The six NORTHAMPTON class Heavy Cruisers were built to add more firepower to the US Navy's battle fleet which could not build any additional battleships due to the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. This treaty called for a building holiday for the construction of any new battleships for 10 years and also limited the size, armaments and total tonnage allowed for other combatants, such as cruisers. Because of this all the cruisers built during this time were referred to as Treaty Cruisers.
The NORTHAMPTON class cruisers possessed good firepower and speed at the expense of adequate armor protection and anti torpedo defense systems. They were based on the PENSACOLA class heavy cruisers, though slightly improved with new aircraft storage arrangements. The first three ships were equipped as flagships with an additional complement around 750.
These cruisers had the distinction of being the first ship built of the so-called "Treaty Navy" in which the welding process was used in order to eliminate excess weight and keep the cruiser within the tonnage limits prescribed by the five power Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. The ships were designed for a length overall of 600 feet, 3 inches; extreme beam of 66 feet, 1 inch; standard displacement of 9,300 tons; a mean draft of 16 feet, 8 inches; and a complement of 45 officers and 576 men. She was initially armed with nine eight-inch .55 caliber guns; four 5-inch .25 caliber guns; eight .50 caliber machine guns; and six 21-inch surfaced torpedo tubes. They had a designed speed of 32.5 knots. They had armor eight inches thick and were equipped with two catapults amidships.
The development of an alternative design to the Pensacola Class, which became the Northampton Class, began even before the Salt Lake City had been laid down. The new ships had two separate origins. First, there was a feeling within C&R that the Salt Lake City design sacrificed too much in order to mount the maximum battery, ten 8-inch guns. No great improvement in protection could be achieved, but it did seem possible to improve the balance between firepower and seagoing characteristics. That is, the earlier design had traded freeboard for extra guns. Reducing the armament to 9 guns had a big effect on weight, armor area, and volume because this battery could be mounted in three triple turrets, rather than requiring four turrets of two different designs. Also, the aircraft arrangements of the Pensacola Class were not entirely satisfactory.
The other and driving impulse behind a new cruiser came from the General Board. In 1926, with funds for three new cruisers in prospect, it sought improvement over the existing Salt Lake City design to increase survivability.
There was considerable interest in habitability for the Northamptons. Volume studies showed an increase from the Salt Lake City Class of about 15% per man. The Northamptons were the first major US warships to be designed for bunks rather than hammocks. Objections were raised: bunks would encroach upon open spaces used for recreation, assembly, and shelter in bad weather, as well as upon mess spaces. Bunks above the second deck would be subject to splinter damage, though this danger was rationalized by Navy planners with a familiar ring to modern ears.
The rationale was that the crew should be at battle stations during action, and therefore the bunk spaces would be lightly, if at all, manned. The fraction of the ship's time spent at war was miniscule compared with the time spent during peacetime. In the event of war, the bunks could easily be removed and the sailors would put up with reduced accommodations as one of the obligatory sacrifices made necessary by war. Even then, the Navy suffered from a high rate of desertion and poor reenlistment numbers. The improved habitability was one step in a far reaching effort to improve retention through quality of life that extends to today.
The first of the Northampton class cruisers, the USS Chester (CL 27), was launched July 3, 1927, with a design displacement of 11,574 tons. The great irony was that, after the designs had been largely determined by the need to stay barely within Treaty limits, the ships came out grossly underweight, even after last-minute changes. The full load delivery displacement of the Northampton of 10,965 tons a full 600 tons underweight. This was a result of Preliminary Design's conservative estimating of the design weight and the concurrent implementation of the Northampton class, which was already being built by the time the weight shortage in the Salt Lake City was fully realized. As a result, the both classes had an excessive metacentric height. The roll was, therefore, both short and deep which caused a disconcerting motion.
Anti-rolling tanks were installed experimentally in the Pensacola and the Northampton. The tanks were not interconnected, rather, the tank on each side was open to the sea, with a vent pipe. There were also complaints of weak sternposts and excessive vibration aft at high speed, presumably due to weight savings in the hull structure and cured by structural stiffening. The ships seemed light, with serious damage inflicted on the hull of the ship when the three guns of a turret were fired together. Thus the first two cruiser classes emerging from the Washington Naval Treaty were informally dubbed "Treaty tinclads."
The 8-inch gun cruisers brought a new capability to the fleet when they entered the service. They replaced the elderly battleships of the Scouting Force and served not merely as scouts but, perhaps much more importantly, as escorts for the new fast carriers in independent task force operations. Another role these cruisers could fill was that of fleet flagship. The first three Northamptons were built as division flagships. The last three were fleet flagships.
The London Treaty of 1930 subdivided cruisers into class A Heavy Cruisers (CA) with guns of over 6.1 inches calibre and type B Light Cruisers (CL), those with guns of 6.1 inches of less. Originally designed light cruisers (CL), all were redesignated heavy cruisers (CA) on 1 July 1931. Northampton, Chicago, and Houston were sunk during action with the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II. The remaining three were scheduled for disposal in 1946 but were decommissioned in June-July 1946 and retained in reserve. Modernizations were considered in 1952. Chester, Louisville, and Augusta were stricken 1 March 1959 and sold for scrap thereafter.
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