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Battleships Between the Wars

By the end of World War I, the US Navy had grown in strength to being second only to Great Britain's Navy. Destruction of the German fleet deprived the US Navy of its main - almost only - threat. In 1919 some battleships were stationed at San Pedro in Calicornia. By 1922, the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets were combined to form the United States Fleet which positioned a main body of ships in the Pacific and a scouting fleet in the Atlantic. For the first time, the major weight of American seapower was assigned to the Pacific.

After the end of World War I the battleship continued to dominate naval strategy. In an effort to reduce the expenditures required to fund new battleships, the United States, Britain, France, Japan and Italy agreed to a moratorium on new battleship construction in 1922 at the Washington Naval Conference. The Washington Naval Treaty, signed February 6, 1922, established a tonnage ratio of 5-5-3 for the capital ships of Great Britain, the United States, and Japan, respectively, assigning a smaller tonnage to France and Italy. During the Washington Disarmament Conference, the US agreed to dismantle part of the Navy, and seven out of nine battleships under construction were broken up and scrapped.

When the Washington Naval Conference of 1922 was announced, it became clear that some of the American battleships authorized in 1916 and still under construction would not be completed. BB-43 Tennessee and her sister ship, California (BB-44), the first American battleships built to a "post-Jutland" hull design, were completed in 1919. The fourth of the BB-45 Colorado Class class, BB-47 Washington, was the only new US ship cancelled under the Naval Limitations Treaty that had actually been launched. The six battleships of the BB-49 South Dakota class were laid down in 1920 and 1921, only to be suspended under the terms of the Naval Limitations Treaty in February 1922 when they were between 11% and 38% completed. All six remained on the building ways until October-November 1923, when they were sold for scrapping. The BB-49 South Dakota battleships were slower but more heavily armed and armored contemporaries of the Lexington class battle cruisers. Construction of the six CC-1 Lexington class battlecruisers was held up by other priorities during the First World War, and none of them were laid down until mid-1920. The following year's naval limitations conference in Washington, DC, had these expensive battle cruisers, and their Japanese and British contemporaries, among its main targets. Following adoption of the Washington Treaty, their construction was stopped in February 1922. The treaty allowed the conversion of two of the battle cruiser hulls to the aircraft carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3). The other four were formally cancelled in August 1923 and scrapped on their building ways.

The London Treaty of 1930 carried forward the general limitations of the earlier Washington agreement and provided for further reductions of naval armament. The London Conference of 1930 resulted in a treaty that limited cruisers and extended the battleship-building holiday. But Japan refused to participate in the second London Naval Conference in 1935, and only minor agreements between Great Britain and the United States were then possible.

Early in December of 1922, General Order 94 abolished the Atlantic Fleet, renaming it as the US Fleet. The US Fleet was organized into the Battle Fleet, the Scouting Fleet, the Control Fleet and the Fleet Base Force. These four elements were defined as "the principal naval force of the United States." Eight years later, on Dec. 10, 1930, another reorganization was made when the Fleet's subordinate fleets were renamed "forces" creating the Battle Force, US Fleet; the Scouting Force, US Fleet; and the Base Force, US Fleet. Ships assigned to these forces were assigned on the basis of mission and not as to the type of ship involved. Also, the Navy subdivided into squadrons, with those units operating off the east coast of the United States coming within the Atlantic Squadron. This subdivision can be seen as the seeds of the US Atlantic Fleet.

No new American battleships were built until 1936 when USS North Carolina was authorized by the Congress. No new American battleships were commissioned from 1923 to 1941. In 1938, the Japanese government publicly renounced the latest round of naval limitation treaties. With this announcement, the United States responded by beginning work on a new, much larger 45,000-ton battleship design. In a commonly held view, the United States and Britain fared badly in the naval agreements of the 1920s and 1930s. The Axis powers built up their navies in the 1930s, the democracies languished behind, and Germany and Japan were harder to defeat at sea during World War II precisely because of this unhappy record.

By 1940 Pacific Fleet moved to the naval base at Pearl Harbor. The battleship era ended only with the arrival, effectively just before the start of World War II, of aircraft that could not only out-range the big guns, but also deliver blows of equal or greater power. Thereafter, at least in the daylight when the planes could fly, battleships performed as auxiliaries to aircraft carriers. During these years the nature of naval power was changing as a result of the perfection of the airplane and the introduction of a new capital ship utilizing this new weapon -- the aircraft carrier.



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