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The American Heavy Scout/Light Battle Cruiser
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
January 2013

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 cruisers.

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.


HMS Courageous, a “large light cruiser” similar to the American plan.

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.

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.

Our Great 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 American near-sisters.

Great War at Sea: U.S. Navy Plan Gold is available now. Click here to order!