At the start of the Second World War many still saw the battleship as being at the heart of naval power, but over the course of the war it became increasingly clear that this was no longer the case. This series of official Royal Navy reports traces that decline, but also shows that surface warfare did play a part in the fighting at sea. We start with the Battle of the River Plate, something of a classic small scale naval action, entirely fought between surface units. Next comes the sinking of the Bismarck, a series of reports that also covers the loss of the Hood. Here we see both sides of the picture, with the Hood being destroyed by gunfire while the Bismarck was sunk by a combination of air power, gunfire and torpedoes.
Next comes the loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, at the hands of Japanese air power. This battle proved that surface vessels unsupported by air power were very vulnerable, although one can also argue that the British were both unlucky (in that they almost escaped evasion) and foolhardy (operating without proper air cover in what were becoming hostile waters).
The most exciting of the reports covers the 'X craft' attacks on the Tirpitz, which saw a handful of miniature submarines inflict crippling damage on the massive German battleship. Once again the massive capital ship proved to be vulnerable to much smaller attacks, although this time of a rather unusual type.
The battle of the North Cape, which saw the sinking of the Scharnhorst, was the last clash between battleships to involve the Royal Navy, and was dominated by surface vessels. In that respect it went against the trend of events, but it did confirm that the major units of the German fleet couldn't safely operate within range of British capital ships.
The inclusion of the final set of reports, from the British Pacific Fleet in 1945, is something of a cheat, as they really cover carrier operations. There were battleships with the fleet, but they played a very minor role in events. Perhaps more than any other case this demonstrates how the role of the battleship had changed during the six years of war.
This is an interesting selection of wartime combat reports, giving a good idea of how the people involved in the battles saw them. There is also an interesting insight into the process of gathering intelligence in the case of the attack on the Tirpitz, with a series of reports produced as more information became available, ending with the report written after the British survivors were released at the end of the war.
1 - The Battle of the River Plate
2 - The sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck
3 - The loss of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse
4 - The X-Craft attack on Tirpitz
5 - The Battle of North Cape and the sinking of Scharnhorst
6 - The contribution of the British Pacific Fleet on the Assault on Okinawa 1945
Compiled: John Grehan & Martin Mace
Publisher: Pen & Sword Maritime