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HMS Vanguard – the British Titan

The Second World War was a catalyst for technological innovation on a global scale. In order to gain the advantage in the war, both the Allied Forces and the Axis Powers were pumping their money and resources into developing cutting-edge weaponry, and for many nations, this meant expanding their navy. At the beginning of the war, the British Royal Navy had the most dominant naval force on earth, boasting over 160 destroyers, over 60 submarines, and several aircraft carriers. The fleet fought on every front, including the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and even far from home in the Pacific battles. The Royal Navy also correctly predicted that they would be outnumbered by combined German and Japanese navies, so they were mainly focused on constructing faster, lighter battleships. This however didn’t stop British admirals from approving the most ambitious project yet- the HMS Vanguard.

The HMS Vanguard was planned to be the flagship of the Royal Navy. Blueprints for the ship began in 1939, but the plans were halted when the war started. Construction ultimately resumed in early 1940 when Winston Churchill himself advocated for it. Work on the ship progressed slowly throughout the war, with constant delays and pauses to alter her design. The main obstacle for building new battleships at this point was manufacturing the costly, large caliber weapons, but the Vanguard was in luck.

Armament

The Royal Navy had four 15-inch, 42-caliber BL MK1 turrets lying around from when two battleships designed for the First World War were converted into aircraft carriers in the 1920s, and although the guns were designed in 1915, they were such efficient heavy cannons that the model remained in use in the British Navy until 1959.

“The 15-inch guns on the monitor HMS TERROR, 1915.

The main weaponry consisted of 8 of these turrets. These behemoths were capable of firing 1938-pound projectiles at over 2400 feet per second (that’s an 879kg projectile at over 700 meters per second!). If those numbers are hard to comprehend, it’s about equivalent to an adult rhinoceros flying at double the speed of sound! These guns had a range of over 33,000 yards (30,000 meters) and each of them was deployed with 100 rounds of ammunition. At their quickest, the crew would be able to fire 2 rounds per minute from each barrel. The turret supports were also designed to withstand supercharged projectiles – a special type of munition that allowed the ship to increase its range to almost 38,000 yards (almost 35,000 meters).

These turrets had already proved their effectiveness in the war, especially in World War 2 when another British ship equipped with them struck an Italian warship from 26,400 yards away (24,100 meters), which to this day is still the record furthest confirmed hit on a battleship in combat.

Although these turrets had a proven track record, the only downside to them was discovered in the Battle of Jutland in WWI. During this battle, the magazine for one of the turrets was struck by a German shell, resulting in the explosion of the stored ammunition and the destruction of the ship. Newer models had a reorganized magazine and storage system, but the turrets for the HMS Vanguard were designed before these changes had been made. Instead of starting the turret mounts from scratch, the storage for the ammunition was given extra armor plating to prevent fire and the ship had a separate dedicated powder room.

Along with these mammoth turrets, the HMS Vanguard was prepared with its secondary set of guns – 16 twin-mounted 50 caliber turrets. These fired 80-pound (36 kg) projectiles packed with high explosives at over 2600 feet per second, or 814 meters per second. These were equipped with 391 spare rounds for each gun, and a fire rate of up to 18 per minute. Though these cannons did not hit as hard as their larger counterpart, they were a bit more versatile – Known as “dual purpose guns” these could aim up to 70 degrees upward if necessary and were able to accurately fire at both surface and air targets.

To defend herself from enemy aircraft, the Vanguard was given seventy-three anti-aircraft guns. These 40mm Bofor anti-aircraft guns were deployed on the ship in three different mounts – 11 of them were single-mounted and able to be independently aimed. These were placed mostly on the upper structure. Two of them were joined to create a double-barreled version, placed near the front of the ship, and the remaining 60 guns were installed in ten sets of sextuple-barreled mounts. Each shell that these AA guns fired weighed about 2 pounds (1kg) and traveled at about 2900 feet per second (880 meters per second). With a firing rate of about 120 rounds per minute, these guns were quite popular among the Allied Forces throughout the 1930s and 40s and were generally deployed with about 1500 spare rounds of ammunition, though the Vanguard carried a bit less due to storage space issues.

To top it all off, each of the guns on the ship was equipped with various rangefinders and multiple radar centers. The Vanguard was also the first British battleship to feature remote power control, or RPC, for all three sets of her weapons. This was the first time that not a single soldier would need to manually sit at any of the guns, and risk being hit during an attack. During combat, all soldiers would be safely below deck or inside one of the two main control towers, which housed the command centers for the 8 largest guns.

Armor

Below deck, the crew would be protected by state-of-the-art armor plating. The main plating around the waterline of the ship was a cement-based armor that was 13 inches thick (330mm) and slightly thicker around the magazines for the guns. This plating was 24 feet high up the side of the ship and was gave nearly impenetrable protection from all types of bullets or shells.

The Vanguard’s underwater torpedo protection was redesigned and strengthened halfway through construction after another Royal Navy ship The Prince of Wales was brought down by Japanese torpedo bombers, a stark reminder of their destructive power. The Vanguard also installed a layered system in its hull consisting of empty compartments and alternating liquid-filled compartments, designed to absorb the impact of a torpedo and keep the ship afloat even if the hull was breached.

The protection the deck offered was perhaps the most impressive. Designed to withstand a blast from a shell weighing one thousand pounds (450kg) and dropped from a height of 14,000 feet (4300 meters), the metal and ceramic armor was between 5 and 6 inches thick across the entire deck. The British, in contrast to every other navy on earth, no longer added much protection, only a couple inches, to the main towers as they deemed a direct hit to the command centers in the middle of the ship too unlikely to worry about.

The ship also featured enlarged oil reserve tanks on the sides of the ship, this was to counteract an effect called listing, where due to weight differences, either from cargo shifting or from flooding, the ship’s resting position is tilted to one side. It also meant that the ship would have more fuel than previous battleships, a feature that was intended after 2 British battleships ran out of fuel while in pursuit of the infamous German Bismarck.

Completion

The construction of the HMS Vanguard was given highest priority, so much so that other ships, including a lighter cruiser and several merchant ships, were cancelled to allow for greater focus on the new battleship. Interestingly, in 1942 a proposal was made to transform the half-completed Vanguard into an aircraft carrier, but this idea was dismissed.

Though she was intended to aid in the war against the Axis powers, the delays in construction, redesigning, and a labor shortage at the boatyards pushed her completion date all the way to late 1944. When the ship was finally launched into the sea, Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth, oversaw the ceremony. This was in fact the first ship that she launched, a tradition that continues to this day.

Princess Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, ca. 1951
Princess Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, ca. 1951. By BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives, is licensed under CC-BY

The final size of the completed Vanguard placed it as the largest battleship that England had ever constructed. She was 814 feet long, that’s 248 meters, and her beam, or width, was 108 feet, or 32 meters. When at maximum capacity, she weighed up to 51,000 tons.

And in the case of the Vanguard, this size did not come at the cost of speed. Not only was she the largest battleship in the fleet, but she was also now the fastest. She was able to cruise at a max speed of 35 knots, that’s just over 40 miles per hour or 65 kilometers per hour. At about half of her maximum speed she was the most fuel efficient, with a single-trip range of 9500 miles, or about 15,300 kilometers. This means that on a single tank of fuel, the crew could sail all the way from the UK to Australia without stopping.

Career

The success in the Pacific front and the imminent surrender of Japan, combined with the war against Germany transitioning to a land battle meant that battleships were losing their necessity in the war. This further delayed the commission of the Vanguard until after the war was over, and in 1946 she finally set sail on her first voyage. The crew trained and ran drills for most of her first year until it was announced that the ship had been chosen to host the Royal Family on a tour of South Africa.

The admiral’s quarters were converted into a luxury living space, and the dual-mounted anti-aircraft turret at the front was removed and replaced with a flat platform mainly for saluting, but which also doubled as a helipad. After rendezvousing with and being escorted by 4 destroyers, the Vanguard picked up the Royal Family. This was the first time that a ruling monarch had visited South Africa, and while the family was touring the country the Vanguard ran naval exercises with the South African navy and docked in several coastal cities. After the South African tour, the Vanguard was tasked with escorting the Royal Family once again, and this time on a series of diplomatic visits to Australia and New Zealand in 1949. These trips were delayed and ultimately cancelled due to the declining health of King George VI, who had become too ill to travel by sea.

Free from their duties with the Royal Family, in 1949 the Vanguard became the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet, and made port in Egypt, Greece, France, Italy, and several other nations in the area. It was also at this time that the Vanguard was proposed as a new carrier of guided anti-aircraft missiles, but this idea never panned out.

In 1951, the Vanguard was docking in Gibraltar when she collided with the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable. There was a sizeable tear in the hull, but the crew decided that it wasn’t a threat to the ship in peacetime. About a year later, in 1952, King George VI once again planned to take a cruise on the Vanguard but passed away while the ship was being refitted for his use. The following summer of 1953 she was present for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, and later participated in training exercises with the American, Dutch, and Canadian navies. It was around this time that some of the issues with the ship began to unfold.

Scrapping

The biggest issue was the price. The cost to maintain such a vessel was enormous. For example, her most recent refitting had cost £220,000, that’s about 7 million pounds today, or nine and a half million dollars – just to repair minor damages and maintain function. Many of her turrets had been updated to newer models, but it was difficult to keep the controls manned constantly and the ammunition was proving to be heavier than expected. For much of the 1950s the Vanguard participated in dozens of exercises and tours, but with minimal ammunition, and with many of her guns unmanned. Eventually, in 1959, after just 13 years of service, the navy announced that the HMS Vanguard would be scrapped. She was simply too expensive to maintain and was becoming obsolete in the technological boom that followed World War 2.

Just before being scrapped, the Vanguard was used to shoot the scenes for a few films including Sink the Bismarck and Carry on, Admiral. She was then sold to the British Iron and Steel Corporation for 560,000 pounds, that’s about 13.3 million pounds in today’s money. It took almost 3 years to finish the dismantling, but in 1963 she became the last British battleship to be completely scrapped.

Some of the steel from the hull later turned out to be extremely valuable, as it had been manufactured before the invention of nuclear weapons. Steel made before the atmospheric testing of atom bombs is called pre-atomic or low-background steel and is needed for special equipment that would be too sensitive to the small amounts of radiation found in steel manufactured after 1945, such as a Geiger counter. Parts of this “pure” steel from the Vanguard were used in the Radiobiological Research Laboratory in Gosport, England.

The story of the HMS Vanguard is one that certainly defies expectations. She was designed to fight the Axis … but was too late to the party. She was renovated to escort the Royal Family… but she only carried out one such mission. So, what do you think? Was the Vanguard successful in representing the strength and speed of the British Navy, or was she a victim of poor timing that never reached her true potential? Whatever you think of her legacy, there’s no denying that this was one impressive battleship.

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