Battlecruisers, Large Cruisers, &
By Chuck Hawks
The battlecruiser has always been the most romantic of all warships to me. A ship as large as a battleship, with the big guns of a battleship, and the sea speed of the fleetest cruiser. Even the fatal flaw of the battlecruiser, its comparatively light armor, enhances its romantic appeal. The battlecruiser was not designed to slug it out with the heavyweights, but (as Muhammad Ali, a pretty famous heavyweight in his own right, once said) to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
In any event, this essay is about the battlecruisers of World War II. And I am going to include other battlecruiser-style ships, sometimes called "super cruisers," "large cruisers" or "pocket battleships" in the discussion. There were a surprising number of them. This is especially interesting, as the type was largely discredited, or at least seriously called into question, by the events at the Battle of Jutland during World War I. Nevertheless, Great Britain, Germany, France, Turkey, Japan, and the United States, all had or built battlecruisers during World War II, and the Netherlands and the Soviet Union had plans to build new ones that they were unable to complete, because of the war.
The battlecruiser as a type came from the fertile imagination of Admiral Sir John Fisher, the same man who was the driving force behind the battleship Dreadnought. Designed almost concurrently with Dreadnought was the Invincible class of battlecruisers. As soon as the 17,900 ton Dreadnought was launched, the first of the Invincibles was laid down. They were to revolutionize cruiser design as the Dreadnought had revolutionized battleship design. After these two new types of capital ships came into service, all previous battleships, and all previous armored cruisers, were instantly obsolete.
What made the Invincibles so astounding? They carried 8-12in guns (Dreadnought herself only carried two more), at the unheard of speed of 28 knots (they were rated for 25kts, but all three Invincibles could exceed this by 3kts), on the unheard of displacement (for a cruiser) of 17,250 tons. Bear in mind that, before Dreadnought, the worlds most powerful battleships carried 4-12in guns and displaced about 15,000t, and the worlds most powerful armored cruisers carried 4-9.2in guns and displaced 14,600t. (they could make 23kts, the pre-Dreadnought battleships only 19kts). The other striking thing about these huge ships was that they were armored only to resist cruiser gunfire (6in belt, and 7in turrets).
This was perfectly consistent with their role as envisioned by their creator. They would be cruiser killers. They would scout for the battle fleet (in which role they could brush aside the armored cruisers that the enemy customarily deployed to foil such scouts), they could equally prevent enemy scout cruisers from approaching the battle fleet. They could chase and dispatch "cripples" after a battle. They would also be tremendously useful in running down and destroying enemy commerce raiders on the high seas, as well as interdicting enemy commerce. They could be useful as a fast wing of the battle line. Battlecruisers successfully did these things during WW I.
What they were not intended to do was join the battle line itself and shoot it out with enemy capitol ships. Unfortunately, over and over in the history of battlecruisers, Admirals were unable to resist the temptation of adding their big gun firepower to the line of battle, hoping that enemy shells would not find their weakly protected vitals. History shows that enemy shells seem to have an affinity for just such weaknesses. During the Battle of Jutland, three British battlecruisers (including the Invincible) were destroyed by magazine explosions triggered by enemy heavy shells. The German battlecruiser Lutzow was shot to pieces in the same battle, and also sank, and the Derfflinger was badly shot up, but made it back to port. Battlecruisers were the big losers at Jutland, no Dreadnought battleships were sunk.
From the beginning, battlecruisers had their detractors. They were criticized for being too big, too expensive, and too lightly armored. They were called "white elephants" and "deviates". But when the Germans, and later the Japanese, started laying down improved (and much better protected) versions in response to the British battlecruisers, the type was clearly here to stay.
As the improved battlecruisers got bigger and better protected, the improved Dreadnoughts got bigger and faster, until finally the two types merged into the third generation fast battleships of World War II. Ships so large that they could combine the heavy armor of battleships, and the speed of battlecruisers, in the same hull.
The lure of a warship more powerful than any as fast as she, and faster than any more powerful, would prove to be a strong one. Battlecruisers were built throughout the entire history of the modern capitol ship (although sometimes under other names). The first battlecruisers (the Invincibles) were contemporary to the Dreadnought, the first modern battleship; the last battlecruisers (the Alaskas) were contemporaries of the last battleships, the Iowas. Startlingly, the battlecruiser was to reappear in a new guise in the 1980's...but that part of the story can wait.
Just like their earlier sisters in the First World War, the battlecruisers of all nations would work harder, steam farther, fight more often, and take more casualties than their battleship contemporaries in World War II. The battlecruiser story started with the British, so it seems only fair to examine their World War II battlecruisers first.
The Royal Navy had three battlecruisers at the beginning of the Second World War: Renown, Repulse, and Hood. All three were begun during the First World War, and represent the second generation of battlecruisers.
Renown and Repulse were sisters, and carried 6-15in guns and a 9in belt on about 32,000t standard displacement. Both were modestly refit in the 1920's. Renown was given a major reconstruction which, when completed in 1939, brought her up to contemporary British standards. Due to the outbreak of the war, Repulse did not receive this second reconstruction.
The German Admiralty was particularly nervous about the British battlecruisers, as they were the only British ships which were as fast as the two third generation fast battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and also out gunned them. Repulse, along with the battleship Prince of Wales, was sunk off Malaysia in December, 1941 by Japanese naval aircraft. Renown survived a very busy war to be sold to the ship breakers in 1948.
The third ship, Hood, was the largest battlecruiser of all time, and probably the most famous. For almost all of her life she was the largest warship in the world. She was known everywhere as "the mighty Hood". She was originally designed as a response to the WW I German Mackensen class. When it became clear that these would never be completed, the three other members of the Hood class were canceled, but the Hood herself was far enough along to be worth completing. She was intended to be a 32 knot battlecruiser version of the very successful Queen Elizabeth class battleships. She was commissioned in 1920, and represented a new standard of battlecruiser protection. Many authorities consider her to be the first of the new type later to be called "fast battleships". Certainly, her 12in inclined belt offered good protection by the standards of the time, but a lot of her total tonnage of armor (which amounted to 33.6% of her hull weight) was wasted in inconsequential places. In fairness, it should be pointed out that the Hood was armored to almost identical standards as the vaunted Queen Elizabeth class battleships.
She got a modest refit in 1929-30, but was never modernized. She was due for a major rebuild in 1939 (similar to Renown), but this was never accomplished due to the outbreak of war. After the beginning of the war, her original 5.5in secondary guns were removed, and more AA guns added.
Her specifications in 1941 follow (From Jane's Fighting Ships of World War II and Encyclopedia of the World's Warships, by Hugh Lion):
The Hood was one of the most beautiful capital ships of all time. Many consider her the most beautiful. Other candidates for that title include the earlier three funnel British battlecruiser Tiger, the later British battleship Vanguard, and the American Iowa class battleships (for a description of Vanguard and the Iowa class, see my essay "Basic Characteristics Of The Post Treaty Battleships"). Her long, low, balanced silhouette, twin funnels, gracefully curved stem, and pointed (canoe) stern made Hood appear both fleet and powerful. She gets my vote.
By 1941, her displacement was up (from 41,200t), and her speed was down (from 32kts). Her freeboard was also down, and her quarter-deck was wet at high speed. Nevertheless, she remained a steady seaboat.
Her main battery 15in guns were the excellent Mk II, in twin mounts. They fired a 1920lb AP shell at 2450fps MV. The range was 33,500yds at 30 degrees of elevation. A later improved AP shell weighed 1938lbs.
Hood carried her torpedoes in twin mounts on the upper deck. As in all capital ships, they were useless. In Hood's case, they may have been worse than useless: they may have caused her loss. Fires started by shells from the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, in Hood's final engagement, may have cooked off the torpedo's warheads and destroyed the ship (for a brief account of Prinz Eugen's part in this battle, see my essay "Heavy Cruisers of World War II"). Alternatively, a 15in shell from the battleship Bismarck may have detonated the torpedoes.
The Hood's major weakness was her horizontal protection. It was adequate by the standards of her time, a time before aircraft could carry heavy bombs, and before long range plunging fire from enemy capitol ships was a serious concern. By the beginning of WW II, it was seriously deficient. This deficiency was understood by the British Admiralty, but she was regarded as too valuable to remove from service for the extended time it would take to remedy. Also, her protection at short and medium ranges was still sufficient, and it was simply hoped that she would not take any long range hits in vital places (note the comment in the introduction about the affinity of enemy shells for weak spots).
When she fought the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen in May of 1941, she was hit by Bismarck's fifth salvo (before she was able to close the range), suffered an after magazine explosion, broke in two, and sank. All but three of the crew perished. Whether this was caused by her armor being penetrated, or the explosion of her own torpedoes, will never be known for sure. What is certain is that her deck armor could have been penetrated. And that she blew after being straddled by a full salvo from Bismarck. Once again a battlecruiser had been placed in the line opposite a battleship, and her crew had paid the price.
The Hood had the advantages of size, speed, firepower, seaworthiness, and decent protection when she was built. The conditions of battle changed during her long life, and left her deficient in horizontal protection by the time WW II began. This could have been at least partially rectified, but wasn't. Understanding her deficiency, the Admiralty should not have sent her to the Denmark Strait to shoot it out with the brand new, modern, battleship Bismarck. Her loss was primarily the result of poor judgment fueled by desperation.
Following the Armistice of 1918 that ended the First World War, Germany was deprived of her High Seas Fleet. What was left of the world's second largest navy became a coast defence force. Prior to the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had built the world's best battlecruisers. From the beginning, German battlecruisers had been a better blend of armor, speed, and firepower than their British counterparts. They tended to be larger, carry slightly smaller guns (initially 11in instead of 12in, later 12in instead of 13.5in), steam about a knot slower, and carry heavier armor on a much better internally compartmented and subdivided hull. During the Great War, German capital ships developed the reputation for being very hard to sink.
These WW I German battlecruiser designs culminated in the Derfflinger class (three ships: Derfflinger, Lutzow, and Hindenburg), completed 1914-17. These 26,513t (normal) ships carried 8-12in guns, had a 12-5in belt, and could make 27kts. They were 689ft long, and had a 95ft beam. Lutzow was scuttled after taking 24 heavy shell hits and a 21in torpedo at the Battle of Jutland. Under different circumstances, she might have been saved. Derfflinger was hit 17 times in the same battle, and was able to steam home. These were handsome, flush deck ships. Their low freeboard put them at a disadvantage in heavy seas compared to their British contemporaries, but on the whole, they were considered the finest ships of their size in the world.
Due to provisions of the Versailles Treaty, the German navy was restricted from commissioning new capital ships for fifteen years, and new ships were limited to a displacement of 10,000t (standard). The intention was to make anything but a small coast defence battleship, such as the Scandinavian countries had built for Baltic service, impossible. But the Germans were too smart for the regulators, and determined to build long range, seagoing commerce raiders on a displacement that did not exceed the treaty limit too obviously. The result was the Deutschland class of three ships (Deutschland, Admiral Scheer, Admiral Graf Spee).
These were the most innovative capital ships in the world when Deutschland appeared in 1933, and the first of the third generation Dreadnoughts. Every attempt was made to save weight. Their hulls were electrically welded, their main armor belt was integral with the hull, they had diesel propulsion machinery, light alloys were used where possible, and their main battery was concentrated in only two turrets (which made it impossible to engage more than two enemy ships at one tine). Even so, Deutschland exceeded the limit by 11.7%, and the later pair (which had heavier armor and a somewhat heavier light battery) exceeded it by 12.1%.
The German navy called these ships simply "armored ships" (Panzerschiffe), but the world press dubbed them "pocket battleships", and the name stuck. They were really pocket battlecruisers. They were a classic battlecruiser attempt to out shoot all lighter ships, and out run all heavier ships. They mounted capitol ship guns on a hull armored to defeat light cruiser fire. Their stated design speed was 26kts, but they could make 28. Only the three British second generation battlecruisers could both out-gun and out-run them.
They alarmed the French navy, which responded with the much larger Dunkerque class battlecruisers (more about them later). The inevitable German response to the Dunkerques was the famous Scharnhorst class battleships, which I will discuss briefly after we finish with the Deutschlands. So let's take a look at the specifications of the famous German pocket battleships. We will use Graf Spee, the last of the class, as our representative. This is how she appeared in 1936, when she was completed (specifications taken from Hugh Lyon's Warships):
These were compact and easily recognizable ships. Their big main battery turrets stood out, one foreword and one aft. They had a low silhouette except for their tower superstructure and their single, straight, funnel. All three ships had a different style of bridge, by the way, and could be individually recognized. The single seaplane catapult and crane were amidships, aft of the funnel. The torpedo tubes were on the quarter-deck, which was stepped down from the upper deck level. The anti-torpedo bulge on their hulls was quite visible. They had a workmanlike and not unattractive appearance.
All three sailed on commerce raiding cruises during the war, and proved to be good sea boats, although wet foreword. Later in the war, the two surviving members of the class were fitted with clipper type "Atlantic" bows to help minimize this problem.
Their Krupp 11in main battery guns (the largest permitted under the treaty) were improved over the previous WW I type, fired a 700lb AP shell to 26 miles, and could elevate to 60 degrees. The performance of the AP shell itself, like all German WW II heavy AP shells, was disappointing in service.
Their torpedo battery proved useful in their primary role as commerce raiders. It allowed them to sink captured merchant ships quickly. Torpedoes are generally a liability on capital ships, but handy for a raider. These ships were never intended to engage in a shoot out with an equally armed adversary.
The Graf Spee's armor proved sufficient to protect her from 6in cruiser gunfire, but she was vulnerable to 8in gunfire. There is a limit to what can be done on 12,000 tons. This is unfortunate, because there were many heavy cruisers (less expensive ships) that could catch her, and while they could not withstand her 11in guns, neither could she withstand their 8in guns.
Actually, the Deutschlands would have been just as effective as raiders, and better balanced ships, had they been completed with 6-8in guns in three twin turrets (which would have eliminated the possibility of a single hit taking out half of the ships main battery), and heavier armor. For political reasons, vessels with capital ship guns were desired.
This class had active and interesting histories in WW II. Scheer was the most successful commerce raider, sinking 137,223 tons of merchant shipping on a very long cruise. The Graf Spee sank 50,089 tons, and the Deutschland sank 6,962 tons.
In December 1939, while on her first wartime cruise, the Graf Spee engaged three British cruisers off the Rio de la Plata. Her two main battery turrets were unable to fire at all three at once (although she shot out all of the heavy cruiser Exeter's main battery guns), and she was forced to seek refuge at Montevideo, Uruguay. After a few days of feverish diplomatic maneuvering and disinformation, it was decided to scuttle her rather than allow her to be interned.
The Deutschland (later renamed Lutzow), was torpedoed once by submarine, and once by aircraft. She survived both, fought off Norway and in the Baltic, and was scuttled at Swinemunde in May 1945, after being severely damaged by RAF heavy bombers.
The Scheer, after her long raiding cruise, became part of the German "fleet in being" in Norway for part of the war, and later provided gunfire support for the German fronts as they collapsed around the Baltic Sea. She was finally sunk at Kiel by RAF heavy bombers in April 1945.
All in all, these smallest-ever battlecruisers provided good value for the money. They were a powerful political tool in the pre-war years, and provided good service in the war. The last two were not sunk until the war was lost and the Allies had achieved absolute aerial superiority, which allowed them to sink the remaining German heavy ships at their berths.
The ships that were to succeed the Deutschlands were the Scharnhorst class (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau). Originally these were designed as three turret, full sized battlecruiser versions of their smaller predecessors. They were to be a reply to the French Dunkerque class (France was seen at that time as Germany's most likely enemy in the next war). Hitler abrogated the Versailles Treaty, so the displacement could rise. These ships were re-designed several times, and when they finally emerged they were not battlecruisers at all, but small (and not even that small, they were actually about the size of the average foreign battleship of the time), fast battleships. The German Kriegsmarine always rated them as battleships. So did Jane's Fighting Ships. British authorities, however, almost always referred to them as battlecruisers, probably because of their relatively light (11in) main battery and high speed, plus the fact that their "official" displacement was listed by the Germans as 26,000t.
In fact, these handsome ships were over-armored and under-gunned, the exact reverse of the true battlecruiser. In 1942 their standard displacement was 34,841t (38,900t full load), they were about 754ft long, and had a 98ft beam. They were armed with 9-11in, 12-5.9in, 14-4.1in DP, 16-37mm AA, and 8-20mm AA, guns. They were well protected with a 13.75in belt, 3in+2in decks, 14in-6in turrets, and 13.75in CT armor. Their 3-shaft geared steam turbines could drive them at 32 knots.
The German Admiralty was well aware that these ships should have mounted heavier guns, and in fact had planned their main battery as 6-15in guns, in three twin turrets (the same mounts being developed for the Bismarck class battleships). The development of the new 15in mounts encountered delays, however, and it was decided to temporarily arm the two Scharnhorst class ships with 9-11in guns in three triple mounts, similar to those used on the pocket battleships (Hitler was demanding new battleships to implement his aggressive foreign policy). Since the new 15in twin mount had, by design, the same ring diameter as the existing 11in triple mount, this seemed quite feasible. In the rush of events that culminated in the start of the Second World War, there was never an opportunity to take such important heavy units out of service for the time necessary to re-gun them, and they spent their entire careers with the 11in main battery. This was unfortunate, because while most third generation fast battleships had a fairly narrow immune zone to heavy 15in or 16in AP shells, their armor was sufficient to give them large immune zones to the much lighter 11in AP shells.
This put the Scharnhorst class at a disadvantage compared to the similar size British battleships of the King George V class, and when Scharnhorst encountered the Duke of York and her escorts off Northern Norway late in December 1943, she was overcome by the British battleship's larger guns. Since these ships were in fact battleships, not battlecruisers, they will not be examined in greater depth in this essay.
There was another class of German heavy ships that were true battlecruisers, however. These were the three ships of the projected "P" class. They were part of the pre-war "Z" plan for a balanced fleet by 1948. The P class were to have been laid down in 1939, but Hitler's premature triggering of WW II forced their cancellation before work was actually begun. Nevertheless, their specifications make interesting reading in terms of what might have been (from Conway's All The World's Fighting Ships, 1922-1946):
As is clear from these specifications, these would have been true battlecruisers, and very effective commerce raiders. They also make an interesting comparison with the American Alaska class and the projected Japanese B64 type, both of which will be discussed later. It is interesting to note that the German Admiralty (accurately) rated these ships as battlecruisers, where the Americans chose to call their similar Alaska class "large cruisers", and the Japanese called their equivalent B64 type "super cruisers". By then the Hood had blown up, and battlecruiser esteem was at its lowest point.
The two ships of the French Dunkerque class were built as a response to the German pocket battleships. The success of the German Deutschlands at thwarting the intention of the Treaty of Versailles must have come as a great shock to the French Admiralty. Their range and firepower made them an obvious threat to the maritime commerce of any potential enemy, and the Germans announced their intent to build at least six of them. Obviously, the three British battlecruisers would not be able to deal with twice their number of raiders, and France was the nation most directly threatened by the German pocket battleships. She must act in her own defence, and come up with anti-Deutschland ships. She did, and the Dunkerque and Strasbourg were the result.
The two Dunkerques were the first third generation ships to begin synthesizing battlecruiser and battleship roles and characteristics (the second generation Hood began the process), and they were at various times and by various authorities classed as both battlecruisers and battleships. I tend to think of them as battlecruisers, especially when compared to the next class, the Richelieu class battleships.
They were the first French capital ships completed since the first generation Dreadnoughts of the Bretagne class (laid down in 1912), and the first fast capital ships of any kind ever built by France. The French built no second generation Dreadnoughts, so the Dunkerques represented a great technological leap for the French designers.
In style they were modeled loosely on the British Nelson class, the last of the second generation Dreadnoughts. Their main battery was grouped foreword of the tower superstructure in quadruple turrets, and the secondary armament was grouped aft. On the fantail, they carried their aircraft crane and catapult., and a small hanger. This arrangement was chosen because it minimized the length of the heavy armor belt, and provided the maximum number of guns on the minimum displacement. Let's take a look at Dunkerque's basic specifications as completed in 1937 (from Conway's):
These ships were very distinctive in appearance. With their two quadruple turrets widely spaced foreword, their tower bridge, single vertical funnel, and aircraft hanger and catapults aft, they were unmistakable. The later French Richelieu class had a similar layout, but were bigger and generally more massive, with a sharply angled funnel (see my essay "Basic Characteristics Of The Post Treaty Battleships" for a detailed description of Jean Bart of this class).
Their 13in main battery guns fired a 1,200lb AP shell 32,800yds at 35 degrees elevation. Their rate of fire was supposed to be three rounds per minute. The turrets were internally divided to resemble two twin mounts side by side. They were widely spaced to eliminate the chance of a single hit disabling both turrets, and to minimize blast interference. The basic layout must have worked, because it was repeated with the subsequent Richelieu class.
There can be no doubt, however, that there are serious drawbacks to having all main battery guns forward, and in just two turrets. For one, such ships are unable to engage more than two enemies at once (like the Graf Spee). Just two main turrets also means that there is the risk of a single hit knocking out 50% of the ships offensive capability. Another weakness is the huge blind arc aft. The reverse situation applied to the secondary battery which, being concentrated astern, had a blind arc foreword.
Their dual purpose secondary battery was designed for high angle fire, and they were the first capitol ships to be so equipped, a major advance.
Dunkerque and Strasbourg had unusual underwater protection. This involved air and fuel filled compartments with a torpedo bulkhead inboard, and a compartment filled with a rubber, water excluding, material outboard.
They were armored to resist the German 11in gun that armed the pocket battleships (and later the Scharnhorst class battleships). Their main armor belt was inclined at 21 degrees, and designed to resist 11in AP projectiles beyond 18,000yds range.
Like most French ships of the WW II era, they had short and checkered careers. Early in the war they operated in the Atlantic, mostly covering convoys against the threat of German surface raiders. After the fall of France in 1940, they both escaped to Oran (North Africa). In April of that year, Dunkerque was badly shot up when their former British allies turned on them (for fear they would fall into German hands), and shelled them in port. Both eventually escaped to Toulon (Dunkerque after temporary repairs), where they were scuttled in February 1942. Strasbourg was salvaged, only to be sunk again by allied bombers in August 1944. After the war, the hull was raised and used in underwater tests by the French Navy, before being sold for scrap in 1955.
These were very innovative ships, with several firsts to their credit. They seemed to be satisfactory for their intended purpose, although a cheaper answer to the Deutschlands would have been a larger number of smaller cruisers, as the British proved when they ran down and trapped the Graf Spee.
It would have been interesting indeed had Dunkerque encountered Scharnhorst in the first months of the war, although it is my opinion that the larger, more heavily armored German battleship would have likely prevailed over the French hybrid battlecruiser/battleship.
One battlecruiser about whose lineage there can be no doubt is the Yavuz. She barely took part in World War II, as Turkey did notjoin the Allies until 1945, when the war was practically over. However, her background is so interesting that I am compelled to include her, at least briefly.
Yavuz began life in 1912 as the first generation German battlecruiser Goeben. She was basically similar to the original German battlecruiser Von der Tann, although somewhat bigger. Unlike contemporary British battlecruisers, the German ships were well protected from the start. Her initial specifications were as follows (from Battleships of World War I, by Anthony Preston):
Yavuz would look very strange to modern eyes. She had a very low freeboard, with her first twin turret foreword, then her conning tower and a small bridge structure with a tall, vertical, pole foremast. She had a single vertical funnel, with two more twin turrets in echelon in the wing positions. Then came her rudimentary after superstructure, surmounted by another tall pole mainmast. On her after deck were her last two (superimposed) main turrets. This sort of arrangement was very common with both British and German capital ships before the First World War. It is possible to fire a full broadside with this layout (over a very narrow arc amidships), but one of the wing turrets must fire across the deck!
How this ship came into Turkish hands is an interesting story. She was serving in the Mediterranean from 1912 on, the only heavy ship of the Imperial German Navy stationed outside of home waters. In 1914, at the outbreak of the war, she escaped from the battlecruisers of the British Mediterranean Fleet, and made it through the Dardenelles to temporary safety in Turkish waters. This proved to be a shrewd choice, as Turkey had ordered two battlecruisers from British yards, which were seized by the Royal Navy at the start of the war. The Turks were incensed, and agreed to purchase the Goeben from Germany instead of interning her. Her crew stayed with their ship, and when they staged an attack on the Russian Black Sea Fleet two and a half months later, Turkey was obliged to join the Central Powers.
Goeben was renamed Yavuz in Turkish service, but retained her German crew. She had a very active war: she shelled enemy shore positions, was repeatedly involved in gunfights with Russian battleships (I don't know how many Russian ships of various types she damaged or sank), struck five mines, ran aground, was more heavily bombed by aircraft than any other ship in WW I, sank two British monitors, and exchanged gunfire with the far more powerful British battleship Queen Elizabeth. By then it was said that Goeben/Yavuz had caused more suffering and disaster than any other ship in history. She had many other outrageous adventures, but that should give you the idea.
When the war ended in 1918, she finally got a Turkish crew, but was ceded to Britain as war reparations. Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, refused to hand her over, and the British were reluctant to push the matter, as they wanted to re-establish friendly relations with Turkey. In the end, Turkey was allowed to keep its battlecruiser.
During 1926-30 she was refurbished and modernized by Chantiers de St. Nazaire, whose floating dry dock proved unequal to her weight. I guess the old girl was still a character. On trials after the 1930 refit, she steamed at 27.1kts for four hours. She was again refitted in 1938. By WW II she was carrying 8-3.5in AA, 12-40mm AA, and 4-MG in addition to her 10-11in main battery, and 10-5.9in secondary battery guns.
She remained the flagship of the Turkish Navy for many years after the Second World War, becoming by far the longest lived Dreadnought in history, a record that will never be broken. While I was serving in the USAF, during the Vietnam War, this veteran of WW I was still on active duty as flagship of the Turkish Navy! She finally went to the breakers in 1971.
The Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II had four of the busiest and most famous of the world's battlecruisers, and plans to build a class of "Super Cruisers" that were modern battlecruisers in all but name. The former were the Kongo class, the first Japanese battlecruisers, and the latter the B64 type.
The famous Kongo class of four ships (Kongo, Hiei, Haruna, Kirishima), were Japan's hardest working and most useful capital ships. The first of the class, the name ship Kongo, was commissioned from a British yard in order to bring Japanese builders up to date on the latest techniques in shipbuilding. The other three were built in Japanese yards. Kongo was launched in May of 1912, and Haruna, the last of the class, was launched in December of 1913.
When completed, around the beginning of the First World War, they were the most powerful battlecruisers in the world. They were so much better than contemporary British battlecruisers that they caused the last of the Lion class (HMS Tiger) to be completed to a totally altered design, a design very similar to Kongo. I find it amusing that the principle result of building Kongo in a British yard, was that the British learned more about how to design a proper battlecruiser, than the Japanese learned about how to build one.
At this early stage in their careers they were lovely and powerful ships, with three funnels, compact superstructures, fore and main tripod masts. Their 8-14in guns were arranged in four twin turrets, two superimposed foreword, and two superimposed aft (there was a large gap between the "X" and "Y" turrets, because "X" turret fitted into an internal space between the engine and boiler rooms).
Although considered first generation Dreadnoughts, I regard this class as the pre-cursors to the second generation. They were so similar to the second generation battlecruiser Repulse that when Japanese Navy aviators were attacking that ship in 1941, they hesitated momentarily, thinking that she might be Kongo or Haruna (which were at sea searching for the British ship).
In 1915, when the British numerical superiority over the German High Seas Fleet was at its minimum, the British Government asked the Japanese Government to loan them the four ships of the Kongo class. The Japanese politely refused on the grounds that they were necessary to defend the homeland.
In the period between the wars, the Kongo class were rebuilt twice. The first time was in 1927-31, when their armor was increased and anti-torpedo bulges fitted, their boilers replaced, provision for three seaplanes provided, the first of their three funnels removed, and their main battery gun elevation increased to 43 degrees. Their speed decreased from 27.5kts to 26kts. At this same time they were reclassified as battleships (battlecruisers having fallen out of favor in the period following WW I). For a time Hiei was "de-militarized" as a training ship, with one main battery turret removed. She was re-militarized in secret at the time of the next rebuild.
Between 1937-40, the class were again rebuilt. This time the hull was lengthened aft, entirely new machinery installed (which finally converted them completely to oil burning, and increased their speed to 30kts), a catapult for their seaplanes provided, their AA battery increased, and the protection to their barbettes increased.
During the WW II, their AA battery was progressively increased so that by late 1944 the survivors carried 8-14in main battery guns, 8-6in secondary guns, and 100-25mm AA guns. By 1945, Haruna carried 118-25mm AA. Kongo's complete specifications at the beginning of WW II were as follows (from Warships):
By WW II their appearance had been marred by the addition of a tower bridge of the tall, ungainly sort so beloved by the Japanese in WW II. These "pagoda" superstructures always look to me as if they would render the ship unstable. AA guns had begun to appear in unlikely places, but the Kongos still looked every inch the dangerous battlecruisers they were (even if they were now rated "fast battleships").
Their 14in main battery guns were, along with the equivalent American gun, the best in the world when they were completed, and although other ships had come along which were more heavily armed, they still packed considerable punch. They fired a 1,485lb AP projectile at 2,543fps MV, to 38,770yds at 43 degrees of elevation (this ballistic information courtesy of Jonathan Parshall; follow my Hot Link to his "Imperial Japanese Navy Page" to learn lots of interesting facts about the IJN).
Like most battlecruisers of their time, the Kongo class were not particularly heavily armored. They should have been able to resist cruiser gunfire, but were susceptible to battleship guns at most ranges. Their underwater protection was augmented by bulges during their reconstruction, but still failed to impress (Kongo herself blew up after having been struck by a single torpedo). Rating these ships as battleships was akin to the "political correctness" of a later era, in that changing the descriptive word did not change the reality of the situation.
As alluded to earlier, all four ships had busy wars. Kirishima and Hiei covered Admiral Nagumo's fast carrier task force when it attacked Pearl Harbor. All four were particularly useful as part of the screening force for the fast carriers, as they were the fastest capital ships in the Japanese Navy, and the only ones which could keep up with the carriers. As a result, some or all of the class were on hand for virtually all of the great carrier battles of the Pacific war.
Hiei was the first of the class lost in the war. In November 1942 she steamed down the infamous "slot" toward Guadalcanal, where she was ambushed by U.S. cruisers. During the darkness and confusion of the night engagement known as the First Battle of Guadalcanal, she was severely damaged by over fifty 8in and 5in shell hits. The next day she was finished off by four torpedoes from U.S. Navy planes.
A few days later in November 1942, Kirishima was lost in the Second Battle of Guadalcanal, also a night engagement. She caught the new U.S. battleship South Dakota by surprise, and disabled her with salvoes of 14in shells, but while her attention was thus occupied, the radar equipped fast battleship Washington slipped to within 8,400yds, and tore her apart. In only seven minutes Kirishima was struck by nine 2700lb 16in shells, and over forty 54lb 5in shells, and she had to be scuttled.
The third ship to be sunk was Kongo. In November 1944 she was torpedoed by the American submarine Sealion. Hit by only one torpedo, incompetent damage control allowed her to blow up and sink two hours later.
Haruna was sunk in 1945 at Kure Naval Base by U.S. aircraft, after the Japanese had completely lost control of their own skies.
The other Japanese battlecruisers of the World War II period were the B64 type, which were never built. They are interesting because they were part of the battlecruiser resurgence that occurred just before the outbreak of the Second World War, when Germany, Japan, Holland, Russia, and the United States all conceived new classes of battlecruisers. Only the U.S. had the industrial capacity to follow through with their plans after the start of the war.
The B64 design was begun in 1939. These two ships were to have a new type of 12in/50 caliber gun, carried in three triple turrets. Their layout would have been similar to the Yamoto class super battleships. In 1942 the Japanese planners found out about the American Alaska class, then under construction, and also equipped with 9-12in guns. As a consequence, the proposed B 64 class became the B65 class, up-rated with 14in guns. Both types were officially referred to as "Super Cruisers" rather than battlecruisers. They were never laid down due to other, more urgent, wartime priorities. The original B 64 specifications were as follows (from Conway's):
A glance at these specifications makes one think of a modern version of the old Kongo class. Almost the same thickness of armor (although no doubt distributed in accordance with more modern principles), the same size, a little more speed (as would be natural for a more modern hull and machinery design), and about the same firepower (in a modern triple turret arrangement). The B 65 version, with 14in guns in place of the 12in guns, would be even more reminiscent of the Kongo class. Well, why change a winning game. The aging Kongos had proven to be the most useful capital ships in the history of the Imperial Navy.
Next, let's see how these new Japanese battlecruisers (sorry, Super Cruisers) would have compared to the American Alaska class battlecruisers (sorry, Large Cruisers).
The Alaska class (CB 1 Alaska and CB 2 Guam) have been described as "heavy cruisers freed of treaty restrictions" and "enlarged Baltimores", as well as "white elephants" (the last not an uncommon description for any battlecruiser). Since they were three times the size of a treaty cruiser, and over twice the size of a Baltimore class heavy cruiser, I would say those descriptions were stretching things a bit. However, the U.S. Navy went to great lengths to avoid using the word "battlecruiser" in connection with these vessels, despite the fact these ships are virtually perfect examples of the type. Note that they were assigned the abbreviated classification "CB". The earlier Lexington class, admittedly battlecruisers, were classified "CC". The Lexington class battlecruisers were aborted under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty, although two of the completed hulls were converted into aircraft carriers (the famous Lexington and Saratoga). Jane's Fighting Ships refused to be taken in, they classified the Alaskas as battlecruisers.
The Alaska's tactical roles were to include both chasing down, and serving as, commerce raiders in the vast Pacific Ocean. As cruiser killers, they would be able to over power enemy heavy cruisers, particularly in support of the fast carrier task forces; they could over take enemy units slowed by air attack. They might also constitute a fast wing of the battle line. To accomplish these missions, they were provided with battleship caliber guns, and protected against cruiser or 'panzerschiffe' gunfire. Does any of this sound familiar? If it does not, re-read the description of the Invincibles.
The Alaska class was authorized in 1940. Originally there were to be six ships (Alaska, Guam, Hawaii, Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Samoa). Only Alaska and Guam were completed, both in 1944. Hawaii was suspended in 1947 when 82% complete. The other three were canceled in June 1943, before being laid down. By then it was obvious that the German and Japanese battlecruisers would never be completed. Alaska and Guam served in the remainder of the Pacific War. Both went to the reserve fleet shortly afterward. They were finally sent to the breakers in 1961. Hawaii was retained in suspended animation until 1960. The specifications of Alaska follow (from Conway's):
In appearance these ships looked like, well, battlecruiser versions of previous American heavy ships. They had the tower bridge of third generation American battleships, a single tall funnel, and a secondary battery layout like recent American cruisers. I guess more than anything else they looked like skinny South Dakota class battleships, lengthened between the funnel and the tower bridge.
The pair spent most of their lives as fast carrier escorts, a job for which they were ideally suited. They were reportedly fine sea boats, although somewhat awkward handling (perhaps due to their single rudder). They had a tactical radius of about 800yds.
Their aircraft were stowed in a hanger amidships, and they had two amidships catapults, in the British fashion. This was a departure from contemporary American heavy ships.
The 12in guns were a new design; they could penetrate 15in of belt armor at 16,000yds, and 5.5in of deck armor at 30,000yds. This made them effective against all battlecruisers and many battleships. They fired a new, super heavy AP shell weighing 1,140 lbs. Note that the French 13in gun fired an AP shell only slightly heavier at 1200 lbs, and the German 11in AP shell weighed just 700 lbs. The previous American 12in shell weighed 870 lbs. Not only did the new American AP shells have great sectional density, which means that they were heavy for their diameter, they were also much more effective and reliable in use than the German or Japanese AP shells. The secondary and AA battery of the Alaskas was superior to their rivals, both in number of guns, and in performance of the individual guns themselves. By the time the Alaskas entered service, American radar fire control was superior to anything the Axis powers had. This advantage would be particularly apparent at night or in inclement weather.
These ships did not carry torpedoes. This is in line with the U.S. Navy policy of not equipping battleships and cruisers with torpedoes. While heavy and light cruisers can and did benefit from carrying torpedoes in WW II, they are a detriment on capital ships. Not equipping the Alaskas with torpedoes was the correct decision. Not having the dangerous things on deck would have been an advantage had the Alaska met either the German P class or the Japanese B 64 class in battle.
The Alaska class was generally well protected compared to the Axis battlecruisers. At it's most favorable point, their armor was adequate to defeat their own 12in AP shells between 18,000 and 24,000yds. Against 8in cruiser fire, their immune zone was 9,500-29,200yds, and against the German 11in AP shell it was approximately 16,600-27,800yds. They would have been quite vulnerable to the 14in AP shells of the Kongo or B 65 type, or the 15in AP shells of the P class, but those ships would also have been quite vulnerable to the Alaska's super heavy 12in AP shells (see below).
It is interesting to play "what if". Comparing the Alaska to the Axis battlecruisers she might have met, I think she would have done well against most of them.
The Alaska was clearly superior to the German pocket battleships in every way. No contest there.
Her fire power was equaled by the Japanese B 64 type, but Alaska had better protection, better AP shells, better fire control, better secondary and AA batteries, in fact was superior in almost every other way. Certainly, on paper, Alaska should be favored.
The Japanese B 65 type was supposed to be the answer to the Alaskas, but was it? As pointed out above, they would be able to penetrate Alaska's armor at most ranges, but the reverse was also true. Again, American shells were more reliable, and American fire control superior. If it came down to who got their blows in first, and it well might, Alaska should be favored. And she remained superior in most other ways. And she wasn't carrying any dangerous torpedoes on her deck, just waiting for a "lucky" hit to detonate them. I still give Alaska the advantage.
The older Kongo class match up with Alaska almost exactly as would the later B 65 class. She has the same disadvantages as the B 65 type, plus she is 30 years old, plus she carries one less heavy gun. A Kongo is always a dangerous foe, as the South Dakota found out, but Alaska remains the favorite.
The German P class, with their 15in guns, could penetrate Alaska's armor at any range. Unfortunately, Alaska could also penetrate their armor at just about any range. Both classes would be about the same size and speed. Pretty near equal secondary batteries. Even similar range. Let's figure out the broadside weight: 6x1750 (weight of German 15in AP shell) = 10,500 lbs; 9x1140 (weight of American 12in AP shell) = 10,260 lbs. Surprisingly, not much difference there either. But wait, a 15in gun fires about twice a minute; a 12in gun fires about 3 times a minute...And you get more splashes to range on with 9 guns than with 6...And more chances to get a hit with 9 shells instead of 6...And American AP shells work better than German AP shells...And as good as German optical fire control is, American radar control is even better. And Alaska doesn't carry any torpedoes to sink merchant ships, so the nasty things can't explode and tear her stern off, or worse. Again, it would probably come down to who gets the first lucky hits, but I'm betting that might just be Alaska. Its ironic to consider that the ships the U.S. Navy refused to admit were battlecruisers, might well have been the best battlecruisers of their generation!
They were not battleships, of course. The larger, more heavily armored Scharnhorst could probably have taken Alaska. So could any of the other Axis third generation battleships. But battlecruisers are not supposed to fight battleships, it's not in their job description. When battlecruisers fight battleships, they lose: look at Hood, look at Kirishima (don't look at Yavuz, she's the exception that proves the rule). But as battlecruisers go, the Alaska class were fine ones.
The next (and last) two classes of battlecruisers I will take a brief look at were not completed because WW II intervened. They were the Dutch and Russian battlecruisers, both approved in 1940. The Dutch ships will be examined first.
Before WWII the Dutch East Indies were a major world source of strategic raw materials, especially oil. They produced about ten times the amount of petroleum every year that Japan produced. The Japanese coveted this Dutch colony, and, of course, back in Holland, the Government knew it.
Lacking the economic base to build a fleet big enough to defeat the Imperial Japanese Navy, the Dutch realized that, in all likelihood, war with Japan would include the U.S. or UK or both as their allies. The Dutch naval effort was therefore directed toward a small high quality fleet, capable of holding the line in the Western Pacific until augmented by the naval might of their allies.
The Netherlands has a centuries-long tradition as a seafaring nation, and unlike most small nations, they have traditionally built their own warships, including some of the most advanced ships anywhere. Dutch ships were unusually sophisticated, particularly in the areas of gunnery and fire control, where three axis, stabilized, remotely controlled equipment had been developed.
They had little experience in the construction of very large warships, however, so when it was decided to construct a class of battlecruisers for their East Indies Squadron that were three and a half times larger than any previous Dutch cruiser, they sought the help of their German neighbors for some of the early design work.
The new ships were intended to balance the very powerful Japanese heavy cruisers, which were far superior to the smaller light cruisers of the East Indies Squadron.
The resulting ships were very similar to the original (battlecruiser) plans for the Scharnhorst class. They were identical in main battery and beam.
The Dutch revised the initial design to incorporate different boilers, as they (correctly) regarded the German type as overly complicated and difficult to maintain. Along with different boilers came more powerful machinery for greater speed, which required two funnels and a lengthened hull. They also sloped the side armor to increase its effectiveness without increasing weight. Their specifications follow (from Conway's):
The unconfirmed proposed names of these ships: Gouden Leeuw (Golden Lion), Eendracht (Unity), Van Oranje (Prince William of Orange). As mentioned above, these three battlecruisers were authorized in 1940, for completion in 1944. The ship yards that would have constructed them were Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappy, Wilton Feyenoord, and Amsterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappy. They were never completed, because the German occupation of The Netherlands halted all work on these ships.
Visually, they looked like Scharnhorst, only with two stacks. The outboard side formed a slight bulge past the base of the belt. They were to be true battlecruisers, armored and rated as such, not battleships like the Scharnhorst class.
Like other battlecruisers, their main job was to overpower heavy cruisers. They had many general similarities to the contemporary American Alaskas, and Japanese B 64 type. Except for their short range, they would have been valuable ships in the Pacific War.
Which brings us to the last of the WW II battlecruisers, the Soviet Kronshtadt class. This class of two ships (Kronshtadt and Sevastopol) was originally proposed in January 1938, with 10in guns. By July 1938, no doubt influenced by the German Scharnhorst class, the proposal was revised and enlarged to include 12in guns, and official approval came in 1940, although the keels had already been laid down in July 1939.
These ships were officially rated as "Large cruisers". Since they were the maximum size permitted under the Washington and London Naval Treaties for contemporary battleships, I guess they were very large cruisers, indeed. Perhaps I will just refer to them by the older and less politically correct name "battlecruiser". We can only assume that these ships were designed to counter the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, or threaten Allied maritime commerce (depending on which side the Soviet Union planned to fight in the war--as it turned out, they were friendly to the Axis nations for the first two years of the war, then became an Allied Power in Europe after the German invasion of the USSR, and finally declared war on Japan in the closing weeks of the Pacific War). Here are their specifications (again from Conway's):
These seem like very heavy ships for the armor and battery they were to carry. They have the approximate armor, speed, and battery of the Alaska, but are nearly 5,000t heavier. They should have carried armor on the scale of Scharnhorst to justify their displacement, but apparently they did not. Nor is it likely that great range figured in their design. Most likely, Soviet ship building was simply less efficient than German or American.
I have never seen any drawings of these ships, but would not be surprised if they looked like lighter versions of the Sovyetskiy Soyuz class super battleships (see my essay "The Super Battleships That Never Were" for details).
By any standards, these seem like powerful battlecruisers. However, given Soviet inferiority in training, fire control, and other technologies, I am betting that they would have had trouble with any of the German, Japanese, British or American battlecruisers they might have faced. We will never know, because the Germans captured the incomplete hull of the Sevastopol when they invaded the USSR in 1941, and scrapped it. The incomplete Kronshtadt was broken up in the 1950's.
There is one last Russian battlecruiser I feel compelled to touch on, in order to wind up the battlecruiser story (so far). And that is the Ushakov (ex: Kirov) class. These ships are not World War II ships. They are not post-war ships that missed the great conflict by a few months (like Vanguard), or even a few years (like Jean Bart). These are modern, nuclear powered, sensor/weapon/countermeasures laden, guided missile battlecruisers!
Jane's Fighting Ships classifies them as "Battlecruisers". The Russian Navy type name is "atomny raketny kreyser" (translation: nuclear powered missile cruiser). Since the conventional Russian missile cruisers run from 4,400t to 10,500t standard displacement, it is clear that these ships are something different, and special.
Their names currently are Admiral Ushakov, Admiral Lazarev, Admiral Nakhimov, and Petr Velikiy. The first of the class, Ushakov, was commissioned in July 1980, the fourth, Petr Velikiy, is in the process of commissioning now. This is a simplified version of their specifications (from Jane's Fighting Ships, 1989-1990):
I have omitted the descriptions of their Countermeasures, Fire Control, and Radars because they are so extensive and complicated. See a recent issue of Jane's Fighting Ships (or follow my Hot Link to Robin Lee's "State of the Russian Navy" page) if you wish to know more about these ships.
What the future of this type is in other navies, I have no idea. But it is clear that the large, fast, heavily armed and lightly protected "cruiser killer" is still a desirable ship.
Ninety years after Jackie Fisher conceived the type, and fifty six years after the last Dreadnought battleship was laid down, another battlecruiser is commissioning. Not bad for a type of ship labeled "white elephants".
Copyright 1997, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.