American Heavy Scout Cruiser
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In the years prior to World War One, the
U.S. Navy remained in third place in the dreadnought
race behind Britain and Germany, building
up its battlefleet but closely watching foreign
technical developments. They matched increases
in size and firepower, but refrained from
joining the two others in building battle
That changed after fleet exercises off the
northeast coast in late 1914. Heavy seas scattered
destroyers and the small cruisers then operated
by the Americans as their only scouting assets.
The “Blue” fleet never contacted
the “Red” enemy, despite a large
screen, and soon the exercise had to be broken
off so the battleships could find their smaller
consorts and shepherd them back to port. Though
the battleships had been slowed by the stormy
waters, they remained fully operational. Had
the operation taken place during wartime,
the small ships would have been easy prey
for their huge, lumbering but seaworthy opponents.
Based on the outcome of the 1914 fall maneuvers,
the Navy’s General Board asked for design
sketches for what it called a “heavy
scout.” The heavy scout would be large
enough to be steady in any seas, and maintain
at least a five-knot speed advantage over
dreadnought battleships. Designs followed
two basic types: a very large light cruiser
armed with a large number of six-inch guns,
and an even larger ship with four large-caliber
guns, anywhere from 12-inch to 16-inch weapons.
After looking over the early designs, the
Board then asked for what it called a “battle
scout.” This ship would carry four 14-inch
guns and nine five-inch guns, with armor protection
against six-inch shellfire and a speed of
35 knots. The response offered in April 1915
by the Navy’s Preliminary Design bureau,
known as Design 126, called for a very large
ship: 800 feet long, displacing 25,000 tons.
It had an eight-inch armored belt (about equivalent
to foreign battle cruisers). In June the Board
was shown a variant, known as Design 141,
which displaced 27,000 tons and carried four
16-inch guns. Armor was reduced to a four-inch
belt which covered only the machinery spaces,
and no deck armor. Turrets, barbettes and
magazines also had only light protection.
At about the same time, Britain laid down two
very similar “large light cruisers”
of the Courageous class (one in March 1915 and
the second in May). These had almost the exact
qualities called for in the American design
request: four 15-inch guns and a speed of 32
knots. Like the American design, these were
scaled-up versions of light cruisers. The British
ships had only three inches of armor on their
belt, though they had turrets designed for battleships
and thus carrying much thicker armor (13 inches’
worth). They were as long as the American design
(786 feet) but displaced less at 21,000 tons.
HMS Courageous, a “large
light cruiser” similar to the
The last British battle cruiser for which
the Americans had reliable technical data
was the Queen Mary, a conventional
ship commissioned in August 1913. The Courageous class had been designed and built under wartime
secrecy, supposedly for use in the ill-defined
“Baltic Operation” that Admiral
John Fisher hoped to execute. Rather than
a copy of the British ship, the American vessel
seems to be a parallel development brought
about by similar requirements.
The General Board dismissed Design 141 for
the same reasons that would eventually doom
the two British ships and the similar Furious: not enough firepower for their size, expense
and maintenance cost. They instead asked for
true battle cruiser designs: a 32,000-ton
ship with either six 16-inch guns or eight
14-inch guns, and a speed of 35 knots. That
request would start a series of design proposals
leading to the Lexington class battle
cruisers actually laid down in 1920. But that’s
a story for another day.
A 16-inch gun. The heavy scout would
have carried four of these.
War at Sea: U.S. Navy Plan Gold game has
two examples of Design 141, the 16-inch-gun
version. They’re named Insurgent and Macedonian, after a pair of enemy
warships (one French, one British) captured
by American frigates in ship-to-ship actions
and taken into the U.S. Navy under these names.
While Insurgent is an unlikely American
ship name in the 21st Century, when warships are more commonly
named for generous politicians, in 1915 the
Navy still followed its own traditions. With
their speed, range and heavy armament they would
have been more useful in commerce raiding than
in combating enemy light forces, a task for
which their British equivalents were found expensive
and over-armed. The Royal Navy disarmed their
light battlecruisers after the First World War
ended and converted them to aircraft carriers,
a fate that probably would have awaited their
Great War at Sea: U.S. Navy Plan Gold is available now. Click here to order!
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.