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The King George V Class Battleships: The Imperfect yet Important British Bulwarks of WII

HMS King George V

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am still on my holiday from writing about the novel Coronavirus 19 and President Trump and his Administration’s incompetent response to it. It is a response that has already claimed 85,000 American lives. But, I won’t go any farther tonight on that. Instead I am going back to my series on the battleships designed and built by the British, French, Germans, Italians, and Americans from after the Battleship Holiday mandated by the Washington Naval Treaty, and the restrictions of the London Naval Treaty. The Germans were not signatories to these treaties as they were already under the much more severe provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, until the Hitler regime began to clandestinely violate it in 1934, and publicly in 1935. The British signed at bilateral naval accord with Germany in June of 1935, which the Germans renounced in 1938 in order to build a fleet of battleships that Hitler believed would allow him to achieve naval parity or superiority over the British.

This is the fourth 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 already in service or completed in the immediate aftermath of the Washington Treaty which required the British to scrap 23, the Americans 30, and Japanese 17 Battleships or Battlecruisers to comply with the treaty. Some were allowed to be converted to Aircraft Carriers, and some demilitarized to serve as training or target ships.

This series looks at the modern battleships built by the future World War II combatants between 1932 and 1939. This article covers the British Royal Navy King George V Class. The previous articles dealt with the German Scharnhorst Class, the Italian Vittorio Veneto Class, the American North Carolina Class, and the Frech Dunkerque and Richelieu Classes. The final article will be about the American South Dakota Class. The German Bismarck, Japanese Yamato, British Vanguard and American Iowa classes will be covered in a subsequent series.

Since there is much disagreement about which of the ships that I have written about I may try to do a comparison to determine which was the best of these classes in the categories, of armament, speed and range, armor protection, reliably, and performance in combat. One has to remember that these were the first battleships built by their respective navies since the First World War, each was built under the constraints imposed by the naval treaties, and their influenced by the developments of potential opponents and the changing world situation. In some cases sacrifices were made on each design due to expediency and the need to get them to the fleet.

HMS King George V in 1941

The last class of Royal Navy Battleships was the Nelson Class of two ships, HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney. They were a compromise design based on N3 Class of battleships which had to be cancelled due to the Washington Treaty. The Nelson’s have been described as a “chopped off” N3 which used the 16” guns of the also cancelled G3 Battlecruisers. The design sacrificed speed for protection and firepower. Their protection was good, as was their armament, but their propulsion plants were a constant source of trouble. By the late 1920s the Royal Navy’s battle force was comprised of the two Nelson’s, the fast Battlecruisers Hood, Renown and Repulse and the 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 these plans were shelved with the signing of the London Naval Treaty which continued the “building holiday” on capital ship construction as well as the size and armament of capital ships until 1937.  Because of the pacifist movement of the 1920, the Great Depression, and the desire of the British government to abide by international treaties in spite of the violations of those treaties, nothing was done until 1937.

With the realization that its battle force was dated, and the knowledge that other nations had 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. Early designs emphasized ships with heavy firepower and protection at the expense of speed, like the American Colorado Class, the cancelled South Dakota Class, and early designs for new battleships of similar design by the U.S. Navy in the early 1930s.

Numerous Designs were proposed. Eventually the new class of battleships were designed to achieve a 28 knot speed which made them faster than all existing 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, and the Admiralty estimated that a move to arm the ships with 15” or 16” guns could delay the completion of the ships by a year or more.

during the second London Treaty of 1935, the Americans and French agreed to the limit their size and armament of their ships, however neither the Japanese nor Italians followed suite, and as a result all new battleships of other powers had larger guns than the King George V Class. The Italians opting for 15” Guns on the Vittorio Veneto Class, the French and Americans invoking the escalator clause of the treaty. The French opted to arm the Richelieu Class with 15” guns, while the Americans chose to arm the North Carolina, South Dakota and the Iowa Classes with 16” guns. The Japanese Opted for 18” guns for their Yamato Class, which also displaced nearly twice as much as the treaty allowed. The Germans who were not a signatory built their Scharnhorst Class with 11” Guns although, those were an expedient as they were planned to be armed with 15” guns. The Germans also equipped 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. They wanted to mount twelve 14” guns mounted in Three quadruple turrets, but this was impossible on the 35,000 platform without compromising protection, speed, or stability.  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. This increased to 44,460 tons by  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 compromise in displacement also limited the amount of fuel they could carry.

The main batteries of the ships proved problematic in combat. The quadruple turret design caused most of 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 same 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 at the Battle of North Cape, but even in that engagement the main battery of Duke of York was only able to be in action 70% of the time due to the guns  jamming, or being inoperablere for various periods of time.  One of the other drawbacks of the design was that in order to replace a gun due to wear and tear, that the turret itself had to be dismantled in order to remove and replace the guns. Most other navies had planned for the replacement of guns without such such massive work.

The main secondary armament of 5.25” dual purpose guns in twin mounts suffered from poor rate of fire and slow traverse, both of which were well below their designed standards, and definitely inferior to the American 5” 38 dual purpose twin mounts and their Mark 38 fire direction radar.

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, and might have been the best of the ships built in there era. 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. Initially it was thought that she was hit by 6 aerial torpedoes and two 500 pound bombs. Her main armor and underwater anti-Torpedo defenses around her fully armored casemate would have protected her from major damage, but only one of the torpedoes hit that belt. However three torpedoes hit her in areas without such protection, forward and aft of the casemate. 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. No matter how well protected, no ship is completely proof against the damage of bombs, torpedoes, or now missiles.

HMS Anson conducting gunnery exercises

The propulsion systems of the class developed problems after 1942 when fuel oil quality was decreased because of the need for aviation gas.  The new mixtures which were of  higher viscosity and contained more water than the boilers could effectively bur. This 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, and which should be used on the later HMS Vanguard. 

The lead ship of the class the King George V was laid down on 1 January 1937, and  launched on 21 February 1939. She was commissioned on 11 December 1940.  As the flagship of the Home Fleet she took part in the unsuccessful search for the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau during their early 1941 convoy raiding operation. Later during the hunt for the Battleship  Bismarck in May 1941 during which she earned lasting fame in helping to sink that ship, despite failures in her main battery which silenced half or her main guns.

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 of the class 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 Bismarck’ aircraft catapult and a third disabled an electric dynamo. During the engagement she took heavy damage, and suffered malfunctions to her main battery, and withdrew from the action. The question still remains to this day why Admiral Lütjens aboard Bismarck did not decided to finish Prince of Wales off and sailed back the way she came after destroying two of the Royal Navy’s most powerful ships. Repaired and returned to service she could have sailed with her sister ship Tirpitz, maybe in a coordinated operation with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau that could have cost the Royal Navy much more in power and prestige.

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

Following her badly needed repairs. Prince of Wales carried Winston Churchill to the Argentia Bay, Newfoundland, where in secret he met with Franklin D. Roosevelt and together drafted the Atlantic Charter. In late 1941 she accompanied the HMS Repulse to Singapore to bolster the British presence in the Far East. Under the command of Admiral Tom Phillips the ships sailed to attack Japanese invasion convoys, 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. Repulse was also sunk in the engagement. Their sortie was doomed by an admiral who did not understand the importance of air power, and who had left the carrier sent to assist them, HMS Hermès behind. Poor communication between the land based fighters, Royal Austrian Air Force Brewster Buffaloes which would have been outnumbered and outclassed by Japanese aircraft and the task force destroyed nonetheless.

Prince of Wales sinking and being abandoned

The third ship the Duke of York was laid down 5 May 1937, and launched on 28 February 1940. She was commissioned 4 November 1941. She provided convoy escort for the Lend Lease convoys to the Soviet Union. On December 25th 1943 she and her accompanying cruisers and destroyers sank the  Scharnhorst on 26 December 1943 during the Battle of North Cape. Like King George V and Prince of Wales she also suffered from mechanical failures oof the guns of her main battery. She was transferred to the Pacific in 1944 and served at Okinawa.  She was present  at the Japanese surrender at Singapore. She was decommissioned in 1949 and scrapped in 1957.

Duke of York

The fourth ship of the class the HMS Howe was laid down on 1 June 1937, and launched on 9 April 1940. She was 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 and damaged by a Kamikaze in May 1945. 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, and launched 24 February 1940. She was 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 1951 and scrapped in 1957.

HMS Anson

For the most part the ships of the King George V Class 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, for only the USS Washington, and the heavily modernized battleships sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor, the USS West Virginia, USS California, and USS Tennessee sank enemy battleships in combat.

The King George V Class suffered serious design flaws, but in the case of their armored casemate and protection from enemy shellfire the were superior to most. Unfortunately, the true measure of their their success and design were never proven. Duke of York sank an overmatched and outnumbered Scharnhorst after her Admiral took too long to remove his ship from danger. Likewise, Prince of Wales was lucky to survive her encounter with Bismarck, and King George V, greatly assisted by HMS Rodney, and a host of cruisers and destroyers backed up by Force H sank Bismarck, which due to a torpedo hit from a Swordfish torpedo bomber from HMS Ark Royal was limited in speed and out of control.

It would have been interesting to see how they would have performed against the Vittorio Veneto Class, the Japanese Nagato, Kongo, or Yamato Class ships, or even the Scharnhorst or Bismarck in an undamaged state. I think they could have easily defeated the Kongo class, but Nagato, and Yamato would have been a different matter.

HMS Duke of York Being Scrapped 

Regardless, I think the King George V Class was a solid design, sadly limited by treaty limitations and the hopes of their government that potential enemies would do the same. Sadly, the Royal Navy even attempted to combine their heavy main battery armament and protection with guided missile and radar developments being made at the same time could have served as command ships of NATO task forces until the 1970s or 1980s. None were over 20 years old when they were sent to the breakers.

Their limitations notwithstanding, they performed excellently in the Second World War. It is sad that none survive today.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, nazi germany, World War II at Sea, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific