The "battle cruiser" (also "battlecruiser") was a breed of vessel devised by Admiral Sir John "Jackie" Fisher, Britain's premiere naval visionary: It was through his efforts that the Royal Navy took the steps to become the first truly modern navy of the 20th century. One of Fisher's most notable achievements was H.M.S. Dreadnought. This revolutionary vessel soon became the world-wide naval standard for battleships by demonstrating the viability of all large calibre/long range guns, heavy armour and high speed. So impressive was the design in fact, that its name become synonymous with all modern battleships...they were all to be known as "dreadnoughts."
Fisher, in his efforts to modernise the Royal Navy, felt it imperative to get rid of all older/inefficient ships. The majority of such vessels in the Royal Navy belonged to the cruiser force. Fisher felt that the future of naval warfare held no place for these vessels – their roles could be handled by a combination of dreadnoughts, destroyers and submarines. He realised of course, that other navies would still prefer to keep cruisers (perhaps because it was cheaper to "stockpile" cruisers rather than dreadnoughts). He also realised that most countries could not successfully stand "toe-to-toe" with the Royal Navy in direct engagements.
The most likely naval course of action that potential enemies would resort to would be commerce raiding – rather than engage the war fleets, strike Britain's supply lines instead. Although confidence was placed in the Royal Navy's ability to counter direct threats (i.e., enemy dreadnought fleets), the ability to protect convoys stretched around the globe was questionable. How best then, to counter such threats?
The submarine, though showing great potential, was still largely unproven. The destroyer, though fast, lacked sufficient firepower and armour protection. The dreadnoughts, heavily armed, well protected and fairly fast, were needed for the prerequisite "ship-of-the-line" duties. It was apparent that something new had to be devised.
Thus Fisher envisioned the "dreadnought armoured cruiser" (also "large armoured cruiser"). This type would ultimately be redesignated as the "battle cruiser." These vessels would be similar in size and main armament to the dreadnoughts, but would be significantly faster. The extra speed would be attained by increased horsepower. This was attained through large power plants which were heavy and took up a great deal of space.
In order to preserve the sea worthiness and speed capabilities of the ships, weight sacrifices had to be made elsewhere – most notably in armour/protection. This didn't worry Fisher though. His belief was that "speed [coupled with heavy firepower] was its own best protection." Translated, this means that the battle cruiser should easily be able to out-run and out-gun any enemy cruiser (or smaller) size vessels. The battle cruiser's armour, though thin, should be able to withstand smaller cruiser calibres. In the event that a battle cruiser came across a superior vessel such as a dreadnought, they could easily outrun it.
It did look good in paper. Of course, Fisher had clearly not thought the idea entirely through: what if other navies began building battle cruisers? What sort of advantage would Britain have then? Also, what if the Admiralty decided to change the roles of the battle cruisers? What if they were used as ships of the line? These were questions that history would later answer with tragic results.
The First Battle Cruisers
In March 1908, the first battle cruiser, H.M.S. Invincible, was commissioned. She and her sisters Indomitable and Inflexible displaced @17,000 tons, could reach speeds in excess of 25 knots and featured an armament headed-up by eight 12" main guns. Of course, the inevitable soon happened: Germany, seeking to create a navy on par with that of the British, began an ambitious building programme. In 1911, to counter the threat of the Invincibles, they commissioned the one-off/experimental SMS Von der Tann.
Von der Tann displaced between 19,000 - 21,700 tons, could attain 27 knots and featured a main armament of eight 11" guns. In typical German fashion, armament and speed were traded off (slightly) in favour of improved armour protection. That is, they equipped their vessels with weapons of smaller calibre (and of accordingly less weight) than their British contemporaries. The result was that the weight saved using the lighter armament was instead used for increased armour. As they were slightly heavier in weight, they also tended to be a few knots slower. The approach was certainly smarter – for a little less firepower and speed, their vessels were much more survivable. This would later be proven during the First World War.
The British continued their battle cruiser programme despite the Von der Tann. By 1912/1913, the Indefatigable class emerged. She and her sisters Australia and New Zealand were essentially improved Invincibles. In 1914, these were augmented by the new 13.5" gunned Lion, Princess Royal and Queen Mary. By the start of the First World War, these were joined by H.M.S. Tiger. Germany too, continued constructing battle cruisers such as Moltke, Goeben, Hindenburg, Derfflinger, Seydlitz and so forth.
Because of the German battle cruisers, as well as other concerns, the Admiralty began to rethink the method of their own ships' deployment. They were soon formed into battle cruiser squadrons (under Rear-Admiral David Beatty) and although retaining their role as scouts for the main battle fleets, they would now be used, according to Commander-in-Chief Admiral Callaghan, "to engage enemy battle cruisers in a fleet action, or, if none are present, by using their speed to cross the bow of the enemy [dreadnoughts] and engage the van of his battle fleet." From this point onward they were unfortunately considered more or less ships of the line.
Battle Cruisers in Action
In August 1914, the First World War began. Soon afterward, the British battle cruisers had their first taste of combat. At first, things went well. As time wore on, their short comings became painfully apparent.
Heligoland Bight, 28 August 1914: In action of Heligoland, the battle cruiser squadron under Rear-Admiral (RADM) Beatty soundly defeated a force of German light cruisers and destroyers. The battle cruisers had been used in their original role and successfully.
Falkland Islands, December 1914: Once again the battle cruisers were used correctly. Invincible and Inflexible ambushed a German cruiser force led by Admiral Maximilian Graf Von Spee. They easily destroyed the cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. They even claimed the life of Spee himself.
Dogger Bank, January 1915: Five British battle cruisers engaged a force of German battle cruisers and one armoured cruiser. The results were less than acceptable to say the least – though no British ships were lost, some were heavily damaged. Due to poor gunnery, poor signalling and improper tactical usage, the British allowed most of the German force to escape. The only loss was the German armoured cruiser Blücher, which sank with a dreadful loss of life.
Jutland, May 1916: This epic battle was to show all the faults of the battle cruiser concept. The British took a terrible beating – three battle cruisers as well as a few smaller vessels were lost: H.M.S. Invincible, flagship of RADM Sir Horace Hood, exploded and sank with only 6 survivors out of a crew of @1026 men. Also lost that day were H.M.S. Indefatigable (2 survivors out of a crew of @1019) and H.M.S. Queen Mary (9 survivors out of a crew of @1285). A fourth battle cruiser, H.M.S. Lion, was nearly lost as well – only quick damage control saved the day. Although strategically defeated (they never again sent their fleet out in such a way), the Germans faired better – although several ships suffered serious damaged, very few were actually lost.
The failures were due to multiple reasons. First, the battle cruisers should not have been used as ships-of-the line. They were overly exposed to concentrated amounts of large calibre German artillery. The vessels were all struck by plunging shells which penetrated their thin deck and turret armour. Furthermore, the unstable nature of British cordite and poor safety/handling methods were also to blame. The lack of adequate fire/flash proofing also contributed to the losses. Click Here to learn more about the battle of Jutland.
Battle Cruisers After Jutland
Regardless of the failure of the battle cruisers, the Admiralty did not revise their roles. They also allowed more to be built. These were the Renown and Repulse. Although improved in many ways over the early vessels (15" guns, improved anti-torpedo features, extremely high speed plus improved fire/flash proofing), they were still woefully lacking in armour protection. Indeed, Admiral Jellicoe, hero of Jutland, found Repulse so lacking that he ordered her back to the dockyard in 1918 for the fitting of additional armour over her critical spaces. Both vessels would live to see service in the Second World War.
In addition to the true battle cruisers listed here, some modern historians also claim the bizarre Courageous and Glorious (two turrets with twin 15" guns, but with only 3" armour), together with their half sister Furious (two turrets with single 18" guns) as being battle cruisers. Technically speaking, this is wrong. These odd vessels, known to fleet as "Curious, Spurious and Outrageous," were all officially classed as "large light cruisers." All three ultimately were eventually converted to aircraft carriers.
The final British battle cruiser to be completed was H.M.S. Hood. Designed and built during the latter part of First World War, she would boast drastic improvements over all previous battle cruisers and even some battleships. Of course, in the end, she too ultimately failed – once again, improper tactical usage on the part of the Admiralty had tragic results. To learn more about the creation of Hood, please read our articles, "Hood Design Background" and "The Construction of H.M.S. Hood".