Why ships are more than just steel and lists of statistics

There’s a vigorous naval enthusiast community out there. And it’s always intrigued me how often their discussions devolve to bitterly personalised argument, often infused with a kind of nationalist machismo in which paper statistics become weapons for invalidating the personal worth of the other party.

HMS Prince of Wales arriving in Singapore, 2 December 1941. She was less than nine months in commission. (Public domain, HM Government pre-1957).
HMS Prince of Wales arriving in Singapore, 2 December 1941. (Public domain).

Setting aside the point that this is basically dick-waving, using assertions about battleships as proxy – many factors go into the effectiveness of the ships over which these armchair contests are fought. Warships always had to compromise – balancing range, armour, armament (defensive and offensive), underwater defence, speed and habitability among other things. A battleship couldn’t excel in all, particularly during the inter-war ‘treaty’ period when ‘standard’ displacement was meant to be 35,000 tons. Some ships were balanced one way, others another, to meet requirements that differed between nations – meaning a direct numeric paper comparison isn’t equitable.

HMS Nelson, predecessor to the King George V class, during a practise shoot. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

There were other limits when seeking that balance, too, including scale of existing dockyards, or draught because of the harbours the ship would have to enter. The main issue during the pre-Second World War period was trying to wedge desirable characteristics – particularly protection – into a 35,000 ton ship.

That explains a good deal about the King George V class, which has often been dissed at enthusiast level. Actually it was a compromise developed over ten major iterations in 1935-37 to tight constraints. In general, the Directors of Naval Construction – Sir Stanley Goodall and his successor Sir Arthur Johns – and their teams knew what they were doing. Limits with conflicting engineering solutions included treaty restrictions on displacement and gun calibre, along with Board of Admiralty requirements that included zero-elevation ahead-fire from A-turret, and a need to armour the ships against 16-inch shellfire. The former affected seakeeping. The latter led to two guns being dropped from the main armament in favour of better magazine protection. That was apart from budgetary constraints which stopped the British using high-tensile steel – ‘Ducol’ or ‘D’ steel in Admiralty parlance – as extensively as they wanted.

Those compromises forced reductions in capability. Fuel capacity was reduced during design from 4000 to 3700 tons, including diesel. The oil fuel was stored in tanks that had to be topped up with seawater as they were emptied of oil, because they were part of the torpedo defence system and had to be kept liquid-loaded. In theory it made more efficient use of displacement than a ship that had separate tanks for the two purposes. Fuel oil floats, and oil at the interface was turned into an emulsion with Teepol, a detergent, forming a barrier. In theory, oil was taken off the top while the tank filled with water. In practise it was impossible to keep emulsified oil from clogging the systems, and about 150 tons were rendered unusable every fill. In service, some of the double-bottom spaces eventually had to be converted to fuel oil tanks, cutting the effectiveness of the underwater protection.

Another limit the British faced was resource that could be put into design. Typical battleships of the 1930s required up to 2.5 million man-hours to design. Many drawings were required. Here’s one from the Clemenceau of 1940:

For more, go to http://3dhistory.de/wordpress/warship-drawings-warship-blue-prints-warship-plans/french-battleship-drawingsplan-sets-newest-first/french-battle-ship-clemenceau-as-planed-1940/
For more, go to http://3dhistory.de/wordpress/warship-drawings-warship-blue-prints-warship-plans/french-battleship-drawingsplan-sets-newest-first/french-battle-ship-clemenceau-as-planed-1940/

The British were short of skilled naval draftsmen. Consequences included faults in detail layout, flawed implementation that led to issues with the watertight trunking. Some of the engineering issues contributed to the loss of the Prince of Wales in December 1941, although her problems began with bad luck: her anti-torpedo system was designed to defeat the scale of torpedo warhead being launched at her, but a torpedo hit the port propeller shaft, causing massive internal damage as the off-line rotating shaft ripped apart the sealing glands. That triggered the chain of events that sank her. That experience underscored how complex systems – which, for warships, include the training, morale and performance of the crew – fail in complex ways. Analysis of the loss by US naval architects William H. Garzke and Robert O. Dulin is well worth checking out.

USS North Carolina in heavy seas, 1944. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
USS North Carolina in heavy seas, 1944. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The US Navy didn’t have the same budgetary constraints, which is why US battleships of the period were largely built in high-tensile steel. They were also more heavily armed as a result of superior US industrial capacity. The USS North Carolina, as designed in 1935-37, had the same main scale of armament – 12 x 14-inch guns – as the original King George V concept (using US 14-inch/50 calibre Mk B guns, not British weapons). When the ‘escalator clause’ of the Second London Naval Treaty was invoked in April 1937, it became possible to legally arm battleships with 16-inch guns. The US Navy had enough draftsmen, and US industry enough capacity, to modify the two North Carolinas during construction.

The British knew there was a risk of the escalator clause being invoked when designing the King George V class, but had two problems following suit. One was that the potential for convertibility had to be incorporated into the design from the outset. Adjusting the King George V design to do so was considered, but involved too great a compromise of other characteristics the British thought essential. Then, plans to build just two 14-inch gunned King Georges and switch to a purpose-designed 16-inch gunned class had to be shelved because they had neither the draftsmen nor the industrial capacity to develop 16-inch mountings in time. The three follow-up ships consequently repeated the first two King Georges – for which drawings were available – and it was not until 1938-39 that a 16-inch gunned successor could be considered. Even then, British dockyard and budgetary limits constrained the standard displacement to 40,000 tons – well below the ‘escalator’ treaty limit of 45,000.

HMS Duke of York escorting convoy PQ-12 in the Arctic Ocean. Board of Admiralty requirement for zero-elevation ahead fire from A-mounting demanded un-flared bows, leading to this kind of experience with water over the fo’csle even in relatively calm conditions. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

On the face of it, US battleships had more hitting power from their 16-inch weapons – but that is not the sole arbiter of a battleship’s fighting qualities. The North Carolina class were only armoured against 14-inch gunfire, whereas the King Georges were armoured against 16-inch fire. A torpedo hit on North Carolina underscored issues with the US anti-torpedo system – including the potential for torpedo blast to reach the magazines. The commanding officer reported that he’d always thought the ship’s underwater protection inadequate, and had shifted 165 bunks to avoid losing men if the ship was hit. The follow-up South Dakota class were more balanced and arguably the world’s best ‘treaty-limited’ battleships, but a Navy Board study found they were still vulnerable to crew loss from a torpedo hit, and to progressive flooding outside the anti-torpedo system.

You get the picture: different nations had different ways of approaching the challenge. But in any case, one of the key factors in any warship’s real-world performance is the training, morale and capability of the crew. It’s intangible on paper, but something that paid dividends for the crew of the cruiser HMNZS Leander at the battle of Kolombangara. The crew had been trained to very high levels by the ship’s second-in-command, Commander Stephen Roskill. He was nicknamed ‘the Black Mamba’ on the back of his zeal – but when the crisis came the crew responded in ways that saved the ship from a ‘Long Lance’ torpedo hit in the boiler room.

Blue Water Kiwis cover - 200 pxIf you’d like to see more of my naval writing, check out Blue Water Kiwis. On Kindle, free to Kindle Prime users in 2016.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


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