The Queen Elizabeth class represented a leap forward in battleship design almost equivalent in degree to that of Dreadnought. Following the construction of Iron Duke, the Admiralty decided to pursue a class of ships that would be larger, more heavily armed, and faster than any predecessor or any foreign competitor. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill pushed forward the development of the 15″ gun, capable of outdistancing the weapons carried by American and Japanese battleships. The heavier guns gave the QEs a broadside heavier and with more penetrative capability than the preceding Iron Dukes in spite of carrying one fewer turret. The initial design provided for an armament of 10 15″ guns in five twin turrets, but the Admiralty decided to sacrifice one turret in favor of a higher speed. This decision would be critical for the future of the class. Perhaps of greatest consequence, a study by Jackie Fisher suggested that oil propulsion would be both possible and desirable.
Queen Elizabeth entered service in January 1915. She displaced roughly 28000 tons, carried 8 15″ guns in four twin turrets, and could make 24 knots. Queen Elizabeth was the first battleship equipped with oil fired boilers, which carried several advantages. Oil was less labor intensive as a fuel than coal, and did not require the employment of a large number of stokers to maintain speed. While human endurance and difficulties associated with the transportation of coal around the ship had limited the duration at which a ship could maintain its highest speed, oil could be transported automatically and stored more efficiently. Oil produced less smoke, helping a ship avoid engagements and perform better during combat (smoke tended to obscure firing positions). Finally, oil burned more efficiently, allowing a higher speed. This higher speed put Queen Elizabeth in between battlecruisers and traditional battleships in speed. The class, initially expected to include three ships and a battlecruiser counterpart, was eventually expanded to five by the cancellation of the battlecruiser and the offer of funds for an additional ship by the colony Malaya. An offer of three more ships by Canada was narrowly turned down.
Queen Elizabeth’s first action was as part of an assault on the Dardanelles. Queen Elizabeth bombarded shore fortresses and supported the attack of March 18, 1915 which tried to force the Straits. Mines and shore defences turned back the combined British and French attack, and Queen Elizabeth was withdrawn for fear of loss on May 12. She joined the Fifth Battle Squadron, initially attached to the Grand Fleet and later to Admiral David Beatty’s battlecruiser squadron. Queen Elizabeth missed the Battle of Jutland while in drydock for minor repairs and maintenance.
Bitter recrimination after the Battle of Jutland led to the “promotion” of Admiral Jellicoe and the assignment of Admiral David Beatty to the command of the Grand Fleet. Beatty initially used Iron Duke as his flagship, but the crew, which had quite liked Admiral Jellicoe, apparently demonstrated a sullen and resentful attitude towards Beatty. In early 1917, Beatty transferred his flag to the newer, larger, and faster Queen Elizabeth. The only significant action that Queen Elizabeth engaged in was the escort of the High Seas Fleet to Scapa Flow at the end of the war.
Queen Elizabeth served as the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet until 1924, and as flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet for several years after that. Although Queen Elizabeth remained an impressive ship, changes in naval warfare had revealed problems with the original design. In the late 1930s, she underwent an extensive reconstruction that replaced her superstructure, improved her horizontal and underwater protection, and fit a more modern anti-aircraft armament. The reconstruction helped remedy the ship’s most serious problems, while retaining the high design speed. Queen Elizabeth’s high speed meant that she would be a more useful ship in World War II than the slow R class battleships or than any of the American “standard type” battleships. The reconstruction lasted until May 1941.
Upon her return to service Queen Elizabeth was posted the the Mediterranean Fleet. The Italian Fleet had essentially given up major operations by the time of Queen Elizabeth’s arrival, but in December 1941 a group of Italian frogmen infiltrated Alexandria harbor and attached mines to Queen Elizabeth and her sister Valiant. The mines exploded, sinking both ships in shallow water. The British raised Queen Elizabeth and conducted spot repairs, but found it necessary to dispatch the ship to Norfolk, Virginia in September of 1942. Repairs were completed there, and, as the impending surrender of Italy had made the Mediterranean Fleet irrelevant, Queen Elizabeth was assigned to the Pacific.
In the Pacific Queen Elizabeth helped escort carrier attack groups against Japanese targets in the Dutch East Indies. With Allied naval supremacy assured, she returned to Great Britain in July 1945, and was placed in reserve. Even after reconstruction, Queen Elizabeth could make little contribution to the post-war navy, and she was scrapped in 1948.
Trivia: In addition to Nagato, what battleship did the United States claim as a prize in the aftermath of World War II?