The British Navy's mightiest warships to ever do battle

HMS Belfast museum ship on the River Thames
The HMS Belfast is now moored on the River Thames | CC BY-SA 3.0

The Royal Navy’s warships have always been enduring symbols of British might on the high seas. This was especially true during the first half of the 20th Century when these vast vessels played key roles in the conflicts that shaped our age.

HMS Hood

One of the most famous vessels in the Royal Navy’s history, the HMS Hood was technically a battlecruiser rather than a battleship, meaning it had thinner armour but greater agility. Ross Kemp's own family served aboard the HMS Hood, Named after 18th century admiral Samuel Hood, it was launched in 1918 by the widow of one of Hood’s seafaring descendants who’d been slain in the Battle of Jutland a few years before.

For decades, the so-called ‘Mighty Hood’ was the biggest warship in the world, with all the prestige that entailed. However, some sailors gave it a less noble nickname: ‘the largest submarine in the fleet’. That’s because the distance between the waterline and the deck (the ‘freeboard’) was small, meaning seawater regularly washed over the ship and even flowed into the living quarters.

The Hood came to a violent end in May 1941 while facing off with enemy vessels during the Battle of Denmark Strait. Shells fired by the fearsome Nazi battleship the Bismarck caused catastrophic explosions on the Hood. Of the 1,418 men on board, only three survived the rapid sinking. Just days later, the Royal Navy took revenge by destroying the Bismarck.

The Hood still looms large for anyone interested in the history of British sea power. In the words of Rear Admiral Philip Wilcocks, president of the HMS Hood Association, she was “the iconic figure for the Royal Navy, for the country, and in those days, for the Empire”.

HMS Belfast

The light cruiser HMS Belfast was launched by Anne Chamberlain, wife of then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in 1938 – just in time for the most monumental conflict in human history. However, the Belfast’s wartime career almost ended before it began, when she struck a German mine in November 1939.

Rather than being scrapped, she was given a long overhaul, equipped with the most advanced radar equipment in the Royal Navy, and sent back into action a few years later. The Belfast played an important role in protecting Arctic convoys taking essential supplies to the Soviet Union. This was arduous work in punishing conditions, with the deck often caked in ice and the crew’s clothing offered little protection from the cold.

During the Battle of the North Cape in December 1943, the Belfast helped destroy the German battleship, Scharnhorst, with almost 2,000 enemy sailors killed. The following year, she provided support for troops landing at the Gold and Juno beaches on D-Day. While it’s widely alleged she fired the very first shots on D-Day, log entries attest that another cruiser beat her to that accolade by three minutes.

Even so, the Belfast – which also served in the Korean War – occupies a lofty position in the annals of the Royal Navy. She’s now permanently moored as a museum ship on the River Thames.

HMS Dreadnought

Launched by Edward VII in 1906, the HMS Dreadnought wasn’t just a ship – she was a piece of naval engineering so innovative that she instantly rendered other warships obsolete. It’s a testament to her importance that her name became the generic term for all battleships to come in her wake, while prior vessels became known as ‘pre-dreadnoughts’.

Many things made the Dreadnought a new and awesome force on the high seas. Primarily, steam turbines that allowed her to move faster than other battleships, and a new emphasis on heavy calibre guns (which is why dreadnoughts were known as “all big gun” warships).

Ironically, a ship that made waves for being the most fearsome of its day didn’t really see much action. She missed out on the Battle of Jutland, as she was being overhauled at that time. Her only significant encounter with an enemy vessel, which came in March 1915, didn’t even require the use of Dreadnought’s infamous big guns. She simply rammed into a German U-boat, slicing the vessel in two. It would be the only time in history that a submarine was purposefully sunk by a battleship.

Eventually sold for scrap, the Dreadnought is remembered less for her service than for her technological attributes, which heralded a military leap forward comparable to the arrival of the tank.

HMS Iron Duke

To say that the HMS Iron Duke was a significant vessel for the Royal Navy would be quite an understatement. Launched in 1912, and named after Napoleon’s nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, she served as the flagship of the Grand Fleet. That was the Royal Navy’s main fleet of the Great War. What’s more, this dreadnought battleship played a starring role in the war’s only major naval engagement between Germany and Britain: The Battle of Jutland.

Taking place between 31st May and 1st June 1916, and much debated to this day, the Battle of Jutland was a cataclysmic confrontation that saw thousands of Royal Navy seamen slaughtered. Admiral John Jellicoe oversaw the bloody battle from the bridge of the Iron Duke, and he would later receive widespread criticism for not establishing a victory as conclusive as Nelson’s at Trafalgar, more than a century before.

That said, the Iron Duke did manage to inflict damage on the German dreadnought, SMS König, and survived the Battle of Jutland unscathed. She was less fortunate during World War Two when she was bombed while serving as a base ship at Scapa Flow. Her crew was forced to run the Iron Duke aground, and she was eventually sold for scrap after the war. The ship’s bell was preserved, however, and can be seen on display at Winchester Cathedral.