Thursday, June 10, 2010

History Nerdiness Takes No Vacations, Part 8

As the world rushed towards its second great war in a generation all of the talk was about battleships. Of course those who were talking about land war were also talking about the Maginot Line.

Germany had frightened the world by basically shirking the ship building limits imposed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles. At the tail-end of the ‘20s they began construction of the Deutschland, followed shortly by the Admiral Graf Spee and the Admiral Scheer. The three ships were supposed to match a 10,000 ton limit that allowed Germany a costal defense fleet. In reality the ships were about one-third above the limit in order to allow the mounting of a pair of triple 11” turrets. The German Navy defined them as “panzerschiffe” at first, but later redesignated them heavy cruisers.

The British called them “pocket battleships.”

In truth, other than the bit where they had an 11” main battery, the pocket battleships were nothing close to a battleship. By way of comparison, the Northampton-class heavy cruisers, the US Navy’s workhorses in the Pacific, were actually 3,000 tons lighter, armed with nine 8” guns, 1 more torpedo tube, a better AA suite, and were four knots faster. Both classes of ships were similarly protected, but the only place where the pocket battleships were absolutely better was in their secondary armament. But against a real battleship or a competently handled battlecruiser it would not have mattered at all.

Germany’s next attempt was much better. Had the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau[1] been deployed at the Battle of Jutland they would have been the best ships in the engagement by a significant margin. The only reason they weren’t considered more powerful is because they were only armed with 11” main guns, a weapon that simply wasn’t to be fully respected in a world of 16” guns. The Bismarck and Tirpitz, however, with their eight 15” guns and 30 knot top speed were forces to be reckoned with. They were bigger, faster, and carried bigger guns and more armor than the British King George V-class (although the British ships had 10 14” guns, so the difference may well have been moot). The main belt on the German ships was slightly inferior, but that’s because the Germans never adopted the all-or-nothing design scheme of the American and British naval architecture at the time.

The Germans only managed to build the two super battleships of the Bismarck-class. The plan was for five, to be followed by the so-called H-class, ships ranging in the 60,000 ton, 16” gun range. When war broke out in 1939 the actual build plan was scrapped, but planning and refinement continued, until the point where the design for the ships ballooned to over 100,000 tons.  This is why engineers and architects should be kept constantly busy with actual projects.

In point of fact, the British Royal Navy that went in to WWII was not the Royal Navy that entered WWI. England went to war with all of seven post-WWI battleships in 1939: the four King George Vs, the two Nelsons[3], and the Hood. Other than that, Britain had the two Renown-class battlecruisers, the five Revenge-class battleships, and the four Queen Elizabeths. All had been upgraded between wars, but not to nearly the same degree as, say, the USS Texas, as the British felt an acute need to show the flag at their overseas outposts while the rest of the world’s navies had the luxury of laying their battle squadrons up for long periods of time. Either way, the British Navy of 1939 actually had fewer battleships and battlecruisers than the German High Seas Fleet deployed at Jutland.

Of course, the Kreigsmarine was no High Seas Fleet. Had all of Hitler’s plans come to fruition there might have been more of a problem. But Britain’s plan was to basically turn the Mediterranean over to the French and concentrate on the North Sea, Atlantic, and countering the Japanese in the Pacific if necessary. But, of course, if the “if necessary” came along, there was a good chance the US Navy would be involved, too.

The Regia Marina, meanwhile, was a fairly formidable force that stood a good chance of fulfilling Mussolini’s plans to take the Mediterranean back as a “Roman lake.” She went in to WWII with four WWI-era battleships: the two surviving Conte de Cavours and the two Andrea Dorias. But construction on the Vittorio Venetos began in 1935. Three of the four were completed by 1942. The Vittorio Venetos were magnificent warships, armed with nine 16” guns and capable of steaming at 28 knots. They were a match for any contemporary British, French, or American design.

The French went to WWII with five WWI-era battleships: two of the Courbets and the three Bretagnes[4]. They also built four modern battleships: the two Dunkerques and the two Richelieus. These were awkward designs, in that their entire main battery was mounted in a pair of forward quadruple turrets. But the classes were capable of 31 and 32 knots, respectively, well armored, and enough to hold the Italians in place in the Mediterranean, which was really all the British asked of them.

The real story was out in the Pacific, though. The Japanese had built a battlefleet under the theory that they’d draw the American fleet to a battle of annihilation. Between the wars they’d modernized the Nagatos and Kongos and done some work on the Yamashiros, but basically left the latter class as slow relics of a former age. Japan, in fact, only completed two battleships as battleships between the wars.

But what battleships they were. The Yamato and Musashi were the largest warships in the world by a wide margin, weighing in at 69,000 tons, mounting nine 18.1” main guns, and basically impervious to anything fired from a smaller caliber weapon. The two ships were completed in near complete secrecy. Until the end of the war American intelligence thought they were similar in size and scale to the Iowa-class ships, which displaced better than 20,000 tons less. The only person outside of Japan who really knew what was up was a German official, who toured the Yamato’s construction site and – even without being given any specifics – was able to come up with a remarkably astute guess as to the ship’s massive dimensions. He, of course, wasn’t interested in sharing his insights with the US Navy.

On the other side of the Pacific, the US Navy had a powerful battleship force, but it was significantly slower and possessed nothing remotely close to capable of standing up to the battleships Yamato or Musashi. I’ve spent more time than is probably healthy considering this issue and I’m reasonably certain that a US Navy with the full complement of WWII battleships, including all four Iowas, all four South Dakotas, and both North Carolinas – backed up by at least two, if not four, of the older battleships – could have stood up to a battle squadron consisting of the two Yamatos, two Nagatos, and four Kongos. If the Japanese had deployed their “obsolete” battleships (which were still at least on par with the battleships at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941), I would want the entire Pacific squadron.

But the Imperial Japanese Navy had been working on a weapon that was at least as important as their terrifyingly huge battleships. One of the biggest problems they had in their war with China was projecting power inland. Their carrier-based aircraft simply did not have the ability to get far enough to be effective.

So the Japanese took a novel approach. They built light, fast, maneuverable aircraft with exceedingly long range. Thus were the A6M Zero fighter and the D3A Val dive bomber born.

These two weapons would have a far greater impact on the world the battleships that held center stage in the run-up to World War II. But the reasons for that shall have to be held for the next (and, hopefully, last) post in this series.


[1]Having mentioned the Graf Spee, Scharnhorst, and Gneisenau, I figure now is a good time to point out one of the most underrated aspects of German strategy in World War I. When war broke out the British Home Fleet had the German High Seas Fleet bottled up in its North Sea port. Germany knew that the British were dependent on their empire to survive, so they had to find some way to strike at British shipping and threaten the British colonies. The solution was to make use of a scattered collection of German cruisers to interdict British shipping. Vice Admiral Maximillian Graf von Spee was in the Indian Ocean in charge of a five cruiser detachment, consisting of the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Nurnberg, Leipzeig, and Emden.[2] He left Emden in the Indian Ocean, where it wrecked British shipping for three months and even shelled the port of Madras. Sixty British, Australian, and Japanese warships were eventually involved in the search for Emden.

[2]Based at the German colony of Tsingtao in China. The Germans being, well, Germans, they brewed beer. This is why Tsingtao beer is one of the best-known Asian beers. These are the connections you learn to draw when you spend a lot of time doing history and drinking.

[3]Which were extremely awkward-looking compromise ships. They were originally a 48,000 ton design re-imagined to fit under the 35,000 ton Washington Treaty limits. As such, they mounted all three of their triple 16” gun turrets forward to reduce the necessary length of armor. Although they turned out to be fine, seaworthy ships, the awkward pair were never loved and often mocked. Compared to the American treaty battleships, the comparably sized North Carolina and South Dakota-class, the Nelsons are just damned ugly. They British ships were also slower and slightly less well protected, although this says far more about the quality of technology in 1937 compared to 1927 than it does about British design capabilities.

To wit, the HMS Nelson:

The USS North Carolina:

And the USS Indiana:

[4]The Greeks had actually ordered one that was never completed. It was to be named Basileus Konstantinos, which means “Emperor Constantine.” I think that’s neat. “Basileus” has an interesting etymology. It was originally a Mycenaean-era word that basically meant “warlord.” It later came to mean “king,” although in classical Greece it wasn’t actually used by authoritarian rulers, who were, instead, tyrants (no, really. While that term exclusively means “horrible totalitarian” these days, its original use was to denote a leader who was given control of a city during times of great distress. That distress, meanwhile, when caused by rebellion and chaos, was known as “stasis,” a word that basically means the exact opposite of chaos in modern English. Language. It’s a funny thing...). The symbol of the increasing Greecification of the Eastern Roman Empire after Constantine was when the Emperor stopped being referred to by the traditional Latin “Rex” and was, instead, called “Basileus.”

These days we still use a descendant of the word on a regular basis: “boss.” Also, just because I can, the first two Roman Emperors gave their names to the highest titles of the Roman Empire: “Caesar” and “Augustus.” During the fragmentation of the Empire the head ruler was “Augustus,” while the subordinate was “Caesar.” The term “Caesar” was carried forward and transformed in to “Tsar” to refer to the king Russia and “Kaiser” to refer to the king of Germany.

Also, seriously, if I were a history teacher or professor I’d totally be one of those guys who just went in to random, tangential stories at a moment’s notice. Although, really, I think that’s something that all good teachers of history have in common. The more you learn and the more you care to learn the more you see the random points of interconnection between otherwise completely unrelated things. So we have Chinese beer because of German imperialism (and Japanese beer because of Dutch trading and American imperialism…) and the Greek Navy ordering a battleship named after a Roman Emperor (although, to be fair, there were a lot of Emperor Constantines in Byzantine history, with the terminal Constantine being Constantine XI Palaeologus, who lost the city to Mehmet II. But when the modern state of Greece was formed as a monarchy there were two more Constantines, who were numbered as XII and XIII.


Chris said...

This is an awesome series, because although I've read various analyses of different countries naval development before, I've never seen it time sliced across all the major powers like this. It's incredibly helpful to understanding what was going on.

(Did later Roman emperors ever use "Rex", as opposed to "Princeps" or "Augustus"? The word carried a lot of negative historical baggage for the Romans, which "Basileus" didn't for the Greeks.)

MTimonin said...

I am that history professor. I've actually "discussed" (where discussed means lectured without pause) the role of battleships in WWII (and elsewhere), and I have a lecture that I sometimes do on the Spanish-American War, which involves a discussion of the difference between cruisers, protected cruisers, battlecruisers, and battleships. (I know, battlecruisers came later, but it fits in there somewhere). Wandering lectures are what history is all about, really!

(I also sometimes lecture on hats, drugs, and pants. Oh, and ties.)