Armchair admirals and amateur historians love to ask “what if” questions. One of my favorites is “who would have dominated the seas if there were no aircraft carriers during World War 2 and if land-based aviation were limited to an observation role?”
Why do I ask? I ask because the conventional battleship reached technological maturity in the years before the second world war, but was eclipsed by the aircraft carrier and land-based aviation. There were few purely ship-to-ship actions during the war and the world never got to see what a battle between the behemoths would have been like.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the U.S., Great Britain, Japan, France, Germany, and Italy were all engaged in a “battleship race.” They were building “treaty” battleships and cruisers under the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, the London Naval Treaty of 1930, and the Second London Naval treaty of 1936. Until they broke down in the years just prior to war, these treaties imposed limits on the tonnage, types, and armaments of the world’s capital ships.
FLEETS AT THE ONSET OF WAR
U.S. According to Jane’s Fighting Ships of World War II, prior to Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy had 18 battleships, 9 heavy cruisers, and 20 light cruisers. America also had 5 aircraft carriers that might have been built as battleships or cruisers in a world without naval aviation.
Great Britain. According to Jane’s, the British had 19 battleships by the end of 1941. They were backed up by 59 cruisers. They also had plenty of destroyers and other smaller combatants.
Japan. Jane’s listed the Japanese as having 12 battleships and 14 first class cruisers, and 20 second class cruisers at the onset of war. In addition, they had seven aircraft carriers that would have been cruisers or battleships in a world without carriers. The lead Japanese battleships (Yamato and Musashi) had 18-inch guns that fired heavier shells for longer ranges than the 16-Inch guns of the allies.
Germany. Restricted by treaty to a Navy a third the size of Britain’s, Nazi Germany skirted the rules to build a formidable fleet. Germany had a 6 battleships, 8 cruisers, and plenty of destroyers and torpedo boats above the sea. Germany had some very fast, light weight, pocket battleships that could outpace the older, slower, heavy battleships of Great Britain. Below the sea, they had hundreds of submarines during the war.
Italy. According to Jane’s Fighting Ships of World War II, Italy started the war with seven battleships led by three of their new 35,000 ton Italia-class vessels armed with 9 15-inch guns, 13 6-inch guns, and a vast array of lighter anti-aircraft guns. The battleships were supported by 12 first rate cruisers, 2 obsolete cruisers, and many destroyers, and torpedo boats. On paper the Italians were a formidable foe.
CONDUCT OF THE WAR
What would a World War II dominated by battleships have been like?
Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a tactically brilliant exercise in air power. The Japanese did have an alternative plan to compel the American fleet into a decisive battle at sea. However, based on their success in surprising the Russian fleet at Tsushishima in 1905, the Japanese might well have tried a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor using surface ships and submarines. In the original attack, they lost one fleet submarine and five midget subs. New evidence suggests that one of the midget subs successfully torpedoed the battleship U.S.S. West Virginia. However, a close approach to Hawaii would have greatly increased the fleet’s chance of discovery. If at dawn, they appeared off of Pearl Harbor, they would have been able to inflict much damage with the Yamato and Musashi’s 18-inch guns. However, the U.S. would have likely defended the harbor with powerful shore batteries and torpedo attacks by destroyers until the fleet could sortie. Throughout World War 2, the Japanese admirals also tended to withdraw their capital ships whenever they were threatened. If there had been a fleet action, it would have likely been a draw with whichever fleet was losing retreating to fight another day.
The Mediterranean. In the Mediterranean, the Italians had a powerful and modern fleet. However, their strategy was to maintain a “fleet in being” safely in port in order to tie down British resources and deter anyone from approaching the Italian peninsula from the sea. When they did sally forth, they met the British in the Battle of Matapan. While British carrier aircraft played an important role in the real battle, the Italians would have still lost in a war without aircraft. They lacked radar, had poor gunnery skills, and thought it impossible to fight at night. When an Italian squadron found themselves sailing blissfully unaware through the British fleet, they were given a surprise lesson in how searchlights and gunnery worked at night.
Britain versus Germany. Without carrier aviation, the British would have had far more trouble defeating Germany at sea. German U-boat submarines would have been more difficult to detect and hunt down. Without worrying about aircraft, fast German pocket battleships would have been able to elude the British more easily and prey on even more merchant ships. According to Weapons of World War II, deployed over 900 U-boats during the war. Germany may well have been able to strangle the UK into suing for peace. Alternatively, without much of an air threat, the British might have been able to blockade the Germans more closely.
Japan versus the U.S. Even if Japan had succeeded in a Pearl Harbor attack without airplanes, the industrial might of the United States would have overcome Imperial Japan. During the war, the United States built four Iowa-class battleships and countless other surface combatants. At the end of the war, the U.S. had a staggering 140 aircraft carriers. If those carriers had been battleships and cruisers, they would have been able to defeat similar Japanese ships at sea.
Koenig, William, Epic Sea Battles, Chartwell Books, NJ, 1975
Ludeke, Alexander. Weapons of World War II, Parragon Press, Bath, UK, 2007.
Preston, Anthony. Jane’s Fighting Ships of World War II, Random House, 1994