Yamato was an imposing craft by any standard. She displaced more than any battleship in history, as much as an early supercarrier, and bore the heaviest armament. Her mammoth 18-inch guns could sling 3,200-lb. projectiles some 25 nautical miles. Armor was over two feet thick in places. This was one of the most deadly battleships to hit the high seas.
Ranking the greatest battleships of all time is a tad easier than ranking naval battles. Both involve comparing apples with oranges. But at least taking the measure of individual men-of-war involves comparing one apple with one orange. That's a compact endeavor relative to sorting through history to discern how seesaw interactions shaped the destinies of peoples and civilizations.
Still, we need some standard for distinguishing between battlewagons. What makes a ship great? It makes sense, first of all, to exclude any ship before the reign of Henry VIII. There was no line-of-battle ship in the modern sense before England's "great sea-king" founded the sail-driven Royal Navy in the 16th century. Galley warfare was quite a different affair from lining up capital ships and pounding away with naval gunnery.
One inescapable chore is to compare ships' technical characteristics. A recent piece over at War Is Boring revisits an old debate among battleship and World War II enthusiasts. Namely, who would've prevailed in a tilt between a U.S. Navy Iowa-class dreadnought and the Imperial Japanese Navy's Yamato? Author Michael Peck restates the common wisdom from when I served in mighty Wisconsin, last of the battleships: it depends on who landed the first blow. Iowas commanded edges in speed and fire control, while Yamato and her sister Musashi outranged us and boasted heavier weight of shot. We would've made out fine had we closed the range before the enemy scored a lucky hit from afar. If not, things may have turned ugly.
Though not in so many words, Peck walks through the basic design features that help qualify a battleship for history's elite -- namely guns, armor, and speed. Makes sense, doesn't it? Offensive punch, defensive resiliency, and speed remain the hallmarks of any surface combatant even in this missile age. Note, however, that asymmetries among combat vessels result in large part from the tradeoffs naval architects must make among desirable attributes.
Only sci-fi lets shipwrights escape such choices. A Death Star of the sea would sport irresistible weaponry, impenetrable armor, and engines able to drive the vessel at breakneck speed. But again, you can't have everything in the real world. Weight is a huge challenge. A battleship loaded down with the biggest guns and thickest armor would waddle from place to place. It would make itself an easy target for nimbler opponents or let them run away. On the other hand, assigning guns and speed top priority works against rugged sides. A ship that's fleet of foot but lightly armored exposes its innards and crew to enemy gunfire. And so forth. Different navies have different philosophies about tradeoffs. Hence the mismatches between Yamato and Iowa along certain parameters. Thus has it always been when fighting ships square off.
But a battleship is more than a machine. Machines neither rule the waves nor lose out in contests for mastery. People do. People ply the seas, and ideas about shiphandling and tactics guide their combat endeavors. Great Britain's Royal Navy triumphed repeatedly during the age of sail. Its success owed less to superior materiel -- adversaries such as France and the United States sometimes fielded better ships -- than to prolonged voyages that raised seamanship and gunnery to a high art. Indeed, a friend likes to joke that the 18th century's finest warship was a French 74-gun ship captured -- and crewed -- by Royal Navy mariners. The best hardware meets the best software.
That's why in the end, debating Jane's Fighting Ships entries -- lists of statistics -- for Iowa, Yamato, and their brethren from other times and places fails to satisfy. What looks like the best ship on paper may not win. A ship need not outmatch its opponents by every technical measure. It needs to be good enough. That is, it must match up well enough to give an entrepreneurial crew, mindful of the tactical surroundings, a reasonable chance to win. The greatest battleship thus numbers among the foremost vessels of its age by material measures, and is handled by masterful seamen.
But adding the human factor to the mix still isn't enough. There's an element of opportunity, of sheer chance. True greatness comes when ship and crew find themselves in the right place at the right time to make history. A battleship's name becomes legend if it helps win a grand victory, loses in dramatic fashion, or perhaps accomplishes some landmark diplomatic feat. A vessel favored (or damned) by fortune, furthermore, becomes a strategic compass rose. It becomes part of the intellectual fund on which future generations draw when making maritime strategy. It's an artifact of history that helps make history.
So we arrive at one guy's gauge for a vessel's worth: strong ship, iron men, historical consequence. In effect, then, I define greatest as most iconic. Herewith, my list of history's five most iconic battleships, in ascending order:
The German Navy's Bismarck lived a short life that supplies the stuff of literature to this day. Widely considered the most capable battleship in the Atlantic during World War II, Bismarck sank the battlecruiser HMS Hood, pride of the Royal Navy, with a single round from her main battery. On the other hand, the leadership's martial spirit proved brittle when the going got tough. In fact, it shattered at the first sharp rap. As commanders' resolve went, so went the crew's.
Notes Bernard Brodie, the dreadnought underwent an "extreme oscillation" in mood. Exaltation stoked by the encounter with Hood gave way to despair following a minor torpedo strike from a British warplane. Admiral Günther Lütjens, the senior officer on board, gathered Bismarck crewmen after the air attack and "implored them to meet death in a fashion becoming to good Nazis." A great coach Lütjens was not. The result? An "abysmally poor showing" in the final showdown with HMS Rodney, King George V, and their entourage. One turret crew fled their guns. Turret officers reportedly kept another on station only at gunpoint. Marksmanship and the guns' rate of fire -- key determinants of victory in gunnery duels -- suffered badly.
In short, Bismarck turned out to be a bologna flask (hat tip: Clausewitz), an outwardly tough vessel that shatters at the slightest tap from within. In 1939 Grand Admiral Erich Raeder lamented that the German surface fleet, flung into battle long before it matured, could do little more than "die with honor." Raeder was righter than he knew. Bismarck's death furnishes a parable that captivates navalists decades hence. How would things have turned out had the battlewagon's human factor proved less fragile? We'll never know. Doubtless her measure of honor would be bigger.
As noted at the outset, Yamato was an imposing craft by any standard. She displaced more than any battleship in history, as much as an early supercarrier, and bore the heaviest armament. Her mammoth 18-inch guns could sling 3,200-lb. projectiles some 25 nautical miles. Armor was over two feet thick in places. Among the three attributes of warship design, then, Yamato's designers clearly prized offensive and defensive strength over speed. The dreadnought could steam at 27 knots, not bad for a vessel of her proportions. But that was markedly slower than the 33 knots attainable by U.S. fast battleships.
Like Bismarck, Yamato is remembered mainly for falling short of her promise. She provides another cautionary tale about human fallibility. At Leyte Gulf in October 1944, a task force centered on Yamato bore down on the transports that had ferried General Douglas MacArthur's landing force ashore on Leyte, and on the sparse force of light aircraft carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts guarding the transports from seaward assault.
Next ensued the immortal charge of the tin-can sailors. The outclassed American ships charged Yamato and her retinue. Like Lütjens, Admiral Takeo Kurita, the task-force commander, appeared to wilt under less-than-dire circumstances. Historians still argue about whether he mistook Taffy 3, the U.S. Navy contingent, for a far stronger force; lost his nerve; or simply saw little point in sacrificing his ships and men. Whatever the case, Kurita ordered his fleet to turn back -- leaving MacArthur's expeditionary force mostly unmolested from the sea.
Yamato met a quixotic fate, though less ignominious than Bismarck's. In April 1945 the superbattleship was ordered to steam toward Okinawain company with remnants of the surface fleet, there to contest the Allied landings. The vessel would deliberately beach itself offshore, becoming an unsinkable gun emplacement until it was destroyed or its ammunition was exhausted. U.S. naval intelligence got wind of the scheme, however, and aerial bombardment dispatched Yamato before she could reach her destination. A lackluster end for history's most fearsome battlewagon.
Iowa and New Jersey were the first of the Iowa class and compiled the most enviable fighting records in the class, mostly in the Pacific War. Missouri was no slouch as a warrior, but -- alone on this list -- she's celebrated mainly for diplomatic achievements rather than feats of arms. General MacArthur accepted Japan's surrender on her weatherdecks in Tokyo Bay, leaving behind some of the most enduring images from 20th-century warfare. Missouri has been a metaphor for how to terminate big, open-ended conflicts ever since. For instance, President Bush the Elder invoked the surrender in his memoir. Missouri supplied a measuring stick for how Desert Storm might unfold. (And as it happens, a modernized Missouri was in Desert Storm.)
Missouri remained a diplomatic emissary after World War II. The battlewagon cruised to Turkey in the early months after the war, as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe and communist insurgencies menaced Greece and Turkey. Observers interpreted the voyage as a token of President Harry Truman's, and America's, commitment to keeping the Soviet bloc from subverting friendly countries. Message: the United States was in Europe to stay. Missouri thus played a part in the development of containment strategy while easing anxieties about American abandonment. Naval diplomacy doesn't get much better than that.
Admiral Togo Heihachiro's flagship is an emblem for maritime command. The British-built Mikasa was arguably the finest battleship afloat during the fin de siècle years, striking the best balance among speed, protection, and armament. The human factor was strong as well. Imperial Japanese Navy seamen were known for their proficiency and élan, while Togo was renowned for combining shrewdness with derring-do. Mikasa was central to fleet actions in the Yellow Sea in 1904 and the Tsushima Strait in 1905 -- battles that left the wreckage of two Russian fleets strewn across the seafloor. The likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan considered Tsushima a near-perfect fleet encounter.
Like the other battleships listed here, Mikasa molded how subsequent generations thought about diplomacy and warfare. IJN commanders of the interwar years planned to replicate Tsushima Strait should Japan fall out with the United States. More broadly, Mikasa and the rest of the IJN electrified peoples throughout Asia and beyond. Japan, that is, proved that Western imperial powers could be beaten in battle and ultimately expelled from lands they had subjugated. Figures ranging from Sun Yat-sen to Mohandas Gandhi to W. E. B. Du Bois paid homage to Tsushima, crediting Japan with firing their enthusiasm for overthrowing colonial rule.
Mikasa, then, was more than the victor in a sea fight of modest scope. And her reputation outlived her strange fate. The vessel returned home in triumph following the Russo-Japanese War, only to suffer a magazine explosion and sink. For the Japanese people, the disaster confirmed that they had gotten a raw deal at the Portsmouth Peace Conference. Nevertheless, it did little to dim foreign observers' enthusiasm for Japan's accomplishments.Mikasa remained a talisman.
Topping this list is the only battleship from the age of sail. HMS Victory was a formidable first-rate man-of-war, cannon bristling from its three gun decks. But her fame comes mainly from her association with Lord Horatio Nelson, whom Mahan styles "the embodiment of the sea power of Great Britain." In 1805 Nelson led his outnumbered fleet into combat against a combined Franco-Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar, near Gibraltar. Nelson and right-hand man Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood led columns of ships that punctured the enemy line of battle. The Royal Navy crushed its opponent in the ensuing melee, putting paid to Napoleon's dreams of invading the British Isles.
Felled on board his flagship that day, Nelson remains a synonym for decisive battle. Indeed, replicating Trafalgar became a Holy Grail for naval strategists across the globe. Permanently drydocked at Portsmouth, Victory is a shrine to Nelson and his exploits -- and the standard of excellence for seafarers everywhere. That entitles her to the laurels of history's greatest battleship.
Surveying this list of icons, two battleships made the cut because of defeats stemming from slipshod leadership, two for triumphs owing to good leadership, and one for becoming a diplomatic paragon. That's not a bad reminder that human virtues and frailties -- not wood, or metal, or shot -- are what make the difference in nautical enterprises.
James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.
This was posted on December 2013 and is being reposted due to reader interest.