Warship Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022: The Well-Traveled Admiral

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022: The Well-Traveled Admiral

Photo by Coote, R G G (Lt), Admiralty Official Collection Photograph A 11745 from the Imperial War Museums.

Above we see the King George V-class battleship HMS Howe (32) conducting full power trials at Scapa Flow with a bone in her teeth on 29 August 1942. The last “KGV” and the final British dreadnought built that would see combat, Howe joined the Home Fleet some 80 years ago this week.

Some 42,000 tons when at their fighting weight, these 745-foot long ships were brawlers. Capable of breaking 28 knots on a set of Parsons geared steam turbines, they were faster than all but a handful of battleships on the drawing board while still sporting nearly 15 inches of armor plate at their thickest. Armed with 10 BL 14-inch Mk VII naval guns and 16 5.25″/50 DP QF Mark I guns, they could slug it out with the biggest of the dreadnoughts of their day, possibly only outclassed by the American fast battleships (Washington, SoDak, Iowa-classes) with their 16-inch radar-guided guns and the Japanese Yamatos, which of course carried 18-inchers.

King George V class battleships, Janes 1946 plan

RN British battleship profiles ONI 201, circa 1944

The KGVs featured ten big 14″/45s in just three turrets, two 4-gun 1,582-ton Mark III mounts, and a single superimposed 2-gun 915-ton Mark II mount. They were capable of firing 1,590-pound Mark VIIB AP projectiles to 38,560 yards at maximum elevation and charge. The shells were able to penetrate 15.6 inches of side armor at anything closer than 10,000 yards.

Six of the 10 14-in guns of HMS Howe pointing to port as seen from a small boat alongside the battleship. IWM A 11755.

British Royal Marines fitting tampions to the guns of turret A or X aboard HMS Howe,

Workmen doing the same, HMS Howe (32)

Looking from the foc’sle towards the 6 forward 14 inch guns of HMS Howe, with the guns at maximum elevation and a group of sailors lined up in front of them

Royal Marines working on a 5.25 secondary turret on HMS Howe, August 1942. She had eight such mounts, the equivalent of a Dido-class light cruiser, and was capable of hitting up to 36,000 ft altitude in AAA mode

Note her AAA suite including 8-barreled pom poms

Part of a class of five mighty battleships whistled up as Hitler was girding a resurgent Germany, HMS Howe was ordered on 28 April 1937, just a year after the Austrian corporal-turned-Fuhrer violated the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact by reoccupying the demilitarized Rhineland. Built at Glasgow’s famous Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Company’s yards in Govan (all five KGVs were constructed at different yards to speed up their delivery), she joined the fleet as Montgomery was preparing to rebuff Rommel for good at El Alamein in Northern Africa. What a difference a few years can make!

One classmate, HMS Prince of Wales, had already been lost in combat before Howe was commissioned, sent to the bottom infamously by Japanese land-based bombers after surviving two encounters with Bismarck while still technically on her builder’s trials.

Originally to be named after the great Admiral of the Fleet David Richard Beaty, she was instead the 6th RN warship since 1805 graced with the name of Admiral of the Fleet Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe, KG, a career sea dog who at age 68 led his 25 ships of the line against a larger French fleet during the “Glorious First of June” melee in 1794. Howe succeeded in capturing or sinking seven French ships without losing any of his own.

C., H. ; Lord Howe on Board the ‘Queen Charlotte’ Bringing His Prize into Spithead, 1794; HMS Excellent; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/lord-howe-on-board-the-queen-charlotte-bringing-his-prize-into-spithead-1794-26045

Convoy Duty

Commissioned at her builder’s yard at Govan in June 1942 although she was not yet completed, Howe would spend the next three months in a series of trials while finishing outfitting.

RN British battleship KGV class HMS HOWE IWM A 10381

King George V class battleship HMS Howe during trials in August 1942

HMS Howe underway at sea, date unknown

HMS HOWE, BRITAIN’S LASTEST BATTLESHIP IN COMMISSION. 2 JULY 1942. (A 10514) HMS HOWE enters the dock for her finishing touches before taking her place with the Fleet. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205144216

An imposing shot of Howe from the waterline, showing off her secondaries

HMS Howe Joins the Fleet, Glasgow, Scotland, July 1942. Thousands of people gather on the banks of the Clyde to see the recently constructed British battleship HMS HOWE, towed out by tugs to join the Fleet. IWM A 10383

With HMS Howe. August 1942, on Board the Battleship HMS Howe. The fitting mascot for the great battleship is “Judy”, a thoroughbred bulldog. A 11770

HMS Howe. August 1942. The Lord Provost of Edinburgh, speaking to the ship’s company. IWM A A 11739

HM’s newest battleship would spend the rest of the year in a series of exercises and shake down evolutions, getting her green crew ready for war. Building on lessons learned from chasing down Bismarck and in fights with the Japanese off Java and Guadalcanal, lots of nighttime training.


HMS Howe firing her 14-inch guns near Scapa Flow, likely around 25 September to 5 October 1942. IWM A 12334.

“The brilliant flash from the guns which precedes the cordite smoke lasts only for a fraction of a second”

Howe moved from being passively in the fight to heading out for combat on New Year’s Eve 1942 when she sortied out from Scapa as part of the distant screening force for Convoy RA 51, heading to the UK from Murmansk, tantalizingly close enough for the German surface raiders in Norway to get a bite (if they wanted.) In this, she sailed with her sister, the battleship HMS King George V, and in future convoys would often steam alongside other sisters, HMS Anson and HMS Duke of York, the latter of which would end the career of the battleship Scharnhorst during the Battle of the North Cape on Boxing Day 1943– soaking the German warship in 446 14-inch shells across 80 broadsides.

Before leaving Scapa again to help cover Convoy JW 53 in late February as a distant cover force, our new battlewagon would host the king.

King George VI inspecting the ship’s company on board HMS Howe. The King pays a 4-day visit to the Home Fleet. 18 to 21 February 1943, Scapa Flow, wearing the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet, the King paid a four-day visit to the Home Fleet. IWM A 15210.

King George VI aboard HMS Howe with Captain C. H. L. Woodhouse and Admiral John Tovey, Scapa Flow, Scotland, Feb 1943. They are nearing the aft “X” turret. IWM A 15204

King George VI aboard HMS Howe, same day, a beautiful view of her bow turrets (“A” and “B”) with their unusual 4+2 arrangement. IWM A 15121

(A 15430) HMS HOWE firing her starboard 5.9 guns, as seen from the inward deck of HMS KING GEORGE V in Northern waters. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205148494

In March, she would join the cover force for Convoy RA 53 then in April, in work up for the Operation Fracture/Husky Landings in Sicily, would take part in exercise XCJ off Iceland.

The Med

Sailing for Gibraltar in the company of three destroyers, she arrived in the shadow of “The Rock” on 25 May and would join “H” Force, made up of Howe and her sister HMS King George V (flying the flag of Rear-Admiral A.W.LaT. Bisset, RN), along with the carrier HMS Formidable and nine British and Polish destroyers/escorts. Shipping out for Algiers from Gibraltar, the group would rename Force Z and ultimately head into combat off Sicily on 11 July– sans Formidable and four tin cans but adding the cruisers HMS Dido and HMS Sirius — under Howe’s skipper, Capt. Charles Henry Lawrence Woodhouse (who captained HMS Ajax in the Battle of the River Plate), the senior officer with 37 years in service.

HMS Howe July 1943, off Algiers

The role of Force Z would be to shell Trapani and Marsala along with the islands of Favignana and Levanzo in the dark pre-dawn hours on 12 July, serving as a decoy to the main landings on the west coast of Sicily. During the feign, Howe fired 17 salvoes from her 14-inch guns at the hills along Trapani harbor along with several star shells for illumination.

Following the diversion, Force Z would remain a fire brigade on short notice, scrambled in case Italian battleships wanted to come out and fight. It was in this role that CinC Malta, Vice Admiral Arthur John Power, would break out his flag on Howe on 8 September to sortie towards the incoming Italian fleet sailing from Taranto to surrender. The force would encounter the Italian battleships Andrea Doria and Caio Duilo (flying the flag of VADM Alberto Da Zara), along with the cruisers Luigi Cadorna and Pompeo Magno and a destroyer at sea, escorting them back to Malta.

Taking a break from accepting the surrender of Umberto II’s capital ships, Howe supported the Operation Slapstick landings of the British 1st Airborne Division outside of Taranto (with the Paras arriving by sea rather than by air). Then, on 14 September, Force Z would escort the surrendered Italian battleships Vittorio Veneto, Italia (Littorio), cruisers Eurgenio di Savoia, Emanuelle Filiberto Duca d’Aosta, Raimondo Montecuccoli and Luigi Cadorna; and the destroyers Artigliere, Velite, Grecale, and Nicoloso da Recco from Malta to Alexandria.

Langmaid, Rowland; The Surrendered Italian Fleet with HMS ‘King George V’ and ‘Howe’, 1943; National Maritime Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-surrendered-italian-fleet-with-hms-king-george-v-and-howe-1943-174942

Sent back to Scapa to resume Home Fleet duties in October, it was thought Howe could best serve with a new force being mustered to fight the Japanese now that the Med had calmed down and the Axis had lost its capital ships in that ancient sea.

To the Pacific!

Laid up at Devonport for a six-month refit that saw her packing on new radars (Type 274, 282, and 283 radar added; Type 273, 281, and 284 removed) and a serious AAA suite, Howe was destined for the new British Pacific Fleet, where she would be the force’s flagship. While her original 1942 “ack ack” fit was substantial– 6 octuple 40/39 2pdr QF Mk VIII “pom-poms” and 18 20mm/70 Oerlikon Mk II/IV singles– Howe could sail for the Far East in early 1944 with 8 pom poms (64 guns), 34 Oerlikon singles and 8 Oerlikon twin mounts (for a total of 50 20mm guns); and two quad 40mm Bofors mounts (8 guns).

Howe, Flagship of the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, passing through the Suez Canal on 14 July 1944 on her way to join the British Pacific Fleet. Naval History and Heritage Command original color photograph, NH 94456-KN, courtesy of The Imperial War Museum London

Swimmers from a local swimming club gather on a jetty to watch the passage of HMS Howe through the Suez Canal. Many of the battleship’s crew are on deck

While the fighting core of the BPF was to be RADM Admiral Sir Philip Vian’s 1st Aircraft Carrier Squadron (Task Force 57), ultimately including a half-dozen Illustrious-class armored carriers (supported by a mix of five replenishment and repair carriers) and 36 FAA squadrons flying from their decks, HMS Howe would be the first British battleship to return to the Pacific since Prince of Wales and her companion, the aging but beautiful battlecruiser Repulse, were sunk in December 1942. (*While several of the Great War vintage Revenge-class and Queen Elizabeth-class battleships along with the battlecruiser Renown would serve in the Eastern Fleet in 1943-44, their service was isolated to convoy escort and operations along the Burma coast and various island groups in the Indian Ocean.)

Passing through the Suez, stopping at Aden in late July, and arriving at Colombo on 3 August (where she exercises with the Free French battleship Richelieu), Howe joined the Eastern Fleet’s carrier forces (soon to be BPF carriers), consisting of the HMS Victorious and HMS Indomitable for Operation Banquet– a raid against Padang, Sumatra, in the Dutch East Indies (Aug 19-27) followed by Operation Light, a similar carrier raid (Sept 14-20) against the railway repair and maintenance center at Sigli, Sumatra.

Howe and her escorting destroyers, with Fraser aboard, arrived at Fremantle on 11 December 1944 from Colombo and Australia went crazy.

Relocating to Sydney on 17 December for a two-week pier side stand down, the enthusiasm was palpable, and Howe’s skipper at the time, Capt. H.W.U. McCall, DSO, RN, explicitly mentioned the battleship was there, two years after the fact, to avenge Prince of Wales and Repulse and “take our full share in bringing about the defeat of Japan.”

Once in the Pacific, Howe would soon be reinforced by her familiar sister, the hard-wearing HMS King George V, in February 1945 followed by siblings Duke of York and HMS Anson later in the summer (post-VJ-Day). They would comprise the 1st Battle Squadron of the British Pacific Fleet. Sadly, the four would never steam together as a fighting unit. The older but 16-inch gunned HMS Nelson (28) would arrive in the Pacific just in time for the surrender in Singapore on 12 September.

THE BATTLESHIP HMS HOWE IN NEW ZEALAND WATERS. JANUARY 1945, ON BOARD HMS HOWE, FLAGSHIP OF ADMIRAL BRUCE FRASER, C IN C BRITISH PACIFIC FLEET, WHEN SHE WAS IN NEW ZEALAND WATERS AND DURING HER VISIT TO AUCKLAND. (A 28861) Destroyer escort seen from the bridge of the HOWE. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205160182

THE BATTLESHIP HMS HOWE IN NEW ZEALAND WATERS. JANUARY 1945, ON BOARD HMS HOWE, FLAGSHIP OF ADMIRAL BRUCE FRASER, C IN C BRITISH PACIFIC FLEET, WHEN SHE WAS IN NEW ZEALAND WATERS AND DURING HER VISIT TO AUCKLAND. (A 28865) Captain H W U McCall, DSO, RN, with the HOWE’s dog mascot Guinness. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205160186

HMS Howe with a bone in her teeth

Working towards the Japanese surrender, KGV and Howe (as Task Group 57.1), joining the growing British carrier power that was TF57, were off to Okinawa for Operation Iceberg in March. They stood by the carriers amid the waves of incoming kamikazes (with one suicider crashing in flames 100 yards from HMS Howe after passing over the quarterdeck). Our battleship also got her guns on target, bombarding Hirara airfield and the runways at Nobara and Sukuma (4 May: 195 rounds of 14″ HE, and 378 rounds of 5.25″ HE).

After spending most of the preceding year at sea, and with a move from the UK to Japan’s doorstep and a series of fast carrier raids behind her, Howe was pulled off the line to refit for the final push (Operation Olympic) — the invasion of the Japanese home island of Kyushu, set for November 1945. With that, Howe steamed from Manus for Sydney in early June, then arrived at Durban, South Africa– because no suitable facilities were available in Australia at the time– arriving on 27 June. There, her AAA suite was upgraded for a final time, landing most of her 20mm guns in favor of better-performing 40mm Bofors.

However, by the time her refit finished on 10 September, the war was already over.

Her sisters, Duke of York and KGV, were in Tokyo Bay when the instruments of surrender were signed.

HMS Duke of York in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, the day the Japanese Surrender was signed on USS Missouri BB-63. The Ensigns of all Allied nations were flown for a ceremonial “Sunset.” Note the two Quad QF 2-pounder/40mm “Pom-Pom” gun mounts and five smart Royal Marine buglers (center) ready to sound Sunset. Nimitz called upon ADM Sir Bruce Fraser aboard HMS Duke of York on the eve of the Japanese surrender ceremony. Nimitz noted that the visit was “partly on official business, partly because I like him, and mostly to get a scotch and soda before dinner because our ships are dry.” IWM – Cross, G W (Sub Lt) Photographer


Howe, the last of her class, remained in commission for the rest of the decade and became Flagship of the Training Squadron at Portland.

King George V class battleships listing, Jane’s 1946

Reduced to Reserve status in 1950 as the flag of the Devonport Division of the Reserve Fleet, she was placed on the Disposal List in 1957 along with her three surviving sisters.

Mothballs Devonport mid-1950s Fairmile D MTBs HMS Howe HMS Belfast and Dido class light cruiser, possibly HMS Euryalus

Battleships HMS Vanguard and HMS Howe lying in reserve at Devonport, 1956 HMS Unicorn Euryalus behind

Howe was sold to BISCO for demolition, arriving at Inverkeithing on 2 June 1958 for breaking up.

It would fall to the one-off HMS Vanguard (23), the last and never fully operational British battleship, completed in 1946, to hold the line for two further years until she too was decommissioned and scrapped in late 1960 to end the Admiralty’s 54 years run with dreadnoughts.

Howe is remembered in maritime art by some of the most gifted painters in the class.

Battleship in Suez Canal, HMS ‘Howe’ by Charles Pears. Photo credit: The National Archives

HMS Howe under attack from Japanese aircraft, torpedo-armed Vals by artist Terence Tenison Cuneo (UK Art Trust) 

Suez Transit by Wayne Scarpaci. Depicts the King George V class Battleship, HMS Howe, passaging through the Suez canal in 1944

Her bell was saved and installed in Edinburgh’s St. Giles Cathedral, lovingly tended by the HMS Howe Association while her giant circa 1937 1:96 scale builder’s model from Govan is on display in the Riverside Museum in Glasgow. Other relics of her are on display at assorted museums across the UK.

Her wartime movement logs are digitized at Uboat.net.

For their own reasons, the Royal Navy has not had a seventh HMS Howe. A shame. 


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