Ranked: The 5 Best Aircraft Carriers and Battleships of All Time
Ranking the greatest battleships of all time is a tad easier than ranking naval battles.
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.
The first true aircraft carriers entered service at the end of World War I, as the Royal Navy converted several of its excess warships into large, floating airfields. During the interwar period, Japan and the United States would make their own conversions, and all three navies would supplement these ships with purpose-built carriers. Within months of the beginning of hostilities in September 1939, the carrier demonstrated its worth in a variety of maritime tasks.
By the end of 1941, carriers would become the world’s dominant capital ship. These are the five most lethal carriers to serve in the world’s navies, selected on the basis of their contribution to critical operations, and on their longevity and resilience.
The U.S. Navy supplemented Lexington and Saratoga, the most effective of the interwar battlecruiser conversions, with the purpose-built USS Ranger. Experience with all three ships demonstrated that the next purpose-built class would require a larger hull and flight deck, as well as a heavier anti-aircraft armament. This resulted in USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise, which along with their third sister (USS Hornet) would play a critical role in stopping the Imperial Japanese Navy’s advance in 1942. Capable of cruising at 33 knots, Enterprise displaced around 24,000 tons and could carry up to 90 aircraft.
While both Hornet and Yorktown were lost in the carrier battles of 1942, Enterprise served throughout the entire war. She helped search for the Japanese fleet in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and carried out the first reprisal raids in the early months of the war. She escorted Hornet on the Doolittle Raid, then helped sink four Japanese flattops at the Battle of Midway. She filled a crucial role during the Battles of Guadalcanal, surviving several near-catastrophic Japanese attacks.
Later in the war, Enterprise operated with the growing American carrier fleet as it formed core of the counter-offensive that would roll up Japanese possessions in the Pacific. Enterprise fought at Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf, helping to destroy the heart of Japanese naval aviation. She served in the final raids against Japan in 1945 until a kamikaze caused critical damage in May. Returning to service just as the war ended, she helped return American soldiers to the United States in Operation Magic Carpet. Enterprise was the most decorated ship in any navy during World War II, but sadly post-war preservation efforts failed, and the carrier was scrapped in 1960.
Between September 1939 and April 1942, the Royal Navy lost five of its seven pre-war aircraft carriers. HMS Illustrious and her three sisters filled the gap. Laid down in 1937, Illustrious traded aircraft complement for an armored deck, an innovation that would make the ship more robust than her Japanese or American counterparts. Displacing 23,000 tons, Illustrious could make 30 knots and carrying 36 aircraft.
Illustrious’ first major achievement came in November 1940, when her Swordfish torpedo bombers attacked the battleships of the Italian navy at anchor at Taranto. The attack, carried out on a shoestring compared to the great raids of the Pacific War, nevertheless managed to sink or heavily damage three Italian battleships. Illustrious spent the next few months carrying out raids in the Mediterranean and covering the evacuation of Greece. In the course of the latter, she survived several hits from German divebombers.
After receiving repairs in the United States, Illustrious operated against the Japanese in the Indian Ocean. She returned to the European theater in 1943, making additional raids on Norway and in support of Allied landings in Italy. Later Illustrious returned to the Pacific, where supplied with superior American carrier aircraft, she helped spearhead the Royal Navy counter-offensive into Southeast Asia. After surviving a kamikaze attack, she returned to Great Britain and eventually served as a training carrier before being scrapped in 1957.