The age of the steel line-of-battleship really began in the 1880s, with the construction of a series of warships that could carry and independently aim heavy guns external to the hull. In 1905, HMS Dreadnought brought together an array of innovations in shipbuilding, propulsion, and gunnery to create a new kind of warship, one that could dominate all existing battleships.
Although eventually supplanted by the submarine and the aircraft carrier, the battleship took pride of place in the navies of the first half of the twentieth century. The mythology of of the battleship age often understates how active many of the ships were; both World War I and World War II saw numerous battleship engagements. These are the five most important battles of the dreadnought age.
Battle of Jutland:
In the years prior to World War I, Britain and Germany raced to outbuild each other, resulting in vast fleets of dreadnought battleships. The British won the race, but not by so far that they could ignore the power of the German High Seas Fleet. When war began, the Royal Navy collected most of its modern battleships into the Grand Fleet, based at Scapa Flow.
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The High Seas Fleet and the Grand Fleet spared for nearly three years before the main event. In May 1916, Admiral Reinhard Scheer and Admiral John Jellicoe laid dueling traps; Scheer hoped to draw a portion of the Grand Fleet under the guns of the High Seas Fleet, while Jellicoe sought to bring the latter into the jaws of the former. Both succeeded, to a point; British battlecruisers and fast battleships engaged the German line of battle, before the arrival of the whole of the Grand Fleet put German survival in jeopardy.
The two sides fought for most of an afternoon. The Germans has sixteen dreadnought battleships, six pre-dreadnoughts, and five battlecruisers. Against this, the British fielded twenty-eight dreadnoughts and nine battlecruisers. Jellicoe managed to trap the Germans on the wrong side of the Grand Fleet, but in a confused night action most of the German ships passed through the British line, and to safety.
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Many, on both sides, considered Jutland a disappointment. Both Scheer and Jellicoe believed that they missed a chance to destroy the enemy fleet, the latter with considerably more justifiable cause. Nevertheless, together the two sides lost four battlecruisers and a pre-dreadnought battleship. Had either side enjoyed a bit less luck, the losses could have been much worse.
Battle of Mers-el-Kebir:
The surrender of France in 1940 left the disposition of the French Navy in question. Many of the heavy ships, mostly located in French colonies, could aid either Axis or British forces. In early July 1940, Winston Churchill decided to take a risk averse approach. The Royal Navy would force a French decision, with the result of either seizing or destroying the French navy.
The largest concentration of French ships, including four French battleships, lay at Mers-el-Kebir, in Algeria. Two of the French battleships were veterans of World War I; old, slow, and not particularly useful to either the Italian or the British navies. The prizes were six heavy destroyers, and the fast battleships Strasbourg and Dunkerque. These ships could contribute on either side of the conflict.
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The British dispatched Force H from Gibraltar, consisting of HMS Hood, HMS Valiant, HMS Resolution, the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, and a flotilla of supporting ships to either intimidate or destroy the French. Royal Navy representatives submitted an ultimatum to their French counterparts, demanding that the ships either join the British, sail to America and disarm, or scuttle themselves. What precisely happened in the communications between Force H and the French commander remains in dispute. What we do know is that the British battleships opened fire, with devastating results. Bretagne’s magazine exploded, killing over a thousand French sailors. Provence and Dunkerque both took hits, and promptly beached themselves. Strasbourg made a daring dash for the exit, then outran Hood to escape the British task force.
In the end, the British sank one obsolete ship and damaged another. They damaged one fast battleship, and let another escape. 1300 French sailors died during the battle. Fortunately, the surviving French sailors had little interest in serving the Germans; they would eventually scuttle most of their ships at Toulon, following a German invasion of Vichy.
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Battle of Calabria:
Most of the battles in the Mediterranean theater in World War II came about as the result of convoy protection. The Italians needed to escort their convoys to Libya, while the British needed to escort convoys to Malta, and points east.