This is sort of a followup to my 18th century shipbuilding tutorial, where I’ll tackle the evolving designs of warships through the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. 1850 to 1914 in particular was a period of massive change in warship design, where often ships were already obsolete by the time they were commissioned.
If you’re looking for the sailing warships of the 18th century and Napoleonic period, you want my previous shipbuilding tutorial, which can be found here: 18th Century Shipbuilding Tutorial
If you want to see my selection of ships, from both the age of sail and steam, have a look at my shipyard here: ConfuseACat's Shipyard
But here’s a taster of what I’ve been building from the battleship time period, mainly super-dreadnoughts of the 1910s.
After I go through the design choices and the reasons behind them, we’ll have a look at a build of mine, the revolutionary battleship HMS Dreadnought of 1906.
Let’s start by having a look at the development of warship design. Hopefully you’ll be able to take the features and design styles that mark the era of ship you’re going for and build them into your minecraft ship.
A warning: This is going to be long. Since things progressed so fast, I’ll take it decade by decade, starting with the 1850s. Or rather, starting with the state of play pre-1850s. Everything's in spoilers so you can skip right down to the build if you want. I won't blame you.
Where a date is stated in brackets after the name of the ship, it is the date of launch. The ship would typically be commissioned into its navy anywhere between a few months and a few years afterward.
Prior to the 1850s, warship design hadn’t changed much in the last couple of hundred years. The general shape of ship hulls had gradually evolved and ships had gradually grown bigger as industry developed, but fundamentally the ships remained the same. I’ll bring up my 18th century ship tutorial again, as that’s a good illustration of the design features in 18th century and Napoleonic ships.
In the years following the Napoleonic period, the ships got bigger, and they got straighter. What I mean by that is that some of the sweeping lines were gone and the tumblehome (inward slope of the hull from the waterline) was reduced or lost altogether. The ships could be built larger and in greater numbers due to the industrial revolution, which could also provide larger more powerful cannon, but in general they were little different from the ships that came before them.
To see the gradually changing design, see this painting of HMS Royal George (on the right) at the launch of HMS Cambridge (left) in the 1750s. It’s actually wrong in that Royal George wasn’t actually there – but it illustrates the point well enough. Sweeping curved lines, tumblehome etc. Contrast it with the second painting of USS Pennsylvania of 1837, the largest sailing warship ever built for the USA. Clean, straight lines, increased length and lots o’ guns.
In the 1850s, there was suddenly huge movement in design, with several design developments coming at the same time.
Steam power began to be used to augment sail power. This had been used on smaller ships, but the first ship of the line to feature steam power was the French ship Napoléon (1850). She was followed shortly by British ships bearing steam engines. In appearance they looked much like the other ships of the line of the era, but with funnels between the masts. The British and French in particular soon raced to build steam-powered ships of the line and to convert old ones to steam power, resulting in dozens being built or converted in the next few years.
The steam engines consumed huge quantities of coal, so they were a long way off becoming the main method of propulsion, but they could easily turn the tide of a battle by sailing against the wind, or sailing at full speed in low-wind conditions.
The next painting shows the Napoléon in 1852:
The next development was in guns which could fire explosive shells, such as the Paixhans gun. They had been developed in the previous decades, but were only now starting to become widespread. A gun firing an explosive shell could cause huge damage to a wooden ship, which was demonstrated when the Russians devastated an Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Sinop. Iron shot that had been heated could also cause a wooden ship to catch fire. It was due to these causes that iron armour started to be seriously considered.
Therefore, for the Crimean War, worried that their ships would be destroyed by shore-mounted Russian Paixhans Guns, the French built Ironclad floating batteries. They could perhaps not be called true warships as they were incredibly slow under their own power and had to be towed to where they would be used. Nevertheless, they were the first floating vessels to use iron armour.
French floating battery Lave in 1854:
The first proper sea-going warship to be designed with iron armour was the French ship Gloire, designed and laid down in the 1850s, but not completed until the 1860s.
Gloire entered service in 1860, and immediately scared other European navies, especially the British, as she could effectively negate the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy.
La Gloire (1859):
By old terminology, she was a frigate due to having just the one gun deck. This was due to the increasing size of the main armament making multiple gundecks unfeasible. The French Navy did launch some Ironclads with two gun decks in the Magenta class, but generally one gun deck with larger guns was the way forward.
The Royal Navy response was fast. Gloire effectively outclassed every other ship they had, rendering their numerical advantage meaningless. They had to build a ship which was larger, faster and more powerful than Gloire. HMS Warrior entered service in 1861. She followed the same pattern, a single gun-deck armoured frigate with the main armament on the broadside. The difference was that Warrior was the first ship built of iron, as opposed to Gloire which was built of wood and armoured with iron. Warrior became the most powerful warship in the world when she entered service. She is also preserved, and can be visited today at the Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth, UK.
HMS Warrior (1860):
However, it wasn’t the European Ironclads that would see the first combat. That instead fell to the naval part of the American Civil War, most famously at the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862. The two ships that clashed were both of considerably different design to the European armoured frigates, most notably in that neither had masts and sails. This was due to the fact that they were intended entirely to fight in home waters and didn’t require the long-range endurance that sails gave.
The Confederate CSS Virginia was a casemate-type ironclad, built on the remains of the wooden steam frigate USS Merrimack which had been previously burned to the waterline. The modifications added a sloped iron casemate from which the guns could be fired. The Union USS Monitor, in contrast, was a low-freeboard iron ship with a single turret equipped with two heavy guns. The turret was the future of heavy armament, but here it was ahead of its time. Monitor is notable in that the name monitor came to be applied to a whole style of ship inspired by the original.
While the battle was inconclusive with both ships withdrawing after shooting at each other for a few hours, it had a significant impact on naval design and tactics as it was the first battle where ironclads saw action. Notably, Virginia rammed and sank a wooden frigate, while the two ironclads failed to sink each other with gunnery.
The Battle of Hampton Roads (Virginia on the left, Monitor on the right):
This influenced naval tactics to believe that gunnery was ineffective against armoured ships and that the best way of sinking them would be through ramming. The lesson was reinforced by the Battle of Lissa in 1866, between Austrian and Italian fleets. It was the first major sea battle between ironclad fleets, and the Austrian flagship Erzherzog Ferdinand Max successfully managed to ram and sink the Italian ironclad Re d’Italia.
The Battle of Lissa:
The influence of these two battles mean that ships for the next few decades would be built with ram bows and ramming would be thought of as the most effective way to sink the enemy, even though relatively few ships had actually been sunk by the method. Ships would continue to be built with prominent ram bows until around the end of the century, when the ever-improving designs for torpedoes allowed for a similar effect without having to risk sailing your ship right up to the enemy.
The other developments during the 1860s was the move in the frigate type ironclads from full broadside armaments to the central battery style, where the armament was still arranged on the broadsides, but instead of running most of the length of the ship, it instead concentrated a few heavy guns in the central area, with greater armour protection. The first ship built in the central battery style was the British HMS Bellerophon of 1865.
HMS Bellerophon (1865):
The end of the 1860s saw new designs which started to introduce new ideas and features, but these weren’t generally in service until the start of the 1870s.
British captain and inventor Cowper Coles had been advocating gun turrets since the 1850s, but they were generally unsuitable for use on frigate-type ironclads because the rigging would get in the way of the fire arcs. He convinced the powers that be to let him design and build a turreted ship, which became HMS Captain, launched in 1869 and in service in 1870. Coles designed her with the turrets built within the hull, and it effectively looked like it had two big slots through the hull for the turrets to use. However, the ship had a very low freeboard, and a low righting moment. She rolled over and sank in high winds, taking most of the crew and Coles with her.
HMS Captain (1869):
Another development was in the ‘breastwork monitor’ type. The original monitor style was good for coastal and river work, but could be swamped in high seas. The breastwork monitor style was aimed at making a monitor style ship more seaworthy, and typically included a twin gun turret forward and another aft, with a low ‘breastwork’ superstructure between. The British Devastation class were the first ships of this type and entered service in the early 1870s. After the loss of HMS Captain, they underwent significant testing to prove that turreted ships were safe. The Devastations were the first ocean-going ships which didn’t carry sails.
The 1870s also saw the first widespread use of steel as a construction material. Steel was superior to iron, but previously had not been produced in sufficient grades or quantities for ship construction. The French ship Redoutable (1876) was the first major warship entirely built from steel. She used the central battery and barbette armament style, which were both common at the time. The barbette style was effectively a lighter version of the turret, mounting the guns on turntables but not using the armoured turret casing.
In addition to the changing methods of mounting guns on ships, the guns themselves continued to grow ever larger. In fact, some of the guns used in this period were the largest ever fitted to battleships. Most large guns were still muzzle loaded, so they required complicated reloading mechanisms that meant that rates of fire were painfully slow.
Reloading the guns of the Italian battleship Caio Dullio (1876):
In the mid-1870s, breech loading guns finally started to become more reliable, which meant that they soon started to replace the muzzle-loaders in most navies.
Armour also progressed during the 1870s; previously armour had been a compound design of iron and wood layers. By the late 1970s, compound designs of steel and wrought iron were starting to become feasible.
The late 1870s also saw a diverging set of designs based on purpose. The European navies developed two styles. The first were the heavily armed and armoured ‘battleship’ type ironclads which were intended for major battles fairly close to home; these gradually starting losing their sailing rigs as turrets and barbettes made sails and rigging increasingly inconvenient and the sheer displacement of the ships drastically reduced the speed they could achieve under sail.
Meanwhile, the ‘cruising ironclad’ type was intended for service around the world, on distant stations as part of the empires of the time. They retained their sails for much longer, as it was still the most efficient method of travelling long distances. This concept would evolve into the ‘armoured cruiser’ type which was common until the first years of the 20th century.
The 1880s saw the continuation of the developments started in the 1870s. During this period, the ships with enormous guns which were being built at the end of the 1870s started coming into service. Warships were mostly turret ships by this point in time, though barbette ships were still the main style in France and were used in some ships of other navies, such as the British HMS Benbow, fitted with the BL ‘111 ton gun’ in single barbettes forward and aft. The German Sachsen class was another which used barbettes.
HMS Benbow (1885):
SMS Baden (1880):
For the most part, the breech loaders were now well on the way to replacing the muzzle loaders as the weapon of choice. The Royal Navy had been a little slower to adopt them than other navies, however a gun explosion on HMS Thunderer led to the change; the gun had misfired and the crew reloaded without removing the old, causing the gun to explode. It would be harder to accidentally double-load with the breech loaders. The Colossus class were the first British ships to carry large rifled breech-loaders.
HMS Colossus (1882):
The end of the decade saw the adoption of triple expansion steam engines, greatly increasing the efficiency of a ship’s engine room. It meant that a ship could steam further on a given load of coal. Right at the end of the decade, the aforementioned HMS Thunderer was refitted with triple expansion engines, and the result was that the coal consumption was roughly halved. Such developments had great effects on cruisers, designed to serve at distant stations. The retention of sail power on such ships was now a thing of the past.
The end of the 1880s was also the lead up to a large period of naval construction. Several European powers were beginning to build warships in greater numbers, leading to somewhat of an arms race. The Royal Navy adopted the so called “Two Power Standard” in 1889, which committed them to building a fleet at least as large as the next two largest combined; at the time this was France and Russia, but soon German and American battleship construction would increase. The adoption of the two power standard led to a surge of British battleship construction in the 1890s.
It was also around this time that the torpedo was becoming a more effective weapon of war, achieving its first ‘kill’ of an armoured ship in the Chilean Civil War in 1881. Navies started to deploy Torpedo Boats, and many admirals became very worried about the damage the torpedo boats could to to their battleships; this led to battleships being fitted with lots of small, fast-firing guns alongside their other armaments to counter the torpedo boats. It also led to the creation of the Torpedo Boat Destroyer, later shortened simply to Destroyer.
As mentioned, the 1890s were a time of rapid ship construction. The ships with the first triple expansion steam engines, the Victoria class, entered service at the start of the decade. On the whole, warship design had reached its first fairly stable point in many years. By the middle of the decade, the archetype was set by the Royal Navy’s Majestic class, and the style of ship became known in later years as a Pre-Dreadnought.
HMS Hannibal (1896):
The Pre-Dreadnought type ships typically took a step back from the huge guns of the 1870s and 80s. They typically mounted a main armament of 12” guns in two twin turrets, one forward and one aft. The secondary armament was anywhere between about 6” and 10”, and was usually mounted either in casemates along the side of the superstructure, or in turrets in the wings. The idea was that the main guns were the ones which could cause serious damage to the best armoured parts of an enemy ship, but they were relatively slow to fire. The smaller secondary guns, on the other hand, were quicker to reload and fire and prevailing wisdom stated that they would be the decisive factor. It was imagined that a battle would start at longer range with the 12” guns, but would then close to shorter range where the secondary guns would finish the job off by sheer volume of fire.
But, while gun calibres were getting a little smaller, the barrels were getting longer. Previously, guns had used black powder, which burned quickly. A long barrel would only slow the shot down. The guns were incredibly bulky to withstand the sharp explosion. Different methods of pelleting the powder allowed for more controlled explosions and longer barrels, aiding range and accuracy. But the big improvement came with the variety of new propellants based on nitroglycerine which began to take effect in the 1890s. These propellants burned slower still, allowing gun barrels to grow longer, again aiding muzzle velocity, accuracy and reducing stress.
Shipyards around the world were now building ships in the Pre-Dreadnought style at a great pace. They included the first US battleships of the modern era, starting the hull numbering system at BB-1 with USS Indiana.
USS Indiana (1893):
Diagram of the French Charlemagne class Pre-Dreadnought:
And two ships of the class:
The building of Pre-Dreadnoughts continued apace. However, some naval architects were starting to have ideas that they might be better off dropping the secondary armament in favour of carrying more large calibre guns, the ‘all-big-gun’ design. Several navies had concepts in development, however they were slow in leading up to an all-big-gun ship. Several of the later classes of Pre-Dreadnoughts had the calibres of their secondary armament increased, but not quite to the 12” level of the all-big-gun idea. Ships with the larger secondary armament, only slightly smaller than the main, would later come to be known as Semi-Dreadnoughts.
Then the Russo-Japanese War happened. The notable part of that was the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, in which the Japanese fleet devastated the Russian fleet with long-range gunnery. It remains the only major decisive naval battle from the era of steel battleships, though naval designers weren’t to know that at the time.
The Russian Baltic Fleet steams to Tsushima, 1905:
Tsushima was a vindication of the naval architects who favoured the all-big-gun arrangement. The idea that naval battles would actually take place at long range, rendering the large numbers of secondary armament guns on the Pre-Dreadnoughts ineffective. An all-big-gun design could carry three times as many heavy guns as the Pre-Dreadnoughts, potentially making it three times more effective in a long range duel. It was only a matter of seeing who built one first.
The Royal Navy did, laying down, launching and commissioning HMS Dreadnought in little over a year, bringing her into service in late 1906. That was a spectacular time to build a battleship in, and was likely aimed at showing Britain’s rivals just how fast British shipyards could build a battleship when they needed to. To give them the lead in the new Dreadnought race; as the Dreadnought became the second ship after USS Monitor to lend her name to a whole style of warship. The all-big-gun battleships were known as Dreadnoughts forevermore.
She carried 12” guns in twin turrets, one forward, one rear, one towards the rear in between bits of superstructure, all on the centreline, and one turret in each wing. It gave her a forward fire of 6 big guns and a broadside of 8. In addition, she was the first major warship fitted with steam turbines, giving her a speed boost too. All of the Pre-Dreadnoughts were suddenly rendered obsolete, including quite a lot of them that were still under construction. The RN’s own Lord Nelson class of Pre-Dreadnoughts were laid down first, but entered service a couple of years after Dreadnought did, such was the speed of that ship’s construction.
A comparison of The Royal Navy’s last Pre-Dreadnoughts of the Lord Nelson class (top) and HMS Dreadnought (bottom), drawings by Emoscopes on Wikipedia:
The Japanese battleship Satsuma was laid down before Dreadnought and was intended to be an all-big-gun design, but shortages of 12” guns led to her being built with 4 12” guns and 12 10” guns, making her a Semi-Dreadnought design, commissioned in 1910.
After Dreadnought came into service, a new naval race started up, a race to build Dreadnought-style ships. In Europe, this race was largely between Britain and Germany, though the French, Austro-Hungarians and Russians all built their own Dreadnought classes too.
Germany laid down its first Dreadnoughts, the Nassau class, in 1907. The other major European powers laid down their first Dreadnoughts between 1907 and 1910. Britain raced to maintain its lead, laying down several ships each year.
Across the Altantic, the USA was building a class of two ships that were as revolutionary as Dreadnought in their own way. They were the South Carolina class, made up of USS South Carolina and USS Michigan. The US Congress had set a strict displacement limit of 16,000 tons, the same as the Connecticut class of Pre-Dreadnoughts, this put them at a disadvantage compared with ships of other navies such as Dreadnought herself, who displaced 18,000 tons.
To save weight, the South Carolinas were the first ships to introduce a superfiring arrangement, where one gun turret was set slightly back and above another one to fire over the top. This became standard practice in all navies within a few years, and it allowed the ships to be made shorter, helping them to stick to the displacement limit. It also allowed them to fire all of their heavy guns on the broadside, and spared them from the extra stresses caused to the hull by wing turrets. However, they were fitted with less powerful engines, part of the compromise required to keep them within weight.
USS Michigan (1909):
British designs towards the end of the decade continued to evolve too; after two classes which were effectively repeats of the Dreadnought. The Neptune and Colossus class staggered the wing turrets ‘en echelon’ and left gaps in the superstructure, so that each wing turret could fire on both broadsides. It was not the most effective solution, however, as firing ‘through’ the ship often caused significant blast damage to the superstructure and ship’s boats. These ships also adopted the superfiring arrangement with their rear turrets.
German designs, meanwhile, had more turrets on the wings than on the centreline, with a ‘hexagonal’ turret layout of one turret on the centreline and the front and back, and four turrets in the wings.
SMS Rheinland (1908):
It was also in this period that the battlecruiser concept was introduced. It was a favourite idea of the British Admiral Jackie Fisher, who wanted a ship that was as large and as heavily armed as a battleship, but much faster. The idea was that they would be among the fastest ships afloat, that they could avoid battleships by virtue of their speed, while being able to chase down and destroy any other vessel. The British were keen on the idea, and the Germans built their own battlecruisers to counter those, however the idea wasn’t wildly popular in other navies.
The early part of the 1910s was the real zenith of Dreadnought construction. The UK, Germany and USA were in full swing with production, building bigger and improved designs. Japan, France, Russia and Austria-Hungary were starting to commission their first Dreadnoughts. Other nations who lacked the expertise and facilities the build their own were nevertheless keen to have their own fleets, since they were seen as a symbol of national power and prestige. Ships were ordered from British and American shipyards by countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Greece and the Ottoman Empire. Battleships were being built and launched at a staggering rate.
The Royal Navy built the Orion class at the beginning of the decade. The Orions were the first ships that became known as ‘Super-Dreadnoughts’. They moved all the armament to the centreline, using the superfiring turrets pioneered in the American South Carolinas, they increased the size of the main armament to 13.5”, increased in length and armour. Generally, they were all-around larger and more powerful, hence the ‘super’ tag.
The Orion-class HMS Monarch (1911):
Four Orions were built, then followed by four King George V class the next year, then four Iron Dukes the year after, all while British shipyards were also building battleships for Chile, the Ottoman empire, and even Japan with the lead ship of the Kongō class battlecruisers being built by Vickers. British shipyards had taken the contracts for Japanese battleships for some years; Mikasa (of Tsushima fame) is another example.
The Japanese used the experience of Kongō’s construction to help develop their own design and construction expertise and were soon designing and building battleships that rivalled those of the west, such the Fusō class ships.
In the United States, the tight displacement limits had been lifted by Congress, and battleships could be built to match those of other navies. They were typically built in classes of two ships, including the Delaware, Florida, Wyoming and New York classes, all built during the first years of the decade.
Germany continued to build ships at a high rate too, finishing the Helgoland class ships and building the Kaiser and König classes.
The König-class SMS Kronprinz (1914):
The battleships of this short period generally tended to follow the example of the Orions in layout; five or six gun turrets on the centreline. These were nearly always a superfiring pair forward and a superfiring pair aft, with the other one or two positioned somewhere in the middle in gaps between bits of superstructure, as can be seen clearly in the picture of HMS Monarch a little way up the page.
The most extreme example was a ship ordered by Brazil from Armstrongs in Newcastle, UK under the name Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian navy decided that it needed to look more powerful to their public than the previous Minas Geraes class ships, which meant increasing the size or the number of the guns. They decided to stick to 12” calibre, which meant that they demanded seven twin turrets from the design. It was sold to the Ottoman Empire while still under construction, then seized by the Royal Navy on the outbreak of the First World War and named HMS Agincourt.
HMS Agincourt (1913):
As the first world war loomed, designs changed slightly yet again. The British Queen Elizabeth class once again increased the size of the main armament to 15”. It was realised that they could drop a gun turret and still fire a heavier broadside than the preceding ‘Super-Dreadnought’ classes with their 13.5” guns in five turrets. This allowed the designers to lose the midships turret and install more powerful engines; making them perhaps the first ‘fast battleships’. Other navies soon followed suit, and the two turrets forward, two aft arrangement became fairly standard.
The other innovation of the period was with the Italian ship Dante Alighieri, which introduced triple gun turrets, allowing the designers to keep the number of turrets down, but keep the number of guns up. There were some misgivings that one direct hit could now knock three guns out of action rather than two, but the designs post-WWI showed that naval architects soon embraced the triple turret.
The middle of the decade was of course taken up by WWI. For the first couple of years, shipbuilding continued at a great pace, however by the middle of the war resources in Europe tended to be diverted to more pressing concerns, like escort ships, merchant ships and submarines. The Naval war, despite the huge fleets that had been built up by Britain and Germany especially, was largely uneventful. It was mainly down to the fact that the navies were so vital to each country’s position and that they had cost so much to build, that admirals were often unwilling to do anything that would risk their ships.
The only truly major battle of the war was at Jutland in 1916, where the German High Seas Fleet engaged the British Grand Fleet. The majority of the dreadnoughts in both fleets took part, though the battle was inconclusive. The German leaders knew that they had little chance of destroying the whole Grand Fleet at once, so they intended do it piece by piece and came up with a plan to ambush and destroy the British battlecruisers. However, the Royal Navy had obtained the German codes and was wise to the plan, so they planned an ambush of their own with the whole Grand Fleet.
The two sides exchanged fire for a while, but once the Germans realised they were facing the whole British fleet they disengaged. The British Admiral Jellicoe declined to pursue because he feared torpedoes and night was falling, and he knew that his ships were deficient in night fighting.
The Queen Elizabeth-class HMS Warspite and HMS Malaya at Jutland (1916):
The battle was inconclusive, though the British lost more ships than the Germans. It was still a relatively small number, and both fleets returned to port largely intact. There were lessons learned, however. The ships which were destroyed often had thinner deck armour pierced by plunging fire, and ship designs were quickly altered to strengthen this area.
There were no more major fleet clashes for the rest of the war. The German fleet was interned at the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow under the terms of the Armistice. In 1919 when they expected that they would be ordered to hand their ships over to the victorious allies, the German leadership ordered them scuttled instead. When Royal Navy units attempted to stop the scuttling, there was some fighting between sailors, resulting in what could be considered the last casualties relating to WWI.
Through the war years, the US Navy was still expanding its battleship fleet with a series of classes which came to be known as standard-type battleships; a series of classes designed with the same top speed and similar armaments so that they could more effectively be used as a single line of battle. These included the Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Tennessee classes.
After emerging from the First World War, it looked like the world was about to plunge headfirst into a renewed naval arms race, this time between the UK, USA and Japan. Naval designers were coming up with designs which greatly increased in size, armour and armament, with several designs around for ships of over 40,000 tons. Perhaps wisely, some folks decided that it could be a massive waste of money in a world recovering from a huge war, so they met at the Washington Naval Conference in 1922 to try to agree on some terms which would prevent the arms race from happening. The result of the conference was as follows-
- Each major navy was set a tonnage limit for capital ships
- A ‘building holiday’ was implemented in which there would be no major ship construction
- Capital ships were limited to 35,000 tons displacement and 16” main armament.
- New ships could only be built to replace old ones that were retired after 20 years’ service.
In general, this meant that there was very little battleship construction after the first couple of years of the decade. The Americans completed 3 Colorado class battleships and the Japanese completed the two Nagatos, both classes armed with the 16” main guns which were now considered the upper limit.
The Nagato-class ship Mutsu (1920):
Because they didn’t have any 16” gunned ships yet, the British were allowed to build a class of two, which became the Nelson class. The Nelsons were the first of what became known as ‘Treaty Battleships’, a term for ships built to the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty. In order to meet the treaty displacement limits, the main armament was all grouped forward in order to reduce the area which needed to be heavily armoured, resulting in a distinctive design.
Drawing of HMS Nelson (1925) by Wikipedia user Emoscopes:
Several of the battleships and battlecruisers that had been laid down and would otherwise have had to be scrapped under treaty terms were instead converted into aircraft carriers such as the American Lexington class and the Japanese Kaga and Akagi.
The 1930s began with the London Naval Treaty of 1930 which extended the building holiday to 1936, though France and Italy had the right under the treaty to build 70,000 tons of ships each.
Building picked up somewhat in the 1930s, though at the start of the decade it was mostly in the smaller navies. Germany was only allowed a very small navy by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and no ships larger than cruisers, but at the start of the decade they pushed their allowed limits with the ‘Panzerschiffe’ Deutschland-class, which were often referred to as pocket-battleships. The French responded by laying down the Dunkerque class, and the Italians responded to the French by laying down the Littorios.
Due to the building restrictions and the age of existing battleships, the 1930s was an era of modernisation, with 1910s era super-dreadnoughts being rebuilt and improved to try to match modern standards. They couldn’t quite match up to new designs as there were limitations in what could be achieved through modernisation, however they were generally made much more effective. The British Queen Elizabeths were a notable class that were modernised, as were the Japanese Fusō and Ise classes. Those displayed the enormous pagoda-style mast structures that became popular with Japanese designers but were usually derided in the west.
Fusō (1914) after renovation (compare with the picture of the ship in the 1910s section):
An attempt was made to renew the London Naval Treaty in 1936. Britain had planned to push for a reduction in the maximum allowed gun size to 14”, and had designed its new King George V class with 10 of the 14” guns. However, Japan withdrew from the conference and Italy refused to sign, effectively signifying an end to the treaty.
Meanwhile, as an attempt to improve relations with Nazi Germany, Britain signed an agreement allowing Germany to build more warships. They started with the Scharnhorst class, aimed to counter the French Dunkerques. Both the Dunkerques and Scharnhorsts were small by battleship standards, which has led some people to label them as battlecruisers instead, though they don’t really match the battlecruiser concept.
The effective end of the Treaty triggered a new surge in battleship construction, with new and larger designs, though mostly it was the 1940s before they were ready. The British increased the size of the King George V class, though they stuck with the 14” guns. Meanwhile, the US Navy started work on the North Carolinas and then shortly afterward the South Dakotas. These ships took on a fairly standard sort of layout for a late-era battleship, that is three main turrets, one forward, one aft, a reasonably large superstructure and a single funnel immediately behind it. The American ships carried triple turrets, while the British was designed with quadruple turrets. In order to save weight the second turret was later reduced to two guns, resulting in a 4-2-4 gun layout.
The French were also working with quad-gun turrets, with both the Dunkerques and the enlarged Richeleius armed with just two turrets with four guns each, both forward. This raised the old questions about ‘all your eggs in one basket’ in case one of the turrets got hit. In an attempt to mitigate that problem, the turrets had an armoured divider down the middle to attempt to keep one half firing if the other half got hit.
Perhaps most famously of all, Germany built the Bismarck class, both launched in 1939, and Japan started work on the mammoth Yamato class ships, though they wouldn’t be launched until the 1940s. So we’ll leave them until next time.
The 1940s. The Second World War, and really, the swansong of the battleship. It didn’t take too long for nations to realise that air power was the way forward. As the war went on, there was more and more evidence that the day of the battleship had passed, more evidence that carriers were going to be the new capital ships, more strain on resources that really could be used better elsewhere than in building new battleships.
That meant that new battleship construction trailed off as the war went on. Countries typically finished building ships that they had been working on in 1939, but several planned classes were scrapped on the slipway or cancelled even before a keel was laid. But the ships that were completed were the pinnacle of battleship design, with greatly increased displacements, vastly improved anti-aircraft defences and sophisticated new technologies like radar. This meant that the superstructures were generally much larger than they had been on previous ships, often festooned with mounts for small calibre weapons and other equipment.
The major classes that were coming into service in the 1940s are the British King George Vs, the German Bismarcks, the Japanese Yamatos and the US North Carolinas, South Dakotas and Iowas.
USS South Dakota (1941):
Even had the battleship still been the dominant force, it wouldn’t have been likely to be a battleship war; the allies held much too great an advantage in numbers. Japan had a large fleet, but it was smaller than both the US Navy and the Royal Navy, while Germany had only a handful of ships having only recently begun naval rearmament, and even then giving it a low priority after the army and Luftwaffe.
Germany’s ships, therefore, spent most of the war trying commerce raiding, or being used as a ‘fleet in being’, while gradually being destroyed one by one by numerically superior allied forces. The Japanese battleships, by contrast, were forced to play a somewhat prominent role in the later war after their aircraft carriers were destroyed. The battleships typically found themselves overwhelmed by US carrier aircraft without getting much chance to bring their big guns to bear. Even the giant Yamatos succumbed this way, relentlessly bombed and torpedoed until the capsized.
Yamato (1940) and Musashi (1940) pictured in 1943:
The allied battleships found themselves operating as support units for much of the war, acting as a heavy defence for groups of carriers, or serving in a shore bombardment role.
After the war’s end, the axis battleships were virtually all sunk, while many of the allied ships were in a fairly poor state of repair after the constant fighting. The years following the war were a dream come true for scrapyards, as dozens of venerable old ships were towed away to be systematically torn apart. There were often objections from people who valued their nation’s maritime heritage, but in Europe particularly there just wasn’t the money for restoration amidst post-war austerity. Some ships tried to avoid their fate; perhaps the most famous Royal Navy battleship, the Grand Old Lady HMS Warspite broke free of her tow and beached, one last display of defiance.
HMS Warspite (1913) beached at Mount’s Bay:
More ships managed to survive in the USA, perhaps because the nation hadn’t been so devastated by the war as others; the USA came out of the war in a strong position and so could thankfully afford to preserve their naval heritage.
The 1950s and onward
The age of the battleship is over. Around the world there were some plans to convert the more recent battleships to more modern armaments, but for the most part they came to nothing. The only battleships which survived for any length of time in service were the US Navy’s Iowa class fast battleships, the last ones to be built in the states. They were gradually fitted with new technology and used for fire support when required, and though they were in and out of service when needed they became perhaps the longest-serving battleships of the modern era. All four ships have been fully retired in more recent years and are now permanently moored as museum ships.
USS Iowa (1942) in the 1980s.
So, which of the steel giants of the age of steam are still with us today? Not as many as I’d like.
From the 19th century, we have HMS Warrior (1860), an armoured frigate/broadside ironclad and the world’s first iron warship.
From the Pre-Dreadnought era, we have Mikasa (1900), the flagship of the Japanese fleet at Tsushima in 1905.
Of the Dreadnought era, only USS Texas (1912) remains.
Of the WWII-era, there are several US battleships still afloat. The USS North Carolina (1940), Massachusetts (1941), Alabama (1942), Iowa (1942), New Jersey (1942), Wisconsin (1943) and Missouri (1944).
A handful of cruisers and destroyers remain as well, but they don’t have the same presence or significance as the great battleships. So many scrapped, so needlessly to modern eyes. US folks, you lucky sods. Enjoy those battleships!
USS Texas (1912):
A Walkthrough of a Build: HMS Dreadnought (1906)
So, how do you build one? Let’s start work on
Before you start I heartily recommend you have an editing program at the ready. It makes things a whole lot easier, since it allows you to do things like copy and paste recurring parts, and most importantly it allows you to build the ship in ‘drydock’ and then copy and paste it into the water when you’re ready. Building the ship out of the water makes the whole process much easier.
I use Mumfrey’s World Edit Wrapper and World Edit CUI.
The Design and the Drawings
Okay, so where do we start? Well, since I’m building a historical ship here I like to keep it as accurate as possible. If you’re building your own design, the best advice I can give is to pick an era of warship design – see the large history section at the start of this tutorial for the massive changes in a short space of time. Each era had its own distinctive design features, and as a general trend most ships around the world adopted the best design features of the time and ended up being designed in a fairly similar fashion.
So, pick an era, look up examples of ships from the time and figure out how you’re going to design it. This is where I’d suggest that you sketch out how you want it to look, in both side and top-down view, which makes it much easier to get your hull shape right in minecraft. That’s what I do with real life ships; I find a good line drawing/blueprint that I can base my work on. In the case of dreadnought, I’ve already posted the drawing that I used in the 1900s section. The fact that it has an end-on view is good too, but the ones I really need are the side-on and top-down views.
I then look up the dimensions of the ship and scale the diagram to match. Use the image-editing program of your choice. So, since HMS Dreadnought was 160.6 metres long, I scaled the drawing so that it was roughly that number of pixels long. Make sure that you scale it to the length of the ship and not the overall length of the image (with blank space either end of the ship).
Each pixel becomes a block, and it lets me plan out my build fairly precisely. It’s not perfectly obvious where each line of the hull needs to go, so I set the pencil tool to one pixel wide and a bright colour and draw around the edges of the hull to figure out how I’m going to build it. I’m looking to follow the contours of the ship and create something that looks good at the same time. One thing to keep in mind is whether you want the hull to be an odd or an even number of blocks wide. I always use an odd number, as it lets me have a single central row of blocks, which is great for doing features like a sharp bow, centreline masts, rudders, central screw propellers and so on. I’d always advise an odd number of blocks wide, unless you have a compelling reason to go even. If your drawing suggests you should go even, well, what’s one block difference either way?
Of course, a lot of this depends on your scale. I always build 1:1, but you could build at any other scale that you wanted to. If you wanted to do 2:1, then just scale your picture so that the length of the ship is equal to the ship’s length times two. You’ll get more detail in with a bigger scale, but it will take longer to build and it won’t be matched to the size of the player.
So here’s what I did for the Dreadnought. I’ve blown up the picture so you can see what’s going on, so naturally it’s more than 160 pixels long now, but the version I used for the build was the massively zoomed-in 160 pixel version. I outlined the hull, the major parts of the superstructure, masts, gun turrets. Anything that’s a major part of the ship’s appearance, effectively.
Here's the properly scaled 1 pixel to 1 block version too, just in case you want to use it yourself:
This is why I suggest doing a sketch if you’re making an original design, as I think using this method will produce the best looking results even if you’re not basing it off a real-life ship. It’s too easy to think in blocks in minecraft, but when you’re drawing something you can more easily come up with something realistic looking.
Blocking out the Hull
So, once that’s done and you’re happy with it, it’s time to start blocking out the ship. I always start with the basic shape of the hull, and I always do it in mid-air, with quite a lot of space between the ship and the ground. I’ll get onto that a bit later, but for now I’ll just say that I always build my ships in a superflat creative map with the bottom of the ship around 15-20 blocks above ground level.
For this build, I’ve put up a black wool backdrop to make the pictures clearer and get rid of background distractions.
Where to begin? Well, like with my sailing ships I always start with the keel. I follow the line I’ve drawn around the bottom of the hull, and build that as a one-block wide strip that runs down the centre of the ship, building it exactly as the drawing shows, one block one pixel.
For choice of material, I’d say it largely depends on your textures. In some packs, iron blocks are a good choice, while in others you’re better off with grey or light grey wool, or perhaps hardened clay, or stone, or…whatever. In my case, I’m using iron. I like the way it looks with KDS Photorealism textures, and I like the fact that it’s the ‘accurate’ material.
Here’s the Dreadnought with her keel laid:
Doing this first is an easy starting point that you can do exactly as per the drawing, and it’s a great place to build off of. Next, I turn my attention to the top of the hull. This is a little more thought-intensive to do, as you have to take care to match it to both the top of the hull on the side-on drawing, and to the edge of the hull on the top-down drawing. We’re not running down the centreline with this one, we’re building it out to the sides of the ship. Ultimately when you’re finished, this gives a good ‘frame’ that you can fill in. So long as you do a reasonably smooth job of filling it in, you’ll have a hull that at least looks accurate.
The bit you have to pay most attention to is the sweeping curve on the top-down picture, as the side-on part will be level for much of the length. Be careful if you’re doing a 1930s/1940s style battleship though, as those tend to have more sweeping curves on the side-on view.
You can do both sides if you like, but personally I only do one side. I build up one whole side of the hull, and then later on in the process I use World Edit to copy, flip and paste, guaranteeing that my ship is perfectly symmetrical.
Now you’ve got the basics, it’s time to start filling it in. I started with the bit under the forecastle, as that was just a simple flat stretch of metal without much curve to it.
Then I usually start at the bow. Try to remember the shape of the hull. If you’re not sure, photos of model ships of the type you’re trying to build are usually a good reference. You’re looking for an overall shape that’s fairly sleek and pointed at the front, wide and stable in the middle and tails off towards the back.
Here’s the start of my process. I’m trying to join up my central keel block with my top-of-the-sides blocks while keeping a good shape. It’s not easy, and quite often I’ll end up going back and deleting some parts and redoing them if I don’t think they’re quite right. There’s no reason not to go back and try to improve something if it’s not quite good enough. In fact, I think some of these pictures have a bit of before-adjustment and after-adjustment about them.
These pictures from the inside show the bottom of the ship flattening out as you move towards the middle section. Most battleships were very flat-bottomed amidships.
Continuing with the hull, I usually build it back towards the midships area, then I start again from the stern building forwards, until both parts meet in the middle.
Sometimes I’ll then start to work on the superstructure and decks, and literally build half of the ship before copying, flipping and pasting the whole thing. But in this case I decided I wanted a complete hull for the screenshots for the tutorial, so now World Edit came into play. Due to the fact that you’ve got to be very precise with copy, flip and paste, I marked it out with cyan wool before making my selection.
In the above screenshot, I made sure that my World Edit selection was an odd number of blocks wide and that I was hovering directly in front of the ‘middle’ block of it when I copied. Then I flipped it, and went to hover next to the equivalent block on the left side and pasted. The result was a complete hull, perfect positioning first time.
If you’re not confident with the whole copy, flip, paste process, I’d suggest adding another stage in; which is saving your half-hull as a schematic. Then, just in case you accidentally mess it up all you need to do is re-load your schematic and paste it and you haven’t ruined all of your hard work so far.
Decks and Superstructure
Next, I decided to start putting in the forecastle deck. The deck planking on these ships was usually of a light-coloured wood (and scrubbed clean!) so I use birch planks. First, I positioned my forward turret (‘A’ turret) barbette. In this case, barbette refers to the protective mounting point for the turret. Once I’ve positioned that, and marked it out with iron blocks at deck level, I fill in around it with the planks.
It was at this point that I decided the barbette looked too small; so I went back and enlarged it. I already knew how big my turrets would be, so the new barbette size fitted better with the turret size than the smaller one did.
Next, I built at the lower deck level, adding the barbettes for the midships turrets(‘P’ and ‘Q’ turrets), and a little bulge/extra armour on the side of the hull level with the barbettes.
Okay, now why don’t we start on some of the superstructure? Again, this is based on the line drawing and where I’ve put my bright green pixels, with a bit of interpolation/interpretation to fill it in. We’ll start work on the bridge structure. Dreadnought was like a lot of battleships of the time, where the bridge was truly bridge-like; it was a raised open platform on supports. Again, I think there’s some tinkering in between screenshots here to improve the appearance overall.
When it comes to the more intricate bits of the superstructure, photographs of the ship in question (or similar ships if you’re not doing any one in particular) are incredibly useful. The line drawings often don’t give you the fine detail that you’ll want to include, or just don’t made some things clear. Look up a photo if you’re a bit stuck on something.
Those screenshots also show my first use of cobblestone walls on this build, useful for certain railings or for poles and masts that you want to be thinner than regular iron blocks. Just a shame that they look like cobblestone really!
Next up, Dreadnought had her forward funnel not far behind the bridge, so let’s add that. Again, following the outline on the drawing. It’s pretty simple and boxy, easy to add to the build.
Now, we’re getting to the midships area. The superstructure got really narrow at this point on Dreadnought, because the two large midships turrets were either side of it. Again, following the drawing.
(Are you getting as fed up of reading about following the drawing as I am of typing it? )
Now for the part of the superstructure once it widens out again, and the second funnel. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that it’s actually slightly longer than the first. That’s not a mistake, it’s accurate.
Now that the second funnel’s in, let’s do the rear parts of the superstructure and the barbettes for the rear turrets (‘X’ and ‘Y’ turrets). Not much to say here apart from follow the drawing…
The rearmost part of the superstructure is a small mast and spotting post. Dreadnought’s main mast was just behind the forward funnel. We’ll get onto that one in a moment. I typically build the main trunk of a mast in a + cross section, with the middle block empty. That’s the smallest arrangement where you can have a player climb a ladder inside the mast while being fully enclosed. It makes the mast overall a little bit too big, but it doesn’t hurt the appearance too much.
Now for the forward mast. In most battleships the forward mast was the taller, but they were usually a lot closer in size than they were in Dreadnought. As battleship design progressed, secondary masts tended to disappear. The masts weren’t used for sails like in the old days, instead they were used for spotting posts, aerials, and any other part of the ship’s equipment that benefitted from being high up. Again, based on the drawing.
I use the iron blocks for the thicker parts, and the cobblestone wall for the thinner parts.
That’s the basic main structure of the mast, but it’s missing some parts. Most masts in warships of this period were tripod masts, with a main structure and two slanted supports. Time to add them next, and for some variety I’ll do them in grey wool. In Dreadnought they started forward and slanted back to the mast, while in most designs they started to the rear of the mast.
You’ll also notice that I’ve replaced the top blocks of each funnel with the grey wool too.
Time to arm this ship. I’ll build a single gun turret then copy and paste it onto all of the other barbettes since all of the turrets were the same. I start out with a ring of grey wool on top of the turret to help differentiate the turret from the deck, then build the turret in iron. I like to build the actual turret 3-high, for a full structure that’s 4 blocks high from the deck. That’s actually one block higher than it ought to be according to my drawing, but I think it looks good this way. Don’t be afraid to tweak things a bit if it helps it to look good in minecraft.
I stick dispenser blocks on the end of the guns, not because I’m going to make them actually work, but because they’ve got an opening on the end and therefore look the part. I’m not into making battleships ‘usable’, I’m into this for the build and recreating the ship closely.
Finally, I use white wool blocks at the base of the guns as the ‘blast bags’ that you see at the base of the guns in most photographs. I think they add a nice visual touch to the turret and help to separate the guns from the main body of the turret. You could also achieve that by doing the guns in a slightly different colour block.
Time to copy and paste.
Right, now, what else do I need to do on this ship? Well, she doesn’t have any propellers or a rudder yet, so I’ll fix that. I tend to do the propellers in gold blocks to match the bronze-gold sort of colour you often see them in. Dreadnought had four screws.
What else is still missing? Well, let’s see. Some railings. Ship’s boats and boat cranes. Metal details set into the deck. We’ll tackle all of those things next.
While the railings would be steel, I usually just put wooden fences on. They look good from a distance and you don’t stop to think about how weird it is that the steel battleship has wooden railings. Except you do now, because I just brought it up! They look quite innocuous from a distance, and I think the iron bars stand out too much. But again, it depends on your textures.
The boats I made in birch, though you could use any other wood to make them stand out from the deck. The boats alongside the first funnel were held up high on davits, which I made from cobblestone wall.
There were usually two boats side by side on each side of the second funnel, but minecraft and my choice of 1:1 scale made that impractical so I put in one large boat on each side instead. There was a large crane attached to the back of the mainmast, and a couple of smaller ones at the base of the second mast. I built these out of a combination of iron blocks, cobblestone walls and iron bars for the cables.
Next, just a few more details set into the deck, and some doors and portholes in the superstructure and we’re getting there. How about a full ship screenshot (with the distracting cyan wool Project logo covered up!)
Now, that whole thing does look a bit plain in the all-over iron. Red below the waterline would liven things up, but I don’t particularly want to do it with red wool.
I’ve also installed the Xtrablocks mod and created some different colours of iron block for this sort of purpose, but for now I want to keep the ship built using vanilla blocks. The next spoiler shows what it looks like with red wool below the waterline, and how it looks with my red-painted iron blocks. I think my Xtrablocks red iron blocks look really cool, and I’m looking forward to eventually giving the ship a nice Xtrablocks overhaul.
Xtrablocks with my custom red iron blocks:
Migrating to the Ocean
Now, what’s the reason for putting it so high up in the air? Well it’s all to do with getting it ready to go in the water. The mechanics of water seem to have changed in more recent versions, so this may not strictly be necessary. I still do it anyway, just in case.
I use World Edit to select a cube from the waterline to the bottom of the hull so that all of the empty space inside the ship that will be below the waterline is included. Then I use World Edit to change all of the air blocks to sand. The inside of the hull fills up with sand, and the sand on the outside all falls away to pile up beneath the ship.
I’ll admit here that I didn’t pick up on the sand trick at first – I used to use wool blocks and then had to manually destroy them from the outside of my ship. The sand trick was pointed out to me in my sailing ship tutorial, and is much easier.
The idea is that once the ship is copied and pasted into the water, it will be surrounded by a cube of air. The sand filling the ship means that if you have to use world edit to replace air with water you won’t get any water inside your ship which would be a pain to get rid of. But as I said, the mechanics seem to have changed so that the water fills itself in around your ship once you’re pasted into the water, saving you a bit of effort. Nice one, Mojang.
I still like to do the sand just in case – and because the sand that falls off the outside of the ship forms a cool ship-mould shaped pile. Just be aware that some parts like your propeller screws might have sand stacked on top of them. You’ll have to destroy that manually.
Right, we’re nearly there. Time to copy and paste into the water, then sit back and watch the water fill in around it. Or use World Edit to fill in the water if that doesn’t happen. Once you’re happy with it, you can use the World Edit to replace the sand with air, emptying out the interior space again.
If you’re moving it to another world, to put it in the water, like I am, you’ll need to save it as a schematic and then load the schematic in your other world. To make sure of positioning, I like to make the copy when my character is at water-level just in front of the bow. Then in my water map I just need to put my character so that he’s floating on top of the water and I know that the ship will paste in at the correct y-value for its waterline to match up with the water level.
You may have noticed that I haven’t done an interior, and I have to plead guilty to that. Trying to do an interior isn’t as interesting to me as doing the exterior of these ships. But if you want to, my recommendations will be the same; see what plans and blueprints you can dig up and base your interior on those.
And now we have a finished HMS Dreadnought to admire. Screenshots taken with SEUS 10.1 Shaders.
I’ll probably update this with some new pictures if I give it an Xtrablocks overhaul, or if I do a version under steam and firing its main weapons. For now, though, I’ve typed enough. Hope you enjoyed this and found it useful.
I'm working on doing some interesting things with Xtrablocks, so I might soon have some screenshots of what I can do with this ship - and others - when I go crazy with blocks and textures. I've got a few ideas, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it all turns out.
I'm working on doing some interesting things with Xtrablocks, so I might soon have some screenshots of what I can do with this ship - and others - when I go crazy with blocks and textures. I've got a few ideas, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it all turns out.
Sounds cool, but can you explain to me what is Xtrablocks?
Sounds cool, but can you explain to me what is Xtrablocks?
It's a mod by MindKrafter - Xtrablocks Extreme Edition - that adds loads more blocks to the game. Hundreds of them. They're mostly 'blank' blocks that you can re-texture and use to represent whatever you want.
So far I've created several different colours of metal block, different colours of metal-textured wall block, fence block etc that I can use on my dreadnoughts.
On all my dreadnoughts, the plan is to...
- do below the waterline in red-coloured metal blocks
- replace fences and walls with 'metal' textured versions - probably a darker shade than the hull
- replace doors with something that fits better with a battleship
- replace the regular windows with custom 'porthole' blocks (not quite figured out the best way to do this yet)
- slightly alter the colour scheme to match the navy that the ship comes from (so, British have the tops of the gun turrets painted green. Germans have the tops of the gun turrets painted black and the superstructure in a lighter shade of grey than the hull etc.)
- replace the main guns themselves with custom blocks instead of the iron blocks with a dispenser on the end arrangement I've got now
and probably a few other things! I'd like to figure out a way to do the torpedo net booms, but I can't come up with anything easy at the moment.