January 1921: Battleship Still the Fleet’s Backbone, In Opinion of US, Naval Experts

The New York Herald, Sunday January 30, 1921 published an article about the future of the United States Navy and the ships and submarines that would propel the country forward into the global race for supremacy at sea.

From the article:

“Vessels Of The North Carolina Class When Completed Will Put United States In Advance Of Any Nation When Major Fighting Class Are Considered — Fleet Submarines Under Construction Completely Overshadow Famous Deutschland In Size And Speed, Besides Possessing Latest Marvels In Mechanical Equipment”

The article was another chapter in a series that described the growth of the American navy. These articles were part of a public relations effort to bolster support in the country for the expenditure of funds to grow the Navy. The end of the World War had left many nations in positions of power and weakness and the ability to control the seas remained one of the unsettled matters around the globe. Japan felt a need to increase its fleet size to defend what it considered its own growing sphere of influence. The fall of Germany left many of its former possessions in the Far East in jeopardy. The article discloses for the first time details about the six North Carolina class battleships that were planned at a cost of 22 million dollars per copy.

“The first of the new fleet submarines now building for the United States Navy, which are the biggest, most improved craft of their kind now actually under construction in the world, are called the T type, probably because a use had been found previously for other letters of the alphabet. Three other fleet submarines now building at the Portsmouth Navy Yard and six for which bids are now under consideration will be known as the V-boats.
Though the new vessels contain many novel features of design, the most striking advance with regard to their construction in their speed and great cruising radius. Nearly 100 feet longer than the best types of German U-boats, they are swift enough t0 keep up with the main body of the fleet, and their huge oil tanks give them a cruising radius equal to that of the most modern battleship. They have a length of 300 feet, beam of 27 feet and a tonnage of about 2.000 tons (not official). They will carry 100 men.

In speaking of the “most modern battleship,” it may fittingly be said that the United States now has under construction six craft which, when completed, will be superior to any ship of their type afloat. They are the six battleships of the North Carolina class, authorized under the building programme of 1916.

Battleship Still the Fleet’s Backbone, In Opinion of U. S, Naval Experts

Though Secretary Daniels and his advisers agree that the submarine proved In the world war that It has a field In naval warfare which can be filled by no other character of ship and are convinced that the American Navy cannot afford to be without an adequate number of the most improved types, they still believe that the battleship is the backbone of the fleet.

The battleship North Carolina and her the sister ships will be 684 feet long. 105 feet beam and will have a displacement of 43.200 tons. Her speed will be twenty-three knots an hour and she will have an armament of twelve 16-lnch Guns and sixteen 6 inch guns. The contract price for the hull and machinery of each of these giant craft will be in the neighborhood of $22,000,000. When these battleships and the six battle cruisers now under construction are completed as they are expected to be by 1923, the United States, according to Secretary Daniels, will be the first naval Power of the world In respect to major ships and gun power. In total tonnage and effective fighting ships the United States will be equaled by Great Britain.
The American Navy, however, will be considerably weaker than the British Navy, Secretary Daniels asserts, in light cruisers and other ships used for protecting the main body of the fleet and in conducting blockading operations. We will be slightly inferior in submarines, even when all twelve of the fleet submarines contemplated by the present programme are completed, and the lack of fleet aviation forces will place us at a disadvantage with Great Britain

Secretary Daniels Points Out Weakness of Our Navy Equipment

“This means.” the Secretary has said ‘that while our battleship force will be sufficiently powerful to cope with any navy In the world In a main fleet engagement between battleships, yet our main fleet would be open to torpedo attack by the enemy’s torpedo forces. We would also be handicapped in obtaining Information of the enemy’s movements and maintaining the blockade of the enemy’s ports. Due to the weakness in ships of this class, we would be handicapped in conducting attacks against the enemy’s fleet with torpedoes.”
In view of this statement. It is not difficult to understand why naval men are deeply interested in the new fleet submarines. The following table shows the present strength of the navies of Great Britain and the United States with regard to submarine craft:

Around the world, debates were occurring about the wisdom of building battleships and how to protect them. British Admirals pointed out that during much of the war, their battle fleet and the German fleet were confined to protected harbors because of their fragility to the submarine menace. In the early days of the way, Britain had lost a number of large ships in quick succession to the submarine menace and that limited their ability to influence the outcome of the war. One influential Admiral pointed out that if safe harbors could not be provided the battleships will not be on the surface very long if submarines were present.

When you examine the early days of the Second World War, the submarine menace would be enhanced by the Japanese use of air power to send ships of all nations to the bottom with relative ease.

British Vice Admiral Sir Percy Scott had been raising the specter of the weakness of the battleship since 1913. He had advocated a shift over toe submarines and Aeroplanes but was overruled by the traditional British Admiralty. This same battle occurred many times across the sea in the United States as visionaries were pushed back by traditionalists. Only the Japanese pushed forward under the cover of treaties to grow its fleet with advanced air projection and submarine technology.

The article ended with this very prophetic statement:

“Much has been said in condemnation of the submarine, particularly since its employment by Germany in a ruthless submarine warfare. It la a significant fact, however, that all first class Powers are building submarines. Secretary Daniels has made clear his attitude in the following statement:

“No nation, if it is to be prepared to engage in warfare upon the sea, can afford to neglect the submarine or to spare any pain to develop It to meet it needs. This type has come to stay as a factor in naval warfare unless outlawed by International agreement. Its abuse by the Germans in their ruthless campaign should not blind us to the fact that there is a large field for its legitimate use. Without accepting the theory of the enthusiasts that submarines alone can be developed to meet adequately all needs of naval warfare, we must all agree that the submarine cannot be ignored and has a field of its own in the conduct of war upon the sea which cannot he filled by any other character of ship.”

The reality is that the six planned ships of the North Carolina class would be reduced just two being built. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 limited the size and scope of most of the major Navies and it wasn’t until 1936 that the London Naval Treaty exposed the weakness of all such treaties. The two North Carolina class battleships would only have nine sixteen inch primary guns and twenty five-inch secondary guns. The ships would be ordered in 1936 and BB55 would be commissioned on April 9 1941, nearly twenty years after the article was written

World War 2 demonstrated the truth that had been predicted by so many about the vulnerability of the battleships. While the North Carolina would survive the war, she and the New Jersey class would be the last of the giants built by America.

I was invited to attend the commissioning of the USS North Carolina SSN 777 in May of 2008 and it occurred to me that the recognition of the submarine as a world class symbol of power was finally complete. The first three Virginia class submarines cost an average of 2.1 billion dollars.

As technology changes, it is my hope that the submarines of today do not become the battleships of yesterday.

Mister Mac





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