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History Says So: The 5 Best Battleships of All Time

While the chances of a battleship comeback sometime in the future seem dead, we present what many would agree are the finest battlewagons to ever sail.

Iowa-Class Battleship
Iowa-class battleship firing off a broadside.

Aahh, the good ol’ days of so-called “capital ships,” i.e. battleships. Their heyday as the dominant form of naval power projection may be long finished, but they enjoyed a magnificent run. For an old-school battleship enthusiast who readily waxes nostalgic, it’s pretty challenging to narrow down a top-five list of history’s best battlewagons, but “by Jingo”, I’ll give it a try. 

The Bismarck

This is the most famous of all German battleships. The Kriegsmarine warship that inspired both a movie that was a box office hit, and a musical single that was an even bigger hit. The Bismarck’s 15-inch guns sank the HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy and its largest largest vessel, in a mere three minutes, leaving only three survivors of out a 1,418-man crew. This ship got Winston Churchill’s personal attention. It required the combined efforts of the HMS Ark Royal’s Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers and the battleships HMS Rodney and King George V – along with the scuttling charges of the Bismarck’s own crew – to finally sink her. Jawohl, mein Damen und Herren, I dare say the Bismarck easily makes this list. 

Bismarck-class

Image: Creative Commons.

HMS Warspite (Pennant #3)

The overall breadth of HMS Warspite’s wartime accomplishments gives her a slight edge over her British brethren mentioned in the preceding paragraph. As the late maritime historian Peter Mitchell noted: 

“During her 32 years of service she had endured bombing, shellfire, ramming, mines and a missile attack, and fought all over the world from Jutland in the Great War, to the Normandy Landings in the Second World War…The Warspite…became known to everyone who served on her as ‘The Grand Old Lady.’”

Particularly impressive was her participation in the Battle of Cape Matapan from March 27-29, 1941, during which she contributed heavily to sinking the Italian heavy cruisers Fiume and Zara, as well as the destroyers Vittorio Alfieri and Giosuè Carducci – thus inflicting what naval historian Vincent P. O’Hara called “Italy’s greatest defeat at sea.”

Sadly, Warspite was sold for scrap in 1947. Fortunately, her chapel door was preserved and donated to The National Museum of the Royal Navy.

USS New Jersey (BB-62)

The U.S. Navy’s Iowa-class battleships were so collectively impressive, it’s hard to narrow them down to just one selection, as a list like this requires. The USS Missouri, AKA “Mighty Mo,” was most famous for hosting Imperial Japan’s surrender. The actual USS Iowa herself was the only one of her class to sink an enemy surface warship

However, my 1945 colleague Peter Suciu makes a compelling case for USS New Jersey – affectionately known as “The Big J” and “The Black Dragon” – as the best of the bunch:

“BB-62 would prove to be America’s most decorated battleship – earning more battle stars for combat actions than the other three completed Iowa-class warships. USS New Jersey participated in nearly all of the Western Pacific campaigns from her arrival in the theater in January 1944 until the end of the Second World War…In total, USS New Jersey earned nine battle stars for service in the Second World War, four more for Korea, three for the Vietnam War, and three for actions in Lebanon and the Persian Gulf Region. The warship had also received the Navy Unit Commendation for Vietnam service, as well as the Presidential Unit Citation from the Republic of the Philippines, and the Presidential Unit Citation from the Republic of Korea.”

USS New Jersey

30 Sep 1968 — The battleship USS New Jersey fires its 16-inch guns into the demilitarized zone here 9/30. These were the first shells fired by the New Jersey in the Vietnamese war. The vessel is the only battleship on active duty in the U.S. Navy.

USS New Jersey

The Nos. 1 and 2 Mark 7 16-inch/50-caliber guns are fired to starboard during a main battery firing exercise aboard the battleship USS NEW JERSEY (BB-62).

The Big J last fired her guns in anger during the Lebanon crisis of 1983-1984. She is now a museum ship in Camden, New Jersey. 

USS Washington (BB-56)

The North Carolina-class battlewagon USS Washington has a bragging right that none of the Iowas can lay claim to: sinking an enemy battleship, and for good measure, scoring the only one-on-one battleship kill of the war. (And to address our loyal reader Frank Benton’s assertion that “the Bismarck single-handedly sunk the HMS Hood in World War II,” sorry, but nope; Bismarck had some assistance from the Prinz Eugen.) 

USS Washington

USS Washington (BB-56) running post-overhaul trials in Puget Sound, Washington, on 10 September 1945.

Washington’s victim was the IJN Kirishima  (霧島), and a big reason for this achievement – which took place on Nov. 14-15, 1942 –was the fighting prowess of then-Rear Adm. Willis Augustus “Ching” Lee Jr, who, as noted by biographer Paul Stillwell, was an incredible marksman in everything from small arms all the way up to battleship guns.  

The Admiral Graf Spee

We started this piece with a Kriegsmarine vessel, so how poetic that we conclude with one as well. Dubbed a “pocket battleship” by the British – the ship’s 11-inch guns were larger than the 8-inchers typical of heavy cruisers but significantly smaller than those of full-sized battleships – the Graf Spee was the centerpiece during the Battle of River Plate, the first major naval engagement of WWII. Between September and December 1939, she sank 11 Allied merchant ships before a relentless Royal Navy pursuit culminated in her scuttling off Montevideo, Uruguay

Graf Spree Pocket Battleship

Graf Spree Pocket Battleship. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Agree or Disagree?

Okay, dear readers, whaddya think? I imagine the Yamato and Musashi fans in particular will have some grumblings. Fire away (pun intended).

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS). In his spare time, he enjoys shooting, dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.

Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Dave Castleman

    August 17, 2022 at 7:07 pm

    We were told by the Merchant Marines that the New Jersey was firing to the North of China Beach into North Vietnam on December 1966 as we waited to go ashore on January 1, 1967 as part of the Ninth Infantry Division on our way to Camp Bearcat, RVN. Which battle ship was doing the firing that were observed? I been telling people all these years that I observed the New Jersey firing into North Vietnam but your article has different information. Please respond. [email protected]

  2. AlliesAppreciator420

    August 17, 2022 at 7:34 pm

    Bismarck was the Reich’s best submarine. Got it’s shit pushed in by biplanes

  3. Gary

    August 18, 2022 at 10:39 am

    Although Bismarck had some impressive technical innovations (it was the first battleship welded together; the US Iowa class was riveted and I’ve read as much as 4% of the weight of the Iowa class were rivets holding it together) it was in effect, a continuation of the World War I Bayern class of battleships. The World War I German battleships were known to have a weak rudder/propeller system that the Germans carried on with Bismarck that eventually was a major contributor to her loss (the torpedo strikes off the Ark Royal made her unsteerable).

    How could you not include HMS Dreadnought on this list?

  4. tim

    August 18, 2022 at 6:43 pm

    The assessment presented in this article doesn’t have very much depth, at all.

    “Best” is clearly a subjective analysis, especially when the criteria for not defining the qualities of best are. Best as it relates to accomplishments, like Warspite and Washington, or best in design, or best according to legend, myth, and feelings? Since these matters are not defined, we are left with a fine example of Lewis Carroll’s observation: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

    The most egregious selection in this list of five battleships is Graf Spee. It is to be noted that the only mention of “battleship” in connection with this ship and its class occurred in the British popular press. This says quite a bit about the technical validity of such a name as “pocket battleship,” as supposedly the only three ships that could destroy Graf Spee or one of its sisters were Hood, Repulse, and Renown, an idea shown to be false from the events off of the River Plate.

    Furthermore, anyone remotely conversant with warships knows that the Graf Spee and her sisters were nothing more than diesel-powered heavy cruisers in design and armor, which exchanged the conventional main battery of eight to ten 8″/203mm guns for six 11″ guns. This was reflected in the German names for these ships, firstly “Panzerschiff” and later “schwere Kreuzer” — significantly, not even “Schlachtkreuzer.” They were not, in other words, considered line-of-battle or capital ships, and thus don’t belong in a list of this title.

    It would make more sense for you to propose the French Hoche, rather than the Graf Spee; at least Hoche was a battleship.

    Bismarck is also a questionable inclusion. It was, at the end, a difficult ship to sink, but an easy one to put out of action, or “mission kill.” It did have good and bad attributes. Some have criticized the design for retaining the protective deck scheme, while others have defended that design, given the Bismarck class’s purpose (which wasn’t commerce raiding). The criticism that Bismarck was nothing more than an updated Baden does not hold well, and the ship did exhibit innovations. However, it was not a markedly superior design to the Italian Vittorio Veneto class or the French Richlieu class. While Bismarck might have had advantages in armor and speed (slightly), its eight 15″ guns would have been at a severe destructive disadvantage to Washington’s nine 16″/45 guns, especially as loaded with the 2700 lbs heavy projectiles.

    New Jersey class: What is it doing here? It performed shore bombardment duties, like its WW1 predecessors, served as great anti-aircraft platforms in the carrier escort role, and almost sunk an escaping Japanese destroyer at long range (according to some accounts). There really isn’t a significant battle or war contribution to be noted from these ships, and for whatever merits of their design, they were obsolescent when launched. The USN would not have been significantly impacted if the colossal investment in these six ships (two weren’t completed) went elsewhere.

    I can see Warspite, veteran of two World Wars in which it contributed significantly, and Washington, which did sink a Japanese battleship alone (although South Dakata did serve as a piñata in the battle), a task for which it was designed.

    What about Warrior, a ship which had a revolutionary design (the first true iron battleship) that could destroy any contemporary handily, and which far outclassed its French rivals?

    What about Renown, which chased off Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, or Duke of York, which actually destroyed Scharnhorst in combat?

    Dreadnought does deserve consideration as the ship that introduced the “all big gun” concept. Nevada could be considered for its introduction of the “all or nothing” armor scheme — both of these were very influential. Dreadnought also introduced high speed (for the time) and turbine propulsion it its design, also firsts.

    Prince of Wales endured quite a pounding from Bismarck and yet, as a ship that was still not ready for battle, managed to contribute to Bismarck’s destruction by her main battery hits. Prince of Wales lived a very short and harried life, finally being sent on what nearly amounted to a suicide mission similar to the Spanish Fleet in the Spanish American War. This is a ship’s history to be noted.

    There are a number of battleships worthy of being included on this list, and the debate could go on forever about such a list, and probably will. However, for most of the selections offered, I question the depth of analysis.

  5. Ron Cobb

    August 18, 2022 at 10:54 pm

    Sorry, The HMS Hood was an Admiral Class Battlecruiser.

  6. timmy

    August 19, 2022 at 3:40 pm

    The first battlecruisers, the Invincible class, where originally called dreadnought armored cruisers because they were armored on the same scale as armored cruisers, but had the armament of dreadnoughts (12″ guns at that time).

    Hood was called a battlecruiser, even though it had substantially the same armoring as the Queen Elizabeth class fast battleships as completed.

    The King George V/Prince of Wales/Duke of York class were also called “battlecruisers” because of their 28 knot speed.

    What is the point of your being sorry, and what is your point?

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