Battleships and Battlecruisers were still seen as the height of sea power at the beginning of WWII, and having the most powerful and fastest battleships was considered all important, but by the war's end, these floating fortresses found their roles dramatically changed at the face of air power. World War II was the greatest conflict ever fought by man. Here are 20 of the first lesser-known facts that you may be unfamiliar with and are seldom, if at all, mentioned in official history books.

  1. HMS ROYAL OAK (October 14, 1939)

The first British capital ship to be lost in the war, the 31,200 ton battleship was sunk at her moorings at the British Home Fleet Naval Base in Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, by the U-47, commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Gunther Prien. The Royal Oak went down with the loss of 833 men including 24 officers from her wartime crew of 1,234. Her commander, Rear Admiral H.F.C. Blagrove also died. At 1.16 am, three torpedoes were fired from the U-47, all three struck and within 15-minutes the battleship rolled over and sank. A total of 391 lives were saved from the stricken ship. Being anchored in the comparatively 'safe' waters of Scapa Flow, many doors, ventilators and hatches, were left open. If these had been closed at the time of the attack, the Royal Oak would have taken longer to sink, thus perhaps saving many more lives. The U-47 made its way back to Germany and a hero's welcome for the crew. Gunther Prien and the U-47 were lost while attacking convoy OB-293 on the night of March 7/8, 1941. The Royal Oak lies in 25 metres of water, 1000 metres from the shore. Every year, on the 14th of October, a White Ensign is placed on the hull by Royal Navy divers. (A gift of 7,500 pounds Stirling was given by the Maharaja of Gondal for the benefit of the dependants of those killed.)

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  1. ADMIRAL GRAF SPEE (December 13-17, 1939)

The German 16,200 ton battleship, was named after World War I hero Graf Maximilian von Spee (1861-1914). It was damaged during the Battle of the River Plate off the coast of Uruguay, in which the British cruisers Exeter, Ajax and the New Zealand manned light cruiser Achilles took part. The ship was forced to take refuge in the neutral port of Montevideo where she was granted only a temporary stay. During the battle, the first naval engagement in World War II, 72 British sailors were killed and 36 men killed from the Graf Spee. During her war cruise of 77 days, theGraf Spee had sunk nine merchant ships totalling 50,000 tons. The battleship was scuttled by her crew on the 17th, soon after she left port. The ship was blown up by her own torpedoes which were rigged to explode after her crew had been taken off. Rather than see the ship humiliated in defeat, Hitler had ordered her destruction. Her commander, Captain Hans Langsdorff, who never willingly gave the Nazi salute, committed suicide three days later. (He is buried in the German Cemetery in Buenos Aires) During her short career the Graf Spee had sunk nine ships totalling 50,089 tons. These were the steamships Clement, Newton Beach, Ashlea, Huntsman, Trevanion, Africa Shell, Doric Star, Tairoa, and Streonshalh.

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  1. BRETAGNE (July 3, 1940)

In one of the saddest episodes of the war, the French battleship Bretagne was sunk by British warships, which included the Hood, Ark Royal and Valiant. The refusal by Vichy France to hand over their battleships to Britain, rather than fall into the hands of the German Navy, resulted in the attack at the French naval bases at Mers-el-Kabir, and Oran, North Africa. Hit by 15-inch salvoes from a range of 14,000 yards, the Bretagne exploded and capsized with the loss of 977 men. Many died clinging to the life-saving nets as the ship rolled over. Another ship, the Provence, (23,250 tons) was badly damaged and suffered the loss of 135 men. The battle-cruiser Dunkerque (26,500 tons) lost 210 men. The British attack on Mers-el-Kabir took the lives of 47 officers, 190 petty officers and 1,054 ratings, a total of 1,282 men. This action caused great bitterness in France, many French pilots volunteering to bomb Gibraltar, which they did on the night of 24/25 September, 1940, dropping 200 tons of bombs on the British fortress.

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  1. HMS HOOD (May 24, 1941)

Britain's largest battle cruiser, (44,600 tons) commissioned in May, 1920, was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck commanded by Admiral Lütjens and captained by Captain Ernest Lindemann. In an early morning action in the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and Greenland, the Bismarck, accompanied by the cruiser Prince Eugen (Captain Helmuth Brinkmann), were en route from Bergen in Norway to the Atlantic when they intercepted the Hood, the Prince of Wales and six escorting destroyers. From 26,000 yards, the Bismarck opened fire and at 16,500 yards scored a direct hit on the Hood's magazine causing the 112 tons of explosives to blow up. The battleship, commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Lancelot Holland, went down in about four minutes. Of a crew of 1,417 (94 officers and 1,323 ratings and Royal Marines) there were only three survivors, a death toll of 1,414. (Ted Briggs, one of the three survivors, died in October, 2008, aged 85) The mighty battleship had only fired its guns once in anger, at Mers El Kebir in 1940. The day the Hood sailed from Scapa Flow repairs were attempted on a defect in the magazines hydraulic system which failed to lift the cartridge into the loading position. In the heat of battle, could this defect have caused the cartridge and the whole magazine to explode? Did the Hood in fact, self destruct? For the Bismarck to score a direct hit on the magazine at this distance must be the luckiest shot of the war. The second question is why did the German battleships break off the engagement instead of pursuing and engaging the Prince of Wales?

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  1. BISMARK (May 27, 1941)

Hitler’s greatest warship commissioned in August, 1940. Fully loaded she weighed 52,600 tons. After her encounter with HMS Hood (20 years older than the Bismarck) she headed for St. Nazaire, the only port on the coast of France with a dry dock big enough to hold her. An order was given by Churchill to "Get the Bismarck". The hunt for the battleship dominated the world’s press, the chase lasting four days and covering 1,750 sea miles. Spotted by a Coastal Command Catalina flying boat, her position was reported to the Royal Navy ships. Finally, on May 27, the mighty battleship met her end after 277 days of war service. Severely damaged by salvos from the battleships HMS King George V, HMS Rodney, and by torpedoes from the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, she was finally scuttled by her crew. Casualties amounted to 2,097 officers, men and cadets lost including Admiral Lutjens and Captain Lindemann. There were 115 survivors, picked up by the Dorsetshire and the destroyer Maori. In 1989, the wreck of the Bismarck was found. She lies intact and upright at 4,763 metres about 602 miles off the coast of Brittany.

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  1. HMS BARHAM (November 25, 1941)

The 31,100 ton British battleship, part of the British Mediterranean Fleet, blows up north of Sidi Barrani after being hit on the port side by three torpedoes from the German submarine U-331 commanded by Kptlt. von Tiesenhausen. About four minutes after the torpedoes struck the Barham's 15-inch magazine exploded which completely disintegrated the battleship and sending up an enormous cloud of black smoke which covered her sinking. A total of 862 crewmen perished including her commander, Captain G. C. Cooke. There were 449 men rescued from the water by the destroyers HMS Hotspur and HMAS Nizam. The U-331 was later sunk on November 17, 1942, by torpedo-carrying Swordfish from the carrier HMS Formidable. (32 men died, 15 were rescued). Kptlt. Hans-Diedrich Tiesenhausen was one of the rescued and survived the war. He died on August 17, 2000, in Vancouver, Canada, at the age of 85.

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  1. USS OKLAHOMA and USS ARIZONA (December 7, 1941)

US battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor during the sneak attack by Japanese naval planes. This cowardly attack triggered the American involvement in World War II. Death toll from both ships amounted to 1,592 men, 1177 from the 1,400 crew on board theArizonaand 415 from the Oklahoma. Two other battleships, the West Virginia (429 dead) and the Tennessee were damaged and 196 Navy and 65 Army Air Force planes destroyed. All told, a total of 2,409 servicemen and 68 civilians were killed and 1,178 were wounded. Only 29 Japanese aircraft were shot down. That same afternoon the United States Chief of Naval Operations issued the following order "Execute unrestricted air and submarine warfare against Japan". During the Pearl Harbor attack, fifteen navy men earned the nation's highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. Ten were awarded posthumously. (Rear Admiral Izaac C. Kidd was killed when the Arizona blew up. He was the highest ranking US naval officer to lose his life during the war.)

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  1. HMS REPULSE and HMS PRINCE OF WALES (December 10, 1941)

British warships sunk by Japanese naval aircraft off Kuantan, Malaya. The ships were spotted by the Japanese submarine I-58 just before dawn and attacked by a force of nine 'Betty' torpedo-carrying planes of the Japanese 22nd Naval Air Flotilla from the Japanese base at Saigon and led by Lieutenant Haruki Iki. The battleship Prince of Wales (36,727 tons) was hit by six torpedoes and sank at 1.23pm. The cruiser Repulse (26,500 tons) was hit by five torpedoes and sank at 12.33pm. The death toll from both ships was 840 men (Repulse 513, and the Prince Of Wales, 327). A total of 2,081 lives were saved by the escorting destroyers HMS ElectraVampire and Express and taken back to Singapore. The day after the sinking, Lieutenant Iki flew over the grave site of the two ships and dropped a bouquet of flowers. The Far Eastern Fleet commander, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips went down with his ship. In this action, the Japanese lost only four planes. After this disaster, the dominant role of battleships in war came under grave doubt.

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  1. HIEI (November 13, 1942)

Japanese Kongo class battleship sunk by bombs and torpedo hits during the half hour naval Battle of Guadalcanal (off Savo Island) Damaged by shells from the USS San Fransisco, her steering gear shattered, the Hiei was now careering all over the ocean. Her commander, Captain Nishida, then switched to manual steering and after nearly completing a 180 degree turn sailed the ship away from the battle area at reduced speed. Soon three B-17 bombers, from the American held Henderson Field on Gaudalcanal and in company with six torpedo carrying planes from the USS Enterprise, attacked the Hiei. Listing to starboard and down by the stern, the order was given to abandon ship and the evacuation of nearly 1,300 of its crew began. The Hiei, was then scuttled by her crew and abandoned. Left alone in the gathering darkness it was never seen again. So were 188 men of her crew who went down with her to the bottom of Ironbottom Sound. This was the first Japanese battleship sunk in WWII and the first warship sunk by the US Navy since 1898.

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  1. R.N. ROMA (September 9, 1943)

Italian battleship, flagship of Admiral Carlo Bertgamini, sunk in the Mediterranean (off the coast of Sardinia) by direct hits from two radio-guided 'Fritz-X' 320 kg bombs dropped from Dornier 217 K11s Luftwaffe planes from the Istres airstrip near Marseille. (A total of 1,386 such bombs were manufactured during the war. This radio-controlled bomb was the first really effective weapon against the battleship, other than the torpedo). The Roma capsized, broke in two and sank at 16.12hrs. The Italian surrender had just been signed and now their foe was their former ally, Germany. The Roma (41,650 tons) had set sail for Malta from her base at La Spezia with orders to join the British fleet. On seeing the planes approach, the gun-crews mistook them for British aircraft coming in to act as escorts and held their fire. Admiral Bertgamini, 86 officers and 1,264 crewmen perished as the ship went down. The pitifully few survivors (622 in all)  were picked up by two of the escort destroyers. In the Mediterranean theatre alone, a total of 28,937 Italian sailors lost their lives. (The wreck of the "Roma" is at 41 10N 8 18E). During WWII, eight battleships were sunk by aircraft; these were the Roma, Prince of Wales, Repulse, Arizona, Oklahoma and the Japanese Hiei, Musushi, and Yamato.

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  1. SCHARNHORST (December 26, 1943)

The 32,700 ton German battleship, (Captain Fritz Julius Hintze) was attacked by the British battleship Duke of York and destroyers Savage and Saumarez while attempting to intercept an Allied convoy sailing to the port of Murmansk in Russia. Damaged by the 14-inch shells from the Duke of York and hit by torpedoes from the British and Norwegian destroyers, she was then attacked by the cruisers Jamaica, Belfast and Norfolk. After a battle lasting thirty-six minutes, the mighty ship rolled over and sank bows first at 7:45pm about 75 miles off the North Cape, the northernmost point in Europe. The 36 survivors of the 1,969 crew were picked up from the sea but 1,933 men had died. All of the Scharnhorst’s 51 officers were lost including the Group Commander, Rear Admiral Erich Bey. Altogether a total of fifty-five torpedoes were fired at the Scharnhorst, but only 11 struck the ship. Losses from the British ships were eighteen killed and sixteen wounded. The Battle of North Cape was the last conflict between British and German capital ships in World War II. Thus ended effective efforts by Germany to block the Murmansk convoys. The wreck of the Scharnhorst was located by a Norwegian team in September, 2000. It lies, her hull upside down, in just under 1,000 feet of water.

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  1. MUSASHI (October 23-26, 1944)

The giant 64,200 ton Japanese battleship built at the Mitsubishi Shipyard in Nagasaki, was sunk during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the greatest naval battle ever fought. The super battleship took 6 torpedo hits and 17 bomb hits during four attacks from the 259 planes of Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet. The Musashi, her speed now down to six knots and her bows almost at sea level, then rolled over on her port side and sank taking 1,023 of her crew to their deaths. This was nearly half of her complement of 2,200 men. Her captain, Real Admiral Inoguichi Toshihira, went down with his ship. During the battle the Japanese Imperial Navy lost 34 ships, the US Navy lost six ships.

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  1. FUSO (October 24-25, 1944)

Japanese battleship (39,154 tons) sunk during the Battle of Surigao Strait, Leyte, by a torpedo from the American destroyer USS Melvin. Badly damaged, she lost speed and fell out of formation only to blow up in a cataclysmic explosion half an hour later at 03.40hrs. The Fuso (Admiral Masami Ban) broke in two parts, the two sections remaining afloat and blazing furiously only a short distance from the northern tip of Kanihaan Island. The bow section was sunk by gunfire from the USS Louisville and the stern section sank half an hour later after having drifted with the current for some distance. Many survivors swimming in the sea refused to be rescued by the US ships. The Japanese destroyer Asagumo may have, or may not have, rescued some of Fuso's survivors but she herself was torpedoed and sunk with all on board some four hours later. Those that survived the sinking of the Fuso and made it to shore, were butchered by Philippine natives out for revenge. The entire crew of the Fuso therefore died, the exact number is not known but estimates put her full complement at just over 1,400 men. (The last Japanese battleship still afloat at war's end was the NAGATO. It was sunk off Bikini Atoll during one of the atomic bomb tests in 1946.)

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  1. TIRPITZ (November 12, 1944)

The 44,755 ton German battleship commissioned in 1941 (sister ship to the Bismarck) was named after the creator of the German High Seas Fleet, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, and out of action for six months following an attack by Royal Navy midget submarines. Only once during the war did the Tirpitz fire its huge 15-inch guns and that was in the bombardment of Spitzbergen in September, 1943, which destroyed the Allied base there. On September 17, 1944, it was again attacked while holed up in Altenfjord in Norway. For this attack the Soviets co-operated by permitting the RAF to use their airfield at Yagodnik. Hit by one of the 13 Tallboy bombs dropped on the ship, the Tirpitz was damaged but not sunk. The battleship was then moved south to Tromso and moored in Sorbotn off Hakoya Island. For the next attack on November12th, the RAF dispatched 32 Lancaster bombers from Nos 9 and 617 Squadrons based at Lossiemouth, Scotland. Flying at 14,000 feet, they scored three direct hits with 12,000 pound Tallboy bombs tearing open her hull for a hundred feet. The Tirpitz turned completely over, her upperworks hitting the shallow bottom leaving her stuck there with only her red keel showing above the water. Trapped inside were 971 crewmen who slowly died as the water rose inside. Only 76 men survived by making their way up to the bottom of the hull which was then cut open by rescue teams.

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  1. KONGO (November 21, 1944)

Built in Britain by Vickers & Son at Barrow. On October 25th, 1944, the 36,601 ton Japanese battleship Kongo was badly damaged by air attacks during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. A gash on her starboard side opened up fifteen oil tanks, the contents of which poured into the sea. The damage forced the Kongo to attempt a return voyage to Japan for repairs. While plowing through rough seas in the Formosa Strait she was attacked by the American submarine USS Sealion (Captain Eli Reich). Two torpedoes hit the battleship causing a list of 20 degrees. Heading for the nearest port of Keelung on Formosa, some sixty-five nautical miles distant, the list increased to 45 degrees. It became obvious to the captain and crew that the Kongo was sinking and the order to abandon ship was given. When the list accelerated past 60 degrees, tragedy struck. Her forward 14-inch magazine exploded with horrifying results and the Kongo rolled over and slipped under the waves. Some 1,250 officers and men were lost. Her escorts, the destroyers Hamakaze and Isokaze rescued survivors. The Hamakaze picking up seven officers and 139 men, the Isokaze rescued six officers and 85 men, a total of 347 survivors. A third escort, the destroyer Urakaze, was also sunk by the Sealion taking all hands, 307 men, to their deaths.

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  1. YAMATO (April 7,1945)

Japan's 71,659 ton, 862 foot long super battleship Yamato, commissioned on 16th December, 1941, was the world's largest fighting ship afloat. She carried nine 18.1 inch guns which could hurl a shell a distance of 35 miles. As the Americans prepared to invade the island of Okinawa, the Yamato set sail from Tokuyama with the cruiser Yahagi and eight escort destroyers under the command of Vice-Admiral Ito Seiichi, on what was considered a suicide mission, to engage the American amphibious fleet as it approached the island. Sailing with nine escorts but without air cover, the Yamato was soon spotted by a US scout plane which radioed its position to the invasion fleet. Within hours the mighty battleship was attacked by an armada of 386 fighter planes and torpedo carrying bombers from the flight decks of the invasion fleet carriers. Hit by at least eight torpedoes and many bombs during the two-and-a-half hour battle, the Yamato developed a 120 degree list to port after one of her magazines exploded. Minutes later the great ship capsized and sank at 14:23 hrs off the coast of Kyushu, taking with her 2,498 members of her crew including Admiral Ito. Of her full complement of 2,767 men, there were only 269 survivors. The cruiser Yahagi  was also sunk with the loss of 446 lives. Another 721 lives were lost from the sinking of five of her escort destroyers. Total casualties from the five ships were 3,665 dead. The sinking of the Yamato was the largest single loss involving a warship in history. Just like the Tirpitz, the Yamato never had a chance to fire its big guns against enemy warships.

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Source: 

George Duncan (members.iinet.net.au)
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