Gun caliber was a big deal in battleship construction. A ship carrying 8 16″ guns may have the same weight of broadside as one carrying 12 14″ guns, but the larger guns have a longer range and more penetrating power than the smaller calibers. Increasing gun calibers during and after World War I, therefore, were a matter of considerable attention. The best British battleships carried 15″ guns, as did the most advanced German vessels. American and Japanese ships carried 14″ guns. Near the end of the war, both the Americans and Japanese laid down ships with 16″ guns. After the war, the Royal Navy planned to trump the IJN and the USN by arming a new class of battleships with 18″ guns.
The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 ended that dream, and limited gun caliber to 16″. The Royal Navy was granted special dispensation to build two ships with 16″ guns, in order to match the USN and the IJN. The 1930 London Naval Treaty reduced the number of capital ships allocated to each navy, but did not change the gun caliber limitations. The treaties allowed older vessels to be replaced after a certain time, and in the mid 1930s Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom began to plan for a new generation of battleships. The British, suffering from severe financial constraints, wanted to limit the size and expense of the new battleships as much as possible. Accordingly, the British proposed that all new battleships would be limited to 14″ guns. In a bout of wishful thinking, the Royal Navy designed its newest class of battleships around the 14″ weapon. The 1936 London Naval Treaty established a 14″ limit, but contained a clause that lifted the limit to 16″ if any one of the original signatories did not sign. Japan opted out of the treaty (and began building battleships with 18″ guns), and the United States took advantage of this clause by designing its new ships to carry the 16″ gun.
This left the Royal Navy at a disadvantage. The naval architects tried to solve the problem by equipping the new class of warships with 12 14″ guns in three quadruple turrets. Unfortunately, this led to a top heavy design, and the “B” turret on the design had to be reduced to a twin. Thus, while the new American battleships carried 9 16″ guns and the new Japanese ships 9 18″ guns, the British ships carried only 10 14″ guns. The King George V class had other design flaws, including a very poor turning circle. Their armor scheme was not particularly effective, being worse than any modern battleship other than the German Bismarck. The underwater protection of these ships was also very bad by modern standards. All in all, these were not fine ships, which is surprising given the experience of the Royal Navy and the quality of RN naval architecture at the end of World War I. King George V and her sisters displaced 42000 tons and could make 28 knots.
Prince of Wales was the third unit of the class. While still under construction, she suffered bomb hit that led to severe flooding. Her commissioning was hurried due to the threat posed by the German battleships Bismarck. When Bismarck and Prinz Eugen broke for the Atlantic, Prince of Wales was put to sea before fully working out in trials, and civilian engineers remained on the ship. Prince of Wales accompanied Hood, the best known warship of the Royal Navy at the time. The two battleships, accompanied by several destroyers, steamed north in an attempt to intercept the German ships in the Denmark Straits.
Hood and Prince of Wales were successful, and the battle was joined on the night of May 24, 1941. Hood was struck by a salvo from the Bismarck and, like any good British battlecruiser, promptly exploded and sank. Prince of Wales, although still facing some teething troubles, gave a good account of herself against the German battleship. Although she suffered seven hits (plus several dud shots), she managed to hit Bismarck three times, causing a fuel leak and limiting Bismarck’s speed. Her main armament no longer operative, Prince of Wales broke off the action and began to shadow Bismarck. Because of low fuel, however, Prince of Wales was forced to break off the chase, and played no role in the final destruction of Bismarck.
After six weeks of repairs, Prince of Wales was tasked with transporting Winston Churchill to Newfoundland, where he met with Franklin Roosevelt and helped hammer out the naval strategy of the Western Allies. In October, Prince of Wales was dispatched to Singapore in order to counter the increasing Japanese threat to British possessions. She and the battlecruiser Repulse formed the nucleus of the British Far Eastern Fleet.
The Japanese were well aware the presence and threat that Prince of Wales and Repulse posed to their offensive plans. They detailed the battlecruisers Kongo and Haruna (the former itself built in a British yard) to meet the two Royal Navy ships and protect the invasion fleets. There was no need. The Royal Navy admiral did not believe that Pearl Harbor conclusively demonstrated the lethality of air power against battleships. The Pearl Harbor attack was a surprise; the American ships were at anchor and could not maneuver. Unspoken, perhaps, was the belief that while American ships might be vulnerable to such attacks, British ships certainly were not. On December 8, Admiral Phillips sortied his two ships in an effort to intercept and destroy the Japanese fleets attacking Malaya.
On December 10, Prince of Wales and Repulse were caught in the open sea by 87 Japanese aircraft. Repulse suffered 5 torpedo hits, Prince of Wales 6. Both ships sank, although most of the crews of each were saved. The attacking Japanese planes were, by all accounts, exceptionally polite. They made no effort to attack British destroyers during rescue operations, and it is held that the Japanese squadron leader flew low and waggled his wings above the surviving British ships as Prince of Wales sank. Admiral Phillips gallantly decided to go down with the ship. Winston Churchill felt that the destruction of Prince of Wales and Repulse was a greater blow to Allied seapower than the Pearl Harbor attack. Certainly, it demonstrated that battleships could not hope to survive without support from aircraft, either from carriers or land bases.