Friday, November 6, 2015

Book Review 356: British Battleships of World War II

BRITISH BATTLESHIPS OF WORLD WAR II, by Alan Raven and John Roberts. 435 pages, illustrated. Naval Institute

General Billy Mitchell has come close to mythic status as the glamorous and visionary airman who preached the future of airpower to an unready America but was sacrificed to the outdated prejudices of the “gun club” admirals of a hidebound Navy.

The real story is that Mitchell was a charlatan, one among a flock of memorable con artists like Charles Ponzi, Wilson and Addison Mizner, Calvin Coolidge, Aimee Semple MacPherson and  Irving Fisher who helped make the ’20s the “era of wonderful nonsense” (the phrase is from Frederick Lewis Allen, who watched it unfold).

The fact is, no battleship was ever sunk — or even inconvenienced — by aerial bombing of the kind preached by Mitchell, and the reasons become apparent in Alan Raven and John Roberts’ “British Battleships of World War II,” although they never mention Mitchell’s name. They do refer to him, contemptuously.

Except for the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, no American battleship was ever sunk by any means.

British big gun ships had a harder time of it, and of the 15 the Royal Navy had at the opening of the war, 5 were sunk (two by submarine, one by gunfire, one by aerial torpedoes and one by a mine); and of the 4 commissioned during the war, 1 was sunk (by aerial torpedoes). Others were damaged and out of service for long periods, but never by Mitchell-style bombing. (Before Pearl Harbor, the United States violated neutrality by repairing several Royal Navy battleships, and without that help the British navy would have been in serious trouble in 1942.)

However, of the 6 that were sunk, 2 were battlecruisers that by design sacrificed the protection that made battleships so tough in order to get speed. The theme of Raven and Roberts is the struggle to balance protection, armament and speed for the most effective ship.

The British considered their ships were the best balanced, with the American ships underprotected and the Japanese overgunned. (The Italian battleships were well balanced but not well used and 3 of 5 were sunk.)

The puzzle was made less tractable by the naval treaties engineered by the antimilitary Republican presidents of the ‘20s, which left the British with old ships except for two. Despite some reconstruction (described in great detail in the book),  the Royal Navy entered the war with only 7 battleships that were up-to-date, and none sufficiently armed to cope with dive bombers (which had not been invented when Mitchell ran his fraudulent demonstrations off the Virginia Capes).
Unlike the flyboys, who sold moonshine, the navies of all the powers capable of building a battleship (UK, USA, France, Germany, USSR, Italy and Japan) were using a sophisticated form of what was later to be called operational research to evaluate designs. They were handicapped by an absence of any fighting to provide a final test, but the battleships of World War II were highly capable fighting machines, though very expensive.

Up to 1943, gun club fighting was significant for Britain, in part because aviation was not yet advanced enough to attack warships; not to mention the fact that in the North Atlantic and Arctic, several important battles were fought a night or in weather that was too bad for planes to fly at all. Radar, not pilots in silk scarves, changed that.

“British Battleships” is well-documented, well illustrated and well argued, except for one odd lapse.

The Royal Navy had developed excellent 15-inch guns by 1915 but for complicated reasons that   are explained in the book, it reduced the caliber of the guns in its modern King George V class to 14-inch.

There were only two fights in which the 14-inch guns were crucial: the first encounter with the German Bismarck and the Battle of North Cape. The authors inexplicably declare that the teething troubles experienced by the new (not fully completed) HMS Prince of Wales vs. Bismarck had been corrected by the time HMS King George V fought at North Cape. This is incorrect. King George V won that battle but it had serious problems with its guns.


  1. The real story is that Mitchell was a charlatan ...

    Once again, you shame the name of your blog. You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.

    The fact is, no battleship was ever sunk — or even inconvenienced — by aerial bombing of the kind preached by Mitchell ...


    And, please, none of your Jesuitical hair splitting. Mitchell knew what the institutional Navy refused to acknowledge -- that battleships were relics. Yes, tactics and weapons developed over the next couple decades, but the point remains: Mitchell was exactly right.

    Thank goodness enough people -- none of whom would have been you -- listened.

    Unlike the flyboys, who sold moonshine ...


    Battleships consumed a lot of resources, but except for being floating artillery during invasions, were irrelevant to WWII.

    You couldn't possibly say the same about aircraft.

  2. Yamato was sunk by dive and torpedo bombers.

    And it turns out that carriers were not survivable against kamikazes -- the navy was losing one a week; and it turned out that battleships were necessary antiaircraft platforms to keep the carnage even that low. Expensive, it is true, but not as useless as, say, nuclear-powered airplanes.

  3. Yamato was sunk by dive and torpedo bombers.

    That is exactly what I mean by Jesuitical hair splitting. Mitchell's thesis was that airpower had made battleships obsolete, and that the insitutional Navy was completely resistant to the idea.

    He was right, in spades.

    Which makes you wrong, in spades.

    ... turned out that battleships were necessary antiaircraft platforms ...

    So your thesis is that battleships were necessary for small caliber rapid fire weapons?

    Clearly, you know nothing about air defense weapons.

  4. Under kamikaze attack, the machine guns proved inadequate. Heavy AA (the 5-inch proximity fuzed ones) were necessary. It took a very large ship to manage a lot of those with the their associated directors and the enormous supplies of ammunition that were required.

    Mitchell's argument was not that airpower made battleships obsolete but that airpower could substitute for seapower. His example was the battleship, but like most people he did not understand seapower.

    When the next big war came, airpower was not decisive in the outcome. In the war between Germany and Italy and the western powers, seapower provided the extension and the blockade that won the war. In the war between Germany and Russia, the Red Air Force was destroyed in June and July 1941 but the Red Army had won the war by December.

    In the war between the US and Japan, seapower was decisive. Airpower was not even able to engage without it.

  5. Mitchell's argument was not that airpower made battleships obsolete but that airpower could substitute for seapower.

    No, it wasn't. There is your problem right there.

    His argument was that the battleship was obsolete, and that seapower required airpower to be effective.

    He was completely correct.

  6. Wikipediaquotes him:

    In 1924, Gen. Patrick again dispatched him on an inspection tour, this time to Hawaii and Asia, to get him off the front pages. Mitchell came back with a 324-page report that predicted future war with Japan, including the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of note, Mitchell discounted the value of aircraft carriers in an attack on the Hawaiian Islands, believing they were of little practical use as:

    not only can they not operate efficiently on the high seas but even if they could they cannot place sufficient aircraft in the air at one time to insure a concentrated operation.[32]

    Rather he believed a surprise attack on the Hawaiian Islands would be conducted by land-based airpower operating from islands in the Pacific.[33] His report, published in 1925 as the book Winged Defense, foretold wider benefits of an investment in air power:

    Those interested in the future of the country, not only from a national defense standpoint but from a civil, commercial and economic one as well, should study this matter carefully, because air power has not only come to stay but is, and will be, a dominating factor in the world's development.[34]

    Wrong right down the line, wasn't he?

  7. Again with the Jesuitical parsing. He was absolutely correct about the ends -- an attack on Pearl Harbor -- and as correct as he could know to be about the ends -- airpower.

    That he didn't know what he couldn't know, the astonishingly rapid development of carriers and carrier aircraft over the next 15 years is somehow enough to make him wrong right down the line?

    He was a heck of a lot more right than anyone else, which made him a visioniary, not a charlaton.

    No surprise here. Virtually everything you write about military matters is bizarro world wrong.

    And you excoriate Dr. Carson for bizarre beliefs.

  8. And absolutely wrong about defense. Pearl had the bulk of modern interceptors and managed to get two -- count 'em, 2 -- into the air, and those by accident. No early warning, no fighter direction.

    Complete incompetence. None of Mitchell's claims achieved.

  9. Pearl had the bulk of modern interceptors and managed to get two -- count 'em, 2 -- into the air, and those by accident. No early warning, no fighter direction.

    What the hell does Pearl's readiness failure have to do with Mitchell?

    Perhaps you would be better served by referring to, oh, I don't know, the Battle of Britain. Or Midway, or the Battle of the Atlantic. Or ... oh, what's the point.

    Your willful ignorance is almost as astonishing as your misdirection.

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  11. If I can find the time, I would like to write at length on the "promise of airpower," but for now let me observe that the Battle of Britain demonstrated the dominance of seapower.

    The German army was powerless to harm England, and the combined German navy and air force were unwilling to risk an encounter with the Royal Navy in the Narrow Seas. So the Germans thought to substitute airpower for seapower.

    As happened more often than not in history, airpower failed to deliver on its promise.

  12. The German army was powerless to harm England, and the combined German navy and air force were unwilling to risk an encounter with the Royal Navy in the Narrow Seas. So the Germans thought to substitute airpower for seapower.

    That is utter crap.

    The German army was no more powerless to harm England than the Allies were powerless to harm Germany.

    If the Luftwaffe had managed to establish air superiority, then the English Navy would have been completely routed had it tried to get anywhere near the Channel.

    Just like Midway.

    Of course, to make your point, you could show a case where a naval force not only survived, but succeeded in the face of enemy air superiority.

    You can't, because such a thing has never happened.

  13. Well, why didn't it try to establish air superiority?

  14. Who, the Luftwaffe?

    That was the whole point of the Battle of Britain! Use bombers to flush the fighters, and destroy the fighters through attrition.

    Which is exactly what the strategic bombing campaign against Germany achieved.

  15. True, but that was not what the strategic bombing campaign was designed to do.

    And eliminating the Luftwaffe fighters contributed nothing to the outcome.

  16. Harry, you get shoot your own argument. Without air superiority, the British navy could not have survived in the Channel. I can't help but notice that when asked to provide a counter example, you couldn't.

    And while it is true enough that the strategic bombing campaign wasn't designed to destroy the Luftwaffe, that is undoubtedly one of its effects, which meant that Overlord could proceed with not just air supremacy, but total superiority. Had the Luftwaffe enjoyed that position instead, either the invasion would not have proceeded, or it would have failed. That sound you just heard was your argument sinking like a greased safe.

    Everything Mitchell predicted became true, regardless of your foolish irrelevancies (Pearl's woeful lack of readiness is a reflection on Mitchell? Seriously?), or your invoking nonsense as fact (that the British Navy would have been able to do something no Navy has ever managed).

    If you have someone who has made a a career out of air power, and wrote a thesis on the strategic bombing campaign, maybe you need to stop trotting out such inanities.

  17. Did you really? Was there a chapter on not aiming the bombs?

    There should have been.

  18. How about engaging your own nonsense?

  19. When I get time. For now -- Force K.

    And you are not going to say they aimed, because we both know they didn't.

  20. Harry, above you made some perfectly ridiculous statements. When challenged, you do what you always do: you shifted the goal posts.

    So, either unshift them, or own your buffoonery

  21. * ... you know they didn't.*

    I bet you haven't read the post-WWII Strategic Bombing Surveys.

    And I am really reluctant to waste my time on someone who is so willing to rant the odious, and unwilling to learn anything.

    But here goes, truncated by the pain of typing on an iPad.

    The technology at the time forced what was supposed to be an offensive weapon to be also very defensive. Among a great many things, this meant bombers flew in formations that guaranteed most bombs would miss the target, never mind how well the lead airplane aimed.

    This has nothing whatsoever to do with Mitchell, who was a true visionary,

    Your profound, and impervious, ignorance notwithstanding.