Monday, June 14, 2010

History Nerdiness Takes No Vacations, Part 9

The Battle of Dunkirk famously displayed the limitations of air power.  The Germans had the British Expeditionary Force pushed against the North Sea.  Rather than ordering the army to destroy the British to the man, Hitler allowed Goering to attempt to destroy the British using the Luftwaffe.

He failed.  Some 340,000 troops escaped from the continent, possibly saving the war for England in the early days.[1]  But the failure at Dunkirk should not have been taken as a failure of air power as a whole.

The fall of France put Britain in a bind.  Everyone who has some knowledge of World War II has at least a passing knowledge of the Battle of Britain and the privations placed upon the British citizenry over the course of the bombing campaign.  But there was a much larger strategic difficulty in play that few people mention.

The fall of France meant that Britain could no longer rely on the French Navy to contain the Italian Regia Marina.  The Regia Marina sat astride the British supply lines that stretched the breadth of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to the all-important bases surrounding the Suez Canal in Egypt.  Italy’s main fleet, based at Taranto in the heel of the Italian peninsula, simply had to be there to cause problems.

This is a concept known as a “fleet in being.”  The general idea of the fleet in being is that a relatively weak fleet can deny the use of the sea and tie down enemy forces without ever having to engage in battle and risk destruction.  No better example of a fleet in being can be found than the German High Seas Fleet in the First World War.  The High Seas Fleet rarely left port, spent the vast majority of the war boxed up in Wilhelmshaven, and yet managed to deny the North Sea to the British and forced the Grand Fleet to remain at Scapa Flow, rather than attempt to engage in any adventurism away from northern Europe.

During World War II the Axis powers in Europe operated their surface navies primarily as fleets in being.  The pocket battleships, along with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, regularly sortied, forcing the British to divert precious naval resources to track them.  The pocket battleship Graf Spee was an excellent example of this.  In the weeks preceding the Battle of the River Plate and Graf Spee’s subsequent scuttling, the British had nine different ship groups specifically hunting Graf Spee, including four aircraft carriers, three battleships, and two battlecruisers.

As long as the Regia Marina had a powerful fleet in the port of Taranto, the British were in trouble.  The Royal Navy could have taken on the entire Regia Marina and the entire Kreigsmarine in open battle.  But there was to be no Trafalgar.  There wasn’t even to be a Jutland.

The idea of assaulting Taranto directly was out the window, too.  One of the key aspects of the fleet in being is the simple idea that the fleet in port is relatively safe from opposing warships.  Throughout history this had been more-or-less true.  An enemy generally had to take a port in order to reach the ships berthed therein.

But the British Mediterranean Fleet had something that no previous naval commander had been able to claim: airplanes.  Specifically, Admiral Andrew B. Cunningham[2] had a force of 21 obsolescent Fairey Swordfish attack biplanes using specially modified air-dropped torpedoes.  On the night of November 11-12, 1940, the Swordfish of the Mediterranean Fleet attacked Taranto.  When the dust settled, the Littorio and Caio Duilio were heavily damaged and the Conte di Cavour had been sunk.

Taranto did not destroy the Regia Marina, but it did mean that the fleet was diminished for the Battle of Spartivento later that month and Cape Matapan in March of 1941.  While not decisive in and of itself, the Battle of Taranto had lasting repercussions in the Mediterranean.  The results were also studied with much interest by Japanese military planners on the other side of the world.  But the next move still went to the British.

In the spring of 1941 the battleship Bismarck attempted to break out in to the Atlantic Ocean.  The British could not have that.  The first ships to engage Bismarck were the HMS Hood, the Royal Navy’s pride, and HMS Prince of Wales, the newest of the King George V-class of battleships on the morning of May 26th.  The first battle did not go so well for the British.  Hood was sunk, Prince of Wales forced to retire.  The Bismarck broke out in to the Atlantic.

That evening several Swordfish bombers from the HMS Victorious hit Bismarck, opening wounds quickly repaired after the battle with Hood and Prince of WalesBismarck was forced to slow to 16 knots.  On the 26th Swordfish launched from the Ark Royal again hit Bismarck, jamming the battleship’s rudder.  The great battleship was now effectively unmaneuverable.  It was only a matter of time before the ship would be destroyed.

On the morning of May 27th the King George V and the Rodney closed on Bismarck, accompanied by the heavy cruisers Norfolk and DorsetshireBismarck was ultimately sunk the traditional way.  But it’s entirely possible that the sinking would not have happened were it not for carrier-launched aircraft.

On December 7th, 1941 the demonstration of the strategic use of air power moved out of British hands.  The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  Where the British had launched 21 aircraft from two relatively small aircraft carriers against Taranto, the Japanese launched nearly twenty times that many from six large fleet carriers.[3]  We all know what happened on December 7th.

Less well known, however, is what happened three days later off the coast of Malaya.  The British dispatched the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse to the Pacific to show the flag and “overawe” the Japanese.  This force, known as Force Z, was also supposed to include the new carrier HMS Indomitable, but that ship had run aground.

One of the most expensive things to provide is an object lesson.  Force Z provided an unexpected one when the Japanese jumped the fleet and sunk it.  No Japanese surface ships were involved in the engagement at all.

Over the course of three days the Japanese effectively swept the Pacific of all Anglo-American battleships without firing a single gun from a ship of their own.  Admiral Yamamoto, architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, did not necessarily see this as reason to celebrate.  He would prophetically declare that the attack on Pearl Harbor had awakened “a sleeping giant.”

But Yamamoto had done far more than that.  In removing the battleship fleet in Pearl Harbor from the US Navy’s short-term planning, Yamamoto ushered in the next evolution in naval combat.  Three American Pacific capital ships weren’t in Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning: the Enterprise, Lexington, and Saratoga.  When the United States struck back it wasn’t with 16” guns fired at a range of 20 miles.  It was with torpedoes and bombs dropped from aircraft.

The story of the Pacific war is one of aircraft carriers.  The iconic early war battles: Coral Sea and Midway were fought at aircraft range, not gun range.  The Japanese superbattleship Musashi was sunk by aircraft during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  One of the most lopsided battles in the Pacific war pitted a tiny force of four American escort carriers, two destroyers, and four destroyer escorts known as Taffy 3 against a Japanese force consisting of Yamato, Nagato, Kongo, Haruna, and escorts.  Taffy 3 won the day due to a combination of heroism, luck, and the ability of the force’s aircraft to harass the Japanese to the point of distraction with no worries about Japanese aircraft.[4]  Yamato was sunk by airplanes without ever reaching its final objective of beaching itself on the shores of Okinawa and destroying the invasion fleet.

There were, in fact, only two battleship engagements during the Pacific War.  In November of 1942 the battleships South Dakota and Washington engaged the Kirishima in a night engagement during the Guadalcanal campaign. Kirishima did not survive the battle.  During the Battle of Leyte Gulf the old battleships of Jesse Oldendorf’s detachment blocked the end of the Suriago Strait against the Japanese Southern Force.  Oldendorf’s command included the West Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, California, and Pennsylvania, which had been salvaged from the wreckage of Pearl Harbor, as well as the Mississippi, which had been on the East Coast at the time.  The Japanese force included the Yamashiro and the Fuso.  But the Fuso had already been destroyed by torpedoes by the time the American battleships were even in range, so the last battleship combat in history was a 6:1 drubbing.

It’s fitting, I suppose, that the final battleship-to-battleship battle in history was an affair between obsolete warships of a previous generation.  The battleship was an anachronism by the end of the Second World War.

The final generation of battleships launched were the magnificent fast battleships, most notably the American Iowa-class ships.[5]  But this last generation of ships wasn’t valued for their main guns as much as they were for their huge AA batteries and their ability to keep up with fleet carriers.  No ship in the world could carry as much anti-aircraft weaponry as a battleship, so as a final line of defense they were invaluable, especially when the increasingly desperate Japanese began the kamikaze attacks as the war drew to its inevitable conclusion.

After World War II the battleship stuck around for a while.  It was still a prestige weapon and a potential deterrent.  At various times between the end of World War II and Desert Storm the Iowas were pulled out of retirement, renovated, and put back on the battle line.  But it wasn’t enemy battleships they were tasked with engaging.

In the Korean War, then again in Vietnam and, finally, in Desert Storm the Iowas (all but Missouri in Korea, the New Jersey in Vietnam, and Missouri and Wisconsin for Desert Storm) were brought to the line for their unparalleled ability to attack ground emplacements.  Those giant 16” guns have an impact that few other conventional weapons can claim.  They also possess an ability to loiter within range of a target that aircraft simply do not.  When combined with newer weapons, like Tomahawk cruise missile launchers, they were still terrifying weapons.

But maintaining battleships on the off chance they’ll be needed to shell enemy land installations is an investment with a very low rate of return.  So even the last of the battleships have been sent off to their final duty as museum ships.[6]

Mikasa, Yokosuka, Japan:

USS Texas, Houston, TX:

USS North Carolina, Wilmington, NC:

USS Alabama, Mobile, AL:

USS Massachusetts, Fall River, MA:

USS Iowa, US Navy Reserve fleet, Suisun Bay, CA:

USS New Jersey, Camden, NJ:

USS Missouri, Pearl Harbor, HI:

USS Wisconsin, Norfolk, VA:


[1]Goering made the same mistake again in North Africa.  The British held Malta, an island that sat directly between the tip of Italy and the North African coast.  Planes and ships sortied from Malta, cutting off the majority of supplies bound for the Afrika Korps.  Goering decided that Malta would capitulate under massive air assault.  It didn’t.  Goering: not too bright.

For a practically inhospitable rock, Malta played a pivotal role in the Mediterranean on many occasions.  The Knights of St. John (also known as the Knights Hospitaller) held the line against the onrushing Ottoman Empire during the critical century and a half between the fall of Constantinople and the Battle of Lepanto.  The simple accident of geography that put Malta in the middle of the narrowest passage between Italy and North Africa made the island far more important than it should have been.

[2]Nicknamed “ABC.”

[3]There’s a difference in naval theory to be seen here.  Britain, engaged as it was in the relatively confined spaces of the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, didn’t see a need for large aircraft carriers.  The United States saw the aircraft carrier as a key way to project power across vast distances.  At the outset of World War II the biggest British carrier was Ark Royal, which carried 70 planes.  The rest of the British carriers had 50 or fewer aircraft.  The American Yorktowns and Lexingtons carried 90 aircraft.  Only the Ranger and Wasp had aircraft complements in the mid-70s.  Ranger was the first purpose-built American aircraft carrier and Wasp was a somewhat successful attempt to scale the 20,000-ton Yorktown-class carriers down to 15,000 tons to squeeze one more carrier out under the Washington Treaty tonnage limits.

[4]James Hornfischer’s Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.  Read it.

[5]The last battleship ever built was the HMS Vanguard, which was launched after the end of the war and scrapped in 1960.  Vanguard was the largest British battleship ever built, but was still only roughly on par with the Iowas, possessing a main armament of 8 15” guns.

[6]Although the USS Iowa is still looking for a home as of the last time I heard.


Anonymous said...


Your penchant for time travel is impressive! Is this TX-sized avocation greater or lesser in scale than during your IL residency?

Storied in Steel-town

Michael Mock said...

Very interesting. There's a lot of detail there that I did not know about.

DagoodS said...

First, I thank you very much for this series. (My gratitude is entwined with sadness this will be the last blog entry.)

I preferred Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941 - 1945 over “Last Stand of the Tin Can Soldiers”—but that is a personal opinion.

bluefrog said...

Thanks for demonstrating how wrong I can be: I could not have imagined that the history of battleships in warfare could be so interesting. Well done!

MTimonin said...

Fascinating stuff.

In re: airpower - The German assault on Crete was, in some lights, a test case for the use of paratroops and glider based troops and weapons. It was a success, but only just. I've read the reports from the British about the attack, and it seems likely that there was some sense of the Crete attacks used when planning Operation Overlord.

That has nothing, of course, to do with battleships, but it's tangential to the attack on Malta.