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December 15, 2009

Cruisin' Large

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

USS Alaska

That's a battleship in the photo above, right? No, actually.

World War 2 marked the beginning of the missile age, but it took a while before navies could fully adjust to them along with concurrent developments in electronics and computation. The result is that I no longer have a clear picture of the spectrum of naval combat vessels aside from aircraft carriers and submarines (yes, I could get off my duff and research the matter).

Things were simpler in the era of the two world wars when heavy guns, torpedoes and, eventually, bombs comprised the main offensive weaponry. For instance, fighting ships could be classified by rank in terms of firepower and defensive armor. Setting aside aircraft carriers, battleships were biggest in terms of displacement tonnage, had the thickest armor and the largest guns -- shell diameters ranged from around 12 inches to slightly more than 18 inches for first-line ships in the period 1912-1945.

Next were battle cruisers which essentially were battleships with less armor and therefore greater speed; armament was similar. Then came cruisers, a kind of intermediate class, followed by comparatively small, fast destroyers.

Being an Army guy with a lot of interest in military aviation, for many years I didn't pay a lot of attention to naval vessels other than battleships and carriers. I knew what destroyers looked like and regarded cruisers as a kind of morph between them and battleships.

Actually, that's not a bad approximation because cruisers were definitely larger than destroyers and often didn't look much like battleships. That's not the whole story. By the time of World War 2, the U.S. Navy had ordered cruiser classes of large vessels that looked rather battleship-like. They had only about a third of a battleship's displacement (very roughly 10-15,000 tons versus 30-45,000), but they were nearly as long as battleships. They were proportionally narrower, having a higher fineness ratio to attain faster speeds than (most) battleships.

Cruisers were divided into two classes -- heavy and light. The distinction had to do with armament. A heavy cruiser had 8-inch guns whereas a light cruiser's main guns were 6-inchers. Effectiveness was a matter of debate in naval circles. Eight-inch guns obviously packed more punch. But they fired at a significantly slower rate. Advocates of light cruisers held that a light cruiser could smother a heavy cruiser with its fire.

There are many other interesting cruiser issues, especially that of the mission of that class of ship. Since this is an arts & culture blog, let's instead focus on appearance.

That ship pictured above is one of a class of two that served in World War 2. It's almost a battle cruiser. Some observers claim them to be battle cruisers and the Navy used a different designator for them: Light cruisers in Navy-speak are CLs, heavy cruisers are CAs and the Alaska class are CB -- for "cruiser, battle?" Even though the Alaskas are large ships, their main guns were only 12-inchers whereas the contemporary Iowa class battleships sported 16-inch weapons. A true battle cruiser would have had 15-inchers at least.


USS Guam - sister ship of USS Alaska
Yes, it looks a lot like a battleship.

Battleship Missouri (top) and cruiser Alaska across pier
The Alaska has a noticeably narrower beam, but its length is only a little less than the Missouri's.

USS Baltimore
The heavy cruiser Baltimore was commissioned in 1943 and also looks battleship-like.

USS Pensacola
Pensacola, commissioned 1929, looks less like battleships.

As noted above, World War 2 vintage U.S. cruisers were nearly as long as battleships. Below is a table showing waterline lengths for ship classes at time of commissioning.

Waterline length in feet

The first entry is the Colorado battleship class, the last completed before the Washington naval treaty halted production. Cruisers were built during the battleship construction hiatus, and the 1930 example is the 1930 Northampton class heavy cruiser. Nothamptons were almost as long as the Colorados. The 1941 battleship is the Washington of the North Carolina class -- so-called "fast battleships" and the first commissioned since the Colorados. The 1942 South Dakota battleships were stubbier than the North Carolinas and were judged as being too cramped, so the next class (Iowa, 1943) was much longer. Interestingly, the 1943 Baltimore heavy cruiser class was about the same length as the South Dakotas. Finally, the 1944 Alaskas were longer than the North Carolinas and less than ten percent shorter than the Iowas.

Perhaps all this goes to explain, in part, why spotters in scouting planes sometime mistook cruisers for battleships.



posted by Donald at December 15, 2009


Sweet! Military porn.

I have only one thing to add - those of you who enjoyed this post, a world of pleasure awaits you in the glorious archives of Wikipedia. From chariots to rail guns, if it's been used to kill and maim at some point in the course of human history, there's a 10,000 word article on it.



Posted by: Zdeno on December 15, 2009 3:38 PM

> But they fired at a significantly slower rate.

What about range, shouldnt that matter a lot? Is there some reason why a ship with better range couldnt bang some enemy to hell without coming within that enemy's range?

I wonder what are the fundamental problems here, is accuracy of fire one of them? Does a ship actually hold together until taking 5 or 6 direct shell hits, or 10?

Zdeno, you might like W McNeill's "Pursuit of power". I admit I havent gotten too far into it. And the China chapter seemed awfully scattered and confused, perhaps less so for someone with more knowledge. But he's one heck of a wide-reading and generalist heavyweight scholar. Its cool to understand things like iron smelting and iron armor putting an end to the chariot age after a millennium or two.

Posted by: Eric Johnson on December 15, 2009 4:48 PM

Eric -- Good question, the one about range. I got around to reading about cruisers in detail only recently, so I can't elaborate; the business about "smothering" was something mentioned in a book I was reading. I do have a copy of Norman Friedman's book about cruisers published by the Naval Institute Press and I'll delve into the index to see if anything is there. Friedman's books can be dense (in the information-rich sense), so it might be hard to tell if he deals with the issue if I can't find an index citation.

That said, two potential counter-arguments come to mind: (1) at long range accuracy suffers, and (2) cruisers might be fast and maneuverable enough at long distances to evade most incoming fire.

But I have no opinion on this. The Navy kept building both light and heavy cruisers so the issue apparently wasn't clear-cut to the admirals in BuShips.

Final thought: there were plenty of cruiser actions during the Solomons campaign, so perhaps some conclusions might be drawn here. But I don't have time to research this or other cruiser actions such as the allied battles against the Japanese as the Dutch East Indies were falling in early 1942.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 15, 2009 5:37 PM

It seems accuracy ought to be an issue in WWII: I know trajectory calculations are used in artillery, but I cant see how you would get an exact distance to target without a laser rangefinder, or having the ship in perfect profile while knowing its exact length. Theres always trial and error (and estimated corrections), but I imagine that works a lot better on stationary targets than on ships?

Similarly, Ive heard that "dumb bombs", the computerless ones used prior to the first Iraq war, were pretty hard to actually hit anything with.

I still havent found answers to all these questions, but there is good stuff in Wik.

This head page is mostly just links to separate naval tactics articles for each epoch of naval arms:

The description of Trafalgar is pretty cool. But I think this rundown of unusual specialized cannonshot types, and the havoc they wreak, will particularly charm and soothe the male mind:

Posted by: Eric Johnson on December 15, 2009 8:35 PM

Very interesting. Thanks.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on December 15, 2009 9:35 PM

Eric -- In pre-radar sighting days the aiming was done by attempting to "straddle" (that was the term of art) the target with a salvo; some shell splashes would appear behind the target and others in front. Once a straddle had been achieved, all the heavy guns of the ship would let loose on that target setting (with correction for target movement predicted by mechanical computing devices). At that point, the chance of attaining one or more hits was fairly good.

In the Great War, the British and Germans had different approaches to achieving a straddle. But the straddle and preliminary volleys (usually from only one turret) were spotted by observers who usually were stationed high up a mast. The farther away the target, the harder it could be to detect straddles, overages, etc. Smoke, fog and other factors made things difficult (at any distance) for the spotter.

Ballistic tables can break down for really long-range firing (many miles for battleships) due to variability of wind conditions along the flight path of the shell.

No wonder even navies that stressed gunnery attained small hit percentages.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 15, 2009 11:26 PM

WKPD carries a pretty full account of a battle between British cruisers and a German pocketbattleship, detailing the effect of 6" and 8" shells on the German vessel.

Posted by: dearieme on December 16, 2009 7:50 AM

There is an old quote - it might have been Halsey, I forget - which tells us that "One thousand rounds fired does not constitute fire power. One hit constitutes fire power."

However, that depends on what you're trying to accomplish. If you are using artillery (including naval guns) against soft massed and non-fixed targets like enemy infantry then sure, put as much metal in the air as you can and drop it on them. But if you're trying to hit a single armored target (like another battleship) then you need accuracy because it's not logistically smart to try massive volley fire against a hard mobile target. Battleships are big and have big armories but there's only so many shells you can carry and the ocean is a BIG place.

It is interesting to note that I've learned a bit about artillery in general and naval gunnery in particular lately as I've been reading John Ringo's "Posleen War" series, which involves a high-tech but not terribly flexible alien enemy. Their weaponry can detect and counter guided or propelled weapons (smart bombs, cruise missiles, etc) but isn't effective against ballistic projectiles. So put away the stealth bombers, boys, and break out the battleships.

Posted by: StM on December 16, 2009 9:45 AM

The first range finders were optical. Basically, two telescopes mounted at the ends of a beam of known length, with the views pulled together by mirrors. One adjusted the mirrors until the target was centered in both views. At that point, the angle of the mirrors and the length of the range finder's baseline gave the range.

Later, of course, radar gave ranges - a huge advantage for the Allies. At the Battle of North Cape in 1943, HMS DUKE OF YORK opened fire on SCHARNHORST before the German ship even knew the British force was present.

On the other hand, at about the same time, a U.S. task force off the Aleutians wasted a lot of ammo firing at radar ghosts - the "Battle of the Pips".

The ALASKA class ships were an interesting group. Battleships (including battlecruisers) were defined as ships with a main gun battery of at least 6 guns of at least 11" caliber, all the same caliber, all in turrets, and at least 6 guns in broadside.

By World War II, 12" guns like ALASKA's were considered undersized for battleships, though some old 12" gun battleships were still in service, including USS ARKANSAS. At 29,000 tons, ALASKA was as big as the U.S.'s WW I battleships (26,100 to 32,500 tons). ALASKA was thus almost a battleship.

This was reflected in her name. All U.S. battleships bore the names of states: ARIZONA, IOWA, etc. (Cruisers were named for cities - PORTLAND, CLEVELAND, JUNEAU - and destroyers for naval figures - FARRAGUT, MAHAN.) ALASKA and her sisters GUAM, HAWAII, PHILIPPINES, PUERTO RICO, and SAMOA were named for U.S. territories, i.e. not quite states.

Another difference between heavy and light cruisers was the size. For WW II, the U.S. chose to build "large light cruisers", with 12-15 guns, which were as large as the 8" gun "heavy cruisers". Ironically, this type was pioneered by Japan - and then the Japanese coverted theirs to heavy cruisers by replacing the 6" triple turrets with 8" twin turrets. However, the British navy built small light light cruisers of 5,000 to 8,000 tons with as few as 6 6" guns.

The "battleship"-like design filtered down through warship classes across the first half of the 20th century. As early as 1906, USS SOUTH CAROLINA had a uniform main gun battery, all in multi-gun turrets on the center line. Some early battleship designs included a couple of beam turrets, but by 1915 only center line turrets were allowed.

Meanwhile, cruisers continued to mount guns in single beam positions, often in casemates. This continued well into the 1920s. Destroyers also had beam guns. In the 1920s, both classed adopted the same layout as battleships, with a few exceptions.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 17, 2009 5:27 AM

Several points:

1) Classically, a battlecruiser (BC) had the guns of a battleship (BB) but the armor of a cruiser. The theory was that they could outrange and outgun anything that could sail with them and outsail anything that could outgun them. "The difference between theory and practice is that that in theory, there's no difference between theory and practice, but in practice...."

2) AFAIK, after WWI, nobody but the British sailed a ship that they called a battlecruiser. In part, at least, this is because after Jutland the BC had a bad reputation. In greater part, this is because BCs were treated as BBs by the Washington Naval Treaty, and BBs were seen to be more valuable. By the time that the Alaska was laid down (17 Dec, 1941), the Washington Naval Treaty was a dead letter.

3) The core (mostly the hull and turrets) of a BB was heavily enough armored that it would withstand a fair amount of cruiser fire, and of course the range of a BB main gun was quite a lot longer than the range of a cruiser gun. In WWII, however, long-range gun battles were quite rare. The Solomons battles Donald mentioned were fairly typical of the (few) all-gun encounters and they were short-range affairs. At those ranges, while cruiser guns still had a hard time with the belt and turret armor of BBs, cruisers (and even destroyers) could wreak significant execution on the upper works of the BBs. See, for instance, the Hiei at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

4) By WWII, fire-control computers were remarkably sophisticated pieces of equipment. (Note that these were mechanical devices, not particularly similar to what we would now call a computer.) With ranging shots, getting hits at ranges of many miles was a reasonable possibility. As Donald noted, the goal of ranging shots was to get a straddle, which was usually attempted by firing a pattern of shots and discerning what sort of adjustment was necessary after each shot.

5) When a single ship was firing ranging shots, the task was not especially difficult, but when many ships were firing at once, it could be very difficult to tell which splashes were the result of whose shots. To make this easier, ships regularly shot dye packets to change the splash color of their own shots.

6) The first contemplated use of aircraft in naval warfare was as spotters of the fall of shot, and during WWII, most BBs carried seaplanes for that purpose.

7) The muzzle velocity of the 16" naval rifle used in the Iowa-class BB was about 2500'/sec. Their maximum range was about 125000 feet (25 miles), which implies a flight time greater than 50 seconds (because of air friction and trajectory). At 30 knots (about 50'/sec), a ship will travel about 2500' in 50 seconds. Dodging was definitely a possibility, even for large ships.

8) A modern destroyer (Arleigh Burke class DDG for this example) is almost as long as a WWI Battleship - 509.5 feet long, though it displaces only about 1/3 as much.

9) The Alaska was a gorgeous ship.

And a gratuitous #10) The frontal armor of an M1 Abrams main battle tank is equivalent to something like 950mm of Rolled Homogenous Armor when struck by a kinetic energy penetrator. The turret armor (the thickest armor on the ship) of an Iowa-class BB was 500mm thick.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on December 22, 2009 2:27 AM

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