Tennessee class battleships

The Tennessee class battleships were modified versions of the earlier New Mexico class ships, with an improved system of anti-torpedo protection and turbo-electric engines. The two Tennessee class ships and three completed Colorado class ships became known as the 'Big Five', the group of battleships launched between the end of the First World War and the introduction of the limitations agreed in the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922.

The Pennsylvania and New Mexico class ships had included a single anti-torpedo armoured bulkhead positioned 9ft 6in inside the armoured hull. The Tennessee class ships had a far more elaborate system, involving five bulkheads inside the hull armour, created a series of five spaces along the side of the ship. The outer and inner spaces were left empty, while the middle three were filled with liquids. This combination of layers could withstand 400lb of TNT, with most absorbed by the liquid, while the inner void space would contain any leakage from the liquid spaces. The oil powered boilers were rearranged to provide extra protection, and the single funnel of earlier classes was replaced by two funnels. They also had a larger pilothouse and forward superstructure and heavier cage masts than on earlier battleships. This allowed them to carry a two-level top, with the upper level controlling the main guns and the lower level the secondary guns. 

USS Tennessee (BB-43) from the front
USS Tennessee (BB-43) from the front

The two Tennessee class ships were otherwise armed and armoured in the same way as the New Mexico class ships, with twelve 14in guns in triple turrets and fourteen 5in guns in a gun house on deck (as with the New Mexico class ships they had been designed with some 5in guns built into the hull, but these were never installed). Both ships were built with turbo-electric engines, as first introduced on the USS New Mexico.

USS Tennessee (BB-43) Gunnery Practice, 1920s
USS Tennessee (BB-43) Gunnery Practice, 1920s

USS California (BB-44) in Pearl Harbor Dry Dock
USS California (BB-44) in Pearl Harbor Dry Dock

The Tennessee class ships underwent a minor refit in 1929-30, receiving an aircraft catapult and heavy anti-aircraft guns in the shape of eight 5in/25 guns. They were to be modernized in 1939, but this was postponed because of the worrying international situation. Both ships were given a major wartime refit, giving them a new superstructure, while all 5in guns were replaced with sixteen 5in/38 dual purpose guns in eight twin mounts in an attempt to improve the anti-aircraft defences.

Both ships were present at Pearl Harbor, where they suffered very different fates. The California was sunk, although her crew prevented her from capsizing. She was raised, made watertight and returned to the US for major repairs, eventually re-joining the battle fleet in January 1944. The Tennessee was lightly damaged and after quick repairs joined Task Force 1 (May 1942). In September 1942 she went for a refit, re-joining the fleet in the summer of 1943.

Both battleships then took part in the American advance across the Pacific. The Tennessee took part in the invasions of the Aleutians, Marshalls, Marianas, Palaus, Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, ending with an expedition into the East China Sea. The California made her return to combat for the invasion of the Marianas. She took part in the invasion of the Philippines but was damaged by a kamikaze attack at Lingayen Gulf and missed Iwo Jima and Okinawa. She also took part in the expedition in the East China Sea.

Displacement (standard)


Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed



8,000nm at 10kts

Armour – belt


 - deck


 - turret faces

18in or 16in

 - turret sides


 - turret top


 - turret rear


 - barbettes


 - coning tower


 - coning tower top





97ft 5in


Twelve 14in guns in four triple turrets
Fourteen 5in guns
Four 3in guns
Two 21in submerged beam torpedo tubes

Crew complement


Ships in Class


USS Tennessee (BB 43)

Stricken 1959

USS California (BB 44)

Stricken 1959

US Standard Type Battleships 1941-45 (2): Tennessee, Colorado and Unbuilt Classes, Mark Stille. Looks at the 'Big Five', the last standard-type battleships built for the US Navy, and the most powerful ships in the US Navy for much of the interwar period. Covers their design, original purpose and actual Second World War service, where their limited speed meant they could no longer serve with the battle fleet. Despite that limit they played a major part in the Pacific War, and four fought in the last battleship action of the war. [read full review]
cover cover cover


WWII Home Page | WWII Subject Index | WWII Books | WWII Links | Day by Day

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (19 April 2012), Tennessee class battleships , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_tennessee_class_battleships.html

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us - Privacy