Game changers - five of the 20th century’s most pivotal naval battles

The 20th century witnessed many epic naval battles, some of which turned the course of both the first and second world wars. Naval-technology.com lists five of the most pivotal naval battles of the 20th century.


Battle of Leyte Gulf

Battle of Leyte Gulf

The Battle of Leyte Gulf, a decisive air and sea battle fought between combined US-Australian forces and the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II, lasted for four days (23-26 October 1944) involving aerial, surface, subsurface and amphibious engagements.

The battle took place as US troops' invaded the Philippine island of Leyte on 20 October 1944. The battle included four major engagements including the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Cape Engaño and the Battle off Samar. The Imperial Japanese Navy suffered heavy losses including the sinking of some of its flag ships.

Japan lost four aircraft carriers, three battleships, six heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, and 11 destroyers, as well as about 300 aircraft and over 10,500 sailors. Allied losses amounted to a light carrier, two escort carriers, two destroyers and a destroyer-escort.

The outcome of the battle humiliated the Japanese surface fleet and enforced the Allied Forces' control over Pacific.

Battle of Jutland

The Battle of Jutland, also referred to as the Battle of the Skagerrak by the Germans, involved the engagement of about 100,000 men and 250 vessels over the course of three days from the 31st of May 1916, when a British naval force confronted a squadron of German ships in the North Sea near Jutland, Denmark. It was the only major encounter between the 'dreadnought' battleships of British and German fleets in World War I.

The commander of the German High Seas Fleet, Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer, intended to attack British merchant shipping in North Sea, expecting to lure out Admiral Beatty's Battlecruiser Force of Grand Fleet as Admiral Jellicoe's Grand Fleet anchored far away at Scapa Flow. Scheer planned to destroy Beatty's force before Jellicoe's arrival as German naval forces were insufficient to encounter the entire British fleet together.

The German navy however faced down both British forces, after code-breakers decrypted the German naval signals. The German navy lost 11 vessels and over 2,500 sailors, while the British naval force suffered heavy losses including three battle cruisers, three armoured cruisers, eight destroyers and over 6,000 men. German authorities claimed a victory for their High Seas Fleet, but never again seriously contended British forces in the North Sea.

Battle of Midway

Battle of Midway

The Battle of Midway (4-7 June 1942), fought between the Imperial Japanese Navy and the US Navy over the US mid-Pacific base at Midway atoll, is considered one of the most decisive and important naval battles of World War II. The battle ended the superiority of Japanese Navy over the US Navy allowing the US and its allies to take a offensive position.

Japanese Combined Fleet commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto planned to occupy Midway in order to lure out the US Pacific Fleet's aircraft carriers based at Pearl Harbor and destroy them. Japan's intention was to establish an air base at the islands, but Japanese codes were decrypted by superior American communications intelligence well in advance, and an ambush was set up by the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

The US aircraft carrier task force destroyed four Japanese fleet carriers, a heavy cruiser, approximately 250 aircraft and about 3,000 men, at a cost of one aircraft carrier, one destroyer, about 150 aircraft and over 300 men.

Battle of the Philippine Sea

The Battle of the Philippine Sea (19-20 June 1944), a critical naval battle of World War II between the US Navy and Imperial Japanese Navy, prevented the Japanese Navy from conducting large-scale carrier actions.

The battle took place during the United States' amphibious invasion of the Mariana Islands during the Pacific War. It was the last of five major aircraft carrier engagements between the naval forces of US and Japan. The battle involved the US Navy's Fifth Fleet and the Imperial Japanese Navy's Mobile Fleet.

Superior pilot proficiency and training as well as radar technology allowed the US naval forces to destroy three large Japanese aircraft carriers and more than 480 aircraft in the two-day battle, which was given the nickname Marianas Turkey Shoot due the disproportionate losses suffered by the Japanese. US losses accounted for 130 aircraft and minimal damage to a battleship.

Battle of the Atlantic

Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from 3 September 1939 to 8 May 1945, was the longest and one of the most important naval engagements in World War II. The six-year long battle witnessed several engagements between German U-boats, battleships and Allied convoys.

Allied forces employed a convoy system to defend a large number of merchant ships with limited number of escorts during WW-II. Control over shipping in Atlantic was critical for the UK as the island nation was highly dependent on food, raw materials, troops and equipment coming from North America.

The German Navy countered the allied convoys with multiple U-boat submarines for concentrated group attacks, widely known as "wolfpack", but the allies gained advantage over Germans by employing improved anti-submarine techniques, and long-range aircraft as well as aircraft carriers for escorts. The outcome was in favour of the Allies as they gained control over the Atlantic shipping lanes sinking 780 U-boats at a cost of 3,500 merchant vessels and 175 warships.

Defence Technology