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Royal Navy Lion class battleships

Updated on December 20, 2012

The final projected class of British battleship, the Lions originated in the fate 1930s as planned successors to the King George V class then building. Like their US North Carolina counterparts, the KGVs were compromise ships, limited in displacement and main battery size by the London Naval Treaty. The withdrawal of Japan from the Treaty and reports of new German ships sparked fears of a renewed battleship building race, and British designers began work on an enlarged version of the KGVs, with better protection and nine 16-inch main guns in three triple turrets. This was the same main armament as the North Carolinas, but unlike the American vessels and the KGVs, the new ships would be armored against 16-inch gunfire. The general lines of the King George Vs would be followed, but the Lions would be longer, with more sheer ahead of the forward turrets to improve seakeeping.

A total of six Lions were projected, and the keels of the first two, Lion and Temeraire, were laid down in the summer of 1939. However, as the war progressed, the U-Boat threat came to far outweigh that posed by Axis surface vessels, and since shipyards were hard pressed to keep up with the rate of merchant ship sinking while also building needed escort vessels, diverting men and material to completing the Lions could not be justified. The second pair, Conqueror and Thunderer, were not laid down, and the last two ships were cancelled before they were even formally named.

In an attempt to salvage something, a plan was proposed to finish the ships as grotesque hybrids, with a flight deck from amidships aft and a carrier style island offset to starboard, while the forward 16-inch turrets and some of the 5.25-inch secondary mounts would be retained. The advisability of such a scheme was highly questionable, as it would have resulted in ships with less firepower and more vulnerability than a conventional battleship, and a shorter flight deck and smaller aircraft capacity than regular fleet carriers. Carriers were indeed needed, but the light fleet ships then taking shape were much more viable than the "battle-carrier" plan ever was.

The battleship/carrier plan was never enacted, and in 1943-44 the two keels were broken up. By rights, this should have marked the end of the whole program, but despite the battleship's eclipse there was still a "big gun" lobby in the Royal Navy that pushed plans for using the Lion as the basis for a new class of battleships. The revised Lion design would retain the basic layout, but was to be much enlarged to accommodate the needed protection. Eventually, it was acknowledged that protecting the Lions against aerial threats would involve fitting deck armor up to a foot thick. This would have resulted in truly massive ships, and given postwar economic problems, they could not have possibly been completed until the 1950s.

HMS Vanguard

Despite the cancellation of the Lions, the Royal Navy did indeed field one last battleship, HMS Vanguard. Another outgrowth of the KGVs, Vanguard was laid down in 1941 as a fast battleship for service in the Pacific. Construction was allowed to proceed, as the new ship was to use existing 15-inch guns removed from the battlecruisers Courageous and Glorious two decades earlier. Although old, these weapons were ready for service, unlike the 16-inchers for the Lions, which had not finished the development process. The 15-inch design was widely recognized as being one of the most successful battleship guns ever fielded, and those fitted to Vanguard were given additional elevation capability and improved loading equipment.

Despite the availability of the main battery, Vanguard's projected 1943 completion date was not met, and the ship would not be commissioned until 1946. Slightly larger and heavier than the initial Lion design, Vanguard used the same propulsion plant, and incorporated many of the wartime lessons learned by the British and Americans. Although at thirty knots she was slightly slower than the American Iowas, Vanguard otherwise compared quite favorably with the USN vessels. Vanguard was decommissioned in the 1950s, and after a time in reserve was broken up in 1960. She was the last modern Royal Navy battleship in existence.

Scale Models

There is a 1/700 resin kit of Vanguard available from Michal Samek, as well as an earlier kit in that scale by H-P models. There is also a much earlier 1/450 (actually 1/430) scale offering by Hasegawa.


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