Since the development of the HMS Dreadnaught, which spurred a naval arms race across the world, battleships were typically built with low design speeds. The idea was that a large but slower-moving behemoth would be able to challenge any enemy warships at range, while its armor would protect it from counter fire. In the interwar era, a number of naval treaties had a decisive effect on the future of capital ship design.
The Washington Treaty of 1922, also known as the Five-Power Treaty, was actually meant to prevent an arms race by limiting naval construction. It limited the construction of battleships, battlecruisers, and aircraft carriers. The subsequent London Treaties of 1930 and 1936 also were originally written to forbid the construction of large battleships – those that displaced over 35,000 tons.
However in the mid-1930s, after Japan and Italy renounced the treaties, the United States Navy sought to refocus how it would build its future battleships. Instead of just building larger warships, the U.S. Navy instead looked to combine firepower, armor and speed.
The North Carolina-class and South Dakota-class
The first of the U.S. Navy’s “fast battleships” was the North Carolina-class, which consisted of the lead warship USS North Carolina (BB-55) and USS Washington (BB-56). Planning of the warships had begun in 1935, and the battlewagons were limited to the 35,000-ton displacement limit set in the Washington Naval Treaty and reaffirmed in the Second London Naval Treaty.
The latter treaty had stipulated that warship guns could be no larger than 14-inches, however, a provision allowed signatory countries of the Second London Treaty – which including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France – to raise the limit to 16-inches if Japan or Italy failed to sign on. When Japan formally rejected the 14-inch limited in March 1937, an “escalator clause” was invoked, which allowed the North Carolina-class to have its guns increased to 16-inches.
Capable of reaching 28 knots, this class of battleships wasn’t exactly the speediest of warships in the U.S. Navy, and in actuality, it was slower than Germany’s Gneisenau-class battlecruisers, which could reach 31 knots, or even its Bismarck-class’s 30.8 knots.
The U.S. Navy followed up with the South Dakota-class, a group of four fast battleships, and construction began shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. Designed to meet the same treaty standard displacement limit of 35,000 long tons (35,600 tons), these warships also featured a main battery of nine 16-inch guns. While again not as speedy as contemporary warships of the era, naval historians have long suggested that the South Dakota-class was the best of the “treaty battleships” ever constructed.
The Iowa-class Battleships
Even as the Navy was in the process of building up its fleet of modern battleships, it began development of the Iowa-class, which improved upon the earlier South Dakota-class, with more powerful engines and longer-caliber guns that offered far greater range. More importantly, the Iowa-class was truly designed as “fast” battleships that mixed speed and firepower and this enabled it to travel with a carrier force. Capable of reaching speeds of up to 33 knots, they were fast moving, while heavily armed with nine 16-inch guns and 10 twin five-inch guns. Like all battleships, the Iowa-class carried heavy armor protection against shellfire and bombs, as well as underwater protection against torpedoes.
Additionally, the sleek design of these battleships was meant so that each of the warships could travel through the Panama Canal, which enabled the warships to respond to threats around the world. Six of the fast capital ships were ordered, and four were constructed– including the lead ship of her class, USS Iowa (BB-61) along with her sisters USS New Jersey (BB-62), USS Missouri (BB-63), and USS Wisconsin (BB-64). Two additional ships, the planned Illinois and Kentucky were laid but canceled with both hulls scrapped.
Impressively, while all of the Navy’s fast battleships saw extensive action during the Second World War, not a single one was sunk!
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.