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You Brought a Coastal Defense Ship to a Battleship Fight


In order to prove that battleships had little utility in World War II, John Quiggin links to this list of battleship losses.  As you’ll note, this list includes a variety of vessels that no reputable historian of World War II maritime affairs would call “battleships,” including pre-dreadnoughts serving in the Greek and German navies, the German “pocket” battleships, and a plethora of Scandinavian coastal defense vessels that, whatever their official designation, do not merit discussion in the same terms as actual battleships.  The Norwegian Eidsvolds are a great example; they were built in 1899, displaced 4400 tonnes, and carried two 8″ guns in two single turrets.  John would understand that the Eidsvolds were not battleships in any useful sense of the term if he were familiar with basic maritime terminology.

FWIW, the actual data on battleship losses in World War II is as follows (parentheses include ships refloated and returned to service):

Frogmen: 2 (2)
Submarines: 3
Land based air: 4
Carrier air: 13 (5)*
Surface ships (non-bb): 2**
Surface ships (battleships): 8 (2)*** ****

Of the ships lost to carrier air, 11 were in port, two under way.  Had the war continued, Haruna, Hyuga, and Ise could have been refloated and returned to service, but of course there was no point.

Some lessons:

1. Carrier attacks were devastating, especially to ships in port.  Taranto, Pearl Harbor, and the 7/27/45 raids on Kure account for 11 sunk battleships.

2. Submarines account for far fewer battleship sinkings than you would expect. Indeed, far more carriers than battleships were lost to submarine attacks.

3. Land based air was, in general, far less effective than carrier air. This trend extends to aircraft carrier losses.

4. Battleships themselves accounted for a significant proportion of losses, especially of enemy battleships underway.

It is possible to imagine a universe in which the proposition a) “battleships were of considerable utility to the navies of World War II,” and proposition b) “the major navies by and large ceased or reduced battleship construction during the war,” are both true.  Battleships accomplished certain jobs very well, including air defense, carrier escort, shore bombardment, and fighting other battleships.  However, given the effectiveness of carrier air it became more efficient to concentrate on aircraft carriers rather than battleships. Indeed, I’d suggest that anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the actual course of operations in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific theaters would find these statements almost completely unobjectionable.

*Does not include USS Oklahoma as “returned to service”

** Includes HIJMS Hiei, although Hiei was also damaged by carrier aircraft.

***Treats battleships as the primary cause of Bismarck’s destruction, although carrier aircraft and other surface ships participated.

****Includes Provence and Dunkerque as “returned to service.”


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