Bigger isn’t always better. This is especially true in the world of naval design. There have been times when building the largest warship was either met with disastrous results, or the designs just proved bigger than what was even possible. Or, as is many times the case, naval designers designs can’t match the budget they are given.
During the Second World War, both the United States and the Empire of Japan opted to cancel planned super battleships that would have likely been larger targets for enemy warplanes. Instead of go big or go home, it might have been go big and go to the bottom, or give their entire naval shipbuilding budget to these Frankenstein warships.
With that said, let us take a look at three warships, two from the U.S. and one from Japan, that could have made history for their size, but not much else:
On August 10, 1628 the Swedish Navy answered the question “can a warship be too big” when the Vasa sank on her maiden voyage. Filled with wooden carvings about the exploits of the Swedish royal family, and thus built to be as beautiful as she was powerful for King Gustav II Adolf, Vasa proved to be so top-heavy, thanks to the unprecedented 64 bronze cannons carried aboard, that the ship was simply unstable and foundered only a few minutes after encountering a wind stronger than a light breeze.
While most of her valuable bronze cannons were salvaged, the ship was largely forgotten until the 1950s when she was salvaged. Today the ship is housed in a museum and has become the nation’s most popular tourist attraction.
Maximum Battleship Design
Whereas the Vesa was a warship that proved too large when she was actually built, the Maximum Battleship design was a project meant to be so big it was bound to fail.
It began after Sen. Benjamin Tillman (D-S.C.) took office in 1895 and he quickly opposed the expansion of the U.S. Navy.
Having a dove oppose a U.S. military project isn’t exactly uncommon, but Tillman sat on the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs and realized that his state could actually benefit from naval appropriations. When he became chairman of the committee he sought to have federal funds directed to South Carolina and to do so he requested that the Navy determine the “maximum” size of a battleship.
The result was a behemoth larger than any warship afloat and it fittingly was known as the Tillman Battleship as well as the Maximum Battleship. Among the designs submitted was one that was 70,000 tons, which was almost 50 percent larger than the World War II-era Iowa-class and it was to carry a dozen 16-inch guns and have armor 18-inches thick. The designs continued, but it was the fourth that truly topped them all – it was an 80,000-ton design with 24 guns and 19-inch armor.
It has been suggested that the designers were never serious and just attempted to appease Tillman with what were certainly ridiculous plans – especially because it would have been virtually impossible to build any of the ships envisioned in the early 20th century. After the First World War, it was the Washington Naval Treaty that finally put an end to such “ambitious” visions.
Design A-150 Battleship
Also known as the Super Yamato-class, the Design A-150 battleship began in late 1938 and it was to be armed with at least six 510mm (20-inch) guns as well as dozens of smaller caliber weapons. The warship as it was originally envisioned was also 91,000 metric tons (90,000 long tons) and yet would be fast enough to maintain a speed of 30 knots – faster than the American Navy’s North Carolina-class battleships, which could maintain a speed of 27 knots.
The thinking of the day was that the United States could “outbuild” Japan three to one in a naval arms race, thus the Imperial Japanese Navy sought to have a far more powerful vessel than any foreign equivalents. This was a policy that went back to the early 20th century when Japan leaped ahead with ever more powerful vessels. However, by the time designs were refined in 1941 the size and capabilities of the ship had been reduced substantially, yet even when it was released, resources would be directed towards aircraft carriers and other smaller warships.
The Montana-class was authorized under the “Two Ocean Navy” building program, and it was funded in the Fiscal Year 1941 (FY41). Nearly a third larger than the preceding Iowa-class, the super-battleship was to be 920 feet in length with a beam of 121 feet. Displacing 60,500 tonnes – 71,000 tons with its war load – it would have been even larger than the Royal Navy’s HMS Vanguard, the last battleship ever built.
The U.S. Navy planned to build five of the super battleships and each was to be armed with a dozen 16-inch guns, three more than the Iowa-class, while the battleships were to be more heavily armored. However, that would have come at some notable costs – and not in terms of the money that was needed. As the Montana-class was to be significantly larger than the Iowa-class it would have also been significantly slower. As a result, the project was sidelined and wisely canceled.
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.