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Captain Seafort

A few thoughts on ship-to-ship combat

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This a response to Brian's new criteria video, specifically the section on (as the title suggests) ship-to-ship combat, and a couple of statements in particular.


In WW2 there were no battleship versus battleship engagements

Wrong.  Completely and utterly wrong.  Even before we start to consider the fact that the term "capital ship" would be more appropriate, given the shift from the battleship to the aircraft carrier as the primary instrument of naval power, the following actions were fought between battleships and/or battlecruisers during WW2:

Off Lofoten, 9 April 1940 - Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (32,000 tons, nine 11" guns) vs HMS Renown (36,000 tons, six 15" guns)

Off Calabria, 9 July 1940 - Giulio Cesare (29,000 tons, ten 12.6" guns) vs HMS Warspite (31,000 tons, eight 15" guns).

Denmark Strait, 24 May 1941 - Bismarck (42,000 tons, eight 15" guns) vs HMS Hood (47,000 tons, eight 15" guns) and HMS Prince of Wales (35,000 tons, ten 14" guns)

Sinking of the Bismarck, 27 May 1941 - Bismarck (42,000 tons, eight 15" guns) vs HMS King George V (35,000 tons, ten 14" guns) and HMS Rodney (34,000 tons, nine 16" guns)

Guadalcanal, 14-15 November 1942 - Kirishima (37,000 tons, eight 14" guns) vs USS South Dakota (35,000 tons, nine 16" guns) and USS Washington (35,000 tons, nine 16" guns)

North Cape, 26 December 1943 - Scharnhorst (32,000 tons, nine 11" guns) vs HMS Duke of York (35,000 tons, ten 14" guns)

Surigao Strait, 25 October 1944 - Yamashiro (29,000 tons, twelve 14" guns) vs USS West Virginia (32,000 tons, eight 16" guns), USS Maryland (32,000 tons, eight 16" guns), USS Mississippi (32,000 tons, twelve 14" guns), USS Tennessee (33,000 tons, twelve 14" guns), USS California (33,000 tons, twelve 14" guns), and USS Pennsylvania (32,000 tons, twelve 14" guns)


Ship to ship combat hasn't been a major decisive factor in a major war since the age of sail

Again, wrong.  The last ship-to-ship action to have a decisive impact on a major war was the Battle of Burwood Bank, on 2 May 1982.  By sinking ARA General Belgrano, HMS Conqueror induced the entire Argentine navy to retreat to its home waters, where it stayed for the duration of the Falklands War.  Had it not done so, the risk of attack by the Belgrano and/or the carrier ARA Veinticinco de Mayo would have forced the British task force to remain well to the east of the Falkland Islands, preventing the landing of ground forces to liberate the islands.

Likewise, during WW2 the critical battle in the western theatre was the Battle of the Atlantic - even 50 million Shermans would have been incapable of beating a single Tiger if the Shermans were all sat on the bottom of the ocean. At times, even with the advantage of US industrial capacity, the U-boats came close to winning the battle.  It wasn't until the start of June 1943, only a year before D-Day, that losses had dropped sufficiently that the allies considered it safe to begin a major build-up of forces in the UK in preparation for the invasion of the continent.

This demonstrates the reason that ship-to-ship combat is the third most important factor in an interstellar (or transoceanic) war, behind only industrial capacity and strategic mobility (Brian combines these two factors under the category "logistics", but I feel that they're sufficiently different in nature and individually important that they deserve to be treated separately). Ground forces, regardless of their qualities, are utterly useless until they get on the ground, and are utterly useless if they run out of supplies.  In order to get on ground, and to be resupplied, they have to to be confident that the enemy's naval forces will not interfere, which requires friendly naval forces to be decisively superior in fighting power. If this prerequisite cannot be obtained through superior industrial capacity or strategic mobility, it must be obtained through individual superiority in ship-to-ship action.

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