April 25, 2018

Main Guns Part 2

Last time we saw the evolution from the muzzle-loading smoothbores of Nelson's day to the turret-mounted breechloaders of the 1870s. But the best way to carry heavy guns to sea remained controversial, and the 1880s saw considerable strife between advocates of the turret and advocates of the barbette. The turret was considerably better-protected, but couldn't be carried high in the ship due to topweight concerns. The barbette left the gun exposed, but was significantly more effective in bad weather, as it kept the guns well above the sea.

HMS Hood, the last British low-freeboard turret ship

In the early part of the decade, the open loading position of the barbette worked reasonably well. The only weapon of note was the heavy gun, which fired slowly and was likely as not to be aimed at the waterline. However, the development of the quick-firing gun soon made the open barbette untenable. Some nations, notably France and Russia, had installed thin (1-3") hoods on their barbettes from quite early on. The British had not, apparently under the impression that it would hinder their men's combat effectiveness somehow.1 However, the development of 6" QF (Quick-Firing) guns, capable of 5-10 rounds per minute, meant that exposed positions rapidly became vulnerable.2


April 22, 2018

Main Guns Part 1

The ultimate purpose of a battleship is to carry guns. Everything else - armor, engines, living quarters - ultimately exists to support the delivery of high-velocity steel to the enemy. As such, it's a topic which deserves a close look.

The gun deck of HMS Warrior

As you probably expect by now, we'll start with HMS Warrior. She carried a total of 40 guns: 26 68-pounder smoothbore muzzle-loaders, 10 110-pounder rifled breech-loaders,3 and 4 40-pounder rifled breech-loaders.


April 20, 2018

Sea Stories: The Swimming Pool and the Fuzes

Here are two more sea stories from Iowa tour lead Jim Pobog's time on the oiler Mispillion. Thanks again to Jim for giving me permission to post them here.

Mispillion in the Western Pacific


April 18, 2018

British Battleships in World War II

The British battleships that served during WWII were less homogeneous than those of the US. While the USN had emphasized standardization during the pre-treaty era, the RN had not, and was left with a bizarre mix of ships, made more confusing by refits. 10 battleships4 and 3 battlecruisers5 dating back to WWI made up the bulk of the fleet at the start of the war, accompanied by the two units of the Nelson class built in the 20s under the Washington Naval Treaty. During the war, the 5 units of the King George V class joined the fleet. They were fast battleships of the same type as those built worldwide after 1937.6

HMS King George V

The British battleships fulfilled largely the same roles as their American counterparts, although with less emphasis on carrier screening and more on surface superiority. There were several reasons for this. First, the carrier was less important in the narrow seas around Europe, and the threat of surface forces significantly greater. Second, the British entered the war two years before the US, and that time interval was critical to the development of airplanes that were serious threats to battleships at sea. Third, the lack of an equivalent to Pearl Harbor meant that the British never were forced to radically change their doctrine away from the battleship. All that said, by the end of the war, when the British were operating with the US Pacific Fleet, their ships, battleship and carrier alike, were operating very much like their American counterparts.


April 15, 2018

Anti-Submarine Warfare - WWII Weapons

Last time, we discussed detecting submarines, but that was only the start of the process. Once a submarine had been detected, it still needed to be destroyed. At the start of the war, the only weapon was the venerable depth charge, unchanged over the previous 20 years. However, as the war went on, the traditional depth charge became increasingly inadequate, leading to new and improved weapons.


One of the biggest problems, even during WWI, with the traditional depth charge rack was that it only produced a narrow pattern. Submarines could estimate when a ship would lose contact, and then maneuver violently, hoping to dodge the pattern. During WWI, the USN developed the Y-gun, a device mounted on the centerline which threw two depth charges between 50 and 80 yards on either side of the ship. The biggest problem was that it consumed valuable centerline space. To solve this problem, the USN introduced the K-gun, which was essentially half a Y-gun, mounted on the railings. These were mounted in great numbers on destroyers and destroyer escorts during WWII.


April 13, 2018

Museum Review - USS Iowa

I've decided to add reviews of the military museums I've visited over the years to the blog, as I believe the information will be of interest to readers. We'll start with the Iowa. I promise that the information here is totally unbiased.7

My first visit to Iowa
Type: Museum Battleship
Location: San Pedro, Los Angeles, California
Rating: 6/5, Absolutely Must See8
Price: $20 for normal adults


Iowa is the greatest ship ever built, preserved in San Pedro since 2012. She served in WWII, Korea, and in the 1980s. Her fantastic crew has worked very hard to make the visitor experience as good as possible.9 Visitors will be able to see the 16" guns, officer's quarters, the captain's cabin where FDR stayed in 1943, the conning tower and bridge, 5" mounts, CIWS, Tomahawk and Harpoon launchers, directors, and crew quarters, including berthing and messes. There's a museum at the end of the tour, along with the gift shop, where guests are encouraged to spend more money to support the Iowa.10 On deck, there's a Korean War HUP Retriever helicopter, as well as a motion simulator on the pier. My first visit took me about 90 minutes, and 2 hours is a pretty good estimate for a normal group. If you feel the need to get every single piece of information that's offered, it will take somewhat longer.11 There's a free audio tour app, which can be found by searching "Battleship Iowa" at the App or Play stores. It also works away from the ship, and includes some videos of spaces that are not on the normal tour route.

One downside is that the tour route does require climbing the ladders, which are actually stairs that are as steep as they could be and still be stairs.12 There's at least one elevator currently installed, and there are more being planned.

Guests who want to see more of the ship can take the Full Steam Ahead tour, offered on certain days (check schedules before making plans) that takes them into the Strike Warfare Center, Sickbay, Boiler and Engine Rooms, and the aft plotting rooms. It's an extra $30 beyond general admission, and spaces are limited. There's also the Curator's Tour for $100, which runs once a month, and involves spending the day (including lunch) with Iowa's curator, Dave Way, and getting to see a different set of behind-the-scenes spaces.


April 11, 2018

Anti-Submarine Warfare - WWII Sensors

The biggest problem with killing submarines has always been finding them. During WWI, no good method was found for a ship to detect submarines while the searcher was moving at any speed, and at night even a surfaced submarine was nearly impossible to see. Fortunately, the interwar years brought devices that would solve both problems, and ultimately lead to the defeat of the U-boats. During WWII, more sensors joined the fight against the underwater menace.

If sound was the only effective means of transmitting information through the water, and passive listening was insufficient, then the obvious answer was active sound detection, where a pulse is transmitted and the operator listened for echoes. This is best known today as active sonar.13 The idea actually predated the war, as the Fessenden Underwater Oscillator had been used to detect icebergs. The primitive amplifier technology of the time meant that it wasn't very effective against submarines, and its relatively low frequency limited directionality. Something better would be needed.


April 08, 2018

Anti-Submarine Warfare - WWII Forces

WWII saw the methods used in WWI for hunting submarines extended and expanded into a dizzying array of techniques and platforms that ultimately resulted in victory for the hunters in the Atlantic, and defeat in the Pacific. I'll start our look at WWII ASW with an overview of the forces employed, then look more closely at the sensors, weapons, and tactics used.

Destroyer USS Hoel

Much like WWI, surface ships formed the backbone of the war on the submarine. The best of these was the destroyer, also used as a torpedo platform and an escort for the fleet, both anti-air and anti-surface. Due to their versatility, destroyers were in high demand; they were never available in the numbers needed to screen the fleet and protect merchant shipping. Something cheaper and slower would be required to bear the burnt of the latter task, while the destroyers worked with other warships and acted as response units for the convoys.


April 06, 2018

Links Index

Here's a partial list of useful and interesting places to go for more information on the stuff I talk about here, in no particular order.

  • Gene Slover's Navy Page: A tremendous amount of information on naval ordnance and gunnery, but very poorly organized. Also a fair bit of interesting slice-of-life stuff about being in the Navy.
  • NavWeps: An encyclopedic catalog of naval weaponry from ~1890 to the present. The essays on naval history and technology are truly amazing, and there are a few other hidden gems, too.
  • Historic Naval Ships Association (HNSA): HNSA is the museum ship trade group. By far the most useful part of their website is the collection of manuals and documents, including a collection of remarkably detailed ship plans. The collection is largely mirrored at maritime.org, with a few minor differences.
  • Hyperwar: Hyperwar is a collection of online documents from WWII, covering a tremendous range of topics. The best coverage is of the US military, but there's quite a bit on other countries as well.
  • Naval History & Heritage Command: A lot of the pictures I use come from NHHC. There's also an online reading room of period documents from the whole history of the USN and quite a few official histories scattered about the site. Unfortunately, the USN is bad at using the internet, so it might take some digging to find what you want.
  • Thin Pinstriped Line: A blog by a British Civil Servant inside the Ministry of Defense. An excellent look under the hood of running a modern military, and why the MoD does what it does. The lessons drawn are applicable to the US and other countries, too.
  • NavSource: A collection of photographs of USN warships. Has provided a few here, and great if you want to look at pretty pictures of warships.
  • SpringSharp: A program intended to let you design your own battleship. Limited to the gun era, but still a lot of fun. Sadly unmaintained.
  • Wikipedia: The wiki articles on most naval-related things are quite good, with a couple of caveats. First, they're somewhat bland, as you'd expect from a collaborative document. Second, they tend to be very strongly in line with conventional wisdom, even when the leading edge of scholarship has moved on. I'd put their quality as being generally in line with the sort of reference books you're likely to find in a typical bookstore or library.

A few other places of some relevance here:

  • Pacific Battleship Center: Custodians of the greatest ship ever built. Pay them a visit if you're in LA, or go to LA to visit.
  • Slate Star Codex: Naval Gazing is ultimately a spinoff of Scott Alexander's amazing blog. Not naval-related at all, but a good read. Check out the Open Threads for an interesting community.
April 04, 2018

Early Dreadnoughts

The ships that immediately followed Dreadnought are often overlooked. None achieved any distinction in the war, and all fell to the axe of the Washington Treaty. However, the development of the battleship didn't suddenly stop after Dreadnought, and the 12"-gunned capital ships introduced a number of innovations, some very successful, others less so.14

HMS Bellerophon

For the 1906-1907 program, the immediate successor to Dreadnought and the Invincibles, Fisher was originally not content to rest on his laurels. He sketched a "fusion" ship, intended to have battleship armor with battlecruiser speed. To keep dimensions reasonable, the design would have only four turrets, one on each end and two en echelon amidships, with the wing turrets being triples. The ship would have displaced 22,500 tons,15 and cost about a third more than her predecessor. This was a good design, but the Liberal victory in the 1905 election moved social spending up the government's priority list, and the three ships bought were near-repeats of Dreadnought, the Bellerophon class.