- Haigh, Gideon
- Battles and operations, Ship design and development, Ship histories and stories, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Naval historian Andrew Gordon describes the Dreadnought as Fisher’s brainchild, Invincible as his love-child, the latter representing the fullest realisation of his uncompromising desiderata: ‘Hit first, hit hard, and keep on hitting.’ Sir Phillip Watts’ design envisaged the most powerful guns available on the speediest platform possible: a ship of 17,250 tonnes, more than twice the size of a comparable Germany cruiser, and lighter than Dreadnought but longer, at 567ft. Each of her eight 58-ton, 12in guns could throw an 850lb shell a distance of 8.5 miles; at her standard rate of fire, she could propel 4.5 tons of high explosive shell a minute.
‘Speed is armour’
To pack the maximum calibre of ordnance entailed a sacrifice in protection. Armour, thinnest on her decks, accounted for only a fifth of Invincible’s displacement. ‘Speed is armour,’ thundered Fisher, pointing to her 26 knots, and investing her with metaphorical momentum: she was ‘a New Testament ship’, ‘the Greyhound of the Sea’, destined to devour enemy cruisers ‘like an armadillo let loose on an anthill’. He grouped Invincible with her sisters Indomitable and Inflexible as ‘the Splendid Cats’.
Fisher’s grandiloquence was persuasive, and for a time Invincible was the world’s most glamorous ship. Thousands of rapt onlookers attended her launch on April 13, 1907, Lady Allendale breaking a bottle of champagne encased in flowers over her bows, the band playing Rule Britannia and God Save the Queen as she left the slipway. Enthusiasm was embodied in the hatband in the famous ‘Players Please’ cigarette advertisement, identifying the sailor as one of her men.
Hitches followed. Her guns recoiled so violently, for example, as to disrupt the experimental electricals of the turrets, entailing a major refit. But the gravest hitch was on the other side of the North Sea, in the shape of the German reply: SMS Von der Tann, laid down in October 1908, was a little slower and a tad shorter than Invincible, and her 11in shells weighed 666lb each. But she was 2000 tons heavier, most of that constituted by extra protection, armour accounting for 30% of her displacement. If Germany’s naval major domo Alfred von Tirpitz lacked Fisher’s felicitous phrase-making, his injunction that ships had above all to ‘remain afloat and stay in action’ was observed to the letter in this and subsequent designs.
The British Admiralty was slow to grasp the implications; indeed, it never really did. Invincible was complemented by a succession of battle cruisers on similar principles: Indefatigable, Australia, New Zealand, Malaya (the last three funded by the respective dominions in an effort to ease the strain on Naval Estimates), then Lion, Tiger, Queen Mary and Princess Royal. British ships grew bigger, but little better, the problems with them multiplying exponentially. Bigger guns meant longer ranges and more plunging fire, making deck armour crucial; longer ranges were taxing on accuracy, and Fisher zigged for the cheap Dreyer trigonometric gunnery control system when he should have zagged for a superior alternative, applying differential calculus devised by an ingenious civilian technician, Arthur Pollen.
At the time, Fisher’s reforms were grounding on the reefs of cost and culture, the latter at least as important as the former. The Channel Fleet’s Admiral Charles Beresford was pompous, reactionary, insubordinate and stupid; Winston Churchill remembered him succinctly: ‘When he got up to speak, he did not know what he was going to say. When he was speaking, he didn’t know what he was saying. When he sat down, he didn’t know what he had said.’ His untiring campaign against all naval reforms, however, finally precipitated Fisher’s retirement in January 1910; the Pollen system, which proved, in Gordon’s words, ‘as important a development for gunnery as John Harrison’s chronometer had been for navigation 150 years earlier’, was a casualty of their mutual antipathy. It meant that Invincible and her contemporaries would certainly hit hard, but might only hit first, and would find it almost impossible to hit often.
In fact, while images of the Invincible and her contemporaries look strikingly modern, an evolutionary leap from the squat pre-Dreadnoughts they eclipsed, appearances are deceptive. They still communicated by signal flags, not radio; they discerned opponents by sight; they counted on sinking the enemy by weight of shot, not precision firing. They were self-contained, floating fortifications; in the picturesque formulation of Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty from August 1911, ‘gigantic castles of steel wending their way across the misty, shining sea like giants bowed in anxious thought’. And Churchill steadily developed a Fisherian reverence for Invincible and her ilk: ‘At present, the British battle cruisers have an immense prestige in themselves; no one really knows their full value, it is undoubtedly great – it may be even more than we imagine … Their speed, their armour, their armament, are all great assets; even their appearance has a sobering effect.’ At the end of 1912, in fact, the Royal Navy romantically reassigned battle cruisers to an elite seaborne cavalry: the Battle Cruiser Squadron.