14: Building Better Battleships


As the Washington Naval Treaty system collapsed, the British had to get back to what they did best, building battleships.

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Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Members episode 14 - The Royal Navy Part 4 - Building Better Battleships. In the years before the Second World War the Royal Navy would spend a staggering amount of money on new ships. They did this because their goal was to match the fleets that both Germany and Japan were in the process of building. For the Germans that meant the three Deutschland class pocket battleships, the two Scharnhorst battleships, and the Bismarck and Tirpitz. These ships were well known due to the terms of the Anglo-German Naval treaty which required the Germans to share their building programs. The Germans were not entirely truthful about the size of the ships, but the existence of the ships was well known. The plans for the Japanese were far more ambiguous, but the British knew that they were also expanding their navy and they had started construction on at least 2 large battleships. What they did not know was that these two ships were the Yamato and Mushashi, which were far larger than anything that the British would build before or during the war. To try and match this construction, money had to be spent not just on the ships themselves but also on a whole host of auxiliary items. New construction facilities, both in the Royal Dockyards and with private ship construction dockyards, had to be created or updated. Contracts had to be signed with Czechoslovakia to provide armor plate, because it was impossible to produce enough domestically. The goal of all of these efforts, as stated in 1937, was to build an aircraft carrier a year and 2 battleships per year all the way from 1938 to 1942. Today we are going to look at this planned building program, starting with the biggest part of that construction the King George V battleships. Due to when the war would start they would be the most modern and powerful Royal Navy ships afloat during the war years. We will then discuss what would have been their successors, the Lion Class, which were derailed by the start of the war.

As with all of the other armed forces in Britain during the period we are discussing, the Royal Navy was provided with a massive increase in funding to make its rearmament programs a reality, with the naval budget in 1938 moved up to almost 94 million pounds, an almost doubling from the early years of the decade. It also represented a large increase from the previous year, which had already seen a big bump up from the year before. Basically the instant that the London Treaty was signed in March 1936 naval spending was re-evaluated, and 3 supplementary budgets which all increased the naval budget would all make their way through parliament during the year. The eventual total for the 1936-37 budget was over 81 million, 20 million more than the year before. The next year which would be the 1937-38 budget there would be another increase, this time up 94 million, although the navy would initially request 105 million. These were massive jumps for the Royal navy, and reversed an almost 20 year trend of stringent budget control. The problem was, at least from a military perspective, they were matched by almost every other nation. Each nation did their budgeting differently so direct comparisons are challenging, but if we just look roughly at the difference between 1936 budgets and 1938 budgets we see some massive increase in every other major naval power. The Royal Navy would boost spending from 60 million to 94 million, a 56 percent increase. The United States would increase it spending by 16 percent, Italy would increase by 41.7 percent, Germany would more than double its spending, and Japan would almost triple. This kind of puts British spending in better perspective, because even with an increase of 70% they were still not matching the percent increase from their naval rivals, particularly those powers most likely to be on the other side of a conflict. Granted, the Royal Navy budget of 60 million was a far bit more than many of the other nations in 1936, but at the same time even at that level the Royal Navy felt barely able to meet its worldwide commitments, commitments that only the United States could even come close to matching.

The King George V class of battleships is really interesting because it involves all of the attempts of the Royal navy to push for greater size restrictions on battleships, while also intersecting with the failure of those attempts and the very specific beliefs that the Royal Navy had on what made for a good capital ship design. When the treaty system began to collapse the designs that had been made for British battleships built around 12 inch guns or smaller displacements were discarded. Instead the next class would be at the 35,000 ton limit, the largest allowed under the treaty. There was never any possibility of this construction not happening as well, because it was believed with so many other nations building large battleships the British had to build their own in response. This was still at a period when the ability of air power to deal with capital ships was uncertain, being in late 1936 which is when the decisions were made, and so the only viable answer to enemy battleships was some of their own. Battleships were also a source of national pride, which was a major reasons that some ships were built, like the Bismarck in Germany, and there were similar reasons for the Royal Navy. I also like this little bit of information from Mark Connelly from Battleships and British Society, 1920-1960 “Battleship building was incredibly important to local communities, for example in 1939, it was announced that after the launching of the King George V from Armstrong Works on the Tyne that another battleship would be ordered, this led to an article in the Newcastle Journal that put that into perspective: spending 12million pounds locally, 70 of which would go to wages, at least 6,000 men were to be employed on the hull and machinery alone.” These were big ships and were therefore massive construction projects, and were important to local economies for obvious reasons.

One of the first items that had to be decided on when it came to the design of the ship was the size of the guns that it should carry. There were a whole bunch of different designs with different guns, from 14 to 16 inches. The British already had some experience with 16 inch guns, which were what was mounted on the Nelson class of ships back in the 1920s. But the new design was quite a divergence from the Nelson and so a wider rethink of the guns was permitted. The fact that the Germans would inform the British that they were going to use 16 inch guns on the Bismarck did cause a moment of pause, but the decision was still made to move forward with the initial plans for 14 inch guns. The reasoning for this was three fold, the first was that they could fire quicker, the second was that the weight savings for smaller guns would allow for more armor to be fitted, and the third was based around the expected engagement ranges of the ships. Firing quicker is a pretty obvious advantage, with the British believing that they would also be more accurate, a claim that seems to mostly be based on the idea that the Royal Navy simply had better gunners which would prove to be a somewhat dubious belief. The second, allowing for more weight to be devoted to armor, was important. With the King George designs the British put a lot of emphasis on armor, and armor took weight. To put it in perspective a bit, the ships would have 6,000 tons less total displacement than the Bismarck, but they would still have more armor. The British ships would also be far better armored in all areas than the American ships that they would later fight beside. With the desire to stay within the 35,000 ton limit, which was an idea that was never really questioned if only because other nations were claiming to have stuck to it with their designs, even though they were not, more weight being devoted to the armor meant less was available for the guns. The third piece of the reasoning was the expected engagement ranges, which would effect both guns and armor. From the gun perspective the smaller guns would have a shorter maximum engagement range when compared to the ships that they might be called upon to face. But the Royal Navy believed that in any engagement they would be trying to get within 18,000 yards of the enemy ship anyway, which was well within the operational limits of any of the guns being considered. This also effected the specific layout of the armor, especially around the armored belt on the side of the ship, which was far more vertical than many of its contemporaries due to these ideal short engagement ranges which would see shells coming in at a far lower angle. As we discussed last episode there were discussions about possibly changing the guns to a larger caliber, but this was abandoned due to it being simply too late in the design process to make such a major change.

This was partially because the designs would actually receive their final stamp of approval on May 28,1936, and then by October the final plan drawings were also approved. The first two ships of the class were laid down on Jan 1 1937, the first day after the treaties expired. While there had been serious efforts to keep them within the 35,000 ton limit, as with seemingly every other capital ship during the interwar period, they would end up being overweight. The King George V would clock in at a bit over 36,000 tons. The two ships laid down at the start of 1937 would become King George V and the Prince of Wales. There were some discussions about making them the only ships of their class, with some more drastic changes suggested for the ships that were scheduled to begin during the next year’s building program. This was something that the Royal Navy had experience with before the First World War, when some classes of dreadnoughts were only constructed for a year before meaningful changes were made for the next year. However, this was not the path that was pursued after 1937, due primarily to the fact that if very few changes were made the construction rate could be maintained or even improved. Major changes would mean some delay, which was seen as simply unacceptable as the world seemed to be moving closer and closer to some kind of conflict.

After the King George V class was under construction eyes began shifting to the next set of British battleships. This new set of ships would be built under the escalated Washington Treaty limits because in early June 1937 the United States asked all of the signatories about their building plans. The Japanese made it clear that it would not obey the limitations of the treaty which were still 14 inch guns and 35,000 ton displacement. With the Japanese openly refusing these limits, although to be very clear many nations were planning to scale up their next ship classes, every other navy had to re-evaluate future plans. The rumor that was going around at this time was that the Japanese were building a ship with 18 inch guns, and there were reports given to both the Royal navy and the American Navy to that effect. While these reports were taken seriously, there was also a certain level of skepticism that the Japanese could make such a large jump in caliber for ships that were already being built in 1937. They could at the same time not be wholely discounted, and the rumors and the reluctance of the Japanese to stick to the previously agreed upon limits, meant that the escalation clauses were triggered. One piece of the naval agreements that is often de-emphasized is that there was the belief that even if the Japanese did not sign the full agreement and agree to the prescribed force ratios, they would still stick to the size limitations. This belief was based on the assumption in London and Washington that the Japanese would not want to enter a size based building war with either nation. Therefore, the theory went, they would stick to the size limitations out of fear of what the other nations could and would build. Or as the Committee of Imperial Defence would say if the Japanese went forward with larger ships they would invoke the escalator clause ’then make use of our far greater building capacity and financial strength to ensure that the outcome of such action would be entirely to Japan’s disadvantage.’ Of course this was the exact reasoning that the Japanese would use when choosing to go so big with the Yamato and Musashi, believing that since they could never hope to quantitatively out-build the other nations, they had to make sure that the ships that they did build were as large and powerful as possible.

In the end the British, French, and Americans would meet in London on March 29, 1937 and send the official notification to Tokyo that they were escalating. The escalation clause, once activated, caught both Washington and London behind a step. For the Americans, they were building their North Carolinas, which were at least in theory on the 35,000 ton limit. They would not be able to make a fully post-treaty ship until the Iowa class, which would be closer to 45,000 tons. For the British they had just started 2 King George Vs and planned to start 3 more then next year, which would be the 1937-38 fiscal year. Because they had decided to stick with the original design for the three follow on ships they could not now change, meaning that their earliest reply would come in the ships that would be laid down in the 1938-1939 fiscal year. There were some concerns about this fact, but the Royal navy still believed that it could outbuild the Japanese in these new and large ships, even if they were a few months behind, which meant that at the very worst they would end up with 5 very capable battleships that were more than a match for any pre-treaty ships, even those that had been heavily modernized. A more detailed store of the entire course of events for the King George V class curring the war is beyond the scope of this episode, but overall it was positive. There were problems identified with the design, one of the most interesting ones, at least in my mind, were the endurance problems that the ships would have during operations. Basically, the British just allowed for less fuel storage than similar ships, and they got less miles out of every ton of fuel oil. This was combined with another interesting decision that had been made during the design process to favor speed of design and production over performance. Basically during the late 1930s many of the navies around the world were increasing the temperatures and pressures in their steam power generation plants in their naval vessels. This provided greater efficiency in fuel consumption, but introduced many technical problems that had to be solved, and the British simply did not feel confident in solving them. This meant that the King George V, and other ships designed at this time, would always be at a disadvantage when it came to fuel efficiency, which was noticeable during the war. Given the commissioning date of the 5 ships, it is hard to argue that speed of construction was not the correct move, any serious delay would have meant that the ships would have missed the war, or more likely would have been cancelled after the war began.

Speaking of cancelled when the war started, that brings us nicely to the next class of British capital ships, the Lion class. The Lion class was the Royal Navy’s answer to the American Iowa class, or the Japanese superbattleships. Due to budgetary concerns, after the burst of building of five King George Vs in two year, the Lions would be spread out with 2 laid down in 1939, 1 in 1940, and one more in 1941. There was some hope that this could be accelerated slightly, and the ship that would eventually become the Vanguard, which we will discuss in a bit, came out of the desire to do another 3 ship year in 1939. This was eventually approved by the Cabinet, due to the speed at which the German navy was expanding, with concern that if they accelerated that building during the year they might catch the British off guard. The Lions were planned to be about 40,000 tons, although I am skeptical that they would have met that number given how frequently capital ship displacement ballooned during this period. They would also mount 9 16 inch guns in 3 triple turrets, just like the American Iowas. The design was finalized in December 1938. The first two ships of the class, the Lion and the Temeraire would be laid down in the summer of 1939, Lion in July and Temeraire in June. The original plan was for the construction to take 4 years, and so they would join the fleet in 1943, but problems with meeting this schedule began to immediately appear. This was a period of massive rearmament for the British armed forces, and there were some industries that found the demands very challenging. The two most important areas when it came to the Lion class was the production of armor plate and the construction of gun mountings. The capacity of British industry to create armor plate which was necessary for warships was severely strained by the orders being placed in the late 1930s. The official estimates from the government were that they only had enough capacity for the construction of 2 and a half capital ships per year, but even this was proving to be overly optimistic. There had been attempts to solve this problem by placing massive orders for armor plate with the Skoda works in Czechoslovakia. This was a good plan, Skoda could create what was needed, but unfortunately very little of that was delivered by Skoda before Czechoslovakia was taken over by the Germans. The other problem, gun mountings, was almost more problematic. They took a lot of time and were very complicated to make, and so there were simply a fixed number that could be produced every year. Just before the outbreak of the war the third ship, which would have been Conqueror was ordered while the fourth ship, Thunderer was order in November 1939. However, it was on that very same day that work on the Lion and Temeraire was massively deprioritized. Given all of the other construction that was happening this essentially ended construction. Then in May 1940 all work on the Lions was halted as focus was placed primarily on smaller ships, especially destroyers and other convoy escorts.

There would be only 1 battleship completed for the Royal Navy after the King George V class, and that was the Vanguard. Vanguard is an interesting ship because it was originally not planned, but it would be a solution to the desire of the Royal Navy to build more battleships during the 1937/1938 period. The primary reason that Vanguard was possible was because two ships that had been planned as large cruisers would be converted into aircraft carriers, the Courageous and Glorious. However, this conversion was made after construction had begun, and importantly after the four twin 15 inch gun mounts had been created. With these spare parts essentially planned for nothing the designers at the Admiralty got to work on creating plans for how to modify the King George V design to fit four twin turrets. The ship would be laid down in December 1940, and it would take a little over 3 years before it was delivered. During that time construction had been paused, then restarted, then paused again, then put into maximum priority so that it finished in early 1944. There had been discussions about converting it to an aircraft carrier as well, with the suggestion being abandoned after it was decided that it would make a very poor aircraft carrier in comparison to all of the purpose built carriers that were the norm in the late war years. Along the way as many lessons from the war were incorporated into changes to the design, most of which could be summarized as putting as many anti-aircraft guns as possible onto the ship. This became far more important after the loss of the Prince of Wales in December 1941. Vanguard would be far from the other ship to get an augmented anti-aircraft armament during the war, as pretty much every ship would get the same treatment during any major refit.

While we know today that Vanguard would be the last battleship ever built for the Royal Navy, they of course did not know this at the time, and so with the war still ongoing they were already considered what might come next. During the first half of the war there was the belief that it was always possible that the construction on the Lion class might resume. But even when space became available for that to happen, early in 1942 with American entry into the war, instead a program for light aircraft carriers was chosen to be more important. In April 1943 this was made official with the armor that had been held in waiting for the Lions being disposed of. This pushed planning rom possible design alterations for the Lions while they were under construction to an entirely new set of ships. These plans were drawn up and would pull from all of hte lessons learned from the war, with the design being based around a ship that was 50,000 tons and which had 9 16 inch guns. There were updates to underwater protection, primarily around concerns of aerial torpedo attack, and there as of course far more anti-aircraft armament. But by that point such ships were already a very hard sell, and would be a non-starter even before the war was over and drastic budget cuts were made. In the end the battleship concept was already dead by the time that these final designs were drafted.