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USS Iowa (BB-61)

Battleship is the name applied to very large, heavily-armoured warships bearing the largest guns afloat, and applied specifically to those ships built from the late 1800s through the mid-20th Century. Once considered the capital ship by the countries that could afford to build and deploy them, the battleship saw its heyday during the First World War; its subsequent weakness to aerial attack during World War II rendered it essentially obsolete.

Origins of the battleship

The battleship as we know it today is the successor of two warships: the ship of the line, which saw service in several European countries for over two centuries; and the ironclad, a name given to several types of vessel generally built with a heavy wooden frame overlaid with iron plating, and esspecially those ships with guns mounted in revolving turrets.

Ship of the line

HMS Victory, currently the only existing example of a ship of the line
the earliest use of a gun turret, onboard USS Monitor in 1862

The ship of the line was the largest type of sailing warship, mounting a battery of between 80-120 guns on three decks. Slow in comparrison to the smaller frigates, ships of the line were heavily-built to withstand the pounding given by the enemy in battle, while their large number of heavy guns would pound the enemy into submission. Descended in turn from the "great ships" of the early 1600s, the ship of the line was a by-product of a naval maneuver known as the "line of battle", in which a single-file line of ships engaged the enemy abrest, with the most powerful and heavily-armed ships in the lead. By 1794 the ship of the line was given the alternate title line of battle ship, hence the origin of the word battleship.


Robert Fulton demonstrated in his Clermont (1807) that steam power can be fitted to a sea-going vessel, freeing the ship from sails and enabling it to go wherever a captain may direct, limited only by the amount of fuel on board. Paddlewheels were a standard means of propultion on many warships in addition to its complement of sails and masts, but the placement of the wheels on the ship's sides reduced the amount of guns in a broadside as well as leaving the wheels and engine vulnerable to enemy fire; this would be changed in the 1840s with the adoption of the screw propeller and the placement of its engines deep within the ship below the waterline.

With the advent of the screw propeller came the idea of cladding warships in iron as a means of protection from enemy gun fire. Metallurgy at the time developed to the point that iron was mass-produced, inexpensive, and readily available. The first actual iron-cladded vessels were floating barges which served as gun platforms, and towed into place in the Black Sea during the Crimean War. The first warship actually armored was the French La Gloire (1859), a three-masted vessel with a heavy timber frame overlaid with iron plating four inches thick. Not to be outdone, Great Britain launched the steam frigate HMS Warrior (1860), the first warship built entirely of iron.

While the European powers were finding themselves in a new arms race, across the Atlantic the American Civil War was raging in the United States, and calls for an ironclad warship were made by both contestants: the Confederacy to break the Union blockade; and the Union to counter. The occupation of the former U.S. Navy base at Norfolk resulted in the Confederates raising of the steam frigate Merrimack and converting her into a casemated ironclad renamed CSS Virginia, which played havoc for one day in March, 1862. The next day of the Battle of Hampton Roads would ring the death knell for the wooden warship, as Virginia slugged it out with USS Monitor, a low-lying vessel with a single amoured turret of two guns.

Monitor would be the first major step in the development of the battleship from its sailing origins: fast for its size; well-armored; and most importantly a main battery encased in a revolving turret, which meant that the guns alone can be brought to bear on a target without turning the entire ship. Similar vessels would be built during the Civil War by the United States, and be quickly adopted by many of the world's navies, with the turret gaining size to mount larger and larger caliber guns as the ships themselves also increased in size.


HMS Dreadnought

The decisive event in the history of the battleship was the launching of the Dreadnought by the British Royal Navy in 1906. Powered by turbines, the ships had no cluttered array of small-caliber weapons and concentrated all firepower around 13.5-inch guns. It had much better armor and speed than any competitor—it rendered obsolete all other navies and started a new naval arms race. In a departure from Britain's previous reactive response to innovation in naval technology, Admiral John Fisher's (1841-1920) dreadnought policy introduced radically new capital ship designs, despite the technical risks inherent in their all-big-gun armament and turbine propulsion. Yet, early in 1905, Britain's strategic position was strong and improving further: only America was, rather slowly, working toward a small all-big-gun battleship, while Germany would not consider designs with more than four 11-inch guns until after news of Dreadnought was received. Fisher's policy had some successes, but some historians argue it was risky, insufficiently considered, based on inaccurate intelligence, and unnecessary.[1]

World War I

see Battle of Jutland


At the Washington Naval Conference in 1921, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States established a ten-year moratorium on the construction of battleships as well as a limitation on the building and sale of other types of vessels. The primary purpose of the conference was to restrict competition among the Great Powers in the production of large warships. The moratorium was successful but it was not renewed in 1931, and all the Great Powers began a new battleship race, this time with Germany participating too. President Herbert Hoover, a pacifist, would not allow naval construction as a means to fight the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt reversed course and used recovery money (from the PWA) to build 17 new battleships, and many other warships.[2]

World War II


In December 1939 at the start of the war German's small pocket battleship Graf Spee sank numerous merchant ships in the South Atlantic. On December 13 three British cruisers found it along the coast of Uruguay, defeated it in a running fight, and forced it into Montevideo harbor, where it was scuttled by its captain. In October 1940, the pocket battleship Scheer broke out into the Atlantic via the Danish Straits. It attacked an Allied convoy of 36 ships on November 5; the armed merchant ship Jervis Bay defended the convoy and enabled 31 ships of the convoy to escape. On May 22, 1941, the battleship Bismarck ventured into the North Atlantic to attack British commerce. A Royal Navy (British) task force intercepted it between Iceland and Greenland. The Bismarck sank the battle cruiser Hood with one salvo and damaged the battleship Prince of Wales. The Bismarck was hit too and made for home waters, pursued by a pack of British destroyers. The aircraft carrier Ark Royal gave chase, and the Bismarck was hit by torpedo planes and bombers. Finally two large British battleships joined the hunt; the Bismarck lost its rudder controls; a torpedo finally sank it, ending the era of German surface raiders in the open Atlantic. A solitary battleship undefended by air power was proven helpless, as the British discovered when their Asian fleet, the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse were sunk by Japanese air power in December 1941 near Singapore.

End of the battleships

The Royal Navy sank the Italian fleet in Nov. 1940 at the Battle of Taranto using warplanes from aircraft carriers. The Japanese took note and at the Battle of Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7. 1941), sank nearly the entire American battleship fleet using carrier planes. Immediately the carrier replaced the battleship as the capital ship of sea-power. The era of big-gun battles between fleets at 30,000 yards was (almost) over.

Within months after the Pearl Harbor the battleship component of the US Pacific Fleet was back stronger than ever and capable of fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. But the battleship fleet, designated Task Force One, went largely unused. Initially, logistical problems played a large role in the failure to commit the battleships, but by late November 1942 considerations of operational capability and survivability were more important. Admiral William Halsey, the South Pacific theater commander, believed the battleships were a liability, while Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, believed the benefit to be gained from using them was not worth the risk of losing them and their personnel in battle. As a result, the battleships were relegated to shore bombardment, but for combat were replaced by bombs delivered by air, and torpedoes (delivered by airplane, submarine, or destroyer) as the chief offensive weapons of naval warfare. The last battleship ever was built in 1945.[3]

See also


Further reading

  • Brown, David K. Eclipse of the Big Gun: The Warship 1906-45 (1992)
  • Friedman, Norman, and A. D. Baker. Naval Firepower: Battleship Guns and Gunnery in the Dreadnought Era (2008)
  • Friedman, Norman. U.S. Battleships: An Illustrated Design History (1985)
  • Garcia Y Robertson, Rodrigo. "Failure of the Heavy Gun at Sea, 1898-1922." Technology and Culture 1987 28(3): 539-557. Issn: 0040-165x Fulltext: in Jstor
  • Hodges, Peter. The Big Gun: Battleship Main Armament 1860-1945, (1981), highly detailed coverage
  • Hone, Trent. "The Evolution of Fleet Tactical Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1922-1941," The Journal of Military History - Volume 67, Number 4, October 2003, pp. 1107-1148 in Project Muse
  • Hore, Peter. Battleships of World War II: An illustrated history and country-by-country directory of warships, including battlecruisers and pocket battleships, that ... Jersey, Iowa, Bismarck, Yamato, Richelieu (2008)
  • Hore, Peter. Battleships of World War I: A Fully Illustrated Country-By-Country Directory Of Dreadnoughts, Including Armoured Cruisers, Battlecruisers And Battleships From 1906-1918 (2007)
  • Hore, Peter. Ironclads: An Illustrated History of Battleships from 1860 to WWI (2007)
  • Lambert, Nicholas A. Sir John Fisher's Naval Revolution (2002) excerpt and text search
  • McBride, William M. Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865-1945 (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Massie, Robert. Dreadnought (1992), 1040pp excerpt and text search very popular history of the naval race before World War I.
  • Morison, Samuel Loring, and Norman Polmar. The American Battleship (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Muir, Malcolm. The Iowa Class Battleships: Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri & Wisconsin (1991)
  • Mulligan, Timothy. "Ship-of-the-Line or Atlantic Raider? Battleship Bismarck Between Design Limitations and Naval Strategy," The Journal of Military History 69#4 October 2005, pp. 1013-1044 in Project Muse
  • Parkes, Oscar British Battleships: 'Warrior' 1860 to 'Vanguard' 1950 - A History of Design, Construction and Armament (1990) Naval Institute, Annapolis
  • Sondhaus, Lawrence. Naval Warfare, 1815-1914 (2001) online edition
  • Sturton, Ian. Conway's Battleships: The Definitive Visual Reference to the World's All-Big-Gun Ships (2008)
  • Sumida, Jon Tetsuro. "Gunnery, Procurement, and Strategy in the Dreadnought Era," The Journal of Military History v69#4 (2005) 1179-1187 online at Project Muse
  • Sumrall, Robert F., and Thomas Walkowiak. Iowa Class Battleships: Their Design, Weapons and Equipment (1989)
  • Weller, Donald M. "Salvo-splash! The Development of Naval Gunfire Support in World War II". United States Naval Institute Proceedings 1954 80(8): 839-849, 1011-1021
  • Whitley, M.J. Battleships of World War Two (2001) excerpt and text search


  1. John Brooks, "'Dreadnought:' Blunder, or Stroke of Genius?" War in History 2007 14(2): 157-178, argues for blunder; in EBSCO
  2. William M. Mcbride, "The Unstable Dynamics of a Strategic Technology: Disarmament, Unemployment, and the Interwar Battleship." Technology & Culture 1997 38(2): 386-423
  3. David C. Fuquea, "Task Force One: the Wasted Assets of the United States Pacific Battleship Fleet, 1942." Journal of Military History 1997 61(4): 707-734.