German Fast Armored Cruisers
In the wake of the Battle of Jutland in early June 1916, the German Admiralty immediately began to assess the performance of its ships, and how these lessons should impact design of future warships.
While most of the discussion centered on capital ships – battleships and battle cruisers – much of the fighting had been done by smaller units, the light cruisers and destroyers. As the battleship and battle cruiser types converged toward a single fast battleship category, the steady increase in size and firepower took the battle cruisers away from their original mission of providing heavy fire support to the scouting forces.
The admirals identified two tasks for their cruisers in a fleet action: to drive away enemy destroyers so they could not make torpedo attacks on the German battle line, and to drive off the enemy light cruisers that drove off German destroyers attempting to make torpedo attacks on the enemy battle line. Light cruisers could perform the first task, but the second required a larger, more powerful warship. The armored cruiser had filled this role before being supplanted by the battle cruiser; it could carry larger guns and its greater size provided a stable gun platform in seas that rendered smaller warships unable to fire effectively. Perhaps it was time for this ship type to return.
Vice Admiral Georg Hebbinghaus, who had commanded the Second Scouting Group (light cruisers and destroyers) at Dogger Bank and Jutland, presented a series of sketches for a new type of cruiser. His preferred model would carry a mixed armament of 8.2-inch guns to drive off enemy light cruisers, and 5.9-inch guns to handle enemy destroyers. And it would have a lot of them: a dozen 5.9-inch guns in three quadruple turrets, and four 8.2-inch guns in a pair of double turrets. An additional dozen 5.9-inch guns would be carried in the casemate, for a total of 24 such weapons, and fourteen 4.7-inch guns in the casemate as well. His sketches also featured gigantic battle flags; about 20 meters long judging by the size of the gun turrets.
The hull would be a miniature version of the battle cruiser Derfflinger, considered one of the best such designs to have come off German draft tables. She would be smaller than the battle cruiser, displacing between 12,000 and 14,000 tons compared to 26,600 for Derfflinger, and retain the same mixed coal- and oil-fired power plant (a smaller version, of course, to fit the smaller hull) for a desired high speed (by inference 32 knots, though Hebbinghaus does not appear to have named a specific speed target).
The Admiralty committee studying new ship designs immediately had objections, some practical and some political. On the practical level, the mixed main armament of 8.2-inch and 5.9-inch guns seemed problematical, though Germany’s last armored cruiser designs, Scharnhorst and Blücher, had also carried a combination of the two calibers and experienced no problems in distinguishing shell splashes.
Instead some suggested two cruiser designs sharing the same hull and machinery: one armed with ten 8.2-inch guns in five twin turrets, the other with twenty 5.9-inch guns in five quadruple turrets. Apparently they intended to keep the casemate weapons as well.
The ship would displace slightly less than Blücher, Germany’s final armored cruiser, with a narrower hull form allowed by the use of turbines and small-tube boilers rather than the reciprocating engines of Blücher. She would probably be armored on a scale to repel similar British armament (the 9.2-inch guns of armored cruisers) but not against heavy shellfire.
The 210mm SK L/45 rifle was an exceptionally fine gun; it armed only one ship (Blücher) before the Germans began building great cruisers with larger weapons. At maximum elevation the gun’s range slightly topped that of the 12-inch Mark X that equipped the first British battle cruisers. It would have given the ship a substantial advantage in both range and striking power over British cruisers armed with Mark XII six-inch guns.
The German 150mm SK L/45 had performance almost identical to that of the British Mark XII. Her firepower advantage would come from the massive number of tubes. Krupp had made some rough sketches for a 12-inch triple turret, but the mounting had never been built let alone tested, and a quadruple turret would have been even more complex.
A much greater problem would be the political question raised by such a ship: would she count as a scout cruiser, or a great cruiser? Her size and role implied the latter, in which case she would absorb funding intended for battle cruisers. Though Alfred von Tirpitz had been forcibly retired, he retained many acolytes within the Admiralty, who did not wish to trade a 14,000-ton armored cruiser, no matter how needed or capable, for a 35,000-ton battle cruiser. Pointing out the lesser cost of the armored cruiser – allowing more of them to be built for the same cost – would only highlight the soaring price tags of the big ships.
For Great War at Sea: Jutland 1919, we accepted the committee’s critique of the Hebbinghaus proposal and split the design into two variants, one with 8.2-inch guns and one with 5.9-inch guns – one to oppose enemy cruisers, and one to oppose enemy destroyers. The ship with larger guns would have been easier to construct, as she would use the same turrets as Blücher (each with its own magazine, unlike the over-complex shared-magazine arrangement in Blücher) and draw heavily on Derfflinger for her hull, armor and machinery layouts. The ship with smaller guns would share the latter advantages, but some of the German architects appear to have doubted that the quadruple turret could be made to work properly without a great deal of time devoted to design and testing.
Hebbinghaus had experience in naval construction as well as combat command, an unusual combination in any navy, but like many sea officers appears to have asked for too much on the allotted displacement. Enlarging the ship would simply create a weakly-armed battle cruiser, and so she would probably have had to gain only slightly in displacement and lose some of the planned casemate guns; at least that’s the solution we’ve taken in Jutland 1919. Both variants have a casemate battery of a dozen 120mm (4.7-inch) guns. Germany had no 120mm gun in service when Hebbinghaus made his proposal; Skoda had built such a weapon for the Austro-Hungarian Navy and the Germans had adopted several larger Skoda gun designs for their drawing-board battleships including the 350mm gun that would have armed the Mackensen-class battle cruisers and the massive 420mm intended for the late-generation paper battleships.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.