. At the latest with the Japanese units of the Fusō class (1911), the move to the fast battleship was taken, which should gradually replace the pure battlecruisers.

Dreadnoughts in strategic and tactical use

Dreadnoughts, like the unit ships of the line before them, formed the core of the battle fleet. Their main task was to combat enemy battleships at great distances. In such a decisive battle , according to the teachings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, sea ​​supremacy should be fought.

The development of the battle cruiser was the result of considerations to enable the old armored cruisers - whose main task in the Royal Navy, for example, was reconnaissance for the battle fleet - to intervene in the battle of the main battle ships when they came into contact with combat. After the successful elimination of the enemy battle fleet, the victorious party would rule the seas, while the defeated party would hardly be able to continue the fight. Only in France was there a broader base among officers who instead favored a cruiser war doctrine ( Jeune École ).

In the endeavor to bring all heavy artillery to the enemy in battle, the keel line formation experienced a renaissance; especially after the Japanese admiral Togo had successfully used the " Crossing the T " maneuver with his line off Tsushima . In contrast to the sailing ship era, however, the entire fleet no longer formed one line, but different squadrons , each of which formed their own tactical units. The only major skirmishes involving dreadnoughts, the battles on the Doggerbank and in front of the Skagerrak, saw the use of the dreadnought as well as the unit ship squadrons in classic keel lines. The main task of the accompanying destroyers and torpedo boats was to torpedo the enemy dreadnoughts or to protect their own.

The First World War

The beginning of the First World War marked a turning point in global dreadnought construction. The construction of ships that were under construction in European shipyards on behalf of smaller powers was either discontinued , as in the case of the Greek Salamis , or - if construction was well advanced - the ships were confiscated and incorporated into their own fleet, e.g. B. two units destined for Turkey that were put into service by Great Britain as HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin . Some of their own projects were also canceled (especially in France and Russia, which focused their armaments industry on the army). The USA, as a power not initially involved, consistently continued its dreadnought program. The largest maritime power, Great Britain, owned 24 dreadnoughts at the time, ten more were under construction, and six were commissioned after the war began. Germany owned the second largest number of dreadnoughts with 16 operational units. It was only between these two powers that there were meetings between dreadnought associations.

The only dreadnought battle of the world war, the Skagerrakschlacht (1916), was strategically relatively unsuccessful. The battle was mainly fought by the battle cruisers. Four of them were sunk: three British ships were destroyed by ammunition explosions, and a German battle cruiser (the SMS Lützow ) had to be abandoned. The near-loss of the HMS Warspite , a Super Dreadnought of the Queen Elizabeth class , highlighted the dangers of an overly offensive use of the battle fleet. The high rate of loss of the battle cruisers called their concept as a whole into question, which is why the recently commissioned HMS Hood was the last copy of this type. The two largest battle fleets in the world were largely intact at the end of the war. The Dreadnoughts had not fulfilled the task assigned to them on the German side and only indirectly on the British side.

Post-war period until 1922

As part of the armistice conditions , most of the German deep-sea fleet was interned in Scapa Flow after the end of the war , where it was sunk by its crews on June 21, 1919. The remaining dreadnoughts then had to be delivered. The USA, a secondary naval power before the war, now had 16 dreadnoughts. The 1916 building program called for 16 more, ten of which had already been laid down. Great Britain still had the largest number of operational ships, 21; However, only one more (Hood) was under construction for the time being . The British superiority at sea was seriously endangered, especially since Japan announced an ambitious construction program aimed at an inventory of 16 dreadnoughts.

On the British side, there was no longer any thought of maintaining the two-power standard . The dreadnoughts now became a political issue because the British government did not support the vision of a "freedom of the seas" as proclaimed by US President Woodrow Wilson - such a doctrine would make future sea blockades such as those against Germany impossible. Britain watched the US program with great suspicion while the US government tried to exert pressure by fueling the arms spiral. Great Britain, which had been bled by the war, was just as unable to raise the enormous financial resources for its own counter-armaments program as Japan, which was in a deep recession - but also the USA were hardly in a position to carry out such an armament under peace conditions. The newly elected US President Warren G. Harding invited the other naval powers - in addition to Great Britain and Japan, France and Italy - to a conference in 1921 on the limitation of naval armaments. This fleet conference resulted in the abandonment of all dreadnought building programs and a ten-year break in building new dreadnoughts (with special regulations for France and Italy). Almost all ships under construction had to be demolished with a few exceptions; some units were allowed to be completed as aircraft carriers. This ended the dreadnought era for the time being.


It was not until 1936 that the construction of capital ships was generally resumed. The term “dreadnought” was used less often at the beginning of the 1930s, however, and was replaced by the term “battleship” or, according to the international treaty texts, “capital ships” or “capital ships”. In retrospect, the term "dreadnought" was primarily used to refer to the battleships of the First World War, at most the modernized units that were still in existence. For the further development of the type see therefore battleship .


  • Siegfried Breyer: Battleships and battle cruisers 1905–1970. With 922 side drawings, deck plans, cross-sections and detailed sketches. JF Lehmann, Munich 1970, DNB 456189416 ; License edition: Pawlak, Herrsching am Ammersee 1988, ISBN 3-88199-474-2 ; 2nd edition: Bernard and Graefe, Koblenz 1990, ISBN 3-7637-5877-1 .
  • Robert K. Massie : Dreadnought. Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War. Cape, London 1992, ISBN 0-224-03260-7 .
  • Rolf Hobson: Maritime Imperialism. Sea power ideology, sea strategy thinking and the Tirpitz plan 1875 to 1914 (= contributions to military history . Volume 61). published by the Military History Research Office, Potsdam, and the Institute for Defense Studies, Oslo. Oldenbourg, Munich 2004, ISBN 3-486-56671-7 (dissertation University of Trondheim 1999, X, under the title: Imperialism at sea , original in English, translated by Eva Besteck).

Single receipts

  1. Dreadnought - Duden , 2018; u. a. with "nothing to fear"
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on November 29, 2005 .