Nine Lives for the Splendid Cats
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In previous Content we've looked at potential rebuilding of a number of warships. Wargamers seem to focus on this for some reason, becoming attached to warships but failing to fully realize that a battle cruiser is, in essence, simply a very large machine. And there comes a time when any machine, no matter how large, has served its purpose. Just as lawnmowers go to landfills, so do battle cruisers go to scrapyards.
Politics, however, has a way of warping reality that applies to the service life of warships as well. More than one nation has rebuilt elderly warships simply because funding is easier to obtain for repairs than for new construction (Austria-Hungary did this in the 1880s), or because reconstruction work can be placed with politically connected shipyards unable to undertake new construction (the United States went down this path in the 1980s). And sometimes international treaties have encouraged the rebuilding of older warships over the construction of new ones.
The Royal Navy deleted the two surviving members of the Lion class, the namesake and Princess Royal, under the terms of the Washington Naval Limitations Treaty. Their near-sister Queen Mary exploded at the Battle of Jutland, taking 1,266 men with her, yet the two ships had a public reputation as very good fighting ships and were celebrated by Navy publicists as the "Splendid Cats." The two battle cruisers were the most modern ships Britain relinquished under the agreement. By far the most expensive ships built in Britain up to that date when commissioned, Lion and Princess Royal proved to be a badly flawed design, something the Navy failed to mention to the public.
Many of Lion's flaws concerned her "Q" turret, placed in the center of the ship. The put her barbette (the turret's thickly armored "base") and associated magazines and shell rooms between the ship's engine rooms. The guns had a badly constricted field of fire, giving little added fighting power in exchange for the problems presented by its position.
At the time the two ships were designed, the Germans were fitting 11-inch guns as their primary weapons and Lion and Princess Royal were armored to resist these shells. That the Germans might increase their caliber in response to the British increase from 12-inch to 13.5-inch did occur to naval engineers, but the two ships went forward as originally planned. The German 12-inch round could penetrate the two ships' armored belt at most battle ranges, and large areas were vulnerable to the older 11-inch as well.
Both ships took enormous battle damage at Jutland in 1916, with Lion coming very close to disappearing in a magazine explosion similar to the one that claimed Queen Mary. They underwent extensive repairs and were back in service in a matter of weeks. While the United States and Japan argued furiously to preserve a number of ships ultimately deleted at the Washington talks in 1922, the British delegation made no protest when Lion and Princess Royal appeared on the disposal list.
Assuming they somehow survived the negotiations — and with their stunning combination of a high public profile and low actual value, they were prime chips for British concessions — they would need enormous improvements to see service in the next generation's world war. Armament, machinery and protection would all need to be brought up to the standards of 1939, when the ships had truly been first-rate in none of those areas in 1914.
During 1933 the Royal Navy tested an exceptionally fine all-steel 12-inch gun (the Mark XIV) without the wire banding used in previous weapons. It had great accuracy and range, and promised longer barrel life without the drooping problems suffered by the 16-inch lightweight guns fitted in Nelson and Rodney. The Admiralty ordered a 14-inch version for production, the Mark VII, as Britain prepared to insist on this caliber as the international standard during the upcoming Second London Naval Treaty talks.
The Mark VII would be fitted in the King George V class battleships, in balky four-gun turrets with each gun resting in a cast steel cradle. Apparently for ease of testing, the Mark VII had been designed to also fit the slide cradles for the old 13.5-inch Mark V carried by Lion and Princess Royal. By the time the 14-inch Mark VII entered service only one ship with these weapons remained afloat, the battleship Iron Duke in use as a training ship; proposals to refit her for front-line service went nowhere. This excellent weapon could also have been fitted to the two re-built battle cruisers, in a sound turret design without the mechanical problems suffered by ships like Prince of Wales with the Mark III quadruple turret.
A rebuilding project would begin with the re-positioning of Q turret and installation of new oil-fired boilers. Moving a turret is no small task, as the barbette extends all the way from the deck to the keel. Alternatively, the designers might opt to just delete Q turret, which would lower the project's cost but reduce the ships' fighting power.
Keeping Q turret in place would not be an option: a new power plant would need a full-length engine compartment without the division engendered by the oddly placed barbette. The new boilers and turbines fitted to Renown in her 1936-39 rebuilding produced 120,000 horsepower and gave the ship 30 knots; the shorter Lion and Princess Royal would not have done as well, probably somewhere around 28 knots, the same as the King George V class battleships.
By the late 1930s the coal-fired plants of the two old battle cruisers would be badly outdated, and though they had produced 28 knots on trails that had come at the cost of fatal strain to Princess Royal, which never kept up with her sisters afterward. It's unlikely the two surviving ships could have made much over 22 to 24 knots by the 1930's and they would have suffered severe maintenance troubles. If Lion and Princess Royal were to fight in the Second World War, they would require totally new boilers and turbines.
Most of their rebuilding would likely follow the pattern in Renown, with funnels reduced to two and an athwartships catapult fitted. Like Renown, they would carry the excellent 4.5-inch Mark III dual-purpose guns in twin mountings. Renown retained her torpedo tubes, so these two would probably have them as well.
With deficient protection even by the standards of 1914, the two ships would need a thicker armor belt, plus deck armor and heavier protection over their magazines and engine spaces. The added weight would likely require that bulges be fitted to bring their armor back up over the waterline.
But such extensive rebuilding work would come at the expense of other projects. Britain did not have the shipyard resources to reconstruct all of the capital ships it actually retained from the Great War period — the old R-class ships still needed extensive work when the Second World War broke out, with only one (Royal Oak, lost almost immediately) having received major improvements.
Renown's reconstruction cost the Admiralty slightly more than 3 million sterling, compared to 7.4 million for the brand-new King George V. Lion and Princess Royal would have cost no less than Renown, meaning that the two of them would have represented the same investment as a new battleship. Would that have been a worthwhile trade?
The result would be a pair of 30,000-ton, relatively fast ships with a modern main armament, re-built at a staggering cost. They still would not have the protection to stand up against enemy battleships, but might have some use as convoy escorts. They would serve well as "Treaty Cruiser Killers," and on paper as a match for the German Scharnhorst class battle cruisers. In an actual clash, it would have been a contest between their heavier armament and the German ships' far superior protection — not a bet many sailors would willingly make.
With Renown's rebuilding, the Admiralty intended to create a fast escort for aircraft carrier task forces, the same mission the Japanese gave their rebuilt Kongo-class battle cruisers. Lion and Princess Royal might also have seen use in this role, and had one of them been present with Glorious when that carrier was destroyed by the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the carrier might have escaped.
But in this case, the "what if" scenario doesn't hold up very well. It pre-supposes far greater British financial and material resources than actually existed, and so goes well beyond a single diplomatic slip made at Washington. More than likely, if the two ships had survived the Washington process they would have been scrapped sometime in the 1930s regardless of the international situation, as the resources would be better invested in new ships or reconstruction of more powerful units like the Queen Elizabeth class battleships.
Unless ... they existed in a world where the Great War ended on Christmas Day, 1916. The Great Depression proved far less great, and Britain's economy thus remained far stronger. In our Second Great War at Sea book, Royal Netherlands Navy, Lion and Princess Royal appear as part of Britain's Eastern Fleet based at Singapore.
Click here to order Royal Netherlands Navy right now!
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.