The Royal Navy’s Adoption of Oil Before the First World War

Here is the latest abstract from our forthcoming book.


In 1900, most steamships were powered by coal, but the initial steps towards the use of oil had been taken. The first crossing of the Atlantic by an oil fired merchant ship took place in 1894. Several navies, including the Italian, Dutch, Russian and German ones, were using oil in some surface ships by 1900. Oil was superior to coal as a fuel for ships once the technology had been perfected. Replacing coal with oil allowed the construction of either a smaller ship of the same performance, or a better ship of the same size. The problem for Britain was security of supply; it possessed large coal reserves, but had little oil. Welsh steam coal was particularly suited to use by warships.

The RN observed and experimented until 1904, by when it had solved the technical problems. From then on most of its destroyers were fuelled entirely by oil. The supply issue meant that oil was used initially only as an auxiliary to coal in cruisers and battleships. By 1912, the case for oil had become so compelling that construction began of entirely oil fuelled cruisers and battleships. A Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the supply issue. It resulted in the government taking a stake in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later BP, which needed funds to develop its recent discovery in Persia. APOC was given a long-term contract to supply the RN.

The RN was a little ahead of the United States Navy, which did not have the same supply issues, in adopting oil. Most other navies did not build large all oil ships until the 1920s, despite several starting earlier. This was an example of the RN observing and experimenting before adopting the best technology.

By Dr Martin Gibson, University of Glasgow

One response to “The Royal Navy’s Adoption of Oil Before the First World War

  1. Reblogged this on War and Security and commented:
    This is the abstract of my contribution to ‘A Military Transformed? Transformation and Innovation in the British Military from 1792 to 1945,, a forthcoming book to be edited by Ross Mahoney, Stuart Mitchell and Michael LoCicero of the University of Birmingham.

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