Battlecruiser (sometimes Battle Cruiser prior to 1915 or so) is a generic term for a fast capital ship similar to a dreadnought, but exchanging a reduced outfit of heavy guns and considerable thickness of armour protection in pursuit of greater speeds, generally in the order of 25 knots. H.M.S. Invincible is usually seen as the first ship of the type, though her sister Inflexible was actually launched first.
Admiral John Fisher was the prime mover behind the creation of this type of vessel, which he felt manifested the greatest virtues a ship could possess: speed by which it could dictate the terms of battle. Fisher's thinking was to create a ship combining the margin of speed advantage previously reserved for armoured cruisers with a uniform heavy battery previously reserved for battleships. His hope was that adoption of a large displacement with a sacrifice in armour protection that would not be needed by such a fast (and therefore, he felt, hard to hit) ship might give the Royal Navy a type which could lasso enemy cruisers on the high seas and assertively scout for the battlefleet.
- See also the essay "The Battle Cruiser in the Royal Navy"
Fisher's first mission for the battlecruisers, to corral enemy raiding forces, was demonstratively effected by Invincible and Inflexible as they destroyed von Spee's squadron in the Battle of the Falkland Islands. However, from there, the raider problem had been cleaned up and regular duties in support of the Grand Fleet became the calling for the "Splendid Cats". In such a role, they increasingly were treated as what they outwardly resembled: battleships. Nevertheless, at a conference held at Cromarty in May, 1914 it was announced to the assembled flag officers that in May, 1915 the First Battle Cruiser Squadron would be disbanded and its ships allocated in pairs to light cruiser squadrons. This plan was abandoned due to the outbreak of war in August, 1914.
In the Battle of Heligoland Bight, the Battle Cruiser Fleet had the heroic role of stepping in to squash lesser types they might well have been called on to stomp in their raider-suppression role, but this was purely by chance. At the Battle of Dogger Bank, the ante increased, but again they found their German counterparts their most serious opposition. Good fortune and numbers allowed the British battlecruisers to achieve victory and avoid catastrophic loss despite the heavy damage to flagship H.M.S. Lion.
However, the dice were tossed again at the Battle of Jutland, and indeed more tosses were thrown. The previous good fortune at Dogger Bank was resoundingly undercut by the loss of 3 battlecruisers to enemy guns of a calibre they had not been designed to resist. Although opinions have differed as to whether the intrinsic protection of the ships or the protocol for handling and storing propellant was to blame, the perception persists that British battlecruisers had been found wanting when placed in a circumstance where heavy enemy shells hit them.
Earl Jellicoe later opined in his unpublished papers:
- While the loss of the Indefatigable and the explosion in the after turret of the Lion were probably due to flash conveyed to the magazines owing to exposure of charges in the ammunition hoists, that of the Queen Mary and Invincible was probably due to the penetration of side or turret armour.
The Germans were often depicted as abiding by a "me too" complex for construction, whether it was submarines, dreadnoughts or battlecruisers. In particular, the construction of Blücher was often claimed to be a clumsy effort to clone the anticipated aspects of Invincible that ran awry of some crafty British misinformation.
However, by the time the Germans got down to building ships that seemed to be actual battlecruisers, they possessed a more temperate balance of protection, speed and armament than the British archetypes that purportedly inspired their construction. Whether by chance (as they sustained relatively few large-calibre hits than tested the British), or by lesson (an early near-calamitous loss of Seydlitz to a powder burn revealed deficiencies in flash protection that were addressed), or simply by nice conservative design, the German battlecruisers proved survivable assets able to probe and scout for their battlefleet in the North Sea or cause conniptions in the Mediterranean. One can only imagine what Jutland might have been like had the Germans not had a heavy scouting force in advance of their battle force.
In 1915 plans were approved for a battlecruiser of 32,000 tons with an armament of ten 14-inch guns. On 15 August, 1916 the United States Congress passed the Naval Act of 1916 which provided funds for the construction of six battlecruisers. In September, 1917 the General Board reissued new characteristics, with the battlecruisers now mounting eight 16-inch guns, a 6-inch secondary battery and armour protection against 6-inch fire. The resulting Lexington class was intended for much more specialized duties than their British or German contemporaries; a heavy emphasis was placed on scouting duties and cooperation with the new Omaha class scouts. Planned armor remained minimal owing to American designers' belief that the British battlecruiser losses at Jutland were the result of factors other than insufficient armor protection.
- The National Archives. ADM 1/8383 179. Cited in Gordon. Rules of the Game. p. 14, p. 626.
- British Library. Jellicoe Papers. Add. MSS. 49038. f. 210.
- Andrade. The Battlecruiser in the United States Navy. p. 19.
- Ferreiro. Goodall in America. p. 181.
- Friedman. U.S. Cruisers. pp. 85-103.
- Hone. "Thoroughbreds". pp. 21-25.
- Friedman, Norman (1985). U.S. Cruisers: An Illustrated Design History. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. (on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk).
- Gordon, Andrew (2005). The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command. London: John Murray (Publishers). ISBN 0719561310. (on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk).
- Hone, Trent. (2011). Jordan, John. ed. "High-Speed Thoroughbreds: The U.S. Navy's Lexington class Battle Cruiser Designs". Warship 2011: pp. 8-31.
- Roberts, John (1997). Battlecruisers. London: Chatham Publishing. ISBN 186176006X. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1557500681. (on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk).
- Worth, Richard (2011). Thunder in its Courses: Essays on the Battlecruiser. Ann Arbor: Nimble Books. ISBN 978-1-60888-101-7. (on Amazon.com).