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Naval History: Battleship Book Review

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The following review (below the fold) was written by Paul Stillwell, who served in the crew of the USS New Jersey in 1969. He is the author of several books about battleships. This text is reprinted from Naval History with permission; Copyright © 2016 U.S. Naval Institute.

In the event of a survey course called Battleship 101, Robert Farley’s work would serve as a suitable textbook.  The Battleship Book is a wide-ranging primer on the subject of battleships, battle cruisers, near-battleships, and quasi-battleships.

The book comprises encyclopedia-style entries on 62 different warships; separate chapters on Jutland, naval treaties, and Pearl Harbor; and a number of sidebars.  The time period moves from the keel-laying for HMS Victoria to the current Russian battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great). Ships from a variety of nations are represented.  Profiles of ships from countries no generally known for fielding battleships- such as Spain, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil- are particularly helpful, as they are not usually covered in books on the subject.

Each brief profile stands on its own.  The selection can be compared to a sampling from an hors d’oeuvres table- tasty, but not quite filling. Taken as a whole and read in sequence, the chapters lead the reader on a chronological march through advancing technology and the various political factors (including battleship envy) that led to the building of ships in various time periods.  The drawback to this approach is that quite a few of the ships intersected with each other, which produces a lot of repetition, especially because so many capital ships were involved in the 1916 Battle of Jutland.  Another quibble is that the illustrations vary greatly in quality.

For the reader who long ago mastered Battleship 101, the hors d’oeuvres selections still contain plenty of enjoyable morsels, including the author’s observations at the ends of the chapters.  In many cases, the facts imparted in this volume can be the answers to trivia questions.  For example, we learn that Henry Allingham, who served in a naval trawler at the Battle of Jutland, died in 2009 at the age of 113- the last survivor of that conflict. (In keeping with the pattern of repetition, Allinghams’ accomplishment is mentioned twice.)

Other trivia: The French ship Jean Bart, launched in 1940, was party to a duel with the USS Massachusetts (BB-59) at Casablanca in 1942.  However, she did not go into full service until 1952, as the last battleship of any nation to be completed.  The USS Wisconsin (BB-64) was the last battleship of any nation to fire her guns in anger, doing so during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  The biggest battleship ever, the Japanese Yamato, displaced 72,000 tons and was armed with 18.1-inch guns.  She played little part in World War II and met her death on a suicide mission in April 1945.  The author speculates that she could have been a valuable asset in the Japanese campaign against Guadalcanal in late 1942.

In November 1918, two Italian commandos attached a time bomb to the hull of the Viribus Unitis.  She had been completed in 1912 as the first Austrian dreadnought and was later turned over to Croatia, a predecessor of the evolving nation of Yugoslavia.  The Italians were captured and warned the ship’s commanding officer, Admiral Janko Vukovich, about the bomb and recommended evacuating the crew.  The captain released the Italians and ordered the evacuation, but the bomb did not explode when predicted.  The admiral and a number of crew members returned aboard and were killed when the delayed explosion occurred.

Great Britain’s last battleship, HMS Vanguard, was completed in 1946 with essentially obsolete 15-inch turrets left over from World War I, and not used subsequently because of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922.  Indeed, mention of that treaty keeps popping up throughout the book because of its widespread impact- the scrapping of many existing ships and the non-completion of others whose construction was in progress.  The U.S. Navy was a beneficiary of the treaty in that two hulls designed as battle cruisers would up as the aircraft carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3). The two ships were important in developing carrier doctrine prior to World War II and training many of the aviators who served in that war.

As many battleships histories report, HMS Dreadnought, completed in 1906, was the first to sport an armament of all big guns in her main battery instead of a mixture of sizes.  Less well known is her antisubmarine-warfare role.  In 1915 she rammed and sank the German submarine U-29.

The battleships and their kin were versatile in their time, culminating in the shore bombardment role for U.S. ships in the final decades of the dreadnought’s era.  That era is now over.  Farley’s book makes it worth studying through his rearview mirror.

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  • Cheerful

    What kept the Japanese from making greater use of the Matsui or Yamamoto, in Guadalcanal or elsewhere? Was it simply fear of losing this great big thing that was so valuable, like the same fear that kept the German High Seas Fleet in harbor for almost all of its existence?

    • Alan Tomlinson

      Yamamoto was an admiral and was rather heavily utilised during WWII while Matsui was a general who was alas also heavily utilised.

      The Yamato and the Musashi, on the other hand, were battleships.

      Cheers,

      Alan Tomlinson

      • Cheerful

        your excellent memory skills put me to shame.

        Chastened, I correct my post:

        blah blah blah, Yamato and Musashi, blah, blah, for almost all of its existence?

        • lnthga

          Two conjectures:
          (1) Fuel: Yamato and Musashi were fuel-hogs and so had to be used sparingly.
          (2) Fear of their fleet being whittled down before the decisive Big Fleet Battle.

          • so-in-so

            Probably mostly #2. While they might have helped at Guadalcanal, that was mostly pretty restricted waterway fighting and not great for battleships (although both sides used them – one of the relatively few cases of battleship vs. battleship in the whole war).

            • John F

              Everything I’ve read indicates No. 2- they were looking forward to one big decisive battle, and ironically trying to avoid being whittled down had the effect of allowing their fleet to be whittled down -which is also kind of what happened to Germany’s fleet after Jutland too- I once read a comment about Jutland which went like this:

              “what do you do after you build and plan for THE DECISIVE FLEET BATTLE- and you in fact have the the decisive fleet battle- and it doesn’t actually decide anything?

              Engand’s answer was, Well let’s plan for the next one, Germany on the other hand had no answer”

    • ddworak1

      My understanding is that they were being held back for the “decisive battle” that the Americans refused to fight. In the book and movie In Harm’s Way, the Yamato does come to fight in a campaign obviously based on Guadalcanal.

  • MikeJake

    I just looked up the Pyotr Velikiy and read a Moscow Times article about it. It claimed that the launch of the first Kirov class ship in 1974 got everyone in Washington to demand that we build our own comparable vessel, which lead Reagan to bring the Iowa and her sister ships out of retirement.

    This is Kremlin propaganda, right? Our leaders couldn’t really be that dumb, could they?

    • so-in-so

      Good news! Pulling a ship from mothballs and reconditioning is cheaper and quicker than building a new one!

    • Robert Farley

      There were a bunch of proposals for putting the BBs back into service floating around in the 1970s. Took on more speed with the expansion of the defense budget in the late Carter years. The existence of the Kirovs provided grist for proponents, but weren’t singularly determinative.

      • RobertL

        I remember reading about the plans for “battliers” in the early 80s.

        The idea was to take the old BBs and remove everything from the deck aft of the superstructure. Replace it with a flat deck and fly VTOL Harriers and choppers from it. Up front, keep the 2 x 16″ gun turrets. Replace the multitude of secondary 5″ turrets with two modern automated turrets. That would leave plenty of room for missile launchers, CIWSs etc.

        Given their size, and the reduced crew that modern systems would need, you’d have plenty of space to embark Marines, pilots and so on. You could also update all of the radar and communications.

        You would end up with a multi-purpose ship that could use its big guns for fire support, launch surface attack and anti-shipping missiles, conduct ASW, put Marines ashore and have its own air wing for protection.

        Pity it never happened.

    • John F

      Our leaders couldn’t really be that dumb, could they?

      Yes they could/can be, but that’s not actually a good example as so-in-so states

  • Captain Oblivious

    RF — are you ever going to come out with Kindle editions of this and Grounded? I would love to read both, but paper books and I don’t get along (allergies, bad eyesight).

    • Robert Farley

      Grounded has a Kindle version, available through Amazon. E-book for BB Book is available at Wildside.

      • Captain Oblivious

        Okay, thanks — I didn’t see the Kindle link for Grounded. (Like I said, bad eyes).

  • WabacMachinist

    A first-rate critical history of the battleship:
    http://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Vessels-Cult-Battleship-Rise/dp/0195080068/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1463593504&sr=1-1&keywords=sacred+vessels
    At one point (probably prior to WW1)the Navy proposed building 48 battleships. Why 48? Because battleships were named after states and there were 48 states,silly!

    • jroth95

      Breaking news: Lockheed-Martin proposes naming each F-35 after a county in the United States.

      • Francis

        Is the pilot’s call sign the component made in that county?

  • JonH

    Whenever I see that book cover image, at first glance I think it’s a D&D Ravenloft product.

    http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51%2BA4dT7pwL._AC_UL320_SR246,320_.jpg

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