Every so often, something new will come down the pike that is so perfect that it will set the standard in design for the foreseeable future. Warship designs are no different. When the Board of the Admiralty for the Royal Navy met on August 17, 1888, the Royal Navy had been experimenting with battleship designs for the last 30 years. Low freeboard, high freeboard, guns in barbettes, guns in heavy turrets, guns in a central redoubt, sail or no sail; everything had been tried and no consensus had arisen. The designs of the Royal Navy for that 30-year period had created a collection of samples. The non-homogeneous battleline featured a bewildering series of designs, all of which featured one thing in common, each design had far more cons than pros.
When the board met at the Devonport Dockyard, they were to decide the battleship design for the 1889 estimates. After much discussion certain items were settled. The design would mount four 13.5 inch guns, two forward and two aft; there would be ten 6-Inch secondary guns, mounted 5 per broadside; the main armor belt would be at least 18-inches thick. As far as the details, that was left to the Director of Naval Construction (DNC) William White. The former chief designer (Chief Constructor) Nathaniel Barnaby had been vilified, then and now for his odd designs. However, in large measure this was unfair, as Barnaby had tried to build in accordance to unrealistic goals set for political and financial reasons. He tried to put in too much on a too limited displacement for economy’s sake and had labored under unrealistic constraints. Another detriment to his designs was that quite often the available technology was not up to the goals.
Sir William White (KCB in 1895) had been the chief designer for the firm of Armstrong. He became DNC in 1885 and by 1888 had hit his mark with this design. "While DNC he virtually revolutionized battleship design and created a fleet which was the envy of the civilized world." (British Battleships 1889-1904 by R. A. Burt at page 8) The initial design that created this fleet was for the 1889 estimates and became the seven ship Royal Sovereign Class. The names of all but one of the ships started with the letter R. The names are better known now for another R design that came about 25 years later. Royal Sovereign, Ramilles, Resolution, Revenge, Royal Oak, Repulse and Empress of India were the ships and the design set the standard for the rest of predreadnought battleship designs that were to follow. The design featured a high freeboard barbette design. Turret designs of the period had very heavy turrets that because of their weight would have to be mounted close to the waterline. In heavy seas the muzzles of the main guns of some designs would dip into the water on a roll, making them unworkable in those conditions. Obviously, battleships that cannot use their main guns with heavy seas running are at a great disadvantage. The high freeboard was the most distinguishing trait of this design. Just to be sure that they were on the right track, another ship was built to a similar design but as a low freeboard type, HMS Hood. They need not have bothered, the Royal Sovereigns set the bar.
The class broke size limitations that had bedeviled Barnaby designs and proved a great success. They were the largest group of ships built to one design in the Royal Navy since the ironclad era had started. When competed in 1892 through 1894, no other battleship design in the world could equal their fighting efficiency. They were exceptionally strong and heavy and upon completion were the most substantial warships ever completed for the Royal Navy. They were also good politically because the British public instantly fell in love with them. They were worthy successors to HMS Victory and the other great first rate wooden ships of the line that won the Royal Navy the preeminent position that she enjoyed. They were praised not only by the public, but also by the service. In 1895, then Commander John Jellicoe, said of Ramilles, that he had never seen a ship that had turned out so well.
They were not perfect. As built they had a tendency to roll. When Resolution left Plymouth on December 18, 1893, she encountered a gale with 42 foot waves that were 300 feet long. At least twice the seas broke on the upper deck and caused some minor damage. The press, looking for bad news, incorrectly reported that she had rolled 40 degrees in the gale, when in reality it was closer to 23 degrees. The answer was to fit bilge keels which reduced the roll from 23 degrees to 11 degrees. However, this event did give the class a nickname, ‘The Rolling Ressies". The main guns, although protected from flat trajectory shells by the heavily armored barbette, were open to the elements. Crew efficiency would suffer in any type of inclement weather as well as the crew being vulnerable to plunging fire and quick firing (QF) light ordnance. The answer for that was the armored gunhouse of subsequent designs, which was then called a turret, although they were still of a barbette, rather than a turret design.
Although a new wire-wound 12-inch gun design was considered, the tried and true 13.5-inch design was chosen for the class because the new 12-inch design was not ready or tested. Subsequent designs would make use of the new 12-inch model. Loading positions were fixed to the rear of the circular turntable, within the pear shaped barbette. Therefore the guns would have to be on centerline for loading, slowing their rate of fire. The six-inch secondary was of a new untested QF design, rather than a slower breech loading design that had been used in earlier battleships. The armor belt ranged from 18-inches to 14-inches in thickness (18 to 16 amidships between barbettes and 14 next to the barbettes) and ran for 250 feet. It came up to 3 feet above waterline to 5 ½ feet below waterline. The barbettes were also armored 17 to 16 inches on the outside of the armor belt and 11-inch within the screen created by the belt.
Another outstanding quality of this class was their speed. As completed they were the first British battleships to exceed 17 knots and proved to be the fastest battleships in the world when completed. The seven were very similar in appearance to each other but there were differences. Royal Sovereign had low hawsepipes, no stay rim on the funnels and bow scroll work. Revenge and Resolution had stay rims on the funnels, high and low. Ramilles had heavy high funnel caps, when all of the rest had light low caps. Repulse had high hawsepipes. Empress of India had very prominent and heavy bow scroll work and low hawsepipes. Royal Oak was the only unit to have steam pipes aft of the funnels, all of the rest had them in front of the funnels. As they aged, they received other modifications: 1894-1895 added bilge keels; 1899-1902 3 pdr QF removed from upper tops and shielding removed from those in lower tops (except Empress of India), bow scrolls removed, and search lights repositioned. Revenge sported an experimental khaki and light gray color scheme. Between 1902 and 1905 the upper secondary guns had casemates built around them. Originally the upper six of the ten six-inch guns were open mounts with gun shielding. The net shelf was also lowered so as not to interfere with the main deck six-inch secondaries. In the period 1905 to 1909 new fire control was added with changed control tops, removal of light guns and other individual changes were made. In 1910 the aft bridge was removed from all, except Revenge.
Starting in 1911 the class started to be sold off for scrap. Repulse was the first to go in 1911. Royal Sovereign and Ramilles were broken up in 1913 with Empress of India being expended as a target in November 1913. In early 1914, with no clue as to what would happen the following August, Royal Oak was sold in January and Resolution in April. Only Revenge was still around at the beginning of World War One.
The main guns were relined as 12-inch guns and Revenge was used for shore bombardment of the Belgium coast. She was also given a large range finder on the fore top. Also during this period she was given an unusual paint scheme, of light gray, dark gray and white. In 1915 she was refitted at Chatham and became the first ship fitted with anti-torpedo bulges. Compartments could be flooded to create an artificial list, thereby increase the elevation and range of the guns. Her net system was removed at the same time and she was repainted with the camouflage gone and in its place a false bow wave. In August 1915 Revenge was renamed Redoubtable to free the name for the new R Class. After December 1915 she became an accommodation ship and was finally sold in 1919. (Bulk of history from British Battleships 1889-1904 by R.A. Burt. This volume is without question the finest reference on British battleships of this era.)
The hull sides are equally well done. There are all sorts of ports and doors on each side of the hull. Four are for above water torpedo tubes. There are 22 additionally ports for small QF guns and other purposes. At fore and aft the QF gun positions with hull cut-outs for the barrel stowage. Each of the ten six-inch casemate sponsons are perfectly done with the upper positions having clearly defined shutters. All of these details are crammed into a hull with numbers of angles, curves and other delightful architectural features, all with a slight dignified tumblehome. About the only thing missing is the net shelf booms as the shelf appears to be represented by a ledge running along the top of the hull.
Although almost all predreadnought designs were all hull with minimum superstructure, Combrig does not stint on the smaller parts, pieces and fittings of the superstructure. The sunken barbettes with their huge multi-banded open 13.5-inch guns are of course the most prominent. Since they are open mounts, the guns scream to have 1:700 scale gun crews added to work the monsters.
Significant superstructure parts are the fore and aft bridges and forward pilot house, sternwalk and angular base plates for the twin side by side funnels. The funnels themselves are hollow most of the way down so there is no need to drill them out. Combrig provides 32 J-shape ventilator funnels in four different sizes, so the deck will be covered in a forest of the ventilators. Nobody in the industry goes to such lengths as Combrig in hollowing out the mouths of the cowlings and it will show to great effect on the finished model. The boat davits have reinforcing bands and the ship’s boats, especially the steam launches are miniature works of art in themselves. The 3 pdr open QF guns come with their individual gun shields cast in place on the mounts. Masts, yards, anchors, searchlights, binnacles round out the rest of the parts complement for the kit. You will have to trim the lengths of the ventilator funnels and across deck boat skids. Resin inclined ladders are included as separate pieces instead of being cast as part of the hull. With the Royal Sovereign there is no need to remove any "aztec steps" if you wish to use photo-etch inclined ladders. All in all a thoughtful touch that should be well received in the modeling community.
The obverse features photos of all of the components as well as the standard isometric view of the assembly. The Combrig Royal Sovereign is far from the simplest kit that Combrig produces from that period. There are a lot of parts and a lot going on, especially amidships, on this kit. Although the assembly drawing is fair, it still falls short of presenting a complete picture of the assembly, again especially amidships. As one example the placement of the boat skids or individual location of the boats is not shown. For that you have to use the plan and profile on the front side of the instructions. Also it is somewhat unclear as to differentiation between the smallest and next to smallest ventilator funnels. Use of the plan and profile, especially the plan, is absolutely necessary. Just remember that the plan and profile is not there just to look pretty but is also there to reflect the finer points of assembly. Most modelers will probably be able to handle the assembly by using the isometric assembly drawing in conjunction with the plan and profile. However, the instructions can be a pit fall for the unwary or novice builder for this period. With this kit exploded detailed views of some of the busier areas would been of substantial value.
The Combrig Royal Sovereign is an outstanding kit, even with the so-so instructions. The hull is loaded with such variety of beautiful detail that you are tempted just to admire it as it is, without loading all of the additional detail on to it. Since the design featured huge guns in open mounts, the ship is a natural subject for a diorama and is the detailist’s dream. Fortunately, you can get photo-etch 1:700 scale crewmen to man the bridge, man the light QF mounts, crew the fighting tops and above all serve the big 13.5-inch leviathans. However, you can’t stop without other photo-etch additions. Railing, ladders and inclined ladders are all easy to find, but what is really needed is for some company,… say White Ensign Models, to produce a generic predreadnought photo-etch set. For years the WEM photo-etch set for the 1:700 Askold has been the best available set for detailing all of Combrig’s huge line of models of Imperial Russian warships. Now what is needed is a set of equal exemplary quality for the Royal Navy of Queen Victoria. For as fine as the 1:700 scale Royal Sovereign model from Combrig is, it is only the first of many for the Royal Navy.
Just as Sir William White’s design for this battleship set the standard in battleship design and "…created a fleet which was the envy of the civilized world", the Combrig Royal Sovereign sets the stage for a repetition in resin.