3 Myths Of The Montana Class Battleships

Montana class

War History Online presents this Guest Article by Chris Knupp.

Artist’s impression of the Montana class Battleship

Myth #1: The Montana class Ignored the Panama Canal Restrictions

The Montana class was the first battleship designed to ignore the restrictions imposed by the Panama Canal locks.

The Truth

One of the common misconceptions about the Montana class battleships is that they were to ignore the Panama canal restrictions. This is only partially true. In realty the US was planning on expanding the Panama Canal locks to 140ft. Construction was meant to be completed around the same time that the Montana ships would come into service. The ability to quickly send ships through the Panama Canal was an advantage that the US was unwilling to part with. The fact that the canal locks were going to be enlarged was likely a big reason why the US Navy finally designed the Montana class.

While the Montana might have ignored the Panama Canal restrictions, they were bound by another.  A little known fact is that the US Navy placed almost as much importance on being able to travel underneath the Brooklyn bridge as they did the Panama Canal. The height of the bridge at low tide was an important design consideration for ship design. This was because the New York Naval yard was one of the largest naval bases at the time. It was also one of the largest naval repair facilities available. The Navy needed all ships to be able to travel to that yard and the Brooklyn bridge was the largest obstacle along the way.

Richelieu arrives in New York.

The Battleship Richelieu arrives in New York for Repairs. Note that the top of the fire control tower has been removed so that it can pass under the Brooklyn bridge. All US Battleships were designed in such a way that they could easily pass under this bridge.

Myth #2: The Montana was Designed to Counter the Yamato

Another big misconception about the Montana class was they were “Yamato killers”. Yes, They were the only other battleship capable of engaging the Yamato on equal terms. Also, the Yamato was known to the US Navy at the time of design. However, what the US Navy thought they knew about the Yamato was a far cry from what it actually was.

Stern view of the Montana model.

The Truth

It would be a long time before the US had a grasp of the Yamato’s capabilities. When design started in 1938, the Yamato was believed to be a standard battleship. Over the course of the war, new evidence slowly allowed the navy to better understand what it was that it was up against. A breakdown of discoveries about the Yamato can be broken down into the following:

  • In 1936, a US received reports that Japan was building ships up to 55,000 tons.
  • In 1938, reports stated that Japan was building two 16″ heavy battleships with two more on the way.
  • It wasn’t until 1944 that the US found that the Yamato carried 18″ guns.
  • It wasn’t until late 1944/1945 that the US navy finally had a grasp of the true specifications of the Yamato.

This proves without a doubt that the Montana class wasn’t designed to counter the Yamato.

So if the Montana wasn’t designed to counter the Yamato, why was it so large? It is largely because the ship was designed to withstand the firepower of its own guns. The 16″/50 cannon when coupled with the “super heavy” 2700lb shell could have been the finest battleship gun ever to see service. At long ranges, its penetration power was almost that of the larger Japanese18.1″ shell. Due to this similarity, the fact that the Montana was so well protected was really a happy accident.

The other contributing factor was that the US wanted a battleship more powerful than anything its adversaries was likely to use. A ship more powerful than the vessels preceding it, the Bismark class of Germany, the Nagato class of Japan, and so on. An almost impractically large ship to dominate all others. In some ways the US didn’t believe anyone else would construct such a large ship. Unknown to the US, Japan had the exact same thoughts when designing the Yamato.