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JodiCarlton.com
USS North Carolina vs Bismarck
by Edward J. Langer

Throughout naval warfare there has been the “what” if question. What would have happened if two supposedly evenly matched warships fought a duel? Always we favor our own. But during World War Two when it was expected to have epic battleship battles there were very few, leaving us with many questions, few answers and much speculation. Most “what if” questions deal with the IJN Yamato versus the USS Iowa. That’s for someone else to tackle. This paper will explore the strengths and weaknesses of the Bismarck and its contemporaries - those battleships launched between 1939 and 1941. All of these ships should be similar in capabilities. This is not the usual one paragraph comparison but a more in-depth study.

Ship's Name          Launch Date          Commissioning Date
HMS Hood             August 22, 1918      May 15, 1920
Bismarck             February 14, 1939    August 24, 1940
Tirpitz              April 1, 1939        February 25, 1941
HMS Prince of Wales  May 3, 1939          January 19, 1941
USS North Carolina   June 13, 1940        April 9, 1941
USS Washington       June 1, 1940         May 12, 1942
USS South Dakota     June 7, 1941         March 20, 1942
USS Massachusetts    September 23, 1941   May 12, 1942
USS Indiana          November 21, 1941    April 30 1942

Propulsion

A major factor in the survival of a ship in combat is speed and maneuverability. Under propulsion we will compare the power and the drive system. Having four propellers allows for greater maneuverability by allowing the battleship to steer by just using the propellers. Bismarck could not steer using three propellers.

                                                         Number of   
                    Number of  Type of     Shaft Horse   Shafts &
Ship's Name         Boilers    Propulsion  Power         Propellers   Speed
HMS Hood            24         turbine     144,000       4            32
Bismarck            12         turbine     160,786       3            30
Tirpitz             12         turbine     160,786       3            30
HMS Prince of Wales 8          turbine     110,000       4            28
USS North Carolina  8          turbine     121,000       4            28
USS Washington      8          turbine     121,000       4            28
USS South Dakota    8          turbine     130,000       4            28
USS Massachusetts   8          turbine     130,000       4            28
USS Indiana         8          turbine     130,000       4            28

Armament

The main armament of the battleship is what sinks an opponent. Because of the Washington Treaty gun size was restricted. For the United States this would mean reverting to the 14” 50 caliber gun. A good gun but lacking the power of the 16” 45 caliber guns on its Colorado Class battleships. Battle ship size was also restricted. These new battleships would be referred to as Treaty Battleships. When the Japanese revoked a portion of the treaty, this allowed the United States to go to the larger 16” gun. The British remaining true to the Treaty produced a battleship with a 14” gun.

                         Muzzle                              Muzzle    Weight of
Ship’s Name         Size of Gun      Number of Guns          Velocity  APC Shell  Range 
HMS Hood            15”  45 caliber  8- 2 each in 4 turrets  2458      1938       33,550
Bismarck             15”  52 caliber  8- 2 each in 4 turrets  2690      1764       39,589
                    (actual 14.96” 51.66 caliber)
Tirpitz             15”  52 caliber  8- 2 each in 4 turrets  2690      1764       39,589
                    (actual 14.96” 51.66 caliber)
HMS Prince of Wales 14”  45 caliber  10-4 each in 2 turrets  2483      1590       36,500
                                     2 in one turret
USS North Carolina  16”  45 caliber  9- 3 each in 3 turrets  2300      2700       40,180
USS Washington      16”  45 caliber  9- 3 each in 3 turrets  2300      2700       40,180
Use South Dakota    16”  45 caliber  9- 3 each in 3 turrets  2300      2700       40,180
USS Indiana         16”  45 caliber  9- 3 each in 3 turrets  2300      2700       40,180
USS Massachusetts   16”  45 caliber  9- 3 each in 3 turrets  2300      2700       40,180

Armor

Armor is used to protect the vital parts of the ship. Heavy armor is used over the magazine, engine rooms, boiler rooms, barbettes, turrets and conning tower. Less armor is used on the deck and other places. The rest of the ship is left without any protection. This would include the bow, the stern, the steering room in the stern, the propellers and rudders, most of the top side, including the directors, rangefinders, radar antennas, exhaust stacks, the bridge and almost everything else.

Ship’s Name          Armor Belt Deck Armor Length  Displacement
HMS Hood             12”        3”         860'7"  41,680
Bismarck             12.594”    3.15”      792'8"  42,000
Tirpitz              12.594"    3.15”      792'8"  42,000
HMS Prince of Wales  14.7”      6”         745'1"  43,000
USS North Carolina   12”        5.5”       728'6"  37,484
USS Washington       12”        5.5”       728'6"  37,484
USS South Dakota     12.2”      6”         680'    35,000
USS Massachusetts    12.2"      6"         680'    35,000
USS Indiana          12.2”      6”         680'    35,000

Fire Control

Fire control is a major component of any battle. Having the biggest gun and the fastest ship means nothing if you cannot hit the target. German optics were superior to American and British optics but between the wars constant training and upgrading of fire control systems by the British and the Americans resulted in a fire control system slightly superior to that of the Germans. Also, during this same period of time the American and British had training exercises in which live shells were fired at targets giving officers and crews years of experience. However, the German were able to sink the Hood and hit the Prince of Wales; therefore, the fire controls must be equal.

Disadvantages

All ships suffer from the thin deck armor. At certain battle ranges plunging fire will penetrate a deck and enter the vitals of a ship. The USS Arizona is a perfect example of a ship that was hit by an armor piercing projectile going through deck armor.

Individual Disadvantages and Advantages

HMS Hood
This ship was a World War One design battle cruiser that needed a refit and an upgrade in equipment. Just like at the battle of Jutland, battle cruisers should not take on a more modern design battleship. Also, it was a very large ship, easy to spot and target. On the plus side the ship was the fastest and had 15” guns.

Bismarck and Tirpitz
Both ships while of a modern design suffer from the fact that the design was based on a World War One design - the Bayern class. The biggest drawback of this class was the 3 propeller propulsion. While on builder’s trials the Bismarck could not steer using just the propellers. On the plus side the side armor is adequate for the enemy she was expected to meet. They have fairly powerful 15” guns. They were the second fastest ships on the list. And while Bismarck’s fire control is not rated the best, it still sank the Hood and scored hits on the Prince of Wales.

HMS Prince of Wales
This ship has the smallest guns of all the ships although it makes up for it by having 10 of them. The ship is two knots slower than the Bismarck This may or may not be a factor in battle. The British were trying to keep the ship within the treaty limits.

USS North Carolina and USS Washington
Both ships suffered from inadequate armor. As treaty designed battleships they were supposed to mount the 14" 50 caliber gun., but when Japan pulled out of the treaty, the United States exercised the escape clause allowing it to mount a larger gun. A larger gun was fitted but the armor was not upgraded. To increase the armor would have made the ship too heavy for the propulsion plant and place the tonnage outside the treaty limits. These ships are slower than the Bismarck and Tirpitz by 2 knots which may be a factor in battle. The big advantage they do have is that they mount 16” 45 caliber guns firing a 2700 lb. APC shell from 9 guns. Also, these ships are 64 feet shorter than the Bismarck making them more difficult to spot and hit. Finally, their fire control system is supposedly more advanced than that of the Germans.

USS South Dakota, USS Indiana and USS Massachusettsetts
These ships are slower than the Bismarck and Tirpitz by 2 knots which may be a factor in battle. The armor plate on these ships was designed to stop a 16” shell. It should stop a 15” shell. The USS South Dakota took a beating from the IJN Kirishima at Guadalcanal but still steamed away under her own power to fight another day. The big advantage they do have is that they mount nine 16” 45 caliber guns firing a 2700 lb. APC shell. Also these ships are 112 feet shorter than the Bismarck making them more difficult to spot and hit. Finally, their fire control system is supposedly more advanced than that of the Germans.

Battle Gaming

Bismarck versus USS North Carolina
In this matchup we have two fairly evenly matched ships. Both have advantages and disadvantages. The big advantage goes to the North Carolina since it has the bigger guns, has one more gun and fires the bigger shell. All things being equal the North Carolina should be the victor but in combat, nothing is equal. The best laid plans often go awry. While the number of guns firing the bigger shell favor the North Carolina, it would be a close battle.

Tirpitz versus USS North Carolina, USS Washington, USS South Dakota, USS Indiana or USS Massachusetts (later in the war)
While the Titpitz on paper is a modern designed battleship, it sat wasting away in the fjords of Norway. All of the American ships had upgrades to their fire control systems which included radar for improved long-range targeting. Also, their crews had more combat experience. The Tirpitz would be the loser.



* * *

© 2019 Edward Langer Written by Edward J. Langer. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Edward Langer at: langere@live.com.

About the author:
Mr. Langer is an historian, researcher, and analyst. He holds a B.A. in History from California State University – Fullerton and an M.A. in History from California State University – Los Angeles. He is a member of the International Naval Research Organization and the California Writers Club, Inland Empire Branch. His articles have been published in Military History Magazine, Colloquy and Fresh Ink.

Published online: 11/24/2018.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.



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