Locklin on science

Battleships: a ridiculous but awesome idea

Posted in big machines by Scott Locklin on June 1, 2011

The Battleship is one of the most glorious, evocative and ultimately useless machines ever created by human beings.

They’re fast: in their heyday of displacement speed vessels, they were the fastest things on the high seas. They’re huge; they’re made of foot thick steel armour, they have brobdingnagian cannons on them. Some of the Washington treaty battleships had such powerful guns, they could have capsized if they lit them all off at once.

Dreadnaughts were the tumescent penii of navies from 1900 until 1942 or so, just as aircraft carriers and nuclear ballistic missile submarines are now. Navies were then measured by how many Capital ships they had. The idea was, if you had two and your enemy only had one, you could go blast the enemy’s one ship and be the ruler of the seas. Ruler! Of the seas! No small ships could possibly sink your battleship (at least, according to the doctrine of the day), so if you had some battleships, and the enemy didn’t; you were in charge of Neptune’s realm.

Guns that squirted out bullets as heavy as a Volkswagon; 14″, 16″, 18.1″ in diameter! Armor a foot and a half thick! Giant coal and oil burning steam engines creating 150,000 horsepower and belching out enormous clouds of smoke! 60,000 ton craft at 30 knot speeds! Sweet baby Jesus, that’s damn cool. However, it was never real practical, except for the occasional shore bombardment, and for comparing proverbial dong size with the navies of other nations.

The idea of battleships duking it out in the high seas is pretty ridiculous when you stop to think about it. It never really happened unless you count the Battle of Jutland. And the Battle of Jutland was really an exercise in how moronic modern navies are. There was no real reason for those battleships to fight a duel the way they did except that both sides had a bunch of battleships. If the nations of the world had the equivalent cost invested in submarines or destroyers, maybe the same thing would have happened. Maybe the subs and destroyers would have done better. Maybe they could have made little cardboard rowboats with piles of money in them, and thrown petrol bombs at each other, for a more or less equivalent outcome. Both sides claimed victory in this battle, but the upshot was that nobody wanted to risk their big expensive battleships in such an engagement again, because both sides lost a bunch of outrageously expensive ships. It was the same kind of stupidity displayed by land forces during that particular war: line up, one against the other, and pound the other side to jelly. While I am a bloodthirsty red-necked American who loves war and giant guns and battleships, even I think this battle was just plain silly.

“Aftermath of Jutland”

The Great War is my favorite to study, both because I like dumb stuff, and it was the dumbest war ever, and because it was the dawn of the modern world. Everything about modern life can trace its origins to the era of 1914-1919; all the bad, all the good, all the stupid and what little cleverness there is all comes from that time. Other than the invention of antibiotics, we really haven’t appreciably advanced beyond that era: something we can’t see now because we have iphones and the internet, but something future historians will consider as obvious as the fact that the Dark Ages started with the sack of Rome. Just as Western Civilization staggered and faded after the fall of Rome, Western Civilization has never really recovered from the shock of the Great War. Cultures which endured and developed over a thousand years were wiped out, never to return again. Western culture, abstract thought and artistic development: nothing important has developed since 1919; we’re still reeling from the shock. If you want to understand the present: contemporary history started in 1914. The battleship isn’t a bad place to nose around and figure out where we are and how we got there.

The way I see it, the battleship is sort of the ultimate embodiment of the Western military mind. Historically speaking, at least if you believe in the theories of Victor Davis Hanson, Western Civilization defeated other cultures using phalanx tactics as developed by the ancient Greeks; armor plus distance weapons. You knit your shields together and make an impenetrable shell, and poke your spears at the enemy through the shell. The battleship was the biggest armor with the longest distance guns. Almost every large scale war fought by Western cultures (with the notable exception of the wars of Belisarius) followed this pattern. Napoleonic warfare was just this, with guns instead of spears. The American civil war was guns and forts, but the same idea. March at the enemy in formation and shoot at him until he is dead! This was a winning tactic against every civilization the West went up against, except the Mongols and other mounted archers, who consistently slaughtered Western armies, a fact which Hanson conveniently forgets about in all his books.

The Great War proved the ultimate limitations of the phalanx idea for all times, since the Hun and Mongol invasions were apparently not enough. In fact, innovations of WW-1 changed the face of Western warfare forever. From the antics of T.E. Lawrence in the middle east, to the innovations of the Stoßtruppen on the Western front, to the adventures of the Arditi of Gabrielle D’Annunzio on the Austrian front: manoeuvre warfare was proven superior to phalanx tactics. This was really only demonstrated on a wide, irrefutable scale in WW-2 by the German General Staff and Patton (even then, the idea was not well accepted). It was then we discovered what the Mongols always knew: manoeuvre warfare works better. If the enemy comes marching at you in his phalanx, you are better off going around him and slaughtering him from the rear than hitting him head on. The Mongolians knew it; that’s why they were unstoppable warriors. The Mongols never had the societal organization the West did, so they could never take advantage of their successes, and their various empires only served to make the Russians and Chinese paranoid, and Eastern European women more exotic looking.

“The F-16 of the 11th century”

Manoeuvre warfare is now American combat doctrine; mostly reified by a lone genius former fighter pilot named John Boyd. Many aspects of the western way of phalanx war survive; we still have our proverbial battleships; useless as they may be. We just don’t recognize them as such. For example; armored missile silos, as opposed to missiles on rail cars. For missile silos, just target the enemy’s silos with lots of missiles and you can duke it out and win (just like the phalanx). If he puts his missiles on rail cars, you haven’t got a chance of hitting them all. So it was, metaphorically, with the actual battlewagon; when it was at the peak of its capabilities, it was overcome by the manoeuvre warfare tactics of the aircraft carrier (which is itself probably made obsolete in real modern warfare by the cruise missile, the internet and the satellite). The torpedo boat probably would have done the same thing against the battleship had it been used properly. In fact, when it was, it did pretty well.

“The lovely and awe-inspiring battleship Musashi; most fearsome battleship ever built, before and after it discovered manoeuvre warfare and the torpedo”

So, take a few minutes to contemplate the mighty battlewagons of the past. They were neptunian iron shod warriors of the deeps! They were giant mechanical knights, animated by a thousand men! Great robotic juggernauts who cruised the seven seas for … well, I don’t know what they did it for; some kind of supremacy of the high seas thing, but it was pretty cool that they did.

123 Responses

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  1. Bud said, on June 1, 2011 at 11:58 am

    Great essay. I suppose the box cutter is today’s equivalent of a PT boat.

  2. Robin said, on June 1, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Awesome article as usual. I’ll resist the temptation cheerlead for the Internet as an “appreciable advance” since 1914, as I happen to broadly agree with you.
    However, do you think cyber war follows the phalanx model of war you outline as well? Lots of discussion on both sides of the pond over the last few months about new laws of engagement needed to reflect these “new” threats.

    Also, you will forgive the pedantry; I only can correct this as I had never heard the word before (and had to Google it) but I think you missed a g in Brobdingnagian.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 8:14 pm

      IMO, there’s no such thing as “cyber war.” You know what would happen in a doomsday cyber war? We’d have to go buy a magazine and do our math with pencil and paper. The concept itself is just fashionable nonsense to get someone’s budget funded.

      Otherwise, it’s just spying and sabotage as usual, just done over wires. No phalanx there.

      Thanks for the spelling correction: I blame green chartreuse.

      • Anon said, on June 2, 2011 at 12:47 am

        It may not be Cyber war, more like Cyber tactics. If an enemy can destroy a network infrastructure servicing a tank division they will have a significant advantage on the real battle field.

      • Lars Clausen said, on June 2, 2011 at 11:39 am

        Except the money to buy the magazine was drained from your account in the cyber attack. But it doesn’t matter, as the magazine wasn’t published because all their servers were down.

        • 9000 said, on June 4, 2011 at 4:06 pm

          Servers down in the journal’s headquarters is nothing. Servers controlled by an adversary somewhere on a chemical factory or a nuclear power plant or a railroad routing system could have quite noticeable effect, highly destructive, if need be.

  3. Michael said, on June 1, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    Thanks for writing. Your comment about the shock of the Great War is close, but the key is that it only began and ended from an American perspective. Really it was a more intense moment in a war between the pessimistic schools of thought and Catholicism that has lasted over one hundred years. I know you won’t think much of that, but at minimum consider that Russia was fighting various countries for nearly 20 years before 1914 and never stopped until the moment the United States was ready to take over.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 8:19 pm

      That’s a very deep observation: one I should think about more, as I’ve started writing for the New Oxford Review.

    • Kadin said, on June 2, 2011 at 2:11 pm

      Very interesting; what do you mean by “pessimistic schools of thought,” though? Can you elaborate a bit more?

      I do agree that the Great War as an event that lasted from 1914-1918 is a naive, but in the U.S. popular, perspective. There was increased tension for years before, and many people considered it only a matter of time before some combination of France, Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary, and England had a war; what came as a surprise, I think, was the society-consuming scale and brutality of the war, relative to past campaigns.

  4. Rod Carvalho said, on June 1, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    Are you acquainted with the War Nerd‘s articles that claim that the aircraft carrier is now obsolete? His thesis is that carriers can be easily sunk using a saturation attack of anti-ship missiles. I wonder if a U.S. carrier would survive if the enemy simultaneously fired 50 Exocets at it.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 8:20 pm

      Yep; he’s an influence certainly, though people have been pointing this out for years -since the Falklands war.

    • scotslawstudent said, on June 1, 2011 at 8:22 pm

      I suspect most things become obsolete if you fire dozens and dozens of missiles at it.

      • mcarlin said, on June 1, 2011 at 10:50 pm

        Yeah, but most things aren’t expensive enough to justify the cost of all those missiles. The mistake of the carrier is to be a few thousand times more expensive than the missiles necessary to sink it.

    • Eu said, on June 1, 2011 at 9:42 pm

      50 missiles? I think 5 would be plenty. Remember how in Iraq almost delivered 2 ancient Silkworm missiles to two US ships?
      It was just luck that one failed and the other was shot down “in the back” after flying past first US ship.

      • Rod Carvalho said, on June 1, 2011 at 10:10 pm

        Yes, but the U.S. Navy has the Phalanx system for a reason. I don’t know how effective it is against a single anti-ship missile, but I am sure there exists a positive integer N for which the system is no longer an effective anti-ship missile defense.

        In 1967, the <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Zealous_%28R39%29"Egyptians sank an Israeli destroyer with a few Russian-built anti-ship missiles, but back then there was no Phalanx system, I believe.

        • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 10:38 pm

          My guess: it’s just there to make Admirals happy. Though I think it did manage to work in combat once, there are probably obvious work arounds, like sending in many missiles. Or an ICBM, as rich mentions below.

        • Rock Harris said, on June 1, 2011 at 11:29 pm

          The Phalanx is also known as the CIWS (for Close In Weapons System). You know what the name for it is by the people who actually work on it (or anyone else familiar with it)? “Christ, It Won’t Shoot.”

          It is a solution of LAST resort. And probably won’t work anyway.

          • Rod Carvalho said, on June 2, 2011 at 12:49 am

            Sigh. I should have guessed. After all, the Phalanx CIWS did nothing against the Exocets that hit the USS Stark in 1987.

          • William O. B'Livon said, on June 2, 2011 at 11:14 am

            Soldiers, sailors and Marines always have derogatory names for big expensive things that take lots of maintenance as maintenance always cuts into drinking time. These same (sorts of) people say nasty (and mostly true) things about the M16/M4, which has killed quite a few people since originally fielded, and they say unkind (and mostly not true) things about the M9, which when given decent magazine springs, will run under conditions that will choke out a 1911.

            I’ve seen test firings of the land-based version of the CIWS, which is different because (a) the Human cannot be taken out of the loop, and (b) the shells are timed to blow up so they won’t come raining down on some 5 year olds birthday party. I believe that these systems worked occasionally in Iraq (the land based ones), but again with a human in the loop (the Navy version is designed that it can be run entirely computer controlled. This is good when you have no friendlies flying in the area, or when you have a lot of faith in your Friend/Foe discrimination circuits. Me, I’d not trust software for that.

            • William O. B'Livon said, on June 2, 2011 at 11:16 am

              Oh, and Israel is now fielding a fairly effective anti-rocket/missile system for short range rockets coming from the Arabs and Palestinians.

          • Stephen said, on June 2, 2011 at 2:00 pm

            Having a “solution of last resort” just means there’s more than one solution and that’s the last one.

        • Eu said, on June 2, 2011 at 5:58 pm

          In the incident in Iraq (my previous comment) the Phalanx was activated and successfully hit another US ship, leaving the hostile missile alone.

  5. Andrew said, on June 1, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    I don’t think your post is entirely fair to naval history or naval thought at the time (or much of anything, really).

    Something you completely neglect to mention is shipping and control of transit. The Allies were so terrified of the Bismark escaping into the shipping lanes that they threw every sub, boat, plane, and intelligence resource they had at keeping it contained, and they succeeded mostly through luck. Why were they so frightened? Submarines (of the time) could impede convoys, a pocket battleship could utterly destroy them. To counter this, you would need escorts with sufficient armor and weapons to counter a pocket battleship, on every convoy. Air power at the time was incapable of covering the entire Atlantic (or even a good part of it).

    Battleships existed before precision bombs or missiles. The main guns of a battleship WERE precision bombs of the day. Battleships also existed in the curious phase in military history where aircraft either did not exist or were just coming to be recognized as having legitimate military application. Aircraft also seriously extended their range during WW2 thanks to technology and the adoption of the aircraft carrier.

    Also, when we do counter-piracy operations now, we still use “large” blue-water ships. You’d think that with modern space-age technology we’d launch B-2’s or some kind of unmanned drone or something to take pirates out halfway across the world. We don’t, though, we have frigates patrolling. With modern communication technology, unmanned drones, airplanes with indefinite loiter times and missiles you would think that a ship with a few hundred guys on it is just as obsolete as a battleship is.

    Also, you didn’t pluralize ‘penis’ correctly.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 9:25 pm

      Precision bombs or missiles are only germane to this discussion in so far as they apply to the modern Capital ships. I agree with you that Battleships were designed and mostly thought of before people realized the military capability of aircraft. Thats sort of the point. Much like aircraft carriers were invented and are now largely thought of without ideas like packing a zodiac full of explosives and blowing it up, or shooting an exocet at it.

      Really though, the battleship was out of date as soon as they invented the torpedo. If I were an out of the box thinking military engineer of that era, I’d have build a big cargo shop which carried lots of very fast torpedo boats. I’m surprised the Italians didn’t think of this.

      I think the Bismark is a great example of British paranoia about dong sizes. Compared to the U-boat; pretty much harmless. It had only one or two ships in the class, for chrissakes.

      • Andrew said, on June 1, 2011 at 10:47 pm

        A U-Boat could harass a convoy. The Bismark could sink the entire convoy with impunity. Convoy escorts simply couldn’t deal with, in the words of another great naval tactician, “firepower of the magnitude”. At that time, air power simply couldn’t project into the Atlantic convoy lanes. It could barely project into the area around the US and British coastlines. Bismark (and others of its class) would have been an enormous deal on shipping.

        There’s a difference between “We might lose 50% of the convoy if we go that way” and “We will assuredly lose 100% of the convoy if we go that way”, and the Bismark represented a threat of the latter. The only way to deal with it is having something to beat the other guys dong with. Out in the convoy lanes, at that time, the answer was “another battleship”. In fifteen years, it would be “RADAR, aircraft carriers, and bombers”.

        You also see this in the Guadalcanal and Philippines campaigns. Air power was extremely important. So was the ability to deny transit to troop transports, food, and fuel.

        • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 10:57 pm

          Air power was certainly more or less irrelevant at the start of the battle of the Atlantic, and of course supply lines and logistics were everything; especially to the British. I still maintain the Bismark was media and Naval hysteria, rather than a concrete threat. U-boats were a real threat, but they were not exciting and dramatic threatening ocean schlongs. They could also have sunk entire convoys, and as I recall, wolf packs occasionally did just that.

          More U-boats, along with lots of cheap destroyers or my “torpedo boat mother ship” idea might have been a bigger threat, though the German navy was a mess in that war, and in no condition to demand those kinds of resources.

          • Andrew said, on June 1, 2011 at 11:14 pm

            Another thing that I forgot is that at the start of WW2 (so very very late in the whole battleship story), torpedoes were very unreliable. If I recall correctly, the RAFs air sortie against the Bismark (not to sound like a broken record), flown in carrier-launched bi-planes mind you, scored several direct hits with contact-based torpedoes. The one that did the most damage (read: any damage at all) was a direct hit to the rudder, that kept the Bismark pinned down long enough for the Navy to show up and shell the Bismark to the water line.

            If I also recall correctly, the innovations in torpedo design that made them useful (blowing up your target more than you were blown up) happened mostly DURING the first few years of WW2. They were extremely unreliable weapons systems until very late in the war.

            • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 11:32 pm

              They worked just fine in WW-1 and even in the Russo-Japanese war. How do you think those Uboats sank all those ships in WW-1? Harsh language?
              The British complained a lot about this sort of thing, but I’ve already opined extensively on the subject of British engineering. It isn’t known for its reliability.

              • Chakat Firepaw said, on June 2, 2011 at 8:22 pm

                Generally by surfacing and using their deck gun.

                Until late in WWII, torpedoes are best considered secondary weapons on a submarine.

                • Scott Locklin said, on June 2, 2011 at 8:46 pm

                  Nonsense on stilts. Most (I daresay very close to all) of the submarine sunk tonnage in both wars was torpedoed. The submarine was explicitly a stealth torpedo delivery device, and nobody would have bothered with them if they relied on deck guns.


                  • Jon said, on June 4, 2011 at 10:33 pm

                    Andrew’s point remains valid though. Torpedos launched by aircraft were far less effective in the early years of the war. Torpedos dropped by Swordfish bi-planes were unreliable – hence why they sank very little with them. My understanding is that the engineers at the time struggled to get the delicate internal bits to do what they were supposed to when the weapon went through the shock of hitting water at high speeds.

                    • wolfwalker said, on August 3, 2011 at 10:22 pm

                      “Torpedos launched by aircraft were far less effective in the early years of the war. ”

                      For everyone except the Japanese Navy, this was true. The air-dropped torpedoes used by the American and British navies were junk up until about late 1943/early 1944. On the other hand, torpedo-bombers were the most feared weapon in the Japanese Navy’s aerial armory.

                      Note, however, that one should not confuse the aerial torpedo with the submarine torpedo. Aerial torpedoes were shorter, smaller, lighter, and had smaller warheads than submarine ones. Again, the Japanese had the best: the Type-93 ‘Long Lance’ torpedo in various forms. British sub torpedoes were decent, if technologically primitive; German U-boat torpedoes were fearsomely effective; and American sub torpedoes were junk, until their exploder and depth-keeping problems were solved in late 1943.

                  • Ironmistress said, on June 5, 2011 at 1:09 pm

                    Not quite! Most WWI German submarine commanders favoured deck gun whenever plausible. The reason was that most of the WWI era merchantmen were small, and wasting an expensive torpedo on a small ship was not a good idea. Most of the time the commanders wanted to conserve torpedoes, which were reserved for bigger targets. Most of the _tonnage_ was sunk by torpedoes, but most of the _ships_ were sunk with deck guns. For example, Korvettenkapitän Lothar Arnaud de Periere, the all-time top U-boat ace, sunk 197 ships and 450 000 tonnes of Allied shipping. All but three were sunk with deck gun. He fired a total of four torpedoes during his career, with one miss.

              • Daniel Blumentritt said, on July 16, 2018 at 8:44 pm

                “The British complained a lot about this sort of thing, but I’ve already opined extensively on the subject of British engineering. It isn’t known for its reliability.”

                The Americans had by far the most issues with torpedo reliability. The Germans and British had a fair amount too. The Japanese actually had the least.

                “They could also have sunk entire convoys, and as I recall, wolf packs occasionally did just that.”

                They were rarely anything close to that powerful.

                “I still maintain the Bismark was media and Naval hysteria, rather than a concrete threat.”

                There was hype (it wasn’t more powerful than Scharnhorst and Gneisenau *put together* yet the British didn’t react as strongly to those two going out as raiders). But it was a real concrete threat.

                The problem was, on the German side, it was more of a threat than 3-4 u-boats, but it wasn’t more of a threat than the 30-40 u-boats they could have built in place of Bismarck. Plus, you don’t need 15 inch guns to destroy merchant ships, and so larger number of ships with smaller guns would have been better. A mix of u-boats and surface raiders is probably better than pure u-boats, but instead of Bismarck and Tirpitz, they could have built 8-10 upgraded versions of the souped-up cruisers that were the Admiral Scheer and Graf Spee – which were pretty much ideal surface raiders other than having only 2 turrets (a problem when convoys scatter).

                I can argue equally well for battleships being the most overrated weapon ever invented, and simply being really badly used but actually very useful. At Leyte Gulf, given that they had ZERO hope of matching American airpower, the use of battleships by the Japanese was pretty creative, and very well could have succeeded. The problem was that everyone was too afraid of losing them. Leyte Gulf was the only time somebody said “We will shove our battleships right at you and you won’t be able to sink all of them fast enough”, and that part actually worked – Yamato and Musashi drew so much fire that the rest of the Central Force didn’t take much damage (in RPG terms they “tanked” very well) and the Americans couldn’t stop them from getting into the Gulf until they chose to stop themselves out of confusion.

      • Rian Belt said, on October 6, 2020 at 5:33 pm

        As soon as the torpedo was invented? That’s a bold statement. The torpedo was a dangerous, instrumental weapon, don’t get me wrong. But just like every other weapon, it can be countered. Battleships were designed with all sorts of anti-torpedo weapons. From the shortly-lived Anti-Torp nets protecting from sabotage to armored belts. They are big and dangerous, yes, but they’re not that powerful. There have been times when torpedoes have sunk battleships, like HMS Barham and SMS Szent Istvan. But in both cases the torpedoes were more advanced, Barham being an older ship by the time she sank, and Szent Istvan… well the Szent Istvan wasn’t the best-built warship ever.

        Basically, you are ascribing to the Jeune E’cole doctrine, by claiming that a lot of little boats are better than one big one. The Jeune E’cole was an alternative, wishful thinking, for second-rate navies to justify going up against bigger navies. A bunch of torpedo boats, no, were not going to sink a battleship, and even if they did, it’d be the result on more of the shipbuilders, ship designers, or more likely the commanders themselves than the actual torpedo.

        Japan ascribed to the Jeune E’cole doctrine in their first Sino-Japanese war. They found that it didn’t work, and China’s fleet was actually less powerful than theirs, and even then it didn’t work. Then the Japanese had a little epiphany called the Battle of Tsushima. Japan realized then that yes, big battleships were the way to go. If World War 2 played out the way they hoped with their Kantai Kessen strategy, their battleships very easily could’ve bested America’s. Unfortunately through a combination of unforeseen American strategy re-works, as well as the Pearl Harbor attack being a lot more of a success than they anticipated for, it would just never come to be.

        And no, heh, the Bismarck and Tirpitz were not useless compared to the U-Boat. That’s a funny statement, I’ve love to hear your reasoning for it

  6. Jason said, on June 1, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Forget 50 Exocets, how about 50 Cesnas flying at low altitude loaded with RDX?

  7. none said, on June 1, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    People aren’t actually that stupid. Battleships served their purpose. Your smugness is anachronistic and if you want to really understand military action you should take the reasons for an arms race more seriously.

    Yeah, M.A.D. is stupid in that it results in crazy nuclear proliferation. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t the sane course of action.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 8:26 pm

      M.A.D. is another interesting topic for certain.

      I’m not smug about the past at all: in general I think people back then were more clever and intelligent than they are today. But I also think that large bureaucracies are moronic, and that things like battleships were more or less out of date when they were created.

      • wolfwalker said, on August 3, 2011 at 10:42 pm

        “I also think that large bureaucracies are moronic, and that things like battleships were more or less out of date when they were created.”

        No argument on the first part. Argument on the second. I won’t try to argue that the fast battleships of WW2 were mostly white elephants. However, I think that if you only look at the last generation of battlewagons, you get something of a misleading picture. The modern battleship traces its lineage back to HMS Dreadnought, the first all-big-guns warship, commissioned in 1906. At the time naval power projection was a simple issue: he who had more and bigger guns ruled the seas. Britain’s Empire depended on ruling the high seas and the oceanic trade routes, and Imperial Germany was building a navy of its own to go with its excellent army. So Dreadnought was a perfectly understandable attempt to once-and-for-all kill any idea anybody had of challenging the Royal Navy’s dominance at sea. Of course, we now know it didn’t work any more than the Maxim gun worked to do the same thing on land — but at the time, they didn’t know that. If the aircraft had remained a curiosity, and the submarine had remained a coastal defense craft, dreadnoughts would have been the queens of the high seas just as the first-rate ship of the line had been a hundred years before.

        It should also be noted that Dreadnought and her sisters were among the first ships that could fire on a target that was over the horizon. Accurate gunlaying was quite a problem at that range, and was a major spur to the development of early computers.

  8. Adrian Scott said, on June 1, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Read Tom Clancy’s Red Storm rising for an excellent description of a potential mass missile attack on a US Carrier battle group.

  9. Isegoria said, on June 1, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    If, because of the physics of scale, a larger ship is faster, better armed, and better armored than n smaller ships of the same tonnage, then how is a battleship ridiculous or poorly suited for maneuver warfare?

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 8:24 pm

      Because a torpedo launched from a non-displacement, fast torpedo boat (or submarine) could sink a battleship. That’s what makes it ridiculous. In fact, very many battleships ended up sunk in this way.

      • Isegoria said, on June 2, 2011 at 4:25 pm

        If one destroyer can take out multiple torpedo boats, does that then make torpedo boats ridiculous or poorly suited for maneuver warfare? And if a cruiser can take out multiple destroyers…

        These seems like a case of paper-rock-scissors.

        • Ironmistress said, on June 5, 2011 at 9:26 am

          A periscope sighted nearby will make a BB or CV captain nervous, but it will only infuriate a DD or FFG captain into hunting mode. It is pretty much rock-paper-scissors game.

  10. Sean Palmer said, on June 1, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    @Rod: Aircraft carriers don’t travel alone. The likelihood of other ships or planes getting in range to fire a torpedo is pretty low.

    • Rich said, on June 1, 2011 at 8:30 pm

      As a former submariner I have to call BS on that. We could penetrate any escort screen and close to a firing solution with Mk 48 torpedoes on pretty much any day of the week. The only enemy that we worried about was the guy in the helicopter with the dipping sonar…
      As for Rod, the Chinese are working on conventional munitions delivered via ICBM to attack American carrier task forces in order to deny them the ability to operate in the battle space that will surround Taiwan when they decide to take it back. Even then, if they decide to take out a CVN it’s going to be game on.

    • multilind said, on June 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm

      you ever heard of the new u-boats with hydrogen engine? They make fun of carrier captains and present them pictures they took through their periscope right in front of them without being discovered. Also the new supersonic torpedos will be a huge problem ..

  11. multilind said, on June 1, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    weird how you speak about battleships and the great war without mentioning the battle of jutland ..

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 8:24 pm

      I mentioned it in a whole paragraph above, complete with illustrative photo of the aftermath!

      • multilind said, on June 2, 2011 at 9:22 pm

        no, the picture shows the Seydlitz after the battle at Doggerbank and the description shows you have no idea about the battle. It was a masterpiece and the failure of the brits was because Churchill prevented an analysis of the battle at Doggerbank one year earlier so no one would be questioning the victory of the battle. If he had made an analysis, the brits had known their weaknesses of low armor penetration ammunition, low armor protection of their ammunition and the most retarded place for their highly flammable life jackets right next to their ammunition. And you had known this battle was decided by perfect communications skills of the krauts to avoid the crossing of the T. The Battle lasted 2 Days, I give you a hint, if you want to learn something about science then read more about this battle and its prehistory. It will tell you a lot about paradigm shifts and dependecies, it is a real world emanationism of Thomas Kuhn’s Book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.

        • Scott Locklin said, on June 3, 2011 at 6:15 am

          Personally, I think Kuhn was wrong. Kuhn himself apparently repented of his sins later in life when he saw what people were doing with his ideas. I’ll check it out in my official British History of the Great War some time though.

          I also think you were looking at my pretty pictures more than you were reading the article if you didn’t notice my mention of the battle of Jutland above, but were able to figure out that was the Seydiltz.

          • multilind said, on June 3, 2011 at 8:08 am

            As I already mentioned you described the battle of Jutland like it was the battle of Doggerbank. The Seydlitz was crippled in both battles. There are two famous pictures showing her after each battle. Yours shows the aftermath of the battle at Doggerbank ..

  12. Eric said, on June 1, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    THe answer is Yes. Because the enemy wouldn’t get close enough to launch Exocets.

    The main article is ridiculous. There are several cases of Battleship fights of which the author is clearly unaware. Tsushima, Denmark Straits, and the entire Guadalcanal campaign. Battleship had a demonstrated capability to fight at night, something a carrier aircraft was hard pressed to perform.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 9:12 pm

      Theoretically Tsushima happened before “true battleships” were invented. Back then, the pre-dreadnaughts made more sense; the torpedo had just been invented. None the less, torps managed to sink some Capital ships. Guadalcanal was interesting, but hardly a battleship duel. Bringing up the battle of Denmark Straits is just silly.

      • Eric said, on June 2, 2011 at 2:46 am

        How are you defining “true battleship?”. How is a “true battleship” more silly than a pre-dreadnought? By that standard pre-dreadnoughts should outfight a dreadnought but that was never the case.

        Torpedoes sank lots of ships. Most often they sank merchant ships because merchant ship did not have the armor bulges of dreadnoughts which were designed to mitigate torpedo damage.

        Guadalcanal and the Denmark straits both featured battleship combat. Since they clearly existed they clearly refute your premise.

        • Scott Locklin said, on June 2, 2011 at 6:02 am

          Post dreadnaught = true battleship. It’s more silly because of its historical record of utter uselessness.

          I’m sorry, I don’t feel like playing “all true Scottsman” word games with you tonight. The battleship was completely useless. If either Japan, Germany, the US or Britain lacked battleships in WW-2, nothing much would have changed.

          • Eric said, on June 2, 2011 at 4:20 pm

            Ah. Relying on the “because i said so it must be true” defense. Very enlightened of you.

            Dreadnoughts were designed to defeat the warships of the pre dreadnought era. Which means nations whch did not have a silly “true battleship” were at the mercy of those who did.

            True battleships were completely effective because they made pre dreadnoughts obsolete. True battleships were useful in they were capable of destroying anything smaller that was in range. And they had the often used abililty to shoot at night.

            Having completely torched your premise it’s now time to post your retraction

            • Scott Locklin said, on June 2, 2011 at 6:54 pm

              So, basically you agree with me: battleships were used as giant metal codpieces. They weren’t actually useful for anything, anywhere, ever; particularly when compared to the cost/performance of something like a destroyer, which were useful in actual combat everywhere and all the time.

              • Robert said, on June 3, 2011 at 2:58 am

                Oh, heavens.

                How about supporting invasions including D-day?

                Battleships could put a tremendous amount of firepower inland, and because of the targeting work they had to be able to do to fight other battleships, ground support was a cakewalk.

                You just did not get on-demand accurate firepower like that until the laser-guided/GPS bomb age.

                They were also strategic deterrents- like ICBMs and B-2s of our age, you didn’t WANT to use them

                There was also the ‘fleet in being’ strategy the German Navy ended up following in two world wars, to wit- the RN could not reposition it’s ships to do more useful, offensive tasks as long as the threat of a Bismarck or Gneisnau or the WWI fleet could sortie out. Just a few ships tied up 100s without turning a screw simply because they existed.

                Imagine how Gallipoli would have been different, perhaps the whole war with the Emden, if the RN could have heavily deployed to the Med?

                • Scott Locklin said, on June 3, 2011 at 3:27 am

                  Battleships weren’t really designed for shore support, though really that’s about the only useful task they managed to accomplish. They were designed to … duke it out with other battleships. This, as it turned out, was more or less a fantasy, cooked up by the Admirality to buy more battleships.

                  Yes, I agree with the strategic deterrence thing: that’s why I called them dongs and codpieces. I think the B-2 is pretty silly as well, and while ICBMs were (and are) probably necessary, they were positively absurd.

                  • Ironmistress said, on June 5, 2011 at 9:42 am

                    You might call that as serendipity. No other weapon system could grind a shore installation into gravel as efficiently as BB gunnery.

                    The Lebanese weren’t afraid of the US airpower at Mediterranean a bit. Once USS New Jersey came along and began to pound the Muslim bases, they basically pooped in their pants.

                    What is especially nasty on BB bombardment is that there is no forewarning of the incoming shells. The battleships shoot from beyond the horizon, they cannot be seen, and unlike aircraft, they do not have any noise until they are close enough to hit. A shreaking, tearing whistle is a sign of an oncoming shell; a melodic, sounding whistle is a tell-tale of a miss. Even so, the sound of oncoming shells is utterly devastating to morale.

                    And that is the reason why USN kept the Iowa class in service until 21st century. They were the most effective fire support vessels around. Their main drawback is that they were manpower intensive. They were designed at the time when conscription (and cheap manual labour) was the norm, and they required a large crew to operate.

                    The Tomahawk cruise missiles gave the BBs an extra long range to operate; they were now far more dangerous than ever in the WWII.

                    If a new BB was designed today – with computerized fire control, fully automatized gunnery, with cruise missiles as the main armament, and with fully computerized and automatized air defence systems, equipped with composite armour – its only real enemies would be small mammals which eat their eggs.

                    Or submarines.

                    The only problem is that she would not be cost-efficient. A CV or a boomer would provide more bang for the buck.

  13. Werner B. said, on June 1, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Even more crazy than battleships would be having a contest to see who could get to the moon first. For extra bonus points, the winner could follow up by shipping cars to the moon and drive them around and play golf just to rub it in to the losing side how awesome they are.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 8:11 pm

      Crazy for sure, but crazy awesome.

    • William O. B'Livon said, on June 2, 2011 at 11:24 am

      Crazy is not doing anything of much interest as a follow on.

      It’s kinda like whipping out the biggest dick anybody has ever seen, then stuffing right back in because you’re ashamed of it.

  14. Hurrah said, on June 1, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    All night warfare during WW2 was outside the capabilities of aircraft carriers and submarines, and as such was fought, won, or lost by the battleships.

    It’s true that they no longer have a place, but that doesn’t take away from their strategic importance at the time.

  15. Robert said, on June 1, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    You MUST be joking.

    No really.

    Independent of your complete misappreciation of what battleships could do to lesser ships, as noted decisive engagements such as Tsushima and Surigao, their phenomenal AA suites, their role in D-day and other amphib ops, etc., your metaphor of maneuver warfare is completely wrong.

    It is wrong because the battleship itself was just as maneuverable in a strategic sense as any other object afloat, and often tactically as well.

    The difference is that the battleship would be more like an armored knight with a lance, whereas the carrier and missile ship is firing arrows and javelins. Engagement range of weapons and ability to strike inland out of sea range, that is the difference.

    And in a larger sense your metaphor is damaged, especially the Hanson-Mongol as maneuver warfare one.

    What was the one set of people the Mongols NEVER messed with?

    The Byzantines.

    What did the Byzantines have that the others didn’t?

    An impregnable city-fortress, and the Cataphracts- horsemen that combined superior Eastern firepower and Western armor, and a proven propensity to attack logistics not armies.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 10:48 pm

      I think I mentioned Belisarius above; he adopted the tactics of the Huns, and was a smashing success. Fun historical fact: TE Lawrence got his military training from reading about the wars of Belisarius at school; a great argument for reading classical literature. Mostly downhill from there; the Byzantines often lost against mounted archers using Mongol-like tactics; from Huns to Arabs. Turks, theoretically, are kind of Mongols, though offhand I don’t know if they used anything resembling Mongolian OODA tactics.

      Yes, battleships are awesome, but they were also ultimately useless for their entire history. The real naval war was between destroyers and submarines in WW-1 and most of the Atlantic war of WW-2, and aircraft carriers against everything else in WW-2.

      • Robert said, on June 2, 2011 at 8:16 pm

        Hmm, looks like we can both use an upgrade in knowledge- cataphracts were originally an Eastern armored cavalry that the Byzantines adopted.


        As for ‘real naval war’, yes the day to day work was destroyers and subs and for BOTH wars, and the carriers had just got to the point of being able to reliably hit battleships with heavy enough ordnance at a decent speed. That was not clear even 5 years earlier.

        However, I think you need to look at engagements where there were several battleships in motion and not bottled up in ports or straits- you’ll find that most of the sinkings were lack of maneuver space or onesy-twosy AA situations.

        I also think both sides did not think ‘combined arms’ with subs and battleships- subs force supply ships into convoys, battleships hit the convoys where the enemy has conveniently bunched them up and sinks them all in an hour.

        Only the threat of the fleet in being caused us to see less of that done, as German battleships had orders to break off engagements with enemy battleships and the British started sailing battleships with every convoy in a danger area.

      • Ironmistress said, on June 5, 2011 at 9:10 am

        Contrary to the popular belief, the Arabs were NOT a mounted archer army. They relied on medium cavalry. They were faster than knights, but more powerful than light cavalry.

        The Byzantines’ favourite tactics against Huns was to deploy in two lines. The first line would be the heaviest troops, while the second line was to be the fastest troops. If the Huns attempted their favourite tactics, double envelope, they would get trapped by the Byzantine second line and crushed. The Byzantine manuals stress the importance of own light and fast cavalry, such as trapetzitai, in such tactics.

        The Ottoman Turkish army was basically a Byzantine army up to eleven. It consisted of the sipahis – heavy cavalrymen armed with both bow and lance – and akincis, light horsemen. Plus, of course, the Janissary archers. What the Turks did not have was decent infantry. Their armies lacked in staying power. The rule of thumb was that if the Western armies attacked first, they would lose; but if they instead let the Turks to attack, the Westerners would be victorious.

        Even so, the Byzantine armies remained as dangerous opponents to the very end. The Byzantine empire was constantly under attack at each and every direction, and it did not lose solely to the Turks, but also to the Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Genuans, Venetians, Romanians and various other enterpreneurs. It basically was exhausted into bankruptcy by continuous defensive warfare for four centuries. How it managed to resist all the opponents even that long, is a miracle and testimony on itself.

    • Pedro Borges said, on June 1, 2011 at 11:08 pm

      Robert, do you know why Mongols never messed with the Byzantines? Because when they arrived the Byzantine Empire had already disintegrated.

      • Pedro Borges said, on June 1, 2011 at 11:17 pm

        Could you delete this post? The empire still stood when the Mongols arrived but it was very small.

        • Ironmistress said, on June 5, 2011 at 10:19 am

          One of the reasons why the Mongols didn’t mess with Byzantines is that the Byzantines did not fight fair.

          The Byzantines understood already 1500 years before Clausewitz that war is nothing but extension of politics, and never do anything with warfare which you can achieve by other means – such as politics, alliances, assassinations or bribery.

          Poison and dagger were just as much Byzantine form of warfare as the charge of the cataphracts. The Byzantines usually attempted to avoid field battles – just as Vegetius insisted – and instead attack the enemy while he was on the move; columns, baggage, supply lines, encampments.

          The Byzantines were not aware of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”, but they were fully aware of its contents and how to wage war scientifially. When the Byzantines lost, it was usually due to politics (such as the treason of Andronikos at Manzikert 1071), not due to troops, tactics or generalship. The Byzantines would most likely have avoided the Mongol field armies at any costs, relied on fortifications and castles, made a lucrative deal with the Mongols – and then backstabbed them when they were on retreat.

          Edward Gibbon described Byzantine Empire as an ossified rump of the state which only degenerated. Oh dear. Most empires see their rise, flourishing and fall in 300 years. If the Byzantine Empire only “degenerated” for 1100 years, it sure beat almost anything in the world history.

  16. zarla said, on June 1, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    You’re quoting Victor Hanson? Seriously? The 58-year-old Hoover institute Fellow? I’d call out some of your other, more ludicrous statements, but arguing with neocons is a waste of time.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 1, 2011 at 11:39 pm

      Hanson is a highly respected military historian and Classicist. He’s probably the world’s foremost expert on Ancient Greek warfare alive today. I don’t fully agree with his ideas about the Western Way of War, as he never addresses its failures (Russo-Japanese war, the early Muslim conquests, various Hunnic and Mongol invasions), but it is a very important model. Combined with Boyd’s OODA idea, it provides a very clear picture of why Western Civilization has historically done so well in combat.

      I don’t agree with his politics either, for what it’s worth. I’m more or less an American Paleocon, when I’m feeling political at all (which is rarely); something probably outside your obviously painfully limited realm of experience. This makes me significantly less of a neocon than our current president. Unlike the doltish monkeys who get their views from the Huffington post, and wallow in self righteous indignation, I don’t judge the quality of people’s thoughts on unrelated subjects by the nature of their politics.

    • William O. B'Livon said, on June 5, 2011 at 9:58 am

      Hanson is not a Neocon, and neither is Locklin (nor am I).

      That you don’t know why we aren’t means you have nothing to add to this argument.

  17. Top Posts — WordPress.com said, on June 2, 2011 at 12:00 am

    […] Battleships: a ridiculous but awesome idea The Battleship is one of the most glorious, evocative and ultimately useless machines ever created by human […] […]

  18. A. C. Baker said, on June 2, 2011 at 2:57 am

    OK, so, because this post was listed as one of the most popular, I had to check it out. After reading it, sorry to say, I have a few of issues…

    1) In light of all the men and women who died in service to their respective countries, regardless of ideology, is it really necessary to constantly refer to battleships in the context of male genitalia?

    2) “The Battleship is one of the most glorious, evocative and ultimately useless machines ever created by human beings.” Really? Battleships were no more useless in their day than than the chariot or castle wall. They (battleships) were conceived to meet a particular need, which was to own the sea. (Translation: he who controls the waterways of the world controls the shipment of goods, services, and power. Just because a weapon came along to defeat it does not mean that it was a foolhardy investment in the beginning.)

    “…well, I don’t know what they did it for; some kind of supremacy of the high seas thing…” Exactly, my friend. That’s exactly why they did it. They weren’t out there for the sole purpose of showing off, except maybe in the event of Commodore Perry and Japan. But then again, that was far, far from an example of uselessness.

    3) “While I am a bloodthirsty red-necked American who loves war and giant guns and battleships…” What kind of self-incriminating statement was that? Geez! Who are you trying to belittle or slander, Rednecks or Americans in general?

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 2, 2011 at 5:59 am

      Regarding 1 or 3, if you don’t like my literary style, you’re free to fuck directly off. I write to please myself, not to please politically correct nincompoops who can’t abide strong language. That’s just how we bloodthirsty red-necked Americans roll.

      Regarding 2, I wonder if you actually read anything I wrote, or if you just focused on the poo-poo ca-ca dirty words?

      • A. C. Baker said, on June 2, 2011 at 1:53 pm

        Sorry, dude…didn’t mean to offend your sense of class. I was not directly referring to your language, per se; just the context of the language. I’ve got family in the Navy. They don’t put their lives on the line just to be able to point out the size of their “dongs.” That’s my point.

        And yes, I did read what you wrote. I am not the only one who evidently felt that you essentially relegated the battleship to mothballs before it hit the first wave, even though you love them. Yes, they did become sitting ducks, but they were eventually pulled from combat. Up until then, they were still highly effective in certain roles, including shore bombardment – nothing like those exploding Volkswagens dropping down from the sky.

        And my only point with regards to the “bloodthirsty” statement is that most guys who have actually seen blood in combat aren’t exactly “thirsty” to have more. That might not be how you meant it, though.

        Hey, thanks for letting me comment…at least YOU get comments (unlike some other blogs – sticking out my bottom lip in an attempt to look pitiful).

        • Scott Locklin said, on June 2, 2011 at 6:50 pm

          Well, I’m a technologist who likes the aesthetics of big and often ridiculous contraptions that humans have made. (for more, look here: https://scottlocklin.wordpress.com/category/big-machines/ )
          My writing is over the top and ridiculous and meant to be both fun and informative; some people like it, some people don’t.

          I’m not trying to get political here, personally I was sad when they retired the Iowa. I mean, it was already there, and it was useful for freaking people out (dongs!) and bombarding shores. Maybe lobbing $20 million cruise missiles at tents with camels in it is more cost effective or something, but hardly as cool.

          When I write serious stuff meant to influence people’s political beliefs, I do it in other venues. For example, personally I don’t think much of the F-35 project, as when I was trying to do some military contracting, it was obvious they didn’t know how to build one. That one will go in Taki’s magazine.

  19. Favorite Ships - Page 2 said, on June 2, 2011 at 5:33 am

    […] that armour and firepower and complexity. THat said, today I came across this interesting essay: Battleships: a ridiculous but awesome idea At first I was annoyed by the cheap shots at industrialism and male anatomy, but reading more I […]

  20. admin said, on June 2, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    It’s quite incredible to think of the lives that have been lost on all the battleships that were sunk in wars… Nice Essay.

  21. Vinicius said, on June 2, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Poorly written. You never go and explain or show why battleships are obsolete. You seem to love your own eloquence, metaphors and witty one liners, and repeat them ad nauseum. Yes, I got that part where battleships are phallic symbols, get over it. Read the War Nerd article about Aircraft Carries. Now that’s really writing, with actual content, not just several paragraphs repeating the same thing over and over without ever making a strong case for it.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 2, 2011 at 7:33 pm

      While I am funnier and better lookin’, everyone should read War Nerd.

  22. […] WWII, war, technology, history, navalhttps://scottlocklin.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/battleships-a-ridiculous-but-awesome-idea/ […]

  23. Quaestor said, on June 2, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    I don’t think I’ve ever read more densely packed hogwash. Locklin, you know nothing about battleships, Freud, or hoplite warfare, a little else of anything this eclectic melange of a blog has touched on so fleetingly and with such sophomoric insouciance. (If you had read more than the dust-jacket boilerplate of Hanson’s books you might know that it was the society that supported the hoplites that allowed Hellenism to dominate the Persians, not that they “jabbed with spears.” How jejune.)

    Do science a favor and start blogging in alchelmy.

    And by the way the plural of penis is penes.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 2, 2011 at 10:17 pm

      Hanson does indeed think Democracy and flat organizations had something to do with Western success (I don’t know if I agree with that; the Prussians and Spartans did pretty well without it), however, he does write rather a lot about the physical embodiment of the Western Way of War. I don’t think he ever wrote about its relationship to Boyd’s ideas -maybe I’m the first.

      Penes: that’s like spaghetti, right?

  24. Jim A. said, on June 2, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    It’s not like the generals of WWI didn’t believe in manauver warfare. Heck, the Schleflein plan WAS an enormous flanking movement. But once the race to the sea was over, there were no real flanks. From the channel to the Swiss border there was no option other than a frontal attack. Strategic manauver was precluded and at the tatical level… I would argue that reason that small-unit stoss truppen encirclement manauvers worke in 1918 was that after years of both sides pounding the cr@p out of the front lines with ever heavier bombardmenst there were far fewer troops in the front line trenches. The number of rifles in the front line would have made most attempts at tatical encirclemant a la stosstruppen impossible in 1916.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 2, 2011 at 10:32 pm

      As I pointed out somewhere in the comment spaghetti above, the origins of modern Western manoeuvre warfare more or less date from these times in the antics of the Arditi and Stoßtruppen. Seems to be where Rommel and Patton figured it out anyway. I vaguely recall some plan to use Stoßtruppen tactics on a larger scale to effect a breakthrough, but obviously that didn’t work out.

  25. Simon_Jester said, on June 3, 2011 at 2:23 am

    Dr. Locklin, with respect, I think you greatly underestimate the role played by the battleship, by assuming that shots not fired mean the weapon was irrelevant. Do you make the same argument that nuclear missiles played no role in the Cold War on account of the war never going hot? Was the threat of mutually assured destruction irrelevant because it was never carried out?

    The battleship played the same role on the tactical level, creating a calculus of deterrence and threat, in the First and Second World Wars. Cruisers could not sink battleships; destroyers could not sink battleships without taking heavy losses to gunfire, and they were needed for other missions than just fighting wars of attrition against battleships. Air power *could* sink battleships, and did… in good weather, in broad daylight.

    The fact that not all weather was good and that it was not always daylight preyed heavily on the minds of carrier commanders- it was one of the reasons they tried to keep their distance during battle, because they did not want to risk losing their carrier because an enemy surface ship got an opportunity to slip into gun range of the carrier fleet. Carriers are far more effective operating fifty miles from their target than two hundred, for a number of reasons… but it is not safe to do so against a target that can dash at thirty miles an hour, when it takes an hour or more to reload one’s planes.

    Likewise, submarines could, and did, sink battleships… but only by virtue of being submerged, with the side effect of being slow, to the point where submarines could not intercept a battleship at all- all they could do was hide and hope it more or less ran over them. Against enemy fleets, submarines were ambush hunters, who depended entirely on knowing where the enemy would go and what they would do long before the enemy arrived. In warfare on the open seas, this was not a reliable option- note that the submarine fleets played exactly zero role at Jutland, despite the implication that they had already made the battleship obsolete. Where were the German U-boats when there were obsolete wallowing British battlewagons to puncture?

    While sinking battleships was certainly possible, it was never easy save when those ships were helpless at anchor, a situation where carriers and submarines would be just as vulnerable.

    And while you are working out your magic “kill battleships at will” trick, the one every navy in the world struggled to find for years and never worked out until the invention of the guided missile after five to six decades of trying, you have the effect of threat and deterrence. Battleships had, as empirical fact, the capacity to sink other surface ships very effectively if allowed into range. Unless air power was handy to stop them in the theater where they were present- and it was putting a lot in the hands of Lady Luck to assume it would be- that capability forced people to plan around it.

    Which they, the professionals at the time who had to deal with the fact that the outcome of battles hinged on their decisions, did. I’m not sure their opinion should be brushed aside so lightly with a few wisecracks about how it was all a big exercise in penis substitutes by a bunch of fools who couldn’t get their heads out of the past.

    And finally, I look at a remark like “The torpedo boat probably would have done the same thing against the battleship had it been used properly. In fact, when it was, it did pretty well.” And I have to say, it does not speak well to the quality of your research on the subject.

    I mean, this is sheer nonsense- how much good did torpedo boats do against battleships? Anywhere? Aerial torpedoes yes, submarine torpedoes yes *sometimes*, but torpedo boat torpedoes never really accomplished that much against capital ships. The torpedo boat was just too small and too slow a platform, an eggshell armed with a sledgehammer- certainly not something capable of “maneuver warfare” except under the most perfect of conditions against opposition whose feet are nailed to the floor.

    Torpedo boats did not have the range for combat operations- their gas tanks weren’t up to it. Their performance in bad weather was abysmal- ever been on a speedboat in a storm? You might make forty knots on a millpond but you won’t in the North Atlantic. Their effective weapon range left much to be desired- aiming torpedoes from a pitching platform, when those torpedoes were little more than twice as fast as the things they were trying to kill, was as much art as science.

    Worst of all, the torpedo boat had to approach on the surface, at speeds which made use of a surface ship’s main armament practical- they were all too vulnerable to getting blown into matchsticks from ranges at which they could not reply, or getting intercepted well short of their target and blown to matchsticks by the enemy screen elements.

    All in all, I think your position on the relative strengths of the various arms in 20th century naval warfare could profit from a lot more research.

    Air power, yes, ultimately made the battleship obsolete. The idea that torpedo boats could have done it is a joke. And a joke which does not speak well of the depth with which you analyzed the subject you are now holding forth on with such confidence.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 3, 2011 at 3:51 am

      Let’s see; about 30 seconds worth of google research indicates the following:

      HMS Manchester (a cruiser; same principle) sunk by two Italian torpedo boats in WW-2
      SMS Szent István, sunk by two Italian torpedo boats in WW-1.
      SMS Wien (granted, a pre-dreadnaught) sunk by two Italian torpedo boats, who also nearly sank the SMS Budapest in the same operation.

      Italy was a poor country, but Italians are very creative thinkers, and daring warriors when they’re fighting for something they believe in. They showed the way for the larger powers, but everyone else was too wrapped up in the battleship dong waving to think that far outside the box. I think they got the idea from the Japanese, who sunk a bunch of Russian ships using torps in their little war. I maintain that a large, cheap Torpedo boat carrier would have been much more effective and cheaper than a battleship. Lots of destroyers is kind of the same thing.

      The torpedo worked *very well* against battleships, and it effectively made it obsolete when it was invented. Destroyers, cruisers, subs and light motorboats all could carry and use torpedoes against battleships, and they often did, with smashing success. The whole paradigm of floating gunwagons duking it out on the high seas was stupid, and never worked. That’s why I consider them useless. Awesome, but useless.

      You may compare them to ICBMs if you wish; they were stupid codpieces as well.

      • Simon_Jester said, on June 3, 2011 at 5:08 am

        SMS Wien was in harbor, tied to a pier. You don’t get a lot of points for shooting a sitting duck. Practically any other warship of the period could have sunk her as well under the same conditions. The fact that you use this to ‘prove’ the superiority of the torpedo boat over the battleship does not bode well for the strength of your argument.

        During two wars, Italy succeeded in sinking *one* cruiser and *one* battleship using torpedo boats. This was the track record for dozens of torpedo boats constructed, launching numerous attacks, over the course of several years of war, against large fleets operating close to their coast on a routine basis- *ideal* conditions for torpedo boat attacks. If torpedo boats were as impressive as you make them out to be, they’d have swept the Mediterranean and turned it into an Italian lake.

        Meanwhile, during the same two wars, battleships sank numerous ships, in every theater of operations, not just the one where they had perfect weather and didn’t have to worry about the fact that they ran out of gas after sailing a hundred miles or so. Italy fought her naval wars in calm, narrow waters- ideal conditions for torpedo boats that do not translate onto the rest of the world’s oceans. Elsewhere, torpedo boats did not have even the minimally effective track record they enjoyed in Italian service (i.e. sinking two ships at sea plus one that was tied to a dock in several years of trying).

        For an example of this, we can look at the rough waters of the North Sea, where torpedo boats were pitifully ineffective. You will note that like the submarines, the torpedo boats did not play an appreciable role at Jutland. Whereas if you were right about torpedo boats, one would expect the Germans- no fools, and certainly not afraid to innovate in naval warfare, as well as being great innovators in maneuver warfare- to have brought their submarines and torpedo boats along and slaughtered the British and their clumsy “useless” big-gun ships.

        Except they didn’t, because torpedo boats have trouble with things like waves, which are occasionally a problem on the ocean. Also with running out of fuel after sailing short distances, because they are small boats.

        Of course, there were destroyers at Jutland. They fired numerous torpedoes, and caused very little damage. Meanwhile, numerous destroyers were sunk. Destroyers didn’t turn out to be an impressive counter to battleships either- they blow up too easily.

        In exchange and in the same theater, the British blockaded Germany quite effectively during the First World War, relying heavily on a distant blockade enforced by battleships and cruisers, far out of reach of German torpedo boats. German submarines failed to break that blockade by sinking the British ships as you seem to imply they could easily have done. German submarines during World War One *also* failed to enact an effective counterblockade; as soon as the British got it through their heads to cluster their merchant ships into convoys, the German submarine blockade became nearly irrelevant. Whereas the British battleship blockade remained highly relevant, reducing Germany to a condition of famine by 1918 and rendering them practically incapable of carrying on the war even if they’d wanted to.

        Jutland, the “moronic” battle you cite, was a German attempt to defeat this British battleship fleet so that they would finally stand a chance of getting supplies in over the oceans. Which, so long as the British maintained their large force of battleships and cruisers, the Germans could not do, on account of battleships and cruisers being quite capable of sinking cargo ships- indeed, better at it than submarines, as they were more heavily armed, could fire from longer ranges, and could easily outrun almost any cargo ship in the world, as a submerged submarine could not do at the time. The only advantage the submarine had was that of invisibility, which the British did not need to rely on because they didn’t have to worry about their blockading cruisers and battleships being sunk by the Germans, as the Germans lacked the surface firepower to do this. In short, the British gained much by using visible gun-armed ships rather than invisible torpedo-armed ships for this mission, and lost nothing by doing so, as they had nothing to hide from their enemy and thus no need of invisibility.

        According to you, the job of breaking this British surface blockade would seem to fall logically to the ‘maneuver’ elements of the torpedo boats and submarines. Alas, these failed miserably at the task, or rather were never assigned to the task at all because the German navy was commanded by people who understood the strengths and weaknesses of the weapons at their disposal.

        It is usually a good idea to know the strengths and weaknesses of a weapon system before deciding whether it is strong or weak. This was well understood at the time, for example by Admiral Jellicoe, who commanded the British fleet at Jutland, who made the following analysis of torpedo warfare during the First World War:

        “The torpedo, as fired from surface vessels, is effective certainly up to 10,000 yards range; and this requires that a ship shall keep beyond that distance to fight his guns. The logical conclusion is that, in misty weather, such as characterises the North Sea, a ship cannot fight her guns at all, for she must not go inside 10,000 yards.

        “In the Battle of Jutland, though ships were struck by torpedoes, the only ships known to have been sunk by this weapon were the pre-Dreadnought Pommern, the light cruiser Rostock and one British destroyer, the Shark. On the other hand, seven big ships were sunk by the gun, and probably five others were put out of action; while all the smaller ships which were sunk on the British side, with the exception of the destroyer Shark, were victims of the gun. Everyone would see the absurdity of arguing that ships, therefore, should not be ventured inside 18,000 yards range because of the gun.

        “Why, then, should we have this sloppiness of thought in regard to the torpedo? The only British big ship hit by a torpedo at Jutland, the Marlborough, kept her station at 17 knots all day, and the greater part of the night, and fired fourteen salvoes subsequently to being hit, in the brief interval before the fleet turned away from the 7.21 p.m. destroyer attack.

        “The argument takes on itself the character attributable to dwelling too much on conjectured results rather than on probabilities, or what Napoleon condemned as “making pictures,” so that “Imagination frames events unknown. In wild fantastic shapes of hideous ruin; And what it fears, creates.”

        “The mere fact that the torpedo shots are “browning” shots at the long line of a fleet seemed to create a condition bordering on panic in some minds. The Germans played on this fact, just as in times past it was a favourite gibe of a continental monarch that “the English will stampede like wild horses before their own imaginations.” The great minds trained in war are too perspicacious to become the victims of phantasmagoria; but the mind steeped in mere material knowledge is peculiarly apt to do so…”

        This from Jellicoe, a man famously cautious in his tactics- not prone to underestimate the threat of torpedoes.

        What this boils down to is that the torpedo proved far less effective at sinking warships at Jutland than heavy naval gunfire, despite the fact that both were being used exactly as proposed using the best-designed ships available during the era to operate with those weapons. Jutland was not a battle fought by gunfire alone. Were your ideas about the proper role of the torpedo in early 20th century naval warfare correct, one would expect Jutland to have been decided by the torpedo quite handily, with battleships on both sides being sunk in droves by the superior torpedo craft.

        Because of this and similar historical test cases that simply did not work out the way your claims would lead one to predict, Dr. Locklin, I would very much like to see support for your position from the community of naval historians. Or even of general historians specializing in the period you are talking about.

        I will leave your interpretation of the ICBM to another time, as it deserves an entirely different discussion with reference to a different set of facts and figures.

        • Scott Locklin said, on June 3, 2011 at 6:03 am

          I’d love to hear from a Naval historian, myself, though as you point out: I’m nothing like that. I’m just some guy who wrote this off the top of my head at 3 in the morning while drunk on green chartreuse. I wonder why so many take offense at my characterization of battleships as useless; you certainly can’t argue they were good at what they were designed to do, which is to duke it out with other battleships. At the very least, they were not good designs for what they were intended for, though writing that isn’t as much fun as “armored codpieces.”

          Jutland may not have had many torpedo casualties, but Jutland was also a total wash: neither side won, much like most of the other WW-1 large scale battles. It demonstrated the futility of Capital ships in that way. Jellicoe’s opinion is irrelevant: obviously, he was a battleship man to the core, who fought the battleship way; and it was men like him that built up the enormous fleet of battleships in the first place. You know who I’d like to hear from? War Nerd. I’d trust what he had to say, as, i think, most others would.

          I wonder, too, what you make of the Battle of Tsushima. Previous generation of battleships to be sure, but plenty of torpedo casualties there; many from tiny, primitive Japanese torpedo boats and destroyers. Japan’s loss? Three torpedo boats, versus ALL of the Russian battleships. It didn’t happen on calm waters either. Direct kills? The torpedo boats claimed the Sisoy Veliki and Navarin: two of the 11 battleships in the Russian fleet -and in a night attack. Meanwhile, the Japanese fleet only had 4 battleships to the Russian 11. Yet the British Admirality claimed this meant they needed better battleships? What kind of morons were they? Lions led by donkeys, I say. That was the only decisive battleship duel in history, and it was won in large part because of the effective use of Destroyers and Torpedo boats.

          The Italians had not the industrial might or the deep ocean experience of the British or German or Japanese navies. What would have been interesting is if one of the larger powers stopped looking at their giant metal dicks long enough to think like an Italian.

          • Robert said, on June 3, 2011 at 6:39 am

            Oh dear.

            The Italians had battleships, quite a few, you just don’t hear about them very much. One of them got a long range shot in.

            The Bismarck vaporized the Hood and in turn was yes damaged by the planes but truly pummeled to pieces by battleships.

            Surigao Strait was certainly a decisive BB vs. BB battle.

            Now then, the rest of Leyte Gulf might put you off of big ships, but Taffy 3 would have been much worse for the light stuff if Kurita wasn’t nervous as kittens about the rest of the US fleet showing up, and having solid AP shot plunge straight through the escort carriers because the HE shot had been all used up in the previous action against planes.

            Gneisnau and Scharnhorst racked up kills on HMS Glorious, a carrier, and 2 DDs quite handily.

            I always thought the German navy failed to use combined arms at sea, which would have been to use the subs to cause the enemy to bunch up into convoys, then pounce with the battleships. Not likely to happen with Raeder and Doenitz, but misuse of equipment is not the same as the equipment being conceptually faulty.

            • Scott Locklin said, on June 3, 2011 at 7:03 am

              Surigao sparked my youthful imagination to be sure, because of the involvement of the mighty Miss, but I remember being awfully disappointed that no cool, decisive battleship duel ever really came of it. As a kid, I found aircraft carriers to be boring and … un-naval. I wanted to see the big battleships duke it out in some history books. The adult me still has that old appreciation for the Battlewagons, but I also figure, well, they didn’t do so hot. I remember rooting for the Bismarck against the Arc Royal, with its lame little biplanes when I read that book as a wee monkey.

              Scharnhorst … wasn’t it once crippled by a PT boat? I’m just sayin.

              The Germans were not at their best on the seas (or, like, propaganda and diplomacy), for certain, though their invented submarine warfare tactics were very effective for a while. Comparing navies in the various wars is kind of an interesting exercise. I think it’s pretty obvious the good old USA had the best and most effective Navy, leadership, technology and everything in all the oceans in WW-2. We learned fast and eventually excelled at everything. The Japanese were very good, but not that good. Their Admirals seemed pretty uneven in quality, ranging from genius to rather dopey.

              It’s not so clear for WW-1. I’d probably have to give props to the British, even though I think they were kind of dumb in many ways.

              • Ironmistress said, on June 5, 2011 at 10:05 am

                Scharnhorst was crippled by a torpedo launched by destroyer HMS Acasta, which happened at high seas. No PTs could have been employed that far from the shore because of the range issue.

                But HMS Glorious, HMS Ardent and HMS Acasta herself were sunk at that incident. Instead of getting commended for aggressive and prompt actions, the commander of Scharnhorst, Admiral Wilhelm Marschall, was court-martialled from risking his ship. His task was to engage the Red Ensign, not the White.

  26. Ironmistress said, on June 3, 2011 at 7:26 am

    Speed is NOT armour. The Mongols were nothing but just another cavalry army based on combination of skirmishing horsemen and heavy cataphracts, and those armies tend to have their own ecological niche, and that is open plains, prairies, puszta and steppe. Their only difference, to, say Huns or Avars, was that they had ideology and discipline.

    Once the Europeans realized this and figured out how to fight the Mongols, they began to be at the receiving end. It is just that everyone loves a spectacular defeat. We all have heard of Liegnitz and Mohi 1241, but none of us have heard of Pest 1284, where the Hungarians defeated a similar Mongol army which had invaded their country forty years earlier, hacked it into pieces and had it ambushed by Szekely when it retreated through the Carpathians. Very few of Nogai’s Mongols ever returned home.

    The way to fight Mongols is to cover your flanks. Likewise, foot bows shoot longer, faster and more accurate than horse bows. They put more ammunition in the air than horse bows. Advance slowly, let those skirmishers tire their horses (skirmishing is an awfully tiresome action for the mounts), and when kill is sure, let loose the knights. They slice and dice the lights into pieces.

    Likewise, we all have heard of the spectacular conflagration of HMS Hood, but not how HMS King George V and HMS Rodney pounded Bismarck into smithereens in less than ten minutes.

    Battleships were both awesome in firepower, armour and speed. They also were pretty manouevreable as well. Why their demise?

    The reality of the battleship is that it simply was not cost-effective. Aircraft carriers provided more bang for the buck. Battleships are awfully costly to build; flattops are cheaper.

    Not a single USN battleship has ever been sunk by air power at sea. Only two has been lost at harbour, taken by surprise attack. The reason is that American battleships were well equipped in anti-aircraft artillery with radar control and computer target setting, while other nations’ battleships had inadequate air defences or relied on visual interception and aiming. With predictably bad results.

    Actually the American aircraft carriers actively seeked protection under the shadow of the battleships when a Japanese air attack was commenced. Battleships could put more iron in the air than carriers, and they had far better fire control systems

    A weapon is only as good as the man using it. By 1944 the Japanese and German navies were drained their best forces. Musashi and Yamato were used as training facilities, and when they were commenced to battle, they were manned by inexperienced sailors. The disaster of 1945 was direct consequence of this. Yamato was not sunk because the American pilots were so good, but because the Japanese sailors were so bad. With today’s electronics and computer controlled anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems it is unlikely any battleships could be sunk by air power alone anymore. The real threat comes from below – submarines.

    There is one niche where battleships are unsurpassed even today and that is fire support from sea to shore. The heavy artillery of the battleships reduced the German and Japanese littoral fortifications into gravel – quicker, more effectively and more accurately – than any aerial bombardment. That is also the reason why USN retained the Iowa class in the active service until 21th century.

    Had RN retained the KGV class or HMS Vanguard in service into the 1980s, the War of Falkland would have been over far quicker than it historically did.

    • Simon_Jester said, on June 4, 2011 at 7:24 am

      To be fair, carriers had a number of other strategic advantages- a big one being striking range. By the end of the Second World War, a carrier could hit targets anywhere within a radius of several hundred kilometers from a given location on a few hours’ notice. More importantly, they could hit a fixed target from anywhere within an equally large area of ocean- there’s a reason why the great carrier battles revolved around the struggle to find the enemy carriers in the first place.

      Carriers’ ability to exploit uncertainty about their position and pick their battles made them much more useful than battleships for many purposes. And just as battleships played a useful role in amphibious warfare with shore bombardment, carriers provided air cover for the operation, preventing the enemy’s land-based aviation from operating at will againist a landing force.

      By 1945, the carrier had definitely replaced the battleship as the primary naval arm. They were simply too much more effective at killing enemy fleets, or at least crippling them enough to be finished off by follow-up attacks, because of their greater radius of action. Battleships still had other roles, as you allude to, but those too began to decline.

      Postwar, the battleship became less useful as an air defense platform as jet aircraft and antiship missiles replaced piston engines and torpedoes- air attacks were being launched from beyond the range of AA guns, and surface to air missiles were best placed on smaller, dedicated platforms (guided missile cruisers). The bombardment role still existed but was secondary- for naval supremacy you still relied on carrier groups and attack submarines, with the battleships at best playing a role once you’d thinned out the enemy’s antiship capabilities and were planning follow-up operations against the enemy coastline.

      And yes, Ironmistress, I’m sure having kept HMS Vanguard would have made the Falklands War a lot easier for the British. So would having retained HMS Ark Royal. 😉

      By 1945 you can make a very good case for battleships being obsolete *as the backbone of a fleet*- but by 1945, everyone in the world already knew that, and no one was laying down new battleships any more.

      In 1939-40, there was not enough evidence for anyone to say with confidence that the battleship was obsolete. The carrier was clearly in the ascendant, gaining in striking power more quickly than battleship technology could advance… but the world’s major navies (US, British, Japanese) all had carriers already and were working hard to build more and better ones, even as they laid down the last generation of battleships they were ever going to bother with. You could make a good case that the battleship was *becoming* obsolete, in that within a few more years it would no longer have the ability to dominate naval affairs… but the naval policies of the nations which actually had a large stake in keeping themselves from being saddled with obsolete warships were already matching this- they were building carriers more enthusiastically than battleships. Partly, yes, because of the cost factor, Ironmistress.

      It’s when we wind back the clock to 1930, 1920, or 1910, to times when people were actually trying to build battleships in large quantities, that the idea that the battleship was obsolete becomes hard to support. Air power still lacked the speed, the reliability, the ability to carry powerful antiship weapons; torpedoes were still delivered mainly by fragile surface craft that had to launch from well inside the gun range of enemy battleships and cruisers, and submarines were too slow underwater to have much chance of taking on enemy surface warships without a healthy dose of luck.

      • Ironmistress said, on June 5, 2011 at 7:40 am

        What you say of the striking range advantace of aircraft carriers versus battleships, is, of course, correct.

        But with one big great proviso: weather. Air operations are dangerous or impossible in really nasty weather; gunnery is pretty much weather-independent. You can basically have a battleship clash in the midst of a tropical low, but you would be likely to be court-martialled from that. [At least the accuracy would be horrible.]

        When we speak of naval warfare, we often miss the effect of weather. It is true wind velocities of 30 kn+ occur only 5% of all the time, they do occur. (I have put #2 reef on yacht in 37 kn wind. Wave height was 4.5 m, and as we were at Baltic, the waves were short, choppy and breaking. An experience I’d like not to have again.) While modern aircraft carriers are sturdy and big vessels, they still do have restrictions on air operations with weather. Even more so during the WWII.

        The same with PTs and PGs. They do not operate at high seas and they do not operate in nasty weather.

        A single example of this will illustrate: Typhoon Cobra of 1944. Admiral William Halsey steered Task Force 38 directly in the core of a tropical low. He ignored the weather warnings and old-time seamanship, and paid dearly: USN lost three destroyers, 9 other warships were damaged, and only prompt action saved aircraft carrier USS Monterey from exploding as it had a “loose cannon” or rather loose aircraft experience – the plane was armed and fuelled. All because of a tropical low with winds 87 kn (gusts over 100 kn), waves higher than 12 m, and ignoring the forces of nature. A total of 790 lives were lost. Over 100 aircraft were wrecked or washed overboard; Admiral Chester Nimitz referred the typhoon’s impact “represented a more crippling blow to the Third Fleet than it might be expected to suffer in anything less than a major action”. No battleships were damaged and no lives were lost on BBs. The typhoon is central to Herman Wouk’s book “The Caine Mutiny”.

        Battleships would even today be the queens of the ocean when the weather gets really nasty. And that is one of the reasons why USSR feared the Iowa class battleships even in the 1980s more than the USN supercarriers; the Shrieking Sixtied exist also in the Northern hemisphere, and the Northern Atlantic is almost as nasty with weather as the Southern Ocean. That is also the reason why USSR built the Kirov class battlecruisers (today known as “Peter the Great” class) armed with surface-to-surface missiles – to counter the threat of American gunnery and missiles.

        When we inspect of WWII losses of BBs to air power, there are three striking underlying reasons:

        1) They were moored in harbour or in anchor: Tirpitz, Gneisenau, Haruna Ise, Huyga, Arizona, Oklahoma. They are basically sitting ducks there.

        2) They had deficient anti-aircraft fire control systems or anti-aircraft artillery: Prince of Wales, Repulse. HACS was basically a big but expensive joke. Had the British heavies been equipped with USN radar-controlled system, they could well have swept the Japanese torpedo bombers out of the sky with ease.

        3) They had green crews with little or no experience and/or training on damage control: Roma, Yamato, Musashi. A weapon is just as good as a man using it, and Roma was on her way to surrender to the Allies with her crew pretty much demoralized.

        It must be remembered that the very weapon which made battleships obsolete – the torpedo bomber and dive bomber – are themselves obsolete. The reason is obvious; they are too slow. All aerial attacks today are made either as glide bombing or by rockets. And that is exactly what battleships are made to stand – anything coming in horizontally! The dive bombers hit the armour where it is weakest – deck; and torpedo under the keel where the water pressure could be maximized.

        Then again, the cruise missiles would again give the battleships extra reach. They would today be their main arm and the artillery their second. That is exactly the concept of the Russian battlecruisers of the Peter the Great class. Enough cruise missiles in the air would saturate the air defences of any modern vessel and destroy it. They have far weaker armour than WWII era battleships. While the missiles in the air, the BB would then close for kill for gunnery.

        In my opinion, both BBs and CVs are obsolete today, and the reason is submarine. There are only two kinds of ships, and they are submarines and targets. To counter the threat of submarines, any capital ships must have an expensive screen of destroyers, frigates and other vessels. A submarine can wreak havoc against any surface ships, and they are awfully difficult to detect and neutralize.

        • Ironmistress said, on June 5, 2011 at 8:05 am

          The Wikipedia states HMS Repulse had absolutely no central anti-aircraft fire control and computing system at all, and the HACS of HMS Prince of Wales had been rendered out of order in the extreme heat and humidity of Malaya, and the 40 mm shells of the pom-pom guns had likewise been gone useless by the weather. So the both British capital ships were basically sitting ducks relying only on visual information for anti-aircraft gunnery. With their eight-barrel 40 mm autocannons useless. A Murphy’s law quantified check at one single time!

          In retrospect, they fared even better than could have been expected. HMS Repulse dodged 19 torpedoes; HMS Prince of Wales was sunk because of one single one-in-a-million score. A Japanese torpedo hit the “A” frame supporting the propeller shaft under her stern. That tore the propeller shaft loose and led into extreme vibration. It broke the stuffing box (the bearing between hull and seawater) and let the seawater in. It, in turn, caused a short circuit in the motor shop (the propellers were run by electric motors – the steam turbines used generators), which paralyzed the propulsion. The seawater then flooded the electric systems central control shop, short-circuiting it. All electricity disappeared in the ship, all lightning and all power was lost, and the ship was effectively paralyzed. The ship was doomed.

          Wikipedia insists that HACS was a system better than its reputation. By December 31, 1942, ships equipped with HACS had shot down 740 Axis aircraft, probably 466 and damaged 448. By contrast, the whole Fleet Air Arm had destroyed only some 250 Axis aircraft by that date.

          Light cruiser HMS Fiji managed to fend off Luftwaffe attacks for six hours before running out of ammunition and sunk. Had HMS Prince of Wales had her HACS system fully functional and operational at Malaya, the result of the battle could well have been a slaughter amongst the IJN torpedo bombers.

        • Simon_Jester said, on June 7, 2011 at 1:30 am

          Er, nitpick.

          For one, antiship missiles are likely to hit the superstructure of a battleship, which is categorically *not* armored to withstand them. Another possible problem is a top-attack missile; that’s not compatible with certain types of missiles, but I strongly suspect that top-attack antiship missiles exist. Or am I mistaken?

  27. Ironmistress said, on June 3, 2011 at 7:42 am

    The problem with torpedo boats is that they are NOT very seaworthty and they have short range.

    They stay at port when the wind velocity exceeds 25 knots and they do not venture to the oceans. They are fuel hogs and need motherships for their logistics. Capital ships are pretty much self-sufficient except for lenghty campaigns.

    A destroyer is basically a scaled-up torpedo boat which is ocean-worthy. They usually come second best against battleships.

    The aforementioned sinkings happened all very close to shore and that of Szent Istvan during the night. They were basically assassinations instead of duels – the PTs used their greatest assets to full extent where the capital ships were denied both manouevreability and speed.

    A counter-example would be the Battle of Narvik 1940 where HMS Warspite sunk six German destroyers in a fjord in ten minutes. But that doesn’t really count, does it?

    Likewise, destroyers are excellent against submarines and torpedo boats, but next to useless against cruisers and capital ships. Even if they have torpedo batteries.

    • purandokht said, on June 4, 2011 at 3:46 am

      Praytell, madame, but did you post on warships1.com in the early 2000s? I saw your blog in Finnish and recalled a Finnish lady who posted fiction about their coastal defence ships in WW2 there and thought it might be you. I was one of the other two girls to post there (and still keep touch with the third), so I was most curious.

  28. Steve Sailer said, on June 4, 2011 at 10:31 am

    Jerry Pournelle likes to recount that in the long, awful retreat from Chosun Reservoir in 1951, the first moment’s peace he got from the Red Chinese Army was when his unit finally got within about 15 miles of the ocean and came within the protection of the 16 inch guns on the American battleships.

    • Scott Locklin said, on June 4, 2011 at 10:46 am

      True story: my biggest thrill as a writer thus far was being called a dope by Jerry Pournelle for something I wrote in Takimag. Hey, at least he read it!

  29. Steve Sailer said, on June 4, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Jutland was a strategic victory for the British. Jellicoe was the man who could lose the Great War in an afternoon. He didn’t. The British had more battleships than the Germans, so they didn’t lose the war.

    If the German High Seas Fleet had broken out into the High Seas in 1916, it could have lifted the blockade on Germany and imposed a blockade on Britain, starving it into submission. The German subs came pretty close to starving Britain in 1943, but failed even with 27-years of technological development in submarines.

    On the other hand, if the British had had even more battleships, they could have conquered Istanbul in 1915, lifting the blockade of Russia. The Bolshevik Revolution might never have happened.

    Today, U.S. aircraft carriers are theoretically vulnerable to an advanced power, but the U.S. mostly uses them to push around backward countries, and will probably be able to make some use of them for that role for some time to come. Maybe it’s silly to push around Third World countries, but people in Washington seem to like to do it.

    • Simon_Jester said, on June 4, 2011 at 3:53 pm

      The memorable description of Jutland that most accurately sums up the battle and its consequences is “the prisoner has attacked his jailer, but is still in jail.” The Germans pulling off a win and managing to sink a significant, disproportionate number of the British ships would have far-reaching effects. German battleships would have more freedom to launch raids againist British commerce, and since during this period air power was almost irrelevant, it would be extremely hard to stop them. German ships could also have staged more raids against the British coastline, complicating British involvement in the war on the continent.

      If they could have done so, of course, which is a good question I have no idea how to answer. The Germans certainly faced an unfavorable balance of numbers, and lacked any obvious way off making up for that that I know of.

      As to the British at Istanbul, while a few years ago I’d probably have agreed with you, Steve, I’m really not so sure about that. The Turkish defenses at the Dardanelles were tough enough that simply throwing battleships at them in greater numbers would not necessarily have solved the problem; you’d just wind up losing more battleships and (probably) more of them would be valuable dreadnoughts.

      I can imagine two things that could have made the push through the Dardanelles practical as a purely (or almost purely) naval operation. One would be Turkish laxity in fortifying the main approach to their capital (unlikely). The other would be an extremely aggressive British offensive that got there before the Turks could build up the defenses to the full extent they reached by mid-1915… and as far as I can tell, that would have required a premeditated British plan for attacking the place organized before the outbreak of war, with the pieces being moved into place well before they were ready historically. Even that might not have been able to do it.

      Am I mistaken, anyone?

  30. Lee said, on June 4, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    What a load of rubbish. Almost every “fact” is wrong. Just looking at the first paragraph.

    1) Battleships weren’t the fastest ships of their time.
    2) While some may have had armor a foot or more thick they were hardly made of it
    3) None of the treaty battleships would come any where close to capsizing if they fired a full broad side.

    3 sentences a 3 errors or if we want to count 2) as partially correct 2.5 errors. The error rate does decline from there but only because opinion takes over from the attempt at factual statements.

  31. Ironmistress said, on June 5, 2011 at 8:49 am

    On maneuver warfare:

    Maneuvre warfare requires SPACE. That is: room to perform those maneuvres. If that space is denied, any maneuvres lead into getting caught and getting slaughtered. The terrain dictates basically which style of warfare works.

    Nowhere is that evident as clearly as in the ice hockey. The European hockey rink is wider than the Northern American, usually by several metres. The extra space favours manouevre. The European and Russian teams are known from their skillful, manouevring game. The Northern American rinks are narrower, which favours more physical game with more reliance on firepower and contact. Every Northern American team has a goon, who doesn’t really know at which end to hold the stick, but whose sole purpose is to physically attack the swiftest and most difficult opponent player and pummel him, thus denying the enemy manouevres.

    As result, the American teams usually fare badly when the World Championships are held in Europe. Likewise, European teams fare badly in Northern American narrow rinks.

    There has been demand in Europe to make the rinks narrower. The spectators want to see blood instead of figure skating.

    Manouevre in horseback is efficient only when there are vast, open plains where to run freely and gallop around. Horses tend to walk in difficult terrain instead of galloping, and when movement slows down, it can be easily destroyed. Likewise, manouevre on foot requires difficult terrain where the skirmishers can retreat into safety and the enemy can be denied from his cohesion: Finnish forests, Vietnam jungles, Afghanistan mountains, Judean hills. They fare poorly in the open where they can get caught. Robin Hood was successful only because his opponents didn’t know how to fight in difficult terrain.

    Torpedo boats or missile boats are basically the same as skirmishers on foot. They are efficient only at littoral waters, close the shoreline – and they are brutally murderous in archipelago. Such waters deny the heavier vessels their speed, maneuvrability and cohesion. They are indeed eggshells armed with hammers. The Finnish navy Helsinki class missile boats took this trope up to eleven.

    Manouevre warfare will fail when the space is denied. The Europeans learned how to fight the Mongols – and the generals of the later Mongol armies were nowhere near the brilliance of Baidar and Subutai. Huungary and Poland were built full of castles which controlled the countryside around, thus denying the Mongols the space, and the Europeans learnt to guard their flanks, use missile weapons on brutal efficiency, and let the knights loose only when the kill was secured. Ambushing an approaching Mongol light horse army at hills or mountains by infantry became a favoured mode of warfare.

    Even so, even the Hungarian campaign 1241 was a close call. Before Mohi, the Hungarians had caused Mongols several setbacks, and only the personal commitment of Batu Khan and his troops in the battle of Mohi saved the Mongols from being crushed. Subutai had already considered retreat.

    But while the Hungarian army was defeated, the Hungarian nation wasn’t. The Hungarians went into guerrilla mode. Instead of engaging the Mongols in open battle, the Hungarians instead attacked their logistics, separated units, encampments and while they were on move, and then quickly returned back to their castles or forts. The Mongols lacked siege equipment, and could do little against the Hungarians – who didn’t fight fair – except devastate the Hungarian countryside and rape and kill the peasants.

    It was this guerrilla war which demoralized the Mongols. They initially had planned to use Hungary as a platform for pushing into Central Europe, but the continuous harassment of the Hungarian knights and light cavalry (does the word “chevauchee” ring the bells?) which then retreated quickly to safety in fortifications made the Mongols to think twice. After hearing of the death of Ögödei Khan, the Mongols decided to retreat.

    The Hungarians took a tardy revenge of Mohi at Carpathians. The rearguard of Batu was ambushed by Szekely foot at a mountain pass, and was basically annihilated. Only the lack of cavalry saved the Mongol main army.

    Have we heard of something similar in Viet Nam?

    The North Vietnamese lost each and every field battle against the Americans. Yet it was the guerrilleros which made their life uneasy and eroded the American morale. While Tet attack was an utter military failure, it was a major psychological victory. Just like the Mongols, the Americans decided to leave Vietnam. Once the Americans were gone, South Vietnam with its corrupt kleptocracy fell in two years.

    Warfare – or any conflict – is dependent of eight variables. They are speed, firepower, armour, manouevreability, training, terrain, space and morale. None of these are superior to others, but if one of them will fail, the whole conflict will fail. Manouevre is an important variable, but it should not be over-emphasized. By denying the space, manouevre will fail.

  32. Ironmistress said, on June 5, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    When we do “bang for the buck” analysis, the rough rule of thumb is that a battleship costs the same as its displacement in good beef.

    If we keep the battleship as a price yardstick, we get the following relative prices:

    1 BB
    1.5 CV
    2 CVL
    4 CA
    6 CL
    12 DD

    The costs of a submarine are about the same as that of a destroyer. The costs of a monitor or coastal defence ships are about 1.5 times that of a destroyer.

    It is true you can get an awful lot of smaller vessels at the price of a battleship – a flotilla of destroyers or submarines, a squadron of cruisers – but that is not the only issue. The other issue are the operational costs.

    The operational costs consist of crew, fuel, ammunition, supplies, replenishments, wear and tear, standing costs, docking and repairs. The economics of scale apply here: one large unit has smaller operational costs than a number of smaller units with the same capacity.

    If we calculate the operational costs, the relation is the following:

    1 CV
    1.5 BB
    3 CA or CL
    6 DD
    15 SS

    Aircraft carriers have extremely high operational costs; the air wing, the ammunition, the large crew, the aviation fuel, aircraft spares and high number of specialists needed. Aircraft carriers are cheaper to acquire than battleships, but more expensive to employ.

    Cruisers, on the other hand, are cheaper to acquire than battleships, but they tend to be relatively more expensive to operate. They require an awful lot of fuel, they have large crews, they need replenishments often and they experience wear and tear easier than battleships.

    Destroyers are relatively cheap to operate, but they are incapable to perform lenghty cruises. They usually do not spend several months at sea, but rather operate as escorts and convoys. They are cheaper to operate than cruisers, but they get wear and tear easily, they are fuel hogs (they have short waterlines and therefore poor hull speeds and thus need awfully strong turbines) and need to spend time at docks more often than bigger ships.

    Submarines are the cheapest to operate. They have small crews, low fuel costs and have good endurance. They, however, are expensive to repair and need special facilities to repair. Likewise, construction of submarine bases is expensive. In each and every navy, submariners are the elite of all sailors, and their training is expensive.

    I leave you to do the math; with the cost of one BB you can build a flotilla of destroyers, but with the operational costs of one BB you can operate four destroyers. When escorting a convoy, BBs are excellent against any surface opponents; DDs are excellent against submarines. Add in one escort carrier, and the convoy will most likely reach the destination safely.

    Where battleships excel is denying the opponent the space. A battleship in the vicinity of two hundred miles can discourage the enemy from deploying his maneuvre forces. Two hundred miles equals six hours to cover – enough for the BB to arrive at night and slaughter the maneuvre force. When attempting maneuvre, cruisers and destroyers are excellent on that. But they usually come second best when pitted against a battleship.

    Why didn’t the battleships then play a decisive role in actual fighting thing in World War Two? Just for the same reasons why the mighty ships of the line didn’t play decisive role in the age of sail. During the age of sail, it was extremely rare for the ships of line undergo slugger matchups, and the majority of naval warfare at high seas was performed by frigates. Frigates raided the enemy commerce and his supply lines. Just the same what the cruisers and submarines did in both world wars. [Submarines are today the same what frigates were in the age of sail]. But frigates were no match against ships of line! Ships of line could destroy frigates at will, and because of their larger hulls and longer waterlines, ships of line were faster than frigates. Yet they were expensive and costly to maintain, and the enemy too had his own ships of the line. The ships of the line were likewise used on denying the enemy the sea and enabling the frigates to operate.

    Slugger matchups like Battle of Trafalgar were extremely rare even during the age of sail. Admirals risking their ships of the line could lose an empire in an afternoon. Sending the ships of the line to sea was just as risky as sending the battleships to sea. They certainly were a threat to any lesser vessels, but the fact that the enemy too had his own ships of line effectively neutralized that threat. The ships of the line either spent most of their time at home waters or protected the harbours (see Elgin’s principle) while the lighter frigates did the actual fighting thing.

    And, yes, the same issues with torpedo boats and light craft applied too during the age of sail. The best example of this must be the Battle of Ruotsinsalmi 1790 (slaget af Svensksund, bitva na Rochensalm), where the Swedish Coastal Fleet consisting of gunboats, corvettes and cannon prams ambushed a larger Russian fleet of heavier vessels in the Finnish archipelago and crushed it. The lighter Swedish vessels employed skillfully the shallows, known underwater rocks and the cover of the islands. Had that match-up happened at blue seas, the Swedes would have been blown to smithereens.

    Battleships were no more ridiculous nor awesome than the ships of the line. They filled an echological niche of the time – and would fill it even today.

  33. amercianpie said, on November 28, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    I hope you are talking about the Dreadnoughts of WWI, because battleships were quite useful in WWII.

    Those sixteen inch fifty’s are a sight to behold when they are fired.

    • Simon_Jester said, on February 8, 2012 at 5:34 am

      Other way round, really. Battleships were kind of superfluous in WWII- they had a bit of impact on each side, but were less than decisive.

      In WWI, they had an enormous impact, but just as on land, the effect of the weapons sort of cancelled each other out. Millions of dug in riflemen with artillery and machine guns (but no armor support or portable radios) were a recipe for stalemate- it turned out, in the event, that a few dozen battleships on each side were a recipe for stalemate too. None of the major navies really wanted to risk losing their battleline in a major clash, because the consequences of letting the enemy’s battleline operate freely, and of letting their lighter ships operate without much fear of your battleships, didn’t bear thinking on.

  34. war fanatic said, on December 28, 2011 at 7:00 am

    World war 2 was the advent of aircraft carriers, the reason that we didn’t hear or read any battleship vs battleship in the Pacific is that americans are afraid of yamato.. “no offense” they sunk it via planes

    • Simon_Jester said, on February 8, 2012 at 5:40 am

      Actually, an Iowa versus a Yamato would have been interesting- the Iowa had vastly better fire control thanks to radar, so their hit rate would be much, much higher. 18″ shells beat 16″, but not by as much as “hitting three times” beats “hitting once.”

      Yamato versus any two or three modern (1930s-vintage) WWII US battleships would have gone badly for Yamato due to radar, which meant that the superheavy ship didn’t really fulfill its design goal.

      The real reason there wasn’t a lot of BB vs BB in the Pacific was that by the time you found an enemy battleship force in the Pacific, and could possibly get your own battleline anywhere near it to fight, your own side’s carriers had already beaten it to death. Battleship engagements only took place at night, when carriers were useless- and they did happen at Second Guadalcanal and the Surigao Strait, both of which the US won handily.

  35. grahamcstrouse said, on January 23, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    There’s an old Harvard Busines School Axiom that applies here: “What business are we in?” The US figured out very quickly how best to maximize a BBs advantages (C&C, triple-A, massed firepower) far more effectively then any other country during WWII. The UK, until the later years of WWII used their capital ships (battleships AND carriers) foolishly. They had no sense of combined arms doctrine. They sent their battleships out without sufficient anti-air & carrier cover and their carriers out without sufficient gunfire support. The Japanese were similar, particularly after Yamamoto was killed. The Germans had very capable designs but they had limited production resources. It’s not just what you have. It’s what you need and how you use it.

    • Simon_Jester said, on February 8, 2012 at 5:54 am

      All very true save for one nitpick.

      German designs were… not really that impressive. Their WWII naval design establishment lacked continuity and a solid core of men who combined combat experience with naval engineering know-how. For example, the much-vaunted Bismarck-class weighed in at over forty thousand tons- but compared to other battleships of the same raw tonnage built by other navies, the German ships were undergunned, not especially well armored, and relatively slow.

      Still tolerably effective, but probably not as good as they would have been if the US, British, or Japanese had designed them.

  36. Blue_Fox12 said, on March 19, 2012 at 3:11 am

    Hmm really interesting thread.

    Surprised nobody has mentioned the dawn of naval battle strategy, with wooden ships bearing cannons, then guns. Many of same variables applied then as now, e.g. speed, number of guns, size of vessel, even armament, (e.g. depth & type of wooden timbers used in construction).

    Thinking of current day in the South Atlantic, you realise how quickly a Battleship would be utterly, utterly useless.

    HMS Dauntless Type 45 Guided Missile Destroyer (currently on patrol) sends a fairly clear signal that any cocking-around (naval or airbourne) will be dealt with accordingly – but says nothing beyond the defensive.

    A Battleship would suggest a much more aggressive approach (akin to deploying HMS Ocean, full of Royal marines).

    At the same time, a Battleship would also involve dangling a heavy, metallic worm for any half-decent submariner to have a crack at. Even if the hull was thick enough to hold-out a tin-fish, all those guns become pointless, without a rudder.

    Looking at the scenario the other way around.. an ARG battleship entering the zone would immediately be greeted by 2 Eurofighters, (in addition to the nearby trafalgar class). A couple of AGM-65’s would render the guns silent.

  37. […] More at Locklin on Science […]

  38. skcharger440 said, on June 23, 2012 at 3:50 am

    As I read though Mr. Lockins original essay on the topic of Battleships (and a few of the reply’s that followed) I found myself amused at times never truly informed. I’m not even sure what the point of his whole essay is but, I’m guessing it either has to do penis envy or trying to discuss the worth of the battleship? Let’s go with the latter, shall we?

    First let’s define the name “Battleship” and/or Dreadnought. A Battleship is any ship that mounts large caliber guns, is fast and heavily armored. It was built after 1906 when the HMS Dreadnought was first put into service and making all other capitol ships/ships of the line obsolete at the time. It is not to be confused with a Battle cruiser or Heavy cruiser then or now. It was at the time the pinnacle of navel military might and a technological achievement that far surpassed any other military ship that had ever come before her. In 1906 nations didn’t have Stealth Aircraft, ICBM’s or even cell phones but, what they did possess where Dreadnoughts and more Dreadnoughts a nation possessed the more power they could project if they chose to do so anywhere in the world, choosing to wield or not to wield that power is a different story. When the “then new” Dreadnoughts finally did go toe to toe in the Battle of Jutland it was the lesser ships that ended up losing out in that conflict. The British lost three Battle Cruisers, three Cruisers, and eight Destroyers. Not one Dreadnought or even pre-Dreadnought was lost by either by the British Grand Fleet or Germanys High Seas Fleet during that engagement.

    While it is true that many Battleships on all sides where lost during World War Two, one has to remember most of these ships where already obsolete at the start of the war. They lacked armor, sufficient anti-aircraft batteries and torpedo protection. The HMS Hood is a perfect example of such a Battleship. It lacked deck armor and was due for a refit but, with the outbreak of world war two the British couldn’t afford to take it out of service. The captain of the Hood knew this and while he desperately tried close the distance between the Bismark and the Hood in order reduce the chances of being hit in the decks by shellfire from the Bismark a 15 inch shell hit her forward deck and penetrated to her forward magazine destroying the Hood and leaving only three survivors. By the time World War Two ended however, once again Battleship design had regained its footing with the advent of the U.S Iowa class Battleships but, by then it was too late because they where now deemed to vulnerable from attacks by carrier launched aircraft.

    So have Battleships proved their worth over the decades? I believe they have. The problem is, is there so little data to draw upon. We are dealing with two world wars and thank god world wars don’t come along everyday so we can expand on that knowledge. Still I think more than ever they have their place in todays Navies. I like to see at least four Carrier groups taken out of action, put in reserve and replaced with four 21’st century Battleships. The main battery on these ships could be upgraded to use “scramjet” projectiles that would fly hundreds of miles at mach 7 or more. The biggest threat that would face a new Battleship would be missiles or aircraft. Battleships armor is immune to anti-ship missiles and a Battleship is the perfect weapons platform and could easily be equipped with missiles of it own to shoot down any incoming aircraft along with close in (cisw) support weapons like the Phalanx. Once you take airpower out of the equation the Battleship once again becomes the most formable ship on the seas.

  39. Red said, on July 26, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    The west did beat the mongols. 43 years after the after the mongols gave up the first in invasion of Hungary the mongols came back at and completely lost(50% casualties). The Mongols never took more than a few of the fortified cities during the first invasion. Their invasion was a failure. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungary#Medieval_Hungary_895.E2.80.931526

    The west’s method of war is not tactical, it’s societal. Having wars quickly decided by two armies attacking each other in the open with a clear victor or having only small hard points being the focus of the attacks reduces the damage that repeated warfare does to the broader population. Notice when the west adopted mobile warfare (WW2) how much more damage was done to every nation that fought in the war? This is the very reason the west avoided such tactics for a millenia. The west knows and has employed mobile warfare again and again, but the results are also much more nasty than regular face to face combat that westerners prefer.

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