Friday, December 10, 2021

End of an Era

Some eighty years ago the Battleship Era ended in a flurry of bombs and torpedoes that sank the two capital ships of the Royal Navy's Force Z.

Yes, aircraft had been involved in sinking the most capital of capital ships prior to December 10, 1941. But the circumstances allowed battleship fans to temporize. 

An aerial torpedo ensured the doom of Bismarck, but the actual sinking occurred during a surface gun action. Battleships were sunk by aircraft at Taranto and Pearl Harbor, but those were surprise attacks on unsuspecting moored warships.

There was no gray area on December 10. Aircraft found and sank two of the Royal Navy's heavy units, one, Prince of Wales, one of the newest and most powerful British battleships extant.

The "moral" I've always been told that this story taught was that in the 90 minutes it took the air attack to sink both Prince of Wales and Repulse the battleship era ended and any naval organization that pursued heavy gunpower rather than carrier airpower was foolishly incompetent. 

What's kind of intriguing about one "counterfactual" is that Force Z had come within five miles of an IJN task force consisting of "six cruisers" - I've been unable to discover which six these were, but at least one was Chōkai (鳥海), a Takao-class heavy cruiser.

Neither task force was using radar effectively. The Japanese because IJN radar technology was crippled throughout the Second World War, the British because Prince of Wales' radar had gone down earlier in the mission, supposedly through overheating in the tropical heat and humidity.

(Worth noting that in this the PoW lived up to her reputation as a "hard-luck ship"...)

Let's assume that at least three or four of the other "six cruisers" out that night were also heavies. The Japanese heavy cruisers were beasts, especially heavily armed with the big 24-inch torpedoes, and the IJN trained extensively in night gun and torpedo action as the encounters off Guadalcanal the following year proved.

Let's suppose that the two task forces had, instead, bumped into each other in the night.

The British weight of metal would probably have torn the Japanese cruisers apart, but the IJN night fighting and torpedo tactics might well have either sunk or badly damaged the British capital ships to the point where their sinking by aircraft the following morning could be written off the same way that the battleship aficionados wrote off Bismarck, Taranto, and Pearl Harbor.

The "end of the battleship era" might now be attributed to the naval and naval air actions off the Philippines in 1944.

No real point here other than to consider how things we take for received wisdom often turn on small, nearly insignificant events, like the failure of the British radar the night of December 9/10.



  1. I think that's a very good point that applies in a lot of areas. In general, we tend to underappreciate the role of luck in shaping history.

    1. Supposedly Napoleon would ask of an officer recommended to him for promotion "Est il heureux?"; "Is he lucky?"

    2. The sentence that ends "but those were surprise attacks on unsuspecting moored;" should have ended with warships' Navy Commanders. One can be moored actually or figuratively, however, certain literary screeds have advanced the notion that very highly ranked Pol/Mil personages welcomed the exploding cigar on 12/07/41, successful interceptions of Japanese naval code transmissions notwithstanding. If you ain't in the four leaf clover in-crowd, life's a bitch, then you go glub-blub.

  2. PoW and Repulse ere a fast battleship and an imbalanced battlecruiser rather than battleships, but I'd like to repeat my old claim that the age of battleships ended much, much sooner than that, and aircraft had hardly any role in it.

    There was hardly anything that a battleship could do better than everything else before 1914, and they weren't outstandingly versatile either.

    This phenomenon of something being obsolete, but soldiering on for decades or generations, is quite common.
    Most area air defence SAMs were almost useless by the 1980's, and the utility of ATGMs with HEAT warheads has been dubious for almost 40 years. Battlefield rotary aviation and terrain following bombers have been devalued by look down/shoot down radars and missiles since the 1970's.
    Most surface warships (and also mine countermeasure vessels) fulfil hardly any role, as their jobs can better be done by land-based assets and they're unaffordable in the quantities required for convoying.
    Submarines don't appear to have countered low frequency active sonars yet, and face a future proliferation of multistatic versions thereof.
    Portable anti-tank weapons/munitions that can take on a MBT head-on have long become terribly heavy and all of them could be countered with current hard kill defences by a ready tank crew.