As most of you out there know, heavier-than-air flight has only been around for a little more than 100 years – and before that, flying about was limited to balloons.
I don’t know if any of you are avid balloonists, but balloons are neither fast enough or precise enough in their movement to make a good platform for waging war – mostly employed as lookout platforms so you could see your enemy coming before he was close enough to shoot you with his musket.
Heavier-than-air flight changed the rules of war – you could project your military strength fairly quickly and precisely anywhere you wanted to as long as the plane/helicopter had fuel in the tank.
Embarrassingly, it took military strategists and planners a little while to catch on to this notion on any appreciable scale – roughly 20 years after the Wright brothers first sailed aloft into the wild blue yonder above the ground, though they had played with biplanes in The Great War in very picturesque air battles that spawned the likes of the Red Barron.
But those World War One air battles were strictly that – air battles.
The idea of massive ground offensives launched from the air wasn’t something that had been well developed – beyond primitive concepts like the open-cockpit gunners dropping modified mortar shells over the sides of their planes.
Eventually, technology caught up with the desire to kill your enemies on an effective enough scale to start planning air raids and sorties where you could launch a campaign of “death from above.”
One of the most important advances in this area was the aircraft carrier, which has become the modern era’s capitol ship – the most important expression of your military’s might and war-making prowess.
The United States’ ranking as the #1 superpower in the world relies quite heavily on its fleet of carriers and super-carriers (example pictured above) that can mobilize an air force – that’s larger than the entirety of some small countries’ military – anywhere there’s an ocean deeper than 50 feet.
But that wasn’t always the case.
Up until the early 1940s, the naval powers had another primary weapon – the one ship that was supposed to make you shit yourself when you saw it come over the distant horizon.
In today’s fast-and-lazy culture, you’ll catch people calling any warship that has guns on it a battleship – but the truth is that there’s nothing in active military service for any nation that even approaches the sheer power that a true battleship brought with it.
In today’s navy, the biggest ships – that don’t carry aircraft – are cruisers (9,000 – 10,000 tons)… and the bulk of them are guided-missile cruisers which are designed to strike targets on land from far out to sea.
Next one down on the size-chart would be your destroyer (8,500 tons) – which, as the name implies, is meant to destroy other ships.
Then you have your frigates (5000 tons), which are used mainly for ship-to-ship interdiction or antisubmarine warfare.
After that, you get to patrol boats (1,000 tons) and fast attack boats (500 tons or less) – and both of these are generally used by coastal defense agencies.
You can be forgiven for thinking those 10,000 ton cruisers were pretty hefty, but the pinnacle of true battleship design – the American 890 foot long Iowa-class – tipped the scales at 52,000 tons of deadly intent.
The defining quality of a battleship were their biggest (main) guns… and these were 16″/50 caliber (not .50) canons on the Iowa-class that were able to lob 2,700lb. shell on to a target up to 24 miles away – with the shell leaving the muzzle at 2,500 feet per second.
A proper battleship had at least 6 of these monstrous guns, and 9 in general practice, for attacking other battleships or land-based targets – and it was a really bad day if you found yourself on the receiving end of a battleship’s ire.
Battleships were the ultimate expression of their respective nations’ military power – the way in which an entire country’s people underscored their will to have things happen their way at any price.
Of course, that price was steep – both in the terms of the crew and servicemen who would die during battles, and in the amount of money the individual governments had to spend on their construction (in excess of $1,000,000,000 in today’s dollars).
$1 Billion U.S. dollars is a lot – $80,000,000 in 1940’s currency – and even more considering that at the time of World War II, the world was coming out of The Great Depression where cash wasn’t exactly just laying around.
I should take a moment right now to inject one thought: the American B-2 stealth bombers (above) cost a billion dollars each… which just goes to show how much the military establishment loves inflated prices – $1 billion for 52,000 tons of naval steel vs. $1 billion for 79 tons of stealth air power.
Anyhow, back on track.
The battleship came about as a natural evolution from the primitive ironclad ships that first sailed the seas in the 1860s – starting with France’s La Gloire and then became popular after their use in the American Civil War (beginning with the USS Monitor – whose turret is pictured above – and the CSS Virginia) – growing from ships that were primarily wooden and were later sheathed in metal plates (clad in iron… ironclad) into ships that were built entirely from steel and pig iron from the keel up.
As much as a battleship was designed to dish out a pounding, they were simultaneously designed to take as much as they gave – with solid iron plating that averaged 11 inches in thickness to nearly 2 feet thick armor that protected the machinery and men that fired the main guns.
The largest battleships that ever sailed the seas were the Yamato-class built by the Empire Of Japan (above) that displaced 72,000 tons – but weren’t very effective during combat due to their ungainly size: it took too long to get up to speed and then they were hampered by a very large turning radius.
Bigger wasn’t necessarily better, but the Japanese emperor still felt that a truly powerful nation had to have the largest battleships – despite the fact that Japanese aircraft carriers and their air wings were proving to the world that air power was the power of the future… which was evidenced by the attack on Pearl Harbor (pictured above) that drew the Americans into World War II.
(I suppose there could be a joke to be made about the Japanese overcompensating for… the size of their small country?)
By the time the last generation of battleships were commissioned, the writing was already on the wall – aircraft had advanced to the point where they could carry death and destruction many times further than the furthest point where a battleship could fire a shell to.
Plus, as giant metal islands, battleships were very vulnerable to aircraft attack because they were mainly designed to take fire from other surface ships and their thickest armor was in areas likely to take a lateral hit – meaning very little armor was in place to protect the behemoths from bombs and bullets coming down out of the skies.
That, however, didn’t mean that battleships couldn’t make a difference.
You really didn’t want to be on the receiving end of one of those 2,700lb. shells, whether you were on a ship (that whole ship-sinking thing) or supposedly safe in a bunker on land – either way, their explosive and kinetic energy were pure hell on Earth.
For this reason, battleships continued on in active military service well past World War II and the Korean War… going on to serve the Americans in both Vietnam and – finally – the first Gulf War (Missouri pictured above in the Persian Gulf).
A 16″ Mark 8 naval shell only cost between $500 and $1000 (depending on purpose)… which is peanuts compared to $569,000 – $1,450,000 cost of the Tomahawk cruise missiles that TV newscasters became so enamored with during the Saddam Hussein scuffles in the Middle East.
In the end, it became too expensive for the world’s navies to continue upgrading the venerable battleship so that they could continue to fight in the modern era – radar/guidance/fire control systems, missile systems, maintenance of the gigantic turbine engines that consumed 100s of tons of fuel oil per day.
So, now, all of the great American battleships from World War II – save for two that were sold for scrap, and the hulk of the Arizona exactly where she sank – are now sitting as museums, tied up to piers almost permanently (except for the occasional jaunt to dry dock to repair leaks) in what navy veterans hope to be a lasting reminder of the sacrifices made for freedom.
Only one other nation has preserved a battleship: Japan… and they’ve only saved one, and the Mikasa (above) was built in 1899.
It surprises me that the British haven’t held on to at least one of their battleships since the whole British Empire was ruled by naval power, which has given them a partiality to the Admiralty and it’s tools for warfare on the high seas – but their last King George V-class battleship (above), the Howe, was towed off to the ship breakers in 1958.
I suppose it’s a blessing that the American culture is so obsessed with their military and it’s history as it’s the only thing that’s kept 9 of these mighty ships at least partially alive – though a few of them are falling into disrepair (the USS Texas – pictured above – is quite prone to flooding as of late).
A lot of you may not think these throwbacks from a long gone era are overly important once you’ve aged past your school field trip years, but if you live in a free nation, you owe that freedom to the mammoth endeavors your progenitors embarked on before you were even born.
There is a misconception among a lot of Americans that the USS Arizona (above) remains permanently commissioned – and while that would have been a nice gesture on the part of U.S. lawmakers, the Arizona wreck is maintained by the National Park Service… but does have the unique right to fly the flag of the United States forever as if she was still an active service ship.
Oh… and that part from the BATTLESHIP movie that came out in 2012? You know… where they fire up the Missouri and go charging after the alien bad guys? Yeah…. that couldn’t happen: no fuel in the tanks, and who in their right mind would keep live ammunition – shells still in firing condition – aboard a museum ship that sees thousands of visitors on a regular basis?
All you need is a bored high schooler goofing off on a tour and wondering what would happen if they hit a shell really hard in a certain area – and then death, carnage, and major problems for a national treasure.
However, please feel somewhat authentic while playing your Battleship board game from Milton Bradley (old school) or Hasbro (new games): back in the old days, those big guns were sighted and ranged by human eyes – a spotter would look through binoculars while you fired on the opposing enemy ship and called out how close each shot was until the shells finally found their target.
Not quite the same as calling out a letter and a number, but still vaguely similar.