Here's how 10 of the largest and most important naval battles in modern history played out

Here's how 10 of the largest and most important naval battles in modern history played out

USS New Jersey battleship

Wikimedia commons

The U.S. Navy battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62) fires a nine gun salvo of 40.6 cm into a target Kaesong, Korea on 1, January 1953.


The waters of the Earth's oceans have seen as much violence and conflict as its land.

For centuries the only way to travel the world was to brave the high sea. Control over shipping routes was essential for the security of nations and empires. Throughout history, the nations of the world have built and sent massive fleets to do battle with one another to take control of swathes of the oceans.

Though confined to vessels, naval battles have been just as large and devastating as land battles. This is especially true when HMS Dreadnought was created in 1906, ushering a new era of battleships that defined the 20th century.

With this new type of warship, and with the advent of aircraft carriers decades later, naval battles saw a new level of intensity and importance, as they defined the course of wars.


Here are 10 of the largest and most important naval battles in modern history:


Battle of Manila Bay, May 1, 1898.

Battle of Manila Bay, May 1, 1898.

Though a battle that featured pre-dreadnought ships, the Battle of Manila Bay involved massive steamships with large turrets and guns that were the precursors of those that would be seen on battleships in WWI and WWII.

The first battle of the Spanish-American War, the Battle of Manila Bay saw the complete destruction of Spain's Pacific Squadron by the American Asiatic Squadron, led by commodore George Dewey.

Out of the 13 total ships in the Spanish squadron, eight were sunk — seven cruisers and one transport. Spanish forces suffered 77 dead and over 200 wounded.

US casualties were extremely low — only one US cruiser damaged, one sailor dead (reportedly due to heatstroke), and nine sailors wounded.

The battle showed that the US was a global power capable of taking on traditionally powerful European countries like Spain. It also enabled the US to occupy Manila which eventually led to Spain surrendering control of the Philippines to the US.

Battle of Tsushima, May 27-28, 1905.

Battle of Tsushima, May 27-28, 1905.

Known in Japan as the Naval Battle of the Sea of Japan, the Battle of Tsushima saw the Empire of Japan, then a rising power, take on the combined forces of the Russian Empire's Baltic Fleet and Pacific Squadron.

Russia's Navy had prevented Imperial Japan from controlling the sea, and intended to swarm the Japanese Navy with their combined forces, hopefully ending the Russo-Japanese War.

The stakes were so high that Japanese Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō told his sailors just before the battle, "the Empire's fate depends on the result of this battle, let every man do his utmost duty."

The Japanese sailors would end up virtually destroying the Russian Navy. Two-thirds of Russia's fleet, some 21 ships, were sunk in the battle — with six more captured. Over 4,000 Russian sailors were killed and 5,000 more were captured.

Japanese casualties were just three ships sunk, over 100 dead, and around 530 wounded. Sir George Sydenham Clarke, a British officer and colonial administrator at the time, wrote that "the battle of Tsu-shima is by far the greatest and the most important naval event since Trafalgar."

Like the Americans at the Battle of Manila, Tsushima proved that the Japanese Empire was a major power. The Russians would concede defeat at the Treaty of Portsmouth four months later.


Battle of Coronel, November 1, 1914.

Battle of Coronel, November 1, 1914.

One of the first naval battles of WWI, the Battle of Coronel was fought between Britain's Royal Navy, and the German Empire's Imperial Navy. The battle did not take place in Europe or Asia, but in neutral South America, off the coast of Chile.

Germany's East Asia Squadron had retreated from its base in China after the British Navy and the Australian Navy overran the Pacific, and Japan entered the war on the side of the allies.

German Vice-Admiral Maximilian von Spee decided to use his ships as raiders to attack merchant ships off the coast of South America to disrupt commerce. Britain sent its West Indies Squadron, under the command of Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock to deal with von Spee.

Von Spee would end up crushing Cradock's squadron — two of its four ships were sunk, and over one and a half thousand sailors died, including Cradock himself.

The Germans had suffered no fatalities, virtually no damage, and docked in the Chilean port of Valparaiso before setting off to continue its raiding mission.

Battle of the Falkland Islands, December 8, 1914

Battle of the Falkland Islands, December 8, 1914

A month after von Spee's victory at Coronel, the Royal Navy had its vengeance. The British Admiralty sent reinforcements to von Spee's only obstacle in the region — the naval base at the Falklands Islands, a small British colony.

Vice Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee, the Chief of War Staff at the Admiralty, took personal command of the force, which numbered seven ships in total.

Von Spee, not expecting a large defense of the Falklands, decided to attack the naval base and set course for the islands. His squadron was virtually destroyed in the ensuing battle — four cruisers were sunk, and two were captured and scuttled.

Almost 2,000 German sailors were killed, including von Spee and his two sons. Those who survived were taken prisoner. British casualties were around 10 dead, and 14 wounded.

Von Spee had lived up to his words: "I cannot reach Germany. We possess no other truly secure harbor. I must fight my way through the seas of the world doing as much mischief as can, until my ammunition is exhausted, or a foe far superior in power succeeds in catching me. But it will cost the wretches dearly before they take me down."


Battle of Jutland May 31-June 1, 1916.

Battle of Jutland May 31-June 1, 1916.

The Battle of Jutland was the largest naval battle of WWI, and one of the largest in History. It saw Britain's best ships, known as the Grand Fleet, face off against Germany's best ships, known as the High Sea Fleet.

The battle involved more than 250 ships and 100,000 men. The large numbers were because it was an attempt by Germany to break the blockade of its navy by the Allies, who made it almost impossible for Germany's to get its surface ships past Denmark.

The battle lasted over 36 hours, and was technically a stalemate. British casualties were much higher than Germany's; 14 ships destroyed, over 6,000 men killed, and more than 600 wounded. Germany, on the other hand, lost 9 ships, over 2,500 men, and around 500 wounded.

Because of the higher British losses, the Germans claimed victory. Kaiser Wilhelm II told the sailors of the High Sea Fleet when they returned that "the English were beaten. You have started a new chapter in world history."

But the German High Sea Fleet was no longer seaworthy, and Royal Navy was still in better standing overall. The Germans failed to break the blockade, and its surface ships were forced to stay in German ports.

"Our Fleet losses were severe. On 1 June 1916, it was clear to every thinking person that this battle must, and would be, the last one," a German naval expert wrote in 1918.

Battle of Cape Matapan, March 27–29, 1941.

Battle of Cape Matapan, March 27–29, 1941.

The Battle of Cape Matapan was an engagement between ships of the British Navy and the Australian Navy against Benito Mussolini's Regia Marina. Mussolini had long desired to throw foreign navies out of the Mediterranean so that Italy could dominate it.

But the British control over strategic points like Gibraltar, Malta, and the Suez Canal made that impossible. With the Vichy French fleet destroyed at Mers-el-Kébir, and the German Navy's surface ships blockaded like they were in WWI, Italy had to go it alone.

But Italy was having a very tough time. A number of naval battles with the British proved inconclusive, and the Royal Navy was able to achieve a number of victories that crippled the Regia Marina.

As Britain began to aid Greece during Italy and Germany's invasion, plans were drawn up to kick the British out of the Mediterranean once and for all. The Italians gathered a fleet of 22 ships and sent it to attack a British convoy around Crete.

But the British had intercepted Italian communications, and surprised the Italians with a fleet of their own. The British sank five Italian ships and heavily damaged two others. 2,300 Italian sailors were killed, and as many as a thousand were taken prisoner.

British losses were only three killed, four damaged cruisers, and one torpedo bomber. Italian hopes of turning the Mediterranean into an Italian lake were utterly destroyed.


Battle of the Coral Sea, May 4-8, 1942.

Battle of the Coral Sea, May 4-8, 1942.

The Battle of the Coral Sea saw 27 ships from the US Navy and the Australian Navy square off against 53 ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

It was the first battle in naval history in which aircraft carriers engaged each other. In fact, most of the fighting was conducted by air.

The allies had two aircraft carriers with 128 aircraft and the Japanese had three carriers with 127 aircraft.

Just five months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had decided to invade Port Moresby in southeastern New Guinea and Tulagi in the southern Solomons. Upon learning of the invasion fleet, the Allies sent an interception force.

After light skirmishes, the fleets found each other on the morning of May 7. What followed was a battle that was relatively inconclusive, but can be considered a strategic Allied victory.

Japanese aircraft managed to sink three ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Lexington. The other carrier, USS Yorktown, was heavily damaged, 69 aircraft were lost, and over 600 US servicemen were killed.

The Allies sank one Japanese carrier and four other ships. Three other ships were damaged, including the carrier Shōkaku. 92 aircraft were lost — so many that Japan's third carrier, Zuikaku, lost its entire air wing, and over 900 servicemen were killed.

The Japanese invasion force called off their invasion of Port Moresby, and three of their aircraft carriers were out of commission.

Battle of Midway, June 4-7, 1942.

Battle of Midway, June 4-7, 1942.

One month after the Battle of the Coral Sea, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the Combined Fleet, determined that the US carrier fleet needed to be destroyed. The US Navy was numerically inferior, so Yamamoto needed to lure them out into a trap.

The Japanese had been planning to seize Midway Island to use as a base for future attacks against the US in Hawaii and the Pacific. Yamamoto decided to go ahead with the invasion, and destroy American reinforcements with a massive force.

What Yamamoto did not know, was that US intelligence had cracked the Japanese codes, and were fully aware of Japan's plans. They sent their own force of three aircraft carriers and prepared Midway's air component for battle.

The following battle was a massive loss for the Japanese. All four of Japan's heaviest aircraft carriers, Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu were sunk. The Japanese also lost one cruiser, 292 aircraft, and over 2,500 sailors and airmen.

The US lost the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown — which was repaired after it was damaged in the Coral Sea — a destroyer, and 145 aircraft. 307 US sailors and airmen were killed.

Crucially, the Japanese aircraft carriers that were lost or damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea were not able to participate in the battle, an element that helped secure an American victory.

The battle proved to be a turning point. Japan had lost its largest aircraft carriers and best naval aviators, and the Allies went on the offensive in the Pacific, with the Battle of Guadalcanal starting two months later.


Battle of the Philippine Sea, June 19–20, 1944.

Battle of the Philippine Sea, June 19–20, 1944.

Despite their losses at Midway, the Japanese carrier fleet — and the Imperial Imperial Navy as a whole — was still a major threat.

But the Allies had made progress — they had launched an offensive at the heart of Japan's defense system. After the success of the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign, they headed for the Marianas, a group of islands vital to the defense of Japan.

The Japanese determined that the only way to win the war at this point was through total control of the sea. Mineichi Koga, Yamamoto's successor after he was killed in 1943, wanted to defeat the Americans in a single decisive battle.

To that end, the Japanese sent a massive force to destroy the US Navy as they approached Saipan. What followed was the largest "carrier-versus-carrier" battle in history, and the last major one between American and Japanese naval forces.

Japanese losses were high — three out of the nine aircraft carriers were sunk, as well as two oil tankers, 395 carrier-based planes, and over 2,000 sailors and airmen. American aviators described it as a "turkey shoot."

US losses were extremely light in comparison — one battleship damaged, 130 aircraft destroyed, and a little over 100 killed.

After the battle, the Japanese lost the bulk of its carrier force, something it was never able to fully recover from.

Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 23-26, 1944.

Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 23-26, 1944.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf is considered the largest naval battle of WWII, and, by some historians, the largest naval battle in history. With both sides combined, it involved over 300 ships and maritime craft, as well as over 400 planes.

The Battle of Leyte Gulf refers to a number of engagements fought between Imperial Japan and the Allies in the waters around the Philippine islands of Leyte, Samar, and Luzon. It was an attempt by the Japanese Navy to push back against the American invasion of the Philippines.

The Japanese Navy believed that the loss of the Philippines would essentially mean the loss of the South China Sea, and sent a massive naval force divided into three groups to lure the Allies out to sea and destroy them.

The following three days resulted in catastrophic losses for the Japanese that forever crippled their Navy. Twenty-six Japanese ships were lost, including all four carriers and three battleships.

Around 300 planes were destroyed — either by anti-aircraft fire or from kamikaze attacks — and over 10,000 Japanese sailors and airmen died.

American losses were six ships — three carriers, two destroyers, and one destroyer-escort. 200 planes were lost, and around 3,000 sailors and airmen were killed.

The Japanese Navy's surface vessels ceased to function as an effective force after the battle. Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai, the Minister of the Navy said of Leyte after the war, "I felt that that was the end."