HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney were the only two battleships in the British Royal Navy with 16 inch guns.
All three main batteries were in the forefront of the ship before the bridge giving them an unusual appearance and the only battleships designed this was. During testing the Royal Navy discovered that if the turret closest to the bridge was traversed abeam to the maximum extent, then firing it broke all the windows on the bridge.
Built to the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty, the ships had heavy guns and heavy armour but had to reduce engine capacity to stay within the treaty limits. Unfortunately, their maximum speed was only 23 knots and that was on commissioning in the 1920s. They had a difficult time making that speed in World War Two although on occasion they made that speed and even higher such as when Rodney was trying to close with the Bismarck.
HMS Rodney had severe problems with water leaking into the ship due to defective riveting. In spite of extensive repairs made in the US Navy shipyard in Philadelphia the ship continued to have significant problems with water leaks–not a problem one wants in a man o’ war.
In her clash with the Bisarck, HMS Rodney fired 340 16-inch shell. While most firing was done in salvos, that is one barrel per turret would fire, the Rodney did fire a few broadsides. This meant all nine 16 inch guns fired at the same time. While designed for this, a full broadside was tough on the ship.
While the photo above is of HMS Rodney’s sister ship, HMS Nelson, you can see just how big were these 16 inch guns. HMS Nelson was the first of the ships constructed so they were known as “Nelson class” battleships. These were the only two battleships which carried main battery guns actually larger than than the Bismarck’s 15 inch guns.
The USS Mississippi was the first battleship of her class and was commissioned for the US Navy in 1908. She was subsequently sold to Greece in 1914 and was then renamed Kilkis. Kilkis saw minimal action during WW 1, assisted the White Russian Forces in the 1919 Allied Crimean expedition, and became a naval artillery training ship in 1935. She was sunk by German Bombers in April 1941 while docked at Salamis Naval Base.
Dressed with flags, off Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during Founders’ Week, 1908. Note motor launch off the starboard quarter, with Mississippi’s name painted on its stern, and the ship’s name in large letters atop the after superstructure.
View on the foredeck, looking aft, with the forward 12″/45 gun turret trained to starboard, 1908. Note: anchor chain and capstans; hatches; bridge structure with ship’s bell attached below its forward end. Photographed by Enrique Muller.
View looking forward from the ship’s port bridge wing, 1908. Note the 12″/45 gun turret with grating hatches open; also winch and capstans, with decorated tops on the latter. An old fortification is in the left distance. Photographed by Enrique Muller.
Under attack by German JU 87 dive bombers, at the Greek naval base at Salamis, 23 April 1941. In the lower left, in the floating drydock, is the destroyer Vasilefs Georgios. Kilkis, the former USS Mississippi (Battleship # 23), was sunk in this attack. The floating dock and destroyer were also sunk (reportedly on 20 April ?), but Vasilefs Georgios was subsequently raised and placed in service by the German Navy as Hermes (ZG-3). Photograph and some caption information were provided by Franz Selinger.
Sunk at the Greek naval base at Salamis, after she was hit by German air attacks on 23 April 1941. Photographed from a German Heinkel HE 60 seaplane after the base was occupied by the German Army. Note bomb damage to the nearby pier. Kilkis was the former USS Mississippi (Battleship # 23). Photograph and some caption information were provided by Franz Selinger.
Lots of American naval ships end up in foreign navies.
Heroic Austrian naval officer Baron Von Trapp and his family inspire musical Sound of Music
Austrian Baron Georg Johannes von Trapp
commanded Austrian Uboats in World War One
(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
The Austrian Navy? How is that possible? Isn’t Austria is landlocked? Yes, but it wasn’t when the Austro-Hungarian Empire existed. That multi-ethnic state collapsed after World War One. Territories ruled by the Austrian Emperor included Slovenia and Croatia which bordered the Adriatic thus giving access to the sea.
Above is the longest reigning Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph I, who reigned from 2 December 1848 – 21 November 1916. He was also King of King of Hungary and Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria; and retained the heriditay title of King of Jerusalem one of the kingdoms established by the crusaders in the Middle Ages.
In 1806, the Holy Roman Empire in central Europe, a very loose federation of Germanic states and principalities, finally collapsed. Since the Habsburgs had usually supplied the Holy Roman Empire with its Emperor, the Austrian Empire, ruled by the Habsburgs, became the successor state. There is an old saying in history that the Holy Roman Empire was neither “Holy” nor “Roman” nor an “Empire,” all of which is substantially true.
Whenever you come across a historical figure whose title was “Elector” then that person was one of the seven princes and kings who elected the Emperor.
Austro-Hungarian main naval base at Pula shown by red arrow on map above
The Austrian Empire or Austro-Hungarian Empire had a substantial navy with almost 36,000 officers and men and a large number of ships, including dreadnoughts and submarines. They did well considering that there wasn’t a common language in the Habsburg Empire. Educated people spoke German like the Austrians do today of course but others refused out of sense of nationalistic identity, the Magyars in Hungary being some of the most uncooperative.
singing von Trapps in Vermont in 1946. While pictured as a sweet and loving person in the Sound of Music, Mrs von Trapp was something of a dragon and ordered everyone around.
The most famous officer of the long defunct Austro-Hungarian Navy is Baron von Trapp. He and the singing Von Trapp family were made famous in the movie “The Sound of Music” which is loosely based on their story. Baron von Trapp was an outstanding Austrian submarine commander in World War One. He made 19 war patrols and sank 11 cargo ships, a French cruiser and an Italian submarine.
After the proclamation of the Dual Monarchy in 1867 with the Emperor of Austria becoming the King of Hungary as well as Austrian Emperor, the fleet was known became known as the “Imperial and Royal War Navy.”
That phrase in German is “kaiserliche und königliche Kriegsmarine,” abbreviated as k.u.k. which how the fleet was known. The k.u.k. operated mainly in the Adriatic Sea but during World War One also positioned itself as a “fleet in being” which could enter the Mediterranean if so chose and dispute French, British and Italian control.
Austro-Hungarian Dreadnoughts At Pula before World War One.
Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum
Austrian battleship Viribus Unitis
The fleet was based at the port of Pola, now Pula, in Croatia, then part of Austro-Hungarian Empire. After its defeat in World War One and the collapse of the empire, Hungary was deprived of all of its territory along the Adriatic and hence no longer had ports for Imperial and Royal fleet which was dispersed.
Austro-Hungarian fleet on maneuvers circa 1912
(photo courtesy Wikipedia)
A former commander of the k.u.k. was Admiral Horthy who proclaimed himself Regent of Hungary after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is how a land locked country of Hungary came to be ruled by an admiral for decades.
If you have an interest in learning more, substantial detail on the k.u.k. can be found here:
Battleships HMS Barham, HMS Malaya and aircraft carrier HMS Argus at sea circa 1935. (US Navy Archive)
Both HMS Barham and HMS Malaya were Queen Elizabeth class battleships built during World War One. Neither received significant modification between the wars and were past their design life when World War Two came. They were both old and slow. HMS Barham was sunk in the Mediterranean while HMS Malaya spent much of the war escorting Allied troop convoys. Under specific instructions from the Admiralty, all troop convoys, many from America, had to be escorted by a battleship plus a heavy close escort force.
The Cunard liners, RMS Queen Elizabeth and RMS Queen Mary were exempt from this because of their speed. When accepted into service as troop transports, their designation was changed to HMT/S (His Majesty’s Transport ship)
HMS Malaya, in spite of not being reconstructed like several of her sisters including HMS Warspite, still performed yeoman service in the war. Her engines were not in great condition and she could not make more than 20 knots which limited her from staying with a battle fleet. In the Med, she often feel far behind HMS Warspite, flagship of C-in-C Mediterranean.
After being hit by a German torpedo in March of 1941, HMS Malaya spent four months in dry dock in New York being repaired. She was scrapped in 1948 after long and honourable service.
Fairy Swordfish torpedo bombers were rugged planes in spite of their fragile look. A handful of them were made as amphibious planes and used for shot spotting during battle or reconnaissance. Once landed in the water, the plane would position itself so that its home ship only had to slow down but not stop to when a tow rope was thrown to the crew. They attached this to a special fitting and a crane lifted them out of the water.
Major Werner Pluskat, First German to Sight Allied Invasion Fleet, informs his higher echelon headquarters of the German 352nd Infantry Division.
At dawn on 6 June 1944, from this German bunker on a rise above Omaha Beach, Major Werner Pluskat was the first German officer to see the Allied invasion fleet which he described as headed “straight at me.” During the Normandy invasion, he served as the commander of the artillery battalion of the German 352nd Infantry Division, a scratch division built around a handful of surviving veterans from the 321 Infantry Division which had been torn to shreds during the Battle of Kursk in July and August of 1943 and the subsequent Soviet offensives. *
German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day, based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan.
(Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox)
“The Longest Day,” an account of D-Day written by American journalist and narrative historian Cornelius Ryan, Pluskat told him the following in a personal interview.
Dawn of 6 June 1944
From his bunker overlooking Omaha Beach, Major Pluskat rang through to the headquarters of the 352nd Infantry Division to which his artillery battalion was assigned:
“It’s the invasion! There must be ten thousand ships out here!”
Division HQ: “Which way are the ships headed?”
Pluskat: “Right for me!”
Division to Pluskat several minutes later: “What’s the situation?”
“We’re being shelled!”
“Exact location of shelling?”
“For God’s sake, they’re falling all over. What do you want me to do? Go out and measure the holes with a ruler?”
Pluskat obviously survived the war, surrendering to the Allies on 23 April 1945.
German actor Hans Christian Blech playing Major Werner Pluskat in the 1962 movie, the Longest Day.
In this movie still from 20th Century Fox, Major Pluskat is talking to his division command after intense shelling. Most German bunkers were well constructed and survived Allied naval gunfire.
Unfortunately, the naval guns of the era had a relatively flat trajectory. While battleships could, and did, hit German units 30 miles inland, targets as close as Pluskat’s bunker were harder to destroy because naval guns could not generate plunging fire like an army howitzer. So complete was Allied control of the sea, that many battleships assigned to the bombardment force were able to anchor in a long row in the English channel.
On Omaha, for instance, where very few tanks made it ashore, smaller ships such as destroyers and destroyer escorts closed the beach and directly engaged the German artillery firing from bunkers. There were occasions when the Germans were firing over the heads of the GIs on the beach at Allied destroyers who were firing back.
Naval captains took their ships in as close as they could, scraping bottom occasionally. But the invasion had to succeed. There wasn’t a “Plan B.”
Like most accounts of historical events, there is controversy over Pluskat’s whereabouts at dawn on 6 June. Speculation on a number of World War Two discussion boards suggests Pluskat wasn’t at his post at dawn on 6 June and fabricated his entire story which became part of the historical record and has been repeated a thousand times in various books until taken for truth.
Yet Pluskat did command the artillery battalion of the 352nd German Infantry Division. This division was dug in behind Pluskat’s artillery. The task of 352nd was to defend the stretch of beach known as “Omaha” to the Allies.
And Pluskat’s command bunker was on the heights above Omaha and remains there to this day as shown in the first photo of this post. His battalion did not retreat until they had fired all of their ammunition. So we know that he basics are true.
In an article about D-Day in the German weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel, on 3 June 1964, their reporter writes:
“Major Werner Pluskat, commander of four coastal batteries the 352nd Division in the landing section “Omaha” was one of the first who saw the Armada. From his forward command post, he peered through the telescope, when morning dawned and the mist of the night lifted above the sea: The horizon was dotted with ships – ten thousand estimated the Major. The inferno broke out.”
Cornelius Ryan, who wrote the book, The Longest Day, was a well-known journalist of the era and a careful researcher. Born in Ireland (he became an American citizen in 1957) he worked as a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph of London.
Incredibly, he flew 14 bombing missions over Germany as part of his work as a journalist although not required to do so. He also witnessed the D-Day landings as a journalist. It would have been difficult to fool him.
Since Ryan interviewed so many participants in the battle, Allied and German, I find it hard to believe that Pluskat made up the story about himself he told Ryan. Further Pluskat only died in 2002 at age 90 so other German veterans of D-Day from the 352nd Infantry Division had decades to accuse Pluskat of lying. To my knowledge, such accusations were never made.
Ryan’s book is a well-written narrative history of the D-Day. It contains a number of small inaccuracies. However, these are mainly due to his lack of access to records about D-Day which were still classified at the time he wrote the book in 1957 and 1958. But his interview with Pluskat is accurate.
“The Longest Day” was published in 1959.
Sadly, Cornelius Ryan died tragically early in his life at age 54 in 1974 of prostate cancer.
*a fascinating “look behind enemy lines” can be found in the correctly translate reported written for the Allies after the battle by one of the captured regimental commanders of the 352nd German Infantry Division. Historian Stewart Bryant tracked down the original document in German written by the officer. About twenty years ago, historians discovered that hundreds of these documents had been incorrectly translated.
Bryant has translated this German report into English himself and has added valuable commentary and explanations.
Firing all main battery guns at once was a broadside. Usually, battleships fired salvos. This consisted of firing every other barrel of the main batteries and was the usual practice.
comments Charles McCain: HMS Rodney was one of two Nelson class battleships constructed in the late 1920s. (Commissioned in 1927). These two battleships were unique in the Royal Navy. They were the only battleships armed with 16 inch main batteries, the heaviest guns in the fleet, all three main battery turrets were forward of the bridge.
They were the only two RN battleships which had armament equal to the Bismarck’s.
Comments Charles McCain: battlecruiser HMS Renown firing. During this carefully planned attack on the dockyards at Genoa by the famed Force H from Gibralter (the ‘H’ did not stand for anything), HMS Renown served as the flagship of Admiral James Somerville.
Known to the men as “our Jimmy,” or “Slim” Somerville was a respected, popular and effective fighting admiral. He was never pretentious and radiated calm and good humour. He was knowledgeable about new technology and how to best use such new inventions as radar.
Curiously, he had been retired before the war due to what we call today as a “false positive” on an x-ray for tuberculosis although it became clear as time went on that he did not have that disease. Somerville was recalled to the colours when the war began and served throughout the conflict on the retired list.
Tuberculosis was a serious problem in the Royal Navy and medical officers were deeply concerned about the disease. Given how contagious this disease was, it could spread rapidly through the damp and often poorly ventilated mess decks of a warship.
After testing positive for TB,100 men immediately taken off HMS Renown
In late December 1944, HMS Renown arrived in Durban for a refit prior to returning to Europe. While the ship was being refitted and critical maintenance on engines and other machinery performed, every member of the ship’s company was given a chest x-ray. More than 100 were found to have tuberculosis and were immediately removed from the ship.
(Source: The Battlecruiser HMS Renown by Peter C. Smith)
HMS Barham, torpedoed and sunk with the loss of 55 officers and 806 ratings.
This vid clip is one minute and eleven seconds long. In these 71 seconds, the Royal Navy battleship, HMS Barham, rolled over on her beam ends, explodes, and then sinks. At the end of the vid clip, the ship is gone, disappeared beneath the sea.
In the time it takes to watch it, fifty-five officers and eight hundred six ratings died–men who were fighting against “a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime,” as the Nazis were so aptly described in their evil by Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 13 May 1940 in his first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister.
Incredibly, the sinking and explosion was caught on film by a news reel cameraman from Gaumont News. The cameraman who caught the sinking and explosion, John Turner, was standing on the deck of the nearby Royal Navy battleship, HMS Valiant, which was on station close to Barham.
You can read accounts by the crew members who survived here: