Battlecruisers were large warships of the first half of the 20th century first introduced by the British Royal Navy. They evolved from armoured cruisers and in terms of ship classification they occupy a grey area between cruisers and battleships. Generally, battlecruisers were similar in layout and armament to battleships but they traded off armour or firepower for higher speed, which showed in their more powerful engines and slender hulls; they still retained enough firepower and protection to be classified as capital ships. On the other extreme, considerably smaller vessels which were upscaled cruisers, such as large cruisers and pocket battleships, are often considered by some to be battlecruisers as well.

Although technical specifications varied, all battlecruisers shared a similar role specification. They were designed to hunt down and outgun smaller warships or merchant ships, and outrun larger warships that they could not outgun. This idea was mainly conceived by British Admiral Jackie Fisher who believed "speed is the best protection". Fisher's idea centred on battlecruisers operating for imperial defense, vectored in by a global information grid and central plotting in the Admiralty to destroy weaker vessels that would prey on merchant shipping in international waters, while engaging more powerful warships with accurate gunnery at greater ranges. Fisher, however, did not intend for battlecruisers to take part in traditional battleship duels.

Originally, to achieve this, they deviated from the standard practice of providing a ship with sufficient armour to protect against its own guns. The weight saving from the reduced armour allowed more powerful engines to be fitted, giving them a higher speed and allowing them to operate far from home. Germany's navy by contrast, intended their battlecruisers to join the battle line after the opponent was met. Therefore, heavier armour was required, so the German ships sacrificed gun calibre instead of armour in order to raise speed. Despite the major difference in design philosophy, both performed the same task.

Battlecruisers were superseded by the beginning World War II as advances in design and technology allowed fast battleships to be developed, which combined or even exceeded the best features of World War I battlecruisers and slow battleships.

First battlecruisers

The battlecruiser was a dramatic evolution of the armoured cruiser of the 1890s, pioneered by the British Royal Navy under Admiral Jackie Fisher. In the late 1890s, the naval supremacy Britain had enjoyed since the Napoleonic Wars faced a challenge from France and Russia, two traditional naval powers which had recently become allied. While Britain had a larger fleet of battleships than both powers combined, Britain faced the risk that in the event of war enemy cruisers could interfere with the commerce between the British Isles and the Empire on which Britain's wealth depended.

Fisher, an innovative and farsighted naval officer, sought to produce a weapon which would answer the cruiser threat. A large armoured cruiser which combined exceptional firepower and speed offered the solution; these ships became known as the battlecruiser. Very high speed meant that the new ships could catch enemy cruisers; once caught, speed meant that Fisher's ships would be able to choose a range of engagement at which their heavy guns could destroy the enemy with little risk of receiving damage in return.

There is evidence that Fisher intended the battlecruiser to entirely replace the battleship in the Royal Navy, as it was better suited to the defence of Britain's vital Imperial interests. Whether this was the case or not, he certainly intended the battlecruiser to replace the many existing armoured cruisers, protected cruisers and gunboats which were scattered over the world

The design of the revolutionary armoured cruiser was entrusted to the same committee that produced the Dreadnought. The vessels that resulted were named Inflexible, Invincible and Indomitable, all completed in 1908. Compared to the most recent of the RN's cruisers they were quite different. They had a displacement similar to that of the Dreadnought but twice the power to give a speed of 25 knots. They had 12 in guns like a contemporary battleship, but achieved speed at the expense of protection. They had armour 6 or 7 inches (150 to 180 mm) thick along the side of the hull and over the gunhouses, whereas a comparable battleship of the period had armour 11 or 12 inches (280 to 300 mm) thick.

These ships were completed with the most modern fire control equipment available at the time, and in this respect represented a great advance over ships completed only a few years earlier. The full advantages of centralised fire control would not be realised for some years, and the Invincible class ships were eventually fitted with director firing in the months before Jutland.

The Invincibles were originally designated "dreadnought cruisers". However, a tendency to think of them as partially equal to a battleship led to the unofficial title "battleship cruisers" which led to the adoption of the term "battlecruiser" in 1912.

Battlecruisers in the Dreadnought arms race

The battlecruiser had been seen by Fisher as a decisive weapon for the defence of the British Empire against enemy cruisers. However, by 1908, when the first battlecruisers entered commission, Britain's strategic circumstances had changed. While the propspective enemy had previously been the Franco-Russian alliance, now it was clearly Germany.

Diplomatically, Britain had entered the Entente cordiale in 1904 and the Anglo-Russian Entente. Furthermore neither France nor Russia posed a particular naval threat; the Russian navy had largely been sunk or captured in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, while the French were in no hurry to adopt the new dreadnought battleship technology. Britain also boasted very cordial relations with two of the significant new naval powers; Japan (bolstered by the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, signed in 1902 and renewed in 1905), and the USA.

The greatest naval contest was now that between Britain and Germany. It was clear that any naval war between Britain and Germany would mainly be conducted in the North Sea, and that the battleship would be the crucial weapon. The strategic niche which the battlecruiser filled was now less important. Nevertheless, it was Britain and Germany who produced virtually all of the world's battlecruisers before World War I.


Having ordered three of the ships in the 1905-6 programme, the Royal Navy, faced by tight naval budgets under the new Liberal Government, considered but declined to build any in the 1906-7 and 1907-8 programmes, favouring battleships proper for those years. A single "battlecruiser" was built under the 1908-9 programme, the /Indefatigable, which represented only a minor increase in size, and detail improvement over the Invincible. The following ships of the Lion class built in the 1909-10 programme represented a major increase in size, cost, speed, fire power and protection over the 12-inch ships, although the ships were still "unbalanced" in that the protection was inadequate to resist their own guns. Two Lion class ships were built in the 1909-10 programme, the second ship ordered under a blaze of journalistic, parliamentary and general public uproar generally known as the "we want eight" campaign, a desire to see eight large armoured ships authorized in the 1909-10 programme in response to fears of German naval ambitions. A slightly modified third vessel of the //Lion class was ordered for the 1910-11 programme and HMS Tiger was built to a significantly revised, larger and faster design still under the 1911-12 programme. The key feature of the Tiger was that it had its main gun turrets all either aft or fore, eliminating the amidship turret which had a poor firing arc. Shortly before, this scheme had been pioneered by the battlecruiser Kongo, which was designed and built by the British shipyard Vickers for the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Tiger was the last pre war battlecruiser of the Royal Navy as the 1912, 1913 and the largely un-built 1914 programme did not include any battlecruisers, an oversight offset to some extent by the admirable qualities of the Queen Elizabeth class of the 1912-13 programme, and intended to be repeated under the 1914-15 programme that was suspended on the outbreak of war.

With the return of Fisher to the Admiralty early in WWI, and the early success of the battlecruisers in the Battle of the Falkland Islands, Fisher gained permission from cabinet to complete two new battlecruisers, using some of the equipment and armament intended for the suspended battleships of the Revenge class from the 1914 programme. The result was the Renown class, ships combining high speed, six 15 in guns but very thin six inch armour. Aside from these ships, and in line with Fisher's plans for operations in the Baltic Sea three "large light cruisers" - big ships (22,000 tons and some 750 ft long) with even less protection than the battlecruisers but carrying a few battleship calibre guns were ordered, Fisher stretching the truth in this case because he had authority to order ships up to the size of light cruiser but no further capital ships. In the event, the planned Baltic operations never materialised and the three "large light cruisers" laid down HMS Furious (the 18 in gun design), Glorious and Courageous (each two twin 15-inch) found use elsewhere as aircraft carriers.

The German Response

The German navy of the early 1900s was defined by the Fleet Acts, a set of laws which laid down the number of warships the German navy was to have at any time. For any battleship or cruiser which was old enough to be retired, the Germany Navy was authorised to lay down a replacement battleship or cruiser. The strict limit on the number of ships allowable meant that the Navy felt entitled to make every ship as powerful as could be justified. Hence, when the first British battlecruisers arrived, it became clear that every subsequent armoured cruiser in the German navy would be a battlecruiser.

The secrecy which surrounded the development of the British Invincibles meant that the Germans lost the first opportunity to respond. Blücher, completed in 1909, was at 25 knot just as fast as the British battlecruisers. However, her designers had assumed that the new British cruisers would carry 9.2-inch guns, and in response Blucher was armed with twelve 8.2 in guns. By the time that the British ships were to be armed with 12 in guns, Blücher was too far along to alter her design. Although the Blücher was a fine ship by armoured cruiser standards, she was obsolete before she was completed and was destroyed by British battlecruisers at the Battle of Dogger Bank in 1915.

Germany's first true battlecruiser was Von der Tann of 1910. The German design philosophy was dramatically different from that of the British. As early as 1906 Korvettenkapitän Vollerthun, an official representative of the RMA (Reichsmarineamt, the German Naval Office), had published a paper predicting that the armoured cruiser and battleship would merge into a single distinct type, effectively pre-empting the "fast battleship" by 30 years. Although the Germans called their battlecruisers Große Kreuzer (large cruisers) what the RMA was actually trying to build were small, fast battleships. The Germans had no global obligations to defend and all their warships were designed for a probable clash of arms in the North Sea. With this in mind, the primary role for the German battlecruiser force was to function as fleet scouts and a distinct fast division of the battlefleet, so the Germans placed combat power (in terms of both armament and protection) ahead of all other considerations when designing their battlecruisers.

German battlecruisers were expected to fight alongside the battleships once the enemy fleet was met and as such were armoured sufficiently to withstand heavy gunfire. Requiring neither the crew accommodation nor fuel bunkerage for long range cruises, the German designers were able to devote a greater proportion of the vessels tonnage to armour. To further this advantage, a great deal of attention was paid to saving weight in the machinery and fittings of the ships. Measures ranged from the adoption of small-bore water-tube boilers which gave a better power to weight ratio, right down to the piano in the Officer's mess being made from aluminium. The vessels also benefited from the wider dockyards that they were built in, allowing them to be built with a broader beam and greater internal subdivision than the British battlecruisers. The Von der Tann was protected by a 10 inch thick armoured belt, carried eight 11 in guns and could cruise at 26 knots, but her operational range was short as she possessed only the most rudimentary accommodation for her crew.

Von der Tann was succeed by the larger SMS Moltke and SMS Goeben, and the ultimate evolution of this first generation of German battlecruisers was SMS Seydlitz. The main improvements to Seydlitz over her half-sisters was her raised forecastle, giving her greater freeboard at the bow and improving seakeeping qualities, as the Moltke Class had proved notoriously "wet" in even relatively mild swell. Seydlitz was also about a knot faster, had slightly thicker armour and a new design of turret. The culmination of pre-war German battlecruiser development, the Derfflinger class ships were 28,000 ton vessels capable of 29 knots, armed with eight 12 in guns, mounted in main gun turrets all either aft or fore, and protected by a 12-inch armoured belt. They were handsome ships as well as being very effective. Gary Staff, naval historian and author, considers these ships the most effective battlecruisers of World War I.

Overall the Germans emphasised speed and protection compared to the British emphasis on speed and firepower. Indeed, Korvettenkapitan Vollerthun described their battlecruisers as Kreuzer-Schlachtschiffe ("cruiser-battleships") thus neatly defining the different design priorities of the German designs over the British "battleship-cruisers". Most German battlecruisers were armed with 11 in guns, even as the Royal Navy adopted the 13.5 in gun, on the basis that it was more than adequate against any likely opponent and the Germans only adopted larger guns in the battlecruiser fleet with the launch of the Derfflingers in 1913.

Further evolution of the Derfflinger design resulting in the laying down of the 30,000 ton Mackensen and the Ersatz Yorck class battlecruisers - enlarged Derfflingers with eight 13.8 inch- and 15 in guns respectively. Although all four of the Mackensens were laid down and three were launched, none were completed before the end of the war. They would have been roughly equivalent to the British Renowns in terms of speed and firepower, although much better protected.

Other Nations

In the years immediately preceding World War I several nations including France, the United States, Austria-Hungary and Spain began to draw up designs for new classes of battlecruiser. However, only two got as far as actually laying down ships. The Japanese received their first battlecruiser in 1913 with the commissioning of the Kongo, which was designed and built in England by the Vickers yard. The design of Kongo was so advanced, in particular with all main armament fore or aft, that the Royal Navy redesigned HMS Tiger to a new configuration very similar to that of the Japanese ship. The four ships of the Kongo class were the first vessels to mount 356 mm (14 inch) guns (of which they had eight) and were capable of 28 knots (52 km/h), but were armoured in accordance with British practice and their armoured belt was only 8 inches (203 mm) thick at its widest point.

The Russians laid down the four ships of the Borodino class (sometimes known as the Izmail class) in 1913. Unable to build powerful enough turbines themselves, they instead purchased machinery from Germany. However, the outbreak of war halted construction and although all the hulls had been launched by 1917, there was no chance of them being completed without machinery. Had they been completed the Borodinos would have been large and impressive vessels, armed with 12 356 mm (14 inch) guns and protected by an armoured belt up to 10 inches (254 mm) thick. However, post-revolutionary Russia had no use for them and the hulls were cut up for scrap during the 1920's.

World War I

At the outbreak of the war, only three nations operated battlecruisers; The Royal Navy, the High Seas Fleet of the
Kaiserliche Marine and the Imperial Japanese Navy. The British and German battlecruisers saw a great deal of action, far more than the dreadnought battleships, and were involved in nearly all the major fleet actions of World War I.

The final British battlecruiser design of the war was the Admiral class, which was born from a requirement for an improved version of the Queen Elizabeth battleship. The project began at the end of 1915, after Fisher's final departure from the Admiralty. While initially envisaged as a battleship, senior sea officers felt that Britain had enough battleships, but that new battlecruisers might be required to combat German ships being built (the British overestimated German progress on the Mackensen class as well as their likely capabilities). A battlecruiser design with eight 15-inch guns, 8 inches of armour and capable of 32 knots was decided on. However, the experience of battlecruisers at the Battle of Jutland meant that the design was radically revised and transformed again into a fast battleship concept with armour up to 12 inches thick but still capable of 31.5 knots. The first ship in the class, Hood, went ahead according to this design. The plans for her three sisters, on which little work had been done, were revised once more later in 1916 and in 1917 to improve protection

The Pursuit of Goeben and Breslau

Although not a naval battle in the traditional sense, the German battlecruiser Goeben and her escort, the light cruiser Breslau, managed to escape the French and British Mediterranean fleets and sail to Constantinople, where their arrival directly caused the Turks to enter the war alliance with the Central powers. The closure of the Dardanelles to all shipping effectively sealed off Russia's only ice-free shipping route and with Goeben frustrating any attempts by the Black Sea Fleet to open them.

Battle of Heligoland Bight

A force of British light cruisers and destroyers entered the Heligoland Bight to attack German shipping in August 1914, the first month of World War I. When they met opposition from German cruisers, Admiral Beatty took his squadron of four battlecruisers into the Bight and turned the battle, ultimately sinking three German light cruisers and killing a German commander, Rear Admiral Leberecht Maass.

Battle of the Falklands

The original battlecruiser concept proved successful in December 1914 at the Battle of the Falkland Islands. The British battlecruisers Inflexible and Invincible did precisely the job they were intended for when they chased down and annihilated a German cruiser squadron, centered on the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, along with three light cruisers, commanded by Admiral Maximilian Graf Von Spee in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Battle of Dogger Bank

During the Battle of Dogger Bank, the after turret of the German flagship Seydlitz was pierced by a British 13.5 inch shell from HMS Lion which detonated in the working chamber. The charges being hoisted upwards were detonated, and the explosion flashed up into the turret and down into the magazine, setting fire to charges in the process of being handled. The gun crew tried to escape into the next turret, allowing the flash to spread, destroying both turrets internally. Seydlitz was saved from near-certain destruction only by emergency flooding of her after magazines. This near-disaster was due to the way that ammunition handling was arranged and was common to both German and British battleships and battlecruisers, but the lighter protection on the latter made them more vulnerable to the turret or barbette being pierced. The "working chamber" had been introduced in HMS Formidable (1898) and was intended to prevent such a dangerous flash, but instead made such an event more likely. The Germans learned from investigating the damaged Seydlitz and instituted improved measures to ensure ammunition handling was flash tight. The British remained unaware of the weakness, to their great misfortune at the Battle of Jutland.

Apart from the cordite handling, the battle was mostly inconclusive, though both Lion and Seydlitz were severely damaged. The British flagship Lion's lost speed causing her to fall behind the rest of the battleline and Admiral Beatty was unable to effectively command for the remainder of the engagement. A British signalling error allowed the German battlecruisers to withdraw, as most of Beatty's squadron mistakenly concentrated on the crippled armoured cruiser Blücher, sinking her with great loss of life. Blücher herself was obsolete, out of all the ships in the battle, and so she had proved to be a liability to the rest of the German squadron, which was otherwise an all battlecruiser squadron.

Battle of Jutland

At the Battle of Jutland 18 months later, both British and German battlecruisers were employed as fleet units. The British battlecruisers became engaged with both their German counterparts, the battlecruisers, and then German battleships before the arrival of the battleships of the British Grand Fleet. The result was a disaster for the Royal Navy's battlecruiser squadrons: Invincible, Queen Mary and Indefatigable exploded with the loss of all but a handful of their crews. This was due to the vulnerability of the working chamber which the Germans had discovered after the near-loss of Seydlitz at Dogger Bank and had taken preventative measures against. The British ships not only had lighter armour but also lacked flash tight ammunition handling arrangements, due in part to lack of awareness and experience, and also as it would improve their rate of fire to compensate for poor accuracy. Each was lost to a single salvo penetrating the turret and detonating in the working chamber. Beatty's flagship Lion herself was almost lost in a similar manner, save for the heroic actions of Major Harvey.

The better armoured and flash tight German battlecruisers fared better, in part due to poor performance of British fuses (with failure to explode behind armour). Lützow for instance only had 117 killed despite receiving more than thirty hits, though she had sufficient flooding that she was scuttled. The other German battlecruisers, Moltke, Von der Tann, Seydlitz, Derfflinger were all heavily damaged and required extensive repairs after the battle, Seydlitz barely making it home, for they had been in the very centre of enemy fire for much of the battle. No British or German battleship was sunk during the battle with the exception of the old German pre-dreadnought Pommern, the victim of torpedoes from British destroyers.

Post-war developments

In the years immediately after World War I, Britain, Japan and the USA all began design work on a new generation of ever more powerful battleships and battlecruisers. The new burst of shipbuilding which each nation's navy desired was politically controversial and potentially economically crippling. This nascent arms race was prevented by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, where the major naval powers agreed to limits on capital ship numbers. The German navy was not represented at the talks; under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was not allowed any modern capital ships at all.

Through the 1920s and early 1930s only Britain and Japan retained battlecruisers, often modified and rebuilt from their original World War I designs. The line between the battlecruiser and the modern fast battleship became blurred; indeed, the Japanese Kongo class were formally redesignated as battleships.


HMS Hood, launched in 1918, was the last First World War battlecruiser to be completed. Hood was modified during construction to feature belt armour that was thought to be capable of resisting her own weapons - the classic measure of a "balanced" battleship - and her armour weaknesses were recognized and tackled to some extent during refits.

Hood was the largest ship in the Royal Navy when completed; thanks to her great displacement, she seemed to combine the firepower and armour of a battleship with the speed of a battlecruiser, causing some to refer to her as a fast battleship.

The navies of Japan and the USA, seeing a threat from Hood, laid down battlecruisers to rival her. The Imperial Japanese Navy began four Amagi class battlecruisers. These vessels would have been of unprecedented size and power, being as fast and well armoured as HMS Hood whilst carrying a main battery of ten 16" guns - the most powerful armament ever proposed for a battlecruiser. The United States Navy responded with the Lexington class battlecruisers, which if completed as planned would have been exceptionally fast and well armed, but would have carried armour little better than that of the very first battlecruisers. The final stage in the post-war battlecruiser race came with the British response to the Amagi and Lexington types: four 48,000 ton G3 battlecruisers, vessels of comparable size, power and speed to the Second World War Iowa class battleships.

The Washington Naval Treaty meant that none of these designs came to fruition. Those ships which had been started were either broken up on the slipway or converted into aircraft carriers.

In Japan, Amagi and Akagi were taken in hand for conversion into aircraft carriers. In 1923 the Amagi was damaged beyond repair by an earthquake and was broken up on the slips, the hull of one of the proposed Tosa class battleships, Kaga, being converted in her stead.

In Britain, Fisher's "large light cruisers" were converted to carriers. Furious had already been converted to an aircraft carrier during the war and Glorious and Courageous, which had no place in the post-Treaty navy, were similarly converted.

The United States Navy also re-tasked two battlecruiser hulls as aircraft carriers in the wake of the Washington Treaty: USS Lexington and Saratoga were both designed as battlecruisers (the hull designations were originally CC-1 and CC-3) but converted part-way through construction, although this was only considered marginally preferable to scrapping the hulls outright (the remaining four: Constellation, Ranger, Constitution and United States were indeed scrapped).


In total, seven battlecruisers survived the Washington Naval Treaty. Most of these ships were significantly updated before World War II.

The other two battlecruisers retained, HMS Renown and Repulse were modernized significantly in a series of refits between 1920 and 1939. Like several other elderly British capital ships, Renown underwent a total reconstruction between 1937 and 1939, to make her suitable for acting as a fast consort for aircraft carriers. Similar rebuilds planned for Repulse and Hood were cancelled by the events of WWII.

Unable to pursue new construction, the Imperial Japanese Navy instead chose to improve their existing battlecruisers of the Kongo class (Hiei, Haruna, Kirishima and Kongo) by increasing the elevation of the guns to 40 degrees, adding anti-torpedo bulges and additional armour, and building on a "pagoda" mast. The 3,800 tons of additional armour slowed their speed, but between 1933 and 1940 replacement of heavy equipment and an increase in the length of the hull by 26 ft (8 m) allowed them to reach up to 30 knots once again. They were reclassified as "fast battleships" and their high speed made them suitable as carrier escorts, although their armour and guns still fell short compared to surviving World War I-era battleships in American or British navies.


As war became more likely nations began to rebuild their forces. At first lip-service was paid to the Treaty of Versailles and the Washington Naval Treaty, but as war became more likely the designs became more ambitious. Most nations preferred to build fast battleships but Germany, Italy, France and Russia all designed new battlecruisers. Even so, most of these vessels were considerably better protected than their First World War counterparts and several were arguably genuine fast battleships. Ultimately the Italians chose to upgrade their old battleships rather than build new battlecruisers, whereas the Russians laid down the 35,000 ton Kronshtadt Class, but were unable to launch them before the Germans invaded in 1941 and captured one of the hulls. The other Soviet ship was launched and scrapped after the war. Only Germany and France actually completed any vessels.

German designs

The German pocket battleships (German:Panzerschiffe - armored ship: Deutschland, Admiral Scheer, and Admiral Graf Spee), built to meet the 10,000 ton displacement limit of the Treaty of Versailles, were another attempt at a cruiser-battleship concept. The pocket battleships, despite their name which implied a scaled-down battleship, were relatively small vessels with only six 11 inch (280 mm) guns - essentially large heavy cruisers. Superficially, their distinctive battleship-like masts (especially in Scheer and Graf Spee) and larger scaled armament, compared to contemporary cruisers, earned them the name "pocket battleships" by friend and foe alike. They attained fairly high speeds of 26 knots (52 km/h), and reasonable protection, while (allegedly) staying close to the displacement limit, by using welded rather than riveted construction, triple main armament turrets, and replacing the normal steam turbine power with a pair of massive 9 cylinder diesel engines driving each propeller shaft (an ironic reversion from turbine to reciprocating engines). After Graf Spee's loss, the remaining ships were reclassified as "heavy cruisers", having heavier guns and armour than regular heavy cruisers at the cost of speed (they in fact had basic cruiser armour, except for the turrets). When they were commissioned, they were already outclassed by British WW1-era true battlecruisers in speed, weaponry, and protection, but the Germans hoped for a temporary advantage.

Two more ships were built later in the 1930s, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which were considerably more powerful and classified as true capital ships. At 38,900 tons full load they were somewhat larger than the French Dunkerque class. The Gneisenau class was fast and well armoured, though their armament was relatively lightweight, consisting of three triple 11 in gun turrets. At the time, guns that were 12 inches or larger could only be produced at the rate of one per year as per treaty restrictions, and because the Germans did not want to alarm the Allies, this led to the ships being fitted with 11 in guns. The barbettes, nonetheless, were designed to accept twin 15-inch turrets (six guns total) when enough became available. However, circumstances and the fates of the two ships - Scharnhorst sunk by gunfire, Gneisenau heavily damaged by bombs and her repair sacrificed to higher priorities - meant that this plan was abandoned. The Royal Navy categorized them as battlecruisers since they followed the Imperial German Navy design lineage of trading off gun size for protection and speed. The German Navy nonetheless categorised them as battleships. The follow-up to the Gneisenaus was not a battlecruiser, but the Bismarck, which had an additional barbette and was armed with eight 15 in guns installed at the onset, making her a full fast battleship.

French designs

As a response to the German pocket battleships the French decided to build the Dunkerque class in the 1930s. They were labelled "fast battleships", being considered scaled down but still balanced versions of that type of ship, and were armed with 13 inch (330 mm) guns arranged in two quadruple turrets located forward. Considered to be true capital ships, they were considerably larger, faster and more powerfully armed than the German pocket battleships they were designed to hunt. This last design illustrated inter-war technological developments. The ultimate limit on ship speed was drag from the water displaced (which increases as a cube of speed) rather than weight, so heavier armour slowed World War II battleships by only a couple of knots over their more lightly armoured brethren. Heavy guns mounted on fast and well armoured fast battleships invalidated the concept of the battlecruiser as a ship class in its own right.

World War II

Commerce raiding

In the early years of the war the German ships each had a measure of success hunting merchant ships in the Atlantic. The pocket battleships were deployed alone and sank a number of vessels, causing disruption to the trade routes which supplied the UK. They were pursued by the Royal Navy and on one occasion, at the Battle of the River Plate in 1939, the hunter became the hunted.

Norwegian campaign

The Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine both deployed battlecruisers during the Norwegian campaign in April 1940. The Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst both engaged HMS Renown in appalling weather and although they had stronger armour than their counterpart, the British ship could hit them harder and at a longer range. They disengaged after Gneisenau sustained damage.

Later in the campaign they returned and sank the light aircraft carrier HMS Glorious (a converted battlecruiser herself) and her destroyer escort. One of the destroyers (HMS Acasta) succeeded in damaging the Scharnhorst with a torpedo, and later a submarine did the same to Gneisenau, forcing both ships to spend several months in repair. The pocket battleship Lützow was similarly damaged by HMS Spearfish during the campaign.


The French battlecruisers had fled to North Africa following the fall of France. In July 1940 Force H under Admiral James Somerville was ordered to force their surrender or destroy them. The Dunkerque was damaged by shells from HMS Hood at Mers-el-Kebir but escaped to join the Strasbourg at Toulon. Both ships were scuttled on November 27 1942, although Strasbourg was raised and used by the Italian navy before being sunk again in an air attack on August 18 1944.

Pacific War

The first battlecruiser to see action in the Pacific War was Repulse when she was sunk near Singapore on December 10 1941 whilst in company with HMS Prince of Wales. She had received a refit to give extra anti-aircraft protection and extra armour between the wars. Unlike her sister Renown, Repulse did not receive a full rebuild as planned, which would have added anti-torpedo blisters. During the Sea Battle off Malaya, her speed and agility enabled her to hold her own and dodge nineteen torpedoes. However, without aerial cover she eventually succumbed to the continuous waves of Japanese bombers, and without enhanced underwater protection she went down quickly after a few torpedo hits.

The Japanese Kongo class battlecruisers were significantly upgraded and re-rated as "fast battleships", and they were used extensively as carrier escorts for most of their wartime career due to their high speed. However their WWI-era armament was weaker and their upgraded armour scheme was still not up to contemporary dreadnought standards. During the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on November 12 the Hiei was sent out to bombard US positions. She suffered extensive topside damage from gunfire of US cruisers and destroyers, with her engine room being penetrated at close range by an 8-inch shell from San Francisco. The next day, Hiei was attacked by waves of aircraft from Guadalcanal’s American held airfield (Henderson Field), which eventually made salvage impossible, and so she was left to sink north of Savo Island. A few days later on November 15 1942, Kirishima engaged the U.S. battleships South Dakota and Washington, and was scuttled following mortal damage from nine 16-inch hits inflicted by the Washington, which disabled her turrets and holed her below the waterline. In contrast South Dakota survived 42 hits (including only one 14-inch hit), all to her superstructure, and was back in operation four months later. The Kongo survived the Battle of Leyte Gulf, but was eventually sunk on November 21 1944 in the Formosa Strait by three torpedoes from the U.S. submarine Sealion. Haruna was involved in bombardment operations at Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. She was attacked by American carrier aircraft of Task Force 38 and B-24 bombers of the United States Army Air Forces while at Kure on July 28 1945 and sank at her moorings.

Cold War designs

In spite of the fact that World War II had demonstrated battleships and battlecruisers to be generally obsolete, Joseph Stalin's fondness for big gun armed warships caused the Soviet Union to plan several large cruiser classes in the late 1940s and early 1950s that would be a response for the Alaska class vessels. In the Soviet Union, they were called "heavy cruisers" (thyazholyi kreyser).

The fruits of this program were the project 82 (Stalingrad) cruisers, with 36,500 tons standard load (42,300 tons full load), 9 guns 305 mm and a speed of 35 knots. Three ships were laid in 1951–52, but after Stalin's death they were canceled in April 1953. Apart from high costs, the main reason was, that gun-armed ships became obsolete with an advent of guided missiles. Only a central armoured hull section of the first cruiser Stalingrad was launched in 1954 and then used as a target for rockets.

Problems with the idea

In practice, battlecruisers rarely saw the type of independent action for which they were designed. The increase in gunnery technology was so swift in the years following 1905, that there was a blurring of the distinction between the battleship and battlecruiser. At Jutland the guns on Beatty's flagship, HMS Lion were 13.5-inch, which was larger than most German and many British battleships.

In most cases, the temptation to add extra big guns to the main fleet proved hard to resist. As a result, battlecruiser squadrons were added to the line of battle - a role for which they were not designed and one that exposed them to great risk. The armour on a battlecruiser remained that of (or slightly more than) a normal cruiser. Thus the ships could dish out a lot more punishment than they could absorb. Any advantage they had in speed was lost when locked into formation at the speed of the slowest battleship in the line of battle. Heavy shells from opposing capital ships could easily penetrate their thinner armour. During Jutland, both British and German battlecruisers scored hits on each other. The British ships came off poorly, where the German ships' fared better due to better internal protection and poor performance of the British shells.

Some have often cited the weaker armour on British battlecruisers, compared to their German counterparts, as responsible for their loss. The Lion's closest contemporary was perhaps the Seydlitz. Both were similar in displacement and speed. German battlecruisers did sacrifice gun calibre for thicker armour but they were not significant such that they made the difference in battle, since both Lion and Seydlitz had their magazine armour penetrated at some point during their careers. Rather, it was the cordite handling procedures; the near destruction of the Seydlitz at the Battle of Dogger Bank had convinced the Germans that they had to take more precautions. After this battle, some of the British battlecruiser force ships began to store too many cordite charges outside the magazine, while leaving open the flash-protection doors, in the pursuit of a tactical doctrine popular in the BCF after Dodger Bank involving rapidity of fire. This practice of taking "rate of fire" ideas to excess was not practiced in the Grand Fleet.

During World War II large-scale close range fleet actions did not occur. Battlecruisers were paired with battleships in roles such as raiding (German), convoy escort, or as part of task forces. In operations where battlecruisers did fight battleships, such as Hood and Bismarck, Scharnhorst and Duke of York, Kirishima and Washington, the battlecruiser was destroyed by gunfire. They were equally vulnerable to aircraft, as many World War I designs lacked the torpedo protection system developed for World War II capital ships, and during World War II several were lost in this way.

See also


  • Bonney, George The Battle of Jutland 1916 Sutton Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-0750941785
  • Brooks, John, Dreadnought Gunnery and the Battle of Jutland, The Question of Fire Control,Routledge, Abingdon, 2005.
  • Burr, Lawrence British Battlecruisers 1914- 1918 (New Vanguard) Osprey Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-1846030086
  • Hough, Richard Dreadnought: A History of the Modern Battleship MacMillan Publishing Company, 1975. ISBN 978-0025544208
  • Ireland, Bernard, and Tony Gibbons Jane's Battleships of the 20th Century New York: HarperCollins, 1996. ISBN 0-00-470997-7 Also covers battlecruisers
  • Lambert, Nicholas. "Sir John Fisher's Naval Revolution" (Studies in Maritime History). New Edition. (University of South Carolina Press, 2002). ISBN 978-1570034923. An important account; use with Sumida, below.
  • Massie, Robert K, Dreadnought, Jonathan Cape, London, 1992.
  • Miller, David. The Illustrated Directory of Warships: from 1860 to the Present Day. London: Salamander, 2001 ISBN 0-86288-677-5
  • Roberts, John Battlecruisers, Chatham Publishing, London, 1997.
  • Staff, Gary German Battlecruisers 1914-18 (New Vanguard) Osprey Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-1846030093
  • Sumida, Jon T. "In Defense of Naval Supremacy: Financial Limitation, Technological Innovation and British Naval Policy, 1889-1914." (Routledge, 1993). The standard account.
  • Van Der Vat, Dan The ship that changed the world: The Escape of the Goeben to the Dardanelles in 1914 Adler & Adler, 1986.

External links

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