- Grazebrook, A.W., Lietutenant Commander
- Naval technology
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
- Displacement: 37,400 tons (full load)
- Principal guns: Six 15 inch; Twenty 4.5 inch (dual purpose)
- Sides (maximum) 9 inches);
- Turrets (maximum) 11 inches);
- Decks 2 to 5 inches
- Aircraft (1939): Four
- Speed: 29 knots
Between the wars desperate measures were taken to make lightly armoured Renown and Repulse battle-worthy by increasing their protection against shellfire, torpedo attack and, ultimately, air attack. They spent so much time in dockyard hands that they came to be known as ‘Refit’ and ‘Repair’.
In her 1936-39 refit the Renown was given a new superstructure and funnels which entirely altered her appearance; the Repulse never had these; also, by fitting new machinery and high pressure boilers 2,690 tons was saved which could be turned into additional armour, and a new and heavier secondary armament with special emphasis on protection against aircraft. Unlike her sister, the Renown survived the war and took part in some notable incidents such as the bombardments of Genoa in 1941 and the Japanese base of Surabaya in 1944.
HMS Hood (Sunk by Bismark)
- Displacement: 46,300 tons (full load)
- Guns: Eight 15 inch, twelve 5.5 inch, eight 4 inch anti-aircraft
- Torpedo tubes: Four (in pairs above water)
- Sides (maximum) 12 inches,
- turrets (maximum) 15 inches
- Aircraft (1940): None
- Speed: 31 knots
This huge vessel was the largest warship in the world throughout her existence and was the pride of the fleet in the 1920s and 30s. She was the last and greatest of the British battle-cruisers built on the principle that speed and hitting power were the important considerations, which meant heavy sacrifices in armour plating, and she was the last to pay the price. In 1940 she was Sir James Somerville’s flagship when he bombarded the French fleet in Oran. A little under a year later, at 6 o’clock on the morning of 23rd May 1941, she intercepted the German battleship Bismark in the Denmark Straits and after a short action was pierced to her magazines by the German 15 inch shells and blew up; only three survived of the crew of one thousand, four hundred and nineteen officers and men.
A further five battleships (King George V Class) were building, and another four (Lion Class) had been programmed. A fifth Lion, ultimately HMS Vanguard, was not projected until 1940.
All the Queen Elizabeth and R Classes would need modernisation to fit them for action against the modernised and new ships in service with the German, Italian and Japanese Navies. An appropriate programme had been commenced. This involved up to four of the existing ships being out of service for modernisation until 1940 at least.
Chatfield produced a table showing the number of British ships that would be required to ‘mark’ the German ships (existing and expected to join each year) in the North Sea and North Atlantic areas. It was apparent that no significant relief could be expected until the completion of all five ships of the King George V Class. Australia, said Chatfield, could have one of the Lion Class ships when they became available in 1943. A Lion Class battleship, at 40,000 tons, 30 knots, and armed with nine 16 inch and 16 5.25 inch guns, would have been superior to any single ship in the Imperial Japanese Navy except the Yamato and Musashi, of whose full size and armament Western Intelligence was not then aware.
Australia felt that 1943 was too long to wait for their battleship. They approached the British Government to sell Australia an existing ship, or to station a British ship in the Far East.
Once again, the Admiralty sympathised, but said they were unable to release an existing ship for either purpose until 1942. At that time, they indicated, a battle cruiser would be available for stationing in the Indian Ocean.
However, the British provided a list of ships they envisaged for a Singapore Main Fleet; the list made no allowance for ships being under refit, or for ships required for the Mediterranean. The historian is left with the impression of an Admiralty failure to face up to the possibility of having to fight in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Far East simultaneously.
Ships Available for Main Fleet in Far East
|2 Nelson Class
Warspite – modernisation completed
5 R Class
|early 1938 mid 1939
| 2 Nelson Class
5 R Class
|mid 1939 -early 1940
| 3 modernised Queen Elizabeth Class
2 unmodernised Queen Elizabeth Class
The three British battle cruisers were the only ships in the Fleet fast enough to catch the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. For this reason, Chatfield was not prepared to commit a battle cruiser to the Far East Fleet until the first ships of the King George V Class joined the Fleet in 1940.
The number of smaller craft was not mentioned in the list of Main Fleet ships provided by the British. However, Chatfield planned that the existing British China Squadron would join the Main Fleet. At the time, this included the aircraft carrier Eagle and five cruisers.
If the Australian proposal to purchase an existing British battle ship had gone ahead, one of the twelve battleships listed above would have been selected. All the battleships then in service in the Japanese Navy were capable of a top speed of 25 knots or more – the four Kongo Class ships, originally classed as battle-cruisers, could achieve 30 knots in optimum circumstances.
Details of speeds etc. of the British ships were:-
|Nine 16 inch
|Eight 15 inch
|Eight 15 inch
|Eight 15 inch
|Six 15 inch
Of the fifteen British capital ships, only the three modernised Queen Elizabeth Class (Queen Elizabeth, Valiant, Warspite) and the battle cruiser Renown had anything approaching an effective anti-aircraft armament. In the event, they stood up well to severe damage from air and submarine attack. The additional anti-aircraft armament and much improved fuel consumption provided by their modernisation, coupled with their superior speed and range, made them probably the best all round ships in the British Battle Fleet at that time. The tactical role of these ships at Jutland (where they served as the Fifth Battle Squadron) emphasises the significance of their four knots extra speed in battle line action.
The two Nelson Class ships (Nelson herself and Rodney) were heavily armed ships whose design had been strongly influenced by the need to comply with the Washington Treaty limitations upon displacement. It had proved impossible to give them both the speed and the armour protection that a Jutland-sensitive Royal Navy considered essential. In the event, Nelson stood up well to quite severe underwater damage. Rodney hardly suffered a scratch during World War II.
A glance at the speed, fuel consumption and range of the R Class is sufficient to demonstrate why Admiral Sir James Somerville regarded them as a liability when he faced Nagumo in the Indian Ocean in 1942. Only Royal Oak (lost in October 1939) having undergone even partial modernisation, these ships were slow, of short range, and largely unprotected against air attack. If the remaining four ships (under Admiral Willis as the Third Battle Squadron) were to be a liability to Admiral Somerville, one of them would certainly have proved a liability to the RAN.
Of the twelve British battleships in service in 1937, only the three modernised Queen Elizabeths were a match individually for the Japanese ships in speed, armour and armament. However, the ship that would have probably suited the RAN best was the modernised battle-cruiser Renown. A speed to compare with the Japanese battle-cruisers of the Kongo type, the best range of contemporary RN ships, and a modernised AA armament would have been valuable attributes.
However, either a Renown, a modernised Queen Elizabeth, or a Lion could have been up against a substantial Japanese force. Chatfield envisaged an RN battleship as supporting the RAN’s cruisers in operations to protect Australian coastal waters against Japanese depredations between a declaration of war and the arrival of the British Main Fleet at Singapore. He also envisaged the British China Squadron as avoiding action with the Japanese until the Main Fleet arrived.
It is open to some doubt whether the Japanese would have been prepared to risk losses involved in seeking out either the British China Squadron or the Australian Fleet during the interim period. It may well be that the Japanese would have taken care to preserve their strength for the action with the British Main Fleet, to say nothing of the United States Fleet. As an example of Japanese strategic thinking in these circumstances, Togo’s conduct of operations off Port Arthur would have tended to support this view.
From published documents regarding the acquisition of a battleship for the RAN, it is apparent that few participants had a concept of the significance of maritime airpower except in the reconnaissance role. As is well known, Chatfield himself appreciated the potential of seaborne airpower – he fought so very hard to recover control of the Fleet Air Arm for the RN. However, the extent to which that potential had been developed by the Japanese was not realised by anyone, RN or RAF, in Britain, or by anyone in the US, until World War II taught the lesson the hard way.
Perhaps that is why relatively little thought seems to have been given to the provision of aircraft carriers – either to the British Main Fleet or to the RAN. Many naval historians now see the whole question of the control of maritime air power during the period 1918-1945 as one of the most intriguing in recent naval history. However, this subject lies without the scope of this article.