The range at which actions were fought

From the Washington Naval Treaty to the end of the Second World War.
Posts: 174
Joined: Wed Jul 22, 2009 10:45 pm

The range at which actions were fought

Post by Mostlyharmless » Wed Jun 20, 2018 2:22 pm

The designers of the last generation of battleships started with various expectations on the range at which their designs would exchange shells with other battleships, which was the reason why battleships were built rather than cruiser killers such as Scharnhorst or Alaska. I decided to survey what can be easily found on the internet on the ranges of real actions between "capital ships" during WW2 and offer it for comment, correction and interpretation. It seems to me that the real data would have caused the designers some worries.

The first encounter was between Renown, together with nine destroyers, against Scharnhorst and ‎Gneisenau off Norway near the Loften Islands on 9th April 1940. The action started at a range of 18,600 yards and continued as the range increased to about 29,000 yards, ... hp?t=12444. However, the only hits were at roughly the initial range. The battle occurred in daylight but “Weather conditions were rough, with a force 10 gale from the north west, intermittent snow squalls and heavy seas”.

On 3rd July 1940, the French ships at Mers-el-Kebir were attacked by a British fleet including Hood, Valiant and Resolution. Fire was opened at the maximum visibility range of 17,500 yards against the anchored French ships sinking the old Bretagne, causing her sister ship Provence to be beached and seriously damaging Dunkerque ... 34-317.htm. Visibility was limited by a mist.

A few days later, on 9th July 1940, a British fleet including Warspite, Malaya and Royal Sovereign encountered an Italian force including the Conte di Cavour and Giulio Cesare. Fire was exchanged between Warspite and the Italian ships, of which Cesare fired at Malaya, from between 29,000 and 26,000 yards. One hit was scored by Warspite on Cavour at 26,400 yards after which the Italians withdrew.

In September 1940, Britain attempted to seize Dakar and the battleships Barham and Resolution exchanged fire with an anchored Richelieu and the forts over two days. Barham hit Richelieu twice and was hit once or twice in return. I have not found good information on the ranges but 19,000 metres has been mentioned for a hit on Richelieu's main deck which produced a deep dent but did not penetrate.

In May 1941, Bismarck was involved in three actions. On the morning of 24th May, Hood and Prince of Wales opened fire on Bismarck at around 25,000 yards range. Bismarck opened fire slightly later as the ships quickly closed the range. Bismarck sank Hood with her fifth salvo. Estimates of the range vary widely but Jurens suggests 18,100 meters,, while Bonomi gives 15,700 meters (16,200 yards) ... trait2.htm. Bismarck and Prince of Wales engaged for a short time at a closer range before Prince of Wales turned away.

During the evening of 24th May, Prince of Wales and Bismarck again exchange salvoes at around 30,000 yards without either scoring any hits.

Bismarck was sunk after an action with Rodney and King George V on 27th May. Rodney opened fire at a range given as 20,000 meters (21,870 yards) on several internet sources, which is a very suspicious number. It is not clear which of the British battleships scored the first hit but it seems to have occurred at about 20,000 yards or less after Bismarck's forward guns had straddled Rodney without hitting. During the later stages of this action, Bismarck was shelled by Rodney at extremely close range without either a magazine explosion and without sinking rapidly. However, it is possible that the force 9 gale produced waves that diverted shells from Bismarck's waterline.

November 1942 brought the first two encounters involving American battleships. In the first, on the 8th November, Massachusetts fired on the incomplete Jean Bart anchored at Casablanca, hitting her five times at somewhere between 23,000 and 27,000 yards. Two of the super heavy 16 inch shells penetrated Jean Bart's deck armour and burst, in one case in a fortunately empty secondary magazine which was protected by a 150 mm deck with 40 mm below it. A third hit temporarily jammed the rotation of Jean Bart's only installed main armament turret.

The second encounter during the night of 14th to 15th November off Guadalcanal pitted South Dakota and Washington against the modernized battlecruiser Kirishima, originally commissioned in 1915. Kirishima opened fire on South Dakota at 10,000 meters (11,000 yards) range but was sunk by Washington. Washington opened fire at a range of 8,400 yards.

In December 1943, Duke of York fought Scharnhorst in the Battle of North Cape in darkness and a force 10 gale. Fire was opened under radar control at 12,000 yards and the engagement continued as the range increased to 22,000, when Duke of York ceased fire. However, either because of damage received or because of a breakdown in her propulsion, Scharnhorst reduced speed allowing British destroyers to attack and score four torpedo hits. Duke of York was then able to close to close range and Scharnhorst was sunk by her shells and more torpedo hits from the destroyers.

The final battleship versus battleship occurred on the night of 24th to 25th October 1944, or to be precise at local 0353 to 0409 of the 25th . The elderly Yamashiro, together with the cruiser Mogami and destroyer Shigure, approached six of Yamashiro's near contemporaries, the battleships West Virginia, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee, California and Pennsylvania. Yamashiro had already suffered two torpedo hits reducing her speed and putting half of the main armament out of action. West Virginia opened fire at 22,800 yards, claiming a first salvo hit. Tennessee and California fired soon after and also claimed hits. Maryland fired later and Mississippi managed a single salvo before a ceasefire was ordered as shells were falling near American destroyers. By that time Yamashiro had turned away heavily damaged and sank at 0419 after being hit by two further torpedoes. Yamashiro had only fired at cruisers and destroyers, damaging Albert W. Grant, which was also hit by American shells.

The conclusion from the ranges at which the actions listed occurred is that a battleship could be hit at any range between 8,400 yards and 26,400 yards. Worse still, the two hits made during WW2 at approximately 26,400, that by Warspite above and one by Scharnhorst on Glorious, occurred in 1940. It seems plausible that by 1944, longer range hits should have become possible. In fact, Yamato may have hit the escort carrier White Plains off Samar from further than 30,000 yards according to studies by Robert Lundgren. However, we shouldn't get carried away. In February 1944, Iowa and New Jersey spent about half an hour firing at Nowaki without hitting as the Japanese destroyer increased the range from 32,000 yards to 38,000 yards. It may be worth noting that all the hits over about 20,000 yards were scored by the last generation of battleships or by ships that had been rebuilt. Rodney's hits on Bismarck are candidates for the longest range hits on a ship at sea by older battleship fire control systems.

User avatar
Dave Saxton
Posts: 3093
Joined: Sat Nov 27, 2004 9:02 pm
Location: Rocky Mountains USA

Re: The range at which actions were fought

Post by Dave Saxton » Wed Jun 20, 2018 3:57 pm

Hi Mostlyharmless,

What I find interesting, is not the low hit probability of long ranges, but that night battle became the norm. After 1941, about 90% of all surface battles were fought at night. Night naval combat essentially excludes extreme long range gunnery for a number of reasons, even with advanced radar.

The theories of long range gunnery that were developed during 30s were based on aircraft spotting in daylight action. Radar theoretically could make it possible without dependence on aircraft spotting, but in practice radar made night battle more likely. Carrier aviation meant that carrier aircraft fought the day battles and surface ships with radar fought at night, post 1941.
Entering a night sea battle is an awesome business.The enveloping darkness, hiding the enemy's.. seems a living thing, malignant and oppressive.Swishing water at the bow and stern mark an inexorable advance toward an unknown destiny.

Post Reply