Was Hoche the Worst Designed Warship in History?
While we may poke a lot of fun at how weird French pre-dreadnoughts were, let's look analytically at some of the design features of this floating eyesore.
- Note at all those windows in the superstructure - who designs lots of large windows in the armor of their ship? That's an invitation for a shell to find and explode inside the armor, causing serious damage.
- The low freeboard - it's so low that this ship probably can't put to sea in anything but a flat calm and can't sail far from the coast without being at risk of being swamped.
- The superstructure extending above the turrets is a very stupid thing to do, any damage to the superstructure is liable to block or jam the turrets, greatly reducing the firepower.
- The large and numerous gun ports in the sides, again, more sizable holes in the armor to let shells in and they are very close to the waterline, meaning in anything but a flat calm, they will be unworkable.
The Hoche was ordered in 1880 but didn't enter service until 1891 - French shipyards were notorious for taking a very long time to build a warship. So she was an ironclad that entered service after ironclads had become obsolete.
That was a big problem for the French in that period - the very long build times meant that ships were often obsolete by the time they were finished.
It's hard to grasp just what the designers had in mind, she had severe stability issues due to her low freeboard and tall superstructure, surely the designers must have realised that would have been the case, it's so obvious just looking at it that it would be unstable.
Other nations produced some rather unseaworthy vessels, the Royal Navy had some battleships that suffered from low freeboard and too much top weight due to the weight of early turrets, so those ships had to serve in the Med, but the French seem to have outdone every other navy in just sheer incompetence in designing many of their vessels.
While things improved greatly eventually, the Dantons were good ships, even so, they entered service after Dreadnought so were fairly obsolete. They must have had some good naval architects, but for a couple of decades or more, they produced a lot of rotten ships, it's quite perplexing how they could have got things so badly wrong.
The French ship designers did have a limit on displacement that can be blamed in part but had no effect on many of the bad features they incorporated into their designs. Some of the pre-dreadnoughts and cruisers they built were very bad ships, dangerously unstable. Naval architect Émile Bertin described Charles Martel as 'dangerously prone to capsizing'.
Bertin was very critical of the other French designers and rightly so, although Bertin himself also produced a good number of poor designs - the ships he designed for the Japanese proved unsatisfactory in service and caused the Japanese to turn to the British for their pre-dreadnought battleships.
Hoche after her 1895 refit and renovation
The French weren't stupid, they knew they had a bunch of bad ships, they did learn from their mistakes and improved their designs so that later classes of pre-dreadnought like the Dantons were much better.
However, one big problem they had was how long it took their yards to build a battleship which meant that even the Dantons were obsolete before they entered service.
There are probably a few other glaring flaws but those four jumped out at me. Just a rotten attempt at building a warship. One can see the Hoche maybe operating on a lake or a river, but it looks very unseaworthy, nevertheless.
At the same time let’s give the Hoche some credit, she didn’t sink on her maiden voyage as the Vasa did!
Written by Ian Greenhalgh
Edited by Alexander Fleiss, Jack Argiro & USN Captain Mike Hegarty