Coast Defense Battleship Henri IV  - 1897 / 1902
Text by Steve Backer

Side view of HENRI IV -  IWM (Q 22283)
Trials photo of Henri IV, 1902.  Enlarge   IWM (Q 22283)
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Intro - read on.    |    Specifications    |    Gun Siting    |    Photos    |    Links

Louis Emile Bertin, French naval architect and thinkerAt the end of the 19th century, gun layout and arrangement was a major source of experimentation, especially in the French and American navies. The Royal Navy had adopted the standard of four 12-inch and twelve 6-inch as the common pattern for all of their battleships and really did not experiment. That was left up to the small fries [sic] of other navies. If against all odds the French or Americans came up with something good, it could always be adopted into the Royal Navy.

In 1897 the French government decided to build a coast defense battleship of rather small displacement. This design was entrusted to the foremost French naval designer of the day, Émile Bertin (left). The design produced by Bertin would be unique. It would be a fresh design that took an original approach to hull stability, gun stability and gun arrangement. The name of the vessel was Henri IV.

Instead of using tumblehome, Bertin used a high freeboard, narrow central superstructure that ran down the centerline of a very low-freeboard hull, very similar, although far wider, to the low freeboard U.S. monitors. The hull was far wider than the central superstructure and provided width and stability with a low center of gravity, enhancing the ship's stability. The high-freeboard, narrow centerline superstructure provided high locations for the armament for good sighting and all weather firing, while the broad hull acted as a bilge keel and greatly reduced rolling, providing gun stability. This wide low freeboard hull with high narrow superstructure were the features of Henri IV most noticed at the time. Also mentioned was another innovation, which although discounted at the time, proved to be the most significant contribution of Henri IV to warship design history: the superfiring turret. At the stern of Henri IV Bertin had placed a small 5.5-inch single gun turret forward and above the stern 10.8-inch gun turret. This was the first true superfiring turret incorporated into any warship design.

At the time the stability arrangement was the prime topic of discussion with the Henri IV. The Naval Annual had been the chief English language yearly publication since 1886, that discussed warship design developments. The 1900 edition devotes considerable space to a discussion of the Henri IV:

Plan of the HENRI IV"The Henri IV, which was launched at Cherbourg in August, after having been in hand twenty-five months, belongs to a special type. She took the water with a displacement of 4,000 tons towards her total of about 9,000. She was designed by M. Bertin, at it is believed, according to the Yacht, that if she should prove satisfactory, she will mark the point of departure for the construction of a series of ships. The length is 354 ft. 4 in., beam 72 ft. 3 in., and maximum draught 22 ft. 11 in. The peculiarity of the ship is that she resembles the ordinary high freeboard type at the bows, but from about one-fourth of the length from the stem and abaft she resembles the monitor type. The proportion of length to beam is about 4.8 to 1. From the bows the superstructure follows the outline of the hull until a width of some 46 ft. is attained, and from that point, on both sides of the ship, the topsides, rising from the armour deck, become vertical and parallel to the middle line, and extend to the after turret, turning inward as they approach it. On each side of the superstructure there is thus a low-freeboard space about 13 ft. wide, as well as the center space abaft the after turret, this low-freeboard space being 3 ft. above the waterline. The citadel is amidships, with a quick-firer at each angle, and before and abaft it the upper works are narrower to admit of direct fire ahead or astern, and form another stage in the superstructure. The Henri IV will offer a great contrast to most modern French vessels from the fact that her structure above water is of very reduced dimensions, and that the target she will present to an enemy will be smaller than in the case of any other vessel of like displacement." (Naval Annual 1900, edited by John Leyland, 26-27.)

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Quarter view of the HENRI IV, anchored

With so much deck space only three feet above waterline, it would of course be subject to flooding while traveling at speed or in rough weather. This has always been the bane of the monitor designs. However Bertin designed the Henri IV to handle this flooding. "A notable feature of the ship is that no difficulty is anticipated to arise when her decks are flooded, special provision being made for the water passing off as she steams ahead. Exceptional stability is assigned to her, but for greater security there is a thin steel deck below the armour deck descending very low at the sides, and covering the machinery." (Ibid., p. 27.) This last feature was one of the earliest instances of true underwater protection.


Gun Siting Issues

Piggyback gun mounting, USS KENTUCKYIn the same volume, the [Brassey's] Naval Annual 1900 discusses in depth the two-story gun arrangements of the USN battleships USS Kearsarge and USS Kentucky (right). The discussion weighs the pros and cons of this arrangement, which was placing two eight-inch guns above two 13-inch guns. The eight-inch guns turned with the 13-inch guns and could not be fired independently. In reality this USN design innovation, although repeated in the Virginia Class battleships, was an evolutionary dead end. This of course was not known at the time and the two story design created much excitement. On the other hand the true path of evolution was to all intents unappreciated if not downright overlooked. Henri IV incorporated a true superfiring turret. "The heaviest guns are two of 10.8-in., severally in hooded turrets forward and abaft, which are protected by 9.4 in. of Harveyed steel at the base, and of 11.8 in. in the parts which revolve. The turrets are to be worked by electricity. The turret forward rises high above the water, and though the base is protected, there would appear to be some danger of the turret falling over, owing to the pillar-like character of the structure if the ship should be seriously damaged below. Above the after turret and a little forward is another turret for a 5.5-in. Q.F." (Ibid.) Although the superfiring 5.5-inch gun turret in the Henri IV marked the true introduction of superfiring gun arrangements adopted by every navy, this paragraph shows that its design implications were completely missed in all the hoopla over the evolutionary dead end of USN two-story turrets.

Profile of the HENRI IVThe French navy also had their doubts about Bertin's superfiring design. Would the blast from the upper 5.5-inch gun injure the crew of the lower 10.8-inch turret? To test blast effects, the lower turret was crammed with sheep prior to a gunnery test and buttoned up. During the test the superfiring 5.5-inch turret was fired a number of times on different axes over the sheep infested 10.8-inch turret. After the tests the 10.8-inch turret was opened up and it was discovered that two of the sheep were dead. One sheep had a heart attack and the other had a brain hemorrhage. The probable cause was shock rather than blast but this fine point was lost upon the French sailors who would have to man the lower turret. Perversely, the unscientific sheep test only served to discredit the true evolution in gun arrangements and [the] design feature was not repeated. The Japanese had been considering a cruiser design with superfiring guns but after the test on Henri IV, Sir John Biles successfully talked them out of it in favor of the conservative broadside approach. It was discovered that maximum blast damage was caused at right angles to the muzzle. The answer to minimize blast damage to a lower turret was to have the sighting hoods of the lower turret placed behind the muzzles of the superfiring guns but that was not possible in Henri IV and was not even considered. "Hence the influence of the Henri IV experiment was largely of a negative nature - although accepted in toto years afterwards - a common fate of innovations appearing before their time." (British Battleships by Dr. Oscar Parkes, 1971, p. 402.)

Henri IV was laid down in July 1897, launched in August 1899 and completed in 1902. As a coast defense battleship or battleship 2nd class, she was not in the forefront of French naval activities. However, she was still in service when France declared war against Germany in August 1914. She was in the backwater of Bizerta [Tunisia] in the Mediterranean and stayed there as guard ship until February 1915. At this point in time Henri IV was sent to the Dardanelles to support the Anglo-French fleet and ANZAC landings. In 1916 she joined the Complementary or Reserve Division of the 3rd Battle Squadron. Subsequently she was transferred to the French eastern division in Egypt and then in 1918 to Taranto as a depot ship. In company with almost all other predreadnoughts she went to the scrapyard after the war. At Toulon Henri IV, an unheeded prophet, was stricken in 1921. However, perhaps not so unheeded. For she had served long enough to see all the world's navies adopt the superfiring turret arrangement that she had introduced at the very turn of the century.


Plans and Specifications

Schematic of the HENRI IV

Specifications for the Henri IV:
Dimensions: 354'4" x 72'10" x 22'11"   Displacement: 8,807 tons. Armament: (2) 10.8"/40 Mle 1893, (7) 5.5"/45 Mle 1893, (3) 12-pdr guns; (6) Maxim machine guns; (2) 18" beam torpedo tubes. Armor: 11"/8" belt, 11½" main turrets, 8" conning tower, 4½" upper belt, battery, and small turret; 6"/3" deck. Coal capacity: 820 tons normal; 11,000 tons maximum. Propulsion: (12) coal-fired Niclaussé boilers; (3) inverted vertical triple expansion engines developing 11,500 hp, shafted to triple screw. Speed: 17½ knots. Crew: 464.

Metric specs:
Dimensions: 108m x 22.2m x 7m.   Displacement: 8,807 tons. Armament: (2) 274 mm/40 Mle 1893, (7) 140 mm/45 Mle 1893, and (3) 12-pdr guns; (6) Maxim machine guns; (2) 45 cm beam topedo tubes. Armor: 279/203 mm belt, 292 mm main turrets, 203 mm conning tower, 114 mm upper belt, battery, and small turret; 152/76 mm deck. Coal capacity: 820 tons normal; 11,000 tons maximum. Propulsion: (12) coal-fired Niclaussé boilers; (3) inverted vertical triple expansion engines developing 8,576 kW, shafted to triple screw. Speed: 32.4 km/hr. Crew: 464.


A Regal Processional
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Combrig Model Box Photo, in Garish Colorized B&W
1903: Henri IV ventures onto the world stage. Her first steps are not timid ones. Photo from French Battleships: 1876-1946.

Stern view of the HENRI IV

Stern view of the Henri IV shows the sheer rise of aft barbettes from the low-lying afterdeck and the tiny counter turn-under of the stern. The aft 10.8" turret rose 16 feet above the surface; the 5.5", 21 feet.

Side view of HENRI, big smoke
Blackening the skies locally, the ship runs acceptance trials for speed in 1902.

Stern view of the HENRI IV
A view from Jane's 1914 edition. The bow gun rode a lofty 28 feet above the waves.

Stern view of the HENRI IV
Rare on-board view shows operations within the Dardanellles during WWI, looking forward from the starboard gangway.
Three of her four broadside 5.5s are shown; the fourth was in the celebrated superposed turret.

Model of HENRI at anchor, diorama of other boats & people

A beautifully made diorama of the ship at anchor, surrounded by small craft plying their daily rounds. The extensive "raft" section is readily apparent in this view. It was intended to run partly awash when the ship was operating at speed.

USS WYOMING on trials, 3 sets of superfiring turrets

1912: USS Wyoming, America's first turbine-driven battleship, flaunts three pairs of superfiring 12" twin turrets (a 12-barrel broadside) along with her breathtaking coal smoke and bow wave. Moving the sighting hoods of the lower turrets from the roofs to the turret sides made the arrangement practicable. The USN was the first to adopt this arrangement with the South Carolina Class of 1909, whose eight 12" guns in superfiring twin turrets proved the soundness of the scheme. Within a few years it had been adopted by all the world's major navies for their capital ships. In the 1920s-30s it was adapted for their 6" and 8" gunned cruisers as well.


Relevant Web Resources
  • Louis Émile Bertin, Father of the Henri IV
  • French Coastal Battleships
  • Freak Warships of the Victorian Era
  • Vive la France! Review the French Navy
  • Full Steam to Global Site Nav

  • Fouled anchorFrench flagFouled anchor