Coastal defence ship

The Finnish coastal defence ship Väinämöinen, one of the last examples of the type.

Coastal defence ships (sometimes called coastal battleships or coast defence ships) were warships built for the purpose of coastal defence, mostly during the period from 1860 to 1920. They were small, often cruiser-sized warships that sacrificed speed and range for armour and armament. They were usually attractive to nations that either could not afford full-sized battleships or could be satisfied by specially designed shallow-draft vessels capable of littoral operations close to their own shores. The Nordic countries and Thailand found them particularly appropriate for their island-dotted coastal waters. Some vessels had limited blue-water capabilities; others operated in rivers.

The coastal defence ships differed from earlier monitors by having a higher freeboard and usually possessing both higher speed and a secondary armament; some examples also mounted casemated guns (monitors' guns were almost always in turrets). They varied in size from around 1,500 tons to 8,000 tons.

Their construction and appearance was often that of miniaturized pre-dreadnought battleships. As such, they carried heavier armour than cruisers or gunboats of equivalent size, were typically equipped with a main armament of two or four heavy and several lighter guns in turrets or casemates, and could steam at a higher speed than most monitors. In service they were mainly used as movable coastal artillery rather than instruments of sea control or fleet engagements like the battleships operated by blue-water navies. Few of these ships saw combat in the First World War, though some did in the Second World War. The last were scrapped in the 1970s.[note 1]

Navies with coastal defence ships serving as their main capital ships included those of Ecuador, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Thailand, and the British colonies of India and Victoria. Some nations which at one time or another built, bought, or otherwise acquired their own front-line capital ships, such as Argentina, Austria-Hungary, Brazil, China, Germany, Russia, and Spain, also deployed this type of warship, with Russia using three at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905.

Apart from specially built coastal defence ships, some navies used various obsolescent ships in this role. The Royal Navy deployed four Majestic-class battleships as guardships in the Humber at the start of the First World War. Similarly, the U.S. Navy redesignated the Indiana and Iowa classes as "Coast Defense Battleships" in 1919. Such ships tended to be near the end of their service lives and while generally considered no longer fit for front-line service, they were still powerful enough for defensive duties in reserve situations.


This type of vessel has always been categorized differently by different countries, due to treaties, differences in judgments related to design or intended roles, and also national pride. In the United Kingdom the Scandinavian ships were known as "coast defence ships". The Germans called these ships Küstenpanzerschiff ("coastal armoured ship").[1] The Danes referred to their ships as Kystforsvarsskib ("coast defence ship") and Panserskib ("armoured ship"). In Norway they were referred to as panserskip ("armoured ship"). The Dutch called their ships Kruiser ("cruiser"), Pantserschip ("armoured ship") or Slagschip ("battleship"). The Swedish term for these ships was initially 1:a klass Pansarbåt ("1st class armoured boat") and later Pansarskepp ("armoured ship"). Note however, that the German Panzerschiffen of the Deutschland class were not designed as coastal defense ships but as high seas raiders.

As an example of the profusion of terms and classifications which often contradicted each other, the 1938 edition of Jane's Fighting Ships lists the Swedish Pansarskepps of the Sverige class as battleships.

Swedish Pansarskepp

The Swedish Pansarskepp were an outgrowth of the earlier Swedish adoption of the monitor and were used for similar duties.

Technical details

The Pansarskepp or Pansarbåt, with the notable exception of the Sverige, were relatively small vessels with limited speed, shallow draft, and very heavy guns relative to the displacement. They were designed for close in-shore work in the littoral zone of Scandinavia, and other countries with shallow coastal waters. The aim was to outgun any ocean-going warship of the same draft by a significant margin, making it a very dangerous opponent for a cruiser, and deadly to anything smaller. The limitations in speed and seaworthiness were a trade-off for the heavy armament carried. Vessels similar to the Swedish Pansarskepp were also built and operated by Denmark, Norway, and Finland, all of which had similar naval requirements.


The Sverige-class ships differed in several ways from the classical coastal defence ship, having heavier armament as well as better speed and armor (while still being small enough to operate and hide in the archipelagos and shallow waters off Sweden). The main difference was to be noted in their tactical doctrine and operations. Unlike other coastal defence ships the Sverige-class formed the core of a traditional open-sea battle group (Coastal Fleet), operating with cruisers, destroyers, torpedo boats, and air reconnaissance in conformance with traditional battleship tactics of the time.

This “mini-battle group” had no intention of challenging the great power navies in blue-water battles, but rather were to operate as a defensive shield to aggression challenging Swedish interests and territory. Based on the doctrine that one needs a battle group to challenge other battle groups, this force intended to form a problematic obstacle in the confined and shallow Baltic and Kattegat theatre, where traditional large warships would be limited to very predictable moving patterns exposing them to submarines, fast torpedo craft, and minefields. It has been suggested that the Sverige-class ships were one reason why Germany did not invade Sweden during World War II. Such speculation appeared in Warship Magazine Annual 1992 in the article 'The Sverige Class Coastal Defence Ships,' by Daniel G. Harris. This could be said to have been partly confirmed in the post war publication of German tactical orders, and of scenarios regarding attacking Sweden. The problems of maintaining an army in Sweden without sea superiority were emphasized, and the lack of available suitable units to face the Swedish navy was pointed out (“Stations for battle”, Insulander/Olsson, 2001). Summarizing the question of effectiveness for the Sverige-class, it is likely that despite a good armament they would have been too small, slow, and cramped (from both a habitability and essential ship's stores standpoint), along with having insufficient range, to perform adequately against any traditional battlecruiser or battleship in a blue-water scenario; however, if correctly used in their home waters and in a defensive situation, they would probably have presented a major challenge for any aggressor.

Dutch Pantserschepen

The Dutch used their armoured ships mainly to defend their interests overseas, in particular their colonial possessions in the West Indies (the islands of the Netherlands Antilles) and the East Indies (primarily, modern Indonesia). For this reason the ships had to be capable of long-range cruising, providing artillery support during amphibious operations, and carrying the troops and equipment needed in these operations. At the same time, the ships had to be armed and armoured well enough to face contemporary armoured cruisers of the Imperial Japanese Navy (the Netherlands' most likely enemy in the Pacific), and as such they were expected to act as mini-battleships rather than strictly as coastal defence vessels.

The last Dutch pantserschip, HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën, was built in 1909 as a stop-gap measure while the Dutch Admiralty and government contemplated an ambitious fleet plan comprising a number of dreadnought battleships. This ambition was never realized due to the outbreak of the First World War. The Second World War put an end to a similar project to obtain fast capital ships in the late 1930s with German assistance.

Prior to the Second World War, the Dutch had relegated all the surviving pantserschepen to secondary duties. The Axis powers, who seized some of the ships following the conquest of the Netherlands, converted several to serve as floating anti-aircraft batteries and subsequently utilized some as block ships.


The navies of the following countries have operated coastal defence ships at some point in time.

Side and top views of ARA Independencia in Brassey's 1899 edition


  • El Plata (1874)
    • El Plata
    • Los Andes
  • Libertad (1890)
    • Independencia
    • Libertad


Right elevation and plan of the Monarch class; the shaded area is armored
  • Monarch (1895)


  • Barroso
  • Brasil
  • Lima Barros
  • Rio de Janeiro
  • Bahia
  • Silvado
  • Mariz e Barros (1866)
    • Mariz e Barros
    • Herval
  • Cabral (1866)
    • Cabral
    • Colombo
  • Sete de Setembro (1874)
  • Javary (1874)
    • Javary
    • Solimoes
  • Marshal Deodoro (1898)
    • Marshal Deodoro
    • Marshal Floriano


  • Pingyuan (1888)


HDMS Niels Juel in 1939
  • Herluf Trolle (1899)
    • Herluf Trolle2
    • Olfert Fischer
    • Peder Skram[2]
  • Niels Juel[3]
  • Skjold
  • Iver Hvidfeldt
  • Helgoland


Väinämöinen in 1938


  • Taureau
  • Onondaga
  • Cerbère
    • Bélier
    • Bouledogue
    • Cerbère
    • Tigre
  • Tonnerre
    • Tonnerre
    • Fulminant
  • Tempête
    • Tempête
    • Vengeur
  • Tonnant
  • Furieux
  • Valmy 6,476 tons.[4]
    • Jemmapes (1892) – hulked 1911.[4]
    • Valmy (1892) – stricken 1911.[4]
  • Bouvines 6,681 tons.[4]
    • Amiral Tréhouart (1893) – stricken 1922.[4]
    • Bouvines (1892) – stricken 1920.[4]
  • Henri IV


Line-drawing of Siegfried as originally configured
  • Siegfried (1890)
    • Siegfried
    • Beowulf
    • Frithjof
    • Hagen
    • Heimdall
    • Hildebrand
  • Odin (1896)
    • Odin
    • Ägir


HMVS Cerberus at Williamstown in 1871
  • Cerberus (1870)
    • Magdala
    • Abyssinia (half-sister to Cerberus & Magdala)

British Colony of Victoria

The Netherlands

Plan and side view of the Koningin Regentes class
  • Evertsen (1894)
    • HNLMS Evertsen
    • HNLMS Piet Hein
    • HNLMS Kortenaer
  • Koningin Regentes (1900)
    • HNLMS Koningin Regentes
    • HNLMS De Ruyter
    • HNLMS Hertog Hendrik
  • HNLMS Marten Harpertzoon Tromp
  • HNLMS Jacob Van Heemskerck
  • HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën


Norwegian Tordenskjold class


Admiral Ushakov in 1897
  • Uragan (1865)
  • Novgorod class (1874) - later reclassified as "Coastal Defence Armour-Clad Ships"
    • Novgorod
    • Vitse-admiral Popov
  • Admiral Ushakov (1895)
    • Admiral Ushakov
    • Admiral Seniavin
    • General Admiral Graf Apraksin


Right elevation and deck plan of Sverige as depicted in Brassey's Naval Annual, 1923
  • Svea (1886)
    • Svea
    • Göta
    • Thule
  • Oden (1896)
    • Oden
    • Thor
    • Niord
  • Dristigheten (1900)
  • Äran (1902)
    • Äran
    • Wasa
    • Tapperheten
    • Manligheten
  • Oscar II (1905)
  • Sverige (1917)


Thonburi in 1938
  • Ratanakosin
    • Ratanakosin
    • Sukhothai
  • Thonburi (1938)
    • HTMS Sri Ayudhya
    • HTMS Thonburi

See also

  • List of coastal defence ships of the Second World War


  1. ^ HSwMS Gustaf V was scrapped in 1970


  1. ^ Albert Röhr:Handbuch der deutschen Marinegeschichte. Publisher Gerhard Stalling. Oldenburg/Hamburg 1963. p. 161
  2. ^ "Den Danske Brigade 1947". Archived from the original on 29 September 2007. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  3. ^ "Den Danske Brigade 1947". Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Chesnau, Roger and Kolesnik, Eugene (Ed.) Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships, 1860–1905. Conway Maritime Press, 1979.ISBN 0-8317-0302-4

External links

Media related to Coastal defence ships at Wikimedia Commons

Media files used on this page

Koningin Regentes (1900) plan.jpg
Plan of the Dutch coastal defence ship Koningin Regentes.
Sverige class diagrams Brasseys 1923.jpg

Diagrams depicting right elevation and deck plan of Swedish Sverige class coastal defence ship.

Top diagram depicticts armour thickness (shaded area) in inches. Bottom diagram depicts gun sizes in inches.
HTMS Thonburi in Yokohama.jpg
HTMS Thonburi in Yokohama on 12 September 1938
Cerberus (AWM 300036).jpg
AWM caption : Photograph showing stern view of Victorian colonial breastwork monitor HMVS Cerberus at Williamstown, Victoria. She is in her original configuration with two pole masts and extensions to the flying deck.
Dibujo ARA Independencia
Väinämöinen 1938.jpg
Väinämöinen 1938
KNM Tordenskjold.png
Computer traced from an old drawing found at the Norwegian Armed Forces Museum by uploader. Original from the 1905 German booklet Taschenbuch der Kriegsflotten, likely in PD.
Niels Juel (1918).jpg
Danish Coastal defence ship Niels Juel, launched 1918, serving 1923 - 1943. Photographed in 1939
SMS Siegfried line color.png
Seitenriss des deutschen Küstenpanzerschiffes SMS Siegfried im Zustand von 1890 mit der von 1878 bis 1895 gültigen Farbgebung von steuerbord.
Imperial Russian coastal battleship Admiral Ushakov at Kronstadt, 1897.