H.M.S. Devastation - 1871

HMS DEVASTATION at sea, watercolor by W. Fred Mitchell
In a dramatic watercolor by W. Fred Mitchell, Devastation cleaves the Atlantic rollers. National Maritime Museum

Intro   |   Plans   |   Specifications   |   Colourful Cutaway Drawing

Ditty Box of Photos   |   Sister Ship Thunderer   |   The 1879 Dreadnought   |   Links

Sails were not the wave of the future, as predicted only three years after the Captain by the radical turret-ship HMS Devastation, which was already fitting out when the disaster happened. Although sails were still fitted to Royal Navy battleships and cruisers through the mid-1880s, the ponderous weight of their armored iron hulls grew too great for any ordinary winds to move; being extra smart in sail drill was highly esteemed nonetheless as an exercise in seamanship. Breaking with tradition, Devastation abandoned sail altogether, although she retained one military mast for lookout and signaling. Like the Monitor, she had a low freeboard, but unlike her predecessor, combined it with a conventional midships superstructure enclosing funnels and bridgeworks. This construction was known to naval architects as a "breastwork": a high superstructure which brought all the ship's ventilation tubes and funnels safely above the waves. With her four 12-inch guns housed in twin turrets fore and aft, protected by a burly 12-inch belt of wrought-iron armor (14 on the turrets), Devastation was known as a "breastwork monitor", a type pioneered by the harbor-defense vessel HMVS Cerberus, designed by Reed in 1867 and completed in 1869. Devastation's basic layout was taken as the model for battleships for more than 30 years. Below the waterline she bore a surprising sting: a pointed ram. The abandonment of sail improved the guns' fields of fire, while the much lighter tophamper offset the low (10-foot) freeboard, making Devastation a more stable and seaworthy craft than her unlucky predecessors. When the Devastation gun layout was mated with a high-freeboard hull in the Royal Sovereign class of 1892, the pre-dreadnought era had truly begun.

Crammed with innovations, the 9,330-ton Devastation was the brainchild of Edward J. Reed, the Admiralty's Director of Naval Construction (DNC), who had had enough of trying to combine turrets with full rig. With no webs of cordage to dodge while training their guns, the Devastation's turrets each commanded an arc of 280 degrees. Iron-hulled, with teak decks, and propelled by ultra-dependable Penn trunk steam engines, Devastation set the standard for evolutions to come. Two improved versions, Thunderer and Dreadnought (shown below), followed soon after. Although the path ahead was clear, in that time a remarkable number of evolutionary dead ends were tried, too.

Plans & Specifications

Plan of HMS Devastation (1871)
Diagrams from the 1888 edition of Brassey's. W. Fred Mitchell also drew all the schematics for Brassey's.

Dimensions: 307' x 62'3" x 26'8"   Length between perpendiculars: 285'   Displacement: 9,330 tons std; 13,000 tons deep laden. Armament: (4) 12" 35-ton RML (2x2) (original); (2) 14" torpedo launchers (added 1879); (after 1890:) (4) 10" BLR (2x2); six 6-pounders; eight 3 pounders. Armor: Wrought-iron plate. 12"/10" belt, 14" barbette/turret, 3" deck. Propulsion: 8 coal-fired box boilers operating at 30 psi; (2) 2-cyl Penn trunk engines developing 6,640 ihp, shafted to twin Griffiths screws. Speed: 13.84 kts; 14 kts following 1890 modernization, which replaced trunk engines with triple-expansion and rectangular boilers with cylindrical coal-fired type. Endurance: 5,500 nautical miles @ 10 kts. Crew: 410.

Ships in Class: Devastation Thunderer Dreadnought (half-sister)

Metric Specs:
Dimensions: 94m x 19m x 8.38m   Length between perpendiculars: 87 m   Displacement: 9,330 tons std; 13,000 tons deep laden. Armament:(4) 35-ton 305 mm RML (2x2) - original; (2) 356-mm torpedo launchers (added 1879); (after 1890:) (4) 254 mm BLR (2x2); six 2.7 kg 6-pdr; and eight 1.35-kg 3-pounders. Armor: Wrought-iron plate. 305 mm/254 mm belt, 356 mm barbette/turret, 76 mm deck. Propulsion: 8 coal-fired rectangular boilers operating at 210 kPa; (2) 2-cyl Penn trunk engines developing 4,952 kW, shafted to twin Griffiths screws. Speed: 25.6 km/hr; 26 km/hr following 1890 modernization, which replaced engines with triple-expansion and rectangular boilers with cylindrical coal-fired type. Endurance: 8,850 km @ 18.5 km/hr. Crew: 410.

Click here for a fabulous cutaway diagram of the Devastation.

Ship's History

Technology churned ahead rapidly in these years. Key improvements adopted in new ships, and worked into the Devastation class as well: electric lights with HMS Inflexible in 1881 (soon followed by hydraulic turret training and electric ammunition lifts); triple-expansion engines with HMS Victoria in 1888; steel hulls, compound armor, and breech-loading guns, all introduced in the British fleet in the 1880s.

For all her advanced features, Devastation still relied on muzzle-loading guns which had to be completely retracted inside the turrets for reloading by the 10-man crew. In 1886 the Royal Navy went over to breech-loading artillery for its new capital ships. By 1890 a successful formula had been hit upon (see the Royal Sovereign class) which prevailed for fifteen years -- a formula which owed much to the Devastation model. Principal differences between the prototype and the 1890s ships were high freeboard for improved seaworthiness, breech-loading guns rather than muzzle-loaders, tougher and lighter-weight types of armor, and triple-expansion engines for greater fuel economy and dependability. The pre-dreadnought model prevailed until the 1906 Dreadnought, with her ten 12-inch guns and turbine engines, brought battleships to a new pitch of efficiency and destructive power. At one stroke, she rendered all the world's battle fleets obsolete; hence the monniker "pre-dreadnought," which ironically did not exist during the pre-dreadnought era. Our photos of Devastation were taken following a major refit in 1891. During this refit the Royal Navy installed 10" breech-loading guns in the turrets and added a battery of anti-TB weapons: 6-pdr and 3-pdr rapid-fire guns studded around the superstructure.

Devastation had a long career of 37 years. After commissioning in 1873, she was stationed in the Med and in Home waters for nearly 20 years. After her refit, she joined the Reserve Fleet based in Scotland. Well down on Fisher's list of dinosaurs ready for the crusher, she was sold and broken up beginning in May 1908.

A Devastation Class Ditty Box

Ditty Box: A sailor's kit, containing small items -- photos, keepsakes, shaving & grooming implements.

HMS DEVASTATION under steam, in harbor

In a shot emphasizing the sharp difference between the age of wooden walls and the era of iron and steam, Devastation puffs past an old ship-of-the-line at Portsmouth.

Crewmen louging about the bow turret, HMS DEVASTATION, c. 1870s

Crewmen lounge aboard Devastation. Following the Captain disaster, Devastation was modified while under construction to increase freeboard (to just under 10' forward) and add crew space amidships -- hence the steps up to a higher level on both sides of the fore turret, a unique feature. With limited freeboard the vessel was unable to steam into head seas at full speed, but proved seaworthy enough through a ceaseless series of tests, paving the way for an entire generation of low-floating battleships in the Royal Navy. Devastation had a steaming radius of 5,000 nm without refueling and, after experiments with an 18-foot scale model in Dr. Froude's test tanks, was fitted with deep bilge keels which greatly improved her stability. In keeping with her strong over-all protection, Devastation bore 3" deck armor.

HMS DEVASTATION view inside turret
View inside one of Devastation's turrets, showing her 12" 35-ton muzzle-loaders.

Diagram of the DEVASTATION's turret

Diagram of one of Devastation's turrets. Each turret was 30'6" in diameter, faced with 14" of armor, and with the gunports opening 13 feet above the waterline. The rammers [c] shove the shells and charges through the armored walls, one for each gun. Obviously, loading could only be conducted with the guns run in under the glacis: receiving the projectiles in one position, and the charges in another; known as the loading positions. Although the turrets were trained by steam power, the shell and powder lifts and the rammers were manually operated. This required a crew of 22 to work each turret. In Thunderer the manual operations were replaced by hydraulic machinery, reducing manpower to ten per turret. It was not until 1897 that all-round loading was perfected, considerably speeding up the rate of fire. This innovation was introduced in the last two Majestic class battleships, Caesar and Illustrious, in their Mark VIII 12"/35 mountings.

Devastation's trials occasioned a special edition of The Graphic, published April 26, 1873.  Enlarge

HMS Devastation trial trip, from THE GRAPHIC (1873)
Midships looking forward on Devastation, from the 1873 special edition of The Graphic.  Enlarge

HMS DEVASTATION in 1896, following an extensive rebuild
The Devastation in 1896, following her 1891 modernization. Changes emphasized her outward similarity to the pre-dreadnoughts of the Nineties.

Quarter view of Devastation following her 1891 refit. The very low fantail at stern shows her derivation from the monitor type. Many of the coastal ironclads of the era were based on a raftlike hull, but were fitted with a higher forecastle to improve seaworthiness (e.g. the 1903 French battleship Henri IV).

H.M.S. Thunderer - 1872

HMS THUNDERER (1872) at anchor

HMS Thunderer in 1879. A virtual sister ship to Devastation, commissioned 1872, she did incorporate some minor improvements. One important step was hydraulically-operated loading machinery. The stump foremast abaft the bridge (used for flag signals) was common to all the Devastations, but was removed in the 1891 makeover of the class. Thunderer survived until 1909 despite several horrible mishaps which marred her career. An 1876 boiler explosion was caused by a broken pressure gauge and safety valves, corroded shut; the accident killed 45, including the captain, who unhappily was visiting the boiler room at the time, and injured 30 more. Rectangular boilers were out after the Admiralty investigation of this case; cylindrical or "Scotch" boilers became the preferred type, and following the inquiry into the disaster, the Admiralty issued its first ever Steam Manual in 1879. Three years later, while training in the Sea of Marmara, the left forward 12" gun exploded during target practice. The gun had been accidentally double-loaded following a misfire. This led to the belated adoption of breech-loading ordnance in the Royal Navy, as such a mishap would have been patently impossible with a breech-loader The change came too late for the 11 men killed in the incident; 35 were wounded, some of them horribly maimed.

Yet Thunderer survived to become a favorite in the fleet. In 1881 she was re-engined with Scotch boilers and triple-expansion machinery, halving her coal consumption at full power. The engines' success in Thunderer paved the way to their universal adoption in the Royal Navy. Moreover, with her broad beam the ship proved to be an exemplary gun platform, so much so that "steady as the old Thunderer" became a byword in the service. Thunderer's most illustrious crewman was the Prince of Wales, the future George V, who served in the ship as a lieutenant. His old ship continued as a gunnery training vessel until 1909.

HMS THUNDERER under steam

In another rare view of a Devastation under steam, Thunderer progresses slowly down the harbor past a brig-rigged transport. Thunderer has a section of bulwark folded down and draped about her bows.

Illustration of combat drill in the THUNDERER's conning station

A behind-the-scenes look at the Thunderer's battle bridge during drill. Levers at left control the training of the turrets, accomplished by steam.

H.M.S. Dreadnought - 1875/1879


HMS Dreadnought of 1875 (commissioned 1879), shown in 1884. Again, the derivation from Devastation is obvious. She was to have been an enlarged Devastation but her development was halted in the wake of the Captain disaster. Although the ship had been designed by Reed originally, Nathaniel Barnaby had taken over as Director of Naval Construction in the early 1870s, following Reed's resignation and the reassessment of directions that ensued in the wake of the sinking. It was his understudy Sir William White who did most of the redesign work on this pre-dreadnought Dreadnought, foreshadowing his leading rôle in producing pre-dreadnought warships when he himself became DNC.

At 10,886 tons, Dreadnought had 14" compound belt armor and stem-to-stern protection, though the upper breastwork was not armored. She was powered by 8,210-hp 6-cycle triple-expansion engines, allowing much improved fuel economy. Her power plant was among the first to be mounted vertically in a British warship, as the lengthened belt armor shielded the protruding cylinder heads (HMS Alexandra of 1877, a contemporary, also pioneered vertical engines). Previous warships had had their engines mounted horizontally so the vulnerable machinery would be entirely below the waterline. As engines grew in size, this sometimes made it impossible to place engine rooms side by side; alternately placing them one forward, one aft required one shaft to be much longer than the other, etc.; vertical mounting solved this problem, and side-by-side engine rooms and twin shaft became the preferred solution for many battleships until increasing size demanded triple or quadruple screw layouts in the last decade before WWI.

Plans of the 1876 turret battleship HMS Dreadnought

Plans of the 1879 Dreadnought, from an early edition of Brassey's. Rough allocation of interior space can be appreciated using these drawings. Her main armament consisted of 12.5" 38-ton RML. In 1884, she was given a secondary armament of ten Nordenfelt machine guns; ten years later these were switched out for an assortment of 3- and 6-pounder rapid-firing guns. The ship served in the Med from 1884-1894, then after refit became the guardship at Bantry Bay, Ireland through 1897. She was modernized and served as a Second Class Battleship through 1902, taking part in fleet maneuvers. After spending several years as a tender, she was retired in 1905 and scrapped in 1908.

HMS DREADNOUGHT of 1875 - Contemporary woodengraving
Contemporary woodengraved illustration of the Dreadnought.  Getty Images

The 1879 turret battleship HMS Dreadnought
The Dreadnought at Malta, circa 1880s. Enlarge

As with the names of many Royal Navy ships, Dreadnought's went far back into sailing-ship history. The first Dreadnought was so named by Queen Elizabeth I -- a 400-ton galleon that fought the Spanish Armada in 1588. The name was considered inspiring and re-used over and over across the centuries. Dreadnought No. 5, a 98-gun ship-of-the-line, fought at Trafalgar in 1805; the 1879 Dreadnought was number 8 in this distinguished lineage. It is a tribute to her precedent-shattering qualities that the only Dreadnought commonly remembered today is No. 9, the 1906 version. This revolutionary vessel, envisioned by Sir Jack Fisher and protégés in his circle (known as "the Fishpond"), was the prototype of the all-big-gun battleships that fought in both world wars.

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