By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
When the Royal Navy laid down the three armored cruisers of the Minotaur class in early 1905, they were the most expensive ships the Admiralty had ever ordered up to that time. And by the time they commissioned three years later they had become thoroughly obsolete, as the new battle cruisers provided enormously greater firepower and a higher speed.
Despite their outdated design, all three ships saw extensive wartime service. One, Defence, was lost at the Battle of Jutland. The other two, Minotaur and Shannon, saw action during some of the war's most famous episodes, including Jutland and the hunt for Admiral Graf Spee's German squadron, and survived the war. But by war's end they were most definitely considered second-line units, serving on the "Northern Patrol" for the last year of the war, looking for German raiders trying to break out of the North Sea into the Atlantic Ocean.
The Admiralty appears to have never considered retaining them after the war. Minotaur was paid off in 1919 and sold for scrap the next year; Shannon lasted slightly longer as an accommodation hulk before scrapping in 1922. But across the Atlantic, the U.S. Navy held onto its similar Tennessee class of large armored cruisers, valuing them as flagships for foreign stations. Some American admirals had formed unreasonable attachments to these big and expensive ships, and hoped that some use for them could still be found.
The series of talks held at Washington in late 1921 and early 1922 re-defined the large cruiser, now termed "heavy cruiser." "No vessel of war of any of the Contracting Powers," read Article XII, "hereafter laid down, other than a capital ship, shall carry a gun with a calibre in excess of 8 inches (203 millimetres)." By strict reading, the treaty should have required that the three surviving Tennessee class cruisers (one had been lost to a tsunami in 1916) be scrapped. The Americans held them to be exempt, and given their advancing age no other signatories complained.
In the late 1920s, the U.S. Navy drew up plans to thoroughly modernize the old armored cruisers, with new oil-fired power plants to bring their speed to 26 knots. But financial problems brought on by the collapse of the American banking system, and studies showing the old cruisers to have no tactical advantage over the new Pensacola class heavy cruisers, brought the project to an abrupt end.
Lacking the Americans' sentimental attachment to old armored cruisers, the British had no similar plans — Minotaur and Shannon were slated for the breakers regardless of the outcome of the Washington talks. But the arguments for their retention would have been the same in the Admiralty as in the Americans' General Board. Rebuilt armored cruisers would have superior protection to the new "tin clad" ships and would carry larger guns than those allowed to new construction. They could become lower-cost "cruiser killers" within the scope of the treaty. And Britain's worldwide commitments called for a large force of cruisers.
Had the Royal Navy chosen to spend large sums on rebuilding old ships, the money more likely would have gone to the battle cruiser Tiger or some of the C-class light cruisers sent to the breakers in the early 1930s. But we're not limited to strictly rational arguments; governments and armed services aren't exactly the most perfect of rational actors either.
The American plan would have given each of their big cruisers a 58,000-horsepower plant derived from that built for the aircraft carrier Ranger. The Americans wanted to preserve the shaft lines of their cruisers, but the British would not necessarily have felt the same need since the two old cruisers would need considerable improvements to their underwater protection and Shannon would probably have needed work on her hull form as well (she drew slightly less water than her two sisters and never matched their performance).
All 13 of the County-class heavy cruisers built between 1924 and 1927 carried a similar power plant, with eight oil-fired boilers and a set of Parsons or Brown-Curtiss geared turbines generating 80,000 horsepower. That plant would probably have fit in the Minotaur hull, but she was not designed for such power and something more like the 60,000 horsepower plant fitted in the large cruiser Hawkins would have suited them better.
Minotaur's old-style reciprocating engines had produced 27,000 horsepower, and the Americans admitted that the big British cruisers had superior underwater lines to their own ships. Therefore, we'll credit British engineering with 28 knots for the improved Minotaur — considerably less than the new Treaty cruisers but more than the German "pocket battleships" that would cause such a stir in naval circles.
The rebuilt ships would retain their Mark XI 9.2-inch main battery, as this would be the prime motivation for their resurrection. Their secondary armament of ten Mark II 7.5-inch guns, however, would probably have to go. The ships were overloaded as built, carrying a heavier armament than they could reasonably support. Instead we'll replace the ten single turrets with four of the 6-inch Mark XXII double turrets fitted in the new battleships Nelson and Rodney.
The mixed battery of 6-inch and 9.2-inch guns might not have been the optimal solution, but in the early 1920s very few navies recognized the importance of anti-aircraft defenses. But since we're indulging in some fantasy construction, Britain's naval constructors would have had to option to fit more anti-aircraft weapons instead. Britain did not deploy dual-purpose secondary batteries until the late 1930s, however, so we would probably be looking at a second re-construction — highly unlikely for ships now well into their third decade of service, when no money could be spared to re-fit more powerful ships like the R-class battleships.
A modernized Minotaur would have cost as much as a new cruiser, and provided a far less capable ship. The American proposals were an anomaly, brought on by the unique intra-service politics of the U.S. Navy and a bizarre streak of sentimental attachment to the ships that had hosted the "middie cruises" of American admirals. Most old ships go to the scrapheap because they belong there. Sometimes unique political circumstances can bring them back to life, but these usually involve providing makework projects for politically connected shipyards as in the case of Italy's battleship projects of the 1930s or the American aircraft carrier boondoggles of the 1980s.
But it still makes for a really cool wargame counter.
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