HMS Vanguard


Vanguard in 1953. The increased sheer forward is clear. This made her much dryer than previous British battleships – and USS lowa.


A close-up of Vanguard in 1946. Note the numerous 6-barrel Bofors.


Vanguard, 8 September 1948. Note the transom stern, the only battleship so fitted. It gave an increase in top speed of ⅓kt and would have improved stability particularly following damage aft of amidships. The hull form is a good, conventional one compared with the lowa, which sacrificed a little hydrodynamic performance for the sake of more effective torpedo protection.

When the ‘large light cruisers’ Courageous and Glorious were converted into aircraft carriers their 15in gun turrets were put into store. In the late 1930s there were a number of proposals to use these turrets in a modern battleship. A DNC study of February 1937 showed that it would be possible to design such a ship within the 35,000-ton limit. This seems to have died but in March 1939 Director of Plans came back to the idea, asking for a 30kt ship of 40,000 tons. E-in-C wanted to use Lion machinery, the design of which was nearly complete, and this brought the speed at normal power to 29¼kts. The basic design of Vanguard was similar to Lion/King George V but changes were made using the lessons of the war. There were several proposals to build sister-ships taking guns from the Royal Sovereigns, but it was clear that there was insufficient effort to spare and none of these schemes was pursued.

In February 1940 it was decided to fit splinter protection to the waterline forward and aft of the citadel and to increase the protection of the eight 5.25in turrets. By April 1940 other changes had been made and it was decided to reduce the belt by 1-in. Underwater protection was the same as King George V but after the loss of Prince of Wales it was deepened one deck height. It was soon realised that the original light AA of six 8-barrel pompoms was inadequate and there were several changes. For example, on 28 August 1941 Goodall wrote ‘VCNS wants aircraft aft in Vanguard. Damn!’ (a very rare expletive in the diaries). She finally had seventy-three 40mm barrels in a variety of mounts.

Changes to the old turrets were not easy; they had been designed when magazines were above shell rooms and to reduce the work needed Vanguard had cordite handing rooms on the lower deck, above her shell rooms which, in turn, were above her magazines. The two old forward turrets became A and Y for Vanguard; the other two needed more work to give them the longer trunks to B and X. The face plates were increased to 13in and the roof to 6in NC. Flash protection was brought up to modern standards and the elevation increased to 30°. She was intended to use supercharge propellant charges but these were never issued. Remote power control of training was fitted.

In July 1942 it was proposed to convert Vanguard into an aircraft carrier, this being a reflection of the enthusiasm referred to above which led to the carrier being described as ‘the core of the fleet’. Though DNC confirmed that this was possible, it was recognised that the result would be to lose an excellent battleship and gain a mediocre carrier, and the scheme was therefore abandoned. The original design had aircraft arrangements as King George V but these were omitted to improve the AA arrangements. There was a proposal to fit a hangar aft but DNC was scathing and this, too, was dropped.

Vanguard had a transom stern giving a bonus some speed [½ knt] and improved stability. In September 1942 it was decided to increase the sheer forward very considerably which made her a far better seaboat than King George V (and Iowa). Inevitably, wartime changes meant that she completed much overweight – 51,420 tons deep instead of the final design of 48,140 tons. Stability had deteriorated but was still adequate though her stresses were a cause of concern. Additions could only be accepted if compensating weight were given up. She was the first British design with cafeteria messing which was initially unpopular but soon became a model for the future.

A personal view by David Brown

Because of her ‘second-hand’ guns Vanguard is often seen as a second-rate ship. However, she was much superior to King George V; compared with Iowa, her 15in shells should have had little difficulty in penetrating the thin belt of inferior armour. On the other hand, the heavy US shells would have caused much damage. Much would depend on who got the first hits; Vanguard could range to 36,500yds and it is unlikely that Iowa could hit at greater ranges. I would even have given her a good chance against the much larger Yamato.

But it won’t lie down!

Late in the war and even after there were attempts to revive the Lion. Two were planned for the 1945 programme with two more ‘projected.’ On 22 November 1944 the second pair were cancelled but the others were to proceed slowly. At this time it was envisaged that they would displace 43–50,000 tons with nine 16in, twelve 4.5in and ten 6-barrel Bofors. Long endurance at high speed was thought necessary and 6000 miles at 25kts was desirable. The roles were carrier escort and shore bombardment. It is suggested that shore bombardment was far less effective than usually claimed.

There seems to have been considerable opposition in the War Cabinet to this attempt to continue the battleship programme. The sinking of the Tirpitz by 12,000lb bombs was seen to mark the end. The First Lord’s reply made the usual points that aircraft, particularly from carriers, could not be sure of sinking a battleship in bad weather and that battleships were an essential part of the carriers’ protective screen. Perhaps for the first time, it was suggested that guided weapons would swing the balance away from aircraft. The sinking of the Tirpitz was countered by the failure to sink Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, only 150 miles from British air bases.

The new DNC, Charles Lillicrap, reported on 25 January 1945. Studies had shown that a battleship with this armament would be between 950 and 1000ft long with a beam of 120ft and displace 67–70,000 tons. There would be a 15in belt and 6in deck over the magazines. Some drawing work had been undertaken to examine magazine protection. A total of 18,300 tons was absorbed in protection and Lillicrap thought that this should be reduced. Sea speed would be 26kts, 30.25kts standard. Lillicrap minuted ‘he cannot but view with considerable concern the size of this ship … a ship even of this size is far from invulnerable.’

A small committee was set up to study the requirements of a smaller battleship of about 44,000 tons. They took a Sea Lords’ minute of May 1944 as their starting point: ‘The basis of the strength of the Fleet is the battleship …. A heavier broadside than the enemy is still a very telling weapon in a naval action.’ Armament was reduced to six 16in in two triples forward, the belt came down to 12.5ins but a 6in deck was retained (with 4ins over machinery) and speed, standard, to 29kts. It was hoped that this would equate to 45,000 tons. There were still hopes for a final class of four ships. The 1945 programme included two such ships at £13,250,000 each but it never reached the Cabinet.

It is often said that the battleship died because it was vulnerable. This is incorrect; it was replaced by the fleet carrier which was much more vulnerable. The battleship died because it was far less capable than the carrier of inflicting damage on the enemy.

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