HMS Nelson and Rodney: Two of the Most Unique Battleships in History

Built to work around limitations imposed by war treaties, these ships had rather intriguing features.
Christopher McFadden

HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson the only two ships of the Nelson-class of British battleships are some of the most unique and interesting battleships ever built.

Specifically designed to meet the requirements of a very specific international agreement to curb warship construction post-WWI, the two sister ships would go on to both have illustrious careers in the Royal Navy and play pivotal roles during the events of the Second World War. 

But, like all battleships of the period, their fate was sealed with the rise of the aircraft carrier. While both are now long gone, they remain a fond favorite of many a war enthusiast around the world. 

Let's take a look at this pair of stunning, powerful, and frankly, quite beautiful, warships.  

What were the Nelson-class of battleships?

The Nelson class of battleships was a class of British battleships developed in the inter-year wars of the 1920s. A class consisting of just a pair of ships, the HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson, these vessels would become two of the most iconic, and unique, warships ever built. 

The names of these two ships come from two of the Royal Navy's most famous admirals: George Brydges Rodney, the 1st Baron Rodney, and, of course, Lord Horatio Nelson (who needs no introduction). 

Bracketed by the Revenge class (built-in just before WWI) and King George V class (built-in mid-1930s) of battleships that came before and after them, these ships were designed to pack as much armor and firepower onto a ship without breaching the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922

nelson class of battleships HMS Nelson
HMS Nelson in all her glory. Source: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

This treaty, also known as the "Five-Power Treaty", was signed by the major powers of World War I to prevent an arms race of naval forces following the conclusion of the war. Among other limitations, the main thrust of it was to limit the construction of battleships, battlecruisers, and aircraft carriers. 

Specifically, for our purposes, Articles V and VI of the treaty limited battleships to have a total displacement of 35,000 tonnes each, and not be armed with guns larger than 16-inch (406 mm) caliber. However, the British were able to have this limitation relaxed to exclude the weight of fuel and reserve feed water.

This concession was agreed upon by other parties like the British and American navies, as these were often required to conduct long-range missions far from their bases.  

Smaller displacement ships, like cruisers, were not especially affected but were limited to a maximum displacement of 10,000 tons apiece and 8-inch caliber guns.

In order to comply with the restrictions of the treaty, the designs for HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson came with many unusual and novel features not seen in battleships before, or after. For this reason, these are sometimes also referred to as "treaty battleships" (any battleship built between 1922 and the 1930s). 

Of these novel features, perhaps the most striking is the fact that all their main gun turrets sit forward of the bridge. Typically, though not always, main gun turrets on battleships of the period are spread fore and aft of the main bridge of the ship e.g two up front, one behind. 

They were both also the only ships built that carried a set of nine 16-inch (406 mm) main guns. Others were planned, like HMS Lion and her so-named class of battleships, but they were never completed.  

Both were built between 1922 and 1927, and would later go on to serve extensively in most of the world's oceans during World War II. While both are famous in their own right, Rodney perhaps gets more of the spotlight due to her very significant role in the sinking of the Bismark in 1941. 

nelson class nelson and rodney
A rare picture of HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney together. Source: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

During this engagementRodney and the battleship King George V (and a number of cruisers) closed in on the German battleship Bismark to kill her off once and for all. Rodney's main guns are credited with landing somewhere in the region of 100 and 130 hits on the Bismark, causing horrendous damage to her. 

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Later in the war, both ships were instrumental in providing heavy suppressing fire during and after D-Day. HMS Nelson, for example, was credited with destroying no less than 5 Tiger tanks that stumbled into range accidentally. 

Following the conclusion of the war, both ships of the class survived the war, but were scrapped in 1948–1949 along with most of all the other British battleships except the four remaining King George V-class battleships and Vanguard. An inglorious end to these venerable and beautiful ships of war. 

What is the history behind their designs?

The story of the Nelson-class of battleships begins with the end of World War I. War-weary and financially strained, many European nations that had fought and bled (literally and figuratively) during the "War to end all Wars" were less than willing to build back up their forces to pre-war levels as quickly as possible. 

But, nations like the United Kingdom had learned some very important lessons from WWI naval engagements like the Battle of Jutland. This cataclysmic clash of heavy warships taught the British that firepower and protection can trump speed and maneuverability. 

Most nations that had fought in WWI were near bankrupt, and public opinion for massive war spending was not really there. However, some other nations, like Japan and the United States, who were both less impacted by the war, realized they had a lot of catching up to do in terms of building up their fleets and war materiel. 

With this in mind, both nations began laying down large battleships and battlecruisers that displaced as much as 43,000 tons and sported 16-inch (406 mm) guns. Japan especially began construction of the might Nagato and Mutsu as early as 1918 — before the end of WWI. 

This news severely troubled British authorities, who had recently canceled the last three of the Hood-class when the war ended. However, they also had great responsibilities in the Far East and had little choice but to follow the USA and Japan in rebuilding their fleet

So, the British Admiralty duly drew up plans for four new battlecruisers that would each carry 9, 16-inch (406 mm) guns of their own in three turrets. Each was to displace around 48,000 tons and be protected by a 14-inch (355.6 mm) belt armor, 7-8-inch (203.2 mm) deck armor, and have a top speed of about 32 knots.

Their design was heavily influenced by their lessons from WWI. More firepower and more armor were to be the new rule. They simply had to be the biggest and the baddest afloat once launched. 

model of the proposed g3 class
A model of the proposed "G3" class of battlecruiser. Source: Mattzo12/Reddit

Other than that, the ships would need to be able to pass through the Panama and Suez canal, so their size would have to be made to fit accordingly. This led to the eventual creation of the so-called "G3" class of battlecruiser.

An order for four of these ships was made in the early-1920s. A little later, in 1922, sketch designs were also worked on for four battleships, displacing 48,500 tons, armed with nine, 18-inch (457.2 mm) triple turrets, again all forward, and 15-inch (381 mm) side armor, having a speed of 23.5 knots.

In the United States, the cost of the large capital ship program was beginning to bite, and with worries that little was known of the progress of Japanese battleship production, U.S. authorities began to get a little nervous about the emerging arms race between the U.S., U.K, and Japan. 

Interestingly, at this time, the United States honestly believed that the U.K. would join forces with the Japanese should a conflict erupt in the Pacific Theater. This was mainly due to the continued existence of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty. 

These concerns led American authorities to invite all major naval powers to what is now known as the Washington Conference in 1922. After much debate and wrangling by all the nations involved, the Washington Treaty was eventually signed by all delegates. 

The arms race had been put off, at least for now. However, there were some exceptions. The Japanese were able to finish the Mutsu under the treaty, and Britain, with no existing 16-inch (406 mm) gun warships in its fleet, managed to negotiate to build two such vessels. 

nelson class ijn mutsu
Artist's impression of the IJN Mutsu. Source: Patrick McDonald/Flickr

This was critical for the story of the Nelson class.

The British Admiralty duly ordered that two such vessels be built, using the best bits of the G3 design, while meeting the very prescriptive restrictions of the Washington Treaty. 

This, as well as the importance placed on firepower and armor, led to the final design of the Nelson-class being underpowered but tough as iron. Propulsion-wise, the ships only had 2 main shafts and propellors, rather than the 4 used in older battleship designs. The ships had a speed of 23 knots.

Another interesting feature of the Nelson class was the fact that flue gasses needed to be kept clear of the main superstructure. This required the boiler rooms to be moved behind the engine rooms, with flue gases exhausting into a single funnel.

This orientation also reduced the overall length of the armored citadel. As a countermeasure to the limited power, the hull was of a very efficient hydrodynamic form, to attain the best possible speed.

For this reason, they are often also referred to as the "Cherry Tree" class as they had been "cut down by Washington". 

With regards to their toughness, the Nelson class of battleships incorporated some interesting design features to help reduce their weight while also having the ability to absorb some serious damage. For example, internal, inclined armor belts that sloped 72 degrees vertically were installed that were 14 inches (35 cm)thick over the main magazines, 13 inches (33 cm) thick over machinery, and 6 inches (15 cm) thick over the smaller caliber gun magazines. 

This sloped armor increased the relative thickness of the belt where it was likely to be struck by a plunging projectile. The ships also incorporated water-filled compartments, surrounded by air-filled torpedo bulges that were fitted between the armor and the external hull of the ship, which was not armored. 

HMS Nelson on review
HMS Nelson during a fleet review at Spithead. Source: Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia Commons

External torpedo bulges, which would have reduced the speed of the ships due to drag, were not needed as the design was meant to initiate the detonation of shells so that they exploded outside the armor. In this sense, the Nelson class' armor scheme was of the "all or nothing" principle.

This meant that areas were either well protected (those most vital to the ship), from the front of 'A' barbette rearwards to the after 6-inch (152.4 mm) turrets, or they were not protected at all.

The Nelson class also incorporated, for the first time in a British ship, a single, 6.25-inch (158.75 mm) thick armored deck to protect against plunging shells and aircraft-dropped bombs with 4.25 inch (108 mm) armor over the stern, both on top of the 0.5 inches (12.7 mm) deck plating.

Their main turrets had 16-inches (406.4 mm) of "NC armor" on the faces, 11-inches on the sides, 7.25-inches (184.15 mm) on the roof, and 9-inches (228.6 mm) on the rear with 15-inches (381 mm) around the barbettes. The secondary turrets however had only 1-inch (25.4 mm) NC all around. 

Were the Nelson-class battleships a flawed design?

Like most things in life, and war, there is no such thing as a solution — only a compromise. Such is the case for the Nelson-class of battleships

Their innovative designs were not made for aesthetic purposes, though they did look formidable, but rather to pack as many 16-inch guns as possible on a ship that did not breach the displacement limitations of the treaty. So why were all the guns placed fore of the bridge? 

Clearly, this must have been disadvantageous, as the next class of British battleships returned to the proven two forward turrets? Or was it?

hms nelson from the front
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The turret configuration of the Nelson-class was primarily for one main reason — to reduce the need for an extensive (and heavy) armor belt. By keeping all the guns, and their associated ammunition stores in one part of the ship, only that section required extensive armor protection. 

But it came at a cost — it limited the battleships' all round firing arc. Lacking a turret at the rear meant the ship could not fire behind itself, and the X-turret (the turret closest to the bridge) could not fire forward, either as it would hit the next turret in line. 

This was, in fact, more of a design "flaw" than the lack of rear turret, as British battleships often found themselves giving chase rather than turning tail and fleeing from the enemy. As is evident from the famous sinking of the Bismark during WWII. 

There was also another problem with the X-turret — it couldn't be reasonably fired towards the rear high elevation (40-degrees). This is because the blast would often cause significant damage to the bridge windows, which could potentially cause serious or fatal injuries to the bridge crew. Even tempered glass could be shattered from the power of the gun. 

Another problem, though not inherently an issue with the Nelson-class of battleships, was the very guns that were a "must-have" for the ships. The 16-inch Mk1 gun chosen had a high muzzle velocity but was never as reliable as the older 15-inch (38.1 cm) Mk1 guns that preceded them. This led to some serious problems, including increased wear and tear and, probably more importantly, a reduced rate of fire over time. 

The 15-inch (38.1 cm) Mk1's could be reliable fired once every 25 seconds or so, but the 16-inch (40.6 cm) Mk1's could only really manage a shot every 45 seconds. 

So far, some issues, but not really the fault of the Nelson-class designers. They had to make do with what they had to fit their design to some very tight specifications. 

However, there was one serious problem with this class of battleships — their lack of speed. Going flat out, these ships could only really manage a top speed of 23 knots.

HMS nelson from side
Source: Charles E. Brown/Wikimedia Commons

To put that into perspective, the American Iowa-class battleships were able to reach 35 knots (although this could only be sustained for a few hours), and the famous Bismark and Tirpitz battleships could reach speeds of around 29 knots. 

Back in the 1920s, when these battleships were designed, the most advanced boilers available were the so-called Admiralty-drum boilers. 

These were a new technology at the time, but many were required to power something as heavy as a battleship. Each of the Nelson-class ships required 8 of these beasts.

These boilers also need extensive armor protection, which added significant weight to the ship. The ship's main hull would also need to be long enough to accommodate them.

With the limit in tonnage imposed by the Washington Treaty, a trade-off had to be made— hence the relatively insufficient power for the ships. 

By the time the next class of battleships was designed and built, boiler technology had improved. These provided more "bang for your buck" size-wise which meant fewer were needed for the same power output, reducing the weight.

This also meant that a smaller engine was needed, giving more room for other important things like gun turrets, and helping to reduce the overall length (and material needed) of a battleship. 

This was the case for most battleships the Nelson-class would have to face during the Second World War. The Nelson class simply lacked the speed to ever be able to engage the likes of the German Bismark, Scharnhorst, etc in a straight battle. 

The main reason HMS Rodney even stood a chance of getting her formidable guns to bear against the Bismark was that the Bismark's rudder had been disabled prior to engagement by a torpedo. 

hms nelson model box
HMS Nelson is a very popular miniature kit too. Source: Trumpeter/1999

So, were these ships a failure?

No, not really. For the time they were built, they were probably some of the best warships afloat, but technological advancements prior to WWII effectively rendered them obsolete.

That being said, they still proved to be very effective warships and served in many theatres throughout the war. So much so, in fact, that it was too costly to repair them post-war, leaving them to ultimately be scrapped shortly after. 

That, and the age of the battleship had effectively come to an end during WWII. 

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