From New World Encyclopedia
HMS Victory in 1884.

Battleship was the name given to the most powerfully gun-armed and most heavily armored classes of warships built from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. They evolved from the broadside ironclads and Pre-Dreadnoughts of the nineteenth century and the Dreadnoughts of the twentieth century. During World War II (1939-45), they were superseded as the deciding factor at sea by aircraft carriers. The term "battleship" came from the earlier term, "line-of-battle ship." The latter term, along with "ship-of-the-line," was usually used to refer to such ships during the Age of Sail era, but "battleship" can be used for all such ships.

Great ships and galleons

A sixteenth century Spanish galleon

The origin of the battleship can be found in the Great ships built by the British in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the similar large carracks built by other European nations at the same time. These vessels, developed from the cogs which traded in the North Sea and Baltic, had an advantage over galleys because they had raised platforms called "castles" at the bow and stern which could be occupied by archers, who fired down on enemy ships. Over time these castles became higher and larger, and eventually started to be built into the structure of the ship, increasing overall strength.

These ships were the first used in experiments with carrying large-caliber guns aboard. Because of their higher construction and greater load-bearing ability, this type of vessel was better suited to gunpowder weapons than the galley. Because of their development from Atlantic seagoing vessels, the Great Ships were more weatherly than galleys and better suited to open waters. The lack of oars meant that large crews were unnecessary, making long journeys more feasible. Their disadvantage was that they were entirely reliant on the wind for mobility. Galleys could still overwhelm great ships, especially when there was little wind and they had a numerical advantage, but as great ships increased in size, galleys became less and less useful.

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the Great ship and Carrack evolved into the galleon—a longer, more maneuverable type of ship, with all the advantages of the Great ship. The opposing British and Spanish fleets of the 1588 Spanish Armada were both largely composed of galleons.

With the growing importance of colonies and exploration and the need to maintain trade routes across stormy oceans, galleys and galleasses (a larger, higher type of galley with side-mounted guns, but lower than a galleon) were used less and less, and by about 1750 had little impact upon naval battles. By the 1710s every major naval power was building galleons.

Large sailing junks of the Chinese Empire, described by various travelers to the East, such as Marco Polo and Niccolò Da Conti, and used during the travels of Admiral Zheng He in the early fifteenth century, were contemporaries of such European vessels. China, however, never developed them into such advanced fighting ships, and when European interests overtook China, the remnants of these sailing junk fleets were vastly outclassed.

The Age of Sail

Main article: Ship-of-the-line

HMS Howe in the late 19th century

The line of battle developed in the seventeenth century as firepower replaced boarding actions as the most important factor in sea battles. Galleons had long sides, and the greatest concentration of cannons could be achieved along the sides of the ship. With more cannons mounted and improving gunpowder technology, the cannon armament of a ship became battle-winning on its own, without the need for boarding action. As small-arms fire and hand-to-hand combat became less vital, the castles on the ship became less important and were built smaller, resulting in lighter and more maneuverable warships.

The line formation deployed the powerful broadsides of ships mounting guns along the sides of decks to best effect. The line of battle dominated naval combat in the age of sail and retained a strong influence up until World War II.

The major warships built during this period were known as ships of the line, denoting their ability to play a part in the line of battle and distinguishing them from lighter vessels such as frigates or other cruisers. These ships dominated the naval landscape from the start of the eighteenth century through until the mid-nineteenth century.

The French Valmy (1847), the largest sailing battleship ever built

Spain, the Netherlands, France, and the United Kingdom all built large fleets of ships-of-the-line. Ships generally had two or three decks and fifty to eighty guns. Over time, designs for the line of battle became relatively standardized around a 74-gun design originated by the French in the 1830s. The largest sailing battleship was the French Valmy, a 120-gun 3-decker.

Industrial Age

From the early 1840s onwards, several technological innovations started to revolutionize the conception of warships. Reliable steam power made warships much more maneuverable, and became the obvious choice against sail as soon as the issue of long-distance travel and re-coaling was solved. Naval guns with exploding shells, capable of penetrating wooden hulls and setting them on fire, were invented by the French Admiral Henri-Joseph Paixhans and adopted from 1841 by the navies of France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States. Their efficacy, largely proven during the Crimean War, in turn led to the development of the first ironclad warships in 1859, and the subsequent generalization of iron hulls. In the 1860s, major naval powers built "armored frigate" type ships, which, although having only one gundeck, were used as battleships, not frigates. The first steel-hulled ships then appeared in 1876, with the launch of the French Redoutable.

Explosive-shell naval guns

Although explosive shells had long been in use in ground warfare (in howitzers and mortars), they could only be fired at high angles in elliptical trajectories and with relatively low velocities, which rendered them impractical for marine combat. Naval combat had required flat-trajectory guns in order to have some odds of hitting the target, so that naval warfare had, for centuries, utilized flat-trajectory cannons using inert cannonballs, which a wooden boat could rather easily absorb.

Paixhans developed a time-delay mechanism which, for the first time, allowed shells to be fired safely by high-powered, and hence flat-trajectory, guns. The effect of explosive shells against wooden hulls causing fires was devastating. The first Paixhans guns were produced in 1841 and France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States soon adopted the new naval guns. The change on naval warfare was demonstrated to its greatest effect when the Russian Navy equipped with these guns annihilated the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Sinop in 1853.

From 1854, the American John A. Dahlgren took the Paixhans gun, which was designed only for a shell, to develop a gun capable of firing shot and shell, and these were used during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Steam battleships

Le Napoléon (1850), the first purpose-built steam battleship.

Before the experimental adoption of the screw propeller in warships in the 1840s, the only available steam technology was that of the paddle wheels, which, due to their positioning on the side of the hull and the large machinery they required, were not compatible with the broadside cannon layout of the battleships. The screw was therefore the only technological option for the development of steam battleships.

The French Navy battleship Le Napoléon became the first purpose-built steam battleship in the world when she was launched in 1850.[1] She was also the first screw battleship, and is considered as the first true steam battleship.[2] In the United Kingdom, Agamemnon was ordered in 1849 as a response to rumors of the French development, and commissioned in 1853.

The United Kingdom had developed a few harbor-protection units with screw/steam propulsion in the 1840s, called "blockships" or "steam-guard-ships," which were conversions of small traditional battleships cut down into floating batteries, with ballast removed, and a jury rig with a medium 450 hp (340 kW) engine for speeds of 5.8-8.9 kts (11-16 km/h) installed. These ships, converted in 1846, were Blenheim, Ajax, and their sisters. The United Kingdom was, however, reluctant to develop regular steam battleships, apparently due to her commitment to long-distance, worldwide operation, for which, at that time, sail was still thought the most appropriate and reliable mode of propulsion.

Eight sister-ships to Le Napoléon were built in France over a period of ten years, as the United Kingdom soon managed to take the lead in production, in number of both purpose-built and converted units. Altogether, France built 10 new wooden steam battleships and converted 28 from older battleship units, while the United Kingdom built 18 and converted 41.[3] In the end, France and the United Kingdom were the only two countries to develop fleets of wooden steam battleships, although several other navies are known to have had at least one unit, built or converted with British technical support (Russia, Turkey, Sweden, Naples, Denmark, and Austria).


The French La Gloire (1858), the first ocean-going ironclad warship.

The United Kingdom's naval supremacy was further challenged in 1859 when France launched La Gloire, the first ocean-going ironclad warship. La Gloire was developed as a ship of the line, in effect a battleship cut to one deck due to weight considerations. Although made of wood and reliant on sail for most of her journeys, La Gloire was fitted with a propeller and her wooden hull was protected by a layer of thick iron armor. This ship instantly rendered all British battleships obsolete, as British vessels' cannonballs would simply bounce off Gloire's revolutionary metal armor. The United Kingdom sparked a massive naval arms race by launching the superior all-iron Warrior in 1860. The improvements in ship design that followed made both ships obsolete within 10 years. With the Royal Navy's "wooden walls" rendered obsolete by the new breed of ironclad ships, other world powers seized the opportunity to build high-tech warships to rival British vessels, and major warship construction programs began in earnest in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Prussia. Intent to maintain naval superiority, the British government spent more and more money on up-to-the-minute warship designs.

Turrets and rifled guns

Soon after, designers began to build ships with guns placed in turrets, following the designs of the Swedish designer John Ericsson and the British inventor Captain Cowper Coles. Turrets helped to solve the problems posed by the rapidly increasing size and weight of heavy guns. By enabling an arc fire, turrets increased the potential of a relatively small number of guns, and allowed greater calibers for the same total weight and field of fire. In the 1870s, the armored frigates and cruisers, with side-ported guns, became obsolete, being replaced by ships with turrets.

The transition from smoothbore cannon to Rifled Muzzle Loaders and then to Rifled Breech Loaders greatly affected the design of naval vessels. Warship technology was advancing rapidly from 1865 to 1906. The relatively small technological advances which were incorporated in each succeeding class of ship compounded so quickly that battleships were often rendered obsolete within a few years of construction. The concern that an enemy could launch an attack with ships that were only slightly superior became a major factor in British defense policy during the late nineteenth century.

By 1870, the British government was spending an average of £1.75 million per year (approximately 0.2 percent of GNP) on the construction of new warships; the greater part of this going to battleship production.

Gunpowder advances

Black powder expanded rapidly after combustion, therefore efficient cannons had relatively short barrels, otherwise the friction of the barrel would slow down the shell after the expansion was complete. The sharpness of the black powder explosion also meant that guns were subjected to extreme material stress. One important step was to press the powder into pellets. This kept the ingredients from separating and allowed some control of combustion by choosing the pellet size. Brown powder (black powder, incorporating charcoal that was only partially carbonized)[4] combusted less rapidly, which allowed longer barrels, thus allowing greater accuracy. It also put less strain on the insides of the barrel, allowing guns to last longer and to be manufactured to tighter tolerances.

The development of smokeless powder by the French inventor Paul Vielle in 1884 was a critical influence in the evolution of the modern battleship. Eliminating the smoke greatly enhanced visibility during battle. The energy content, thus the propulsion, is much greater than that of black powder, and the rate of combustion can be controlled by adjusting the mixture. Smokeless powder also resists detonation and is much less corrosive.

Steel battleships

The French Redoutable (1876), the first battleship to use steel as the main building material.

Compared to iron, steel allowed for greater structural strength at a lower weight. France was the first country to manufacture steel in large quantities, using the Siemens process. The French Navy's Redoutable, laid down in 1873 and launched in 1876, was a central battery and barbette warship which became the first battleship in the world to use steel as the principal building material.[5] At that time, steel plates still had some defects, and the outer bottom plating of the ship was made of wrought iron.

Warships with all-steel constructions were later built by the Royal Navy, with the dispatch vessels Iris and Mercury, laid down in 1875 and 1876, respectively. For these, the United Kingdom initially adopted the Siemens process, but then shifted to the more economical Bessemer steel manufacturing process, so that all subsequent ships were all-steel, other than some cruisers with composite hulls (iron/steel framing and wood planking).

Design experiments

From 1870 to 1890 battleship design was in a wildly experimental phase, as different navies experimented with different turret arrangements, sizes, and numbers. Unlike the British, the French often built a single example of each new design. Therefore the French navy was mocked as a "fleet of samples." Bizarre experimental warships appeared. A series of German warships was built with dozens of small guns to repel smaller crafts, a British vessel was built using a turbine engine (which ironically much later became the main propulsion system for all ships), while an entire class of French battleships such as the 1896 Bouvet, known as "fierce-face" designs were developed without regard to symmetry or harmony of appearance—favoring an aggressive look. Italy introduced a revolutionary design with the twin ships Duilio and Dandolo, by incorporating the biggest and newest gun available: the 450mm Armstrong, and using an increased armor and speed.

The nations possessing significant battle-fleets during this period were the United Kingdom, France and Russia, plus newcomers Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, while Turkey and Spain built small numbers of armored frigates and cruisers. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, and the United States built smaller "coastal battleships" called Panzerships or Battlemonitors in the under 6,000 ton range.

Some navies experimented with "second class battleships," vessels which were designed to be less expensive than full battleships but also at the cost of power; these were not effective for navies of nations with global ambitions. Though they were later called armored cruisers the United States experimented with four such ships, including the first two American battleships, Maine and Texas.

Pre-Dreadnought battleship Mikasa, flagship of the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Tsushima, in 1905

The first warships resembling modern battleships were built in the United Kingdom around 1870 with the Devastation class of low-freeboard turret ships, a few years after the first battle between ironclad warships (the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads, Virginia). However, it was not until around 1880 that battleship design became stable enough for larger classes to be built to a single design. Later in the period battleship displacement grew rapidly as more powerful engines and more armor and minor guns were added. Many experimental ships were built, but no battleship fleet actions had been yet fought to test out these new battleship designs, until the battle of Tsushima in 1905. But all navies finally converged on a design known after-the-fact as Pre-dreadnoughts, which were battleships built in the period 1890–1905 and usually having a displacement of 9,000–16,000 tons, a speed of 13–18 knots, and an armament of four "big guns," usually 12 inches (305 mm) in bore diameter, in two centerline turrets, fore and aft, plus a heavy intermediate battery of typically eight 8-inch (200 mm) guns carried in double turrets on the superstructure corners, and a secondary battery of smaller guns. The 12-inch (305 mm) mains and 8-inch (200 mm) intermediates were generally used for battleship to battleship combat, while the secondaries (typically 7-inch (178 mm) to 5-inch (127 mm)) were reserved for smaller threats, cruisers, and the new destroyers. A small number of designs, including the American Kearsarge and Virginia classes, experimented with all or part of the 8-inch (200 mm) intermediate battery superimposed over the 12-inch (300 mm) primary, with less than stellar results as recoil factors resulted in the 8-inch (200 mm) battery being completely unusable. Additionally, the inability to train separately the primary and intermediate armament led to significant tactical limitation. Turrets, armor plate, and steam engines were all improved over the years, and torpedo tubes were introduced. However, events in 1906 sparked off another naval arms race.

The Dreadnought era — "All-big-gun" battleships

In May 1905, the Russian Navy, which was equipped with older designs (except for four new French-designed Borodino class battleships) was decisively defeated at the Battle of Tsushima by the modern Japanese Navy, which was equipped with the latest battleships of British construction built to Japanese naval standards. The events of the battle revealed to the world that only the biggest guns mattered in modern naval battles. As secondary guns grew in size, spotting gun splashes (and aiming) between main and secondary guns became problematic. The battle of Tsushima demonstrated that damage from the main guns was much greater than secondary guns. In addition, the battle demonstrated the practicability of gun battles beyond the range of secondary guns; some 12,000 yards (11,000 m).

The United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom all realized this and launched plans for all-big-gun ships. The Imperial Japanese Navy's Satsuma was the first battleship in the world to be designed and laid down as an all-big-gun battleship, although gun shortages only allowed her to be equipped with four of the twelve 12 in (305 mm) guns that had been planned. She was fitted additionally with eight 10 in guns.

The Imperial Japanese Navy's Satsuma, the first ship to be designed and laid down as an "all-big-gun" battleship

The United Kingdom, led by the efforts of the First Sea Lord (head of the Admiralty), Jackie Fisher, took the lead and completed HMS Dreadnought in only 11 months. Dreadnought, also an all-big gun ship, was powered not by reciprocating engines, but by revolutionary (for large ships) steam turbines. Previous ships powered by reciprocating steam engines were, in practice, limited by engine vibration to 18 knots (33 km/h). Even at that speed vibration limited aiming ability and the engines wore out quickly. Dreadnought had a top speed of 21 knots (39 km/h). It was the first of the new breed of "all-big-gun" battleships. However, by introducing a jump in battleship design instead of having a lead of over twenty of the latest design of battleship over their nearest competitors, the Royal Navy now had a lead of only one: Dreadnought herself. Major naval powers raced to build their own dreadnoughts to avoid being overtaken by the United Kingdom. The Royal Navy, laboring under the expectation that it should be able to match any two of its competitors combined, began demanding increasingly larger funds from the government for dreadnought construction. The government, already burdened with financial crises caused by the Second Boer War and a voting population demanding more government expenditure on welfare and public works, could not afford to squander precious money on even more dreadnoughts, allowing rival navies to catch up with the United Kingdom's battleship forces. Even after Dreadnought's commission, battleships continued to grow in size, guns, and technical proficiency as countries vied to have the best ships. By 1914 Dreadnought was outmoded. This expensive arms race would not end until the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. This treaty limited the number and size of battleships that each major nation could possess.

With advances in gun laying and aiming, engagement ranges had increased from no more than 1,000 yards (900 m) to at least 6,000 yards (5,500 m) over the previous few years, in part as a consequence of the devastating, but short-ranged firepower of the recently invented torpedo. This had caused a move away from mixed caliber armament, as each caliber required a different aiming calibration, something which unnecessarily complicated gunnery techniques. At longer ranges, the higher maximum rate of fire of the smaller calibers was negated by the need to wait for shell splashes before firing the next salvo and the determination of those from the other calibers. This negated the advantage of small-caliber guns; heavier weapons were effectively as fast and packed a much greater punch.

The French navy solved the problem of identifying the results of individual ships in a clever way; each ship added color to its shells. Other nations adopted this measure as well.

Partially as a consequence of this new philosophy and of its powerful new turbine engine, Dreadnought dispensed almost completely with the smaller caliber secondary armament carried by her immediate predecessors, allowing her to carry more heavy caliber guns than any other battleship built up to that time. She carried ten 12-inch guns mounted in five turrets; three along the centerline (one forward and two aft) and two on the wings, giving her twice the broadside of anything else afloat. She retained a number of 12-pounder (3-inch) quick-firing cannon for use against destroyers and torpedo-boats. The first large warship equipped with steam turbines, she could make 21 knots (39 km/h) in a calm sea, allowing her to outrun existing battleships (with a typical speed of 18 kts (33 km/h)). Her armor was strong enough that she could conceivably go head-to-head with any other ship afloat in a gun battle and win.

Although there were some problems with the ship—the design's wing turrets strained the hull when firing broadsides, and the top of the thickest armor belt lay below the waterline when the ship was fully loaded—Dreadnought was so revolutionary that battleships built before her were afterward known as "pre-Dreadnoughts," and those following as "Dreadnoughts." Vessels built within a few years that were bigger and mounted more powerful guns were referred to as "Superdreadnoughts." In a stroke, Dreadnought had made all existing battleships obsolete; including those of the Royal Navy, which embarked on a program of building ever-more-powerful Dreadnought designs.

National pride in the early twentieth Century was largely based on how many of these ships a navy had, and details were published in the newspapers for the public to avidly follow; the naval arms race which Dreadnought sparked, especially between the United Kingdom and the young German Empire, was to create powerful shock waves.

Dreadnought was powered with steam turbines, which enabled her to sustain a higher maximum speed for longer, and with less maintenance than her triple-expansion engine powered predecessors. Being more compact, the turbines also allowed for a lower hull, which had the side-effect of reducing the amount of armor the ship had to carry. Although turbines had been used in destroyers for some years previously, Dreadnought was the first large warship to use them. As a consequence of the turbines, Dreadnought was actually slightly cheaper than the previous Lord Nelson class of pre-Dreadnoughts.

The American South Carolina class battleships were begun before Dreadnought, and had most of her features, except for the steam turbines; however, their final design was not completed before Dreadnought, and their construction took much longer. Smaller than Dreadnought at 16,000 tons standard displacement, they carried eight 12-inch (305 mm) guns in four twin turrets arranged in super firing pairs fore and aft along the centerline of the keel. This arrangement gave South Carolina and her sister Michigan a broadside equal to Dreadnought's without requiring the cumbersome wing turrets that were a feature of the first few British dreadnought classes. The super firing arrangement had not been proven until after South Carolina went to sea, and it was initially feared that the weakness of the previous Virginia class ship's stacked turrets would repeat itself. Half of the first ten American dreadnoughts used the older reciprocating engines rather than steam turbines. The North Dakota, the Florida and the Wyoming classes used turbines while the South Carolina class, Delaware and the New York class used VTE engines. This was owed to the much lower fuel efficiency of the early turbines.

The "Super Dreadnoughts"

The arrival of Super Dreadnoughts is not as clearly identified with a single ship in the same way that the dreadnought era was initiated by HMS Dreadnought. However, it is commonly held to start with the British Orion class, and for the German navy with the Königs. The super dreadnoughts also saw the introduction of geared turbines and turboelectric propulsion as ways to improve the fuel efficiency of the turbines, and this robbed reciprocating machinery of its last remaining advantage. Geared turbines introduced a reduction gearbox between the turbine and the screws, this allowed the turbine to spin very, very quickly while the screws could turn at a much more sedate and hydrodynamically efficient speed. Turboelectric propulsion took this one step further; in a turboelectric setup, the turbines turned an electrical generator, which fed power to electric motors that turned the shafts.

The Orions were just one step in a breathtakingly rapid evolution that Dreadnought had initiated. What made them "super" was the unprecedented jump in displacement of 2,000 tons over the previous class, the introduction of the heavier 13.5 inch (343 mm) gun, and the distribution of all the main armament on the centerline of the keel. Thus, in the four years that separated the laying down of Dreadnought and Orion, displacement had increased by 25 percent, and weight of broadside had doubled. Because of Admiralty insistence on open sighting hoods, however, the raised turrets in this class could not fire on the axial line without concussing the gun layers in the lower turret, a feature avoided in the South Carolina class.

Superdreadnoughts also incorporated, during construction, the latest technical gunnery advances. Thus they received director control, designed from the outset with larger observation positions with range finders and electrical repeaters aloft, mechanical calculators and predictors in protected positions below, and very advanced alignment and correction devices for the guns.

The design weakness of super dreadnoughts, which distinguished them from post-Great War designs, was armor disposition. Their design placed emphasis on vertical protection which was needed in short range battles. These ships were capable of engaging the enemy at 20,000 meters, but were vulnerable to the angle of fire that came at such ranges. Post-war designs typically had 5 to 6 inches (127 mm to 152 mm) of deck armor to defend against this dangerous, plunging fire. The concept of Zone of immunity became a major part of the thinking behind battleship design. Lack of underwater protection was also a weakness of these pre-World War I designs which were developed only as the threat of the torpedo became real. The U.S. Navy's "Standard"-type battleships, beginning with the Nevada class, or "Battleship 1912," were designed with long-range engagements and plunging fire in mind; the first of these ships, USS Nevada, was laid down in 1912, five years before the Battle of Jutland taught the dangers of long-range fire to European navies. Important features of the "Standard" battleships were "all or nothing" armor and "raft" construction, a philosophy under which only the parts of the ship worth armoring with the thickest armor that could be fitted to the ship were worth armoring at all, and that enough reserve buoyancy should be contained within the resulting armored "raft" to float the entire ship in the event that the unarmored bow and stern be thoroughly riddled and flooded. This concept was not fully validated until 1942, when a surface battle between the Japanese battleship Kirishima and the American battleships South Dakota and Washington during the Battle of Guadalcanal, resulted in South Dakota's survival despite her bow and stern becoming fully flooded due to battle damage. This was the last solely battleship-to-battleship surface action. Kirishima, herself an uprated battlecruiser, was blasted into a blazing wreck by Washington and scuttled off Savo Island.

The "Standard" battleships had identical handling characteristics to the previous two class of dreadnoughts, with a maximum speed of 21 knots and a tactical diameter of 700 yards at that speed, giving the U.S. Navy an interwar battle line of completely coherent handling characteristics, in keeping with the naval strategy theories of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. He held that sea power was the key to world power and victory would go to the combatant who controlled the enemy's ports, and that strategic advantage would come to the Navy that could most efficiently destroy the enemy's fleets. Given that, the U.S. Navy did not desire avoidance of combat with the enemy; American strategic thinking held that approaching enemy strategic targets would force the enemy to come out, give battle, and be destroyed.

The superdreadnoughts that had already been built were surpassed by designs developed during the Great War. Any remaining that served in World War II had all either received extensive modifications, or were a source of extreme anxiety because of their vulnerability to more modern battleships.

World War I

Germany and the United Kingdom had been engaged in a naval arms race since the 1890s. The building of Dreadnought actually helped Germany in this, as instead of having a lead of 15 or so ships of the latest type, the United Kingdom now had a lead of just one. Furthermore, the United Kingdom's policy of maintaining a navy larger than the world's second and third largest navies combined was becoming unsustainably expensive. All other battleship navies switched over in the next few years to building Dreadnought-type ships as well.

At this point in time, the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom had ruled the seas for at least a century, but the German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II and his naval minister, Alfred von Tirpitz, set out to change that, in part for strategic reasons, but mainly due to a simple desire to challenge the United Kingdom. The culmination of this race led to a stalemate in World War I. The German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet were too valuable to be risked in battle and so both spent the majority of the war in port, waiting to respond should the other go to sea. Paradoxically, the ships were too valuable (strategically, at least) to leave at port, and too expensive to use in battle. Apart from some operations in the Baltic against Russia, Germany's main fleet limited itself to making battlecruiser raids on the British east coast, in an attempt to lure part of the British fleet out so that it could be defeated by the waiting High Seas Fleet. In their turn, the British made sweeps of the North Sea, and both sides laid extensive minefields. Although there were several naval battles, the only engagement between the main British and German fleets was the abortive Battle of Jutland, a German tactical victory of sorts (fourteen British ships were sunk to eleven German, although the High Seas Fleet fled the field) but a British strategic victory, as although the German fleet was not destroyed it took longer to come back to operational status than the British and mostly remained in port for the rest of the war.

After World War I, the Armistice with Germany required that most of the High Seas Fleet be interned at Scapa Flow, Scotland. Most of these ships were subsequently scuttled by their German crews on June 21, 1919, just before the signature of the peace treaty, which provided the ships—which still were German property so far—to be handed over to the victors. As far as the German sailors were concerned, they were undefeated; it was felt that their ships should not fall into the hands of the British.

World War II

With the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, the major navies of the world scaled back their battleship programs, with numerous ships on all sides scrapped or re-purposed. With extensions, that treaty lasted until 1936, when the major navies of the world began a new arms race. Famous ships like Bismarck, Prince of Wales, and Yamato were all launched in the next few years. During the conflict, naval warfare evolved quickly and battleships lost their position as the principal ships of the fleet. Most newly built World War II battleships had similar layouts, typically equipped with three triple turrets of 14 inch (356 mm), 15 inch (381 mm), or 16 inch (406 mm) caliber, (but 18.1 inch (460 mm) in the mighty Yamatos) in a "2-A-1" layout, and the superstructure flanked with secondary guns of 4-6 inch (100 mm to 152 mm) caliber. The big guns of Yamato were intended to outmatch any armor in the world, even the sophisticated and tough armor of the American and British battleships, but in practice they were not significantly more powerful than the 16 inch (406 mm) guns of the American battleships. Neither ever fired on, or even saw, the other.

In the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, Germany's surface units threatened the Atlantic convoys supplying the United Kingdom, so the British surface units devoted themselves to protecting the convoys, and seeking out and trying to destroy the German ships, as well as lying in wait at the Royal Navy's principal anchorage at Scapa Flow. The German battleship raiders recorded early successes, with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau surprising and sinking the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious off western Norway in June 1940. A subsequent cruise in the North Atlantic netted the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau 22 ships. On May 24, 1941, during an attempt to break out into the North Atlantic, Bismarck sank the battlecruiser HMS Hood. The Royal Navy hunted down Bismarck; an attack by Swordfish biplane torpedo-bombers from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal disabled her steering and allowed the British heavy units to catch up. Instead of further attacks by aircraft, on Monday May 27, the Royal Navy's battleships King George V and Rodney with two cruisers such as the HMS Dorsetshire and a number of destroyers engaged her with guns and torpedoes. After an eighty-eight minute battle, the Bismarck sank; however, accounts of her crew have always said that she was scuttled to avoid capture, giving rise to a lasting controversy.

Battleships were also involved in the battle for control the Mediterranean. At the Battle of Taranto in November 1940, Swordfish airplanes from HMS Illustrious attacked the Italian fleet at their base at Taranto. For the loss of two aircraft, the Royal Navy effectively sank one battleship and disabled two others. The success of this raid inspired the Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbor which entered the planning stage three months later. At the Battle of Cape Matapan, March 27-29, 1941, three Italian heavy cruisers were surprised and destroyed in a brief battle with a British battleship force near Crete.

The Imperial Japanese Navy's Yamato, seen in 1941, and her sister ship Musashi were the largest battleships in history

However, technology was overtaking the battleship. A battleship's big guns might have a range of thirty statute miles (48 km), but the aircraft carrier had aircraft with ranges of several hundred miles (kilometres), and radar was making those attacks ever more effective. Bismarck was crippled by obsolete Swordfish torpedo bombers from the Victorious and Ark Royal. The Soviet dreadnought Petropavlovsk and Italian Roma were sunk by German air attacks. The British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and her battlecruiser consort HMS Repulse were sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers while operating in the defense of Malaya (Malaysia and Singapore). Prince of Wales became the first battleship to be sunk by aircraft while able to defend itself in open water.

D-Day saw battleships in the role of coastal bombardment in support of an amphibious landing on a hostile, fortified shore. Several older battleships came into their own, not only knocking out coastal guns which threatened transports and landing craft, but also hitting troop and tank concentrations, and railway marshaling yards. HMS Ramillies fired 1,002 15-inch (380 mm) shells at shore targets as well as driving off German aircraft, E-Boat, and destroyer attacks.

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, sank or damaged most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet's battleships, but the three aircraft carriers (USS Yorktown, USS Lexington, and USS Enterprise) were not in port and so escaped damage. Six months later, two of those carriers (Yorktown and Enterprise; Lexington was lost at the Battle of Coral Sea) and the USS Hornet turned the tide of the Pacific War at the battle of Midway. As the war progressed, battleships became festooned with anti-aircraft weapons, such as the 40 mm Bofors gun. Nonetheless, the advent of air power spelled doom for the battleship.

Battleships in the Pacific ended up primarily performing shore bombardment and anti-aircraft defense for the carriers. The largest battleships ever constructed, Japan's Yamato class battleships, designed as a principal strategic weapon never realized their potential. During the World War II Battle of Leyte Gulf the second unit of the class, the Musashi, was sunk by aircraft attacks long before she could come within striking range of the American fleet. The last active German battleship, Tirpitz, had lurked until late into the war in Norwegian fjords protected by anti-submarine defenses and shore based anti-aircraft guns. She was severely damaged in September 1943, by a daring covert attack by British mini-subs, and ultimately sunk by RAF aircraft using Tallboy bombs.

Pennsylvania leading battleship Colorado and cruisers Louisville, Portland, and Columbia into Lingayen Gulf, Philippines, January 1945

The second half of World War II saw the last battleship duels. The USS Massachusetts fought Vichy French battleship Jean Bart on October, 27, 1942. In the Battle of North Cape, on December 26, 1943, HMS Duke of York and destroyers sank the German Scharnhorst off Norway. In the Battle of Leyte Gulf, on October 25, 1944, six battleships, led by admiral Jesse Oldendorf of the U.S. 7th Fleet sank the Japanese admiral Shoji Nishimura's battleships Yamashiro and Fusō during the Battle of Surigao Strait.

Nevertheless, the Battle of Samar on October 25, 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf proved that battleships still were a lethal weapon. The indecision of Admiral Takeo Kurita and the valor of the American destroyer escort and fighter crews, who gamely put their ships and aircraft in harm's way against the much heavier battleships, saved the American escort carriers of "Taffy 3" from being pounded to the bottom by gunfire of Yamato, Kongō, and Nagato and their cruiser host. Miraculously, only Gambier Bay and four destroyers were lost due to surface action. This was primarily due to the fact that Kurita had ordered his ships to use armor piercing rounds (believing they were attacking the Fast Carrier Task Force, composed of heavily-armored Essex and Ticonderoga class carriers), which simply went through the lightly armored American ships instead of exploding inside the ships. When they finally realized that the armor piercing rounds were not working, the Japanese fleet had already suffered heavy damage from the suicidally brave American forces. Kurita's forces were fortunate that they had not actually found the Fast Carrier Task Force, which was armed with over 1,000 combat aircraft and protected by seven battleships commanded by Rear Admiral Willis Lee.

As a result of the changing technology, plans for even larger battleships, the American Montana class, British Lion Class and Japanese "Super Yamato" class, were canceled. At the end of the war, almost all the world's battleships were decommissioned or scrapped. It is notable that most battleship losses occurred while in port. No battleship was lost to heavy bombers on the open seas, which was considered the most grave aerial peril to battleships prior to World War II due to Billy Mitchell and the Ostfriesland experiment. The Roma was sunk by a guided bomb, a Fritz X, while underway to surrender and HMS Warspite severely damaged by another a week later. But, the real aerial peril to battleships came from small, one to three-man dive bombers and torpedo bombers like the SBD Dauntless and TBF Avenger.

Post World War II

The battleship USS Iowa firing a salvo to starboard

After World War II, several navies retained battleships, but they were now outclassed by carriers. The Italian Giulio Cesare was taken by the Soviets as reparations and renamed Novorossiysk; it was sunk by a German mine in the Black Sea October 29, 1955. The two Doria class ships were scrapped in the late 1950s. The French Lorraine was scrapped in 1954, Richelieu in 1964, and Jean Bart in 1970. The United Kingdom's four surviving King George V class ships were scrapped towards the end of the 1950s, and Vanguard followed around 1960. All other surviving British battleships had been scrapped in the late 1940s. The Soviet Union's Petropavlovsk was scrapped in 1953, ''Sevastopol'' in 1957, and Gangut in 1959. Brazil's Minas Gerais was scrapped in 1954 (sister ship São Paulo sank en route to the breakers during a storm in 1951), Argentina kept its two Rivadavia class ships until 1956, Chile kept Almirante Latorre (formerly HMS Canada) until 1959, and the Turkish battlecruiser Yavuz (formerly the German Goeben, launched in 1911) was scrapped in 1976 after an offer to sell it back to Germany was refused. Sweden had several small coastal defense battleships, one of which, Gustav V, survived until 1970. The Russians also scrapped four large incomplete cruisers in the late 1950s, whilst plans to build new battleships were abandoned following the death of Stalin in 1953. There were also some old sailing battleships still used as housing ships or storage depots. Of these, all but HMS Victory were sunk or scrapped by 1957.

Prior to the aircraft carrier, these "capital" ships represented their respective countries. The nation with the most powerful battleships could rule the seas, thusly more able to project their military might. Any nation without battleships was not considered a major military opponent, as they could not interfere with military operations over seas. The nation with the most powerful and majestic battleships could proudly show her power and prestige, as modern steel battleships were the most highly technologically advanced machines ever built during those times; and by politely "showing the flag" they could warn others of their military might.

Modern concept of the battleship

The battleships gained a new lease of life in the U.S. Navy as fire support ships. Shipborne artillery support is considered by U.S. Marine Corps as more accurate, more effective, and less expensive than aerial strikes. Radar and computer controlled gunfire can be aimed with pinpoint accuracy to target. The United States recommissioned all four Iowa class battleships for the Korean War and the New Jersey for the Vietnam War. These were primarily used for shore bombardment. As part of Navy Secretary John F. Lehman's effort to build a 600-ship Navy in the 1980s, and in response to the commissioning of Kirov by the Soviet Union, the United States recommissioned all four Iowa class battleships. On several occasions, battleships were support ships in carrier battle groups, or led their own battlegroups in a battleship battle group. These were modernized to carry Tomahawk missiles, with New Jersey seeing action bombarding Lebanon, while Missouri and Wisconsin fired their 16-inch (406 mm) guns at land targets and launched missiles in the Gulf War of 1991. Wisconsin served as the TLAM strike commander for the Persian Gulf, directing the sequence of launches that marked the opening of Operation Desert Storm and firing a total of 24 TLAMs during the first two days of the campaign. This will most likely be the last combat action ever by a battleship.

All four Iowas were decommissioned in the early 1990s, making them the last battleships to see active service. Missouri and New Jersey are now museums at Pearl Harbor and Camden, N.J. respectively. Wisconsin is a museum (at Norfolk, Va.), and was recently removed from the NVR. However, pending donation, the public can still only tour the deck, since the rest of the ship is closed off for dehumidification. Iowa (at Suisun Bay) and Wisconsin were, until recently, in the Naval Reserve Fleet, and, if the need arises, the most likely to be re-activated.

From the late 1970s onwards, the Soviet Union (later Russia) built four large nuclear-powered Kirov class missile cruisers, two of which were still operational as of 2006. Their introduction had been one of the factors leading to the reactivation of the four Iowas. The ships, while comparatively big for a cruiser, are not battleships in the traditional sense; they adhere to the design premise of a large missile cruiser and lack traditional battleship traits such as heavy armor and significant shore bombardment capability. For example, at ~26,000 tons displacement they are double the Krasina class missile cruisers (~11,000 tons), but only about 55 percent, or slightly more than half, of the Iowa class (~45,000 tons).


Museum ships

Battleships still in existence as museums include the American USS Massachusetts, North Carolina, Alabama, New Jersey, and Texas, the British HMS Mary Rose, Warrior, the Japanese Mikasa, the Swedish Vasa, the Dutch Buffel and Schorpioen, and the Chilean Huáscar. Like museum ships, HMS Victory is open to the public, but she is technically still in service with the Royal Navy, being the flagship of the Second Sea Lord/Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command and the oldest warship still in commission in any navy.

United States Navy

USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin had been, until fiscal year 2006, maintained in accordance with the National Defense Authorization Act of 1996, which includes the following battleship readiness requirements:

  1. List and maintain at least two Iowa class battleships on the Naval Vessel Register that are in good condition and able to provide adequate fire support for an amphibious assault;
  2. Retain the existing logistical support necessary to keep at least two Iowa-class battleships in active service, including technical manuals, repair and replacement parts, and ordnance; and
  3. Keep the two battleships on the register until the Navy certified that it has within the fleet an operational surface fire support capability that equals or exceeds the fire support capability that the Iowa-class battleships would be able to provide for the Marine Corps' amphibious assaults and operations ashore. (Section 1011)[6]

Plans in the United States Navy had called for keeping Iowa and Wisconsin on the register until the naval surface fire support gun and missile development programs achieve operational capability, which was expected to occur sometime between 2003 and 2008. Yet the Littoral combat ships and Zumwalt class destroyers are still under construction, and neither will have the capability to put as much ordnance on target as the Iowas. Since Iowa and Wisconsin were removed from the Naval Vessel Register interest groups will request that they be placed on donation hold and transferred for use as museums.

The longterm plan to remove Iowa and Wisconsin and donate them as museum ships is not without controversy; the United States Marine Corps has fought to get both battleships reinstated. The USMC believes that the naval surface fire support gun and missile programs will not be able to provide adequate fire support for an amphibious assault or onshore operations.[7] Additionally, the USMC is claimed not to think that the Navy's Zumwalt class program will be an acceptable replacement for the battleships, and points out that these ships will not be available until 2013 in any event. Refurbishing Iowa and Wisconsin has been priced at either $430 million for a 14-month program or $500 million for a 10-month program. These figures are however now more than ten years old, and assumes restoration of the battleships to a 1991 configuration, which includes several obsolete systems.


  1. Conway's History of the Ship, "Napoleon (90 guns), the first purpose-designed screw line of battleships" (p39).
  2. Conway's History of the Ship, "Hastened to completion Le Napoleon was launched on May 16, 1850, to become the world's first true steam battleship" (p39).
  3. Conway's History of the Ship, "Steam, Steel and Shellfire" (p41).
  4. The First Food Gaurds, The History of Black Powder. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  5. Conway Marine, Steam, Steel and Shellfire (p96)
  6. Military Analysis Network, BB-61 IOWA class. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  7., United States General Accounting Office. Retrieved June 18, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees


  • Archibald, E. H. H. The Fighting Ship in the Royal Navy, AD 897-1984. Rev. ed. New York: Sterling Publishing, 1984. ISBN 0713713488
  • Brown, David K. Warrior to Dreadnought: Warship Development 1860-1905. London: Caxton Editions, 2003. ISBN 1840675292
  • Brown, David K. The Grand Fleet: Warship Design and Development 1906-1922. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004. ISBN 1840675314
  • Gardiner, Robert, and Andrew Lambert. Steam, Steel and Shellfire: The steam warship 1815-1905. Conway's History of the Ship. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001. ISBN 1557507740
  • Gray, Randall. Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships, 1906-1921. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985. ISBN 0851772455
  • Parkes, Oscar. British Battleships: Warrior 1860 to Vanguard 1950 : A History of Design, Construction and Armament. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990. ISBN 1557500754

Web sites

  • Ross, Kelley L. Dreadnought. The Proceedings of the Friesan School, Fourth Series, 2004. Retrieved August 20, 2019.

External links

All links retrieved January 16, 2022.


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