The Super Battleships That Never Were
In this essay I intend to compare the last battleship designs from the major powers. These are ships that, for whatever reason, (usually more pressing wartime programs) were designed and authorized, but never completed. The ships I propose to examine are the Montana class (U.S.), Lion class (UK), "H" class (Ger.) and Sovyetskiy Soyuz class (USSR).
Two out of five projected super battleships of one class were completed during WW II, the Japanese Yamato and Musashi. I will compare them to the others where it seems appropriate. (For a more extensive discussion of the Yamato class battleships, see my essay The Post Treaty Battleships [Part 2].)
This essay is limited to ships that it was actually intended to build. "Blue sky" designs, such as the German "H44" study (a proposed 141,000t ship with 20in guns), will be ignored.
As in my essay about the post treaty battleships, I will examine these designs in terms of their basic characteristics and how well they might have fulfilled their likely missions. Advanced technologies that might have been included in the designs had they been completed will be disregarded. In lieu of a better plan, I will simply work from the smallest to the largest of these final battleship designs. For the sake of uniformity, I will use specifications taken from Conway's All The World's Fighting Ships, 1922-1946 for all classes.
The Lion class are the most restrained of the super battleships that never were. In fact, they would have been smaller than the later Vanguard, which was completed. (See my essay the Post Treaty Battleships [Part 1] for a discussion of Vanguard.)
They were designed for a new pattern 16in triple gun mount that, ultimately, was never produced. This is a shame, because Vanguard could have profited from them, as well as the Lions. The design specifications below are for the original version of the Lions, two of which were laid down in 1939 (the two others projected were never laid down). From the drawings, the ships would have looked much like the King George V class.
There was also a later Lion design from 1946 that called for two ships with a 50,000t standard displacement (56,500 full load), 840ft length and 118ft beam. This version would have carried 9-16in guns (3x3) of an even newer type with a firing interval of only 20 seconds. The secondary battery would have been 24-4.5in DP (12x2) and the AA battery was to be 60-40mm Bofors (10x6). Top speed was intended to be about 29 knots.
The increased beam would have allowed better underwater protection than Vanguard (against up to a 2000 pound charge of TNT) and the armor protection included a 14in belt and 4in-6in deck. These sound like very formidable ships, indeed.
There was an even larger version proposed that hiked the displacement to 59,100t standard and 69,140 full load, but still retained the same basic 9-16in gun main battery, with the heavy AAA increased to 68-40mm. Freeboard and the area of the ship protected by armor would have been increased; fuel oil capacity was up to 7870t, for greatly increased range. Details of these ships are unavailable, so the first version's specifications are used here (as laid down in 1939).
The protection scheme of these ships was similar to that of the previous King George V class, but their main armament was superior. These ships would have been formidable, not too different from the American North Carolina class in size and armament, but better protected and faster. Actually, they fall between the North Carolinas and the Iowas in size and speed, with better protection than either and much less range than both.
Looking at their similarity to the King George Vs, I would bet that they would have performed similarly. The KGVs had a tactical diameter of 930 yards, and I suspect the Lions would have been similar.
I have no figures for the designed range of these ships, but with their limited oil supply it could not have been great. British machinery seems to have been reasonably fuel efficient, but their oil capacity tended to be comparatively small. (The British relied on their extensive world wide network of naval bases to refuel as necessary).
Because of their bigger guns and larger size, the Lion class should have been superior in an all around sense to their predecessors. They would also have been superior in battle to all of the Axis battleships that were actually completed, with the exception of the Japanese Yamato class.
Had all of the planned British and German fast battleships been built before the outbreak of the second world war, the Germans would have had two modern battleships with 11in guns (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau), two large 15in gun battleships (Bismarck and Tirpitz) and six "H" class super battleships with 16in guns. Against these, the British would have had the five modern ships of the King George V class with 14in guns, the four Lion class with 16in guns and the large 15in gun Vanguard.
In addition, the British would have had three old (but fast) 15in gun battlecruisers and ten slow 15in gun battleships, plus the two newer (slow) 16in gun battleships Rodney and Nelson. The Germans had planned to counter the British battlecruisers with three new 30,500t, 15in gun battlecruisers of their own (the "P" class). Simple arithmetic shows that in fast ships (battlecruisers and modern battleships), the two sides would have been pretty equal.
The British advantage in older, slow battleships would not have been as important as it might seem at first glance. These ships were too slow to operate with fast carrier task forces, or the modern battleships, so they would have likely been relegated to other theaters of war (like the Mediterranean), convoy escort or shore bombardment tasks (as in fact they were).
The German battlecruisers would likely have been used as commerce raiders and aircraft carrier escorts (as was planned) and the British battlecruisers would have been used to pursue the German commerce raiders and also as aircraft carrier escorts. The showdown of main battle lines, had it come, would likely have been decided by the fast battleships of the two opposing sides.
History shows that the KGVs were clearly superior to the Scharnhorst class battleships and able to pretty much hold their own with the bigger Bismarck class. Vanguard was better than either, but she was only a single ship. Therefore, the match between the Lion class and the "H" class would have likely been critical. Let's take a look at the 'H' class.
The "H" class battleships were a part of Germany's "Z" plan, the German Navy's master plan to build a balanced fleet to challenge Allied supremacy at sea. The first two ships were laid down in 1939, but were canceled that same year after war broke out and it became obvious that they could not be completed in time to affect the outcome. Some of the 16in guns were built and ended up in shore batteries.
It had been planned to build six of these large super battleships. Names had not yet been assigned to them before they were canceled, so they were known only by their code letters: H, J, K, L, M and N, following normal German practice. Visually, they would have been handsome ships, resembling the previous Bismarck class. Their specifications would have been as follows.
These were alleged to have been, in effect, enlarged Bismarcks. Certainly, their specifications and general layout do nothing to refute this. The areas of improvement would have been in their diesel machinery (if it had worked) and their 16in guns.
They seem to have retained the Bismarck class faults of single purpose secondary guns and poorly distributed armor. Did they also retain the Bismarck's greatest fault, the placement of the armored deck too low in the ship to protect her vital fire control and communications links? I do not know. Certainly, the reversion to underwater torpedo tubes, an obsolete feature that compromises a ship's watertight integrity, was a mistake.
Presumably, the "H" class preserved the greatest advantages of the previous classes: the minute internal subdivision that made them so difficult to sink, excellent fire control, a steady gun platform (likely, given the beam of these ships) and excellent anti-torpedo protection.
Like the Bismarcks and Scharnhorsts before them, the "H" class do not seem to have taken full advantage of their displacement. On a displacement nearly 15,000 tons heavier than the Lions they manage to carry one less 16in gun and lighter armor.
On the plus side, their diesel engines should have given them much greater range than the British ships. The Germans were very aware of their lack of overseas refueling bases.
To return to the question posed previously, would the "H" class have given the Germans the advantage in the North Atlantic, or would Vanguard and the Lions have saved the day for the British, despite their smaller size? After due consideration, I have concluded the two fleets of fast battleships would have been about equal. A battle between them would probably have been decided by some other factor, such as happenstance, carrier air power, or unforeseen circumstances beyond the control of either side.
If correct, this means--in a way--the Germans blew it. They built significantly larger ships, but were unable to endow them with fighting power superior to the British Lions. In addition, the American third generation battleships were approximately equal to the German giants. How the "H" class would have compared to the USSR's Sovyetskiy Soyuz class we will examine next.
Sovyetskiy Soyuz Class
The Sovyetskiy Soyuz class battleships would have been the pride of the Russian Navy. This class of four ships was authorized in 1938. Three of them were actually laid down and material was gathered to begin the fourth.
The three under construction were halted late in 1940, even though Sovyetskaya Byelorussiya and Sovyetskiy Soyuz were about 75% complete. The hull of Sovyetskaya Ukraina was captured by the Germans during the war and recaptured by the Red Army later in the war. All three hulls were broken up in the mid to late 1940's.
They seem to have been reasonably well designed ships. The drawing in Conway's (which differs in several respects from the sketch above) shows the 9-16in guns in two triple turrets forward and one aft. The after turret is carried on a tall barbette that places it at the same height as the forward superfireing (or 'B') turret. This is similar to the Italian Littorio class.
These ships also featured a triple bottom and the Italian Pugliese system of underwater protection. The latter did not work particularly well on the Littorio's, due to inadequate construction quality, and is unlikely to have been any better on ships built by the Soviets.
They would have had a tower superstructure placed behind a conventional conning tower. Behind the tower were the two large, vertical funnels. The six twin 6in secondary turrets were arranged three per side along the flush deck opposite the funnels and the heavy and light AA guns were scattered along the deck and the superstructure. Looking at the line drawing, they seem to have a workmanlike, conventional layout. Their specifications would have been as follows.
Judging by these specifications, the Sovyetskiy Soyuz class would have been formidable opponents. They sacrificed some speed and retained a nine gun main battery (instead of going to 12) to gain additional armor. With their huge beam, these ships should have been steady gun platforms. I have never read much about Soviet fire control systems or rangefinder optics, but based on my experience with their post war consumer optics, I would expect them to be inferior to German and Japanese systems.
A correspondent wrote to advise me that the quality of their armor was inferior, although certainly not the amount. In fact, the thickness of their armor protection approaches that of the giant Japanese Yamato class. Soviet industry was not up to fabricating armor plate of the specified thickness, so they resorted to "using several smaller thicknesses to make up the total thickness for the belt, barbettes, turret faces and conning tower." This approach results in markedly inferior protection when compared to homogenous armor plate.
It is fair to speculate about how these ships might have fared against their likely opponents. In the Baltic Sea, North Atlantic or Arctic Oceans, one of them might have encountered a German 'H' class battleship.
In the generally poor visibility and bad weather conditions that exist for much of the year in the far north, the long range advantage conferred on the German ship by her superior optics (and possibly training) might not be as important as in more moderate climates. However, it might allow the German ship to get on target faster and rapidly achieve hits.
The heavy, laminated armor of the Sovyetskiy Soyuz would likely be severely tested. Her resistance to torpedo damage and underwater shell hits would likely be inferior to the "H" class. Her additional 16in gun would be an advantage, but I suspect not enough to prevail.
On the other side of the world, had one of these ships served with the Soviet Pacific Fleet, she could have encountered a Japanese Yamato class battleship. In the Sea of Japan, conditions are more likely to be clear and relatively calm. Against a Yamato, the Soviet ship would be at a disadvantage in armor protection, while her 16in guns would be inferior to the 18in guns of her enemy. The superiority of Japanese fire control optics might well have a major effect on the outcome of a daylight battle fought at longer ranges. In a shorter range nocturnal engagement, superior Japanese tactics and training would likely be decisive.
The last ship we will discuss is one designed from the outset to match the best the Japanese could build. The five ships of the Montana class represented the zenith of U.S. battleship design. Unlike their immediate predecessors, the Iowa class, which were designed as escorts for the American fast carrier task forces and which you can read about in my The Post-Treaty Battleships (Part 2) essay, the Montanas were designed to slug it out with the best in the world.
Visually, they would have looked like beamier and more symmetrical Iowas, with a clipper bow, rounded "cruiser" stern, twin funnels and similar superstructure and secondary layout. The 12-16in main battery guns would have been arranged in four triple turrets, two forward and two aft. The catapults and aircraft would have been on the fantail, as in other American third generation battleships.
The drawings and models I have seen show powerful, balanced ships. They would have been the most beautiful of all American battleships, classics of design like Hood and Vanguard. Here are their particulars.
All five Montanas were authorized in July 1940 and suspended in April 1942. At the same time, the new Panama canal locks to accommodate them were also suspended. The Montanas were finally canceled in July 1943.
As a wartime expedient, two additional Iowa class battleships (Illinois and Kentucky) were ordered, instead of the Montanas. They were never completed either. It probably wasn't fully understood at the time, but the end of the battleship era was at hand.
Never-the-less, the Montanas were a magnificent design. The American 16in/50 gun was probably the best battleship gun ever produced. It threw a super heavy 2700lb armor piercing shell 42,345 yards. For comparison, the Japanese 18.1in/45 gun threw a 3200lb armor piercing shell 45,960 yards.
The American gun weighed less, allowing the Montanas to carry 12 of them for a broadside weight of 32,400lbs. The Yamatos could only carry nine 18.1in guns on a similar size hull with similar armor and speed. Yamato's broadside weight was 28,800lbs. The Montanas were the only battleships authorized that out gunned the Yamatos.
Montana's new 5in/54 DP secondary guns were superior in range and striking power to the older 5in/38 gun, or the Japanese 5in/40 DP gun. Her AA battery was well laid out with good arcs of fire for the guns. The 40mm Bofors heavy AA cannon was better than anything the Japanese Navy had.
All in all, Montana's light battery was superior to Yamato's. Naturally, more AA guns would have been added as a result of wartime experience, as they were to all battleships.
In terms of armor, Montana and Yamato were protected to similar standards. The quality of American armor was reputed to be somewhat higher than Japanese armor, but there can be no doubt that both classes were very well protected. The Montanas were protected against their own 2700 lb shells between 18,000 and 31,000 yards. (These figures are from Norman Friedman's book U.S. Battleships, the definitive source of information about the design of all classes of U.S. battleships). No other American battleships were adequately immune to the 16in, 2700lb shell or the 18.1in, 3200lb shell.
The Montana's greater beam, coupled with a reversion to a scheme similar to that of the North Carolinas, provided them with superior protection against torpedo attack. Underwater shell hits were also taken into consideration.
U.S. fire control was very good and with the advent of radar control it completely outpaced that of the axis nations. However, the great 15 meter rangefinders of the Yamato class still represented the last word in optical design afloat.
How would the Montanas have compared to their potential adversaries? I think it is clear from the information above that they would have been the best all around battleships in the world. With more and better guns than any European battleship and equal or better armor, they would be expected to win any one on one engagement. Only the two Japanese Yamato class giants would be serious contenders, at least on paper.
Compared to the Yamatos, the Montanas would have been similar in size, speed, armor protection and range. They were slightly superior in broadside weight. The Japanese optical fire control was potentially the best in the world, the American radar fire control better yet, especially in inclement weather or at night. Any duel between a Montana and a Yamato would probably have been decided by unforeseen factors or advanced technology, rather than the inherent design of either ship.
Having taken all the above into consideration, I am still left with the belief that the Montanas, had they been built, would have ultimately proven to be both the best all around battleships ever built and the heavyweight champions in any shoot out.
Copyright 1997, 2018 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.