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.
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.
Built to the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, Nelson class battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney were unique in being the only battleships in the world with all main batteries mounted on the foredeck as well as being the only European battleships armed with 16 inch guns.
HMS Nelson during gunnery trials. Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum
In order to meet the restrictions something had to give. Hence Nelson and Rodney were given far less engine power than they needed and the ships were slow, their maximum speed being 23 knots vs King George V class battleships laid down in mid 1930s without treaty restrictions which could make 28 knots plus. KGV class had 14 inch guns. The Bismarck carried 15 inch guns as did HMS Hood and the other Royal Navy battlecruisers HMS Repulse and HMS Renown.
In spite of their efforts, the Admiralty had a difficult time making a workable design of the Nelson class battleships. One problem: if all main batteries were trained abaft the bridge structure and fired, then the explosive shock shattered the glass on the bridge.
You can see how massive these ships were even in their truncated state since they had the deck space required for a game of deck hockey, a popular sport in the Royal Navy of the era.