Crossing the T or Capping the T is a classic naval warfare tactic attempted from the late 19th to mid 20th century, in which a line of warships crossed in front of a line of enemy ships, allowing the crossing line to bring all their guns to bear while receiving fire from only the forward guns of the enemy. It only became possible to bring all of a ship's main guns to bear in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the advent of steam-powered battleships with rotating gun turrets, which were able to move faster and turn quicker than sailing ships, which had fixed guns facing sideways. The tactic became obsolete with the introduction of missiles and aircraft as long-range strikes are not dependent on the direction the ships are facing.
When going into battle, ships would assume a battle line formation called "line astern", in which one vessel followed another in one or more parallel lines. This allowed each ship to fire over wide arcs without lofting salvoes above friendly vessels. Each ship in the line generally engaged its opposite number in the enemy battle line.
Steaming with the enemy off to the side (by crossing the T) enabled a ship to launch salvoes at the same target with both the forward and rear turrets, maximizing the chances for a hit. It also made ranging error less critical for the ship doing the crossing, while simultaneously more critical for the ship being crossed. In military terms, this is known as enfilade fire. The tactic, designed for heavily armed and armored battleships, was used with varying degrees of success with more lightly armed and armored cruisers and heavy cruisers.
Advances in gun manufacture and fire-control systems allowed engagements at increasingly long range, from approximately 6,000 yards (5500 m) at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 to 20,000 yards (18 000 m) at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. The introduction of brown powder, which burned less rapidly than black powder, allowed longer barrels, which allowed greater accuracy; and because it expanded less sharply than black powder, it put less strain on the insides of the barrel, allowing guns to last longer and to be manufactured to tighter tolerances. The addition of radar allowed World War II ships to fire further, more accurately, and at night.
Notable battles in which warships crossed the T include:
- Battle of Lissa (1866) – The Austrians allowed the Italian fleet to cross the T in order to get within ramming distance.
- Battle of Tsushima (1905) – Japanese Admiral Togo used his ships' superior speed to cross Russian Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky's fleet, accomplishing naval history's only decisive fleet action by modern battleships alone.
- Battle of Elli (1912) – Rear Admiral Pavlos Kountouriotis aboard the Greek cruiser Georgios Averof at a speed of 20 knots crossed the T of the Turkish fleet on December 13, 1912. The Averof concentrated her fire against the Ottoman flagship, forcing the Turks to retreat.
- Battle of Jutland (1916) – Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, leader of the British Grand Fleet, was able to cross the T twice against the German High Seas Fleets, but the German Fleet was both times able to escape by reversing course in poor visibility. Although the High Seas Fleet was thereby rendered strategically impotent, being unwilling to face the Grand Fleet again, the British were unable to gain the crushing "Second Trafalgar" they had desired. Jutland is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Lost Opportunities.
- Battle of Cape Esperance (1942) - First United States (U.S.) naval night battle victory over the Japanese when a U.S. force of cruisers and destroyers under Norman Scott crossed the T of a cruiser–destroyer force under Aritomo Gotō. Gotō's force was approaching Guadalcanal on October 11, 1942 to bombard Henderson Field in support of a Tokyo Express reinforcement mission when it was surprised and defeated by Scott's force in a confused night battle.
- Battle of Surigao Strait (1944) – The last time a battle line crossed the T, this engagement took place during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, in the Philippines during World War II. Early on October 25, 1944, Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf was guarding the southern entrance to the Leyte Gulf at the northern end of Surigao Strait. He commanded a line of six battleships (West Virginia, Tennessee, California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi), flanked by numerous heavy and light cruisers. A smaller Japanese force under Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura came up the strait, aware of the formidable strength of the American force but nonetheless pressing on. Half of Nishimura's fleet was eliminated by the Americans' destroyer torpedoes, but the Japanese admiral continued on with his remaining few ships. Oldendorf's battleships were arrayed in a line, and they unleashed their radar-directed firepower upon Japanese vessels, whose return fire was ineffectual due to the lack of radar fire control and earlier battle damage. Nishimura went down with his ship. This was the last time the 'T' was crossed in an engagement between battleships, and was history's last occasion in which battleships fought each other.
- Morison, Adm. Samuel Eliot. History of Naval Operations in World War II.
- Larrabee, Eric. Commander-in-Chief: Franklin D. Roosevelt, His Lieutenants and Their War.
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