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The Richelieu , 1940
The Prince of Wales in 1941
The Tirpitz , 1941
The North Carolina , 1941
The Yamato , the largest and most powerful battleship ever built, 1941
The Roma of the Marina Regia , 1942
The Wisconsin in 1944

As battleships heavily armored be capital ships of the late 19th and 20th centuries respectively. In Germany, however , these warships were referred to as ships of the line or large ships of the line until the end of the First World War , based on the squadron ships of the sailing warships and the line tactics used in naval battles until the end of the First World War . Abroad, battleships are still sometimes referred to as armored ships ( French cuirassé , Italian corazzata , Spanish acorazado , Polish pancernik ).

With the introduction of the standard caliber on the British battleship HMS Dreadnought , the term "battleship" (English battleship ) prevailed as a type designation , especially in Anglo-American usage, but also in the Austro-Hungarian Navy . Today, battleships are generally understood - with a few exceptions - to be the most heavily armed and armored capital ships of the 20th century. Their displacement of water increased steadily over the years due to the arms race of the sea powers. At the beginning of the 20th century it was still around 20,000  ts (English tons ), but at the end of the era it reached over 70,000 ts for the largest designs, such as the Japanese Yamato class of World War II . In the second half of the 20th century, the average external dimensions decreased significantly, and at the same time the importance of this type of warship decreased.


The first predecessors of the battleships were built around the middle of the 19th century. At first it was iron-plate armored sailing ships with additional steam propulsion , which, like ordinary warships of that time, were equipped with cannons on both sides. With the introduction of explosive projectiles on warships, armor became increasingly important. With the introduction of steam engine propulsion, which eventually replaced wind-dependent propulsion with sails , large coal bunkers were required in order to achieve sufficiently long ranges, such as for crossing the Atlantic or Pacific . At the same time, due to the low efficiency of earlier steam engines, the ships had to be built ever larger in order to offer space for cargo and passengers in addition to the fuel - the volume is scaled to the third power, the area (and thus approximately the water resistance) but only to the second Power. This growth in size and the associated increase in machine performance also caused increasing mechanical stress on the ship's hulls, so that wood as the most important building material was soon replaced by steel .

The superiority of armored ships first became apparent to the whole world in the Crimean War (1853–1856). In the American Civil War (1861-1865) the southern states sank two traditional sailing ships of the northern states within minutes with their ironclad Virginia , which was itself harmed. Since the northern states had no experience in modern warship building, they hired the Swedish ship designer and inventor John Ericsson , who subsequently modernized the northern states' fleet with innovations that were initially reluctantly accepted - he invented the principle of the gun turret (see also tower ship ) .

The strong competition among the great naval forces , especially Great Britain and France , brought about numerous new inventions and improvements in war shipping in the age of industrialization . Many naval forces introduced internal competitions, e.g. B. to find out the best and fastest crews on the guns and to study their behavior and procedures. The results should be incorporated into the training. It was also discovered that the simultaneous firing of salvos of different calibers made it difficult for fire control personnel to distinguish the serves of the different calibers. Instead of equipping both sides of the ship with cannons - which was hardly feasible due to the large coal bunkers on the side of the boiler rooms - there was an increasing switch to rotating armored turrets . This development was made possible and due to the expansion of rapid-fire guns to ever larger calibers and the associated development of locks , aiming and aiming devices and ammunition delivery.

In the years between 1880 and 1900 almost all navies in the world, above all Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Italy, Japan and the USA, built and owned armored ships of the line (which, differing from state to state, also often classified as armored ships), although the earlier rigging had almost completely disappeared from around 1890. At the same time, some fleets also tried to improve underwater protection for the first time. The pure belt armor method , originally from France, gradually fell behind (it was last used in 1901 on the Russian ship of the line Zessarewitsch, which was built in France ) and was replaced by a sophisticated system of armored transverse bulkheads, including a central longitudinal bulkhead. Nevertheless, the ships of the line of that time were still very susceptible to underwater hits, such as mines and torpedoes , which was particularly evident in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05 and later in the First World War. Ships of the line from the pre-dreadnought phase that ran into mines or were torpedoed mostly sank with high personnel losses, for example the French Bouvet or the British Goliath in 1915 or the German Pomerania in 1916.

Until around 1900, the water displacement of the armored liners increased to up to 16,000 ts. At best, these ships reached a maximum speed of about 18 knots, were about 125 to 130 meters long and had a crew of about 600 to 880 men. Typical representatives of this phase of warship construction were, for example, the British Majestic (1895), the Japanese Mikasa (1902) or the German Braunschweig (1902). Usually these ships had a main armament consisting of four heavy cannons (in the caliber of 24 cm to 33 cm) in two turrets and about a dozen medium casemate guns , the caliber of which varied between 12.7 cm and 17.8 cm.

The armament of the American ships of the line of the Kearsarge class represented a certain peculiarity : these ships were each given two tandem towers, with a twin tower of the heavy artillery (33 cm caliber) a second twin tower (with 20.3 cm guns ) was put on. This construction did not prove itself, however, since both pairs of guns hindered each other and the fire control turned out to be difficult. In addition, the ceiling of the lower twin tower had to be broken through because of the installation of the upper tower, which in turn significantly weakened the ceiling armor.

One of the most famous battles between these ships of the line of the pre-dreadnought phase occurred in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War: in the sea ​​battle at Tsushima , the Japanese fleet defeated the Russian Pacific Squadron (which had previously set out from the Baltic Sea and circled half the world had), whereby six Russian ships of the line sank alone.

The road to the HMS Dreadnought and the First World War

In the period after 1900 the trend among the great maritime powers began to increase the number of heavy artillery pieces per ship. First, a few drafts were laid on the keel, in which, in addition to the four heavy main guns, a certain number of semi-heavy cannons were installed, which, based on the caliber (it varied from 19.1 cm to 26.4 cm), were between the main - and the middle artillery moved. For example, the British Lord Nelson class of 1904 received four 30.5 cm guns and ten 23.4 cm cannons in four twin and two single turrets. The Japanese Satsuma of 1905 even carried twelve 25.4 cm guns in six twin turrets and four 30.5 cm cannons. These very different calibres brought more problems than advantages, since each caliber had to be controlled by a separate fire control and the shooting results were relatively poor due to the similarity and the high likelihood of confusion between the impact images. If a light medium artillery was added to the heavy artillery, the fire control became extremely complex and was no longer in proportion to the benefit.

A ship with as many heavy guns of uniform caliber as possible appeared to be more advantageous - the idea of ​​the all big gun one caliber battleship was born and was first realized in 1906 with the HMS Dreadnought . This first battleship of the new generation had ten 30.5 cm guns in five twin turrets, was approx. 160 meters long and displaced a maximum of around 21,800 ts (which was almost 6,000 ts larger than the ships of the line built up to now).

Thanks to improvements in the drive technology, it was also possible to replace the previously used high piston steam engines with the significantly lower steam turbines . The silhouette of the ships became lower. So they were harder to hit. The speed could be increased to up to 23 knots. Another innovation compared to older designs was the construction of the triple tower, which found its way into warship construction from around 1909 and initially mainly in the Italian ( Conte di Cavour class ), the Russian ( Gangut class ) and the Austro- Hungarian navy ( Tegetthoff class ) was used. With the advent of the dreadnoughts (the name of the HMS Dreadnought is and was often used in history as an umbrella term for all capital ships that corresponded to the concept of the all big gun one caliber battleship or can be assigned to it), the earlier unit ships of the line were also almost entirely used devalued. The older ships of the line were still used for a long time, some German ships of the line were even used to a small extent during the Second World War (e.g. the SMS Schleswig-Holstein from 1906), but they were in direct confrontation with the new generation battleships no chance.

In the following years up to the First World War, the construction of these new capital ships, especially in Germany (where these ships were also classified as large-line ships ) and Great Britain as part of the German-British naval conflict that arose around 1900, was massively promoted. For example, Germany built twelve new battleships between 1908 and 1911, and nine dreadnoughts were put into service in Great Britain in 1910 alone . The other navies such as those of the USA and Japan, and to a lesser extent France, Italy , Austria-Hungary and Russia , increasingly began to use capital ships. Even smaller navies, such as the Brazilian ( Minas Geraes class ), the Chilean ( Almirante Latorre ) or the Argentine ( Rivadavia ), began using dreadnoughts ; In all three cases, however, the ships were commissioned abroad (in the case of the Almirante Latorre , the ship was only delivered after the First World War, as the Royal Navy bought the ship at the outbreak of war in 1914 and used it as HMS Canada until 1920) . The Spanish Navy went a special way, due to a low budget, which created a type with the three dreadnoughts of the España class , which on the one hand carried heavy armament (eight 30.5 cm guns), but on the other hand with one maximum displacement of about 15,800 ts was hardly larger than the earlier unit ships of the line. However, the armor protection and the protection against underwater hits on these ships were very weak.

The disadvantage of these ships was that, on the one hand, they were extremely expensive to build and maintain (a dreadnought battleship cost on average about two and a half times as much to build as an older standard ship) and, on the other hand, that they were still glaring compared to underwater hits Exhibited weaknesses. The sinking of the British battleship HMS Audacious in 1914 after only one mine hit showed this in an impressive way.

Known representatives of this Dreadnought era were about the American USS Texas in 1911, led the ten 35.6-cm guns, the German SMS Frederick the Great in 1910, the French Courbet (1911), the British HMS Iron Duke of in 1912 or the Russian Imperatriza Marija (1913). The length of these battleships was about 170 meters.

These ships formed the core of the war fleets in the First World War . On average, a dreadnought battleship displaced around 26,000 ts in World War I and had a crew of up to 1,400 men. The number of heavy artillery pieces varied between ten and 14, with the caliber mostly between 28 cm and 35.6 cm. In addition, there was usually a medium artillery of eight to 14 casemate guns on board, the caliber of which varied between 10.2 cm and 15.2 cm. Average was about fighting in World War I with the heavy artillery of the ships at a distance of approximately twelve to 15 kilometers, which is nevertheless also were exceptions: so, for example, in 1916 fought in the Black Sea, the Russian battleship Imperatriza Marija and the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben during a brief encounter at a distance of up to 15 miles - but without a hit being scored.

In the course of the war, the warring states also built the first so-called super dreadnoughts . These ships displaced well over 30,000 ts and were armed with guns of 38 cm caliber or larger. Representatives of this type were, for example, the British HMS Queen Elizabeth or the ships of the German Bavaria class , of which only two examples were built until the end of the war in 1918. With the Japanese Nagato , a battleship with 40.6 cm guns was laid on the keel for the first time in 1917. The only major clash of British and German battleships occurred during the Skagerrakschlacht (English: Battle of Jutland ) on May 31, 1916, when 99 German met 151 British warships, including 21 German and 37 British capital ships . Other notable operations of capital ships occurred in the naval battle in the Falkland Islands in 1914 and in the Battle of Moonsund in 1917. Another noteworthy use of capital ships and older ships of the line in World War I was during the battles for the Dardanelles .

Nonetheless, it turned out that the battle fleets, which had been expanded at enormous expense, were not the decisive weapons and rather caused a mutual stalemate. The German deep sea fleet spent most of the war in its bases as a fleet-in-being , while the British fleet waited in vain for an advance by the German navy on the other side of the North Sea. However, it did not make its own advance towards the German coasts. Ultimately, the British blockade of Germany , the German submarine war and the mine war had a significantly greater influence on the course of the war . In armistice in 1918, the most modern ships of the German High Seas Fleet, including eleven battleships and five battlecruisers were delivered to the victors and 1919 in Scapa Flow by scuttling the confiscation withdrawn.

Interwar period

After the end of the First World War, the leading great powers tried in the interwar period to stop a new naval race, both in terms of the number of battleships and their size. The reason for this step was also due to the fact that Japan had approved an ambitious fleet building program (over 16 capital ships) with the so-called 8: 8 program in June 1920. This was neither in the interests of Great Britain, which had to cope with the economic and financial consequences of the First World War and its own massive naval armament, nor of the USA, which followed Japan's strengthening in the Pacific with suspicion. For this purpose, the Washington Fleet Conference was launched in November 1921 , which provided for a ten-year construction freeze for battleships and a maximum size of later newbuildings of 35,000 ts. In addition, the gun caliber should be limited to a maximum of 16 inches. Furthermore, replacement constructions for older ships could only be started if the ship to be replaced was at least 20 years old. All major sea powers also committed themselves to a sometimes drastic reduction in their existing tonnage of capital ships. Great Britain, for example, would have had to reduce its battleship tonnage from 1,296,450 ts (stock in 1920) to 525,000 ts (planning target for 1934).

This first major disarmament treaty of modern times, which was concluded on February 6, 1922 after three months of negotiations, suffered from the start of the unwillingness of some nations to limit maritime armaments, especially the Japanese, French and Italians, and through various special clauses, only a few years later a new arms race began, mainly among smaller ship units in the cruiser category. In addition, attempts have been made in some states, especially in the USA and Japan, to “rescue” ships that have already been started and are still in the shipyards, which according to the contract should have been scrapped or dismantled. In the USA, for example, the completion of the battleship USS Maryland was massively accelerated from 1921 and the ship was subjected to test drives as quickly as possible, although parts of the equipment - such as the fire control system and the 12.7 cm guns of the medium artillery - had not yet been installed. In Japan and the USA, several newbuildings that had begun, for example the Lexington- class ships or the Akagi , were quickly converted into aircraft carriers (and as such they did not fall under the clauses of the Washington Treaty), although the ships were originally planned and used as battlecruisers Construction had been given.

The subsequent conferences in London in 1930 and 1936 (in which Japan and Italy no longer took part) then no longer produced any noteworthy and binding results. After the bilateral German-British naval agreement of 1935 , which met with resolute resistance from France (if Germany had conceded de facto the same fleet size as France), as well as in the context of the growing Japanese ambitions for power in the Far East, the resulting and growing US-American Japanese antagonism and increased Italian naval armament, the intentions to limit armaments had virtually become obsolete from the mid-1930s.

In the period that followed, up to the beginning of the Second World War, construction projects for new battleships began in almost all large navies. In Great Britain from 1936 the battleships of the King George V class were built, which were officially measured at 35,000 ts, but actually displaced well over 40,000 ts. In the USA, the North Carolina class was created from 1937 , whose ships displaced around 45,000 ts maximum and had the nine 40.6 cm guns, and Germany built the battleships of the Bismarck class from the end of 1936 , whose operational displacement was over 50,000 ts lay. Italy began building the Littorio- class ships (43,600 ts) in 1934 , after which France laid the first Richelieu- class ship on keel in 1935 , with a displacement of over 48,000 ts. In Japan, the battleship Yamato was finally put into construction in November 1937 . The efforts to limit arms had been in vain.

Compared to the battleships of the First World War, all of these structures had greater water displacement, better protection and armor systems, and significantly increased air defense . In addition to numerous light and medium automatic weapons, mostly with a caliber between 20 mm and 40 mm, there were heavy flak batteries on board (often eight to 20 guns) with a caliber between 9 cm (for example in the Italian Littorio class) and 13.3 cm ( King George V class). The USS Missouri, for example, carried twenty 12.7 cm heavy anti-aircraft guns, 80 40 mm guns and up to 62 20 mm anti-aircraft guns in 1945 . This massive increase in air defense capacities also caused the size of the crews to grow significantly. Whereas a battleship in World War I usually required a crew of around 1,100 to 1,400 men, the crew of a battleship in World War II comprised an average of around 1,800 to 2,700 men. In addition, the speed of these new ships was much higher than previous designs. For example, the ships of the US Iowa class, built from 1943 onwards, reached a speed of around 33 knots, making them about as fast as a torpedo boat in World War I.

Second World War

The weak point of these ships became apparent during the Second World War . Despite increased air defense, the battleships were inadequately protected against attacks by modern aircraft .

At the beginning of the war, the greatest threat came mainly from submarine torpedoes - for example, the British battleship Royal Oak from the First World War was sunk by a German submarine at its home base in 1939 - aircraft were included in the course of the war Weapons equipped with which they could successfully sink battleships ( Tallboy , Fritz X , air torpedo). The losses of the German battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz , the Italian Roma in 1943 and the losses of the US Navy in Pearl Harbor in 1941 clearly demonstrated this. This was confirmed by the sinking of the Japanese Navy battleships Yamato and Musashi, measured with a standard displacement of almost 70,000 ts (and thus the largest ever built) , which had a main battery with nine 46 cm guns. The fact that Japan, for example, had some of its remaining battleships ( Ise- class ) converted into hybrid ships in the final years of the war shows this conclusively. The aft heavy artillery towers were removed and replaced with a flight deck. This attempt to adapt existing battleships to the new threat situation from the air, however, turned out to be inefficient and expensive.

Nonetheless, the battleships that were built and put into service during the Second World War or in the 1930s had significantly improved stability and a correspondingly greater resistance to all kinds of fire. Was the underwater protection still a weakness of the ships until the First World War , more modern buildings have proven to be very resistant in this regard. The German battleship Scharnhorst (35,540 ts), for example, which was sunk in the North Sea in 1943 , only sank after 13 torpedo hits and numerous artillery hits . The Japanese battleship Musashi (69,646 ts standard displacement) sank in the Sibuyan Sea in 1944 after at least 19 torpedo hits and an estimated 17 bomb hits. In this respect, a clear improvement in the effectiveness of the protection systems against underwater hits can be seen compared to earlier units, which, however, ultimately could not compensate for the effectiveness of enemy air and carrier forces and a general superiority of the enemy.

The ships' artillery had also been improved. On the one hand, the means of fire control were constantly improved and thus the precision of the gunfire increased; in the later course of the war, on the other hand, the ships were also increasingly equipped with radar and were thus able to use their artillery over greater distances day and night. Nevertheless, the average combat distance was only slightly higher than in the First World War. The reason for this was the limited optical detection of targets due to the curvature of the earth . Hits at distances of more than 20 km were extremely rare: in 1940 the German battleship Scharnhorst hit the British aircraft carrier Glorious off Norway at a distance of around 24.5 km ; Also in 1940 the British battleship Warspite hit the Italian battleship Giulio Cesare over a similar distance . The longest range of all battleship guns of World War II had the 38.1 cm guns of the Italian battleships of the Littorio class and the 46 cm guns of the Yamato class with 42 km, about the same maximum range the 38 cm guns had of the French Richelieu class. Even the much smaller 28 cm guns of the German Scharnhorst class achieved a maximum firing range of just over 40 km. However, hits were never scored over these extreme distances.

It was also found that battleships were rarely directly involved in combat and therefore had a rather poor cost-benefit ratio. In addition, there were a few skirmishes in which battleships were used, but in which they only encountered lighter enemy naval forces (and partly defeated them), for example in the battle of Cape Matapan . Battleships proved their worth as "floating artillery" for landing companies , for example during island jumping in the Pacific, at the Sicily company or when the Allies landed in Normandy . These tasks could also be taken over by smaller, cheaper ships and increasingly also by fighter planes . Therefore, after the Second World War , the battleships were decommissioned in most of the world's navies because of the now lost traditional basis of operation .

Time after 1945

The 1946 Vanguard
The Iowa fires a 2/3 broadside; The pressure wave on the water is easy to see

Already during the Second World War it became apparent that battleships were no longer a contemporary weapon in their actual area of ​​responsibility. Submarines, destroyers and fighter planes operating from aircraft carriers represented a cheaper and usually more effective alternative to the battleship.

The last units commissioned were the British Vanguard in 1946 and the French Jean Bart, which was not commissioned until 1949 due to many delays . However, both ships had a rather short life, because the Vanguard was scrapped in 1960 and the Jean Bart together with her sister ship Richelieu finally in 1968. While most of these units that had survived World War II were released for demolition towards the end of the 1940s, some battleships came into service again in the 1950s in various conflicts, mainly during the Korean War (1950–1953) and during the Suez Crisis in 1956. However, the use was almost exclusively limited to coastal bombardments, for example in October 1951 when the New Jersey shelled North Korean facilities at Wŏnsan , Hŭngnam and Kansong , while the French battleships Richelieu and Jean Bart were shelling the Egyptian coastal areas ultimately renounced the Suez crisis.

In addition, in the context of the Cold War that began at the end of the 1940s , several reports appeared in the western specialist press from around 1948 on allegedly new Soviet battleships, some of which, however, had significantly exaggerated performance and armament data (in one case, the Ships would have 45.7 cm guns and displace up to 55,000 ts). These reports, which were presumably deliberately launched by the Soviet secret service and intended to cause uncertainty in the West, disappeared again from the press landscape from around 1953. The fact is that these ships, some of which were given fantasy names like Krasnaya Sibirja , never existed. On the one hand, due to the effects of the war, the Soviet shipbuilding industry was not even able to produce such ships at that time. On the other hand, the Soviet Navy had long recognized that battleships no longer met the requirements of modern naval warfare.

In the 1950s, American Iowa- class battleships were armed with nuclear shells. These 40.6 cm grenades (designation: W23 "Katie" , a further development of the W9 grenade) weighed 862 kilograms and had an explosion equivalent of around 17 kilotons of TNT , which artillery meant that the maximum of what was left of the concept of the Battleship could be won as an artillery carrier. However, probably not more than 50 shells of this type were produced.

The last US Iowa- class battleships were mothballed in 1958. However, the USS New Jersey was reactivated in 1968 for around a year and a half for coastal bombardments in the Vietnam War . The use of the ship was later rated as a success, as it was above all inexpensive (a full salvo of the ship roughly corresponded to the bomb load of eight fighter bombers, which were more expensive to maintain and in case of loss). After the end of the Vietnam War, the ship was mothballed again. All four ships of the class were then reactivated again from 1982 as part of the Marine of 600 Ships Plan ; for this they were additionally equipped with armored box launchers with cruise missiles like the BGM-109 Tomahawk .

In the winter of 1983/84 the veteran USS New Jersey was assigned to the Mediterranean and deployed off the coast of Lebanon - to support the international protection force for Lebanon (MNFL), consisting mainly of French and US Americans - and shelled Syrian and Druze positions with their 16-inch guns. The operation, which was very successful from a military point of view due to the fact that the artillery was still shooting precisely, also provoked protests, as unconfirmed reports indicate that civilian residential areas were also hit.

Two of these ships were last used in 1991 when they fired artillery and cruise missiles on targets in Iraq during the Second Gulf War . After the Gulf War, the last US battleship, the Missouri , was retired on March 31, 1992. The Iowa and Wisconsin were kept in readiness by the US Navy until 2006, but then finally decommissioned, which ended the era of battleships.

Well-known battleship classes of the First World War

Well-known battleship classes from the interwar period

Well-known battleship classes of the Second World War

See also


  • Siegfried Breyer: Battleships and battle cruisers 1905–1970. With 922 side drawings, deck plans, cross-sections and detailed sketches. JF Lehmann, Munich 1970, DNB 456189416 ; License edition: Pawlak, Herrsching am Ammersee 1988, ISBN 3-88199-474-2 ; 2nd edition: Bernard and Graefe, Koblenz 1990, ISBN 3-7637-5877-1 .
  • Siegfried Breyer: Battleships and battle cruisers 1921–1997: international battleship construction, with 439 side views, deck plans, cross and longitudinal sections based on authentic documents , Bernard and Graefe, Bonn 2002, ISBN 978-3-7637-6225-5 .
  • Robert K. Massie : Dreadnought. Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War. Cape, London 1992, ISBN 0-224-03260-7 .
  • Rolf Hobson: Maritime Imperialism. Maritime power ideology, maritime strategic thinking and the Tirpitz Plan 1875 to 1914 (= Contributions to Military History , Volume 61), published by the Military History Research Office, Potsdam, and the Institute for Defense Studies, Oslo. Oldenbourg, Munich 2004, ISBN 3-486-56671-7 (dissertation University of Trondheim 1999, X, 388 pages, under the title: Imperialism at sea , original in English, translated by Eva Besteck).
  • David Howarth (Ed.): The Battleships. Bechtermünz, Eltville am Rhein 1992, ISBN 3-86047-030-2 .
  • John Jordan: Battleships and battlecruisers, the missions and résumés of the largest ships in the world from 1939 to today. Podzun-Pallas, Friedberg (Hessen) 1989, ISBN 3-7909-0365-5 .
  • Christoph Ramoser: K. uk battleships in the Adriatic - Austria-Hungary's Tegetthoff class (= military history dissertations of Austrian universities , volume 11), ÖBV, Pädagogischer Verlag, Vienna 1998, ISBN 3-215-12749-0 (dissertation University 1998, 368 Pages).

Web links

Wiktionary: battleship  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Battleships  - Collection of images, videos and audio files