The British Navy of to-day.
In giving a brief outline of the general features of the battleships and cruisers composing the present British navy, it must be remembered that the navy is made up of ships built during a period of fifteen or twenty years; the newest being a great advance upon the older ones, yet differing but little from those launched a few years before.
The indications at present are for fast ships of very large size, the battleships—intended to act in squadrons—possessing the maximum of offensive and defensive power; the cruisers—intended for scouting and similar purposes—possessing a high rate of speed, heavy armament, and a certain amount of protection; and, as the travelling speed of a fleet is limited to that of the slowest vessel in the group, the aim of British naval architects is to design all the battleships to go at approximately the same speed, and similarly for the cruisers. A special feature of all British warships is the large coal supply carried, in view of the fact that they may be required to operate in any part of the world. For this reason the armour in our ships is sometimes not so thick as in some foreign ships, which sacrifice coal supply and radius of action to obtain better protection. In other respects our ships are second to none.
The British battleship of to-day varies from 12,000 up to 15,000 tons in displacement, and has a maximum speed of fully 18 knots, or about twenty-one miles an hour. They are armoured from end to end, and are provided with two protective decks; the lower one, about the level of the water-line, being to protect the “vitals”; the upper one, to prevent the fragments of shells from above penetrating to the batteries below. Forward and aft are the two barbettes, each carrying a pair of long 12-inch 50-ton guns, firing 850-pound shot, capable of penetrating 28 inches of wrought iron at a range of two miles. The secondary armament of 6-inch or 7.5-inch guns is mounted in “casemates,” or armoured chambers, so disposed that two of them can also fire straight ahead, and the other two straight astern. The most recent ships have these ahead or astern guns mounted in turrets, and in the largest ships of all, some of which are of 18,000 tons, these guns are 9.2-inch 380-pounders.
After the battleships come the cruisers, corresponding to the frigates of olden days,—ships whose functions correspond to that of the cavalry of land forces, having to act as scouts, carry messages, intercept the enemy’s ships, and capture his mercantile ships, or protect their own merchant convoys. To perform these varied functions, one of the chief requirements is speed, rather than heavy armament, so that it can run, if need be, if it should happen to encounter a ship of greater power. Accordingly the best cruisers are given the high maximum speed of 23 to 25 knots.
Cruisers are divided into two classes: armoured and unarmoured. The former are really modified battleships, with thin armour and somewhat lighter armament, to enable the necessary engine power and coal supply to be provided. Armoured cruisers of this description could, at a pinch, take part in fleet actions—even against ironclads, as shown at the battle of the Yalu, between the Chinese and Japanese, when the latter, with protected cruisers and one or two armoured cruisers, defeated a fleet in which there were several ironclads much larger and better protected than themselves.
The most recent armoured cruisers are ships of 13,000 to 14,000 tons displacement, and are protected by a belt of 6-inch armour, in addition to protective decks. They are armed with two or four 9.2-inch 380-pounder guns, mounted in barbettes of thick armour, and with a number of 6-inch 100-pounders; a number of 12-pounders and 3-pounders are also carried. Some ships of this description can spurt up to 25 knots—not so long ago considered a high speed even for a torpedo boat destroyer.
The unarmoured cruisers are intended chiefly for scouting purposes, or for capturing or protecting commerce. As they are only intended to fight with ships similar to themselves, which may attempt to make havoc among our merchantmen, their only protection is a protective deck which covers the vitals. The first-class unarmoured cruisers have an armament and speed similar to those of the armoured type, and may have casements for their broadside guns, and barbettes for the heavy ones; the second-class cruisers are armed with 6-inch and 4.7-inch guns, protected by simple shields only, and they have a speed of from 19 to 20 knots.