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Surface Actions of World War II

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The Battleships

Battleships: Axis and Neutral Battleships in World War II

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 Capital Ship Surface Actions World War 2
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 / Punta Stilo

* 24 Sept 1940 Richelieu versus Barham and Resolution at Dakar

* 28 Mar 1941 Vittorio Veneto versus Warspite, Barham, and Valiant at Matapan

* 21 May 1941 Bismarck versus Hood and Prince of Wales, Denmark Straight.

* 27 May 1941 Bismarck versus Rodney and King George V, North Atlantic.

* 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 engagement.

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 by surprise.

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 shells detonated.

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 battle area.

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 hits.

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.[1]

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 off.

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 the day.

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 engagement.

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 it.

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 full batteries.

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 ship.

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 subsequent explosion.

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 was:

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 Leach.

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 compartments.

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 Japanese ships.

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 yards.

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 quickly replied.

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 Scharnhorst :

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 damage.

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 bit confused.

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 ship.

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 occur.

* 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 outcome.

* 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 Bibliography

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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.
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