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The Battleships of D-Day

The 14″ Guns of USS Nevada in action at Normandy

On June 6th 1944 Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. Six American, British and Canadian Infantry Divisions, three Airborne Divisions and numerous supporting units came ashore in landing craft or were airdropped into Normandy. Backing them was an immense Naval Task Force which provided naval gunfire support, screened the force from German U-Boat or surface naval forces and transported the massive ground force.  It was an amazing armada.

HMS Rodney bombarding German positions off Caen

It was an armada that also is forgotten by many who read about Normandy or whose only exposure to the landings are films such as Saving Private Ryan. Today I think it is fitting to remember Battleships that served at Normandy, USS Arkansas, USS Texas, USS Nevada, HMS Warspite, HMS Ramillies and HMS Rodney.

USS Arkansas off Omaha Beach

The naval gunfire support force included Battleships, Cruisers and Destroyers as well as specialized gunfire support ships.  The largest and most powerful ships were the six American and British Battleships.  These ships were important in providing the heavy firepower needed to destroy the strongest fortifications and shore batteries and to fire at targets far beyond the shoreline that were vital for German reinforcements.

However the ships involved were not the modern behemoths which were built in the 1930s and since the beginning of the war but rather among the oldest ships still active in either the United States or the British Royal Navy. At one time they had all been the hearts for their navies but now old, slow and with less than modern armament and fire control systems they were regulated to supporting amphibious forces or escorting convoys.

USS Arkansas BB-33

The oldest of these venerable ships was the USS Arkansas BB-33 which was commissioned in 1912. A Wyoming Class Battleship she mounted twelve 12” guns in six twin turrets, two forward, two aft and two midships. She displaced just over 27,000 tons. She had spent most of the war escorting convoys in the Atlantic before being assigned to the Normandy landings. She stood off Omaha Beach dueling with German shore batteries and pounding the German troops who were making Omaha a living hell for the men of the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions.  She would continue her valuable service off of Normandy and would do the same in to support the landings in Southern France before steaming to the Pacific where she would do the same at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

USS Texas BB-35

The USS Texas, BB-35 of the New York class had been in commission since 1914. She mounted ten 14” guns in 5 twin turrets, two forward, two aft and one midships and was slightly larger than the Arkansas.  More modern she was more extensively modernized between the wars than was Arkansas and was one of the first US ships to carry experimental radar sets.  She also conducted convoy operations but was used to bombard Vichy French troops and positions during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion  of North Africa.  At D-day she was in the western sector of Omaha and bombarded Point Du Hoc and cruised to within 3000 yards of the beach to clear the western exits of the beach near Vierville.  She remained in the area a number of days and would subsequently support the attack on Cherbourg, the invasion of South France and then serve in the Pacific at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

USS Nevada BB-36

The USS Nevada BB-36 was the first of a new class of battleships which set the basic pattern of US Battleship design through the ratification of the Washington Naval Treaty. Her main battery of ten 14” guns was mounted in four turrets, mounted fore and aft two triple and 2 twin turrets.  She was he powered by oil fired boilers as opposed to coal and   was designed with a longer cruising radius to meet the demands of War Plan Orange.  Nevada received major upgrades between the wars and on December 7th 1941 was moored on Battleship Row when Peal Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. The only Battleship to get underway during the attack Nevada was set upon by Japanese aircraft as she steamed toward the harbor entrance. Heavily damaged she was grounded off Hospital Point. She was re-floated and sailed to the United States where she was heavily modernized with a modern AA battery of twin 5” 38 caliber guns, and fire direction radars. She was modernized to the point that she no longer resembled the ship sunk at Pearl Harbor. After her repair and modernization she participated in the invasion of Attu Island and did convoy escort duty before reporting for the invasion of Normandy. Nevada supported the US 4th Infantry Division at Utah Beach and subsequently served with Texas and Arkansas in South France before going to the Pacific to support the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Had the war continued she would have been involved in the invasion of the Japanese Mainland.

HMS Warspite

The Royal Navy Battleships of D-Day were also elderly veterans. The eldest was the heroic HMS Warsipte commissioned in 1915 and a veteran of the Battle of Jutland and numerous actions during the Second World War including the slaughter of the German Destroyers at Narvik, the Battle of Cape Matapan and the invasion of Sicily and Italy.  The Queen Elizabeth Class Battleship mounted eight 15” guns in twin turrets and was extensively modernized between the wars. At Salerno Warspite was hit by three of the earliest guided missiles, the Fritz-X type launched by Luftwaffe Aircraft. She was heavily damaged and required major repairs before returning to service at Normandy. She supported British troops at Sword Beach and later Gold Beach. She again was heavily damaged by a magnetic mine and received temporary repairs to allow her to continue bombardment duties against German positions France and Belgium before being placed in reserve in January 1945.

HMS Ramillies

The HMS Ramillies was a Revenge Class Battleship commissioned in 1917. These ships were a compromise design that was smaller, slower and cheaper than the Queen Elizabeth Class but had the same main battery of eight 15” guns.  The compromises prevented them from receiving significant upgrades between the wars and limited their employment. Ramillies operated as a convoy escort and was also involved in action in  the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. She participated in the hunt for the German Pocket Battleship Graf Spee and shielded Convoy HX-106 from the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and later took part in the hunt for the Bismarck. However she but was not engaged against any of the German ships but her presence prevented Admiral Lutjens from risking Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to attack the convoy. She took part in the initial battle between the Royal Navy and the Italians at the Battle of Cape Spartivento getting off several salvos before her slow speed forced her out of the action. She was heavily damaged by a torpedo from a Japanese mini-submarine in Diego Suarez harbor during the invasion of Madagascar in May 1942. Following repairs and the addition of extra deck armor and modern anti-aircraft guns she returned to action at Normandy were she supported British troops ashore and drove off an attack by German Destroyers. She stayed in action firing over 1000 shells at Normandy before supporting the invasion of Southern France. Too slow to be of use in the Pacific she was placed in Reserve in January 1945.

HMS Rodney

The youngest of the Battlewagons at Normandy on June 6th was the HMS Rodney which was commissioned in 1927. She and her sister ship HMS Nelson were to be the first of the post WWI super battleships and was designed as a larger and more powerful ship. With the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty the ships were “cut down” and reduced in size and speed. Her armament made her one of the most powerful battleships of period but her engineering plant was not always reliable. Since she was relatively modern she did not receive any major refits before the war and apart from a repairs to her engines in Boston in 1941 (before the US entry into the war) and a brief refit in 1942 she received no further refits during the war. With the HMS King George V she helped sink the Bismarck and would escort convoys and participate in the Allied invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Salerno before being assigned to the Normandy invasion force attacking targets near Caen.  Her sister HMS Nelson was held in reserve and joined the battle on June 10th but she was not present on D-Day.

Warspite aground and Rodney being scrapped (below)

Despite their age and limitations all of these ships and their performed heroically during the war. The post war period was not as kind to the ships. Arkansas and Nevada were used in the Atomic Bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. Nevada survived and was expended as a target in 1948. All of the British ships were scrapped following the war due to their age, wear and damage incurred during the war. Warspite was being towed to the breakers when she broke a tow line and went aground. She ended up being partially scrapped in place.  Mementos of all these ships remain including a gun from Ramillies at the Imperial War Museum. The lone survivor was the USS Texas which became a museum ship and memorial at the San Jacinto battlefield in 1948. She is the last of the Dreadnought ships remaining. Other more modern US Battleships have been preserved but only Texas remains from those ships that at one time ruled the waves and pounded the Germans at Normandy.

The author aboard USS Texas in March 2011

The fire support provided by these proud ships and their consorts ensured the success of the Normandy landings. Without them it is very possible that the landings would not have succeeded and many more Allied soldiers would have died and the war extended.

To these great ships and all their heroic crews…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

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.

 

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