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A Battleship is the name applied to very large, heavily-armoured warships bearing the largest guns afloat, and applied specifically to those ships built from the late 1800s through the mid-20th Century. Once considered the capital ship by the countries that could afford to build and deploy them, the battleship saw its heyday during the First World War; its subsequent weakness to aerial attack during World War II rendered it essentially obsolete.

The battleship as we know it today is the successor of two warships: the ship of the line, which saw service in several European countries for over two centuries; and the ironclad, a name given to several types of vessel generally built with a heavy wooden frame overlaid with iron plating, and especially those ships with guns mounted in revolving turrets. The decisive event in the history of the battleship was the launching of the Dreadnought by the British Royal Navy in 1906. Powered by turbines, the ships had no cluttered array of small-caliber weapons and concentrated all firepower around 13.5-inch guns. It had much better armor and speed than any competitor—it rendered obsolete all other navies and started a new naval arms race. In a departure from Britain's previous reactive response to innovation in naval technology, Admiral John Fisher's (1841-1920) dreadnought policy introduced radically new capital ship designs, despite the technical risks inherent in their all-big-gun armament and turbine propulsion. Yet, early in 1905, Britain's strategic position was strong and improving further: only America was, rather slowly, working toward a small all-big-gun battleship, while Germany would not consider designs with more than four 11-inch guns until after news of Dreadnought was received. Fisher's policy had some successes, but some historians argue it was risky, insufficiently considered, based on inaccurate intelligence, and unnecessary.

At the Washington Naval Conference in 1921, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States established a ten-year moratorium on the construction of battleships as well as a limitation on the building and sale of other types of vessels. The primary purpose of the conference was to restrict competition among the Great Powers in the production of large warships. The moratorium was successful but it was not renewed in 1931, and all the Great Powers began a new battleship race, this time with Germany participating too. President Herbert Hoover, a pacifist, would not allow naval construction as a means to fight the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt reversed course and used recovery money (from the PWA) to build 17 new battleships, and many other warships.

In December 1939 at the start of the war German's small pocket battleship Graf Spee sank numerous merchant ships in the South Atlantic. On December 13 three British cruisers found it along the coast of Uruguay, defeated it in a running fight, and forced it into Montevideo harbor, where it was scuttled by its captain. In October 1940, the pocket battleship Scheer broke out into the Atlantic via the Danish Straits. It attacked an Allied convoy of 36 ships on November 5; the armed merchant ship Jervis Bay defended the convoy and enabled 31 ships of the convoy to escape. On May 22, 1941, the battleship Bismarck ventured into the North Atlantic to attack British commerce. A Royal Navy (British) task force intercepted it between Iceland and Greenland. The Bismarck sank the battle cruiser Hood with one salvo and damaged the battleship Prince of Wales. The Bismarck was hit too and made for home waters, pursued by a pack of British destroyers. The aircraft carrier Ark Royal gave chase, and the Bismarck was hit by torpedo planes and bombers. Finally two large British battleships joined the hunt; the Bismarck lost its rudder controls; a torpedo finally sank it, ending the era of German surface raiders in the open Atlantic. A solitary battleship undefended by air power was proven helpless, as the British discovered when their Asian fleet, the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse were sunk by Japanese air power in December 1941 near Singapore.

The Royal Navy sank the Italian fleet in Nov. 1940 at the Battle of Taranto using warplanes from aircraft carriers. The Japanese took note and at the Battle of Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7. 1941), sank nearly the entire American battleship fleet using carrier planes. Immediately the carrier replaced the battleship as the capital ship of sea-power. The era of big-gun battles between fleets at 30,000 yards was (almost) over.

Within months after the Pearl Harbor the battleship component of the US Pacific Fleet was back stronger than ever and capable of fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. But the battleship fleet, designated Task Force One, went largely unused. Initially, logistical problems played a large role in the failure to commit the battleships, but by late November 1942 considerations of operational capability and survivability were more important. Admiral William Halsey, the South Pacific theater commander, believed the battleships were a liability, while Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, believed the benefit to be gained from using them was not worth the risk of losing them and their personnel in battle. As a result, the battleships were relegated to shore bombardment, but for combat were replaced by bombs delivered by air, and torpedoes (delivered by airplane, submarine, or destroyer) as the chief offensive weapons of naval warfare. The last battleship ever was built in 1945.[1]

As of today, no more battleships remain in active service, with all of them being either scrapped, destroyed, or turned into museum ships. A noticeable amount of battleships have been turned into museum ships after destruction, the most prominent example of which is the USS Arizona which houses the Pearl Harbor Memorial directly overhead of the wreck. Even so, the concept of a large and powerful warship continues to persist, albeit with weapons very different to those used by early 20th century battleships.


  1. David C. Fuquea, "Task Force One: the Wasted Assets of the United States Pacific Battleship Fleet, 1942." Journal of Military History 1997 61(4): 707-734.
  • HMS Victory Official website
  • HMS Warrior Official website
  • Battleship Texas
  • Brown, David K. Eclipse of the Big Gun: The Warship 1906-45 (1992)
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  • Hodges, Peter. The Big Gun: Battleship Main Armament 1860-1945, (1981), highly detailed coverage
  • Hone, Trent. "The Evolution of Fleet Tactical Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1922-1941," The Journal of Military History - Volume 67, Number 4, October 2003, pp. 1107-1148 in Project Muse
  • Hore, Peter. Battleships of World War II: An illustrated history and country-by-country directory of warships, including battlecruisers and pocket battleships, that ... Jersey, Iowa, Bismarck, Yamato, Richelieu (2008)
  • Hore, Peter. Battleships of World War I: A Fully Illustrated Country-By-Country Directory Of Dreadnoughts, Including Armoured Cruisers, Battlecruisers And Battleships From 1906-1918 (2007)
  • Hore, Peter. Ironclads: An Illustrated History of Battleships from 1860 to WWI (2007)
  • Lambert, Nicholas A. Sir John Fisher's Naval Revolution (2002) excerpt and text search
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  • Massie, Robert. Dreadnought (1992), 1040pp excerpt and text search very popular history of the naval race before World War I.
  • Morison, Samuel Loring, and Norman Polmar. The American Battleship (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Muir, Malcolm. The Iowa Class Battleships: Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri & Wisconsin (1991)
  • Mulligan, Timothy. "Ship-of-the-Line or Atlantic Raider? Battleship Bismarck Between Design Limitations and Naval Strategy," The Journal of Military History 69#4 October 2005, pp. 1013-1044 in Project Muse
  • Parkes, Oscar British Battleships: 'Warrior' 1860 to 'Vanguard' 1950 - A History of Design, Construction and Armament (1990) Naval Institute, Annapolis
  • Sondhaus, Lawrence. Naval Warfare, 1815-1914 (2001) online edition
  • Sturton, Ian. Conway's Battleships: The Definitive Visual Reference to the World's All-Big-Gun Ships (2008)
  • Sumida, Jon Tetsuro. "Gunnery, Procurement, and Strategy in the Dreadnought Era," The Journal of Military History v69#4 (2005) 1179-1187 online at Project Muse
  • Sumrall, Robert F., and Thomas Walkowiak. Iowa Class Battleships: Their Design, Weapons and Equipment (1989)
  • Weller, Donald M. "Salvo-splash! The Development of Naval Gunfire Support in World War II". United States Naval Institute Proceedings 1954 80(8): 839-849, 1011-1021
  • Whitley, M.J. Battleships of World War Two (2001) excerpt and text search

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