June 28, 2011

The Curious Class

The year is 1904 and James Arbuthnot Fisher had reached the absolute pinnacle of his career.  After fifty years in his chosen profession, he was arguably the most powerful man in the world.  You see, James Arbuthnot Fisher was better known as "Admiral of the Fleet Sir Jackie Fisher, First Sea Lord."  As such, he was the commander of the British Royal Navy, the strongest military force under the sun, answerable only to His Royal Highness, King Edward VII. 

In the past, Admiral Fisher had shown two interesting traits: an innovative mind, and a love for anything fast.  Some 10 years earlier, he had essentially created the class of ship we now know as the destroyer.  Now he had the power to push through his greatest idea yet: a battleship armed with nothing but one size of large-caliber guns.  She was to be named HMS Dreadnought, and her very existence made the rest of the world's battleships obsolete at a single stroke.  Obviously well-armed, well-armored, and (of course) fast for her time, the Dreadnought was a marvel. 

And then he had to go and create a companion for the Dreadnought design.  The concept was a good one: a ship able to chase down and kill commerce raiders in independent action, and able to act as the eyes of the battleline in a fleet action.  It was to be able to outfight anything it could outrun, and outrun anything it couldn't outfight.  To do this required two things: high speed, and high firepower... a tall order, even for today's technology.

For the early 1900s, there was only one solution... take away weight.  In essence, what Admiral Fisher wanted was to build a Dreadnought-class ship, but without all that pesky armor.  And, being First Sea Lord of His Majesty's Royal Navy, what Admiral Fisher wanted, Admiral Fisher got.  What he got was the HMS Invincible, the world's first battlecruiser.

Weighing the same as the Dreadnought within a couple hundred tons, the Invincible carried eight 12" rifles in four twin turrets.  While this was two guns fewer than the Dreadnought,  better positioning of the two wing turrets allowed them to fire to their opposite side.  As a result, she could fire the same strength broadside as the bigger ship, which had only six guns on the center, and two wing turrets that could only fire to their respective sides.  The Invincible had 31 boilers driving four turbine-powered shafts, generating anywhere from 41000 to 46000 shaft horsepower, nearly twice the shp of the Dreadnought.  As a result, the Invincible could make 25kts, and nearly reached 27kts during builder's trials.  Her larger cousin could only make 21kts.  But all that speed came at a dramatic cost.

The price was the majority of the armor protection of the Dreadnought-class.  The battleship boasted a main armor belt 11" thick, turret armor 12" in depth, and torpedo bulkheads 8" thick.  By comparison, the Invincible's main armor was just over half as thick.  Her turrets were protected by a mere 7" of armor, and her anti-torpedo belt was less than 3" deep.  The Royal Navy's contemporary armored cruiser class, the Minotaur, had scarcely less protection despite weighing 8000 tons less.

However, this level of armor was considered sufficient, for battlecruisers were never expected to be under fire for very long, if at all.  Using the Invincible as an example, her 12" rifles far outranged the 8" guns carried by German armored cruisers, the most likely opponents she'd face in a naval war and exactly the type of target she was built to fight.  Using her speed advantage, a battlecruiser could pick the range to fight at, pummel her opponents with her more powerful guns, and win the fight without a scratch.  If by some bad luck there was a battleship present, the battlecruiser could run away from it, all the while lobbing shells that were the equal of the battleship's back at it. 

It seemed like the perfect weapon, and for five years it was.  Once the shock of the Invincible-class wore off, however, the Germans built their own battlecruisers.  Where the British emphasized speed over all, Germany's first battlecruiser, the Von der Tann, managed both speed and armor.  She was faster than the British battlecrusiers and was armored similarly to the Dreadnought (though her torpedo belt was only an inch thick).  She carried 11" guns, but they actually outranged the twelve inchers carried by the British.

Thus began a battlecruiser arms race between the two navies.  The Royal Navy would bring out a bigger, faster ship, the Germans would debut something just as big, nearly as fast, but with thicker armor and therefore a better chance of survival.  And then the Imperial Japanese Navy got into the game.

In 1910, the Royal Navy commissioned the first of the class of ship known as the "Splendid Cats," the HMS Lion.  Nearly 10000 tons heavier than the Invincible, she was four knots faster, carried much more armor (though still a paltry amount in comparison to battleships the same size), and eight 13.5" guns in four centerline turrets (though Q turret was positioned between the ship's wide-spaced funnels and thus could not fire directly forward or aft).

In 1911, the IJN was in the process of modernizing their fleet.  While the Japanese economy was growing by leaps and bounds, it still lagged far behind those of the Western nations.  Knowing that they could never build the quantity of ships that the Royal Navy could muster, they decided that quality would be their watchword.  Hiring the same shipwrights that built the Lion, Vickers Ltd., to design and build them a battlecruiser, what they got was the Kongo.

The first of four ships in class, the Kongo was a marvel.  As originally constructed, she could make 28kts while weighing approximately 30000 tons at full load (some 1000 tons heavier than the Lion).  She carried eight 14" guns in four centerline turrets, two forward and two aft.  For all intents and purposes, her design combined the British idea of the battlecruiser with that of the Germans.  The Kongo was faster and more heavily gunned than the Lion, yet was armored as well as or better than contemporary German battlecruisers.  Naval historian Robert Jackson says that the design was so successful that it "outclassed all other contemporary capital ships," and was so good that the Royal Navy stopped construction of the final of the Splendid Cats, HMS Tiger, so its design could be modified to include some of the innovations used in the Kongo.

In 1914, the First World War put an end to the great battlecruiser arms race.  Now the question became "would they work"?  At first, the answer was a resounding yes.  At the Battle of Heligoland Bight (August 28, 1914), five RN battlecruisers, along with smaller ships, engaged six German light cruisers (with 19 torpedo boats).  Three of the German light cruisers were sunk, the rest damaged to varying degrees.  The British suffered 35 dead, 55 wounded, and a light cruiser heavily damaged.  The battlecruisers suffered no damage at all.  In the Battle of the Falkland Islands (Dec 8, 1914), two German armored cruisers (SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) and three light cruisers were hunted down by HMS Invincible and her sister ship, the Inflexible.  Under clear skies with calm seas, visibility was essentially unlimited.  What followed was exactly the sort of fight the battlecruiser was designed for, and the outcome was exactly what Admiral Sir Jackie Fisher expected: both the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau were sunk, as were two of the light cruisers, all with huge loss of life.  British casualties ran to 10 sailors dead, 19 wounded.

It was at the Battle of Jutland that the flaws in the British version of the battlecruiser concept became apparent.  During the opening scouting action, battlecruiser squadrons from both sides engaged each other.  The RN had bigger guns, the German navy better rangefinders.  Within a few minutes of the engagement, HMS Indefatigable, essentially an improved Invincible, took three hits from the Von der Tann, blew up and sank.  Only three members of her crew survived.  A few moments later, HMS Queen Mary was hit by a volley from the 11" guns of the SMS Seydlitz

Her forward magazines were struck and exploded, destroying the ship in an instant.  Nine of her crew of 1275 survived.  And only the heroic action of Major Francis Harvey of the Royal Marines saved the HMS Lion.  A 12" round pierced the thin armor of the Lion's Q turret, killing or mortally wounding everybody inside.  Major Harvey, at the cost of his life, ordered the turret's magazine closed and flooded.  A few moments later, a flash fire broke out in the remains of the turret.  If Major Harvey had not have given his fateful orders, there's no question the Lion would have been destroyed.  Harvey was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.  Most of the other battlecruisers involved on both sides of Jutland were damaged, some quite heavily.  By contrast, no battleships were sunk, with some suffering a large number of hits.

For the most part, this was the last time battlecruisers would see action in WWI, and for the most part spelled the end of the battlecruiser in general.  The German navy after the war was banned from building anything larger than a destroyer.  The Royal Navy's last battlecruiser was commissioned in 1920, having been delayed by lessons learned at Jutland.  Her name: HMS Hood.  Before the war was completed, though, the British rolled out some truly oddball ships under the battlecruiser classification. 

The Courageous-class of two ships, for example, carried four 15" guns in two twin turrets, could sail at 32kts, while weighing 22500 tons at full load, substantially lighter than the Lion-class.  Part of the weight savings was from the shortage of heavy guns (four instead of eight), but most of the reduction came in the way of armor.  Her main armor belt was only three inches thick, or roughly that of a small light cruiser.  The half-sister of the Courageous-class, HMS Furious, was originally designed to carry only two main guns in two turrets: two 18" guns.  Of course, her armor was also three inches thick.  Later, all three were converted to aircraft carriers.

The Hood threatened to spark another run of battlecruiser brinkmanship at the beginning of the 1920s.  The US Navy began construction on the Lexington-class of two ships, carrying ten 14" guns on a 44000 ton displacement, though with armor much like that of the Invincible.  The IJN began to build four Amagi-class battlecruisers, which would have carried ten 16" guns while being as fast and as large as the Hood herself.  However, in 1922 all three nations signed the Washington Naval Treaty which limited both the number and the size of ships that could be built.  The Lexingtons were converted to aircraft carriers, as was one of the Amagis, the Akagi.  The IJN put their Kongos into storage to get them past the terms of the treaty.  In all, only nine battlecruisers survived the Washington Treaty: four in the Royal Navy (Hood, Renown, Repulse, and a soon-to-be scrapped Lion), the four Kongos of the IJN (Kongo, Haruna, Hiei, Kirishima), and the ex-SMS Goeben, which had been sold to the Turkish navy, and was known as the Sultan Yavuz Selim.

The Royal Navy upgraded the Renown between 1937 and 1939 to turn her into a fast escort for carrier groups.  The Hood and Repulse were supposed to be similarly rebuilt, but the start of WWII prevented any such work from being done.  The IJN upgraded their battlecruisers so much that they wound up designating them as fast battleships.  The Sultan Yavuz Selim, though essentially not remodeled ever, survived until 1971, serving in the Black Sea.  It is somehow fitting, though dreadfully cruel, that the greatest battlecruiser of them all, HMS Hood, suffered the same fate as many of those who came before her.

In 1941, the Hood displaced nearly 47000 tons.  Despite this, she could move along quite smartly at 28kts.  She had eight 15" guns in four twin turrets as her main armament, and boasted a 12" main armored belt... substantial for a battlecruiser, but very, very light for a ship her size.  Unfortunately, like the Queen Mary and Indefatigable before her, that lack of armor was to be her undoing when she, in the company of battleship HMS Prince of Wales, came up against the Bismarck.  She took a plunging round between her funnels, which led to an explosion of her secondary battery magazine.  This explosion destroyed the aft half of the ship, which sank in three minutes.  Three men out of a crew of 1325 survived.

The Repulse was sunk a year later, along with the Prince of Wales, by Japanese bombers.  But this was not quite the end of the battlecruiser.  The US Navy, never particularly enamored with the battlecruiser concept (the Lexingtons were their only foray into the type), surprisingly commissioned the two ships of the Alaska-class in 1944.  While classified as "large cruisers," many see these 34000 ton ships as the culmination of the battlecruiser line.  They were armored like a heavy cruiser, but carried 12" guns... much like the old Invincible.  Their main value came as fast escorts for the US Navy's carrier fleet, however, as they were festooned with a heavy anti-aircraft suite.  The end of WWII spelled the end for these ships, though, as they were decomissioned in 1947, and broken up by 1961.

The last of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Jackie Fisher, First Sea Lord's battlecruisers was the Renown, which survived WWII, and went to the breakers in 1948... the end of an interesting, but not very successful, concept in warship design.  On paper, it looked good, but once people started shooting at the British battlecruiser, they showed that speed was no substitute for armor plating.

Posted by: Wonderduck at 11:08 PM | Comments (17) | Add Comment
Post contains 2317 words, total size 18 kb.

1 Considering the cost of a full battleship, were battlecruisers better than the cost-equivalent number of other, lesser warships, if that's all you could afford?

Posted by: Siergen at June 29, 2011 05:00 PM (RRRYd)

2 No.  In fact, the Dreadnought cost £1.67million, Invincible £1.7million.  The increased size of their powerplants (engine rooms, boilers, etc etc etc) outweighed the savings in price of armor by a far sight.  At the time, the RN didn't include the cost of the guns in a ship's final price, but the two ships were basically armed the same in any case.

Posted by: Wonderduck at June 29, 2011 05:15 PM (6nDnY)

3  It sounds like the battlecruiser captains (or their superiors) didn't heed  the "outrun anything it couldn't outfight" part.

Posted by: Kayle at June 29, 2011 07:44 PM (gpi2V)


Kayle, it's not that straightforward. The critical part of the Battle of Jutland was fought in fog, and there was no radar at that time. By the time the battlecruisers were aware that they were within gunnery range of enemy battleships, it was too late to escape.

In the case of HMS Hood, it was hunting Bismarck. But Bismarck's guns ranged Hood's guns. (Hood's guns had a maximum range of 32,500 yards. Bismarck's max range was almost 39,000 yards.)

Also, it was a do-or-die situation; the Bismarck had to be destroyed no matter the cost. If it successfully escaped and reached the coast of France, it would have been a mortal threat to the UK's supply lines across the Atlantic. In addition to losing Hood, the British took substantial damage to HMS Prince of Wales.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at June 29, 2011 08:06 PM (+rSRq)

5 IMHO the UK Battlecruisers get a bit of a bum rap.

The big problem was chemistry. The UKs cordite was not particularly stable. The Battleships HMS Bulwark and HMSVanguard and the Armored Cruiser HMS Natal were all lost to spontaneous magazine explosions at the pier, a rather more benign environment than battle. The Japanese navy, which used UK pattern cordite, also lost 2 BBs and a cruiser to spontaneous pier-side detonation, and had a third ( the Mikasa) gravely damaged.

The 3 BC losses at Jutland were all a result of turret hits causing fires, explosions and general mayhem in the ammunition system. All might well have survived if not for the cordite issue.

Invincible herself gave a very good performance during the war clobbering Scharnhorst and is generally credited with sinking Lutzow (Lutzow received hits from other ships but they all caused minor damage. She never recovered from the pasting Invincible gave her in the moments before the British ship blew up).

While they were lightly armored in comparison with Battleships, the Invincible Class was actually better armored than the preceding armored cruisers.

The problem was that above about 20 kts the power increase required for an increase in speed  starts to go up and gets exponential eventuslly, so to maintain a 5 kt speed advantage over the BBs the costs got excessive.

..so you ended up with a ship that was a bit faster, but less well armed and armored and cost more and so was really too expensive to use on normal cruiser duties. This doesn't compute.

Posted by: Brickmuppet at June 29, 2011 08:32 PM (EJaOX)

6 Another problem the BC had was that the "run from anything bigger" concept assumes that said bigger ship won't manage to hit you before you got out of range.  As demonstrated, one good volley from a BB was all it took.  And the gunnery of front line ships at the time was getting much better, very quickly.  Also of course, a BC can chase down cruisers, run from battleships, but it hosed if it runs up against another BC, especially if it encounters one with superior gunnery.

Posted by: David at June 29, 2011 08:57 PM (Kn54v)

7 How do you classify the Kirov class?  NATO classified it as a battlecruiser, but apparently the USSR called it a heavy cruiser.  I've also heard good arguments that despite the fact that we call them guided missile destroyers, an Arleigh Burke could better be described as a battlecruiser.

Posted by: David at June 29, 2011 08:59 PM (Kn54v)

8 Muppet, the Minotaur-class, the last RN armored cruiser and contemporary of the Invincibles,  was armored almost exactly the same as the battlecruisers.

Main armor belt: 3"-6" for Minotaur, 4"-6" for Invincible.  Deck armor: 1.5"-2" for Minotaur, 1.5"-2.5" for Invincible.  Both had 7" of armor for the barbettes, and while the Invincible had 7" of armor for her turrets, the Minotaur had 8" on her heaviest guns.  The armored cruiser's citadel was actually better armored. 

While the cordite was a problem, the bigger problem was that the battlecruiser's turret armor was made out of wet toilet paper, therefore making it MUCH easier for said cordite to go kablammo.

Kayle, the British battlecruisers at Jutland ran up against something they could neither outrun or outfight: the GERMAN battlecruisers.  Just as fast, nearly as heavily armed, and better armored... exactly NOT what Admiral Fisher wanted them to butt up against.  That the situation really didn't allow them to run away is a moot point.

David, I knew someone would bring up the Kirov.  The correct terminology for the Kirovs would be "Heavy Nuclear-powered Missile Cruiser."  It was called a battlecruiser because... well... it wasn't a battleship, and it was far more potent than a cruiser.  Heck, other than carriers, it probably the most powerful warship ever put to sea... and yes, that includes the modernized Iowas, too. 

As far as how the US Navy currently designates their surface combatants, it's totally screwed up in relation to the WWII system.  The Arleigh Burkes, using WWII designation systems, would probably be termed a CLAA (Light Cruiser, Anti-Aircraft), as that's its main mission.  The now-retired Spruance-class DD would be a CA, and the Ticonderogas... well, they don't fit, as there was no CAAA. 

Posted by: Wonderduck at June 29, 2011 09:24 PM (6nDnY)

9 The Minotaurs were good ships but ISTR  reading the I's armor was actually more extensive. That is those thicknesses were carried over a larger area.

Posted by: Brickmuppet at June 29, 2011 09:43 PM (EJaOX)

10 Sanity check: "It was to be able to outfight anything it could outrun, and outrun anything it couldn't outfight."

Posted by: Logic break at July 01, 2011 05:07 AM (TPN3N)

11 "They could outrun anything they couldn't outfight" is something that was said of the American super-frigates in the first half of the 19th century.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at July 01, 2011 06:17 PM (+rSRq)

12 No, technically Brickmuppet Logic break is correct.  Pedantic, but correct.  But I don't care, the sentence is fine, the reader (as opposed to the nitpicker) understands it.

Posted by: Wonderduck at July 01, 2011 08:53 PM (ZGINl)


Pardon the pedantry, but that's "His Majesty King Edward VII."


Incidentally, my grandfather served in Minotaur at Jutland, in Tiger (improved half-sister of Lion) in the 20s and in Courageous in the mid-30s, after her conversion to an aircraft carrier.


Posted by: EdwardM at July 05, 2011 12:54 AM (Om4/O)


Tiger, when launched, was the fastest capital ship in the world, capable of thirty knots, and also one of the last to use coal-fired engines rather than oil. When my grandfather was in her, just before she was decommissioned pursuant to Washington, she was being used to trial experimental gunnery equipment. Her captain was a member of the Dewar distilling family, but was himself a teetotaller; he pronounced his surname "de War".

Posted by: EdwardM at July 05, 2011 06:12 PM (XjCFQ)


Another lovely excursion into nautical history, Mr Duck.  Thanks.


BTW - was the Mutsu also a cordite victim?  I had read somewhere that it was the victim of a peculiar AA shell fashioned for her main guns....

Posted by: The Old Man at July 06, 2011 10:12 AM (TcNy+)

16 Would you believe that the Mutsu was probably destroyed by a suicidal crewman?

Posted by: Wonderduck at July 06, 2011 06:51 PM (3tp4g)


A bit late to the party, but I should mention that a big problem with British BCs blowing up to shell hits was the fact that since the Battle Cruiser Force made a high rate of fire king, the British BCs tended to leave everything else secondary, including ammunition safety.  This reached the logical conclusion where they removed even the rudimentary flash-protection they had because it interfered with their ammo feeds - which might have saved 2 BCs at Jutland.

Of course, a high rate of fire would have been nice if the BCF actually shot accurately in the process - which apparently only QUEEN MARY (The 1st BC sunk.) did so consistently....

And if you think the US Navy's current ship designation system is bizarre, how about the system the USN had between WW2 and the mid-1970s?


Posted by: cxt217 at July 09, 2011 06:03 PM (M5HQo)

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