Key point: Many of the best battleships were revolutionary for their time, but the advent of airpower and missiles would soon doom them to museums and history books.
Editor's Note: Take a look at some of our other defense lists such as: Five Best Bombers of All Time, Top Five Fighter Aircraft of All Time, Five Worst Fighter Aircraft of All Time and the Five Best Submarines of All Time.
In December of 2014, The National Interest listed the world’s five greatest battleships, defined as the most iconic. Definitions matter. Less adventurous but more easily defended, here’s a list of the five greatest metal battleships, defined as having the most influential designs. A list of the five that were greatest in service would be different again.
Gloire, France, 1860: The French navy had the incentive to invent the armored battleship, because in the 19th century it was the challenger; the dominant Royal Navy had much less interest in revolution. The idea of armored ships had been floated for decades, but actual experience with floating batteries in the Crimean War proved it. France took the next step, building the armored battleship Gloire. The English-language historiography of the warship skips quickly past the wooden-hulled Gloire to emphasize that the British response, the iron-hulled HMS Warrior, was utterly superior. And so it was. But the starting point for more than 500 battleships completed between 1860 and 1949 was Gloire.
Honorable mention: Warrior.
Royal Sovereign, Britain, 1892: For 30 years after Gloire, battleship design was a stream of confusion. New ideas came thick and fast. Most had merits. Many were quickly superseded. Then experimentation stopped with the Royal Sovereign Class. Those seven ships introduced no great innovation except a valuable increase in size, but they combined the best ideas of three decades, notably a high freeboard and the French concept that enabled it: putting the machinery and crew of the main armament inside a fixed column of armor, a barbette, with the guns rotating on top. HMS Royal Sovereign was so right that for 15 years most battleships followed its general design.
Honorable mentions to ships that introduced lasting features into battleship design: Monarch, Britain (revolving protected armament); Devastation, Britain (fore and aft revolving armament and the elimination of sailing rig), Redoubtable, France (steel) and Amiral Duperre, France (barbettes).
Dreadnought, Britain, 1906: Soon after 1900, long-range gunnery looked increasingly practicable—and necessary, because torpedo ranges were rising too. Dropping medium guns and adding big guns seemed wise. Major navies began drifting in that direction, especially the US Navy, which began building two ships, South Carolina and Michigan, with little armament but eight 305 mm guns. Then the energetic head of the Royal Navy, Sir John Fisher, turned the drift into a landslide. His HMS Dreadnought had 10 guns of 305 mm caliber and turbine machinery for a decisive increase in speed to 21 knots. The leap in propulsion efficiency meant that the ship displaced little more than predecessors it made obsolete. The world had little option but to follow.
Honorable mention: South Carolina.
Invincible, Britain, 1908: A curious fact in warship history is that Fisher didn’t want Dreadnought. Convinced that the torpedo, fired by submarines and small ships, could protect Britain; he wanted to replace the battleship with the armored cruiser, a type that owed much to French development. Crucially, the Royal Navy had already invented network-centric warfare, as the historian Norman Friedman has recently pointed out. The Admiralty in London, unworried about home defense, could use radio to direct huge armored cruisers across the planet, bringing them down on targets that it tracked on a plot of global naval movements. Fisher’s cruisers emerged as the Invincible Class, soon reclassified as battle cruisers in recognition of their closeness to battleships. They had battleship guns and high speed but only cruiser armor, which Fisher wrongly thought good enough. Invincible launched a wave of battle-cruiser construction, but Germany quickly realized the need to thicken the armor in its quite superior Von der Tann.
Honorable mention: Von der Tann.
The Final Phase
Hood, Britain, 1920: Two lines of development led to the last battleships, the fast battleships of WWII. One line ran from Dreadnought through several British and Japanese classes to the concept that finally emerged with the Italian Littorio, laid down in 1934. But by then the other line had already arrived. It ran from Invincible through the German battle cruisers to HMS Hood, an enormous battle cruiser that was really a fast battleship. That capability was achieved mainly through sheer size but also through the innovation of heavily sloped side armor. Most subsequent battleships, of similar displacement, were comparable to Hood, but with improvements of detail.
Honorable mentions: Dante Alhgiheri, Italy (triple turrets); Queen Elizabeth, Britain (oil firing, higher speed); Nevada, USA (oil firing, reversion to all-or-nothing armor).
None of the famous WWII fast battleships ranks as one of the five greatest designs. They were the end of the line, so none was influential. Most were quite good—but they had to be, because the building holiday imposed by Washington naval treaty of 1922 had given designers plenty of time for new technology. Italy’s Littorio was the first of this series to be designed but the US South Dakota and French Richelieu designs were the more efficient. Had battleships been built beyond the 1940s, the Japanese Yamato might well have been most influential because it was so big.
The choice of four British ships among the five greatest reflects not a bias in selection but a bias in the data: Britain built about a third of all battleships and was especially dominant numerically and technically during the period of fast evolution. And a disruptive random factor, Fisher, accounts for two of the designs—even in the battleship world, individuals matter.