Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Ironclad Rams - a revolution in naval warfare?

The technological improvements in steel shipbuilding combined with revolutionary gun manufacturing techniques would revolutionize naval warfare between 1870 and 1890, but the true importance of the changes in weaponry would not become apparent until the Great War of 1914-18.

Warships had been carrying iron amour since the 1850s and the first all iron warship was the British HMS Warrior of 1860. These early ironclads, as they were known, carried a similar armament to warships of three centuries earlier: a number of muzzle-loading guns arranged to fire outward from the sides of the ship.

It quickly became apparent that the old style weaponry was effectively useless against the new style armor. At the same time coal-fired steam engines were replacing sails as the main means of locomotion for warships. Compared to a sailing ship, a steam ship needs no masts and far fewer men, but it does need large below decks space for the engines and the coal needed for long voyages. These factors resulted in a series of sometimes bizarre experimental designs.

One idea was to abandon guns when fighting a rival ironclad and instead ram the enemy. The US Civil War saw some early experiments in ramming, but it was the Austrians who first used the weapon with real success. At the Battle of Lissa on 20 July 1866 Admiral Tegetthoff with a fleet of seven ironclads and assorted wooden support vessels attacked an Italian fleet under Admiral di Persano who had 12 ironclads plus several wooden warships. Tegetthoff ordered his ironclads to fire only at the enemy wooden vessels and to engage the rival ironclads by ramming. Within under an hour the Italian flagship and another ironclad were sent to the bottom of the Adriatic. The Austrians lost no ships, though one was damaged and a few men killed.

The world’s navies hurriedly began building ironclads with vicious-looking metal rams attached to greatly strengthened bows. The fashion for rams lasted about 20 years before admirals realized that the maneuvers needed to get a ram into action were unlikely ever to produce results in a battle where the enemy was aware of the danger, as Persano had not been in 1866.
Battle of Lissa

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