Navy Battlecruisers in WWII:
The Sad History of Modernization
By Kristin Ann High
Battlecruisers were highly prized and jealously
guarded by the admirals who commanded them
and inspired ferocious loyalty in their crews.
By the end of the 1920s it was clear that
the old enmities were very much alive in Europe
and Asia, and the battlecruisers of the world's
navies would not leave the scene any time
The German Reichsmarine was building Panzershiffe,
fast, heavily-armed but lightly-armoured ships
that could outrun any American, British or
French battleship and outgun any of those
nations’ cruisers. Panzershiffe were
not so much traditional battlecruisers as
a modern take on the armoured cruiser of the
Great War, adapted to employ modern technologies
— marine diesels, superb DCT and observation
seaplanes, and underway replenishment —
to deal with their nemesis, the battlecruiser.
As Germany was unlikely to find herself involved
in the Pacific (at least as far as the officers
of the Reichsmarine were concerned), the role
of nemesis belonged to just three ships: Renown, Repulse, and the terrible Hood.
The British understood this as well, but they
had built all their "legal" battleship
tonnage with Nelson and Rodney and could not afford to build more. Initial
British "updates" to their ships
had proven inadequate, and from the end of
the 1920s to the outbreak of war in September
1939 the Royal Navy did what it could to modernize
its battleline, and its battlecruisers.
Renown, furthest modernized
and longest lived.
HMS Refit and HMS Repair
The plan was to modernize the oldest ships
first. As a result, the British never got
around to reconstructing Hood, as so
much time was spent refitting, reconstructing,
and re-reconstructing Renown, followed
by a not quite so extensive effort on Repulse;
war intervened before her re-reconstruction
could be completed. It was this near-continuous
process of modernization that led to the two Renown-class battlecruisers being nicknamed
“Refit” and “Repair”
in the fleet.
For all of that, many at the admiralty believed
that Hood remained superior to the
older Renown and Repulse, even
though she received only the most basic modernization
refits. Hood received a "modern"
anti-air fit about on par with the woeful
standard of the time (American, British, or
French, at least), and by the outbreak of
war she had capital ship-class RDF and wireless
telegraphy, but she did not have her armour
deck relaid or thickened, nor were her vitals
re-armoured. Indeed, there was strong opinion
that, her shell handling having been improved
she was as protected against plunging fire
as a battlecruiser could afford to be.
The reasoning was primarily based on the
first full reconstruction of Repulse,
which included significant improvement of
her armour deck. After this reconstruction, Repulse was proof against plunging
fire to her magazines or machinery spaces
from even the German 15"/52-Calibre Schiffskanone
Construktionsjahr 1934 (the accepted English
abbreviations are 'SK' and 'C/xx'; the rifle
is thus the 15"/52-Calibre SK C/34),
firing the standard 1,764-pound APC, and that
only at ranges of 30,000 yards or more. The
additional weight in armour was balanced in
the accepted fashion by enlarging her anti-torpedo
bulges, but none of this was accompanied by
any improvements to her machinery. Her flank
speed fell to 28 knots.
Moreover, Repulse's chances against
flat-trajectory fire if faced with, say, Bismarck
do not look promising, at least on paper.
Her main belt, after reconstruction, was only
91⁄2"; 4" in front of her
magazines and machinery spaces, up from her
as-built 61⁄2" main belt.
Bismarck's 15"/52-calibre SK
C/34 APC shells could theoretically penetrate Repulse's main belt at all ranges,
but the characteristics of German APC shells
(Panzersprenggranate mit Kopfzünder und
mit Haube, 'Pzgr. m.Kz u. m.Hb') were such
that the shell had better post-penetration
characteristics at low obliquities (see Nathan
Okun's superb information) . Bismarck could achieve a definitively favourable impact
obliquity of 16° at 20,000 yards, giving
her a calculated penetration of 161⁄2"
of Repulse's British armour plate,
far in excess of what Repulse could
take. So, no matter how far one stretches
allowances for angle-off (obtuse or acute
angles of fire relative to the target), the
worst tactic for Repulse was the one
generally suggested as best for Hood — to close as rapidly as possible on Bismarck. And at 28 knots, Repulse could not outrun Bismarck either, so
she really didn’t have any good options
against such an opponent.
As for Hood, she was already much
larger than her younger sisters, and could
ill afford to surrender her all-important
two-to-three-knot speed advantage over Panzershiffe
to armour protection she was unlikely to need
in her stated mission of hunting commerce
raiders, and which would be of little or no
avail against battleships. As built, she was
proof against the German 11"/52-calibre
SK C/28 at any range, and against the improved
11"/55-calibre SK C/34 out to 30,000
yards, a range at which no hit was ever scored
by surface gunfire in WWII, to my knowledge).
As the 11"/55-Calibre SK C/34 armed
the "improved" Panzerschiffe designs
'D' and 'E', the light battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau (aka “Salmon”
and “Gluckstein” to the ratings
of the RN), it was hard to argue that extra
armour without increased propulsion was going
to make Hood more effective, rather
The Loss of HMS Hood
Sadly, the first of these three sisters to
die was the one the Admiralty felt was best
prepared to face the enemy. Conventional wisdom
makes no mystery of Hood’s fate
— she was struck by a 15" APC shell
from Bismarck that plunged through
her inadequate armour deck and detonated her
4" magazine, which then blew up her main
magazine; Jutland all over again. Some alternatives
proposed have been an underwater penetration
by one of Bismarck's 15" shells,
or sloppy magazine safety on the part of Hood's crew — a practice left over from her
There is, however, another, rather more technical
appraisal of Hood's fate. In Sea
Battles In Close-Up: World War II by Martin
Stephen, the then-director of naval construction (DNC),
Admiral Goodall, believed that the cause of
the explosion was not the result of the 4"
magazine detonating. Firstly, the origin of
the explosion was at the base of the mainmast,
65 teet away from the nearest magazine of
any kind. Secondly, the first hit Hood took was an 8" HE/SAP round ("Sprenggranate
mit Bodenzünder und Kopfzünder,"
a high-explosive shell having both base and
nose fuses) from Prinz Eugen, which
caused a large fire amidships aft.
The DNC felt that this fire, which certainly
caused significant damage on the weather decks
— the huge fires were visible to all
the combatants, and assisted Bismarck's fire control officers — apparently caused
"serious damage" below as well.
The area struck by the 8" HE round was
directly above the officer's quarters, all
of which were still furnished with the highly
flammable wooden and fabric furnishings of
the peacetime navy. This is also the part
of the ship where the torpedo warheads were
stored for Hood's deck-mounted torpedoes;
4,000 lbs. of Torpex protected by 3"
box protection, woefully inadequate for engaging
the ships which were Hood's naturally
quarry, much less a full-fledged battleship.
According to Grove and Stephens, if one or
more of the eight shells of Bismarck's fourth salvo landed in this area, and either
directly struck the torpedo warhead magazine
or struck close enough to cause the warheads
to "go up in sympathy," the result:
Hood in happier times.
. . . would have been an explosion where
it was actually observed. Such an explosion
could break the ship's back, already weakened
in this area by the previous damage",
according to Goodall. No one likes to admit
making a mistake, and a bureaucracy is almost
institutionally incapable of doing so. The
DNC at the time of Hood's building
was Admiral D'Eyncourt, and he fought tirelessly
to have the torpedo fittings removed; he
was ultimately successful, sort of. The
fitting were retained aboard, but not as
"war fittings" — they were
"strictly" for training purposes,
to be removed prior to Hood's sailing in
Unfortunately, when Hood was given
her "modernization refit" in 1929-1931,
the plan to reconstruct her armour deck
was not undertaken, as noted above. This
allowed the Admiralty to re-instutute the
torpedoes as "war fittings" by
providing them with the aforementioned 3"
box protection. Thus, the Admiralty's stubborn
insistence on a weapon generally accepted
as worthless and dangerous in a capital
ship—the above-deck torpedo—may
have led directly to Hood's destruction.
As always, the various bureaucracies of the
institution — in this case the Admiralty
— sought to blame humans, not the system. Hood's poor magazine discipline and
the practice of having large amounts of 4"
ammunition in ready boxes was responsible
for Hood's loss, not bureaucratic jealousy
and personal politics among the Sea Lords
(there are three, just for the record, with
a fourth being the political appointee First
Lord of the Admiralty).
The Loss of HMS Repulse
The second, and last of the British battlecruisers
to be sunk, was Repulse, and again
there is no mystery surrounding her fate.
On 10th December 1941 she was struck by 86
land-based, twin-engine naval attack bombers:
60 Mitsubishi G3M2 NELL's (Navy Type 96 Model
21/Model 22 Attack Bomber) carrying torpedoes
and bombs, and 26 G4M1 BETTYs (Navy Type 1
Model 11 Attack Bomber) carrying torpedoes.
She took at least five torpedoes and one bomb.
Japanese naval aircrews were the best-trained
aircrews in the world in 1941, naval or otherwise.
Their horizontal bombing was largely ineffective,
but one hit did strike Repulse on her hangar.
The bomb struck through to her armour deck,
but did not penetrate, though the gout of
flame and the billowing smoke gave alarm to
Force 'Z' and elation to the Japanese pilots.
Likewise, the first torpedo hit struck her
bulges, and failed to defeat her underwater
protection — no mean feat considering
the power of the Japanese Type 91 Model 1
torpedo (it had a 331-pound warhead of Type
97 explosive, this being better than TNT but
less potent than Torpex). The last attack
on Repulse was launched by either the remaining
BETTYs or another group of NELLs; most likely
it was the last wave of BETTYs, and thus comprised
eight aircraft rather than nine. Unfortunately, Repulse had closed on the flagship,
the luckless and lll-fated Prince of Wales,
to render assistance — probably not
the wisest course in the midst of attack when
there were destroyers at hand.
The Japanese planes caught Repulse in a classic anvil attack, and four of the
eight torpedoes struck her, three to port
and one to starboard (this being the second
torpedo hit to starboard). These sorts of
hits were too much for any ship, and Repulse's anti-torpedo protection was well and truly
defeated. She listed to port and the order
to abandon ship was passed. According to Capt.
Tennant, her OC, the men abandoned ship under
the command of the executive officer and went
over the side in good order and with no sign
of panic or "ill-discipline". A
Naval officer true to the traditions of Royal
Navy and United States Navy, Tennant remained
on the bridge as his ship went down. He grasped
the wheel to keep from sliding over when she
rolled, but Repulse was a lucky ship,
and a kind one, even in death: she threw her
captain clear as she went down by the stern,
and her men kept the stunned and shaken Tennant
above water until destroyers could pull them
from the sea.
Repulse, lucky to the end.
Prince of Wales, on the other hand,
was as vindictive as she was unlucky, for
screams could be heard through the ventilators
as she rolled over to her death, and neither
Capt. Leach nor Admiral Philips survived her.
There is no truth, however, to the story that Prince of Wales' bad luck was due to
the break in tradition whereby Prince of
Wales was referred to in the masculine
(he, him, his); no sailor would have so affronted
the dignity of a ship by using the masculine
to address her, whatever she was named!
Renown, the most modernized and most
heavily reconstructed battlecruiser, fought
her way through the Mediterranean and the
Atlantic, and hunted what few German surface
ships she could reach. She survived the war
and was sold to the breakers on 19th March
1948. She was the most successful of the three
British battlecruisers, and the Germans certainly
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