Battleships towed away after heroic service in war

HMS Vanguard
HMS Vanguard
Lively Lady amid the  welcome-home flotilla of 400 small vessels off Southsea.'All pictures: Graham Stevens

NOSTALGIA: Home to Portsmouth and a hero’s welcome

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I know there are quite a few Portsmouth men still living who were in the Royal Navy and served and fought in battleships during the Second World War.

Unfortunately these ships’ time was up at the end of the war when it was realised that these behemoths could be easily sunk by bombers.

Even the world’s biggest battleships, the Japanese Yamoto and Musashi, which carried nine 18-inch guns and displaced 72,800 tons, nearly twice the size of HMS Vanguard, did not last that long once American bombers found them. They just could not put up enough ant-aircraft fire or manoeuvre quickly enough to escape.

However, proponents of the battleship lived on, including my late father who repaired and re-fitted these monsters in Portsmouth Dockyard.

He could never work out how a one-ton shell fired from a battleship and hitting its target could be improved on.

It was not until I told him that cruise missiles could be launched from a ship 800 miles from their target and still hit it accurately did he begin to change his mind. It wasn’t one over, one under and one on target like it was with battleship shell fire.

If one takes the first Dreadnought constructed in Portsmouth Dockyard and launched in a year and a day as the first ‘true’ battleship, then one could say that their day had come and gone in 40 years.

Also the thousands of men required to man these ships would have put most governments’ Navy List budget way over the top and they would just not have been affordable.

The last of the Royal Navy’s battleships were anchored in Portsmouth Harbour for a few years, but gradually and one by one they were towed away to the breaker’s yard unloved and forgotten after much heroic war service.

The Queen Elizabeth class battleships Queen Elizabeth, Valiant, Warspite and Malaya all survived the war. HMS Barham was sunk by torpedoes and the rest were all sent for scrap in 1948. The Rodney and Nelson, those odd-looking ships with all three turrets forward, were all sent for scrap in 1948/9.

Then there were the King George V battleships, of which there were five built with the Prince of Wales bombed to oblivion with the battle-cruiser Repulse by Japanese aircraft.

Of the five Revenge class battleships, four survived the war with the Royal Oak being sunk in Scapa Flow. Again there was little work for them at the end of the war and they all went for razor blades eventually. To preserve a battleship like we have with HMS Victory was a thought, but nothing ever came of it. Even HMS Vanguard, which was but 14 years old at her demise, was not thought good enough to save mainly due to the vast expense in maintaining her – not to mention where to put her.

If one takes a visit to Chatham and visits HMS Cavalier, one would think from the dockside that she was perfect in every way inside but that is not so. Much is missing from the bridge and other bits and pieces, which make a ship a ship, are missing. The upkeep must be considerable too. But having said that, she is well worth a visit.

No, the battleships’ days were numbered and although Britain’s Empire was patrolled by these monsters of the sea their vulnerability to aircraft attack, which was unthinkable when Dreadnought was laid down in 1905, saw them off.