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The Last British Battleship: HMS Vanguard, 1946-1960

Reviewed by Ed Calouro

HMS Vanguard was the final battleship built for the Royal Navy.  She represented the last of a long line of historic ships stretching back at least a century to the ironclad HMS Warrior (1860) if not to HMS Victory (commissioned in 1778) and similar ships of the line.  It was a sad day indeed in 1960 when she was sent to the breakers. For the first time in almost one hundred years, the Royal Navy had no battleships in its fleets. 

Not only was HMS Vanguard the last British battleship, she was arguably the best.  HMS Vanguard was designed and completed largely in reaction to capital ships built by Japan and Germany in the 1940s.  In addition, Vanguard benefited from the wartime experiences of her predecessors. By 1941, the year she was laid down at the Clydebank, the Royal Navy had already lost five capital ships.  HMS Vanguard incorporated improvements to the dreadnoughts of the King George V-class and the Lion and Temeraire.  The latter two were laid-down in 1939, but never completed. Perhaps the most noteworthy example is that of the King George V-class battleship HMS Prince of Wales.  Sunk by the Japanese on 10 December 1941 along with the battlecruiser Repulse, after-action reports indicated the anti-aircraft (AA) fire from these capital ships had next to no effect on the attacking Japanese aircraft.  As a result, the 20mm mounts on the Vanguard were replaced by 40mm guns.  Eventually, Vanguard carried seventy-three 40mm barrels.  Her AA protection was “the best and most sophisticated… ever fitted on a British battleship” (pp. 15 + 52). 

The last Royal Navy super dreadnought carried an impressive array of features.  Her main armament consisted of eight 15inch 42-caliber Mark I guns.  They were controversial for at least two reasons.  First, they represented a retrograde from the 16inch guns of the HMS Nelson-class and the 16inch main armament installed on the ten US Navy modern battleships of the North Carolina, South Dakota, and Iowa classes.  Second, Vanguard’s 15inch guns came from mountings removed from the battlecruisers HMS Courageous and Glorious when the latter two ships were converted to aircraft carriers (1924/30).  These guns were modernized to WW II standards (pp. 14 + 46) and carried in four twin turrets.  With an overall length of 814 feet, HMS Vanguard was more than sixty-nine feet longer than the KGV-class.  The greater size was required, in part, to accommodate a fourth turret. 

Other noteworthy features included a displacement of 45,116 tons (light load).  HMS Vanguard’s machinery had a designed 130,000 ship’s horsepower, which allowed her to attain a top speed of 30 knots.  Her 108-foot beam meant she could pass through the Panama Canal.  Her radius of action was a healthy 7,560 miles at 12 knots.  The secondary armament consisted of sixteen 5.25inch dual purpose guns evenly divided between port and starboard.  Combined with her array of 40mm mounts, her AA protection was formidable. 

HMS Vanguard was commissioned on 25 April 1946.  Her construction was delayed during the war because of shortages of skilled laborers and the prioritization given to anti-submarine vessels needed to counter German U-boats.  Subsequently, Vanguard underwent an extensive trial period, a luxury permitted since she was completed in peacetime.  Her cost was £11,530,503.  This did not include the price of her original 15inch guns and turrets.  Her armor was such that she “was one of the best-protected battleships ever built” (p. 53).  Vanguard was the only British capital ship to have a transom (flat) stern.  Her high flared bow and recessed hawse pipes, which allowed her anchors to be flush with her hull, resulted in “a magnificent sea boat” (p. 35).

The author, R. A. Burt, refused to be drawn into a heated argument comparing HMS Vanguard with some of her contemporaries, such as Tirpitz, Littorio, Jean Bart, Iowa, and Yamato.  He concludes one cannot predict which ship would prevail in a hypothetical encounter with multiple variables.  Burt simply notes Vanguard would have stood up well in a battle with any comparable battleship of her time.  The author observed: “She was certainly the best battleship the Royal Navy every had.” (p. 127)

 The Cold War notwithstanding, some questioned the need in the RN for this latest battleship.  Indeed, Vanguard never saw combat, and her most noteworthy accomplishment was to take the Royal family on a tour of South Africa in 1947.  HMS Vanguard had an active career until 1955 when she was marked for reserve status.  She served as a training ship and the flagship of the reserve fleet.  Though some consideration was given to converting her to a missile carrying ship, these ideas came to naught. 

R. A. Burt has written extensively about British warships, most especially the Royal Navy’s capital ships.  In addition to the volume reviewed here, he has written three previous books covering British battleships from 1889-1945.  Burt has also penned books about German, Japanese, and French battlewagons.  He is not only a skilled author but is also an accomplished illustrator and draftsman.  His extensive, detailed, and precise profiles, illustrations, and photographs of HMS Vanguard grace the pages of The Last British Battleship

Burt is the only author this reviewer has encountered who has addressed the vexing question of why the Royal Navy never preserved any of its battleships as museum ships and memorials.  In October 1959, when word began to circulate that Vanguard was to be broken up, no less a figure than the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Frederick Parham, inquired of the Director of Naval Construction (DNC) if this last British battleship could not be saved.  The DNC replied the cost of preservation and Vanguard’s not having been in combat argued against her retention.  If the latter rationale was an important factor, one wonders why the King George V, which participated in the sinking of the Bismarck, or the Duke of York, instrumental in the destruction of the Scharnhorst, was not set aside as a museum ship. 

Academics, draftsmen, battleship buffs, and the average layman will benefit from reading The Last Battleship.  A plethora of photographs illustrate the last British battleship.  The author is a noted expert on capital ship design, construction, and operations.  There are approximately thirty-five excellent plans, profiles, line drawings, and legends made by the author in this volume.  Burt is appropriately highly regarded for this type of work.  His writing is clear, informative, balanced, and far-reaching.  For anyone wishing to learn more about Britain’s last battleship, this is the book to buy.

The Last British BattleshipHMS Vanguard, 1946-1960.  By R.A. Burt Barnsley, UK:  Seaforth Publishing, 2019.

Ed Calouro is a freelance writer and adjunct instructor in the History Department at Rhode Island College.

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  1. Dave Justice Rocker Jabbo

    HMS Vanguard VS USS Iowa

    1 on 1 Paper

    Length: 814 feet/887 feet.
    Width: 108/108 feet.
    Load standard:45200 tons/46000 tons.
    Load Deep: 52250 tons/58400 tons.
    Top speed: 31.57 knots/35.2 knots.
    Primary guns: 15 inch/16 inch.
    Belt: 14 inch/12.1 inch.

    The above stats are approximates as I won’t bore you to the millimetre and I won’t cover AA or Secondary armament (Both were very good) but it looks like a clear & easy victory for Iowa as it’s bigger and heavier & has the faster engines & bigger guns. But in reality the details paint a far different picture for me.

    Battle in reality.

    Armament specifics:
    – The Iowa is armed with 16 inch guns that fire 1,900 high capacity/2,700lb armour piercing shells at 2,500 ft per second which certainly gives it the advantage in firepower & range (approximately 38.6KM) but the Vanguard had the most reliable tried & tested 15 inch guns possibly in the world which were modified to be even better & fired 1,938lb shells at 2458 ft/s which could be equipped with superchargers which gave them more power (2575/2638 ft/s) & range (approximately 34.6KM). Taking this into consideration the Vanguard had higher velocity with bigger bursting charge’s and as some experts have said velocity is more effective then shell weight although in saying this the superchargers would have more wear & tear on the guns.

    This means there’s possibly a difference depending what shell is used of approximately 700lb in shell weight & 4k in range which on paper seems that the Iowa has the advantage in firepower that would be decisive in a paper battle but in real life as the HMS Warspite shared the record for the longest shot in navel history (approximately 24k) while armed with the exact same 15 inch guns but not as modernised and un-supercharged like the 15 inch guns that the vanguard had. This means even with the more advanced targeting systems which Vanguard & Iowa both possessed over the Warspite they will still not be able to likely score hits on eachother until the distance is closed to atleast 24k or likely closer. Once two Iowa’s barely straddled a destroyer that happily escaped in good fashion from further ranges and had less than 3% hit rate at static targets in testing,. Its unlikely world records will be broken with every shot but if they were then we are looking at plunging fire that doesn’t hit the side of the ship where the armours thickest but the deck instead and in this department Iowa has much thinner armour then Vanguard so this sort of engagement wouldn’t suit the Iowa. I believe at battle range (24k and less) they both can cause critical damage & therefore armour superiority & sea Worthiness will have more of a say in the battle over pure fire power, these area’s Vanguard has the advantages in. Just because a boxer has a harder punch & longer arms it doesn’t mean they win the fight. Infact boxers with a more varied skillset and abilities normally defeat just a simple hard puncher. But the advantage of firepower goes to the Iowa most likely.

    Gun configuration specifics.
    – The Iowa is armed with 9 main guns split between 3 triple turrets where the Vanguard was armed with 8 main guns split between 4 turrets. So with the Iowa turret’s being bigger and therefore easier to hit which is a disadvantage but also if for example they both lost 2 turret’s in battle then Iowa would only have 3 guns left operational in only one turret which is less firepower and more importantly not as versatile to aim where the Vanguard would have 4 guns still across two turret’s therefore having the advantage in firepower but more importantly the advantage in versatility of aiming. Things will be hit & destroyed in battle. I believe the Iowa carries the advantage going into battle and certainly on paper it has the thickest armoured turret’s but under closer scrutiny the armour used although thick at 19inches it’s primarily B class armour and STS plate on the faces and roof (7.25 inch) of an inferior standard of armour which I’ll discuss more later. Although the armoured sides and back range from 9.5 to 12 inches of A class armour which is better but still not British standard and still certainly penetrable unlike what most would think looking at it at face paper value.

    So as the battle progresses the Vanguard carrie’s the advantage in survivability of its firepower although having only 13 inches of turret armour at its thickest point it’s still better quality then the Americans, harder to hit as it’s a smaller and a more reliable two barrel design as tried and tested (Bless those brave sailors in Iowas turret that day) and can certainly damage the American turret’s at a realistic battle ranges. The edge goes to the Vanguard for survivability as the battle goes on.

    Rate of fire specifics.
    – Both fired 2 rounds per minute. With the Iowa class having 9 main guns compared to the Vanguard having 8 guns. That means the Iowa can fire 2 more shells per minute & therefore I believe giving the Iowa the advantage going into the battle here.

    Armour specifics.
    – The British had better A armour (Main armour) & the Americans better B armour (Secondary armour). The A armour being a bigger factor in battle gives the British the armour advantage. Some believe the British A armour was up to 25% more effective due to advanced metallurgy techniques (And yes I know the Vanguards armour wasn’t inclined like Iowas and this is due to the fact that on water engagements are rarely perpendicular automatically hence vertical is slopped, not as important for ships as tanks). This would put the Vanguard with the more inches of better quality armour up there with or just superior to the likes of Yamato & Musashi (16 inches of inferior metallurgy) in regards of protection. This I believe gives the Vanguard the advantage. I personally don’t believe the Iowa was as well armoured as many believe and there was obvious flaws. If you look at the South Dakota which had a very similar armour scheme at the battle of Guadacanal it was hit 26 times from 5 to 8 to 14 inch projectiles and suffered from 2 hull breaches which caused a list and also a loss of power, internal/external communications, rader, fire control and a damaged turret three which all in all greatly hindered it critically despite reports it was only superficial damage and there were many casualties and the ship needed repairs and was lucky to not be facing biggar opposition. I’m aware of Nathan OkUN’s research but it didn’t take into account a huge number of real world factors which the battle of Guadacanal showed and in doing so showed the claims of the South Dakota class all or nothing armour scheme was inaccurate and it was far more vulnerable than many believed. There’s many reports about varying from if the enemy damage caused the loss of power or the poor decisions made by the crew under pressure lead to it (people feel this was reported to save face as they appeared vulnerable). Either way it lead the ship to being critically hindered in battle and it had many holes and casualties. I believe the Iowa will need to close the distance to cause damage as I can’t find real world references of Iowa actually hitting any real world moving targets at 25-30k & therefore by getting closer to realistic range for accuracy it’s exposing it’s own inferior protection and I haven’t even spoken about the speculated issues with torpedo protection but as Vanguard didn’t carry torpedoes there’s no need to go there. But once again world records are likely not to be broken with every shot they are going to have to get close to eachother. I believe Vanguard has the advantage here.

    – The Iowa makes a bigger target that’s easier to hit with less armour of an inferior quality. I believe the Vanguard has the advantage here.

    – Iowa could not sustain 35.2 knots (Light load/shallow water only) as vanguard could not sustain 31.57 knots. Iowa’s top speed at deep load (Battle ready) was 33 knots and therefore it’s real battle top speed as is 30.4 knots at deep load for the Vanguard. Giving the Iowa a 2.6 knot (3 MPH) advantage over Vanguard. Vanguards transom design was cheaper but more effective as it created hydrodynamic conditions for the Vanguard to maintain its top speed at deep load easily while remaining a smaller & harder to hit target. In reality if these 2 ships engaged 1 on 1 they both have enough speed to do what they want to do. Simply the Americans sacrificed stability for speed with its design using a combination of power and bow design where Vanguard looked towards using power and hydrodynamic transom design but what it lost in speed it made up for in stability. Both have advantages.

    The difference is if the Vanguard has Iowa beat & on the run then the Iowa could in time escape the Vanguards range if it’s propulsion wasn’t damaged. So if the Vanguard could not finish it off then the Iowa could escape to fight another day. Where if the situation was vice versa the Vanguard could not escape the Iowa.

    But this is about who would win in a fight to the death. So no one is backing down or running away so Iowas speed and greater fuel supply (Combustible fuel oil, very dangerous unlike Vanguard) is irrelevant. I believe they both posses the speed & fuel capacity to win but in less then calm seas/ optimal conditions which is quite normal for the Vanguard being designed for the Atlantic with additional break waters and bow flare so therefore it can go faster & stay more effective in rough conditions giving it a clear advantage & also using diseal which is not combustible is an edge.

    HMS Vanguard VS USS Iowa

    Sea Worthiness specifics.
    – Vanguard was designed after many lessons was learned from the British’s greater wealth of navel combat experience. These lessons especially from the King George class made it very resilient with its armour layout, fuel choice, auxiliary command systems, automation & how it’s propellers were configured but also how the bow shear/flare was designed for rougher Atlantic weather. It also had a second massive break water. In operation Mariner where war games were conducted with the Vanguard and Iowa class. It was apparently reported by eye witnesses at the time Vanguards turrets remained fully functional and could maintain a speed of 26 knots with only a 12 degree roll when a storm hit but the Iowa had a 26+ degree roll and had to reduce speed and was consistently suffering from impaired use or complete loss of functionality of its forward turret due to flooding & huge roll. Resulting in it loosing a 3rd of its main armament & therefore reducing it to 6 guns while the Vanguard still had 8 guns available. Add this to the fact Vanguard could turn in 940 yards & Iowa needed 1006 yards then I believe this gives Vanguard the advantage in conditions that aren’t perfectly calm which is common. It simply had better reliability and maneuverability.

    The British sacrificed a little speed for battle reliability and Americans vice Versa simple as that.

    My conclusion.
    – I believe both ships are awesome & beautiful with significant advantages & disadvantages over eachother & once these factors are realistically assessed they are both highly capable of defeating eachother & it would more than likely come down to their Captains/Crews training & experience (It’s another subject but I believe the Americans although fast learners unfortunately wasn’t in the same league as the British in regards to training and experience as they were already engaged in WW2 for 2 years before America even joined the war and had the most powerful and experienced navy for generations up until that point (An Island race that conquered 22% of the world and were involved in the biggest sea battles like Jutland, they know about ships and training), even now the SBS & SAS run rings around the seals & delta.

    But assuming in a perfect world that the Captain’s/Crews decisions & performance are perfect then in calm conditions I give it 50/50 but as conditions get tougher the Vanguard gains more advantage in the real world. If I had to be stationed on a ship during this battle I would choose the Vanguard personally as paper battles & reality are far different & the Vanguard is a far more balanced war machine built for war not to have the best numbers on paper.

    I often hear during Iowa VS Yamato debates a strong case for the Iowa closing the distance with its superior speed to get within range where it’s superior targeting/fire control system (Vanguards was equally as good) can punch critical holes into the Yamato until it’s defeated while the Yamato is missing shot after shot but in reality the Iowa makes a big target & it will be hit and I believe it won’t take many 18.1 inch 3219lb armour piercing shells or 2998lb high explosive Yamato shells which had 33kg bursting charge’s compared to Iowa’s 18kg (FYI neither shell was as heavy as HMS furious 18 inch shells) to critically damage the Iowa before it can critically damage the Yamato. Therefore giving the Yamato the advantage. Now the reason I’ve briefly touched on this is because I believe there’s more of a chance of the Iowa defeating the Yamato (35% chance max although some say with pure mathematics only 12%) then defeating the Vanguard in anything less than calm seas. Styles make fights and the rougher the sea the tougher the Vanguard become.

    HMS Vanguard for me.

    P.S: She had one of Warspites guns and therefore the spirit to break free in defiance on her way to the breakers and the Queen used Red wine to launch her. Ferocity and Class.

  2. Trish McDonnell Currie

    My Dad who was in the Royal Navy was on the Vanguard 1949 when King George and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother along with Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret sailed to South Africa,I still have the pamphlet of the Royal Tour ❤

    • Keith Docwra

      My Dad was also on the Vanguard and I still have the 1947 Royal Tour booklet of the Crossing The Line ceremony enacted on board on the occasion of their visit to South Africa.

  3. It states that HMS Vanguard was sent to be scrapped in 1960 When in Actual fact it was still in Portsmouth in 1962 whilst I was in training with the Royal Marines and was tied up alongside the Battle Cruiser HMS Sheffield the battle cruiser which we did sea training on and slept in hammocks, under the group name of HMS Bellerophon.

    • Timothy Davies

      You are mistaken Glyn. Her departure from Portsmouth for scrapping is probably the most well documented in history due to her running aground and blocking Portsmouth Harbour (4th August 1960). She arrived in Faslane for scrapping about 5 days later. The scrapping was completed in 1962, this is also well documented with photos. I suspect it was another large ship you are remembering.

  4. Predrag

    How come the HMS Vanguard did not take part in the Korean War?

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