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Pearl Harbor


In honor of Pearl Harbor Day, a brief excerpt from The Battleship Book:

Scrapping outpaces all other causes of battleship loss, by a wide margin. Next comes scuttling, including the losses at Scapa Flow, at Toulon, and in the American atom bomb tests at Bikini. Surface ships, air attacks, and accidents come next. Curiously, only three battleships were lost to submarine attack, despite (or perhaps because of) major concerns before both wars.

The single greatest permanent loss of battleships came at Scapa Flow, where eight German battleships and battlecruisers scuttled themselves under a mistaken assumption. Four battlecruisers were lost at Jutland. Three battleships were permanently destroyed at Pearl Harbor, three at Leyte Gulf, three at Toulon, and three in a great air raid against Kure in late July, 1945.

We can interpret this distribution of losses in several ways. It is surely true that battleships saw open combat much less often than there architects envisioned, especially against one another. It is also clear that while the architects prepared battleships well for certain kinds of threats, they underestimated the threat that aircraft could present, and that navies (at least in World War I), misallocated resources to battleships that should have gone to a more multifaceted approach to naval power.

Speaking of which, somebody in comments asked whether signed copies are available. Answer is yes; e-mail me and we’ll work something out.

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  • It strikes me that too much of modern naval warfare is predicated on the old galleon philosophy: you never really leave the coastline which means much of your fighting will be pounding land masses and near-shore shipping. There, where guns can be trained back against you, it makes sense to go in armed to the teeth.

    Pretty effective against pirates operating out of known ports, or nations with fleets, horrible in modern times. The odds of coming across a large flotilla now are pretty small and as you point out, far more likely to involve fighter jets and bombers (or even submarines) against a bulky, slow and clumsy ship.

    • T.E. Shaw

      To much of modern naval warfare? During the Cold War we went through a decades-long period of specialization in “blue-water,” long-distance naval capabilities. It was only in the late 90s or so that the US Navy embraced a “return to the littorals” approach.

      • I’d argue that the Cold War was an extended experiment testing the capabilities of nuclear powered engines coupled with an effort to keep the enemy’s nuclear weaponry as far off shore as possible (hence the Missile Crisis). Deep water warfare made a lot more sense back then. When we became the last man standing, the last nation with deep water capabilities of any note, turning the focus back to shore-waters seems to be a natural growth industry.

        In any event, battleships basically become lumbering behemoths given that even a destroyer can carry a large complement of missiles able to inflict at least as much damage as a battlecruiser with the added bonus of getting in and getting out more quickly.

    • Derelict

      You can’t discount the influence of Mahan in setting the dreadnaught arms race in motion. Couple his thinking with the “decisive battle” fantasy that admirals around the world lived for and you can see why everyone wanted big battleships and lots of them.

      I’ve always found it interesting that, in WWI, the western powers found a war against merchant shipping to be just too beneath any “real” navy. And they were equally taken by surprise that submarines could engage merchant ships and warships. The loss of three cruisers in a single afternoon to a single submarine (Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue, sunk by German U-boat captain Otto Weddigen) was a complete shock to both the Royal Navy and other navies that had considered subs to be more nuisance than weapon.

      • Scott P.

        I’ve always found it interesting that, in WWI, the western powers found a war against merchant shipping to be just too beneath any “real” navy.I’ve always found it interesting that, in WWI, the western powers found a war against merchant shipping to be just too beneath any “real” navy.

        The whole focus of the Jeune École was warfare against merchant shipping. The problem was that in the 1880s the platforms for effective merchant interdiction didn’t really exist, but it was a strategy planned for by France, Italy, and Russia to varying degrees.

        The thing is, in WWI Great Britain ended up on the side of all of those powers. And it was Germany that eschewed the Jeune École approach in pursuit of Tirpitz’ “Risk Theory”. Germany turned to merchant warfare only when all other alternatives had been exhausted.

      • WabacMachinist

        The inventor of Sherlock Holmes took a good deal of ribbing because of the story he published just before WW1 about how a few submarines bring Britain to its knees by cutting its ocean lifeline.


  • cs

    there architects

    I guess it’s too late to correct it if it’s like that in the book.

    Anyway, interesting info in that chart.

  • T.E. Shaw

    Slightly off-topic, but has anyone played the newish online game World of Warships, with all its WWI and WII era surface ships?

    • deptfordx

      I have played loads. It’s great.

      • Mike in DC

        Tier V, so far. I have developed a healthy respect/fear for torpedoes.

  • Merkwürdigliebe

    That infographic needs some work… Totals should not look identical to sub-totals and placement of the “Sunk by enemy action” column puts into question whether “Scrapped” includes some of the latter categories or not.

    • Scott P.

      It also apparently doesn’t count battleships that were sunk and later raised, which ends up undercounting the totals put out of service by enemy action by a bit.

      • WabacMachinist

        On that subject, I thought just two battleships were permanent losses at Pearl Harbor (AZ & OK) not three. WVA, CA and NV were raised, repaired and put back into service.

        • Just a Rube

          The third is presumably the USS Utah, which had been converted to a training ship by the time of the attack, but started life as a battleship.

  • Scott P.

    The single greatest permanent loss of battleships came at Scapa Flow, where eight German battleships and battlecruisers scuttled themselves under a mistaken assumption.

    That’s an odd phrasing. What was the ‘mistaken assumption’?

  • so-in-so

    Also, why would ships lost to Bikini Atoll tests count as “scuttled” and not as “sunk as target”? Because they didn’t actually sink from the bombing and had to be scuttled after?

    • JR in WV

      Yes, this!

      Just because they were targets of hydrogen-fusion bombs doesn’t make them scuttled, does it?

      And if they didn’t sink after being in a thermo-nuclear explosion, that speaks pretty well of their robust nature. Except of course against torpedoes and dive bombers! and I guess they were a long way from the actual bombs… but targets, I’m saying, none-the-less!

  • Emily68

    What are “human torpedoes”?

  • BiloSagdiyev


    Wow, we lost some guys. But it helped nail the coffin shut.

  • Francis

    any update on an Ipad version?

    how does that bar chart change if we look at losses to the British ships-of-the-line in the Napoleanic era? (I bet that weather would appear as a major source of loss.)

  • so-in-so

    I suppose the question with large, expensive weapons is: what happens if the other guy has them and you don’t? I don’t think anyone in Taffy 3 said “Battleships? No thanks, we got this.” Other than long range carrier strikes, I’m not sure there was any fight where one side had a battleship and the other didn’t where the side without was happy about it.

    The carrier was the death-knell to the battleship, which is sort of similar in that it protects itself (CAP) and projects force over a greater distance than it’s opponents. Isn’t that what a battleship did vis-a-vis other warships?

    • Peter T

      The meme that battleships are lumbering obsolete dinosaurs has a surprisingly long history. It became prominent almost as soon as workable torpedoes appeared (in the very late C19), and was then repeated for torpedo boats, submarines, aircraft…. Turned out not to be true for 50 years. Battleships were too fast for subs, hard targets for aircraft until the 40s, and could dominate any piece of ocean where they floated. That navies clung to battleships out of tradition is another mostly false notion. It wasn’t until the 30s that aircraft engines were reliable enough for long over water flights, and aircraft could were very limited at night or in bad weather. Navies mostly moved as fast to aircraft carriers as the technology and various tactical factors allowed (Percy Scott, the father of dreadnought gunnery, was pushing to switch entirely to aircraft from 1919).

      • Mike in DC

        Which is interesting, considering the Iowa class was revamped with Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Tomahawk cruise missiles and Phalanx close in weapons. A 33 knot capable ship with significant close-in missile defense(not to mention the SAM armament of the cruisers and destroyers in its task force). Doesn’t seem obvious that it’d be a sitting duck for air attack(unless more than one carrier strike group were involved, in which case it’s analogous to being attacked by multiple battleships).

  • Lurker

    BTW, what were the “mistaken assumptions” that caused the scuttling at Scapa Flow? Technically, the Treaty of Versailles required the ships to be handed over for decommissioning, but at least the French were looking forward to getting some of them. If the ships were to be really decommissioned, then scuttling them changed nothing. If bot, scuttling them weakened future enemies.

    I really cannot find any reason why the Germans onboard those ships shouldn’t have scuttled them. I would have done the same myself.

  • slow joe crow

    How was the loss of the Austrian Dreadnought Viribus Unitis classified? Was it human torpedo or the limpet mines delivered by the human torpedo.
    As an aside I think that was the only successful use of divers against a battleship, the WWII Italian efforts against Warspite and Queen Elizabeth on only damaged them.

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