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The mighty Ironclad battleships: the innovation that changed naval warfare forever

Ian Harvey

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, navies were very important. The maritime powers of Europe, particularly England, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal, relied upon them to protect trade routes and overseas colonies. Warships were the most powerful weapons a state could possess. They were mostly divided into frigates, built for speed and agility, and ships of the line, designed for battle.

With the invention of the steam engine in the eighteenth-century naval warfare changed radically. The propeller greatly enhanced the speed and maneuverability of ships. Steam-powered vessels did not have to rely on the sail, and so engineers could think more of weaponry and protective armour. This made armoured vessels – ironclads – possible.

French battleship Carnot underway

French battleship Carnot underway

Carnot and the naval arms race

The first steam-powered battleship was the French frigate Napoleon. Launched in 1850, it was to be the vanguard of a fleet of powerful ships of the line that would challenge the British Navy’s supremacy on the seas. It could steam at a speed of 12 knots, ignoring the wind altogether. It was armed like previous battleships, with 90 guns and had no armour plating.

Carnot started an arms race between the French and British. By the end of Napoleon III’s reign, the French Navy had 38 steam-powered wooden battleships, 28 of which were converted sail vessels. In response, the British built 18 news ships and converted 41 others.

During the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) The British and French were allies against Russia, and their navies co-operated in engagements against the Russian Black Sea Fleet and coastal targets. Napoleon III ordered the construction of floating batteries, armoured ships that bombarded the shore. These can be considered to be forerunners of the first true ironclads.

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

Nemesis

Nemesis was the first warship constructed with an iron hull. It can be considered a true ironclad. The steam frigate was designed by John Laird and was made in 1839 for the East India Company, which ruled British India at the time. It was active in 1840 in the First Opium War against China. It proved successful and was called the ‘devil ship’ by the Chinese. Laird went on to build two steam frigates for the Mexican fleet: Montezuma and Guadalupe.

After Nemesis, wooden hulls were being replaced with iron. However, the iron plates were still thin, and could not withstand heavy fire.

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

Essex

USS Essex was an ironclad of the American Civil War. It was originally a steamboat named New Era but was refitted as a gunboat in 1861. It had 1.75-inch armour on the forward casemate and .75 inch on the sides. It was armed with one 32 pounder gun, a 12 pounder howitzer and 4 Dahlgrens. It was involved in the defence of Baton Rouge, Louisiana on August 5, 1862.

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

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

Redoutable and Massena

Redoutable was the first battleship to be built principally from steel. It overcame the problem of armour in the designs of Nemesis and previous ironclads Steel’s high tensile strength meant that the hull could support thicker armour than previous vessels. The armour was almost 14 inches thick. She was a battery and a barbette commissioned in 1878.

French battleship Jauréguiberry

French battleship Jauréguiberry

French battleship Massena, commissioned in 1898, showing typical French tumblehome, massive masts, and a 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 SS Cordoba: Flagship of the Aragonian fleet and one of the navy’s most recently-built ironclad ships. The Cordoba was perhaps most well-known for being one of the first ships (as always, the record was disputed endlessly with other seagoing navies of the day) to use steel for a majority of its construction materials Photo Credit

The SS Cordoba: Flagship of the Aragonian fleet and one of the navy’s most recently-built ironclad ships. The Cordoba was perhaps most well-known for being one of the first ships (as always, the record was disputed endlessly with other seagoing navies of the day) to use steel for a majority of its construction materials 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.

Massena was again a French battleship, built in the 1890s and commissioned in 1898. In some places it’s armour was a thick as 18 inches. It could also support powerful guns, including 12 Modele guns ranging from 138 to 305 mm.

For all its strength and power it suffered from considerable design flaws. Its instability rendered its guns inaccurate.

The Jauréguiberry and Charles Martel are ironclads of the same class.

We have another warship story for you: The Vasa: a Swedish warship recovered in Stockholm after three centuries has now become one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions

Other ironclads of interest include:

  • CSS Stonewall, a Confederate ironclad much fear by her enemies. She was built in France in 1864. However, it did not remain Confederate for long. After the Confederate defeat, the US government sold it to the Japanese in 1869. It was Japan’s first ironclad, and it was renamed Kotetsu.
  • USS Cairo was one of the first ironclads built for the Union. It was sunk on December 12, 1862, and was the first vessel ever sunk by a naval mine.
  • Tsarevitch, a Borodino-class battleship in the Imperial Russian Navy. Commissioned in 1903, it served in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05. It was the flagship in the Battle of the Yellow Sea. The battle was a strategic victory for the Japanese Fleet, and Tsarevitch was damaged and forced to port.
  • SS Cordoba, one of the first ships to use steel in the bulk of its construction. It was the flagship of the Aragonian Fleet.