Battlecruiser did not have a good showing in World War I. Main reason – other than ammunition handling – is that their big guns were too powerful to pass up in the line of battle, yet their armour was too thin to withstand such a battle while their speed was largely negated. They were also as costly as contemporary dreadnoughts, and used dreadnought slips and berths, meaning that any battlecruiser construction came instead, and not on top of, dreadnought battleship construction. Combination of thin armour and improper ammunition handling proved catastrophic. Irony is that ammunition handling was partly caused by thin-armour, big-gun design: battlecruiser had to hit its opponent before it got hit itself, and at long range. But this required placing a lot of rounds downrange, and quickly, which created training emphasis on rate of fire. This emphasis in turn caused unsafe ammunition handling, which then caused catastrophic losses. So question is, how battlecruisers could have been more idiot-proof, either in a sense that they are not so powerful they get used in battleship role (as in battle off Jutland), or that they can survive major battle if so committed, while still keeping intact battlecruiser’s basic characteristic: greater speed than battleship, enabling it to catch cruisers or outflank battleship forces.
There are several possibilities.
First possibility is reducing armament calibre while maintaining battleship’s armour protection. This would result in ships better protected than cruisers that are still faster and longer-ranged than battleships. Main armament could be either cruiser-calibre or in-between cruiser and dreadnought calibre – possibly reusing old 12-in guns from predreadnoughts.
Second possibility is maintaining armament calibre but reducing number of guns. Instead of three or four turrets mounting six to eight guns, battlecruiser would have two frontal turrets mounting four to six guns. This would technically reduce battlecruiser’s firepower, but would maintain range and penetration advantage against cruisers. At the same time, lesser armoured area covered as well as weaponry and munition carried would allow for more fuel as well as larger and more powerful power plant.
Third possibility is reconfiguring armour. Protecting only turrets, magazines and machinery spaces would allow maximum thickness of armour there, while leaving nonessentials unprotected. In particular, bow and stern armoured belt would be removed, as would be conning tower armour. This would result in something more akin to a fast battleship of “all-or-nothing” design, and not an actual battlecruiser, and would go against design philosophy of the time which required protection against various calibres.
Those options could also all be combined. Instead of eight 13,5 in guns of an Orion-class superdreadnought, a battlecruiser could have four to six 10 in to 12 in guns in two frontal turrets. As a result, only area from “A” turret to machinery spaces would need to be protected by armour, while rest would be left completely unarmoured. At the same time, smaller guns would allow a ship somewhat smaller than contemporary dreadnoughts, or else allow for greater volume of engines and fuel.
Lastly, battlecruiser could maintain battleship’s armour and armament, but with elongated hull form and more powerful propulsion unit. This would result in what is basically a fast battleship. That, however, may not have been feasible at the time. Such a ship would also be larger, heavier and more expensive than a contemporary dreadnought, and may require new slipyards and docks to be built.
Now for feasibility.
First option would place those ships, at best, at equal footing against British-style battlecruisers: one would have battlecruisers with cruiser guns and dreadnought protection going up against battlecruisers with dreadnought guns and cruiser protection. Best-case scenario would be stalemate at best.
Second possibility would reduce rangefinding and hitting capability due to pattern dispersal issues. Even battleships had around 2% hit rate with main guns. None of the main battlecruiser-building navies utilized triple turrets on a regular basis either. And with typical incremental armouring scheme, it would not actually reduce amount of armour.
Raft armouring scheme, while best option, was largely a product of experience of Jutland. As a result, nobody had the hindsight to utilize it before.
Overall, options 1, 3 and 4 are feasible but not likely. First option would wipe out range advantage against cruisers, impacting battlecruisers’ main role. Option four is very expensive, even if it is best for Jutland-type scenario. Third option is ideal, albeit it would increase vulnerability to high explosive and small-calibre shells.
18 thoughts on “Workable battlecruiser concept”
Reblogged this on josephhokayem.
A workable battlecruiser would have to be a fast battleship I’m afraid.
To be fair, German battlecruisers like the SMS Seylitz took pretty heavy damage and still survived – although that was in part due to the poor quality of British fuzes used. Moltke, Von der Tann, Seydlitz, and Derfflinger, all took heavy damage amongst the German warships. Even Lutzow, which was sunk only had 128 killed out of a crew of around 1,200 or so.
Other fast battleships did reasonable well as well. It seems like keeping a long length to beam ratio, but better protection and some drop in the gun calibre is the only real solution. I think that something like the USS Iowa and similar battleships is probably the best compromise – a long 3×3 configuration.
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Further, as I posted below, British battlecruisers, when they didn’t suffer catastrophic magazine detonations stood up very well to big-gun ships. As a general rule of thumb a twentieth century capital ship would be disabled after about 20 big-gun hits. HMS Lion was badly damaged at Dogger Bank after 17 11″ & 12″ hits, but virtually all the damage was due to just one of the 12″ hits. HMS Tiger at Jutland took 16 big-gun hits and only had one turret briefly put out of action. In the Falkland Islands HMS Invincible took 22 hits, the majority from 8.2″ shells from Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and was effectively undamaged. Their thinner belts was not the cause of any actual battlecruiser loss.
By Second World War standards the Iowas were battlecruisers. Britain and Germany had both discovered cemented armour c.1930 which increased the effectiveness of a given thickness of armour by 25% of First World War (non-cemented) equivalent. The USN did not discover this until about 1939 and thus all WWII USN ships had WWI armour. The Iowa’s 12.75 inch belt was thus equal to.less than 10in of British or German armour, conversely the 15in belt of the King George V-Class was equal to 18in of WWI/WW2 USN armour.
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I was planning on writing some about World War I/II warships, but I have too much work right now. If you are interested, you may give me your e-mail adress (I have my e-mail here on blog) so I can invite you to blog.
I had similar thoughts this past weeks when looking at post WWI British battleship/battle-cruiser designs the N3 (battleship) and G3 (battle-cruiser). Personally I didn’t understand how the brits could imagine building both designs at the same time, Either one would be fine but both at the same time would be a monumental waste of resources. There is a second role for battle-cruisers that was lost in the arms race leading to Jutland a role that was especially important to the Brits, that of Empire ships. The Armored Cruisers, which the Battle-cruisers supposedly replaced, where in Royal Navy usage and German Empire usage the heaviest long range ships which could be routinely sent to far-off stations during peace time. They were in a sense the equivalent of frigates of the age of sail. A cheap to operate and procure ships reasonably well armed and protected to defend itself and in concert with a squadron of similar ships handle any colonial troubleshooting up to and including regional war. The G3 failed miserably on this account. They cost the same to procure, they had similar fuel expenditure and Having the same number or turrets as the N3 they had similar crews, therefore between fuel and salaries they had the same operating cost. The only advantage they had was that of speed which was obtained at the expanse of caliber which would have made them useless in a battle-line: even if they survived they would not have been able to make a significant impact against ships armored similarly to the N3 battleship, that is proof against a higher caliber weapon.
When thinking of what the Brits should have done instead I arrived to a similar conclusion to Picard. What I would have done is created sister designs based on the G3 battle-cruiser. Here is picture of the G3: http://www.navypedia.org/ships/uk/brit_bb1_g3.htm. This would have been the Battleship design. The battle cruiser would have had the same forward part up to the end of the forward superstructure. This forward part would have been mated, in the battle-cruiser, to a shorter aft part that deleted the section between the two superstructures that contained the aft turret. Considering that this is also the widest part of the G3 design, my proposed battle cruiser would also have had a much smaller overall width thus preserving the crucial, for cruising efficiency, length to width ratio. In rest the hull would have been the same. The same Armour scheme, only much less on the battle-cruiser because of the shorter protected length. The same machinery which would have translated in either higher maximum speed for the battle-cruiser, or lower fuel consumption at cruise speed. Almost the same fuel capacity which coupled with increased efficiency at cruise speed due to lower mass would have translated to much higher range. And most crucial lower crew because of the deletion of a turret. In pre-WWII designs manning the turret was the highest consumer of manpower. British gun cruisers that survived WWII usually operated with one third crew in the Cold war years because they only manned one out of usually 3 turrets. So the act of deleting a turret on the battle-cruiser compared to the battleship would have allowed at least a one third reduction in crew. The advantage of such a design would have been monumental first off all for the cruiser role it would have had the range and speed necessary to complete cruiser missions, an armament that would have turned any cruiser into a pulp and the confidence to close aggressively, very important in RN doctrine, due to the armor scheme. It would not have been able to handle a battle ship one-on-one, but because of the armor would have survived long enough to run.For the battle role any three battle-cruisers would have been the equivalent, in firepower and staying-power of any two battleships, only much faster. On the cost side the operation cost reduction is evident, on the production side cost would have been reduced due to economies of scale. Same guns same turrets same machinery could have been ordered in bulk. Also same forward hull could have seen both designs produced in modules that would have been assembled as either battle-cruiser or battleship. This would have also allowed for the ship to be reordered while under construction if money became tight or more plentiful. Also by ordering spare parts in bulk reduction in operating cost could have been achieved.
You summarised the justification of the Battlecruiser in terms of its actual role in maritime strategy as opposed to the excessive focus on its role in a fleet clash quite well. However, there is no need for a Battlecruiser in anything short of a great power clash, light cruisers were sufficient for any colonial work, perhaps covered by a Battlecruiser or two.
Your concept for a Battlecruiser appears to be an interwar one rather than a pre-1914 one which is a significantly different question. It may prima facie be seriously flawed however; an all-or-nothing scheme requires the armoured citadel to have enough internal volume and thus buoyancy to maintain stability even with the unprotected ends riddled and flooded, and the specific intent of shortening and narrowing the citadel would have to be gauged accordingly. Much reduced width in the beam would likely mean greater roll-acceleration and substantially less-accurate gunnery. The reduction of main armament, and thus rate-of-hitting, would have reduced the power of the ship in action against any opponent justifying such extensive armour, and thus such an expensive cruiser in the first place. The arrival of the fast battleship would largely supersede the Battlecruiser requirement anyway.
I am not sure why you are so deprecating of the G3’s armament, it was the same as the Nelson-Class battleships, and more than adequate for any interwar ship actually built save possibly the Yamatos. Without the Washington Conference things may have been different, but the G3 would have been vastly superior to the Lexington-Class it would primarily have been built to face. It would have been easily the most powerful class of warship in the world when launched, save the N3. Further room for improvement in the design could have been incorporated in return for sacrificing the G3’s extensive and useless secondary armament. At any rate, it is not clear why you would criticise the G3 concept for being inferior to an N3 (the one known design it won’t be fighting) and then choose to replace the N3 with the G3 as the battleship design?
The RN’s perennial manpower difficulties post-1945 were reflections of the greater demands of the changed fleets (and the arrival of the Welfare State to reduce the attractiveness or necessity of accepting Naval pay). Aircraft Carriers, including light fleet carriers, and the vast manpower overhead of the network of shore establishments and maintenance and training for the Fleet Air Arm, plus the requirements of Combined Operations (amphibious shipping and the Royal Marines) and manning a large number of dedicated anti-submarine escorts created a far greater requirement for manpower to maintain a true naval power than ever before, in no way compensated for by reductions in battleships and cruisers, just as the RN saw unprecedentedly poor recruitment and retention. There was no equivalent problem in the inter-war or pre 1914 eras, so I wouldn’t greatly reduce the firepower of a capital ship for shortage of men. Manpower wasn’t that short at the time, and battleships were far less demanding to man than the post-1945 navy.
“Your concept for a Battlecruiser appears to be an interwar one rather than a pre-1914 one which is […] The reduction of main armament, and thus rate-of-hitting, would have reduced the power of the ship in action against any opponent justifying such extensive armour, and thus such an expensive cruiser in the first place. The arrival of the fast battleship would largely supersede the Battlecruiser requirement anyway.”
Yes my concept is an interwar period one and assumes that the Washington treaty would not have come in effect. This would have probably lead to the extinction of the heavy cruiser as a ship and the increase of displacement of destroyers up to light cruiser levels (4000 tons) that means the only true cruiser like ship would have been the battle cruiser. And yes it would have been a fast battleship but it would have been called a cruiser because of being optimized for the cruiser mission. My concept would have been similar in number of guns and displacement with the Renown class battle-cruisers, in length and general design it would have been similar to the Dunkerque-class. Basically it would have been a Nelson (almost as long as Dunkerque and just as wide) with one turret removed and more boilers in its stead, 20 like the G3 instead of 8 like the Nelson, which would have brought the installed power to 160000 hp like the G3 instead of 45000 hp like the Nelson. This would probably have given my concept 2 or 3 knots more speed then the G3, seeing as it would have about 10000 tons less to push around, or a longer cruise range. Now seeing as neither the Nelson, nor the Dunkerque, nor the Renown had, to my knowledge, any trouble with roll acceleration and reduced accuracy I don’t see why my design would. Seeing as this ship would have been built for the cruiser roll it’s main mission would have been trade route protection and long range patrols, and it’s main theater of operation would have been the Far-East in which it would have to be capable to stand in a pinch against Japanese battleships, this would have been the opponent justifying such extensive armor. Doctrine would have probably stated that battle-cruiser on battleship confrontations would have been avoided unless the battle-cruisers had at least one ship numerical superiority. Seeing as the battle-cruisers would have had a slight speed advantage, and no problem, unlike smaller cruisers, to retain that advantage in bad weather they could well avoid engagements or employ a tactic of harassment. Now the carrier would have thrown this equation in disarray, which brings me to my second idea of how battle-cruisers could have evolved. Assuming that battle-cruisers would have been built like I suggested with the main battery forward and like you suggested without secondaries, I don’t see any reason why somebody would not suggest to add a flight deck at the stern, now a big empty space, to launch fighters for self defense. After some experimenting probably somebody would have come up with the idea of angling that deck. Such a notional battle-cruiser would have probably come into service in the middle 1930s. It would have been armed with 6 16inch guns forward of the superstructure, no secondaries safe for 40 mm Bofors or Pom-Poms for AA, and a squadron or two of small fighters for reconnaissance and self-defense against air attack.
“I am not sure why you are so deprecating of the G3’s armament […] At any rate, it is not clear why you would criticise the G3 concept for being inferior to an N3 (the one known design it won’t be fighting) and then choose to replace the N3 with the G3 as the battleship design?”
I’m not deprecating the G3 armament. I was just saying that in a new naval arms race with the introduction of the N3 the other two naval powers would have hurried to built battleships with even bigger guns (19-20 inches maybe) and protection intended for at least 18 inch guns which would have made it difficult for ships with 16 inch guns to disable them. That means that G3 would have been ineffective against battleships built to resist 18 inch cannons. I consider the G3 a more logical Battleship design for Britain than the N3. It made no sense for the British to focus the post WWI arms race on armor and gun caliber seeing as both Japan and the US had put into production 16 inch armed battleships way before Britain could. They both had a slight lead in gun and protection design (not armor but how that armor was put on the ship). Meanwhile Britain, thanks to Jackie Fishers obsession, had a very big lead in designing fast battleships and like you so eloquently put it further down, Fisher obsession with speed had largely been vindicated by naval actions in WWI where battle-cruisers where more active and less of a waste of resources then battleships. That’s my reasoning for using the G3, as the battleship design: by starting to build fast battleships the British would have upset the arms race the same way they did with the introduction of the Dreadnought. An even bigger spanner in the works might have been a scaled down battleship with cruiser speed for the cruiser role, it would have rendered all cruisers designs up to that point obsolete.
“The RN’s perennial manpower difficulties post-1945 […] Manpower wasn’t that short at the time, and battleships were far less demanding to man than the post-1945 navy.”
My quips about manpower where not about peace time retention issues. The post WWII example was just to illustrate how getting rid of a turret affects manning, which has an effect on operations costs. Also I might add lower crew requirements help in war-time when the problem is not manpower retention but casualty replacement.
Thank you for your detailed response on your concept. An interwar capital ship design and a Battlecruiser design for service in the First World War are certainly two different questions, and I primarily answered the latter.
A couple of points: firstly, in the absence of Washington I suspect that the main consequence for cruiser development would have been a beefing-up of the light cruiser rather than the destroyer. Some may have grown to mount 8-inch guns, but I don’t think that they would have been regarded as a different category of ship. Cruisers and destroyers have very different hull-forms; destroyers were built to attain fleet speeds on small hulls and lacked either the stability or internal volume for crew, fuel and provisions to be developed into cruiser substitutes for work on the sea-lanes, and were very sub-optimal as convoy escorts. The Royal Navy considered its interwar Tribal-Class destroyers to be really very small cruisers, and too large for the destroyer role, where a low-profile silhouette was considered critical to make the ship a more difficult target in mêlée with opposing torpedo-armed ships, their original raison d’être. The requirements for powerful gun armament for fighting enemy destroyers and a large torpedo battery for attacking major units were becoming irreconcilable on the same hull. As late as 1945 RN destroyers were disliked by their officers for having grown too-big and not being “destroyer” enough. In the small cruiser role interwar the RN focused on the sloop, which were intended to be wartime minesweepers but peacetime gunboats/midget cruisers with a gun adequate for stopping merchant ships or shelling coastal targets and space adequate to carry a small landing-party and cruise long-distances. The sloop was the cruiser-role at destroyer-size, and was to play the outstanding role in the defeat of the U-Boat and defence of trade; the essential cruiser role. However the trade-off was that it could not make anywhere near fleet speed. The naval architecture breakthrough of cruiser sustained speed and ocean-going performance and destroyer displacement would not come until the RN’s outstanding Type 12 frigate post-war.
Secondly, the Nelson-Class did have high roll-acceleration and impaired gunnery; while I don’t have precise knowledge on the Dunkerques they probably did for the same reason (compounded by serious pattern-dispersal issues shared with the Richelieu’s). This really relates to both the style of ships in question and the all-or-nothing armouring scheme; while a wider beam (within reason) does reduce roll-acceleration and aid gunnery in general the Renown’s with their more conventional layout were not so affected. All designs of this style, with engines aft and a short citadel had difficulty in obtaining satisfactory stability characteristics. In the all-or-nothing scheme the armoured box must contain within it a sufficient proportion of the overall internal volume of the ship to maintain stability even with the unprotected ends riddled and flooded. The concepts raised in your design of all-or-nothing armouring, shortening the citadel and narrowing the beam all compound each other in reducing the volume of the protected portion of the hull. This requires the designers to raise the metacentric height of the undamaged ship to very undesirable levels to ensure its adequacy in the event of severe damage given the reduced buoyancy offered by the constrained dimensions of the citadel. This means reduced roll-period, increased roll-acceleration and impaired gunnery. This was a feature to a greater-or-lesser extent of these design concepts (Nelson-Class ships had a belt only 54% of overall length) and it is noteworthy that the first time the Admiralty considered future battleship designs after the O3 design (Nelson’s) in 1927 they expressed a preference for the conventional layout. The US Bureau of Ships was bewildered by the O3 design, and it certainly could not have been built under their rules, despite its considerable advantages. My point is to note that concepts like all-or-nothing armour and shortening the citadel can only be partial modifications and are certainly not panaceas to the constraints of conventional practice and there are a host of limiting and moderating factors to be kept in mind in considering all concepts. It is not meant to discount the proposal or rule a particular feature in-or-out; it is not an all-or-nothing critique! In addition, in my view the sacrificing of the secondary armament and relying on light flak only is the correct one for a ship justified for a single purpose of surface action.
On the other hand the hybrid battleship/carrier notion was briefly looked at by Britain in 1940 but rapidly jettisoned due to sheer impracticality, long and tall, lightly protected hangar, aviation fuel and bombs on a ship intended primarily to fight a gunnery duel, etc. Even had the great difficulties been surmountable the result would have been very inefficient operation of obsolete aircraft. The hybrid did however lead directly to the invention of the light fleet carrier in the Colossus-class, which was the far more efficient answer to the requirement envisaged. However, in my view any operation which would see capital ships put to sea would justify available carriers accompanying them. If carriers could not be spared for an operation, then it did not justify risking the loss of capital ships.
On the gun-power question between the wars the US 16-inch offered no greater penetration than the corresponding British 15-inch. The ability of any ship to be armoured proof against guns in this category is in fact a matter of doubt; while the British King George V Class are often considered to have been excellent ships let down by being fitted with nominally underwhelming 14-inch guns (The Board had wanted 9 15-inch, changing to 12 14-inch in three quadruple turrets in the hope of securing a 14-inch limit internationally, then cut to 10 to avoid slight reductions in armour within 35,000 tons) this is very relative. The British 14-inch would penetrate 12″ of cemented armour (British or German) or 15″ of WWI/other countries’ WWII armour at 18,000 yards, that is beyond the estimated 12-16,000 yard ‘decisive range’. In my view increase in calibre beyond 18″ would probably be very subject to the law of diminishing returns, particularly if reduced gun numbers ensued. On the other hand major increases in the effectiveness of the main armament were in the areas of mountings allowing increased elevation (increased maximum range and deck/turret penetration from plunging fire at long-range), propellant supercharges for the same effect (requiring strengthened mountings) and improvements in shell design and capacity. It is very unlikely that any battleship could be impervious to the G3/O3 16-inch gun. By 1918 the USN had introduced already introduced all-or-nothing in the battleship USS Pennsylvania. However while very impressive on paper by 1914 standards it was not so much by the time of its actual introduction; the security of cabling, particularly connecting fire control and turrets and of hatches was not very good (typical period detail failing) and effective fire-control would likely have been lost after HE hits even without armour penetration, and even the armour, both belt and particularly the 3″ deck would not have been proof against the latest high-capacity capped shells. In 1918 the British concept of a sloped belt was the only armouring technique adequate to the advance in shells.
It is an aspect of naval warfare and maritime strategy in the modern era that there is no universal standard by which all fleets can be measured; more than the other services the correct shape and the very make-up of a navy can be radically different depending on the particular maritime situation it faces. Your decision to focus on the G3 as the battleship is an interesting decision that could probably merit a whole separate discussion; such battleships could certainly be more useable as individual units, and could force or decline a fleet action at discretion. However this would have to be measured against their relative ability in a fleet action against prospective enemy battleships; superior speed was not a decisive advantage in a clash of battle-lines, as the slower fleet could turn to continually keep its broadsides facing the enemy. For the Royal Navy, the numerically stronger force already holding and exercising command of the seas at the outbreak of a war, forcing action was not a necessity. The navy attempting to challenge British command must both bring about a general fleet action and decisively win it to deprive Britain of command. Therefore the absolute requirement is to have a battle-fleet which will win in a decisive clash should one unfold. The battle-fleet in this respect is much like a strategic nuclear force for a leading naval power; it achieves its goal by not being used, in being too powerful to be overborne. It is however necessary; the cover of a superior battle-fleet is what covered the exercise of command by weaker forces, by preventing the enemy’s most powerful units from being committed for fear of being brought to battle and being lost in turn. Possession of command of the seas could not be lost without the effective defeat of the commanding battle-fleet. For this reason it could be argued that the N3 fulfilled an important requirement for the Royal Navy, certainly in Europe, in out-matching their opposites while fast units would still be needed on top of this for all of the operational and strategic advantages discussed before, including greater usability. A concentration on fast capital ships might have been more suitable for a navy which could not match the RN in numbers, and which could therefore avoid fleet action and menace exercise of command rather than outright possession of it.
With regard to an envisaged Battlecruiser for the Far East (presumably British in this case) such a ship would certainly be capable of dealing with Japanese Battlecruisers, but the advantage of 50% greater 16″ armament and consequent likely rate of hitting may well outweigh any benefits to be had by its reduction. This would have to be weighed against whether a European navy could afford to produce capital ships primarily for the Far East without considering the likely need to match at least fast Italian ships in the Med as well.
The question of the Battlecruiser concept is a fascinating one, and unlikely to ever truly end. However, given that its far-inferior conceptual replacement for the large cruiser role, the 8″, 10,000 ton “heavy cruiser” (an artificial, political category created by the Washington Conference which would probably never have appeared but for the limitation on big-gun ship tonnage) was used against enemy battleships in every such surface action of the Second World War where they were present, from the Mediterranean to the Bismarck, the Arctic convoys to the Eastern Solomons, the possibility of designing any large cruiser in the expectation that it will not be engaged in a fleet action appears to be a quixotic one! Given that 8″ gun cruisers played a major role in the sinking of both the Hood (where Prinz Eugen drew the attention of the British battleships off the Bismarck and likely scored the fatal hit) and the Bismarck, this may not have been entirely unjustified.
I would argue that one could not object to the Battlecruiser without rejecting the preceding armoured cruiser; that is, without somehow arguing against the role of the large cruiser if not the importance of cruiser warfare as an element of late-19th and early-20th Century maritime strategy altogether. For the Battlecruiser was simply the armoured cruiser concept updated in accordance with the Dreadnought, and specifically the all big-gun, revolution in naval affairs. The sheer measure of the superiority of the all big-gun armament is still often underestimated; not only did bigger shells do far more damage when they hit, and put at-risk a far greater proportion of an opposing ship, both of which are obvious; they also had a much higher rate of hitting. It was this last realisation, that rate-of-hitting was what mattered, not rate-of-fire, which drove the all big-gun revolution. This is furthered by the realisation that at the longer ranges at which naval action would ensue the requirements of spotting fall-of-shot to make adjustments would limit actual rate of fire in action to a common maximum of two salvoes per minute for all calibres. In a Royal Navy study in the years prior to World War One it was found that 12″ batteries would put three times the weight of shell of a 6″ battery onto the target at 3,000 yards, by 6,000 yards it was over 6 X. The fact that bigger guns were inherently more accurate than smaller calibres as ranges lengthened was borne out by the limited available experience of actual battle. The USN’s gunnery in the Spanish-American War was very poor, but at Manila Bay the largest (8″) guns scored a hit-rate of 9%, while the 5″ & 6″ scored between 1-3.5% against immobile targets. At Santiago Bay of the modern US guns the 12″ scored 5% hits against 2% for the 5″ & 6″.
Given the drastic differences in effect of increased shell size relative to smaller calibres the greater accuracy of bigger guns has a decisive advantage, even before any consideration of the question of the effects of armour. It should be noted that while oft-quoted statistics regard 2% hit-rate as the average for battleships in 20th Century naval engagement, this is grossly distorted by two factors; 1) the large proportion of overall shells fired to find the range in the early stages of an action, compounded by 2) the fact that again and again when an opponent found the range ships and squadrons would usually flinch from standing up to a decisive showdown, turning to widen the range and break contact. The Royal Navy’s big-gun ships habitually scored considerably in excess of 10% hits in battle-practice, and empirical evidence indicates that when ships were ranged by another capital ship hits began to come in thick and fast, with disablement usually being a matter of time unless changes of course and speed could outpace enemy rangefinding efforts. The fact that the pattern of damage tended towards many hits and much damage on specific units rather than a drizzle of hits spread across a force tends toward the empirical conclusion that the big-gun armament was devastatingly accurate once rangefinding, the weaker link, was able to generate the correct solution on a target.
This brings us back to the merits of the concept of the Battlecruiser as a role in maritime strategy. My position chimes with that of the late D K Brown, one of Britain’s leading post-1945 Naval Constructors and a prolific writer on the topic, in viewing the lessons of the First World War as a triumphal vindication for the Battlecruiser concept — insofar as we regard it as a cruiser. The role of the large cruiser in maritime strategy was as a ship-of-force in distant waters and to exercise or challenge control of the seas (as opposed to command of the seas, the battle-fleets’ role). In this respect (British) Battlecruisers were so effective that after 1915 as a ship type it had lost its primary role. I would contend that the story of Graf Spee’s Pacific-East Asia Cruiser Squadron alone vindicated the Battlecruiser concept: Coronel showed the need, and the inadequacy of previous cruisers for reliably securing the sea-routes against their peers, and the Falkland Islands vindicated the answer. Given that naval tactics still-revolved overwhelmingly around the outcome of gunnery action, the superiority of the all big-gun armament held as much for cruiser actions as fleet ones. The British possession of Battlecruisers neutralised German cruisers at the strategic level; for all of their pluck and success in harassing shipping in the opening months of the war, they were fundamentally reduced to hunted fugitives incapable of denying Britain control of the Empire’s sea-routes, far less allowing their use by Germany. On the other hand, in European waters, the Battlecruiser enabled all big-gun ships to be brought to bear in risky waters without imperiling the Dreadnought balance-of-power. Heligoland Bight illustrated this, when British Battlecruisers turned the fight in a cruiser action, sinking three German cruisers and a destroyer, and severely damaging three more light cruisers in a brief engagement. The possession of cruisers with battleship armament was clearly an immense asset in any naval action short of a full fleet clash (which most were).
Perhaps the final vindication of the concept is an empirical one; the Battlecruiser saw far more evolutionary design priority and impetus after 1914 than the Dreadnought. In Britain there was the two Renown’s, the three Courageous Class large light cruisers, the 20″ gun concept Incomparables, the Admiral Class Battlecruiser (cancelled after HMS Hood), and then post-Armistice the G3 Battlecruiser was given even higher priority for contracting than its Dreadnought counterpart. The German Navy largely abandoned Dreadnoughts after the Badens while pushing ahead with the 13.8″ Mackensen and 15″ Ersatz Yorck classes of projected Battlecruisers, which would have been formidable ships. The USN likewise prioritised the Lexington Class Battlecruiser concept pre-Washington and France’s first post-war class were the 13″ Dunkerque Class Battlecruisers. The Hood in particular had a sloped 12″ belt with a greater effective thickness than any WWI Dreadnought, and with 33% of her displacement dedicated to armour carried more protection than a Dreadnought; she was in many respects the first fast-battleship, and was very influential in the inter-war period.
The other aspect of the question when moving past the strategic concept is the naval design one. The nub of the matter has always revolved around whether the Battlecruisers were flawed as ships rather than as a strategic idea, namely in their high losses in WWI compared to Dreadnoughts, and Jutland regarded as a salutary lesson in particular. The common conclusion is that the Battlecruiser’s substantially thinner belt cannot withstand hits from big guns, and they are thus unable to withstand the fire of enemy battleships in a battle-line. The question thus raised is whether the Battlecruiser’s inferiority can be remedied or are intrinsic drawbacks; flawed in concept or execution. There are however powerful counters to the general consensus.
Firstly, it makes the basic error of confusing protection with survivability; the ability to avoid damage from a hit from a certain weapon in a certain place with the ability to withstand damage from a given hit and remain in action. A well-designed ship is extremely difficult to sink, even after remarkable damage. In naval warfare the aim has historically been to disable or ‘knock-out’ any enemy ship, and neutralise it’s battle-line; this is why during the age of sail most ships were ‘lost’ when they struck their colours, not when they sank. In both the Spanish-American and Russo-Japanese wars the losers’ ships were neutralised by spreading fires long before they were ever in danger of sinking. As D K Brown points out when Battlecruisers did not suffer a catastrophic magazine explosion they proved quite resilient to big-gun hits. It is a general rule of thumb that a twentieth century capital ship would begin to be disabled after about 20 big-gun hits. HMS Lion took 17 big-gun (11″+) hits at Dogger Bank, but nearly all of the serious damage came from a combination of just one unlucky 12″ shell and a detail flaw. At Jutland HMS Tiger took 16 big-gun hits and remained in action with nothing more than the temporary disablement of one of her four 13.5″ turrets. In the cruiser role HMS Invincible was hit by 22 shells at the Falkland Islands, the majority 8.2″ hits from the Armoured Cruisers with no real damage. This raises several questions, namely; 1) is the comparison of the armoured belts of Dreadnoughts and Battlecruisers the appropriate measure of their respective resilience, 2) to what extent are Battlecruiser losses actually a function of their thinner belt (the main difference in protection with Dreadnoughts) and 3) to what extent could the Battlecruiser have been improved to have avoided the losses of the wartime ships.
The bulk of armour protection on First World War ships was on the belt stretching along most or all of the hull-length above and below the waterline. This was in many respects already an obsolescent approach by 1914, being a legacy of design for actions fought at flat trajectories at a few thousand yards, when shells would be fired into the sides of the ships in the line at near flat trajectories. The rapidity of advances in fire-control and rangefinding outpaced the adaptation of naval architecture; in the 1890’s RN gunnery practice still took place at 1,500 yds, and Jackie Fisher as C-in-C Mediterranean Fleet stated in a lecture that the effective maximum range of a fleet’s guns with telescopic sights was 3-4,000 yds and 2,000 yds without. In 1898 Sir John Hopkins had initiated trials at the “unprecedented” range of 6,000 yds in the Med. As late as 1906 secret papers defending the already-building Dreadnought described 9,000 yds as “long-range”. Armouring concepts did not keep pace, and as a result, the capital ships of WWI had most of their available displacement for armour concentrated in a feature, the main belt, that was very unlikely to be hit. None of the sunk Battlecruisers of the war were compromised by damage wrought by belt penetrations, so the allegation that the Battlecruiser could not stand up to Dreadnoughts due to its inferior belt is a wholly flawed one.
This is compounded further by the fact that, as pointed out above, the tactics of naval gunnery centre on rapidly disabling an opposing ship’s ability to fight. In the First World War there was a strict dichotomy between HE and AP shells. The HE shell was the most dangerous weapon, and it would wreak enormous damage, particularly detonating within the ship. British doctrine was in fact to disable enemy ships with HE hits, using AP fired into the enemy hull at the waterline to finish off crippled vessels only. In other words, an enemy Dreadnought could and would be disabled as an effective combatant without penetrating its thickest armour at all. The overriding purpose of armour protection was to keep HE shells out of the ship, not AP, which had far less effect. This is why British naval constructors opted for having a belt extending to the ends at the cost of a thinner maximum, and this seems the correct decision for the day. It should be noted that the 3″ belt of British WWI light cruisers was proof against all HE shells from guns of 6″ or below, and all 4.1″ shells, while a 6″ belt (Battlecruiser minimum) was proof against HE shells of all calibres, and AP shells of 6″ and below, with a good prospect against 8.2″ AP. On top of this British war experience showed the value of even thin belt coverage: even if penetrated by HE, it kept most of the force of the blast outside of the hull. This further undermines the core charge against the Battlecruiser; the main armour thickness it traded for speed was not a critically important weakness.
On the other hand, major losses came from two sources; penetration of turrets and barbettes or detonation of secondary armament magazines, both too frequently resulting in sympathetic detonation of main armament magazines (every British Battlecruiser lost at Jutland and later HMS Hood), or from spread of flooding due to compromised subdivision schemes (Lützow and nearly Seydlitz). All of these key weaknesses were indistinguishable in Dreadnoughts and Battlecruisers of the First World War, which brings me to my core argument; the flaws of the Battlecruiser are indistinguishable from those of all ships of their era; largely a cocktail of detail flaws and a still-primitive 19th C. naval architecture which failed to adequately understand the difference between protection and survivability and continued to unwittingly produce ships with what would now be understood to be unacceptable flaws that would compromise a ship in the event of substantive damage.
The worst design flaws in execution in many First World War capital ship designs largely fall under three categories:
To these can be added questions about layout of armour scheme, vulnerability of shells and propellant to explosion, and lack of redundancy of vital systems.
To these three glaring flaws can be added two further factors around catastrophic detonation of the main magazines. The major cause of explosion was penetration of the main turrets and barbettes; they were frequently hit and their armour clearly proved to be insufficient, as did the framing supporting the armour. As to the magazines themselves, and the question of Battlecruiser explosions at Jutland which have dogged their reputation ever since, there are a few factors to be noted. The propellants in question did not, contrary to popular belief, simply explode if disturbed; detonation required a rapid increase in both temperature and pressure, without both you could have a propellant fire without an explosion. The Germans had a number of serious propellant fires but never a detonation. In the RN Brown points out two factors; cordite destabilises with age, and there were many old charges in the Grand Fleet’s magazines at Jutland. Second, there is a uniform correlation between navies that used picric acid in their shell fillings (Britain, Italy, Japan) and suffered catastrophic explosions. This may well indicate that the shells may have exploded first, detonating the propellant.
In summary and answer to the question, I would argue that the weakness of the Battlecruiser was the weakness of all ships of the day in naval architecture, a series of flaws in detail, but correct and vindicated in concept. The Battlecruiser, being expendable in a way the Dreadnoughts were not, were exposed to greater risk and suffered accordingly, but the weaknesses they showed applied near-equally to the Dreadnoughts. While questions of ideal designs are an engrossing topic of their own, I would outline a ‘debugged’ First World War Battlecruiser as similar in concept to those actually built (after the transition to all centre-line main armament in the Lion-Class anyway) but with a closely-subdivided hull with a rigorously-enforced absence of penetrating pipes and cable runs below the main deck and without longitudinal internal bulkheads; stripped entirely of secondary armament and casemates, enabling higher freeboard and a greater reserve of buoyancy in the event of flooding, and freeing up displacement for armour and armament, while replacing volatile propellant and shell-fillings. I would re-invest saved displacement above all in an altogether heavier order of armour protection and supporting framing for the barbettes and turrets, commensurate with unhampered training and operation. The next priority would be armament, either heavier guns or an added mounting depending on the case, with increased deck protection a possible third, particularly for an oil-fired ship which lacks coal bunkers above the deck. It is perhaps noteworthy that all of these were equally applicable to Dreadnoughts and Battlecruisers; equally the key difference between the two, max thickness of belt, would not be a significant priority.
Finally it should be added that this is for a pre-war designed First World War Battlecruiser; in 1917 the amalgamation of effective AP and HE blast in a common capped shell APC and CPC in the Grand Fleet revolutionised the situation, rendering all WWI big-gun ships obsolescent and ushering in the adoption of all-or-nothing schemes in protection; thin belts would no longer keep high capacity shells out of the hull. Likewise the need for much thicker deck protection; WWI Dreadnoughts’ deck were barely enough to keep out splinters. Post-war tests demonstrated that 15″ APC would reliably penetrate at battle-ranges any belt, turret or deck armour in existence at the time of the Armistice, going straight through the 14″ turret face of the salvaged SMS Baden at an equivalent of 15,500 yds and exploding many feet beyond. Jutland was the High Seas Fleet’s last chance to contest the seas with the Royal Navy. By late 1917 most of the Grand Fleet’s magazines were filled with new capped ammunition, while the High Seas Fleet was left with a legacy of too many 11″ gun ships firing light shells, and its Dreadnoughts’ armour could by now be reliably penetrated by British shells anywhere. All of this would indicate a very different 1917 design of Battlecruiser to a 1913 one. Interestingly tests of the 14″ sloped belt of the projected G3 Battlecruiser showed it to be proof against even the 15″ APC shell at the same 15,500 yd range.
Agreed, very good writeup you did there. Issue with battlecruisers was that they had too powerful armament, and so admirals included them in battleline on weight of fire alone. But that is a mistake of leadership, not the fault of the concept.
Second, as you also point out, all catastrophic battlecruiser losses at Jutland were due to improper shell handling, namely stuffing turrets and hallways leading to magazines full of cordite. If it were not for that, battlecruisers would not have been lost.
Regarding armour, IIRC Hood was actually sunk by a hit that penetrated armoured belt. You have to keep in mind that in North Sea conditions, long-range combat was often hard or impossible. As such, armoured belt remained an important factor in survivability, particularly in terms of magazine protection.
Battleship secondary armament could not have been deleted, especially in British conditions. Destroyers were very dangerous to battleships operating in North Sea due to their heavy torpedo armament. Heavy guns were, against destroyers, overkill and also lacked in volume of fire.
The main inquiry into the loss of the Hood found that the overwhelmingly likely cause of its loss was the sympathetic detonation of its aft 15″ magazines, triggered by the explosion of a secondary armament magazine aft of the engine room, by a shell which penetrated the much thinner upper belt (7″). The upper belt had been recognised as a serious weakness in the 1921 trials I tacitly referenced before, but the Hood was already grossly overweight and nothing more could be done. She had been built as a Battlecruiser with a main belt superior to any Dreadnought, but due to its great length this plus the armour of turrets, barbettes and conning tower left little room for much else; her armour scheme was obsolescent from the day she was launched. The thin upper extension to the main belt took more displacement and was only needed due to the very weak deck protection and to cover the secondary magazines, in which it proved to be inadequate.
The torpedo was a huge influence on naval thinking in the decades prior to 1914, and was one of the major factors leading to the transition to gunnery engagements at extended range, and so the ‘all big-gun’ armament. With respect to the battlecruiser the destroyer would not be a significant threat in cruiser warfare as they lacked the range or seaworthiness to operate on the oceans, while cruisers would be destroyed by gunnery well beyond effective torpedo range. With the benefit of hindsight too the torpedo exerted an influence in planning for a First World War fleet clash that turned out to be grossly exaggerated. At Jutland German destroyers fired 72 torpedoes scoring 5 hits; British destroyers put 97 into the water for a risible 2 hits (figures exclude torpedoes used to sink disabled ships). On the other hand British destroyers proved quite effective in spoiling German torpedo attacks. The only Dreadnought to be struck by a torpedo attack in the entire Battle of Jutland was HMS Marlborough; despite considerable initial flooding she remained in the line and with all armament in action with the aid of her powerful pumps, and when flooding began to worsen at 0100 the next morning in worsening weather she was detached to make her way home at 14 knots, reaching port under her own power 37 hours after being struck, returning to the Grand Fleet 6 weeks later.
The limited effectiveness of the torpedo in a fleet action bring us back to the question of secondary armament; was it necessary for capital ships to carry extensive batteries of cruiser guns to fend off the threat of the destroyer, accepting the sacrifices that must be made in main battery or armour to cater for this and the demonstrated liability of secondary magazines? It seems that this should primarily be a question of fleet tactics, being passed to accompanying cruisers and destroyers, which proved very adept at it in practice. Likewise battle-line tactics could drastically reduce the impact of a torpedo attack, like the Grand Fleet’s simultaneous turn-away in the latter stages of Jutland. Secondly individually-operated secondary armament in casemates lacked the fire control to be effective beyond a few thousand yards, and attacking destroyers may well release their torpedoes beyond this. The main battery is more likely to hit an attacking destroyer before it can put torpedoes in the water, and far more likely to disable one with the first hit. Thirdly, the torpedo as a threat was unlikely to disable a capital ship with one or two hits without a total failure of subdivision; secondary magazines on the other hand were one of the two causes of catastrophic explosion of main magazines. This secondary armament too is only capable at most of fending off the slim chance of destroyer torpedo hits, adding nothing to meeting the threat of submarine torpedoes or mines. Effective subdivision is the primary counter to all three, with torpedo bulges already being introduced in 1914 further weakening the underwater threat. Deleting the secondary armament and increasing freeboard and internal volume of the hull would both greatly strengthen the structural hull girder for a given hull thickness and greatly increase buoyancy in the event of severe flooding, further reducing the impact of torpedo hits on a capital ship’s capability. Given a choice between accepting the prospect of a limited chance of torpedo hits in return for increasing firepower and protection against big-guns and a much greater resilience against large-calibre hits in the primary role of surface action and reliance on greater survivability to all threats and resilience to underwater attack by design improvement in exchange for loss of vulnerable cruiser batteries is a change which I would be very tempted to plumb for.
While lower visibility in Northern European waters had an influence it is fairly dubious as a design factor. In genuinely limited visibility fleets would be very unlikely to make contact and admirals being aware of this would most likely return to port to await a better opportunity. That is of course one of the biggest differences between war on land and at sea; navies could often decline a clash if they felt disadvantaged and wait for another opportunity.
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Thing is, destroyers are more likely to be used in torpedo attacks either en-masse, while ship is busy with enemy battleships, or when battleship is close to shore. In all these scenarios, main battery is inadequate due to low rate of fire and number of guns. That being said, I agree that it should have been left to escort ships.
Massed torpedo attack seems to have been very difficult to pull off successfully until reliable voice radio was introduced, and in the conditions of the First World War attacks in practice appear to have been individual torpedo launches with poor results. Introducing a major destroyer attack into a battle-line exchange would also appear to have been a very difficult and intricate procedure; they were usually launched to screen a withdrawal. If caught inshore the squadron could also turn into the oncoming torpedoes to thread them; however this is really the responsibility of screening vessels.
I’m struggling to find your email address on the blog at the moment.
Picard, there is one other issue – what is the role of this cruiser? Commerce raiding? Naval bombardment? Engaging enemy task forces? We may want to consider that as well.
You have to assume that the enemy will score some “lucky hits”. Magazine explosions are a fact of life in naval warfare. The Hood suffered a large internal explosion and quickly flooded aft. Another consideration may be that there was limited reserve buoyancy in that area.
I’m wondering if it was the side armor of the Hood that got penetrated.
So it looks like belt protection is necessary. The original inquiry said hood, but a more modern expedition says belt armor.
Another consideration is the cordite, which also played a role in the Hood. They used Vaseline to stabilise the cordite, but that over time denatures and with it, nitroglycerine leeches out (nitroglycerine is quite volatile).
This whole exercise illustrates the flaws though with battlecruisers and cordite. Battlecruisers simply cannot be expected to take on battleships and win.
Roles of battlecruiser were scouting, cruiser hunting and commerce raiding.
A lot of the points you raised are dealt with in previous posts on this thread, but I will try to recap.
On the Hood: As pointed out above, the fatal hit was likely through the 7in upper belt, not the main (waterline) belt. The upper belt was only necessary due to the glaring inadequacy of the ship’s deck protection, yet was inadequate to withstand big-gun hits. Hood was a flawed ship.
It was not argued that belt protection should be abandoned, but the reality that it absorbed most of the armour displacement of capital ships while it was only relevant to a very small proportion of hits was pointed out. Given that Battlecruisers were only fundamentally distinguished from Dreadnoughts by having a much thinner waterline belt (and larger powerplants) the idea that they simply couldn’t withstand an exchange with Dreadnoughts is likely broadly a fallacy.
Battle-damage: “Lucky” hits are so in the sense that they exploited a serious vulnerability in the ship either as designed or as built. They should not be a “fact-of-life” at all if designers, naval staffs and shipyards and foundries did their jobs, still less so in discussing ideal designs.
The potential for severe hits, including magazine penetrations are a fact-of-life, and designers must attempt to mitigate them insofar as is practicable. Magazine explosions were not however inevitable at all: quite specific conditions were required to generate one. Some navies suffered magazine fires on a number of occasions: choices of propellant and shell are major contributing factors, as well as design aspects for flash-protection, venting and vulnerabilities like numerous secondary magazines, which could not receive the same protection as the primary magazines, but posed a real risk of negating all main magazine protection by detonating.
My contention is that battlecruisers were never really designed to stand up against battleships in combat. The appropriate thing to do if you are a battlecruiser and you encounter a battleship is to use your speed to get out of there.
The other issue is that if you want thicker deck armor, you are going to have to at least deploy a fast battleship or a well armored battleship at the expense of speed.
It seems to me that “lucky hits” are a fact of life. Even battleships have these problems (arguably the torpedo against the Bismarck’s rudder is an example), they are far less likely to have key vulnerabilities. Furthermore, the magazines of battleships are likely better protected. Yes, propellant and shell choice no doubt played a very big role (and they still do in modern tanks). But you still need some degree of protection. It’s true that we could build something like blow-out panels to try to mitigate the effects, but they still need better armor than a battlecruiser can provide.