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Battle Cruisers

A Battle Cruiser was a naval vessel of the first class having great speed, carrying guns of the largest size and range and having good protection against gun fire and torpedo attack. She must be so designed as to be capable of keeping the sea in all weathers and have a maximum radius of action. Ships of this class are intended to sink an enemy and under some circumstances to lie in the main line of battle. Battle Cruisers or Armored Cruisers were expected to do some advance duty, but capable of taking position in line with battleships. Battle Cruisers might have a displacement equal to a battleship and carry heavy guns, but have lighter armor and a speed of 22 to 31 knots.

At about the same time as the Dreadnought battleship was introduced, the British Lord John Fisher also pushed the concept of the battle cruiser, a ship of higher speed but similar armament to the Dreadnought. In 1909 the British Navy fielded another extremely powerful ship. HMS Invincible, the first battle cruiser, was designed to be superior to any normal cruiser then in existence. Invincible was armed with a battleship's big guns, while at the same time having a speed superior to both battleships and armored cruisers. Its role was to act as a superior scouting vessel, able to penetrate enemy cruiser screens while at the same time effectively screening her own battle force. She had secondary roles in hunting down and destroying enemy commerce raiders and in helping to reinforce the main battle line in a naval engagement.

In order to achieve the high speed necessary for the battle cruiser while carrying a sizable battery of heavy guns, the hull and machinery had to be bigger, more complicated, and more expensive than any vessel previously built. However, armor protection had to be kept to a minimum to reduce weight. Consequently, critics generally believed such a ship could not be used in a fleet action and was larger and more costly than necessary to carry out its other missions. Chiefly because of these criticisms, the US Navy hesitated for several years before committing itself to building battle cruisers.

Battle cruisers were the same size or somewhat larger than battleships, but with much reduced armor. In most navies that built them, they had 4 screws in a time period when battleships generally had 3 or 2. It is likely that Fisher intended the battle cruisers to serve similar functions to the scout cruiser, but by being essentially invulnerable to cruiser gunfire, to be able to do so even when opposed by enemy cruisers and destroyers. In addition, he probably recognized that a small unit of battle cruisers could perform maneuvers such as crossing the T of an enemy battle fleet while battleships prevented the enemy from concentrating fire on the battle cruisers. On the eve of the Great War, in many instances it was difficult to distinguish between an armored or battle cruiser and a battleship. A typical example is the Tiger (Great Britain) laid down in 1913. She is 725 ft. over all, 87 ft. beam, maximum draft 30 ft., displacement normal 27,000 tons, full load 31,000, complement 1,000 men, turbines of 75,000 h. p., speed 27 knots, coal normal 1,000 tons, maximum 3,500 plus 1,000 tons of oil. Has 8 13.5-inch guns, 16 4-inch, 2 submerged torpedo tubes on broadside and 1 at stern, 9-inch belt amidships, 4 ins. at ends.

The improvement in the efficiency of the torpedo and the real menace of the destroyer, armed with these weapons, undoubtedly added weight to the decision for battle cruisers. The line of battle required protection from destroyer attack. An efficient protection was contained in the destruction of enemy destroyers. For this purpose great speed was necessary, also a heavy armament to destroy armored cruisers supporting destroyer attack.

The battle cruiser seemed to give the panacea desired. It can be seen then that a battle cruiser can perform many useful services: (a)Control communications; (b) destroy enemy cruisers ; (c) destroy enemy destroyers ; (d) scout in advance of fleet; (e) support smaller scouts in getting information of enemy; (f) support own destroyers in attack on enemy battle line ; (g) fight in the line of battle or against enemy battle cruisers.

By 1910 strategy and tactics had divided the cruiser into several classes : battle cruiser, armored cruiser ; protected cruiser, scout cruiser. Of these only the first and last were ultimate types ; the protected cruiser and armored cruiser were merely steps toward the battle cruiser. Beginning with the first armored cruiser, there had been a persistent advance in gun power and speed and to a lesser extent in armor protection.

It was well, in any consideration of battle cruisers, to bear in mind the causes which underlie the development of this type of vessel. Originally, unarmored cruisers with light batteries were attached to battje fleets to act as screens and to obtain authoritative information concerning enemy movements. These light cruisers were found to be ineffective in view of the growing tendency to provide more heavily armed and armored scout vessels; hence the gradual development of the armored cruiser. In course of time, developments of similar craft in various navies rendered the armored cruiser incapable of performing the highly important service of keeping in contact with the enemy, menacing his lines of supply in overseas transportation, and being able to meet on equal or superior terms vessels which could be employed for this purpose by a possible enemy.

While the latest developments in battle-cruiser design indicated a tendency to attempt to combine the powerful battery and armor protection of the battleship with the very high speeds heretofore associated only with battle cruisers, actual experience in the Great War has indicated that the logical working out of such a development would result in sizes of warships which would be practically prohibitive, not only as regards cost, but as regards ability to utilize the largest existing dock facilities, inter-oceanic canal locks and a large number of the most important harbors.

The advent of battle cruisers changed the tactical environment for cruisers radically. The battle cruiser's battleship-size guns could hit at ranges no conventional cruiser could reach, and penetrate any armor short of a battleship's even at long range. Battle cruisers were faster than all but the fastest protected cruisers and of course the scout cruisers. If there was any possibility of meeting a battle cruiser, an armored cruiser was at severe risk.

This reality was exposed starkly by the First Battle of the Falklands, in December 1914. Apparent validation of the battle cruiser concept came early in WWI. In the First Battle of the Falklands, the superiority of the battle cruiser over the armored cruiser was clearly demonstrated. A German squadron under Admiral von Spee, centered around armored cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, was practically annihilated by two British battlecruisers, Invincible and Inflexible.

It is worthy of note that experience in actual battle during the Great War demonstrated the efficiency of the latest type of armored protection as well as the latest type of under-water protection against damage from torpedoes and mines. A very late type of British battleship, the Marlboro, and one of the later types of German battle cruisers, the Seydlitz, received serious damage through torpedo attack during the Battle of Jutland, but remained in battle line and gave an excellent account of themselves for a considerable time thereafter. Actual results under battle conditions very largely confirmed the conservative expectations concerning these vessels held by those who design warships and those who ultimately command such vessels singly or in fleet action.

It was never intended that battle cruisers were, in classical terms, "fit to lie in the line", i.e. to trade broadsides with an enemy capital ship. But, perhaps because of their armament and styling – they carried battleship-sized guns, looked like battleships, and were at least as large – commanders did just that with them in World War I. But, they were not designed to survive battleship gunfire, and several of them blew up at Jutland (May 31, 1916).

The US did not complete a battle cruiser until much later; while several designs were developed during World War I, and one was approved in 1916, the Navy's bureaus absorbed the lessons of Jutland and the British Hood as the prototype of the fast battleship.

After the Great War, for international police purposes the battle cruiser seemed undoubtedly more efficient than the dreadnaught, because of its higher speed and greater cruising radius. It was ships of that class that were hoped to form the backbone of the combined sea force for the preservation of peace under the League of Nations. Counting those now building by the United States, Great Britain, and Japan, in 1919 it seemed that there would be available for this purpose, if all were taken, thirty-four of these capital ships.

Development of a battle cruiser for the US Navy was very turbulent, with Navy planners following the capabilities of the British Navy, while Navy leaders wrestled with the political obstacles impeding the construction of the expensive and complex new class of ships. Originally envisaged with 14-inch main guns, the US battle cruiser designs were modified during the pre-Treaty years to overmatch the HMS Hood's 15-inch guns with 16-inch guns. HMS Hood and the US Navy design were really more akin to fast battleships. The US design had stalked the British battle cruiser designs as they moved from the lightly armored HMS Invincible, shown to be particularly vulnerable to an encounter with a battleship, to the heavily armored HMS Hood.

Six keels of the new battle cruiser class were laid during 1920: Constellation, Constitution, Saratoga, United States, Lexington, and Ranger. By the time they were begun it was already becoming clear to some of the more farsighted and politically oriented naval officers that they would probably never be completed. Construction lagged during 1921, and was nearly halted after the Washington Conference began its deliberations in November.

Thus begins the great detour in US cruiser production. It would be another two decades before the USS Alaska and USS Guam, the US Navy's first battle cruisers, would find their way into the waters of the Pacific Ocean just in time for the conclusion of WWII.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:35:17 ZULU