The Battleship: Her Evolution and Her Present Place in the Scheme of Naval War

By Lieutenant Commander Melvin F. Talbot (S.C.), U. S. Navy

This tendency to accept the sales talk of technique has been especially true of the battleship. In the pre-war years of her evolutionary heyday, naval thought glorified her almost to the exclusion of all other types. With her curtailment at the Washington Conference, her critics waxed bold again. For a few years she was pictured, even by older officers of unquestioned ability, as headed for the scrap heap of forgotten ships, there to join the trireme and the square-rigged three-decker, while the airplane and the torpedo craft took over the trident. And now with the expiration of the limitation treaties, we are entering a new period of battleship building. The battleship again bids fair to dominate our ideas even as her partisans trust she will dominate the seas.

It would then seem appropriate at this time to review her history and to attempt to find in the story of her evolution some solid ground on which to base our estimate of her present place in the scheme of naval war.

Unlike the flotilla types and the light forces, the battleship has never changed. She, and she alone, remains an absolute. Throughout the ages she has been the ship that could take the greatest fighting power to sea. We know her as a carrier of great guns, simply because the gun is the most destructive weapon in the armory of our time. We cannot predict the battle ship of the future unless indeed we canpredict the weapons of the future. Butthis assertion we can make with absolute confidence. As long as the gun promises to wreak more destruction upon the enemy than any other instrument sailors can float out to the battle fields of the sea, just so long will the battleship remain primarily a gunnery platform.

There is much loose thinking on the subject of naval types. We are apt to be misled by names and catch phrases. The very term "battleship" is misleading. It is a contraction of the older term "line-of-battleship," that is the ship "fit to lie in the line," as opposed to the armed merchantmen too weak to form a part of the main battle. But even the term "line-of-battleship" is itself misleading, bringing to mind as it does the long columns of heavy ships which formerly sailed or steamed up to a similar enemy line, seeking parallel battle. What we have today is no longer this line of battle but rather a group of floating forts forming the hard kernel of a far-flung crescent of battle.

Nothing, least of all the weapons of war, can be understood unless we can see them in their proper perspective. Our material is but one phase of a constant evolution. Let us then briefly review the two great periods of fighting-ship development, the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries.

An excited crowd thronged the high cliffs along the southern coast of England in the year 1588. A few miles to seaward a crescent of Spanish ships was slowly working up the Channel. Great galleons formed this Invisible Armada's battle line, high-sided ships with lofty fighting castles imposed on hulls none too weatherly at best. On the inshore wing, four lumbering galleasses were being swept along by their hundred-odd oarsmen.

The Spanish Armada was not so much a fighting fleet as a group of troop transports. What its infantry landing forces sought was a fight across the decks of grappling ships. Luckily for England, they never had the chance to draw their swords. Over half of them were drowned a few weeks later, washed ashore from the wrecks of these tall ships that were the soldiers’ pride. The future belonged to the new English battleships types hovering just out of grappling range to windward.

Like all proper fighting craft, these "great ships" of Elizabeth's new navy frankly embodied the latest advances both in shipbuilding and in ordnance design. They were handy, weatherly ships, superior to the Spaniards' in speed and hence able to choose their range. At broadside ports they carried the most destructive weapon then known, the naval cannon, guns as powerful, if not as numerous, as those borne in Nelson's Victory. Elizabethan constructors had created the dreadnought of the day, the all-big gun battleship. When, on the third day’s fight, the galleasses rower out in a calm with orders to grapple the Ark Royal, modern and ancient sea history met. Those galleasses would have been familiar to Julius Caesar, and Farragut would have found the Ark not unlike the ships of his own Union blockade. Thus ended the age of oars and swords. Thus dawned the age of sail and broadside cannon.

The broadside battleship soon became standardized; and with her standardization in design came a rigidity in the rules of tactics. The "line-of-battle" became the accepted formation for battleship fighting.

Each shall follow in the wake of her next ahead [wrote James, Duke of York in his famous Fighting Instructions] and do what service she can upon the enemy.

And in later Instructions:

The van, center and rear shall steer with the van, center, and rear of the enemy and there engage them.

All of which was modified by one all-important if , "if the enemy stay to fight."

In the Dutch Wars of the seventeenth century the enemy did "stay to fight," and fight they did, these gallant Dutchmen in long, bloody, but never completely decisive battles. The battleship, fought with a fierceness seldom equaled before or since, failed to achieve those crushing tactical triumphs which alone can lift war above the semi-stalemate of protracted campaigns. The reason seems to have been that the offensive power of the seventeenth century ship-of-the-line had not kept pace with her improved defensive characteristics. Heavier guns had not followed as an answer to stouter timbers.

Lacking a better gun, designers increased the number of guns mounted in a single ship. Shipbuilding technique was, however, unable as yet materially to increase the length of the battleship. As a result the heavier rates soon became unwieldy and unweatherly, lumbering three-deckers, whose high sides suggested the Spanish galleons they had replaced. As is so often the case in the evolution of fighting ships, the gunner had dragged the seaman beyond the safe limits of experience.

Curiously enough, in the correspondence of the early eighteenth century admirals, there are repeated requests that the lower rates be sent to the Mediterranean to replace the new three-deckers. Nor did type development bring tactical victory in its wake. Bound by the Duke of York's now obsolete Fighting Instructions, even the three-decker proved an inadequate instrument. Writing on the morrow of the indecisive Battle of Malaga in 1704, Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovel sadly notes:

By the time one fleet is beaten, the other is beaten…I have not seen any victory…worth boasting where numbers have been nearly equal.

Lacking a real genius for battle, only numbers could then have successfully countered the defensive French tactics. Unlike the Dutch, the French did not "stay to fight." They chose rather to rake their opponents as they stood down bows to broadsides. They cut their rigging by high angle fire before they could parallel off. They left successive British fleets hamstrung on the field of barren victory. It is, in fact, during the recurring epochs of tactical dogmatism that naval opinion cries out most insistently for numbers and yet more numbers. But, over long historical periods, numbers seem to follow some strange law of equalization. There was no major engagement in the eighteenth century where either fleet had an overwhelming numerical preponderance. Yet it took well-nigh a century of war to teach the sailing ship admirals that "as the artist is greater than his materials, so the soldier is greater than his weapons." It was almost exactly a century after the Battle of Malaga that Nelson with a numerical inferiority achieved something approaching annihilation at Trafalgar.

The early eighteenth century witnessed the low point in battleship tactics under sail. Mathews' halfhearted attack off Toulon, with its resulting series of political courts-martial, was a fitting prelude to Byng's loss of Minorca in a sea fight which sent him to his death before a marine firing squad. Admiral of the Blue, ninth on the Flag List, a stickler for paper work and regulations, Sir John Byng paid with his life for his inherent inability to place victory above a rigid adherence to the letter of obviously antiquated tactical instructions.

On the blue waters off Minorca in the spring of 1758, twelve French ships-of-the-line lay to, close-hauled under shortened sail. From windward twelve similar English ships were closing in. True to their doctrine which frankly placed the strategic objective of the campaign above mere tactical success, the French fired high at the rigging of the English ships, stopping them dead in their tracks. One English ship was badly cut up aloft. The rear of their echelon approach jammed up astern of her. The French promptly turned tail and went off about their business, the business of covering their army in its siege of St. Philip's Castle. And, five months later, poor old Byng was shot, a martyr, not so much to "political persecution," as his self-composed epitaph has it, but rather a martyr to rules for battle that were as dead as the hand which wrote them 70 years before.

It was not an admiral but a civilian theorist who was destined to revitalize tactical thought. In Edinburgh at about the time of the American Revolution, there lived an eccentric city merchant who used to carry around little models of ships in his pockets. "Any dinner table," he wrote, "could then become a field of battle." A party with Mr. Clerk of Eldin—that was this eccentric's name—must have been something of a bore to those not interested in sea fighting. He could talk of nothing but his new book on naval tactics. One can almost see his eyes shine as he boasted that he had found a way to make those damn Frenchmen stand up and fight as proper sailormen should. "Give up the parallel battle," he would shout, fist on the table. "Cut right into and through their line." Conservative admirals were horrified. What did this busybody landsman know about it! He couldn't tell them anything. Yet Rodney tried Clerk's break-through at the Saints, Duncan used it at Camperdown, and Nelson at Trafalgar. In all three battles Britain achieved crushing triumph.

The history of sea war is replete with curious characters. But most curious of all is this landsman with his little models who wrote a book on tactics which the mighty Nelson kept under his pillow. His name deserves to stand with the naval heroes of this, the last and golden, age of the sailing battleship.

At the New York Navy Yard in the spring of 1815, a curious double-hulled catamaran slid into the water. One hull contained a newfangled "caldron for preparing steam," the other contained her ponderous engines working a paddle wheel in the well amidships. Her builder, Robert Fulton, another radical self-confident landsman, died two months before her launching. The War of 1812 was over. She was never to be used in combat. She was the earliest steam battleship.

In fact she embodied the first element of what might be called the naval revolution of the nineteenth century. The next element came from the stormy waters of the Crimea. Colonel Paixhans' new shell guns had made a red shambles of the stout hulls of the proudest wooden ships. "Keep out the shell" became the terrified cry of captains and designers alike. In France La Cloire slid down the ways, a wooden ship encased in iron. In England H.M.S. Royal Oak, proud name of glorious memories, was cut down to take her iron armor. Punch published a cartoon, "Vulcan Forging the Shield of Mars."

Technique was rushing the pace in naval design. The race between the gun and the armor plate was on.

Off Cape Charles on a stormy day in the second year of the Civil War, the flooded Monitor was floundering at the end of her towline. It was touch and go to get her into port. "A cheese box on a raft," her contemptuous critics called her. She brought dramatically to the fore one further element in battleship development, the center line turret. The Monitor, however, was only a harbor type. European designers still favored the high-sided, seagoing, ironclad sailing ship. They were still building square-riggers whose shrouds fouled the arc of center line fire. In despair Captain Coles, naval artillerist and turret enthusiast, appealed to the press and forced the hand of a conservative British Admiralty. Reluctant designers mounted his new "gun cupolas" on a full-rigged ship, H.M.S. Captain, tripoding her masts to eliminate shrouds and stoppering her running rigging to a hurricane deck built over the turret tops. She capsized in a gale, carrying Captain Coles to his death. But his dreams lived on. Over the next two decades, sails and broadside guns disappeared. Steam and turrets had won.

In the spring of 1907, Admiral "Jackie" Fisher stood proudly beside King Edward VII on the quarter-deck of H.M.S. Dreadnought. The modern battleship had been born, the all-big-gun ship whose design frankly embodied the accepted fact that she was primarily a carrier for the heaviest ordnance. In contrast to the pre-dreadnoughts, which still mounted a mixed armament, the Dreadnought was a two-battery ship. In her the largest possible number of the most powerful guns were re-enforced by a secondary battery just strong enough to beat off the attack of surface torpedo craft.

England and Germany now entered what we might call the "politico-technical battleship race" of the pre-war years. The battleship had definitely caught the public fancy. She soon became a kind of symbol of strength at sea. Almost to the exclusion of other types, she occupied the center of publicity. She was pictured as herself embodying national security. The man on the street was taught to glorify her in catch phrases, to demand her in slogans, "two keels for one," "we want eight and we won't wait."

In the restless brain of the tireless Fisher another type was conceived, the battle cruiser, a big and hence fast cruiser hull, but lightly armored, carrying at high speed a battleship's guns. She was to be a "super cruiser," a "sweep-the-seas cruiser," designed to hunt down whatever raiders should make so bold as to threaten Britain's far-flung trade routes. She was built for just such a campaign as that of the Falkland Islands. And that campaign she won with dramatic and sudden completeness.

Yet so deeply had the battle line idea become embedded in naval thought that the battle cruiser soon ceased to be conceived as a cruising ship. She was recalled to the main battle as a "fast wing" unit of the battle line itself. Grand Admiral von Tirpitz followed Fisher in building and in tactical theory. As a result, rival German and English battle cruiser forces grew up side by side. They clashed in their own private battle as a prelude to the contact of the main bodies at Jutland.

The years from 1907 to 1914 witnessed an intensified competition not only in terms of ever increasing numbers of battleships but also in terms of individual strength. Ever greater guns, heavier armor, and more powerful engines were built year by year into ever larger hulls.

At the very center, the driving force of this mad armament race, stood Jackie Fisher, "restless, relentless, remorseless," as he himself boasted, towering, omniscient, commanding, prophet and advocate of the "bigger and better" school of naval thought.

Let us look for a moment behind the scenes where sober men were counting the costs. To get the 25-knot speed in the Queen Elizabeth class it was necessary to shift from coal to oil fuel. Without a qualm Fisher went in for oil, though it meant casting aside on the very eve of war a self-sufficiency in fuel that had been to England's coal-burning fleets what the Royal Forests had been to the wooden ships of the eighteenth century. To protect its own oil imports an oil-burning fleet was forced to undertake even greater strategic tasks. These increased tasks themselves called for an increase in fleet strength. It was a vicious circle, broken curiously enough by our own re-enforcement of the Grand Fleet with a division of coal-burning battleships. In the pre-war years technique had completely captured the naval mind. Technique called the pace in the battle of building. Technique swept aside reasonableness, and swept man forward to an unseen journey's end. Thus naval technique itself became a contributory factor to that politico-economic struggle for European dominance which broke in a surf of blood along the Belgian frontier in August, 1914. Man had been caught in the relentless cogs of his own machines.

And what came of it all? What was the outcome of this pre-war battle of the shipyards? Something approaching a naval stalemate, great fleets, so costly that statesmen hesitated to order and admirals hesitated to take them into battle. The battleships had become great castles of sea strength withdrawn from danger until at last Scheer led the German High Seas Fleet to Jutland in order to vindicate the navy before the nation and to force hesitant statesmen to accept a renewal of the submarine campaign. Surely there is a contrast here to the days when Blake hounded the Dutch with every available British battleship and Nelson went into action with one signal always at his yardarm, "Engage the enemy more closely."

The extended battle lines of the Great War were destined to disappear in the general demobilization that followed the Versailles Treaty; 1922 was a significant date in that almost forgotten post-war period of "the great repentance." Statesmen, and even men on the street, were wondering what to do with the great fleets, built and still building, which were obviously part and parcel of the then ended period of a world in arms. What was more logical than to reduce them proportionately, leaving the relative strength of the naval nations unaltered?

So it was done. With a stroke of the pen, the Washington Conference shortened long lines of battleships, in terms of which the naval nations had learned to count their strength. A mere 18 units were left in the greatest fleets, a mere 10 in the fleet of Japan.

The Washington Treaty was an event as important in naval history as the defeat of the Armada by the broadside cannon, as important as the publication of Clerk's Naval Tactics, as important as the introduction of steam and armor in the mid-nineteenth century. It marked the end of an age, the age of naval competition in terms of ever lengthening battle lines of ever mightier ships. In 1922 men were suddenly forced to abandon the easiest method of preparedness for war, that is, the creation of naval material, and to take up the more difficult method, a study of the use of the material instrument already created.

What do we know about the use of the fleets of today and of the battleships which still form their central bastions? It is difficult to generalize. Tactics, the use of ships in battle, will depend to a large extent on strategy, that is, the kind of campaign of which those battles are but incidents. A quick thrust by fast Italian 8-inch cruisers, with battleships in distant support, against some French Mediterranean convoy is a far different operation from the slow and ponderous advance of the United States Fleet from San Pedro to Manila. In fact, in all our studies there is a certain artificiality. Even though we play out the strategic aspects of a hypothetical campaign, we must presuppose the policy which dictates that campaign. And no presupposition, it might well be added, so creaks at the knees with political artificiality as that which imagines a British fleet appearing with hostile intent in the waters of the Western Hemisphere.

But let us suppose, and the supposition takes much for granted, that an American fleet is cruising in the vicinity of an enemy fleet of nearly equal strength. Let us further suppose that both fleets desire a decisive battle. Let us in effect imagine that we have stumbled into that situation for which the eighteenth century British wardrooms fervently prayed when they drank the age-old toast, "a willing enemy and sea room."

The visibility is good. There is sufficient daylight for a battle. From the forces in the contacted sector come reports of scattered fighting. Advance light forces press forward to develop the contact. Planes are sent up from the carriers. A confused air and cruiser battle develops.

Then from the flagship coding board comes a signal blank hastily scribbled in pencil, "Enemy Battleships."

To the commander in chief that signal means one thing. It is der Tag, the day for which his fleet was built, the day for which it has trained, the day of its final justification, the day of the naval battle.

Enemy battleships are present. If unengaged by our own battleships they can and will eventually destroy whatever light forces venture within their range. They must be brought under the fire of their equals.

But how? By deployment, that is by forming our battleships in something approximating a column, steaming on a course somewhat parallel to their enemies, and pounding them with all major guns.

What dictates the course chosen? The enemy's deployment perhaps. Or perhaps our own desire to place ourselves athwart his line of retreat, a consideration which governed Jellicoe's deployment at Jutland. Perhaps we will so deploy as to gain wind and sun advantage, perhaps so as to lead the battle toward our lurking submarines.

Perhaps a combination of these factors will dictate this, our entering move upon the chessboard of battle. The moment of choice will be big with drama for that one man who must decide. His decision will be a "hunch," an act of faith. It will be the quick judgment of practiced eye and subtle brain. It will be the brave resolve of an admiral who feels that victory beckons along a certain course. It will be the kind of choice which a practiced broker makes on the confused trading floor with a fortune at stake, where a hundred voices clamor and a hundred quotations beckon and yet there seems to him one and only one market position to take and to play out to the very end.

The deployment has been chosen. The battleships have formed, not so much in a continuous regular column, each in the wake of her next ahead, but in little divisional columns, staggered yet so elongated as to avoid double banking. They are under full speed now. Shell splashes leap high along the line of weaving columns. The commander of the battleships is engaged.

How can he convert what starts as an equal cannonade of give and take into a decisive victory? How can he deliver more damage than he receives?

By choosing his range, if indeed he be free to choose it. But to open or to close to an advantageous range band presupposes a very considerable speed differential. With lines of nearly equal speed only a lucky break will give ability to choose the range. A plunging salvo perhaps. Perhaps a torpedo hit on a propeller. It is he who can play the breaks who will win.

Considerable advantage may be gained by maneuvering so that the enemy shoots into the sun. But here too we suppose that our battleships have or somehow can gain the advantageous position.

There was a time when raking fire ruled the field of naval battle. If one reviews the frigate actions of the War of 1812, he will find that they were won by a superiority of maneuver which brought our broadsides to bear upon an enemy's bow or stern, swept his decks, carried away his masts, and left him dead in the water and helpless against an intensification of raking fire to which he could not reply.

Enfilade also dominated the series of group battles after the initial breaks-through at Trafalgar.

It was individual ship maneuver [writes Baudry in The Naval Battle] that brought the British…to within pistol shot of their enemies' sterns…It was maneuver…that allowed those smashing enfilade salvos which echo like a tragic leit motiv through the French reports and ringthrough the English like a peel of bells with the joyous refrain, "She raked, they raked."

We have today no possible tactics in battleship fighting similar to the old coup de grace of the enfilade salvo. The raking of an individual ship by an enemy athwart her hawse belongs to the romance of the past for the simple reason that ranges are today counted in thousands, not in mere hundreds of yards.

Nor can we hope for more than temporary advantage from the fleet enfilade, the "crossing of the T," that maneuver which gave victory to Togo at Tsushima. Today's battle lines are shorter than those of 1905. Battle ranges are far greater. No longer can we look for even that seeming advantage which Jellicoe had when his deployment capped the Germans at Jutland. Scheer taught us the turn-away, 180 degrees by ships. The battleship is no longer bound to the line. We have passed from the old era of column fighting. We have entered the age of far-flung battle forces. In this new and vaster tactical picture, the little center of heavy battleship forts has become a kind of mobile big-gun supporting group.

The distribution of our own fire and the angle at which we choose to receive the enemy's are tactical factors which we can exploit almost at will.

If we are superior in numbers we do not shoot ship against ship. And even if our battleships are equal in numbers to the enemy's, we can, if we wish, put two ships on one. Our artificial concentration will of course be at the cost of a counter concentration from the enemy's ships which we thus release from the full fire of at least one battleship. What advantage lies here? The advantage of jumping the damage, of playing for a break, the advantage of the first telling blow to the chin for which the boxer may well accept the risk of temporarily dropping his guard. For with the battleship, as with the heavyweight, once the battleship starts slowing down, it is then that her enemy can press his advantage to the final knockout.

If, while we exploit the offensive power of our heavy guns by slamming salvos squarely onto the enemy's armor, we can at the same time take his salvos glancing, ours will soon be the break that leads to victory. But how accomplish this? By loosening the battleship formation. Here perhaps lies the greatest advance made since the war in battleship tactics. Here perhaps is the modern solution of the age-old problem, how to use the principal instrument of sea fighting, not in sterile and equal combat, but in smashing and decisive victory.

Jellicoe's long line parted from the Germans at Jutland much as Byng parted from the French off Minorca. In both cases the tactical rigidity of the day denied to an inherently superior fleet the exploitation of its superiority. At Jutland something of the old eighteenth century faltering had settled its deadening grip on the costly ships that were the very symbols of modern technique. Perhaps by loosening the line within the limits of mutual support, just as Clerk advised it be loosened and as Nelson broke it up at Trafalgar, we may find again the magic "Nelson touch." Perhaps success may again lie along the path of abandoning the nicely formed column and replacing it by a weaving group of battleship forts which will form the hard-hitting, close-guarded bastion in the 12-mile crescent of tomorrow's Trafalgar.

Such has been the story of the battleship from the days of the oar-driven galley through the failures and the triumphs of sail down to the battle lines of the last war, representing as they did the very brain and sweat of modern industrial civilization. Throughout the centuries, ships and weapons have been as strong or as weak as the officers who commanded them.

Standing as we do on the threshold of an era of renewed competition in battleship building, it would be well to remember that there is nothing in the past to show that either numbers or individual ship strength can set us on the royal road to easy victory. Lest the future bring merely an intensification of that exclusively technical enthusiasm which created the battle lines of 1914 with no clear conception as to their use, let us recall that the golden age of naval history was not so much the age of great fleets as the age of great fleet commanders. Nelson was content with that "splendid type, the…middling 74." Fighter and seaman, he spent his ships as a gallant industrialist lays out his capital rather than telling it over as a miser tells his hoard. Napoleon, genius for war ashore, bungler at sea, sought the easy solution of increased numbers and increased armament, "viewing naval affairs through the distorting prism of pure arithmetic." He failed, for there was no one to use the fleet he created.

Doubtless the commander must be given an instrument adequate to his task, but never has adequacy meant that impossible preponderance of which the technicians arewont to dream. War in its highest sense is an art, not a science. The sea officer must use the tools which science creates. Of these the most powerful and the most fully known is the battleship. Yet even she will prove but a dull weapon unless he uses her with the artist's touch.


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