Battleships – Which Was Best?

So, what was the best battleship of the Second World War? Well, the obvious answer is that it was (jointly) the Yamato and Musashi, the two vessels of the Japanese Yamato-class. These awesome beasts were the most powerful big-gun ships ever built, with nine 18-inch guns and twelve 6-inch guns, plus twelve 5-inch guns for good measure. That’s like having three light cruisers aboard as secondary armament. This massive battery was reduced later in the war by removing six 6-inch guns to make room for over a hundred extra 25mm anti-aircraft guns.

These vessels carried the biggest naval guns ever and were so large that even just launching them caused a wave more than a metre high which sank several small boats. That’s how badass the Yamato-class was. There was even room for no less than seven reconnaissance aircraft – enough to stage a fairly reasonable air raid. So yes, biggest and best armoured, most powerfully armed and generally awesome they were. But what did these monsters actually achieve?

Well… not that much really. Their potential probably contributed to a lot of sleepless nights on the Allied side, but their war service consisted mainly of following aircraft carriers around in case something bad happened to them. Then the battleships would get to fight the enemy in the old style with their guns, like they were supposed to. A battleship is basically a giant metal box, pointy at one end and less pointy at the other, inside which a whole lot of people do complicated things at the same time. They had two main reasons for existing:

1.  To act as a mobile and really, really well protected office for a senior naval officer.

2.  To fire giant shells at other people’s offices.

A battleship that doesn’t get to fire its giant shells is a bit of a waste. The Japanese navy knew this and tried to get its money’s worth out of these ships in other ways. That was a lot of money at stake, so they came up with a couple of inventive ways to use them.

Military Transport: They filled Yamato and Musashi up with soldiers and soldiers’ stuff to be delivered, because someone thought that was the best use of a battleship. Probably a carrier captain, just to grind down battleships a bit more.

Hearse: When Admiral Yamamoto was killed, his ashes were taken aboard Musashi as a sort of heavily armoured chapel of rest. Musashi then pretty much left the war for a while to deliver Yamamoto’s ashes to Japan. They presumably decided that Yamamoto’s ghost would not accept being flown home since he had already been shot down and killed that way once already.

In October 1942, however, Musashi made a valiant attempt to prove the era of the battleship was not over. As the US launched its amphibious campaign around Leyte, pretty much everything with a Rising Sun flag on it was invited to the party. Even the battleships.

Musashi was sent out with other powerful warships to sink the US landing forces, or the carriers, or the escorts, or the admiral’s rowboat, or anything else that got in the way. Off she went, only to run into waves of aircraft from the US carriers. Musashi was having none of that, and barged through airstrike after airstrike.

Musashi wanted to be the really, really big battleship that could… but in the end she couldn’t. It took nearly 40 bombs and torpedoes to sink her, but in the end she went under. Is that all you’ve got, Musashi asked? Somewhere across the ocean, a faint voice was heard saying ‘why? How much more do we need?’ as the US Navy loaded bombs onto a couple of thousand more planes.

Yamato got an unwanted Christmas present from an American submarine in 1943, in the form of a 25-metre wide hole in her side. She took on 3,000 tons of water, enough to fill a couple of destroyers to the brim.

You will be familiar with a  figure of speech; ‘enough X to sink a battleship’

Well, we now know that 3,000 tons of water is not enough to sink a battleship, even though the crew could go deep-sea fishing in the aft magazine, Yamato sailed home for repairs.

Yamato was allowed to come out and play for the Battle of Leyte in 1944, but then so was everyone else. There, she was hit by more air-dropped bombs and her sister Musashi was sunk. However, Yamato got what every battleship wanted at that time; she got to shoot at an aircraft carrier. Along with several other big ships she was sent on a daring raid to attack the US carrier force. With nothing but flimsy escort destroyers and aircraft to stop her (i.e. no real opposition) Yamato managed to get into gun range of a US escort carrier.

On the one and only occasion where Yamato actually got to do proper battleship stuff and fling shells at a surface vessel, they went straight through. These were 16-inch armour-piercing shells designed to blast battleships or perhaps small land masses out of the water. They didn’t even notice they’d hit a carrier, and went right out the other side without detonating. It was at this point that Yamato pretty much lost the will to live. Official accounts say she turned away to avoid a spread of torpedoes, but it was just as likely a rage-quit.

By the time of the Allied landings at Okinawa, Yamato was basically a gigantic naval hobo, hanging around the docks at Kure with nothing much to do except get bombed from time to time. Her self-respect and confidence shattered, she had become a bum with nothing to live for, which made her an ideal candidate for the biggest Kamikaze mission in history.

Along with eight destroyers and a cruiser (pretty much all the ships Japan had left), Yamato set out on a one-way mission to Okinawa. There was insufficient fuel to get home even if the ships somehow survived, but that was unlikely to be a problem since the entire US Navy and a lot of their friends were clustered around the island. In this, err, ‘target-rich environment,’ Yamato was to do as much damage as possible to the Allied landing force, fighting until her fuel ran out. She would then beach herself and become the world’s biggest bunker.

Yamato was spotted by US flying boats en route. Unsurprisingly, US commanders were not keen on the idea of having their offices shelled by the world’s biggest battleship and had been watching in case she came out to play. They asked the carrier captains if they’d mind sinking her, and the carrier captains, who were always up for a bit of battleship-bullying, sent out a veritable horde of planes.

Yamato was hit by around nineteen bombs and torpedoes delivered by hundreds of aircraft over the course of two wholly unpleasant hours. Her end came when, on fire and also full of water, she tried to turn upside down to hide from the bombers. This sort of worked; the fire went out when she sank.

In all, the super battleships did not really achieve that much. The projected third member of the class, Shinano, was modified to act as an aviation support ship. This may have been a better use of such a big hull but we’ll never know, as she was torpedoed and sunk by a submarine before even becoming operational.

Other Japanese battleships played an equally small part in the naval war despite being built to win it. The older ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy had been modernised and, importantly, had received upgraded anti-aircraft armament. These were, on paper at least, very impressive ships. The Fuso class carried twelve 14-inch guns, which is a lot of metal to be throwing at someone. Unfortunately, they never got to do much throwing.

The general disappointment with Japanese battleships can be seen from the plan to rebuild some of them as seaplane carriers. The idea was to remove the aft turrets and fit a seaplane handling deck. The planes would have to be recovered by crane after landing on the sea, as there was no room for a proper flight deck. Some ships, such as the Ise class, were converted in this manner.

This idea wasn’t a good one. A battleship exists to carry guns around, so taking half the guns away created an inferior battleship – and battleships were already feeling pretty inferior. Meanwhile, proper aircraft carriers were sending off dozens of top-end fighters, dive bombers and torpedo planes into the sky. A few floatplanes weren’t going to make much difference. Converting battleships into inferior carriers was a bit like chopping off one of their testicles. The insult was compounded when it turned out there were too few pilots to actually man the planes, so they were not carried. The battleship-carrier concept really just took some guns off the battleships and gave them a flat platform aft instead. Maybe it was good for barbecues or something.

The other great under-achievers of the Second World War were the Italian and French fleets. The Regia Marina started the war with a force of fast, highly capable battleships. These were elegant and good-looking ships of a fairly conventional layout, launched before the First World War but modernised to a high standard. They were good ships and together they outnumbered the forces the Allies could deploy to the Mediterranean.

The myth that Italians were cowards is just that; a myth. Its basis was British propaganda early in the war (just like eating carrots lets you see better at night), after poorly equipped and badly led Italian troops under-performed so spectacularly in North Africa that prisoner-of-war records were sometimes listed in acres. Although the Italian military was entirely capable of putting up a stiff fight, the navy was timidly handled. More than once a force including battleships was seen off by Royal Navy destroyers and cruisers.

And then there was that business at Taranto…

Taranto was the main Italian fleet base, i.e. it was where the battleships lived. It has never been considered polite to wander into someone’s home and give him a good slapping, but that’s what the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm did, and in totally obsolete Swordfish biplanes too, just to make sure everyone got the point. Half of the Italian battleship force was sunk or put out of action for the loss of just two aircraft. No wonder they were a bit hesitant to come out and fight for the rest of the war; seeing half your family stabbed in their beds can put you off a bit.

The French fleet was also denied the chance to achieve much, on account of all that invaded-and-forced-to-surrender business. The French battleship force included some interesting designs such as the Dunkerque class, which mounted the same number of guns as a typical battleship (eight) but carried them all in two big-ass turrets up front.  Clearly this was a ship designed to boldly advance or at least run on a parallel course to its enemies; it could shoot to the front or sides with all of its 13-inch guns but had nothing to fight with while running away.

The concentration of armament served two purposes:

1.  Protection over the guns and magazines could be stronger for the same weight of armour.

2.  It was awesome.

The French battleships were pretty much taken out of the war when France surrendered. Britain asked if the Royal Navy could have them since France wasn’t really a country any more and therefore didn’t need a navy. The Vichy government refused so the British shot the French fleet up a bit. The Royal Navy is still a bit embarrassed about that. One of the French battleships, Richelieu, joined the Allied cause and helped out a bit in the Far East but, overall, French participation in the naval war was a bit of a non-event.

Britain also had some of those guns-at-the-front battleships, in the form of the Nelson-class. These carried nine 16-inch guns in three turrets, all up front, and had a rather curious silhouette. The Rodney gained the distinction of exchanging fire with the Bismarck, closing with the crippled German battleship so she could more or less shoot in a flat trajectory. Bismarck was pretty much on fire and sinking at the time, with a jammed rudder so she couldn’t even run away.

The King George V-class of British battleships was somewhat more conventional in design, with ten 14-inch guns mounted in two 4-gun turrets fore and aft, with a 2-gun turret superfiring the forward one. King George V herself participated in the action against the Bismarck and took some damage, as did her sister Prince of Wales. Prince of Wales inflicted damage on Bismarck’s machinery, forcing her to abandon her raiding mission and arguably setting Bismarck on course for destruction. Prince of Wales (along with Repulse) was sunk by Japanese aircraft while trying to protect Singapore from invasion.

Aircraft again. Gah. They spoil everything.

Another ship of the same class, Duke of York , fought a long engagement with the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst and eventually crippled her sufficiently that she could be finished off by destroyers. This was totally a fair fight; Scharnhorst was a battlecruiser with 11-inch guns and Duke of York was a battleship with 14-inch guns plus armour that could protect her from anything her opponent might do. At least there were no aircraft involved, just old-school shell-chucking.

The Bismarck and Scharnhorst actions qualify the King George V-class for an honourable mention at least; the big German raiders were a serious threat to Allied convoys and their destruction made a lot of potential problems go away. In terms of shells fired at major enemy ships, the King George V-class was one of the most important battleship classes of the war. But not the most important. Not quite.

We’re considering battleships here, not battlecruisers and overgrown raiding cruisers like the ‘pocket battleships.’ That rules out most of the big German surface raiders (and also some of the British capital ships). In fact, that leaves Germany with just two candidates; Bismarck and Tirpitz.

These were fast, well-protected and extremely awesome ships intended to be able to sink just about anything afloat and run away from a superior force. Armed with eight 15-inch guns laid out conventionally in four twin turrets and directed by an advanced rangefinding system, the Bismarck was also very well protected and probably a match for two or more lesser battleships. That was just as well, as Germany had only two battleships and Britain had… loads.

The mayhem these big ships could cause if they got out into the convoy routes was a cause for real terror among Allied leaders. Convoys were grouped to provide defence against submarine attack and were normally protected by small ships optimised for anti-submarine work. Sometimes an old battleship or battlecruiser was sent along with a convoy to provide protection, but even these powerful ships might not be able to stop a vessel like the Bismarck.

Even just sitting in harbour, Bismarck and her sister Tirpitz drained Allied resources. As a ‘fleet in being’ they forced the Allies to keep a force capable of defeating them ready to respond if they sortied. That meant using up fuel and causing wear on ships – and of course making them unavailable for service elsewhere – while the crews of the German battleships could lounge around in deck chairs and drink expensive Belgian lager.

For the threat to be credible, and to avoid death by beer or boredom, the big raiders had to come out from time to time. When Bismarck sortied in 1941, she caused a panic. The order was given to find and sink her at any cost. And so pretty much every allied cruiser, battlecruiser, battleship and aircraft carrier in the Western Hemisphere was called in to search for and sink her.

The result was a running fight in which Hood was sunk. Hood was Britain’s favourite ship, but although she was bigger than most battleships she wasn’t one. She had the same 15-inch guns as a battleship but was in fact a battlecruiser, designed to be super-fast because ‘speed is armour.’

Well, actually… no. It isn’t.

Armour is armour. Speed can make you harder to hit and makes it possible to run away really fast if you’re in trouble, but it’s no use whatsoever if you get hit. Hood got hit and blew up in the finest tradition of battlecruisers. In fact, she was named for one Admiral Hood and was launched by the widow of another – his great-great-grandson. This newer Admiral Hood was killed when his ship (yes, a battlecruiser) was hit at the Battle of Jutland. And blew up.

Battlecruisers suck.

Bismarck was not a battlecruiser, and was thus rather harder to sink. During her sortie she chased off cruisers, scored telling hits on battleships, sank the pride of the Royal Navy and damn near got away with it. Forced by damage to head for port, she was getting close to friendly air cover and her pursuers were running out of fuel when she was crippled by an airstrike.

An airstrike. By aircraft. And yes, they were launched from a carrier.

Even crippled by this cheap shot, Bismarck was hard to sink. In fact, she may have been impossible to sink. With her guns out of action and on fire she eventually went down, but her crew maintain it was they that scuttled her to prevent capture. The British said Bismarck was sunk by torpedoes, but examination of the wreck suggests they did not penetrate her internal protection.  Either way, she was battered until she couldn’t fight any more, but it took two entire fleets to do it.

Among the Bismarck’s survivors was her ship’s cat, Oscar, who was rescued and joined the Royal Navy aboard the destroyer Cossack. Oscar survived the sinking of Cossack, too, and transferred to Ark Royal. When she was sunk under him he retired to a land station and lived out his days peacefully. Nobody would let him on a ship after the third one was sunk under him.

The sister ship of te Bismarck, the Tirpitz, is a strong candidate for Best Battleship. Obviously, she was just as good as Bismarck, but she indirectly caused massive damage to the Allies. Indirectly, because she spent most of her time sitting in a heavily defended Fjord doing the ‘fleet in being’ thing. While she was there, the Allies had to be ready to prevent her coming out and sinking an entire Arctic convoy. That would have soured relations with the Russians and undermined their efforts to survive the German onslaught.

The only hope if Tirpitz came out was to scatter the convoy and hope most of the ships evaded detection; staying together just created a concentrated target. So when it was reported that Tirpitz was at sea, that’s what convoy PQ-17 was ordered to do. In order to cut losses, the Admiralty made the agonising decision to withdraw some of the forces in the area – the available destroyers and cruisers might have had a go at Tirpitz, but the likely outcome was just more lost ships.

In the event, Tirpitz did not attack convoy PQ-17. She did not need to; the scattered merchants were easy targets for air and submarine forces. In essence, Tirpitz bared her teeth and frightened the herd into scattering, creating a bonanza mealtime for lesser hunters. The loss of all those merchant ships and the supplies they carried did indeed strain relations with the Soviet Union.

The Allies decided to do something about Tirpitz, and naturally figured out that aircraft were the best way to deal with a battleship. They hedged their bets a bit with midget submarines and inventive special-operations forces, but basically the plan was to fly over and drop bombs until the big scary battleship went away.

Tirpitz was eventually sunk at anchor by heavy bombers dropping stupidly huge bombs. By this time she was basically a floating battery, crippled by earlier attacks, but her reputation was so fearsome that the Allies could not allow her to be repaired. In short, Tirpitz did an incredible amount of damage to the Allied war effort without ever firing her main battery at a surface target.

Most of the US battleship force also never fired their main guns at enemy ships. Their primary role was as anti-aircraft platforms escorting carriers, and to provide shore bombardment to support amphibious landings. These were important jobs, but they were not what the huge heavily-armoured ships had been built for.

Much of the US battleship force dated from the First World War, though modernisation had improved even the oldest ships. Anti-aircraft armament constantly grew, with most ships ending up top-heavy, their decks covered with light AA mountings. The best of the pre-war ships were the five vessels of the California and Maryland-classes. These were classical battleships, most armed with twelve 14-inch guns in four triple turrets (West Virginia had eight 16-inch guns instead). They gained so much weight in refits some of these ships were given large hull bulges to restore some buoyancy.

The battleships launched by the US just before its entry to the war and during the course of the conflict were largely influenced by a need to counter new Japanese ships (those super battleships got everyone’s attention). The South Dakota-class mounted nine 16-inch guns and was designed to be ‘immune’ to 16-inch shells at ranges between 18,000 to 30,000 yards.

This was a new take on the word ‘immune,’ which normally implies, well, immunity. In this case it meant the ship would remain roughly the same shape and still be able to move and shoot if it was hit. Minor stuff like deck fittings, boats, crewmembers and the entire superstructure might be significantly remodelled, but the ship would still be afloat and shooting. So yeah, immune. Except for all the bits that were destroyed.

The Iowa-class was even more impressive than its predecessors. Four ships were built, with nine 16-inch guns and a top speed of 33kts. These were the ultimate fast battleships, the epitome of the big-gun capital ship. They were surprisingly manoeuvrable for a huge chunk of metal and not only survived the war, but continued to serve for decades afterwards. Indeed, after passing in and out of the mothball fleet, the last Iowas ended their service as missile-armed battleships which are arguably the most awesome things to ever float on water.

But impressive as the Iowas were, they were not the best battleship of the Second World War. Or rather, they were not the capital ship that most influenced the course of the war. That honour goes to Washington, second ship of the North Carolina-Class.

Armed with the usual nine sixteen-inch guns, the North Carolinas were launched in 1940. Their development was heavily influenced by the need to counter Japanese vessels, leading to the decision to fit 16-inch guns after all. 16-inch gun armament was mooted in the original designs but 14-inch guns were planned in order to meet the requirements of the Washington Treaty.  Then the Japanese unveiled their super battleships and the planners reconsidered their decision (as in, ‘Jesus Christ! Look at that thing! We need bigger guns. Really, really big guns!).

Both ships of the North Carolina-class were in service at the outbreak of the Pacific War but suffered from vibration of the propeller shafts. That might not sound like a major fault but these were shafts intended to drive a battleship at 33kts. Having your teeth shaken out of your head every time the bridge rang for flank speed was a reason to look for a fix. Which took some time…

By early 1942 both ships were available for service. They spent some time in the Atlantic and Washington stayed there, helping protect Allied convoys from the threat of Tirpitz and her friends, while her sister North Carolina went to the Pacific. Lacking adequate quantities of Belgian larger, the battleship forces of both sides had to come out and do stuff in the Pacific but, all the same, surface action was rare.

During the fighting around Guadalcanal there finally came an opportunity for battleships to do what they did best. Control of Guadalcanal was critical to halting the Japanese advance in the Pacific. Both sides tried to control the sea approaches to the island, trying to prevent the enemy from bringing in supplies and reinforcements while protecting their own supply lines. By day, aircraft were the most important weapon in this fight for local sea control, but at night the Japanese could rush in and bombard US positions or land their own reinforcements.

If either side could disrupt the other’s supply lines to a sufficient degree, their land forces would be able to win. Thus the naval actions off Guadalcanal directly influenced the course of fighting on the island, even when Japanese ships were not directly influencing US positions ashore by shelling them.

The Allies tried to prevent this by stationing a whole bunch of ships off Guadalcanal. The Japanese wanted them out of the way, and came up with the clever plan of sailing up at night and actually shooting at them – with proper guns and torpedoes mounted on warships instead of aircraft.

Attacking the enemy in his anchorage was a bit of a risky idea. It’d never worked before, unless you count the 1904 attack on the Russian fleet in Port Arthur, the torpedoing of Royal Oak in Scapa Flow by U-47, Taranto, and Pearl Harbour.

Unaccountably catching the Allied fleet by surprise, the Japanese force sailed up and shot the living daylights out of anything made of metal. So many ships were sunk that the area became known as Ironbottom Sound, giving the Japanese a significant advantage. That in turn meant their guys ashore got more regular shipments of tea and biscuits as well as other vital war materiel ( like bullets and stuff).

During this time North Carolina was serving as a carrier escort (basically a humongous anti-aircraft platform). She shot down numerous enemy aircraft during the fighting for the Solomon Islands and probably helped deter the Japanese Navy from trying to launch a surface attack on US carrier forces. But then she got hit by a torpedo while supporting land operations on Guadalcanal.

This was the first time a US capital ship had been torpedoed, winning North Carolina the wrong sort of fame. She didn’t sink, which is a plus, but had to retire for repairs.  Her departure left the US Navy with exactly one battleship available in the whole of the South Pacific theatre of war. This was Washington, which had transferred from the Atlantic.

The only battleship is by definition the best battleship, and for a time Washington held the line alone, providing heavy cover for the carrier forces. She was eventually joined by South Dakota, and was in company with her when the Japanese Navy launched a powerful surface action group against ships landing desperately needed US reinforcements on Guadalcanal.

This was a pivotal moment in the war. An attack on the supply ships could tip the balance and allow Japanese forces to take control of Guadalcanal, which would allow their advance toward Australia and across the Pacific to be resumed. Two Japanese battleships, Kirishima and Hiei, were sent with a powerful escort to make the attack. The defending force of cruisers and destroyers fought bravely but were outmatched, though they managed to cripple Hiei; she was battered to a wreck the next day by aircraft and then scuttled by her crew.

Naval strategists take note; battleships vs. anything with the word ‘cruiser’ somewhere in its name, always going to end badly.

More Japanese cruisers came to join in the fun, plus Kirishima, and there was little to stop them from bombarding the island – including the critical air base at Henderson Field. Washington and South Dakota were detached from carrier escort duty and ordered join the defence of Guadalcanal.

The US battleships and their escort encountered the Japanese force at night, an environment where both sides had advantages. US ships had radar but the Japanese had trained intensively for night action and were used to operating together. The Allied force, on the other hand, was hastily put together and less capable of concerted action. Team-kills were a real possibility if things got out of hand. Which they immediately did.

Destroyers and light cruisers on both sides clashed, with the US force inflicting some damage but generally coming off worst. However, the Allies had two battleships, and battleships trump cruisers. Oh wait, two battleships you said?

At about the worst time possible, South Dakota suffered an electrical malfunction which basically broke the ship. Her radar stopped working and her guns could not traverse. Blind, she came close to a particularly graphic team-kill. To avoid running down some of her own escorting destroyers, which were crippled by enemy action, South Dakota made a hard turn which placed her in full view of the main Japanese force of heavy cruisers and the battleship Kirishima.

South Dakota was unable to reply as these vessels gleefully pounded her, and could only struggle to escape as the damage mounted. That left Washington as the only US capital ship in the fight; a fight that was critical to the course of the war. She came charging to South Dakota’s rescue, closing to short range and pouring 16-inch shells into Kirishima.

Kirishima was hit by nine 16-inch shells and enough 5-inch shells to, err, sink a battleship. In just seven minutes she was savaged to the point where she could no longer fight… or float… and had to be scuttled. The two heavy cruisers, which were also pretty badly knocked about, departed the scene while South Dakota also limped away. That left Washington in command of the battlefield and ready to sink anything else that came her way.

The land battle for Guadalcanal went on for more than two months after this battle, but US naval supremacy and strength on land made victory inevitable. This was one of the critical moments of the war. It has been suggested that the Allies stopped losing the Pacific War at Midway and began to win at Guadalcanal.

If so, then the long road to victory began the moment when Washington opened fire.

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