H.M.S. Inflexible - 1881

Illustrated London News wood-engraving of the INFLEXIBLE, aerial view, c. 1882
Abaft the beam view of the Inflexible underway, a pull-out freebie from the Illustrated London News' Our Ironclad Navy series.

Ship's History - read on.   |   Specifications   |   Images   |   Derivative Ships

HMS Inflexible, built at the Portmouth Naval Dockyard in 1874-81, is seen above in her initial guise with full brig rig. Designed in the 1870s when steam engines were not always reliable and auxiliary sails were a wise precaution, she came to life in a time when engines were more consistent and the infrastructure to fuel and support steamers was rapidly being constructed across the globe. Hide-bound admirals in the British fleet still insisted on smart sail handling and drilled their crews mercilessly; but the days of sail were numbered. After four years Inflexible was revamped with military masts and no sails.

Inflexible's design was meant to counter the Italian turret ships then being built (and mounting British-made monster guns). Like the Italian ships, she featured an iron hull, a main armament of large-calibre (16" 80-ton muzzle-loading) guns in turrets sited en échelon amidships between the funnels, and long, narrow superstructure fore and aft connected by flying bridges over the roofs of the turrets (see deck plan and aerial views below). The Italian ships, designed by the inspired Adm. Benedetto Brin, generally had one large mast in between the turrets, and some dispensed with armor altogether, being built to do double duty as troop transports. Inflexible went to the opposite extreme, with the thickest armor plate ever installed on a warship: a 24" wrought-iron belt on the midships redoubt (see armor plan below), with 10" of the new compound armor on her turrets. With a slenderness ratio of 4.6:1, she was a stubby and stable gun platform, designed with hydrodynamic models in Dr. Froude's test tanks. The ship was equipped with experimental anti-rolling tanks. The theory was that they could be counterflooded to reduce roll; but they proved useless in practice. Roughed out by Nathaniel Barnaby and drafted in detail by young William White, the ship featured powerful three-cylinder compound steam engines, electric lighting, underwater torpedo tubes, and a host of other technological firsts. No fewer than 39 pumps and auxiliary engines drove her systems. Her first commander, Jacky Fisher, joked that there were so many gadgets sounding bells and alarms that it was impossible to get any rest on board; present-day owners of electronic wonder gadgets will nod in sympathy. The ship was so cavernous that Fisher had different sections painted in contrasting colours below decks to cue crewmen where they were on the strange warship.

Turrets of the DANDOLO trained abeam, great onboard shotThis terrific onboard shot taken on the Italian battleship Dandolo suggests how Inflexible's main battery might have looked when trained on broadside. But despite her imposing guns and all her advanced features, Inflexible was a most imperfect warship. For example, to reload, the muzzle-loading rifles had to be run in under a special shield (or glacis -- see diagram below) for re-loading inboard, and then re-aimed; with luck the crew could get off a single salvo every five minutes. In order to aim both turrets in broadside, the guns had to be run in as there was not sufficient clearance for the turrets to rotate with the guns out. And the 16" guns closely placed under elements of the superstructure caused serious blast damage unless they were aimed at least 30 degrees outboard, nullifying the imagined advantages of the staggered turret placement. In short, though the ship was impressive on paper, she was not a very flexible offensive weapon.* And being very heavy, with tubby lines, she was also slow: 14 knots being the top attained, 12 being more common. Moreoever, the ship had taken a long time to build,and was obsolescent when commissioned. Her two feet of old-fashioned wrought-iron armor was very heavy and less effective than the newer compound armor which appeared only three years after she commissioned. Moreover, with the advent of more powerful -- and much faster-loading -- 12" breech-loading rifles in 1885, Inflexible became effectively obsolete. This did not prevent the Royal Navy from rolling out four smaller and less satisfactory variants on the design during the 1880s, the last two iron-hulled and the first two steel-hulled battleships in the Royal Navy, respectively.

Inflexible's main negatives derived from her glacial rate of fire. But under the right circumstances, she packed a mean punch. Gunnery martinet Jacky Fisher was in command of Inflexible when she was part of Admiral Seymour's armada sent to bombard Alexandria in 1882 -- a key incident in the British takeover of Egypt and the Suez Canal. Maintaining a deliberate and well-aimed fire, Inflexible's 16-inch guns methodically pounded the rebel-held harbor forts into dust. Inflexible herself was hit by two 10-inch shells, wounding a handful of crewmen.

Monarch, Alexandra, Shah and other prominent vessels of the transitional period participated in this imperial show of force, pulverizing and burning down about a third of the town -- ironically, the wealthy part inhabited by Europeans. After the naval "softening up," two British armies already landed went on to rout the rebels and secure the Canal in the name of the Turkish-sponsored ruler, the Khedive Tawfiq. The Khedive became a British puppet like many Egyptian rulers to come; this adapted a form of indirect colonial rule the British had perfected in India's princely states. The British practiced this method throughout the Middle East (notably in Iran and Iraq), with effects that are still being felt today. But Britain soon had its fingers burnt in imperial politics, becoming embroiled by extension in the Mahdist uprising in Sudan in 1884-85; a revolt only finally stamped out with Kitchener's victory at Omdurman in 1898. Egypt remained a British protectorate (and a linchpin of empire, controlling the Suez route to India) through the late 1930s.

But I digress. To return to naval history, other experimental designs during this, the beginning of Barnaby's run as DNC, included central battery ships like Alexandra, full-rigged steamers, barbette ships, elaborations on the Devastation, and developments of the Dandolo/Duilio model. This was, however, a period of vacillation and uncertainty. The ruling Liberal Party demanded economy in operations and most of the warships produced were rather smaller than needed and -- like Inflexible -- frequently so long in building that their defects were not clear until the next generation was well along in construction; a defect in process which was not corrected until the term of Sir William White as Director of Naval Construction (1888-1904), which commenced with an overhaul of the royal dockyards to improve build times. Inflexible herself was frequently cited by HM's Loyal Opposition as an example of wasteful and muddled Admiralty spending. Demoted to coastal defense, she was modernized in the 1890s; incredibly, her old muzzle-loaders were not replaced by modern breech-loaders in this refit. As part of his radical reform of the fleet, Inflexible's old skipper Jacky Fisher, as First Sea Lord, unsentimentally ordered her scrapped in 1905. But he did approve the naming of his second dreadnought battlecruiser: Inflexible.

An Assortment of Inflexible Images

The Inflexible exercising crew in sail handling. Although the vessel was too heavy to be moved by sail alone in most conditions, Jacky Fisher drilled his crew until they were the nimblest sail handlers in the Mediterranean Fleet. Nonetheless, sail was abandoned altogether well before the ship was 10 years old.

Armor plan of the Inflexible. The solid black band amidships was two feet of solid iron -- the central citadel. Grey rectangles indicate the turrets. The unprotected areas at bow and stern were known as the "soft ends." This design was criticized at the time as being unsafe, but similarly constructed ships held up well in battle: the German-built Ding Yuen and Chen Yuen and the Russian Navarin took considerable punishment from Japanese shell hits in separate battles (though Navarin did sink later, after being clobbered by a spread of torpedoes).


Plans and Specifications

Top view deck plan of HMS INFLEXIBLE of 1881
Simplified deck plan of Inflexible. Grey areas are superstructure and hurricane decks (see below); white indicates a clear field of fire for the main turret guns.

Color plan of HMS INFLEXIBLE of 1881

Specifications for the 1881 Inflexible:
Dimensions: 344' x 75' x 25'6" Displacement: 11,880 tons std. Armament: (4) 16" RML (2x2). Armor: Wrought-iron type. 24" belt on redoubt only; 17" turret (compound type). Propulsion: (8) coal-fired cylindrical boilers operating at 61 psi; 3-cyl John Elder compound engines; twin screw. Sail plan: Brig. 18,500 sf of sail, removed 1885. Maximum speed: 14.75 kts.

Metric specifications:
Dimensions: 105m x 23m x 7.8m. Displacement: 11,880 tons std. Armament: (4) 406 mm RML (2x2). Armor: Wrought-iron type. 610-mm belt on redoubt only; 432 mm turret (compound type). Propulsion: (8) coal-fired cylindrical boilers operating at 61 psi; (2) 3-cyl John Elder compound engines; twin screw. Sail plan: Brig. 1,700 mē of sail, removed in 1885. Maximum speed: 27.3 km/hr.

Diagram showing loading procedure for INFLEXIBLE's 16-in guns

Diagram from the 1911 Britannica demonstrates the complex procedure of loading the 16" muzzle-loading guns on Inflexible. The operation was performed under the cover of a sloping armored shield, or glacis (J). Since the rammers and other gear were fixed in one position, the turrets had to be rotated to this one spot in order to reload, making for slow firing (one round every 3 minutes). Features called out in this drawing include: A - Hydraulic Recoil Mechanism;B - Elevating Cylinder; C - Elevating Beam; D - Rammer; E - Powder Case; F - Shot Trolley; G - Shot Hoist; H - Automatic Sight; J - Glacis. To get an idea of the complexity of the procedure, take a look at Rob Brassington's online movie of loading guns on HMS Colossus. These were breeech-loading guns and actually simpler to operate than the Inflexible's, but used rammer, hoist, and trolley technology adapted from earlier usage.

Detail photo showing one of INFLEXIBLE's 16-in turrets
Detail photo shows the Inflexible's port 16" turret and midships ventilation structure.

Drawing of one of INFLEXIBLE's 16-in turrets
A German illustration shows a main turret with one gun depressed to the loading position. Colorful British tars lounge about the glacis.

HMS INFLEXIBLE of 1881, from The Graphic
Not to be outdon, The Graphic featured the great ironclad portrayed in its own clip-out illustration, 1881.

The Inflexible at Malta.

Under military rig, which replaced the ineffective sail rig in 1885.

Derivatives From the Inflexible Model

HMS Ajax and her sister Agamemnon, laid down in 1876 and completed a year after Inflexible, in 1883, magnified the flaws of their model. Smaller (8500-ton) versions of the Inflexible, they mounted 12.5" muzzle-loading guns and had 16" thick compound armor. Their worst features were poor seakeeping qualities and erratic steering. Numerous attempted fixes failed to correct this fault. These were the last two iron-hulled battleships in the British Navy, and the last to be equipped with muzzle loading main armament.

Edinburgh and Colossus of 1885 were slightly enlarged (9,420-ton) and considerably improved versions of the Agamemnons. These were the first steel-hulled ironclads built for the Royal Navy, mounting 12" breech loaders in their turrets, and introducing a secondary armament of five 6" guns. These ships were protected by compound armor (laminations of wrought iron and steel, the whole faced with layers of hardened high-carbon steel), 18"/16"/3". They were the last British battleships designed on the en échelon plan; with Collingwood (1884) British designers returned to the Devastation model of centerline turrets, varying the plan by using barbette mountings.

As part of the Dreadnought Project, Rob Brassington has published an excellent suite of webpages on the loading procedures for the Colossus' 12-inch BLRs, loaded with splendid diagrams and animations. A careful walk through this site will impart more insight on how this ship operated than any number of static diagrams and still photos. Better yet, when you have absorbed the info in Rob's site, you will know what you are looking at when you see a static diagram (there are a few in BigBadBattleships.com). Without further ado:

Fouled anchor, symbol of the AdmiraltyFouled anchor, symbol of the Admiralty