Captain Class Battleships
16,758 tons (normal)
2 triple expansion steam engines
24 knots (actual 22 -23 knots)
Length (o/a): 473’
4 x 12“(2 x 2)
16 x 7.5” (16 x 1)
12 x 12pdr (12 x 1)
4 x 3pdr (4 x 1)
2 x 18” Torpedo tubes
Main Belt: 8”
Bulkheads: 8”- 10”
Decks: 1” – 2.25”
Most look to the historic arrival of HMS Dreadnought as the defining moment in the technological surge in innovative battleship design in the early years of the Twentieth Century. However, one might well argue that the Royal Navy’s Captain class battleships were indeed an important last step in reaching the final design determinations to would materialize in HMS Dreadnought.
One of the main fallacies in the Dreadnought saga was that the Royal Navy was solely responsible for bringing about the era that would bear Dreadnought’s name. The fact is that while HMS Dreadnought was the first of that type to enter service, that honour had come about not so much by the collective advances in British designs, but more so due to the fact that the more expedient building times of British builders would allow for an earlier completion than the builders of other nations.
If one was to begin considering the plausibility of the design features that would collectively manifest in HMS Dreadnought were in fact an amalgamation of new concepts that were in fact already present in both previous construction, as well as new vessels already building at the time of Dreadnought’s launch. So while the Captain class did not include all the features that would be brought together in the Dreadnought, by way of certain design functions included, they could be well considered a proper stepping stone to that historic ship.
Most importantly in actual fact, if one was to look at the King Edward VII class as the last of the Royal Navy’s true pre-dreadnought battleships, the Captain class was the second step in the process, as the preceding Sultan class had already taken the first step in the movement toward the final Dreadnought design.
The Sultan class would be the first attempt at stepping away from a mixed heavy caliber main battery, when it stepped away from the heavier 9.2” main battery and replaced it with the smaller, but more numerous 7.5” battery in that design. While the main reason for this seemingly retrograde development was simply to provide for more displacement and space within the design for the increased size of the engineering spaces.
However, an interesting side effect of this process was that by choosing the smaller caliber that was better able to counter both smaller cruisers and torpedo craft than the heavier 9.2” battery might have been. As well as that, by way of the reduction in caliber to something more akin to smaller cruiser-type armaments, they had in fact reverted to a standardized single large caliber main battery.
The armoured scheme in the Sultan design would see reductions as well in an effort to keep the overall size and costs within parameters. While the armoured scheme was reduced, it was felt that it would still provide an adequate level of protection in most situations envisioned for these ships.
By far, the most important feature of the Sultan class was its increase in power to allow for a noticeable increase in designed speed. The end result of this would see a design speed of an unheard 22.5 knots. In actual usage, not much more than 21 knots could be held for extended periods without risking straining the engines.
Fresh testing results from the Admiralty testing facility had delivered novel new data on hull form and dimensions would become available after the original design of the Sultan class was approved. While in lower speed vessels, such information would be of limited value, it was felt that this new data might well provide significant improvements if incorporated into the Sultan design.
With the construction of the first pair of Sultan’s had already commenced, they would be allowed to proceed as per the original design. However, the second pair would have their design re-structured to take full advantage of the new information. The result would be the two ship Captain class.
While these classes were innovative based on its higher designed speed, having that tactical advantage came at a price, which was paid for by reductions in armament and protection. At the time of the launch of HMS Sultan (the first of these ships to wet her keel), they were collectively the largest designs ever built for the Royal Navy up to that time.
Once in service, the Captain class would prove out to be a solid workable design, as were the previous Sultan’s. While not perfect, these ships would prove out to be as good as most, if not all comparable design dreadnoughts from other nations. Some would be argued to be a better design, while others worse, but in the end the matter would be somewhat mute, and in most cases the many designs would all perform to the best of their crews abilities, and the Royal Navy’s Captain class would be no different.
While in all other aspects, there would be little to choose between the two classes. However, by way of their new hull form alone, the Captain class would achieve an additional 1.5 knots additional speed over the Sultan’s in most situations. While these four ships would spend large portions of their operational history operating together, there would be certain deployments where the Captain’s would be set out as a result of their better operational parameters.
An issue with both classes was that while operating at or near their maximum speeds, the would consume their coal stocks at prodigious rates- however at more normal cruising speeds they would prove to be some of the most economical steamers in the RN, with the newer Captain’s holding a noticeable advantage even over the Sultan’s.
With their increased designed speed being their most famous feature, that point deserves a somewhat longer description. The design speed of the Captain class, while reachable, would prove out to be unsustainable for extended periods, however they would easily hold 22 knots for longer periods. At anything over 21 knots they would clean out their coal stocks at prodigious rates, however at normal cruising speeds, these ships would prove out to be among the most economical steamers in the fleet.
As to other aspects of the design, the Captain class were for the most part similar to previous designs for the Royal Navy. While somewhat wet forward, and with a tendency to flood the forward casements in a seaway without additional shielding, they would prove out to be steady gun platforms, good station keepers and at the same time quite maneuverable, with little loss of speed while turning. Their crews found them to be quite habitable by the standards of the day, and they would trend toward being ‘happy ships’ for the most part.
By way of their speed, they would prove out the theory built upon a portion of the battle line having a higher speed could right well deliver certain tactical advantages. However, even more importantly, even before they were launched, it would become one of the world’s most poorly held secrets that these ships would be ‘armoured cruiser killer extraordinaire’s’.
This last point is rather mute, for while at the time of their launch such considerations were valid, by the time of the Great War, it was rather unimportant, given naval developments by that time. Other than in two instances which were rather more by necessity or chance than any other measure, there would be little concerted effort to use these ships for that purpose. All four ships would see service with the Grand Fleet acting together, as well as operating as heavy support for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Cruiser squadrons from 1915 until the spring of 1916 when those big cruisers were stood out from the Grand Fleet for secondary duties.
HMS Hero would be the first of the class join the RN and would initially serve as the flagship of the Home Fleet, being joined there by the HMS Captain in the waning months of 1906. From there, they would see service both in the Atlantic and Mediterranean fleets, however they would return to home waters regularly.
While they would soon fall into the shadow of HMS Dreadnought, and the several similar and related designs that followed, the Captain’s were still considered as a valuable component of the Royal Navy. By way of their higher operational speeds which gave them the ability to operate within the tactical parameters of the new dreadnought designs, they would well prove their worth.
In particular, after the Parliamentary Crisis of 1909, and its related negative impact on the Royal Navy by way of sorting through First Sea Lord Fisher’s discredited design policies, just having the Captain class available would go some way to hold the line in comparative strength with Germany’s High Seas Fleet in those crucial years from 1910 to late 1913 as British building programs reached their stride and brought the levels of modern dreadnought types for the RN back to more acceptable levels.
While serving with the Home Fleet, both the Sultan’s and the Captain’s would be deployed on occasion to serve with the Plymouth Flying squadron and be held ready for use in distant waters on short notice. Such deployments would continue even after the beginning of the Great War.
By far, the most famous battle that the Captain’s participated in was the Battle of Easter Island on October 27th of 1914. Elements of the Plymouth Flying Squadron under the command of Admiral Herbert Heath (which included HMS Captain and HMS Hero), would play the anvil to the hammer provided by Admiral George Patey’s Australian squadron in the destruction of the High Seas Fleet’s East Asia squadron at that battle.
By the spring of 1916, these two classes would no longer be serving in the Grand Fleet, and would shift their time between the Flying Squadron, the Channel Fleet and Bombardment duties along the coast of Belgium. By the fall of 1916. While fulfilling bombardment missions off Belgium, both the Sultan class would be lost, HMS Sans Pareil to a mine and HMS Sultan to a U-Boat’s torpedo.
HMS Captain and HMS Hero would survive the Great War, with both being decommissioned in the fall of 1916 to await their fates. HMS Hero would be sold to the breaker’s in the late summer of 1917, however HMS Captain would have a more interesting fate.
HMS Captain would serve out many more years as a stationary training hulk as part of a new training establishment which would be set up at Rosyth for Sea Cadets from across the British Isles and around the Empire. HMS Captain would serve in this duty until 1938. During the Second Great War, the old veteran would serve as an accommodation hulk, and would finally be sold to the breaker’s in 1947.
The Captain’s would never be considered as one of the greatest or most valuable fighting ships to serve in the Royal Navy, they did serve well throughout the Great War. While their crews sailed in the lee of the great dreadnoughts, they always ‘held their place in the line’ and performed as expected whenever called upon.