Pinning down the top 10 biggest battleships of all time is a tricky business. Over their careers, battleships were modified in ways that drastically affected their displacement. Some ships saw massive increases in displacement. In this article, I will attempt to list the largest battleships based on their full load displacements. These figures shake up the list considerably and introduced a few surprises. Luckily, we were able to pin down the ships and compare them. Without further delay, here are the top 10 largest battleships of all time.
The Top 10 Largest Battleships of All Time
10. Nelson Class (Standard Displacement: 33,950 tons / Full Load: 41,910 tons)
Factoring in full load displacement, this was a surprise. As the war went on and more equipment was added, HMS Nelson grew to a full load displacement of 41,910 tons. Not bad for a ship that went through every measure to cut weight. Armed with nine 16″ guns and a dozen 6″ secondary weapons, the Nelson class battleships were not lacking in firepower. This firepower came at a cost though, as the ships were relatively slow by World War 2. However, they were well regarded by their crew even if considered unappealing in appearance. Both Nelson and her sister Rodney gave stellar service during the Second World War and served with distinction.
9. South Dakota Class (Standard Displacement: 35,000 tons / Full Load: 44,519 tons
Another ship designed to conserve weight, the South Dakota class battleships were relatively small ships at only 680′ in length. However, they crammed a lot of firepower and armor in that small size. They carried the same nine main guns and twenty secondary guns as the preceding North Carolina class. They also made use of a unique armor layout were the belt was located internally, saving thousands of tons in weight. However, the quest to reduce size came at a cost. The South Dakota class battleships were considered very uncomfortable and crews complained about the cramped conditions onboard.
The ships served the US well in all theaters of the Second World War. They fought in the Atlantic against the Vichy French and in the Pacific against the Japanese. Despite their small size, they punched above their weight limit.
8. King George V Class (Standard Displacement: 39,150 tons / Full Load: 45,360 tons)
Unlike the previous battleships with their 16″ guns, number 8 on our list might seem lightly armed with “only” 14″ guns. However, the King George V class battleships made up for it with an extra gun, bringing their total number of barrels to ten. They also carried thick armor, a heavy secondary battery, and a respectable amount of anti-air weapons. They were well armored and decently fast. Factoring in strengths and weaknesses, they were considered equal to the American North Carolina class. Designed to abide by the treaty restrictions, they were well balanced and well designed.
These ships saw service throughout the Second World War and were involved with some of the war’s biggest naval actions including the sinking of the Bismarck and the bombardment of Hamamatsu. Of the five ships, four survived the war. Despite their excellent service, not a single ship was preserved after the war and all suffered the same fate at the breakers.
7. Littorio Class (Standard Displacement: 40,720 tons / Full Load: 45,936 tons)
Next up on our list are the Italian battleships of the littorio class. These ships carried a battery of nine powerful 15″ guns as well as numerous smaller weapons. They were also very fast vessels, able to reach 30 knots. Three of these powerful battleships were built at the start of the war and two survived the conflict.
At one point, these were the most powerful battleships in the Mediterranean theater. Despite swaying the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean towards Italy, these ships were never used to their full potential. Perhaps a good thing, as they could have given the Royal navy issues.
6. North Carolina Class (Standard Displacement: 36,600 tons / Full Load: 46,700 tons)
At number five on our list, we have the class that included America’s most decorated battleship, the North Carolina class. These were the first modern battleships built by the United States following the First World War. Armed with nine 16″ guns and twenty 5″ dual purpose guns, they were well armed. They carried a respectable amount of armor and could steam at a decent 28 knots. They were also able to take on additional weight. Over their careers, they gained additional electronics and anti-aircraft weapons. This caused their displacement increase by 10,000 tons over their lives. Unlike the South Dakota class, the North Carolina battleships were not as cramped, making them more comfortable for the crew.
North Carolina and her sister, USS Washington, served in all of the major naval battles in the Pacific with North Carolina became the most decorated battleship in US History.
5. Richelieu Class Version (Standard Displacement: 35,000 tons / Full Load: 47,548 tons)
Another surprise based on full load displacement, the battleship Richelieu grew considerably during the war with the addition of electronics and anti-aircraft weapons. Armed with eight 15″ guns, she carried her armament in a rather unusual quadruple turret. Like the British Nelson class, she also carried all of her guns forward of the bridge. Supplementing her main battery, Richelieu also carried nine 6″ guns and twelve smaller 100mm guns. She also carried a heavy battery of smaller anti-aircraft guns, making her a formidable adversary for any enemy aircraft. In addition to her potent firepower, she was also well armored and could steam at 30 knots, making her a very well rounded battleship.
The Richelieu was the only ship of her class to put to sea before the country was overrun with krauts. Attacked by both Axis and Allies, she managed to survive long enough to finally join the Allied side. After a refit in a US shipyard, Richelieu emerged brimming with automatic weapons and new electronics (increasing her displacement by another 3000 tons). She served briefly in the Atlantic before being sent to join British forces in the Indian ocean.
4. HMS Vanguard Version (Standard Displacement: 45,200 / Full Load: 52,250 tons)
At number 4 on our list, the last battleship to be built not only in Britain, but the world. HMS Vanguard was a modified version of the never finished Lion class battleships, themselves modified versions of the King George V class battleships. They carried eight 15″ guns of a First World War design. While older, the weapons were a tried and true design that had the distinction of making the longest range hit on another warships. Like the King George V class, they also carried a secondary battery of sixteen 5.25″ dual-purpose guns as well as numerous smaller anti-aircraft weapons.
Completed just after the Second World War, HMS Vanguard lived a quiet career. She served as the proud flagship of the Royal Navy as well as a yacht for the Royal family. Her greatest action was serving in a few small NATO exercises. While she wasn’t Europe’s largest battleship, she might have been the most powerful. Sadly, she never got the opportunity to show her capabilities in combat.
3. Bismarck Class (Standard Displacement: 41,700 tons / Full Load: 52,600 tons)
Number 3 on our list is perhaps one of the most famous battleships of all time, the mighty Bismarck class battleships. At the end of its career, the Bismarck class battleship Tirpitz was displacing a whopping 52,600 tons. Initially, Germany was doing what they could to stay within the 35,000 ton treaty limit. However, once Japan announced that they weren’t going to play nice, the Germans were quick to jump on the bandwagon and built a battleship free of treaty restrictions. The result was the most powerful battleship in Europe at the time of their completion. Armed with eight 15″ guns and twenty-four secondary weapons, the Bismarck class was designed to shred enemy ships. They were protected by thick armor and could steam at a speed of 30 knots.
Despite the power of Bismarck and her sister Tirpitz, they could not overcome the power of the numerically superior Royal Navy. Bismarck was sank on her first sortie into the Atlantic ocean while Tirpitz lived an uneventful career on the Norwegian coast as a fleet in being before meeting her end at the hands of Air force bombers. An unfitting end to Europe’s largest and perhaps most powerful battleships.
2. Iowa Class Battleships (Standard Displacement: 45,000 tons / Full Load: 58,000 tons)
At number 2, we have the world’s fastest dreadnoughts, the Iowa class battleships. These ships could steam at speeds exceeding 33 knots thanks to a massive power-plant producing 212,000 shaft horsepower. Speed wasn’t the only thing these ships had going for them, they were also well armed. Equipped with a new 16″/50 naval gun firing a super heavy 2,700lb shell, the Iowa class almost matched the 18″ guns of the Yamato class in power. They also carried the standard secondary battery of twenty 5″ dual-purpose guns as well as numerous smaller anti-aircraft weapons, making them the most powerful battleships in the AA role during WW2.
Unlike other battleships of World War 2, the Iowa class enjoyed a long service life. They served long after the battleship age and participated in every major conflict from the 1940s until the early 1990s. During that time, they saw many changes to their design. They lost their numerous anti-aircraft guns and received missiles and other new advancements. At one point they even had a nuclear tipped 16″ shell in their arsenal. After 5 decades of service and seeing action across the globe, the Iowa class was finally retired. All four ships of the class can be seen in their new role as museum ships.
1. Yamato Class Battleship (Standard Displacement: 69,300 tons / Full Load: 73,000 tons)
While some surprises came up on the list, the top spot is definitively not one of them. Coming in at number 1 on the list is Japan’s gargantuan Yamato class battleships. Design to carry heavier guns and thicker armor than any other battleship, the Yamato needed to be a hefty vessel. Armed with nine 18″ guns, thirty secondary guns, and 150 smaller anti-air weapons, the Yamato had firepower in spades. Yamato and her sister Musashi were designed to outfight any battleship the US was likely to produce. At 27 knots, they might not have been the fastest battleships, but that didn’t bother the Japanese as the Yamato class wasn’t expected to run from anything.
Despite their power, the Yamato class battleships were unable to contribute much to the war. They spent the majority of the war shuttling troops from one island to the next. Yamato and her sister met their end at the hands of carrier aircraft, an almost poetic symbol as aircraft carriers replaced the battleships as the centerpiece of naval power. Despite this, they are still remembers as the world’s biggest battleships, a record unlikely to ever be broken.
Further Reading and Links
Check out this article about the Montana class battleships. These behemoth vessels could have been the largest had they been completed.
How did America’s Iowa stack up against Japan’s Yamato, read a small comparison here.