The idea that battleships represent the main force of the navy had been considered an axiom for nearly three centuries. Since the time of the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century until the battle of Jutland in 1916, the outcome of war at sea was solved in an artillery duel between the two navies going in a line. The confidence in the power of the battleship was not undermined by the appearance of aircrafts or submarines. Even after the First World War, most admirals and naval theorists continued to measure the strength of the fleet by the number of heavy guns, the total weight of volley fire, and thickness of armor. However, this exclusive role of battleships, which were considered as indisputable masters of the seas, has finally played a cruel joke with them. As it was noted by Alfred Mahan,
Conditions and weapons change; but to cope with the one or successfully wield the others, respect must be had to these constant teachings of history in the tactics of the battlefield, or in those wider operations, of war which are comprised under the name of strategy (Mahan 1890: 7).
This paper analyzes the development, rise, and decline of the epoch of battleships and their influence upon technology and world politics.
The history of battleships began with the large sailing ships of the early 19th century, which were armed with cannons, with two or three gun batteries from each side, and shoot round cannon balls. In 1819, the French artillery officer Henri-Joseph Paixhans invented a fragmentation projectile for land cannons. In the hollow body of such projectiles, a charge was placed, which exploded by means of the detonating fuse, when the latter was hit in the result of the collision of the projectile with its target (for example, a wall of fortification). The explosion of internal charge tore the housing, and the splinters caused much more serious damage to people and weapons than the projectile itself. After a series of experiments carried out in France in 1834 in order to test the penetrating ability of Paixhans’ projectiles for different types of objects, including models of ships, they were used for naval guns. As a result of these experiments, Paixhans suggested to improve broadside armor, covering wood with iron plates. Another solution included the “armored deck, extended by British designers for their warships to slope below the water line, that would shield engines, boilers, and magazines” (Cooling 2000: 8). All these ideas influenced the creation of the first dreadnought. The idea to give armor to ships – that was realized in practice only fifteen years later – began the history of battleships. A new type of ship was a major technological, military, and social breakthrough. As David A. Mindell noted in his book about USS Monitor:
Itself the product of numerous systems (of invention, materials, production, and armaments), the ship embodied and represented its networks in a coherent unit, wheezing, snorting, and churning like the icon of the machine age it became (Mindell 2000: 5).
The battleships of late 1800s were armed with several cannons of major caliber (usually of four), which were a key weapon in ranged combat. In addition to these cannons, there were others, so-called medium artillery, applied in close combat engagements against other battleships and cruisers. There were even smaller caliber guns. They were called antitorpedo weapons and were used to combat destroyers attacking ships at a very close range due to a short range of torpedoes. To better hit the target, the latter were launched from a distance of about 900 meters. All these cannons and ammunition caused major problems with their storage. Moreover, a close combat engagement between the big ships appeared in practice a dream. For example, during the Battle of Tsushima (1905), Russian and Japanese battleships fired at the maximum range of their heaviest guns, thus confirming the futility of middle caliber guns. Thus, there appeared the idea of the ships with only one caliber, in other words, the idea of battleships armed with a significant number of heavy (eight or ten) and several light guns instead of a few large-caliber and middle-caliber guns. This theory was proposed by the Italian Navy’s chief naval architect Admiral Vittorio Cuniberti in his article published in 1903. In those days, the question was raised about the ideal characteristics of a warship for the British Royal Navy.
Cuniberti proposed to build a battleship with 12 x 305-mm guns, protected by 305-mm armor and capable of gaining speed of 20-22 knots, which exceeded the speed of pre-dreadnoughts (18-19 knots). Increasing the speed of the ship allowed it to quickly approach slower enemy battleships and attack with its twelve guns, nearly tripling the power of fire compared to the strength of fire of four guns of conventional ships. In an unfavorable situation, the new battleship could easily fall back using its speed advantage and stop firing, waiting for the right moment to resume the attack. Naval squadrons would keep fighting only by major guns at the maximum range, so the weight saved at the cost of the support arms could be used to increase the main artillery. Admiral Fisher, chief of the British Navy, considered that “Modem offensive battleships… should have guns – and speed. Achieving maximum speed with sufficient firepower meant cutting all other weight to the bone” (Misa 1995: 92). He enthusiastically welcomed the idea and approved Cuniberti’s prototype ship named HMS Dreadnought, which was put into service on December 31, 1906. The ship was armed with 10 x 12-inch Mark X guns and 27 x 12-pdr Mark I guns. The artillery of middle calibers, which was used in the early British ships, e.g. HMS King Edward VII (built in 1905), disappeared:
The Dreadnought, with ten 12-inch guns, had a broadside of twice as many heavy guns as any ship afloat. When few battleships could make 18 knots, the Dreadnought’s turbines speeded her along at 21 knots, and of even greater significance, she crossed the Atlantic at over 17 knots average without a breakdown (Hough 1983: 10).
The evolution of the battleships in the first decades of the twentieth century was indeed swift. The beginning of the Russian-Japanese War in 1904 saw the largest representatives of this class, known as ironclads that had a displacement of about 15.000 tons, while displacement of HMS Dreadnought built two years later was already over 20.730 tons. HMS Dreadnought was considered as the peak of perfection among its contemporaries. Richard Hough mentioned the reaction of people when they saw this ship:
An onlooker described the launch of HMS Dreadnought as ‘the greatest sight I have ever seen – it made me proud of my country and of the Navy’. ‘She went in without a hitch,’ a naval cadet wrote home, ‘She is an enormous ship” (Hough 1983: 1).
However, by 1912 at the background of new heavy ships it looked like quite an ordinary ship of the second line. Four years later, the British started construction of the famous HMS Hood with a displacement of 45.000 tons. Unbelievable, but powerful and expensive ships were becoming obsolete just in three or four years during an unrestrained arms race, and their construction was extremely burdensome for even the richest countries.
The fact is that any warship is a compromise of many factors; the most important of them include the weapons, defense, and speed. Each of these components consumes much of the ship’s displacement since the artillery, armor, and engines with multiple boilers or turbines were very heavy. The engineers usually had to sacrifice one of the fighting qualities in favor of another. Thus, the Italian shipbuilding school preferred fast and heavily armed, but poorly protected battleships. The Germans, on the contrary, emphasized the vitality and built ships with a very thick armor, but a moderate speed and lightweight artillery. The desire to ensure the harmonious combination of all the characteristics given the tendency of constant increase of the main caliber led to the monstrous growth of the size of the ship. It is ironic, but the appearance of the long-awaited ideal battleships – fast, heavily armed, and protected by heavy armor – have brought the idea of such ships to the point of absurdity. The floating monsters because of their high prices undermined the economy of their own countries greater than the invasion of enemy armies. On the other hand,
Building these vessels demanded industrial production on an unprecedented scale, created commercial opportunities for steel and arms makers in many countries, and altered the tempo of industrial production in many nations, a process that would have dramatic effects on labor (HSSC 003: 1).
However, they almost did not sail in seas because admirals did not want to risk such a valuable combat units, for the loss of even one of them was almost a national catastrophe. Battleships stopped being the means of warfare at sea and became an instrument of world politics. Their continued construction was determined not by tactical expediency, but by quite different motives. Having such ships in the first half of the twentieth century meant roughly the same for the country’s prestige as possessing nuclear weapons today.
The need to stop a running flywheel of naval arms race was realized by the governments of all countries, and drastic measures were taken in 1922 at the international conference in Washington. The delegations of the most powerful states agreed to substantially reduce their military and naval forces and to limit the total tonnage of their fleets in certain proportions over the next 15 years. At the same period, the construction of new battleships stopped almost everywhere. The only exception was made for the UK – a country that was forced to scrap the greatest number of entirely new dreadnoughts. However, two battleships that the British were allowed to build could hardly have the perfect combination of fighting qualities since their displacement was about 35 thousand tons. The Washington conference was the first real step in history to limit offensive weapons globally. It gave the world economy some relief. However, the apotheosis of battleship race was yet to come.
After the First World War, on the basis of the Washington Treaty displacement of battleships was limited to 35.000 tons, and caliber of the guns to 406 mm. Every major naval power also had a tonnage quota for its ships of the line. These limitations applied to the signatory countries: the UK, the USA, Japan, France, and Italy. For Germany, which was a defeated country, the restrictions were established by a peace treaty. Austrian ships disappeared as a result of the territorial division, after which Austria lost access to sea. Russian fleet survived the decline after the revolution of 1917, but until the end of World War II did not play a significant role.
Despite the limitations of the Washington Treaty, the technological advances led to the development of the battleships to their highest point. Since the Washington Treaty prohibited the construction of new battleships for ten years, new types were constructed in the period of rearmament of 1930-1935 preceding the Second World War. Ships built between 1930 and 1945 were called superdreadnoughts or fast battleships. The name itself suggests that their fighting qualities were much higher than the fighting qualities of dreadnoughts built in 1905-1925. They could move faster than 20-22 knots, as could their predecessors, which, according to Cuniberti theory, were faster than pre-dreadnoughts. French ships of the Dunkirk class (1935) developed a speed of 29.5 knots; German Scharnhorst class (1936) – 31.5 knots; Italian Littorio class (1937) – 30 knots, the French Richelieu class (1939) – 30 knots, American North Carolina (1941) and South Dakota classes (1942) – 27.5 knots. Japanese vessels of Yamato class (1940) were the largest battleships in the world and therefore the slowest. Their speed was only 27 knots. The fastest battleships were the ships of Iowa class (USA), which could develop speed of 32.5 knots.
World War II marked the decline of battleships since a new weapon appeared at sea, the range of which was larger than the range of the most long-range guns of battleships. It was aviation, both naval and coast. Classic artillery duels were gone, and most of the battleships were sunk not by the artillery fire, but by the attacks from air and under water. The only case of the carrier sinking by the battleship was caused more by the errors in the actions of the command of the carrier.
Thus, in an attempt to break into the North Atlantic for raiding operations, the German battleship Bismarck on May 24, 1941 engaged in battle with the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser HMS Hood and heavily damaged the first and sank the latter. However, on May 26, returning to the French Brest, it was attacked by torpedo naval bombers Swordfish from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. Two torpedo hits reduced its speed (one of the torpedoes jammed the rudders) and the next day it was caught and sunk by the British battleships HMS Rodney and HMS King George V and several cruisers after the 88-minute battle.
On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes from six aircraft carriers attacked the base of the American Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor, having sunk four and seriously injured four other battleships as well as several other ships. On December 10, Japanese shore-based aircraft forces sunk the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battle cruiser HMS Repulse. Battleships started to be armed with a growing number of anti-aircraft guns, but it did not help against aviation’s growing power. The best defense against enemy aircraft was the presence of the aircraft carrier, which thus acquired a leading role in naval warfare. The planes
altered navy strategy from a straight-ahead sea offense to a wheeling pattern where destroyers circled around the flat-tops, protecting them from attack as they launched warplanes against targets often 100 miles from the fleet (Reutter 2004: 308).
The British battleships of Queen Elizabeth class, operating in the Mediterranean, became victims of German submarines and Italian underwater saboteurs. HMS Barham was sunk by the German submarine U-331, and HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant were undermined right in the harbor of Alexandria.
Their rivals, the latest Italian battleships Littorio and Vittorio Veneto, met them in battle only once, which ended with shootouts at great distances, and did not dare to chase their outdated opponents. All fighting came down to the fights with the British cruisers and aircraft. In 1943, they were going to surrender to the British as well as the third battleship Roma. The Germans attacked the squadron and Roma was sunk by the newest weapon – a radio-controlled bomb X-1. These bombs also damaged other ships, including battleship Littorio, renamed to Italy, which miraculously stayed afloat. At the final stage of the war, the functions of battleships were limited to artillery bombardment of the coast and protection of aircraft carriers. The world’s largest battleships, the Japanese Yamato and Musashi, were sunk by aircraft and did not engage in battle with American ships.
At the end of the Second World War, in connection with the advance of naval and shore-based aircraft and submarines, battleships were considered obsolete as the type of warships. Only two ships were built since then – the British HMS Vanguard in 1946 and the French Jean Bart in 1949, which became the last battleships in history that came into service. Both ships were designed and built before the war, and putting them in line was motivated more by a political prestige than a military necessity. After the war, most of the battleships were scrapped, being too expensive for the economies exhausted by the war and having no military value. The role of the main carrier of nuclear weapons was given to aircraft carriers and later to nuclear submarines.
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Only the U.S. has several times used its last battleships (New Jersey class) for fire support of ground operations because of the relative – compared with air strikes – cheapness of bombarding the shore with heavy shells as well as extreme firepower of these ships (after the upgrade of loading system during one hour of shooting, USS Iowa could fire about a thousand tons of shells, which is not possible for any of the carriers). Before the war in Korea, all four battleships of Iowa class were taken into service again. USS New Jersey was used in Vietnam.
Under President Reagan, the ships were withdrawn from the reserve and re-commissioned. They were designed to be the core of new naval attack groups. The ships were rearmed and became able to carry cruise missiles Tomahawk and Harpoon. USS New Jersey took part in the bombardment of Lebanon in 1983-1984, and USS Missouri and USS Wisconsin used their main caliber against ground targets during the first Gulf War in 1991. The bombardment of Iraqi positions and stationary objects by battleships was significantly cheaper than bombardment by rockets with similar efficacy. Also, well-protected and large battleships became effective in the role of command ships. However, the high cost of refurbishment of the old battleships ($300-500 million each) and the high cost of maintaining them led to the fact that all four battleships were retired again in the nineties of the 20th century. USS New Jersey was sent to the Naval Museum in Camden, USS Missouri became a museum ship at Pearl Harbor, USS Iowa is in the conservation reserve fleet in Susan Bay, California, and USS Wisconsin is in conservation in the Maritime Museum in Norfolk. However, the combat service of these battleships can be resumed since the government has particularly insisted on the readiness of at least two of the four battleships.
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Battleship is a very survivable ship. The experience of World War II showed that to sink such a large ship, 8 to 10 torpedoes or 6 to 8 large air explosive bombs are required. For example, the Japanese battleship Yamato was sunk in April 1945 after being hit by 10 aircraft torpedoes and about 13 bombs. According to the research conducted by U.S. experts, the battleship USS Iowa can survive a simultaneous hit of 10 torpedoes, which, in their view, is unlikely. Armor protection of a battleship makes it almost invulnerable to anti-ship missiles of the navies of most countries of the world (up to 90 mm armor piercing).
Finally, it should be noted that the desire to create a supership, stronger than any potential adversary in its class, was characteristic for engineers and shipbuilders of various countries and various epochs. There is a certain pattern: the weaker are the economy and the industry of the state, the more active is the desire. In the developed countries, by contrast, this desire is less significant. Thus, in the interwar period, the British Admiralty preferred to build ships with modest combat capabilities, but in large quantities, which ultimately allowed them to have a well-balanced fleet. Japan, by contrast, sought to build ships more powerful than the British and American ones. This way, it wanted to compensate for the difference in the economic development with their future opponents.
Characteristically, almost all the superships ever embodied in metal did not play their role. Suffice it to mention the example of the Japanese battleships Yamato and Musashi. They were destroyed by the bombs from American planes without firing even one volley of the main caliber at their American counterparts. However, even if they had the opportunity to engage the U.S. Navy in the linear combat, they could hardly hope for success. After all, Japan was able to build only two battleships of the last generation, and the United States built ten. With this balance of power, individual excellence of Yamato over the single American battleship did not play any role. World experience shows that several well-balanced ships are much better than one giant with hypertrophic features. Of course, the development of battleships has greatly influenced the overall technological progress, and ultimately it has shown the way for further development of a strong navy.