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Battleships were the most heavily armed and armored gunships afloat, although they were made obsolete by the aircraft carrier. Although some were used for shore bombardment and as missile platforms, the last battleships were decommissioned in the late 1990's.

The name "battleship" was initially given to first-, second-, and third-rate ships during the age of sail. These ships were called the "Main Line of Battle Ships" — or battleships for short. They are also known as ships of the line.

Pre-Dreadnought battleships

The first ships resembling modern battleships were built in the late 19th century, a few years after the ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia fought at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Battleships built in the late 19th century usually had four or so big guns (around 12 inches in diameter), and an assortment of smaller guns. Turrets, armor plate, and steam engines were all improved over the years, and torpedo tubes were introduced. It was this type of battleship that made up the "Great White Fleet."

Post-Dreadnought battleships

Battleship design changed, however, with the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906. Dreadnought had ten identical big guns mounted in turrets, giving it far more firepower than anything else afloat. It was so revolutionary that battleships built before it were all classed as "pre-Dreadnought battleships," and those after as "post-Dreadnought battleships," or simply "dreadnoughts."

An arms race ensued, especially between Germany and Great Britain. The Royal Navy of Great Britain had ruled the seas for most of the 19th century, but Kaiser Wilhelm set out to change that, in part for strategic reasons, but mainly due to a simple desire for a large navy. The culmination of this race was the Battle of Jutland during World War I, nominally a German victory, but the German Navy's surface fleet remained in port for the rest of the war.

After World War I, the Armistice of 1918 required the most of the German High Seas Fleet to be interned in Scapa Flow. The ships were subsequently scuttled by their German crews.

World War II

With the Washington Naval Treaty, the navies of the world scaled back on their battleship arms race, with numerous ships on all sides scrapped or repurposed. With an extension, that treaty lasted until 1936, when the major navies of the world began a new build-up. Famous ships like Bismarck, Missouri, and the Japanese Yamato were all launched within the next few years in preparation for the coming of World War II.

In the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, Germany's surface fleet threatened the Atlantic convoys, so the British battle fleet and carriers devoted themselves to seeking out and trying to destroy it. The German battleships and pocket battleships recorded early successes, such as when Scharnhorst and Gneisenau surprised and sank the carrier HMS Glorious in June 1940. When Bismarck sank the battlecruiser HMS Hood, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent every element of the Royal Navy he could to sink it.

As it turned out, however, technology was overtaking the battleship. A battleship's big guns might have a range of 20 miles, but the aircraft carrier had aircraft with ranges of hundreds of miles, and radar was making those attacks ever more effective. The Bismarck was sunk a few days after it destroyed the Hood, after being crippled by torpedo bombers from HMS Victorious and HMS Ark Royal. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor sank or damaged most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet's battleships, but the aircraft carriers were not in port and so escaped damage. Six months later, it was those carriers that were to turn the tide of the Pacific War at the Battle of Midway. Battleships in the Pacific ended up primarily providing shore bombardment and anti-aircraft defense for the carriers. The largest battleships ever constructed, Imperial Japan's Yamato and Musashi, were destroyed by aircraft. The last German battleship Tirpitz survived until late into the war by hiding in Norwegian fjords, but was eventually also sunk by aircraft.

As a result of the changing technology, plans for even larger battleships, the American Montana class and Japanese Super Yamato class, were cancelled. At the end of the war, almost all the world's battleships were decommissioned or scrapped.

Post World War II

The United States recommissioned all four Iowa-class battleships for the Korean War and USS New Jersey for the Vietnam War.

All four were recommissioned under the Reagan administration and converted to carry Tomahawk missiles, with USS New Jersey seeing action bombarding Lebanon and USS Missouri and USS Wisconsin firing 16-inch guns at land targets and launching missiles in the Gulf War.

All four were decommissioned in the early 1990s, the last battleships to see active service. USS Missouri, USS Wisconsin, and USS New Jersey are now museums; USS Iowa has been "mothballed."

Related Topics

See also: naval ship

Battleship is also a commercially-produced version of the pencil-and-paper game Battleships; see Battleship (game) for more.