That's a really good question. For the purposes of this discussion, we're going to actually award not one, but four prizes:
The H title goes to the ship who can step into the ring and go toe-to-toe, one-on-one with any other guy, at whatever range, and have the best chance of winning. In other words, anti-aircraft and secondary armament and all that foo-foo stuff will be considered irrelevant. In principle, any ship of the seven presented here are candidates, however, the smart money is on either Yamato or Iowa.
M is pretty much the same, except that it goes to a battleship which at least pretended to pay lip service to the provisions of the Washington and London Naval Treaties.
B gets awarded to the battleship which has the best blend of speed, firepower, armor, secondary and anti-aircraft armament, fire-control, and the whole ball of wax.
B is awarded to the best all-around vessel which roughly conforms to the naval treaties cited above. This rules out Yamato and Iowa.
A tabular layout of the scoring categories is given below:
To see the scoring system and I'm going to be using throughout this comparison, click here. To see the FAQ, disclaimers, information sources, and other miscellaneous comments about this feature, please click here.
It should be noted right off the bat that just because one ship or another ends up being proclaimed 'Best Whatever' doesn't necessarily mean that it would always win a fight against a lower rated ship. See the scoring system page for a more detailed discussion of this question.
Anyway, we'll start with an examination of three vital areas: who's got the most powerful guns, the best designed protective armor scheme, and the most accurate fire control. First, though, we have to introduce...
As some of you may recall, the first edition of this page featured a three-way race between Bismarck, Yamato and Iowa. I received quite a volume of e-mail from overseas (including some from Germany, surprise, surprise...) debating various points of contention. And I have to admit, I learned a ton in the process. So I figure, hey, why stop there? Why not try and foment an 'International Incident' with every possible member of the European Community? And so, armed with new reference books, back-issues of Warship International, and unpublished source works, I proceed to stick my neck way out by introducing three more players to the game: Richelieu, King George V, Vittorio Veneto, and South Dakota! If this doesn't keep my e-mail In-Box full, nothing will!
All right, then. Let's start with:
Big Guns. They make every serious battleship fan feel that certain rush of excitement. They're what battleships 'Are All About'. So it is fitting that we start with an examination of main armament. Here are my ratings:
Armor. Ya gotta have it if you're gonna play with the Big Boys. The numbers provided below give some indication of the quality of the armor on these seven ships. Bear in mind that 'calculating' the effectiveness of one ship's protective scheme over another's is a very complex and subjective task. Here are my ratings:
You're probably asking yourself, who cares about underwater protection when you're slinging big shells at each other? Answer, sometimes those shells miss, and if they miss short of their intended target, they still stand a very good chance of diving into the side of the target below her waterline. Here, then, are my rankings of who is best able to shrug off the effects of an underwater hit:
This is a very interesting topic (for geeks like me), and one which is often overlooked. While not as glamorous (or obvious) as guns, it is crucially important. Here's how I rate things:
This section is very subjective, but examines such qualities as speed, survivability, damage control, and other factors pertaining to the tactical qualities of the vessel. Here are my ratings:
All right, it's time to add up the points and see who comes out on top for both the Heavy and Middleweight categories. Judges, your scorecards please...
G: In the battle of the heavyweights, Iowa edges Yamato, largely because of her awesome fire-control. SoDak, Yamato and Richelieu are practically in a dead heat, which is surprising on the face of it, until South Dakota's and Richelieu's very respectable fire control, and excellent protection is considered. In the Middleweight category, South Dakota comes out as the winner, though Richelieu is also a very strong contender, and has some slight advantages in terms of speed and underwater protection. She is clearly superior to either of her likely Axis antagonists, both of whom suffered from inadequate protection, and inferior fire-control (at least during the latter half of the war).
Secondary batteries were an important part of any battleship's armament. I'm going to segregate secondary armament into two categories: anti-ship and anti-aircraft.
As the war progressed, anti-aircraft protection became both a means and an end in itself, as battleships were forced into escort roles with carrier battle groups. We'll take a look at each ship's final medium/light AA suite for comparison. And again, throw weight will be supremely important for these short-range weapons systems.
The complete anti-aircraft suite is the sum of both DP secondaries and automatic guns:
Finally, we have a sort of catch-all category. What I am trying to capture here is how useful the ship was in conducting a naval campaign -- what was her radius of action, how easy was she to keep on station, and so on.
And now the moment we'e all been waiting for. Again, judges; your scorecards...
G: Not surprisingly, Iowa is the winner in the Best All-Around competition. American secondaries and AAA were awesomely effective. The Axis ships, particularly Vittorio Veneto, were horribly outclassed in this department. In the Middleweight category, South Dakota comes out on top again, followed again (though more distantly this time) by Richelieu.
Well, that sort of wraps it up. A very complex topic, all in all, and one which is impossible to answer conclusively. After all, as in all things having to do with combat, luck would have more than a little to do with determining the outcome in a clash between any of these steel monsters. And yet, it is certainly true that certain of these vessels were better equipped to operate in the combat environment of World War II. I hope this study has brought out some of the strengths and weaknesses of these magnificent vessels.
Paul Allen, founder of Microsoft, appears now to have found the wreck of HIJMS Musashi. To claim that Musashi was the most powerful battleship ever built would court needless controversy, but she was by most accounts the largest (very marginally larger than her sister, HIJMS Yamato). The sinking of HIJMS Musashi in October 1944 made depressingly clear what many observers had suspected since 1941, and even as early as the 1920s: sufficient numbers of committed carrier aircraft could sink a battleship, even when that battleship carried a heavy anti-aircraft armament and could maneuver at speed. But a more careful look at the story offers some insights into how we understand the relationship between military innovation and “obsolescence.”
In one telling, the sinking of Musashi was the final answer to the challenge that Billy Mitchell made to the utility of warships in the early 1920s. American level bombers sank the hulk German battleship Ostfriesland in July 1921, leading airpower advocates to claim that the battleship, and really all naval vessels, had become “obsolete.” Taranto and Pearl Harbor, where carrier aircraft sank battleships at anchor, were part of this story, but an even more important milestone was the sinking of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, under steam, by Japanese aircraft on December 10, 1941.
Another telling offers more complexity. Musashi reportedly took 19 torpedoes and 17 bombs (in comparison, the eight battleships under attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 took 15 torpedoes and 19 bombs collectively) before sinking into the Sibuyan Sea. No air force in the world was capable of inflicting such damage on a moving, well-defended target before mid-1944, when the U.S. Navy accumulated a fleet of pilots, attack aircraft, and carriers of a size and lethality that no one had envisioned in 1942, much less 1921.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Musashi entered service in August 1942, and remained in service for just over two years. Was she obsolete before completion (and perhaps even before being laid down)? In one sense, yes; simply in terms of maximizing lethality, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) would have done better to concentrate its efforts on submarines and naval aviation. In hindsight, the construction of Musashi and her counterparts seems wasteful and stupid. But then aircraft carriers were considerably more vulnerable than battleships, even toward the end of the war. Damage that would have left a battleship still operational could cripple or destroy an aircraft carrier.
This narrative of obsolescence, commonly told of the battleship, serves to obscure more than it illuminates. It’s impossible to argue that Musashi represented a wise allocation of Japanese national resources. At the same time, tagging Musashi as “obsolete” leads to a misunderstanding of military utility. The navies of World War II found many uses for “obsolete” battleships, some intended by their designers, others not. The rapid eclipse of the battleship in the post-war era owed as much to the structure of international politics (and the destruction of the great navies of World War II) as it did to the obsolescence of the platform.
The strategic bomber offers a useful contrast/comparison. The B-52 Stratofortress is as obsolete for its intended mission as HIJMS Musashi would be for its, and new purpose-built aircraft will have virtually no resemblance to the old BUFF. But nobody gets to start from scratch, and the ability of a military to find uses for its legacy platforms is often as important as its ability to harness new technological innovations.
The final legacy of Musashi and the other great battleships that led navies is perhaps the belief that the only defense lays in not getting hit; no degree of armor or structural resilience could prevent the destruction of a surface ship by aircraft or submarine. This lesson was perhaps overlearned; the experience of British destroyers in the Falklands indicated that naval architects needed to pay some attention to resilience. Indeed, the next war may demonstrate that “stealth” fighters are every bit as “obsolete” as armored battleships.