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Thursday, March 19 2015

How fast can those big guns shoot?

So far, I have discussed the most important aspects of naval artillery, but there is one more topic to cover: a naval gun’s rate of fire and what difference rate of fire makes.

It takes about a minute to reload the big battleship’s sixteen-inch guns, so they can fire once per minute. On the other end of the spectrum, the destroyer’s five-inch guns can fire one round about every four seconds, or fifteen rounds per minute. Rate of fire can affect the outcome of battles, as I demonstrate in my next novel Vows to the Fallen.

A battleship attempting to bracket an enemy ship at ten nautical miles has to wait thirty seconds for their shells to fall, but that is not a problem since they can only fire once per minute. However, a destroyer firing at a target five miles away has to wait twenty seconds before their shots fall. In that time, they could have fired five more times. So what’s a captain to do? Keep firing even though he might not have the correct range, or wait until his shots fall so he can get the right range and not waste ammunition?

With the smaller five-inch guns, it makes sense to ladder the shots so the ship can keep firing. However, the US Navy ships had the benefit of radar and at the shorter ranges of the five-inch guns bracketing or laddering wasn’t necessary. The Japanese didn’t use radar, and this put them at a distinct disadvantage. Readers will be able to see this play out in Vows to the Fallen in the Battles of Kogeri and Ubella Atoll especially when the Japanese Cruiser captain tries to conserve ammunition. It turned out to be a mistake since his eight inch guns could have fired four salvo's per minute!

Posted by: Larry Laswell AT 08:00 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Thursday, March 12 2015

The most important aspect of naval artillery

To obtain a targeting solution on an enemy ship there are three variables: target speed, target course, and range to the target. It takes about three minutes to obtain a reasonably accurate calculation of a target’s course and speed mathematically. Sometimes ships used quicker methods (eyeballing the course and estimating speed based on the bow wake of the target) in an emergency, but that sort of accuracy depends on the skill and experience of the targeting crews.

Before radar, obtaining the range to a target was the most difficult of the variables. In this regard, the US Navy had a distinct advantage over the Japanese because the first mention of the Japanese using radar on ships wasn’t until 1944. Still, there are numerous variables relating to the atmospherics that could affect range accuracy, especially at long range. Naval gunners assumed a few salvos would be required to obtain the correct effective range to the target.

Gunners used one of two methods to obtain the proper effective range: laddering and bracketing. Gun crews used laddering at longer ranges. When using laddering, ships would deliberately fire their first salvo short of the target and then increase the range until the shots fell on the far side of the target. Once the shots fell long, gunners could make a final attempt to obtain the correct effective range.

Using the bracketing technique, ships would observe the hits from their first salvo. If the shot landed long, the ship would try to make the next salvo short and vice versa. With one shot long and one shot short, spotters would estimate the distance between the shell impact points and interpolate to obtain the range to target.

One interesting aspect of bracketing is the target ship can almost estimate where the next shot will fall. Readers will see O’Toole using this in Vows to the Fallen. During World War II, US ship captains got into the habit of changing course so their range from the enemy would be the range of the last shot fall. When the enemy adjusted their range and fired again, their shells would fall at the range the US ship was before it had changed course. The common thing to do was to steer for the last shell impact point. As you can guess, this could result in a guessing game between ships.

Posted by: Larry Laswell AT 08:36 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Thursday, March 05 2015

How long does the enemy ship have to get out of the way?

Hollywood movies sometimes portray incoming projectiles by the sound they make as they scream overhead, but I have yet to see a movie that exposes the problems created by projectile flight times. For example, if a five-inch gun fires at a target ship at 10,000 yards (five nautical miles) away, and the target ship is traveling at thirty knots, the target ship would move more than the length of three football fields before the shell hits because the flight time of the shell would be twenty-two seconds. In Vows to the Fallen, readers will see how flight times can affect a battle.

The navy considered the destroyer’s five-inch guns as dual-purpose weapons usable against surface and air targets. Standard procedure was for destroyers to open fire on incoming aircraft at 9,000 yards.  Even assuming flight times are linear with range, which they aren’t, the shell wouldn’t hit the aircraft for thirteen seconds at a range of about 6,000 yards.

Flight times get larger the greater the range and the larger the shell. Here are some example flight times for five, eight, and sixteen-inch projectiles.

Projectile Flight Time in Seconds

Range Nautical Miles






























Projectile flight times are important because the time a projectile is in flight is also the time the target ship has to evade. In a previous post on accuracy, I discussed how the probability of hitting the target depended on the target’s being cooperative and not changing course or speed while the projectile was in flight.

In the next post, I will cover targeting techniques and pull all of the artillery blogs together with a final post on rate of fire.

Posted by: Larry Laswell AT 08:30 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Thursday, February 26 2015

Trying to hit the broadside of a ship

With the number of variables involved in naval artillery, it’s a wonder warships can hit anything with their guns. The ship moves in a particular direction at a particular speed, the bow pitches up and down, the ship rolls from right to left, and the target moves. To these variables, add the Coriolis effect (due to the earth’s rotation), wind, temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity.

Fire control computers calculate the firing angle and gun elevation considering the forward motion of the ship and target, Coriolis, target lead angle, and range to the target. Sensors measure the pitch and roll of the ship. Fire control circuits feed this information to large motors that turn the guns and adjust the guns’ elevation. Even in heavy seas, the barrel of a naval gun will appear to remain motionless as the ship rocks beneath it.

The larger the gun, the heavier the gun, and the harder it is for the gun motors to keep the gun steady on a moving ship. Even a fraction of a second’s lag between the ship’s rolling and the motors’ adjusting the gun’s aim can cause the target to be missed.

What does this mean? Hollywood never quite gets it right, and in Vows to the Fallen I portrayed the battles as they really would have happened. The probability of hitting a target with a naval gun is surprising small. Here is a table showing the probability of hitting a cooperative target with sixteen, eight, and five-inch guns.

Probability of a Broadside Hit

Range Nautical Miles

16 Inch Gun

8 Inch Gun

5 Inch Gun





































































The table above starts at 0.35 nautical miles because the shells do not arm themselves for the first 690 yards. These values also assume the target ship is broadside to the firing ship. If the target ship is facing the firing ship, it presents a narrower target, and the probability of scoring a hit is less. At longer ranges, a bow-on target cuts the probability of a hit in half. This fact plays a significant role in naval tactics and in the battle scenes from Vows to the Fallen.

The table above also assumes a cooperative target, which means it maintains a constant course and speed. Normally, an enemy ship would not want to be a cooperative target and would zigzag or take other evasive action. Evasive action is a double-edged sword since, the more a ship evades, the harder it is to obtain a firing solution on the enemy. As I will explain in future posts, taking evasive action raises interesting questions about World War II naval doctrines that required arranging fleets in static formations in which evasive maneuvers were difficult at best. This will also be the subject of a future post. Again, in Vows to the Fallen, I attempted to portray the battles in a way that exposes the trade-offs and realities of naval combat.

Posted by: Larry Laswell AT 08:25 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Thursday, February 19 2015

Yes, they were expendable.

At the outset of World War II, the battleships and cruisers, the capital ships, were the centerpiece of the United States’ and Japan’s naval doctrine. (I will cover this in more detail in later posts.) With armor-plated hulls and huge long-range guns, the doctrine saw these ships as an irresistible force to sweep the enemy from the seas. The doctrine, however, had a flaw due to an inconsistency. The admirals believed the capital ships, and especially the battleship, were too valuable to risk in combat. So how could the capital ships anchor naval doctrine and sweep the enemy from the sea if the admirals would never let them stand in harm’s way?

Personally, I suspect both the doctrine and the fear of losing a battleship persisted because the admirals, like all sailors, were in love. At sea, battleships are graceful leviathans that project an aura of majesty, power, and strength. Watching these ships at sea is an emotional experience. Any sailor who has witnessed these grand ships at sea could not help but fall in love.

The answer to the doctrinal contradictions is that there were two naval doctrines in play: the official doctrine and the doctrine employed by the admirals. With the armored capital ships too valuable to risk, the burden of battle shifted to the destroyer.

The destroyers were equipped with five-inch guns, torpedoes, and an array of anti-aircraft guns. Their hulls were made of standard steel that was three-eighths of an inch thick; and their only hope at defense was their speed and maneuverability. Their paper-thin hulls and speed earned destroyers the nicknames “tin cans” and “greyhounds,” respectively.

When the fleet needed protection from attacking aircraft, destroyers were the first line of defense and took the heaviest casualties. When the fleet needed protection from submarines, destroyers were the first line of defense. When fleets met, the admirals held their capital ships in reserve and ordered the destroyers to attack.

Historians have dubbed the largest sea battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, “The last stand of the tin-can man.” In that battle, destroyers, with little or no help from the capital ships, fought off a three-prong attack against MacArthur’s Philippine invasion force. The US destroyers faced nine battleships and twenty cruisers, and they forced back the Japanese. In the following days, US aircraft and submarines decimated the retreating Japanese fleet. Battleships and cruisers played little if any role in the battle. In Vows to the Fallen, the fictional Battle of Mojatto Gulf is in many ways similar to the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Here is a tally of ship strengths and losses in World War II:

Ship Class

After Pearl Harbor Attack



End of War

% of US Losses













Aircraft Carriers






Aircraft Carrier Escorts













Posted by: Larry Laswell AT 08:30 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Thursday, February 19 2015

Vows to the Fallen: Get Adequate to Stand in Harm’s Way with Patrick “Terror” O’Toole

As I wrote my upcoming novel Vows to the Fallen, I relied on extensive research of the Pacific War to maintain authenticity. My writing process required me to hide the research between the lines of Vows to the Fallen because the novel is not meant to provide a history lesson; it is meant to tell the story of the fictional tactical savant, Patrick O’Toole, and his struggle to become an adequate warrior.

I am starting this blog series for those who want to know “the rest of the story.” I hope it will add to your enjoyment of Vows to the Fallen.

Posted by: Larry Laswell AT 08:12 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Thursday, November 20 2014

In writing “Vows to the Fallen,” I learned a great deal about World War II. My research was startling and left me scratching my head, both at my misconceptions and knowledge gaps. The first surprise was that the US Navy was ill-prepared for war in December of 1941.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the US Navy’s senior ranks were lax, smug, and bureaucratic. They did not understand the war they were about to fight. The navy had allowed the senior officer ranks to become bloated, and denied promotion to worthy young officers because the senior ranks were overstaffed. Administrators, not warriors, lead the US Navy.

Had the US Navy’s high command been mentally prepared for war, the attack on Pearl Harbor would have resulted in a devastating Japanese defeat or at least a draw. I will devote at least one future blog to that subject.

Regarding the Pearl Harbor attack, Admiral Turner said:

The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise.

The psychological factor was not limited to the Pearl Harbor command; it started at the top and permeated the fleet. Pacific Commander Admiral Chester W. Nimitz boasted he could beat a bigger Japanese fleet because of “our superior personnel in resourcefulness and initiative, and the undoubted superiority of much of our equipment.”

The next two Pacific naval battles upheld Nimitz’s view, at least in the navy’s eyes, because no one was looking at the details. Both the United States and Japan declared victory in the Battle of the Coral Sea. They both were wrong. The two fleets, of equivalent strength, slugged it out from May 4 through May 8, 1942. The United States lost the aircraft carrier Lexington, and the carrier Yorktown was badly damaged. That left the United States with only two operational aircraft carriers in the Pacific and none in the Coral Sea. The Japanese suffered the loss of one light aircraft carrier and slight damage to a fleet carrier, but Japan still had one fully operational carrier left in the Coral Sea.

On May 9, the Japanese command ordered their fleet to find and destroy the remaining US ships, and their fleet had sufficient carrier aircraft and surface ships to do just that. However, due to heavy losses, Admiral Fletcher ordered Task Force 17 to retire. Had he not ordered retreat, the Japanese probably would have devastated the American fleet. Nonetheless, the United States declared victory for turning back the Japanese invasion of Port Moresby, Australia. From the Japanese perspective, the battle was a strategic setback, but Japan declared victory based on the ship tonnage sunk.

One month later, the US Navy heralded the battle of Midway as a great US naval victory. The victory fed the navy’s sense of superiority, but the American forces did not win the battle by superior strategy, superior training, or superior equipment. Quite to the contrary, the Japanese force decimated the aircraft in the initial US attacks. Attacks by American B-26 and B-17 bombers failed to inflict any damage. In subsequent American attacks, squadron commanders couldn’t agree on the course they should fly, and became lost, and many aircraft ran out of fuel. Twenty-one torpedo bombers did find the Japanese fleet; all but two of those were lost, and of the six torpedoes they did launch missed their target or failed to explode.

The lost American squadrons continued to search for the Japanese fleet when the fickle tumblers of fate fell in favor of the Americans. Three groups of American planes, coming from different directions, found the Japanese fleet at precisely the same moment. Admiral Fletcher had accepted the strategy of piecemeal attacks; this was now an attack in force.  What saved the day was the tenacity of the American airmen to continue the search for the Japanese fleet. The final tumbler was Admiral Nagumo’s controversial decision to rearm his reserve aircraft at the same time he was recovering aircraft from a previous strike.

When the lost American aircraft found their target, the Japanese carrier’s flight decks were locked with refueling aircraft and loaded bomb carts. Nagumo was unable to respond. The US lost 117 aircraft, and the Japanese lost 322,  most of those still aboard their carriers. The American aircraft proved inferior to anything the Japanese had, and in terms of US strategy, there wasn’t any. The far superior Japanese force had bad luck that day. In other words, the United States won the Battle of Midway by sheer luck against a better prepared and trained navy.

Two months later, the US Navy got a wake-up call at the Battle of Savo Island near Guadalcanal when the Japanese mounted a nighttime counterattack. The Japanese navy had practiced nighttime combat for years, the American navy had not. There was no opportunity to retreat, and the navy ran out of good luck. In that battle, a superior allied force was mauled by the Japanese, who sunk four cruisers and damaged two destroyers. Japanese cruisers suffered only minor damage. The United States lost the battle of Savo Island due to poor command and control and overconfident US commanders who were operating under sloppy and lax standards—even for peacetime.

Adding to the US defeat was the botched invasion of Guadalcanal. Cargo ships were loaded backward, there was no beach management plan, air cover was withdrawn early and without notice, and fully loaded cargo ships had to abandon the beach. Taken together, these factors contributed to turning the battle for Guadalcanal into a six-month war of attrition. It was the malaise and psychological factor that Admiral Turner spoke about.

The number and the magnitude of the mistakes got Nimitz’s attention. They could no longer be ignored. A shake-up of the navy’s command structure began. Admirals began “retiring” in the midst of war, and those lacking the prerequisite aggressiveness were replaced. Nimitz got the message, and from then on worked to clear the navy’s officer ranks of deadwood. He wanted warriors, not bureaucrats. He found the warriors, and the tide of the war began to shift.

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Posted by: Larry Laswell AT 08:53 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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