The greatest naval battles of all time

Devastators of VT-6 aboard USS Enterprise, 4 June 1942

The high seas skirmishes that changed the tides of war and altered the course of world history…

The Battle of Midway

On 4 June 1942, the titanic Battle of Midway began to unfold in the centre of the Pacific Ocean. It was here that, six months after the shock attack on Pearl Harbor which thrust the US into World War Two, Japanese forces tried to go further by invading the American military base on Midway Atoll. A fearsome armada of aircraft carriers, battleships and warplanes was dispatched on this mission, which threatened to establish Japanese dominance over the Pacific theatre of the war.

'the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.'

There was just one problem for the Japanese: American codebreakers had intercepted and cracked their communications about the assault, meaning the US was able to deploy a defensive fleet to meet the invaders. What followed was an epic clash, the tranquil tropical region transformed into a thundering inferno of dive bombers and torpedo bombers. It was a crushing defeat for the Japanese, who lost all four of their aircraft carriers and thousands of men. The battle extinguished Japan’s offensive strategy in the Pacific, and was described by the military historian John Keegan as 'the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare'.

The Battle of Jutland

There was only one major clash between British and German fleets in World War One, and that was the Battle of Jutland. It took place off the coast of Denmark in the summer of 1916 and remains endlessly controversial thanks to the much-debated actions of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, who commanded the Royal Navy Grand Fleet. Control of the seas around the United Kingdom was so crucial that Winston Churchill dubbed Jellicoe 'the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon.'

The Brits won this clash of battleships, but lost many more men than the Germans. The high British body count allowed German propagandists to claim it as a victory, with the Kaiser himself cooing that Jutland had 'torn to shreds' the Royal Navy’s aura of invincibility that had persisted since the Battle of Trafalgar. Despite his victory, Jellicoe was criticised by many on his own side for his leadership in the battle, which according to his detractors was too cautious and prevented him from utterly destroying the German fleet. Whatever the pros and cons of Jellicoe’s strategy, the confrontation at Jutland preserved British dominion of the North Sea, a hard-won prize that came at the expense of thousands of sailors’ lives.

The Battle of Hampton Roads

It’s a relatively obscure fact – at least among non-historians – that the US Civil War featured sea battles. One such confrontation, the Battle of Hampton Roads, even heralded a revolution in naval warfare. This skirmish of 1862, which unfolded off the east coast of the United States, was the first-ever battle in world history to take place between ironclad warships.

These were the Virginia, on the Confederate side, and the Monitor, on the Union side. The Virginia had made short work of traditional, wooden-hulled Union ships before it was met by the Monitor for a dramatic duel. Spectators on both sides looked on in wonderment from their own decks as these strange new vessels fired on each other for hours, before it all ended in a stalemate.

One man who well understood the world-changing significance of the battle was novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, who described the Monitor as a ‘gigantic rat-trap’ which was ‘destined, along with others of the same breed, to annihilate whole navies and batter down old supremacies’. Although the Monitor sank in 1862, it lent its name to a whole class of warships that would be used in the world wars of the next century. The shipwreck of the Monitor was itself discovered in 1973, in the depths of the Atlantic, and relics from the vessel have since been put on display.

The Battle of Salamis

One of the first naval confrontations in recorded history, the Battle of Salamis was a key moment in the Greco-Persian Wars – a tumultuous era which saw the forces of the Persian Empire lay waste to Athens itself in 480 BC. Despite the loss of their city to the Persians, the Greeks fought back on the narrow waters between the island of Salamis and the port of Piraeus. While the Persians had the larger fleet of ships, this actually put them at a disadvantage as there was such little room to manoeuvre in the tight straits of Salamis.

'My men have become women, and my women men.'

Xerxes

The Persian galleys were soon caught in a chaotic gridlock as they were set upon by Greek triremes – fearsome warships with three tiers of rowers and prows fortified with bronze, which allowed them to ram into enemy vessels. It was a landscape of shattered ships, splintered oars and drowning men. Xerxes, the Persian King, looked on in shock from a throne which had been set up on a high vantage point. Disgusted by the performance of his sailors but admiring of the battle strategies of a female ally, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus, Xerxes is reputed to have said 'My men have become women, and my women men.' It was a resounding victory for the Greeks in the face of incredible odds, paving the way for further decisive successes against a once-unbeatable foe.

The Battle of Trafalgar

Admiral Nelson was already a national hero when he led the Royal Navy against Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. But the events of that day would make him an enduring icon and martyr. What was at stake was England itself, with Napoleon frighteningly poised to orchestrate an all-out invasion.

Despite commanding the smaller fleet, Nelson brought all his strategic brilliance – what he himself called the 'Nelson touch' – to the confrontation. Sending out the now-famous signal 'England expects that every man will do his duty', Nelson oversaw a monumental victory, with not a single British ship lost in the battle. Nelson himself was hit by a French musket while walking the deck of the HMS Victory, and died on the ship – but not before learning of his triumph. Trafalgar ended any prospect of a French invasion of England and ushered in an era of maritime supremacy that was the backbone of British imperial power until well into the 20th Century.