Top 5 Battleships of All Time

Editor’s Note: Please also see the Top Five Naval Battles of All Time and Top Five Fighter Aircraft of All Time.

Ranking the greatest battleships of all time is a tad easier than ranking naval battles. Both involve comparing apples with oranges. But at least taking the measure of individual men-of-war involves comparing one apple with one orange. That's a compact endeavor relative to sorting through history to discern how seesaw interactions shaped the destinies of peoples and civilizations.

Still, we need some standard for distinguishing between battlewagons. What makes a ship great? It makes sense, first of all, to exclude any ship before the reign of Henry VIII. There was no line-of-battle ship in the modern sense before England's "great sea-king" founded the sail-driven Royal Navy in the 16th century. Galley warfare was quite a different affair from lining up capital ships and pounding away with naval gunnery.

One inescapable chore is to compare ships' technical characteristics. A recent piece over at War Is Boring revisits an old debate among battleship and World War II enthusiasts. Namely, who would've prevailed in a tilt between a U.S. Navy Iowa-class dreadnought and the Imperial Japanese Navy's Yamato? Author Michael Peck restates the common wisdom from when I served in mighty Wisconsin, last of the battleships: it depends on who landed the first blow. Iowas commanded edges in speed and fire control, while Yamato and her sister Musashi outranged us and boasted heavier weight of shot. We would've made out fine had we closed the range before the enemy scored a lucky hit from afar. If not, things may have turned ugly.

Though not in so many words, Peck walks through the basic design features that help qualify a battleship for history's elite -- namely guns, armor, and speed. Makes sense, doesn't it? Offensive punch, defensive resiliency, and speed remain the hallmarks of any surface combatant even in this missile age. Note, however, that asymmetries among combat vessels result in large part from the tradeoffs naval architects must make among desirable attributes.

Only sci-fi lets shipwrights escape such choices. A Death Star of the sea would sport irresistible weaponry, impenetrable armor, and engines able to drive the vessel at breakneck speed. But again, you can't have everything in the real world. Weight is a huge challenge. A battleship loaded down with the biggest guns and thickest armor would waddle from place to place. It would make itself an easy target for nimbler opponents or let them run away. On the other hand, assigning guns and speed top priority works against rugged sides. A ship that's fleet of foot but lightly armored exposes its innards and crew to enemy gunfire. And so forth. Different navies have different philosophies about tradeoffs. Hence the mismatches between Yamato and Iowa along certain parameters. Thus has it always been when fighting ships square off.

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bratschewurst (December 27, 2013 - 3:08pm)

It was hardly " a minor torpedo strike" that disable the Bismarck; in fact, the torpedo explosion rendered the ship unsteerable. This is a problem when one is being pursued by several other battleships accompanied by legions of cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft. The evidence is that the morale problems only became apparent after it was clear that the ship was doomed. No doubt many members of the crew were bothered by the distance to die in an inevitable defeat rather than simply scuttle the ship and be rescued by the Royal Navy.

bratschewurst (December 27, 2013 - 3:08pm)

It was hardly " a minor torpedo strike" that disable the Bismarck; in fact, the torpedo explosion rendered the ship unsteerable. This is a problem when one is being pursued by several other battleships accompanied by legions of cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft. The evidence is that the morale problems only became apparent after it was clear that the ship was doomed. No doubt many members of the crew were bothered by the distance to die in an inevitable defeat rather than simply scuttle the ship and be rescued by the Royal Navy.

bratschewurst (December 27, 2013 - 3:08pm)

It was hardly " a minor torpedo strike" that disabled the Bismarck; in fact, the torpedo explosion rendered the ship unsteerable. This is a problem when one is being pursued by several other battleships accompanied by legions of cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft. The evidence is that the morale problems only became apparent after it was clear that the ship was doomed. No doubt many members of the crew were bothered by the distance to die in an inevitable defeat rather than simply scuttle the ship and be rescued by the Royal Navy.

bratschewurst (December 27, 2013 - 4:05pm)

It was hardly " a minor torpedo strike" that disabled the Bismarck; in fact, the torpedo explosion rendered the ship unsteerable. This is a problem when one is being pursued by several other battleships accompanied by legions of cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft. The evidence is that the morale problems only became apparent after it was clear that the ship was doomed. No doubt many members of the crew were bothered by the distance to die in an inevitable defeat rather than simply scuttle the ship and be rescued by the Royal Navy.

bratschewurst (December 27, 2013 - 4:08pm)

It was hardly a minor torpedo strike; it rendered the Bismarck unsteerable. That's a problem for a ship being chased by three battleships and accompanying cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft. Not only could the Bismarck not evade the pursuit, but its ability to fight back was severely compromised by the lack of controllability.

TFitz (December 30, 2013 - 2:26am)

I appreciate the fact that you're factoring in role in history along with biggest, fastest, baddest, etc.  That said, I think HMS Dreadnaught is a much more important ship than the Bismarck.

TFitz (December 30, 2013 - 2:28am)

duplicate, sorry

El Sid (December 30, 2013 - 10:28am)

+1 on Dreadnought. It also feels like Missouri is included just because she's USian, when the reality is that the USN has never had a truly iconic battleship - except perhaps the USS Arizona for highlighting the fact that the age of battleships was over. But I'd be picky and say that the Conte di Cavour should take that role in the list, as Taranto was really the begining of the end. If you're looking for a battleship of greatest significance to North America (and one that actually, you know, battled other ships in a decisive engagement), it surely has to be HMS Royal George, Hawke's flagship at Quiberon Bay. I think James is a bit harsh on the Bismarck - the torpedo strike wasn't minor, it was sufficient that she couldn't get back under friendly air cover and so effectively condemned her to death. I suppose you'd say in modern terms that the Swordfish achieved a mission kill. Lütjens knew they were dead, and being German told it how it was, rather than being French and pretending that they could achieve some romantic happy ending.  

El Sid (December 30, 2013 - 10:25am)

[duplicate]

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