Battleships (BB)

Photograph of USS Wisconson, an Iowa-class battleship

National Archives #80-G-453313

Battleships were the most heavily armed and armored warships in a navy. At the start of the Pacific War, the most powerful were typically armed with, and armored against, 16” (406mm) guns, and were capable of speeds in excess of 20 knots. The United States later launched battleships capable of 33 knots. The Japanese built super battleships with 18” (460 mm) guns and up to 27” (650mm) of armor that were capable of 27 knots speed.  All were designed for a Jutland-style long-range gunnery duel against their counterparts from the enemy fleet.

Prior to the Pacific War, these colossally expensive ships were widely considered the ultimate arbiters of naval power. Their construction required a major investment of national resources and years of design and construction. British planners in 1936 formally estimated that the cost of building,maintaining, and operating a battleship was equivalent to the similar cost for a fleet of 43 medium bombers. This made them an obvious target for arms control efforts between the wars. The Washington Naval Treaty limited both the design and numbers of battleships of the major powers, with the United States and Britain limited to 15 battleships and Japan to 10. This disparity in numbers created considerable resentment in Japan. All powers were limited to battleships of not more than 35,000 tons displacement with guns limited to 16" caliber, and a ten-year "building holiday" went into effect during which new battleships were not to be constructed to replace older ones.

The Second London Conference of 1936 sought to restrict new battleships to 14" (356mm) guns with a 25,000 ton displacement. American resistance to the low displacement resulted in a treaty agreement of 14" guns and 35,000 ton displacement. Since Japan had announced as early as March 1934 that she intended to withdraw from the treaty regime, escalator clauses were included to allow increase in gun size to 16" and an increase in displacement to 45,000 tons. In 1937 the escalator clause for gun size was invoked and in 1938 the escalator clause for tonnage was invoked.

Under the terms of the treaty, the British were allowed to construct two battleships, the Nelson and Rodney, to build up to the allowed tonnages. The ships carried 16" guns and were unusual in having all three of their turrets mounted forward. These ships were built before the 1936 treaty limited gun size to 14". The next battleships built for the British Navy were the King George V class with 14" guns and 35,000 ton displacement. Once the escalator clauses were invoked, the British built Vanguard with 15" guns and 45,000 ton displacement. However, Vanguard was not completed by the time of the surrender. After the war started and the treaties became moot, the British planned for a larger and more powerful Lion class, but the two units laid down were never completed.

The Americans were already built up to treaty limits, and did not build any new ships until the "building holiday" ended. The first new class, the North Carolina, was designed to accept either quadruple 14" turrets or triple 16" turrets. So while the ship was designed with 14" guns and armor to withstand 14" shells, once the escalator clause for gun size was invoked, the ships were actually built with 16" guns. The next class, the South Dakota, was built with armor to resist 16" shellfire, but due to the 35,000 ton displacement was very cramped. The Iowa class was designed after the tonnage escalator clause was invoked and had 16" guns on 45,000 tons displacement. Once the war started, the Montana was designed with a higher displacement, but was never laid down.

The Japanese, who led the way in leaving the treaty structure, ended up completing the smallest number of modern battleships. The two Yamato class battleships were completed early in the war, with the third unit converted to a carrier while still under construction.

Battleship designs of a given displacement must strike a balance between protection, speed, and firepower. One rule of thumb is that a battleship should have sufficient armor to protect its vitals against shells of the same caliber as its own guns at likely engagement distances. Battleships of the Second World War also needed to devote some of their displacement to underwater protection against mines and torpedoes, to a powerful antiaircraft battery, and to deck armor capable of protecting their vitals against bombs of up to 2000 lbs (900 kg) weight dropped from several thousand feet. Battleships were also expected to be faster than ever, with speed sufficient to escort fast carriers. Their heavy guns and armor meant that battleships, more than any other type of warship, had to be designed within a strict weight budget for a given displacement.

As Friedman (1985) has pointed out, the old and new American battleships fought very different wars. The new battleships, with their higher speed, spent much of the war serving as escorts for carrier forces. Occasionally they were detached for surface action, as at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (where Washington destroyed Kirishima), but this was the exception. The older battleships, which were too slow to make effective carrier escorts, found themselves serving as a fleet-in-being on the West Coast early in the war, and as fire support ships for amphibious operations later on. However, they, too, experienced surface action, at Surigao Strait. Ironically, the use of the older battleships as fire support ships, which tied them to the beachheads, made them prime targets for air attack. As a result, the older battleships suffered significantly more battle damage than the new battleships.

Viewed as the mainstay of the fleet when war broke out, the battleship was widely considered a dinosaur without a future by the time the war ended. The truth lay somewhere in between. Battleships did not have the reach of aircraft carriers, the new queens of the fleet, but they were much harder to destroy than the carriers, and the newer battleships carried an impressive antiaircraft battery with which to protect the carrier task forces. Battleships also remained useful for night operations and for shore bombardment during amphibious assaults. No carrier stood a chance against a battleship in a surface engagement; but battleship guns had a range of just 20 to 30 miles (30 to 50 km), while carrier aircraft could strike at distances of two to three hundred miles (300 to 500 km).

Hiroshima saw to it that no new battleships would be completed postwar. No conceivable armor protection could stand up to a nuclear-tipped projectile, and so the only viable capital ships were carriers, whose air wings had at least a fighting chance of keeping a nuclear-armed opponent out of range. Even if nuclear weapons had not entered into the picture, the advent of heavy guided bombs that could hit a warship from very high altitude rendered conventional horizontal protection obsolete. However, the remaining U.S. battleships were repeatedly brought out of mothballs to serve as fire support ships in limited wars, and they were still seeing combat service as late as 1990. However, it is now the view of the Navy that they are no longer cost effective, and none are currently in commission.

Japanese battleship classes

Fuso class

Ise class

Kongo class

Nagato class

Yamato class

U.S. battleship classes

Colorado class

Iowa class

Nevada class

New Mexico class

New York class

North Carolina class

Pennsylvania class

South Dakota class

Tennessee class

Wyoming class

British battleship classes

King George V class

Nelson class

Queen Elizabeth class

Revenge class

French battleship classes

Richelieu class

Brown (2000)

Dullin and Garzke (1976)
Friedman (1978, 1985)

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