“The history of Sea Power is largely, though by no means solely, a narrative of contests between nations, of mutual rivalries, of violence frequently culminating in war.”
So writes the American author Alfred Thayer Mahan in the first line of his book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History in 1890. Today, the success of his book is credited with being a contributing factor to the United States becoming a global superpower. It did this by creating a global navy, dedicated not only to the protection of its coastlines, but also of its interests. This is the thesis of Mahan’s book – a navy existing not only to defend a country, but to project its power abroad. It’s not hard to see why he would come to this conclusion, as the influence of the sea on history truly cannot be understated. Trade flows over it, valuable resources lie underneath it, and wars have been decided by it.
As a consequence of this importance, the oceans of the world have seen countless battles between states for naval supremacy, and navies have been the focus of feverish innovations as countries sought – and still seek – to gain an edge over their rivals. This can take the form of new weapons, technologies, or tactics, but in this video, we’ll be discussing innovations in the form of entirely new ships, dedicated to solve specific problems or to fill specialized roles in the fleet, as well as some of their most famous examples and crews. Without further delay, here are 5 of History’s Greatest Warships.
We’ll start off with perhaps the most well-known warship of the modern day, the aircraft carrier. We’ve all seen America’s Nimitz-class supercarriers, which we’ve covered on the channel in a separate video. But America’s tradition with carriers goes back all the way to their invention. Carriers are the youngest class of ship in the modern navy, in part due to the fact that aeronautics is such a relatively new concept. Think about it – the first airplane only flew in 1903, which is not that long ago.
Despite this, the concept of naval aviation was so promising that resources were thrown at this idea. By the 1920s, countries were constructing ships specifically designed as carriers. Prior to that, the carriers of these navies were converted ships: battleships, battlecruisers, or ocean liners that had their decks flattened into runways for aircraft, either during construction or after they had become obsolete. Devoting entire ship classes to the idea was a huge vote of confidence.
In the interwar years, there was a fiery debate between naval theorists over what a modern navy should focus on – battleships, as posited by people like Mahan, or carriers, which were as of yet unproven. This debate would be settled once and for all with the outbreak of World War 2. In the matchups between carriers and battleships, the carriers won every time. It was a British carrier, the HMS Ark Royal, that played a decisive role in sinking the German battleship Bismarck. It was Japanese carriers that made the surprise attack against the American navy at Pearl Harbor, sinking four battleships and severely damaging four more. And it was American carriers that helped win the battle for the Pacific theater, sending countless Japanese battleships, including the IJN Yamato, to the bottom of the ocean.
One of these American carriers is still spoken of fondly today, the USS Enterprise, a Yorktown-class carrier launched in 1936. The Enterprise participated in every major naval battle in the Pacific campaign, including Pearl Harbor, where planes launched from her runway to engage Japanese bombers. She was the first American ship to sink a Japanese vessel in the war, when her aircraft sank a Japanese submarine three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese media mistakenly announced three times that she had been sunk in battle, which led to her being nicknamed “The Grey Ghost”. She survived to the end of the war with 20 Battle Stars, more than any other American ship, and by the end of her service she and her aircraft had sunk 71 ships, damaged or destroyed 192 others, and had shot down 911 planes. She was even the inspiration for the name of a certain Star-Trekking vessel – a fitting legacy for a ship that pushed the frontiers of naval theory.
Next, we will talk about the great rival of the aircraft carrier, the Battleship. Though the carrier would eventually prevail as the superior warship, at the turn of the 20th century battleships were still considered the apex of naval warfare.
The class we refer to as a “battleship” really begins with the launch of a single vessel – the British HMS Dreadnought in 1906. It was said that the moment this ship was launched, all other battleships in the ocean became obsolete, so much so that the entire ship class was divided into “Dreadnoughts” and “Pre-Dreadnoughts”. The Dreadnought was the immediate precursor to what we think of today as modern battleships, with massive gun batteries and armor plating capable of withstanding direct hits from other battleships. Prior to the Dreadnought, battleships tended to have a mix of large and small caliber guns; the Dreadnought was designed to have big guns only, and by removing the smaller armaments, it could fit more big ones on its hull. Whereas other battleships at the time would have around four heavy guns, the Dreadnought had ten. This meant that, at long range, the Dreadnought could decisively outgun any enemy battleships it faced. But that wasn’t all; the Dreadnought also incorporated steam turbines for propulsion, which gave it a top speed of 21 knots, faster than the 18 that was typical for pre-Dreadnoughts.
So, you have a battleship that can not only outgun your own battleships, but outrun them if they try to get close. All in all, it’s easy to see why this ship gave such a decisive advantage to the British navy. But the legacy of the Dreadnought, like most battleships, is a complicated one. For one, despite being designed to engage enemy battleships, the Dreadnought never did that. In fact, the only significant combat action it ever took was to ram and sink a German U-boat, becoming the only battleship in history to sink a submarine. Other than that, it never saw action, was eventually relegated to coastal defense, and was scrapped in 1921. Similar legacies can be found in other famous battleships of the 20th century, including the IJN Yamato and the German Bismarck. The Bismarck was sunk by the Royal Navy after only a single mission, and the Yamato was powerless to stop the American carrier fleets.
You might ask, then: what was it that made these ships so great, if their effectiveness was so questionable? Here’s the answer: though battleships became less effective as the 20th century rolled on, it cannot be doubted that they changed the course of history.
Let’s again go back to Mahan. He was an enthusiastic proponent of battleships because of the so-called “decisive battle” doctrine, whereby a naval war between two powers would be decided through the fighting of a single, well, decisive battle. Every major navy in the world followed this doctrine in one form or another before World War 1; until aircraft carriers and submarines proved the superior choice, the navies of the world were built around the battleship. Their very existence influenced how adversaries behaved. When the Dreadnought was launched by the British, it started an arms race between the British Empire and the German Empire, where the tensions would eventually lead to World War 1. Though the British and the Germans were roughly even in terms of fleet power, the decisive battle never came because they were both afraid of losing their expensive battleships to the other fleet. One might argue that this proves them ineffective, but the fact that both countries were so paranoid of the other’s capabilities actually serves to highlight the extent to which these navies were obsessed with the battleship. And in the occasional situation where battleships were pitted against traditional surface vessels, they performed quite admirably, such as when the Bismarck famously sank the HMS Hood. In conclusion, even though the battleship’s legacy as a fighter can be debated, its influence on history certainly can’t.
The Turtle Ship
Next up on the list is a ship not from the era of iron and steel-plated ships, but with wooden frames and cannons. Let’s set the stage: we’re in the Korean peninsula in the year 1592. Just across the Tsushima strait, in the islands of Japan, the long civil war known as the Sengoku Jidai has just ended, and the new leader of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, found himself with a lot of experienced samurai, armed to the teeth, who now didn’t really have jobs since the civil war was over. Worried about the possibility of civil disorder, Hideyoshi decided to give them something to do, and launched an invasion of Korea, with the intention of conquering China as well.
Korea was not prepared for an invasion of this scale. Though they would receive assistance from the Ming dynasty, much of the Korean peninsula was occupied by the Japanese. But fortunately for the Koreans, they had a man who would single-handedly turn the tide of the war. (Get it? Tide? Because it’s about ships… ah forget it.)
Admiral Yi Sun-sin, despite having no prior training in seamanship, is widely considered to have been one of the world’s greatest naval commanders. Over the course of the six-year war with Japan, Yi would fight twenty-three battles, and he would win all twenty-three of them, often outnumbered at some truly ridiculous odds; in the Battle of Myeongnyang, Yi defeated a fleet of 133 warships with just 13 of his own – without losing a single one. Admiral Yi managed to do this not only because he was a truly brilliant commander, but because he also designed one of the most iconic ships in naval history: the Geobukseon, (go-boog-sun) known in the West as the Turtle Ship.
Now, it’s generally accepted that Admiral Yi didn’t “invent” the Turtle Ship. Rather, he took a design from the early 1400s and improved upon it to make it more effective. Nevertheless, the power of this ship was evident of Yi’s understanding of naval warfare. The Turtle Ship gets its name from the armored shell on its hull, fitted with spikes to ward off boarding parties. As the Japanese ships were primarily built around close combat boarding actions, the Turtle Ship was a hard counter to this tactic. On top of this, the Turtle Ship was fitted with powerful naval cannons facing every direction, meaning it couldn’t be flanked. Lastly there is its famous dragon head ornament, which is said to have been used for billowing out smoke or fire.
Though this ship fell out of favor after the Japanese invasion ended and Yi fell in battle, its track record speaks for itself. Throughout his naval career, Admiral Yi sunk hundreds of Japanese ships, while losing none. To this day, Yi is admired in naval circles throughout the world, and the ship that he helped design is as famous in Korea as the man himself.
Continuing on, we have another armored ship for you, but we’re returning to the industrial era for this ship type. It’s difficult to articulate just how quickly the industrial revolution changed the world at large, and naval warfare was no exception. In 1820, ships were still using sail power and wooden frames. By 1900, most ships were built from iron and steel, and ran on steam engines instead of wind.
The in-between of these two periods is something that can only be described as chaos. Ship designs, technologies, and tactics were changing so quickly that many ships commissioned by countries were obsolete before they were even finished. Nevertheless, in the transition from wooden “clipper” ships to iron and steel “steamer” ships, engineers came up with one design that became the truly iconic ship of the industrial revolution: the Ironclad.
Ironclads, simply put, are warships protected with iron or steel plating. It goes somewhat further than that, however; ironclads were built with the express purpose of destroying traditional wooden ships. They were equipped with more advanced guns which used explosive shells to smash through wooden hulls. This, combined with their thicker armor making smaller cannons ineffective, meant that purely wooden ships were well and truly obsolete in the face of the first true iron ships. Because of their armor, ramming tactics were also popular with ironclad ships, and although the effectiveness of the tactic was questionable, ironclads tended to be equipped with ramming bows just in case.
When we think of Ironclad warships, we tend to think of a famous painting from the American Civil War, depicting the CSS Virginia doing battle against the USS Monitor, both of them unable to break through their enemy’s armor, a perfect illustration of the power of industrial warfare. But this was a time of experimentation, and ironclads came in many types, shapes, and sizes. There was the Monitor-class ships, named after – well, the USS Monitor, entirely encased in iron armor and strictly a coastal defense ship, yet one could also find some real amalgamations like the French Gloire, which had both a wooden and iron hull while running on both steam and sail power. It’s kind of beautiful, in a way; a fusion of traditional sailing ships with the latest industrial technology.
Though ironclads were largely experimental rather than long-lasting, they were the first step to getting us to the truly incredible warships we have today.
Last, but certainly by no means least, we have the submarine. It is often undersold just how much of an engineering marvel these ships are, with modern versions larger than commercial aircraft and powered by nuclear reactors, able to launch torpedoes and even ballistic missiles while underwater, and capable of withstanding the crushing pressure of an entire ocean above them. Though carriers get a lot of the spotlight when it comes to modern naval history, it can be argued that the submarine was an even greater advancement than the carrier, both on a technical and tactical level.
The history of submarine experiments goes back to the 1600s, but the history of “successful” submarining starts, once again, with the American Civil War, when an inventor by the name of Horace Lawson Hunley began experimenting with submarine prototypes to help the Confederates break the Union blockade. After a couple false starts, he came up with the H.L. Hunley.
Perhaps not surprisingly, a prototype version of a boat that’s designed to sink on purpose ended up being a bit of a deathtrap. The H.L. Hunley sank no less than three times, killing a total of 21 people, including Horace Hunley himself. Despite this, the ship became a proof of concept, as on February 17, 1864, she attacked and successfully sank a Union warship, the USS Housatonic, which became the first ship in history to be sunk by a submarine.
The engineering challenges presented by submarines were gradually improved upon over the decades. Famously, submarines were used by the German navy during both World Wars, and it was during World War 2 that America started experimenting with them, having a great deal of success against the Japanese navy. It was during the cold war that submarines went from being a luxury for navies to a staple. Nuclear power was implemented, allowing submarines to remain submerged basically indefinitely, and changes in the structural design allowed them to descend into even greater depths. The Soviet Union’s (now Russia’s) Oscar-class submarine is capable of submerging 830m, or 2723 feet. That is an entire Burj Khalifa, the tallest building on earth, underwater. Make no mistake – these are extreme vessels, built for extreme environments.
By their stealthy nature, we don’t know much about most submarine operations. Take a look at the USS Parche. It is one of the most decorated ships in American naval history, receiving nine Presidential Unit Citations and ten Navy Unit Commendations. For context, the USS Enterprise received only one of each. What did this submarine and its crew do to earn those rewards? Well, we don’t really know. The vast majority of its missions remain classified, and the ship was decommissioned in 2004. So, what this submarine did during most of its career is unknown to us, and probably will remain so for the foreseeable future. But one thing is certain: submarines are not going anywhere anytime soon.
The Future of the Sea
The history of war on the seas is interesting to see not just because of the stories that have come out of it, but because of what it means for our own future. Though the structure of navies have changed dramatically in the last hundred years, this fact has not – even with all our modern technology and infrastructure, 90% of world trade is still done by ship. Mahan identified trade over the seas as a concept of prime importance to the existence of a navy; as such, we can expect the ocean to remain a theater of importance in the future, and we can expect new technologies and tactics as countries continue to search for an edge. The more things change, the more they stay the same.