Fisher saw the British Navy as overstretched, deploying unnecessarily large numbers of the wrong types of ships in all the wrong places. He scrapped the light cruisers, sloops, gunboats and guardships that showed the British flag across the world from the Caribbean through Africa and India to the Far East, seeking to concentrate the Navy's strength in a smaller number of much more powerful ships based mainly in home waters - where he believed the main threat to Britain to be located, in the form of Germany. His belief in big, efficient, modern warships was embodied in his two great creations: the battlecruiser 'Invincible' and the revolutionary all-big-gun 'Dreadnought'.
The principle characteristics of both these vessels were speed and firepower; the main difference between them was armor protection, the battlecruisers being much more lightly armed than ships of the 'Dreadnought' type on the principle that a fast ship could always outrun the threat from the enemy's guns and so would not need heavy armor. From a distance it could, Fisher nonetheless believed, use the accurate and efficient gunnery that was so close to his heart to destroy the enemy. In historical perspective the battlecruiser can be seen as an innovation every bit as significant as the dreadnought, but among contemporaries it was the latter that captured the imagination and reshaped perceptions of naval warfare and the naval balance of power in Europe.
So what was remarkable about HMS 'Dreadnought'? In many ways her innovative character was based upon the conception of her as being, above all, a fast platform for heavy guns. She mounted ten 12-inch guns in five twin turrets; her only secondary armament was 27 12-pdr guns for use against torpedo boats. At a time when warships customarily carried a range of armament of different sizes, this was a radical simplification: 'Dreadnought' was 'the embodiment of confident shipbuilding harnessed to gunnery'. The speed of the new ship was provided by the new turbine technology, which was faster, smoother-running and more economical in terms of space than previous marine steam-engine designs. At her trials in October 1906 'Dreadnought' achieved a speed of nearly 22 knots, giving her a significant speed advantage over older ships which averaged 16-20 knots. The ship was capable of doing what Fisher and the Navy required of her: moving fast and firing quickly and accurately. Furthermore, she was built at extraordinary speed, taking just a year and a day from being laid down to steaming out of her dock - emphasizing the superiority of British naval organization and shipbuilding. No other nation could build such a ship at such a speed, and no other nation had a ship so capable of outrunning and outgunning the opposition.
Upon the appearance of 'Dreadnought', Germany halted work on a batch of old-style battleships with powerful secondary armament and began to plan a response. The four vessels of the resulting class of ships, the 'Nassau' class, were laid down in August 1907. They were technically inferior to the British dreadnoughts in using reciprocating engines rather than turbines (German turbine construction being reserved for fast cruisers) which greatly encumbered the ships by using up a vast amount of internal space, necessitating awkward armament arrangements. Their armor was better than their British counterparts' however, being 11.75-inch thick at the main belt against the 11-inch armor of 'Dreadnought'. While these ships were under construction in 1908 Tirpitz amended the Naval Law, providing for the construction of four large armored warships every year until 1911, and thereafter two, with the emphasis to be on dreadnought and battlecruiser construction rather than light and armored cruisers as previously. Britain herself had been building at a relatively leisurely pace, restrained partly by her Liberal government's concern with spending public money on welfare and living standards rather than armaments, and partly by a belief that the Royal Navy was so far ahead of any rival in technology and numbers that Britain had little reason to hurry. This did not prevent news of Tirpitz's acceleration of German naval construction producing a political scare and high-profile demands for more British warships to be built, but in truth there was some justification for Fisher's apparent complacency. The Royal Navy outnumbered the German Navy by a margin of four to one, and British ships were faster, better-armed and better-commanded; and no other European nation was building dreadnoughts as yet than Britain and Germany. This did not prevent a rise in Anglo-German antagonism from 1908 onwards. By 1912 the Naval Intelligence Department of the British Admiralty was responding with alarm to the scale and character of the German fleet:
The whole character of the German fleet shows that it is designed for aggression and offensive action on the largest possible scale in the North Sea or the North Atlantic. The structure of the German battleships shows clearly that they are intended for attack in a fleet action... sudden and aggressive action is the primary cause for which they have been prepared... The claim from Germany that she has no expectation of victory over the strongest naval power, but has simply created a 'risk fleet' is scarcely respectful of the sagacity of the German Government... Whatever purpose has animated the creators of the German Navy, and induced them to make so many exertions and sacrifices it is not the foolish purpose of coming off second best on the day of trial.
The construction of the British dreadnoughts, the reconstruction of the Navy under Fisher, the rivalry with Germany and the sense that the strength of the contending European great powers was being played out on the seas and in the dockyards shaped international developments against a background of other factors. Britain was abandoning her isolationist foreign policy. From her Victorian position of trusting in her global empire and disdaining any political or military involvements in the continent of Europe, she began actively to seek alliances and committed herself, for the first time since the Napoleonic Wars, to a continental European alliance with the Anglo-French 'Entente Cordiale' of 1904. This meant that British soldiers would fight alongside the French on the continent even if the British Isles were not directly threatened. As a British official put it:
Basically our security remains involved with that of our continental neighbors: for the dominance of the European land-mass by an alien and hostile power would make almost impossible the maintenance of our national independence, to say nothing or our capacity to maintain a defensive system to protect any extra-European interests we may retain.
The result was an increase in the sense to which Europe was divided into armed, hostile camps: Britain, France and Russia on one side, Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other. The dreadnought, like the nuclear missile sixty years later, served as a kind of dramatic shorthand, a symbol, of that division. The balance of power was worked out in numbers of dreadnoughts, and the great grey ships prowling the seas served to underline the readiness of each nation to fight and the sense of menace that underlay the politics of the pre-war years.
Evans, R.J.W. And Hartmut Pogge von Strandman, the Coming of the First World War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).
Ion, a. Hamish and B.J.C. McKercher, Military Heretics: The Unorthodox in Policy and Strategy (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994).
Jane's Fighting Ships of World War I (London: Random House, 1990).
Kennedy, Paul, the Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (3rd edn., London: Fontana, 1991).