Ship of the line

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Running the gauntlet of Vyborg 1790, on the left edge of the picture up to the horizon under sails in line sailing warships. Painting by Ivan Konstantinovič Ajvazovskij from 1846

A ship of the line is a historical type of warship . This type of ship was in use from the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th century. The name arose from the fact that these ships sailed one after the other in battle in the keel line .

Wooden battery ships with sail rigging (before 1860)

Sailing ships

Battle of the British ship of the line Tremendous and a British frigate against the French frigate La Canonniere (1806).
View of a British 3rd tier ship (above) and longitudinal section of a 1st tier ship (below).
The HMS Victory in Portsmouth around 1900 , this ship of the line served as the flagship of Admiral Nelson in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar .
The Austrian liner SMS Kaiser rams the Re di Portogallo during the sea ​​battle of Lissa

From the 16th to the 19th century, the sailing ship was the heaviest warship in Europe . Heavier than the frigate , it had the largest tonnage and the most powerful cannons . With the invention of gunport , a closable opening on the fuselage, in 1500 it was possible to position guns relatively close above the water surface in the intermediate decks. Such low-lying guns could be chosen to be relatively large without endangering the stability of the ship.

In the course of the 16th century, the importance of artillery in naval combat grew steadily, while that of boarding declined to the same extent. In the 17th century, tactics began to be developed that took into account the strength of the artillery. A logical consequence of the broadside formation was the arrangement of the battle fleets in keel line, which replaced the Mêlée as a combat formation.

Since the entire fleet in formation was only as fast as the slowest ship, the speed in the development of ships for the main battle line was classified as subordinate. For this purpose, emphasis was placed on armament and stability (the ability of the ship to withstand fire).

On the ships of the line 50 to 130 cannons were distributed over several decks , from two continuous decks to four decks. The ships were divided into ranks according to their armament and referred to as two- decker , three- decker or four-decker (such as the Spanish Santissima Trinidad ). The two-deckers, which were the most balanced construction in terms of armament, sailing properties and costs, formed the backbone of the line forces, but they were less representative than three- and four-deckers. Towards the end of the second decade of the 19th century, the Royal Navy introduced the cross-frame construction , which made it possible to significantly increase the length of the ship. After that, the double decker, which had already been continuously enlarged, finally became the dominant ship of the line, combined with a future ongoing increase in caliber sizes at the expense of the number of guns.

The heaviest guns, the 32-pounder to 42-pounder, were positioned on the lowest battery deck. Above that in the middle deck and on the upper deck, 24-pounders and 12-pounders were erected. The designation of the guns was based on the weight of the cannon balls they fired. In addition to the guns on the individual decks, other guns were placed on the half deck or the bulwark aft and the forecastle forward. From around 1780 these guns were partially replaced by carronades , a devastating melee weapon. Most of the time, the long-barreled hunting cannons that were used in pursuits were preserved, on the forecastle for hunting and aft to ward off hunters.

In comparison to the ships of the line of the industrial age, ships of the line carried a large number of guns, which had a comparatively low caliber and projectile weight. The destructive effect of the bullets they shot on the hulls of enemy ships of the line was limited. A keel line versus keel line battle between two fleets therefore usually ended in a draw. Decisive victories could normally only be achieved by concentrating one's energies over short distances. Even then, ships of the line could hardly be sunk - except by fire - and were usually boarded after being incapacitated .

→ about the crew of a sailing ship see main article ship crew → about the ranking of a sailing ship see main article ranking of warships

Helicopter ships (1845-1860)

The screw ships of the line, which could also be powered by steam, only flourished briefly. At first around 1845 already existing sailing ships of the line were equipped with 300 to 1000 hp steam engines. From 1850, however, such ships were also planned and built with screw drives from the start, until they were considered obsolete just ten years later.

Steam-powered armored steel ships (1860–1945)

With the introduction of steam propulsion, the naval commanders had new opportunities to conduct combat, as they no longer had to rely on the power of the wind, which they shared with the enemy. From around 1860 onwards, this led to a departure from pure line tactics and a move towards formationless ship-to-ship combat (Mêlée) . For this, the abandonment of the pure broadside fire in favor of an increased all-round and over-end fire was necessary, which was reflected in the fundamental redesign of the ships of the line.

Armored ships of the line with breech loaders (1860–1890)

With the introduction of iron hulls from the late 1850s, which were used in the armored ships , the development of the main battle ship led from the classic wooden sailing ship of the line to steam-powered ships with initially wrought iron armor . Various - sometimes competing - concepts developed, which differed in the way the guns were set up in and on the ship and the arrangement of the armor. The following basic types can be distinguished:

After setting up the guns

According to the arrangement of the armor

Furthermore, the armored ships of the line were basically divided into armored corvettes , which led their armament to the upper deck, and armored frigates , which had a battery deck or a casemate. These terms were also used officially; But there were also types that combined both and were classified as armored ships . As a result of this development there was a temporary disappearance of the term ship of the line , which only revived around 1890.

Battery ship / broadside ship

The term battery ship refers to the fact that the ship's cannons were in one or more battery decks. Since they fired to the sides through gun ports in the hull, one speaks of the broadside ship. This design is still very much based on that of its wooden predecessors. Above all, there were no armored transverse bulkheads that would have offered protection from projectiles striking from the rear or the front.

Central battery ship

The change from muzzle-loaders to breech-loaders meant that the guns , which now had rifled barrels and fired grenades instead of bullets, were much larger and longer than the old cast bronze cannons. Their number therefore had to be drastically reduced. On the central battery ship, the guns were in an armored box, but this was more in the form of an armored battery deck, and the guns fired conventionally through gun ports in the sides of the ship.

Casemate ship

In order to be able to use them more effectively, they were combined in an armored box built into the hull, the casemate . The guns stood on rotating mounts and shot through rotating notch panels. In front of and behind the citadel, the hulls had recesses, which enabled the guns to pivot smoothly and thus to fire ahead and aft.

Tower ship

HMS Hood , the last tower ship

In the case of tower ships , the guns were set up in one or more rotatable, cylindrical rooms, the towers. These turrets were built much simpler than the later gun turrets .

Barbed ship / redouit ship

This type had armored parapets on the foredeck and aft deck . This had a circular or pear-shaped floor plan. Inside, the guns stood on a turntable and fired over the edge of the parapet called the barette.

A variant most commonly used in the French fleet was the Redouit ship. Here the turntables - usually offset diagonally from one another - were surrounded by a common, oval parapet, the redouit. The offset arrangement had the advantage that all the guns could fire together forwards and aft.

Under the impact of the naval battle of Lissa in 1866 about variants emerged out of these types as special rammers were designed as tower or ramming Kasemattrammen. It was also now common practice to use watertight bulkheads to separate the hulls of ships into compartments in order to limit flooding in the event of a ram or hit below the waterline.

Citadel ship

Increasing combat distances with steeper missile trajectories as a result of advances in gunsmithing made armored decks essential. In order to limit the weight of the armor, it was concentrated in the area of ​​the ammunition chambers and the propulsion system and closed off at the ends by also armored transverse bulkheads. In front of and behind the deck structure resulting from the armored areas , the ships were only lightly armored or not armored at all.

All of these ships differed considerably in size, speed, as well as the number and caliber of their guns, which made joint use in the formation considerably more difficult. Only when the barbed ship began to establish itself as the most powerful design did the confusion of the many different types come to an end.

The new arrangement of the guns led to an increase in firepower over the bow and stern, but at the price of reduced firepower to the sides ( broadside ). The formation in the keel line seemed increasingly impractical. The previous naval strategy was thereby called into question. The term ship of the line was now unsuitable and was gradually replaced by the term "capital ship", main ship or battleship .

Standard ships of the line (1890–1905)

The barbed ships carried one, from around 1890 two gun turrets in all nations, each with two cannons of caliber 24 to 30.5 cm. These towers were erected on the front of the forecastle and on the back of the bulwark . This is also called a "standard ship of the line".

The next development step was to divide the space surrounded by armor in the ship's longitudinal axis and to install transverse bulkheads between the guns, which were also armored. So each gun was in its own armored chamber, the casemate. This had the advantage that the neighboring casemates would not be destroyed if one of them was hit.

Large line ships (1905–1922)

USS Texas (1919), a "super dreadnought"

The next step was taken almost simultaneously by the British with the HMS Dreadnought (1906) and the USA with the South Carolina-class ships, with the abandonment of the middle artillery in favor of stronger main armament. While the Dreadnought had three towers in a central position and two in a side position (so-called wing towers), on the US ships all four towers were already in the longitudinal axis of the ship. In Germany this type was referred to as a "large-line ship".

Contemporary postcard from SMS Thuringia

Abroad one spoke generally of the " Dreadnoughts ", although the Dreadnought itself represented rather an intermediate step on the way to the development of even stronger ships. With the HMS Orion (commissioned in January 1912, 10 × 34.3 cm in five twin towers) the era of the "superdreadnoughts" began. This was used to describe ships whose main artillery consisted of guns whose caliber was larger than the 12 inches (30.5 cm) customary up to that time.
The battle in the battle line was seen as outdated after the end of the First World War , and in Germany the designation "Großlinienschiff" was replaced by " Battleship ".

The picture shows the large-scale ship SMS Thüringen (22,800 t), an early dreadnought type of the Helgoland class , twelve 30.5 cm guns are mounted in the six rotating towers, one deck below is the middle artillery in casemate setup.

Fast battleships and capital ships (1922–1945)

After various attempts to limit the number and tonnage of large liner ships at international fleet conferences , this type of ship experienced its last peak in the late 1930s, until the vulnerability of these ships to modern air units became apparent in the Second World War .

See also


  • Jochen Brennecke , Herbert Hader: Ironclad ships and ships of the line. 1860-1910. Köhlers Verlagsgesellschaft, Herford 1976, ISBN 3-78220-116-7 .
  • Siegfried Breyer: Battleships and battle cruisers 1905–1970. With an introduction: The historical development of the capital ship. Karl Müller Verlag, Erlangen 1996, ISBN 3-86070-044-8 .
  • Rémi Monaque: Trafalgar. Le grand livre du mois, Paris 2005, ISBN 2-286-01869-3 .

Web links

Wiktionary: ship of the line  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations