By Chris Smith
Battlecruisers originated in the mind of Admiral John Arbuthnot "Jacky" Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher of Kilverstone in the early 1900s while holding the post of First Sea Lord. He was looking for a ship with high speed and good armament to deal with enemy armored cruisers. However, due to these requirements armor had to be sacrificed to save weight, leaving the British battlecruiser vulnerable to enemy fire.
The role of the battlecruiser was to scout for the fleet, secure sea lanes, raid enemy shipping, and destroy enemy armored cruisers acting as scouts for enemy fleets or as raiders themselves. When used in their intended roles battlecruisers acquitted themselves admirably. When sent against battleships or even battlecruisers they did not fare so well. Let’s review a few examples.
Battlecruisers in Action
World War 1
The battle of the Falkland Islands was fought on December 8, 1914. Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee commanded the German naval squadron consisting of two armored cruisers, SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the light cruisers SMS Nürnberg, Dresden and Leipzig, accompanied by support ships. Spee’s squadron was attempting to raid the British supply base at Stanley on the Falkland Islands. Here they came into contact with a British naval squadron consisting of the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and Inflexible, the armored cruisers HMS Carnarvon, Cornwall and Kent, and the light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow. The German armored cruisers mounted 8.2-inch guns versus the 12-inch guns of the Invincible and Inflexible. This was exactly the type of battle Jacky Fisher had in mind for his battlecruisers, his “Greyhounds of the Sea”. The Germans fought well and very bravely but were outmatched by the larger guns of the battlecruisers and were unable to outrun the British squadron due to its high speed. Both German armored cruisers and eventually all of the light cruisers were sunk.
The battle of Dogger Bank was fought 24 January 1915 between a German naval squadron commanded by Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper and a British naval squadron commanded by Vice-Admiral David Beatty, 1st Earl Beatty. The main combatants were the German 1st Scouting Group made up of the battlecruisers SMS Seydlitz, Moltke, Derfflinger and the armored cruiser Blücher and the British 1st Battlecruiser Squadron made up of HMS Lion, Tiger and Princess Royal and the 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron made up of HMS New Zealand and Indomitable. In this battle the only ship sunk was the armored cruiser Blücher. It was a high-speed long-range action and the Germans, while losing the Blücher, did severely damage Beatty’s flagship, the battlecruiser HMS Lion.
At the battle of Jutland the battlecruiser philosophy of the British and German navies was put to the ultimate test. The British followed the doctrine of Nelson, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” Jacky Fisher built this aggressive policy into his battlecruisers from the start. British Vice-Admiral David Beatty commanding the battlecruiser squadron at Jutland was an aggressive commander who intended to make the most of the speed and big guns at his command.
On the other hand German doctrine held that the first duty of the ship and crew was to remain afloat. This too was built into their ships from the start in the compartmentalization and heavier armor of the German ships. The German battlecruiser squadron was commanded by Franz Hipper, a fine naval tactician who made use of every advantage designed into his ships and every opportunity presented by the battle.
In a running long-range gun battle the lightly-armored British battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable at the end of the British battlecruiser line was hit by large-caliber rounds from the German battlecruisers during the portion of the battle known as “the run to the south” and one of her ammunition magazines exploded. Queen Mary met a similar fate shortly after when shells penetrated to her ammunition magazines, causing another British battlecruiser to explode. A third British battlecruiser was lost, HMS Invincible, which was hit in her “Q” turret in the middle of the ship. The round penetrated to the ammunition magazine and blew the ship in half. Vice-Admiral Beatty commented that, “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”
Later in the battle at Jutland during the second of two “Battle Turns,” a maneuver where each ship in the line turns in place and proceeds in the opposite direction, Vice-Admiral Reinhard Sheer commanding the German High Seas Fleet ordered the German battlecruiser squadron to charge the British battle line. This charge was into the most concentrated naval gunfire the world has ever seen. The superior armor of the German battlecruisers brought them through this ordeal and allowed the High Seas Fleet to turn away to the south escaping the withering fire of the British Grand Fleet.
The Germans lost the battlecruiser SMS Lützow, which sustained 20 or more hits causing flooding that could not be controlled. SMS Seydlitz sustained 22 hits but was barely able to make it back to port.
British losses can be traced to the thinner armor and the procedures for handling cordite, a part of the ammunition. In an effort to increase the rate of fire, doors intended to protect the ammunition storage areas were left open to make ammunition handling easier and faster with dire results.
The German loss and near loss were due to a large number of hits from 12- and 15-inch guns. Even with these hits the German reliance on heavier armor at the expense of larger guns paid off in the end with fewer losses.
World War 2
At the battle of Denmark Straights the British battlecruiser Hood exploded in the first minutes of action after receiving hits from the German battleship Bismarck. Hood was supposed to have incorporated the lessons learned from the First World War into her design. Unfortunately it made no difference.
The ultimate expression of Fisher’s battlecruiser ideal was his planned Incomparable class. With six 20 inch guns, light armor and around 35 knots of speed she would have been a formidable opponent but having the same weaknesses her sisters had at Jutland. Below is a chart of probable characteristics.
Comparable after all: Incomparable compared to Dreadnought.
Ordered: Proposed 1915, never ordered
Displacement: 46,000 long tons (46,738 t) standard
Length: 1,000 ft. (304.8 m)
Beam: 104 ft. (31.7 m)
Draught: 24 ft. (7.3 m) (at deep load)
Installed power: 180,000 SHP
Propulsion: Brown-Curtis geared steam turbines, Yarrow boilers
Speed: 35 knots (65 km/h; 40 mph)
Range: 24,000 nautical miles (44,000 km; 28,000 mi) at 10 knots
Armament: 3 × 2 – 20-inch (508 mm) guns; 5 × 3 – QF 4-inch (102 mm) guns; 9 × 1 – QF 3-pounder guns; 8 × 1 – 18-inch (450 mm) torpedo tubes
Armor: Belt: 11 in (279 mm); Decks: 4 in (102 mm); Barbettes: 14 in (356 mm)
Use Fisher's battle cruisers in Great War at Sea: Jutland. order it right here.