Mankind has been battling it out for control of the oceans ever since the first boat set sail. Over the years, plenty of different ships have been launched with bigger and better weaponry. Some of them have been incredible marvels of technology and brilliant ocean-going craft.
We’ve summed up some of the best ships ever to grace the oceans. From battleships bristling with canons to enormous aircraft carriers for the modern age.
Korean Turtle Ship
The Korean Turtle ship was a type of craft used somewhere in the 16th century. This type of warship gets its name from the protective shell that covers it. It’s designed to be resilient and as such is often referred to as the first armoured ship in the entire world. It boasted a flame-throwing dragon-shaped head on the bow, cannons and a desk that was reinforced to protect against arrows, fire and more.
The keen-eyed reader will also spot the other design highlight to this warship that includes iron spikes on the deck, a design intended to prevent enemy boarding crews from having an easy time taking control of the ship.
Despite its age, the HMS Victory might be one of the most well-known warships of all time. This was Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar but also took part in multiple other fights including the Battles of Ushant, the Battle of Cape Spartel, Cape St Vincent and the Siege of Gibraltar.
The HMS Victory sported 104 guns, carried around 850 men and was capable of a top speed of 11 knots. It first set sail in 1765 and was moved to dry dock as a museum piece in 1922. It’s still available to visit as well and is technically still in service, making it the world’s oldest ship to still be in commission at over 241 years’ young.
The USS Vesuvius first launched in 1888 and was known as a dynamite gun cruiser – a vessel that could lob 550-lb high-explosive shells at targets up to a mile away. The ship used compressed air to fire its shells resulting it in being so quiet it was labelled as a terror weapon because the enemy couldn’t hear the report of the gun before receiving the incoming fire. It could also fire at quite a speed for the time, with 15 shells being fired in just 16 minutes 50 seconds during a test in 1889.
The USS Constitution is another ancient vessel with quite a history. This US Navy vessel is said to be the world’s oldest commissioned to still be afloat. It’s second only to the HMS Victory which is older but in dry dock, not ocean-going.
The USS Constitution first set sail in 1797. It’s a 44-gun frigate that’s capable of a top speed of 13 knots while holding 450 crew members. This ship is also interesting as it essentially represents America in every possible way. Even its name is inspired by the supreme law of the United States.
This ship also famously fought Britain in the War of 1812, where it defeated five different British warships. Another point of interest is this ship was built at a time when ships were expected to serve up to 15 years, it’s certainly managed a lot more than that.
German battleship Bismarck
The Bismark, along with the Tirpitz, famously has the title of being the largest battleship ever built by Germany and technically the largest ever built by any European country.
It was a monster of a ship, armed with eight 38 cm SK C/34 guns, twelve 15 cm L/55 guns, sixteen 10.5 cm L/65 guns and sixteen 3.7 cm L/83 guns and twelve 2 cm anti-aircraft cannons.
It first launched in 1939 but was seen as such a threat that it didn’t last long in service. The ship was involved in the Battle of the Denmark Strait where the HMS Hood was sunk by fire from this ship and the Prinz Eugen. The British then relentlessly pursued the Bismark, attacking it with all manner of vessels including obsolete biplane torpedo bombers.
Thousands of shells were fired at the Bismark to put an end to it and eventually it was so badly damaged that First Officer Hans Oels gave the order to scuttle her. Despite the order to abandon ship, the attack and scuttling lead to massive loss of life. Of 2,200 men aboard, only 114 survived.
The USS Missouri is an interesting vessel due to its modern history. It’s certainly not as old as other ships on this list, but that doesn’t make it any less significant. It was launched in 1944 and fought in the Pacific Theater against the Japanese during World War II. The ship also had the honour of hosting the ceremony that marked the surrender of Japan in August 1945.
The war might have been over, but that wasn’t the end of the fight for the USS Missouri as the ship went on to battle in the Korean War and was even reactivated in the 1980s before later going on to fight in the 1990 Gulf War. In 1998, the ship was finally removed from service and sent to Pearl Harbour where she would go on to act as a museum ship.
Zumwalt Class Destroyers
Not an individual warship as such, but a whole class of destroyers are next on the list. 32 of these weirdly futuristic ships were planned to be built by the US Navy.
These are modern multi-role battleships with enhanced stealth capabilities. The design of these warships includes a low-radar cross-section and a wave-piercing hull. They’re designed to be fast and invisible to enemy radar. The stealth systems and design of the Zumwalt Class Destroyers make them 50 times harder to spot than standard destroyers.
They also pack some serious firepower that includes an Advanced Gun System which comprises of a 155mm naval gun capable of firing a Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP) over 80 nautical miles. It can also fire both Tactical Tomahawk missiles and Vertical Launch Anti-Submarine ordinance, making it incredibly versatile.
The HMS Dreadnought graces our list due to being one of the most significant vessels thanks to the revolution it brought to naval power. This ship launched in 1906 and hit the waters with such incredible technological advancements that it rendered many other ships obsolete. A generation of warships followed with entire classes named after this single vessel. Even the battleships that came before it were then known as “pre-dreadnoughts”.
The Dreadnought was designed to be faster and capable of firing heavy ordinance at a much longer range. It had 10 large 30cm guns, 27 12-pdr (7.6cm) guns and five torpedo tubes too. It was the first capital ship to be powered by steam turbines which made it the fastest battleship in the world at the time, topping out at 21 knots.
Despite all the advancements, the HMS Dreadnought didn’t really engage in many significant battles and was best known for the ramming and sinking of German submarine SM U-29. It was decommissioned in 1919 and scrapped two years later.
HMS Queen Elizabeth
It would be rude not to include the HMS Queen Elizabeth on this list. It would probably be treason in fact, as this ship is named as a tribute to the ship of the same name that was a leading dreadnought battleship from World War I. That ship was named in honour of Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen.
The new HMS Queen Elizabeth was launched in 2017 but isn’t expected to go into service until 2020. This is an aircraft carrier of epic proportions and the largest warship ever constructed for the Royal Navy. It is capable of carrying as many as 60 aircraft and up to 1,600 service staff. It has a top speed of 25 knots, can travel 10,000 nautical miles and boasts some serious firepower to protect itself from attack.
The current HMS Defender is the eighth ship to bear the name. This is a Daring-class air-defence destroyer in service with the Royal Navy. It was launched in 2009 and hit the oceans bristling with technology that includes a multitude of air surveillance radar and tracking systems as well as some significant anti-air firepower. The HMS Defender is also nippy, being capable of over 30 knots but is perhaps most interesting for its service history.
In 2016, the ship helped seize a metric tonne of high-grade hashish from a fishing dhow south of Oman it also escorted the RMS Queen Mary 2 through the Gulf of Oman that year. In 2019, it helped defend British shores from the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov, that was thought to be armed with a Filin 5P-42 device – a weapon that’s designed to cause dizziness, nausea and disorientation, as well as hallucinations in some cases.
The USNS Spearhead is not your traditional battleship, but it is certainly interesting. It’s a large Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport craft that’s in service with the United States Navy’s Military Sealift Command.
It’s capable of a top speed of 43 knots, but interestingly only holds a maximum of 41 crewmembers. It’s built with a modular design that allows it to be refitted with all manner of equipment and to operate as a transport craft for troops or equipment. As such, it plays an important part in US Navy operations and should not be dismissed as uninteresting.
The HMS Hood was built in 1916 and cost a whopping £6,025,000 to construct. She was an Admiral-class battlecruiser and the largest and most powerful warship in the world for almost 20 years after being first commissioned. That fact earnt the ship the nickname “The Mighty Hood” and it was thought to be invincible by many at the time.
However, the Hood is perhaps most well-known for its sinking. The ship took part in the Battle of the Denmark Strait, shooting it out with both the Bismark and Prinz Eugen. Those two ships concentrated fire on HMS Hood and less than 10 minutes after the battle started, she was hit by a fatal blow from the Bismark that lead to her sinking. Tragically, only three of the 1418 crew aboard survived and the sinking of Britain’s largest ship was a blow to the Royal Navy. Which is probably why the Navy then went on to relentlessly pursue the Bismark until it too was sunk.
The HMS Campbeltown is another warship that’s most well-known for its interesting end. This ship was first launched by the US Navy in 1919 as the USS Buchanan, but later transferred to the Royal Navy to support the war effort and renamed as HMS Campbeltown. It wasn’t long before the destroyer was essentially obsolete, but it was still useful and put to good use too.
In 1942, the Campbeltown was loaded with explosives and embarked on Operation Chariot – the mission to destroy the heavily defended Normandie dry dock at St Nazaire.
It was rammed into the dock, as the British Commandos stormed the facilities in order to destroy machinery and other structures. Only 228 of the 611 men who embarked on the mission managed to return Britain but the mission itself was a success. The HMS Campbeltown exploded at noon on 28 March 1942 rendering the dock useless until 1948. This meant that large German warships couldn’t be repaired there and were instead forced to return home, through more dangerous waters in order to be fixed.
The mission was said to be one of the greatest British raids of all time and would see its men and the ship go down in history.
Japanese battleship Yamato
The battleship Yamato was launched in 1940 and at the time was the heaviest and most powerfully armed battleship ever created. It was armed with nine 46cm main guns that were the largest to be mounted on a battleship at the time. This massive warship was designed to be able to counter the superior numbers of the US Navy with incredibly dangerous firepower. That weaponry included cannons that could fire high-explosive or armour-piercing shells as far as 26 miles, as well as other smaller guns and anti-aircraft weapons.
The Yamato took part in several battles and it sustained a fair amount of damage during them too. During the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, for example, the Yamato was struck by two bombs from American aircraft and took on 3,370 tonnes of water but survived.
The craft was sunk in April 1945 when, during a battle, it was struck by at least 11 torpedoes and six bombs over a two hour period. The battleship sunk, taking most of the 3,332 men aboard with it.
The USS Midway was the largest ship in the world when it first launched in 1945. It was the leading ship in its class and named after the Battle of Midway. The Midway had plenty of deployments over the years including supporting operations in Vietnam and even decades later in Operation Desert Storm.
The USS Midway certainly has an interesting history that spans several decades. It was also a test craft for new methods of warfare. In 1947, for example, the flight deck was used to test-fire a captured German V-2 rocket – the first-ever rocket launch from a moving platform.
Midway was decommissioned in 1992 and is now a museum ship.
World War II’s USS Enterprise was the seventh US Navy ship to bear this name. It was interesting in several ways, not least of which was being lucky enough to be at sea during the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbour in 1941. The USS Enterprise was also the most decorated US ship of World War II and she was involved in more major actions against Japan than any other United States ship.
The Enterprise was the first US ship to sink an enemy warship during the Pacific War and she even helped to sink three Japanese carriers and a cruiser during the Battle of Midway. The ship is also famously known for this photo of a Grumman Hellcat crash landing on its flight deck during the attack on Makin Island.
Sea Shadow (IX-529)
The Sea Shadow (IX-529) was an experimental ship built by Lockheed Martin. This ship was designed to take the stealth technology used in the company’s stealth jets and see if it could be used in submarine applications.
This experimental craft boasted some sharp and angry angles and lines that were shown to make it appear smaller on enemy radar and less visible. The craft was originally designed in the early 1980s, but was kept a secret until over a decade later. Although it wasn’t used in warfare like many of the craft on this list the design influenced other future warships.