The Splendid Cats

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2023

The Royal Navy’s first battle cruisers had been designed along the same lines as previous armored cruisers, in terms of protection, with better speed and a battleship’s guns. Their heavy guns would support the cruisers and destroyers of the scouting forces, but these ships would not fight in the line of battle.

The Germans failed to cooperate, designing heavily-armored battle cruisers capable of standing in the line of battle. They had lesser armament than German dreadnoughts (fewer guns, and for a time, smaller ones) but the Admiralty Board, charged with approving new ship designs, feared that they outmatched their own battle cruisers. There would need to be a change.

While the battle cruiser Lion is sometimes described as the battle cruiser equivalent of the new Orion class “super dreadnoughts,” the battle cruiser was actually designed first. The Admiralty Board had secretly decided to move forward with a new 13.5-inch gun as the main armament of battleships and battle cruisers. That gave Sir Philip Watts, the Director of Naval Construction, license to draft a far larger and more powerful ship than the previous battle cruiser design, Indefatigable, or for that matter the last dreadnought, Hercules.

Indefatigable displaced 18,500 tons and Hercules 20,000; the ship that became Lion weighed in at 26,500 and would be the largest and most expensive warship ever laid down in the United Kingdom when construction began in November 1909.

Queen Mary prepares for sea trials. September 1913.

She would be the first British warship to carry super-firing turrets forward, which concerned some of the Board members. Another twin turret would go amidships, and one aft; Watts suggested that for a minimal increase in length (nine feet) the aft turret could be replaced by another pair of super-firing turrets, giving the ship ten 13.5-inch guns rather than eight. It would also increase her already-prodigious cost by 7 percent and the Board declined to do so.

Alternatively, Watts suggested keeping the pairs of turrets, deleting the amidships mounting and using the space saved for more powerful machinery to raise the ship’s speed another knot. But Lion’s hefty price tag already hovered at the £2 million point, and the Board feared the political repercussions of blowing through it – whether battle cruisers or wargames, resistance pricing is a real thing. Lion would be built to the original design.

That still yielded a much more powerful ship than any other battle cruiser afloat or building. The 13.5-inch Mark V tossed a 1,400-pound shell, compared to the 854-pound shell of Indefatigable’s 12-inch Mark X rifles. They also had a range advantage of about 1,000 yards. Lion’s secondary battery numbered sixteen 4-inch guns in a casemate battery; the next battle cruiser design, Tiger, would move to a six-inch gun in acknowledgement of the growing size of destroyers.

Lion also continued the British practice (contrary to what German and American naval architects considered essential) of carrying armor protection that could not withstand her own firepower. Her armor, with nine inches on the belt and turrets and two and a half inches on the deck, would in theory keep out German 280mm (11-inch) rounds but would not be proof against a 13.5-inch armor-piercing shell and probably not against the 305mm (12-inch) SK L/50 (which the British may not have known – the German weapon had better penetration than the equivalent British 12-inch Mark X).

Despite this lower scale of protection, Lion took terrific punishment at both Dogger Bank and Jutland, yet survived. Three other battle cruisers were lost at Jutland, not through insufficient armor but suicidally stupid shell handling procedures, which almost invited a magazine explosion in battle. The Admiralty Board wanted a battle cruiser able to fight the (relatively) heavily-armored Moltke class German battlecruisers, not dreadnoughts. And that’s the design that Watts delivered.

Watts designed Lion to make 28 knots on her 70,000-horsepower turbines, three knots faster than Indomitable. On trials she only made 27 (and Indefatigable clocked 26.7 knots); her sister Princess Royal made 28.5 knots and their near-sister Queen Mary 28 even). That still gave her a significant edge over her German counterparts, which were not as fast as the Admiralty believed. Like the previous battle cruisers, Lion burned coal in her 42 boilers, with an oil spray to increase its burn rate.

Loading 13.5-inch shells aboard Lion. February 1917.

The 1909 Naval Estimates provided for two battle cruisers, Lion and a sister ship, Princess Royal (named for Louise, the eldest daughter of King Edward VII). Princess Royal was laid down in May 1910 and completed in November 1912; Lion completed in May 1912.

The 1910 battle cruiser, the ship that became Queen Mary, followed a very similar design. Sir Henry J. Oram, the Admiralty’s Engineer-in-Chief, wanted more space in the engine room. Queen Mary would be six inches wider than Lion, requiring more turbine power (75,000 horsepower) to maintain her speed and raising her displacement to 27,000 tons. She carried two fewer 4-inch secondary guns than Lion and Princess Royal, and had her officer’s country in the traditional location near the stern (previous battle cruisers sited them amidships, closer to their action stations). Queen Mary, laid down in March 1911, completed in August 1913. An intended repeat of Queen Mary, Tiger, would be built to a greatly modified design instead.

The new ships, larger than any ship in the world (the new Orion-class dreadnoughts carried more guns, but were considerably smaller) caught the public imagination, in no small part to well-crafted propaganda from the Admiralty and the Vickers combine, which built Princess Royal. They became the “Splendid Cats” (the nickname makes more sense when Tiger is included in their number).

All three battle cruisers began the war with the Grand Fleet, with Lion usually serving as flagship of their squadron, the Battle Cruiser Force and the Battle Cruiser Fleet. They all participated at the Battle of Helgoland Bight in late August 1914, but Princess Royal would soon be detached to North American and the Caribbean. Lion barely survived the Battle of Dogger Bank; the Germans did not realize that she had remained afloat and did not attempt to finish her off. After a tow home from Indomitable she required three months of repairs. Princess Royal took no damage at Dogger Bank. Queen Mary missed the battle, to undergo a dockyard period during which a new fire control system was fitted.

The loss of Queen Mary.

At Jutland, Princess Royal suffered nine hits and dealt out five of her own; she lost 22 killed and 81 wounded. Lion took fourteen hits and likewise scored five hits on enemy ships. Seydlitz and Derfflinger each hit Queen Mary twice; the second hit from Derfflinger detonated one or both of Queen Mary’s forward magazines, thanks to open shell-handling passages. The ship broke in two and sank quickly, taking 1,266 men with her. Only eighteen crewmen survived.

The surviving ships remained with the Battle Cruiser Force for the remainder of the war in the North Sea, and went to the Atlantic Fleet in 1919. In 1920 they both went into reserve; the Admiralty offered Princess Royal to Chile in place of the battleship Almirante Cochrane, seized and converted into the aircraft carrier Eagle, but the Chileans declined. Both battle cruisers went to the cutters in 1922, though we modernized them for our Second Great War at Sea alternative history.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his new puppy. His Iron Dog, Leopold, could swim very well.

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