5 Most Deadly Warships of the 20th Century

The most powerful classes of warships on the high seas during a century of struggle. 

The idea of a ship class, a series of vessels constructed to essentially the same design, is a hallmark of the industrial age of naval warfare.  Prior to the emergence of the industrial age, individual ships represented the craftsmanship of different yards, and the relationship between design and construction allowed specific builders a great deal of latitude.  As the industrial revolution overtook naval architecture, it became easier to create a specific template for the construction of a series of ships that would have effectively the same capabilities, regardless of which shipyard they emerged from or what time they entered service.

This article focuses on five of the most lethal classes of warship to sail the seas.  The list concentrates on the first half of the 20th century, a period which saw the two most destructive naval wars in history.  Given that an effective naval campaign requires a distribution of different ship types, the list offers one each from the five major types of the era; aircraft carrier, battleship, cruiser, destroyer, and submarine.

Essex Class Aircraft Carrier, United States

From experience with the Lexington and Yorktown class carriers, the United States Navy (USN) concluded that it would require a class of large, fast carriers to dominate the Pacific and hold the Atlantic.  The result, an evolutionary leap from the Yorktowns, was the Essex class. Displacing 28,000 tons, each Essex could comfortably carry a powerful strike group of ninety aircraft.

USS Essex entered service in December 1942, with another six joining the fleet in 1943. The class formed the core of the war-winning offensive into the Japanese-controlled Pacific between 1943 and 1945.  The ships were critical to the victories at Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, victories which destroyed the fighting power of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

The United States eventually built 24 Essex class ships, with some significant modifications along the way.  Another eight ships were cancelled.  Despite devastating damage inflicted by Japanese kamikazes, none were lost to enemy action. After the war, most of the Essex class remained in front line service, with many of the ships receiving extensive modification into a variety of configurations.  Some became assault carriers, others anti-submarine carriers, while still others were configured for an attack role.

By the 1970s, the USN began to retire the Essex class en masse.  The elderly frames required increasingly costly maintenance, and the flight decks could no longer handle the most advanced carrier aircraft. The last Essex to remain in service was USS Lexington, acting as a training carrier until 1991. Four remain as memorials; USS Intrepid in New York, USS Yorktown in Charleston, USS Hornet in Alameda, and USS Lexington in Corpus Christi.

Queen Elizabeth Class Battleship, United Kingdom

The Queen Elizabeths were a revolutionary leap in a period of immense growth and innovation in battleships construction.  4000 tons larger than their immediate predecessors, the five Queen Elizabeth class battleships carried 8 15” guns, largest in the world at the time.  They could make 2-3 knots faster than most foreign contemporaries, and maintain that speed because of their oil-fired boilers.  To compensate for the lack of coal bunkers, they carried a heavy armor scheme that would help them survive two world wars.

Battleship architecture was an unforgiving art; advanced designs became obsolete in less than a decade.  The QEs endured the test of time, contributing decisively to British naval power in both World Wars. But the speed of the ships and the flexibility of the design meant that they could benefit from significant modification.  Three of the five QEs entered World War II service after a massive renovation which transformed them into nearly modern units.

Consequently, the QEs were involved in nearly every important British naval action for thirty years.  Queen Elizabeth led the British attack on the Dardanelles. Four of the ships constituted the Fifth Battle Squadron at Jutland, dealing devastating damage to the German battlecruisers while coming under heavy fire from the battleships of the High Seas Fleet. In World War II they served in the Atlantic, in the Norway campaign, in the Mediterranean, at Normandy, and finally in the Pacific. Only one ship, HMS Barham, was lost to enemy action (a U-boat), although several of the rest incurred serious damage from a variety of causes over the course of two wars.

U-31 Class Submarine, Imperial Germany

Before World War I, the role and value of the submarine was uncertain.  The Royal Navy (RN), along with many of its counterparts, concentrated on the threat that submarines might pose to the fleet.  A few devastating losses notwithstanding, the RN did an excellent job in protecting its major units from submarine attack.  Indeed, HMS Dreadnought sank more submarines in the First World War (one, by ramming) than submarines sank dreadnoughts, in all theaters of conflict.

Subs would find their true value in an anti-commerce role. Germany engaged in widespread, devastating attacks against Allied merchant ships in the first year of the war, stepping back because of American protests.  In 1917, as part of a go-for-broke strategy to drive the United Kingdom from the war, Germany announced a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare.  The U-31 class was well-positioned to have a devastating effect.