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World War II: HMS Nelson

HMS Nelson (pennant number 28) was a Nelson-class battleship that entered service with the Royal Navy in 1927. One of two ships of its class, Nelson‘s design was a result of the limitations imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty. This resulted in the entirety of its main armament of 16-inch guns mounted forward of the battleship’s superstructure. During World War II, Nelson saw extensive service in the Atlantic and Mediterranean as well as aided in supporting troops ashore after D-Day. The battleship’s final wartime service occurred in the Indian Ocean where it aided the Allied advance across Southeast Asia.


HMS Nelson can trace its origins to the days after World War I. Following the conflict the Royal Navy began designing its future classes of warships with the lessons learned during the war in mind. Having taken losses among its battlecruiser forces at Jutland, efforts were made to emphasize firepower and improved armor over speed. Pushing forward, planners created the new G3 battlecruiser design which would mount 16″ guns and have top speed of 32 knots. These would be joined by the N3 battleships carrying 18″ guns and capable of 23 knots.

Both designs were intended to compete with warships being planned by the United States and Japan. With the specter of a new naval arms race looming, leaders gathered in late 1921 and produced the Washington Naval Treaty. The world’s first modern disarmament agreement, the treaty limited fleet size by establishing a tonnage ratio between Great Britain, the United States, Japan, France, and Italy. Additionally, it restricted future battleships to 35,000 tons and 16″ guns.

Given the need to defend a far flung empire, the Royal Navy successfully negotiated the tonnage limit to exclude weight from fuel and boiler feed water. Despite this, the four planned G3 battlecruisers and four N3 battleships still exceeded the treaty limitations and the the designs were cancelled. A similar fate befell the U.S. Navy’s Lexington-class battlecruisers and South Dakota-class battleships.


In an effort to create a new battleship that met the required criteria, British planners settled on a radical design which placed all of the ship’s main guns forward of the superstructure. Mounting three triple turrets, the new design saw A and X turrets mounted on the main deck, while B turret was in a raised (superfiring) position between them. This approach aided in reducing displacement as it limited the area of the ship requiring heavy armor. While a novel approach, A and B turrets often caused damage to equipment on the weather deck when firing forward and X turret routinely shattered the windows on the bridge when firing too far abaft.

Battleship HMS Nelson at sea with guns trained to port.
 HMS Nelson in the years before World War II. Public Domain

Drawing from the G3 design, the new type’s secondary guns were clustered aft. Unlike every British battleship since HMS Dreadnought (1906), the new class did not possess four propellers and instead employed only two. These were powered by eight Yarrow boilers generating around 45,000 shaft horsepower. The use of two propellers and a smaller power plant was done in an effort to save weight. As a result, there were worries that the new class would sacrifice speed.

To compensate, the Admiralty utilized an extremely hydrodynamically efficient hull form to maximize the vessels’ speed. In a further attempt to reduce displacement, an “all or nothing” approach to armor was used with areas either being heavily protected or not protected at all. This method had been utilized earlier on the five classes that comprised the US Navy’s Standard-type battleships (Nevada-, Pennsylvania-, New Mexico-Tennessee-, and Colorado-classes). Those protected sections of the ship utilized an internal, inclined armor belt to increase the relative width of the belt to a striking projectile. Mounted aft, the ship’s tall superstructure was triangular in plan and largely built of lightweight materials.

Construction and Early Career

The lead ship of this new class, HMS Nelson, was laid down at Armstrong-Whitworth in Newcastle on December 28, 1922. Named for the hero of Trafalgar, Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the ship was launched September 3, 1925. The ship was completed over the next two years and joined the fleet on August 15, 1927. It was joined by its sister ship, HMS Rodney in November.

Made flagship of the Home Fleet, Nelson largely served in British waters. In 1931, the ship’s crew took part in the Invergordon Mutiny. The following year saw Nelson‘s anti-aircraft armament upgraded. In January 1934, the ship struck Hamilton’s Reef, outside Portsmouth while en route to maneuvers in the West Indies. As the 1930s passed, Nelson was further modified as its fire control systems were improved, additional armor installed, and more anti-aircraft guns mounted aboard.

HMS Nelson (28)


  • Nation: Great Britain
  • Type: Battleship
  • Shipyard: Armstrong-Whitworth, Newcastle
  • Laid Down: December 28, 1922
  • Launched: September 3, 1925
  • Commissioned: August 15, 1927
  • Fate: Scrapped, March 1949


  • Displacement: 34,490 tons
  • Length: 710 ft.
  • Beam: 106 ft.
  • Draft: 33 ft.
  • Speed: 23.5 knots
  • Complement: 1,361 men


Guns (1945)

  • 9 × BL 16-in. Mk I guns (3 × 3)
  • 12 × BL 6 in. Mk XXII guns (6 × 2)
  • 6 × QF 4.7 in. anti-aircraft guns (6 × 1)
  • 48 × QF 2-pdr AA (6 octuple mounts)
  • 16 × 40 mm anti-aircraft guns (4 × 4)
  • 61 × 20 mm anti-aircraft guns

World War II Arrives

When World War II began in September 1939, Nelson was at Scapa Flow with the Home Fleet. Later that month, Nelson was attacked by German bombers while escorting the damaged submarine HMS Spearfish back to port. The following month, Nelson and Rodney put to sea to intercept the German battlecruiser Gneisenau but were unsuccessful. Following the loss of HMS Royal Oak to a German U-boat at Scapa Flow, both Nelson-class battleships were re-based to Loch Ewe in Scotland.

On December 4, while entering Loch Ewe, Nelson struck a magnetic mine that had been laid by U-31. Causing extensive damage and flooding, the explosion forced the ship to be taken to the yard for repairs. Nelson was not available for service until August 1940. While in the yard, Nelson received several upgrades including the addition of a Type 284 radar. After supporting Operation Claymore in Norway on March 2, 1941, the ship began protecting convoys during the Battle of the Atlantic.

In June, Nelson was assigned to Force H and began operating from Gibraltar. Serving in the Mediterranean, it aided in protecting Allied convoys. On September 27, 1941, Nelson was hit by an Italian torpedo during an air attack forcing it to return to Britain for repairs. Completed in May 1942, it rejoined Force H as flagship three months later. In this role it supported efforts to resupply Malta.

Amphibious Support

As American forces began to gather in the region, Nelson provided support for the Operation Torch landings in November 1942. Remaining in the Mediterranean as part of Force H, it aided in blocking supplies from reaching Axis troops in North Africa. With the successful conclusion of fighting in Tunisia, Nelson joined other Allied naval vessels in aiding the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. This was followed by providing naval gunfire support for the Allied landings at Salerno, Italy in early September.

Battleship HMS Nelson in port at Mers-el-Kebir, 1942.
 HMS Nelson at Mers-el-Kebir during Operation Torch, 1942. Public Domain

On September 28, General Dwight D. Eisenhower met with Italian Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio aboard Nelson while the ship was anchored at Malta. During this time, the leaders signed a detailed version of Italy’s armistice with the Allies. With the end of major naval operations in the Mediterranean, Nelson received orders to return home for an overhaul. This saw a further enhancement of its anti-aircraft defenses. Rejoining the fleet, Nelson was initially held in reserve during the D-Day landings.

Ordered forward, it arrived off Gold Beach on June 11, 1944, and began providing naval gunfire support to British troops ashore. Remaining on station for a week, Nelson fired around 1,000 16″ shells at German targets. Departing for Portsmouth on June 18, the battleship detonated two mines while en route. While one exploded approximately fifty yards to starboard, the other detonated beneath the forward hull causing considerable damage. Though the forward part of the ship experienced flooding, Nelson was able to limp into port.

Final Service

After assessing the damage, the Royal Navy elected to send Nelson to the Philadelphia Naval Yard for repairs. Joining westbound convoy UC 27 on June 23, it arrived in the Delaware Bay on July 4. Entering dry dock, work began to repair the damage caused by the mines. While there, the Royal Navy determined that Nelson‘s next assignment would be to the Indian Ocean. As a result, an extensive refit was conducted which saw the ventilation system improved, new radar systems installed, and additional anti-aircraft guns mounted. Leaving Philadelphia in January 1945, Nelson returned to Britain in preparation for deployment to the Far East.

Battleships HMS Nelson and HMS Rodney at anchor.
 HMS Nelson (left) with HMS Rodney, undated. Public Domain

Joining the British Eastern Fleet at Trincomalee, Ceylon, Nelson became the flagship of Vice Admiral W.T.C. Walker’s Force 63. Over the next three months, the battleship operated off the Malayan Peninsula. During this time, Force 63 conducted air attacks and shore bombardments against Japanese positions in the region. With the Japanese surrender, Nelson sailed for George Town, Penang (Malaysia). Arriving, Rear Admiral Uozomi came aboard to surrender his forces. Moving south, Nelson entered Singapore Harbor on September 10 becoming the first British battleship to arrive there since the island’s fall in 1942.

Returning to Britain in November, Nelson served as flagship of the Home Fleet until being moved into a training role the following July. Placed in reserve status in September 1947, the battleship later served as a bombing target in the Firth of Forth. In March 1948, Nelson was sold for scrapping. Arriving at Inverkeithing the following year, the scrapping process began


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