Battleships played a pivotal role in world history for over 50 years. These hugely expensive ships were symbols of national pride, and were present at (or part of) the greatest moments of war and peace in the first half of the 20th Century. However, fast forward to today, and not a single navy has a working battleship. Why is this?
Firstly, I should draw a distinction between ‘warship’ and ‘battleship’. A warship is any armed ship which is designed to go to war at sea, so many different types of ship (from small corvettes to heavy cruisers) could be involved in a battle without actually being a battleship. Obviously, today’s navies are full of warships, I’m not going down that route.
A battleship is instead an extremely heavy warship, featuring large guns and (generally) thick armour. These behemoths of the sea were designed to sink pretty much anything on the waves, bombard shore installations with enormous high explosive shells and generally persuade anyone considering attacking your country that this was a bad idea.
When I say large guns, I mean really very large indeed. The calibre describes the diameter of the hole in the end of the gun, and for most modern artillery pieces this is about 155 mm, or in old money about 6.1 inches. The battleships used in World War 2 had guns with calibers of 11 inches or greater, with 15 inches being a common size. The barrel of these enormous firearms would be many times this length (typically over 40 times). This enormous size meant that battleships could lob shells weighing several hundred kilograms over ranges in excess of 12 miles.
These ships could dish it out, but they could take it too. A battleship would typically have a few inches of deck armour and perhaps a little more protecting the conning tower, but the armour would be especially thick along the sides of the ship (the belt armour) which protected vital components such as the boilers and the magazine (ammunition storage). These components would also have internal armour around them, should a shell penetrate the outer hull. Many battleships (particularly in the Second World War) featured anti-torpedo bulges, designed to detonate torpedos before they reached the hull, which reduced the likelihood of flooding.
I should also mention here the tremendous ‘secondary’ firepower many of these ships possessed. In addition to the enormous main armament, battleships would have a multitude of smaller, but still very large, 4, 5 or even 6 inch guns, sometimes packed into their own turrets, to deal with smaller targets. As aircraft became more of a threat, anti-aircraft armaments also grew, featuring armament all the way from heavy machine guns to 40 mm autocannon. Many of the secondary guns could also be used against aircraft, making these ships formidable targets for almost any opponent.
So if these ships were so great, why aren’t there any in use today? Well, this is a long story, but if you’re short on time, the brief answer is: aircraft and submarines.
Aircraft were a factor in the First World War, and by the time of the Second, they were far more capable machines. Aircraft could now carry torpedoes and heavy bombs, and were far faster than anything around in 1918 (except for the Fairey Swordfish, but that’s a story for another day). Even though they bristled with anti-aircraft guns, the fire directors on battleships could struggle to target low flying or fast aircraft, particularly in rough seas.
Even with adequate anti-torpedo protection, some parts of the ship would always be vulnerable, like rudders and steering gear. Most bombs actually struggled to penetrate the armour of a battleship, but with the development of armour piercing bombs (some very heavy, like the tallboy) this armour was not of much use. Besides, one didn’t even need to penetrate the armour to do damage – the secondary armament was outside this thick armour, and it could still be taken out, and the fire directors, radars and other equipment could be destroyed without ever going through serious armour.
It became very clear, particularly in the Pacific, that the balance of power now lay with aircraft and aircraft carriers. At Pearl Harbour, the Japanese Imperial Navy’s aircraft sank many US battleships, and conversely, the Japanese battleship Yamato, arguably the most powerful ever built, was sunk entirely by aircraft, with no actual contact between ships being required.
In addition, though there were relatively few times when battleships were sunk or even damaged by submarines, many other kinds of ship could be sunk easily by submarines. This somewhat defeated the point of many battleships, since they were far more expensive and took far longer to build than submarines.
Submarines too were getting far more advanced, and could spend longer and longer under the waves. Though they were a great deal slower than battleships, and indeed warships in general, they could lay in wait for a ship, and sink it with torpedos, often without being detected. In summary – why build a battleship when aircraft can destroy it and cheap submarines can do its job?
This isn’t quite the end of the story though. The factors discussed above, and post-war austerity, put an end to battleship building, by all nations, after World War 2, but many were retained, because there was one task that battleships were still ideal for – shore bombardment. Remember that battleships had far bigger guns than are available on land, even today, and could cause huge devastation to shore targets, as demonstrated during many of the campaigns during the war, and in the Korean war of the 1950s. Eventually, this role would fall to aircraft, but the battleships remained a useful asset.
Following the end of the cold war, the last battleships (the US Iowa Class ships) were retired. The USA, keen to stay ahead in military matters, has invested heavily instead in nuclear powered aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, and the era of the battleship is well and truly over.