"... our first armourclad ship of war, would cause a fundamental change" - HMS Warrior

29 December 1860, HMS “Warrior”, the first British seagoing ironclad warship, was launched at Blackwall, London.

“It certainly was not appreciated that this, our first armourclad ship of war, would cause a fundamental change in what had been in vogue for something like a thousand years.“ (Admiral of the Fleet John “Jackie” Fisher)

 HMS “Warrior” as a museum ship in Portsmouth today*

The advent of steam power was supposed to change everything in seafaring. By and large, steam-powered ships were faster than rag wagons, more manoeuvrable, and, of course, quite independent from which way the winds blew, if they blew, close to dangerous lee shores as well as in the doldrums of the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. However, the large paddle-wheels necessary to propel a vessel were highly vulnerable, diminished the space a warship needed for her broadside mounted guns considerably, and, on a strategic level, required large coal bunkers around the world to keep an ocean-going fleet going that was supposed to rule the waves and protect the sea lanes of a world-spanning empire. The British admiralty had thus every reason to remain conservative and commission further wooden sailing ships-of-the-line and frigates, but a generation after the Battle of Trafalgar, the industrial age came at the Royal Navy with a vengeance and a few groundbreaking inventions made the old wooden walls useless almost overnight - screw propellers that superseded the paddle wheels, explosive shells, the armour necessary for protecting a ship against them and the possibility to construct iron hulls. 

French ironclad "La Gloire" at anchor in 1860

And while Admiralty still pondered the impact of the new-fangled inventions on naval warfare in general, the French had the cheek to launch a steam-powered, oceangoing, ironclad warship, “La Gloire”, in 1859, had two more of them laid down and British supremacy on the high seas was threatened in earnest. Questions were asked in parliament, the Queen was not amused and something had to be done and rather quick. The result was a radically new design, an iron-hulled, screw-propelled, very fast and heavily armed and armoured frigate built along the lines of HMS “Mersey”, the largest wooden warship ever designed, twice the size of Nelson’s old “Victory”. And even if she froze in the slipway in Blackwall on the day of her launch in 1860 during the coldest winter England had seen over the last 50 years and had to be rocked and tugged free, HMS “Warrior” was commissioned just eight months later in August 1861 and the Royal Navy was back into the game. The “Warrior” and her sister ship “Black Prince” commissioned half a year later, were the fastest and strongest warships afloat in her day and no contemporary artillery was able to pierce her armour. Nonetheless, both ships were not meant to stand and fight in a line-of-battle, but control an engagement with their superior abilities. And then a seemingly insignificant duel between two ironclads in Chesapeake Bay in March 1862 during the US Civil War launched the next round in the international arms race. Actually, “Warrior” and “Black Prince” were already outdated as soon as they were put to sea.

HMS "Devastation", launched in 1871 on a photograph taken in 1897 in front of an old ship of the line

By the end of the 1860s, all sea powers operated ocean-going ironclads and HMS “Warrior” never had to fire a shot in anger anyway. The lessons learned from USS “Monitor”, solely steam-driven and with her main armament in a rotatable gun-turret instead of the centuries old broadsides led to a complete new design of warships that had almost nothing in common with the old wooden sailing ships-of-the-line. Steel began to play another pivotal role in shipbuilding and when HMS “Devastation” was commissioned in 1873, the Royal Navy had her first ocean-going steel-hulled capital ship afloat that did not carry sails and had her whole armament mounted on top of the hull instead of inside it. Ships like “Warrior” had become almost completely useless and she suffered a rather ignominious fate after she was finally decommissioned in 1881. Ironically enough, “Warrior” was saved from the knacker’s yard in the 1920s when quite a surplus of scrap metal from outdated pre-dreadnoughts like the successors of “Devastation” and dreadnoughts was on the market, broken up after the Great War, while the world was already preparing for the next arms race and global conflict. Lovingly restored since 1979, HMS “Warrior” survived them all and now lies in her berth at Portsmouth as a museum ship to be wondered and marvelled at, a witness from a bygone age, when steam was all the rage and 400 years of maritime history became a thing of the past all of a sudden.

HMS "Warrior" steaming under sail in 1872

* The photo of HMS “Warrior” depicted above was  taken in 2011 by Editor5807, found on http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:HMS_Warrior_(ship,_1860)?uselang=de#mediaviewer/File:HMS_Warrior_at_sunrise.JPG

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