Nazi Germany's Battleship Bismarck vs. Japan's Monster Yamato Class: Who Wins?

Image: Imperial Japanese Navy's battleship, Yamato running full-power trials in Sukumo Bay, 1941. Public domain.

Could Hitler's super warship best the biggest battleship ever built? 

Can we imagine a scenario in which two titans of World War II, the German battleship Bismarck and the Japanese battleship Yamato, would come into conflict? Difficult, but not impossible. Had the Battle of the Marne gone the other way, Germany might have forced France from the World War I in the early fall of 1914, just as it did in the spring of 1940. Germany and the United Kingdom might plausibly have come to an accommodation on naval armaments that would have left the Reich with a free hand on the Continent in exchange for the security of the British Empire.

Prior to World War One, Germany held extensive territories in the Pacific. A German Empire emerging victorious from the Great War might well have sought to extend those territories, especially in China. Just as Japan chafed against the existence of the British and American empires in Asia, it could well have come into conflict with Berlin.

The Players

Apart from the Iowas and HMS Vanguard, the Bismarcks and the Yamatos were the two largest classes of battleships ever built. Bismarck and her sister Tirpitz displaced about fifty thousand tons, with a speed of roughly thirty knots and an armament of eight fifteen-inch guns in four twin turrets. The Bismarcks carried about nineteen thousand tons of armor, albeit in an archaic configuration by World War II standards. The Yamatos, on the other hand, displaced about seventy-two thousand tons, armed with nine 18.1” guns in three triple turrets and capable of twenty-seven knots. Yamato and her sister carried about twenty-two thousand tons of armor in modern (“all or nothing”) configuration.

We will assume for our purposes that Germany would construct ships akin to the Bismarck and Tirpitz, and then deploy them to the Far East (in a shorter Great War, Germany might well have retained the naval base at Tsingtao). The long-legged German battleships, designed for raiding, would take to Pacific service well. We also assume that they represent the early stages of German fast battleship design, meaning that the more powerful ships will remain in the Atlantic.

The Stage

As the clouds of war gather, Bismarck, Tirpitz, and a collection of smaller vessels (two heavy cruisers, six destroyers) abandon Tsingtao for the German naval base at Truk. With Kido Butai (the Japanese carrier force) engaged elsewhere, the Imperial Japanese Navy assigns HIJMS Yamato and HIJMS Musashi (with a similarly constituted support group) the task of catching and destroying the German ships.

The German squadron has a three-knot speed advantage, which it uses to try to pull away from the Japanese and avoid the engagement. However, the Japanese have a clear geographic advantage; the existence of relatively close bases means that they can station squadrons of older, smaller ships along potential channels of exit. Rather than fight with a collection of older battleships led by HIJMS Nagato, Admiral Lutjens decides to try his luck with the cream of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Lutjens wants to engage before dark, when he knows that the Japanese will have a significant tactical advantage, despite German radar.

The Germans open fire first, when it becomes apparent that they cannot escape the fight. Lutjens decides to attack before Japanese cruisers and destroyers can close into torpedo range; German intelligence is well-apprised of the capabilities of the Type 93 torpedo, designed to destroy and disable capital ships at a distance. Bismarck opens fire on Yamato and Tirpitz on Musashi, with Bismarck scoring an early hit on the Japanese flagship.

Before long, the Japanese begin to reply with their 18.1” guns. Both the Germans and the Japanese have excellent fire control, but the contest is unequal. The fifteen-inch guns of Bismarck and Tirpitz fire at a greater rate than the Japanese guns, but even when they hit, they do relatively little damage to the vitals of the Japanese ships (although they extensively scar the upper works). By contrast, the 18.1” hits begin to do serious damage immediately, plunging into the German ships at great range. Large and with effective subdivisions, neither German ship suffers lethal damage. However, before long both Bismarck and Tirpitz begin to lose speed, cutting off any chance of escape.

The battle between the smaller ships also begins to go the Japanese way. After a flurry of shellfire on both sides, the Japanese ships open up at range with their twenty-four-inch “Long Lance” torpedoes. Three German ships suffer hits, with a cruiser and a destroyer shearing out of line. Japanese gunfire slows the rest of the line, allowing several of the IJN’s support squadron to detach themselves and concentrate on the German battleships.