Home / Robert Farley / History of the Battleship

History of the Battleship


This is extremely well done.

In the late Sixties, Milton Bradley created the game Battleship, which introduced the catch phrase “You sank my battleship” to the general public.

It is still the shortest and most accurate history of the battleship to date.

In other battleship news, the manuscript for the book I’ve been developing out of Sunday Battleship Blogging is now with the editors. We should have some info soon regarding publication dates, etc.

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  • brugroffil

    the first picture’s caption made me literally laugh out loud, a little embarrassing in the office.

    The USS Maine was America’s second commissioned battleship. Ordered in 1886, launched in 1890 and commissioned in 1895, she was both over budget and obsolete by the time she entered service, setting a precedent for every Navy project since.

    In 1898 she made her decisive contribution to victory in the Spanish-American War by exploding at anchor in Havana.

    • Rented Mule

      I dunno “Here’s one of them, HMS Invincible, not living up to her name during the Battle of Jutland” gave it a run for its money in my book.

  • Derelict

    Billy Mitchell certainly jumped the gun when he declared that aircraft made surface ships obsolete, but he wasn’t off by much. I think the only thing that has kept surface ships in general (and capital ships in particular) from vanishing is the fact that two peer navies have not fought since WWII.

    • Latverian Diplomat

      If you get caught cheating in the Battleship game, remember: it’s not
      “peeking”; it’s aerial reconnaissance.

    • Brett

      They’re still pretty good platforms. Of course, in a Great Power conflict having a good navy isn’t going to matter much if they’re exchanging nuclear detonations.

  • dmsilev

    Very nice, but I do have to object slightly to this one:

    Although she saw minimal action, the Russian battleship Potemkin is famous for both the unsuccessful 1905 mutiny which partially contributed to the Russian Revolution and its portrayal in the 1925 silent film “The Battleship Potemkin” by Sergei Eisenstein… none of which you’ve heard of.

    The film is fairly famous, and I imagine a fair number of people have seen it and more have heard of it.

    • Richard Hershberger

      I Netflixed it years ago, and knew of it long before that. It isn’t a curl-up-with-a-bowl-of-popcorn type movie[1], but it hits a sweet spot at the intersection of history of film and 20th century world history. Anyone interested in either would find the film worth watching.

      [1] Hmm… What silent films are? Some, though not all, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd comedies. The quality drops off rapidly once you get past those three. What else?

      • Latverian Diplomat

        Fritz Lang had some winners, e.g., Metropolis and Frau im Mond

        • dmsilev

          The first time I saw Metropolis, it was before the discovery of a nearly-complete copy in an archive in South America. Wonderful visuals and atmosphere, totally disjointed and nonsensical story. After the discovery and restoration of the mostly complete film, I saw it again and it actually had a comprehensible story…

        • M. M! M!

          • Never mind. I read “silent” and thought “black and white.” It’s time to hibernate.

      • dmsilev


    • heckblazer

      If nothing else most people have probably seen the Odessa Steps scene…or a copy of it.

    • Brett

      Did they name the battleship “Potemkin” after the term “Potemkin Village” came into fashion?

  • Morbo

    Although beloved by both anime fans and military historians with small genitalia, neither ever sank another warship and both were destroyed by aircraft.

    I guess this is where Farley outs himself as an anime fan.

    • Latverian Diplomat

      A USS Yamato was featured in a Star Trek episode. It promptly exploded.

      • Jonas

        The Space Battleship Yamato was remarkably effective though.

        • liberalrob

          The Fleet of Fog kicks some major ass too:

          Arpeggio of Blue Steel

          • liberalrob

            Forgot to mention…in keeping with the theme here, the protagonist submarine sinks three battleships (one offscreen) by the end of the first few episodes, including two at one time.

  • Richard Hershberger

    This is amusing, but at the risk of being unduly serious, what was the alternative? The battleship was the response to advances in gunnery, armor, and engine technology. The problem was that the advances in gunnery outstripped the other two. It is easier to concentrate a bunch of energy at one point than it is to put sufficient armor on all potential points of concentration or to dodge the incoming rounds. Hence the tendency of battleships to blow up. But it’s not as if there was some other path they could have taken, given the technology available. So was not playing the only way to win the game? No: that would simply be a forfeit. For all the problems battleships had fighting other battleships, they clearly could beat anything else.

    All in all, it looks to me like the battleship was a rational response to conditions, and abandoned at about the right time. It was not at all obvious before 1941 that Things Had Changed. Were any laid down after the Prince of Wales was sunk? I don’t think so. You could argue that resources used to complete BBs already in the pipeline would have been better used elsewhere: that completing them was an example of the sunk cost fallacy. But as stirring indictments go, this isn’t.

    • RobNYNY1957

      They could beat anything else, except limpet mines, torpedo boats, submarines and aircraft carriers.

      • Richard Hershberger

        Prior to 1941, all of those except torpedo boats are merely illustrations of the need for harbor security. So yes, even battleships are susceptible to sinking if you let the other side walk up to them and stick explosives wherever. There are legitimate examples of battleships being sunk by torpedo boats, but not many, and there were counters to torpedo boats.

        Let me put it this way. Suppose the Royal Navy had decided c. 1900 that battleships were expensive boondoggles and stopped building them and scrapping the ones they already had. In their stead the Royal Navy would build submarines and torpedo boats. Oh, heck: let’s throw in zeppelins. In the meantime the Kaiser decides that battleships are just the thing, and goes full steam ahead with a building program. How would that have worked out?

        • Rob in CT

          Overwhelming British victory? ;)

          In this scenario, does the German focus on Battleships mean they do not build lots of subs? That looks like a win for the Brits to me! German subs did a helluva lot of damage to Britain in both WWs.

          • Richard Hershberger

            Or the German flag flying over the Tower of London. The British strategy from the 18th century through WWII was to make a channel crossing so risky that no enemy was willing to roll the dice. It never was based on being prepared to beat the other side on the ground. The home defenses were only enough to ensure that the other side had to be able to land a serious force and keep it supplied. I don’t see those RN subs and torpedo boats doing the trick.

            • Rob in CT

              Sure, who knows?

              But I’m assuming that roughly the same amount of $$ was spent. That would have produced a shitload of torpedo boats and subs, no? Enough perhaps to destroy those shiny German battleships and prevent an invasion.

            • Lurker

              Torpedo boats were very susceptible to torpedo boat destroyers. A battleship cannot fend off a massive torpedo boat attack alone, but if it operated in an area where this is an issue, it would have a destroyer squadron escorting it.

              Essentially, torpedo boats and their successors, fast attack craft, are area-denial weapons. They are very useful in archipelagos and other narrow waters but they cannot be used in blue water settings.

              It might have been possible to prevent a German landfall by a combination of coastal fortresses, sea mines and torpedo boats but this was not the British objective. The objective was to maintain the British Empire, which was only possible by having the command of the Northern Atlantic and the North Sea.

        • RobNYNY1957

          The Tirpitz has plenty of harbor security in Trondheim, and was still severely damaged by limoet mines.

      • Zoltar the Magniloquent

        So exactly how many battleships were sunk by torpedo boats? Also, how do torpedo boats do at escorting aircraft carriers and shore bombardment?

        • RobNYNY1957

          Szent Istvan comes to mind.

          • RobNYNY1957

            This may be a redundant post. The HMS Goliath at Gallipoli, sunk by Ottoman torpedo boats.

            And as otherwise pointed out, off Samar, insignificant destroyer escorts and slow escort carriers routed a Japanese fleet led by four huge battleships and even more cruisers. It is the counterpart to the Tirpitz as a ship on being. Destroyers and destroyer escorts in confined waters were as much of a threat as an aircraft carrier on the high seas.

            • Zoltar the Magniloquent

              There may also have been some confusion about scale going on there, at Samar. And of course torpedo boats are a terrible danger to battleships (and anything else afloat) in confined waters. That doesn’t mean they could have taken their place anywhere else. And for actual sinkings, we’re still with just Szent Istvan.

              • RobNYNY1957

                Just as the Tirpitz didnt need to do much damage to be a threat (a ship in being), torpedo boats in confined waters and destroyers/destroyer escorts do not need to sink ships to be a threat to capital ships.

                St. Stephen and Goliath.

        • RobNYNY1957

          The British constructed a couple of monitors of the Roberts class during WWII for shore bombardment at a much lower cost than battleships. Might have constructed more if the didn’t have so many otherwise useless battleships looking for a task.

        • liberalrob

          Dunno about MTBs, but DDs and DDEs did a creditable job off Samar:

          Battle off Samar

          • RobNYNY1957

            More than creditable.

    • dmsilev

      USS Illinois and Kentucky, the fifth and sixth ships in the Iowa class, were laid down in 1942. They were still under construction at the end of the war and were never completed.

      • Latverian Diplomat

        A fair amount of effort went into repairing the West Virginia and California, damaged in the Pearl Harbor attack, as well.

      • Richard Hershberger

        OK, I’ll grant you those.

        • Dave Haasl

          Wasn’t HMS Vanguard also laid down afterwards? (Check Wiki). Nope, Laid down about 2 months prior to PoW meeting its doom. So just Kentucky and Illinois then.

    • Derelict

      You could argue that resources used to complete BBs already in the pipeline would have been better used elsewhere: that completing them was an example of the sunk cost fallacy. But as stirring indictments go, this isn’t.

      After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had an argument about whether to complete the third super battleship that was to be sistership of Yamato and Musashi. Given the evidence of their own successful attack on Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent engagements in the southwest Pacific, it was decided to convert the third battleship (already on the ways) into the world’s first Super Carrier.

      The IJN Shinano was launched on October 8, 1944. During her maiden voyage for sea trials on November 29, she was caught by four torpedoes from the submarine Archerfish and sunk before she ever launched a single aircraft. (And Shinano’s 70,000 tons put Archerfish at the top of the list for greatest tonnage sunk on a single patrol.)

  • RobNYNY1957

    The Tirpitz was also destroyed at anchor. Among its major victories was the bombardment of a British weather station.

    • rea

      Scharnhorst and Gneisenau managed the “man bites dog” victory of the war, by surprising the British carrier Glorious in easy gun range without a CAP flying or any planes ready for takeoff.

      • RobNYNY1957

        Gloriuos: In hostile waters with no renconnaissance, no planes ready for alarm start, bad leadership. I think that the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau were probably the most successful of the German commerce raiders of WWII. Maybe Graf Spee. WWI? Emden. Civil War? Alabama. You have to weigh the amount of tonnage sunk, the amount of expense in treasure and blood, and the expense of countermeasures. In WWII, U-boats were both very effective, but also very expensive. Changing tactics, logistics and technology on both sides shifted the course of events, but ultimately the American submarines were more effective than the German U-boote.

  • Halloween Jack

    [The Bismarck] was described as a “Nazi Super-Battleship” by executives at the History Channel and World War II-era comic book writers. She is now thought to have been scuttled by her own crew, because… fuck your canoe!


  • Very well done.

    My only quibble is that Battlecruisers were never supposed to go up against Battleships.

    Of course the British admiralty never seemed to get that.

    Battlecruisers were designed to chase down and destroy armored cruisers.

    They were intended to “outrun what they couldn’t outgun”.

    Unfortunately no admiral wanted to leave a ship with 14-inch guns out of the line of battle.

    • Dave Haasl

      To be fair – I think the Royal Navy was aware that Hood was no match for Bismarck (Everyone and their neighbor remembered Jutland). They just had a distinct lack of faster dreadnoughts in the North Atlantic. IIRC, they had King George V and Prince of Wales plus two battlecruisers (Renown? [Repulse?] and Hood). So if they paired the two modern BBs together (more than a match for Bismarck), they run the risk of the TF with the two BCs finding Bismarck instead with predictable results. So the plan they chose was to pair a BC with each of their modern BBs and hope the BC at least survived long enough to be useful. But the Hood was unlucky that day.

  • allium

    Once someone gets a pulse modulator up and running, I see battleships making a big comeback! As long as they have the weather gage, anyway.

    • The Navy currently has an operation laser weapon.

      They also have an underwater drone that looks like shark.

      I think you see where I’m going with this…..

      • ScottK

        Reminds me somewhat of David Drake’s “Surface Action”. To get back to battleships in the future, he posits railgun tech advanced enough to completely neutralize air or missile attack. These require a huge generator, thus a huge ship, thus battleships.

        I don’t remember how or if he got around using the railguns on incoming shells.

  • BlueLoom

    A true battleship story. On 9/11/2001, I was doing volunteer work in Alexandria, VA, along with another couple, a retired Navy captain and his wife. We could literally see the smoke rising from the Pentagon if we climbed the front steps of the building across the street.

    As we worked, we kept the radio on. At one point, the announcer said that “battleships were steaming up the Potomac to protect Washington.” My retired Navy captain colleague walked across the room, shook his fist at the radio, and said, “The Navy doesn’t have any battleships, you dummy!”

    It might have been the only funny line I heard all of that tragic day.

    • njorl

      If wars are bigger than battles, shouldn’t warships be bigger than battleships?

      • rea

        The term comes from “line-of-battle ship,” a/k/a ship of the line, from sailing ship days.

        • Where did the “BB” designation come from?

          I can understand “BC” for Battlecruiser but what’s BB?

          Big Boat?
          Budget Buster?

          • Lurker

            As far as I understand, it is just the practice to double the initial letter, if the man-of-war is “pure” in its type. So, “BB” is essentially “battleship (battle)”, while “DD” is “destroyer (destroyer, nothing to see here)”.

            • ScottK

              Calling it ‘BS’ was too obvious, even for a service that spent 20 years commanded by “CINCUS”.

  • JR in WV

    Have driven past BBs at anchor as historic parks, should someday stop to take a look.

    When the turret blew up on USS Iowa, it was obvious that ancient fossilized gun powder caused the accident. No way a gay sailor committed suicide by blowing up a battleship.

    When you reactivate a battleship, you need to reactivate the production line for the armament for the battleship. SATSQ! Don’t reuse bagged gunpowder from a decades-ago war. Don’t even keep that shit around, no good can come from hoarding when it comes to antique ammunition!

  • mikeSchilling

    Battleship, as a pencil and paper game, goes back long before the 1960s.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Thank goodness someone else remembers.

      It’s a damned good game of fairly pure logic, too. (I have no idea what the Milton Bradley version may be like.)

  • RobNYNY1957

    I also have a veryinteresting article from the 1940s about how the Allies continued to trade with neural countries like Switzerland and Sweden for critical materials, but also to block Germany and Italy from trading with neutral countries
    Outside of Europe. The article was published before VJ Day (my mother danced on Wall Street fortw ok days), do the information about economic warfare on the Pacific theater ours withheld.k

  • so-in-so

    Having just finished “Sea of Thinder” which covers the action off Samar, the DDs and DEs sacrificed themselves to protect the escort carriers. They did sink a heavy cruiser with torpeados, but the the Japanese were mostly “routed” by their own fears that they were sailing into a trap, and the combination of exhaustion and some level of mental languor at what they saw as a mission both useless and suicidal. Basically they choose to sail away, they weren’t driven off.

    • RobNYNY1957

      I am not sure that this is different in result.

  • aoeu


    The military version of the onion.


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