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What Happened to the Battleship: 1945 to the Present

29 Sep 23


(Seaforth Publishing – £30)

ISBN 978 1 3990 7008 9

304 Pages

Rear Admiral Peter Sparkes (rtd.)

This genuinely fascinating new book charts the slow, controversial, but arguably inevitable demise of the global post war battleship fleets. Chris Baker, a former MOD Civil Servant with an appropriate background in Programming, Resources and Plans, first accounts for the battleships that survived the Second World War and then examines the strategic, operational and political factors that resulted in their extinction. As I read it, I was struck by the sonorous issues that the post-war navies faced. At the dawn of the nuclear age, with the advent of jet aircraft and guided weapon systems, financial constraints and manpower shortages, left the world’s battleships on an ebbing tide.

In 1947, the Admiralty Board determined that the Cold War Royal Navy and Dominion Fleet would consist of eight battleships, 10 fleet carriers, 25 light carriers, 35 cruisers, 135 destroyers, 332 escorts, supported by a front-line air strength of 1,000 aircraft. Mobilisation would require 382,000 personnel, with a peace time strength of 191,000. The cost was forecast to be £236m in 1948/49, rising to £465m by 1954-55. That year the post-war fiscal crisis dictated that the Service control total should be slashed to c£150m. New build programmes (including the Lion-class battleships) were suspended, refits plans were rendered unaffordable, and the number of naval personnel had to be reduced, dramatically. The high-quality steel that was used to build battleships was now needed for post war reconstruction and priming national economic resurgence. The UK was not alone. Despite the readily apparent and growing maritime threat posed by Soviet Russia, the US – the arsenal of democracy – was hurriedly placing battleships and cruisers into Reserve, scrapping those it could not afford to keep at readiness. France was bankrupt too and was unable to reclaim its pre-war status as a battleship power. Whilst Italy was obliged, under the terms of the 1943 surrender, to handover its battleships to the UK, US, France and Russia; an accommodation was eventually reached with Italy, but the outcome was the same as it was for the other allies, scrappage.

Whilst some of the world’s battleships were of pre-First World War Vintage, many were relatively modern and less than 15 years old when they were scrapped. Stark when one reflects upon just how old the T23s are now….Some of the more venerable and damaged US, German and Japanese battleships / battlecruisers were utilised as targets during the nuclear test programmes at Bikini Atoll in 1946, where they proved remarkable resilient. Not least because the specially selected, very best, USAAF crew missed the bright orange painted USS Nevada by some 650 yards…..Ironically, the nuclear tests served to highlight the survivability of the these armoured leviathans. Some of the battleships that were scrapped didn’t give up without a fight either, notably HM Ships Warspite (1947) and Vanguard (1960), which both grounded on their way to their final berth. The former girding a tug and having to be broken up at Prussia Cove where she had foundered, and the latter calling in at the ‘Still and West’ during her ignominious tow out of Portsmouth harbour; just 14 years after she had been commissioned. Very few battleships were spared the breakers yard. Only the US and Japan have since preserved examples of this bygone warship era.

Those naval readers who have championed the efficacy of Naval Fire Support, during hard fought MOD planning rounds, will be delighted to read Chris Bakers ‘operational analysis’ of how much more effective the US battleships were than their airborne successors during the Korean and Vietnam wars. USS New Jersey was credited with a decisive fire support mission in August 1951, during a concentrated attack by Communist forces on the UN Xth Corps / US 1st Marine Division. New Jersey fired 483 16” shells, at ranges between 11 and 16 miles over 2000 foot hills in 12 days. During her 6 months on station off Korea, New Jersey fired over 3,000 rounds of 16”. USS Iowa subsequently took part in a joint bombardment of Chongjin in May 1952, just 45 miles from the Russian border, accurately delivering 202 shells (or 192 tons of HE) on target, whilst 200 USAF heavy bombers mustered only 230 tons, dropped over a wider area. An extraordinary amount of naval fire support was provided by the US and UN maritime forces (including the RN) during the Korean War. The narrowness of the Peninsula meant that targets were often in range of larger calibre weapons and the on-station ships were able to sustain heavy rates of accurate fires, in all weather, night and day, for months at a time with the support of the Fleet Train. Ten years later, at the outbreak of intense combat operations during the Vietnam war, it was little wonder that it was the US Marine Corps who called loudest (and successfully) for the reactivation of the US Navy’s remaining battleships. A role that was reprised off Lebanon in 1982 and again by the last two surviving operational battleships, Wisonsin and Missouri, in 1990-91. Incredibly, the last US battleships remained in reserve until the Senate reluctantly agreed to pay them off in the US National Defense Authorisation Act of 2009– 66 years after they first entered service.

I commend this excellent book to readers of the Naval Review. I enjoyed reading it, a great deal. Clear, concise and meticulously researched, Chris Baker has captured the decline and eventual fall of the battleship extremely well.