British Bulwarks: The King George V Class Battleships

HMS King George V

This is the third 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. This article covers the British Royal Navy King George V Class battleships. Part one covered the Italian Vittorio Veneto class entitled The Pride of the Regina Marina: The Vittorio Veneto Class Battleships. Part two French Firepower Forward: The unrealized potential of the Dunkerque and Richelieu Class Battleships covered the French Dunkerque class and Richelieu class Battleships. 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.

HMS King George V in 1941

In the wake of the First World War the major naval powers entered into an agreement restricting the construction of capital ships and limiting the numbers that treaty signatories were allowed to keep. As a result numerous ships were scrapped or disposed of and the majority of planned ships were either cancelled while building or never laid down. In some cases to comply with treaty restrictions ships such as the Royal Navy’s Nelson Class which was a compromise design which sacrificed speed for protection and firepower.  By the late 1920s the Royal Navy’s battle force was comprised of the Nelson’s, the fast Battlecruisers Hood, Renown and Repulse and 10 ships of the Queen Elizabeth and Revenge classes all designed before the First World War.

King George V Class Quad Turret being built

The Royal Navy began planning for a new class of battleships in 1928 but the plans were shelved with the signing of the London Naval Treaty which continued the “building holiday” on capital ship construction as well as size and armaments until 1937.  With the realization that its battle force was becoming dated as other nations laid down new classes of battleships the Royal Navy recommenced planning in 1935.  The Navy planned to build to the maximum of the 35,000 displacement limitation and placed a great measure of emphasis on armor and protection. The ships were designed to achieve a 28 knot speed which made them faster than all British battleships although slower than the Battlecruisers. The planners had alternative designs to use 14”, 15” or 16” guns with the Navy favoring the 15” models which had equipped all of their other ships with the exception of the Nelson’s. However the Admiralty to use 14” as the government was endeavoring to negotiate with other powers to impose a 14” limitation on armament for new battleships.  While the Americans and French agreed to the limit neither the Japanese nor Italians followed suit and as a result all new battleships of other powers had larger guns than the King George V Class ships with the French and Italians opting for 15”on the Vittorio Veneto Class, the Americans 16” on the North Carolina, South Dakota and Iowa Classes and the Japanese 18” guns for their Yamato Class. The Germans who were not a signatory built their Scharnhorst Class with 11” although they were planned as 15” ships and would equip the Bismarck Class with 15” guns.  The Royal Navy attempted to rectify this by placing more guns on the ships than those of other navies but the planned armament of twelve 14” guns mounted in quadruple turrets but this was impossible on the 35,000 platform without compromising protection or speed.  Thus the Admiralty compromised on 10 guns mounted in 2 quadruple and 1 twin turret.

ONI Drawing of King George Class

The ships displaced a full load displacement of 42,237 tons in 1942 which had increased to 44,460 tons in  1944. The were 745 feet long had a beam of 103 feet, a top speed of 28 knots with a cruising range of 5,400 nautical miles at 18 knots. Their relatively poor endurance limited their operations in the Pacific and even nearly caused King George V to have to abandon the chase of the Bismarck in May 1941.

The main batteries of the ships proved problematic in combat with the quadruple turret design causing all the ships problems. This was demonstrated in the engagement of the Prince of Wales against the Bismarck as well as the King George V in its duel with the German behemoth when A turret became disabled and completely out of action for 30 minutes and half of the main battery being out of action for most of the engagement for mechanical reasons.  The Duke of York achieved excellent results against the Scharnhorst but even in that engagement the main battery was only able to be in action 70% of the time.  One of the other drawbacks of the design was that in order to replace a gun due to wear that the turret itself had to be dismantled in order to remove and replace the guns.

The main secondary armament of 5.25” dual purpose guns in twin mounts suffered from poor rate of fire and slow traverse well below their designed standards.

The mounting of the armament was designed to provide protection against turret explosions which could potentially detonate the ship’s magazines.  The main side and underwater protection scheme was sound and protected the ships well in combat.  The vertical protection was also sound as was the protection afforded to the turret barbets and placement of the magazines to shield them from plunging fire.  Only the Prince of Wales was lost due to enemy action had later examination of her wreck revealed that the culprit was a torpedo which detonated in a propeller shaft outside of the armored belt which caused uncontrolled flooding when she was attacked by Japanese aircraft on 8 December 1941.

HMS Anson conducting gunnery exercises

The propulsion systems developed problems after 1942 when fuel oil quality was decreased because of the need for aviation gas.  The new mixtures which were higher viscosity and contained more water than the boilers could effectively burn increased maintenance costs and decreased efficiency. To compensate the Admiralty designed new higher pressure fuel sprayers and burners which returned the boilers to full efficiency.

The lead ship of the class the King George V was laid down on 1 January 1937, launched on 21 February 1939 and commissioned on 11 December 1940.  As the flagship of the Home Fleet she took part in the unsuccessful search for the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and in the hunt for the Bismarck in which she earned lasting fame in helping to sink that ship.  She took part in the Murmansk convoy protection as well as Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily before sailing to the Far East for operations against the Japanese. She finished the war with the British Pacific Fleet and was present at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.  She returned as flagship of Home Fleet until she was decommissioned in 1949. She was subsequently sold for scrap in 1957.

Prince of Wales pulling into Singapore

The second ship the Prince of Wales laid down on 1 January 1937, launched on 3 May 1939 and commissioned 19 January 1941 although she was not officially completed until March 1941. Her initial operation came in May 1941 when she sailed with the HMS Hood to intercept the Bismarck. When she sailed she still had shipyard technicians aboard.  Damaged in the action she did score an important hit on Bismarck which cut a fuel line making her forward tanks inaccessible and causing her to make her run for Brest which she did not complete. Another hit damaged her aircraft catapult and a third an electric dynamo.

Church Service on Prince of Wales at Argentia Bay with Churchill and Roosevelt in attendance

Following repairs she carried Winston Churchill to the Argentia Bay Newfoundland where he met with Franklin D. Roosevelt and together drafted the Atlantic Charter. She accompanied the HMS Repulse to Singapore to bolster the British presence in the Far East but without air cover was sunk by Japanese aircraft which struck her with 4 torpedoes and a bomb, the key hit being a lucky hit on her propeller shaft which caused flooding that caused a loss of power to pumps and anti-aircraft defenses.

Prince of Wales sinking and being abandoned

The third ship the Duke of York was laid down 5 May 1937, launched on 28 February 1940 and commissioned 4 November 1941. She provided convoy escort for the Lend Lease convoys to the Soviet Union as well the sinking of the Scharnhorst on 26 December 1943 during the Battle of North Cape. She was transferred to the Pacific in 1944 and served at Okinawa.  She was decommissioned in 1949 and scrapped in 1957.

Duke of York

The fourth ship of the class the Howe was laid down on 1 June 1937, launched 9 April 1940 and commissioned on 29 August 1942.  She served with the Home Fleet and in the Mediterranean until she was transferred to the Pacific in August 1944. She was stuck by a Kamikaze in May 1945 and Howe was sent for refit at Durban South Africa. She was still in refit when the war ended. She returned home and was placed in reserve in 1950 and scrapped in 1958.

HMS Howe

The last of the class the Anson was laid down 20 July 1937, launched 24 February 1940 and commissioned on 22 June 1942. She operated in the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic and was sent to the Pacific in 1945 where she accepted the surrender of the Japanese Forces at Hong Kong. She returned to Britain and was decommissioned in 1941 and scrapped in 1957.

HMS Anson

The ships had rather unremarkable careers for the most part with the exception of the Prince of Wales and King George V in the hunt for the Bismarck and the Duke of York sinking the Scharnhorst. They had a number of technical problems which limited their operations in the war. However they and their brave crews deserve to be remembered as helping to hold the line against the Axis in the early years of the war and sank two of the four German Battleships lost during the war.  This alone was as remarkable achievement as of their contemporaries only the USS Washington sank an enemy battleship in combat.



Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

12 responses to “British Bulwarks: The King George V Class Battleships

  1. Pingback: The Next Generation: The North Carolina Class Battleships | Padresteve's World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate

  2. Pingback: The South Dakota Class Battleships: The Best of the Treaty Battleships | Padresteve's World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate

  3. Val

    The KGV’s were certainly underrated, but without doubt, the best treaty battleships.

    • padresteve

      I too think that they were under-rated but have to put them behind the South Dakota’s as the best of the Treaty Battleships.
      Padre Steve+

  4. Piet

    The Kgv’s where a contradiction in terms-the main reason for them being built with 14 inch guns in the first place was for quickness of manufacture when they swapped the b turret to a twin this put the ships completion back a total of 11 months it would have taken 12 months to have redesigned as 29 knot ships with 9 x 15 inch turrets?Churchill was dismayed at this fact complaining to the past Naval staff (when he was first lord in 1939) “Why did we not build capital ships to the max Gun Calibre allaowed at the time ie 16 inch the only reply that they could give was that the Appeasing government of Chamberlain in the build up to war would never have sanctioned the building of bigger ships at the time-Pitty we didnt have Churchill as first lord of the Admiralty in the Years building up to ww2 and a more realistic non peacenik Government of appeasment ,more akin to what we had before ww1 People like Fisher ,Beaty+Churchill would have resulted in the royal navy being better equiped.

  5. Sion Liscannor

    A technical point:
    Strictly speaking the KGVs were the only ‘Treaty Battleships’, as they were the only ships designed within the terms of the relevant Treaty that were finally completed in compliance to the original Treaty terms. The US government, which had originally designed two classes with a main battery of 14inch guns as allowed by the Treaty, exercised the ‘opt out’ clause in response to the choice of larger calibre guns by other navies.
    The RN already had an advanced design for a ship of 29 kts and 9×16 inch guns in 1937 (the ill-fated LION Class), and it was a design that was much closer to the Navy’s perceived requirements. The decision to stay with the 14 inch design was partly motivated by the rather naive political hope that it would curb an arms race, but it was also partly motivated by considerations of cost and by the need to spend available resources to best effect. The decision was justified in the light of events during the subsequent war. The Navy needed cruisers and carriers much more urgently than it needed battleships – and after having laid down the first ships of a planned class of six ‘Lions’ the Navy scrapped all of them while still on the stocks.

  6. jim

    Poorly written… + the KGV’s were not underrated… How can you look at the turret problems they had that reduced their broad side to such a point? If one of these ships had gotten into a slug fest with another BB the crew and ships would have paid dearly.

    • padresteve

      Sigh… Under powered, under armed, no match for anything but the Scharnhorst class or possibly the Italian BBs. Don’t get me wrong as I have a soft spot in my heart for them, you may disagree with my analysis but the article is not poorly written.

    • Jonathan HICKEY

      Jim like for example Denmark Strait (POW vs Bismarck) , Atlantic (KGV vs Bismarck) and Battle of the North Cape (DOY vs Scharnhorst)?

      The problem we have when writing about these ships is that because there’s so much interest in BB vs BB fights and the KGVs did more of that than any other class in WW2 – and because the British record everything in triplicate and keep it forever we therefore know every single fault and error that occurred in those battles magnified and repeated with every telling.

      We ‘know’ the guns were crap because POWs failed so much during the clash with Bismarck – this of course ignores the fact that she had not yet finished her work up. She was not finished and still had Vickers Engineers on board. One of her guns was incapable of being reloaded once fired under battle conditions and at least one turret was having problems traversing. Under peace time conditions she would not have been accepted by the navy until those problems had been fixed – but war time expediency and all that meant that she had to be sent.

      Yet she still mission killed Bismark ‘with her crap guns’ and survived.

      In the subsequent Clash between KGV and Bismarck the British Ship fired uninterrupted salvos for 30 mins before problems began to crop up. Which we can consider to be really bad – until that is we try to compare that performance with other battleships…..and we find we cannot because no other Modern Treaty Battleship fired such a sustained rate of fire in battle.
      And of course by that 30 min mark that errors in drill and failure started to creep in Bismarck was a wreck! Job done.

      Then we have DOY vs Scharnhorst at North cape.

      One serious failure when a shell toppled into a loading cradle – in an Arctic storm! Oh and DOY won that battle.

      Furthermore it is very difficult to find out how the other treaty BBs in fact any other BB outside of the RN performed in battle because so few actually got into a sustained clash with another BB and the only other real clash we have is 2nd Guadalcanal and Surigao Strait.

      In the first South Dakota was rendered deaf, dumb, blind, and impotent due to a single electrical fault and was badly shot up by ‘inferior IJN ships’ and only survived because of the Japanese Admirals incompetence in retiring from battle prematurely – yet we do not judge the Class and her half sisters by her one real surface action do we? I have been unable to find the reliability of either the Japanese or the USS Washington’s guns during this battle.

      In the 2nd battle the older US battleships (no modern Bbs involved) fired a handful of rounds relative to the KGV engagements on the older Japanese Battleships in a staggeringly one sided engagement. I have been unable to discover the reliability of the guns during this battle.

      The ‘Crap’ 14″ guns were capable of dealing serious damage to any of their peers in WW2 and proved it!

      The ‘underpowered engines’ were capable of being run at over 100% designed RPM for significant periods of time with no detrimental effects to machinary. These 28 knot ships were able to keep up with 30 knot ships when required!

      The KGVs were good enough for the job required of them built in time to be useful and served the UK well in WW2.

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