Thursday, February 13, 2020

How Few Torpedoes Could Sink a Battleship?

Monsters of the Sea!

Battleship Yamato under attack
Japanese 45,000-ton battleship Yamato on fire right before she sank on 7 April 1945. Her nine 46 cm ( 18.1-inch) 45 Caliber Type 94 main guns are turned in a futile attempt to shoot down the planes attacking her. (AP Photo).
How many torpedoes are required to sink a battleship? Obviously, if you pound torpedo after torpedo into any steel ship, it eventually will sink. But what is the least number of torpedoes that it took to sink a battleship during World War II? We have an answer to that, and it may surprise you.

Battleship Musashi under attack
Musashi under attack on 24 October 1944.
Sometimes half a dozen torpedo strikes might not be enough to sink a battleship. There is some issue whether the German battleship Bismarck would have sunk despite being hit repeatedly by all sorts of torpedoes and gunfire. Ultimately, the crew opened the seacocks to avoid the humiliation of the Allies capturing the Fuhrer's grandest battleship. The gigantic Japanese battleship Musashi reportedly took 19 torpedo hits, 10 port and 9 on the starboard) from the US Navy before sinking.

Battleship HMS Barham blowing up
HMS Barham sinking after taking three torpedo hits.
A more typical number of torpedo strikes necessary to sink a battleship was three. This was how many, for instance, it took for U-331 to sink HMS Barham  25 November 1941. Of course, when you hit a battleship with more than one torpedo, it's not proven that it required all three to sink. Maybe only one or two ould have done the job. The third strike may have just been icing on the cake.

Anyway, I am going to give you that answer for the least number of torpedoes to sink a battleship, and here it is.

The answer is one torpedo can and did sink a battleship. And, here we get to the interesting case of the USS Nevada (BB-36).

The real rolling thunder!

USS Nevada

The USS Nevada was a fairly old battleship, completed in 1916, but it was by no means obsolete during World War II. There is a very bad tendency among some to dismiss any large Allied warship that was sunk during World II as being outdated or worn out or this or that. There was nothing second-rate about USS Nevada. It was fully crewed and ready for action on the morning of 7 December 1941. The Japanese attacked without warning on a Sunday morning and caught the Americans completely unprepared.

Japanese attacking battleship at Pearl Harbor
Japanese planes attacking Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941.
As the lone battleship on Battleship Row to be moored alone and not next to another ship, USS Nevada was able to make steam and get underway as the attack began. Almost immediately, it was struck by one 18 in (460 mm) Type 91 Mod 2 torpedo.

Damage to battleship USS Nevada
Torpedo damage to USS Nevada. This photograph was taken on 19 February 1942 (US Navy).
The torpedo hit about 14 feet (4.3 meters) above the keel. This caused structural damage to the torpedo bulkhead directly behind it. The ship began developing a slight list to port. Counterflooding restored the ship’s orientation, but it was in trouble.

Due to the commanding officer being ashore, the officer in charge was an ensign. This may be the only time in history that an ensign commanded a battleship in battle, but Ensign Joe Taussig, Jr., did an incredible job and displayed outstanding initiative. He got Nevada underway and headed for open water. The commanding officer, Francis W. Scanland, eventually got a launch to take him out to the battleship after the ship had run aground, but Taussig probably saved the ship.

Battleship USS Nevada (BB-36)
U.S.S. Nevada (BB-36).
The Japanese hit Nevada with about half a dozen bombs as it tried to steam out of the harbor. However, the Val dive bombers only had 250 kg bombs and these weren’t going to do enough damage to sink a battleship unless they got incredibly lucky (setting fire to a magazine, for instance). In this case, the bombs don’t seem to have caused any flooding. So, the danger to the ship was from the one torpedo that struck it and caused flooding.

Battleship USS Nevada beached in Pearl Harbor after its torpedo strike
USS Nevada beached at Hospital Point. (Library of Congress).
Lt. Cmdr. Francis Thomas, the command duty officer with Scanland still ashore, eventually gave up trying to scoot to safety and (under orders) wisely grounded Nevada off Hospital Point. Through a combination of factors, including the lack of adequate watertight compartments, flooding got out of control. But for grounding it, Thomas would have lost the ship. If taken out to deep water, it would have been lost. As it was, it took months to refloat Nevada for temporary repairs (everyone worked around the clock because of fears of more Japanese attacks, so that was an eternity and indicated a lot of damage had been caused).

So, if anyone tells you that a battleship can only be sunk by multiple torpedoes, be skeptical: it took only one to take down the USS Nevada.

Battleship USS Nevada leaves Pearl Harbor after temporary repairs
USS Nevada heads out to sea for trials after completion of temporary repairs before heading for Puget Sound for final repairs, 19 April 1942 (US Navy Naval History and Heritage Command 80-G-64768).


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