What happened to the Battleship
The situation in 1945 when large powerful ships continued to play an important role in Naval strategy
With the benefit of hindsight the days of the battleships were numbered following the sinking of the Bismarck, the attack on Pearl Harbor and immediately afterwards the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales - all actions where airborne attacks played a key role. What happened to the Battleship - 1945 to the present re-examines this perspective by looking, case by case, at the situation following the war. Right through the Cold War to the Reagan administration there remained those who still saw a role for the Battleship.
This volume claims to be ‘the first ever detailed study of the neglected history of the battleship after 1945’. It is a very thoroughly researched piece of work and will be of great interest to naval historians and enthusiasts. It surveys all of the worlds’ navies and describes the fate of all the ships that might be categorised as battleships from 1945 onwards - together with an extensive photographic record.
The following excerpt looks at the situation for battleships on the last day of the war:
2nd September 1945
On the day of the Japanese surrender, ninety-five dreadnought battleships could still have been viewed around the world by an enthusiast. Eleven of them (eight American, two British and one Japanese) were in or around Tokyo Bay for the surrender itself.
More than half of all the 175 dreadnoughts ever built still existed in 1945, as did a handful of earlier ironclad battleships, and battleships converted to aircraft carriers before the war, some of which had also played a part in the hostilities. Some of these ships were damaged or wrecked, but many others had been pivotal to the conduct of the war, and in the thick of it until the very last days of hostilities.
The war in Europe had finished on 8 May 1945. Battleship-related naval activity in that theatre of war had been low since the sinking of the German Tirpitz by the RAF in Tromso Fjord, north Norway, at the end of November 1944. However, that event in itself was the culmination of an extraordinary and sustained effort that the Allies had made to eliminate Tirpitz, Scharnborst and the rest of the German surface navy heavy ships based in northern Norway over the preceding three years, in order to protect the Atlantic sea lanes and supply convoys to Russia. It showed what a profound strategic impact even one modern battleship could still have very late in the war.
The lessons of the sinking of the Scharnhorst by the British battleship Duke of York at the Battle of the North Cape on 26 December 1943 - a purely surface action in near darkness and poor weather where aircraft played no part at all - resonated at the British Admiralty long afterwards into peacetime.
The campaign in the Mediterranean from 1940 to 1943 had been as much about the battleship balance of power as about air power. It was no coincidence that the United Kingdom’s heaviest setbacks in the Mediterranean were in early 1942 when battleship losses there and in the Far East, combined with the threat of German heavy ships in the North Atlantic, meant she had no available battleships in the Mediterranean to counter the threat of the Italian battlefleet to her Malta convoys.
Italy’s major opportunities were squandered because it was desperately short of fuel to put its own battleships to sea; and because of excessive caution when Italian admirals had the chance to use them to strike decisive blows - a caution engendered in part by the moral superiority that the British battleships had established in surface actions during 1940—41. Nor was it a coincidence that the culminating moment of the war against Italy was the escape and flight of the Italian fleet - led by battleships - from its own ports, under heavy German attack, to surrender to the Allies under the guns of the fortress Malta in September 1943.
Three remaining German heavy ships outlasted Tirpitz: the battlecruiser Gneisenau, sister of Scharnhorst, and the pocket battleships Lutzow, and Admiral Scheer, sisters of Graf Spec. Lutzow, plus the pre dreadnought battleship Schlesien, remained in action in the Baltic Sea against the Soviet Red Army advance until very close to the end of hostilities, when all were finally scuttled or sunk at their moorings in the final weeks of the European war.
In the Pacific, however, naval and amphibious operations continued against Japan at a pace, range and scale that planners had never imagined before 1941. The final actions of the war in the Far East, from the invasion of the Philippines in October 1944; the push against Japanese conquests in South East Asia; the battles for the two strategic outlying islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa; and finally the operations against Japan itself in the summer of 1945, all involved Allied fast striking forces arranged into task forces of aircraft carriers and battleships escorted by cruisers and destroyers.
There was also extensive use of older, slower battleships providing gunfire support to successive amphibious landings, or for shore bombardment against strategic targets. Battleships of the US Navy, Royal Navy and French Navy were involved in these campaigns.
Although the Imperial Japanese Navy was essentially a broken force after the Philippines campaign, it still had six battleships, and the launching of the enormous Yamato, the largest battleship ever built, against the Okinawa invasion fleet in April 1945 required an unprecedented aerial assault by more than 400 US planes to sink her.
The remaining Japanese battleships were thereafter hamstrung by the absence of air cover and even more by critical shortages of fuel, but remained elusive targets. The last four ships (Kongo had been sunk by a submarine in November 1944) were only finally immobilised in their bases by overwhelming air attacks in the last few days of the war.
Most of those fighting and planning were expecting these 1945 operations against Japan to be the precursor to another lengthy and massive amphibious assault on the Japanese home islands, code-named Operation Downfall. Planning for this envisaged the deployment of twenty-four battleships in further operations along the same lines as those undertaken over the previous two years across the Pacific. Planning assumptions envisaged the war lasting until at least mid-1946, possibly into 1947.
Instead, on 6 August 1945 Hiroshima was destroyed by the first dropping of the atomic bomb.
This excerpt from What happened to the Battleship - 1945 to the present appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.