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Battlecruisers: A Flawed Naval Experiment of WWI

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00-battlecruisers.jpg

HMS Hood, the largest battlecruiser ever built. Photographed in Australia on 17 March 1924.
WWI was a time of change in naval warfare. Heavy dreadnoughts were replacing older, more vulnerable ships. Submarines made their first serious appearance in combat. Amid the changes, Navies on both sides built battlecruisers, a new type of ship which turned out to be fundamentally flawed.
A Lighter Sort of Ship

Created by British Admiral John Fisher, battlecruisers were a new idea in the years immediately before the war. Larger than armored cruisers, they were intended to combine the speed of those ships with the heavy weapons of a dreadnought. Originally called fast armored cruisers, they became known in Britain as battlecruisers in 1912.

Their combination of speed and firepower meant that if confronted by dreadnoughts, they could use their speed to escape or if faced with less well-armed ships they could smash them with their heavy armament.

Their capabilities allowed them to fill three roles. They could work with the dreadnoughts in the main battle fleet, adding extra firepower. They could form the heart of smaller squadrons, or they could act independently, their speed and firepower enabling them to contribute to the war without support from other ships.

hms_shannon_1906-741x518.jpg

HMS Shannon, a Minotaur-class armoured cruiser, 1908–09.

The First Battlecruisers

In 1909, the Royal Navy was the first to launch battlecruisers. The faith the British placed in the ships was reflected in their names – the HMS IndomitableInflexible, and Invincible. They had a displacement of 17,250 tons, similar to the original HMS Dreadnought, but thinner armor to allow for greater speed. Each one carried eight 12-inch guns, just short of the ten 12-inch guns carried by most dreadnoughts.

The first batch of battlecruisers was followed by another set of three carrying similar weapons. Then a process of escalation began, as the designers tried to fit them with ever-greater firepower. The HMS Tiger, a unique battlecruiser laid down in 1912, carried eight 13.5-inch guns. The Renown and Repulse, launched at the height of the war in 1916, had six guns each, but they were powerful 15-inch weapons.

By 1917, the Royal Navy had built 12 battlecruisers, more than any other nation.

1200px-tigersp1674-741x283.png

HMS Tiger at anchor, 1916–17.

German and Japanese Battlecruisers

Britain’s first battlecruisers were designed and begun in secret, during the naval arms race. Even when they were launched, not every nation rushed to imitate Fisher’s innovation. By the start of the war, only Britain, Germany, and Japan had battlecruisers in action.

The First German battlecruiser was completed in 1910, and several more were produced during the years that followed. While sticking with the broad outline laid out by Fisher, the Germans brought a slightly different approach to battlecruisers. They placed less emphasis on speed and firepower, giving their battlecruisers instead better armor than the British ones. Their first battlecruisers carried 11.1-inch guns although ships built later had the 12-inch guns the British had started with.

The Japanese could not afford to produce as many ships as other powers, so they chose to focus on quality over quantity. Their Kongo-class battlecruisers had their design changed to incorporate 14-inch guns. They also had slightly heavier armor than the British ships. The first Japanese battlecruiser was built in Britain while they were allies; later ships were produced in Japan.

1200px-haruna_at_yokosuka_1916-741x498.j

Imperial Japanese Navy battlecruiser Haruna at Yokosuka, Japan.

Successes

At first, the battlecruisers were successful. At the Battle of Heligoland Bight in August 1914, they turned the tide of battle in favor of the British by sinking three German light cruisers. While on detached service in the Falklands in late 1914, the HMS Inflexibleand Invincible sank two less-powerful German cruisers, confirming their role as destroyers of light ships.

German battlecruisers were sent out on some successful independent expeditions. They bombarded towns on the British east coast, raising concerns among the British public about the Royal Navy’s ability to protect them. The Germans gave a battlecruiser, the SMS Goeben, to the Ottoman Empire. It contributed to bringing the Turks into the war and helped them fight against British and Russian fleets.

bundesarchiv_bild_134-d0004_groser_kreuz

Goeben in port, date unknown. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 134-D0004 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Problems

However, the successes concealed problems with the battlecruiser design.

One of the biggest issues was that the captains of the ships regarded them as suitable ships of the line. With their large size, heavy armament, and impressive label, commanders mistakenly tried to use them in straight fights against dreadnoughts and other battlecruisers. Their armor, reduced to increase their speed, was not designed to withstand the sort of guns those ships carried.

In May 1916, the Battle of Jutland laid the truth bare for all to see. Single salvos of shells proved enough to sink three British battlecruisers, the Indefatigable, the Invincible, and the Queen Mary. Each was blown apart and sent into the depths. On the German side, the Lützow was sunk, and other battlecruisers limped home. A combination of good seamanship and precautions introduced to contain explosions stopped more from being lost.

Battlecruisers had faced a major battle, and their weakness had been exposed.

hms_indefatigable_1909-741x449.jpg

British battlecruiser HMS Indefatigable underway in coastal waters just before the Battle of Jutland.

Obsolescence and Abandonment

Fortunately, another machine emerged to serve part of the role filled by battlecruisers. The growth of naval aviation created an alternative way of providing reconnaissance for battle fleets.

No more battlecruisers were lost during WWI, as both sides learned the lessons of Jutland and used them appropriately.

Following the war, there was still some interest in building battlecruisers, although with a different design. Then the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 brought a halt to the naval arms race, and interest in battlecruisers evaporated. By the time naval power began to grow again, designers had moved on to improved options.

Ultimately, battlecruisers were too vulnerable for ships of their size and firepower.

Source:
Ian Westwell (2008), World War I
Wikipedia – accessed July 13, 2017

 

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13 minutes ago, crzyhawk said:

The problem with that is the major problem with battlecruisers was British propellant.  The concept was fine.

http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.955.2090&rep=rep1&type=pdf

 

still the armor is an issue with regards of getting detonated i.g Hood vs Bismarck

 

they're just like a stop-gap between a cruiser and a battleship

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Battlecruisers as a class of ship are not flawed, their usage against Dreadnoughts and flawed British propellant were the biggest problem.

 

Also, Hood could be classified as the first true Fast Battleship after Queen Elizabeth.

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did you post this in the wrong section?

Speed is important, as it allows you to get into superior positions more easily, end of story.

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Just now, Ajatcho said:

 

still the armor is an issue with regards of getting detonated i.g Hood vs Bismarck

 

they're just like a stop-gap between a cruiser and a battleship

 

The problem was with unstable British powder. German and American powder usually burned, allowing the ability to flood magazines and save the ship. British powder would largely just explode, wrecking the ship.

 

Look at Bismarck, she got every single one of her turrets/barbettes and secondary guns penetrated and she never had a catastrophic magazine detonation, even through there was explosions and fires in the turret magazines themselves. 

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7 minutes ago, xX_Critical_ClopOut69_Xx said:

 

The problem was with unstable British powder. German and American powder usually burned, allowing the ability to flood magazines and save the ship. British powder would largely just explode, wrecking the ship.

 

Look at Bismarck, she got every single one of her turrets/barbettes and secondary guns penetrated and she never had a catastrophic magazine detonation, even through there was explosions and fires in the turret magazines themselves. 

 

still if they were armored enough the outcome might be little different

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1 minute ago, Ajatcho said:

 

still if they were armored enough the outcome might be little different

 

Not at all, Hood was lost because of her powder. Battlecruisers took similar damage at Jutland and other battles with different results.

 

You cannot criticize a ship built during WWI against a modern WWII warship, of course Hood was at a disadvantage.  

Edited by xX_Critical_ClopOut69_Xx

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8 minutes ago, xX_Critical_ClopOut69_Xx said:

 

Not at all, Hood was lost because of her powder. 

 

You cannot criticize a ship built during WWI against a modern WWII warship, of course Hood was at a disadvantage.  

 

still with their weak armor they can be easily penned by battleship even by themselves in the process they can't take a heavy beating like SMS Lützow who was the second Derfflinger-class battlecruiser was heavily damaged by an estimated 24 heavy-caliber shell hits. With her bow thoroughly flooded, the ship was unable to make the return voyage to Germany.

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1 hour ago, Ajatcho said:

One of the biggest issues was that the captains of the ships regarded them as suitable ships of the line. With their large size, heavy armament, and impressive label, commanders mistakenly tried to use them in straight fights against dreadnoughts and other battlecruisers. Their armor, reduced to increase their speed, was not designed to withstand the sort of guns those ships carried.

Yeah, except going battlecruiser on battlecruiser is fine (no one whinges when a cruiser sinks a cruiser and declares the whole concept unworkable...).

Then the German BB's went up against the Brit QE class for a good chunk of Jutland, and although knocked about didn't lose any ships to them. They also launched an attack on the British Grand Fleet line to allow the HSF to retreat, again not losing any ships. The only German BC sunk was killed by Invincible.

None of the British BC's were sunk by BB's either.

 

The armor was mostly irrelevant on the day, except for possibly the unfortunate Queen Mary. Two of three British ships were lost to turret penetrations. The German BC's lost a ton of turrets too - Derfflinger I think had them all knocked out by the end of the day. Put German turret/magazine flash tightness, ammunition handling and cordite on the British ships and things may well have been rather different. Tiger took 12 heavy shell hits and was effectively fully operational at the end of the day - a little tap wasn't fatal unless unlucky.

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I always get a good chuckle out of the Lexingtons being called weak in the protection department. It's not like anything else it would likely be fighting at the time would have any immunity zone against the 16"/50 either.

 

And hey, you get the bonus of "not randomly exploding" because you aren't using British powder or powder handling practices.

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53 minutes ago, mofton said:

The armor was mostly irrelevant on the day, except for possibly the unfortunate Queen Mary. Two of three British ships were lost to turret penetrations. The German BC's lost a ton of turrets too - Derfflinger I think had them all knocked out by the end of the day. Put German turret/magazine flash tightness, ammunition handling and cordite on the British ships and things may well have been rather different. Tiger took 12 heavy shell hits and was effectively fully operational at the end of the day - a little tap wasn't fatal unless unlucky.

 

The German's experianced the flash 'flaw' in one of the earlier battles. Lesson learned, they retrofitted their ships to prevent flash. Thus the reason alot of the German ships survived losing their turrets.

The British, having not experianced the issue, and given their munition handling practices, were just waiting for disaster.

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1 hour ago, _V12 said:

If you use a fork to eat soup, is the fork a failed utensil?

Agreed, but it is just so tempting to try..... :cap_rambo:

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2 hours ago, crzyhawk said:

The problem with that is the major problem with battlecruisers was British propellant.  The concept was fine.

http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.955.2090&rep=rep1&type=pdf

No, it was not fine.

The concept was flawed from inception.

 

Here is the critical flaw in the design -

They can't out run bullets.

End of story...

 

Longer explanation - the whole premise is they dont get shot at, but with armament that can hurt larger ships, they are guaranteed to be shot at first. Why you ask? Because the enemy is not STUPID!

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2 hours ago, Ajatcho said:

 

still the armor is an issue with regards of getting detonated i.g Hood vs Bismarck

 

they're just like a stop-gap between a cruiser and a battleship

 

That has nothing to do with being a battle cruiser.  It has to do with being a ww1 shop fighting in WW2.

 

In ww1 they didn't have the delayed fuse AP shells that would penetrate and detonate inside. Bismarck did.  They knew about that and were planning on fixing it.  

 

It was armored against shell technology that wasn't used anymore.

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15 minutes ago, _cthulhu_ said:

No, it was not fine.

The concept was flawed from inception.

 

Here is the critical flaw in the design -

They can't out run bullets.

End of story...

 

Longer explanation - the whole premise is they dont get shot at, but with armament that can hurt larger ships, they are guaranteed to be shot at first. Why you ask? Because the enemy is not STUPID!

 

The concept was not flawed at all. Battlecruisers were intended to replace the older armored cruiser, and they did exactly that. No armored cruiser stood a ghost of a chance against a modern battlecruiser, not even the German made Blucher which blurred the lines between the two significantly with its design.

 

Problem is that when they were used as stand-in ships of the line against an opposing forces battlecruisers, the inferior British powder handling practices and flash protection lead to them being destroyed. The German ships actually help up remarkably well under intense battleship caliber fire, and conducted several tactical maneuvers that would have been impossible in a slower moving dreadnought division.

 

The only reason the class as a concept became obsolete, was that the technology they pioneered was soon mated with the heavier protection and armament of a proper battleship, leading to the fast battleships of the mid to late 30's. The concept of the battlecruiser never truly vanished, they were just interbred with super dreadnoughts as technology advanced.

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2 hours ago, xX_Critical_ClopOut69_Xx said:

 

Not at all, Hood was lost because of her powder. Battlecruisers took similar damage at Jutland and other battles with different results.

 

You cannot criticize a ship built during WWI against a modern WWII warship, of course Hood was at a disadvantage.  

Sorry, but that last line was just plain ignorant.  Of course, the Hood, a WW1 BC, was detonated by the Bismarck, a WW2 BB.  HOWEVER, 3 RN BCs were detonated by German ships at the Battle of Jutland, and were obviously all WW1 era ships.  (And IIRC, a fourth RN BC only managed to avoid detonation from a magazine fire because an already mortally wounded Royal Marine officer managed to flood the magazine in time.)

 

Also, I have no doubt that their powder was a major contributing factor to the loss of these battlecruisers.  However, so was their weak armor.  Unless someone can prove otherwise, I think that it should be a certainty that the RN's true battleships were using the same powder and none of them detonated at Jutland or elsewhere.  Why?  Most likely because unlike their BC counterparts, they had good armor.

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WW1 battlecruisers were not "flawled", in fact they were the most active capital ships of the war. 

 

The four Battlecruisers that were lost at Jutland three of them (the british) were lost due to bad crew habbits handling the explosive charges, they ignored safety procedures that lead to detonations, it wasnt ships fault. The german Lutzow was llost after taking huge damage, it was in the center of the action for most of the battle and was scuttled by the crew. 

 

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1 hour ago, Big_Spud said:

I always get a good chuckle out of the Lexingtons being called weak in the protection department. It's not like anything else it would likely be fighting at the time would have any immunity zone against the 16"/50 either.

 

And hey, you get the bonus of "not randomly exploding" because you aren't using British powder or powder handling practices.

 

Lexingtons were originally supposed to have 14" guns, and even if we suppose its armed with 16" rifles.  Why is it armored against German 12" AP rounds post WWI?  It was a bit of a cluster due to the last US armored cruisers being designed quite a while ago, and that while BB development had seen significant advances in both firepower and armor, the armored cruiser had seen only major advancement in firepower, armor lagged behind because of other demands.  Curiously enough, Lexington represents a significant increase in protection because of that 7" belt.  The prior class Tennessee had a 5" belt with 10" guns.  It was just that US cruiser development expanded rapidly without time for lessons to sort out important characteristics.

 

Kongo's 14" guns represent a dangerous threat against Lexington, and they really shouldn't for a design 20 years senior.  Granted Lexington threatens Kongo as well, but it should; I don't consider that significant.

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24 minutes ago, Big_Spud said:

 

The concept was not flawed at all. Battlecruisers were intended to replace the older armored cruiser, and they did exactly that. No armored cruiser stood a ghost of a chance against a modern battlecruiser, not even the German made Blucher which blurred the lines between the two significantly with its design.

 

Problem is that when they were used as stand-in ships of the line against an opposing forces battlecruisers, the inferior British powder handling practices and flash protection lead to them being destroyed. The German ships actually help up remarkably well under intense battleship caliber fire, and conducted several tactical maneuvers that would have been impossible in a slower moving dreadnought division.

 

The only reason the class as a concept became obsolete, was that the technology they pioneered was soon mated with the heavier protection and armament of a proper battleship, leading to the fast battleships of the mid to late 30's.

1. BC's are a TYPE not a class.

2. I think that RN BCs were a failed concept.  However, German BCs were a fine example of how to do it right.  Why do I think that the RN BCs were a failure?  Because like you said, they were used as in the battle line, because they were just as big and carried the same guns as battleships.  Too many RN admirals far too easily were willing to use their BCs as battleships where their weak armor made them vulnerable to fire from German battleships and battlecruisers.

As for German Battlecruisers, their designers followed a different model.  Instead of Fisher's model of big guns, weak armor, and cruiser speed, the German BC model more like take a German BB design, reduce gun size slightly, reduce armor slightly, and use the rest to get some more speed.  As a result, German BCs were a lot tougher than RN BCs, though not as fast.  And only one German BC (the Lutzow) was lost during the fighting at the Battle of Jutland, but only due to taking incredible punishment from 24 major caliber hits!!!  Two other German BCs (Derfflinger and Seydlitz, each taking 22 major caliber hits!) took major damage but survived to reach port.  In short, German BCs were sorta lighter, faster battleships, rather than battleship sized and gunned cruisers.

3.  I agree with the final sentence, though I wonder if there was some sort of weight saving advancement in boiler and engine technology between the wars that allowed for the concept of the "fast battleship".  WW1 era BCs got their speed because they had to make tonnage sacrifices in other areas to "pay for" additional boilers and engines.  And I'm thinking that something technological must have changed between the wars that made the fast battleship model to work.

 

Edited by Crucis

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1 minute ago, Crucis said:

3.  I agree with the final sentence, though I wonder if there was some sort of weight saving advancement in boiler and engine technology between the wars that allowed for the concept of the "fast battleship".  WW1 era BCs got their speed because they had to make tonnage sacrifices in other areas to "pay for" additional boilers and engines.  And I'm thinking that something technological must have changed between the wars that made the fast battleship model to work.

 

Yes, oil fired boilers, geared turbines and the switch to high pressure steam plants (with more than twice the steam pressure) allowed much more horsepower to be generated for the same mass/volume of steam plant.

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22 minutes ago, Xlap said:

WW1 battlecruisers were not "flawled", in fact they were the most active capital ships of the war. 

 

The four Battlecruisers that were lost at Jutland three of them (the british) were lost due to bad crew habbits handling the explosive charges, they ignored safety procedures that lead to detonations, it wasnt ships fault. The german Lutzow was llost after taking huge damage, it was in the center of the action for most of the battle and was scuttled by the crew. 

 

Just because ships are very active doesn't preclude them from being a flawed concept.  Also, I only think that the RN battlecruisers were a flawed concept.  The German BCs were fine.

10 minutes ago, Korval_BB55 said:

Yes, oil fired boilers, geared turbines and the switch to high pressure steam plants (with more than twice the steam pressure) allowed much more horsepower to be generated for the same mass/volume of steam plant.

Ahhh.  Thanks, Korval.  That makes a lot of sense.  Something had to have changed for the fast BB concept to work.

Edited by Crucis

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2 minutes ago, Korval_BB55 said:

Yes, oil fired boilers, geared turbines and the switch to high pressure steam plants (with more than twice the steam pressure) allowed much more horsepower to be generated for the same mass/volume of steam plant.

 

Beat me to it.

 

A good game (if you can handle the excel spreadsheet graphics) for the dreadnought development period is Rule the Waves published by NWS.  It allows the player to experiment with designs within technological limitations, maintaining colonies, attempting to manage diplomacy, and ending up at war with the wrong country at the wrong time.  Either that or building your latest class of uber-BB's, only to have the bureaucrats sign a naval disarmament treaty banning the construction of those 200 million dollar ships, when they are just 3 months away from completion.  SCRAPPED!  

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