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Overrated
The New American Battleships of World War Two
By David Hughes
October 2015

I have a confession to make. I really like both of the Avalanche naval systems and have played almost all of their games — almost all, because I do not play Leyte Gulf. Not because it is a bad game — American friends tell me it is great — but because it contains those enormously powerful modern U.S. battleships. They consider them to be just right, but to others their relative values are, to put it politely, suspect.

As far as guns are concerned, the North Carolina and her siblings have gun factors of 16-0-6, the overwhelming Iowa class 18-0-5. Now compare that with the feeble Europeans: the King George V 9-0-6, the Richelieu 10-3-0, the Vittorio Veneto 11-5-0 and the Bismarck 10-4-3. It seems that the American ships are so different, so much more powerful, that they should all be defined as "super-battleships." After all, the Queen Elizabeth, the first "super-dreadnought," was only a 10-3-0 compared with the 9-3-0 of Iron Duke, the last British dreadnought. The Dreadnought herself is rated at 7-0-2, while a capable pre-dreadnought like the Austro-Hungarian Radetzky is a 4-0-4. Note the implication: American battleships compared with their European contemporaries represent a leap in capability greater than that of the first dreadnought or super-dreadnought.

The same pattern shows in the armour. While the King George V, Vittoria Veneto and Richelieu class all have a value of 15, the North Carolina group rate 18. Only the Bismarck is tougher at 20, which must inevitably be trumped by Iowa at 21.


Overrated? Missouri unleashes hell on the North Koreans, October 1950.

 

Of course this is all utterly implausible. The Americans had previously built good but unimaginative battleships, with their guns emphasised over speed, but which bore a couple of obvious design flaws such as cage masts and inadequate fire-control systems. After the Second World War they were not considered to be more impressive than contemporary British or French designs. A typical comment comparing Iowa and Vanguard was simply that the American ship was "very pretty but a pig of a sea-boat in heavy seas." This referred to her long narrow bow, needed to achieve a form capable of high speed, but lacking buoyancy.

It was only much later, as all other battleships were scrapped, that the Navy's claims about these ships became transmuted into fact. In effect the United States Navy trumpeted two features of the new battleships as being so innovative and impressive that the ships outmatched all other warships. These were heavy shells and inclined armor, yet in truth both concepts already tried and discarded in other navies.

The Main Guns

No doubt to the surprise of many, the American battleships' 16-inch guns were neither a new, nor the best American weapons available. They had originally been developed for the battleship classes cancelled by the Washington Treaties and were competent but pedestrian designs. A considerably more powerful, if heavy, 16-inch gun, the m1919M2 had been designed and built for the United States Army, with examples installed in Oahu and elsewhere. In retrospect the duplication of effort involved seems as extreme as with the Japanese Army and Navy. When the new ships were being built in the 1930s the original design was used with only two major modifications. One was to re-design the breech to fit the new turrets, the other to install a chrome liner that would improve barrel life. At the time the main selling point put forward by the navy was that the gun would therefore cost less to maintain than a comparable British design.

Inferior armament? Hoisting a 16-inch/50 Mark VII rifle aboard Iowa, New York Navy Yard, 1942.

 

The sole distinction was in their new, heavy shells. To put this in perspective, the British 16-inch in Nelson fired a 2,048 pound shell, the powerful American Army 16-inch gun a 2,340 pound while the Navy shell weighed a massive 2,700 pounds. Now there is an undeniable advantage to a heavy shell, since its greater mass would achieve greater penetration, everything else being equal. Also at the time American naval experts were immersed, almost obsessed, in calculating "immune zones," angular penetration rates and other mathematical exercises in which a high penetration value was all that mattered. What was forgotten in this academic exercise is that the seemingly superior heavy shell had two very serious relative weaknesses.

It could not go very far and, equally important, it took a long time to get there. I have no intention of deluging a Daily Content reader with a mass of statistics, so have simply picked a single comparison, taken from a readily accessible source, “Naval Weapons of World War Two” by John Campbell. The British 16-inch gun (the variant found in Nelson) could reach 39,780 yards, the American 16/45 only 36,900. Even more important was how long a shell took to reach its target. Firing at 35,000 yards or more, the American shell took about seven seconds longer to reach the target. Now that may not seem a long time when reading this article, but it was when firing at a target moving at 30 miles an hour and frequently changing direction to confuse the enemy spotters!


A pig of a sea boat. North Carolina off the Philippines, December 1944.

None of this is rocket science and it was known to every gun designer on the planet. However, elsewhere it was recognised that what mattered most was to hit the target as many times as possible, recognising that the chance of hitting a ship, let alone the tiny part of it that composed an armor belt or deck, was already very low. They therefore designed guns that generated the highest possible range, lowest time of flight and highest accuracy factor (the best example being the magnificent Italian 381mm/50), or installed as many gun barrels as possible. The last approach was taken by the Royal Navy, whose initial intent was to equip the King George V class with twelve 14-inch guns. Eventually this weakness was recognised by the United States Navy who ordered the barrel of their 16-inch guns extended by 5 calibres, so increasing the flight-speed of the heavy shell. Naturally a simple barrel extension creates problems of its own.

Of course when the range was very short, as happened to be the case in the only battle ever fought by these ships, the heavy shell proved its worth. Washington, in the fortunate position of being able to fire without being spotted at a range of 8,400 yards, pounded the obsolete battle cruiser Kirishima (she entered service in 1915) into a blazing hulk. It was commonly believed that she only hit seven times, but a new evaluation (for those interested, in "Warship International 44/4") suggests that between 14 and 20 shells (of the 75 fired) hit the target. If correct this is excellent and deadly shooting. Certainly South Dakota, crippled by the Japanese ship and her consorts, owed her survival to her consort and not to her armor. The questionable and sometimes bizarre nature of this armor system will be dealt with in a subsequent Daily Content, after covering the guns of the Iowa class.

Continued in Part 2: Destroyer Killers.

The guns of the Alabama can get a workout at any range in
Second World War at Sea: Arctic Convoy. Order for yourself!