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Cruisers in World War II - 1920-1945

By the mid-20th Century, cruisers were medium-sized, general-utility ships. They had a large cruising range and are capable of high speeds (over 30 knots). They served as protective screens against surface and air attacks and also provide gunfire support for land operations. Cruisers were lightly armored, heavily armed, fast ships designed to screen formations and to scout out enemy fleets. Their survivability depended on speed, not armor. This continued to be the meaning until after the Second World War - a fast, long-range, lightly armored ship, although by then more powerful than a destroyer.

Armored cruisers were among the earliest new ships built for the "steel navy" of the later 1880s and the 1890s. In accordance with contemporary practice, these were grouped serially in an "Armored Cruiser" number series (informally abbreviated "ACR") that ultimately encompassed thirteen ships. When the Navy formally implemented its hull number system in 1920, the surviving units were given CA series numbers which corresponded to their original numbers. At the same time, several larger protected cruisers were also given new numbers in the same series.

When the Navy formally implemented its hull number system in July 1920, it redesignated thirteen scout cruisers (three completed in 1908, plus ten new ships which were still under construction) as "Light Cruisers" (CL), numbered in accordance with the previous scout cruiser number series. About a year later, nine older protected cruisers (eight of which had been briefly classified as "Gunboats" during 1920-21) were added to the CL number series. An additional CL series number (CL-14) was intended for a tenth such ship, but it was not formally assigned.

All subsequent U.S. Navy light and heavy cruisers were numbered in the same series, which ultimately encompassed 160 ships, all but one resulting from building programs of 1945 or earlier. Ten of these were completed for other purposes and construction of another thirty-seven was cancelled.

In 1920-21 the surviving members of the group received new designations and numbers in the Armored Cruiser (CA), Light Cruiser (CL) and Gunboat (PG) series. The old cruiser ("C-") numbers then became extinct. In addition to the 22 ships numbered in the "cruiser" series, another five protected cruisers did not originally receive numbers, either because they were built earlier or because they were purchased abroad and were not constructed as part of the Navy's shipbuilding program.

Among the antecedents of the US Navy's 1920 hull number system was a number series for protected (and a few "unprotected") cruisers, of which more than two-dozen were built or acquired between the mid-1880s and the early 1900s. Twenty-two of these warships received "cruiser numbers", which have informally been abbreviated "C-1" through "C-22". This shortened form was, however, a matter of unofficial convenience and not a part of the Navy's formal hull number system.

During the first two decades of the Twentieth Century, battle cruisers were built by Great Britain, Germany and Japan, initially as an expansion of the armored cruiser type and later as a kind of fast battleship. The U.S. Navy had avoided the type until the great "Preparedness" movement of 1916 spawned a program to built six. Much modified as a result of World War I experience, these six large ships were all laid down in 1920-21 as the Lexington class, with hull numbers CC-1 through CC-6. Their construction was cancelled under the terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Limitations Treaty. Four were broken up unlaunched and two others converted to aircraft carriers. After WWI, the United States concentrated its main battle fleet (the United States Fleet) in the Pacific, anticipating that the major future threat was Japan. By the time war broke out, the heavy cruisers were primarily assigned to the Scouting Force and the light cruisers to the Battle Force. Both were organized into divisions of three to five ships each commanded by a rear admiral. Each of the destroyer flotillas (made up of multiple destroyer squadrons) had a light cruiser assigned as the flotilla flagship.

When this organization was adopted, the tactical doctrine was that the heavy cruiser was more versatile and suited by its heavier armament to range ahead in a scouting role and was assigned to the Scouting Force. After the enemy force was found and the fleet was getting ready for battle, the heavy cruiser took its place in the outer screen. The light cruisers stayed closer to the battle line to help defend against torpedo attacks by enemy destroyers. In this role the volume of fire from the six inch guns was more important than the greater weight and range of the eight inch gun.

At the same time, the relatively soft aircraft carriers, also assigned to the Battle Force, were originally planned to stay to the rear of the battle line where they would be safe. However, as a result of fleet exercises and experimentation, it was discovered that the best use of the aircraft carriers was to seek out and destroy the enemy carriers, thereby blinding the enemy commander. To do this, it was necessary for the carriers to operate independently and ahead of the battle line to scout for the enemy. The concern was that the carriers would encounter the enemy's heavy cruisers at night or under some other condition where they could not use their aircraft to protect themselves. The Lexington and Saratoga were initially armed with eight-inch guns for just this reason. The answer ultimately adopted was a task force organization where a division of heavy cruisers was assigned to each carrier group.

A smaller group of ships, the Asiatic Fleet, represented the U.S. interests in the pre-war Far East. Most of its units were based in the Philippines (at the time a U.S. colony) but it also included the Yangtze Patrol and the Fourth Marines, both based in China. Through the 1930's and until the Asiatic Fleet ceased to exist in 1942, one modern heavy cruiser was the heaviest unit assigned and served as the flagship. The USS Houston and USS Augusta alternated in this role. Both ships spent a significant amount of time in Chinese waters, showing the flag and on occasion landing Marines and sailors to protect U.S. interests. They also visited other countries in the region including Japan a number of times. On one of these visits, the Augusta represented the United States at the state funeral of Admiral Togo, the hero of the Russo-Japanese War. As war between the Chinese and Japanese erupted in Shanghai, the Augusta observed at close range and sent back intelligence reports on Japanese capabilities.xxxv In addition to the heavy cruiser, the Asiatic Fleet had one light cruiser of the Omaha class assigned.

During the period before the war from 1924 through 1941 the U.S. Navy commissioned 33 cruisers, an average of 1.8 new cruisers per year. Eleven of these cruisers were commissioned in 1937 – 1939 (9 CLs & 2 CAs) as part of the Roosevelt Administration's WPA "make-work" projects.

But, by 1940, with the war going badly in Europe, even this rate of production seemed inadequate. When Congress authorized a 70% expansion of the Navy there was a scramble to increase production of all types of warships. Accordingly, the Navy elected to make only those improvements that would not delay production, relying as much as possible on the existing designs which were considered satisfactory even if not optimum.

In 1942 eight CLs were commissioned and in 1943 seven more CLs and four CAs were commissioned. This building rate continued through the end of the war with 11 cruisers commissioned in 1944 and 18 in 1945. These cruisers were (mostly) divided into Cleveland class light cruisers (improved Brooklyns) and Baltimore class heavy cruisers (improved Wichitas). The General Board was not entirely happy with either design; as a result of Treaty limitations and technological changes, the Cleveland's were too slow compared to the Iowa class battleships and the Baltimores lacked protection against more recent 8-inch shells. These arguments were swept away by "mobilization production fever." Design activity continued, but could not be allowed to hamper production.

With the start of the war, all Treaty restrictions were no longer in force. The U.S. Navy designed two new cruisers, the Cleveland class light cruiser (CL) and the Baltimore class heavy Cruiser (CA). Cleveland was developed from the Brooklyn design, while Baltimore was based on the heavy cruiser Wichita, itself a Brooklyn derivative. The Cleveland Class had twelve 6-inch/47 in four triple turrets (2 forward, 2 aft) and twelve 5-inch/38 in twin mounts (one each on the center line fore and aft and two each on either side of the ship). The Baltimore class was an enlarged Wichita. The Baltimore class had three triple 8-inch/55 turrets (two forward and one aft) and six twin - 5-inch/38 mounts (one each on the centerline fore and aft, and two on each side).

World War II was, in many respects, two wars fought at the same time. The war in Europe and the Atlantic was primarily a land war with the Navy either protecting convoys, searching for and sinking submarines and surface raiders, and providing naval gunfire and other support to the landings in Africa, Italy, and France. The Pacific war, on the other hand, was primarily a naval war as the US and Japanese navies fought to gain or maintain control of the islands from Japan to Australia.

In the Atlantic theater, the cruisers, along with destroyers (DD) and escort carriers (CVE), provided defensive screening support to Allied convoys and task forces. Cruisers played a huge role in hunting down German surface commerce raiders, a classic cruiser mission (counter-sea denial). From the beginning of the war in 1939, three British cruisers (two light and one heavy) fought the Deutschland-class Admiral Graf Spee to a standstill in the Battle of the River Plate. Other British cruisers played important roles in hunting down the battleships Bismarck in 1941 (with HMS Dorsetshire actually torpedoing the sinking wreck) and Scharnhorst in 1943. The cruisers provided naval gunfire support to all the allied landings beginning with the landings in Africa. During the African landings the cruisers engaged and neutralized the French ships located in a nearby harbor. They also engaged the Italian Navy ships in the Mediterranean. They provided naval gunfire support as well as antiaircraft support to the landings in North Africa, Italy, and at Normandy. The USS Augusta, CA 31, served as President Franklin Roosevelt's personal flagship for his meetings with Winston Churchill at the beginning of the war in Newfoundland, and with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta near the end of the European war.

In the Pacific, the U.S. cruisers fulfilled multiple roles: fleet and task group flagships, carrier/task force screening, convoy escort and protection, surface task forces, naval gun fire support for the marine and army landings, and some merchant interdiction.

During World War II American cruisers were designed for two general purposes: fleet support in combination with destroyers, both for defense against hostile destroyers and for torpedo attack on an enemy battle line; and in a combination of independent operations including cruising in hostile waters, raiding, and protecting the long lines of communications across the Pacific. By early 1942 American cruisers screened the first fast carrier raids against Japanese held islands in the Pacific. The cruisers Houston, Marblehead, and Boise fought with the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) command under Dutch Admiral Karel Doorman in a vain attempt to stop the victorious Japanese advance into the Java Sea in February 1942. In the Battle of Savo Island in August 1942 three American cruisers Astoria, Quincy, and Vincennes as well as the Australian cruiser Canberra were lost in a Japanese night attack.

By 1942 the cruiser had become the principal surface combat ship in the Pacific. In addition to screening the fast carrier attack forces, cruisers carried out gunnery raids on enemy held shores, provided fire support for amphibious operations, and were given many assignments in support of general fleet operations. From her original role as a scout and surface raider, the cruiser became an essential component of task force operations in the Pacific. During the war the United States completed large numbers of cruisers to meet the demands of fleet operations in the Pacific. These ships continued to bear the brunt of the action in the Pacific until the end of the war. The last major combat ship lost by the United States in World War II was the cruiser USS Indianapolis, sunk by a Japanese submarine on July 29, 1945.

In the Solomon Islands, the loss of the American battle line at Pearl Harbor lead to cruisers being the heaviest U.S. units available to face the Japanese forces (in some cases including battleships) trying to attack the U.S. forces ashore at Guadalcanal. This lead to some extremely heavy losses until improved tactics using radar and properly coordinating the cruisers and destroyers were developed. Subsequently as U.S. forces moved up the islands driving the Japanese forces back and establishing naval and air bases in the islands the cruisers were a major source of naval gunfire support to these island invasions as the war moved across the Pacific. In the north Pacific the Japanese had occupied a few of the western Aleutian Islands threatening to move down the island chain and possibly attack mainland U.S. targets. This advance was stopped and the Japanese invaders were eventually forced off the islands. The naval support for this effort was primarily by surface task forces without carriers led by cruisers.

During WWII, most cruisers carried four Curtis SOC Seagull floatplanes (two on the catapults and two in the hangar). The SOC was a biplane and rather old but was more suitable for cruisers than the more modern OS2U Kingfisher because it had folding wings. The floatplanes had several different roles. Even though the function of scouting for the enemy fleet had largely been taken over by carrier based aircraft, they were still used for anti-submarine patrols around the task force. Other missions included delivering messages during times of radio silence, towing target sleeves for anti-aircraft practice, rescue of downed pilots and of course gunfire spotting for the cruiser. When escorting a carrier though, if an air attack was expected, flight operations were curtailed because the maneuvering required for launch and recovery would reduce the effectiveness of the anti-aircraft fire.

World War II saw a major increase in radar technology with new surface search, air search, and fire control radars being developed and installed on the cruisers throughout the war. The growth of radar and the air threat created a need to assimilate a growing amount of information, evaluate it quickly, and then respond to multiple targets. This led to the creation of Combat Information Centers (CIC) in combatants, which grew in the size and importance as technology proliferated. Earlier cruisers had to find space for CIC in their superstructure, but later cruisers (Fargo (improved Cleveland), Oregon City (improved Baltimore), and Juneau (improved Atlanta) classes) incorporated fully protected CICs inside the armored box.

As the war proceeded it became clear that the anti-aircraft capabilities of the cruisers had to be improved. This improvement generally involved removing the unreliable 1.1-inch rapid fire AA machine gun (which was complex and developed a poor reputation in service) and replacing them with the foreign designed 40mm and 20mm AA guns, as well as adding as many 40mm and 20mm guns as could be fitted on the ship without over loading the hull. Additionally, open bridges were added to allow improved aircraft sight lines for directing the AAW efforts. Many of the cruisers were critically close to being overweight, so to compensate for the additional AAW guns being installed, items had to be removed, such as one of the two aircraft catapults, range finders from some of the turrets, and reducing the height of the masts. When the Japanese began using kamikaze tactics the need for heavier AA weapons became apparent. In addition to adding more AA weapons, multiple AA fire control directors were added. To improve the ability to engage crossing targets, AA guns (usually 40mm) were mounted in the bow and on the stern.

A cruiser hull also had the speed, endurance, and capacity to perform as a light carrier. Nine USN light cruisers (Cleveland class) were converted to CVL's (small aircraft carriers) while under construction. These 14,750 ton ships became the Independence class. While a small carrier was limited in how many aircraft it could support, the need for additional sea-based air platforms in WWII was very great. This use of cruiser hulls recalled conversions performed by the Royal Navy in the WWI era on the battle cruisers Courageous, Glorious and Furious. The US CVL's used the original cruiser machinery and basic hull, bulged to improve stability, but had all their armament and superstructures removed. A hangar deck and flight deck were added, with funnels trunked over to starboard and a small island. Top speed was 31.6 knots. Many of these ships served along with fleet carriers in Pacific task forces. After the war, they were quickly decommissioned because they were near their stability and volume limits at delivery. However, a second, Saipan class of CVL's was also built, based on the Baltimore class heavy cruiser hull widened on paper prior to the start of construction. These 19,100 ton ships had much more growth potential and served as carriers or command ships into the 1970's.

The short-lived large cruiser (CB) designation was applied only to the to six-ship Alaska class ordered in 1940. Three of these big cruisers were cancelled before construction began, two were completed in 1944 and one was launched but never finished. The CB series became extinct with the sale of the last of these ships in mid-1961.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:43:04 ZULU