Extract from the book

HMS Warpsite at Devonport

Extract from ‘Warspite’ by Iain Ballantyne

Anxious moments on the Tamar

On 26 November 1913, a young politician witnessed the launching of a gigantic vessel of war upon which he had gambled his political career and the safety of the British Empire. The vessel’s name was Warspite; the politician was Winston Churchill.

Gathered around the First Lord of the Admiralty at Devonport Dockyard in the English naval city of Plymouth, was a tumultuous crowd of 30,000. Under a grey overcast sky, the assembled thousands held their breath as one, for the Warspite stubbornly refused to be launched.

Mrs Austen Chamberlain, wife of the Government minister, had broken a bottle of wine against the bow. Then, using a hammer to hit a chisel held by a dockyard official, Mrs Chamberlain severed a cord, so releasing with a massive crash, wooden supports either side of the gigantic hull. Despite the best efforts of burly dockyard workers and hydraulic rams to send her down the slipway, the battleship stayed put. But then the creaking of timber blocks giving way under the hull shattered the tense silence and someone cried out: “She’s off!” With the masses cheering their lungs out, and craft on the river blasting their sirens, Warspite finally went on her way, sliding stern first into the wide Tamar. She settled gracefully in the water, the cheers of sailors aboard answered from all sides by the crowd.

Overjoyed, Mr Churchill blew off steam by lustily joining in the singing of ‘Rule Britannia’, giving extra emphasis to the song – and his relief – with the enthusiastic waving of his hat.

The launch of Warspite at Devonport Dockyard had been delayed a month to await the arrival of heavy castings and time was of the essence. Never before had a hull of some 12,000 tons been put in the water on the Tamar and there would not be another adequate high tide for a long time.

Britain was engaged in a rapidly escalating naval construction race with Germany and just under nine months later the two nations would be at war. Churchill had fought tooth and nail to build Warspite and her four sister ships of the Queen Elizabeth Class, in a bold bid to achieve final supremacy over the Kaiser’s fleet with a new class of super dreadnoughts.

A controversial concept, they mounted 15-inch guns on a heavily armoured hull. Not only was it by no means certain such large calibre guns could be mounted and fired safely, the new battleships also rejected plentiful British coal in favour of oil from the Middle East to fire their boilers.

If the First Lord of the Admiralty had needed a boost to his confidence, he had only to study the history of the six previous Warspites, each of which had carved an illustrious career, fighting in battles across the ages, from Cadiz in 1596 through to Quiberon Bay in 1759.

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