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The South Dakota Class Battleships: The Best of the Treaty Battleships

USS South Dakota Class Line Drawing

This is the fifth in a series of six 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 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 three covered the British Royal Navy King George V Classbattleships entitled British Bulwarks: The King George V Class Battleships Part Four  which was about the North Carolina Class is entitled The Next Generation: The North Carolina Class Battleships. 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.

As the world edged closer to war in the late 1930s the U.S. Navy followed up its decision to build the two ship North Carolina class battleships with additional fast battleships. Initially the General Board wanted two additional North Carolina’s but the Chief of Naval Operations William H. Standley wanted a different design.

USS South Dakota BB-57 in 1943

Design work started in 1937 and several designs were proposed in order to correct known deficiencies in the preceding North Carolina class to include protection and the latest type of steam turbines.  As in the North Carolina’s the Navy struggled to find the optimal balance between armament, protection and speed. In the end the Navy decided on a shorter hull form with greater beam which necessitated greater power to maintain a high speed. The armor protection was maximized by using an interior sloped belt of 12.2 inch armor with 7/8” STS plates behind the main belt which made the protection the equivalent to 17.3 inches of vertical armor. The Belt continued to the bottom of the ship though it was tapered with the belt narrowing to 1 inch to provide addition protection against plunging fire which struck deeper than the main belt. As an added feature to protect against torpedo hits a multi-layered four anti-torpedo bulkhead system was included, designed to absorb the impact of a hit from a 700 pounds of TNT.

In order to accommodate the machinery necessary to provide the desired speed of 27 knots on the shorter hull the machinery spaces were rearranged.  The new design placed the boilers directly alongside the turbines with the ship’s auxiliaries and evaporators also placed in the machinery rooms. Additional design changes made to save space included making the crew berthing areas smaller. This included that of officers as well as the senior officers and shrinking the size of the galley’s and the wardroom from those on the North Carolina’s. The resultant changes allowed the ships to achieve the 27 knot speed, improved protection and the same armament of the North Carolina’s within the 35,000 treaty limit.

Two ships of the design were approved and with the escalator clause invoked by the Navy two more ships were ordered all with the nine 16” gun armament of the North Carolina’s.  The leading ship of the class the South Dakota was designed as a fleet flagship and in order to accommodate this role two of the 5” 38 twin mounts were not installed leaving the ship with 16 of these guns as opposed to the 20 carried by the rest of the ships of the class. The final design was a class of ships capable of 27.5 knots with a range of 17,000 miles at 15 knots mounting nine 16” guns with excellent protection on the 35,000 tons and full load displacement of 44,519 tons.

The lead ship of the class the USS South Dakota BB-57 was laid down 5 July 1939 at New York Shipbuilding in Camden New Jersey, launched on 7 June 1941 and commissioned on 20 March 1942.  Following her commissioning and her shakedown cruise South Dakota was dispatched to the South Pacific. Soon after her arrival she struck a coral reef at Tonga which necessitated a return to Pearl Harbor for repairs.  When repairs were complete she was attached to TF 16 escorting the USS Enterprise CV-6 during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October 1942.  During the battle she was credited with shooting down 26 Japanese aircraft but was struck by a 500 lb bomb on her number one turret. She joined TF-64 paired with the battleship USS Washington during the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on14-15 November 1942. During the action South Dakota suffered a power outage and was hit by over 40 shells from Japanese ships which knocked out 3 fire control radars, her radio and main radar set. 3 destroyers were also lost but the Washington mortally wounded the fast battleship Kirishima and destroyer Ayanami which were scuttled the next day and damaged the heavy cruisers Atago and Takao. She returned to New York for repairs which completed in February 1943 and joined the carrier USS Ranger CV-4 for operations in the Atlantic until April when she was attached to the British Home Fleet. She sailed for the Pacific in August 1943 and rejoined the Pacific Fleet in September and joined Battleship Divisions 8 and 9 and supported the invasion of Tarawa providing naval gunfire support to the Marines. The rest of the war was spent escorting carriers as well as conducting bombardment against Japanese shore installations. She was present at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay and returned to the United States in 1945 and was decommissioned and placed in reserve on 31 January 1947. She was stricken from the Naval Register on 1 June 1962 and sold for scrap in October of that year. Various artifacts of this gallant ship to include a propeller, a 16” gun and the mainmast are part of the USS South Dakota Memorial Park in Sioux Falls South Dakota and 6,000 tons of armored plate were returned to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission for use in civilian nuclear programs and a second screw is displaced outside the U.S. Naval Museum in Washington D.C.  She received 13 battle stars for World War II service.  South Dakota had the dubious distinction of having the youngest sailor of the war 12 year old Calvin Graham who confessed lying about his age to the Gunnery Officer Sergeant Schriver. Graham was court-martialed and given a dishonorable discharge spending 3 months in the ship’s brig before he was able to be returned to the United States where just after his 13th birthday he entered 7th grade.

USS Indiana BB-58 Bombarding Japan in 1945

The second ship of the class the USS Indiana BB-58 was laid down at Newport News Naval Shipyard on 20 November 1939 launched on 21 November 1941 and commissioned on 30 April 1942.  She served throughout the Pacific War by serving with the fast battleships of Vice Admiral Willis Lee’s TF-34, escorting carriers during major battles such that the Battle of the Philippine Sea or as it is better known the Marianas Turkey Shoot. She returned to the United States for overhaul and missed the Battle of Leyte Gulf but served at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and operations against the Japanese home islands.  Following the war she was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap in September 1963.   A number of her relics are preserved at various locations in Indiana and her prow is located in Berkeley California.

USS Massachusetts BB-59 in January 1946 in the Puget Sound

The third ship of the class the USS Massachusetts BB-59 was laid down on 20 July 1939 at Bethlehem Steel Corporation Fore River Yard in Salem Massachusetts and launched on 23 September 1941 and commissioned on 12 May 1942. After her shakedown cruise she was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet where she took part in Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa. During the operation she engaged French shore batteries, damaged the battleship Jean Bart and sank 2 cargo ships and along with the heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa sank the destroyers Fougueux and Boulonnais and the light cruiser Primauguet. Following her assignment in the Atlantic she sailed for the Pacific where she began operations in January 1944. She took part in almost every major operation conducted by the Pacific Fleet escorting the Fast Carrier Task Forces and operating as a unit of TF-34 the Fast Battleship Task force including the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  She ended the war conducting operations against the Japanese home islands.  She was decommissioned in 1947 and stricken from the Naval Register on 1 June 1962. She was saved from the fate of Indiana and South Dakota as the people of Massachusetts with the assistance of schoolchildren who donated $50,000 for her renovation and preservation as a memorial. She became that in 1965 at Battleship Cove in Fall River Massachusetts and she remains there designated as a National Historic Landmark.  During the naval build up of the 1980s much equipment common to all modern battleships was removed for use in the recommissioned battleships of the Iowa class.

USS South Dakota at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands


The final ship of the class the USS Alabama BB-60 was on 1 February 1940 at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. She was launched on 21 February 1942 and commissioned 16 August 1942. Following her shakedown cruise and initial training off the Atlantic coast she joined the repaired South Dakota and operated as part of TF 22 attached to the British Home Fleet. She conducted convoy escort operations, participated in the reinforcement of Spitsbergen and in an operation which attempted to coax the German battleship Tirpitz out of her haven in Norway. Tirpitz did not take the bait and Alabama and South Dakota returned to the United States in August 1943.  After training with the fast carriers she took part in the invasion of the Gilberts taking part in Operation Galvanic against Tarawa and the Army landings on Makin Island. As 1944 began Alabama continued her operations with the fast carriers and the fast battleships of TF-34.  She took part in operations against the Marshalls and took part in the invasion of the Marianas Islands and the Marianas Turkey Shoot. From there she supported the invasion of Palau and other islands in the Caroline Islands followed by operations against New Guinea and the invasion of the Philippine and the Battle of Leyte Gulf before returning to the United States for overhaul. She returned to action during the invasion of Okinawa and in shore bombardment operations against the Japanese Mainland. When the war ended the Alabama had suffered no combat deaths and only 5 wounded following the misfire of one of her own 5” guns earning her the nickname of “Lucky A.”  Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller served as a Chief Petty Officer and gun mount captain on Alabama during the war. She was decommissioned on 9 January 1947 and stricken from the Naval Register on 1 June 1962. The people of the State of Alabama formed the “Alabama Battleship Commission” and raised $1,000,000 including over $100,000 by schoolchildren to bring her to Alabama as a memorial.  She was turned over to the state in 1964 and opened as a museum on 9 January 1965. She was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986.  She has been used as a set in several movies and continues to serve as a museum preserving the legacy of the men that served aboard her and all of the battleship sailors of World War II.

In the 1950s a number of proposals were considered to modernize the ships of the class to increase their speed to 31 knots using improved steam turbines or gas turbines. The Navy determined that to do this would require changes to the hull form of the ships making the cost too prohibitive.  The ships were certainly the best of the treaty type battleships produced by any nation in the Second World War. The damage sustained by South Dakota at the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal would have not only put most battleships of her era out of action but might have caused enough damage to sink them. Their armament was equal or superior to all that except the Japanese Yamato Class and their protection was superior to most ships of their era.

It is good that both the Massachusetts and the Alabama have been preserved as memorials to the ships of the class, their sailors and the United States Navy in the Second World War. Because of the efforts of the people of Massachusetts and Alabama millions of people have been able to see these magnificent ships and remember their fine crews. Both have hosted reunions of their ships companies since becoming museum ships and with the World War Two generation passing away in greater numbers every day soon these ships as well as the USS Texas, USS North Carolina, USS Missouri, USS New Jersey and USS Wisconsin will be all that is left to remember them unless a home can be found for the USS Iowa which stricken from the Naval Register awaits an uncertain fate as a resident of the “Ghost Fleet” in Suisun Bay California.  No other nation preserved any other dreadnought or treaty battleship thus only these ships remain from the era of the Dreadnought.

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French Firepower Forward: The unrealized potential of the Dunkerque and Richelieu Class Battleships

Richelieu in the 1950s

This is the second 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 covered the Italian Vittorio Veneto class entitled The Pride of the Regina Marina: The Vittorio Veneto Class Battleships. This article covers the French Dunkerque class and Richelieu class Battleships. Part Three will deal with 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.

Dunkerque 1937

In the late 1920s the French Navy having concentrated on cruiser construction following the war realized the need to develop a class of Fast Battleships to counter the German Deutschland class Pocket Battleships but was limited by the Washington Treaty to just 70,000 tons which meant that in order to have a number of battleships that they would have to be smaller but still mount a significant armament. The new class of ship which the French termed a Fast Battleship was more like a battle cruiser being less heavily armed or armored than current battleships and less so than the new classes of ships being developed by other navies in the mid-1930s.  The Dunkerque class had a designed displacement of 26,500 tons and a top speed of 31 knots the ships mounted 8 13” guns in two quadruple turrets both mounted forward. This allowed all guns to fire forward during engagements to present the smallest possible silhouette to the enemy.  They employed all or nothing armor protection ensuring the strongest protection over vital spaces with their armor designed to protect the ships against German 11” gunfire from the Pocket Battleships or the Scharnhorst Class Battlecruisers. They also mounted a powerful dual purpose armament recognizing the need for defense against aircraft as well as surface ships.

Dunkerque Class:


Dunkerque was laid down on 24 December 1932, launched on 2 October 1935 and commissioned on 1 May 1937. Her sister Strasbourg followed and was laid down in 1934 and launched on 12 December 1936 and commissioned in 1939. When war was declared the two ships spent their time operating with the Royal Navy searching for German raiders and to escort convoys.

Strasbourg

When the Germans overran France in June 1940 the ships took refuge at Mers-el-Kibir where with other French Fleet units they were the target of the Royal Navy to keep them from being taken over by the Germans on 3 July 1940. Dunkerque was heavily damaged in the attack and sank with the loss of 210 sailors after being hit by 4 15” shells from the Battlecruiser HMS Hood and Battleships HMS Resolution and HMS Valiant a testament to their light armor protection.  Strasbourg escaped to Toulon with 5 destroyers where she joined the bulk of the French Fleet in the so called “Free Zone” of Vichy France. She was joined by Dunkerque following the completion of temporary repairs in February 1942.

Dunkerque entered drydock for permanent repairs and was there when the Germans occupied Vichy. Under threat of capture the Fleet was scuttled. Dunkerque was destroyed in drydock and declared a total loss. Both the Germans and Italians attempted scrapping operations and the wreck was further damaged by Allied bomber attacks.

The Hulk of the Dunkerque in1944

What was left of the hulk was refloated and finally scrapped in 1958. Strasbourg was scuttled but refloated by the Italian Navy in July 1943 and after the Italian surrender taken over by the Germans. Sunk again in an American air attack in August 1944 she was refloated and used as a test bed for underwater explosions until she was condemned.  She was sold for scrapping in 1955.

Richelieu Class


The Richelieu class was derived from the Dunkerque class in response to the Italian Vittorio Veneto Class.  With a standard displacement of 35,000 tons and a full load displacement of 48,950 tons the ships were the largest build for the French Navy until the commissioning of the Nuclear Aircraft Carrier Charles DeGaulle.  The ships shared the layout of the Dunkerque Class with their main battery of 8 15” guns mounted in quadruple turrets forward which like the Dunkerque’s allowed them to present the smallest silhouette possible to an opposing ship while being able to employ their entire main battery.   Their speed, protection and design were state of the art and comparable to their contemporaries in other navies.  They were capable of 32 knots at full speed and had a cruising range of 7671 miles at 20 knots.  The main battery was spaced far enough apart to ensure that a single hit could not put both turrets out of action and each turret was internally subdivided to prevent a single hit from knocking out all four guns. The mounted 9 6” dual purpose guns in three triple turrets aft and 24 4” AA guns in 12 twin-mounts located amidships.  During the war Richelieu was repaired and refitted in the US receiving 56 40mm Bofors AA guns in quadruple mounts and 48 20mm Oerlikon AA guns in place of her original 37mm cannons and 13.2 inch machine guns.

Richelieu arrives in New York in 1943

Richelieu was laid down in October 1935, launched in January 1939 and began sea trials in January 1940. When the Germans broke through the French defenses and threatened Brest Richelieu put to sea to French North Africa and was commissioned in June at Dakar. She was damaged by an aerial torpedo launched by a Swordfish Torpedo bomber from the HMS Hermes and received emergency repairs in Dakar. On 24 September she fought an engagement against the Royal Navy at the Battle of Dakar and was damaged by two 15” shells fired by the HMS Barham and was further damaged by a misfire in one of her turrets. Following the French return to the Allied camp she was sailed to New York for major repairs and modernization from January to November of 1943. Following this she operated with the British Home Fleet until March of 1944 when she was sent to the India Ocean to serve with the British Far East Fleet in operations against the Japanese until the end of the war. Following the war she took part in the initial stages of the campaign in French Indochina. She was placed in reserve in 1956 and struck from the Navy list and scrapped in 1968.

The Damaged Jean Bart at Casablanca

Her sister Jean Bart was laid down in December 1936 and launched on 6 March 1940.  Only 75% complete with untested engines and only one of her main battery turrets and no secondary armament installed Jean Bart put to sea to escape the German advance and sailed to Casablanca.  The navy attempted to ship her second main battery turret on a freighter but that ship was sunk by a U-boat enroute to Casablanca. She was at Casablanca when the Allies invaded North Africa and was attacked by the U.S. Navy when the Vichy government refused to surrender on 8 November 1942.  She was engaged by the Battleship USS Massachusetts and aircraft from the carrier USS Ranger and was damaged by several bombs and shells from the 16” guns of Massachusetts. She engaged Massachusetts with her one working turret but scored no hits. On the 10th she opened fire on the USS Augusta and was attacked again by aircraft from the Ranger which damaged her so that she had to be run aground to prevent her from sinking.  She remained in Dakar for the duration of the war as it was not feasible to sail her to the United States for completion. Following the war it was suggested that she be converted to an aircraft carrier but that was rejected and she was completed as a battleship and commissioned in 1949.  She took part in the Suez crisis of 1956, was decommissioned in 1957 and finally sold for struck in 1969 and sold for scrap in 1970.

Jean Bart in the 1950s

Both the Dunkerque and Richelieu class were ships of unrealized potential due to the French surrender and the deep divisions between the Vichy and Free French governments.  Had circumstances been different they might have played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic or in the Mediterranean during the war. Once wonders how they might have done in open combat with their Italian contemporaries or even the German Bismarck and Tirpitz. Instead they and their brave crews had to battle the Axis powers as well as former allies in circumstances in which all the cards were against them. One of Richelieu’s 15” guns is mounted on the waterfront at Brest as a memorial to these brave ships and the men that sailed them.

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