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Powerhouses: The mighty ironclad warships, in 20 gorgeous images – something out of a Jules Verne book?

Nick Knight
French predreadnought battleship Carnot underway. source

The emergence of the Ironclads has always been hailed as a turning point in shipping and naval battles. Ironclad ships dramatically transformed naval warfare, heavily contributing to the shaping of the modern world.

During most of the 17th and 18th century, naval fleets had to rely heavily on two major types of warships: frigates and the ship of the line.

The invention and introduction of steam power propulsion in shipping radically transformed the earlier approach and set forth a motion of innovation which reshaped naval warships for good; initially, the paddle steamer in the warships kept them going starting in 1830 onwards.

However, the steam propulsion took some time before coming on board; and the invention of the screw propeller made it possible in the 1840s, and the rest is history.

French battleship Carnot underway

French battleship Carnot underway

By the time the mid-1840s rolled in, a large number of steam-powered screw frigates had been built, and in a few years, the French Navy had decided to introduce steam power to its line of the fleet.

The move came in as part of Emperor Napoleon III’s great ambition to take over Europe by building the strongest naval fleet, one that could take the British Royal Navy head on at sea.

In the line of steam power manufacturing, the first purpose-built steam power battleship was called Napoleon. It had 90 guns and became functional in 1850.

Despite the fact that the ship was armed as a conventional battleship, however, her steam engines could propel her at a speed of 12 knots, even regardless of the wind strength or direction. This was considered a potentially decisive factor in naval engagements with the British.

Russian battleship Tsesarevich, a pre-dreadnought battleship of the Imperial Russian Navy, docked Krondsdat, ca. 1915. Note dark wartime scheme Photo Credit

Russian battleship Tsesarevich, a pre-dreadnought battleship of the Imperial Russian Navy, docked Krondsdat, ca. 1915. Note dark wartime scheme Photo Credit

Despite the fact that French thought of their new innovation as permanently their advantage in a naval battle, soon the British were catching up and this started a fierce building competition between the two empires. After the Napoleon, the French had built eight other steam-powered battleships during the 1850s.

However, the United Kingdom soon caught up with the French and at one point had exceeded them in steam engine production.

By the end, the French had ten brand new wooden steam battleships and managed to convert 28 from traditional to steam powered, whereas Britain had built 18 new ships and converted 41 old ships to new steam powered engines.

French battleship Charles Martel, commissioned in 1896, epitomized the “French look” for battleships. Photo Credit

French battleship Charles Martel, commissioned in 1896, epitomized the “French look” for battleships. Photo Credit

Wooden hulls on battleships were replaced by much more stable and stronger iron material in 1830s, and the first warship that was built with an iron hull was a gunboat named Nemesis constructed by Laird for the East India Company in the year 1839.

Soon after the first success, Laird also went on to build the first full-blown iron hull warship in 1842; the steam frigates Montezuma and Guadalupe for the Mexican Naval fleet.

USS ESSEX, Converted Ironclad,Coaling at Baton Rouge, July, 1862. Photo Credit

USS Essex, Converted Ironclad, Coaling at Baton Rouge, July 1862. Photo Credit

The thin iron sheets meant that the protection against fire and lethal splintering was adequate and much better the wooden exterior; however, it didn’t mean that these sheets could withstand heavy enemy gunfire. A plan was needed to counter this persistent problem.

French battleship Jauréguiberry

French battleship Jauréguiberry

 

French battleship Massena, commissioned in 1898, showing typical French tumblehome, massive masts, and plethora of long-barreled cannons.

French battleship Massena, commissioned in 1898, showing typical French tumblehome, massive masts, and a plethora of long-barreled cannons.

 

Redoutable was a central battery and barbette ship of the French Navy. She was the first warship in the world to use steel as the principal building material. Photo Credit

Redoutable was a central battery and barbette ship of the French Navy. She was the first warship in the world to use steel as the principal building material. Photo Credit

 

 

The Confederacy’s French-built last ironclad was also Japan’s first: Stonewall was later renamed Kōtetsu. Photo Credit

The Confederacy’s French-built last ironclad was also Japan’s first: Stonewall was later renamed Kōtetsu. Photo Credit

 

USS Cairo, an example of a City-class ironclad gunboat.

USS Cairo, an example of a City-class ironclad gunboat.

After the Battle of Sinope, Emperor Napoleon III had fully realized the explosive power of shells against ships with wooden exteriors, and fearing the same fate against Russians in the Crimean War, the Emperor commissioned the construction of light floating batteries. These batteries had incredible firepower and were protected by heavy iron armor.

All through 1854, various experiments took place and after satisfactory results the French communicated the results to the British that a solution of vulnerable ships had been found and tested.