Thursday, December 07, 2006

Prestige, deterrence and great big toys for great big boys

HMS Dreadnought: rendering every other capital ship obsolete overnight.


In reference to the Trident post below, it strikes me that much of the debate as to the validity of the nuclear deterrence is a re-hash of old arguments over old technology. The battleship, first properly evidence by the Dreadnought class was debated in very similar terms. Possession of a battleship fleet was what marked out the major powers, the Empires, from the also-rans. The were massive, expensive, technologically cutting-edge and, in a sense beautiful.

Yet they were ultimately never very good at what they were principally designed to be for. The only time in naval history that battleships confronted each other in a fleet action, the battle of Jutland, the results were deeply unsatisfying. The advent of the submarine and the aircraft carrier were to render the battleship effectively obsolete, although the USS Missouri was still in service in the first Gulf war.

They were ultimately a defensive weapon, a reaction to the possession of similar ships by rival powers. Their utility in time of war was strictly limited, see the demise of HMS Repulse, and their political importance always outweighed their military effectiveness. And the public loved them. "We want eight and we won't wait" was the demand of the press in the great naval scare of 1910. I'm not sure we're so enthusiastic about the modern day equivalent.

5 Comments:

Blogger JohnM said...

I don't want to be a killjoy but the main battleships never confronted each other in a fleet action at Jutland. Cruiser fought cruiser and cruiser fought battleship.

However they certainly did at Battle of Tsushima 1905 where the Japanese decisively defeated the Russian fleet. This has been the only fleet action decided by battleship. Of course there have been several engagements where battleships fought one another (eg Hood-Bismark). Battleships were used a lot despite this - eg every sea landing in the Pacific and at D-Day used battleships for the necessary artillery support.

Also it is easy to be right in hindsight about the role of the battleship. At the time, (despite Billy Mitchell) naval doctrine still believed in the decisive fleet action. It is noticeable that

1. Britain stocked it's carriers with virtually obsolete biplanes
2. The Germans built the Bismark and the Tirpitz but never finished the Graf Zeppelin aircraft carrier
3. The Japanese went after the battleships at Pearl Harbour. They would have liked to get the carriers too but they were secondary.
4. Midway was designed to lure the remaining American fleet into a situation where they would be sunk by battleships.

It is noticeable that even after Taranto and the sinking of the Bismark (made possible by carriers), the belief in battleships still lingered and it took the victory at Midway to convince the allies that carriers were the way forward.

That doesn't undermine your point but on that I would say that I am glad that NATO got nuclear weapons before the Warsaw Pact.

12:52 am  
Blogger Tim J said...

Fair points well made, although the Russian fleet at Tsushima was entirely pre-dreadnought, and it was the success of the JApanese big-gun ships that drove Fisher's desire for an all big-gun fleet.

If we're being super picky, Hood wasn't actually a battleship either - but a battle-cruiser, being much less lightly armoured.

But you're certainly right on the fixation on the importance of battleships to the planners - hell they cost so much money they just had to be useful!

And I definitely agree on the Warsaw Pact...

1:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would be inclinded to disagree that the Swordfish bi-plane was virtually obsolete. The large wing area resulted in a lower stalling speed, and a better load.

However the proof of them was on the evening of 11 November 1940. Which the Japanese watched with interest.

9:04 am  
Blogger Tim J said...

Yes, but they were only Italians weren't they...

It was Swordfish which did for the Bismark in the end too wasn't it, or at least did their steering in?

11:41 am  
Blogger JohnM said...

On the swordfish being virtually obsolete I would stress that I qualified with "virtually".

If the Bismark had set sail with Graf Zeppelin, which in theory could have had ME109s, then I doubt the swordfish would have done the damage they did. It's worth bearing in mind the American victory at Midway owed a lot to chance - the Zeroes had overwhelming success against torpedo bombers. (So much so that they were not at the right height to defend against the American dive bombers, which arrived at exactly the right moment). I think the Zero vs Torpdeo bomber encounter is illustrative of how the Swordfish would have stood up in combat.

11:57 pm  

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