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A Brief History of Battleship Warfare During the 20th Century

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The battleship was the primary naval unit of the world's foremost navies before the outbreak of World War One. During the Russo-Japanese War, in 1905, they were vital to Japan's victory. At the Battle of Tsushima, the modern Japanese fleet wiped out the Russian warships, all but ensuring Japan's eventual victory. The battle confirmed the necessity of large guns and speed on modern battleships.

Soon after the Japanese victory, the Royal Navy constructed the first dreadnought battleship in 1906. The sailing of the HMS Dreadnought made previous battleships somewhat obsolete. It was the first to have steam turbines, giving it a notable speed advantage. This ship also had more than double the armament of previous battleships.

Germany was also greatly expanding their navy, and the Anglo-German naval race continued up to 1914. By then, both had considerable fleets of dreadnoughts for naval warfare, as well as battle cruisers, which were lightweight alternatives. However, the Royal Navy was still somewhat larger than the Imperial German Navy.

When war spilled over, there was little in the way of direct naval battles that included battleships. The Royal Navy blockaded Germany with their surface fleet ships, whilst the German navy remained largely in port. German naval policy generally favored U-boats with which to strike at British merchant ship supplies, as well as surface fleet warships.

However, in 1916, Admiral Scheer convinced the German High Command to deploy a German fleet to defeat Britain's Grand Fleet. The plan was to lure out, and trap, the Grand Fleet with two of their own fleets. When the two German fleets sailed, they included 16 battleships to the Grand Fleet's 28.

When the Germans intercepted Beattey's fleet, the Royal Navy had notable losses. However, the arrival of Jellicose's warships left the Germans outnumbered. A salvo of German torpedoes ensured the Grand Fleet turned away, providing a suitable opportunity for Germany's warships to retreat from the battle. As both fleet's lost contact, they returned to port.

Battle of Jutland

After the Battle of Jutland, the Royal Navy had lost 113,000 tons of ships to Germany's 62,300. The battle had not been a clear victory for either side, but the Royal Navy blockade remained intact. As the Germans shifted back to U-boat tactics, their dreadnoughts remained largely in port up to 1918.

The defeat of the German Empire ensured the scrapping of the Imperial German Navy's dreadnoughts. Subsequent naval treaties limited the size and number of battleships that each navy was to have. The naval treaties reduced the number of battleships constructed during the inter-war period.

However, the treaties did not exactly limit the size of future battleships. In actual fact, during the interwar period the German, British and Japanese navies built new larger scale battleships. Among them were the Bismarck and the Yamato laid down during the 1930s.[1]

By the 1940s, the Germans had built new battleships. The Bismarck was a 50,300-ton warship larger than any Royal Navy alternative. In 1941, it left port on a commerce raiding mission; but the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Hood intercepted it at the Denmark Strait.[2] The Prince of Wales was a new Royal Navy battleship, but the Hood lacked effective armor.

Battleship Bismarck

During the Battle of Denmark Strait, the Bismarck and its escorts bombarded the Hood. Their shells blew the Hood out of the water. After the loss of the Hood, the Prince of Wales retreated from the battle.

The Royal Navy warships had lost the battle, but their shells had ruptured one of the Bismarck's oil tanks. As it was leaking fuel the Bismarck sailed back to port, but with greater air support the Royal Navy still sank the ship.

The Battle of Denmark Strait was one of the last battleship surface fleet battles. From then on it became clear that battleships were vulnerable to large-scale air bombardments. Japanese aircraft were among the first to wipe out a battleship from the air in 1941 when they intercepted the Prince of Wales at sea. The air blitz sank the warship.

The Japanese left the Yamato-class battleships largely in port until 1944. They were warships that eclipsed 72,000 tons. The IJN (Imperial Japanese Navy) sent both warships, and others, to Leyte to intercept the U.S. invasion fleet. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the U.S. aircraft carrier wiped out the Musashi. The Yamato and its fleet sailed on, and did intercept Taffy 3 off Samar. There the Japanese capital ships wiped out a couple of escort carriers and destroyers before withdrawing from the battle.

By 1945, Allied battleships were primarily deployed to bombard Japanese coastlines before landing troops. At the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa they bombarded Japanese positions along the coasts. The IJN had little left for further naval missions. However, they had retained the Yamato, which would be dispatched for the Battle of Okinawa.

The plan was for the Yamato to beach itself ashore the coast of Okinawa as a shore battery. With its substantial armaments, it could provide further support for ground troops. Its crew could then disembark to provide further reinforcements.

However, as it sailed without air support only the Yamato's anti-aircraft guns could wipe out Allied aircraft. When it moved within range of Task Force 58, hundreds of Allied aircraft bombarded the Yamato. A barrage of bombs and torpedoes ravaged the Japanese warship, which gradually flooded with water. As the Yamato slipped beneath the sea, its crew abandoned ship.

After the demise of the Yamato, battleships soon declined. Aircraft carriers emerged as the primary naval unit during the postwar period. The world's foremost navies gradually removed battleships from their fleets.

The U.S. Navy retained a few battleships such as the USS Missouri (BB-63). They still provided naval support in the Gulf War. Then the USS Missouri fired Tomahawk missiles at Iraqi targets during Operation Desert Storm.

Thereafter, the U.S. Navy decommissioned U.S. battleships. Battleships are now obsolete, and the few that haven't been scrapped remain museum ships. Among them is the Missouri, which can now be boarded. 

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Bibliography

  1. "Bismarck ." WW2DB. 15/06/2015 <Web >
  2. "HMS Prince of Wales." WW2DB. 15/06/2015 <Web >

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