What Happened to the Battleship. 1945 to the present

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What Happened to the Battleship. 1945 to the present. By Chris Baker. Published by Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2022. ISBN 978-1-3990-7008-9.

Reviewed by David Hobbs

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Chris Baker studied modern history at Oxford University before becoming a civil servant.  and working within the UK Ministry of Defence specialising in policy, programme and resource issues for thirty-seven years.  Battleships have always fascinated him and this outstanding book gives clear indication of the depth of his research into the history of the genre after 1945.

It is his first book and, hopefully, he will move on to write others.

The majority of histories describe battleships as having been eclipsed by aircraft carriers within the major fleets by 1945 but few historians have looked in detail at how they continued to be regarded as major assets of considerable value by several navies.  The US Navy was required by law to maintain battleships capable of rapid re-activation together with 16-inch ammunition and spare gun barrels until the National Defence Authorisation Act of 2009 allowed the last examples to settle into honourable retirement as museum ships.  The last battleship in active service was Missouri which joined her three sister-ships in the reserve fleet during March 1992.  The Royal Navy had also intended to maintain battleships in its active fleet after 1945 found them too expensive to run.

As one might expect, the book gives the greatest coverage to the largest battleship navies, those of the USA and UK , but France and Italy together with Turkey and the South American navies are also covered in detail.  The aspirations of the Soviet Navy to build new battleships and the fate of the German and Japanese vessels that survived the war, even those lying on their sides in shallow water, are described. Both Britain and America tried to maintain battleships in commission by using them as training ships with much of their armament ‘cocooned’ in a de-humidified state but capable of re-activation in an emergency but even this expedient proved too expensive.  Baker has looked extensively into what this actually meant for the ships using both RN and USN ships’ logs as well as reports and planning documents.  The Bikini Atoll atomic bomb experiments have a chapter devoted to them which describes the results which surprised some analysts by demonstrating that battleships in open formations could survive all but the closest detonations.  The tests are described both from an American perspective and from the detailed comments made by Captain S W Roskill RN who led the large British observation team at the trials.  The image on the book’s dust jacket shows the orange-painted battleship Nevada,which was the target for the Bikini Able test, as she appeared a day after the explosion with the former Japanese Nagatobeyond her.  Apparently, despite having selected the best B-29 bomber crew in the US Pacific Air Force and being presented with a static target painted orange, the bomb-aimer missed the target by 650 yards; enough to save the ship from probable annihilation.  The inaccuracy of the drop also placed the secondary targets New York and Pennsylvania outside the weapon’s lethal radius.  During the subsequent heated debate about the B-29 crew’s inaccuracy the US Army Air Force blamed the bomb’s ballistics and the bomb designers blamed poor meteorological data but battleships were recognised to be less vulnerable than many had supposed.

Chris Baker’s description of battleship operations are fascinating and range from Vanguard carrying the Royal Family on their tour of South Africa in 1947 to shore bombardments carried out by American battleships in the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf conflicts.  The narrative story is backed up with interesting statistics; for example New Jersey fired 5,866 16-inch shells in action during the conflict in Vietnam, a huge total when compared with the 771 she fired during the Second World War.  Interestingly, it was the US Marine Corps that fought hardest to retain battleships for their shore bombardment capability and it is arguable that the vast sums spent on the Zumwalt class destroyers reflect a strong desire to retain a modernised development of such a capability into the future.   Battleships played an important part in the early NATO exercises which are explained in detail and the book is well illustrated with a number of carefully chosen black and white images.  The reactivation of the four Iowa class battleships as part of the USN’s expansion to a 600-ship fleet during the Cold War has a chapter devoted to it which describes both operational effectiveness and the effect these ships’ presence continued to have on public opinion.  I can testify to the effect seeing Vanguard had on me as a school boy, even though she was in reserve, and the King George V class battleships laid up in the Gareloch, even though they were in extended reserve were described to me as having a similar presence.

The final chapter looks at ships that have been preserved.  The enormous cost of such a venture has meant that no battleships have been preserved in the UK although several 14-inch and 15-inch guns have survived.  To be fair, preservation was far from commonplace before the last decades of the twentieth century and such thoughts of preservation as there were could only be described  half-hearted, failing to look beyond tax payers’ money as the source of income.  Interestingly, the author reveals that a full outfit of ten spare 14-inch barrels for King George V class battleships was held in an armament depot near Sydney until mid 1957 in case the ships were re-commissioned for use in the Pacific.  This shows that the Admiralty did not rush into discarding the capabilities battleships offered and the last of these barrels was not discarded until February 1958.  There are descriptions of ships that ran aground or even sank while under tow on their way to the scrap yard but a number of battleships have been preserved as national memorials in the USA.  These are described as having been ‘permanently’ preserved but, although most are in good condition now, the problems faced by Texas give an example of what might lie ahead.  At one stage in 2012 leaks led to water ingress of up to 2,000 gallons per minute and repairs to her hull in 2018 cost $45 million.  The Japanese Mikasa is set in concrete so that she cannot sink but this brings its own problems.

Overall this is a fascinating book that sheds a fresh perspective on the declining years of the battleship.  I learnt a lot from it, thoroughly enjoyed reading it from cover to cover and recommend it highly.

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