Capital Ship Surface Actions World War 2
by Terry A. Gardner, EMC(SW) USNR ret.
During World War 2 there were a relatively small number of surface actions
between battleships. Of these, only a few could be said to have constituted a
test of the ability of these vessels to fight their contemporaries. In most
actions, either one side broke off combat before a real contest took place or,
the odds were such that the contest was one sided. The list below enumerates
the various surface actions in which modern battleships took part:
* 9 Apr 1940 Scharnhorst and Gneisenau versus Renown off the
Lofoten Islands, Norway.
* 3 July 1940 Strasbourg and Dunkerque versus Hood, Valiant,
and Resolution at Mers el Kebir following the surrender of France.
* 9 July 1940 Giulio Cesare versus Warspite at Calabria /
* 24 Sept 1940 Richelieu versus Barham and Resolution
* 28 Mar 1941 Vittorio Veneto versus Warspite, Barham,
and Valiant at Matapan
* 21 May 1941 Bismarck versus Hood and Prince of Wales,
* 27 May 1941 Bismarck versus Rodney and King George V,
* 8 Nov 1942 Massachusetts versus Jean Bart, Casablanca
* 13 Nov 1942 South Dakota and Washington versus Krishima,
Savo Island, Solomon Islands.
* 25 Dec 1943 Scharnhorst versus Duke of York, North Cape
* 24 - 25 Oct 1944 Yamashiro versus California, Maryland,
Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and W.
Virginia at Surigao Straight.
Looking briefly at those battles listed above, several need to be qualified by
the material condition of the ships involved at the outset and the conduct
during the action. Matapan can safely be discounted as neither side scored any
hits using gunfire on the other although firing did occur. At Dakar and,
Casablanca the French ships were not in full readiness or capability. The Richelieu
had only just left her constructors and had not had any real time or ability to
undergo proper trials or training. Likewise, the Jean Bart was in only
partially completed condition and was unable to raise steam and maneuver during
her fight. The Scharnhorst at North Cape had suffered previous light
damage from engaging British cruisers present that had as a result knocked out
her primary radar systems. Given prevailing weather and light conditions this
was to prove a serious handicap. The Bismarck during her second engagement on
27 May had a crew that was suffering from fatigue as well as the ship itself
having the handicap of previous damage that limited her ability to maneuver.
Each battle description below looks at the technical aspects of the action.
There is little attempt to analyze the tactics or strategy of the combatants
here. Instead, what is being looked at is the performance of the battleships
engaged and their ability to withstand punishment.
Battle Descriptions and outcomes
Lofoten Islands, 9 April 1940. This battle occurred during the
German invasion of Norway between the HMS Renown and the KM Scharnhorst
and Gneisenau. The battle took place about 80 NM west of the Lofoten
Islands. Sea state was full gale with very heavy seas. The battle opened at
0337 with the Renown having increased speed to 20 knots after spotting
the two German ships. Renown was steaming west of the German's
position giving her the advantage of being against the still dark sky while the
German ships were silhouetted against the lightening eastern sky in morning
nautical twilight. Neither side had the advantage of radar during this
At 19,000 yards Renown turned to a new course to expose her full
broadside. At 0405 the Renown opened fire on the Gneisenau whose
crew was uncertain about the identity of the Renown and taking the Scharnhorst
Gneisenau replied at 0411. Both sides turned onto roughly parallel
courses. At 0417 the Renown scored her first hit, taking out Gneisenau's
main gunnery control station. The Gneisenau turned away onto a
north-easterly heading and switched to secondary fire control. Scharnhorst
followed laying smoke in an attempt to screen Gneisenau until she
could reestablish her fire control ability. Both German ships increased their
speed to about 28 knots.
Renown followed the German course change and tried to increase speed
but began to take too much water over the bow and was suffering flooding in ‘A'
turret and through a hatch forward. The best Renown could manage was
20 knots. However, Renown's continued fire scored two additional hits
on Gneisenau. One of these damaged Gneisenau's forward turret
putting it out of action. Both German ships also began to take on a lot of
water through their A turrets putting them out of action on both ships even if Renown
had not made a hit.
In return, the Germans scored three hits on Renown causing very minor
damage. The first hit struck the main leg of the foremast severing power
connections to various equipment on it. The second passed through the extreme
stern while the third struck the top of the forward funnel. None of these
Mers el Kebir 3 July 1940. At Mers el Kebir Algeria the French
battleships Dunkerque, Strasbourg, Bretagne, and Provence
faced a British force with the Hood, Valiant and, Resolution.
The French ships were fully operational and had well trained crews. While the
French ships were in port when the action began they immediately tried to get
underway. The Dunkerque received the majority of the British fire
initially and ultimately was disabled before she could clear the harbor. The Strasbourg,
managed to clear the harbor while the British were occupied firing on other
ships and quickly out ran the slower British vessels. Hood initially
attempted to give chase but was unable to close with Strasbourg which left the
Dunkerque received a total of four 15" shell hits during this action.
Two of these in combination prevented the Dunkerque from successfully
getting underway and possibly escaping.
The first shell struck the Dunkerque well aft passing through the
aircraft hanger, several crew compartments and out through the light side
plating on the port side of the ship. This shell did very little real damage
and Dunkerque's fighting capacity was unaffected. About two minutes
later, another salvo struck the Dunkerque scoring three simultaneous
The first of these three shells struck Dunkerque on the top of Turret
II at an oblique angle producing a sizable gash in the 6" roof armor of the
turret. Pieces of armor were sprayed into the starboard half of this turret
where exposed powder bags ignited causing a flash fire killing or
incapacitating that half of the turret's gun crew.
The second shell hit Dunkerque on the starboard side amidships just
above the 9" belt and directly below the starboard 130mm turret. This round
penetrated the 4.5" deck armor, entered the turret ammunition room wrecking it
and, then exiting into several other compartments before detonating in a
ventilation space for the forward engine room.
As a result of this explosion fumes and smoke entered the forward engine room
killing 20 men and forcing the space to be evacuated. This put all of the
machinery out of action and a serious disruption of electrical power resulted.
The loss of electrical power disrupted the central fire control system forcing
the main battery to go to local control. Turret II also lost power and had to
be manually operated in train and elevation.
The third shell struck just short of the ship and traveled underwater for a
short distance striking Jean Bart below the 9" belt. The shell
penetrated the side plating and the torpedo defense system to detonate on the
torpedo bulkhead. The explosion destroyed a considerable amount of structure in
the immediate area as well as spraying splinters throughout the #2 boiler room
killing a number crew and disabling the boilers. This left Jean Bart with
only one operating engine room and boiler room.
With her speed limited to about 25 knots, only one turret in local operation
and electrical power disrupted throughout the ship the decision was made to
move to the harbor of St. Andre where coastal defense batteries and terrain
would offer some protection. Later, Jean Bart would be completely
disabled by aerial attack but, that is beyond the scope of this paper.
The British battleships involved in this action emerged unscathed. Strasbourg
escaped undamaged while Jean Bart would have been sunk if she had been
at sea. The damage she suffered was sufficiently serious that she alone against
three British battleships would not have been able to successfully fend them
Simultaneously with the shell hits on Dunkerque, the older World War 1
battleships Bretagne and Provence received multiple 15" shell
hits. These ships had not been upgraded in any substantial way since their
completion late in the First World War. They both had very thin deck armor
amounting to just two or three inches in most areas making them extremely
vulnerable to plunging fire.
A shell from the first salvo that hit Bretagne penetrated the deck
armor amidships and detonated in the amidships turret magazine. This resulted
in the destruction of the Bretagne from a magazine explosion and
killed 997 of the crew. Simultaneously with this, Provence received at
least three 15" hits that crippled her causing a partial loss of her plant and
heavy amounts of flooding. Provence was run aground in the harbor to prevent
her from sinking completely. Neither ship made any useful contribution to the
fight before being put out of action.
Calabria / Punta Stilo, 9 July 1940. This is the first major
fleet action between the British and Italian navies in World War 2. While the
battleship engagement portion was minimal, it was also decisive to the outcome.
The battleship portion opens at approximately 1530 when the Warspite engaged
in a duel with several Italian heavy cruisers, both sides obtaining straddles
but no hits.
At 1553 the Warspite sighted the Giulio Cesare at a range of
about 26,000 yards and took her under fire. The Italian battleship replied
almost simultaneously. Warspite obtained a straddle on her first salvo
while the Italians were off by about 1000 yards.
After exchanging several salvos, the Warspite obtained a hit at 1559
that penetrated the deck of Giulio Cesare amidships detonating in a
boiler room knocking out that boiler along with three more in adjacent boiler
rooms. There were 115 casualties and the Giulio Cesare' s speed fell
to 18 knots.
The Italians then decided to break off the action and retired under a smoke
screen. By 1700 Giulio Cesare had managed to make repairs that brought
her speed up to 25 knots ensuring her escape. The other Italian battleship
present, Cavor, did not actively engage the British, nor did the two
slow British battleships present; Royal Sovereign and Malaya.
Dakar, 24 September 1940. Following the fall of France, the
British wanted to ensure that no major French fleet units fell into German
control. The recently completed French battleship Richelieu was at Dakar Africa
at the time. There, the British battleships Barham and Resolution
attacked her while at anchor in the port.
Initially, Barham and Resolution approached to about 13,000
yards at 0940 and opened fire. There was a haze that restricted visibility and
the seas were running fairly high. The French also had a destroyer lay a smoke
screen across the harbor further restricting visibility.
Richelieu began to return fire when one of the guns in the starboard
half of Turret II exploded knocking that turret out of action. Richelieu
did reply with her 152mm guns but scored no hits. Richelieu suffered
only one hit that struck the superstructure between the tower bridge and the
stack causing minor damage. By 1010 the British had decided that visibility and
the sea state made it impractical to continue the bombardment and withdrew for
At 0740 the next day the battle resumed at a range of about 20,000 yards. Richelieu
replied this time with Turret I managing to get one hit on Barham at the
waterline abrest B turret causing minor flooding. Altogether the British fired
about 250 shells in this engagement with Richelieu having fired about
a dozen. In addition, shore batteries scored several minor hits on Barham
with 6" and 9.4" shells that did not effect her operation during this
Matapan, 28 March 1941. In this action light forces of both
the Italians and British began with a cruiser action. Neither side was
initially aware that the other possessed battleships in the area. The Italian
battleship Vittorio Veneto steamed rapidly to support the cruisers in
action and arrived on the scene before the much slower British battleships, Warspite,
Barham, and Valiant.
Vittorio Veneto began to engage the British light forces when a
torpedo bomber attack from the carrier Formidable successfully hit the
Vittorio Veneto with one torpedo on the second strike that was
launched. This slowed the Italian battleship to 16 knots for several hours
allowing the British to close to very long gun range. With night falling the
Italian ship was able to increase her speed to about 20 knots and escape before
either side could engage in a gun battle.
The importance of this battle in respect to the topic of this paper is that the
Italians used their superior speed primarily to escape engagement, not enter
Denmark Straight 21 May 1941. This action opened at 0552 when
the Hood and Prince of Wales made visual contact with the Bismarck
and cruiser Prinz Eugen. A minute later both British ships commenced
firing on, initially, Prinz Eugen. Quickly realizing their mistake the
British shifted fire to the Bismarck on their second salvos. Because
of the positions of the ships, British fire was limited to their forward
turrets only. The opening range was about 25,000 yards. Bismarck and Prinz
Eugen quickly began to return fire, Bismarck limiting salvos
to just four guns throughout the action.
About 3 minutes after the action began the Prinz Eugen scored the
first hit on Hood with a round hitting that ship near the main mast that
started a fire on the boat deck among the ready service ammunition lockers.
Both British ships also made a change of course at this time exposing their
Right after Hood was hit Prince of Wales straddled Bismarck with her
seventh salvo and Hood was straddled by Bismarck 's third. At
about 0559 the Bismarck's fourth salvo hit Hood getting one or two hits,
possibly one by the aft funnel and one by X turret at a range of about 23,000
yards. Approximately a minute later Hood's aft magazines detonated sinking the
Although the exact sequence of events associated with Hood's loss cannot be
definitely determined it is likely that the 15" shell causing her loss either
penetrated the deck or, more likely given the available evidence simply
shattered the armor spraying fragments that caused the magazine fire and
Prince of Wales continued to engage Bismarck afterwards getting to
hits. The first hit was a diving shell that struck the port side below the belt
penetrating the torpedo defense system and armored bulkhead detonating in the
forward generator room. This was put out of action. The port forward boiler
room behind the generator room was shut down and evacuated due to progressive
flooding. Bismarck 's speed fell to 28 knots maximum as a result.
The second hit passed through the bow of the Bismarck just above the waterline
without detonating. Major flooding of the bow compartments of the ship resulted
as far aft as compartment 20. Over 1000 tons of water entered the ship.
Counter-flooding in tanks aft was necessary to restore stability.
Bismarck and Prinz Eugen also hit the Prince of Wales
three and four times respectively. The damage that resulted from these hits
Hit 1: 15" shell that passed through the bridge without exploding. This round
killed or incapacitated the entire bridge crew with the exception of Captain
Hit 2: An 8" shell that passed through the support tower behind the bridge for
the HA/LA 5.25" directors. These were put out of action due to the severing of
power and communications cables in the tower.
Hit 3: A 15" shell that struck the starboard aircraft crane and aft funnel
resulting in a low order detonation. Fragments from this round caused damage to
the Prince of Wales' boats.
Hit 4: An 8" shell that struck the boat deck above starboard IV 5.25" turret.
It failed to explode and was later recovered and thrown overboard.
Hit 5: A 15" diving shell that struck amidships on the starboard side
penetrating into an outer wing tank where it came to rest unexploded. The entry
hole allowed flooding of the tank putting about 600 tons of water in the ship
and reducing speed to 26 knots.
Hit 6: An 8" shell that penetrated just above aft armored deck just aft of X
turret on the starboard side. It partially detonated wrecking several crew
Hit 7: An 8" shell that penetrated just above the aft armored deck above the
steering gear compartments that partially detonated doing minor local damage.
North Atlantic, 27 May 1941. The Bismarck having
suffered additional damage by aircraft attack and unable to steer a consistent
course was caught up with by a British force consisting of the battleships King
George V (hereafter referred to as KGV) and Rodney and
the heavy cruisers Norfolk and Dorsetshire.
This action opened at 0843 when the Rodney made visual contact on the Bismarck
at a range of about 25,000 yards. Four minutes later she opened fire on
Bismarck. KGV and Norfolk followed suit and opening fire a
minute later at a range of about 20,000 yards. Bismarck also began to return
fire at this time concentrating her fire on Rodney.
Bismarck got the range first straddling Rodney on her third
salvo. However, she was unable to get any hits.
At 0859 Rodney scored a hit on Bismarck knocking out both forward 15"
turrets. A minute later Dorsetshire began to fire on Bismarck as well.
At the same time, the Norfolk scored a hit on Bismarck's foretop
knocking out the main rangefinder position forcing the Germans to switch
control to the aft fire control station.
The British battleships continued to close the range with Bismarck obtaining
more hits as they did. These were mostly concentrated on the forward and center
section of the ship wrecking much of the secondary gun positions on the port
side along with some to starboard.
At 0904 the aft fire control station was destroyed forcing C and D turrets into
local control. Compounding problems for the Germans was the inability of Bismarck
to effectively maneuver (although it is likely by this point that control from
the bridge was no longer possible) limiting the ability of the remaining two
turrets to come to bear on the British ships. At 0921 C turret was knocked out.
Nine minutes later the left gun of D turret exploded resulting in the loss of
that turret too.
The British continued to fire on the Bismarck at ranges from about
3,000 yards to 10,000 yards for another 45 minutes leaving the German ship a
burning, listing, wreck dead in the water. Altogether the British fired 719 14"
and 16" shells as well as 2157 lighter rounds of which about 5 to 10% hit Bismarck.
From the examination of the wreck of Bismarck a few notes can be made
on some of the heavier hits. Turrets A, B, and D all received penetrating hits
on their barbettes and likely all four main turrets took at least one
penetrating hit. Most of the antiaircraft battery was quickly wrecked by hits.
The upper 7" belt received multiple penetrations. The large hole on the port
side amidships might have resulted from a boiler explosion. The bridge and
conning tower received multiple hits and heavy damage. Given the short range of
much of the fire it is unlikely that much damage or many, if any, hits were
made on the main belt or below the waterline. Flooding where it occurred would
have been more likely caused by fragment damage close to but above the
waterline much as the Prince of Wales' hit earlier did.
Casablanca 8 Nov 1942. While the Jean Bart was only
partially completed, unable to get underway and had a marginally trained crew,
the battle between her and the USS Massachusetts has some value in
examining the damage Jean Bart received. Between 0704 and 0810 on
November 8th the Massachusetts fired over 200 rounds at either the Jean
Bart or the costal defense battery, El Hank. Of these shells a total
of five struck Jean Bart. These hits caused the following damage:
At 0725 the first hit was registered. This shell struck the starboard side aft
penetrating the 6" armored deck, the 11/2" splinter armor below, and then
entered an empty 152mm magazine were it detonated. Had this magazine been fully
loaded it, along with the two beside it, would have likely blown the stern off
the Jean Bart.
At 0737 a second shell hit Jean Bart to starboard just aft of the
funnel which exited the ship just above the waterline forward of the port 152mm
barbette. At sea this shell would likely have resulted in local flooding above
the armored deck.
The next hit was made at 0806 striking Turret I at an oblique angle glancing
off the 6" barbette armor. This armor was badly gouged by this strike resulting
in a jamming of the turret in train. In action at sea this would have taken the
turret out of action. As it was this turret was unable to operate for over ten
hours while a local contractor cut away the damaged area.
A second shell from this salvo struck Turret II's barbette (this turret was not
complete and non-operational) also at a very oblique angle continuing aft into
the ship's hull. There it wrecked a number of spaces coming to rest next to the
communications tube connecting the conning tower.
The last shell struck starboard aft just ahead of the starboard catapult
mounting. This shell penetrated the 4" armor protecting the steering gear and
detonated just above the keel. Jean Bart 's steering gear was largely
wrecked by this hit.
Massachusetts was not hit during this action although Jean Bart did
manage to fire a good number or 2 or 4 gun salvos including getting straddles
on the cruiser Augusta.
Savo Island, 13 Nov 1942. This battle along with North Cape
below represents the only two actions that occur at night. As such, they
highlight the sensory revolution that occurred during World War 2. This
particular action had several parts to it. For purposes of this paper, only the
battleship action need be discussed. Starting at 2300 the two US battleships, Washington
and South Dakota obtained radar contact on the various Japanese ships
operating just south of Savo Island. First fires were directed from both
battleships against the Japanese cruiser Sendai and destroyer Shikinami
without success between 2316 and 2319. Range was 18,500 yards decreasing to 12
to 13,000 yards. Washington fired 42 16" rounds and 100 rounds of 5".
Interference from Savo Island and other clutter made getting good radar
resolution on these targets difficult resulting in the poor results.
At 2333 the South Dakota suffered an electrical failure in #3
secondary fire control director. Either the crew of this director (likely) or
one of the ship's electricians locked in the tripped circuit breaker to restore
power. This action caused a cascade failure of the main bus tie breaker from
which this system was powered. As a result, the South Dakota lost
electrical power to most of her superstructure including all radar systems. The
ship's gyro and central fire control system were also lost in this failure.
The ship's electricians traced the fault and corrected the problem almost
immediately but, the fault reoccurred when this same director switched to their
alternate power supply reinserting the fault into the electrical system.
Electrical outages and problems continued to plague the South Dakota as
part of this fault. While the fault was finally corrected by 2336, the result
of this was that South Dakota was partially blinded and distracted by
these electrical problems.
Both battleships continued to close with the Japanese forces. At 2335 the South
Dakota made a turn to port to avoid the wreckage of the destroyer Preston
and in doing so began to close more rapidly than the Washington with the
Japanese. With power restored, the South Dakota reopened fire on the
Sendai at 2342. The initial salvos set the aircraft on her fantail on fire
(these were subsequently blown overboard by additional salvos). South Dakota
was now silhouetted from behind by the wreck of the Preston and had a fire
burning aboard that allowed the Japanese main body to see her. Washington
meantime was still maintaining her original track, closing with the same
At 2355 the Japanese launched a 34 torpedo attack on South Dakota at a range of
about 6,000 yards. No hits were scored but, had some been made this might have
significantly changed the outcome of this battle.
Three minutes later the Kirishima, Takao and Atago all
opened fire on South Dakota as well. Either the Kirishima or
one of the cruisers illuminated the South Dakota with a searchlight.
The range was now down to 5,000 yards.
At 0001 the Washington opened fire based on her radar plot with
optical verification on Kirishima. In 6 minutes Washington fired
75 16" and 107 5" rounds hitting the Kirishima with 9 16" and about 40 5"
rounds. Her radar plot was able to track individual 16" shell splashes and
hits. These hits wrecked the Kirishima, setting her afire and
destroying her steering gear. Few, if any, of these hits were on the hull or
below the waterline. Kirishima 's engines were intact even as the ship
had major fires burning in the superstructure.
Washington also took the two Japanese cruisers under fire with her 5"
guns firing 133 rounds at one or the other at ranges from 10,000 to 12,000
South Dakota suffered 42 hits on her superstructure. Of these only one
was a 14" shell. Kirishima took at least 9 16" and 40 5" hits as
previously noted also all on her superstructure. The difference between the two
outcomes is stark. In both cases the large number of small shells had little
effect on either ship's ability to fight. It was the nine 16" hits on Kirishima
that wrecked her. These apparently knocked out her main battery, her secondary
battery, wrecked the steering gear, and started serious fires that eventually
caused her abandonment. Of note is that both ships suffered virtually no hull
damage due to the short range.
North Cape 25 - 26 December 1943. While the primary interest
in this battle is damage inflicted by the two battleships involved, a
discussion of the entire action is included for completeness. This action
between the British battleship Duke of York (along with a number of
other Royal Navy cruisers and destroyers) and the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst
took place off northern Norway on 26 December 1944.
This entire battle took place in poor weather, rough seas, and near or total
darkness. At this time of year there was virtually no actual daylight that far
north with just nautical twilight occurring.
The first encounter between Scharnhorst and the British fleet occurred
when contact was made by the 10th Cruiser Squadron (Sheffield, Belfast,
and Norfolk) by radar at 0840 at a range of about 35,000 yards. While
the Scharnhorst also had radar, her crew failed to detect the presence
of the British cruisers. The British began to close with the German ship and at
0924 the Belfast began the action by illuminating Scharnhorst
with star shell. The Scharnhorst, taken by surprise began to alter
course and work up to 30 knots to avoid combat.
At 0929 the cruiser Norfolk opened fire on Scharnhorst at a
range of 9,800 yards. Between 0929 and 0940 when Scharnhorst was lost
having opened the range, Norfolk scored two hits on the battlecruiser.
The first struck between port 5.9" turret III and the torpedo tubes. This shell
did not detonate and wrecked a couple of spaces above the armored deck starting
a small fire that was quickly extinguished. The second hit was on the foretop.
This hit damaged the Seetakt radar beyond repair. This left Scharnhorst
with only a Seetakt aft for surface search. The problem with this is that the
remaining radar had a limited forward search arc so with respect to radar, Scharnhorst
was essentially blind.
At 1205 the British cruisers regained contact with Belfast making a
radar plot at 30,500 yards. Sixteen minutes later with the range down to 11,000
yards and all three British cruisers opened fire and illuminated the Scharnhorst
with star shell. The Germans were not completely surprised this time and Scharnhorst
While the British failed to get any additional hits, at 1233 Scharnhorst
hit the Norfolk with either her 4th or 5th salvo of 11" shells. Norfolk
took one hit on X turret knocking it out and requiring flooding of its
magazines and another amidships that did minor damage. Damage was sufficient to
knock out all but one Type 285 radar as well. The Sheffield also had
splinter damage from near misses.
At 1241 the British broke off the action and continued to shadow the
Scharnhorst. At 1345 the decision was made by the Germans to discontinue their
action and return to port. The Scharnhorst now began to run at high
speed back towards port.
At 1617 a second British force, centered around the battleship Duke of York
made radar contact on Scharnhorst at a range of 45,000 yards. Once
again, Scharnhorst did not make a reciprocal detection. This new
British group continued to close on the starboard side of Scharnhorst.
At 1632 the Duke of York obtained a radar fire control solution at a
range of 29,700 yards.
Five minutes later, Belfast (the Sheffield had fallen behind
due to a plant casualty that reduced her speed and Norfolk was still
recovering from her earlier damage and had also fallen behind) made contact on Scharnhorst
and began to close to port. At 1647 Belfast illuminated the Scharnhorst
with star shell. Scharnhorst in turn fired star shell and began to
return fire on Belfast.
A minute later, Duke of York illuminated Scharnhorst with
star shell as well. This followed with the first salvos from both Duke of York
and the cruiser Jamaica at a range of 12,000 yards. Between 1650 and
1715 when Duke of York checked fire because Scharnhorst once
again managed to slip the British temporarily, the following damage occurred to
At 1655 a 14" shell struck abreast A turret and jammed it in train. While the
turret itself was undamaged it was effectively out-of-action due to this
A second 14" hit (this is sometimes attributed as a torpedo hit) followed very
closely amidships on the starboard side causing the loss of boiler room
1dropping Scharnhorst 's speed to 8 knots. The engine room crews were
able to quickly make line up adjustments and got the speed back up to 22 knots
within ten minutes.
A third 14" or 6" hit knocked out 5.9" turret I on the starboard side.
The British followed this gun engagement with a destroyer torpedo attack. At
about 1840 the destroyers Savage, Saumarez, Scorpion,
and Stord launched their attack by half-divisions (two pairs of
destroyers) with the following results:
Scorpion 8 torpedoes launched at 2,100 yards 1 hit claimed. This might
be the hit causing the loss of the boiler room; there is some question with the
exact time line of events.
Stord 8 torpedoes launched at 1,800 yards with no hits.
Savage 8 torpedoes launched at 3,500 yards with no hits.
Saumarez 4 torpedoes launched (one bank had a mechanical mishap) at
1,800 yards. A hit was claimed but is very unlikely or might be confused with
the Scorpion hit.
The final action started at 1901when the Duke of York reopened fire at
10,400 yards. What follows is a generalized compilation of the events to 1948
when Scharnhorst sank. As most of the British fire was radar directed
and there were few survivors from Scharnhorst, the exact events are a
Between 1901 and about 1925 Scharnhorst took an additional hit on A
turret, B turret was hit and sufficiently damaged to cause the magazines to be
flooded. Hits on the superstructure damaged the starboard side of the bridge
structure and caused a major fire in the aircraft hangers. Additionally, most
of the secondary battery was taken out of action, starboard 5.9" turret IV was
one of the last in action.
At 1925 the Jamaica launched torpedoes getting one hit on Scharnhorst's
starboard side and Scharnhorst is reported as dead in the water. Within the
next 15 minutes (1925 - 1940) Scharnhorst took between 4 and 6
additional torpedo hits to port and starboard.
At 1945 sonars on the British ships reported a very heavy underwater explosion
on Scharnhorst. Based on subsequent discovery of the wreckage on the
bottom, this was the forward magazines of Scharnhorst detonating as the wreck
is missing the forward portion of the ship ahead of the bridge. At 1948 Scharnhorst
was officially listed as sunk by the British.
Surigao Straight, 24 - 25 October 1944. This is an extremely
one-sided battle. Yamashiro was effectively unable to engage the US
ships involved and faced overwhelming odds. Prior to the engagement described
below, the Yamashiro had suffered a single torpedo hit that had not
substantially effected her combat capacity.
The engagement opens at 0333 when the US battleships make radar contact on Yamashiro
at a range of 33,000 yards. Because the US ships were short on AP ammunition,
being loaded primarily for shore bombardment, they were directed to hold fire
until the range decreased to increase the probability of hits.
About 10,000 yards ahead of the US battleships were two groups of cruisers, one
with six ships and one with three. All of these ships continued to track the
advance of the Japanese without firing for about twenty minutes. During this
period the Japanese were unaware of the US dispositions and had not detected
any of the US ships due to lack of radar.
At 0351 the main US cruiser line composed of Louisville, Portland,
Minneapolis, Denver, and Columbia opened the
engagement firing on Yamashiro at a range of about 16,000 yards. Two
minutes later, the US battleships W. Virginia, Tennessee, and
California opened fire at a range of 22,800 yards along with a second
cruiser group of Phoenix, Boise, and HMAS Shropshire
at 15,600 yards.
The three battleships fired using half salvos to conserve ammunition. Tennessee
fired a total of 69 rounds, California fired 63, and West Virginia
93. Maryland joined the fire a couple of minutes later having
difficultly finding and tracking the target so she ranged off West Virginia's
shell splashes. Maryland fired 48 rounds. The cruisers fired well over
2000 rounds of 6 and 8" ammunition. Pennsylvania was the only
battleship not to fire due to her inability to get a firing resolution with her
older Mk 3 fire control system.
The last US salvo (and only one fired by her) was loosed at 0408 by Mississippi
at a range of 19,790 yards. Yamashiro took between 15 and 30 major
caliber hits thoroughly wrecking her. Observers on US ships could make out
details of her topsides from the flames of fires burning the length of the
Yamashiro did not make any effective reply to this fire and at 0359
managed to increase her speed from 12 to 15 knots and began to turn and move
away from the US firing line. At 0404 two destroyer squadrons (eight
destroyers) closed with Yamashiro and launched torpedoes. By 0411 the
Yamashiro had taken four torpedo hits and was now dead in the water. Eight
minutes later she capsized and sank.
Thus ended the last battleship action in history; the Mississippi having
had the distinction of firing the last salvo by a battleship against another
battleship in anger.
Conclusions from these battles:
* He who shoots first and hits generally wins. In all eleven cases above, the
side that got on target first won the action and usually won it handily.
* Large caliber battleship shell hits are extremely effective when they strike
areas of their target ship's vital systems. At the same time, smaller caliber
gunfire rarely contributes much to the destruction of a battleship except when
the odd hit on such systems as lightly armored fire control stations or radars
* Heavy armor is usually inadequate to prevent serious damage from major
caliber hits even when it is not penetrated. Note how even glancing hits on
main battery turrets in several cases resulted in a temporary or permanent (in
terms of the battle space) loss of that turret.
* Speed is only an advantage in avoiding action not in continuing it. In every
case above the faster ship(s) only used their speed for escape not to close or
maneuver with the enemy. In the one case where one side tried to use speed to
close tactically (Denmark Straight) it proved of no real value in terms of the
* Usually one or two shell hits at or below the waterline are sufficient to
negate the superior speed of an opponent's ship. Shell hits in these areas
generally allow for substantial flooding such that the added weight, and often
additional weight of counter flooding to reduce list are such to reduce speed
on their own irrespective of damage to vital systems. The problem here is one
of mechanics. Propulsive power to speed is a cubic function. That is to double
a ship's speed takes roughly a cube of the horsepower at the lower speed. This
results in a very quick loss of speed when weight is added or even small
amounts of propulsive power is lost.
* In most weather conditions and at night a superior radar fire control system
is a huge advantage over search radar and optical systems. The advent of radar
and by mid-war of centimeter and millimeter wavelength radars in particular,
virtually negated any value a superior optical rangefinder would give. The late
war US Mk 8 radar was about ten times more accurate at 30,000 yards as the
optical systems mounted on battleships using it. This advantage cannot be
overstated. It is a primary cause of the loss of more than one Axis battleship.
Even the differences in quality of mid to late war Allied search radars
compared to Axis models gave the Allies a huge advantage tactically. This
proved to be a critical weakness of both German and Japanese battleships; a
lack of adequate radar systems. In the German case, it was primarily a failure
to develop naval radar beyond the initial set Seetakt. By late war the German
navy was relying primarily on makeshift applications of Luftwaffe radar sets
aboard their ships. This was hardly a useful substitute. The Japanese on the
other hand did develop a number of decent radar systems for ships including the
millimeter wave length 2 Go 2 Gata 4 Kai S fire control set that began to be
installed on ships in August 1944. This and other sets put them ahead of the
Germans in the use of radar at sea. The Japanese main problem was one of
manufacturing capacity. They simply lacked the means to manufacture enough sets
quickly to deploy them early and widely.
* Battleships operating in pairs or groups have a tremendous advantage over a
single ship even when that single vessel is superior in technical qualities.
* Loss of centralized fire control is usually fatal. Battleships operating in
local control are almost universally unable to bring effective fire on an
opponent. Note how in every action listed once a battleship was forced to use
local control it was unable to score hits on opponents even at relatively close
range. While mounted very widely, turret rangefinders were just a waste of
weight and space given the results of battle.
* Optical fire control has a maximum practical range of about 20,000 yards
under most circumstances. In none of the actions cited did a battleship open
fire much beyond this range when using optical fire control. The same range,
20,000 yards, is also typically about the maximum effective gunnery range
regardless of the fire control system. Note that the longest ranged hit in any
of these engagements was by Warspite at Calabria at a range of about
26,000 yards. At Surigao Straight the US waited until the range decreased to
about 20,000 yards to ensure more hits even though their ships had fire control
solutions at much greater ranges in many cases.
* The diving shell threat is serious but it is highly overrated. The likelihood
of getting such hits is very low. But, when such hits do occur they can be very
damaging. The Japanese went so far as to develop special shells that could
follow a reliable underwater trajectory for this purpose. The trade-off for
them was a general degradation of armor penetrating performance in other
situations. In hindsight, it was a poor trade.
Show Footnotes and
. Turrets on the Dunkerque had four guns in two compartments
divided by an armored bulkhead.
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Co., Garden City, NY, 1973.
Busch, Fritz-Otto, CorvettenKapitän The Sinking of the Scharnhorst, Eleanor
Brockett & Anton Ehrenzweig trans., Futura Publications Ltd., London, UK,
Dulin, Robert, Garzke, William Battleships: United States Battleships in World
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Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1980.
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World War II, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1985.
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London, UK, 1978.
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Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976.
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vol. 2, John Wingate DSC ed., Doubleday & Co., Garden City, NY, 1973.
Copyright © 2007 Terry A. Gardner, EMC(SW) USNR ret.
Written by Terry A. Gardner. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Terry A. Gardner at:
About the author:
Terry Gardner served 27 years in the USN/USNR. He was a graduate of the Naval Nuclear Power program and retired as a Chief
Electrician's Mate (Surface Warfare). He holds a BS from the University of Arizona in
Operations Management and Management Information Systems and is working on his MA at
American Military University. He is currently employed as a Vocational Technical Instructor at the Department
of Justice. He has had a long-time interest in military history particularly from the
technical and analytical aspects.
Published online: 03/31/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.