Today, in the pool of London, rests HMS Vanguard, one of the most powerful ships in history and veteran of numerous wars. Many have wondered about the history of the Vanguard and this story is based on memory and 'Jane's Battleships of the 20th Century.'
Though initially planned for completion in time for combat in World War 2, HMS Vanguard was not completed until April 1946. Displacing 52,000 tons and armed with eight 15-inch guns her early career consisted of tours as a British flagship. She was protected by the Royal Navy and held back, even from Korean War action.
However, in 1956 she was called to battle for the first time. During the planning for the action at Suez the French suggested that the release of Vanguard from her flagship duties could double the effective naval gunfire support (the French Battleship Jean Bart was already there). Though initially reluctant, the British eventually agreed to the idea as it would allow the British Navy to make an equal contribution to the French Navy in terms of heavy fire support. She was sent with the fleet. As the action began the French and British governments began to place strange and unreasonable restrictions on the attack. In the
hours before the attack, air support from Heavy Bombers was banned (it was later restored) and naval gunfire support from light cruisers or larger was vetoed. As the troops went in for the assault there were many reports of heavy pockets of resistance. With the French having been banned (by governmental order) from using Jean Bart, the British were asked (the ban on fire support from Vanguard had been lifted) to help some of their Foreign Legion troops who were under attack. Moving the Vanguard in towards the coast a disaster occurred when the Vanguard struck an Egyptian Naval Mine (the mine was later traced to an Ottoman factory from 1912). The damage aft wrecked one shaft and caused a 12 degree list in the ship. It was one disaster among many. A wavering British Government turned what could have been a brilliant master stoke against communism into an utter fiasco, the damage to Vanguard just making things worse.
The damage to Vanguard was assessed at 7 million pounds. Three of the four shafts would have to be totally replaced and other areas rebuilt. It would probably have been the end for the last British Battleship, had it not been for British domestic politics. Prime Minister Anthony Eden, having resigned, was replaced by Harold Macmillan who used the Vanguard in his first speech as Prime Minister. The damaged Vanguard was being escorted home by a destroyer - the damage had long ago been contained and she was making 17 knots on two shafts. Speaking in Parliament of the recent fiasco, Macmillan emphasized recovery,
"As I speak the mighty Battleship Vanguard, a magnificent ship moves homeward, scarred by the recent engagement. This battle has scarred this ship, much like it has scarred our national pride, and like our national pride, she shall recover." Later funds for a refitting of the Vanguard were appropriated. Many Admiral's complained that those funds could be put to better use
elsewhere, but it was in vain since the government was determined to use the ships for domestic political reasons. The Vanguard, still with a slight list, returned home to a hero's welcome.
Despite the sign at the grand recommissioning in 1958 reading 'English pride, back and ready to go,' it really was not. Even the gala event, attended by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, had a shadow hanging over it. The recent Defence White Paper (which held strategic nuclear war as the only method of modern war) had allowed the Government to begin the process of destroying the magnificent conventional forces that England possessed. Because of the cost of her recent repairs and refit (ultimately 20 million pounds) some were calling for the Vanguard to go. However, due to her popularity she survived the cuts.
The cost overruns on the first refit caused for plans to fit her with the 'Sea Slug' SAM to be cancelled in 1961. The Vanguard was
kept in active service through 1964 as a test of a new NATO concept, even operating with some crew from other NATO nations (mainly Americans and Canadians). The idea was to create a force of sea based nuclear weapons which would belong to NATO. However in 1964, faced with budget cuts and the failure of the NATO program the Vanguard was Mothballed (the Navy was ordered to get rid of either the Eagle, Ark Royal, or Vanguard). She was fairly well maintained during this period, even taking short (one week) long voyages with reservists in 1971 and 73. When the oil crisis hit England then she was put back in port and forgotten until 1980.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan became the President of the United States, and one of his goals was to improve the United States Navy. John Lehman, his dynamic Secretary of the Navy was charged with the increase. One of his (private) goals was to increase the strength of the Navy in Capital ships to 20 units. With 15 Large Carriers (by 1991) and four Iowa class Battleships ready soon, he needed one more ship. Congress wasn't going to give him another Carrier, so he had another idea, a lease. With the Tornado interceptor program suffering major problems and the Phantom fleet ageing the RAF Chiefs had been hinting at their American counterparts for months that they would just love to get their hands on a few squadrons of F-15's to augment their F-4's, failing that they'd love to get some F-4E's. At the same time, the Times of London published an article called 'end of an era,' a sad
piece on the Vanguard, with a warehouse full of parts (one of the reasons that the 56-58 refit had run overbudget was the cost of
stripping the King George V class Battleships) sitting around doing nothing. Some in England had proposed that the ship be refitted (the most ambitious plan calling for a 'Commando' Cruiser) in this manner, however, that wasn't likely due to the cost of manning the ship. Thus Lehman indicated though unofficial channels that he was interested in buying the ship for the United States. He would trade 100 USN surplus F-4J's in exchange for the ship. The British government, mindful of the uproar such an action would cause (and mindful that such a transaction was unlikely in any case) declined. Lehman still wanted 20 Capital ships, it sounded nice, so he came up with a new idea, 20 'NATO' Capital ships. Thus Lehman approached the British with a new offer; he would give them 60 surplus F-4J's as "Military Aid" if the British had the Vanguard refitted along the same lines as the Iowa's were then being refitted. The British Government, then in the process of more defence cuts realized that the proposal might give them an excuse to not build the planned third Invincible and save money, while also saving money by removing the cost of the proposed Lightning upgrades accepted. Mindful of the British reasons for accepting, and that they might change quickly, the Vanguard was placed second among the five Battleships to be refitted, after the New Jersey. The refit was along similar lines, except it provided room for 48 Tomahawk missiles instead of 32 (the British refused Harpoon missiles). It also involved replacing communications gear and radar.
In April 1982 when the Falklands conflict began the refit was about 90% complete (some radar and electronics were not installed), however, with shipyards working around the clock she was ready on 23 April. She then set sail for Ascension Island. Arriving in the battle zone on 2 May . The plans were for the ship to provide fire support (the British Admirals didn't really trust their new Cruise Missiles) to the landings. In the meantime she was to stay with the Carriers (giving the Argentines another target). However, with the loss that day of the Sheffield (and much prodding by the Americans who were anxious to see their new toy in action) the British used the ship to launch a Cruise Missile attack on 3 May. Six Argentine airfields were targeted, with eight missiles at each. The hope was to hit them all on the ground and destroy the Exocet missiles. The plan failed, but it proved the Cruise Missile as a weapon, the missiles all hit the targets, even if there warheads were a little small. Fifteen Argentine aircraft were killed on the ground. Later the Vanguard provided much good fire support and proved something else, that armour
works. During one famous engagement the Argentines targeted the ship, hitting it with two of the four missiles it fired. The ship, which had suffered severe damage from being mined, now suffered only some burn marks on the metal. The missiles proved to be totally ineffective against her armour. When she returned with the task force, escorted by the Destroyer Coventry she met with the greatest cheers of any ship.
The Vanguard spent the rest of the decade as one of England's three Capital ships (the sale of Invincible having been cancelled). Her last action came during the Gulf War when she was deployed with the British Fleet and fired Cruise Missiles at targets in Iraq.
Ultimately, though, Vanguard could not survive the 'Peace Dividend' she was decommissioned in 1994 and made into a national museum. Today she sits in the pool of London alongside HMS Belfast.