The Five Deadliest Naval Clashes Ever Fought By Battleships
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By Robert Farley, The National Interest
The age of the steel line-of-battleship really began in the 1880s, with the construction of a series of warships that could carry and independently aim heavy guns external to the hull. In 1905, HMS Dreadnought brought together an array of innovations in shipbuilding, propulsion, and gunnery to create a new kind of warship, one that could dominate all existing battleships.
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Although eventually supplanted by the submarine and the aircraft carrier, the battleship took pride of place in the navies of the first half of the twentieth century. The mythology of of the battleship age often understates how active many of the ships were; both World War I and World War II saw numerous battleship engagements. These are the five most important battles of the dreadnought age.
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Battle of Jutland:
In the years prior to World War I, Britain and Germany raced to outbuild each other, resulting in vast fleets of dreadnought battleships. The British won the race, but not by so far that they could ignore the power of the German High Seas Fleet. When war began, the Royal Navy collected most of its modern battleships into the Grand Fleet, based at Scapa Flow.
The High Seas Fleet and the Grand Fleet spared for nearly three years before the main event. In May 1916, Admiral Reinhard Scheer and Admiral John Jellicoe laid dueling traps; Scheer hoped to draw a portion of the Grand Fleet under the guns of the High Seas Fleet, while Jellicoe sought to bring the latter into the jaws of the former. Both succeeded, to a point; British battlecruisers and fast battleships engaged the German line of battle, before the arrival of the whole of the Grand Fleet put German survival in jeopardy.
The two sides fought for most of an afternoon. The Germans has sixteen dreadnought battleships, six pre-dreadnoughts, and five battlecruisers. Against this, the British fielded twenty-eight dreadnoughts and nine battlecruisers. Jellicoe managed to trap the Germans on the wrong side of the Grand Fleet, but in a confused night action most of the German ships passed through the British line, and to safety.
Many, on both sides, considered Jutland a disappointment. Both Scheer and Jellicoe believed that they missed a chance to destroy the enemy fleet, the latter with considerably more justifiable cause. Nevertheless, together the two sides lost four battlecruisers and a pre-dreadnought battleship. Had either side enjoyed a bit less luck, the losses could have been much worse.
Battle of Mers-el-Kebir:
The surrender of France in 1940 left the disposition of the French Navy in question. Many of the heavy ships, mostly located in French colonies, could aid either Axis or British forces. In early July 1940, Winston Churchill decided to take a risk averse approach. The Royal Navy would force a French decision, with the result of either seizing or destroying the French navy.
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The largest concentration of French ships, including four French battleships, lay at Mers-el-Kebir, in Algeria. Two of the French battleships were veterans of World War I; old, slow, and not particularly useful to either the Italian or the British navies. The prizes were six heavy destroyers, and the fast battleships Strasbourg and Dunkerque. These ships could contribute on either side of the conflict.
The British dispatched Force H from Gibraltar, consisting of HMS Hood, HMS Valiant, HMS Resolution, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, and a flotilla of supporting ships to either intimidate or destroy the French. Royal Navy representatives submitted an ultimatum to their French counterparts, demanding that the ships either join the British, sail to America and disarm, or scuttle themselves. What precisely happened in the communications between Force H and the French commander remains in dispute. What we do know is that the British battleships opened fire, with devastating results. Bretagne’s magazine exploded, killing over a thousand French sailors. Provence and Dunkerque both took hits, and promptly beached themselves. Strasbourg made a daring dash for the exit, then outran Hood to escape the British task force.
In the end, the British sank one obsolete ship and damaged another. They damaged one fast battleship, and let another escape. 1300 French sailors died during the battle. Fortunately, the surviving French sailors had little interest in serving the Germans; they would eventually scuttle most of their ships at Toulon, following a German invasion of Vichy.
Battle of Calabria:
Most of the battles in the Mediterranean theater in World War II came about as the result of convoy protection. The Italians needed to escort their convoys to Libya, while the British needed to escort convoys to Malta, and points east.
In July 1940, shortly after the destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, the far escorts of two convoys met each other in battle. An Italian task force consisting of the battleships Giulio Cesare, Conti di Cavour, and various smaller ships rubbed up against a British convoy including HMS Warspite, HMS Malaya, HMS Royal Sovereign, the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, and associated escorts.
The Italians had the initial advantage, as the dispersal of Royal Navy ships meant that only Warspite could fire upon the Italian line. Warspite engaged both enemy ships, coming under fire from Giulio Cesare as Malaya and Royal Sovereign hurried to her aid. After several near misses on both sides, Warspite struck with one of the longest hits in the history of naval artillery. The hit, which detonated ammunition on Giulio Cesare’s deck, resulted in a loss of speed that forced the Italian ship out of line. This cost the Italians their moment of advantage; with odds at 3-1, the remaining Italian ships retired.
Although the Italians failed to score a victory in the battle, they did demonstrate that the Royal Navy could not operate in the central Mediterranean without heavy escort. The addition of two new, modern fast battleships in the next months would give the Italians a major advantage, which the airstrike on Taranto would ameliorate only for a time. The Allies could not claim naval supremacy in the ‘Med’ until 1943, when the Italian fleet surrendered under the guns of Malta.
When the German battleship Bismarck entered service in 1941, she became the largest warship in the world, displacing the Royal Navy battlecruiser HMS Hood. In May 1941, the Bismarck sortied from Norway in the company of the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. The Germans planned to use the pair as commerce raiders, with Bismarck drawing off or destroying the capital ship escorts of any convoys, while Prinz Eugen concentrated on the merchant ships themselves.
The first task force to intercept Bismarck included HMS Hood, HMS Prince of Wales, and four destroyers. HMS Prince of Wales was theoretically comparable to Bismarck, but teething problems (she had only very recently completed trials) limited her combat effectiveness. HMS Hood carried a similar armament to Bismarck (8 15” guns), but also carried twenty more years of age.
Appreciating the threat that long-range fire posed to the thin deck-armor of Hood, Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland sought to close the range as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, Bismarck’s fifth salvo caught Hood amidships, resulting in a huge explosion. Analysts debate to this day what precisely happened aboard Hood, but the blast took her to the bottom so quickly that only three crewmembers (from a crew of 1419) escaped.
Late in the battle, Prince of Wales scored a hit on Bismarck that caused a fuel leak. This killed Bismarck’s mission; she could not raid into the Atlantic with fuel running low. Bismarck broke contact with Prince of Wales (which by this time was severely hampered by gunnery breakdowns), and attempted to run for home. Two days later she was caught by HMS Rodney and HMS King George V, which avenged Hood by sending Bismarck to the bottom.
Second Battle of Guadalcanal:
In late 1942, Americans owned the day over the Solomon Islands, largely by virtue of their control of Henderson Airfield. The Japanese, on the other hand, owned the night. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) used its advantages at night to run supplies and reinforcements to Japanese troops on Guadalcanal, and to bombard American positions.
On November 13, a task force including two Japanese battleships tried to “run the slot” and bombard Henderson. The IJN task force was met by a group of American cruisers and destroyers, which took advantage of surprise and good luck to cripple the battleship Hiei. American aircraft finished off Hiei the next day.
The following evening, the Japanese tried again. The Americans, virtually tapped out after months of grueling combat, went to their aces in the hole; USS Washington and USS South Dakota, a pair of fast battleships normally tasked with escorting carriers. Four destroyers screened the two battleships. The IJN force included the battleship Kirishima (sister of Hiei, and survivor of the first battle), four cruisers, and nine destroyers.
The early stages of the night action saw the IJN warships sweep aside the U.S. Navy destroyer screen. South Dakota and Washington became separated, and the former came under heavy fire from the entire Japanese task force, which caused high casualties and a complete loss of communications. When the Japanese opened up on South Dakota, however, they revealed their position to USS Washington, which took the opportunity to hammer HIJMS Kirishima with her 16” and 5” guns. Kirishima suffered mortal damage, fell out of the battle line, and eventually sank (although most of her crew was rescued). South Dakota and Washington escaped, the latter with virtually no damage.
Only eight dreadnoughts remain, all in the United States. Over time, it is almost certain that this number will dwindle; several of the memorialized battleships are in poor condition, and likely will eventually find their way to the scrappers, or to service as an artificial reef. Nevertheless, for more than a generation analysts and the general public perceived these ships to constitute the currency of naval, and to some extent national, power.
Robert Farley , a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.