Best Battleship: FAQ, Disclaimers, Etc.

Herein I have tried to lay out answers to some of the more frequently asked questions about the "Best Battleship Comparison", as well as substantiate my sources. Let's start off with one of my favorites.

"Why do you hate the Bismarck so bad...?"

I don't. I really don't. She's a beautiful ship. She's just not a very good design, is all. It's nothing personal. Really. I just report the facts.

"But Bismarck was built as a commerce raider. She shouldn't be compared to other battleships!"

I loved this statement when I got it the other day. My answer: just because you rename a ship and call it a 'commerce raider' means nothing, changes nothing. Face it; all of these battleships had slightly different missions because of the national policy objectives of their building countries and the varying theatres of action they would likely operate in. So what? They still had to be able to tangle with the other guy's large warships and come out on top, or why bother expending the prodigious quantities of resources necessary to construct them? It's hardly necessary to put 15" weapons and heavy armor on a warship intended to scupper unarmored merchantmen armed with nothing bigger than a 5" gun. Any light cruiser can do the same job at a tenth the cost. No, Bismarck had big guns, and heavy armor, and expensive fire-control systems because she was designed to beat up other capital ships that got in her way when she was chasing the aforementioned merchantmen. You can call her anything you like, but she was designed for capital ship combat. That's what the big 'boom-booms' on the front are for; duh. The Brits certainly treated her like a battleship. 'If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's a duck', my friend.

"Does a higher rating mean that ship is always gonna win...?"

No. Please realize that just because one ship scores 'more points' than another ship in my rating system does not necessarily mean that it would always 'win' in a fight against a lower-ranked vessel. The main reason for this is that combat has always been infused with a tremendous amount of luck. Especially in the case of modern capital ships, whose weapons are so tremendously lethal, just one good hit in the wrong place can greatly affect the other guy's fighting ability. In wargamer parlance, this is a 'critical hit'; one which can turn around an entire combat in a heartbeat.

Probably the most drastic example of a 'critical hit' is a large-caliber shell which strikes a battleship in its magazine. Battleships are heavily armored beasts by their very nature, but they also tote around a million pounds of explosive with them in the form of propellants, shells, and secondary ammunition. As a result, magazine explosions usually result in the destruction of the ship. Hood, Mutsu, Yamato, Roma, Barham, Kongo, Provence, Arizona; all of them suffered catastrophic explosions in their magazines (either through combat damage or an accident), which either caused them to sink or greatly aggravated the damages already being suffered by their sinking. Either way, the results were tragic for their crews.

Another, less obvious example of a 'critical hit' is one which occurs against the fire-control systems of the warship. Directors and radar aerials are almost impossible to armor, and can therefore be damaged very easily by a direct hit from a weapon of almost any caliber. Yet they are crucial to the functioning of the ship's armament. Bismarck, in her last fight against King George V and Rodney, lost her main directors very early in the fight (possibly as a result of an 8" hit from H.M.S. Norfolk), which had a very negative impact on her ability to defend herself. South Dakota, in a night engagement against Kirishima, Atago, and Takao, lost her radar aerial fairly early in the fight, with the effect that she was blinded. She might have been in serious trouble had not Washington been in the neighborhood as well.

The takeaway lesson here is that combat in general is unpredictable. My rating system can't account for somebody getting (or receiving) a hit which suddenly alters the nature of the entire combat. All I can do with this comparison is predict who has the better odds of coming away the winner in a confrontation. Essentially, what I want to know is; all other things being equal, which ship's bridge would I rather be standing on in a fight against another capital ship?

"Are you really being objective...?"

This is a numerical comparison, and numerical comparisons are never all-inclusive or completely accurate. After all, this is a Web page, not a reference book, so I obviously cannot capture every scrap of knowledge pertaining to these vessels, nor should I try. My goal for this page is to present a reasonably comprehensive, yet readable comparison of these vessels. To do that, I have attempted to capture the really important points regarding these ships and then distill them into a set of ratings. The key word here is 'distill.' Warships cannot really be quantified completely or accurately. That's just the nature of the beast. Any attempt to do so is certain to introduce a certain degree of error. As much as possible, I have attempted to remain objective in the construction of this comparision. I have also attempted to base my ratings on objective, quantifiable facts. However, in many cases those 'basic' ratings have been modified in some way by me to reflect other factors which are important enough to include in the comparison, but which are fundamentally unquantifiable.

An example of this might have to do with Bismarck's protective scheme. It is a well-known fact that some of Bismarck's major communications lines and hydraulic feeds, which were only lightly protected, lay above the level of the main armored deck. This was a very serious design flaw, and one which demonstrably contributed to her being defeated by her British opponents perhaps more quickly than she might have otherwise. The question becomes, how does one reflect that in her protection rating (which in my comparison is fundamentally based on her invulnerability rating against a 15" inch gun)? It's a tough question to answer, and whatever answer is chosen is probably wrong, i.e., there is no 'right' answer.

What I have done in each of these cases (and there are many of them) is to make an educated guess as to the nature and severity of the factor, and then adjusted the rating accordingly. Two points here that need to be made. One: I think my guesses can be said to be educated. I've done a lot of reading on this topic since I first put these pages up, and my bibliography is there for your perusal. I am not just pulling this stuff out of the air. Furthermore, my ratings, and the approach I have taken in constructing them, have been reviewed and amended by other individuals who I consider more knowledgeable than myself. Two: in most cases these subjective adjustments have been fairly minor in size compared to the base rating. In other words, I don't think I'm totally off base with the adjustments I've made, or the final ratings I've come up with.

The other issue has to do with omission. Have I perhaps overlooked or dismissed factors which might actually be pertinent and important to the analysis? Answer: it could be. By the nature of the question, it would be difficult for me to know the answer. To the best of my ability, I have attempted to include those factors which would have had a direct impact on the vessel's combat worth.

I dutifully note, however, that I have already received e-mail to the effect that (for example) South Dakota's faulty circuit breaker should have been included as a factor for consideration, etc. In most of these cases I have simply judged that either the information was not pertinent to all the ships of the class when they were in normal 'working order', or it was simply not relevant in the larger scheme of things. Again, the goal for my page is for it to be factual and reasonably comprehensive, while remaining readable and easily comprehensible to an individual with non-specialized knowledge in the subject area.

Also, I just want to state for the record that I am not an overtly nationalistic individual. If the American battleships do very well in this comparison, it's not because I have Old Glory tattooed on my forehead. There are objective, quantifiable reasons for U.S. battleships being as good as they were; not the least important being that the United States had the economic wherewithal to spend vast sums of money on making their warships of the highest possible quality. Pound for pound, the Iowa-class battleships were the most expensive ever built, and it shows.

"But Bismarck was designed before Iowa, so this isn't fair..."

As numerous people have mentioned to me, my comparison is inherently 'unfair', because it pits ship designs which were sometimes several years older against ships like the Iowa, which was designed fairly close to the outbreak of hostilities. The following graph illustrates this phenomenon:

As you can see, Vittorio Veneto was laid down more than five years before Iowa was. There's no question that the Americans gained from having the latest design. They also benefitted from having an enormous industrial capacity, which meant that we could build Iowa in roughly half the time the Italian's took to build Vittorio. So I acknowledge that time does make a difference. On the other hand, that's just the way life is sometimes. We are not always granted pure apples-to-apples comparisons, and we just have to make do with what we have. My goal was to portray the most modern designs of the major maritime powers during the war, and pick a winner. I have done that. I note, too, that the second-oldest design of the lot, the Richelieu, performed very, very well in this comparison. So I reject the assertion that a later design is necessarily going to defeat an earlier one.

"Why Don't You Rate [Insert Your Pet Ship Here]?"

This question is the one I probably get the most of. Here are the three categories of requests I get:

Older vessels -- Nagato, Nelson, North Carolina are all frequent requests.
HMS Vanguard
Projected ships like the Montana, H-39, or Super Yamatos which were never completed

Let's look at each of these three categories.

Older Designs
In a nutshell, why should I waste screen real-estate portraying last-year's model? I wanted to portray the best battleship designs each nation had to offer. The one exception to that rule was the South Dakota, which I included for reasons of having the best U.S. Treaty design. But generally speaking, none of these older designs was superior to their follow-on models. You can argue all you want concerning minor details on that general topic -- "Nelson had a better gun than King George V and blah blah blah", but when all is said and done, if you look at a ship as being a complete weapons system, it is clear that the older ships simply don't stand up to the newer vessels. So I don't rate them.

H.M.S. Vanguard
HMS Vanguard, though a living, breathing ship, also is a non-starter. Don't get me wrong, I like the Vanguard and think she was a great ship in many ways. She was a tremendous gun platform, very steady in rough seas, and had excellent horizontal protection. But she didn't fight in World War Two, which was Criteria Numero Uno as to whether or not a ship was considered eligible for this comparison. Furthermore, Vanguard was largely a wartime expedient, built with 'off-the-shelf' components, including:

A low-angle (and hence shorter ranged) 15" main battery which was cannibalized from two WWI-vintage capital ships (and which was admitted by the British to be obsolete before the war began). This weapon, though rugged and accurate, was still not remotely in the same league as the U.S. 16" or Japanese 18" guns in terms of power and range.
An existing, non-optimized powerplant design which was just sort of dropped into her hull for the sake of cutting six months off of her building time. This same powerplant design also gave her unacceptable vibration problems at high speeds and/or during aggressive maneuvering.

From a pure 'rating standpoint', she also suffers from a number of drawbacks:

An unarmored superstructure, which was a poor design choice in all of the later British battleship designs.
A belt armor scheme which again did not take advantage of either de-capping plates or outward canting.
An anti-aircraft battery which is little better than King George V, and clearly not as good as Iowa. By their own admission, British naval officials rated Vanguard's AA suite an '8' to Iowa's '10', even though Vanguard was commissioned after the war ended, and used American Mk37 directors. That's pretty definitive.

For these reasons Vanguard can hardly lay claim to being the best effort that Britiain has produced in her long and glorious naval tradition. Given the resources and time to complete them, the Lion-class vessels would undoubtedly have secured that title. In the event, though, the King George V-class is the only example of a British World War Two capital ship we have to draw upon, and so she was used in this comparison.

More people than I care to think about have written me asking why I didn't include such vessels as the German H-39 class, or the British Lion-class in my comparisons. The simple answer is that this topic area as a whole is already quite difficult enough to debate rationally even if you have all the data in front of you. Without that detailed data, you simply can't have a meaningful discussion about the likely tactical outcomes of a ship on ship encounter. And for most of these vessels we have very little in the way of detailed armor layouts, gun performance data, powerplant specs, etc. Bottom line; many of these ships were little better than sketches on a napkin. And debating about sketches on a napkin is ultimately a futile exercise. Nobody learns anything from such exchanges, and so I decided to skip these ships altogether. Besides, the ones presented here are quite complex and fascinating enough.

Feedback Appreciated

I am always open to feedback on this page and the approach I used in constructing my ratings. I received a lot of that from my first version of this page, and I learned a ton that I hadn't known before. When you write, though, please have the courtesy to be polite and to base your arguments in fact, rather than presenting me with knee-jerk reactions to the effect that 'This or that ship still woulda won. I just know it.' That kind of e-mail just makes me crabby. Thanks.

Information Sources

The sources I used for this feature are as follows:

Robert Dulin and William Garzke, "Axis and Neutral Battleships of World War II", "Allied Battleships of World War II", and "United States Battleships of World War II".

John Campbell, "Naval Weapons of World War Two", ISBN: 0870214594

Tony Gibbons, "Complete Encyclopedia of Battleships", ISBN: 0517378108

Jentschura, Dieter, Jung, "Warships of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1869-1945, ISBN: 087021893X

"Battleships and Battle Cruisers 1905 - 1970", Siegfried Breyer, Doubleday & Co, Inc., 1973, ISBN 0385-0-7247-0-3

Various previously unpublished materials, courtesy of Nathan Okun, several of which are presented for the first time on the Guns n' Armor section of this site.

Various back issues of "Warship International"

Back to the Best Battleship Page