The Treaty Battleships

By Chuck Hawks

USS Massachusetts
USS Massachusetts. Official U.S. Navy photograph.

In this essay I propose to examine the Battleships produced by the major world sea powers after the signing of the landmark 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. The 1922 Treaty was replaced by the subsequent London Naval Treaties of 1930 and 1936. German naval rearmament after World War I was constrained by the Treaty of Versailles, which initially limited German battleships to 10,000 tons and 11 inch main battery guns. In 1935, the Anglo-German Naval Treaty allowed Germany to build up to 35% of the surface ship strength of the Royal Navy, and limited the maximum size of German battleships to 35,000 tons, the same size limit the other major powers had agreed to in the Washington and London treaties (to which Germany was not a signatory). The Washington and London treaties had a major impact on the capital ships of all nations, so I will briefly summarize them.


The Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty of 1922 was the result of political pressures to prevent a massive naval arms race between the victorious nations, as they jockeyed for dominance after the end of the First World War. The pre-war Anglo-German naval arms race was seen as one of the factors contributing to the outbreak of the Great War, and the citizens of a war weary world did not want a repeat. Moreover, Britain, France, and Italy had been financially drained to various degrees by the War, while Japan and the U.S. were relatively unharmed economically. However, the Japanese industrial base was no match for that of the United States (which by 1920 was the only nation in the world capable of winning a renewed naval arms race), while the U.S. lacked the political resolve to engage in an expensive arms race. These factors combined to bring Britain, the U.S., Japan, France, and Italy to the bargaining table to hammer out the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922.

The result, which made all of the Admiralties involved unhappy, was the scrapping of many older capital ships, the cessation of new construction (with a few very limited exceptions), and the adoption of the 5-5-3-1.7-1.7 capital ship tonnage ratios (Britain and the U.S. equal at 5, Japan at 3, and France and Italy at 1.7). These ratios approximately reflected the balance of power at the time. Total future fleet tonnage was fixed. The size of cruiser fleets was not regulated, so it became important to insure that "cruisers" did not simply become battleships in all but name. Cruisers were therefore limited to 10,000 tons and 8 inch guns (6 inch guns might have been more appropriate, but the British had just commissioned the Hawkins class cruisers with 7.5 inch guns, and insisted on retaining them). It was agreed that existing capital ships would not be replaced by new construction until they were at least 20 years old. There was to be a battleship building "holiday" until the end of 1931. The modernization of existing capital ships was allowed, but regulated.

There were other provisions and trade-offs which do not concern us here. The provisions which directly affected future capital ship construction included a limit on main battery gun caliber of 16 inches, and a limit on displacement of 35,000 tons "standard." Standard displacement was defined as ready for sea, but without reserve feed water and fuel. The Americans wanted to also exclude stores, but this was not accepted. The purpose of the "standard" displacement figure was to reduce the disparity between long and short range battleships.

The success of the Washington Treaty, and the world depression which was signified by the U.S. stock market crash in 1929, brought further attempts at limitation. The result was the London Naval treaty signed in 1930. Cruiser and destroyer construction was limited, and the numbers of capital ships further reduced. The numbers (not tonnage, this time) of capital ships was set at 15-15-9 (U.K., U.S., Japan). Several useful capital ships were scrapped or demilitarized as a result of this treaty, among them the excellent British battlecruiser Tiger. The capital ship building holiday was extended until the end of 1936 (again, certain exceptions were made).

A significant, though unintended, result of these treaties was that in all of the world's navies, capital ships became so scarce that in the Second World War they were seldom employed offensively, for fear of loss. Heavy cruisers, by default, took over many battleship roles. Only the United States built enough third generation battleships to use them aggressively, by then mostly in secondary roles (the aircraft carrier had become the primary arbiter of sea power in the Pacific war). Late in the war, of course, after her carrier air power had been neutralized, Japan sacrificed her remaining battleships in (desperate) offensive operations.

By 1934, however, change was in the wind. Japan notified the other powers that she was withdrawing from the Naval Treaties, no longer willing to accept humiliating (as she perceived it) treaty enforced inferiority. Negotiations in 1935-36 resulted in abandonment of the ratios, although the existing limits on battleship size and guns were maintained. The new London Treaty was signed on 25 March 1936. The British lobbied hard for, and got, a further reduction in gun caliber to 14 inches, but an escape clause allowed 16in guns if a non-signatory refused to guarantee adherence to the 14in limit. Japan's intentions in this regard were unknown, but amid persistent rumors of Japanese super battleships designed to mount 16in or 18in guns, the U.S. invoked the escape clause in July 1937. This happened too late for the British to revise the design of the King George V class, but in time for the Americans to increase the battery (but not the armor) of the North Carolina class.

Another escalator clause included in the 1936 treaty allowed signatories to increase tonnage to 45,000 if a non-signatory did not adhere to the treaty limit (Japan completely ignored the 35,000 ton limit, and Germany and Italy adhered only nominally). This escalation later resulted in Vanguard and the Iowa class. Only the U.S., Britain, and France signed this last treaty.

So the Allies were limiting themselves while their potential enemies did as they pleased. An analogous situation is seen today in efforts to control everything from nuclear weapons to land mines--the only nations willing to sign or abide by such restrictions are the ones who pose no terrorist threat to world peace in the first place.

The first ships built under the new treaty restrictions were the British Nelson class, laid down in December of 1922. A long treaty enforced pause in battleship construction then ensued until the laying down of the first of the Italian Littorio class in 1934. (The German Deutschland and French Dunkerque classes were built in the intervening years, but they are covered in my essay "Battlecruisers, Large Cruisers, and Pocket Battleships of World War II.") The German Scharnhorst class was laid down in 1935, accompanied by the French Richelieu, also in 1935. These were followed by the last of the treaty battleships to be laid down, the British King George V class in 1937, and the American North Carolina class in 1937-38 and South Dakota class in 1939-40. These are the ships that will be discussed in this essay.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, all treaty restrictions were void. However, it is worth noting in passing that the Vanguard, Jean Bart, and Iowa class (all discussed in my essay "Basic Characteristics of the Post Treaty Battleships") were heavily influenced by previous treaty considerations.

The basic specifications quoted for all ships discussed in this essay will be taken from Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships, 1922-1946. Doing so has the advantage of uniformity, plus I regard Conway's as exceptionally authoritative, based as it is on a major reevaluation of published information with the advantage of hindsight, and previously unpublished information from sources only recently available.

NELSON class.

The Nelson and Rodney were the first two battleships laid down under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty. In the years immediately prior to the adoption of the treaty, the U.S. and Japan had each completed a two ship class of battleships mounting 16in main battery guns. These four ships, Colorado and Maryland, plus Nagato and Mutsu, each carried 8-16in guns on a normal displacement of 32,600t (U.S.) to 33,800t (Jap.). They were the most powerful battleships in the world at the time of the signing of the treaty. The British demanded, and received, the right to immediately build two 16in gun battleships of their own as equalizers under the terms of the new Washington Treaty. The Nelson class thus became the last of the second generation battleships, and the first of the treaty battleships.

Prior to the signing of the treaty, the British had been working on the design of new classes of large battlecruisers and battleships, the former fast ships mounting 16in guns, and the latter slower ships mounting 18in guns, both on displacements of 46,500t-48,000t. After agreeing to the 35,000 ton standard displacement limit, British designers were faced with the necessity of attempting to combine the most valuable features of these ships into the smaller hulls of the new treaty battleships.

The attempt to do so produced the strangest looking battleships ever launched by the Royal Navy. All three triple 16in gun turrets were mounted forward of the tower superstructure, on a flush deck hull. The single funnel was about 3/4 of the way aft, and the 12-6in secondary guns (arranged in three twin turrets per side) were further aft yet, as was the mainmast. Over half of the entire hull length was taken up by the very long bow section where the three big gun turrets were arranged with the middle (second) turret superfiring over the first and third turrets. It was a very odd arrangement, even stranger than the later French battleships with all eight main battery guns forward in two quadruple turrets. Naturally, they suffered from all of the usual shortcomings of such an arrangement, including a huge blind arc aft.

The benefit of this arrangement was supposed to have been a shorter armored belt (which was internal and inclined at 15 degrees), and a more compact layout. In service it became evident that the Nelson's layout had been a mistake, and it was not repeated.

Another compromise showed in the adoption of twin screws, also to save weight. Despite their small 670 yard tactical diameter, their very long fo'c's'le and twin screws made them clumsy ships to maneuver. Although in the event it did not matter, the adoption of twin screws also made them especially vulnerable to underwater damage aft. Another unfortunate compromise was their slow speed of 23 knots. This rendered these relatively modern battleships unsuitable for most first line tasks in World War II.

Interestingly, American designers considered a similar all-main-turrets-forward design for what became the North Carolina class, also seeking to conserve precious treaty tonnage, but abandoned it when it became evident that a conventional 3x3 layout with two turrets forward and one aft was actually more economical.

There were other problems with this class. Their 16in main battery turrets gave considerable trouble, and were far less satisfactory than the previous excellent 15in/42 twin mounts. The defects were eventually corrected, and Rodney performed well against Bismarck in May of 1941. The 16in guns had a maximum elevation of 40 degrees, and fired a 2,048lb (later 2,375lb) projectile at a muzzle velocity of 2,614fps to a range of 39,800 yards. Broadside weight was 18,432 (later 21,375) pounds.

The 6in secondary and 4.7in QF power operated mounts also gave trouble, and unfortunately their rate of fire fell considerably below expectations. They were also armed with 2-24.5in underwater torpedo tubes, always a mistake in battleships. During WW II, Nelson took an Italian 18in torpedo near her torpedo room, and the ship was flooded with 3,750t (!) of water. Not surprisingly, when she was repaired, the torpedo installation was removed. Rodney claimed one torpedo hit on Bismarck late in that action, and if true it is the only time in history that one battleship succeeded in torpedoing another.

All in all, these do not sound like very satisfactory battleships, and indeed in many respects they were not. They even came out considerably under the allowed tonnage, at 33,313t. However, it should be remembered that they were the most heavily armored and armed battleships of their time, superior to most of their contemporaries.

Their specifications were as follows:

Displacement: 33,313t (Rodney 33,730t) standard; 41,250 extra deep load Dimensions: 660ft pp; 710ft oa x 106ft x 28ft 1in mean Machinery: 2-shaft Brown-Curtis geared turbines, 8 Admiralty 3-drum boilers, 45,000shp = 23kts. Oil 3,805t (Rodney 3,770t) Armor: Belt 14in-13in, bulkheads 12in-4in, funnel uptakes 9in-7in, barbettes 15in-12in, turrets 16in-7.25in, CT 14in-6.5in Armament: 9-16in/45 (3x3), 12-6in/50 Mk (6x2), 6-4.7in/40 QF (6x1), 8-2pdr pompom (8x1), 2-24.5in TT sub Complement: 1314; 1361 as flagship

Both ships were laid down on 28 December 1922. Nelson was completed in August 1927, and Rodney in November 1927. The principle change during their lifetime was the wartime increase in light AA guns, and the addition of radar. For example, Nelson had 6-octuple 2pdr pompom, 4-quadruple 40mm Bofors, and 60 to 70 20mm Oerlikon light AA guns by the end of the war. As with all wartime battleships, displacement crept upward as new equipment was fitted, increasing by two to three thousand tons by 1945. Both survived WW II, and were broken up in 1948.

Both had active war careers. Nelson was mined twice and torpedoed once. The highlight of Rodney's career was undoubtedly when she fought Bismarck.

This famous action, in which battleships King George V (Admiral Tovey's flagship) and Rodney finally confronted the long suffering and damaged Bismarck, has been recounted many times. I am not going to go into it again here, except to point out that while Bismarck had been torpedoed in the stern and her rudders jammed, her fighting potential was undiminished. In the final engagement KG V, being the flagship, is most often mentioned, but my research leads me to believe that it was instead Rodney which was primarily responsible for the defeat of Bismarck. The 1922 treaty battleship quickly overwhelmed the 41,700t pride of the Kreigsmarine with her accurate 16in gunfire, pounding her into flaming junk (with some help from KG V). Bismarck never hit Rodney at all. By the end of the battle, Rodney had closed the range to the point she was able to fire two torpedoes at Bismarck, as mentioned above. One appeared to hit, but had no appreciable effect on Bismarck.

There is no way a slow (22 knots at the time she engaged Bismarck) second generation battleship like Rodney should have been able to catch, let alone out shoot, a new third generation battleship approximately 1/3 larger than herself. Yet indeed it happened, and Rodney proved that once she got an adversary within range of her guns, her odd design was quite satisfactory after all.


Umberto Pugliese was the Italian director of design in 1930 when work started on the four ships of the Littorio class. They were to be the first large battleships laid down since the Nelson class of 1922, and the first Italian capital ships since WW I. Littorio and Vittorio Veneto were laid down on 28 October 1934. The third ship, Impero, was laid down on 14 May 1938, and the final ship, Roma, on 18 September 1938.

In keeping with Italian tradition, they featured many innovations. Perhaps the most notable were their unusual "Pugliese" underwater protection system, and their high velocity guns. They were also the first full size fast battleships, being intended as a response to the 29.5 knot French Dunkerque class battlecruisers/light battleships laid down in 1932.

Although nominally 35,000 tons, by the time the design was complete and the first pair was laid down in 1934, the true displacement had grown to over 40,000 tons. The Fascist government of Benito Mussolini clearly had no more respect for its treaty commitments than other totalitarian dictatorships, before or since.

These ships were designed to carry 9-15in guns (3x3), even though the London Treaty allowed 16in guns. The choice of caliber was determined by the limitations of Italian ordinance manufacturing capabilities. Instead, they built an innovative, high velocity 50 caliber gun which fired a 885kg (1,947 pound) AP shell at 2,800fps, generating very high energy. The maximum range was 46,800yds at 35 degrees elevation. Unfortunately, the barrel life was very short. Broadside weight amounted to 17,523 pounds. Magazine stowage was only 74 rounds per gun.

The layout of these ships was conventional, with two triple turrets forward, and one aft. The aft triple turret was in the "X" position, raised on its barbette to the same height as the forward superfiring "B" turret, which was unusual. I have never heard an explanation for this. Could it have had to do with increasing space below the aft magazine for anti-torpedo protection? Ordinarily, designers try to keep the great weight of main battery turrets and barbettes as low as practical, both to improve stability and save the weight required by the very heavy armor on barbettes. A tower superstructure and twin stacks gave the ships a powerful appearance. The quarterdeck was cut away, and a catapult for seaplanes installed there.

The unconventional Pugliese underwater protection system consisted of a 40mm torpedo bulkhead which curved up from the outer bottom and then extended outboard to meet the lower edge of the armor belt. Within the space thus created between the void double bottom and this torpedo bulkhead was a liquid filled compartment, and within that was a void longitudinal drum with a diameter of 380cm with 6mm walls. The idea was that the explosion of a torpedo warhead would collapse the void drum within the liquid filled compartment, thus absorbing most of the explosive energy. The torpedo bulkhead was supposed to catch splinters and prevent further damage. This system was also adopted by the Russians for their Sovyetskiy Soyuz class super battleships (see my essay "The Super Battleships That Never Were" for a description of these ships). Unfortunately, it did not work as well in practice as it did in theory.

These were fast ships, but not as fast as they were sometimes credited with being. They did not sacrifice armor for speed, they exceeded the treaty limit on displacement by a wide margin so that they could have both. On trials, Littorio made 31.3 knots at 41,122t. Their sustained sea speed was closer to 28 knots. They were designed with bulbous bows, but were troubled by vibration, and the bow was consequently modified and lengthened by 6ft. The second pair were further lengthened, and the sheer at the bow increased.

Littorio's specifications follow:

Displacement: 40,724t standard; 45,236t full load Dimensions: 735ft pp, 780ft oa x 107ft 5in x 31ft 5in mean Machinery: 4-shaft Belluzo geared turbines, 8 Yarrow boilers, 128,200shp = 30kts. Oil 4,140t Armor: Belt 280mm + 70mm, bulkheads 210mm-70mm, decks 162mm-45mm, barbettes 350mm-280mm, turrets 350mm-200mm, secondary turrets 280mm-70mm, CT 260mm-60mm Armament: 9-381mm/50 (3x3), 12-152mm/55 (4x3), 4-120mm/4 (4x1), 12-90mm/50 AA (12x1), 20-37mm/54 AA (8x2, 4x1), 16-20mm/65 AA (8x2) Complement: 1830-1950

Littorio was completed on 6 May 1940, Vittorio Veneto on 28 April 1940, and Roma on 14 June 1942; Impero was never completed. Roma was sunk by two German radio controlled glider bombs while steaming to Malta to surrender. The first struck amidships and passed clear through the ship, exploding under the hull. The second caused an explosion of the forward magazines, breaking the ship in two. The other two survived the war, were turned over to the U.S. (Littorio) and U.K. (Vittorio Veneto) as war reparations in 1947, and scrapped in the early 1950's. Impero was captured incomplete by the Germans, after the Italian surrender, and used as a target. She was sunk by Allied aircraft in 1945, and scrapped at Venice in 1947.

War modifications included the fitting of additional AA guns. All three received radar during 1942-43. Endurance was about 4,700nm at 14 knots. These battleships had the somewhat checkered war careers typical of Italian heavy ships.

Littorio was hit by three torpedoes at Taranto in November 1940. She took light damage in the Battle of Sirte in March 1942, was damaged by air attack in June 1942 and April 1943. She was renamed Italia shortly after the fall of Mussolini in July 1943. On her way to Malta to surrender in September 1943, she was hit by a German radio controlled glider bomb and her hull was seriously damaged.

Vittorio Veneto was torpedoed by a British aircraft in the Battle of Matapan in March 1941, by the British submarine Urge in October 1941, and received minor bomb damage at La Spezia in June 1943.

Roma was damaged by air raids at La Spezia in June 1943, before being sunk in September 1943 on her way to Malta, as described above.

None of them contributed much to the Italian war effort. Had one of them fought it out with the French Battleship Richelieu (more about her later) for dominance in the Mediterranean, it would have been interesting. But the war was not kind to the Italian or French navies.


These two interesting ships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, were laid down on 16 May 1935 and 3 May 1935, respectively, a few months before the signing of the Anglo-German Naval Treaty which justified them.

They grew out of a design for a super-Deutschland commerce raider, displacing about 19,000t and more heavily armored than the previous class (but retaining the 6-11in gun main armament of their predecessors). Another design incorporating 8-12 in guns (4x2) and lighter armor was also considered. The German Admiralty argued that given the increased size, a third triple 11in turret should be carried, and in the end this view was accepted, even though it would raise the displacement to 26,000t. After the Anglo-German treaty was signed, the revised German Navy program officially included two small battleships of 26,000t, armed with 9-11in guns. Ultimately, as completed, S and G evolved into full size fast battleships of nearly 35,000t.

Since the Anglo-German Naval Treaty allowed guns up to 16in caliber, Hitler ordered the two new ships armed with 15in guns (these would be based on the First World War 15in twin mount). Unfortunately, the development of the new 15in guns would delay the completion of the ships, so it was decided to initially arm them with the existing 11in triple turret, and then rearm them with the new twin 15in mounts as soon as feasible. Both turrets were designed for the same size barbette, and the shell handling rooms, etc., were designed to accommodate the larger 15in shells. World War II intervened, and the ships were never rearmed. Following severe wartime bomb damage to the forward part of the ship, in November 1942, Gneisenau was to be rebuilt with the 6-15in armament (3x2) planned earlier, but the project was canceled in 1943, as time began to run out for the Third Reich.

The Scharnhorst class were handsome ships, which is a tribute to German design, especially considering the unusual British Nelson and French Dunkerque classes, with their entire main batteries concentrated forward, which preceded them. S and G were conventional in layout, with two triple turrets forward and one aft. Their single large funnel was located amidships with the hanger, catapult and cranes for their floatplanes behind it, and their secondary guns were arranged conventionally along each side of the superstructure. In 1939, a clipper bow, called the "Atlantic" bow, was fitted to both ships, which had proved to be wet forward in heavy seas. Gneisenau could be distinguished from Scharnhorst by the position of their mainmasts. Gneisenau's mainmast was stepped immediately abaft her funnel, while Scharnhorst's was stepped further aft, between her catapult and her aft main battery rangefinder. The Scharnhorst position was more attractive.

The 12-5.9in secondary guns were mounted in four twin and four single turrets. It had been planned to use all twin mounts, but there were single mounts intended for the canceled fourth and fifth Deutschlands available, and they were pressed into service. The 5.9in gun was a single purpose weapon, so S and G also had 14-4.1in dual purpose guns in twin mounts. A better arrangement might have been to standardize the secondary battery, replacing all of the 5.9in mounts with 4.1in twin mounts. The resulting 30-4.1in (15x2) secondary battery would have given these ships an outstanding heavy AA capability, while still providing adequate protection against torpedo boats and destroyers.

The new German 11in gun fired a 700lb AP shell to a claimed maximum range of 26 miles. The firing rate was 2.5 rounds per minute. Maximum elevation was 60 degrees. Broadside weight 6,300 pounds. These figures far exceed those of the WW I German 11in gun, which fired a 670lb shell to a maximum range of about 30,000 yards (17 miles). The latter figures are quoted in Jane's Fighting Ships as also applicable to the WW II German 11in gun, but I now believe them to be in error. J. N Westwood, in his book Fighting Ships of World War II, is quite specific about the differences between the WW I and WW II German 11in guns.

The Scharnhorsts carried on the German First War tradition of adequate armor protection and detailed internal subdivision. Another plus was their provision for sufficient directors for their AA armament, and the excellent fully stabilized, tachymetric, AA fire control system.

A minus was their high pressure machinery, which proved unreliable in service (a familiar refrain regarding German ships of this general vintage). Geared steam turbines were used because diesel engines of sufficient displacement and power were not available. Even so, their range of 8,400nm at 17 knots was considerable. German capital ship designers were enamored of three propeller shaft (rather than the more conventional four shaft) design, and the Scharnhorsts were so equipped (as were the Deutschland and Bismarck classes, as well as the proposed 'P' class battlecruisers and 'H' class battleships). This layout worked to Bismarck's disadvantage when she was torpedoed in the stern. The design speed was 32 knots, although there is some question as to whether either actually achieved this speed on trials.

Scharnhorst class specifications follow:

Displacement: 34,841t standard; 38,900t deep load Dimensions: 741ft 5in wl, 753ft 11in oa x 98ft 5in x 27ft Machinery: 3-shaft Brown-Boveri geared turbines, 12 Wagner boilers, 165,000shp = 32kts Armor: Belt 13.75in-6.75in, torpedo bulkhead 1.75in, deck 2in, armored deck 3in, slope 4in, turrets 14in-6in, secondary turrets 5.5in-2in, gunshields 2in, CT 13.75in-4in Armament: 9-11in/54.5 (3x3), 12-5.9in/55 (4x2, 4x1), 14-4.1in/65 (7x2), 16-37mm/83 (8x2), 8-20mm, 3-4 aircraft Complement: 1669-1840

Scharnhorst was commissioned on 7 Jan 1939; Gneisenau on 21 May 1938. During the winter of 1938-39, both were equipped with the "Atlantic" bow, which increased their overall length to 770ft 8in. A second catapult, on top of the aft 11in turret, was removed from both ships at about the same time, and Scharnhorst was equipped with a tripod mainmast.

As with other WW II capital ships, AA armament was increased as a result of wartime experience. Scharnhorst received an additional 24-20mm light AA guns; Gneisenau 12 more. Scharnhorst was fitted with 6-21in torpedo tubes (3x3) removed from the light cruiser Nurnberg.

During the first half of the war, the two ships spent most of their time together, and they had quite successful war records. Scharnhorst became the most active and successful of all German capital ships.

In November 1939 they sailed into the North Sea, attempting to break out into the Atlantic. Instead they encountered the British Armed Merchant Cruiser Rawalpindi, on distant blockade patrol, which they sank.

On 9 April 1940, S and G exchanged gunfire with the British battlecruiser Renown while covering the German invasion of Norway. Scharnhorst was hit by Renown's 15in guns, and the pair withdrew at high speed rather than fight it out with the old British veteran. Later, in the same operation, they sank a tanker and an empty troopship, then fell upon the British aircraft carrier Glorious and destroyers Ardent and Acasta. The German battleships sank all three British warships, although one of the destroyers put a torpedo into Scharnhorst, flooding her with 2,500 tons of water. This likely saved a nearby convoy, as the Germans were forced to retire to have the torpedo damage repaired.

After repairs, S and G broke out into the Atlantic, and sank 22 ships between 22 Jan and 23 Mar 1941, when they put in at Brest on the occupied Atlantic coast of France. Both ships were frequently bombed by the RAF while at Brest, and after the loss of the Bismarck (which had hoped to join them there), plans were made to bring them home to Germany.

11-13 February 1942, the famous "Channel Dash." S and G, along with heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen (survivor of the Bismarck debacle), ran from Brest, through the Straits of Dover, to safety in Kiel. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau both hit mines off the coast of Holland during the passage. Both went into dry-dock at Kiel, where a few days later Gneisenau was hit by British bombers and her whole forecastle blown off. It was at this time that the plan to go ahead and convert her to 15in guns was put into effect, but this was never completed, and late in the war the hulk was sunk as a blockship in Gdynia harbor.

Scharnhorst was repaired by October 1942, and in March of 1943 she was sent to Norway. From there she, in company with battleship Tirpitz, bombarded the Norwegian weather station on Spitzbergen Island. I have been to Spitzbergen Island, which is very far north, up in the Arctic Ocean, and it is hard to imagine anything of sufficient military value there to warrant the attention of two battleships. Just surviving against the elements is difficult enough in that cold and lonely place, which is frozen within the Arctic ice pack during the winter.

Scharnhorst's last operation was against a convoy enroute to Murmansk, Russia. On 26 December 1943, Scharnhorst fought the Battle of North Cape. This famous incident, the last such in the war, was precipitated when the Scharnhorst and five destroyers attempted to interdict convoy JW 55B in vile weather off the North Cape of Norway. The situation on the Eastern front had worsened to the point that the German High Command was willing to give the naval force commander on the scene, Rear-Admiral Erich Bey, tactical freedom for the first and only time in the entire war.

It is striking that the weather conditions were very similar to the New Year's Eve Battle of the previous year, only worse (as an aside, I might mention that when I visited the North Cape, in the middle of July, it was cold with a light rain and a heavy fog that cut visibility to a few yards. There is a small plaque there commemorating Scharnhorst's last battle). In the New Year's Eve Battle, the heavy cruiser Hipper, the pocket battlecruiser Lutzow, and six destroyers, failed to destroy a convoy bound for Murmansk. They were driven off, in conditions of near zero visibility, by the British escort under the command of Robert Burnett, consisting of light cruisers Jamaica and Sheffield with five destroyers.

British superiority in radar and tactics had more than compensated for the German ships' superiority in heavy guns. Now, a year later, the disparity between British and German radar had only worsened.

Scharnhorst and her five destroyers put to sea from Alten Fjord on Christmas Day. The next morning (the 26th), Admiral Bey deployed his destroyers in a scout line on a south-westerly course. Scharnhorst continued on to the north. The German force was divided. You would think that after four years of war, German Admirals would have learned not to divide their numerically inferior forces, but apparently not. As Scharnhorst blundered around in the fog and snow, plunging into heavy seas, she was suddenly engaged by the British heavy cruiser Norfolk and the light cruiser Belfast. The light cruiser Sheffield trailed the other two, but could not get within gun range. This cruiser force was again commanded by Vice-Admiral Robert Burnett, hero of the battle against Hipper and Lutzow the year before. Almost immediately an 8in shell knocked out Scharnhorst's forward radar. She was left almost blind in the prevailing conditions of very poor visibility. She maneuvered to escape the British cruisers, succeeded, then turned back to her northerly course to again seek the elusive convoy. Admiral Bey tried to summon his destroyers, but by then they were far away, and unable to make good speed because of the heavy seas. Bey then ordered them farther to the west to search for the convoy. Aerial reconnaissance advised Bey of an enemy naval force to the southwest of him (between his position and safety), but he continued north.

Shortly after noon, Scharnhorst was again surprised by the British cruisers. A twenty minute gun battle ensued, in which Scharnhorst scored heavily on Norfolk. Sheffield dropped out with engine trouble, and the other two cruisers fell back and began shadowing the German battleship. Bey made no attempt to shake off the British cruisers, instead ordering his destroyers to meet him back at Alten Fjord, and set course for home.

Admiral Bey's false sense of complacency was shattered four hours later when starshell illuminated Scharnhorst, and radar directed 14in shells from the battleship Duke of York, plus 6in shells from the light cruiser Jamaica, started falling around her. Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser's covering force had arrived. From approximately six miles away, Duke of York straddled the German battleship. Scharnhorst returned fire and ran to the east to open the range. After twenty minutes of this running gun battle, Scharnhorst had been hit repeatedly. Her forward turret was jammed, and a hit aft caused flooding which slowed her slightly. Nevertheless, she had opened the range to 10 miles, and both battleships temporarily ceased firing.

A few minutes later two destroyers crept up on each side of the German battleship. Scharnhorst's lookouts spotted the pair of destroyers to port, and she engaged them with her secondary battery, but the starboard pair got to within one mile before being spotted, and put a torpedo into her. As she turned to avoid them, the port side pair pumped three more torpedoes into her. One hit flooded a boiler room and Scharnhorst's speed dropped to eight knots. Quick work in the engineering spaces got her speed back up to over 20 knots, but it was not enough. Duke of York closed the range and opened fire, joined by all three cruisers and four more destroyers. Fourteen inch shells and multiple torpedo hits from the cruisers and destroyers sank the Scharnhorst after 36 minutes. Only 36 of her crew survived the battle and the icy water.

This battle is often referred to as the last single ship battleship duel, but it wasn't, really. Scharnhorst was overwhelmed by superior forces in conditions very much more favorable to them than to her. Probably Duke of York could have taken Scharnhorst in a true one-on-one battle, but that is not what happened off the North Cape of Norway in December, 1943.


This was intended to be a class of four ships, Richelieu, Jean Bart, Clemenceau, and Gascoigne, but only Richelieu was completed to the original design. The first two were authorized in 1935, and the second two in 1938. Jean Bart was about 77% complete when the Germans occupied France, and she escaped to Morocco, at that time a French colony. She was completed after the war to a modified design, and is covered in my essay on the post-treaty battleships. The last two were not completed at all, due to the outbreak of the war and the fall of France. Clemenceau was only about 10% complete when France capitulated, and the hull was destroyed by Allied bombers on 27 August 1944. Gascoigne was to have been built to a revised design with one main battery turret fore and one aft. She was never laid down.

The Richelieu class was to have been an answer to the Italian Littorio class, only the French actually tried to stay within the Treaty limits. In this they did a pretty good job, as the Richelieu was widely regarded as equal or superior to the much larger (by approximately 5,700 tons) Littorio class. This was an important comparison at the time Richelieu was designed, as France and Italy were engaged in a naval arms race.

Richelieu was designed to carry 8-15in, 15-6in DP, 8-37mm AA, and 24-13.2mm light AA guns. During trials (conducted postwar) she made 32.5 knots. A hefty 37% of her displacement was allocated to protection, which was adequate against 15in shellfire. In that sense she was probably the best balanced of the fast battleships that actually tried to conform to the Treaty, as she carried 15in guns and was adequately protected against 15in gunfire. You can make a pretty good case for Richelieu as the best of the treaty battleships. The Scharnhorsts and the KG Vs had the armor but not the main battery, and the North Carolinas had 16 inch guns but not the same level of protection. The South Dakotas had 16 inch guns and the armor to protect against them, but were very cramped ships compromised in other ways. The Nelson class were really the last of the second generation dreadnoughts, and were seriously deficient in speed.

The French 1935 pattern 15in gun fired a 1,938 pound shell at up to 35 degrees elevation to a maximum range of 50,000 yards. It could fire at a rate of 1-2 shells per minute. Richelieu's magazines would accommodate up to 832 of these big 380mm shells. Her broadside weight was 15,504 pounds. Richelieu's 8-15in guns were carried in two quadruple turrets, both forward in "A" and "B" positions. Her 9-6in DP secondary guns were in three triple turrets, all aft (two side by side in what would have been "X" position, and one in "Y" position). This awkward disposition was duplicated in Jean Bart, but was to have been changed in Gascoigne to a one forward and one aft arrangement. This would have solved the problem of the blind arc aft, but not the problem of having too many eggs (guns) in one basket (turret). A partial answer was that the French quadruple turret was internally divided in half longitudinally . This was supposed to reduce the chance of a single hit destroying all four guns. Even if true, it would not prevent a hit at the top of the partition from putting all the guns in the turret out of commission, and any hit which jammed a turret would in effect put half of the ship's main battery out of action. The two main battery turrets were widely spaced to prevent a single hit from incapacitating both of them, and to minimize blast interference. A wise precaution which, unfortunately, partially negated the supposed savings in weight of armor which was the reason for the design in the first place.

The 6in DP secondary guns were not very satisfactory in the AA role, and being as they were all disposed aft, they could not engage targets in a very large arc forward. In the Autumn of 1943 the light AA battery was substantially increased during a refit in the U.S.A. to 56-40mm and 48-20mm guns. At the same time radar was added and the catapults and aircraft removed. Bunkerage was increased by 500 tons. Complement was increased. These changes caused displacement to rise by about 3,000 tons.

Richelieu was an unusual ship in appearance, but not ugly. She had a very long fore deck with two widely spaced main battery turrets, a tower superstructure, and a combined funnel and after superstructure. The quarterdeck was cut away and some AA guns were placed there. The catapults and aircraft were originally placed amidships, between the fore and aft superstructures. The front half of the ship resembled the earlier Dunkerque class, but the back half was completely different, and more attractive.

Richelieu's specifications:

Displacement: 35,000t standard, 43,293t normal, 47,548t deep load Dimensions: 794ft pp, 813ft 2in oa x 108ft 3in x 31ft 7in Machinery: 4-shaft Parsons geared turbines, 6 Indret boilers, 150,000shp = 30 knots. Oil = 6796t Armor: Main belt 13.5in-9.75in (fore bulkhead 15in-9.75in), longitudinal torpedo bulkhead 2in-1.25in, main deck 6.75in-6in, lower deck 2in-1.5in, main turrets 17.5in-6.75in, secondary turrets 5in-2.75in. Armament: (in 1940) 8-15in/45 (2x4), 9-6in/55 DP (3x3), 12-3.9in/45 AA (6x2), 8-37mm AA (4x2), 16-13.2mm AA (4x4), 3 aircraft Complement: 1670 (in 1943) Range: 5500/2500/1800nm at 18/26/32 knots

Richelieu was laid down on 10 October 1935 and completed in July 1940. She was 95% complete when France was over run, and sailed to Dakar to escape being seized by the Germans. There she was damaged when the British attacked. She survived and joined the Allied cause as a Free French ship in 1942, when she was sent to America for a complete refit. She served with the British Eastern Fleet in 1944-1945. She later served during the war against the Communists in French Indo-China (Vietnam). She was decommissioned in 1959.

I have never heard any negative reports about her quadruple 15in turrets, so presumably they worked as designed. Regardless, I am very suspicious of quadruple turrets. And I do not approve of just two main battery turrets, no matter how many guns they contain. And any design that concentrates all the main battery guns forward (and all secondary guns aft) seems seriously flawed to me. Nevertheless, I am forced to admit that Richelieu proved satisfactory in service and was superior to the rival Littorio class in the opinion of most experts. I would rate them about equal in ship to ship fighting power, and give Richelieu the nod in most other areas. Not bad for a ship that actually conformed to the letter of the Treaty. As noted earlier, Richelieu is a strong contender for the title "Best of the Treaty Battleships."


The five ships of the British KG V class: King George V, Prince of Wales, Duke of York, Anson, and Howe, were all laid down in 1937. They are often criticized as inferior to the contemporary German Bismarck class, but their critics fail to recognize that the Royal Navy ships were originally designed within the 35,000 ton treaty limit, while the German ships exceeded the limit by approximately 7,000 tons. The KG V's should properly be compared to the German Scharnhorst class, which were of approximately the same size. Or the French Richelieu or the American North Carolina class, also designed to treaty limits.

Such comparisons are interesting because they reveal something about the military and political thought of the period. The British government desperately wanted to limit main battery guns to 14 inches. So they insisted that their new class of battleships be designed to carry 14 inch guns. The United States was lukewarm to this idea, really preferred the 16 inch gun, but went along and initially designed the North Carolina class for 14 inch guns. The French wanted ships equal to their Italian rival's latest design, which required 15 inch guns and armor sufficient to protect against 15 inch shells. But they also wanted to stay within the 35,000 ton treaty limit (which the Italians ignored). The Richelieu was an unusual and compromised design, but she had the balance of gun and armor desired, and did it on 35,000 tons. She was authorized before the 14in gun limit came into effect.

Initially, the KG V design called for 12-14 inch guns in three quadruple turrets. Twelve guns was regarded as necessary to achieve the total broadside weight desired for the new ships, given the 14 inch bore restriction. Unfortunately, stability and protection considerations later required that the superfiring "B" turret be reduced to a twin mount. This gave the ships only 10 guns, and required the design of two new types of turrets rather than just one. Fortunately, the new twin mount could be based on the tried and true 15 inch twin mount, but the new quadruple mount was complex and took a very long time to sort out.

I think it would have been better to design one new triple mount that could be made to function, settling for 9-14 inch guns in mounts that worked rather than gamble on the ultra complex quadruple mount, and have to design a new twin mount to boot.

At any rate, these ships were criticized because of their main battery for the rest of their lives, and some of the criticisms were justified. In service, the 14 inch quadruple mount had a very poor record. At times during the action against Bismarck, only POW's 'B' position twin turret was able to fire at the enemy. And it is reported that KG V also suffered from turret breakdowns in her action against Bismarck. This has received much less attention that POW's problems, probably because the Royal Navy certainly did not want the word to get out that their new battleships had defective main battery turrets, and also because Rodney was there to take up the slack in the final fight against Bismarck. The other big fight involving one of the KG V class was DOY against Scharnhorst, and I have read mixed reviews. At least one source claimed that (at last) the quadruple turrets worked as designed, but others (including Conway's) suggest that trouble with the quadruple mounts still persisted. I do not know the truth of the matter. But Scharnhorst was sunk at the end of 1943, three years of continuous war duty since the introduction of the 14 inch quadruple mount. One would think that if it had not been made to work by then, it never would be. All in all, the service record of the British 14 inch quadruple mount is not inspiring.

The KG V class has also been (justifiably) criticized for being wet forward, and they were hampered by a very short range due to their small oil capacity. This limited their usefulness in the Pacific war, as they carried only a little over half of the fuel a similar size U.S. battleship carried. The KG V's tactical diameter was rather large at 930 yards.

The dual purpose 5.25 inch secondary mounts proved to be too slow firing in the heavy AA role, they only elevated to 70 degrees, and they were crowded. On the other hand, they were certainly better value for the weight than the single purpose secondary battery of the third generation German and Italian battleships.

The KG Vs also had their good points, a fact sometimes overlooked by their critics. Their armor was generally heavy and extensive, except on the secondary turrets and CT. The main belt was very deep, extending 13 feet below the waterline at mean draught. The main deck armor was 6in over the magazines, and 5in otherwise. The underwater protection scheme was designed to withstand a 1000lb TNT charge at its most favorable point. All of this made the KG Vs generally better protected than their contemporaries, with the possible exception of Richelieu.

Their internal layout was certainly better than Bismarck's and their radar fire control was superior to anything possessed by the Axis powers. Scharnhorst, for example, was completely surprised when DOY opened fire on her using radar control in thick fog off the North Cape of Norway in the middle of winter.

Also, the 14 inch gun itself was a potent weapon. It fired a 1,590 projectile at a MV of 2,483 fps to a range of 38,550 yards at 40 degrees elevation. It was claimed that the 14in AP shell penetrated any given thickness of armor at a greater range than the earlier British 15in shell. Simple arithmetic shows that a full broadside from KG V weighed 15,900lb, and a full broadside from Richelieu weighed 15,504lb. Bismarck's broadside weight was somewhat less than Richelieu's. Seen in this light it is apparent that the KG V's were not particularly under gunned compared to other contemporary European battleships.

Their specifications were:

Displacement: 36,727t standard; 42,076 deep load Dimensions: 700ft pp, 745ft oa x 103ft x 29ft mean, 32ft 7in at 42,076t Machinery: 4-shaft Parsons geared turbines, 8 Admiralty 3-drum boilers, 110,000shp = 28kts. Oil 3,700t, later 4030t Armor: Belt 15in-4.5in, bulkheads 12in-4in, barbettes 13in-11in, turrets 13in-6in, CT 4.5in-2in Armament: 10-14in/45 Mk VII (2x4, 1x2), 16-5.25in/50 DP (8x2), 32-2pdr pompom (4x8), 2 aircraft Complement: 1422

Because the war broke out and the Treaty lapsed while these ships were still under construction, they were allowed to grow above the old Treaty limit in displacement. They were to grow still more as the war went on and new equipment was added, particularly radar and more light AA guns (up to 65-20mm Oerlikon, 8-octuple 2pdr pompoms plus 6-quadruple pompoms, and up to 14-40mm Bofors in quadruple and single mounts). By 1945 Anson's extreme deep load displacement was up to 45,360t. Stability decreased accordingly.

King George V was completed in December of 1940, Prince of Wales and Duke of York in 1941, and Anson and Howe in 1942. POW was sunk at the end of 1941; the four survivors were broken up in 1957.

They all had very active war careers. Their most spectacular moments were POW's fight against Bismarck in company with Hood, May 1941, in which POW was hit repeatedly, but none of her vital systems were put out of action by enemy shellfire; KGV's participation in the defeat and sinking of Bismarck a few days later (as Home Fleet Flagship); and DOY's defeat of Scharnhorst in late December 1943.

The only wartime loss was POW, which (along with the battlecruiser Repulse) was sunk off the coast of Malaya by a series of air strikes made by Japanese land based Naval aircraft on 10 December 1941. She became the first battleship sunk underway at sea by aircraft, and this event, more than Pearl Harbor, signaled the end of the battleship's years as the dominant class of warship.


The first pair of American treaty battleships were the North Carolina and Washington, laid down in 1937 and 1938 respectively. But their story started earlier, in 1935, as they were the result of a long series of design studies and compromises.

The requirement for "fast" battleships was becoming evident, forcing the USN away from the slow (23 knot) heavily armed and armored type it had traditionally preferred. The CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) expressed the view that was eventually adopted: enough speed to run down the fastest capital ships in the Pacific (the Kongo class, then rated at 26 knots). The four Kongo class battlecruisers were regarded as a particular "thorn in the side" by USN strategists in the years preceding WW II. This meant the new U.S. battleships should make a minimum of 27 knots. All subsequent U.S. battleships, except the special purpose Iowa class, would be designed to this standard. When polled, the senior officers with the Fleet favored the "battlecruiser" type (fast battleship) by a 9 to 7 margin. The senior officers in the War Plans Division favored the fast ship by a greater 5 to 1 margin.

In March of 1934, Japan had announced that she would not renew the naval treaties when they expired. As we have seen, the London Treaty of 1936, which was being negotiated as the North Carolinas were being designed, called for 14in guns and 35,000t, but had escalator clauses to allow 16in guns and 45,000t if a nonsignatory did not abide by the spirit of the treaty. Japan's noncompliance triggered these escalator clauses in time to provide 16in guns for the North Carolinas, but not equivalent armor protection. The design was by then too far advanced to allow much change in the protection scheme. In fact, the 16in guns were only possible because the design called for 12-14in guns in three quadruple turrets, and these had been designed with the same turret ring size as the triple 16in turrets BuOrd had wanted all along. BuOrd was not happy about reverting to the 14in gun for the new battleships, or with the risks inherent in developing a quadruple turret. Japanese non-compliance (also German and Italian, but that wasn't known then) allowed BuOrd to have its way and make America's treaty battleships the most powerful of the type.

The complexity and evolution of the design selection process is interesting. The following information on this topic is summarized from Norman Friedman's definitive book on the subject U.S. Battleships - An Illustrated Design History.

In all, 15 preliminary sketch designs were considered, and variations of the most promising were analyzed. Each was identified by a letter of the alphabet. The preliminary design finally chosen for further development ("K") was a 30.5kt proposal with 9-14in guns in three triple turrets, all forward of the superstructure (as in Nelson), and a 15in armor belt (immune zone 19,000-30,000 yards) on a 710ft hull. Several months passed before it was discovered that this layout did not result in the weight savings envisioned.

Sketch designs in the next step of the selection process, as the original "K" proposal was refined, eventually numbered 35! These were assigned Roman numerals. Variations in armament, armor, hull length, torpedo protection, speed, internal layout, in fact almost every specification, were explored. The first of this series were numbers I through V.

In January of 1936, Scheme IV was selected for further development. This design showed a 725ft hull on which was mounted 9-14in guns and a 12.125in belt (immune zone 21,400-30,000 yards); speed was down slightly to 30 knots. But the General Board wanted major changes, including 20-5in secondary guns (rather than the 12 carried by design IV). This resulted in three further sketch designs: IV-A, IV-B, and IV-C. None met the Board's requirements, particularly in terms of protection. By May of 1936 the General Board relented on very high speed--27 knots was perhaps adequate after all, if more armor could be worked in.

Designs numbered up to XV-E had been explored by the middle of June 1936. On June 25 the Board issued new tentative characteristics. Now they wanted a 28.5 knot ship with 11-14in guns and 16-5in secondary guns. The immune zone was to extend from 19,000 to 30,000 yards. This was a specification well balanced between speed, battery, and protection.

Preliminary Design responded with design XVI on 20 August 1936. This had a 714ft hull, 12-14in guns in three conventionally laid out quadruple turrets, an 11.2in belt sloped at 10 degrees, and a 27 knot speed. As the wrangling continued over the new battleship's design, XVI-A, XVI-B, XVI-C, and XVI-D appeared. XVI-C, in particular, was widely debated. It was 725ft long, carried 9-14in guns, a 13.6in belt, and made 30 knots. For a time this design was supported by the General Board.

In October of 1936 the characteristics of the new battleship were again revised by the General Board. Underwater protection was to be improved (tests had shown this to be necessary), the main armor belt thickened and more sharply angled, and more secondary guns worked in. Speed was allowed to decrease to 27 knots. This time the revised characteristics were signed by the Acting Secretary of the Navy, with the provision that the design allow 16in guns (in triple turrets) to be substituted for the planned 14in (in quadruple turrets) if necessary. A detailed design was then prepared which became the North Carolina class.

In March 1937 the gun caliber clause in the London Treaty was invoked, and in July 1937 BuOrd finally got the 16in guns they had campaigned for all along. 9-16in guns would be far more effective than 12-14in. And a triple turret was far less risky that the proposed quadruple turret. The North Carolina design, as planned, had been well balanced, carrying 14in guns and adequately protected against 1,500lb 14in shells. But with the adoption of the 16in gun (then firing a 2,250lb shell), the immune zone shrank to 21,000-27,700 yards over magazines, and only 23,200-26,000 yards over machinery. Note that the ship's armor had not changed, just the standard of comparison. Also note that against the U.S. 16in/2,250lb shell, Japan's 16in gun battleships, the Nagato class, had no immunity at all! In fact, by the start of the Pacific war, North Carolina and Washington carried the new super heavy 2,700lb 16in shell, against which they (and most other battleships in the world) had virtually no immune zone. This new shell made the American 16in gun nearly equal to the Japanese 18.1in gun (3,220lb shell) carried by the giant Yamato class.

The specifications of the North Carolina class (as built) were as follows:

Displacement: (Washington) 37,484t standard; 44,377t full load Dimensions: 714ft 6in wl, 728ft 9in oa x 108ft 4in x 32ft 11in full load Machinery: 4-shaft General Electric turbines, 8 Babcock & Wilson boilers, 121,000shp = 28kts. Oil 6,260t, range17,450mn @ 15kts Armor: Belt 12in-6.6in on .75in STS backing, armor deck 5.5in-5in with 1.45in weather deck and .62-.75in splinter deck, bulkheads 11in, barbettes 14.7in-16in, turrets 16in face, 7in roof, 9.8in side, 11l8in rear, CT 14.7in-16in with 7in roof Armament: 9-16in/45 (3x3), 20-5in.38 DP (10x2), 16-1.1in AA (4x4), 12-.5in light AA (12x1), 3 aircraft Complement: 1880

In appearance, North Carolina and Washington were handsome, well proportioned and well balanced ships with a flush deck and a conventional layout. Twin funnels, a graceful prow, a tall fire control tower, and a cruiser stern were recognizable features of their design. I have always regarded them as the most handsome of all U.S. battleships (see my article "Great Capital Ships, 1920 to 1990").

North Carolina was commissioned on 9 April 1941, and Washington on 15 May 1941. Severe (unforeseen) propeller vibration problems on trials at speeds from 25-27 knots caused various propeller combinations (3, 4, and 5 bladed types of various diameters) to be experimented with. The North Carolina received the nickname "Showboat" due to her many trips in and out of New York harbor. On various trials during December 1941, Washington made 28 knots at 42,100t, and 27.1 knots at 45,000t at full power.

Like all wartime battleships, the North Carolinas received increased electronics and AA battery as the war went on. By August 1945 the Washington carried 15 quadruple 40mm Bofors mounts, 1-quadruple 20mm mount, 8-twin 20mm mounts, and 63-single 20mm mounts.

The best point of the class was probably their offensive firepower. Their main battery was second to none, with a broadside weight of 24,300 pounds. They (and the similar South Dakotas) also carried the best secondary battery, the best AA battery, and the best fire control of all treaty battleships. They were extremely maneuverable, with a tactical diameter of 575 yards at 14.5 knots. They had great range and endurance, again superior to the battleships of all other nations. They were seaworthy. Their underwater protection was superior to that of the other American 3rd generation battleships.

They were later criticized for being "unbalanced" (armament vs. armor), but it must be remembered that in fact they were adequately protected. If they had been completed with 12-14in guns (3x4) as originally planned, they would have been "balanced," and no one would have complained. Substituting the triple 16in gun turret for the quadruple 14in gun turret on a one-for-one basis did not make the ships any larger or heavier; it just gave them a much more effective offensive punch. It was only the marked superiority of the American 16in gun and super heavy 2,700lb shell (compared to the gun/shell combination carried by all other nations' Treaty battleships) that made them seem "unbalanced." A useful analogy might be this: which would you rather put your money on, a heavyweight boxer with a good chin and a good punch, or one with a good chin and a great punch? In theoretical comparisons made by BuShips in December 1941, the North Carolinas fared well against either King George V or Bismarck.

Both ships served throughout the Second World War, participating in a great many campaigns in both the Atlantic and Pacific. They proved to be very satisfactory in service, and were generally regarded as superior in operation to the very cramped South Dakota class which followed.

The most significant moment of North Carolina's wartime service occurred when she was torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-15, on 15 September 1942. The torpedo hit on the left side just behind number 1 barbette (and abeam the forward magazine), and blew an 18x32 foot hole in the hull. This let in about 970t of seawater, and buckled the second and third decks. Within minutes the ship was able to make 24 knots. After the incident BuShips stated that the underwater protection system had performed much as designed and no changes were indicated. The North Carolina class underwater protection was superior to that of the subsequent South Dakota and Iowa classes (which verged on being defective due to unwise changes in the whole theory of underwater protection), although this was probably not realized at the time.

North Carolina, the famous "Showboat," was the only U.S. treaty battleship retained in active service post-war. In 1961 she was stricken from the Navy list, but preserved as a war memorial at Wilmington, North Carolina, where you can see her today.

Washington became the most successful American battleship of WW II. Her most glorious moment in the war came during the night of 13-14 November 1942, when she sank the Japanese battlecruiser Kirishima in a wild night action called the Second Battle of Guadalcanal. Kirishima and her accompanying cruisers and destroyers had just disabled the new U.S. battleship South Dakota, when Washington slipped to within 8,400 yards of Kirishima and overwhelmed her with 16in and 5in shellfire. Washington was not hit in this action, which was primarily a tribute to American radar, fire control, and the offensive firepower of the North Carolina class. It is interesting that Kirishima was one of the Kongo class battlecruisers that, back in 1935, had so markedly influenced the concept that eventually became the North Carolina class. Washington was sold for scrap in 1961.

Washington served with the British Home Fleet in 1942, but despite the hopes and prayers of her crew, the German super battleship Tirpitz never came out to fight. I have always thought that if she had, Washington would have surprised a lot of people by taking her without too much problem.


These four ships were the last of the treaty battleships. They were laid down about the time the war in Europe started, and all were completed after the war in the Pacific had already begun. They were designed in accordance with the limitations of the London Naval Treaty, however, which is why they are covered here.

The original plan was to build two more North Carolina class battleships in FY 1938; due to pressure from the CNO a new type, which became the South Dakotas, was designed, scheduled for FY 1939. Preliminary design work began in March of 1937, and the characteristics of the new ships were approved in January of 1938. Congress appropriated the money to build them in April 1938 and, as war loomed on the horizon, authorized a second pair in June 1938. Their names were to be South Dakota, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Alabama.

In retrospect, it probably would have been wiser and more efficient to have built two more North Carolinas, which would not have required additional design work, then build the four special purpose Iowas (design work on these had already started by the time the second pair of South Dakotas was authorized), and concentrate all further battleship effort on the definitive Montana class.

The primary design goal for the new class was to incorporate protection against 16in shellfire while staying within the 35,000t limit, and maintaining the 27 knot speed of the previous class. The immune zone (against the 2,240lb 16in shell) was to be 17,700-30,900 yards. This shrank to 20,500-26,400 yards after the introduction of the 2,700lb AP shell. Providing adequate protection against 16in shellfire in a 35,000t battleship was a real achievement. Basically, it was accomplished in the following manner: 1. The hull was shortened, and the vitals made even more compact than they were in the North Carolinas. To achieve this turbines and boilers were placed side by side, all main generators were steam powered instead of diesel, the forward main generator room was dispensed with, and the magazines were reduced in length by a total of 8 feet, thus reducing the area requiring armor protection. 2. The armor belt, although not much heavier, was internal and more steeply sloped than the North Carolinas.

Thus the fundamental design goal was achieved, but the price was high: inadequate torpedo protection (in reality a greater threat to WW II battleships than gunfire), reduced seakeeping ability, and extremely cramped and uncomfortable ships. All staterooms were reduced in size, as were the crews' berthing and messing spaces, which were no longer separate. The ships were wet forward, they had a very deep draft (which limited the harbors and drydocks they could use), they required more power to make the same speed (135,000shp rather than 115,000shp), and there was considerable blast interference between their closely placed guns. All of these drawbacks except the inadequate torpedo protection stemmed from their short hulls. As the war progressed and light AA guns, electronic equipment and personnel were added, the crowding problem became acute.

The problem with the torpedo protection system was a result of the armor scheme, which required a very rigid layer of armor far below the waterline to protect against underwater 16" shell hits. This negated the concept used in previous battleships, which was based on the deformation of relatively light and elastic bulkheads to contain the blast from an underwater explosion. Caisson tests, which revealed the flaws in the design of the new underwater protection scheme, were not performed until all of the South Dakota class were actually under construction. Likewise, the Iowa class design was virtually finished, and its underwater scheme was similar to the South Dakota class. Nothing could be done for either class except to fill the outboard void spaces with fuel oil, in the hope that it would absorb some of the energy from an underwater explosion. Significantly, the subsequent Montana class design reverted to an underwater protection scheme similar to the North Carolina's.

The South Dakota class main and secondary battery was the same as the previous North Carolina class, and the subsequent Iowa class, and the AA battery was similar. The broadside weight remained 24,300 pounds. All guns on the South Dakotas were more crowded than on the previous and later classes, however. South Dakota herself was fitted as a Force Flagship, with an additional level added to her conning tower, and she sacrificed two twin 5in mounts as weight compensation. Her secondary battery was therefore 16-5in rather than the 20-5in carried by the other three ships.

The specifications for the class were as follows.

Displacement: 37,970t standard (SD); 44,519t full load Dimensions: 666ft wl, 680ft oa x 108ft 2in x 35ft 1in full load Machinery: 4-shaft General Electric turbines, 8 Babcock & Wilcox boilers, 130,000shp = 27.5 kts. Oil 6,959t, range 15,000nm at 15 kts. Armor: Belt 12.2in on .875in STS, lower belt 12.2in-1in on .875in STS, armor deck 5.75in-6in with 1.5in weather deck and .625in splinter deck, bulkheads 11in, barbettes 11.3in-17.3in, turrets 18in face, 7.25in roof, 9.5in side, 12in rear, CT 16in with 7.25in roof Armament: 9-16in/45 (3x3), 20-5in/38 DP (10x2), 12-1.1in AA (3x4), 12-.5in light AA as designed, 3 aircraft. Complement: 1,793 (approx. 2,350 by the end of the war)

Visually the "short hulled" class (as they were called) differed from the North Carolinas and Iowas by having only one funnel. Their general layout was conventional, but their stubby hull and single funnel made them recognizable. They handled well, and had good maneuverability, with a tactical diameter of 700 yards at 16 knots.

Like the North Carolinas, the short hulled battleships were fitted with various combinations of 3, 4, and 5 bladed propellers, but they never suffered from vibration problems of the same magnitude. In 1942, Indiana made 27.8 knots at 41,700t. Alabama recorded 27.08 knots at 42,740t, and 26.7 knots at 44,840t while being standardized in 1945.

As with all U.S. battleships, the AA armament increased dramatically during the war. By the late stages of the war they carried 14 to 18 quadruple Bofors 40mm mounts, and 40 to 84 Oerlikon 20mm guns in single, twin, and quadruple mounts. The 1.1in and .5in AA guns had been deleted by that time.

All four ships served in many campaigns during the war, mostly with the fast carrier task forces. Only once was one of them in a surface engagement, the night battle called the Second Battle of Guadalcanal, 14-15 November 1942. In this battle, South Dakota came under fire from the Japanese battlecruiser Kirishima and her attending cruisers and destroyers. She was hit by 1-14in shell, 18-8in shells, 6-6in shells, and 1-5in shell. Her fire control tower was badly shot up. Her surface search, air search, and fire control radars were knocked out (with the exception of one set on the after control position). Most of the internal communications and fire control circuits were disrupted. The concussion of the aft turret firing astern caused more electrical problems, set the float planes on the fantail on fire (and subsequently blew them overboard). Although her main armor was not penetrated and she was in no danger of sinking (as usual, Japanese AP shells performed miserably), and her main battery remained functional, the ship was effectively put out of action during the height of the battle, and would have been at the mercy of her enemies if Washington had not been there to blow away Kirishima and save the day (night).

During the Allied invason of North Africa, the incomplete Vichy French battleship Jean Bart, with only one of her quadruple 15in turrets operational, opened fire on the invasion fleet. Massachusetts returned fire, and quickly knocked her out of the fight and the war. Jean Bart was severely damaged and was not repaired and completed until 1949, becoming the only French post-treaty battleship.

After the war, all of the short hulled class were almost immediately decommissioned and placed in reserve. South Dakota was sold for scrap in 1962, and Indiana suffered a similar fate in 1963. Massachusetts and Alabama were preserved as war memorials in their respective states. You can visit their web sites via links from my Naval and Military page.

The final verdict on the South Dakota class is mixed. In a theoretical one-on-one gunbattle (the kind of occurrence which in reality almost never happened), they were probably the best of all the treaty battleships. Yet in actual service they were regarded as inferior to the previous North Carolina class.


In the course of this essay I have occasionally made reference to the hypothetical title "Best of the Treaty Battleships." Making such a selection must be both hypothetical and personal. All of the treaty battleships were heavily compromised to a greater or lessor extent by the need to at least nominally conform to the limitations of the various international naval arms limitation treaties. All of them could have been improved had these restrictions been lifted.

The term "best" is itself open to various interpretations. To me it implies a balance of qualities, the most generally useful battleship, not just the battleship theoretically most likely to win a one-on-one gun battle. I look at it this way: If I were the Chief of Naval Operations of a major navy, which type would I select to operate in WW II?

Rodney (too slow) and Scharnhorst (too little firepower) get eliminated immediately. But note that, in reality, both served well in WW II. That leaves Littorio, Richelieu, King George V, North Carolina, and South Dakota. All pretty good ships. Any one of which could be the top choice, depending on the viewpoint of the person doing the choosing. Since in this case that is me, I am going to drop Littorio (displacement too far over the treaty limit, guns too experimental, and maybe too vulnerable to underwater damage) and King George V (range too limited, quadruple turrets too complex) from further consideration. That leaves three, all winners.

The second runner-up is . . . South Dakota! The top gunfighter has great range, good protection, and adequate speed. But she is compromised operationally in seakeeping qualities and habitability.

The first runner-up is . . . Richelieu! Well balanced, fast, only her unusual layout relegates her to second place.

The "Best of the Treaty Battleships" is . . . North Carolina! Adequate or better in every category, particularly firepower (main, secondary, and AA all second to none), fire control, sensors, maneuverability, and range. Her superior seakeeping qualities and habitability lift her above South Dakota, and her superior main battery and sensible layout edge her ahead of Richelieu.

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Copyright 1998, 2003 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.

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