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First Ironclads: HMS Warrior

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First Ironclads: HMS Warrior

HMS Warrior at Portsmouth, England

Photograph © Richard Gallagher. Distributed under GNU Free Documentation License.

General:

  • Nation: Great Britain
  • Builder: Thames Ironworks & Shipbuilding Co. Ltd.
  • Laid Down: May 25, 1859
  • Launched: December 29, 1860
  • Commissioned: August 1, 1861
  • Decommissioned: May 31, 1883
  • Fate: Museum ship at Portsmouth, England

Specifications:

  • Type: Armored Frigate
  • Displacement: 9,210 tons
  • Length: 418 ft.
  • Beam: 58 ft.
  • Draft: 27 ft.
  • Complement: 705
  • Power Plant: Penn Jet-Condensing, horizontal-trunk, single expansion steam engine
  • Speed: 13 knots (sail), 14.5 knots (steam), 17 knots (combined)

Armament:

  • 26 x 68-pdr. guns (muzzle-loading)
  • 10 x 110-pdr. Armstrong guns (breech-loading)
  • 4 x 40-pdr. Armstrong guns (breech-loading)

Operational History:

During the early decades of the 19th century the Royal Navy began add steam power to many of its ships and was slowly introducing new innovations, such as iron hulls, into some of its smaller vessels. In 1858, the Admiralty was stunned to learn that the French had commenced construction of an ironclad warship named La Gloire. It was the desire of Emperor Napoleon III to replace all of France's warships with iron-hulled ironclads, however French industry lacked the capacity to produce the needed plate. As a result, La Gloire was initially built of wood then clad in iron armor.

Commissioned in August 1860, La Gloire became the world's first ocean-going ironclad warship. Sensing that their naval dominance was being threatened, the Royal Navy immediately commenced construction on a vessel superior to La Gloire. Conceived by Admiral Sir Baldwin Wake-Walker and designed by Isaac Watts, HMS Warrior was laid down at Thames Ironworks & Shipbuilding on May 29, 1859. Incorporating a variety of new technology, Warrior was be a composite sail/steam armored frigate. Built with an iron hull, Warrior's steam engines turned a large propeller.

Central to the ship's design was its armored citadel. Built into the hull, the citadel contained Warrior's broadside guns and possessed 4.5" iron armor which was bolted onto 9" of teak. During construction, the design of the citadel was tested against the most modern guns of the day and none were able to penetrate its armor. For further protection, innovative watertight bulkheads were added to the vessel. Though Warrior was designed to carry fewer guns than many other ships in the fleet, it compensated by mounting heavier weapons.

These included 26 68-pdr guns and 10 110-pdr breech-loading Armstrong rifles. Warrior was launched at Blackwall on December 29, 1860. A particularly cold day, the ship froze to the ways and required six tugs to pull it into the water. Commissioned on August 1, 1861, Warrior cost the Admiralty £357,291. Joining the fleet, Warrior served primarily in home waters as the only dry dock large enough to take it was in Britain. Arguably the most powerful warship afloat when it was commissioned, Warrior quickly intimidated rival nations and launched the competition to build bigger and stronger iron/steel battleships.

Upon first seeing Warrior's power the French naval attaché in London sent an urgent dispatch to his superiors in Paris stating, "Should this ship meet our fleet it will be as a black snake among rabbits!" Those in Britain were similarly impressed including Charles Dickens who wrote, "A black vicious ugly customer as ever I saw, whale-like in size, and with as terrible a row of incisor teeth as ever closed on a French frigate." A year after Warrior was commissioned it was joined by its sister ship, HMS Black Prince. During the 1860s, Warrior saw peaceful service and had its gun battery upgraded between 1864 and 1867.

Warrior's routine was interrupted in 1868, following a collision with HMS Royal Oak. The following year it made one of its few trips away from Europe when it towed a floating dry dock to Bermuda. After undergoing a refit in 1871-1875, Warrior was placed in reserve status. A groundbreaking vessel, the naval arms race that it helped inspire had quickly led to it becoming obsolete. From 1875-1883, Warrior performed summer training cruises to the Mediterranean and Baltic for reservists. Laid up in 1883, the ship remained available for active duty until 1900.

In 1904, Warrior was taken to Portsmouth and renamed Vernon III as part of the Royal Navy's torpedo training school. Providing steam and power for the neighboring hulks that comprised the school, Warrior remained in this role until 1923. After attempts to sell the ship for scrap in the mid-1920s failed, it was converted for use a floating oil jetty at Pembroke, Wales. Designated Oil Hulk C77, Warrior humbly fulfilled this duty for half a century. In 1979, the ship was saved from the scrap yard by the Maritime Trust. Initially led by the Duke of Edinburgh, the Trust oversaw the eight-year restoration of the ship. Returned to its 1860s glory, Warrior entered its berth at Portsmouth on June 16, 1987, and began a new life as a museum ship.

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