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The most deadly enemy of the battleship was the aeroplane

Posted in Aviation, Famous battles, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships, Weapons, World War 2 on Friday, 20 December 2013

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This edited article about ships first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 500 published on 14 August 1971.

Pearl Harbour, picture, image, illustration

Pearl Harbour by John Keay

At the end of the First World War, the German high seas fleet sailed into Scapa Flow and sank itself. A whole herd of super sea-monsters rolled over on their iron-plated flanks and died there in the Orkneys.

It was an omen!

The mark of death was already upon the whole breed of super giants. As long ago as 1918, all dreadnoughts were doomed.

Looking back in time it is easy to read the signs that marked the doom of this majestic and terrible breed of fighting machines.

But in 1918, it was not so easy to foresee the short-lived future of the giant battleship. Indeed, it was still necessary for any nation with overseas life-lines to maintain impressive battle fleets.

So more dreadnoughts were built between the two world wars. From the slipways of Great Britain came H.M.S. Nelson and Rodney, King George V, Duke of York, Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Hood. Although restricted by the Versailles peace treaty, Germany produced the small pocket-battleships Admiral Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer and started work on the immensely strong and heavily armed Bismarck and Tirpitz, both much bigger than any warship then built in Britain. Between 1937 and 1942, Japan completed the largest battleships ever built, the 72,000 tons (laden) Yamato and Musashi. French, American and Italian shipyards were busy too.

The battlefleets of the world were being prepared for action, but very rarely would any of these formidable battle wagons fire at each other in anger. Many of them would see action, and many of them would be dreadfully battered before plunging like flaming iron coffins to the bottom of the world’s deepest oceans.

Of the 32 dreadnoughts lost by the nations taking part in the Second World War, only six of them were sunk by the direct action of gunfire from other warships. H.M.S. Hood sank within three minutes of a shell from the Bismarck finding its way into an ammunition magazine. The old French battleship Bretagne was sunk by the British Navy at Oran to prevent her falling into German hands, and the Japanese lost two battleships and a battle cruiser to shellfire in the Pacific.

The German Scharnhorst was straddled by a salvo from Duke of York’s 14-in. guns but was finished off by torpedoes from cruisers and destroyers . . . and it was this weapon, the torpedo, that was to hasten the slaughter of the iron battle giants.

The torpedo, an underwater weapon, is usually thought of as the killing arm of the submarine, as indeed it has been since the Germans sent their U-boat fleets out to sink merchant ships in the First World War. They used the same tactic, with harrowing effect, during the Second World War. But only three dreadnoughts, H.M.S. Royal Oak, Barham and the Japanese battle cruiser Kongo fell victims to underwater attack.

The most deadly enemy of the battleship was the aeroplane – 16 ironclad giants were sunk by bombs and aerial torpedoes. (Four French battleships and the German Graf Spee and Gneisenau were scuttled by their own crews. The Japanese Mutsu blew up mysteriously in Hiroshima Harbour in 1943 – thus making the total of lost dreadnoughts, 32.)

The German High Command in the Second World War had planned to use its dreadnoughts to seek and destroy allied merchant shipping. The Scharnhorst and the Graf Spee had some success at this, but for the most part, the big ships of the German Navy had to shelter in safe Polish and French harbours and Norwegian fjords, lurking like cornered monsters hiding for their own survival.

For most of the war, the Tirpitz did not move, dared not move, and when she did her slightest seaward venture was observed and reported by her hated enemy, the aeroplane. The Tirpitz died in her Norwegian lair, capsized by a 12,000-lb. bomb dropped by the R.A.F.

Her sister ship Bismarck suffered a rather more glorious but no less happy fate. The tale of the hunt for her through the North Atlantic is well-known, and the Bismarck would have evaded her pursuers had not an aeroplane seen her through a gap in the clouds, and had not a torpedo from a carrier-based aircraft damaged her rudder beyond repair.

On the far side of the world, the United States Navy suffered a shuddering blow when her Pacific Fleet anchorage at Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese. At the time there was not an enemy vessel within tens of miles, but the Americans lost two battleships, victims of aerial attack with bombs and torpedoes delivered by bombers from aircraft carriers.

Three days later H.M.S. Prince of Wales and Repulse were attacked by swarm of shore-based aircraft. The great ships fought back with every gun that could be pointed at the sky, but they could not shoot down all the bombers nor dodge all the torpedoes. They were as helpless as knights in armour being stung to death by swarms of wasps.

It was thought that there would be several spectacular set-piece battles between the American and Japanese navies in the Pacific war. There were battles, but no longer was the dreadnought the heart of the battle fleet. Suddenly the aircraft carrier had taken over this role. The battle of the Midway Sea in 1942 was a battle between aircraft carriers, the planes from them flying off to bomb and torpedo the enemy’s floating air-fields.

At that time the U.S. Pacific Fleet had no serviceable battleships, and the Japanese admiral kept his in reserve, several hundred miles in the rear. They did not fire a shot.

The battleship was no longer an admiral’s sharpest weapon. Its big guns for all their accuracy and range of 15 miles or more were poor weapons when compared to aeroplanes which could deliver heavy loads of bombs or torpedoes with much more accuracy and at a range of nearly 200 miles. In the latter days of the war, the big guns were used to bombard coastal defences and provide artillery cover for assault troops storming enemy-held beaches.

The dreadnought at sea had meanwhile become an escort ship for aircraft carriers. For this new task, its decks were packed from stem to stern with anti-aircraft guns to beat off dive- and torpedo-bombers.

The last classic-style, big ships’ battle was fought in the Gulf of Leyte in 1944 when a Japanese force came within range of American battleships – but even this night action was just one part of a much larger conflict going on around the Philippine Islands with aircraft and aircraft carriers playing the biggest and most effective part.

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