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Montana: Why the Navy’s Plan For the Ultimate Battleship Was Impossible

Battleship
The battleship USS IOWA (BB 61) fires a broadside to starboard from its Mk 7 16-inch guns.

The US Navy had a big dream for a class of battleships that would easily be the most powerful ever to sail. And yet, even before the first ship was built, the Montana-class was canceled as naval technology had turned away from the battleship and towards aircraft carriers: Today, no navy in the world operates the slow, lumbering battleships of earlier years. However, during the Second World War, multiple powers looked to see how large of a warship could be produced.

In the case of the United States, it was the class of warships that was never built, the Montana-class – authorized under the “Two Ocean Navy” building program and funded in Fiscal Year 1941. They would be the last battle wagons ever ordered by the U.S. Navy. The ships were nearly a third larger than the preceding Iowa-class, and at 920 feet in length and with a beam of 121 feet, and a displacement of 60,500 tons – 71,000 tons with war load – would have been even larger than the HMS Vanguard, the last battleship to be built and see service.

A total of five of the massive warships were ordered, with the lead in her class (BB-67) to be built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard along with the Ohio (BB-68); while Maine (BB-69) and New Hampshire (BB-70) were to be constructed at the New York Navy Yard in Brooklyn; with the Louisiana (BB-71) built at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia.

The vessels would have required a crew of at least 2,355 personnel – and perhaps as many as 2,780 if fielded as a flag ship of the fleet. And yet, none of them ever made it into the open oceans. Why?

Sailing Out the Big Guns (Slowly)

Each of the six ships was to carry a dozen 16-inch guns, three more than the Iowa-class, but its massive size increased armor, and added firepower came at some notable costs.

First, the Montana-class was slower – not fast enough to escort carriers, but still fast enough to operate in the battle line. Given the threat of enemy aircraft, especially in how the Royal Navy’s HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sunk off the coast of Singapore in December 1941 – less than a year after she was commissioned – by torpedo aircraft, the slower speed was an issue.

Then there is the argument that this class was really meant to be a “Yamato killer,” capable of taking on the Imperial Japanese Navy’s powerful battleship. The truth is that the United States Navy didn’t actually know about the Yamato‘s 18-inch guns until 1944, so clearly, the Montana-class, which was on the drawing board far earlier, wasn’t simply meant to take on the Japanese behemoth.

However, before construction began the changing tide of war, and the impact that the aircraft carrier had in pushing back the Japanese made it clear that the Montana-class was not the right ship for the job. The Navy’s need for more aircraft carriers, and amphibious and anti-submarine vessels resulted in a suspension of the program in May 1942 before a single keel had been laid.

Just over a year later, when it was clear that the Age of the Battleship was at an end, on July 21, 1943, the program was formally canceled. Yet, had even a single Montana-class battleship been constructed, she would have been the most powerful U.S. Navy vessel of her time.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Suciu is also a contributing writer for Forbes Magazine.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Edward M Piatkowski

    May 17, 2022 at 8:10 pm

    They were rated for 27 knots which was the same as the North Carolina and South Dakota classes of battleships. As none went too far into redesigning, it’s estimated they would have been armed similar to the Iowas for air protection. It is also possible if not likey to have come out with 3-inch guns instead of the 40s and 20 mms instead of the 50s.

    The Japanese actually listed the Yamatos as having 16.5-inch guns. The Japanese were very capable of keeping the actual size a secret.

    As far as maneuverability, the Montanas would be pretty good. Your beam helps greatly to improve your turn. Iowa battleships could turn inside a Fletcher destroyer. It could also turn inside an Essex. Montanas are wider so it would probably be just a little bit wider than the Iowa turn.

    Great article though. I really enjoy reading them. I learn something new every time. This article, I didn’t know they learned about the size of the guns in 1944. I thought it was after the war, but it makes sense. Both battleships were used off Samar. Yamato was the only one who made it. Several destroyers and escort carriers took hits from the 18-inch guns. It wouldn’t be too difficult to figure the size of shell from the hits. Thank you for your insight and teaching people about things lost in time.

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