Midway Deluxe Edition:
American 8-Inch Cruiser
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 casts
a long shadow over subsequent military history,
as ship design, naval construction and power
politics would all be greatly influenced by
the modern world’s first arms control
agreement. For ship designers, a new type
of warship emerged: the “heavy”
cruiser, displacing 10,000 tons and armed
with eight-inch guns.
Negotiators didn’t arrive at those
figures randomly: They represented a new type
of “fighting scout” the U.S. Navy
had in the advanced design stages and had
hoped to build to support their new Omaha-class light scouts. American representatives guided
discussions to the limits they wanted, and
won acceptance of the new type of ship. But
it was a design based not so much on American
needs as on a series of misunderstandings —
the building blocks of history.
very satisfied with the Omaha design
(a satisfaction that would fade with the passage
of time, as those cruisers’ outdated
gunnery layout and wetness became apparent),
the Navy’s General Board became obsessed
with the British Hawkins-class cruisers
that appeared in 1919.
American naval planning in the years during
and immediately after the First World War
divided its focus between two potential foes.
Operational planning concerned itself almost
exclusively with a potential war with Japan,
a series of plans known collectively as Plan
Orange. The engineers and constructors, however,
had their eye across the Atlantic. In part
this was due to the influence of the circle
around Chief of Naval Operations William Shepherd
Benson, who saw Britain as a potential enemy,
leading to a series of war plans known as Plan
Red. Others, influenced by the era’s
racist undertones, acknowledged that the Japanese
were formidable fighters but believed them
dependent on their British allies for technical
advancements. Exceeding British capabilities
therefore meant exceeding those of Japan as
well. That view conveniently excused the failings
of American naval intelligence — it
was much easier to obtain details of British
ship design than to penetrate Japan’s
very good security, not to mention the equally
daunting language and cultural barriers.
Hawkins had been ordered in 1915 based
on reports that Germany was building a new
type of cruiser designed for long-range commerce
raiding, possibly armed with more powerful
weapons than the standard German 5.9-inch
gun. Such a design had been contemplated by
the High Seas Fleet. But the Germans never laid down
such a ship, or even completed design for
one. Not willing to risk a “super cruiser”
on the loose, the Royal Navy ordered what
it termed an “Improved Birmingham class” with a more powerful armament
than the day’s cruisers.
An American obsession: the British cruiser
Hawkins. Note the deeply recessed gun
The British designers proposed arming the
new ship with a dozen six-inch guns, but the
admirals wanted a bigger gun. The Germans
might be using a 6.7-inch (170mm) gun, they
feared. The new British cruiser had to have
greater shell weight and range than the German
5.9-inch or 6.7-inch guns, and the Admiralty
insisted on the 7.5-inch gun as used in the Devonshire-class armored cruisers at
the turn of the century.
This older weapon was actually outranged
by the German guns, so to compensate the British
recessed the 7.5-inch mounts on Hawkins into the deck, to allow greater elevation
and increase range to 22,000 yards. Rate of
fire was very slow; the 7.5-inch round had
to be loaded in two parts. Five were laid
down, and results were unsatisfactory enough
that the last of them was converted to an
aircraft carrier. The cruisers did have very
long range, given their mission of hunting
commerce raiders, and impressive size at 9,750
tons, almost twice the displacement of the
British D-class light cruisers built at the
Every ship needs a mascot. 1920s hot
chick Ethyl Merman presents Pensacola’s crew with a goat.
The Royal Navy found the ships disappointing,
using them only in secondary theaters during
World War II even while older, smaller cruisers
of the C- and D-classes saw action in the
Atlantic and Mediterranean. The U.S. Navy,
unaware of the flaws that made the big cruisers
expensive white elephants the day they were
launched, found them extremely intimidating.
Paper exercises showed that a Hawkins could destroy an Omaha without suffering
a scratch. A reply was necessary.
The General Board wanted a cruiser with a
speed to match Omaha or the new battle
cruisers, and firepower superior to Hawkins.
The designers selected an eight-inch gun,
and turned in a number of sketches of very
large ships, their size driven by their huge
engine rooms, and nearly no armor. That would
make them useless in battle, and the Board
reluctantly decided to accept a main battery
of eight 8-inch guns in double turrets, light
protection, and a speed of 33 knots. She would
have displaced about 10,700 tons. The Navy
hoped to build six of them in the 1923 Fiscal
The 1921 scout eventually grew into
the Pensacola-class heavy cruiser.
During the Washington talks, the U.S. representatives
steered the final cruiser limits toward this
design. Displacement was rounded down to 10,000
tons, but otherwise the 1921 Scout became
the so-called Treaty Cruiser. The U.S. Navy
modified the design somewhat, sacrificing
protection and a little speed to add two more
eight-inch gun barrels, and the 1921 Scout
became the Pensacola class light cruiser,
re-designated as heavy cruisers in 1931.
Both Pensacola and her sister Salt Lake City, the famed Swayback Maru, appear in Second World War at Sea: Midway Deluxe Edition.
You can order Midway Deluxe right here.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold likes catching lightning bugs.
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