WW2 Fleets and battles
This section is dedicated to World War II Warships of all fleets, covering all the belligerents in 1939 and operations from the 1st September 1939 shelling of the Polish Westerplatte by German Battleship Schleswig Holstein up to the Armistice in September 1945. Battles and naval actions, short biographies, hundreds of illustrations, photos, detailed specifications, videos, and maps.
In 1939, the tonnage of the fleets in the world had decreased slightly compared to 1914. The Royal navy and the French fleet had a lower level quantitatively, as well as the German Navy, away from Hochseeflotte of old. The Austro-Hungarian Navy no longer existed, that of the Ottoman empire gave way to modest Turkish fleet, while the Italian fleet was much strengthened, and Nihon Kaigun, the Imperial Japanese Navy, had reached the pinnacle of its development. All these were aimed at fleets of excellence that left the Royal Navy, industry standard, technical, and historical, since Britain ruled the seas.
USS Iowa (1944). A good representative of the “big gun battleship” which was still the norm in this era. However, by 1944 their role was no more to fight their counterparts but to do shore bombardment and protect the fleet with their impressive anti-aircraft battery.
The respective tonnage of the fleet reflects this fact. In 1918 the different powers were engaged in a race to gigantism had grave effects for their national budgets. A first disarmament treaty was therefore proposed at the initiative of the US president and signed in Washington in 1923. He was packaged in large part, to the following treaties, the new face of fleets amid the “Roaring Twenties” See the page dedicated to the naval treaties and conferences for the period 1919-1936.
The Fleets treated there:
Royal Navy, US Navy, Japanese Navy, French Navy, Italian Navy, German Navy, Soviet Navy, Spanish Navy (and before 1936), Dutch Navy, Argentine Navy, Brazilian Navy, Chinese Navy (and before 1937), Chilean Navy, Swedish Navy, Greek Navy, Turkish Navy, Finnish Navy, Norwegian Navy, Danish Navy, Siamese Navy, Baltic states Navies, Polish Navy, Yugoslav Navy, Romanian Navy.
Tonnage in 1939 of first rate navies
1-UK and Commonwealth
Battleships 504 000
Aircraft Carriers 113 880
Cruisers 467 306
Destroyers 282 215
Submersibles 66 828
Misc* 158 853
Total 1 593 182 Tonnes
2-USA (to come)
Battleships 329 240
Aircraft Carriers 154 745
Cruisers 268 496
Destroyers 202 699
Submersibles 116 084
Misc* 178 043
Total 1 249 907 Tonnes
Battleships 190 000
Aircraft Carriers 22 146
Cruiseurs 171 185
Destroyers 127 520
Total -? Tonnes
Battleships 75 000
Cruisers 29 297
Destroyers 96 937
Submersibles 119 594
Misc* 84 309
Total 402 138 Tonnes
*Miscellaneous: Torpedo Boats, Avisos, Destroyers escort, Gunboats, Frigates, Corvettes, Hydroplane Carriers, Auxiliary Cruisers, Minesweepers and Mine layers, Landing craft, MTBs, Patrollers, Fishery Guardships.
Naval treaties and conferences (1919-1936)
Tosa class battleship as built, cancelled due to the treaty of Washington, 1920.
Treaty Of Versailles (June 28 1919)
Representatives of the Allied Powers, USA, Italy, France, UK, signed it in the hall of mirrors, Palace of Versailles, near Paris. This infamous treaty had dire consequences for Germany. Without going back to the mythical Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which under the Papal blessing, divided the South American continent between Portuguese and Spanish possessions, the this post-victory peace treaty focused on the drastic disarmament if Germany, which also included naval clauses.
The treaty even not spared German shipping, of which nearly half was given to the allies, but mostly curtailed the mighty Hochseeflotte, still largely intact in 1918 (but which virtually ceased to exist 28 January 1920, two months after his internment at Scapa Flow). The new peace-time German Navy was to remain a reasonable self-defense force, excluding any naval dominance and colonial purposes. For battleships, only the oldest pre-dreadnoughts were kept in service (class Deutschland and Braunschweig, 8 units). 6 were to be operational as “coastal battleships”, and two as schoolships. Alongside, 6 old cruisers of the Gazelle and Bremen (1898-1905) classes were kept, but also 12 destroyers and 12 torpedo-boats.
Another clause stated a firm and definitive ban of submersible construction or any aircraft (and aircraft carriers). There was no formal specific ban on shipbuilding types but only 10 000 tonnes were allowed as a maximal tonnage. We know how the Reichsmarine managed to overcome this limitation, turning its attention to three unique ships dubbed “pocket battleships” because their tonnage only authorized a light cruiser armour. In the new German naval thought it these were assimilated to raiding ships, designed specifically to destroy merchant ships and deal with escorts as massive as heavy cruisers. In fact not affected by the Treaty of Washington in 1922, Germany was free to design unique ships armed with batteries of 280 mm caliber instead of 203 mm as customary for cruisers of the tonnage.
For the submersible ban, Dönitz and Hitler secretly developed a “civilian” office in the Hague, “for the purpose of experimentation”, delivering in the mid thirties a few military units for some minor navies (Dutch, Swedish, Turkish, Finnish…), gaining considerable experience. In 1933, with the arrival of Hitler, Admiral Raeder unleashed the Z plan, resolutely breaking with the Treaty of Versailles in all directions. From that date, Kriegsmarine gradually replaced the Reichsmarine.
Treaty Of Washington (February 6, 1920)
The Washington Treaty was probably the greatest maritime disarmament treaty ever, ending the arms race between nations at the end of the First World War, especially in terms of capital ships. The latter were instruments par excellence of military and economic power at that time, but also sucked considerable resources. This was a case of Politicians vs Navy staffs to the benefit of the tax payers, that would have major consequences for the standardization of warships and interruption of years of the development of capital ships.
Germany was the only former great maritime power not affected by this Treaty (see above), as well as Russia torn by civil war, causing ruin and destruction for the old Imperial Navy, also one of the world’s largest before 1905.
The five signatory countries (Great Britain, USA, Japan, France, Italy) had just built and put into service 8 to 20 Dreadnought battleships, and were prepared to build new ones, even more powerful and faster. Battleships and Battle Cruisers on paper had an average tonnage exceeding 45 000 tonnes (as against 25 000 for the Dreadnought of 1906, 200 to 260 meters long, a battery of 406 mm guns, or even 457 mm for some. Some commissioned even monsters of 70 000 tonnes, armed with 508 mm or 533 mm (20- 21 inches) artillery pieces.
-The Royal Navy was to receive 4 improved battlecruisers of the Hood type, soon to be replaced by the St Vincent and Vanguard. Only the class Nelson will emerged from this second wave as “derogatory” units to the treaty (they would have been demolished otherwise but were too advanced to do so).
-Japan had the will, the training, traditions and industrial assets to be the dominant force in Asia, and diplomatically tried to achieve nothing less than parity, at least with the US and Royal Navy. The Kaga, Kii, Tosa classes of fast battleships were under construction.
-The US, which had previously no battle cruisers started construction of six huge ones of the Lexington class, 260 meters long for 50 000 tonnes and later planned the 6 South Dakota class (45 000 tonnes)
-France approved its behalf in 1912 the construction of the new battleships of the Béarn and Lion class, initially scheduled to enter into service in 1917-1919, armed with 3 to 4 quadruple turrets.
-Italy had the four Caracciolo under construction, anticipating also the fast-battleships of the late 1930s incorporating the lessons of the battle of Jutland.
All these steel leviathans were to take an impressive share of naval expenditures as a whole, adding to state spending, pressure on taxpayers in a way that bordered on the unbearable. In the long-term sense, especially in the context of terrible economic difficulties for the allies, it was finally agreed at the behest of US President, Harold Wilson, an agreement for a drastic plan of naval limitation and disarmament, established February 6, 1922.
The main provisions concern (Article 3) cancellation of all ongoing ship construction and future programs, limiting the global tonnage (Article 4) for capital ship, battleships and battle cruisers, new and future. USA and UK were allowed 525 000 tons, 315 000 for Japan, and France and Italy were allowed 175 000 tons. Article 5 further defined the unit tonnage of such vessels, that shall in no case exceed 35,000 tons standard (empty weight in running order and not at full load). There was a small room to maneuver though in relation to the overall tonnage granted (France for example indeed managed to order five compromising vessels of 35 000 tonnes, the future Dunkirk, Strasbourg, Richelieu, Jean Bart and Clemenceau). Furthermore it was specified that existing battleships should be conserved in service at least 20 years, compensating for a moratorium in new constructions of at least 5 years starting from the signing of the treaty. Article 6 limited the maximum size of the main artillery of these ships to 406 mm (caliber adopted by the US and Japan recently). This was still limit during World War II (except Japan with the Yamato).
Article 7 however left considerable room in terms of aircraft carriers, a somewhat avant-garde measure given the mentality of the admiralties at that time. The type being considered as an “auxiliary” together with miscellaneous and light ships. The USA and UK were allowed 135,000 tons, Japan 81000, France and Italy 60 000 tonnes, the displacement of two large Aircraft Carriers. In fact, Article 9 added that this tonnage per unit could not exceed 27 000 tonnes. In addition, Article 8 stipulated that these aircraft carriers being new “treaty ships”, all in service prior to the signature should be considered as “experimental” and only kept for training. A clause that suited most the Royal Navy and Japan which had just achieved the Hosho.
Article 9 specified that exceptionally two 33 000 tonnes aircraft carriers could be built for these nations. Section 10 added limitations of size and number of on-board artillery for these aircraft carriers, in order not to allow signatories building “hybrid” battleships abusively declared as aircraft carriers. In line with the ideas of the time, an aircraft carrier was able to defend itself by its own means (planes as a defence means were not being taken seriously!). So they were allowed the equivalent artillery to that of heavy cruisers (8 cannons, 203 mm).
Articles 11 and 12 famously standardized heavy cruisers (10 000 tonnes, 203 mm guns). There were no obstacles to build cruisers within this limit, armed with more than 10 pieces of this caliber, as did the Japanese. Article 13 concerned the exclusion of these limits for requisitioned armed merchant ships used as auxiliary cruisers in time of war or other special circumstances, frequently exceeding 20 000 tonnes. Article 14 added that their artillery should be limited to 152 mm caliber. Articles 15, 16 and 17 prohibit signatory countries to build for export ships exceeding the limits of the treaty or to requisition one to increase their own tonnage in case of war, or purchase one by a non-signatory nation. Article 19 was quite important because it stated that no territorial extension of naval bases and coastal fortifications for “imperial” or colonial powers like the British, American or Japanese should be allowed, but there was no obstacles to improve local naval bases. Therefore Singapore or the Manila Bay (Corregidor) defenses were considerably improved. The US Navy in particular strengthened the approaches of Manila bay by building a serie of “concrete battleships” in 1931.
Chapter II of the Treaty then set out for each country their total and cumulative tonnages, demolitions, cancellation and completion of ships, or those in service for less than 15 years. The second part of this chapter detailed the meaning of “scrapping” (to scrap, sort of “ultimate reserves” before demolition) in order to prevent a country to keep battleships officially out of the “normal” naval reserve with a minimum of maintenance. The article stated that any ships to be scrapped had to be disarmed, the armour dismantled and rangefinders dismounted, as well as its engines. Only conversion in target vessels (such as USS Utah) was tolerated. In the case of France and Italy, conversion as school ships under conditions made them unable to be converted back as warships even in case of war.
The treaty made no mention of destroyers, torpedo boats or submersibles, patrol boats and others, leaving significant room for maneuver to signatory countries in this area. The third part of the second chapter was undoubtedly one of the most important, setting an effective moratorium for 10 years from the signing of the Treaty for capital ships, excluding reconstructions within the permitted tonnage. It was also specified that the signatories were to communicate all relevant information on the general characteristics of their new vessels planned, with the exception of some secret information, details about some weapons and the particulars of the armour scheme, technical or structural details that were all classified. The remainder of the treaty specified the definition of vessels cited in the articles above, standard displacement, and specified a possible re-negotiation 8 years after. In any case, the exact expiration date was 31 December 1936. In a sense this treaty also announced somehow the London conference in 1930.
This text also tried to “freeze” artificially Japan’s ongoing militarization initiated in 1919. Japan will ratify the treaty only after heavy concessions from the USA, in turn renouncing parts of its own program to strengthen its naval bases, or the British Empire, which was accepted parity with USA and had to compromise with the Anglo-Japanese naval agreement in force since 1904. Japan saw in its inferior ratio a racial provocation, only feeding nascent nationalism, giving the Empire more preventions towards the west, only to be confirmed at the time of the London Treaty of 1930. It however allowed Nations to continue a serene naval policy while saving taxpayers money (if not the waste generated by the demolition of canceled or almost completed ships in 1922!).
In the end, this treaty was beneficial for its rationalization, particularly the French and Italian navies, which built a much higher homogeneity rather that losing themselves into sterile experimentation. This imposed rivalry was never “digested” by France either, which saw a clear amputation of its potential in relation to the needs of its overseas empire and former grandeur. The most vindictive against the treaty argued that the fleet would have almost as many “Capital Ships” as UK if the 1912 plan had been completed. In 1923, however, the French representatives obtained a clause to be inserted for a ratification protocol giving more margin to built lighter ships. It was not the only discordant note afterward: An additional naval limitations were tempted towards the USSR, as for the Baltic countries (Germany excluded), the South American countries, followed proposed extensions to Spain, Holland, Belgium, also failed, all asking for unrealistic ratios. In the end, full ratification was never obtained and left more or less all participants but Italy a bitter taste.
London Naval Conference (Jan 21-April 22, 1930)
Members of the US delegation (and French Admiral Darlan, 2nd to the right en route for the 1930 London conference
As announced in the treaty of Washington, it was possible after 8 years to renegotiate some aspects. Situation of the different naval powers involved had changed with the arrival of many aircraft carriers, mostly converted from canceled ships, as well as the first “treaty” heavy cruisers, light cruisers, or destroyers. Also, modernization was ongoing for capital ships, or about to be so. The international situation had evolved significantly whereas the five original Washington Treaty signatories were present again (Germany still out as the USSR, now rearming). The Treaty of Locarno (1925) established a “freeze” on any land claims and the diplomatic status quo. In addition, the Kellogg-Briand Pact stated a ban for war as an instrument of foreign policy. But also in 1927 was the beginning of a new Japan militarism (General Tanaka Giishi) and the adoption by the Emperor of the Tanaka memorandum, giving Japan the moral right to built its own colonial empire in Asia.
More importantly, the conference coincided the Wall Street crash, whose consequences would be felt a bit later in France and Great Britain. France, meanwhile, never ceased to question its ratio, representatives like Admiral Darlan preparing specific additions including needs a reevaluated total tonnage of 800,000 tons seen as a fitting response to the growing threat of the Italian fleet, the German fleet in case of incursion in the north sea, and moreover protection of the empire commercial lines and defense of the colonies, with a margin of safety. Seeing the firmness of the three great naval powers not to give an inch on the Washington limitations to all categories of ships, these provisions were rejected.
For Japan, the battlecruiser Hiei (1913) was concerned and officially converted into a training ship, but engineers under orders made sure to quickly rearmed the ship a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor
For UK, the HMS Iron Duke was also converted as a training ship. Article 3 detailed the different arrangements for the use of aircraft carried on board, still forbidding hybrid conversions from liners, but allowing seaplanes, or even airplanes carriers, recalling Article 4 for 10,000 tonnes ships not to be armed with more than 155 mm guns.
Part II of the Treaty lays down the definition of “standard tonnage” for submersible*. It authorized the construction of 2,000 tons units armed with 130 mm pieces, units of 2,800 tons with 155 mm guns, with specific derogatory references for the French Surcouf, USS Argonaut and British XI. Article 8 on smaller torpedo boats had to meet certain criteria: 600 tonnes standards at most one piece 155 mm accepted, four 76 mm, Torpedo Tubes, and capable of 20 knots and more. At the contrary the mention was reverted for fleet tankers, workshops ships and other auxiliaries, forbidden to possess a 155 mm gun, or more than 4 guns of 76 mm, be armoured or laying mines, possess a landing runway, but to have a catapult and hangars. No tonnage limit was associated.
Article 12 recalled the obligation of transparency and delivery of information by the signatories on their new ships, authorizing specific replacement. Article 13 specified that all vessels anchored in ports and considered pontoons and floating barracks, or depots and escaping the limitations should in no circumstances beings able to reach the open sea. Annex 1 brought a number of clarifications regarding replacements, by tonnage and year, further confirming that a ship lost at sea could be replaced immediately without time constraints.
Annex II continued in this direction stating that the vessels conserved in service had to belong to specific categories, pending scrapping, being utility hulls (hauled or towed, as containers or pontoons), target vessel (again with stringent specifications) testing ships (no machinery, unarmed), and finally schoolships. Limitations were such that French cruiser Jeanne d’Arc, which had some light protection, small conning tower and fell within the category of cruisers despite being tailored as a training ship).
The following different sections allowed to give details, the latest listing by country vessels “derogatory” to the treaty can be kept. Part III of the Treaty defined the distinction between light and heavy cruisers (more or less than 155 mm for the caliber of the main artillery), a destroyer of over 1,850 tons of standard and reinforced over 130 mm pieces, which can be defined as a light cruiser. Article 16 then gave the precise tonnage of the units of each class can beings used by the US fleet, Great Britain and Japan. The United States thus gave 180,000 tons of heavy cruisers, 146,800 in Britain and 108,400 in Japan (these specific tonnages took into account the units already in service and the planned next ten tons.).
For example, the 192 200 tonnes granted to Britain ** as light cruisers (more than the USA) was based on the fleet of vessels of class C and D which dated from 1917 to 1919, and therefore were still in service. By cons for destroyers, two Anglo-Saxon powers agreed 45,000 tons more than Japan, the latter relegated to 105 200 tonnes, no doubt in part to dissuade to build too formidable of its new ships Fubuki class, built shortly before the conference, which together constituted a new firepower standard. For submarines, probably in compensation, the three Nations were tied for may have 52 700 tonnes of units.
Finally, the same Article 16 allowed the US to be in service 18 heavy cruisers, 15 for Britain and 12 for Japan. It allowed for the destroyers that 16% of vessels over 1,500 tons, of which the countries concerned will, except Japan, destroyers “standards” and “Wings of leaders”, and demanded that no more than 25% of cruisers have a carrier aviation.
Section 22 (Part IV of the Treaty) is one of the most interesting, containing rules of “good conduct” submersible (surface vessels and privateers acting) in the war on trade. It is specified in terms of international law that a merchant vessel, cargo vessels, will necessarily have its crew, passengers, and its register and log book placed in safety before the destruction of the ship after the customary warnings. The commander of the privateer to ensure that if he leaves the shipwrecked in their boats, that they are not in danger and rescued by the presence of the proximity to the coast of another vessel, or left in calm weather. It was further stated that this rule was valid in law and ad vitam eternam not until the Treaty expires. We know that this will be part of submariners Germans at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic and Arctic …
In fact, this clause must be resituated in context. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Lee of Farenham, partly because of the tradition of ‘fleet in being “Columbia, and the bitter memory of the U-Bootes in 1914-18, fiercely opposes the submersible construction. France meanwhile, is particularly committed, not only for historical reasons (pioneer in the field, young school, etc …), but also practical: These threatening buildings for heavy units are a defensive weapon of choice inexpensive.
Furthermore, France just successfully export it does not slow down. The differential is set by the addition of this article, which authorizes these units but decreases at the same time their offensive capabilities by employment conditions that are not suitable to their nature. All submersibles that did not apply these restrictive rules were declared pirates beings. This article ended by upsetting France, and it will eventually modified, eliminating the concept and the term “piracy”. The Treaty of Washington to be completed in December 1936, the nations involved were to meet in 1935 to establish the foundation for succession of the Treaty, extension, modification, or renegotiated.
Overall the London Treaty sought, in addition to maintaining and specifying what had been set to limit the maritime resources of Japan, more and more threatening. It should also be noted that Italy does not ratify all the terms of the treaty, saying its insufficient tonnage such as France refused herself this parity. The negotiations will continue in Geneva on the final ratification of the French and Italians, through a British negotiator, Craigie ultimately result in concessions and a reassessment of the ratio of Washington and tonnage granted lines of buildings (181 000 tonnes instead of 175 000), but especially Italy and France could exercise their right to build new line units replacing the old upon ratification (1932) and before the Treaty expires in 1936. what the French will by initiating two Dunkirk. Parity was maintained, however, the benefit of Italy, since it had also been more fully modernized its units that old dreadnoughts French ageless, maintained only to get to this tonnage. But the two actors, also in front of the Columbia intransigence not see France have the fleet it wanted, refused, in the end, the final compromise, and the full ratification of the Treaty of London by the five signatories Washington ended in failure.
In 1934, the situation deteriorated again, with the denunciation by Japan of the Washington Treaty, followed by France, which without formally denounce, before the net cooling of diplomatic relations with Italy and the growing threat of a reset Germany says it is not bound by s quotation originally defined.
*The standard tonnage for submersible relates to a unit in “working order”, but devoid of liquids on board, fuel oil, lubricants, oil, sea water (ballast) and drinking water.
German-British Naval Agreement (June 18, 1936)
Happened after the Stresa Conference, the agreement signed between Britain, France and Italy in order to prevent Germany from too rapid rearmament and broken after the invasion of Ethiopia Mussolini, Britain is seen almost forced by the ambitions of the Third Reich to propose a “gentleman’s agreement” on a ratio allowing him room to maneuver (which was operated as a first fault), and a guarantee that a new “Hochseeflotte” can recover.
Britain was considering a rapprochement between Italy and Germany, but she could not imagine the consequences of an alliance (unlikely) between France and the other two countries in Continental Europe. This agreement is done through embassies notes, without consulting France (obviously), and enables the Third Reich to have initially equivalent to 35% fleet of the Royal Navy, raised to 45% submarines. It is confirmed by a statement on July 17, 1937, which formalizes the same time the ratification of Germany in the second Treaty of London. Front appetites and inflexibility of Hitler, the Treaty of Versailles is almost buried. It does not also consider a clash with the Royal Navy, especially because of the great esteem he wore the English people ( “people dominating, brother people”), and the possibility of a future alliance a division of the world, especially directed against the country “decadent”, “sclerotic by the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy theory” and the Bolsheviks, the UK had traditionally abhor.
This agreement anyway like an “appetizer” before the collapse of Munich …
The second London Conference (25 March 1936).
It was in December 1935, one year before the expiration of the founding Washington Treaty, in a much more feverish diplomatic atmosphere (The weight of Germany and its growing demands, especially against the Treaty of Versailles, the ramp USSR (entry to the League in September 1934) and its involvement in the European policy, strengthening militarist policy in Japan …), the second London conference sat between 3 former co-signatories, Western democratic powers: US, France and Britain. Italy now under the heel of Mussolini more aggressive, put the bench of Nations after its invasion of Ethiopia believes that sanctions of the League beings are lifted as a precondition before any negotiations, and the refusal, retirements. Japan, which required input parity with the US navy, to be also rewarded with an end of inadmissibility and slam the door.
France, finally was persuaded, more to Stop a signature including Germany, as approval. The Italy finally ratify the treaty after the lifting of sanctions in 1938. The agreement extends the Washington Treaty until 1942, but for the benefit of vessels put into retirement, new battleships can finally construct beings. By decisions are taken against two: First, the maximum allowable standard tonnage will ultimately be of 45 000 instead of 35 000 tonnes. Conversely, the maximum allowed size, had to go from 406 to 356 mm, but this protocol was rejected by Japan and will not be retained in the end. (The Yamato and Musashi were then already in the study.). The tonnage of aircraft carriers is reduced from 25 000 to 23 000 tonnes, and that of heavy cruisers from 10 000 to 8000 tons standard. Besides the category intermediate 8000-17 500 tonnes is prohibited for cruisers (above, is upstairs “liner”), especially to avoid a repeat of the construction of comparable units in Deutschland Germans. Finally, it is forbidden to sell to a country units already in service with foreign navies (remember the Turkish Yavuz, former Goeben in 1914).
In addition, the information should be the country on their ships constructions are much more detailed than in the past beings. It is not surprising that later that non-signatories were Germany and Japan come out very quick succession over the allowed limit units, using, for one false information, and for the other an outright dissimulation. Following the ratification of the Treaty, in March 1936, further ratification post of Italy in 1937, and Germany, the British attempt to attach the signatures of the USSR (acquired in July 1937 ), Poland (April 1938), and the Scandinavian and countries bordering the Baltic, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, with tonnages far above their means and their industrial capacity (strange for a treaty disarmament). But June 30, 1938, the Additional Protocol makes effective the increase of tonnage from 35 to 45 000 tonnes (at the instigation of the US, which along well maintain absolute superiority over the Japanese Navy, with their New Jersey and Montana who sleep in their blueprints).
Japan, refused this extension of the Washington Treaty and considered himself freed of all constraints … This future member of the axis was soon to be joined by Germany, April 27, 1939, when the Third Reich revealed Bismarck. This was the last scratch from the Washington Treaty. Now, the hubbub of the meeting rooms and the muffled silence of diplomatic offices would leave room in the quick sound of boots …
In 1939 the Royal Navy was still all-powerful, although the 1929 crisis and severe budget cuts made it half its 1914 tonnage in practice, this was still the undisputed world global naval power.
So what could we say about ww2 warships and naval forces?
-In Europe, The Royal Navy was the uncontested master of the North Sea and the Atlantic, condemning the small Kriegsmarine (even more the Hochseeflotte back in 1914) to inaction in the Baltic, if that was not for two factors: The German naval plan included an asymmetric approach to naval warfare which was mostly provisional, waiting for the new ships of the Z Plan to come out. This was a “corsair” war, raids against commercial lines but certainly not the research of a direct naval confrontation. Each ship designed for the Kriegsmarine was to be superior to all its equivalent opponents. Alongside surface ships, submarines (the dreaded UBoats) would have a growing role as confidence (mostly from Hitler) towards the surface fleet vanished over time. Sub warfare will ravage the Atlantic as well as the Indian Ocean, and in response, an ambitious shipbuilding plan was launched, in order to replace cargo ships losses as well as delivering escort ships of all sizes and capabilities from modest patrol boats to aircraft carriers. The third level actioned by the Kriegsmarine in its war on commerce was the use of auxiliary cruisers, transformed freighters.
-In the Mediterranean, three actors were present from the beginning: The French Navy, operating from Toulon (South of France) and its bases in North Africa (notably Mers El Kebir), the Royal Navy (from Gibraltar and Alexandria securing both ends of the antique sea), and opposing Italy. In the latter case, the Regia Marina had a combined tonnage inferior to the allies, and would certainly not count on any German support in the area. Mussolini had however considerable ambition for its navy, designed to be the instrument of a conquest, making the Mediterranean “Mare Nostrum” the equivalent of the antique Roman Empire “private lake”. However, from theory to reality, there was quite a gap. Of overall quality, with modern, fast ships and a good training, the Italian navy was an adversary worthy of respect, at least on the paper. It lacked an aircraft carrier, a relative one as the Italian Territory and colonial bases gave a large coverage area to the coastal and land aviation. Or so it was thought before the conversion of a liner (the Aquila) was almost completed in 1943.
Zara-class heavy Italian cruiser Gorizia, 1942.
Opposing it was the French Navy, largely rebuilt from 1920 in parity (by tonnage) with Italy after the treaty of Washington. Since the bulk of the French fleet was stationed in the Mediterranean, both fleets engaged in open rivalry. The French navy had fewer submarines and almost no torpedo boats or MBTs (like the Italian MAS) but relied on a single aircraft carrier (Bearn) and Hydroplane carrier (Cdt teste). It had however much superior heavy destroyers, long-range submarines and mine-layer submarines the Italians also lacked. In terms of cruiser vs cruiser comparison, the 1930 Algérie class was probably better than the Zara class, although most of these ships were very fast (43 knots for the 1942 “Capitani Romani” class!), but thinly armoured (this was the era of “tin-clad cruisers”) and with limited range. The Richelieu would have been a serious contender against the Litorrio built earlier, although lacking one cannon (2×4 vs 3×3) but the Dunkerque (1935) was immensely superior to the modernized Cavour and Cesare class (ww1 dreadnoughts), whereas the French ww1 dreadnoughts still in service of the Courbet and Provence class had been only superficially modernized.
Battle of the Atlantic
-Back on the Atlantic, the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet was more than enough to deal with any German capital ship, although nothing could have prepared the general staff of the reality of the Bismarck, which far exceeded the tonnage and capabilities of even the most recent King Georges V battleships. The Scharnhorst class proved to be faster than any British battleship and even cruisers, while the earlier 10,000 tonnes Graf Spee class still could evade battleships but deal with faster heavy cruisers, comparing well with the average 3×2-4×2 203mm battery of the time with its 2×3 280mm configuration. It took three British cruisers (almost completely destroyed in the process) to damage the Graf Spee, forcing it to seek refuge inside the neutral port of Montevideo in 1939. Proof that the daring concept of a “pocket battleship” was not that illusory.
The few Hipper class heavy cruisers also were superior to any allied design, despite having the standard 4×2 203mm battery, due to a record-breaking 15,000 tonnes instead of the 10,000 tonnes allowed by the Washington treaty. All three cruisers constituted a real threat on the northern sector (operating from Norway against convoys bound to Mourmansk) and were deadly fast. Their autonomy was calculated to operate almost on the entire Atlantic ocean without refueling, again as commerce raiders.
A County class cruiser, HMS Suffolk. These long range cruisers built from the late 1920s were designed for long range colonial operations and the Atlantic.
But of course, the major threat always have been submarines, the dreaded “U-bootes”. An average type VIIC (the most common and most produced type of sub ever produced) was only 77 tonnes, barely 67m long, with a crew of 44-50 but each was armed with 14 torpedoes able to sink a battleship if need be, an 88mm gun for surface actions and AA twin machine-guns. On one side, these U-boats were individually quite limited in range and speed due to technologies dating back from ww1. A “submarine” was more of a “submersible”, cruising at the surface at 17 knots, and only plunging to avoid detection (when a mast was discovered for attack), then reduced to 7 knots on electric batteries. Plus these had a limited range, only covering a fraction of the Atlantic. At such speed, an u-boat became an easy prey, slow and almost blind, relying on the compass, maps of the deeps and a sonar. Max operational depth was 250m at best (beyond that the sub entered the perilous journey into crash depth), so any escort could force a sub to “stay low” by grenades.
Several escort ships, even slow and lightly armed (like the British “Flower” class corvettes, converted whalers), was enough to track, square and sink any U-boat. But U-boats were redoubtable when working as a team under good coordination. Until late 1942, Dönitz “grey wolves” obtained incredible success, almost strangling the UK. It was only for the coordination between the US and British fleets, adoption of proven tactics (for the Americans), and a massive shipbuilding program (both civilian and military) to impose a clear-cut superiority on the whole Atlantic, without any central undefended area (since most destroyers could not reach mid-Atlantic). ASM warfare made significant progress and most of its tactics and technologies were still used well into the 1970s.
A Canadian Flower class Corvette, HMCS Regina in 1943.
One of these inventions was the “hedgehog” and rocket launcher able to destroy a submarine, even starting its immersion. Grenades were refined, more powerful, sonars became more sensitive and operators better trained, and thanks to trigonometry it was easier to locate any transmitting submarine in a given area. In addition, there was the cover of long-range patrol bombers and hydroplanes which could detect far more easily submarines even submerged. Planes were so effective against u-boats that not only the British designed ships carrying a single catapult-launched aircraft (which was lost after its only flight!) but also to convert civilian bulk transports into improvised aircraft carriers, or proper escort aircraft carriers with hangars and several classes of planes. More than 150 aircraft carriers were launched during the war, most of which were of the escort type, 5000 tonnes, stubby, slow, and with 10-30 planes on board.
Certainly, naval warfare in Europe never came close to the scale of operations in the Pacific. Covering a good 3/4 of the globe, this liquid vastness dotted with islands was the theater of the most epic naval battles of world war two, opposing the Japanese Navy (third in tonnage in 1941) and the allied fleets. Reduced for the British, Dutch, Australians, but slightly superior for the US Navy Pacific fleet operating from Hawaii and San Diego, Ca. The Pacific theater consecrated the absolute domination of the aircraft carrier as the centerpiece of any task force (also composed of battleships, cruisers and destroyers). it was also true for the setup of combined arms tactics for amphibious assaults.
The Japanese Navy was trained and tailored, with a tradition forged by the Royal Navy dating back from 1910, for classic, decisive naval battles. Most admirals still considered aircraft carriers (The Japanese had the second fleet worldwide for these ships largely ignored by treaties like Washington) as auxiliaries. Only admiral Yamamoto, famously detected all their potential, perhaps after seeing the British fleet air arm almost destroying half of the Italian fleet in Taranto harbour, with a handful of obsolete biplanes. The feat was to be repeated with hundreds of modern torpedo-bombers covered by fighters like the legendary “Zero”, at Hawaii.
USS Yorktown (II) in 1943, an Essex-class aircraft carrier. This class was almost “mass-produced” with 26 ships, well into service for some into the 1970s
Pearl harbor in a sense announced the color for every single naval engagement to follow in this area, each time an “over the horizon” engagement were planes played a crucial role. In some cases like at Midway, luck in addition to judgment, and skills for tactical decisions made the difference between losses, victory and defeat at sea. Indeed they were rare classic big-gun ship-to-ship engagements, with the exception of the Guadalcanal area where fierce cruisers duels took place, not at the advantage of the US Navy. Balance was difficult to obtain at first. The underestimated Japanese proved to have the most daring tactics, best ships, best pilots and training…
Only at Pearl Harbor an error was committed that would have fatal consequences. By chance for the Americans, there were no aircraft carriers present. Therefore, only ww1-era dreadnoughts were anchored in the “battleship row” and were mercilessly pounded. Officiously some in the general staff were almost thanking the Japanese for sinking “a bunch of old junk” as the following events will shows the aircraft carrier would prove far more valuable. The second error was to not order a third wave, which would have been used for devastating the fuel depots, vital to the Pacific fleet. Admiral Ozawa estimated indeed (against the advice of his younger subordinates) that the effect of surprise being gone, it was not worth it. Had it been done, no serious naval presence would have interfere with Japanese Plans for the south pacific for months, and there would be no battles of Santa Cruz or Midway.
USS Wahoo, 1943. The mass-produced Gato/Tench/Balao class (77 built) was instrumental to strangle Japanese communication lines throughout the Pacific.
Outside the role of aircraft carriers, another interesting aspect of the pacific war was the submarine warfare, on the American side this time. The US Navy indeed operated hundreds of long-range submarines (90m long, powerful and fast at 21/9 knots) capable to operate on a 11,000 nautical miles (20,000 km) area. This was crucial indeed to disrupt the long lines of communications between Japanese isolated garrisons, bases and mainland Japan. Operating in “wolf packs” these were extremely successful and complementary to the aerial bombings from 1944, so much so that the Japanese launched mass-production of patrol corvettes at the end of the war.
LST (Landing Ship, Tank) one of the numerous specialized landing ships used during the war, later refined in the cold war into the modern assault ships.
The third aspect of the pacific war, was the nature of the whole “island-hopping” campaign that multiplied amphibious operations. This was refined as an art, with an air/sea bombing and artillery preparation followed by an infantry assault covered by the big guns of the navy. Several types of ships were devised, alongside other ships converted, freighters modified to carry a dozen landing crafts. Higgins in particular cranked up thousands of wooden assault landing crafts which were complementary to the numerous LVTs used by the Marines. With experience, other ships were devised, larger LSTs capable to carry tanks and other vehicles, and converted rocket-launching ships.
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