Iron and coal: first modern warships
The ironclad Warrior
Evolution of the ship of the line
The new capital ship
In November 1859 was launched in Toulon (France) the first high-seas ironclad ever built, the Gloire. This ship had a wooden hull protected
with an iron belt, of 120 millimeters in thickness and which ran along the whole hull, and her armament comprised thirty-six muzzle-loading rifled cannons,
of caliber 164 millimeters. Overnight, the Gloire had rendered obsolete the capital ship of that time, the ship of the line, which lacking a
metallic armor was very vulnerable to the explosive and incendiary projectiles - then recently introduced -, which had shown their devastating effects
during the Crimean War of 1853-1856.
But the primacy of the Gloire would be very ephimeral, for in the last days of 1860 the British would be launching the first ironclad built
with an integrally metallic hull, the HMS Warrior. This ship featured a different armor scheme, known as "all or nothing". Her
armor belt, of 114 millimeters in thickness, protected only the battery and not the rest of the hull (the British kept this constructive
phylosophy until the last days of the modern battleship). The armament comprised twenty-six muzzle-loading smoothbore cannons of caliber 206
millimeters, ten breech-loading rifled cannons of caliber 178 millimeters and another four of caliber 121 millimeters.
In both ships the armored belt, which was backed up by about half meter of the hardest wood, reached from the upper part of the board to
about two meters below the waterline. Because of the weight of the armor (900 tonnes in the Gloire), these ships could have only
one battery and this earned them the denomination of "armored frigates". But the ironclads were capital ships and not mere auxiliary vessels;
their hulls and artillery pieces were heavier than those of the largest ships of the line. To this first generation of ironclads
(denominated "broadside ironclads") belonged as well the Numancia, the ship that this article will cover in detail.
These early ironclads would evolve into different forms, initially with the armament concentrated on a central casemate, to reduce the length
of the armored belt, and later, when muzzle-loading cannons were finally abandoned, with the armament installed in rotating turrets.
The adoption of breech-loading cannons increased the rate of fire and allowed longer barrels, which at this point were always rifled, greatly improving
the prestations of artillery. And meanwhile, the traditional sail rigging was abandoned as well.
Around 1890 the armor evolved as well; this one was made more resistant through the adoption of "true" steel and plates of hardened faces. This
allowed to considerably reduce the thickness of the armor, which in the last ironclads reached over half meter. Meanwhile, the term "ironclad" would be
falling into disuse and the new capital ships would be simply known as "battleships", and after 1906 as "pre-dreadnought". But this is another
The ironclad Numancia
The 19th December 1864, in presence of several thousands of persons, was launched in Toulon a ship which resembled a lot the Gloire, launched in
the same place four years before. Baptized as Numancia, the new ship - which was substantially longer than her predecessor and of entirely metallic
construction -, was destined to be the first ironclad serving in the Spanish Navy. The Numancia was substantially heavier than the largest ship
of the line and her armament, even if much less numerous, was heavier. The Spanish shipyards were not prepared for building such a modern ship,
and hence the ship had to be built in a foreign shipyard. Another ironclad of very similar design and size - almost a twin -, called Vitoria, was
being built at the same time in Blackwall, East London.
The Numancia had a length of 96.08 meters in the weather deck, a maximum beam of 17.34 meters, an average draught of 7.90 meters, a depth of hold
of 11.17 meters, a full-load displacement of 7420 tonnes and a complement of 600 crewmen. Her armor weighed 1355 tonnes and was formed by eight rows
of cast iron plates which completely covered both sides of the hull, from the upper deck to 2.30 meters below the waterline. The thickness was 130
millimeters in the four lowermost rows and 120 millimeters in the other four, being reduced in one centimeter on the stern and bow ends. The
metallic armor was backed up by 440 millimeters of teak wood. There were also two armored redoubts on the weather deck for command and steering,
one astern and the other at prow, consisting of eliptical turrets made of thick wood covered by 120 millimeters of iron.
The different pieces of the hull were put together by two millions of rivets, which contributed not little to the overall weight of the hull. Anticipating
the new bow style which would prevail in the largest part of warships during several decades, the Numancia was built with a bow spur, which literally
turned the propulsion power into an additional weapon. The propulsion plant developed 3700 indicated horse power (or 1000 nominal horse power) and
comprised two huge horizontal cylinders, of 2.14 meters in internal diameter and 1.30 meters in stroke, moved by the steam generated by ten rectangular
boilers (eight of 3.6 meters and two of 1.8 meters) and forty furnaces, distributed at both sides of the hull.
The sole propeller had four blades, 6.35 meters in diameter and 8.50 in pitch, allowing for speeds of 12-13 knots. The ship could load 1100 tonnes of coal,
which granted an operational range over 3450 nautical miles at economic speed. The coal load could be increased to up to 1700 tonnes, with bags of coal
stowed in the weather deck, aft storeroom and spaces between boilers. The sail rig, of frigate type, had a sail area of 1846 square meters, but for such
a heavy vessel it could grant only speeds of up to four knots. In that time steam engines were not very reliable and because of this the sail rigging
remained in use for some time.
The armament as designed comprised forty 68-pound (200 millimeters) muzzle-loading smooothbore cannons Rivera, so the ship would have twenty gun ports on
each side, as we can see in the first illustration above and many other depictions of this ship. However the ship was commissioned with only 34 cannons,
for the foremost pieces were hindered by the anchor chains, and the four aftermost pieces took too much space on the dining area. The ship carried 48700
pounds of gunpowder, 50 pounds of fine powder for squib, 4800 solid cannon balls, 600 shrapnel sachets and 600 grenades. Each cannon, of Spanish design, weighed
3700 kilograms. Smoothbore cannons were preferred despite of their lesser precision because the Spanish Navy had a distrust on the primitive rifled cannons
of high caliber, which allegedly had lesser muzzle speeds.
Along her exceptionally long service life (the Numancia served until 1912) the ship suffered diverse remodelings in which her artillery was greatly changed.
From 1870 she was armed with sixteen 68-pound muzzle-loading smooothbore cannons Rivera, six 300-pound (254 millimeters) rifled cannons Armstrong and three
180-pound (203 millimeters) rifled cannons Armstrong. After 1876 she would no longer carry any smoothbore cannon.
From 1876 she was armed with eight 300-pound and three 180-pound cannons Armstrong and eight 160-millimeter cannons Palliser. From 1881 she was armed with
eight 300-pound and seven 180-pound cannons Armstrong. From 1885 she was armed with eight 300-pound and seven 180-pound cannons Armstrong and one
200-millimeter cannon González Hontoria. Finally, from 1900 she was armed with four 200-millimeter and eight 140-millimeter cannons González Hontoria and
three 150-millimeter fast-firing cannons Schneider-Canet. This may give an idea of how uncertain things were on the military naval field during the second
half of the 19th century.
The habitability in the Numancia was, in general terms, of higher quality than that found in other contemporary ships. While in the engine rooms of other
ships the workers had to endure temperatures of up to 70 Celsius degrees, in the Numancia these did not exceed 42 degrees. Since the Spanish Navy often operated
in areas of warm climate, the Numancia had forced ventilation from the beginning and in fact she was the first French ship built with such system. Besides,
the space per person granted by this ship (4.54 cubic meters) was considerably larger than in other contemporary ships. Ventilation and accommodation was
favored by a longer hull and taller living spaces. The infirmary, located on the forecastle, was well ventilated and able to accommodate up to 18 beds.
Electricity was installed for the first time in the Numancia in 1877, being this one and the Vitoria the first electrified ships in the Spanish Navy. This
first installation was aimed to feed the antitorpedo defense system and a searchlight Magin installed at prow, and to provide light for the berthing maneuvers at
night. Around ten years later the installation was greatly improved. Two large searchlights Magin were installed, one astern and the other in the prow, and
the former searchlight was reallocated in the high bridge amidships, mounted on rails to avoid the masts and the funnel. These searchlights were fed by two
dynamos Grame, while a smaller dynamo fed the searchlight for boats. There was also a battery formed by thirty accumulators Montaud, whose performance was
These elements fed the lighting network which had a total of 73 light spots. The ship had also two watertight lamps for divers. The switchboard was placed
in the mess-deck astern the main mast, next to the electricity sources. Usually one of the two large dynamos was enough for the lighting network, and otherwise
it was enough to couple the small dynamo, leaving the other large dynamo in reserve. Finally, there was as well an electric ignition system for the main artillery,
whose electrical components were installed in the command bridge. At the same time, two torpedo tubes were installed, one on each side of the hull. They were
easy and fast to operate, but lacked an electric ignition system.
The Numancia was modernized for the last time in 1900 and this one was her deepest remodeling. The boilers were replaced by new ones and the machinery was
replaced by one of triple expansion and 6400 horsepower, which allowed to reach 15 knots. The electrical installation was further improved with a much
larger lighting network, formed by 300 lamps, and new searchlights and generators. The largest part of the gun ports was nullified, except four on each side which were
enlarged and served for the secondary artillery, while the main artillery was installed in four rotating single mountings. And from this moment the artillery
onboard was entirely of breech-loading type. But the most obvious change in the ship was the suppression of the sail rig. Serving as armored coastguard, the
Numancia would feature only two short masts fitted with individual circular tops.
The 18th December 1912, the Numancia was retired from service and negotiations began to sell her for scrap. Finally a company based in Bilbao acquired the ship
for being scrapped. After two failed attempts to tow the ship towards the other end of the country, the Numancia left Cádiz the 8th December 1916 with a load of
1300 tonnes of salt and 53 years of history. But during the travel the ship, towed by two tugs, suffered a sea storm and ran aground the 16th December near Setubal
(Portugal), where the heavy swell and the rocks managed to smash up and sink the ship. None of the 32 crewmen was lost.
Many lamented that the Numancia were finally neglected and not preserved as a museum ship, unlike the British counterpart HMS Warrior, which nowadays can be
visited in her berthing at Portsmouth. And however the Numancia was a ship with so much more history, we can say much more history than the largest part of
the warships ever built. She was the first ironclad ever which entered combat and also the first one receiving an impact of large caliber (they were six in fact).
And she was also the first ironclad which circumnavigated the Earth.
In occasion of the the Spanish-South American War of 1864-1866, the Numancia effectuated 1005 shots and received 51 impacts, with little consequences,
during a coastal bombardment against armored casemates in Callao (Peru), which housed cannons of rifled bore. It is said that among the 51 impacts, the Numancia,
Spanish flagship, withstood four of 500 pounds and two of 300 pounds. After her mission, the Numancia returned to the Atlantic after having crossed the Pacific and
Indian oceans, so technically this ship circumnavigated the Earth, even if the travel lasted for two years and it was not made solely for the purpose of achieving