This is the first in a series of five articles on the battleships built under the provision of the Washington and London Naval Treaty limitations in the 1930s. I am not including the ships which were completed in the immediate aftermath of the Washington Treaty limitations. This series looks at the modern battleships that the World War II combatants would produce in the 1930s which saw service in the war. Part one covers the Italian Vittorio Veneto class, Part Two the French Dunkerque and Richelieu Classes, Part Three the British King George V Class and Part Four the American North Carolina and South Dakota Classes. I have already published the final part which covers the German Scharnhorst Class entitled Power and Beauty the Battle Cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau The German Bismarck, Japanese Yamato, British Vanguard and American Iowa Classes will be covered in a subsequent series.
Technically many of these ships were constructed after the expiration of the treaties but since most of the navies at least attempted to maintain a façade of compliance with them most were officially listed as complying with the treaty restrictions.
The Washington Treaty placed a limit on the displacement and armament of battleships. The London Treaty continued them which limited the displacement of new ships to 35,000 tons with the main battery being limited to 16” guns. Each of the treaty signatories as well as the Germans who had been bound by the much more stringent Treaty of Versailles restrictions endeavored to build to the limit of the treaty and if possible skirt the limitations in terms of displacement which allowed them to increase protection as well as more powerful engineering plants.
The Royal Italian Navy had not completed a battleship design since the Andria Doria Class which were constructed between 1912 and 1915 and modernized given an extensive modernization between 1937 and 1940. A subsequent class the Francesco Caracciolo class was started during the First World War but no ships of the class were completed.
In the 1930s a new naval arms race was underway in the Mediterranean as the French Navy had begun a new class of Fast Battleships, the Dunkerque class which were designed to defeat the German Deutschland class “pocket battleships” and the follow on Richelieu Class. Mussolini saw the new French ships as a threat to the control of the Mediterranean and ordered the construction of a new class of battleships to help Italy achieve naval dominance in the Mediterranean.
The new ships were of a breathtaking design, large, fast and heavily armed officially listed as meeting the prescribed treaty limit of 35,000 tons they actually would displace 41,177 tons standard displacement and 45,963 tons full load. Armed with a main battery of 9 15” guns in triple turrets and a secondary armament of 12 6” and 12 3.5” guns along with 20 37mm and 30 20mm anti-aircraft guns and capable of 29 knots in service and with a relatively short range of 3900 miles at 20 knots they were formidable ships for operations in the Mediterranean. They were well protected although their Pugliese torpedo defense system proved inferior to traditional designs.
Their main armament though formidable was not without its flaws. The 15” guns had a very long range of 42 km or 26.6 miles and high muzzle velocity of 2900 fps. The high muzzle velocity led to a barrel life of only about half that of their counterparts and inconsistent shell fall patterns. The guns also suffered from a slow rate of fire of only 1.3 rounds per gun a minute.
Vittorio Veneto in 1943
Vittorio Veneto: The Vittorio Veneto was laid down 1934 along with her sister the Littorio and was launched on 25 July 1937 and commissioned on 28 April 1940. She would see action numerous times and give a good account of herself against the British taking part in 56 war missions. She fought at the Battle of Cape Spartivento (Teulada) where she fired 19 salvos to drive off a 7 ship British cruiser squadron in a pitched battle that also included the battleship HMS Ramillies and battle cruiser HMS Renown. In 1941 she took part in the Battle of Cape Matapan where she was damaged by an aerial torpedo after driving off a British cruiser squadron. After repairs she was back in action and on 15 June 1942 participated in the Battle of Mid-June, where she and her sister ship Littorio successfully fenced off a large British convoy from Alexandria by their mere presence at sea. She was also the first Italian battleship equipped with radar. She surrendered with the Italian fleet to the Allies on 8 September 1943 surviving furious German air attacks. She was interred at the Great Bitter Lakes in the Suez Canal. After the war she taken as war compensation and was returned to Italy and scrapped beginning in 1948.
Littorio (later Italia): Littorio was laid down in 1934 and launched on 22 August 1937 and commissioned on 6 May 1940. She participated in 43 operations including the Battle of Sirte and several actions against British convoys. Following the Battle of Mid-June she was struck by an aerial torpedo dropped by a Wellington bomber. She was repaired and upon the removal of Mussolini from power was renamed Italia and surrendered with the Italian Fleet on 8 September 1943 being damaged by a Fritz-X radio controlled bomb. With her sister Vittorio Veneto she was interred in the Great Bitter Lake and was returned to Italy where she was decommissioned and scrapped beginning in 1948.
Roma: Roma was laid down 18 September 1938, launched on 9 June 1940 and commissioned 14 June 1942. Despite her addition to the fleet she was not deployed due to a fuel shortage. She sailed with the Italian Fleet to surrender on 8 June under the guise of the fleet sailing to attack the Allied invasion fleet off Salerno. The Germans discovering the ruse launched air attacks by Dornier Do-217s armed with Fritz-X radio controlled bombs attacked the fleet as it transited the Strait of Bonafacio.
Roma was hit by two of the missiles the first which flooded two boiler rooms and the aft engine room. She was hit soon after by a second Fritz-X which hit in the forward engine room causing catastrophic damage and igniting the number two turret magazine blowing the turret off the ship and causing the ship to capsize and break in two as she sank carrying 1255 of her crew including Admiral Carlo Bergamini to their death. Roma was the first ship sunk by a radio controlled bomb, the forerunner of our current air launched anti-ship missiles.
Impero: Impero was laid down but never completed and scrapped after the war.
The Vittorio Veneto class was a sound design and operationally successful against the Royal Navy and the brave sailors of the Regina Marina who manned these fine ships should not be forgotten.