The Ships That Changed Naval History

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Warships first developed as a means of delivering armies to areas of combat. Over the centuries they developed weapons to fight each other, with arrows, flames, rams, and through boarding the enemy. Eventually cannons replaced arrows and catapults, but rams remained a feature on some ships well into the 19th century. CSS Virginia was one example. It used its purpose-built iron ram to sink USS Cumberland during the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862, crippling itself in the process. Virginia was nonetheless an innovative vessel which triggered changes to the navies of the world.

Such has been the case since the Middle Ages. One nation created an advantage in war at sea, and triggered changes in the fleets of its enemies and potential enemies. Ships propelled by oars gave way to sails, then steam, then nuclear power and gas turbines. Heavy cannons and line of battle tactics dominated naval tactics for six centuries before yielding to aviation and stealthy submarines lurking in the depths. Some ships, on their own, dictated the way war at sea was fought, and ushered in a new era of naval history. Here are ten of them.

10. HMS Mary Rose

King Henry VIII took a personal interest in the design and construction of HMS Mary Rose, overseeing the project from its inception. The ship was the largest yet built for the King’s Navy, which had not yet earned the designation Royal Navy. The King ordered additional heavy ships as Mary Rose was under construction. Mary Rose was built and launched in Portsmouth in 1511, towed to London for fitting out and arming, and joined the English fleet in 1512. Designed as a carrack (a hull with raised structures called castles which arose from the main deck fore and aft), Mary Rose was the first English warship to carry a row of heavy guns on the main deck.

The batteries of guns ran the length of the deck, penetrating the hull by the means of gun ports which could be opened and closed. Prior to Mary Rose, ship’s guns could only fire over the top of the ship’s bulwarks, or from within the castles. The lines of guns and gun ports changed tactics in ship-to-ship combat, with the English laying their ship alongside the enemy, pounding it down the length of its hull. The line of battle developed from the new tactics, and dominated naval battles for another four and a half centuries. Mary Rose was rebuilt in 1536, becoming yet more powerfully armed, but sank in the Solent in 1545, in circumstances still debated. In 1982 the ship was raised and preserved. Today it offers a time capsule of Tudor England and the birth of the Royal Navy

9. Floating Battery Demologos

USS Demologos was the first warship built anywhere in the world powered by steam. Designed and built by Robert Fulton in 1814, Demologos was a catamaran, with the paddle wheel situated between the two hulls, protected from gunfire. The design allowed for an unbroken line of heavy guns running along the gun deck and the main deck. It had no superstructure, no masts, and no rigging. Fulton designed the ship as a floating battery, which could maneuver in the calmer waters of harbors and rivers as a defense against enemy attacks on American ports. Fulton delivered the vessel to the United States Navy in 1815. By then, the War of 1812 was over and the ship was no longer needed.

Demologos had an operational career of one day, when it cruised New York Harbor carrying President James Monroe. For the rest of its existence it served as a floating barracks and stores ship serving the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1829 the ship caught fire and exploded when the flames reached its gunpowder stores. The design survived through the American Civil War, when ironclad gunboats built for the Navy patrolled the main rivers and their tributaries. Paddle wheel propulsion proved limited at sea. The development of the screw propeller eventually replaced it for deep water ships, though it remained in use in the brown water Navy up to and including World War II.

8. USS Monitor

In 1861, Union newspapers reported the Confederates were converting the captured frigate USS Merrimack into a casemate ironclad at Norfolk, Virginia. John Ericsson, a Swedish inventor, designed an iron-hulled, steam-powered ship to counter the Confederate threat. The vessel consisted of the hull, an iron deck just above the waterline, and a steam-powered rotating turret capable of slewing a full 360 degrees. Within the turret were two heavy guns, protected by an armored gun port when not open for firing. Invented by Theodore Thimby, it was the first powered rotating turret to appear on a warship. It changed the design of warships for the ensuing 150 years.

Monitor fought only once during its brief career, battling CSS Virginia to a standstill at Hampton Roads, before the latter withdrew up the James River. The only other time it fired its guns in anger was in support of Union troops at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff in May, 1862. After refitting at Hampton Roads the ship sank while under tow off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. During its brief existence the capabilities of two heavy guns in a rotating turret attracted the attention of European navies. The United States built about 60 ironclads during the remaining years of the war, many of them improvements on the Monitor design. By the end of the war, every wooden hulled warship in the world was essentially obsolete.

7. CSS Hunley

Several navies (and the Continental Army of the American Revolution) experimented with submersibles prior to the American Civil War. Several designs were proposed before the construction of the first submersible boat in 1605. In 1800 Robert Fulton built a submarine for the French Navy. Napoleon was unimpressed, and the French gave up on the project, which was later rejected by the Royal Navy as well. Not until the American Civil War was a submarine used to attack an enemy ship. Hunley, built in Mobile, Alabama and delivered to Charleston, South Carolina by rail, attacked and sank USS HousatonicHunley sank in the attack. It was the third time Hunley sank, killing all of its crew.

Hunley was and is referred to as CSS Hunley; the designation implies the submersible was commissioned into the Confederate States Navy. It was not. The vessel arrived in Charleston privately owned by its builder. The Confederate Army seized it and operated it during its attack. Its crew were Confederate soldiers, not sailors. During testing in Charleston Harbor, Hunley sank with the loss of five men of its eight-man crew. It was salvaged, repaired, and sank again in the harbor in October, 1863, killing all of its crew. Though it sank Housatonic (February 17, 1864) it again was sunk, with the loss of all hands. Nonetheless, the successful submarine attack changed naval warfare. Fifty years later, German U-Boats demonstrated to the world just how much Hunley changed the way war is fought at sea.

6. HMS Cobra and HMS Viper

By the end of the 19th century all the world’s major Navies relied on steam to power the majority of their ships. The steam engines in use were primarily reciprocating engines, which used pistons driven by steam to create a rotating motion. Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company of Great Britain proposed the use of a steam turbine, invented by Charles A. Parsons, to power British Naval ships. In 1894 Parsons demonstrated the concept to the Royal Navy with a vessel built by his company named Turbinia. The Navy was impressed with the speed demonstrated by Turbinia and ordered two destroyers, Cobra and Viper. They were the first two warships in the world powered by steam turbines, which remain the primary source of power for propulsion in most ships.


Both ships had short careers. Viper was launched in 1899 and commissioned the following year. During speed trials, the ship exceeded 35 knots (over 42 miles per hour), well above its design specifications. Unfortunately, at slower cruising speeds fuel consumption was excessive. Viper was lost in 1901, wrecked on Renonquet Rocks. Cobra was lost in heavy seas just six weeks later. The promise shown by both ships during their short career was the death knell for reciprocating steam engines at sea, and the steam turbine became the engine of choice among shipbuilders. They remain so to this day. Even ships equipped with nuclear reactors use them as the source of heat to create steam to drive turbines.

5. HMS Dreadnought

When HMS Dreadnought entered service in the Royal Navy in 1906 it rendered every other battleship in the world obsolete. Ships of all navies were referred to as pre-dreadnoughts, while those built to emulate the British battleship were called dreadnoughts. Powered by steam turbines from Parsons Marine, and armed with a uniform battery of ten 12” guns in armored turrets, Dreadnought was the fastest and most powerful battleship built to that time. It triggered a naval arms race which lasted for the next decade. The German, French, Italian, Japanese, and American Navies all instituted building programs to compete with the new British innovations.

The naval arms race ensured that by the time of the Battle of Jutland in 1916, Dreadnought was no longer a front-line vessel. In terms of speed and fighting power the revolutionary ship had been surpassed. Dreadnought, designed to be the most powerful surface combatant afloat, did not take part in any of the surface engagements of World War I. It did ram and sink a German U-boat during the war, while performing coastal defense duties. The sinking gave Dreadnought the distinction of being the only battleship in history to sink an enemy submarine. In 1921 the revolutionary battleship was deemed hopelessly obsolete, and sold as scrap.

4. IJN Hosho

During the First World War the contending navies experimented with aviation. Aircraft launched from ships showed promise attacking enemy ships, troops ashore, and each other. Naval Aviation became a controversial subject in the days immediately following the war. In most navies, one faction emerged which supported aircraft development to focus on attacking enemy ships. They claimed that even the most powerful battleships were vulnerable to airborne bombs and torpedoes, and the future of naval warfare was in the skies. The other side claimed the airplane was good for scouting missions and little else, since anti-aircraft guns were easily installed on surface ships. The Japanese Navy supported naval aviation enthusiastically.

In 1920 the Japanese began construction of Hosho, the first ship designed and built from the bottom up to serve as an aircraft carrier (early British and American carriers were converted from other ship designs). Hosho entered service in 1922, the same year the Washington Naval Treaty limited the number of battleships and cruisers operated by the world’s largest navies. Hosho was used to train Japan’s fledgling naval air service, develop carrier tactics, and apply lessons learned to new aircraft. The ship’s air wings saw combat during the Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s. By the end of the decade, Japan possessed the world’s largest aircraft carrier force, with trained aviators second to none. Hosho served throughout World War II as a support carrier and a training ship. After the war it repatriated Japanese troops and civilians to the home islands. In 1946 the ship was sold for scrap.

3. USS Nautilus

During the Second World War, advances in the theoretical science of using nuclear reactors as a power source for ships showed promise. The US Navy was particularly interested in its use in submarines, since the process consumes no air. On New Year’s Eve, 1947, the Navy contracted Westinghouse Electric Corporation to design and build a nuclear reactor for use in submarines. Navy Captain Hyman Rockover was assigned to oversee the US Navy’s and the Atomic Energy Commission’s joint effort in 1949. Two years later the construction of the world’s first nuclear powered ship, USS Nautilus, was funded by Congress. On January 21, 1954, Nautilus was launched into the Thames River at Groton, Connecticut.

On January 17, 1955, Nautilus put to sea, sending the message to the world, “Underway on nuclear power.” From the beginning of its operational life Nautilus was an experimental vessel. It was used to prove the viability of nuclear-powered ships, study the effects of long-term operations submerged on men and equipment, and demonstrate the ability of American submarines to operate under the polar ice. In 1958 Nautilus transited the North Pole, departing from Pearl Harbor in the Pacific and surfacing north of Greenland. At the time the chagrined Soviets had no submarines which could match the capabilities demonstrated by Nautilus, which was rapidly being joined by other nuclear submarines, each representing lessons learned from their predecessors. Today Nautilus is a museum at the Naval Submarine Base New London in Connecticut.

2. USS George Washington

The nuclear submarine USS George Washington was the third US Navy ship to bear the name of the first President of the United States. George Washington was built to support the Polaris submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) system. On June 28, 1960, the submarine left Groton, Connecticut bound for Cape Canaveral, Florida. There two Polaris missiles, which had been problematic during their development, having failed in several land based launch attempts, were loaded into its 16 tube missile compartment. On July 20, 1960, George Washington successfully completed the first submerged launch of a ballistic missile, announcing, “Polaris – from out of the deep to the target. Perfect.” George Washington was the first American submarine to have two separate crews, designated Blue and Gold.

For the rest of its career as a strategic deterrent, the crews alternated the completion of patrols. While one crew was at sea the other rested, and retrained on equipment and duties. George Washington operated for ten years before its first refueling in 1970. In 1982 the submarine was retired from strategic missile patrols (after completing 55 in both the Atlantic and Pacific) and served as an attack submarine until decommissioned in 1985. George Washington was the first to demonstrate the US Navy’s ability to launch ballistic missiles while undetected at sea, a significant Cold War deterrent to Soviet aggression. It was the first of the 41 for Freedom, the name given to the American submarines built from 1958 to 1965 which served as nuclear deterrents at sea.

1. USS Triton

Usually a ship’s shakedown cruise is used to familiarize the crew with each other and the vessel in which they are embarked. Most are of short duration, with an extended period of maintenance and repair immediately following the ship’s return to port. Not so for USS Triton, the only American nuclear submarine to date to be built with two reactors. Both reactors could drive either of the ship’s two screws, though normally each drove one. On February 15, 1960, after loading an abnormally large supply of food and other essentials (and warning the crew to file their income taxes before departure), Triton left New London on its shakedown cruise. It did not resurface until the following May. In between it completed the first circumnavigation of the globe, submerged, following as closely as possible the route taken by the Magellan Expedition in the 16th century.

The achievement, announced to the world by President Eisenhower from the White House, was far more than a publicity stunt. It demonstrated to America’s enemies and allies that its submarines could operate anywhere in the world, their whereabouts unknown, for extended periods of time. The cruise provided invaluable data on inertial navigation and the psychological effects of extended submerged deployment, both vital to the Polaris program. It charted a vast area of the sea bottom previously unknown. Hydrological experiments gave new information on the oceans’ currents and salinity levels. Triton’s commander, Captain Edward L. Beach (author of Run Silent, Run Deep), wrote articles for National Geographic and other magazines describing the voyage, and volunteers for the submarine force increased. Triton proved the nuclear submarine was the most potent threat in America’s arsenal, a reputation it retained throughout the Cold War.


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