The treaty battleship USS Massachusetts saw very intensive service with the US Navy from the moment she was commissioned in 1942 until the final days of World War II. One of her most famous actions was the victorious fight against the French battleship Jean Bart at Casablanca – one of the last face-offs of great ships of the line in naval history.
After she had deployed to the Pacific, the USS Massachusetts became a true workhorse of the fleet, taking part in dozens of operations with the US Navy aircraft carriers and lending her guns in support of numerous amphibious assaults. Today the USS Massachusetts is a museum ship moored at Fall River in her namesake state where she can be seen in her full glory.
The USS Massachusetts (BB-59) was a battleship of the second South Dakota class. The six vessels of the first class were designed in the 1920s, but later canceled under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty, which imposed limitations on the tonnage of capital warships. The battleship was also the seventh US Navy warship to be named in honor of the U.S. sixth state.
In 1936 some of the Treaty limitations were lifted, which led to the expansion of the U.S. shipbuilding program. The design work on the new battleships began in the early 1930s, but the construction of the first two warships (the North Carolina class) was not formally authorized until 1937. In 1936, while working on the US Navy shipbuilding program for 1938, Admiral William H. Stanley, Chief of Naval Operations, endorsed the idea of the design and construction of a new class of battleships. By doing so Stanley went against the members of General Board, who favored the unification of the fleet’s capital assets through the continuation of development of the previous North Carolina class vessels. In the end the start of construction of the new warships was pushed to 1939. The initial development work on the new class of battleships began in March 1937 and by June 23 the design of the first two battleships was approved by the Secretary of the Navy. On April 4, 1938 the construction of both ships was formally authorized. The rising tensions in Europe and Asia led the U.S. Congress to authorize in June 1938 the construction of two additional warships of the new class. Thus started the construction of the four battleships which would later come to be known as the South Dakota class. In keeping with the US Navy tradition, the new battleships would be named after U.S. states: South Dakota, Indiana, Massachusetts and Alabama.
The South Dakota class battleships were designed as improved versions of the North Carolina class (both were built in keeping with the Washington Treaty requirements). The only major difference was the new ships’ main armament: the South Dakota class vessels were designed from the outset to carry 16 inch main guns. This required the installation of much stronger armor, capable of protecting the ship’s vital areas in confrontation with the enemy’s own 16 inch guns. If the new ship was going to comply with the Treaty tonnage limitation, the extra weight of armor had to be offset by weight reductions in other areas. This led to a significant reduction of the length of the ship’s armored citadel. Compared to the North Carolina class, the South Dakota class battleships were much shorter and featured a much more compact, single-stack design. The stern section of the hull had larger beam to accommodate the propulsion system capable of accelerating the warship to her design speed of 27 knots. A number of technological improvements introduced in the new design resulted in more savings in weight. The new ships’ Achilles heel was their rather poor anti-torpedo protection. Luckily, that weakness was never exposed as none of the South Dakota class vessels came under successful torpedo attack during the war.
As has been mentioned before, the South Dakota class battleships mounted nine reliable 16’’/45 Mark 6 main guns in three triple turrets (two forward super-firing turrets and a single aft turret). With the barrel raised to the maximum 45° of elevation, the gun could fire 1 225 kg armor-piercing projectiles at ranges of up to 33 700 m with the initial muzzle velocity of 700 m/s. The ship’s secondary battery consisted of twenty excellent 5”/38 Mark 12 guns mounted in ten twin turrets clustered amidships, along each side of the hull. The battleship’s armament was complemented by standard US Navy AA cannons – 40 mm Bofors and 20 mm Oerlikons. Initially (in 1942) there were six quadruple 40 mm mounts and 35 20 mm cannons, but with the increasing threat of air attacks more guns were added. By 1944 the ship sported 18 quadruple 40 mm mounts and 33 20 mm cannons. The numbers of AA guns mounted on the ship’s decks finally dropped in 1945 to 15 quadruple 40 mm stations and 31 20 mm cannons.
The development and application of radar technology was one of the priorities for the US Navy. By 1945 the battleship carried a wide array of various types of surveillance and fire control radar devices, which were good enough to allow for BVR engagements. The ship’s tactical reach was further extended by a pair of OS2U Kingfisher float planes launched from catapults mounted in the stern section.
The USS Massachusetts was laid down on July 20, 1939 at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, a subsidiary of Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation. The choice of the shipyard was no coincidence: this is where the construction of another ship of the same name (BB-54) began in April 1921, although the project was never completed. The shipyard also built two cruisers – the USS Northampton (CA-26) and USS Quincy (CA-39), both named after cities in the state of Massachusetts. Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation had extensive experience in the construction of warships. The company had previously built battleships, destroyers, submarines and even aircraft carriers. Now the shipyard was given a 50 million dollar contract and 55 months to build a new battleship for the US Navy.
The keel-laying ceremony was rather modest. Despite the fact that the contract gave thousands of local workers guaranteed employment over the next five years, laying down another warship at the yard was no longer considered a major event by the area’s residents. The battleship was launched on September 23, 1941 – one of the largest hulls that the Quincy shipyard had launched to date. The “Big Mamie”, as she was affectionately called by her crew, was sponsored by Mrs. Charles Francis Adams, wife of a former Secretary of the Navy. The hull’s outfitting went on without major problems and on May 12, 1942 the battleship was officially commissioned during a ceremony in Boston, Massachusetts with Captain Francis E. M. Whiting as her first commanding officer. Over the following months the ship performed a series of work-up cruises. On October 24, 1942 the Massachusetts left the U.S. waters and four days later joined the invasion force preparing for the landings in North Africa.
The Battle of Casablanca
The fall of France in 1940 found the French fleet stationed in North African ports under the control of Vichy government. Theoretically the force maintained its neutral status, but there were fears the Germans might gain control over the fleet. After the French refused to join the Allies, the Royal Navy launched an attack on the French vessels at Mers-el-Kebir on June 3, 1940, which led to an all-out conflict between the former allies. It was common knowledge that the Vichy forces would get involved to a greater or lesser extent in the event of the Allied invasion of North Africa.
The joint British-American invasion, code-named Operation Torch, was at that time the largest amphibious assault ever planned. The chief objectives included capturing port cities in Morocco and Algeria. The operation was scheduled to commence on November 8, 1942. The Massachusetts was assigned the role of the flagship of Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt commanding Task Force 34. Hewitt’s force was tasked with covering the landings in the Casablanca area. The battleship’s crew was given three main tasks: provide protection against a possible attack by the French warships from Dakar, isolate or destroy the fleet moored at Casablanca and neutralize local coastal artillery positions.
The Battle of Casablanca began in the early morning of November 8. The USS Massachusetts operated close to the port’s entry supported by the cruisers Wichita and Tuscaloosa and a force of four destroyers. At 07.03 the ships came under attack by a coastal battery at El Hank (four 194 mm and four 138 mm guns). The Massachusetts crew misidentified the source of the incoming fire and at 07.04 began to shell the French battleship Jean Bart some 22 000 meters away. The French battleship arrived at Casablanca after the German invasion of France in 1940. When she reached Morocco, the ship was only 75 percent complete and unable to leave the port. Her only serviceable armament consisted of two 15 inch main battery guns mounted in the forward turret (the other two guns in the four-gun turret were damaged and turret No. 2 had not yet been installed). Jean Bart fired back, but she was soon silenced: by 08.06 she had been hit by five 16 inch shells fired form the Massachusetts, including one well-placed round that jammed the French ship’s only turret. “Big Mamie” continued to fire until 08.33 raining destruction on the port facilities and the helpless French fleet.
At 08.55 the Massachusetts and the accompanying cruisers attacked a team of French warships that managed to break out of the port and were poised to attack the landing beaches. The Americans sank the destroyers Fougueux and Boulonnais, as well as the light cruiser Primauguet. Another French destroyer (Malin) suffered heavy damage forcing the her crew to deliberately beach their vessel.
During the action at Casablanca the Massachusetts was hit twice by the guns at El Hank. One of the shells set fire (which was quickly extinguished) to the area between the forward main gun turrets, while the other one caused only minor damage. The shrapnel scars can still be seen today on the starboard side of the second level of the ship’s superstructure (a commemorative plaque has been mounted there). During the engagement the “Big Mamie” crew used up almost all of the battleship’s supply of 16 inch shells (786 out of 800) and 221 5 inch rounds. The Massachusetts remained in the area until the situation was fully under control before heading back home on November 12. [...]
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