Notes Bernard Brodie, the dreadnought underwent an "extreme oscillation" in mood. Exaltation stoked by the encounter with Hood gave way to despair following a minor torpedo strike from a British warplane. Admiral Günther Lütjens, the senior officer on board, gathered Bismarck crewmen after the air attack and "implored them to meet death in a fashion becoming to good Nazis." A great coach Lütjens was not. The result? An "abysmally poor showing" in the final showdown with HMS Rodney, King George V, and their entourage. One turret crew fled their guns. Turret officers reportedly kept another on station only at gunpoint. Marksmanship and the guns' rate of fire -- key determinants of victory in gunnery duels -- suffered badly.
In short, Bismarck turned out to be a bologna flask (hat tip: Clausewitz), an outwardly tough vessel that shatters at the slightest tap from within. In 1939 Grand Admiral Erich Raeder lamented that the German surface fleet, flung into battle long before it matured, could do little more than "die with honor." Raeder was righter than he knew. Bismarck's death furnishes a parable that captivates navalists decades hence. How would things have turned out had the battlewagon's human factor proved less fragile? We'll never know. Doubtless her measure of honor would be bigger.
As noted at the outset, Yamato was an imposing craft by any standard. She displaced more than any battleship in history, as much as an early supercarrier, and bore the heaviest armament. Her mammoth 18-inch guns could sling 3,200-lb. projectiles some 25 nautical miles. Armor was over two feet thick in places. Among the three attributes of warship design, then, Yamato's designers clearly prized offensive and defensive strength over speed. The dreadnought could steam at 27 knots, not bad for a vessel of her proportions. But that was markedly slower than the 33 knots attainable by U.S. fast battleships.
Like Bismarck, Yamato is remembered mainly for falling short of her promise. She provides another cautionary tale about human fallibility. At Leyte Gulf in October 1944, a task force centered on Yamato bore down on the transports that had ferried General Douglas MacArthur's landing force ashore on Leyte, and on the sparse force of light aircraft carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts guarding the transports from seaward assault.
Next ensued the immortal charge of the tin-can sailors. The outclassed American ships charged Yamato and her retinue. Like Lütjens, Admiral Takeo Kurita, the task-force commander, appeared to wilt under less-than-dire circumstances. Historians still argue about whether he mistook Taffy 3, the U.S. Navy contingent, for a far stronger force; lost his nerve; or simply saw little point in sacrificing his ships and men. Whatever the case, Kurita ordered his fleet to turn back -- leaving MacArthur's expeditionary force mostly unmolested from the sea.
Yamato met a quixotic fate, though less ignominious than Bismarck's. In April 1945 the superbattleship was ordered to steam toward Okinawain company with remnants of the surface fleet, there to contest the Allied landings. The vessel would deliberately beach itself offshore, becoming an unsinkable gun emplacement until it was destroyed or its ammunition was exhausted. U.S. naval intelligence got wind of the scheme, however, and aerial bombardment dispatched Yamato before she could reach her destination. A lackluster end for history's most fearsome battlewagon.
Iowa and New Jersey were the first of the Iowa class and compiled the most enviable fighting records in the class, mostly in the Pacific War. Missouri was no slouch as a warrior, but -- alone on this list -- she's celebrated mainly for diplomatic achievements rather than feats of arms. General MacArthur accepted Japan's surrender on her weatherdecks in Tokyo Bay, leaving behind some of the most enduring images from 20th-century warfare. Missouri has been a metaphor for how to terminate big, open-ended conflicts ever since. For instance, President Bush the Elder invoked the surrender in his memoir. Missouri supplied a measuring stick for how Desert Storm might unfold. (And as it happens, a modernized Missouri was in Desert Storm.)
Missouri remained a diplomatic emissary after World War II. The battlewagon cruised to Turkey in the early months after the war, as the Iron Curtain descended across Europe and communist insurgencies menaced Greece and Turkey. Observers interpreted the voyage as a token of President Harry Truman's, and America's, commitment to keeping the Soviet bloc from subverting friendly countries. Message: the United States was in Europe to stay. Missouri thus played a part in the development of containment strategy while easing anxieties about American abandonment. Naval diplomacy doesn't get much better than that.
Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō's flagship is an emblem for maritime command. The British-built Mikasa was arguably the finest battleship afloat during the fin de siècle years, striking the best balance among speed, protection, and armament. The human factor was strong as well. Imperial Japanese Navy seamen were known for their proficiency and élan, while Tōgō was renowned for combining shrewdness with derring-do. Mikasa was central to fleet actions in the Yellow Sea in 1904 and the Tsushima Strait in 1905 -- battles that left the wreckage of two Russian fleets strewn across the seafloor. The likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan considered Tsushima a near-perfect fleet encounter.
Like the other battleships listed here, Mikasa molded how subsequent generations thought about diplomacy and warfare. IJN commanders of the interwar years planned to replicate Tsushima Strait should Japan fall out with the United States. More broadly, Mikasa and the rest of the IJN electrified peoples throughout Asia and beyond. Japan, that is, proved that Western imperial powers could be beaten in battle and ultimately expelled from lands they had subjugated. Figures ranging from Sun Yat-sen to Mohandas Gandhi to W. E. B. Du Bois paid homage to Tsushima, crediting Japan with firing their enthusiasm for overthrowing colonial rule.
Mikasa, then, was more than the victor in a sea fight of modest scope. And her reputation outlived her strange fate. The vessel returned home in triumph following the Russo-Japanese War, only to suffer a magazine explosion and sink. For the Japanese people, the disaster confirmed that they had gotten a raw deal at the Portsmouth Peace Conference. Nevertheless, it did little to dim foreign observers' enthusiasm for Japan's accomplishments.Mikasa remained a talisman.
Topping this list is the only battleship from the age of sail. HMS Victory was a formidable first-rate man-of-war, cannon bristling from its three gun decks. But her fame comes mainly from her association with Lord Horatio Nelson, whom Mahan styles "the embodiment of the sea power of Great Britain." In 1805 Nelson led his outnumbered fleet into combat against a combined Franco-Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar, near Gibraltar. Nelson and right-hand man Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood led columns of ships that punctured the enemy line of battle. The Royal Navy crushed its opponent in the ensuing melee, putting paid to Napoleon's dreams of invading the British Isles.
Felled on board his flagship that day, Nelson remains a synonym for decisive battle. Indeed, replicating Trafalgar became a Holy Grail for naval strategists across the globe. Permanently drydocked at Portsmouth, Victory is a shrine to Nelson and his exploits -- and the standard of excellence for seafarers everywhere. That entitles her to the laurels of history's greatest battleship.
Surveying this list of icons, two battleships made the cut because of defeats stemming from slipshod leadership, two for triumphs owing to good leadership, and one for becoming a diplomatic paragon. That's not a bad reminder that human virtues and frailties -- not wood, or metal, or shot -- are what make the difference in nautical enterprises.
James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and is coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific (second edition forthcoming 2018). The views voiced here are his alone.
5 Best Aircraft Carriers
Anyone who's tried to compare one piece of kit—ships, aircraft, weaponry of various types—to another will testify to how hard this chore is. Ranking aircraft carriers is no exception. Consulting the pages of Jane's Fighting Ships or Combat Fleets of the World sheds some light on the problem. For instance, a flattop whose innards house a nuclear propulsion plant boasts virtually unlimited cruising range, whereas a carrier powered by fossil fuels is tethered to its fuel source. As Alfred Thayer Mahan puts it, a conventional warship bereft of bases or a coterie of logistics ships is a "land bird" unable to fly far from home.
Or, size matters. The air wing—the complement of interceptors, attack planes and support aircraft that populate a carrier's decks—comprise its main battery or primary armament. The bigger the ship, the bigger the hangar and flight decks that accommodate the air wing.
Nor, as U.S. Navy carrier proponents like to point out, is the relationship between a carrier's tonnage and number of aircraft it can carry strictly linear. Consider two carriers that dominate headlines in Asia. Liaoning, the Chinese navy's refitted Soviet flattop, displaces about sixty-five thousand tons and sports twenty-six fixed-wing combat aircraft and twenty-four helicopters. Not bad. USS George Washington, however, tips the scales at around one hundred thousand tons but can operate some eighty-five to ninety aircraft.