On a frigid December in Blackwall, London, in 1861, the history of naval power was changed forever. The massive ironclad warship HMS Warrior slipped into the river Thames, a 40-gun frigate powered by steam and sail, not the first ironclad in the world – that honour went to the French Gloire two years prior – but the first of a fully new generation of warships.
Warrior was built with a long hull made entirely of iron, breaking with the tradition of wooden hulls only armoured over with iron; this innovation, in order to save weight, required the armour to be concentrated in a centrally located box – the citadel – which protected the ship’s vitals, as opposed to armouring along the length of the vessel. This changed the way ships were built nearly overnight, and even into the era depicted by World of Warships these same fundamentals lived on: the USS Iowa, built eighty years after Warrior, follows similar principles in her design: a fully steel hull with the armour concentrated over the engines and magazines.
It’s an incredible fortune that, unlike any other ship from her era, Warrior still exists today. It’s one thing for an ironclad to survive to the present; it’s another thing entirely for such a revolutionary ship to make it through one hundred and fifty turbulent years.
As it happens, Warrior, for that accomplishment, is the luckiest ship in the world today. Had even one of many events in history happened differently, we would have lost one of the greatest pieces of naval engineering the world has ever seen.
Despite – or perhaps directly as a result of – being the most powerful ship in the world when she was commissioned, Warrior, along with her sister, Black Prince, had quite unexceptional careers. She spent her first few years doing tours and ceremonies, a symbolic gesture no doubt meant to show off to the French across the Channel the power the English wielded with their new, invulnerable warship. She was refitted, hosted foreign dignitaries, and guarded the English Channel, but otherwise got into nothing as exciting as a war; the most excitement she saw in her career as a commissioned warship were some incidents in which she rammed or nearly rammed friendly vessels.
A short ten years after being built, in 1871, the Royal Navy saw the addition of the excitingly-named HMS Devastation, a new and advanced ship with no masts, the first capital ship in the world to have such a feature. Save for a brief scare during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Warrior never even saw the potential for real combat, but by that late a date she was an obsolete ship, having served her purpose in thwarting any true naval rival to the United Kingdom.
In 1883, while she served as a guardship up north in the Firth of Clyde, two of her three masts were found to be rotten, and were removed; this marked the end of her career as a commissioned warship after 22 years of service.
There were proposals to keep her in the fleet and even to modernize her, as her successor Devastation was around 1890, but it was decided to not be worth the cost, and so she greeted the beginning of the 20th century as a storage hulk. This was a fairly good turn of fate for her, certainly better than being scrapped, but even this wasn’t the closest she would come to becoming an ex-ship.
In 1902 her engines were finally removed, and in 1904 she was moved to the shore establishment Vernon in Portsmouth, the Royal Navy’s torpedo training school. In order to free her name her name for a new armoured cruiser – which, cruelly enough, would actually go on to see action unlike her venerable namesake, in the Battle of Jutland no less – she was simply renamed Vernon III, the first of several name changes she would go through. On the good side, though, she received new boilers and electric generators and two of her masts were returned.
The torpedo school moved in 1923 to a different location, and while Warrior got her name back, she was also redundant and most certainly eligible for scrapping to get at the nice iron that made up her large hull.
Except, just shortly before then, the Washington Naval Treaty was signed, which caused the United Kingdom and other major naval powers to scrap many of the new warships they had under construction, along with obsolete ships remaining from the First World War. This convenient glut of steel meant that it really wasn’t necessary at all to dismantle Warrior, and as a result she sort of just sat around Portsmouth for another four years as a sad old hulk, even though the Royal Navy had put her up for sale. She was saved yet again by fantastic luck, perhaps a bit of irony considering that she was ultimately saved due to the scrapping of her more modern descendants.
The next period of her life was the longest and the most depressing: in 1927, she was converted into an oil jetty, stripped of all her parts save for her engines and generators, and towed to Pembroke Dock in Wales where she would remain until 1979. In 1942, she lost her name again, and she was known for decades simply as Oil Fuel Hulk C77, so that her original name could be again used for another ship, this time an aircraft carrier – the new form of capital ship which had at last put an end to the era of warships that Warrior began.
The world’s first battleship had lived long enough to see their twilight.
There were talks of preserving her in the 1960s, but those talks didn’t go anywhere until 1978, when the oil depot at which she was stationed closed down. The Maritime Trust, founded in 1968, along with the support group the Manifold Trust, raised funds for her restoration, and in 1979 the Royal Navy donated Oil Fuel Hulk C77 to the trust.
She made a long trek to Hartlepool in the northeast of England for her restoration, estimated to cost £9,000,000, and it was decided that she would be recreated as she would have looked in 1862, at the height of her career.
Extensive existing documents, as well as physical evidence within the actual ship, helped in the restoration, and her fittings – including masts, engines, and guns – were all reconstructed with incredible care and detail. In 1985, a new berth was dredged just for her in Portsmouth, beside the Portsmouth Harbour rail station, and the ship arrived in her new home in 1987 to a grand crowd, opening officially as a museum on July 27th. Her name was restored, but technically as HMS Warrior (1860) so that there wouldn’t be any confusion with any other ships that might take up that same name.
To this day, she exists as part of the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in Britain’s National Historic Fleet. To survive to the present, she had to suffer through trials and tribulations, and was aided by no less than a few incredible strokes of luck, but it’s important to highlight one thing: she survived.
Many people are disappointed that some historic warships like HMS Warspite, HMS Duke of York, or one of the other great Second World War battleships of the Royal Navy were sold for scrap and not preserved, as the United States preserved their historic battleships. I’m sad about that, too, but it’s important not to overlook what a treasure we have in the Warrior: the ancestor of all battleships, a ship which just by being built made all wooden ships that preceded her completely obsolete.
Warrior, of all the museum ships in the world, is truly one of a kind. She didn’t fire a single shot in all of her years afloat, but she is a historical artifact like none other.