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HMS Thunderer (1911)
HMS Thunderer 1912 IWM Q 021854.jpg
HMS Thunderer at Spithead after completion in 1912
Name: HMS Thunderer
Ordered: 1909
Builder: Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company
Cost: £1,892,823.
Laid down: 13 April 1910
Launched: 1 February 1911
Commissioned: May 1912
Decommissioned: 1921
Fate: Cadet ship; sold for scrap
General characteristics
Class & type: Orion-class battleship

22,200 long tons (22,600 t) standard

25,870 long tons (26,290 t) maximum
Length: 581 ft (177 m)
Beam: 88 ft (27 m)
Draught: 24 ft (7.3 m)
Propulsion: 4 × Parsons Steam turbines
18 × Babcock & Wilcox boilers
driving 4 shafts creating 27,000 hp (20,000 kW)
Speed: 20.79 kn (38.50 km/h) (trials)
Range: 6,300 nmi (11,700 km) at 10 kn (19 km/h)
4,100 nmi (7,600 km) at 19 kn (35 km/h)
Complement: 752 – 1100

10 × BL 13.5-inch (342.9 mm) Mk V guns
16 × BL 4-inch (101.6 mm) Mk VII guns
4 × 47 mm

3 × 21 in (533 mm) torpedo tubes (submerged)

HMS Thunderer was the third Orion-class battleship built for the Royal Navy and was the last vessel to be constructed by Thames Iron Works. She was the last and largest warship ever built on the River Thames, and after her completion her builders declared bankruptcy.

By a margin of £1000, she was the most expensive battleship of the 1909 construction programme built. The Admiralty had called for six new 'super-Dreadnoughts' in 1909 to counter the German naval expansion; the Treasury economists would offer only four, but politics intervened in a year of two general elections, and when the cry went up, "We want eight, and we won't wait!", the Orions were built as part of an unusual compromise of four ships in 1910 and four more in 1911. Thunderer and her sisters were huge ships of 22,000 tons, with ten 13.5 inch guns in super-firing turrets, all mounted on the centreline. Her machinery consisted of new steam turbines, and her electrics were provided by four 200 KW generators, installed in separate compartments, and capable of isolation if damaged, an important innovation.

Her design was dominated by wireless equipment: the Royal Navy led the world in the adoption of the Marconi system, and Admiral Fisher was adamant that the new ships should have "No masts or fighting tops: only a pole for wireless. The necessity for masts and yards for signalling does not exist." So only a single tripod was fitted to carry a tall WT pole; eliminating the after mast, and slinging the aerials down to a short stump aft saved 50 tons of top-weight.

Thunderer was fitted with the Dreyer fire-control table designed by Frederic Charles Dreyer, which was effectively the world's first automatic computer and ten years ahead of any other navy's developments. She was also the first of her class to carry Captain Percy Scott's new director firing system, which made her top-shooting ship in the 1912 trials, when she delivered over six times the hits of Orion into her sister's target in just 3 minutes and 30 seconds.

Design and description

Compared to the Colossus-class battleships, the Orion-class design came across as sleeker and more refined then earlier ships, outwardly similar to the following King George V class the two could be told apart by the Orion's foremast being placed behind the forward funnel, this resulted in the fire control top at the mast head being heavily affected by smoke, heat and gases from the funnel.

One other feature of the ships was dictated by the size of the drydocks available at the time, the size of the ships was the maximum that could fit into these drydocks and something had to give, the bilge keels were omitted, initially the ships rolled heavily and if reports in the tabloids of the times had to be believed the class would capsize in any sea. In truth the rolling whilst undesirable was not this severe and the class were fitted with bilge keels but the size and design was a compromise between effect and dock size.

Another problem facing the designers was where to place the mast. Place it in front of the funnel and the spotting top would be clear of smoke and heat with a head wind but another problem then appeared, where to put the derrick needed to hoist the boats. The Orion class would seem to have bowed to the seamanship problem and placed the mast aft of the fore funnel to allow the fitting of a large derrick for hoisting the ships boats, this did cause problems with smoke and heat in the spotting top. Partially to alleviate this the fore funnel was smaller in diameter than the aft funnel and only vented six boilers and the remaining twelve vented via the aft funnel.

General characteristics

Thunderer was 177.08 metres (580 ft 9 in) long overall. She had a maximum beam of 26.8 metres (88 ft 6 in) and had a draft of 8.4 metres (27 ft 6 in). She had a displacement of 22,200 tonnes at normal load and 25,870 tonnes at full load.

Building data

Thunderer was ordered under the 1909 naval estimates and built by the Thames Ironworks at a cost of cost £1,892,823. Her keel was laid down on the 16th April 1910, launching took place on the 1st February 1911 she was commissioned in May 1912.

Thunderer was the last battleship built on the Thames, Thames Ironworks had been struggling for some time with most orders going to the Northern yards, Arnold Hills the Chairman of the works threatened parliament with the prospect of some awkward questions and as a result Thames Ironworks received the order for the Thunderer. Although an important order, the building of the Thunderer broke the shipyard, banks withdrew their loans and even though Britain was in the grip of a massive naval shipbuilding race the yard at Bow creek closed causing massive unemployment in Blackwall and Canning Town


The machinery arrangement for the Orion class was very similar to that of the earlier Colossus class with quadruple propellers being driven by Parsons direct drive steam turbines. The machinery spaces were split into three with the inboard shafts leading to the centre engine room and the outer shafts the port and starboard wing engine rooms. The two inboard shafts were driven by the high pressure ahead and astern turbines with the ahead turbines having an extra stage for cruising, this was separated from the main turbine by a bypass valve.

The outer shafts were driven by the ahead and astern low pressure turbines, when cruising the out board turbines would be shut down, the ship relying on the inboard shafts alone. The Babcock and Wilcox boilers of greater power remained in three groups of six, although coal fired oil spraying equipment was fitted for quickly raising steam. The normal power for the Conqueror was 27,000 SHP giving 21 knots but on trials she developed 33,198 SHP for 22.13 knots.


The main battery consisted of ten 13.5" guns arranged in five twin turrets all mounted on the centre-line and enabled this class to fire a ten gun broadside without any risk of structural damage to the ship, problems still existed with the open sighting hoods of the lower turrets ("A" & "Y") in that to prevent muzzle blast of the two upper turrets ("B" & "X") entering the lower turrets via the sighting hoods, firing of the upper turrets was prevented from right ahead to 30 degrees on either bow for "A" turret and 30 degrees either side of right astern for "X" turret. The mid-ships turret was designated "Q". The 13.5" gun and was designated the Mark V L, the L indicating it fired the lighter of the 13.5" shells, later classes had the Mk VH guns which fired the heavier shells, the guns were just over 52 feet (16 m) long and the barrel alone weighed more than 70 tons each with a working pressure of 18 tons per square inch, construction was of wire winding, so good were these weapons that they were still in use during World War II as shore guns at Dover. Although just 1.5" larger than the earlier 12" gun it fired a shell weighing 1,266.5 lbs against the 859 lbs of the earlier gun, although of lower velocity than the 12 C50 gun the 13.5 C45 weapon’s heavier shell maintained it’s in-flight velocity and so had greater hitting and penetrative power, the new gun was also very accurate and possessed very good wear rates – up to 450 rounds per gun, tests also showed that the gun had a very good safety margin so that the following King George V-class ships could fire an even heavier I,410 lb shell, although this lowered the wear rate to 220 rounds per gun.

Using a charge of 293 lbs of cordite ranges of just short of 24,000 yards were achieved at 20 degrees elevation, although this was of little real use, the gun range finders had been designed with closer ranges in mind and so could only work up to 16 degrees elevation. Used as a railway gun and using an elevation of 40 degrees the range was then 49,000 yards using 400 lbs of propellant; what this did to the wear rate is unknown.

Secondary battery

The secondary battery on the Thunderer were rather weak, comprising sixteen 4" C50 Mk7 installed in 14 casemate mounts and two open mounts. They fired a 31 lb shell to 11,500 yards and a good crew could achieve a rate of fire of 8 RPM but normally this would be 6 RPM (rounds per minute). This weapon lacked the stopping power to prevent a determined attacking torpedo boat.

Four 3 pounder signalling guns were also added to the Thunderer.

Projectile details

The ship carried three types and weights of shell.

  • Common Pointed Capped - Weighed 1,250 lbs - Bursting Charge of 117 lbs
  • Armour Piercing Capped - Weighed 1,266.5 lbs - Bursting Charge of 30 to 40 lbs
  • High explosive - Weighed 1,250 lbs - Bursting Charge of 176.5 lbs

At 10,000 yards the Armour Piercing Capped shell could penetrate just over 12" of Krupp cemented armour plate.

Five Mk2 turrets were fitted to the Thunderer, these were very similar to those fitted on the earlier 12" dreadnought designs and each weighed about 600 tons. In case of failure of the magazine hoists, 8 ready use shells were stowed within the gun houses and could be loaded using manually powered davits, a further six rounds were stowed in the handling room under the gun with the cordite charges stowed in the turret trunk (The rotating section of the turret reaching down from the handling room down to the magazines and holding the hoists.)

Fire control was effected by a nine foot six inch Co-incidence type rangefinder in the fire control tower high in the ship, this data was fed into a Dreyer table (invented and developed by Frederic Charles Dreyer) this was an early mechanical computer into which was fed range and bearing of the target, wind own course and speed targets course and speed, temperature and wind direction and adjustments for Coriolis effect, this produced a firing solution which was fed electrically to the guns were the gun layers would follow the pointers, when the guns were load the interceptor switches would be closed and gun ready lamps would light in the fire control tower, when all guns were ready they would be fired electrically by the gunnery officer.

Torpedo armament

This remained the same as the earlier Colossus class with three submerged 21 in torpedo tubes, one firing on each beam and one astern. The torpedoes used by the Orion-class battleships were the Whitehead 21 in Mk2 these had a range of 4,000 yards at 35 knots or 5,500 yards at 30 knots and had a TNT warhead of about 400 lbs.


At the time of the design of Orion, the largest calibre of gun carried by battleships of other nations was twelve inches. It was believed, however, that as part of the continuing trend to increasing size in this class of warship, calibres would inevitably rise.[1] Orion and her sisters therefore received heavier and more extensive armour than had been carried by earlier British dreadnoughts.

The main waterline belt was twelve inches thick, and extended from a point level with the centre of "A" barbette to a point level with the centre of "Y" barbette. The lower edge was three feet four inches below the waterline at normal displacement.[2] Above this belt was an upper belt of eight inches in thickness, which ran for the same length. The belt extended further upwards than in previous dreadnoughts; the upper edge was at the level of the middle deck, giving a total belt height of twenty feet six inches.[3] Forward of "A" barbette the belt was extended by a short length of armour of six inches in thickness tapering to four; and the after end of the belt continued as a short strake two and a half inches thick. The extreme ends of the ships sides were not armoured.

A torpedo defence screen ran from "A" barbette to "Y" barbette, and extended from the lower deck to the bottom of the ship. It was of varying thickness, from one to one and three quarter inches, and was intended to prevent mine or torpedo detonation from causing magazine explosion.[4] An armoured bulkhead ten inches thick ran from the after end of the armour belt around "Y" barbette, and there was a further bulkhead mid-way between this barbette and the stern composed of two and a half inch armour. Both bulkheads extended from lower deck to upper deck level. The forward bulkhead, which ran from the forward end of the main belt on either beam to the forward aspect of "A" barbette, was eight inches thick between the forecastle deck and maindeck levels, and six inches thick from maindeck to lower deck. A further bulkhead of four inches thickness was situated in the bow, one third of the distance from the stem to the forward barbette.

There were four armoured decks. The upper and main decks were of one and a half inch armour, the middle deck was one inch thick, and the lower deck was two and a half inches tapering to one inch forward, and four inches tapering to three aft. The greater thickness was over the magazines and machinery.[5]

The faces of the main armament turrets were eleven inches thick, the turret crowns being four inches tapering to three. The barbettes were ten inches thick at their maximum, tapering to seven, five or three inches in areas where adjacent armoured structures or armoured decks afforded some protection.[6]

The conning tower was protected by eleven inches of armour, tapering to three in less vulnerable areas.

Service History

On commissioning in June 1912 Thunderer and her three Orion-class sisters – Orion, Conqueror and Monarch formed the 2nd Division of the 2nd Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet and she remained with her sister ships throughout.

World War I

In December 1914, she was refitted. She was present with her squadron at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916, firing 37 13.5" (343 mm) shells. She suffered no damage.

At Jutland on the 31st May 1916 all four of the Orions were present under the leadership of Rear Admiral Arthur Leveson flying his flag in Orion, her CO was Captain O. Backhouse, followed by: Monarch – Captain G.H. Borret, Conqueror - Captain H.H.D. Tothill and Thunderer- Captain J.A. Fergusson.

Thunderer first came to action at 18:30 when indistinct ranges of 22 to 18,000 yards were obtained on some German ships. Due to poor visibility from smoke she did not open fire at this time, it must be remembered Thunderer was at the rear of the 2nd division and her visibility would be affected by the smoke of the three leading ships. At 19:15 Thunderer sighted two enemy battleships visible between the Royal Oak and the Iron Duke. She fired two salvoes of Common Percussion Capped shell at the leading ship; no hits were made and the second salvo was actually fired over the top of the Iron Duke. Thunderer did not sight the enemy again, however during the German fleet's run to the south after they broke off the engagement the Moltke sighted four large ships at 22:40; these were the four Orion-class ships, so she had a lucky escape that the British lookouts did not see her. In total, Thunderer fired just 37 rounds of 13.5” all being Common Percussion Capped, she did not use her 4 in batteries at all.

Post-Jutland, the Orion class ships spent their time on routine fleet manoeuvres and in 1917, Thunderer was fitted with flying-off platforms on her upper turrets – "B" & "X".


As a result of the Washington Naval Convention, she was decommissioned in 1921. From 1922, she served as a seagoing training ship for cadets, the sole survivor of her class. One of those trainees recalled a CPO thrusting his jack-knife up to the hilt into the side of one of the turrets: the layers of paint were over five inches thick. In November 1926 Thunderer was sold for scrap. She was too deep drafted to enter Blyth so was partially stripped down at Rosyth, even so she grounded at the entrance and it took six days to get her light enough to be floated to Hughes Bolckow for scrapping. Although stripped of her guns and large amounts of her upperworks she still arrived under her own steam, although with only the fore funnel remaining, and only the forward group of six boilers working (the other 12 used the aft funnel).


  1. Parkes p.527
  2. Burt p. 136
  3. Ibid
  4. Parkes p. 500
  5. Ibid
  6. Parkes p.524

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