The Post-Treaty Battleships (Part 2)
By Chuck Hawks
Now we turn to the Pacific battleships and the two classes about 95% of the worlds experts would consider legitimate contenders for the battleship "heavyweight champion" title. If you want to read an in depth essay on this subject, see Jonathan Parshall's Imperial Japanese Navy website. His examination of Yamato and Iowa (plus other contemporary battleships), equipped as they served in the Second World War, is outstanding.
As explained earlier, my focus is somewhat different. I have chosen Musashi and Wisconsin to represent their classes, because they were the last of their respective classes and presumably included the tiny improvements resulting from the operational experience gained with the earlier ships. Let's look at the Wisconsin first.
The last American battleship to be completed, BB 64 Wisconsin was laid down in 1941 and completed in 1944. She had three nearly identical sisters, Iowa, New Jersey and Missouri. Many consider the Iowa class to have been America's most beautiful battleships.
Wisconsin served the United States in three wars (WW II, Korea and the Gulf War) and was the last battleship in the world to be de-commissioned (on 30 September 1991). She was stricken from the Navy list on 12 January 1995.
As I pointed out near the beginning of this article, after their final rebuild and re-commissioning in the 1980's, the Iowa class battleships became the all time, undisputed, battleship heavyweight champions of the world. No other battleship in history even came close to the awesome firepower of the four Iowa's in their final form. Let's take a look at Wisconsin's specifications back in 1945 (again from my trusty copy of Conway's):
If these specifications do not exactly match what you are used to, don't fret. I have several reference books at hand and they all vary slightly.
Jane's Fighting Ships from the war years, the 1950's and into the 1960's, credited these ships with a standard displacement of 45,000t, a rated speed of 33kts, service speed of 35kts and 19in to 16in belt armor. These figures were widely repeated, with variations. Whether the extreme over estimation of the Iowa's armor was simple mistake, or government misdirection dating back to the war years, I do not know.
For what appears to be the final word on all US battleship classes, I recommend the book U.S. Battleships, An Illustrated Design History by Norman Friedman. Mr. Friedman, by the way, says that the Iowa class ships never ran a measured mile in speed trials due to fear of enemy submarines. He quotes the same design speed as Conway's (and the other specs are very similar, if not identical, to Conway's figures), but says that the power plant was designed to permit up to 20% overload, that is 254,000shp, enough to drive a fully loaded ship to 33.5kts, or a light ship (51,000t) to 35.4kts.
He also states that on trials New Jersey showed fuel consumption equivalent to a range of 20,150nm at 15kts, or 4830nm at full power, far exceeding the design specification. The operational flexibility conferred by this great radius of action should not be underestimated. It is the kind of thing easily overlooked when comparing battleship guns, armor and so forth, but in the real world it may mean that battleship "A" is on station performing her mission, while the more impressive (on paper) battleship "B" is in port refueling.
As to the plusses and minuses of the Wisconsin, the extreme longevity and usefulness of the class certainly indicates that the fundamental design got it right. She was designed to be a battleship that could escort the fast carrier task forces. By the time Wisconsin joined the fleet, the fast carrier task force had become the final arbiter of sea power, having replaced the battle line in this role.
Wisconsin and her sisters fit naturally into the new role. Their high speed, long range and unsurpassed AA capability made them the right tool for the job at the right time.
The superb 16in/50 gun (probably on balance the best battleship gun ever built) fired a super heavy 2700lb AP shell (the previous 16in AP shell weighed 2240lbs) at 2500fps, for a range of 42,345yds at 45 Degrees elevation.
The hull had a "bulbous" bow, to reduce drag (this increased both speed and range) The size and volume of their great hulls, plus their other sterling attributes, would make them useful to their country's Navy 40 years after the end of the war they were designed to fight. They would live to help bring down another Evil Empire.
There were some minuses, however none proved to be critical. The Iowa class proved to be wetter ships, particularly at speed, than they should have been. The very long fine bow tended to bury itself in large waves and the sudden change to the full beam made them wet in the vicinity of the foreword turrets. They needed about six feet more beam.
Their armor was insufficient to provide a decent immune zone against either the 2700lb 16in shell or the 3200lb 18.1in shell fired by the Yamato class ships. The machinery could have been redesigned to save weight and space and the machinery spaces further subdivided.
The torpedo-protection system was relatively unsatisfactory, a problem accentuated by the narrowness of the hull in the vicinity of number one turret and its magazine. The solution would have been a blister, but this was estimated to slow the ship by 1.5kts, a price the General Board refused to pay.
As it was, Wisconsin's torpedo protection system was only designed to resist about 680lbs of explosive and this estimate may have been optimistic. This was probably her most serious deficiency. Fortunately, none of the Iowa class were ever torpedoed.
The light AA guns should have been placed higher to give them larger sky arcs and some of them were in-operable in a seaway due to spray interference. The hull shape set up unusual standing waves that made the Iowa class difficult to refuel from.
Berthing was cramped, given the large increase in wartime complement, and the bridge was too small. Minor complaints like these could probably be leveled at almost any battleship in wartime.
In a stand-up gunfight against any other battleship in the world (ignoring her sisters), Wisconsin would have been expected to win. The single exception might be against one of the Japanese Yamato class (more about this later).
Late in her life, Wisconsin was reconstructed and returned to service. By this time there were no enemy battleships left, but the Soviet Union was making a bid to challenge the U.S. Navy's supremacy at sea. In 1980 they commissioned the first of a class of four 28,000t nuclear powered guided missile battlecruisers, good for 33kts.
The only ships in the world big and fast enough to counter these were the four Iowa class battleships, waiting patiently in reserve. The reactivation of the class started in 1981, with the New Jersey. The Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin followed.
Their 16in guns were regarded as valuable assets and were retained. Four twin 5in/38 mounts were removed to make way for Tomahawk missile launchers, the other six were retained. All of the lighter AA guns were removed.
New systems added included: eight armored box launchers for Tomahawk long range SSM, four quadruple launchers for Harpoon ASM, four Phalanax 20mm CIWS, improved communications (to the standard of a modern cruiser), SLQ-32V ECM gear, SPS-49 air search radar, SPS-67 sea search radar, various decoy systems, improved fire control systems, a new lattice foremast, installation of a helipad on the fantail, an improved fire-fighting system and conversion to distillate fuel.
Her basic specifications stayed the same, but some figures changed, as follows (from Jane's Fighting Ships 1989-90):
Off Lebanon the New Jersey taught the terrorists that SAM missile sites have no defense against 16in shells. During the Gulf War, Missouri and Wisconsin launched Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Persian Gulf against a variety of targets deep inside Iraq. Both provided fire support during operation Desert Storm (see my link to "Battleships in Desert Storm" for more details) and Wisconsin fired the last battleship salvoes (in anger) during that war.
All of the Iowa class battleships will eventually be preserved as memorials. As I write this, the New Jersey has returned to her home state as a demilitarized museum ship. The Missouri is at Pearl Harbor in a similar role. Iowa and Wisconsin have been returned to the reserve fleet, after having been prematurely stricken by the Clinton Administration. They could, potentially, re-activated at some time in the future, should the need arise.
Well, gentle reader, we have examined four great battleships, including one (Vanguard) that I have suggested might be the best all around and another (Wisconsin) that I rated the final, undisputed, battleship heavyweight champion of the world.
Now, it is time to take a look at the big one. The most stunning, superlative, legendary capital ship of them all. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present the IJN battleship Musashi!
If you like the basic qualities that set battleships apart from other, lesser, surface combatants, namely big guns, heavy armor and massive size, Musashi is the last word, forever at the top of the class.
Musashi was laid down in 1938 and completed in 1942. She was the second, and last, of the Yamato class super battleships (the third hull, Shinano, was completed as the worlds largest aircraft carrier).
Yamato became the more famous of the giant pair, but from what I have read, just about everybody in the Imperial Japanese Navy in a position to know considered Musashi the better ship. Whether this was because she was built in a private yard (Mitsubishi, in Nagasaki) instead of a Navy yard, or because she incorporated improvements, I am not sure. Perhaps a bit of both.
The final authority on these ships (almost the only authority) is the book The Battleship Yamato, by Janusz Skulski. I say "almost the only authority," because at the end of WW II, the Japanese systematically destroyed all information about these ships, even all of the photographs they could lay their hands on. For years they remained mystery ships, with little hard information available about them.
After the end of the war, the U.S. Navy convened a board of inquiry to learn what they could about the Japanese giants. Some of the data following doubtless originated from that source. Even Mr. Skulski's book deals only with the visible, external features of the ship, which he painstakingly researched down to the smallest detail. I have taken the following specifications from The Encyclopedia of the World's Warships, with additional material from Conway's and The Battleship Yamato as required:
If the specifications you have do not exactly match these, you are not alone. I have five reference books on my table as I write this, and none of them match 100%. The above figures are as close as I can make them. Except for the Armament category, by the way, they really refer to Musashi's sister ship Yamato. I have never seen a spec sheet that refers specifically to Musashi. Hopefully, the two ships were nearly identical in their basic specs.
Some further notes are in order here. The deck armor was designed to give protection from a 2,000lb bomb dropped from 15,000ft. Protection against shellfire was designed to give an immune zone against 18in shells between 22,000 and 33,000yds.
There was a 7.9in-3in longitudinal torpedo bulkhead below the main belt, this went completely under the magazines. The main belt was inclined at 20 degrees to increase its effectiveness and the torpedo bulkhead was inclined at 14 degrees. The underwater protection system was designed to withstand an 880lb charge.
The connection between the main belt and the torpedo bulkhead was weak, however, and the underwater protection system failed to live up to expectations, a familiar refrain in the history of battleship design. It took about 10 torpedoes and six heavy bombs to sink Yamato (off Okinawa, 7 April 1945). Up to 19 torpedoes and 17 bombs were required to sink Musashi (during the battle of Leyte Gulf, 24 October 1944).
Judging by those extraordinary totals of ordinance, I think it is fair to conclude that the protection systems actually performed pretty well. Both Japanese giants were sunk entirely by aircraft from U.S. aircraft carriers.
The main battery 18.1in guns fired a 3200lb AP shell a distance of 45,960yds at 45 degrees of elevation. The shells themselves had a very long fuse delay (intended to allow shells that fell short time to reach the target's hull underwater) and were disappointing in service. They tended to pass through the target before exploding. As with the German 15in shells, this was not a fault of the ship and could have been easily rectified.
Her optical rangefinders for main battery control had a base length of 15 meters, which when coupled to the outstanding quality of the optics, gave her by far the worlds best optical system for precise fire control.
Her hull had a "bulbous" bow, which reduced hull resistance by 8.2% at 27kts. Her deck had a "wave shape" designed to ease stress, clearly visible in pictures. Her unmistakable superstructure and tower bridge with its 15 meter rangefinder on top was plated with 20mm armor to protect against strafing by enemy aircraft.
The total weight of her armor was 22,895t, more than on any previous (or subsequent) ship. It is a record which is not likely to be broken.
Musashi and Yamato were incredibly maneuverable, their tactical diameter (turning circle) was only 640 meters. For comparison, Vanguard's tactical diameter was 1025 yards, and Wisconsin's (also considered an extremely maneuverable battleship) 814 yards. I have never read any particular comment about Musashi's sea keeping qualities, but such a large ship with such a great beam almost had to be a steady gun platform.
If you notice in the specifications, Musashi carried plenty of oil, but had a comparatively limited range. She was a terrible fuel hog, even worse than Jean Bart.
The ships extreme size was the result of Japanese determination to build battleships that the U.S. could not match and still pass through the Panama Canal (which has locks 110ft wide). In fact, when the Montana class was being designed (121ft beam), it was also planned to build new, wider, locks for the canal. Both projects were canceled during the war.
As I have said, Yamato and Musashi were intended to defeat U.S. battleships in a showdown for supremacy at sea. They were to overwhelm the smaller American battleships with their big guns, protected by the heaviest armor afloat.
It is a moot question whether they could have done this against an Iowa class adversary, as the aircraft carrier became the principle arbiter of sea power before either were commissioned, a development ushered in by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Up until that time, American plans were indeed to send a fleet of battleships across the sea to confront the Japanese battle fleet. I think this long voyage would not have ended well for the U.S. fleet.
Musashi vs Wisconsin in a gun battle in good weather, using optical fire control (doing it the old fashioned way, like Hood vs Bismarck) would truly be a clash of Titans, I think if they both survived the initial, very long range, phase of the battle generally intact, Musashi's bigger guns, heavier armor and greater displacement would ultimately tell as the range closed and the battle wore on.
Our chance to find out just how good one of the Japanese giants would have been in a gunfight (although it would have been a case of Yamato, light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers against the whole U.S. line of fast battelships) went by the board late in the war. Admiral Spruance, given the chance to engage the Yamato force off Okinawa with his battleships, signaled to Admiral Mitscher "you take them" (meaning with air power). Evidently the finest fighting Admiral in the U.S. Navy had plenty of respect for Yamato's surface fighting capability.
Admiral Spruance, of course, made the right decision. Sinking Yamato, Yahagi and several destroyers cost the U.S.N. just 12 aircraft. Spruance's job wasn't to play fair, it was to win. This he did, putting an exclamation point at the end of the era of battleship supremacy at sea. An era that began to end in December of 1941 with the sinking of the U.S. battleships at Pearl Harbor, and a few days later HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales off Singapore, was finally put to rest when the Yamato went down off Okinawa.
Copyright 1997, 2017 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.