British Fast Armored Cruisers
Britain laid down her last true battle cruiser, Tiger, in the summer of 1912, launching her in December of the following year. As construction proceeded, the Admiralty discussed what sort of warships would follow her, chiefly focusing their attention on new fast battleships that could combine the functions of a battleship and battle cruiser.
The Second Sea Lord, Sir John Jellicoe, pointed out that the growth of the battle cruiser in size, speed and fighting power not only had merged the type with the battleship, but had left its original roles unfilled. A new type of cruiser, with 9.2-inch guns and a battle cruiser’s high speed, seemed necessary to protect overseas commerce from high-speed enemy raiders and to support scouting forces.
Following up on Jellicoe’s points, Sir Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt, the Director of Naval Construction, produced some rough sketches of a ship to meet those requirements. The design he labelled E3 weighed in at just under 18,000 tons, with eight 9.2-inch guns in four double turrets – in essence, a smaller version of Tiger. A version without armor came in at 15,500 tons, but neither was approved for construction.
Jellicoe had waged this argument before: in 1908, as Director of Naval Ordnance, he had urged that the new battle cruiser Indefatigable carry 9.2-inch guns rather than 12-inch guns, arguing that battleship-sized guns were not needed to destroy commerce raiders and the reduction in armament would produce a cost savings of 40 percent, allowing more ships to be built. Jellicoe had appeared to win this point until Parliament learned of the proposed change and weighed in with its opinion that British warships should never be reduced in fighting power.
And it would not be the last time Jellicoe would face this question. Almost exactly one year after the 1913 discussions, in October 1914, when he had command of the Grand Fleet, he saw his powerful battle cruisers detached to the South Atlantic and the United States’ East Coast to counter German commerce raiders. The Royal Navy had no ships with both speed and range to catch armed German passenger liners, other than massive battle cruisers armed with heavy guns. The smaller fast armored cruisers could have performed the same role without diminishing the fighting power of the Grand Fleet. Jellicoe bitterly opposed the removal of the battle cruisers from home waters and raged against his mentor, First Sea Lord Sir John Fisher, “to the point of insubordination” as he put it later.
In calmer temper, Jellicoe revived the notion of a fast ship with 9.2-inch guns, but by this point Britain’s wartime naval program had no place for new ship designs and nothing came of his proposal.
Our Great War at Sea: Jutland 1919 expansion book gives you the ship Jellicoe wanted, here called the Surprise class. Had they been approved in 1913 they likely would have been called the E class, but another E class appeared afterwards as did a (never built) F class, so we’ve jumped ahead to the letter S. We also include the proposal of German Vice Admiral Georg Hebbinghaus for a very similar ship for the High Seas Fleet, a conclusion apparently reached independently of Jellicoe.
Surprise follows Tennyson’s sketch to a large degree and retains the Fisher “Dreadnought” concept of a single-caliber battery, in this case of 9.2-inch guns. As Jellicoe had to be aware, the 9.2-inch Mark X and Mark XI guns carried by later-model British armored cruisers and semi-dreadnoughts were very poor weapons: short-ranged, prone to wear out quickly and extraordinarily inaccurate. Equipping a new and expensive ship (even if less costly than a battle cruiser) with such a crapulent weapon would have been a terrible decision and quite unlike a gunnery expert like John Jellicoe.
Jolly British tars clean the breech of a 9.2-inch gun.
And so we’ve posited that Surprise would have carried a new-model 9.2-inch gun, which would have been designated Mark XVI. Britain did not produced a really high-quality heavy naval gun until the Vickers-designed 13.5-inch Mark V, ordered in 1909 and introduced in 1912 (orders, testing and acceptance all taking place during Jellicoe’s term as Director of Naval Ordnance). The Vickers-led heavy gun combine had stifled innovation, since orders (and profits) were guaranteed, but since Jellicoe drove the cruiser project, we’ve assumed that he also made sure his pet project would have a modern, effective armament.
If British technology was somewhat behind in gun design, it excelled in producing turbines. The new cruiser would be powered by Yarrow oil-fired boilers and Parsons turbines, probably giving her the same 29 knots as Tiger, more than enough to run down German commerce raiders and fight in the North Sea as part of the scouting forces if needed.
The Admiralty finally answered the need for an “Atlantic Cruiser” with the Hawkins class, an enlarged light cruiser armed with six 7.5-inch guns. She would be able to out-fight the German light cruisers armed with 5.9-inch (150mm) guns; Surprise had been designed to tackle more formidable opponents, like the proposed German cruisers armed with 170mm (6.-inch) or 210mm (8.2-inch) guns (these are also present in Jutland 1919).
Surprise would have sufficient armor to make her invulnerable to German cruiser guns (though the 210mm rounds probably could have penetrated her hide). She had been intended to make short work of German cruisers and armed merchant raiders, and anything other than an actual capital ship. Rather than an enlarged light cruiser like Hawkins, she represented a scaled-down battle cruiser (Tennyson projected her length at 580 feet, making her actually slightly longer than the early battle cruisers). As such, she would have been much better suited to the Dreyer fire control systems mounted on the Grand Fleet’s battleships and battle cruisers starting in 1916.
We included four examples of the ship in Jutland 1919. Had four of them been present in the autumn of 1914, they would have probably eliminated the German East Asia Cruiser Squadron as effectively as Admiral Sturdee’s battle cruisers, without affecting the balance of power in the North Sea. That probably would have required that they be ordered sometime before the October 1913 meetings; had they been laid down as a result of those discussions they likely would not have joined the fleet before mid-1915 at the earliest.
By that point in the war any German commerce raiders on the high seas would have been converted merchant ships, easily dealt with by the older cruisers on station. The danger would come from modern new cruisers breaking out into the Atlantic, and that would have placed the Surprise class with the Grand Fleet. There, they might easily have suffered the same fate as the First Cruiser Squadron at Jutland if poorly deployed.
But that decision’s up to you. Just don’t send them up against German battle cruisers.
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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.