152: Building Big British Battleships


This week the narrative takes a bit of a detour into conversations of the British shipbuilding industry during the interwar years.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 152 - The Early War at Sea Pt. 2 - Building Big British Battleships. Patreon: Eric, Michael, James, João, Peter, Tom, John, Gerald, Mollie. This is one of those episodes where there is one absolutely pivotal source The Battleship Builders: Constructing and Arming British Capital Ships by Ian Johnston and Ian Buxton. It chronicles the evolution of the British naval ship building industry from before the First World War until the end of the Second. I highly recommend it if you want a real deep dive into the behind the scenes actions that were so important to the building and maintenance of the Royal Navy during the first 50 years of the 19th century. In my view it is a very interesting time period for the Royal Navy as it dealt with many challenges, especially after the First World War as the economic landscape of the Empire quickly shifted. And while the Royal Navy would still be the largest navy in the world in 1939, the capacity of Britain to construct large warships would peak during the First World War. But even through all of the trials of the interwar years and the Great Depression, British shipbuilding would be able to begin another massive rearmament program in 1937, just in time for the capital ships of that program to be ready during the early years of the Second World War. This episode will discuss some of that evolution.

During the 1800s the British shipbuilding industry was consistently one of the largest, if not the largest in the world. When it came to construction of warships for the World Navy by the 1890s work would be shared between the Royal Dockyards and then a long list of commercial shipyards. These commercial entities would build ships for civilian purposes, as well as for the Royal Navy and in many instances would also construct warships for other nations. This would be a period when British ship yards would build ships for a host of nations around the world that wanted a naval capability but which did not have the ship building industry to build the ships themselves. The Royal Dockyards on the other hand focused on on the construction of Royal Navy ships, and the goal was to give them at least 1/2 of all construction contracts so that the Royal Dockyards could stay busy and were kept up to the date as naval technology advanced. An important moment for the Royal Navy over the next 70 years would be the introduction of the Naval Defence Act in 1889 which would be the genesis of the Two Power Naval Standard which would be a critical talking point for the Royal Navy in its efforts to keep or increase its funding. The increased orders of first the Naval Defence Act and then later the Anglo-German Naval Arms race before 1914 would see a much greater share of the Royal Navy’s construction transition from the Royal Dockyards to commercial shipbuilders. During this time those private companies had made massive investments into shipbuilding capacity and all related industry, many of which were heavily specialized in naval construction, for example armour plate production or heavy guns and mountings. As so often happens when there is a large desire for greater output from an industry, the existing players expanded their operations and new businesses entered the market. In the case of British shipbuilding this often meant companies would expand vertically in the market, so shipbuilders would build up their own capacity to product armor or other specialty material while armor and ordnance businesses would build shipyards so that they could start building ships. There was a lot of money coming out of the British government, and British industrialists were very good at optimizing that for their own gain. There were attempts to limit the profit margins of the companies, particularly around how the Admiralty chose to distribute construction contracts, with the lowest bidder always winning, a system that worked quite well when there were many instances of construction contracts getting 12 proposals. It was this investment that would allow the Royal Navy to massively expand in the decade before the First World War, with 54 capital ships laid down between 1906 and the end of the First World War, although three of those would be cancelled in the last years of the war. The Royal Dockyards were still involved in these construction efforts, but as ships started to grow in size so rapidly after 1906 it became hard for those Royal Dockyards to keep pace. This meant that over the course of the naval arms race, some Royal Dockyards like at Chatham and Pembroke would no longer be capable of producing large capital ships and the funds available for infrastructure improvements were concentrated on a small number of dockyards, particularly at Portsmouth and Devonport.

One of the things that has always impressed me about capital ships up to and including the Second World War was just how large and complex they were as construction projects, at a time when there were no computers, no digital drawings, no CAD diagrams. They required a lot of skill and experience, and a tremendous amount of manual work by workers to take the raw materials and craft them into a ship. Before the First World War the typical dreadnought required around 6000 tons of structural steel, and that number would only grow from there. About 2/3 of this steel might be in the form of steel plates, and then rest were various types of structural support. Often the plates were shipped to the construction site without being cut first, and then on site there would be facilities to take the steel plate and cut it and bend it to fit the specific area of the ship in which it was being used. During the interwar years this cutting process was usually performed through oxy-gas cutting torches, although older ships would have been completed through the use of large cutting shears. Sheets and beams also had to be shaped, forming the lines of the ship. Some pieces could be shaped while cold, in other cases the steel would be warmed in a furnace before it was shaped. In either case it was often shaped on various types of bending blocks, with the goal of matching it against full size drawing and moulds that would be kept in large shaping sheds near the construction site. Some of the more extreme shapes, often seen in structural frames near the ends of the ship, there would be then pieces of metal that were bent in the correct shape to aid in achieving the correct shape as the red hot steel was manipulated. Up until the Second World War the majority of ships were riveted together, although welding would become dominant during the war years, there would be some welding in various capital ships before the war, but it was often used only for non-critical and non-load bearing structures. Riveting was a process that started with holes being either punched or drilled into the steel plates, with drilling being more precise and even required for some of the highest strength steel. Depending on the area of the ship the diameter of the rivets were between 1/2 and 1 1/2 inch, the space between them would also shift and then in some cases there would be double rows for the areas where the structural loads were the highest. A rivet team would consist of either 4 or 5 workers, with one worker heating the rivet in a small furnace, another to place it in the hole, one to provide resistance on one side of the rivet while the other used a pneumatic hammer to drive it down. Then, due to the expansion of heated steel, the rivet would reduce in size during the cooling process pulling the steel together. In modern ship building there is a lot of pre-fabrication that occurs off site, and this was not really how it worked before the Second World War. And this meant that even after the watertight hull was built and launched, the work was often not even half way complete, at least for large capital ships. The exact time it took to build the hull, and the launch it, and then the time it took to fit out the ship with all of its contents varied from shipyard to shipyard and from class to class, but the fitting out stage was almost always longer than the time taken get the hull ready to launch.

Coming into the Second World War the largest ship in the Royal Navy, and the pride of the navy was the HMS Hood. The Hood had started life during the First World War. While British shipbuilding had just been churning out capital ships before the First World War to out build the Imperial German Navy, as soon as the war started hard decisions had to be made about how to allocate resources. In a precursor to some of the same decisions that would be made after 1939, the Admiralty would have to be very selective about what material and manpower was put towards if there was a hope of getting ships completed during wartime. For the story of the Second World War one of the more important decisions that was made during late 1914 was for the construction of two battlecruisers which would eventually become the Repulse and Renown. These ships, armed with 9 15 inch guns, were first ordered in December 1914, and there were great efforts to build them as quickly as possible, with First Sea Lord Fisher working closely with the shipyards to ensure that maximum manpower was placed on the two ships and the expedite construction the machinery layout of the recently constructed Tiger was used. These extreme focus would allow for the ships to be completed by September 1916, and while that was too late for most of the sea battles during the Second World War, they would both be important pieces of the Royal Navy in 1939 after having undergone extensive modernization efforts during the 1930s. Even before the ships were completed, the next class of battlecruisers were already undergoing design changes which would see their displacement balloon up to over 40,000 tons, much higher than the Repulse at 27,000. This new class would be called the Admiral class and it while it was originally planned to contain 4 ships, there would be just one completed, the HMS Hood. The design of the Admirals would be delayed until August 1917 because of an attempt to take the lessons of Jutland, such as could be determined in such a short period of time, and incorporate them into the design. This largely involved a reworking and reconfiguring of the protection scheme, as it was felt that the protection of the British battlecruisers had not been sufficient during their actions at Jutland. But even before the design was finalized there were ship building challenges with the Admirals. The two problems were the same problems that would plague so many industries in late war Britain, a lack of manpower and savage competition for supplies. For the supplies the Royal Navy was competing against every other industry that required steel and other metals, like artillery or ammunition. This caused three of the ships to be suspended in March 1917, but the ships were not cancelled until well after the war. It was only on February 27 1919 that the official decision to cancel all of the ships other than Hood was made, with the Board of the Admiralty stating: “having regard to all the circumstances the Board agreed that the construction of HM ships Anson, Howe and Rodney should forthwith be cancelled and the slips set free for merchant ship construction, and that in communicating this decision to the War Cabinet it should be made clear that the question of building additional battle cruisers will be reconsidered at the earliest possible moment after the terms of peace are finally settled; as unless further battle cruisers are built in the near future we shall before long fall behind the United States Navy in ships of that class.” The hope was that, even with the cancellation of the three ships, they could quickly be replaced by an updated design that would better match with the capital ships that the United States and Japanese were building. But instead, after their cancellation British shipbuilding would enter into several years of very lean but hopeful times as government spending would rapidly reduce from wartime highs, but there was still hope that another round of capital ship construction would begin, with that construction being so important to the overall health and sustainability of the ship building firms. The lean years would last until 1922, or at least that was the plan. In the meantime, some British ship builders tried to diversify their portfolios in ways that would take advantage of their skills and experience, like with the construction of civilian locomotives, which would be the path of Vickers, Armstrong Whitworth, and others. Others would of course move as much construction as possible to civilian vessels. But there was no denying the fact that large areas of British shipbuilding went into atrophy. The problem was that there was no replacement orders for many of the specialty techniques and plant required for things like gun mountings, large quantities of armored plate, or large naval guns. Many companies would put production facilities that were dedicated to those kinds of items into a mothballed status in the hopes that the building pause would last only a few years. The British admiralty also hoped that it would only last a few years and there would be efforts to design what the next classes of British capital ships would be. These would be the G3s and N3s, destined to be cancelled by the Washington Naval Treaty, but developed to match and exceed what it was believed the Americans and Japanese were planning. Provisional orders for the guns and mountings for the G3s were placed with Armstrong Whitworth and Vickers in August 1921, the mountings were the most important due to construction times and 15 would be ordered between the two firms. This would allow for four of the G3s to be constructed with their three triple 16" turrets, with three additional mountings as spares. The N3 battleships would have had even larger guns, 9 18 inch guns, but they never were given out to companies to begin buildings before the Naval Conference. Then, at the Naval conference, all of the plans were changed. The official cancellation of the G3s would be on February 1922, and it left the entire British armaments industry in a very rough spot. The previous lean years had been able to be endured in the expectation that construction would begin again in the early 1920s, and now it was clear that there would be few capital ship contracts for over a decade. The only exceptions to this were the Nelson and Rodney which would be laid down in 1922.

With the drastic reduction in naval construction, the Admiralty had to start getting strategic with how it was placing the limited orders that it had available, all of which were smaller ships, cruisers, submarines, and destroyers. It was only be spreading these orders around that there was any hope in trying to keep the British shipbuilding industry afloat. But even this was not enough to preserve the structures of pre-war shipbuilding. Before the war many of the largest armament firms had vertically integrated, controlling the maximum amount of the entire shipbuilding process. After the war they began to restructure their firms, preferring to focus only on a few different aspects of the shipbuilding industry, which resulted in the number of firms that were capable of constructing some components shrinking down to only a few, like the armor place which would drop to just 3 firms. Along with this the Bank of England became involved to help the industry to restructure, and for armament companies to divest themselves from some divisions that had been created before the war, while still ensuring that Britain still had the ability to build large naval vessels in the future. This was a critical component of the considerations during this time, because the British government and the Admiralty believed that Britain would need to maintain shipbuilding capacity, and capacity that was greater than the anemic orders of the mid 1920s, but it would require some assistance from the government to preserve that capacity when the orders were not available. And it was not just the shipbuilding industry that was in trouble, many industries related to naval construction, like the steel industry were experiencing similar challenges. One of the ways that this was done was for the Bank of England to purchase shipyards and other facilities that were either redundant or in need of renovations, after the purchase the assets would then be disposed of or destroyed. In 1925 a trade association, the Shipbuilding Conference, was also created through which all of the remaining shipbuilding firms coordinated their prices for the available construction projects to avoid the costly price wars that had been an important feature of the industry before 1914. But even these efforts, which essentially were just direct cash injections, could not prevent an industry wide reckoning during the later 1920s. This came in the form of mergers, like with Vickers and Armstrong, along with simply a decay of the facilities and capabilities of British shipbuilding and especially in the specialized equipment required for large naval construction efforts. While the years between 1922 and roughly 1936 were very tough years for British shipbuilding, they were able to survive and that survival would allow them to experience the new shipbuilding boom in the years after 1936.

One of the challenges faced by British rearmament efforts was the lack of evolution of the industrial infrastructure in Britain since 1918, at least in specialty areas like shipbuilding. Much of this had been used at far below capacity during the interwar years, and it would take time to ramp back up in its production as rearmament was pursued. But it also meant that there was ravenous interest in the first set of capital ships to be laid down after the naval treaties expired, ships that would eventually become the King George V class. The plans for these ships represented such a major changes from the previous 15 years of shipbuilding that all of the major executives from the firms that would be required were invited to a conference in April 1936 to discuss the Admiralty’s upcoming plans. For at least these first lines of ships the same coordination and distribution would be present in the hopes of allowing multiple firms to kickstart their construction efforts and capabilities again. This was important because the King George V class, and the carriers ordered along with them, would not be the last ships to be built. During late 1936 there were already discussions about the next generation of British battleships, the Lion class, destined to never be completed. These ships would be larger than the King George’s at 40,000 tons with 9 16 inch guns. Vickers-Armstrong and Cammell Laird were selected as the builders of the Lions, with both companies believing that they could deliver the ships from keel to completion in 42 months, with the giant caveat that they had to have enough labor available. But importantly these orders would not be placed until January 31, 1939, and that was just for the first two ships, the third and forth would be ordered until August 1939. This meant that work had only really gotten started by the start of the war. Then on October 3, 1939 the Admiralty requested that the shipbuilders who had started on their Lions suspend further construction due to concerns about labor and resource allocation. This was not dissimilar to what had happened in 1914 as critical resource allocation decisions had to be made to ensure that resources were used to the greatest benefit of the war effort. But then something different happened, the war changed things. During the first two years of the war there was a large number of naval actions, unlike during the First World War where the actions were more limited in numbers. The naval actions that did take place after 1939 were great learning experiences, and so those experiences were incorporated into design alterations to the Lions. But the ability to make changes to an existing design, especially one that had already been laid down in the slipway, were limited and the desired changes rapidly expanded outside of what was possible. One example of this was some of the experience that the Royal Navy gained around providing protection from underwater explosions, with some alterations to the design allowing for much greater protection from explosions that occurred directly below the ship, but these changes could not be easily worked into the Lion design because so many of the structural pieces of the bottom areas of the hull had already been fabricated. This put the Lions that had been started, the Lion and the Temeraire in an awkward spot, and they would continue in purgatory for several more years with a hesitancy to just cancel the ships, but with a recognition that even if they were restarted immediately they would not be completed until 1946 at the earliest, and they were already outdated designs. On December 19th 1942 the leadership of Vickers-Armstrong and Cammell Laid requested that they be allowed to scrap the work that had been done up to that point not just to use the material but also to free up the slips for other construction. The only battleship that would be completed during the war was the Vanguard, and that was only done because there were spare 15 inch guns and mountings that had originally been planned for the Courageous and Glorious, battlecruisers built during the First World War but converted to aircraft carriers after the war. Although it would not be completed until after the war in 1946, the last battleship to be completed by any navy, and the end of a long legacy of British battleships built by British shipyards. Looking back, the thirty years between 1909 and 1939 were an interesting period for the British shipbuilding industry, a period that started with the ability of the British companies to construct warships being unmatched by any other nation and would end with one final burst of battleship construction before the Second World War. And those battleships, and the hundreds of smaller vessels that were built in the years after 1936 would be needed for the war that was to come. Next episode we will look at the German Navy, a Navy built for….well what was it built for? I’m still not entirely sure.