Vittorio Emanuele Cuniberti. The little-known Italian engineer who changed naval warfare
The HMS Dreadnought, launched in 1906, made a strong impression on all people who saw it.
The revolutionary features of this ship were two: all cannons were large calibre and a steam turbine provided high speed. It was so revolutionary that suddenly all the other ships were classified as pre-Dreadnaught type and post-Dreadnaught type, sparking a great armament race on the seas by all countries possessing a Navy.
The credit of having promoted and built such warship was given to John Arbuthnot “Jacky” (or “Jackie”) Fisher (1841-1920). He is considered one of the most important figure in British naval history together with Lord Nelson.
In his youth he had served for 5 years in Hong Kong and Canton on the 21-gun steam Covette HMS Highflyer part of the China fleet, where he spent five years, seeing action in the Second Opium War (1856–1860). Then Fisher reformed the Navy, introducing several innovations, like the torpedo, long range cannons on warships. He was forced to retire in 1911 but was recalled in 1914, resigning after a few months because of a sort of nervous breakdown he experienced during the Gallipoli Campaign, launched by Winston Churchill.
He was tall and had strange facial traits, not really British-looking. Some insinuated that his mother had a extra marital affair with a Chinese while in Sri Lanka but most probably this was due to the genes in his father’s family, coming down from a Portuguese ancestor.
Fisher was a visionary in several ways, for instance when they forced him into retirement he commented that war with Germany would break out in October 1914, following the anticipated completion date of work on the Kiel Canal, allowing a passage of German battleships. However, the Kiel Canal was completed in July, and war commenced in August 1914…
But the real inventor of the Dreadnought class of battleships was not Fisher but the little known Vittorio Emanuele Cuniberti (1854 – 1913) an Italian naval engineer from Turin, who had joined the Regia Marina and in 1899, together with Benedetto Brin, designed the Regina Elena class of battleships.
Jacky Fisher never gave credit to Cuniberti, or to any other foreigner but all modern naval engineers know and accept that Cuniberti was the first to put it black on white in a scientific paper. Fisher, with his passion for innovation, understood the revolutionary power of it and made it his own, while other Admirals, in Italy and elsewhere, were not so quick-witted, dismissing Cuniberti’s conceps and drawings.
Cuniberti first approached the Italian Government to propose a design based on his ideas. But the Italian government declined for budgetary reasons, giving Cuniberti permission to write an article for Jane’s Fighting Ships.
The ship Cuniberti envisaged in his article was a colossus of the seas which would carry a series of single calibre gun, the biggest available. Such powerfully armoured colossus would be impervious to all but the 12-inch (305 mm) guns of the enemy. His ship would be extremely fast, so that this colossus would choose the point of attack. Cuniberti saw this ship as able to discharge his big guns at the same time, engulfing first one enemy ship, moving on to the next, and then to the next, destroying the enemy fleet. He imagined the effect of a squadron of six colossi with an overwhelming power to deter all possible opponents, a bit like the Venetian ships at Lepanto, in 1571.
Cuniberti’s article was published before the Battle of Tsushima, which vindicated his ideas and proved that he was right.