Submitted By Perry Downan
The word “battleship” came into being in the late 1700s. In naval warfare during the Age of Sail, the
“line of battle” was a tactic in which the ships of the fleet formed a line, end-to-end. The ships would
sail past a point of attack with each ship firing a broadside. This maneuver allowed for a systematic
concentration of fire on the target.
Naturally, to defend against this tactic the other fleet also formed a “line of battle”. These are the scenes
we see in some of the famous sea battle paintings – two fleets sailing past each other or on opposite tack
blazing away. A ship powerful enough to stand in the line of battle came to be known as a “ship of the
line” or a “line of battle” ship which was shortened to “battleship”.
For hundreds of years the battleship was a major factor in both diplomacy and military strategy. They
were a symbol of naval dominance and national might for decades. However, the battleship’s days were
numbered. The last two major sea battles involving “ships of the line” were the Battle of Jutland in
1916 between England and Germany and again between England and Germany in 1941 involving the
sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. Leading up to and during WWII it became obvious that
battleships were increasingly vulnerable to mines, submarine attacks, and aircraft attacks. Because of
the impact airpower had on naval warfare the aircraft carrier came to replace the battleship as the
leading capital ship during and after World War II. The last and second largest battleship to be launched
was the Royal Navy’s HMS Vanguard in 1944. Battleships were retained by the United States Navy
into the Cold War but only for occasional fire support purposes. The last US battleship, USS Missouri,
was decommissioned on March 31, 1992.
Three of the more famous battleships of the “modern” era are the Bismarck, the Yamato and the USS
Iowa. These great ships never met in combat. In fact, the Bismarck and the Iowa did not exist at the
same time. These three ships represent the pride of their countries’ navy.
One of the most famous warships of WW II was named after the 19th century German Chancellor Otto
von Bismarck. The design for the Bismarck was begun in the early 1930s, its keel was laid on July 1,
1936, it was launched on February 14, 1939, and commissioned on August 24, 1940. It was sunk on
May 27, 1941 by elements of the Britich fleet lead by HMS Rodney, HMS King George V and the
battlecruiser Renown and the cruiser Sheffield.
The largest battleship ever built was named after the ancient Japanese Yamato Province. She was
designed by the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1937, the keel was laid on November 4, 1937, launched on
August 8, 1940, and formally commissioned in late 1941. The only time Yamato fired her main guns at
enemy targets was in October 1944, during the Battle off Samar which was part of the Battle of Leyte
Gulf. On April 7, 1945 at 12:23 Yamato was attacked by the first wave of 280 aircraft from US Navy
Task Force 58. During that attack she was hit by 2 bombs and 1 torpedo. A short time later a second
strike of 100 aircraft attacked the Yamato. At 14:23, having taken 10 torpedo and 7 bomb hits,
Yamato’s forward ammunition magazines detonated and she sank to her watery grave.
The largest United States battleships were the Iowa class – USS Iowa, USS New Jersey, USS Missouri,
and USS Wisconsin. The first ship built in this class was the Iowa. The Iowa was ordered on July 1,
1939, the keel laid on June 27, 1940, launched on August 27, 1942, and commissioned on February 22,
1943. Interestingly, she was built within the size limits required to transition the Panama Canal. The
Iowa made her combat debut in the campaign for the Marshall Islands. She also provided fire support
during the Korean War by bombarding enemy targets in North Korea. She was stricken from the Naval
Vessel Register on March 17, 2006 and is currently anchored at Suisun Bay in San Francisco,
Do you wonder how the Iowa would fair in a head-to-head with these Axis battleships? Here’s how one
expert evaluates such a fantasy…
Let’s look at the Iowa-Bismarck match. The armor of the two ships is comparable. However, the 16”
guns of the Iowa outclassed the German 15” guns in both range and penetrating power. Both the
Bismarck and the Iowa had radar fire control systems, but the Iowa’s superior guns, would have taken
their toll on the Bismarck before she could have moved into range to do any major damage to the U.S.
ship. If the Bismarck tried to disengage, the Iowa’s 33-knot speed would have allowed her to keep up
and close in. The advantage goes to the Iowa.
How would the Iowa match up against the largest and heaviest battleship in the world? While the
Yamato appears to have the advantage on paper, the table doesn’t illustrate the differences in the fire
control systems. The Iowa was equipped with the MK8 radar fire control system, which could provide
semi-accurate fire out to 20 nautical miles (nm). The Yamato carried only an optical fire control system,
which greatly reduced her effective range. As a consequence, the Japanese ship was designed to fight at
relatively close ranges, where her large guns and heavy armor would give her the advantage. The key
factor in such an engagement would have been the ability of the Iowa to hurt the Yamato at long range,
while still not depleting its ammunition supply. That would have enabled the Americans to go on
engaging the Yamato as the range closed. All facts considered, the two ships were pretty evenly
matched, with the Iowa’s long range firing ability offsetting the Yamato’s larger guns and heavier armor.
In the end, the engagement probably would have gone to the commander who best understood his ship’s
strengths and limitations.
If the Iowa had met these Axis “ships of the line” during WWII, what do you think the outcome would