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77 years ago, on May 3, 1942, both USS Fletcher (dd-445), name-ship of the most numerous class of destroyers, and USS Radford (dd-446), one of her 174 sister ships, were launched.

80 years ago, on May 3, 1939, HMS Prince of Wales, second of the King George V-class battleships, was launched.

Fletcher-class destroyers (for obvious reasons, I'm not going over all 175 of them)

The Fletcher-class destroyers were the first destroyers to be designed after the Washington Naval Treaty and other similar arms control treaties of the interwar era. In order to operate at the long ranges that the Pacific theater demanded, and in order to be able to fight against any foreign destroyer on equal terms, the USN mandated that each destroyer had to carry no less than 10 torpedo tubes (two sets of quintuple torpedo tubes mounted center-line) and five 127mm guns. This made the Fletchers quite a bit larger than earlier designs like the Clemsons, which allowed them to eventually carry two 40mm quadruple Bofors AA gun mountings and six 20mm dual Oerlikon AA guns. Later AA retrofits in response to kamikaze attacks necessitated the removal of the forward torpedo tubes. Of course, like most USN warships of the time, their prewar AA armaments were much less imposing, with the Fletchers only have a single 1.1 in. quadruple gun and six .50 caliber machine guns.

The Fletchers were actually pretty good when it came to seagoing capabilities. Their flush-deck design added structural strength (albeit at the cost of free space below decks), and although the widening of the design's beam by 18 in. in order to meet speed requirements and other shortcomings of the previous Sims-class destroyers meant that seagoing performance suffered, the ships were still much less top-heavy than previous classes. This proved greatly helpful in ensuring that they could carry additional weapons and equipment without major redesigns.

The overall armament of the Fletchers at the end of the war reflected their versatility, as they could perform anything from ASW to AA picket duties with relative ease:

  • two quintuple 21 in. torpedo tubes
  • five 127mm guns
  • six to ten 40 mm Bofors AA guns
  • seven to 12 20mm Oerlikon AA guns
  • two depth charge racks
  • six k-gun depth charge projectors

The success of the Fletcher class can be seen not only during World War 2, but also in their post-war services. Over 50 continued to serve with various foreign navies, with the last one, USS John Rodgers (dd-574)—renamed to ARM Cuitláhuac (E 01) being retired on July 16, 2001. USS Kidd (dd-661), USS Charrette (dd-581), USS The Sullivans (dd-537), and USS Cassin Young (dd-793) are preserved as museum ships at Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Palaio Faliro, Greece; Buffalo, New York; and Boston, Massachusetts, respectively.

USS Fletcher, named after Admiral Frank Friday Fletcher—who won the medal of honor for commanding USN forces during the controversial Battle of Veracruz—and NOT his nephew, Frank Jack Fletcher (who apparently had a trend of getting his flagships sunk/severely damaged from under him every time he sank an enemy carrier) had the following achievements under her name:

  • She escorted convoys for the Guadalcanal campaign in October 1942 and bombarded Lunga point
  • She shot down several enemy aircraft during a heavy Japanese air attack that marked the opening phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in mid-November 1942
  • During the night of November 13, she contributed to the sinking of 2 Japanese destroyers and the Kongo-class battlecruiser Hiei in the First Battle of Guadalcanal, a battle in which, although the US forces lost 4 destroyers and 2 light cruisers, they forced the Japanese force, which had planned on bombarding the crucial airbase at Henderson field, to turn back.
  • During the Battle of Tassafaronga, in addition to participating in the battle, she helped same numerous survivors from the Northampton-class cruiser USS Northampton (CA-26) using cork-floated cargo nets to rescue multiple survivors at once.
  • She continued general escort and bombardment duties in the Solomons from December 1942 to late April 1943.
  • On February 11, 1943, alerted by a smoke float from a plane based on USS Helena (CL-50), she engaged and sunk the Japanese submarine I-18.
  • On November 26, 1943, she helped fend off a Japanese air attack on a USN carrier task force sent to help support the invasion of the Gilbert islands, after which she received a refit on the west coast.
  • From late January 1944 to the end of the war, she participated in numerous escort and bombardment duties in multiple battlegrounds, including (but not limited to):
    • Leyte Gulf
    • Dutch New Guinea
    • Papau New Guinea
    • Luzon
    • Kwajalein
  • Recommissioned on October 3, 1949 as an ASW-specialized destroyer escort, she served with the 7th fleet during the Korean War, accompanying the task force of the Essex-class carrier USS Valley Force (CV-45) as they launched air strikes on North Korea, and also participated in the Battle of Inchon.
  • From the end of the Korean War to her final decommissioning on August 1, 1969, she conducted multiple patrols in the Far East, including in the Taiwan Strait and the seas around Japan.
  • She starred in two films, cameoing in The Wackiest Ship In The Army (1960) and as the final target ship in Down Periscope (1996)
  • Her final awards tally (adding her service in World War 2 and Korea) consisted of 20 battle stars, equal to the famed USS Enterprise (CV-6)

USS Radford, named after a USN rear admiral who, despite being from Virginia, stayed loyal to the union during the American Civil War who spearheaded the capture of Fort Fisher, had the following achievements:

  • Participated in the Battles of Kolombangara and Kula Gulf in early July 1943 which, although they were either Japanese victories or inconclusive, still contributed to the gradual stemming of the Japanese tide in the Pacific theater. Radford and her sister (and first ship of the class, USS Nicholas dd-449) stayed behind after the Battle of Kula Gulf to pick up survivors from USS Helena, fighting off three enemy attacks and rescuing 750 men. Both ships earned the presidential unit citation for this.
  • On November 25, 1943, she engaged and sank the Japanese submarine I-19, which had previously sunk USS O'Brien (dd-415) and USS Wasp (CV-7).
  • For her support in the liberation of Luzon in December 1944, she was awarded another presidential unit citation from the Filipino government
  • Supported UN forces during the Korean War
  • Supported US and South Vietnam forces during Operations Sea Dragon and Market time—which all but closed off North Vietnamese waterway resupply routes
  • Served as an alternate recovery ship from Project Gemini, NASA's second human spaceflight program which eventually proved crucial for the moon landings
  • After being decommissioned for the final time on November 10, 1969, in one final display of defiance, she broke away from the tugboat towing her to the scrapyard and evaded pursuit for 34 days, finally being caught and eventually scrapped.

King George V-class Battleships

Again a product of the Washington Naval Treaty, the King George V class (or, as I like to call them, the KGV class) battleships were the result of British planning for newer, more modern battleships for the 1930s. Although originally designed with 15 in. guns, further negotiating with the WNT led to 14 in. guns being the final armament of the class. Most of these early designs were intended to steam at 27 kts at full power, and much more emphasis was placed on armor and torpedo protection than in previous British battleships.

All in all, the class had the following traits:

  • They were the first battleships to have 4 alternate boiler and engine rooms (and thus reduce the potential of one hit causing loss of all power), and the boilers could apparently steam at up to 9000 shp above the overload power of 125000 shp with no difficulty
  • Due to fuel quality issues in 1942, the KGV-class ships Duke of York and Anson were fitted with more modern and higher pressure oil sprayers and burners to compensate
  • Magazine protection was emphasized via thick belt and deck armor and placing the magazines at the lowest levels of the ship (below the shell decks, a practice pioneered by the Nelson-class battleships)
  • The armor (augmented by British cemented armor) was so strong that it is said that only the Yamato-class battleships exceeded the level of armor protection that the class had
  • On the other hand, turret armor was relatively lightly armored as a compromise for the thick magazine armor, as was the conning tower (since most command crews tended to use unarmored positions for more visibility)
  • They possessed torpedo bulges—which were divided up into multiple bulkheads, sub-compartments, and void spaces—that could protect against a 1000 pound warhead and contribute to counter-flooding efforts. Indeed, even with the loss of Prince of Wales, most of the torpedoes had struck in areas not protected by the torpedo bulge. Nevertheless, the loss of PoW led to further design improvements to increase propeller protection and general damage control abilities.
  • Their main armament consisted of ten 14 in. guns, two quad turrets at the forward and aft and a dual turret in the front (although they turned out to have quite a few mechanical problems)
  • Their secondary armament consisted of 16 QF 133mm dual purpose guns, 64 2-pounder 40mm AA guns, and eventually 10 40mm Bofors AA guns and 36 20mm Oerlikon AA guns by 1945
  • Two radar control towers equipped with 15 ft. rangefinders as well as internal turret rangefinders in case both towers were disabled

Prince of Wales, originally supposed to be named after King Edward VIII but changed due to his abdication to marry a twice-divorcee American woman (and their suspected Nazi sympathies), had her construction accelerated due to the outbreak of World War 2. While she was being outfitted, she took a bomb hit in early August 1940, which caused severe flooding and further postponed her completion. She had the following achievements under her service record:

  • During the Battle of the Denmark Strait on May 22, 1941, she and HMS Hood (51) sortied out to intercept the German battleship Bismarck. Although communications and intelligence confusions resulted in both ships mistakenly firing on the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, Hood's sinking and PoW being forced to retreat, the decision of Captain John Leach (the only captain of PoW) to keep the technicians aboard in case of main battery malfunctions proved crucial in the eventual sinking of Bismarck, as 2-3 hits on Bismarck managed to damage Bismarck's fuel tanks, forcing her to abandon her convoy raiding mission and eventually leading to her destruction at the hands of a large British naval task force
  • Transported Winston Churchill and eventually hosted FDR aboard her in mid-August 1941, which eventually resulted in the proclamation of the Atlantic Charter. This document proclaimed the ideal goals of the Allied nations for the war such as global cooperation, freedom of the seas, and self-determination, and eventually helped form the charter for the United Nations.
  • Helped escort a supply convoy from Gibraltar to Malta during Operation Halberd, shooting down several Italian aircraft

Unfortunately, she and HMS Repulse (34) met their end off the waters of Singapore on December 10, 141, where she took four torpedo hits (but the first one had already fatally wounded her) from multiple waves of Japanese land-based bombers and sank (although the operation itself was quite flawed from the start, no thanks to a certain Admiral Tom Phillips, who dragged Captain Leach's reputation through the mud after Denmarck Strait—basically and refused to call for air cover from the RAF during the whole debacle until it was far too late). They were the first capital ships to be sunk in open water while actively defending themselves solely via air power, and marked both a substantial blow to British power in Southeast Asia and the heralding of the rise of carriers and air power in naval warfare. Yet even through her fairly troubled career, there can be no doubt that she played crucial roles in stemming Axis naval power during the war.

The wreck of Prince of Wales is currently designated as a "protected place" under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, and it is still at tradition for any Royal Navy ship which passes over the wrecks to perform a remembrance service. Her bell was raised and is on display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.

Her four sisters all survived to the end of the war, and managed to rack up their own accolades:

King George V (4):

  • Was the flagship of Vice Admiral Sir John Tovey during the hunt for Bismarck, and along with HMS Rodney did crucial damage that contributed to Bismarck being rendered combat-ineffective and her eventual sinking. Additionally, she did this with a malfunctioning main battery that caused at least one turret to not fire every salvo for a notable portion of the battle
  • In May 1943, she and her sister ship HMS Howe (32) conducted multiple bombardments in support of Operation Husky, and eventually helped occupy the Italian Naval Base at Taranto and escorted surrendered Italian ships from Malta to Alexandria
  • Was part of Task Force 63, a carrier and bombardment task force that also consisted of the carriers HMS Illustrious (87), Indomitable (92), Indefatigable (R10), and Victorious (R38), four cruisers, and ten destroyers which conducted various bombardments of Japanese installations at various areas, including raids on mainland Japan itself
  • In January 1946, she convoyed the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester on an official visit to Australia

Duke of York (17):

  • Was the flagship of force H, and eventually of the British Pacific Fleet in 1945
  • ferried Winston Churchill to a conference in the USS in mid-December 1941
  • escorted the convoys PQ 12, 13, and 14 into October 1942 against potential attacks by the German battleship Tirpitz
  • supported allied landings in North Africa during Operation Torch in October 1942
  • carried out diversionary operations in support of Operation Husky from June to October 1943
  • Acted as an escort for Operation Leader in early October 1943 in which a combined Allied task force attacked and crippled German convoys transporting iron ore off the coast of Norway
  • Played a crucial role during the Battle of the North Cape, in which she scored at least 10 14-in. shell hits that heavily contributed to the eventual sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst and the end of the need for Britain to keep a heavy surface force in home waters (and was also the second-to-last battleship duel of the war)
  • From late March 1944 to late May 1945, she continued serving as an escort ship for various convoys and air attacks on mainland Japan, and was present for the final Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay
  • Her bell was salvaged from her scrapping and currently sits in the Duke of York School (now named the Lenana school) in Nairobi, Kenya

HMS Howe (32):

  • from late August 1942 to the beginning of Operation Husky, she helped escort numerous convoys bound for the Soviet Union
  • covered Allied landings at Salerno and bombarded Trapani naval base and Favignana during Operations Avalanche and Husky
  • escorted surrendered Italian ships from Malta to Alexandria with her sister KGV
  • transferred to the Eastern fleet on August 8, 1944 and became the first British battleship to be deployed in easter waters since her sister PoW and Repulse were sunk in 1941, where she provided escort for carrier operations attacking Sumatra
  • helped provide support for Allied landings on Okinawa in early April 1945
  • her bell is currently preserved at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, and a large model of her from her builder is on display in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow

HMS Anson (79):

  • like her sisters, escorted multiple Russian-bound convoys throughout 1942
  • conducted diversionary maneuvers in support of Operation Husky and also provided cover for Operation Leader
  • was present at Tokyo Bay during the Japanese surrender ceremony
  • participated in the liberation of Hong Kong post war
  • picked up the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester in February 1946 and returned them to Sydney

Although not all of their duties were glamorous, none should underestimate the important role the KGV class played during the war and the overall Allied victory. 

And now, only if you are here for more than just a historical tribute to these three ships and their classes, should you look into the spoiler tab below.

Spoiler

Happy birthday to Fletcher, Radford, and Prince of Wales, and cheers to the rest of their class as well! 

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