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« Blogging Note | Main | Traditional Holiday Tradition »

December 22, 2009

More on Cruisers and Battlecruisers

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Last week I wrote about the cruiser type of naval warship, featuring the U.S. Alaska class, a late World War 2 cruiser as long as near-contemporary battleships.

The post evoked some interesting reader remarks that don't deserve to be buried in Comments.

Rich Rostrom writes:

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.

Doug Sudseth writes:

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.

Let me add that classical battlecruisers (as built by the British whose First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher inspired them) could be both longer than contemporary battleships and have more displacement.

This was the case for battlecruiser Tiger as compared to the Queen Elizabeth class battleships. The Queen Elizabeths, being slightly later, had 15 inch main guns as opposed to 13.5 inch guns on Tiger.

Much larger was the 15 inch gunned post-war battlecruiser Hood which, like several of its Great War sisters, was quickly destroyed in action.

The Alaskas, as noted in my post, were lighter and less heavily armed than their battleship contemporaries. So while some sources (including the one noted below) call Alaskas battlecruisers, I consider them souped-up heavy cruisers. I base this judgment on the precedent of the Great War battlecruisers which were fundamentally battleships with perhaps a bit more horsepower and noticeable less armor protection, the purpose being greater speed.

(A handy reference on battleships and battlecruisers is this book from Jane's.)

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at December 22, 2009




Comments

This is excellent material. I'm 54 and live in Portland. I mention location and age thinking that those two factors might have bearing on the following observation:

Young adults that I meet have an aversion to any discussion of the military. I Used to try and share some of the unflinching material from a US Navy journal I picked up while volunteering at the VA. Very good history, especially on our early 20th century colonial fights. The articles dealt in hard often ugly facts, but were fascinating.

When I tried to encourage folks who were interested in history or upset about current conflicts to read them, they rejected them very coldly.

Posted by: Larry on December 22, 2009 7:42 PM



Two comments:

First: my name is Rostrrom. Note the second 'r'. It's a nice short name, only seven letters and none of them silent. I can spell lots of names (e.g. Pittenger and Salingaros and Roissy) without even seeing them in print. People should be able to spell my name, especially when it's typed out for them! (End rant - you stepped on my sore toe.)

Second: The Alaska was a gorgeous ship. Yabbut it was a major white elephant, even more than the battleships built at the same time. Handsome is as handsome does, and the ALASKAs couldn't do much of anything that would justify their cost.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 23, 2009 5:27 AM



Rich -- Name corrected.

And please accept my apology for the typo.

I know perfectly well how to spell your last name, having grown up in Seattle in the days when last names with 'stroms were almost as thick as 'sens and 'sons and 'dahls. (And I went to high school with one of the boys of the NordSTROM department store family.)

What happened was that I was rushing to get the post assembled before we started our trip to California and didn't proof it as carefully as I should have.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 23, 2009 9:12 AM



Excellent discussion on a very interesting topic.

The Alaska and the Guam (both launched in 1943) were the only ships of this class to be see action. The Hawaii was laid down but never completed.

The original design of the BC dates back to the early years of the 20th century. Admiral Jackie Fisher was a big proponent of BC's. The initial idea was to trade less armor for more speed. The role of the BC was never quite defined, but was thought to revolve around reconaissence, pursuit and commerce protection ("cruiser killing"). For this latter role, the BC's were designed to have heavier armament than cruisers, sufficient protection to withstand cruiser gunfire and enough speed to keep up with cruisers.

I consulted my WW II edition of "Jane's Fighting Ships," which described the Alaska's as the first BC's to be built since 1921. This is true, sort of, in view of the fact that the term BC came to encompass an awful lot of ships that were intermediate is strength between heavy cruisers and true battleships. For example, the German ships Deutschland, Admiral Speer and Admiral Graf Spee had typical cruiser displacements (10,000 tons) but large (11") guns. They were designed as fast commerce raiders with the ability to destroy cruisers and outrun battleships. The German Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had more typical battleship displacement (almost 40,000 tons) but only 11" guns.

The Japanese Kongo class are sometimes classified as BC's although more often as battleships.

One of the more or less constant features of BC's was light deck armor, which often led to problems.

Although BC's were never realy designed to slug it out with the more heavily protected battleships, they sometimes served in that role, often with disasterous results (they tended to explode when struck by heavy caliber fire). Three British BC's blew up at Jutland. The Hood, which was the largest British capital ship of her time, exploded and sank when struck by plunging fire from the German ships Bismarck and Prinz Eugen in the Battle of the Denmark Straight in 1941. The Japanese Kongo-class Kirishima, really more of a light battleship than BC, was destroyed by the US battleship Washington off Guadalcanal in 1942. In that fight, the Washington had all the advantages - radar controlled gunnery, heavier armament and vastly superior armored protection. Against this, the Kirishima's higher speed counted for little.

The Alaska-class ships were officially described by the US Navy as "Large Cruisers," showing how the term BC had become almost without meaning by WW II. They were designed to kill fast cruisers and "pocket battleships" (another lousy term) which the Germans had built and the Americans feared the Japanese were going to build.

The Alaska and the Guam served well in the Pacific in tha latter years of WW II. Their speed and heavy anti-aircraft armament made them ideal escorts for the fast carriers. Their role as "cruiser killers" was never realized.

And yes, they were very beautiful ships.

Posted by: Black Death on December 23, 2009 10:30 AM



Black Death: Their speed and heavy anti-aircraft armament made [ALASKA and GUAM] ideal escorts for the fast carriers.

Useful, but hardly ideal. 29,000 tons, 2,751 crew, for an AA battery of 12 x 5", 56 x 40mm, 34 x 20mm. A CLEVELAND-class light cruiser was 10,000 tons, 1,426 crew, and had 12 x 5", 28 x 40mm, 21 x 20 mm. 1/3 the tonnage, 1/2 the crew, and about the same AA battery. A SUMNER-class destroyer was only 2,200 tons and 336 crew, but had 6 x 5", 12 x 40mm, 8 x 20 mm.

IOW, smaller vessels provided a lot more AA bang for the buck.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 26, 2009 3:10 AM






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