The major naval powers continued to build battleships into World War II. The construction of these capital ships was only arrested under the pressure to construct submarines, antisubmarine warships, landing craft, and aircraft carriers. Italy and Germany launched new battleships as late as 1939 and 1940. Germany's Bismarck and Tirpitz were 41,700 tons, mounted 8 x 15-inch guns, and were capable of making a speed of 29 knots. Italy's Vittorio Veneto, Italia, Roma, and Impero (the latter never finished) displaced 40,700 tons, mounted 9 x 15-inch guns, and were capable of 30 knots.
The vulnerability of the battleship to aerial attack was finally demonstrated on 11 November 1940, when three Italian battleships were sunk at anchor in Taranto harbor by elderly British Swordfish torped-bombers from the carrier Illustrious. It took only four days, 7 to 10 December 1941, for the Japanese navy to emphasize that the battleship was no longer the capital ship of the world's navies. Building on the Taranto example, Japanese naval airpower practically destroyed the U.S. Navy's Pacific battleship fleet at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Even after that carnage, there were still those who argued that a well-handled battleship, under way and with good antiaircraft protection, could beat off an aerial assault. They were proven incorrect on 10 December, when the new Royal Navy battleship Prince of Wales (36,700 tons, 10 x 14-inch guns, 29 knots) and the elderly battle cruiser Repulse (17,300 tons, 6 x 15-inch guns, and 32 knots), under way and defended by an array of antiaircraft guns, were sunk in short order by Japanese naval warplanes.
Yet those four days in December simply confirmed a trend that was already in effect; by that time, no nation was building any new battleships. In November 1941, the Royal Navy had begun the Vanguard (44,500 tons, 8 x 15-inch guns, and 30 knots), but this battleship was not completely new, having been constructed to put to use the 15-inch guns and turrets off-loaded from two cruisers that had been converted to aircraft carriers following World War I. The Vanguard, leisurely constructed, was not commissioned until 1946, but the French battleship Jean Bart, finished in 1955, was the world's last battleship to be completed.
Nonetheless, battleships were still so valued during World War II that all of the capital ships from World War I and the immediate interwar era that had escaped the scrapping frenzy of the 1920s were pressed into combat service. For example, the Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth–class ships, all but one of which (the Queen Elizabeth [27,500 tons, 8 x 15-inch guns, 23 knots]) had fought at Jutland, saw hard service in this new war. Only the Royal Navy, however, could boast of battleships that had fired their main batteries in battleship-to-battleship clashes in both world wars. Most of the later World War I–era battleships that survived into World War II had been extensively modernized in the 1930s to protect them against air and submarine attacks, and in all cases, they were converted to oil-fired propulsion. Although the main armament remained remarkably constant, virtually all World War I–era battleships were extensively rebuilt to afford much greater elevations for the main batteries. In terms of both dollars and time, the cost entailed in rebuilding these vessels usually exceeded the original cost of construction.
Construction of the battleships that served in World War II had, with the exception of the Vanguard, been started before their nations had opened hostilities. (The last two units of the U.S. ultimate Iowa-class were indeed started six months after Pearl Harbor, but the Illinois and Kentucky [48,000 tons, 9 x 16-inch guns, and design speed of 32.5 knots] were never completed.)
Battleship duties in World War II were not all that different from those in World War I: convoy escort and battleship-to-battleship clashes, although shore bombardment received far greater emphasis. As in World War I, there was only one battleship-to-battleship fleet action and but few battleship-to-battleship clashes. Among the latter category, the Royal Navy battle cruiser Hood (42,700 tons, 8 x 15-inch guns, 31 knots) and battleships Barham (same statistics as the Queen Elizabeth) and Resolution (28,000 tons, 8 x 15-inch guns, 24 knots) attacked the stationary French Bretagne and Provence (both 22,200 tons, 10 x 13.4-inch guns, 20 knots), and Dunkerque and Strasbourg (both 26,500 tons, 8 x 13-inch guns, and 29.5 knots) at Mers-el-Kébir (Oran, Algeria) on 8 July 1940. Their 15-inch shells nearly sank the Dunkerque but caused only slight damage to the Strasbourg. The Resolution also engaged in a gunnery duel with the 95 percent completed Richelieu but to no significant effect. The Prince of Wales, King George V (same as the Prince of Wales), and Rodney (33,300 tons, 9 x 16-inch guns, 23 knots) participated in the sinking of the powerful German battleship Bismarck in 1941; in November 1942, the U.S. Navy's Washington (37,500 tons, 9 x 16-inch guns, 28 knots) sank the Japanese battleship/battle cruiser Kirishima (27,500 tons, 8 x 14-inch guns, 27.5 knots). The South Dakota suffered some moderate damage in the same action. Also in November 1942, the Massachusetts (38,000 tons, 9 x 16-inch guns, 27.5 knots) hit the uncompleted and anchored French Jean Bart (38,500 tons, 8 x 15-inch guns, 32 knots) with five 16-inch shells at Casablanca, and in December 1943, the Royal Navy's new Duke of York (same characteristics as the Prince of Wales) sank the German Scharnhorst (31,900 tons, 9 x 11-inch guns, 32 knots) off North Cape, Norway.
The only battleship fleet action of World War II took place on 25 October 1944, at Surigao Strait, near Leyte, Philippines, when the elderly U.S. battleships West Virginia (31,800 tons, 8 x 16-inch guns, 21 knots), California, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania (all 32,000–32,300 tons, 12 x 14-inch guns, 21 knots), and Maryland (31,500 tons, 8 x 16-inch guns, 21 knots), with seven U.S. and one Australian cruisers and a destroyer flotilla, sank the elderly Japanese battleships Fuso (30,600 tons, 12 x 14-inch guns, 22.5 knots) by destroyer torpedoes and Yamashiro by gunfire and destroyer torpedoes. The West Virginia inflicted the most damage, with her 16-inch guns directed by the Mk 8 gunfire control radar.
Surprisingly, the Japanese navy, the killer of battleships, was also the most battleship-minded of any navy engaged in World War II. Although the Japanese built the largest battleships in history (the Yamato-class), both completed units (the Yamato and Musashi [62,300 tons, 9 x 18.1-inch guns, 27 knots]) were sunk by U.S. naval airpower. Perhaps the most impressive battleships from World War II are those of the U.S. Navy's Iowa-class. These magnificent warships have an unmatched battle history, having fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam (the New Jersey only [48,100 tons, 9 x 16-inch guns, 32.5 knots]), and the Gulf War. All four units easily reached 30-plus knots during their reactivation in the 1980s.
Throughout World War II, the battleships performed magnificently in a shore bombardment role. They also served effectively as antiaircraft platforms for the aircraft carriers and as fast oilers for the destroyers. After the war, U.S. Iowa-class battleships rendered excellent service during the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars. Eight battleships of World War II remain in existence as museum pieces, and all are American: the Texas (27,000 tons, 10 x 14-inch guns, 21 knots), which also served in World War I; the Massachusetts and North Carolina (same characteristics as the Washington); the Alabama (same as the Massachusetts); and the Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and Wisconsin, with the Iowa and Wisconsin (the latter the world's last completed extant battleship) also classed as in reserve (ships that can be recalled to duty). Stanley Sandler
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