Chapter 5 - The Emergence of Modern War
Naval and Air Weaponry
Between the 15th and 18th centuries the development of naval weapons was hardly perceptible. Ships remained platforms for carrying infantry and, later, as basic gun platforms. Sail and wood construction limited the role of the ship and greatly reduced the number and caliber of guns that could be placed upon them. In the 1800s a new form of propulsion, the steam engine, began to change the role of the ship. The first steam-powered naval ships were produced in the 1820s, but the need for side paddlewheels and huge engines still limited the ship's role as a gun platform. By 1850, the first screw propeller made the side-wheeler obsolete, and freed deckspace necessary to carry more guns. The modern artillery shell, however, had already made the wooden-hulled vessel obsolete and, in 1855, the French introduced iron plating along the wooden hull for increased protection. Even so, the need for heavy modern guns and large steam engines placed too much strain on wooden-hulled ships and, in 1860, the British launched H.M.S. Warrior, the world's first iron hulled warship.
The armored turret was first used on ships in 1868, and gradually the advances in artillery weapons -- quick firing, fixed ammunition, breech-loading, rifled guns -- were seriously applied to naval guns. Ships began to mount multiple turrets, first with one gun per turret and, finally, by 1900, a standard four guns per turret. The caliber of guns grew from 12-inch guns (1908) to 15-inch guns as standard by 1914. The last decade of the 19th century saw the introduction of steel construction for naval vessels. By 1913, naval vessels were powered by oil instead of coal boilers, greatly increasing propulsive power while reducing space. All of these advances culminated in the production of the dreadnought-class warship, the first modern battleship. In less than 100 years, naval ships of the line had gone from the first simple iron-clads to modern battleships. H.M.S. Dreadnought was launched in 1906 and displaced 17,900 tons, was 527 feet long, and 82 feet at the beam. She carried ten 12-inch guns, twenty-seven 12 pounders, and five 18-inch torpedo tubes. Powered by 23,000 horsepower engines, she could make 21 knots. In less than a decade she had become obsolete.
The invention and improvements in mines and, later, the guided torpedo, made even the largest warships vulnerable. The controlled mine was developed by the United States in 1843, and was detonated by electric current from wires leading to shore. Chemically triggered contact mines were in use as early as 1862. By World War I, the mine had become a potent defensive weapon capable of sinking the largest ships. The torpedo -- called the "locomotive torpedo" because it proceeded under its own power and did not have to be towed like earlier models -- made its appearance in 1866. The first models, developed by the Austrians, had a range of 370 yards at 6 knots, and packed an 18-pound explosive warhead. By 1877, the contra-rotating propeller was fitted to a torpedo, an innovation that kept the torpedo steady on course. Soon the torpedo was fitted with a horizontal rudder to keep it at constant depth as it ran to its target. By 1895, the invention of the gyroscope improved the torpedo's accuracy, and by the turn of the century a torpedo could carry a 300-pound warhead to 1000-yard range at 30 knots. This weapon called into existence a new class of cheap, fast, and destructive naval vessels, the torpedo boat.
The most revolutionary naval advance of this period was the submarine. By 1900, the gyroscope, the gyrocompass, and the use of steel hulls, a safe method of propulsion in the internal combustion engine and the accumulator battery, combined to make the submarine possible. The development of the reliable torpedo provided the submarine with an excellent weapon of attack. In 1900, the six major navies of the world had only 10 submarines among them.
In 1905, an American submarine, the USS Holland , became the prototype for other navies with submarine forces. Displacing 105 tons, the Holland had three separate water-tight compartments housing her engine, control, and torpedo rooms. Her second lower deck housed the tanks and battery engines. The Holland could make almost 9 knots while submerged. A few years later the British introduced the conning tower and periscope, while the Germans in 1906 contributed the development of double-hulls and twin screws for propulsion and stability. By 1914, the six major naval powers of the world put 249 submarines to sea.
In 1903, Orville Wright made the first sustained powered flight, twelve seconds, in a heavier-than-air flying machine powered by the new internal combustion engine. In just 2 years the Wright Flyer had improved to the point where it could stay airborne for 40 minutes at a speed of 45 miles per hour. In 1907 the pusher biplane was flown and, by 1908, the Wright airplane was staying in the air for 2.5 hours. The invention of ailerons to control the aircraft around its roll axis greatly increased the maneuverability of the machine. For the most part, however, military men saw the airplane as performing the limited functions of the old balloon, observation and reconnaissance.
In 1910, the American Eugene Eli took off in an airplane from a platform erected on the deck of a naval cruiser and, a year later, it was proven possible to land the aircraft back on the flight deck. In 1911 another American, Glen Curtis, became the first man to carry out a practice bombing run against a naval ship touching off a fierce debate about the vulnerability of ships to air attack. In the same year two-way radio communication from an airplane to the ground was accomplished, an invention that made possible aerial artillery observation and fire direction. Also in 1911, Glen Curtis manufactured the first seaplane and foresaw its use as a weapon against the submarine. In that same year the U.S. Army dropped the first live bombs from an airplane, and the first machine gun was mounted on an aircraft, the French Nieuport fighter. A year later monocoque construction was introduced, a method of arranging stress points in aircraft construction that made possible greater loads on aircraft structures. In that same year airplane flying speed increased to over 100 miles per hour. In April 1912, the establishment of the Royal Flying Corps in England gave birth to the first official air force.
In 1913, speed (127 mph), distance (635 miles), and altitude (20,079 feet) records were set as the airplane began to improve its capability as a weapon of war. The Russians introduced the world's first heavy bomber, the Sikorsky Bolshoi, with a wingspan of over 90 feet. During the Turko-Italian War (1911-12) in Libya the world witnessed the first military use of the airplane in war. The Italians first employed the airplane for artillery observation, and were the first to introduce aerial photography. Italian pilots were the first to drop bombs against an enemy force in combat. The age of the modern strike and bomber airplane as major implements of modern war was underway.