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The American 8-Inch Cruiser
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2014

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 misunderstandings — the building blocks of history.

   

The prototype of the Treaty cruiser, the 1921 “fighting scout,” appears in our Great War at Sea: U.S. Navy Plan Gold. Though very satisfied with the Omaha design (a satisfaction that would fade with the passage of time, as those cruisers’ outdated gunnery layout and wetness became apparent), the Navy’s General Board became obsessed with the British Hawkins-class cruisers that appeared in 1919.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.


An American obsession: the British cruiser Hawkins. Note the deeply recessed gun positions.

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, based on Austrian design studies (an example of which appears in our Dreadnoughts supplement). 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.

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.


Every ship needs a mascot. 1920s hot chick Ethyl Merman presents Pensacola’s crew with a goat.

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 same time.

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 1921 scout eventually grew into the Pensacola-class heavy cruiser.

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 Year.

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.

In U.S. Navy Plan Gold we included several variations on this design. There are two of the 1919 scout, which placed four eight-inch guns on an Omaha hull. There are two more of the 1921 scout, and the two actual Pensacola class in Great War at Sea configuration.

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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.