Ranking the Third Generation Capital Ships

By Chuck Hawks 

Ranked in overall capability and combat usefulness, including one-on one combat potential, AA capability, underwater protection, speed, range, seakeeping, maneuverability, fire control, habitability, etc. Specifications taken from Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships, 1922-1946.

  1. Yamato class - full load (combat) displacement 71,659t
  2. Iowa class - full load (combat) displacement 57,540t
  3. Vanguard type - full load (combat) displacement 51,420t
  4. North Carolina class - full load (combat) displacement 44,377t
  5. South Dakota class - full load (combat) displacement 44,519t
  6. Richelieu Class - full load (combat) displacement 47,548t
  7. Bismarck class - full load (combat) displacement 52,600t
  8. King George V class - full load (combat) displacement 42,076t
  9. Littorio class - full load (combat) displacement 45,236t
  10. Alaska class - full load (combat) displacement 34,253t
  11. Scharnhorst class - full load (combat) displacement 38,900t
  12. Dunkerque class - full load (combat) displacement 35,500t
  13. Deutschland class (Graf Spee) - full load (combat) displacement 16,200t

Notes (and comments)

  1. The super heavy armor and armament of the Yamato Class is just too hard to ignore. The tremendous amount of damage they sustained before sinking was clearly in excess of anything any other BB ever made could have absorbed. Also, they were excellent sea boats, very maneuverable, scored at the top of the list in underwater protection, carried a vast number of AA guns, had the biggest and best main battery optical rangefinders and, despite being gas hogs, had good range.
  2. It was a difficult decision between the Iowas and Vanguard. Both types had their advantages. In several respects, Vanguard was arguably the better “all around” design. However, Iowa was superior in speed (at least in fair weather) to any other BB ever produced and, in the end, the superiority of the American 16”/50 caliber main battery (compared to everything except the Yamatos 18.1”), firing the super heavy US shells, cannot be denied.
  3. Vanguard was a great “all-around” design that scores high in every category. She was superior to the Iowa class in sea keeping, armor protection, underwater protection, general maneuverability and possibly other ways. Her 5.25 inch secondary battery was superior to the US 5” DP secondary gun against anti-light cruisers and destroyers, although clearly inferior as a heavy AA gun. Her AA suite of medium and light guns was excellent, as was her fire control. Some have criticized her recycled 15” main battery turrets. However 15” guns qualify as a serious main battery caliber (especially firing the heavy shells adopted by the Brits for the Second World War) and the British 15” mount was perhaps the most successful fitted to any post-Dreadnought BB. Her main battery layout was certainly superior to the quadruple turrets adopted for the Richelieu class.
  4. Many would rate the subsequent South Dakota class over the North Carolinas. However, the US Navy, which operated both classes together for most of the latter stages of the Second World War felt the latter class to be, overall, the better “all around” ships. After all, It was North Carolina, not one of the short-hulled ships, that was retained in commission (along with the Iowas) after the end of WW II. 
  5. The South Dakota class shared many characteristics with the Iowa class, the primary differences being a slower top speed and very severe overcrowding in the South Dakotas. The South Dakotas used the same 16”/45 caliber main battery guns found in the North Carolinas, although both the 16”/50 and 16”/45 fired the same super heavy (and super effective) shells. What put the short-hulled ships below the North Carolinas on the list as all-around BBs, despite their marginally superior armor, is simply that too much was attempted on too short a hull.
  6. I have always distrusted quadruple main battery turrets. I also don’t like having only two main battery turrets on any BB and I particularly dislike the Richelieu class layout with all main battery guns forward and all secondary battery guns aft. After all, a single hit can knock out half of the ship’s main battery! For these reasons, I considered the Richelieu class inferior to the other third generation, 15” gunned BBs for most of my life. However, in doing the research for composing this list I became aware of the French ship’s very good performance in almost all other areas and this ultimately moved them above all of the other European BBs, except Vanguard, as “all around” battleships.
  7. The Bismarck class are regarded by many (particularly in Germany) as the definitive European battleships. Certainly, their length, beam, minute internal subdivision, displacement, high speed and range are impressive. Eight 15” main battery rifles let them run with the big dogs. However, other aspects of the design are less impressive. For example, their armor was inferior to Vanguard, Richelieu and King George V, as was their underwater protection and AA protection. The lack of a dual-purpose secondary was a waste of displacement that required a tertiary heavy AA battery (4.1” in this case). The main propulsion machinery was difficult to maintain. The German 15” shell was lightweight and inferior to the French and heavy British shells. Routing crucial fire control and communications links above the main armored deck was a major mistake that made Bismarck an easy “soft kill” in her final battle against Rodney and KGV. It is telling that after the Bismarck debacle, the Germans were adamant about keeping sister Tripitz from engaging any modern Allied BB, including a KGV class ship that she clearly (on paper) out gunned.
  8. The King George V class are under rated by many due to their 14”, as opposed to 15”, main battery guns. However, the heavy British 14” shell was certainly superior to the 15” German and Italian shells in sectional density and probably in overall performance. In addition, the KGVs featured a dual-purpose secondary battery, a superior AA armament and (by the later stages of the war) superior fire control to their Axis rivals. Their armor and underwater protection were very good, despite the loss of POW to a freak torpedo hit in her final battle. On the other hand, their low freeboard at the bow, maneuverability and short range kept the King George V class from scoring higher on this list.
  9. Impressive ships on paper, the Italian Littorio class were big, fast (30 knots), good looking ships armed with nine 15”/50 caliber guns in three triple turrets. Their 6”/55 caliber secondary turrets were unusually well protected and should have provided good defense against enemy light cruisers and destroyers. Unfortunately, in wartime the Littorios turned out to be less effective than hoped. Included among their flaws were the lack of a dual-purpose secondary battery and inferior main battery accuracy, barrel life and shell performance. Their fire control was inferior, particularly at night. Their range was very short and their underwater protection turned out to be less effective than hoped. Their AA battery was inferior to most other 3rd generation capital ships. The 9.4” main belt, sloped at 11 degrees, is not particularly impressive, although it was backed by a secondary 2.756” belt. The loss of Roma to two German glider bombs and the severe damage inflicted on Italia by only one of these weapons (that actually passed through the ship before exploding after it hit the sea) is not reassuring.
  10. I admit that, as an American writer, there may be some unintentional “home cooking” in putting the Alaskas in 10th place and considering them the best all-around 3rd generation battlecruiser type ships. After all, the Scharnhorst class were battleships (and so rated), not battlecruisers at all and the French navy’s Dunkerque class, although armored only to defeat the German 11” gun carried by the German Scharnhorst and Deutschland classes, carried 13”/50 caliber main battery guns. All three of these classes had good range. I agree that a case can be made for either Dunkerque or Scharnhorst over the Alaskas, depending on one’s point of view. In a one-on-one, fair weather shootout between any of these individual ships, the result might well have been decided by luck and good tactics. However, as all-around capital ships, the Alaskas had undeniable advantages. These included the heavy 1140 pound shells for their nine 12”/50 caliber main battery guns, which were arranged in three triple turrets. I consider this definitely superior to the two quad turret, all forward, layout of the Dunkerque class and the 11” guns (670 pound shells) of the Scharnhorsts. The Alaskas had a superior 5”/38 caliber DP secondary armament and a much superior AA armament compared to the competition. Underwater protection was good for ships of this size. The Alaskas were a little faster than Dunkerque (29.5 knots) and Scharnhorst (32 knots) and certainly better sea boats than the very wet Scharnhorst class. Their machinery was also much more reliable than Scharnhorst’s. Habitability in all American capital ships was very good. Overall, I stand by my ranking of the Alaska class as #10 on this list.
  11. The Scharnhorst class battleships were considered a response to the French Dunkerque class by the Kriegsmarine. Their “advertised” standard displacement was 26,000 tons (about the same as the Dunkerques), but was actually 34,841 tons. True battleships, the Scharnhorsts were heavily armored (13.75”-6.75” main belt), but relatively lightly armed with three of the same type 11” main battery triple turrets as the pocket battleships (two forward and one aft). These used the same size turret rings as the 15” twin turrets being designed for the Bismarck class BBs and the plan was to up-gun the Scharnhorsts with twin 15” turrets as soon as was feasible. The outbreak of WW II prevented this from happening. Handsome and fast with very good German fire control optics and adequate range, their machinery proved less than totally reliable, they were very wet forward in heavy seas, their 5.9” secondary guns were not DP and their 11” main guns, smaller than any other 35,000 ton BB, kept them from scoring higher on this list.
  12. The Dunkerque class was designed as a response to the German Duetschland class and armored for protection against the German 11” shell. Either a battlecruiser or a small battleship, my opinion is that the Dunkerques best fit the definition of battlecruisers, being fast ships (30 knots) with heavy guns (13”) and relatively light armor (9.75”-5.75” main belt). Following the example of the British Nelsons, the main battery was concentrated forward of the tower bridge and the 5.1” DP secondary battery aft of the bridge. The main battery consisted of two quadruple turrets, another feature I don’t like. However, the Dunkerques were apparently successful ships and provided a template for the later and larger Richelieu class BBs. How Dunkerque would have fared against the larger and more heavily armored Scharnhorst is a matter of conjecture.
  13. The Duetschland class were the first of the 3rd generation capital ships. Germany was severely constrained by the terms of the Versailles Treaty, which limited Germany to ships no larger than 10,000 tons standard displacement. Rather than build the coast defense BBs the victories Allies expected, the German navy designed and produced long range, seagoing commerce raiders. Using mostly welded construction and diesel engines to minimize displacement and increase range, the 28 knot Duetschlands were a nasty surprise to the British and French navies. Even so, the three ships were all considerably overweight. The Duetschland actually displacing 11,700 tons standard and 15,900 tons full load, with the third ship (Graf Spee) up to 16,200 tons deep load. Even so, these were small capital ships and carried only two triple 11” main battery turrets (one forward and one aft). Armor protection was at cruiser levels, with a 3” main belt and 1.5” armored deck. Because these were the first and by far the smallest of the 3rd generation capital ships, they inevitably occupy last place on this list. However, on the plus side, they had great range, good habitability, adequate sea keeping qualities (unlike later German capital ships), decent speed and generally fulfilled their intended role very well. 

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