Until the arrival of the A-bomb, no single weapon in the history of warfare had wielded more power than the battleship. It had created and protected empires, opened and safeguarded trade routes, settled disputes and assisted in the conquest of territories. Britain's Admiral Lord Nelson called his battleships the best negotiators in the world.
In the main lecture of the evening society committee member Louis Wildenboer traced the development of the battleship from the Greek trireme -- which changed the course of world history when the Persian fleet was defeated at the battle of Salamis in 480 BC -- to WW2, when airpower finally rendered these great ships obsolete.
The advent of gunpowder and ocean-going ships driven by wind and sail vastly extended the reach of the muzzle-loaded cannon, which dominated the seas for centuries. Naval battles in those days were confused affairs with ships firing at targets obscured by smoke and flame, and with the direction of the wind often dictating events.
The age of sail left many famous names on the pages of history. The Dutch admirals Michiel de Ruyter and Maarten Tromp are remembered for having once sailed up the Thames, destroyed the English fleet at anchor, and taken its flagship as prize. Tromp was killed on his own quarter deck by a musket ball fired from an English warship in much the same way as, over a century later, Nelson died.
Nelson, victor of the battles of the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar, set new standards of seamanship and boldness in naval warfare and secured Britain's mastery of the seas for over a century. That period saw major changes in naval warfare. Wood and sail gave way first to iron then to steel in the construction of fighting ships. Wind and sail were replaced as propellents first by coal and later by oil. And muzzle-loaded guns mounted in the broadside were ousted by breach loaders grouped in turrets.
In 1906 Britain launched a totally revolutionary battleship, the Dreadnought, the first of the "big-gun" ships, powered by steam turbines and capable of 21 knots, the fastest speed attained up to that time.
Naval events in the early 20th century were dominated by the spectacular victory of the Japanese over a Russian fleet in the Tsushima Straits, the first of an Asian naval power over a European one, and by the competition for naval dominance between Britain and Imperial Germany. It also saw the arrival on the scene of three weapons that were to challenge to the supremecy of the battleship during this period, namely the mine, the torpedo and the submarine.
By WW1 battleships and their smaller cousins, cruisers -- not forgetting the battle-cruiser, a hybrid -- had become little more than gun platforms built on massive floating ammunition dumps. Victory normally went to the ships with the biggest guns and the hardest punch, although there was still scope for the small fellow to win his round by the crafty use of ships and guns. This was proved at Tsushima and in WW2 at the battles of the River Plate and Savo Island.
By the outbreak of WW2 battleships had become large, fast, heavily-armoured platforms mounting guns that were centrally controlled -- later ranged by radar -- loaded automatically, and firing up to three times massive projectiles a minute for distances exceeding 30km. But their nemesis was fast appearing over the horizon in the shape of that small but deadly weapon the aeroplane. Colonel Billy Mitchell braved court martial and dismissal from the US Army in his endeavours to persuaded the "big-gun" men that aircraft could sink battleships.
WW2 naval affairs were dominated by the steady ascendancy over the battleship of the submarine and the aeroplane. The British battleships Royal Oak and Barham were sunk by submarines, while the Prince of Wales and Repulse went down to aircraft. The German battleship Bismark was crippled by torpedo-carrying planes before being sunk by gunfire and torpedoes. At Tarranto and Pearl Harbor aircraft sank or crippled whole battle fleets. The two largest battleships ever built, the Japanese Yamato, and the even-larger Musashi, were both sunk by aircraft, the latter without ever having fired its big guns at an enemy.
Like the dinosaur and the armoured knight, battleships had become too big, too slow, and too clumsy to survive in a radically changed environment. They have now sailed into history except for those still preserved as museums, or, as is the case with the US Missouri and New Jersey, as launching pads for cruise missiles.