In naval history, battleships were the most heavily armed and armored warships afloat. They were designed to engage enemy warships with direct and indirect fire from an arsenal of main guns; as a secondary role, they were capable of bombarding targets on and near an enemy coast. In the mid-20th century they were made obsolete by the greater range and striking power of the aircraft carrier. Although some continued to be used for shore bombardment and as missile platforms, the last battleships were decommissioned in the late 1990s.
The name "battleship" was initially given to first-, second-, and third-rate ships of the line during the age of sail. These ships were called the "main line of battle ships", or battleships for short, as they were expected to fight there.
Although this scheme worked well in the 18th Century, from the middle of the 19th Century the terminology become confused by introduction of large steam-powered armoured single-deck ships with a small number of very powerful guns. These were technically frigates because they had a single gundeck, but were designed to fight as ships of the line.
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The line of battle was first used by England and Spain in the early 17th century, although ships of similar type, generally called "great ships" or ships of the line had existed in several European countries since around 1410. For over 300 years battleships were the main instrument of naval warfare, particularly in Europe where they allowed nations such as the Netherlands, Spain, France and Britain, to create and maintain trade-based overseas empires.
In the 17th Century fleets could consist of almost a hundred ships of various sizes, but by the mid 18th Century, ship-of-the-line design had settled on a few standard types: older two-deckers (ie. with two complete decks of guns firing through side ports) of 50 guns, (which were too weak for the battle-line but could be used to escort convoys), two-deckers of between 64 and 90 guns which formed the main part of the fleet, and larger three- or even four-deckers with 98–144 guns which were used as admirals' command ships. Fleets consisting of perhaps 10–25 of these ships kept control of the sea-lanes for major European naval powers whilst restricting sea-borne trade of enemies.
Although Spain, the Netherlands, and France built huge fleets, they were rarely able to match the skill of British naval crews, who spent much more time at sea and endured much harsher discipline. In the North Sea and North Atlantic Ocean the fleets of Britain, the Netherlands, France and Spain fought numerous battles in support of their land armies and to deny the enemy access to trade routes. In the Baltic Sea, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and Russia did likewise, while in the Mediterranean Sea Russia, Ottoman Turkey, Venice, Britain and France battled for control of the Balkans, Egypt and Malta.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain defeated Europe's major naval powers at battles such as Trafalgar and the Battle of Copenhagen, allowing the Royal Navy to establish itself as the world's primary naval power. When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, Spain, Denmark and Portugal stopped building large battleships under duress from the British. However, from the early 1850s onwards, the advent of reliable steam power and iron hulls, made wooden sail battleships obsolete. These vessels were subsequently redesigned or fitted with steam engines. In the 1860s major naval powers built "armoured frigate" type ships, which, although having only one gundeck, were used as battleships, not frigates. Soon after, however, turreted guns began to be used, following the designs of the shipwright John Ericsson. This was largely necessitated by the introduction of paddle wheels, which prevented ships from displaying lines of guns along their sides. Turrets allowed the guns to fire on both beams, so fewer guns needed to be carried. In the 1870s the armoored frigate type, with its side-ported guns, dropped out of fashion. Armoured cruisers, which were first built with broadside guns, soon adopted turrets as well. The transition from smoothbore cannon to Rifled Muzzle Loaders and Rifled Breech Loaders greatly affected the design of the ships.
Great Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 with the largest and most professional navy in the world, composed of hundreds of wooden, sail-powered ships of all sizes and classes. The Royal Navy had complete naval supremacy across the world following the Napoleonic Wars, and demonstrated this superiority during the Crimean War. However, Britain's supremacy disappeared when in 1858, France launched Gloire, the first ironclad battleship. Although made of wood and reliant on sail for most of her journeys, Gloire was fitted with a steam propeller and her wooden hull was protected by a layer of thick iron armour. This ship instantly rendered all British battleships obsolete, as tBritish vessels would easily be outmaneuvered and their cannonballs would simply bounce off Gloire's revolutionary metal armour. Britain sparked off a massive naval arms race by launching the similarly-built Warrior in 1859. With the Royal Navy rendered obsolete by the new breed of ironclad ships, other world powers seized the oppurtunity to build high-tech warships to rival British vessels, and major warship construction programmes began in earnest in Britain, France, Russia, Prussia/Germany, Japan, and the United States. Desperate to maintain naval superiority (under the premise that the Royal Navy had to outnumber the world's next two largest navies combined), the British government spent more and more money on up-to-the-minute warship designs. The fear that an enemy naval power could launch an attack with ships that were only slightly superior became a major factor in British defence policy during the late 19th century. However, warship technology was advancing so rapidly from c.1865-c.1906, new battleships were often rendered obsolete within a few years of construction. This created a huge financial strain – by 1870, the British government was spending a staggering 37% of its annual national budget on the construction of new battleships.
Various technological advances affected the naval arms race. The development of brown powder was a critical step in the creation of the modern battleship – black powder combusted rapidly, and therefore useful cannons required relatively short barrels, otherwise the friction of the barrel would slow down the shell accelerated by the violent expansion of the powder. The sharpness of the black powder explosion also meant that guns were subjected to extreme material stress. Brown powder, which combusted less rapidly, allowed longer barrels, which allowed greater accuracy; and because it expanded less sharply than black powder, it put less strain on the insides of the barrel, allowing guns to last longer and to be manufactured to tighter tolerances. This permitted a battleship to mount fewer guns – to greater effect – than its predecessors.
From 1870 to 1890 battleship design was in a wildly experimental phase, as different navies experimented with different turret arrangements, sizes and numbers, with each new design rendering the previous ones largely obsolete overnight. Bizzare experimental warships appeared – a series of German warships were built with dozens of small guns to repel smaller craft, a British vessel was built using a turbine engine (which ironically became the main propulsion system for all ships), whilst an entire class of French battleships – known as "fierce-face" – were designed to intimidate enemy crews through their sheer ugliness. The main battleship nations during this period were Britain, France and Russia, plus newcomers Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, while Turkey and Spain built small numbers of armoured frigates and cruisers, and Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands built smaller "coastal battleships" (pantserschip) of up to 5,000 tons.
The first warships resembling modern battleships were built in Britain around 1870 with the Devastation class of low-freeboard turret ships, a few years after the first battle between ironclad warships (the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads, Virginia). However, it was not until around 1880 that battleship design became stable enough for larger classes to be built to a single design. Later in the period battleship displacement grew rapidly as more powerful engines and more armour and minor guns were added. Many experimental ships were built, but all navies finally converged on a design known after-the-fact as Pre-dreadnoughts, which were battleships built in the period 1890–1905 and usually having a displacement of 9,000–16,000 tons, a speed of 13–18 knots, and an armament of four "big guns", usually 12" (305mm) in bore diameter, in two centreline turrets, fore and aft, plus secondary and smaller guns. Turrets, armour plate, and steam engines were all improved over the years, and torpedo tubes were introduced. However, events in 1906 sparked off another naval arms race.
In 1906, the Russian Navy was decisively defeated at the Battle of Tsushima by the modern Japanese Navy, equipped with the latest battleships. The events of the battle revealed to the world that only the biggest guns mattered in modern naval battles. Up to 1906, nearly all battleships had been bristling with cannons of all sizes and ranges, but Tsushima Straits had proved this to be a severe technological flaw – the splashes made by shells fired from smaller guns made rangefinding very difficult, and the battleships were never able to get close enough to use anything but their largest cannons. In 1906, the Royal Navy commissioned HMS Dreadnought, the first of the new breed of "all-big-gun" battleships. Major naval powers raced to build their own dreadnoughts to avoid being overtaken by Britain. The Royal Navy, equally eager to maintain superiority over other nations, began demanding increasingly unaffordable sums from the government for dreadnought construction. The government, already burdened with financial crises caused by the military catastrophe of the Second Boer War and a voting population demanding more government expenditure on welfare and public works, could not afford to squander precious money on even more dreadnoughts, allowing rival navies (particularly the Kriegsmarine) to catch up with Britain's battleship forces.
With advances in gun laying and aiming, engagement ranges had increased from 1000 yards or less to 6000 yards or more over the previous few years, in part as a consequence of the devastating, but short-ranged firepower of the recently invented torpedo. This had caused a move away from mixed calibre armament, as each calibre required a different aiming calibration, something which unnecessarily complicated gunnery techniques. At longer ranges, the higher maximum rate of fire of the smaller calibres was negated by the need to wait for shell splashes before firing the next salvo. This negated the advantage of small-calibre guns; heavier weapons were no faster, but packed a much greater punch.
Partially as a consequence of this new philosophy, and partially as a consequence of its powerful new turbine engine, Dreadnought dispensed completely with the smaller calibre secondary armament carried by her immediate predecessors, allowing her to carry more heavy caliber guns than any other battleship built up to that time. She carried ten 12-inch guns mounted in five turrets; three along the centreline and two on the wings, giving her twice the broadside of anything else afloat. The first large warship equipped with steam turbines, she could make 21 knots in a calm sea, allowing her to outrun existing battleships (typical speed 18kts). Her armor was strong enough that she could conceivably go toe-to-toe with any other ship afloat in a gun battle and win.
Although there were some problems with the ship — the design's wing turrets strained the hull when firing broadsides, and the top of the thickest armor belt lay below the waterline when the ship was fully loaded — Dreadnought was so revolutionary that battleships built before her were afterward known as "pre-Dreadnoughts", and those following as "Dreadnoughts". Vessels built within a few years that were bigger and mounted more powerful guns were called "Super Dreadnoughts". In a stroke, Dreadnought had made all existing battleships obsolete; including those of the Royal Navy, which embarked on a programme of building ever-more-powerful Dreadnought designs.
National pride in the early 20th Century was largely based on how many of these ships a navy had, and details were published in the newspapers for the public to avidly follow; the naval arms race which Dreadnought sparked, especially between Britain and the young German empire, was to create powerful shockwaves. Whereas Germany before the commissioning of Dreadnought had been behind the British Empire by more than twenty battleships of the highest class, they were now behind only one.
Dreadnought was powered with steam turbines, which enabled her to sustain a higher maximum speed for longer, and with less maintenance than its triple-expansion engine powered predecessors. Being more compact, the turbines also allowed for a lower hull, which had the side-effect of reducing the amount of armour the ship had to carry. Although turbines had been used in destroyers for some years previously, Dreadnought was the first large warship to use them. As a consequence of the turbines, Dreadnought was actually slightly cheaper than the previous "Lord Nelson" class of pre-Dreadnoughts.
The American South Carolina class battleships were designed before Dreadnought, and had most of its features, except for the steam turbines; however, these ships were completed after Dreadnought.
Super Dreadnought battleships
The arrival of super dreadnoughts is not as clearly identified with a single ship in the way the dreadnought era was initiated by HMS Dreadnought. However, it is commonly viewed to commence with the Orion class battleship, (and in German ships with the Konigs).
The Orions were just one step in a breathtakingly rapid evolution that the Dreadnought had initiated. What made them "super" was the unprecedented jump in displacement of 2000 tons over the previous class, the introduction of the 13.5 inch gun, and the placement of all the main armaments following the direction of the keel. Thus, in the four years that separated the laying down of the Dreadnought and the Orion, displacement had increased by 25%, and weight of broadside had doubled.
Super dreadnoughts also incorporated, during construction, the latest technical gunnery advances. Thus they received director control, were designed with larger observation positions with range finders and electrical repeaters aloft, mechanical calculators and predictors in protected positions below, and very advanced alignment and correction devices for the guns.
The design weakness of super dreadnoughts, which distinguished them from post-war designs, was armour disposition. Initially, shipwrights preferred the vertical protection of short battle ranges. These ships were capable of engaging effectively at 20000 metres, but were vulnerable when receiving fire from such ranges. Post-war designs typically had 5 to 6 inches of deck armour to defend against this dangerous, plunging fire. Lack of underwater protection also overtook these pre-World War I designs.
The super dreadnought era was over by the end of World War I. Super dreadnoughts that served in World War II had all either received extensive modifications, or were a source of extreme anxiety because of their vulnerability to more modern battleships, or both.
World War I
A naval arms race had been ongoing between Germany and the United Kingdom since the 1890s. The building of Dreadnought actually helped Germany in this, as instead of having a lead of 15 or so ships of the latest type, Britain now had a lead of just one. Furthermore, Britain's policy of maintaining a navy larger than the world's second and third largest navies combined was becoming unsustainably expensive. All other battleship navies switched over in the next few years to building Dreadnought-type ships as well.
The Royal Navy of the United Kingdom had ruled the seas for several centuries, but the German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm and his naval minister, Alfred von Tirpitz, set out to change that, in part for strategic reasons, but mainly due to a simple desire to challenge Britain. The culmination of this race led to a stalemate in World War I. The German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet were too valuable to be risked in battle and so both spent the majority of the war in port, waiting to respond should the other go to sea. Paradoxically, the ships were too valuable (strategically, at least) to leave at port, and too expensive to use in battle. Apart from some operations in the Baltic against Russia, Germany's main fleet limited itself to making battlecruiser raids on the British east coast, in an attempt to lure part of the British fleet out so that it could be defeated by the waiting High Seas Fleet. In their turn, the British made sweeps of the North Sea, and both sides laid extensive minefields. Although there were several naval battles, the only engagement between the main British and German fleets was the abortive Battle of Jutland, a German tactical victory (fourteen British ships were sunk to eleven German) but a British strategic victory, as the High Seas Fleet fled and mostly remained in port for the rest of the war.
After World War I, the Armistice with Germany required that most of the High Seas Fleet be interned at Scapa Flow, Scotland. Most of these ships were subsequently scuttled by their German crews on 21 June 1919 just before the formal surrender of Germany. As far as the German sailors were concerned, they were undefeated; it was felt that their ships should not fall into the hands of the British.
World War II
With the Washington Naval Treaty of 1924, the major navies of the world scaled back their battleship programs, with numerous ships on all sides scrapped or repurposed. With extensions, that treaty lasted until 1936, when the major navies of the world began a new arms race. Famous ships like Bismarck, Prince of Wales and Yamato were all launched in the next few years. During the conflict naval warfare evolved quickly and battleships lost their position as the principal ships of the fleet.
In the early stages of the battle of the Atlantic, Germany's surface units threatened the Atlantic convoys supplying Britain, so the British surface units devoted themselves to protecting the convoys, and seeking out and trying to destroy the German ships, as well as lying in wait at Scapa Flow. The German battleships and battlecruisers recorded early successes, with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau surprising and sinking the carrier HMS Glorious off western Norway in June 1940. A subsequent cruise in the North Atlantic netted the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau 22 ships. Bismarck sank the battlecruiser HMS Hood on May 24 1941 during an attempt to break out into the North Atlantic. The Royal Navy hunted down the Bismarck, an attack by Swordfish biplanes from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal with torpedoes disabled her steering. On 27 May 1941 the battleships King George V, Rodney and a number of cruisers and destroyers ships engaged her with guns and torpedoes. After an eighty-eight minute battle she sank.
Battleships were also involved in the battle to control the Mediterranean. At the Battle of Taranto in November 1940 Swordfish from HMS Illustrious attacked the Italian fleet at Taranto. Losing 21 planes, the Royal Navy effectively sunk one battleship and disabled two others. The success of this raid inspired the Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbour. At the Battle of Cape Matapan, 27–29 March 1941, three Italian heavy cruisers were surprised and overwhelmed by a British battleship force near Crete, demonstrating that lighter ships in the fleet were still vulnerable to big guns.
However, technology was overtaking the battleship. A battleship's big guns might have a range of thirty miles, but the aircraft carrier had aircraft with ranges of several hundred miles, and radar was making those attacks ever more effective. Bismarck was crippled by torpedo bombers from Victorious and Ark Royal. The Soviet dreadnought Petropavlovsk and Italian Roma were sunk by German air attacks. The British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and its battlecruiser escort HMS Repulse were sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers while in defence of Singapore. Prince of Wales became the first battleship to be sunk by aircraft while able to defend itself in open water.
D Day saw battleships in the role of coastal bombardment in support of an amphibious landing on a hostile, fortified shore. Several older battlewagons came into their own, not only knocking out coastal guns which threatened transports and landing craft, but also hitting troop and tank concentrations, and railway marshalling yards. HMS Ramillies fired 1,002 15" shells at shore targets as well as driving off German aircraft, E Boat and destroyer attacks.
The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 sank or damaged most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet's battleships, but the three aircraft carriers were not in port and so escaped damage. Six months later, it was those carriers that were to turn the tide of the Pacific War at the battle of Midway. As the war progressed, battleships became festooned with anti-aircraft weapons such as the 40mm Bofors gun. Nonetheless, the advent of air power spelled doom for the battleship.
Battleships in the Pacific ended up primarily performing shore bombardment and anti-aircraft defense for the carriers. The largest battleships ever constructed, Japan's Yamato and Musashi, were sunk by aircraft attacks long before they could come within striking range of the American fleet. The last active German battleship, Tirpitz, had lurked until late into the war in Norwegian fjords protected by anti-submarine defences and shore based anti-aicraft guns, but was still damaged there and sunk by RAF aircraft using Tallboy bombs.
The second half of World War II saw the last three battleship duels. In the Battle of Guadalcanal on November 15, 1942, the United States battleships South Dakota and Washington fought and destroyed the Japanese battleship Kirishima. In the Battle of North Cape, on 26 December 1943, HMS Duke of York and destroyers sank the German battlecruiser (or light battleship) Scharnhorst off Norway. And in the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 25 October 1944 six battleships of the US 7th Fleet sank the Japanese Yamashiro.
As a result of the changing technology, plans for even larger battleships, the American Montana class and Japanese Super Yamato class, were cancelled. At the end of the war, almost all the world's battleships were decommissioned or scrapped.
Post World War II
After World War II, several navies retained battleships, but they were now outclassed by carriers. The Italian Giulio Cesare was taken by the Soviets as reparations and renamed Novorossiysk; it was sunk by a German mine in the Black Sea 29 October 1955. The two Doria-class ships were scrapped in the late 1950s. The French Lorraine was scrapped in 1954, Richelieu in 1964 and Jean Bart in 1970. Britain's four surviving King George V-class ships were scrapped around 1958, and Vanguard around 1960. All other surviving British battleships were scrapped in the late 1940s. The Soviet Union's Petropavlovsk was scrapped in 1953, Sevastopol in 1957 and Gangut in 1959, Brazil's Minas Gerais was scrapped in 1954 (sister ship Sao Paulo sank in a storm in 1951), Argentina kept its two Rivadavia-class ships until 1956, Chile kept Canada until 1959, and the Turkish battlecruiser Yavuz (formerly the German Goeben, launched in 1911) was scrapped in 1976 after an offer to sell it back to Germany was refused. Sweden had several coastal battleships which survived until the 1970s. The Russians also scrapped four large incomplete cruisers in the late 1950s. There were also some old sailing battleships still around. All but HMS Victory was sunk or scrapped by 1957.
The United States recommissioned all four Iowa-class battleships for the Korean War and New Jersey for the Vietnam War. These were primarily used for shore bombardment. All four were modernized and recommissioned under the Reagan administration and converted to carry Tomahawk missiles, with New Jersey seeing action bombarding Lebanon, while Missouri and Wisconsin fired their 16-inch (406 mm) guns at land targets and launched missiles in the Gulf War of 1991.
All four were decommissioned in the early 1990s, the last battleships to see active service. Missouri, and New Jersey are now museums at Pearl Harbor and Camden, N.J. respectively. Wisconsin also functions as a museum (at Norfolk, Va.), but is still on the NVR, and the public can only tour the deck, with the rest of ship closed off. Iowa (at Suisun Bay) and Wisconsin are in the Naval Reserve Fleet, and could be re-activated.
From the late 1970s onwards, the Soviet Union (later Russia) built four large nuclear-powered Kirov-class missile cruisers (Raketny Kreyser (Rocket Cruiser)), one of which is still running as of 2005. Their introduction had been one of the factors leading to the re-instatement of the Iowas. The ships, while comparatively big for a cruiser, are not battleships; they adhere to the design premise of a large missile cruiser and lack traditional battleship traits such as heavy armor and signigicant shore bombardment capability. For example, at ~26,000 tons displacement they are near double the Krasina-class missile cruisers (~11,000 tons), but half the Iowa class (~55,000 tons).
Battleships still in existence as museums include the American North Carolina, Alabama and Texas, the British Mary Rose, Victory and Warrior, the Swedish Vasa, the Dutch Buffel and Schorpioen and the Japanese Mikasa. (See Category:Museum ships for other museum ships).
Battleships throughout history
Below there are lists of every battleship ever built. They include "great ships", carracks and galleons, before the development of the line tactic, sail battleships (ships of the line), steam battleships and dreadnoughts.
Note that early battleship-type ships from Algeria, Tunisia and Tripoli are listed under Turkey, and Norwegian battleships before 1814 are listed under Denmark. In these lists, dates in brackets are launching dates unless otherwise noted. Numbers indicate rated number of guns.
|Early battleships (1410–1639)||Sail battleships (1640–1858)||Steam battleships (1859–1905)||Dreadnoughts (1906–44)|
The term "battleship" often makes an appearance in military-oriented science fiction, where they often occupy a role similar to their historical one. It should be noted that some writers have come to believe "battleship" is synonymous with "warship", and thus we see strange classifications like "light battleship" or "small battleship".
- List of battleships of the United States Navy
- List of ships of the Royal Navy
- List of ships of the Canadian Navy
- List of ships of the Japanese Navy
- List of ships of the Norwegian Navy
- Naval ship
- United States battleships