HMS Iron Duke

In 1916 as in 2016, HMS Iron Duke was not the most powerful and modern warship in the Fleet – but she wasn’t far off. The battleship was named flagship of the Grand Fleet on the eve of war – just two years and two months after her keel was laid down in Portsmouth Dockyard, the first of four near-identical leviathans. Her role: to destroy the capital ship(s) of any foe encountered.

Today’s Iron Duke is the fifth of 16 Type 23 frigates built for the Royal Navy, laid down in late 1988 and commissioned into the Fleet four and a half years later. Her role: built as a submarine hunter, but in the 20 years since the fall of Communism, the frigates have proven their versatility by dealing with virtually every mission imaginable in the four corners of the globe.

what's in the name

Both ships take their name from the Duke of Wellington – the legendary ‘iron duke’ – and their motto, Virtutis fortuna comes (fortune accompanies valour) from his regiment.

A sailor of today’s frigate would find much in the battleship recognisable – grey steel, bulkheads, doors with clips and hatches.

In battle the Iron Duke sailor of 1916 and 2016 dons ‘anti-flash’ – hoods and gloves to protect head and hands from flash fires; the material used has changed over the years, but photographs of sailors in battle then and now look remarkably similar.

Living quarters have changed dramatically – no personal bunks for ratings, purely hammocks. Mess decks – the living quarters off duty – on today’s ships feature flat-screen TVs, gaming machines, DVD players. There’s a gym. Telephones allow sailors to call loved ones pretty much anywhere in the world.

The battleship’s crew could send post or telegrams – heavily censored during the war – only when Iron Duke was in harbour.

And the biggest human change of all between 1916 and 2016 – no women aboard the battleship; a century later women make up around ten per cent of the Royal Navy’s strength.

Dreadnought Battleship HMS Iron Duke 1912

Crew: 995-1,022
Length: 189.8m (622ft)
Speed: 21kts
Weapons: 10 x BL 13.5in Mk V guns in five turrets; 12x 6in Mk VII guns; 2 x QF 3in anti-aircraft guns; 4 x 3lb guns; 4 x 21in torpedo tubes
Sensors: Mk1 eyeball, Dreyer fire control table
Armour: 2.5in-12in thick
Decoys: none
Aircraft: none

Anti-submarine Frigate HMS Iron Duke 1991

Crew: 180-200
Length: 133m (436ft)
Speed: 28kts
Weapons: 1 x 4.5in Mk VIII Mod 1 gun, 32 x Seawolf anti-air missiles; 2 x 4 Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers; 2 x 2 Sting Ray torpedo tubes; 2 x Miniguns; General Purpose Machine guns
Sensors: Type 997 ‘Artisan’ radar, Marconi Type 911 fire control radar, Sonar 2031, Sonar 2050
Decoys: Sea Gnat chaff launcher, Surface Ship Torpedo Defence, Sonar 2170 towed array/acoustic decoy
Aircraft: 1 x Lynx Mk8 or 1 x Wildcat HMA2 or 1 x Merlin Mk2


In action, the battleship looked to her five twin turrets of 13.5in guns to deal the enemy a mortal blow.

In theory, Iron Duke’s gunners could hit a target 13 miles away. 

Propelled out of a 50ft barrel at nearly 2,500 feet per second (1,700 miles an hour, more than twice the speed of sound) each shell weighed 1,400lbs – designed either to pierce armour or cause carnage with high explosive.

For all the distance and destruction, however, the Iron Duke of Jutland vintage relied on the aim of the gunnery officer and his Mk1 eyeball, assisted by a fire control table. There were no sensors, no radar, no laser targeting.

Across the Grand Fleet, only one in 50 shells hit their targets during the battle.

Iron Duke’s gunnery was better than most. She fired 90 13.5in shells, mostly during an intense five-minute period when severe damage was inflicted upon the German battleship SMS König.

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The First Iron Duke1870

The Iron Duke story begins in 1870 with an Audacious-class battleship – not entirely dissimilar to HMS Warrior, which is today a well preserved visitor attraction in Portsmouth Harbour.

The First Iron Duke1870

The battleship was officially known as Duke but during her construction at Pembroke shipyard, she acquired the nickname Iron Duke – and the name stuck.

Suez Canal1871

HMS Iron Duke became the first battleship to pass through the new Suez Canal on her way to take up her role as the flagship of the China Fleet, where she spent much of her active career.

The Second Iron Duke1912

The second and most famous Iron Duke was the legendary World War 1 battleship which served as the flagship of the Grand Fleet – the largest and most powerful naval force of the day.

The Second Iron Duke1916

It was from the bridge of Iron Duke that Admiral Jellicoe directed the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916. The ship suffered no damage  but inflicted heavy punishment on the German battleship König.

Training Vessel1920

Iron Duke remained on active service through the 1920s until she became a training vessel in the 1930s. She spent World War 2 in Scapa Flow as a base/port defence ship before being scrapped.

Weapons and defence systems

Fast forward a century, and the crew of today’s Iron Duke can call upon a myriad of sensors to detect threats and guide their weapons on to target.

The principal weapon against enemy ships is not her gun – that is used to provide support for troops on the ground – but the Harpoon missile, which delivers a 488lb warhead on to targets as far away as 70 miles.

Otherwise, it’s down to her Lynx helicopter with Sea Skua missiles to knock out enemy vessels… or submarines, if it’s armed with Stingray torpedoes.

As for defences, battleship Iron Duke was shielded by armour up to one foot thick and she was fitted with early anti-aircraft guns to counter the growing threat of air power.

But generally speaking, beyond taking evasive manoeuvres, she was simply expected to survive the punishment inflicted by enemy guns, hoping the armour would protect her vitals.

There’s no similar shielding on a Type 23 frigate. But it is blessed with numerous defences.


The new Artisan radar can track up to 800 airborne targets simultaneously whether they’re 200 metres from Iron Duke – that’s roughly the width of the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour – or 200 kilometres (125 miles) away.

If necessary the Seawolf air defence missile engages them at relatively close range; if the system were placed in the middle of London, it could track its target over the M25 and knock it out of the sky over the North Circular – and the whole action would last under 20 seconds.

On top of that there are decoys – from jammers to divert incoming missiles from their path, to chaff and flares to distract them, while Sonar 2170 trails in the water and launches decoys which pretend to be the frigate to cause a torpedo to stray.

Meshing the reams of data from all these systems into something the command team in the operations room – the battle is directed from the bowels of the ship, not the bridge as in 1916 – is Iron Duke’s ‘brain’, the DNA2 computer.

The brain in 1916 belonged to Admiral Sir John Rushworth Jellicoe, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, directing the battle – and the movement of 150 warships – from the open bridge, exposed to the elements.

HMS Iron Duke (F234)

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Dreadnoughts – mighty all-big-gun battleships who took their description from the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought – were the ultimate weapon of the day. 

The Royal Navy had 37 such mighty ‘castles of steel’ as Winston Churchill famously called them, the Germans had 21. 

In all, 150 British and 100 German warships joined battle. One in ten ships would never return home. With them went 6,094 British and 2,551 German sailors.

When it was over, the British controlled the North Sea, the Germans returned to their bases – but claimed victory having sunk more ships. 

There would never be another full scale clash of dreadnought battleships during the war, but the arguments over ‘who won’ at Jutland continue to this day.