Origins and Development of the Battlecruiser


Interesting discussion (also from MARHST-L) which resulted from Steve McLaughlin's description of the The Origins and Development of the Battlecruiser

20 July 1998
From Byron Angel (trdntint@TIAC.NET)

In reply to Steve McLaughlin's comments regarding the genesis and relative utility of battlecruisers, I offer the following brief comments with respect to the particularly British flavor.

If DREADNOUGHT is viewed as a noteworthy leap in battleship design, I suggest that INVINCIBLE should be viewed as a parallel leap in armored cruiser design rather than as an eccentric capital ship effort. The arguments in favor of high speed turbine power and all big gun armament were no less valid for cruisers than for battleships.Commerce warfare (as it was understood it at the time)conducted by raiding cruiser against British trade had been an historically consistent strategy of the enemies of Great Britain. An examination of the INVINCIBLE design parameters shows some interesting points: 3 knots sustained speed advantage over any opposing armored cruiser powered by reciprocating engines; great cruising radius; good seakeeping; armor proof against weapons up to 9.2 inch caliber at 10,000 yards; main battery capable of piercing the protection of most, if not all, existing armored cruisers at anticipated engagement ranges. The efficacy of this design as an answer to commerce raiding was borne out by events.

Such heavy armament on an armored cruiser design should come as no surprise. It was the next logical step, given the rapid improvements in gunnery. Even with the dual failure of the navy bureacracy to full comprehend the both the limitations of the Dreyer fire control system and the capabilities of the Pollen system, the ten year period from 1898 to 1908 was still witness to a four-fold increase in effective fighting ranges from perhaps 2,500 yards to 10,000 yards. This was impressive technological progress by any standard.

In addition, the Royal Navy had historically favored relatively heavy gun armament for any given tonnage of ship. This attitude could be traced back to the sail era and was quite alive and well not only with respect to DREADNOUGHT and INVINCIBLE, but also with other warship classes which were contemporaneously under design or construction. Witness torpedo boat destroyers armed with 4 inch guns and the TOWN class cruiser with uniform 6 inch main batteries. It is possible to see a clear trend toward outgunning the opposition on a class for class basis.

The question of the utility of battlecruiser as a component of a battle fleet is another issue. They were clearly perceived to be of some value, as Jellicoe complained of the 1915 departure of Sturdee from the North Sea in pursuit of Von Spee. This perceived value may have had roots in the experience of the Japanese with their "flying squadron" of armored cruisers in the Russo-Japanese War, but such employment of armored cruisers by the Japanese may also be viewed as a forced choice imposed upon them by their loss of several battleships to mines earlier in the war. When battlecruisers sailed with battle fleets in the North Sea, both the British and the Germans tended to use them as an independent advance guard and support to the scouting screen as opposed to an integral part of the battle line.

Quite apart from theoretical discussions on the topic, I do not think that there were practical expectations or intentions of battlecruisers facing up to opposing dreadnoughts. At Jutland, the British battlecruisers immediately turned about when confronted by the German dreadnought line. They declined to stay and fight, as did the 5th Battle Squadron. It is, however, fair to say that they did succeed quitre well in their true function as an advance guard element by forcing Hipper back upon his own main body, locating same, and then leading it all to Jellicoe. There were tactical, technical, and organizational deficiencies in the British battlecuisers, but they performed their grand tactical function in spite of all.

In other respect, both German and British battlecruisers operated independently as either a raiding force (various German coastal raids), supports to a raiding force (British at Heligoland I and II), or as a counter raiding force (British at Dogger Bank). This is not a comprehensive compendium of operations by any means, but will get the point across.

Perhaps the most telling point was the basing of the BCF at the Firth of Forth, independent and remote from the Grand Fleet. This decision was undeniably made for a number of varying reasons, but strong inferences can be drawn in two areas: first, that the battlecruisers were perceived as ships which could operate independently from the main body of the fleet; second, that they were not viewed as essential components of the fleet battle line. The Germans were, of course, limited in their basing option by geography.

In closing I offer the speculation that the British battlecruisers might be more fondly recalled if three of them had not blown up so dramatically at Jutland. This was undeniably a failure of propellant chemistry as opposed to one of ship design or concept. If they had instead limped home after the battle with burned out turrets, what would the world have thought of them then?

22 July 1998
from Keith E. Allen (KEACLA1@AOL.COM)

Steve McLaughlin wrote:

"I'd like to offer a little background on the battleship/battlecruiser question..."

This is an excellent essay on the evolution of the battlecruiser idea. I was particularly interested in your description of Russian concepts of the battlecruiser, not something we hear much about in standard English-language works.

Two questions or objections, the first one fairly minor, which do not entail any disagreement with your broader theme:

"The rebuilt Italian dreadnoughts...were intended to face the French DUNKERQUEs. In a sense, then, they fit into this new category of '"light battleshp/battlecruiser"..."

Do we know that the reconstruction of the Italian battleships was motivated specifically by the threat of the new French ships? Or did the Italians undertake this modernization simply because the Washington Treaty permitted them to do so, everybody else was doing it, and their old battleships as built were seriously deficient by the 1930s?

"The rebuilt KONGO class battlecruisers are generally classed as 'fast battleships,' and on the whole I think this is apt; tactically, I do not think the Japanese planned to use them as 'classical' battlecruisers; at most, they would be used for carrier escorts (I believe this was the main rationale for their high speed), and perhaps to support independent cruiser groups. But I believe (I may well be wrong) that they were still perceived as having an important role in a battle fleet action."

The best depiction of the role of the Kongos and its divergence from that of the battle line, as envisaged by the Japanese Navy in the 1930s, is in Peattie and Evans's "Kaigun," pages 280-83. The Kongos were to participate in a special night strike force, along with cruisers and destroyers. In a classic battle fleet action they would operate not with the battle line but in a vanguard force, perhaps somewhat akin to the role you describe for the Russian Borodino-class battlecruisers. This sets them rather clearly apart from the other six Japanese battleships.

The employment of the Kongos in World War II suggests that the Japanese did not consider them an integral component of the battle line. The Kongos operated directly with the carriers in the Pearl Harbor and Midway operations; the other battleships stayed home in the former, and operated separately in the latter. Only the Kongos were committed to combat in the Guadalcanal campaign. Indeed, as far as I know, no Japanese battleship besides the four Kongos fired a shot in anger until the Battles of Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf in 1944.

As far as their technical characteristics are concerned, the Japanese did indeed reclassify the Kongos as battleships. But it is difficult to consider a ship with an eight-inch armor belt as a real battleship; the Lion class had nine-inch armor belts, and no one will ever think to describe them as battleships.

22 July 1998
From Steve McLaughlin (stevem@SFPL.LIB.CA.US)

As a follow-up to my lengthy bit of thinking out loud (or out in cyberspace?) about the origins and development of battlecruisers, I think I omitted a very important line of thought (I rarely get things right the first time). Also, a couple of people have asked for the sources that I drew upon in writing my first note. The interested reader will find the major ones appended at the end of this (hopefully short) message.

What I left out was a very important element in the development of the battlecruiser's predecessor, the armored cruiser. I made it sound like there was *one* kind of armored cruiser, but in fact that classification really covers two completely different kinds of ship, and I think both kinds were reflected in the subsequent history of the battlecruiser.

Quite simply, there were commerce raiding/protecting armored cruisers (two sides of the same coin), and "battle fleet" armored cruisers. The former had their origins in the "station" ships of the 1870s and 1880s; in the Russian navy these ships were referred to as "semi-armored" cruisers; they usually had a heavy waterline belt and armored deck, but little protection above that save what coal bunkers could provide. The Russian cruisers RIURIK and ROSSIIA of the 1890s were the perfect exemplars of the commerce-raiding variety -- long-ranged, relatively heavily armed, but with only waterline protection (their gun positions were completely unprotected). The French built some ships along roughly similar lines, while the Royal Navy built the enormous protected-deck cruisers POWERFUL and TERRIBLE to counter them.

In the Russian case, there was a change in philosophy in the mid- 1890s, with the introduction of improved armor plate, and the result was the transitional ship GROMOBOI, which reduced the waterline protection somewhat in order to put some armor on some (but not all) of the gun positions. She was still conceived of as a raiding cruiser, but had the secondary duty of operating with the fleet.

The next class, BAIAN and her sisters, were a "pure" battle fleet type, with relatively short range but very complete armor protection. They were relatively small, but the last of the Russian armored cruisers, RIURIK (ii), built by Vickers, was in many ways a smallish, fast battleship.

In other navies -- especially the Royal Navy -- I don't think the gulf between the two types was ever so definite, with commerce protection duties mixed with fleet work. This was possible, as noted before, thanks to improved armor types that allowed more extensive protection of the ships without hurting their speed. This "mix" seen in the British armored cruisers was carried over to the battlecruisers; but in the Russian navy at least it is clear that the "fleet" type of armored cruiser was the direct ancestor of the the IZMAIL (or BORODINO) class battlecruisers; there was absolutely no element of commerce raiding/protection in their design philosophy.

Bill Schleihauf's posting indicates that the Committee on Designs saw the battlecruiser as a fleet scout, rather than as a "ship of the line" -- this may mean that Fisher had not fully revealed his thoughts to them. Or it may mean that Fisher himself was somewhat hazy as to what the ships would end up doing -- although he liked to paint in bold strokes, there often seems to be an element of contradiction in Fisher's pronouncements, and it's quite possible that he himself had different ideas about what the battlecruiser was supposed to be at different times.

I'm still absorbing Keith's posting on the KONGOs, which was very informative. As for the Italian reconstructions being a counter to the French DUNKERQUEs, I *believe* this is mentioned in Garzke & Dulin's book on Axis battleships; another potential source is an oblong paperback called "Regia Marina" (spelling?) that I have on Italian battleships in WWII. I will take a look at these sources and see if there is a specific statement regarding the influence of the DUNKERQUEs.

For the role of armored cruisers in the late 19th century in general, I have drawn a lot on:

Theodore Ropp, The Development of a Modern Navy: French Naval Policy, 1871-1904, edited by Stephen S. Roberts (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1987)

and also

Jon Tetsuro Sumida, In Defense of Naval Supremacy: Finance, Technology, and British Naval Policy 1889-1914 (London: Routledge, 1993).

The latter work is especially good on the controversy regarding gun calibers in the late 19th/early 20th centuries -- i.e., was it better to have a lot of small rapid-firers, or a few big slow- firers?

Then there's

David K. Brown, Warrior to Dreadnought: Warship Development 1860- 1905 (London: Chatham Publishing, 1997)

which provides the best overview of the entire era.

For the role of the armored cruiser in the Russian navy in particular, see my article in the forthcoming issue of Warship annual (at least, it's *supposed* to be there!). It draws mostly on Russian-language sources.

This has been supplemented by numerous articles in Warship and Warship International on various classes of armored cruiser.

For the role of armored cruisers at Tsushima, I have relied on:

.J.M. Campbell, "The Battle of Tsu-Shima" (Warship; part 1: vol. II, no. 5, pp. 38-49; part 2: vol. II, no. 6, pp. 127-135; part 3: vol. II, no. 7, pp. 186-192; part 4: vol. II, no. 8, pp. 258-265),


Julian S. Corbett, Maritime Operations in the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994).

For the origins of the British battlecruisers, I was going a lot from memory, but drew heavily on the Sumida book cited above, as well as on:

Jon Tetsuro Sumida, "British Capital Ship Design and Fire Control in the Dreadnought Era: Sir John Fisher, Arthur Hungerford Pollen, and the Battle Cruiser" (Journal of Modern History, 51 (June 1979), pp. 205-230)


John Roberts, Battlecruisers (London: Chatham Publishing, 1997).

I need to re-read this last book. I read it only a few months ago, but already so many new things have hit me that I need to refresh my memory.

For the rationale behind the Russian battlecruisers, the best source was

S.E. Vinogradov, "Lineinye korabli v programmakh razvitiia rossiiskogo flota 1911-1914 gg." ("Battleships in the Russian fleet's programs of development, 1911-1914") (Tsitadel', no. 2, 1996, pp. 45-66).

Unfortunately, there is nothing comparable to this in English.

For the remainder of the big-gun period, I was basing things mostly on standard sources known to any battleship enthusiast -- i.e., Friedman, U.S. Battleships and U.S. Cruisers; Raven & Roberts, British Battleships; Siegfried Breyer, Garzke & Dulin, and several Russian-language works for KRONSHTADT and STALINGRAD.

There are many other sources that have bubbled around in the back of my head over the years, but if I tried to list them all this follow-up would be a lot longer than the original posting. I hope these notes are helpful.

28 July 1998
From William Schleihauf (

This thread has died down, but while excavating my study, I came across the following, which because it's been buried in library archives for so long, is probably worth listing as a useful (additional) source.

In the March, 1940 issue of the US Naval Institute "Proceedings" (vol 66, number 445) is "Some Facts About Fisher and His Warships" by none-other than Admiral Sir R. Bacon. It was written as a rebuttal to an article in the August 1939 issue, and some of Bacon's statements are:

"... those warships did not fail when they met the test of battle... None of our battleships, nor any one of those in the German Fleet, was subjected to a knock-out test."

"Let us see what were the reasons for fixing the balance between gun armament, speed, and defensive armour in the three original battle cruisers of the 1905 program. We had at that moment no first-class cruisers so speedy as those which the Germans had put into commission. We had been obliged to subsidize large trans-atlantic liners with a view to their equipment as cruisers, so as to have vessels of a speed superior to that of the German ships, a most unsatisfactory makeshift. This state of affairs had to be rectified, so a speed of 25 knots was fixed as the least that was desirable in our battle cruisers. The gun armament was based upon two considerations. First, extensive annual maneuvers had shown that it was necessary to have scouting vessels which were sufficently well armed to force their way through screens of lighter vessels right up to the limit of gun range of the enemy's battleships. It was essential that our larger scouts should be able to report the numbers and disposition of the enemy's battle fleet; this they could not do without visual contact. Second, it was felt that vessels endowed with so great a tonnage and speed could, if adequately armed, reinforce the van and rear of the battle fleet in action. It was never visualized that they should, single-handed, engage the enemy's heavily armoured battleships, but they could well lend assistance if such enemy ships were already engaged."

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Last Updated: 28 July, 1998