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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
I received this in an e-mail today. I know some of you might have some opinions on this subject.

© Anthony G Williams

Originally published in 'Warship World' magazine,
Spring 1990

In the past few years a great deal of information has
been published about battleships and their design;
probably more than for any other type of warship. In
the process the post-WW1 vessels of the Royal Navy
have been criticised in comparison with contemporary
foreign ships, a criticism all the more pointed
because of the unquestioned superiority of the RN's
battleships in the Great War. It is perhaps time to
take a brief look at these arguments and their

The two classes we are referring to are of course the
l6in. gunned Rodney and Nelson and the five l4in.
gunned vessels of the King George V class. The
argument goes that the l6in. ships, with their 23 knot
speed, were too slow to be effective in WW2 when
battleships were required to operate with fast
aircraft carriers. Furthermore, X turret, tucked away
behind and below B turret, was of limited use as it
could only fire on or close to the beam. It is
therefore suggested that these ships would have been
far more useful if X turret had been deleted and the
weight and space saved used to provide more powerful
machinery for higher speeds.

The KGVs, on the other hand, were (just about)
adequately fast at around 28 knots but are criticised
both for lack of gun power (as every other nation
building battleships at the time went for at least
l5in. calibre) and for the reliability of the main
armament. The almost complete breakdown of the Prince
of Wales' fire in the action against the Bismarck is
notorious; perhaps less well known were the similar if
less severe problems suffered by the King George V in
the second action against the Bismarck, and the Duke
of York when she sank the Scharnhorst; that is, in
every action against enemy capital ships.

The Nelson and Rodney

The exercise of hindsight is of course all too easy.
Military history is probably more vulnerable to wisdom
after the event than most affairs of men, presumably
because of the huge uncertainties involved in the
planning and execution of warfare. It can therefore
readily be conceded that the Nelsons would indeed have
been more useful vessels with only six l6in. guns but
the ability to reach 28 knots. However, the criticism
of the designers can only be valid if they might
reasonably have been expected to foresee that.
(Incidentally, I use the term designers rather than
naval architects because many others apart from
architects were involved in determining the parameters
of ship design; it became a very political matter.)

The fact is that the war which the big ships were
called upon to fight in 1939-45 was radically
different to that envisaged when they were designed in
the 1920s. Contemporary paintings imagining their
appearance in warfare show them steaming in line of
battle together with other battleships, firing on the
broadside at an enemy fleet as in the Battle of
Jutland. It has frequently been observed that armed
forces spend each period of peace equipping and
training themselves to win the last war they fought
in. While this may be true in this case, it is hard to
see that the designers could have been expected to
foresee at that time the way that battleships would
actually be employed against enemy capital ships;
singly or in pairs, together with aircraft carriers,
in fast task forces forever pursuing an elusive enemy.
Ironically, the Nelsons turned out to be very well
suited to their most productive employment; that of
shore bombardment.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of these ships was the
relatively light shells specified for the main
armament. These weighed 2048 lb, hardly any more than
the 1920 lb (later 1938 lb) of the l5in. gun. There
would have been little difference in penetration or
destructive power so it hardly seemed worth the bother
and expense of developing a new gun. The only reason
which comes to mind is one of national prestige; the
USA and Japan were building 16in. ships so we had to
have them too. This may seem silly but it is worth
remembering that these capital ships were very much an
_expression of national pride; in modern terminology,
their deterrent effect was more significant than their
actual use.

The King George V Class

Having largely exonerated the Nelsons' designers let
us turn our attention to the KGVs. In the mid 1930s
the long "battleship holiday" was at an end and the
British, Germans, French, Italians, Americans,
Japanese and even the Russians were all planning new
building programmes. The British were very concerned
about the enormous cost involved and were very keen to
keep the size of these new ships down to the minimum
by international agreement. The result was the Second
London Naval Conference, which agreed in 1936 to
limits of 35,000 tons on displacement and l4in. on gun
calibre. Unfortunately there were various escape
clauses (and Japan and Germany weren't involved
anyway) so in the end it was only the British,
desperately keen to make a start and to set a good
example, who adhered to the l4in. limit.

It is worth at this point reviewing briefly some of
the main considerations of the designers. It was
necessary first of all to balance the three main
priorities; armament, protection and speed; all very
demanding of weight and space. Within these choices
lay others. How should the protection be arranged? How
important was vertical armour against short range fire
in comparison with horizontal protection against long
range gunnery and aircraft bombs? Should the armament
consist of a few large guns of great power or a larger
number of lighter weapons with a greater chance of
hitting the target?

These considerations often influenced each other. This
particularly applied to the arrangement of the
armament; to concentrate the guns in a few large
turrets saved not just on the armour need to protect
the turrets and barbettes but also reduced the length
of the armoured citadel around the armament and
machinery and therefore reduced the weight of armour
needed still further. On the other hand, the loss in
action of one large turret would have a serious effect
on the fighting ability of the ship. Even with the
machinery there were choices to be made; to select
high pressure equipment with its much improved
efficiency and reduced size and weight, or to stick
with older but more reliable methods?

It is interesting to examine the effects of the
choices made by the various nations involved. The
French went for high speed and high levels of
protection, achieved by a very economical armament
layout of eight 15in. guns in two quad turrets mounted
forward. This layout, featured in the Jean Bart and
Richelieu, gave a formidable forward fire well suited
to the ships' intended role as Scharnhorst/Gneisenau

At the other extreme, only the Germans retained the
traditional eight guns in four turrets in the l5in.
Bismarck and Tirpitz. This layout was wasteful of
weight although offering advantages in minimising the
effect of the loss of a turret. Given the vessels'
high speed this should in theory have meant they were
very poorly armoured, which they would have been had
they not exceeded the 35,000 ton standard by some 20%.
In fact, they were not as well armoured as the KGVs.

The Americans and the Italians both took the middle
ground of nine guns in three turrets as being the best
overall compromise, but differed thereafter in
priorities. The Italians chose speed at the expense of
protection in their Romas, the Americans the reverse
in the Washington and South Dakota classes; until the
Iowa class when they had both (at the cost of another
10,000 tons). The Japanese Yamatos featured enormous
(l8in.) gunpower and massive (although flawed)
protection, but they were in a different size class

This brings us back to the KGVs. The original design
featured twelve l4in. guns in three quadruple turrets
but increasing worries over keeping to the weight
limits led to the reduction of B turret to a twin.
These ships were therefore unique in their layout as
well as their calibre. Speed was at the low end of the
range but protection at least as good as anything of
comparable size. The loss of the Prince of Wales
demonstrated the vulnerability of the "underpinnings"
to underwater damage, but then so did that of the
Bismarck and it is unlikely that any other ship would
have fared better if hit in the same place.

In practice, the l4in. calibre proved adequate to meet
the demands made upon it, but it cannot be denied that
the armament was surprisingly troublesome.
Surprisingly for two reasons; the British had a long
tradition of producing reliable armament, culminating
in the classic twin 15in., and secondly there had been
great teething problems with the complex l6in. leading
to a much simplified design being adopted for the

Apart from this serious fault, the ships were
satisfactory enough in practice. The armament layout
was not ideal and the selection of nine guns in triple
turrets would have preserved the weight of forward
fire while saving some tonnage for extra machinery and
speed. More radically, the adoption of the Richelieu's
layout would have permitted a significantly greater
speed, which would have been useful. One can
understand why the designers did not wish to take the
risk of concentrating the armament in only two
turrets, although no KGV ever had a turret knocked out
by enemy action (self-inflicted failure was another
matter). Given the political and time constraints
within which they were working, the KGVs' designers
did about as well as they could, apart from the
serious unreliability of the quadruple turret.
There are some other firsts that the KGV class had for which they were not really given much credit for and that is the importance that was given to the threat of aircraft.
It was the only European between the wars design, that had DP secondary weapons, indeed the only other design in the world were the USA. The Italians, French, Germans and Japanese still stuck to a 6 in secondary with a third battery of 4-5in depending on country.
This weight saving allowed the KGV to be designed from the start to have (for the time) an almost unheard of battery of Light AA guns. Its designed LAA defence of 48 x 2pd (6x8) and 16xHMG (4x4) was far stronger than any other country including the USA.
This, plus like the Bismark being designed from the start to carry AW RDF and SR RDF made it a very formidable between the wars design. On balance, for its size I believe that the KGV can with some justification claim to be the best design for the coming conflict.
8 ) << that, without the space is the code for the 8) smiley, don't worry it's a common problem..................
The only problem with KGV´s DP guns were the questionable use against planes with low RoF AND low ballistic performance. It can be argued that seperated but more powerful anti-ship and anti-plane sets would be better (this is, I believe, true for the war interim time but untrue from ~1943 on because of the introduction of the VT-fuze which turned mediocre secondarys into excellent AA guns).
By the way, Rodney was a very advanced design in view of protective schemes: inclined, innermounted belt with enforced outer hullskin (acting as decapping plate only against soft capped projectiles, which were common in the twenties) and all-or-nothing philosophy. In many respects it was the most radical and innovative ship design of its age.
Agree that the 5.25 was a better weapon against ships than aircraft but the intent was clear. That said they were accurate and in action did as well as any other HAA gun in the pre VT fuze days, one of the key problems was keeping up the rate of fire.
I wouldn't argue if people said that they would have been better off with the 4.5 in guns fitted on the QE. Its quite possible that they could have carried 12 x 4.5 a side instead of 8 x 5.25 which would have made them second to none.

Also agree with the comments on the Nelson, being forced to build a ship within limits to match larger ships forced some innovative features into the design and she was a seriously tough vessel.
I think its worth noting that her HAA was very limited, only 6 x 4.7 DP but her LAA was again better than any other countries BB's. This lack of HAA doesn't seem to have hindered her in action during the war.
I like the KGV class much more than the Nelsons. I hate the idea of all guns forward, especially in a slow ship. It could be outmanouvered and out run by Heavy cruisers and anything smaller, which would be able to keep the range distant enough to avoid being hit if spotted by nelson, would be able to rush in from behind, and batter the nelson with torperdo shots and 8in shells. 8in shells against a BB seems like nothing, but with them slamming into the rear of the ship, secondary would be knocked out, and the control towers and vitals above dec, pushed back by the turrets being forward would be vulnerable. Torpedoes are a big worry for any ship so thats just a bad thing.

i like KGVs speed and armament. It was more economical to build 14in. turrets, you could have more and save weight, and devote that to armor or speed, or an equal amount of both. The best treaty compliant ship i can think of.

But the treaty itself was seriously flawed. Britian wanted to limit the weight and size of guns of these ships, and germany and japan werent compliant...Now think about that, britain basically limited itself. How could they not assume that the germans and japanese would ignore and completely bypass these agreements? Britain could have had the best BB's in the world, hands down (except maybe for yamato, because of the size of her, and britains economic state) if they wouldnt have abided so adherently to the treaty.
I think you are missing a few points.
a) The Bismark wasn't built prewar and therefore we wouldn't have known how large she was going to be, although I believe that we had a good idea
b) The Yamato was such a massive scale of difference in size no one would have dreamed that a ship of this size was being built.
c) We knew that the Graf Spree and Prinz Eugan were in excess of treaty requirements and no doubt expected other German ships to do the same. What was lacking was the political will to do anything about it.

As for the Nelson class you re not thinking re the practicalities.
a) No heavy cruiser is going to worry the Nelson. They would only take a couple of hits from 16in to be knocked out of action.
b) They cannot do significant damage to a ship of her protection
c) The Nelson would not let them 'rush in from behind'. A simple quick turn would solve the problem
d) You need a lot of torpedos to land one hit on a ship that is able to manouver. At least you need to fire torpedos from one direction to force her to turn towards them, and then fire them from the side so you get her before she can turn again. Almost impossible in real war with ships. As far as I know it only happened once, but I could be wrong on that.
e) you also have to get close which is most unlikely.
f) Battleships are nearly always escorted by destroyers.
g) The Nelson had very effective secondary 6in guns,
A single cruiser won´t have a chance vs Nelson, agreed. But Carpenoctem points out a valid point: The all-or-nothing protection of Nelson left the whole shiplength vulnarable to small - medium calibre hits (due to the innermounted belt). And three light or heavy cruisers (a force which could be expected against italy or japan) may wreck havoc on the long and unprotected bow region as well. So they indeed present a serious thread (especially with the speed difference in mind). torpedo use also was a thread, at least because of the battlelines, still being preferred. It shouls be noted than Rodney also had torpedoes (the best british of ww2) but the ship wasn´t designed to act as submarine. The only known use of her torpedoes was against Bismarck in the final battle on very short range. Troubles would result from the comparably low metacentric height of Nelson (and KGV´s, it wasn´t until Vanguard that a normal metacentric height was again established for british battleships), hence we could expect stability problems once flooding occurred.
But nethertheless, Nelson wasn´t designed to act as cruiser killer, it´s a battleship of the line, this explains her low speed. From a naval force point of view, Britain had two battlefleets: one with aound 23 kts ("R" and "Q"-ships) and a battlecruiser scouting fleet with a max speed of around 30 kts (Hood, Repulse, Renown). When decision was made to build a capital ship, what do You expect Britain to do? Improve the already top-of-the-world battlecruiser fleet (Hood had a reputation for the best ship of it´s age) or to improve the aging battleship fleet? I think it was a very wise decision to build Nelson with 23 kts. A 25-26 kts fast battleship (also possible with the displacement limits) wouldn´t be able to act with the fast wing of the fleet and the 2-3 kts speed advantage would be wasted for the slow wing of the fleet. Such concerns were considered serious and hence Nelson turned out to be the most powerful and best protected battleship of the twenties (altough Nagato was more advanced in some-not all- aspects)...
Agreed that the Nelson wasn't designed as a Cruiser killer but the fact remains that she would have been a very effective one. Two or three 16in hits would take any cruiser out of the action, to be destroyed later at ease. The all or nothing armour would have meant that the vitals would have been untouched and firepower undiminished. The effect of small caliber hits against a vessel such as the Nelson would I believe have been minimal.

Remember that the Graf Spee was faced with such an action and almost escaped from the British. The Exeter was out of action barely afloat, the Ajax had lost half her 6in guns and there is little doubt that had the Germans stayed at sea, she would have escaped as she had only sufferred superficial damage.

The Commander of the Achilles view was "My own feelings were that the enemy could do anything he wanted to. He showed no sign of being damaged; his main armament was firing accurately; the Exeter evidently was out of it, and so he had only two small cruisers to prevent him attacking the very valuable River Plate trade."

The Germans did this with the Graf Spee which was nowhere nearly as powerful as the Rodney

The 16 in guns were more than three times larger than the 11in, the main armour of the Graf Spee was basically the same as a Heavy Cruiser and not a patch on the Nelson. If the Graf Spee only sufferred superficial damage I don't know why the Nelson would suffer more from such hits.
Finally the Graf Spee secondary armament not up to the standards of the Nelson.
Most interesting is that the Graf Spee was also slow, max speed 26 knots not that much faster than the Nelson. So the impact of speed may also be exagerated.

Regarding the torpedo's, all the british ships carried them at the River Plate and only three were fired, I don't see them as a real threat. Any cruiser getting close enough to be a threat with torpedo's would be picked on and certainly suffer grevious damage.
Ummm... shift the scenario to norway 1940.
Rodney vs. Blucher, Karlsruhe and Nürnberg. Those cruisers (8 8", 18 5.9",) are totally unable to reach Rodneys vitals, but they may wreck havoc to it´s superstructures due to a much higher RoF(rangefinders, firecontroll, communication). And more worrisome: they may endanger Rodneys buoyancy and stability. In the meantime they are exposed to the potent armement of Rodney and single hits may cause catastrophic damage.
The problem with Graf Spee is that this cruiser wasn´t protected all-or-nothing but conventionally, Rodney is protected by all-or-nothing means. This makes it unbelievable hard to reach her vitals but for the expensure of "soft" parts astern and at bow. Remeber that Rodney had a low metacentric height AND a small minimum buoyancy reserve. This implys (altough this couldn´t be known outside the RN) problems once flooding occurs. And flooding can be caused by small to medium calibre hits in case of Rodney. From many points of view it can be argued that few ships suffered destruction by hits in the vitals (Hood) while most were sunk by multiple hits which endangered their buoyancy and metacentric stability (finally they capsized) or simply crippled them.
Your forgetting that two of the three cruisers attacking Graf spee were light, and not heavy. Only Exeter was a heavy cruiser carrying the 8in. guns needed to make a mark on a BB. My mistake on my post about cruisers taking on Nelson, because i only put cruiser, meaning one. three or four heavy cruisers, mainly Japanese (german would be even better but less likely) would pose a serious threat. The seconday armament on Nelson is bunched up, half on one side of the stern, and half on the other. A few cruisers, attacking from all sides, or one drawing fire while two closed in would overwhelm the BB. The superior speed of japanese CA would certainly let it out manouvere and out run the BBs defensive moves. If the attack was really pressed home Z(when werent the japanese tenacious?) and the Long lances got within range (if the CA were equipped with the model) i could see nelson a wreck, severely damaged or sunk.
The problem with japanese cruisers is IJN fighting doctrine. I doubt that they would close into effective fighting distance and if they stay out, Nelson will automaticly have the edge in maneuvering (it´s hard to outturn anything in 20.000 yrds distance). It should be noted that Nelson is more probable to get an early hit at these distances. I recall one cruiser fight at savo when all involved cruisers stayed at 20.000 + yrds distance and suceeded in 0.2% hit percentage.
At these distances, no 8" gun present a seriious thread except for the soft parts, while the 16"ers will be devastating. AT closer distances, the 8" may harm the ship (not the vitals but this isn´t necessary to sink Nelson), while the 16" will probably destroy upper structures of cruisers but present a lower thread to their buoyancy (trajectory!) compared to medium distance impacts.
Shifting scenarios Delc will not help much. The British at River Plate had 6 x 8in and 16 x 6in. Your proposed change to 8 x 8 and 18 x 5,9 makes little practical difference. thats without the Nelson being so much bigger than the Graf Spee.

The DCT, Conning towers, etc would be safe as their armour would stop the smaller shell (fluke shots permitting) and the all or nothing would ensure that she remained afloat. Even if the shells could cause flooding you are only talking about the small proportion of shells that would hit the waterline area. Anything else would do little if any damage. A Battleships damage control teams would be able to handle it without much difficulty.

You are right in saying that the Cruisers would tend to be hit above water but a 16in shell would tear out the guts of the ship. Two hits would be enough to knock it out of action, to be sunk later at will.

I have seen a target ship used for Exocet trials after it was hit and it was a sobering sight even though it was a WW2 destroyer. As you would expect that hit above water and it was a serious mess, we wondered how it stayed afloat. Had it been a cruiser then that ship would have been out of action and a guess is that an Exocet is probably less powerful than a 16in.
The mere fact that were debating whether or not a group of three heavy cruisers could take on a BB brings up a question. Why build a battleship that theoretcially, could lose, or be severely damaged by much smaller, cheaper vessels? A KGV would not have any trouble in the situations above, and it only has 14in. guns and abides by treaty limitations. Instead of making any nelsons they should have stuck with KGV hulls, and simply put some 16in. guns on them. Would have been better overall protected, faster, and much more capable a ship.
No, I don´t question the destructiveness of Nelsons 16" guns. Nelsons main guns are good for 1-1.5 rpm (with a peak of 1.6 but not sustainable), it´s secondarys for 6-8 rpm. The main guns fire a lightweight shell with higher muzzle velocity. This implys that it was designed as capable AP-round for flat trajectory engagement (when weight isn´t as important as striking velocity: a double in striking velocity means a quadrupel in armour penetration while a double in weight only brings a double in penetration. For high obliquity penetration (deck hits) you would need a heavier schell). The difference in such a scenario is battery output: 2 CL will throw 540 5.9" rounds in five minutes against Rodney while itself can respond with 180 from its secondaries. The CA will fire at least 160 8" AP rounds and Rodneys main artillery -reputated for jams- will not exceed 67 in five minutes (around 50 sounds more plausible). Remember Scharnhorst and RN CL at North cape. Luck will play a big role, who ever gets hurt first will suffer. The superstructures of Rodney, except for the heavily armoured battlebridge, are soft and will suffer under this hail of fire. Rodneys box isn´t enclosed, it´s open 6 ft. below the waterline and stern + bow are fully exposed. Any hits there or at the whole ships length waterline will cause flooding and Rodney isn´t well designed against side or end-flooding. It´s low metacentric height may be fatal in such situations (while the buoyancy limit isn´t reached yet), causing a capsize. Bad weather may endanger the situation for Rodney.
I expect Rodney to fire SAP or HE rounds (would be best against cruisers) and if they hit... you already mentioned what is expected to happen, Glider. I could well be wrong with all this but I think the Nelson class was kind of a battleship destroyer, designed to act one on one against big enemys or to lead the aging RN battlefleet in the battle of the line. For such a task it was excellently prepared. Don´t misunderstand me, Nelson wasn´t designed to fight superior numbers of smaller ships (the layout alone would differ) and all-or-nothing protection doesn´t prevent a ship from sinking, it only makes critical hits very difficult for the exposure of uncritical parts. Buoyancy and metacentrics are sensible factors for AoN protected ships and so far, few of them (Iowa?) factored both in a way to exclude sinking when soft parts are wet.
carpenoctem1689 said:
The mere fact that were debating whether or not a group of three heavy cruisers could take on a BB brings up a question. Why build a battleship that theoretcially, could lose, or be severely damaged by much smaller, cheaper vessels? A KGV would not have any trouble in the situations above, and it only has 14in. guns and abides by treaty limitations. Instead of making any nelsons they should have stuck with KGV hulls, and simply put some 16in. guns on them. Would have been better overall protected, faster, and much more capable a ship.

Good question but the Nelson came first and was built to match Japenese and American Battleships that had just been built.

The KGV came later. The British had laid down a new class of Battleship called the Lion class and in essence she was just as you said a KGV with 16in not 14in guns. The first two were due to be completed in 1943 but building was stopped for a number of reasons, the main one being that we needed escort vessels first and the battleships that we had were good enough for the job.

Delc you will not change my mind on this one. At the end of the day if the Graff Spee could get away with this type of action, I am sure the Nelson would.
All the Nelson need so was land one hit on a cruiser and then change target to the next cruiser.
I wish the Lions would have been built, they would have been good BB.

I agree with you delycros. Your above specifications more than fit my thoughts on the situation, and i could not agree with you more. Nelson was a BB destroyer, meant to take on other large, slow ships in a broadside slugging match of the line, not a battle of manouvre with cruisers. It would simply be overwhelmed by fire and numbers, and if the secondary amrament was disabled, troperdoed at will.
I understand your point very well, Glider. But I disagree.
At first Nelson needs to land a hit. Against 32+kts, smaller ships at close - to medium range this isn´t very easy with a best of 6 half salvos (four and five barrels, in order to reduce dispersion) in 2 minutes. I estimate this isn´t impossible but it will be hard to do this in brief periods, repeatedly for three different ships. There is no proof that one hit will disable a cruiser. Think about duds or hits in less important areas of the ship. They will cause serious damage and MAY disable the ship as well, but there is no warranty for it. Graf Spee with 11"ers (with 35 lbs HE ordenance SAP) needed several hits to drive off Exeter, a more fragile ship than either Blucher or Karlsruhe. Rodneys 16" HE (no SAP-rounds) carry about four times as much HE ordenance but was reputated for duds:
"The original outfit was entirely APC. HE rounds were added later, apparently sometime in the 1930s. The original HE projectile had its fuze in the nose of the shell body itself, behind the ballistic cap. This poorly conceived arrangement caused many to fail to detonate. These shells were withdrawn from service in 1943 after Rodney's bombardment at Oran during the North Africa landings highlighted the problems. The later HE projectile had a true nose fuze and was of better ballistic shape."-
Note that the original outfit was entirely APC, another proof for it´s intended role as battleship destroyer. Just what happened later with Rodney (against Bismarck). APC rounds carry about 46 lbs HE ordenance and this about the same of a 11" HE-round (48lbs) fired against Exeter.
Graf Spee kept both CL in the rear arc (in order to avoid torpedoes), something a Nelson-class ship couldn´t do for obvious reasons. Had one of the torpedoes reached Graf Spee, I do not doubt that it would become more nasty at all for the raider. I haven´t found enough reports to conclude what the effect of 16"ers against CA are, maybe You can help? I expect the US had experiance.
Hadn't twigged about the lack of HE shells, that I admit would be a problem.

As for the Graf Spee I tend to consider her as a slow Heavy Cruiser with extra weapons. A top speed of 26 knots isn't exceptional by any standards.

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