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Cruiser Story

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an historic photo of Prinz Eugen, at the end of the war in Copenhagen
an historic photo of Prinz Eugen, at the end of the war in Copenhagen
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This page looks at the development of the cruiser around the world in the period leading up to WW2. It traces the pressures that influenced other countries and how that modified their designs.

At the end of the First World War Britain was still the greatest naval power, and the cruiser was perhaps the most useful warship. Used for fleet work, scouting, with strengthening the destroyer flotillas, and with combating enemy cruisers. They patrolled the trade routes in wartime and 'showing the flag' in peacetime in all parts of the world. This work demanded different qualities from fleet cruisers; in particular, long range and good habitability. It was accepted that Britain could never without great risk reduce her cruiser strength to below seventy units (she ended the First World War with 120).


   8-inch  6-inch or smaller  total  war time construction  war losses
Britain 17 46 63 28 32
France 7 11 18 0 9
Netherlands 0 4 4 1 3
Russia 5 3 8 2 2
USA 18 19 37 46 10
Germany 1 6 7 2 6
Italy 7 12 19 3 13
Japan 18 17 35 5 38

Whereas Britain's cruiser requirement reflected her need to defend worldwide assets, Japan's was directed more to acquiring such assets. This meant Japanese warships had simply to be bigger and better than those of the powers most likely to oppose her. Eventually, Japanese designs prompted first the U.S.A., and then Britain, to build cruisers bigger than they might otherwise have been. For the Americans, large cruisers would in any case have been preferable, because of the long ranges at which a Pacific war would be fought, but it is doubtful whether the U.S. Navy would have equipped its cruisers with such heavy gun armaments had it not felt the need to compete with Japan. While it is true that both Japan and the U.S.A. appreciated the cruiser as a scout, as a cheap substitute for the battleship, and as an escort against both armoured ships and destroyers, the main reason each of these two countries built large cruisers was because each was trying to outdo the other.

For the three continental naval powers, things were simpler. Germany was limited until 1935 by the Versailles Treaty and could only build a few ships of moderate size. France had little to fear from the German navy and could therefore concentrate on matching Italy. Italy only needed to match France. Both tended to sacrifice protection for very high speeds.

future opponents - Graf Spee in the foreground Spithead 1937, with Revenge and Hood
future opponents - Graf Spee in the foreground Spithead 1937, with Revenge and Hood
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The Washington Treaty effectively prevented the building of large cruisers over 10,000 tons. At the same time a maximum gun calibre was determined for cruisers. Britain, which was building a handful of cruisers with 7.5-inch guns, successfully proposed that the maximum calibre should be 8 inches. This was a notable example of a short-term advantage being won at a heavy long-term price, for every naval power at once began to build 10,000-ton cruisers with 8-inch guns, whereas what Britain needed was smaller ships with 6-inch guns. Britain could not afford to build numerous big cruisers; her money would have been better spent on a larger number of smaller ships.

Japan and Italy were the first to lay down the new 'Treaty' cruisers, in 1923. Their designs were very different. The Trento and Trieste, in the Italian tradition, were very fast (35-knot) ships carrying eight 8-inch guns but rather lightly built. The Japanese pair, Furutaka and Kako, carried only six 8-inch guns, were designed for thirty-three knots, and were quite well armoured. The Italians went on to build five more heavy cruisers, the final four of which were more sturdy and less fast. The Japanese built two more cruisers with six 8-inch guns and then produced the four Myoko class ships. These, on an alleged displacement of less than 10,000 tons, managed to include ten 8-inch guns, extensive armour (four inches thick on the side) and engines producing a speed of almost thirty-four knots. Moreover, on the eve of the war these cruisers, like many other Japanese cruisers, were equipped with the new 24-inch long-range torpedoes. The Myoko class was soon followed by the four similar ships of the Takao class.

the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni sinking after meeting the Australian cruiser Sydney
the Italian cruiser Bartolomeo Colleoni sinking after meeting the Australian cruiser Sydney
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The U.S.A. was late starting on the construction of heavy cruisers, most of her ships in this category being completed in the early thirties. But the American designs never seemed quite to achieve the Japanese fighting qualities. This was hardly surprising, because while the American designers kept quite close to the 10,000-ton limitation the Japanese deliberately and quietly exceeded it; the Myoko type was probably about 13,000 tons.

Pearl Harbour 1943, from the left Salt Lake City, Pensacola and the new New Orleans
Pearl Harbour 1943, from the left Salt Lake City, Pensacola and the new New Orleans
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The first American cruisers (the Pensacola and Salt Lake City) had two triple and two twin 8-inch gun turrets with the heavier triple turrets being in the upper position; not surprisingly, these ships were top-heavy and subsequent designs mounted nine 8-inch guns instead of ten, and these were in just three turrets. Britain meanwhile had been building its distinctive 'County' class cruisers. These were high-sided, three-funnelled ships mounting eight 8inch guns in four twin turrets. Because their side armour was almost non-existent and because of their big silhouette these ships were regarded as rather vulnerable, almost as white elephants. In fact they were a useful class, very stable and seaworthy, and with a long range (over 10,000 miles). During the war they were used mainly on distant patrol work and proved very suited for this. Nevertheless, they were bigger ships than Britain really needed. The two subsequent 'Cathedral' class ships (the Exeter and York) were an attempt to remedy this, being smaller, better protected, and mounting only six 8-inch guns.

Largely owing to British pressure and example, construction of large 8inch gun cruisers died out in the thirties, the 6-inch gun cruiser coming into favour. Britain preferred the 6-inch gun because it required a somewhat smaller ship to accommodate it, and in any case its greater rapidity of fire outweighed the greater range and penetrating power of the 8-inch weapon, especially in actions at night or in bad weather. Britain then introduced three classes of light cruisers, mounting eight or six 6-inch guns, having eight 4-inch anti-aircraft guns, six or eight torpedo tubes, moderate armour (two to four inches at the side) a speed of thirty-two knots and a range of up to 12,000 miles. All three of these designs (the Leander, Amphion, and Arethusa classes) proved very successful during the war and showed what could be achieved on a small displacement when 8-inch armaments were no longer required.

In the Pacific the reversion to the traditional cruiser 6-inch calibre did not result in smaller ships, but in a new competition, with the U.S. and Japanese designers seemingly sacrificing stability and other qualities in an attempt to outdo the other in gunpower. The Japanese Mogami class mounted no fewer than fifteen 6.1-inch guns, and the U.S.A. replied with the well known Brooklyn class, also mounting fifteen main guns but with an inferior designed speed. Once again the Japanese ships exceeded the 10,000-ton maximum, probably by about twenty-five per cent. The existence of Japanese cruisers mounting fifteen 6.1inch guns forced the British Admiralty to construct a class of larger cruisers to match them. This was the successful and well-known Southampton class, mounting twelve 6-inch guns on less than 10,000 tons. From the Southampton class were developed the bigger but not really better Edinburgh and Belfast, and the Fiji class. The latter, another very successful class, was like the Southampton, but, because Britain was hoping to persuade other countries to reduce the maximum cruiser size from 10,000 to 8,000 tons, these ships were built to the latter tonnage.

On the eve of the war there was a tendency to abandon the moderate-sized cruiser in favour of more 8-inch gun ships.

Mogami on trials in 1935
Mogami on trials in 1935
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Japan quietly changed the armament of its two improved Mogami type ships from twelve 6.l-inch to eight 8-inch guns, and then converted the preceding Mogamis; the five triple 6.1inch turrets were replaced by five twin 8-inch turrets. Meanwhile the U.S.A. completed the Wichita, which was virtually a Brooklyn but with nine 8-inch guns. Britain, however did not revert to the 8-inch gun, probably wisely. In the meantime Russia had laid down some Italianate cruisers, armed with 7.1-inch guns, and these had been used as a pretext by Germany to increase its heavy cruiser strength. However, neither the German nor the Russian cruisers played a significant part in the war.

A number of powers had also begun to build light cruisers with strong anti-aircraft armaments. The British Dido class, completed during the war, used the new 5.25-inch dual-purpose gun and was especially useful in narrow waters where both air and surface attack might be expected. Britain was already removing the 6-inch guns of some of the old Cairo class cruisers and replacing them with eight to ten 4-inch anti-aircraft guns. In the U.S.A. the Atlanta class of 6,000-ton cruisers was under construction. This had a main armament of sixteen 5-inch dual-purpose guns and could steam at thirty-four knots. Italy, which had been building very fast 6-inch gun cruisers in the thirties, was introducing its 3,750-ton Regolo class ships, mounting eight 5.3-inch dual-purpose guns and capable, it was claimed, of no less than forty-one knots.

During the war only the U.S.A. laid down new cruisers on a large scale. Because American construction periods were so short a number of these joined the fleet before the war ended. Notable among these were the Cleveland class, with twelve 6-inch guns, and the Baltimore class, mounting nine 8-inch guns and being an enlarged version of the experimental Wichita. Existing cruisers tended to be modified during the war. Many British cruisers with four main turrets had the third turret replaced by anti-aircraft guns. New and heavy radar equipment required masts to be strengthened. Automatic antiaircraft weapons were increased. British cruisers lost their scout aircraft and catapults; it was argued that escort carriers and radar made such aircraft superfluous. However, U.S. cruisers and battleships kept their aircraft, on the grounds that the more scouting aircraft were provided by these ships, the more space there would be on the aircraft carriers for fighter and attack planes.

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