The Axis may have had smaller navies than the Allies overall, but nonetheless they still had some of the finest battleships. Their great capital ships eclipsed the Allied warships in scale, and, although more obsolete compared to aircraft carriers, they were still notable targets for the Allies. These are a few of the famous Axis battleships - none of which survived the conflict.
The Bismarck was the flagship of the German navy. This warship, which was complete by 1940, was the largest European battleship. At 50,000 tons it eclipsed any battleship of the Royal Navy or Italian Regia Marina.Credit: Image licensed under public domain on Wiki Commons.
The battleship revitalized German surface fleet action, and with it the Germans targeted British merchant shipping. Operation Rheinübung was the Bismarck’s first, and final, operation at sea. During this operation the Bismarck was supposed to sink tons of British merchant ships, but the Royal Navy detected it before it reached intended targets.
During the first naval skirmishes, the Bismarck was most effective. The battleship sank the HMS Hood at the Battle of Denmark Straight. After the battle the Royal Navy briefly lost contact with the ship before it was sighted again by aerial reconnaissance planes.
Sorties by British torpedo bombers jammed the Bismark's rudder. Later Royal Navy warships intercepted the battleship and opened fire. The warships took out the Bismarck’s gun turrets, leaving few options other than to abandon ship. Before they did, the crew of the Bismarck laid scuttling charges, and the ship was then torpedoed by the Royal Navy. Flames engulfed the Bismarck as it slipped beneath the sea.
The Imperial Japanese Navy greatly invested in aircraft carriers during the Pacific War, but battleships were not forgotten. They still had their part to play in numerous naval battles in the Pacific, especially as Japan’s carrier fleet was gradually wiped out at Midway and the Marianas. The IJN launched the Yamato battleship shortly before the Pacific War.
The Yamato was, and remains, the largest battleship built. Its overall tonnage was more like 70,000 tons, which comfortably eclipsed the Bismarck. The IJN deployed the battleship in a support role during the early naval battles, but would later moved it to the front lines.
At the Battle of Leyte Gulf the Yamato, and other Japanese warships, intercepted an American fleet off Samar. During this battle the Americans lost an aircraft carrier and destroyers. The Yamato was one of the few Japanese warships to survive the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
However, in 1945 the IJN sent the Yamato to Okinawa for Operation Ten-Go. With the Allied navies dominate there was little chance of the ship reaching its intended target, and it was duly intercepted and sank by American aircraft.
The Graf Spee was a pocket battleship, or heavy cruiser, of the German navy sent on early commerce raiding missions during 1939. This was a very fast ship that also possessed an impressive array of arsenal comparable to larger battleships. However, Royal Navy warships detected and intercepted it off the River Plate estuary. During the Battle of River Plate no ships were lost in action, although the Graf Spee was hit along with the Royal Navy ships.
Afterwards the Graf Spee made it to the Uruguayan port of Montevideo. After reaching port, it became clear that the Uruguayans were not about to let it stay for long. When in port, the British tricked the Germans that a great naval presence, including an aircraft carrier, had amassed around the port that would have left the Graf Spee little chance of exiting intact. As such, the ship was scuttled as it left port.
The loss of the Graf Spee highlighted that surface fleet action with Britain's navy was perilous for the Germans. The Germans abandoned battleship naval tactics in favor of U-boats for commerce raiding.
The Tirpitz was one of the most modern battleships of the war, and was of similar size to the Bismarck. As such, like the Bismarck it became a notable target of the Royal Navy to protect merchant shipping and other Russian supply convoys. In actual fact, it was more of a target for the RAF in 1944 as its bombers bombed the Tirpitz in port at Altenfjord, which put the ship out of action. However, the planes did not do enough to sink it. Only the Dambuster squadrons of Lancaster bombers could finish off the Tirpitz later in 1944 with a more precise bombing raid.
These were four great battleships of the Axis. The Bismarck, Tirpitz, Yamato and the Graf Spee are four of the more famous Axis battleships that met the Allied fleets at Leyte Gulf, River Plate and the Denmark Straight. With the possible exception of Japanese aircraft carriers the German, Italian and Japanese navies had few better warships.