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Second World War at Sea:
Modern Battle Cruisers

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2013

Conceived as the combination of high speed and big guns, the battle cruiser held the imagination of both admirals and politicians before and after the First World War. The big guns misled many into thinking of the ships as fast battleships rather than heavily armed cruisers, lacking the same protection as a true dreadnought. The loss of several British battle cruisers at Jutland in 1916 diminished enthusiasm somewhat, and already the type was giving way to a true fast battleship with both high speed and adequate armor.

The Washington Treaty of 1922 created a new type of ship, the “Treaty cruiser.” The treaty limited these ships to a maximum of 10,000 tons and 8-inch guns. Few had adequate armor even against one another, much less a battleship. All major navies built this type of ship, some in fairly large numbers.

In response, most navies toyed with the concept of a “cruiser killer,” using some of their allotted tonnage for battleship construction to build a ship in the neighborhood of 17,500 tons so that two of them could be built in the allotment for one 35,000-ton battleship (the Washington Treaty limit for such warships). On that displacement the new type of ship could not have guns as large as a battleship, so it would carry perhaps 11-inch or 12-inch weapons, adequate for dispatching a cruiser beyond the cruiser’s own gunnery range. It would have high speed so it could run down enemy cruisers and run away from enemy battleships.

Such a ship would also pose a threat to enemy aircraft carrier groups, escorted only by cruisers as no battleship of the inter-war years could match a carrier’s speed.

France took the plunge in the late 1920s and ordered a pair of these ships. But after second thoughts, the French raised the displacement to 26,500 tons and increased the ship’s size and protection. These vessels became the battle cruisers Dunkerque and Strasbourg, depicted in Bomb Alley.

Size Comparison. Alaska (bottom) shares a pier
with the battleship Missouri.
Norfolk, Virginia, August 1944.

The United States also studied many versions of this type of ship, and finally ordered six in the massive 1940 “Two Ocean Navy” shipbuilding program. Fear that Japan was building “super cruisers” of her own prompted the order; duties for these ships would include carrier escort and operations against Japanese cruisers.

The Alaska class owed much more to American cruiser design practice than that for battleships. She had an armor scheme similar to that of the Baltimore-class heavy cruisers of the same program, though it covered somewhat more of her hull. She had aircraft hangars, a feature of cruisers but not battleships, though her designers placed these amidships (other American cruisers carried their hangars aft).

Alaska carried nine 12-inch guns, a completely new weapon not carried by any other American warship. She displaced 27,000 tons, and could make 31 knots — slightly less than an Iowa-class battleship. To emphasize that she was not a battleship, navy officials insisted on calling her a “large cruiser.”

USS Guam conducts gunnery practice

Alaska and her sister Guam reached the Pacific theater in early 1945 and participated in the late-war carrier raids, but Japanese surface opposition had disappeared by the time they arrived. The ships proved expensive to operate, and their in-between status left them no place in the postwar Navy. The Iowa-class battleships provided superior speed and nine 16-inch guns, while a Baltimore-class cruiser was perfectly adequate to overwhelm any surface ship the Soviet Union might send to sea.

Japan already had battle cruisers, four World War I-era ships of the Kongo class. These had been thoroughly modernized to provide well-armed, fast escorts for carrier task forces, and their existence spurred design of the Alaska class.

With eight 14-inch guns and a speed of 30 knots, these ships could easily destroy Treaty cruisers, at least on paper. But one of them (Hiei) fell victim to over 50 hits from U.S. cruisers at the first Battle of Guadalcanal and was finished off by aircraft the next day. Kirishima of the same class lost a gunnery duel to the battleship Washington at the second Battle of Guadalcanal. All four ships were a mainstay of the Imperial Navy in the war’s early years and they all appear in Eastern Fleet and Midway.

The Japanese did not begin planning new battle cruisers in earnest until they got word of the American Alaska-class design (itself prompted by rumors of Japanese battle cruiser designs). They responded with a type they labeled B64. This would be a smaller version of the giant battleship Yamato, at least in appearance, with a single funnel and her main armament in three triple turrets.

The design process began in 1939, and resulted in a large ship with light protection. She would displace 31,500 tons and have a speed of 33 knots. The first version included eight torpedo tubes. She would also carry as her secondary armament the 3.9-inch dual-purpose weapon then being fitted to Akizuki-class destroyers, themselves large destroyers originally planned as small anti-aircraft cruisers. In the first design, the B64 cruiser’s main armament would be 12-inch guns.

Two such ships were projected under the 1942 Program, but contracts were never placed. The design was re-cast in 1942 when more details of Alaska became known, with the ship enlarged somewhat and the main armament increased to 14-inch guns. To save weight, this design eliminated the torpedo tubes.

Like the American ships, the Japanese vessels were never officially titled “battle cruisers” but instead were always described as “large Type A cruisers,” the Japanese Navy’s equivalent of “heavy cruiser.” Had the hulls actually been laid down it’s doubtful they would have been completed as battle cruisers, but would have instead been selected for conversion into aircraft carriers in the same emergency program that resulted in conversion of the Shinano and the battleship-carriers Ise and Hyuga.

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