Building a Better Tiger
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
In an earlier installment, we looked at the construction and wartime career of the British battle cruiser Tiger, one of the Royal Navy’s most beautiful ships despite a rather mediocre fighting record. She would eventually be discarded and scrapped, but this was not a certain outcome.
The Royal Navy elected to retain the battle cruisers Repulse and Renown, chiefly because of their main armament of 15-inch guns. Tiger was a better-balanced design and better fighting ship than the two lightly-armored speed demons when new, and there’s no reason to think that the rebuilt ship would not have the same edge.
The 1930 London Treaty further limited the battle fleets of the signatories: Britain, the United States and Japan. Britain and the United States agreed to limit their fleets to 15 battleships or battle cruisers apiece, and Japan to nine. The Royal Navy would have to make the greatest sacrifice, deleting five capital ships (one of them, Iron Duke, becoming a mostly-disarmed gunnery training ship).
Britain chose to delete all of her coal-fired ships (incidentally, also all of those armed with 13.5-inch guns): the other three members of the Iron Duke class, and the battle cruiser Tiger. She would instead retain the five R-class battleships, which had 15-inch main batteries and were oil-fueled though hopelessly slow. At the height of the Depression, decreasing the battle fleet through international treaty allowed the government to make cuts to the naval budget without the political fallout of reducing Britain’s relative international standing. Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government was determined to cut naval expenses, and came away from the treaty negotiations well-pleased with the result.
Tiger appears to have been a victim of poor timing: deleted in March 1931, she went to the breakers exactly one year later. In 1936, PM Stanley Baldwin’s National Government decided on maximum re-armament. Since no new capital ships could be laid down until 1937, that meant rebuilding all useful Great War-era capital ships: the five ships of the Queen Elizabeth class and the battle cruisers Hood, Repulse and Renown. The five ships of the Royal Sovereign class, however, were too small and short for the new machinery envisaged for the other eight ships and also had very poor underwater protection.
While Tiger shared the R-class ships’ lack of an internal torpedo bulkhead, so did Repulse and Renown. She would have been a much better choice for retention, so why was she scrapped instead of one of the battleships? With her main battery of 13.5-inch guns, she would have been an “odd number,” needing a separate supply chain (though the Royal Navy appears to have had plenty of 13.5-inch shell on hand, issuing the 57 remaining guns for coast-defense and other duties during the war).
A bigger reason for Tiger’s scrapping may have been her poor record from the Great War, as we detailed earlier. She shot poorly and indiscriminately at both Dogger Bank and in the battle cruiser action that opened the Battle of Jutland, doing more to interfere with British gunnery than to inflict damage on the enemy. In both cases, the British would have been better served had Tiger simply stayed home. The prejudice carried over after the war, but Tiger’s performance had nothing to do with the ship’s design or construction, but arose from an incompetent crew scraped from the bottom of the Royal Navy’s barrel.
Repulse and Renown had poor reputations of their own; British sailors referred to them as “Refit and Repair” and shuddered at the sight of their long, unarmored flanks. The pair underwent considerable modifications, including a massive rebuilding of Renown between 1936 and 1939 that can serve as a general guide for how Tiger might have been reconstructed.
Renown had only three turrets (each with two 15-inch guns) compared to four in Tiger; Renown was fifty feet longer than the older ship. Even so, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference in the size of their machinery spaces. Renown received new machinery during her rebuilding: four Parsons turbines driven by eight big Admiralty three-drum boilers produced 130,000 horsepower, enough to drive Renown at 29 knots after all the added weight of armor and other additions during the rebuilding. The new machinery was lighter, smaller and more powerful than what it replaced. Despite her age, throughout the Second World War Renown remained the fleet’s fastest capital ship.
Tiger, designed for 28 knots, could make 29 knots despite lacking the greyhound lines of Repulse and Renown. She did have a rather anachronistic ram bow and would have benefitted from its replacement. With the same new machinery as Renown she should have been able to keep her 29-knot speed, even with her new armor, weapons and superstructure.
Tiger carried eight 13.5-inch Mark V rifles, which armed all of the British capital ships of her (very brief) generation. The new 14-inch Mark VII could be mounted in the same cradle as the 13.5-inch Mark V (probably to allow testing on Iron Duke, which had the same 13.5-inch Mark II turrets as Tiger, though this doesn’t seem to have been actually carried out) and doing so in Tiger would give her a very formidable main armament. The 14-inch Mark VII provided excellent shooting for the King George V class battleships, when those ships’ troublesome mountings allowed. Tiger would not have had that problem.
The rest of her reconstruction would have been very similar to that of Renown: all of the casemate-mounted 6-inch guns would be removed and their mounting plated over. They would be replaced by probably 12 or 16 of the excellent 4.5-inch Mark II dual-purpose secondary gun in double mounts (Tiger’s playing piece may be a little under-rated in Horn of Africa). Renown had her submerged torpedo tubes replaced by a strong battery of eight deck-mounted tubes; this was of dubious use and Tiger may or may not have carried them (we did not give torpedoes to Tiger in the game).
Renown had an aircraft in 1936, but the planes and their catapult were periodically removed and re-installed until they were set ashore for good in 1943. Tiger’s layout doesn’t really lend itself to aircraft handling and so she probably would not have had her own seaplane.
Tiger would need improved protection, though she was not as defenseless as the pre-reconstruction Renown. Like Renown she would receive thicker deck armor and most importantly an anti-torpedo bulge; Tiger had better side armor when new than did Renown after reconstruction. The lack of an internal torpedo bulkhead could not be corrected even in this fairly massive reconstruction.
A large superstructure similar to that fitted in Renown would probably also be added to Tiger, ruining her lovely lines but making her much easier to control in battle. Along with that would come control positions for her primary and anti-aircraft armament, and eventually radar, which Renown received in 1941 (four different sets, for gunnery, surface search, air search, and anti-aircraft control).
What would emerge from the dockyards would be an expensive but very useful ship. Tiger would be the fastest large ship in the Royal Navy, well-suited to escort aircraft carrier task forces, and a better fighting ship than Repulse or Renown despite her smaller main caliber guns. On the other hand, she would be tremendously expensive: Renown cost just over £3 million to rebuild; by comparison the new battleship King George V, ordered in July 1936 (more or less when Tiger would have started her reconstruction) cost £7.3 million.
And finally, in 1939 when Tiger would have emerged from reconstruction, Winston Churchill was at 10 Downing Street and not at the Admiralty as in 1914. Without Churchill’s spectacularly foolish decision to dispatch the Royal Navy’s trained ratings to infantry combat in France, Tiger would have the well-trained crew she deserved and did not receive in her first war.
We’ve looked at a number of hypothetical reconstruction projects in Daily Content, and most of them can be concluded to have been of marginal utility had they been carried out. Tiger is an exception: deleting the battle cruiser in 1931, despite her “odd number” armament, was likely a serious error on the part of the Admiralty. They could have scrapped one of the R-class (likely Revenge, the least-modernized of the sisters in 1931) instead, or followed the Japanese example of Tiger’s near-sister Hiei. The Japanese placed her in the gunnery training role allowed by the Treaty, as the British did with Iron Duke, but unlike the Brits the Japanese had every intention of restoring her as a fighting unit at the first opportunity.
In her modernized form, Tiger appears in Second World War at Sea: Horn of Africa. She probably would have seen plenty of action in all theaters of war; Renown operated in all active theaters and was retired in May 1945, a career Tiger would likely have copied.
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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.