The Washington Naval Treaty dealt the Royal Navy a raw deal. The RN posssesed 32 dreadnoughts and 9 battlecruisers, compared to the 22 dreadnoughts of the USN and the 8 dreadnoughts and 4 battlecruisers of the IJN. Moreover, the battleships and battlecruisers on the Royal Navy drawing board were distinctly superior to their Japanese and American equivalents. The fact that the United Kingdom was nearly bankrupt in the wake of World War I, and that her resources were far outmatched by those of the United States didn’t help alleviate the sting of having to scrap more than half of her dreadnought fleet, abandon her magnificent new battleships, and accept naval parity with the Americans and only modest naval superiority over the Japanese. The Royal Navy was, however, able to wring a major concession. Because Japan and the United States had both completed battleships with 16″ guns, Great Britain would be allowed to construct two of its own. These ships became Nelson and Rodney.
In designing the two ships, the British tried to combine the best elements of the cancelled battlecruiser and battleship classes. The Treaty limited the displacement of the ships to 35000 tons, slightly larger than the Nagato and Colorado class battleships of the other two major navies. They would be armed and armored on the same scale as the planned battlecruisers, while possessing the speed of the battleship class. This resulted in ships with an armament of nine 16″ guns in three triple turrets, a displacement of 34000 tons, and a speed of 23.5 knots. For the first time, the Royal Navy adopted the “all or nothing” armor scheme that had been incorporated in US battleships since 1916. This scheme left much of the ship unprotected, on the assumption that the vital areas (magazines, boilers) should be heavily defended and that the light armor covering the non-vital areas could not resist battleship guns in any case. Consequently, the Nelsons were very heavily armored, including a 14″ main belt.
Although quite powerful, the ships were of a hybrid design and consequently had some serious problems. A curious decision was made to put the entire armament forward, ahead of the tower superstructure. One of the turrets was superfiring, but one was not, leaving it with a very restricted firing arc. The gun disposition also led to blast problems, and it was general policy that the guns should never be fired all at the same time. The ships had a massive tower superstructure that, while looking impressive, sometime acted as a sail in high winds. The armor belt, although thick, proved difficult to repair. Because of the desire to save weight the ships only used two propellers, which reduced their maneuverability and made them vulnerable to underwater attack. All in all, the British could have done a much better job. The third turret should have been placed aft, as later became the practice in most navies. Although it was hard to predict this at the time, it would also have made sense to sacrifice some protection in favor of speed, as Rodney could not keep up with even the Queen Elizabeth class battleships. Rodney was commissioned in 1927, and despite their problems it is probably fair to argue that she and her sister were the most powerful battleships in the world until 1940.
The United Kingdom was still strapped for cash, and the Depression didn’t help matters. In 1931, the government decided to cut pay for some sailors by 25%. Unsurprisingly, the sailors didn’t care for this line of thinking. On September 15, 1931, sailors on board Rodney and three other Royal Navy battleships mutinied, and refused to take orders from their officers. The Invergordon Mutiny, as it came to be called, threatened to spread until the Cabinet took action, reducing the pay cut to 10%. Several hundred sailors were either jailed or discharged for participating in the mutiny. Partially in consequence of the resultant fiscal crisis, the United Kingdom abandoned the Gold Standard several months later. The rest of Rodney’s interwar career was uneventful.
In the early part of World War II, Rodney served as a convoy escort, meeting but not firing upon Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in March 1941. In May, Rodney was assigned to the hunt for the battleship Bismarck. Because of damage to her rudder, Bismarck could not escape the slow British battleship, and Rodney (along with King George V) engaged Bismarck on May 27. The most serious damage that Rodney suffered during the battle was self-inflicted, as the crew could not be dissuaded from launching full salvos. Bismarck proved difficult to sink, with Rodney finally closing to point blank range and firing torpedos into Bismarck before breaking off. Bismarck would later be sunk/scuttled by a combination of British torpedos and her own scuttling charges. This appears to be the only case of a battleship successfully firing torpedos at another battleship.
After her encounter with Bismarck, Rodney returned to convoy escort in the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic, and the Arctic. Due to heavy use and insufficient repairs, she became incapable of further action in 1944, and was put in reserve in December. Rodney was sold for scrap in 1948.
(Images courtesy of Martimequest)
Discussion: Taking time period into account, what was the best all-around dreadnought battleship (or class of battleships) ever constructed?