No single ship serves as a better symbol for the power that was the Royal Navy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century than does Lord Nelson’s venerable and, indeed, almost legendary, flagship. One of the largest wooden warships ever built, the ship not only saw considerable action in the last decades of the eighteenth century fighting both the French and Spanish fleets, but she became the stuff of legends at the pivotal battle of Trafalgar in 1805, where Nelson was to be mortally wounded but not before besting the combined French and Spanish fleet and effectively saving England from a sea-borne invasion.
Originally slated to be broken up shortly after the Napoleonic Wars ended, she was saved, the story goes, by the wife of the First Sea Lord, who, upon learning that the vessel that had served so long and gallantly was to be delegated to the wrecker’s yard, broke into tears and demanded that he rescind the order. Being no fool—and perhaps in a well-advised effort at maintaining marital bliss—the man did exactly that and the ship served for the next century as a pier-side training school. Heavily restored in 1922 by the British government, she now serves as a museum in Portsmouth, England, making her one of the oldest ships still afloat in the world.
- Battleship U.S.S. Maine
Some ships become famous not for what they did, but for what they represented. In this case, the battleship Maine (a tiny thing compared to the later behemoths that were to carry the title of battleship) became a rallying point for a nation intent on war. Anchored in the shallow waters of Havana harbor late on the evening of February 15, 1898, the ship was torn in two by a mysterious explosion and sank in a matter of minutes, killing all but 89 of her 355-man crew.
Though the cause of the explosion was never determined (some historians and naval engineers believe it may have been an accidental detonation of her magazines by a coal bin fire), it was immediately suspected to have been an intentional act of sabotage—probably by a pre-placed mine—sending the country into a war frenzy that would, in the next few months, propel the United States into a short and spectacularly successful war with Spain.
While Spanish complicity in the incident has never been proven (and would have been counter-productive to the Spanish in any case), the battle cry “Remember the Maine” would remain a popular and long-remembered one for many decades afterwards. As for the ship itself, in 1911 what was left of her was raised from the mud of Havana Harbor where she had become a hazard to navigation, towed out to the open sea, and scuttled with full military honors—a fitting end to a ship that did so little but caused so much trouble.
- German Battleship Bismarck
Perhaps no ship struck as much fear into the heart of the British Navy in the spring of 1941 than the massive German dreadnought Bismarck which, at 823 feet and with a top speed of 30 knots, was the largest and fastest warship then afloat. Breaking out of her Baltic haven in late May, 1941 intend on decimating the ragged and besieged British merchant fleet keeping the British Isles afloat, the ship became the subject of the largest naval hunt in Royal Navy history and one that was to cost the British dearly.
Engaged by the British battle cruiser HMS Hood and new battleship HMS Prince of Wales off Iceland in the early morning hours of May 24, after a brief but vicious battle the Hoodexploded and sank, taking down all but three of her 1,418-man crew, and left the Prince of Wales damaged and limping for home. Damaged herself a day later by British aerial torpedoes, the wounded battleship made a run for the French coast for repairs, only to be chased down by a pair of British battleships, the Rodney and King George V, whose combined firepower finally managed to send Hitler’s proud but battered warship to the bottom—along with all but 200 of her 2,200-man crew—after a two-hour barrage.
There the infamous warship remained undisturbed until it was located by Robert Ballard (the same man who had found the Titanic three years earlier) in 1989 and carefully examined. Even then the venerable ship had a story to tell, for it appeared that despite the heavy damage it endured during its final battle, it was still largely intact, suggesting that she had been scuttled rather than sunk by the British after all, giving her, even in death, the last laugh.
- Battleship U.S.S. Arizona
Few ships illicit the sort of emotion among American veterans as does the name Arizona. A World War One era battle wagon with an undistinguished career, her active life in World War Two lasted a mere fifteen minutes before she was sunk by a well-aimed Japanese bomb that ignited her forward magazine and tore her in two during the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941. The “unlucky shot”—a one-in-million hole in one—killed 1,177 men out of her crew of 1,400—including her captain and an admiral—and left her a blazing wreck that was to burn for days.*
Too badly damaged to be salvageable (she was one of only three ships sunk during the attack that was never repaired) the ship remains there to this day as a war memorial, where she is visited by literally millions of people every year. Considering how famous the ship is today, it is interesting that few Americans knew about the Arizona’s fiery fate until years later due to wartime censorship, and that she lay largely forgotten in the shallow waters of Battleship Row for decades after the attack. It wasn’t until the 1960s that she became a symbol of American resolve and sacrifice and acquired the mystique—along with a simple but powerful memorial that straddles her remains—that she enjoys today.
- British Luxury Liner RMS Titanic
Easily the most famous ship in history, this luxury liner was designed to showcase mankind’s technological brilliance but instead only illustrated his hubris. The largest and fastest passenger ship of its time, the British White Star liner left England on April 10, 1912 on its maiden voyage to New York, only to strike an iceberg five days later and sink.
While most would imagine two hours would be plenty of time to evacuate the nearly 2,300 souls onboard, the ship had only half the lifeboats needed, dooming some 1,500 passengers and crew to a watery grave in the middle of the icy North Atlantic. The sinking sent shockwaves through the maritime community, resulting in wholesale changes in regulations mandating the number of life boats every vessel was required to carry and making other much needed safety improvements. Eventually the ship’s name became synonymous with avarice, indifference, and class privilege (most of the lost having been passengers from steerage) and holds a mystique that, if anything, has only grown over time.
The ship was rediscovered three miles below the surface of the North Atlantic in 1985, and has since then become the inspiration for a multitude of documentaries as well as the backdrop to the most successful movie of 1999. It could truly be said that with the Titanic, humanity learned a hard lesson that continues to pay dividends to this day.
Other Famous Ships in History: Battleship Potemkin (Russian warship famous for firing the first shots of the Russian Revolution in 1905); HMS Bounty (British frigate famous for its mutiny); HMS Endeavor (Captain Cook’s ship used to explore the Pacific Ocean);Mayflower (the ship that delivered the Pilgrims to Massachusetts in 1620); U.S.S. Enterprise (the most decorated warship of World War Two); RMS Lusitania (her sinking in 1916 was the catalyst for America’s entry into World War One); Japanese Battleship Yamato (largest battleship ever built); and the English Galleon Golden Hind (the ship used by Sir Francis Drake to make the first complete circumnavigation of the globe between 1577 and 1580.)