Friday, November 6, 2015
Book Review 356: British Battleships of World War II
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the glamorous and visionary airman who preached the future of airpower to an unready America but was sacrificed to the outdated prejudices of the “gun club” admirals of a hidebound Navy.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.