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By Robert Farley, The National Interest
This piece was originally published in 2017.
Earlier this week HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest aircraft carrier ever built for the Royal Navy, began sea trials. The Queen Elizabeth class represents a massive leap forward for the Royal Navy, and the success or failure of the class will structure British seapower for the rest of the twenty-first century. Over a century ago, a different class of ships helped transform the Royal Navy: the Queen Elizabeth–class fast battleships.
The Queen Elizabeths represented a leap forward in battleship design almost equivalent in degree to that of HMS Dreadnought. After the construction of Iron Duke, the British Admiralty decided to pursue a class of ships that would be larger, more heavily armed and faster than any predecessor or any foreign competitor. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill pushed the development of the fifteen-inch gun, capable of outdistancing the weapons carried by American, Japanese and especially German battleships. The bigger guns gave the QEs a broadside that was heavier and had more penetrative capability than the preceding Iron Dukes, in spite of carrying one less turret. The initial design provided for an armament of ten fifteen-inch guns in five twin turrets, but the Admiralty decided to sacrifice one turret in favor of a higher speed. This decision would be critical for the future of the class.
Perhaps of greatest consequence, a study by Jackie Fisher suggested that oil propulsion would be both possible and desirable. Oil was less labor intensive as a fuel than coal, and did not require the employment of a large number of stokers to maintain speed. While human endurance and difficulties associated with the transportation of coal around the ship had limited the duration at which a ship could maintain its highest speed, oil could be transported automatically and stored more efficiently. Oil produced less smoke, helping a ship avoid engagements and perform better during combat (smoke tended to obscure firing positions). Finally, oil burned more efficiently, allowing a higher speed. This higher speed put Queen Elizabeth in between battlecruisers and traditional battleships.
Queen Elizabeth entered service in January 1915. It displaced roughly twenty-eight thousand tons, carried eight fifteen-inch guns in four twin turrets, and could make twenty-three knots. The class, initially expected to include three ships and a battlecruiser counterpart, was eventually expanded to five by the cancellation of the battlecruiser and the offer of funds for an additional ship by the colony of Malaya. An offer of three more ships by Canada was narrowly rejected, due to Canadia’s insistence on providing crews for the ships.
The British advantage over Germany in the North Sea was sufficiently great that Queen Elizabeth could be spared for other duties. Its first action was as part of an assault on the Dardanelles. Queen Elizabethbombarded shore fortresses and supported the March 18, 1915 attempt to force the straits. Mines and shore defenses turned back the combined British and French attack, and Queen Elizabeth was withdrawn for fear of loss on May 12. It joined the Fifth Battle Squadron, initially attached to the Grand Fleet and later to Adm. David Beatty’s battlecruiser squadron. Queen Elizabeth missed the Battle of Jutland while in dry dock for minor repairs and maintenance.
Bitter recrimination after the Battle of Jutland led to the “promotion” of Admiral Jellicoe and the assignment of Adm. David Beatty to the command of the Grand Fleet. Beatty initially used HMS Iron Duke as his flagship, but the crew, which had quite liked Admiral Jellicoe, apparently demonstrated a sullen and resentful attitude towards Beatty. In early 1917, Beatty transferred his flag to the newer, larger, and faster Queen Elizabeth. The only significant action that Queen Elizabeth engaged in was the escort of the German High Seas Fleet to Scapa Flow at the end of the war.
Queen Elizabeth served as the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet until 1924, and as flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet for several years after that. Although Queen Elizabeth remained an impressive ship, changes in naval warfare had revealed problems with the original design. In the late 1930s, it underwent an extensive reconstruction that replaced its superstructure, improved its horizontal and underwater protection, and fit a more modern antiaircraft armament. Designed to extend its service life by fifteen years, the reconstruction helped remedy the ship’s most serious problems, while retaining the high design speed. This speed meant that it remained a more useful ship in World War II than the slow Revenge-class battleships or than any of the American “standard type” battleships. The reconstruction kept Queen Elizabeth out of World War II until May 1941.
Upon its return to service, Queen Elizabeth posted to the Mediterranean Fleet. The Italian Fleet had essentially given up major operations by the time of Queen Elizabeth’s arrival, but in December 1941 a group of Italian frogmen infiltrated Alexandria harbor and attached mines to Queen Elizabeth and its sisterValiant. The mines exploded, sinking both ships in shallow water. The British raised Queen Elizabeth and conducted spot repairs, but found it necessary to dispatch the ship to Norfolk, Virginia in September 1942. Repairs were completed there, and, as the impending surrender of Italy had made the Mediterranean Fleet irrelevant, Queen Elizabeth headed towards the Pacific.
In the Pacific Queen Elizabeth helped escort carrier attack groups against Japanese targets in the Dutch East Indies. With Allied naval supremacy assured, it returned to Great Britain in July 1945, and was placed in reserve. Even after reconstruction, Queen Elizabeth could make little contribution to the postwar navy, and it was scrapped in 1948.
Queen Elizabeth and its sisters were remarkably important battleships, staying relevant for a much longer period than most of its contemporaries. However, it was also unlucky, at least from the perspective of finding its way into action. Routine maintenance in 1916 kept it out of Jutland, and the timing of its reconstruction in 1937 meant that it would sit on the sidelines for first critical three years of World War II. Still, very few combat ships could contribute decisively in 1915, and continue to fight usefully in 1945. Sadly, the reluctance of the Royal Navy to commit resources to the preservation of any of its warships means that we don’t have any extant examples of the Queen Elizabeth class to visit today.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.
Image: Flickr / Australian War Memorial.
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