Wednesday, May 5, 2010

History Nerdiness Takes No Vacations, Part 5

 [Side note:  I'm beginning to regret giving the original post the title "History Nerdiness Takes no Vacations."  I wasn't really expecting it to go on this long...]

So I’ll bet that when you saw that little coda about the importance of preserving our history at the end of the last post you assumed I was done with this little project.  Well no such luck, Paco.[1]

The USS Texas is, as I mentioned, the last surviving example of a dreadnought-style battleship.[2]  This isn’t just because she was the next-youngest battleship still in existence is the pre-WWII North Carolina.  The two New Yorks were the last American battleships built before the next big evolution in battleship construction.  And it was with this next evolutionary step that the United States took the lead in battleship design.

1910’s British Orion-class battleships were deemed super-dreadnoughts, due to their larger guns and heavier armor.  There were two huge problems in battleship design that almost no one noticed, however.  Armor was beginning to fall behind the weaponry.  It wasn’t that no one knew how to make better armor, it’s that armor was heavy.  For every increased inch in gun barrel size the armor on the side of a battleship needed to be an inch thicker.[4]  Moreover, there were varying thicknesses of armor on a battleship, depending on the relative value of the space in question.  So the machinery, ammo storage, and barbettes received full protection, while other areas received less.

USS Nevada was laid down in November of 1912, just six months after the launch of USS Texas.  But Nevada had the benefit of extensive gunnery testing (against USS San Marcos, the former USS Texas, by the by…).  That gunnery testing gave the United States naval architects knowledge that no one else in the world had.  Or, at least, it gave them knowledge that no one else was paying attention to.

But that testing lead to a massive re-thinking of the nature of battleship construction and the first use of the “all or nothing” protection scheme.  The idea of the all or nothing scheme was simple: put your strongest armor around the parts of the ship that are necessary for fighting and don’t bother to protect anything else.  The further genius of that was in the fact that armor-piercing shells were designed to blow through armor, but if the unprotected side of a ship didn’t offer enough resistance, the shell would pass right through.[5]

Nevada and all subsequent American ships were designed according to this philosophy.  They were built around what is known as the “armored citadel.”  This was a self-contained armored box built in to the hull in which the machinery, ammo, propellant, and barbettes were built.  Beyond that, the only parts of the ship that received armor protection were the turrets, the conning tower, the steering, and any parts of the ammo delivery mechanism that weren’t part of the citadel or the turrets themselves.  Any non-essential spaces that would have formerly been within the citadel area were moved out and any that were outside were moved in.  This allowed Nevada to be built with much stronger armor and receive a hefty upgrade of turret armor.

There was one other improvement made because of those gunnery drills.  Nevada had better deck armor than any other battleship of its time.  The Americans had realized that the greater range at which battleships would regularly engage meant more plunging fire long before anyone else did.

This was the long-missed lesson of Tsushima.  While everyone was amazed at the eight-mile opening range and modified designs in order to remove the secondary batteries and increase the uniformity of the fire, they never really thought through one of key the implications of that increase range.[6]  It’s possible to forgive this oversight, however.

Naval warfare had long been fought at close range with weapons that had very little in the way of elevation.  So the firing trajectories were flat and direct.  The farther apart the antagonists in a conflict move, however, the harder it is to get a shell on target.  Gravity takes its toll, after all.  The best way to counteract gravity, then, is to use it to your advantage.

Longer range gunfire is delivered in parabolic arcs.  This means plunging fire.  This, in turn, means that the deck and the tops of turrets were vulnerable in ways they hadn’t been before Tsushima.  When the United States designed Nevada, then, they took such ideas in to consideration.

Neither the British nor the Germans seemed to pay much attention to the developments on the other side of the Atlantic.  So when they engaged in the great naval battle of the First World War they did so with ships designed to an older philosophy.  The British battlecruiser Indefatigable seemed to prove the point in the opening actions of the battle, when just two salvos from the German battlecruiser Von der Tann ripped through the deck armor and destroyed the ship almost instantaneously.  HMS Tiger nearly suffered the same fate a couple minutes before Indefatigable, but quick action on the part of the Q turret commander avoided an explosion in the magazine.  About 20 minutes later Queen Mary was hit in the turret and then her magazines were quickly destroyed, leading to the complete destruction of the ship.

Now, this requires a moment to make a key distinction.  The ships which were so quickly destroyed at the outset of the Battle of Jutland were battlecruisers.  These were technically capital ships, in that they had the heavy armament of a battleship.  But they were designed for speed and to overpower smaller ships.  As such, their armor was more on par with a cruiser than a battleship.  So comparing a battlecruiser’s armor to a battleship’s is technically unfair.  Still, it was proof that plunging fire was officially a real danger and ship designers ignored properly reinforcing deck armor at the ship’s peril.

Jutland was the major naval battle of World War I and it was, to say the least, anti-climactic.  For all the build-up of naval power and the massive arms race, it was the only major battle between surface fleets of the war.  The German High Seas Fleet did not even want the battle, as they thought they were engaging a detachment of battlecruisers from the British Grand Fleet and Scheer didn’t even realize Jellicoe had his entire force at sea.

Moreover, Jellicoe managed to cross Scheer’s T at one point, specifically the moment Scheer realized, “Oh, crap, that’s the entire Grand Fleet.”  So the British had the advantage of tactical position and surprise.  The Germans twice had to resort to suicidal rearguard actions: one charge from Hipper’s battlecruisers and another from the six pre-dreadnoughts that were still in use by the Germans.

Which brings us to the two sides’ respective orders of battle.  The Germans had 16 battleships, 5 battlecruisers, 6 pre-dreadnoughts (which on top of being obsolete also brought the fleet speed down to 18 knots), 11 light cruisers, and     61 torpedo boats.  The British had 28 battleships, 9 battlecruisers, 8 armored cruisers (which were actually also obsolete at the time), 26 light cruisers, 78 destroyers, a minelayer, and a seaplane tender.  Moreover, while the Germans were forced to include pre-dreadnoughts in their battle line, the British had actually already retired Dreadnought herself.[7]

The British lost 14 ships: 3 battlecruisers, 3 armored cruisers (including a Warrior and a Black Prince, oddly enough), and 8 destroyers.  The Germans lost 11: 1 battlecruiser, 1 pre-dreadnought, 4 light cruisers, and 5 torpedo boats.  The disparity in tonnage was 2:1 in favor of the Germans, too.  Moreover, the British almost managed to cut the High Seas Fleet off from Wilhelmshaven during the night, but the Germans crossed the British wakes and made it home.

Jutland was the big battle of World War I.  And it basically accomplished nothing, except to convince the Germans to switch to unrestricted U-Boat warfare.  Moreover, in the thirty-odd years of the finalized pre-dreadnought design and the dreadnoughts various nations had built scores of expensive vessels in to which they’d funneled all of their national prestige.  And for all of that, Jutland was only the third major engagement of the battleship era.  The first two were the Battle of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima, between a fourth-rate European naval power and a rising Asian power.

It is extremely difficult to say that the battleships were really worth the expense.  But, by the same token, it was that very expense that made commanders reluctant to risk them in battle, thereby setting up a catch-22 where no one wanted to use the battleships for their purpose because that might get them sunkified.

Most of the battleships that sunk in World War I were sunk by mines or torpedoes.  Only five were actually sunk by enemy gunfire.  And the main loss of naval assets came when the High Seas Fleet scuttled itself at Scapa Flow after the war ended.  In a weird way, WWI showed the value of the thinking of the Jeune Ecole.

Still, after Jutland the world’s navies went back to designing newer and better battleships.  This started a whole new arms race that indicated absolutely no one had learned the real lessons of WWI.  Two developments in the inter-war years would change everything, however.

But that’s the story for next time.


[1]I’m sorry to say that I’ve now put you 50% of the way towards being deported from Arizona.  Honestly, I’m thinking of visiting just to see if I can get deported back to Chicago.  I mean, I suppose I could just move back, but getting deported from Arizona back to Chicago even though my residence is in Dallas would be a far, far more interesting story.

[2]Texas is also one of, as best I can tell, ten battleships left intact in the world.  These include Mikasa, Texas, North Carolina, three of the four South Dakotas, and all four Iowas.  The lesson, as always, is that Americans really like battleships.  There’s also the Italian Puglia, which was chopped in half and the front hauled up a mountain and added to the estate of the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio.  I’ve seen Puglia listed as a pre-dreadnought, protected cruiser, and light cruiser, though the latter two are not mutually exclusive, as “protected cruiser” was later separated in to “light cruiser” and “heavy cruiser” notation.  It seems most likely that Puglia was a protected cruiser and not a pre-dreadnought, however.

Not a single British battleship survives.  Every ship – including Vanguard, which was completed after WWII and may well have been the overall greatest battleship in history – that wasn’t sunk was scrapped.   No German battleships survived the war.  The Italian Giulio Cesare survived, but was handed over to the Russians, and then it sank under mysterious conditions in 1955.  The French Jean Bart and Richelieu survived, but were scrapped in the ‘60s.  The Nagato was the only Japanese battleship to survive WWII, but it was sunk in the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, a set of tests that also claimed the USS Arkansas, USS Nevada, USS Pennsylvania and USS Saratoga, the third American aircraft carrier.[3]  These are things that depress me.

[3]Three pre-WWII American aircraft carriers survived: Saratoga, Ranger, and Enterprise, one of the greatest warships of all time.  Ranger had a relatively undistinguished career (her two main claims to fame may well be that she was the first purpose-built US carrier and her third captain was John McCain, Sr., father of an admiral and grandfather of a Senator who isn’t actually a maverick, no matter how many times he said he was) and was scrapped in the late ‘40s.  Valiant efforts were made to turn Big E in to a museum ship in the ‘60s, but she, too, was scrapped.

[4]Roughly.  It’s a good rule of thumb, though.

[5]Leading, in turn, to the old through and through situation, which is just as undesirable against a steel warship as it is against a wooden ship of the line.

[6]The longest recorded hit from a moving battleship against a moving target was from HMS Warspite against the Italian Giulio Cesare during the summer of 1940 at a range of approximately 26,000 yards (14.75 miles).  Giulio Cesare may or may not have also hit Warspite from roughly the same range.  Scharnhorst also got a hit against HMS Glorious from roughly the same range the month before Warspite’s engagement with Giulio Cesare, but Warspite gets the prize due to documentation.

[7]Included in the British order of battle were HMS Canada, HMS Erin, and HMS AgincourtHMS Canada was almost an Iron Duke-class, but slightly larger and with a slightly different configuration, which had been purchased by Chile.  On the eve of WWI the British bought the ship back and re-named it, along with its still incomplete sister ship.  The sister ship was eventually re-built as the aircraft carrier EagleHMS Erin was a modified King George V-class built for the Ottoman Empire.  HMS Agincourt was a special design built originally for Brazil.  It was the only battleship I know of that had seven main gun turrets, making the ship so long its main armor belt was only 9” thick.[8]  Brazil ran out of money and its arms race with Argentina calmed down, so the ship was instead sold to the Ottoman Empire.  On the day the Ottomans were to take control of their ships the British seized them to keep the Ottomans from using the battleships against the RN.  It was still about a month before the official outbreak of the war, so the action was questionable in its legality.  Ironically enough, it was this move that pushed the Ottoman Empire over to the side of the Triple Alliance, especially after the Germans offered the Turks a battlecruiser and a light cruiser as a gift…

[8]The ship itself was also well off-spec for British ships.  The Brazilians considered crew comfort of paramount importance over silly things like survivability.  So they cut down the number of watertight compartments in favor of larger crew spaces.  Which, I suppose, would have been nice right up until the damn thing sunk.  Also, given that the ship had seven turrets, the turrets were named after the days of the week.  All in all, it was kind of a freak of a battleship.  Critics actually questioned whether the vessel could fire broadsides without damaging itself, but apparently she acquitted herself admirably at Jutland.


DagoodS said...

Again, just wanted to say I am thoroughly enjoying this series.

bluefrog said...

Me, too. I wouldn't want to research it, but it's fascinating stuff to read.

Michael Mock said...


Also, History Nerdiness is going to need a vacation, by the time you get done...

Geds said...

Well, I think I only have two more to go. Or maybe three. Uh...four...?

MTimonin said...

Greatly enjoying this too. Would add a small point re: the Russo-Japanese War - the reason that the British did not let the Russian Black Sea fleet through the Suez Canal - well, one of the reasons - was that the Russians had sunk the British herring fleet shortly after leaving St. Petersburg.

Geds said...

Oh, yeah. That bit. I've tended to hear it dismissed as a panic move on the part of the Russians, so I guess I never saw it as a potential international incident.