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I sadly couldn't find any answers to this question, probably because it's quite niche, so i'm posting this as my first question here!

The https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Dreadnought_(1906) was probably one of the most influential ships of its time, and pretty much paved the way for many of the design-elements which would shape modern Naval-warfare in the 20th century into what it was. It's creation lead to a new class of battleship being created, the aptly named "Dreadnought." The main characteristic of a Dreadnought was it's uniform Main-Battery, an "all-big-gun" design.

The ships built before, and made obsolete by the HMS Dreadnought became known as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-dreadnought_battleship, and unlike their successor, these ships mainly featured only a few medium guns, supported by a large array of smaller guns mounted to the ship's sides.

My question would be, what would need to happen in order for Pre-Dreadnoughts to stay the dominant form of Battleship well into the 20th century (possibly up until the 50's or 60's), and what would naval-warfare look like as a result of this change?

Side Note: The evolution of the aircraft in my setting has been stunted to the point where they effectively do not exist, so air-craft-carriers aren't really a factor in this question.

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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP that's like saying that nuclear weapons have not shaped warfare since 1945 because they were only used twice. Like nukes, the mere presence of battleships in various theatres had a huge impact on the freedom of action of admirals and generals alike, even if they were frequently kept out of the action to preserve them for future use (that sometimes never came). $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP They didn't see much combat, yeah, because there weren't really many major naval conflicts. But they had massive influence on naval doctrine during that period. It's comparable to saying the development of the SSN or guided missile warship haven't had much impact on naval doctrine because they haven't fought in any major naval wars. There was still 55-60 years or so when battleships had big influence on naval doctrine. Just because the aircraft carrier rendered their role secondary in WW2 doesn't mean they had no impact. (+ naval bombardment impacted land war) $\endgroup$
    – OT-64 SKOT
    Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ It isn't even limited to WW1. Tirpitz sat idly in a fiord in Norway, yet it's mere presence distorted allied shipping routes and led to a big effort on sinking it ahead of DDay. $\endgroup$
    – lidar
    Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP There are many counterexamples to your claim that battleships had no influence on the war in WWII. For example, it’s very hard to argue that the Tirpitz had no influence on the war when the Allies attacked it twenty eight times over the course of four years. Yes, it never really achieved much offensively, but the mere threat of it attacking was enough for the Allies to alter shipping routes to avoid it and dedicate a nontrivial amount of resources to getting rid of it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Are you familiar with the Battle of Tsushima? I think it deserves mention here. $\endgroup$
    – Brian
    Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 22:05

7 Answers 7

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What is a Dreadnought all about?

  • All big gun batteries rather than two different 'large' calibers.
  • Gradual improvements in armor materials and hull construction, which provided weight for the mounting of the big guns.
  • Steam turbine propulsion, still coal-fired.

Why all big guns? So that they could fire in salvo, the best method of ranging then available. But big guns also had drawbacks. Bigger individual guns means fewer of them on the same displacement, and more constraints on where they are mounted. Battleship designers thought a lot about on-end fire, or broadsides, or even wing turrets firing across the deck. (Doing that would have damaged the firing ship, but a few decades earlier the plan was to throw masts overboard if there might be a battle ...)

So introduce improved optical rangefinders and fire direction systems a few years early. That means the hit probability for individual guns goes up, even at long range, possibly resolving the need for many ranging shots. This might encourage the further development of ships with enormous guns in single turrets, the breech-loading successor of the 100-ton RML. The low rate of fire and low number of these main guns dictates the retention of slightly smaller guns, around 10", for use against anything short of an armoured cruiser. This gives both a "big wallop" against enemy battleships and a "deep magazine" against cruisers or shore emplacements.

There might be a school of thought to build ships with a single main turret, not two fore and aft, to allow even bigger guns under even more armor. This might also help with flotation and stability.

The turbine will probably come at some point, but you can delay it by commercial investment in efficient quadruple or quintuple-expansion steam engines for big liners. Possibly there are early advocates of an unit system where each boiler can feed each cylinder.

What happens to naval warfare?

Possibly not much for the first couple of years. Capital ship actions would differ in detail, but there would still be steel behemoths lobbing shells at each other.

I've read it argued that torpedo fire was ineffective in the era, but fear of torpedo fire drove both design and tactics. At the Battle of Jutland, torpedoes hardly ever hit, and they were a fire hazard to the capital ships which did mount them. So you could have either arrogant or realist admirals dismiss the torpedo except for very special circumstances -- cheap and expendable coastal torpedo boats, and submarines which might, on a good day, maneuver into firing position against a slow merchant convoy. (Or enter a protected anchorage, but that is what booms and nets are for.)

As time goes on, it becomes harder and harder to envision what the lack of aircraft does. Will radar be developed, to further increase the hit probability for ever bigger guns?

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for the detailed answer! From what i understand, it sounds as if battleships would essentially develop into large, well-armored Monitors. Fewer (if not single) main guns, but compensating with larger calibers and heavier armor. Haven't thought of the advent of the range-finder being this important, but it makes a lot of sense in hindsight- $\endgroup$
    – NimRad
    Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Liam.K, monitors were not sea-worthy. I'm thinking more of something like HMS Swiftsure (1903) or for the one-big-turret model HMS Victoria (1887), with better technology and greater displacement to allow even bigger guns. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ Early effective AA firepower might have resulted in everybody believing that airplanes were not fit to attack warships and only using scout carriers. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Eugene, I argued for very big big guns in few individual turrets to go through enemy armor. And their high weight leans to somewhat smaller secondaries. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Eugene, David Brown, Warrior to Dreadnought, chapter 10. Of course it also gives the Hero trials a decade later, where 12" had a higher probability than 6". An early introduction of operations research methods might reject the trials and stick to real battles, or look at both to get a bigger data set. Note that at Manila, US 8" were both the biggest guns and the most likely to hit. Does that argue for 8" in particular or for the biggest guns? And then consider how long rams on warships were retained, and a few decades later torpedo rooms on capital ships. Both very bad ideas, yet used. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 29, 2023 at 4:29
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Minimize the precision of big guns or the increase firepower of small guns

Smaller cannons are less effective against a heavy warship, but they can give you more opportunities to hit an enemy. Imagine you have 2 options: 1 cannon that hits REALLY hard or 4 cannons that can each be reloaded twice as fast. In theory the single big cannon can punch a hole clean through the other ship, possibly sinking it whereas the smaller cannons will only cause surface damage. So, you can do a lot more damage with a single big gun which is why the Dreadnaught became such an important class of ship, but if you can't fire precisely enough to range a target, then 8 shots that will probably miss can be a lot more helpful than 1 shot that will probably miss. This is why older ships-of-the-line used so many cannons. The main reason fewer, yet bigger guns became so effective is because once you ranged in on an enemy ship, they were precise enough to reliably hit. But if both guns are too imprecise to reliably hit once the enemy is accurately targeted, then having more opportunities to hit becomes more important than absolute stopping power.

Now let's consider a you have a dreadnaught with 24 big cannons facing off against a Ship-of-the-line with 96 of the smaller cannons, but thier cannons are only precise enough to have a 1% chance to hit at engagement range. The dreadnaught gets off its 24 shots, but only has a 21% chance of hitting the Ship-of-the-line. In contrast, the Ship-of-the-line gets off 192 shots giving it an 84% chance of landing at least 1 shot (1-4 hits is pretty likely). In our history, the dreadnaught could increase its odds to hit after its first shot by ranging the enemy ship, but if the cannons lack the precision to get this accuracy up by enough to matter, then the dreadnaught is likely to already be badly damaged by the time it lands its first hit.

How to make Ships-of-the-Line stay superior:

  • Make cannons less precise: This means that even once you range in on a distant target, your odds of hitting it go way down; so, it takes a lot more cannons to land a hit. Basically if your setting skips over certain improvements in gunpowder, shell, or barrel manufacturing processes, then your cannons may just not have WWI levels of precision.
  • Effective optical glass is never invented: This limits cannons to distances where they can only be ranged with the naked eye. If you can't clearly see where your shots are landing, it could make intuitive salvos able to out reach a ranged shots.
  • Better Gun Powder: If improvements in gunpowder mean that you are targeting a ship farther away because you have a faster mussel velocity, then you experience the same precision issues that you face with a less well made cannon.
  • Better Shell design: If an 8" cannon can do as much damage in your setting as a 14" cannon did IRL, then you can not risk sailing into target accurate ranges because your are risking 1-hit 1-kill either way. Instead, the guy who can salvo you from farther away and land a single lucky hit will win.
  • Worse Armor: If the ironclad is never invented (or invented much latter), then battleships will not be armored enough to survive hits from smaller cannons leading to the same result as better shell design.
  • Honeycombed Hulls instead of heavy armor: If ship designs change to have a highly redundant honeycomb structure so that it takes a LOT of hits to sink regardless of shell size, then landing more hits becomes more important than landing strong hits.
  • Most rival nations prefer large fleets of smaller ships: If the enemy does not have any heavy cruisers, then big guns are a waist of stopping power. Instead, you might opt for smaller guns so that you can engage more enemy ships at once.
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  • $\begingroup$ Re: better powder improving smaller guns range. Even the secondaries on pre dreadnaughts were ultra heavy siege artillery on land and longer barreled and higher velocity to boot, being around 45 calibers long. Even the tertiaries were medium field artillery, being 3-4 inches(75-100mm). None of them had issues shooting to the horizon given enough elevation. As I described in my answer, once fire control improved, all big gun was the only logical layout. Only something that prevents it's development can stop it. $\endgroup$
    – Eugene
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Eugene The torpedo boat. It doesn't matter how good your fire control is if the target moves while the shell is in flight. One big gun always loses to an equal manpower & tonnage of torpedo boats. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel you're describing the Jeune École approach. It didn't work out. When torpedo boats became a threat (torpedo boat) destroyers emerged to counter them, leading to the rock paper scissors of: small ships were too fast and maneuverable to be hit by the big ships but could carry torpedoes, were countered by medium ships that were fast enough to dodge the torpedoes and powerful enough to obliterate the smaller ships but were in turn helpless against the big ships. $\endgroup$
    – Eugene
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 21:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Eugene Yeah--but that means you can't just build one big gun ships. You need smaller guns to deal with the torpedo boats. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 0:00
  • $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel That's why navies were combined arms irl. Battleships with a destroyer fleet screen, supported by cruisers. The point I'm trying to make, is that the battleships armament will naturally evolve to all big guns + small guns, from the big guns + medium guns + small guns armament of the pre dreadnaughts, as soon as fire control improves. $\endgroup$
    – Eugene
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 6:21
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Submarines and torpedoes. Large ships were just bigger targets. No battleship would be able to defend itself against submarines. After WWI, battleship were seldom used in naval combat, they primary role was shore bombardment. Since WWII, we have not had any major naval battles. Modern submarines will be devastating against surface ships. Long range guided torpedoes and vertically launched cruse missiles will kill surfaces fleets. Even if the sub is detected and killed after launching the attack they will still kill many times their numbers before dying.

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  • $\begingroup$ Plausible but submarines aren't a weapon in themselves any more than an aircraft carrier. Instead they're a transport system for something that does the damage, being torpedoes and later missiles for a sub. $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ It's a common misconception that battleships weren't used much in WW2. There was no big battle like Jutland, but cumulatively, they saw more action than WW1, where both sides mostly sat in port. Scharnhost sank the carrier glorious in Norway and with Gnessau, had a very successful raid during operation Berlin. The British BBs saw a ton of action in the med. Slow battleships were obsolete by 1942, aircraft ruled the day, but fast battleships that could run in at night and run out again outside the range of air cover before morning, were a deadly threat until the end, if they didnt have counters $\endgroup$
    – Eugene
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 4:39
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    $\begingroup$ You can see that during the gazillion night actions during the battle of Guadalcanal. If one sides heavies were in the battle area without an equivalent counter, the other withdrew for the night. The campaign was decided with some old fashioned BB on BB action when Washington blew up Hiroshima and the Japanese could no longer contest the night. $\endgroup$
    – Eugene
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 4:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Criggie bad argument. If a submarine is a transport system for the torpedoes shot out of it's launchers, a battleship is a transport system for the shells shot out of it's guns. $\endgroup$
    – Eugene
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 4:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Griggie Yes a battleship carries large guns, but it also was heavily armored providing significant protection against shots from smaller guns. However they are very visible. Submarines use stealth, they are hard to detect. As weapons like torpedoes began more powerful, it was no longer practical to put enough armor on battleships to protect them. Torpedoes can also be launched from small surface ships, but they are relatively easy to detect. $\endgroup$
    – James Cook
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 13:22
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The exact same, because Dreadnaughts were the only logical way battleships could have developed.

Remember, Dreadnaught wasn't the first concept of an "all big gun" battleship. The Japanese https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satsuma-class_battleship, that launched a year earlier, was designed with an all big gun armament, but the Japanese couldn't scrape together enough 12 inch guns, so they were forced to replace some of them with 10 inch. If they had enough resources, the type would have been called "satsumas", not "dreadnaughts". It still had VTE engines, not turbines, but turbines are a "nice to have", not a "must have". The German Helgoland-class and Nassau-class were still dreadnaughts.

Why was the concept of "all big gun" inevitable? Improvements in range finders and fire control, permitting engagement at much longer ranges.

Ship's guns could technically fire to the horizon(with enough elevation) even in the 19th century. The chances of hitting anything were negligible, so they weren't even given that elevation, because it was pointless.

For context, during the battle of Manilla Bay, only 8 years before the launch of Dreadnaught, but before the revolution in range-finding and fire-control, at an engagement range of 2000-5000 yards(~1-3 miles), US ships had 170 hits for 5,859 shells expended and the Spanish were even worse.

Once the capability to hit something remotely close to what you were aiming for 10+ miles away existed, all big guns were inevitable: Before, it was a tradeoff between firing lots of smaller shells(smaller guns could range out as far, even an 8 inch cruiser gun is ultra-heavy artillery on land and 6inch is the standard 155mm heavy field artillery), or a few big ones, with the same effective range, that where you had a chance of hitting a moving target from a moving platform. At longer ranges, smaller guns could not effectively fire faster than big ones, because the firing ship still had to wait for the shells of a salvo to arrive, see the splashes of them hitting the water(the first salvo was expected to be a miss, but in the area), correct your estimate, fire again, correct, etc. until you start hitting.

Here are the flight times of a typical 12 inch gun of the period: times As you can see, at a range of 10 miles(what most of the actions at the battle of Jutland were fought at), flight time is ~30s. If you add the time to observe the splashes, correct aiming solution and fire again, you're looking at a maximum of one round/40s, no matter the caliber and it becomes a no-brainer to mount all big guns.

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Rather than those brash big gun battleships, methinks the high seas would remain the dominion of the stately pre-dreadnoughts, with their dashing good looks and mixed armaments. Dash it all, combat would be a more intimate affair, ships grappling at close quarters like gentlemen, exchanging blows from their secondary batteries! Not at all like these newfangled duels at long range.

Why, without the tremendous pressure of the HMS Dreadnought, the naval arms race may have been more of a leisurely stroll! The powers would build their pre-dreadnought squadrons at a more reasonable pace, I dare say. And technology would evolve at a gradual clip, not this relentless headlong dash into untested waters those dratted turbines caused.

Tactics and training would be geared more towards torpedo maneuvers and rapid fire gunnery at shorter range. And blockade duty would require a deft touch and nerves of steel to face the dastardly threat of torpedo boats in confined waters. Not at all suitable for those long-in-the-tooth pre-dreadnought captains grown accustomed to partir in style!

Warfare on the high seas would have been a more gentlemanly affair without those confounded dreadnoughts. Their immense firepower utterly transformed naval combat, though some say not for the better. Alas, we shall never know what heights the venerable pre-dreadnoughts may have reached if only left to their own devices.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer quite a bit! Very eloquently worded as well heh. The idea of Close-quarter, rapid-fire ship battles sounds really interesting and might make for some interesting dynamics on an ocean-front $\endgroup$
    – NimRad
    Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 12:44
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Torpedoes rule the waves.

If we assume some collective black box on thinking about putting big gun on ships, we end up with very, very tanky ships shrugging off shots for maybe days.

But people would still be looking for a way so their ships would actually manage to sink the enemy. The solution (before air power): torpedoes. A big capital ship may shrug off medium cannon balls, but a big torpedo is a very different matter. And with the reduced range of naval combat evading them would be a lot harder. We would probably see a reduction in almost useless deck guns, replaced with ever more torpedo launchers. Probably also a reduction in ship sizes, until a equilibrium is found between large enough for armor to shrug the small shots, and small enough to not loose to much when a torpedo sinks it

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No improvements in ranging/firecontrol/sensors. So no optical rangefinders, fire control directors or radar.

Without any of these tools, battleships are limited to the abilities of turret crews to aim directly, limiting engagement ranges. At these limited engagement ranges of per-dreadnought battleships any large shell will penetrate if it hits. But without the ability to reliably hit what matters is rate of fire, to maximize your chance of seeing any hits, and to get those hits in before your opponent gets there lucky hit.

In this scenario, I expect we would see larger ships in order to mount more guns, with subdivision to allow them to keep going even as they take penetrating hits in other sections, along with more barrels per turret (triple or even quad turrets if they can be made reliable), along with more automation in the shell handling and loading systems to maximise rate of fire, especially during the initial exchange of fire.

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