When HMS Dreadnought was laid down on October 2, 1905 a new arms race was started. Although the Royal Navy had the initiative, other navies, especially the High Seas Fleet, saw this new type of all big gun battleship as way to have a clean slate. From time to time politicians would try to reign in the expense of the naval arms race, but this was limited and usually to no avail. When Dreadnought was laid down the 12-inch gun was still the standard large gun, as it had been with predreadnought battleship construction. For another four years the 12-inch gun still was supreme, although it jumped in length from 45 to 50 caliber. The Royal Navy laid down sixteen capitol ships mounting the 12-inch gun. These ships were divided among seven classes: Dreadnought (1); Invincible (3); Bellerophon (3); St Vincent (3); Indefatigable (3); Neptune (1); and Colossus (2). However, the long barreled 12-inch/50 mounted in the St Vincent class and thereafter were not the guns that the Royal Navy had envisioned. Sure, the longer length gave the shells a greater velocity but this translated into poorer accuracy. The greater velocity wore out the rifling in the barrels far more rapidly than with lower velocity guns. With rifling worn, accuracy suffered greatly and replacing barrels more often was expensive. Also, since the Germans had gone from the 11-inch to the 12-inch gun as their main ordnance, the Royal Navy needed another edge in gunnery.
That edge was the 13.5-inch gun. This highly successful piece of ordnance gave the Royal Navy that for which they were looking. The first warship to carry this was HMS Orion, laid down on November 29, 1909. The increase in firepower was so marked that the Orion class were called superdreadnoughts. However, with escalating technological change and building tempos from around the world, the 13.5-inch gun had a short reign as the primary ordnance of the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy constructed sixteen capitol ships carrying the 13.5-inch gun in a 2 1/2 year span. These were: Orion (4); Lion (3); King George V (4); Iron Duke (4); and Tiger (1). The last to be laid down was Tiger in June 1912. In another four months the 13.5-inch gun was eclipsed as the primary ordnance of the Royal Navy, as in October 1912, the Queen Elizabeth, mounting 15-inch guns was laid down. However, in August 1914 when World War began not all of the 13.5-inch gunned ships were completed and those that were finished formed the post potent core of the Grand Fleet. Indeed one of the last class of 13.5-inch gunned battleships, HMS Iron Duke, was the flagship of the Grand Fleet.
The Iron Duke class was the third and last class of British battleships built with the 13.5-inch gun. After the four ships of the Orion class, the four ships of the King George V class were directly based on the previous design and improved on that design and corrected errors. One such correction was the placement of the foremast. With the Orion class, the foremast was placed behind the forward funnel. This was done for the sake of economy. With the foremast in that location, a boom from the center leg of the tripod could be used to move the ship's boats and separate kingposts would not be necessary. This short-sighted idea shorted the gunnery efficiency of the class. The foretop at the top of the foremast was a key position for accurate gunnery of Royal Navy battleships. Observers would spot the fall of shot and make corrections and later rangefinders were placed up there to take advantage of the height. In the Orions, placing the tripod and foretop behind the forward funnel, made this key position untenable, or at least very uncomfortable, in most combat situations. Fumes and heat greatly degraded the abilities of the foretop personnel to perform their duties. The King George V class corrected this problem and again placed the tripod behind the bridge and in front of the first stack. This class started that classic look of British battleships that featured a single foremast with control top. This handsome profile would be maintained all the way until the homely Nelson and Rodney introduced the tower superstructure.
The previous two designs had no casemates for secondary guns on the sides of their hull. All of their 4-inch secondary guns were mounted in the superstructures. However, there was a growing discontent within the Royal Navy over the effectiveness of the 4-inch QF secondary guns. Since the Dreadnaught, RN battleships used 4-inch guns as secondary armament. However, torpedo boats and especially destroyers had leaped in size. Many if not most officers thought that the 4-inch guns lacked the punch to stop a torpedo attack from the larger destroyers. It was decided to go back to the 6-inch gun for secondary armament. This had not been mounted in a British battleship since the King Edward VII class. Basically the RN was happy with the King George V but wanted the heavier secondary guns. In order to mount the heavier armament, it was necessary to lengthen the hull 25 feet over the previous design. Beam was increased by a foot and casemate positions were again designed for the hull for the majority of the secondary battery, which also were better protected than the secondaries of the previous designs. The class had a lower freeboard than any other RN battleship and therefore the hull mounted secondary guns could not be worked in heavy seas. One other change was the augmentation of the torpedo armament, from three to four tubes. In addition to the casemates in the hull, the Iron Duke class can be easily distinguished from the King George V class by the funnels. The King George V class had handsome flat sided funnels, while the Iron Duke class had smaller thin, round funnels. Displacement was 2,000 tons heavier over the preceding design.
All four battleships were laid down in the space of five months, with Iron Duke and Marlborough in January and Benbow and Emperor of India in May. HMS Benbow was the third of the class to be laid down. On May 30, 1912 she was laid down at Beardmore. Launched on November 12, 1913, she began trials on October 11, 1914. Since the war had started two months earlier, the Admiralty wished Benbow to join the Grand Fleet as soon as possible. The next month she was commissioned and became flagship of the 4th Battle Squadron (4th BS). On December 10, 1914 she steamed into Scapa Flow to join the Grand Fleet. In May 1916 Benbow was still the Flagship of the 4th BS as she hauled in her anchor and put to sea. Intercepts had put the German High Sea Fleet on a sortie into the North Sea and Admiral Jellicoe was determined to catch them. Jellicoe was in HMS Iron Duke and headed the 3rd Division 4th BS. Benbow was squadron flagship and flew the flag of Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee. Sturdee had commanded the Invincible and Inflexible at the Battle of the Falklands. Benbow was in the van of 4th Division, which consisted of Benbow, Bellerophon, Temeraire and Vanguard. HMS Marlborough, a third member of the class led 6th Division of the 1st Battle Squadron and was flag for the 1st BS. Of the class, only Emperor of India missed the upcoming Battle of Jutland. All three members of the class that were at the battle flew admiral's flags, the fleet commander and two Battle Squadron commanders. Clearly the Iron Duke class was held in high regard.
Benbow did participate in a mix up as the fleets were approaching one another. Beatty in Lion spotted the main German fleet and signaled, "Have sighted enemy's battlefleet bearing SE. My 5.45 p.m. position is 56 degrees 36 minutes north 6 degrees 04 minutes east." Iron Duke didn't get the message but Benbow did. However, Beatty's message was garbled and was passed to Iron Duke as, "Have sighted 26-30 battleships probably hostile bearing SSE steering SE." Probably hostile indeed and with 26-30 the Germans had everything that they could scrape off the dockyard walls. Steering southeast, when in reality they were steering to the northwest after Beatty's battle cruisers, which in tern led them straight to the Grand Fleet. As the High Seas Fleet sailed into the trap laid by the British, some but not all battleships of the Grand Fleet saw the leading ships of the German columns. At 1930 Benbow, Iron Duke, Colossus and Hercules opened fire on Hipper's flagship Lutzow and a Koenig class battleship. Iron Duke fired for only six minutes before losing sight of the German ships. Benbow hung on for awhile longer until 1748. Only Barham kept firing longer until 1950. Witnesses on Benbow, Barham and Thunderer reported seeing a Koenig class battleship blow up at 1950. That ended Benbow's combat in the battle. Benbow had fired forty main gun rounds and not been hit or suffered any casualties. However, the next morning she made another misleading report. At 1027 June 1, 1916 Benbow and Colossus reported erroneously that they were under attack by U-Boats. Upon reaching Scapa Flow, the Vice Admiral's flag was hauled down from Benbow and she became a private ship (non-flagship) in the 1st BS.
When the Grand Fleet was broken up after the end of World War One, Benbow was sent to the Mediterranean in March 1919.Almost immediately she was sent to the Black Sea for operations against the Bolsheviks. As very few Russian warships remained in operation in the Black Sea during the Russian Civil War, Benbow's operations were limited. However, she was on this duty from April 1919 to June 1920. As a sideline to this duty, she went after Turkish Nationalists in the Sea of Marmora. After a refit at Malta in 1922 Benbow went back to the eastern Mediterranean for more operations against the Turks from September to October 1922. One report stated that in September Benbow removed some of her 6-inch secondary guns to emplace them to defend the Dardanelles. Benbow, along with the other Iron Dukes, was part of the 4th BS until November 1924, when they became the 3rd BS. In March 1926 the 3rd BS was transferred to the Atlantic Fleet. Benbow became squadron flagship from Iron Duke on May 12, 1928. She remained as part of the Atlantic Fleet until September 1930. Benbow was scheduled for an extensive refit at Devonport when the 1930 London Treaty changed her future to nil. Under the terms of the Treaty, Benbow, along with Marlborough and Emperor of India were to be disposed. Only Iron Duke in the class was to be kept as a demilitarized training ship. In September 1930 she was put up for sale and sold in March 1931 to Alloa Shipbreaking Company. She was scrapped at Rosyth in April.
The four units of the Iron Duke Class were very close in appearance to each other. Although Iron Duke had anti-torpedo nets and booms during trials, they were removed before she was commissioned. Benbow had a small triangular strut attached to the boat derrick between the funnels. In 1915 and 1916 the aft hull 6-inch caemate guns were removed and remounted in the forward superstructure. Benbow, along with Emperor of India, had nets fitted around the foretop as an early experiment in range baffles, to confuse enemy spotters. By 1917 the control top was enlarged and a medium base range-finder added over the conning tower. Also in 1917 Benbow had some modifications that made her unique among the class, for a short period of time. Four searchlights were removed from her middle bridge and remounted on X turret to test this arrangement in night fighting tests. Range baffles in the form of triangles were fitted to tripod legs, forward funnel and boat derrick and Benbow may have been the only member of the class to have these fitted. In 1918 deflection scales were painted on B turret and on X or Y turrets. Range clocks were added to the front of the control top and aft superstructure. Coffee box towers were added to the aft funnel with a 36-inch searchlight added to each of the four positions. The range-finder baffles were also removed. Flying off platforms were added to B and Q turrets. If you access to British Battleships 1919-1939 by R. A. Burt, go to pages 64 and 65. There are line drawings which show the starfish netting fitted to Benbow and Emperor of India in 1916 and the range baffles fitted to Benbow in 1917, as well as changes in foretop positions and bridge searchlight positions. (History from: British Battleships of World War One, 1986, by R. A. Burt; British Battleships 1919-1939, 1993, by R. A. Burt; Jutland The German Perspective, 1999, by V. E. Tarrant)
Combrig has released 1:700 scale kits of all four members of the Iron Duke class. Of the four only Benbow is in her early form. The box states that Benbow is in the 1914 fit, which would be as completed, since she was commissioned in November 1914. For Iron Duke, Marlborough and Emperor of India the boxes state 1918 fits. Of course that begs the question, "Are the kits different?" The answer is yes. In comparing the Benbow 1914 with the Emperor of India 1918 there are obvious differences. As completed and present in Benbow, there was a searchlight tower aft of the second funnel. This was replaced by a four position coffee box tower in 1918 and the Emperor of India had the coffee box instead of the 1914 platform. The Benbow has the small initial control top and the Emperor of India has the large control top fitted in 1917. The Emperor of India has different, enlarged bridge platforms. On the hull the Benbow kit has casemate parts for the aft hull six-inch positions and the Emperor of India has platted over parts to show these positions after these guns were removed. The Emperor of India also comes with short stump main mast and searchlight platform that was added after the ships were completed without such a mast. The line drawings of the instructions also reflect the differences.
OK, no doubt about it the Benbow kit has the ship as completed and the Emperor of India depicts the ship after her wartime modifications. In contrasting the instructions of the three models of 1918 fits, there were differences found as well. The Iron Duke has the 1918 features of the Emperor of India kit with some differences. It appears that the differences are just in the bridge and control top. The Iron Duke has smaller upper bridge houses than the Emperor of India and a differently shaped and equipped lower platform on the aft bridge face. Also the control top is different. Although of a different shape and smaller than the large top of Emperor of India, the Iron Duke control top is still much larger than that on the 1914 Benbow kit. The 1918 Marlborough is also different. Although it has the enlarged bridge of Emperor of India, it has the smaller control top of the Iron Duke. There are differences among all four kits, although the Benbow kit provides the greatest degree of difference and is probably the best choice for a Jutland Iron Duke class. As with the photographic review of the Combrig 1:700 scale model of HMS Indomitable (click for photographic review of the Combrig Indomitable) look at the photographs of the parts to make up your own mind as to quality. However, regardless of the sufficiency of you eyesight, my guess is that you'll be highly pleased with the Combrig Benbow.
Combrig has released kits for all four members of the Iron Duke class. None of the kits are identical to each other. The Combrig 1:700 scale kit of HMS Benbow portrays the ship as commissioned in November 1914. The Combrig Benbow kit also provides the best basis for building a Jutland fit of the Iron Duke class. The kit features excellent resin castings as well as a decent, but not spectacular, ship specific brass photo-etch fret.