By Robert A. Vella – May 20th 2022

She was intended to be the lion of the Seven Seas, a cat-quick predator of unrivaled skill who could easily evade the more ponderous and stouter competitors of her adversaries.  What she proved to be in actual warfare was a fast, powerful, excessively costly, and extremely vulnerable capital ship which became the gravesite of thousands of unfortunate sailors.  Like a heavyweight boxer with a “glass jaw,” the battlecruiser could not take a punch.  Even naval guns of smaller caliber than it typically carried were capable of piercing a battlecruiser’s main armored belt (i.e. vertical protection mounted on the hull at the waterline) and especially its very thin deck armor (i.e. horizontal protection designed to shield a ship’s vital internals from long-range plunging fire).  Despite this vulnerability, the battlecruiser could have had a much more successful career if it had been used as intended.  That it wasn’t properly utilized (with a few exceptions) gives testimony to its fatal design flaw – that is, as an expensive capital ship, the battlecruiser would inevitably be pitted against superior capital ships (i.e. the battleship) in unequal combat where her lack of armor would be the decisive factor.

There were many such naval battles in World War I and World War II, some of which I’ll detail later on, but the most infamous was the Battle of the Denmark Strait on May 24th 1941 in which the battlecruiser HMS Hood (the pride of the Royal Navy) suffered a catastrophic internal explosion against the German battleship Bismarck and sank within six minutes of combat (only 3 of her 1,418 crew survived).  The British Admiralty was fully aware of Hood’s weakness, but was desperate to stop the powerful new German battleship from breaking out into the Atlantic Ocean where it could systematically destroy Great Britain’s merchant shipping upon which the island nation was wholly dependent.  So, the Hood became a victim of necessity;  although, her great size and armament (nearly the same as Bismarck’s) helped to ease the Admiralty’s reluctance.

HMS Hood (painting)

The desire for speed in naval warfare, and for any other type of vessel for that matter, is as old as humankind’s first excursions onto the water in primitive reed boats and tree trunk dugout canoes.  Faster was always better.  During the era of sailing ships, smaller craft were more agile while larger boats could carry more cargo, more fighting men, and more weaponry.  Wooden warship technology reached its zenith in the early-19th century with highly specialized vessels such as the heavy ship-of-the-line, the medium-size frigate, the smaller sloop, and various other types.  By the mid-1800s, when the screw-propeller steamship, ironclads, and rifled artillery arrived on the scene, naval technology was dramatically transformed.  Soon afterwards, modern navies were equipped with steel warships of increasing size and complexity.  They generally used coal-fired boilers to power multiple-expansion reciprocating steam engines (as vividly depicted in the 1997 film Titanic) which turned the propellers.  The basic ship types evolved loosely from their wooden predecessors; the battleship (from the ship-of-the-line), the cruiser (from the frigate), and the destroyer (from the sloop).

The battleship (pre-dreadnought) was heavy and slow.  Its hull sides and largest gun turrets were armored.  It had a varied mix of gun calibers, the bigger ones to attack other battleships and the smaller ones to defend against torpedo-armed destroyers (a.k.a. torpedo boat destroyers).  Battleships were organized in fleets (variously subdivided into squadrons, flotillas, and divisions) and deployed in a line of battle.  Fast cruisers (of medium size and gun caliber with light armor), and destroyers (of smaller size and gun caliber with no armor), served many different naval roles.  In fleet actions, they both performed scouting duties while cruisers also protected the battleships from destroyer torpedo attacks (note:  when torpedo-armed submarines became a serious threat in WWI, the role of destroyers shifted towards anti-submarine warfare).

In 1903, a new warship concept was proposed by Italian military officer and naval engineer Vittorio Cuniberti (1854-1913) which advocated for a fast “all big gun” capital ship.  It would be larger than contemporary battleships in order to mount a maximum number of the largest guns of a single caliber (to avoid the difficulties of accurate range-finding with multi-caliber guns), and to provide necessary space for the additional boilers required to generate more speed.  Armor protection, in this design, would be prioritized below gunpower and speed;  the rationale being that the battleship should be an active offensive weapon and that its speed would also serve for defensive purposes (i.e. to get out of trouble, if need be).  Although he wouldn’t admit it, Sir John “Jackie” Fisher (1841-1920) – Admiral of the Fleet and First Sea Lord (1904-1910 and 1914-1915) – embraced Cuniberti’s concept and spurred a massive rebuilding program for the Royal Navy.  When HMS Dreadnought was launched in 1906, it was by far the most powerful battleship ever produced which instantly made all other battleships obsolete.  At 20,000 tons displacement, 10 – 12 inch guns in five turrets, a sustainable top speed of 21 knots (courtesy of steam turbines, the first time this innovative technology was used in a capital ship), and more than adequate armor protection, she was seen as the ultimate warship afloat by all the world’s navies.

What followed was a rather insane rush to build similar ships in great quantities by every major or would-be naval power.  Germany, in particular, felt directly threatened by this British development;  and, the growing rivalry between the United States and Japan in the Pacific Ocean was likewise escalatory.  Consequently, every new battleship launched was typically larger and had bigger guns than ones before.  Although gunpower and armor steadily increased, battleship speed had plateaued.  This is not what Cuniberti nor Fisher had desired.  Speed was essential, in their view.

Before the dreadnought revolution, navies had begun experimenting with a new design called the armored cruiser.  These warships were somewhat larger than existing cruisers (i.e. light cruisers, the heavy cruiser didn’t appear until after the signing of the Washington Naval Treaty in 1922), had moderately larger caliber guns, had much better armor protection, but were substantially slower.  In fact, their speed advantage over pre-dreadnought battleships was virtually erased when the dreadnoughts arrived.  Like their bigger cousins, the armored cruiser had become outdated.

Fisher eagerly jumped into this dilemma.  He ordered the design and production of novel ships which would fill the void (and then some!) created by the obsolescent armored cruisers.  A few years later, the name battlecruiser eventually stuck.  They were as large as battleships, were much faster (thanks to the transition towards oil-fueled steam turbines), had nearly the same gunpower, but had drastically reduced armor protection.  Cuniberti must have been enthralled!  Winston Churchill apparently wasn’t.  As First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914, he derisively described British battlecruisers as “eggshells” armed with “hammers” (see:  EGGSHELLS WITH HAMMERS).  Even as fiercely debated as HMS Dreadnought was among naval strategists and policymakers just a few years earlier, Fisher’s battlecruiser program poured much more fuel on that raging fire.  These capital ships weren’t just expensive, they were becoming prohibitively so.  In Britain, the unit cost was rising towards £10,000,000 with millions more needed annually for operational readiness and upkeep.  For the Royal Navy, the largest in the world with a three-century long history of dominance, such expenditures simply had to be justified.  When the First World War erupted in the summer of 1914, Fisher’s strategy would be put to the test.

The main adversary to Britain’s Grand Fleet was Germany’s High Seas Fleet.  It was roughly two-thirds as large in terms of numbers, but the overall quality of its capital ships was superior.  British battleships and battlecruisers had larger caliber guns, were marginally faster, and could remain at sea for longer periods of time (this was due to the demands of Britain’s far-flung empire and its dependence on merchant shipping).  Its German counterparts (which mostly operated in the Baltic Sea and North Sea) had very accurate high muzzle velocity guns, markedly better armor protection, wider beams (which provided more structural strength and a more stable gun platform), and a sophisticated system of internal compartmentalization (which made the ships more resistant to sinking, but which also minimized crew habitability).  In one-on-one contests between equivalent warships (which were rare), the Germans typically had the advantage.  In fleet actions, where numbers, greater combat range, weight of broadside, speed and endurance were often determinative, the British usually had the advantage.  Additionally, even though British warships were more prone to sinking, this did not necessarily change the outcome of battles.  German warships which remained afloat despite being severely damaged (e.g. the battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz in two separate engagements) ceased being effective combat units until they could be repaired in port facilities.  However, winning or losing a naval battle (sometimes a very subjective interpretation) became less important than the massive loss of life which befell several British warships when they were catastrophically destroyed (e.g. the battlecruisers HMS Indefatigable, HMS Queen Mary, and HMS Invincible in the Battle of Jutland).

HMS Invincible (her two halves stuck in the bottom of The Skagerrak after exploding)

Still, the test of Fisher’s strategy got off to a rewarding start in the early naval battles of WWI.  The speed, range, and gunpower of his battlecruisers were decisive in the Battle of Heligoland Bight, the Battle of the Falkland Islands, and the Battle of Dogger Bank.  Due to apprehension over losing their valuable ships unnecessarily (which would’ve elicited punishment from their superiors), and probably also to the psychological effects of the general perception of British naval supremacy, the German battlecruiser commanders often acted hesitantly, indecisively, and reluctantly which failed to utilize their warships’ qualitative advantages.  These lesser battles, in which the battleships of both fleets remained safely in their home harbors for the most part (note:  this “fleet in being” theory asserted that a navy’s most powerful ships exerted valuable strategic influence because its mere existence posed a potential threat to enemies who dared to act aggressively), triggered great frustration on both sides and particularly in Germany which was unable to blockade Britain’s maritime trade and was itself being successfully blockaded.  The only way to end the stalemate was to destroy the other’s fleet, and that is exactly what both adversaries attempted to do in the spring of 1916.

Vice-Admiral Reinhard Scheer devised a plan to use his 1st Scouting Group of newest battlecruisers (under the command of Vice-Admiral Franz Hipper) to lure Admiral Sir John Jellicoe’s 1st Battlecruiser Squadron (under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty) into a trap in which the combined might of the High Seas Fleet would destroy it in detail.  If successful, Germany could attain a parity of naval forces, break the blockade, and begin to attack Britain’s merchant shipping with both surface vessels and better supported U-boat flotillas.  However, intercepted signals indicated that the Germans were planning a major fleet action and the British proactively chose to implement a trap of their own.  What resulted was the colossal Battle of Jutland in the strait between Denmark and Norway (i.e. The Skagerrak).  Beatty did take the bait and suffered grievous losses, but he turned the tables on the Germans by retreating and luring them into the collective big guns of the Grand Fleet which nearly succeeded in closing the trap.  Only Scheer’s bold and masterfully executed maneuvers saved the Germans from certain doom.  The High Seas Fleet returned to port under the cover of darkness (Jellicoe did not pursue because he feared torpedo attacks from U-boats), and the status quo remained.  Strategically, the British maintained control of the seas.  Tactically, the Germans rightly claimed victory (the British lost 14 ships and had 7,000 casualties, while the Germans lost 11 ships and had 3,000 casualties).

Despite this inconclusive outcome, one definitive lesson had been learned.  The eggshells-armed-with-hammers did not fare well.  Four were sunk (3 British, 1 German), five more were badly damaged (3 British, 2 German), while no dreadnought battleships were lost (1 German pre-dreadnought did sink).  Beatty’s famous quote (“There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”) is self-explanatory, but it doesn’t address the intrinsic problem of battlecruisers.  Such warships were not designed to engage in pitched battles with the most powerful units of the enemy fleet in tightly constrained line formations which exposed their lack of armor protection.  The battlecruiser was intended to exert naval power across the open ocean where it could range freely, catch and outclass lesser ships, and easily avoid its nemesis the battleship.  However, this tragic misuse of men and material was likely inevitable because, as capital ships, battlecruisers would eventually be pitted against other capital ships;  and, that is precisely the fatal flaw in the concept.

SMS Seydlitz (after the battle)

Jutland rammed home the lesson that shouldn’t have been learned so painfully.  Great Britain had been committed to the battlecruiser concept (thanks to Fisher, Jellicoe, and Beatty) and completed two more (without alteration) which were under construction at the time of the battle (HMS Renown and HMS Repulse).  Construction of another one (HMS Hood) began shortly after the battle which prompted a major modification that added 5,000 tons of armor to the ship (note:  this hasty addition overstressed Hood’s hull, and still did not provided adequate protection against the latest 14″, 15″, 16″, and even 18″ projectiles of the world’s major naval powers).  All three ships served in the Second World War.  Two were sunk and one survived (i.e. Renown).

The other major navies did not embrace the battlecruiser concept as wholeheartedly as did the British, or they didn’t embrace it all.  Germany, which lagged far behind in innovation, concentrated its shipbuilding efforts on perfecting existing designs.  It prioritized armor and protection above gunpower and speed;  and favored warships which were exceptionally strong in structure, resistant (but not immune) to gunfire, and had sophisticated built-in anti-torpedo measures (e.g. exterior bulges, alternating liquid-filled and air-filled interior spaces, and numerous watertight compartments).  It built two more battlecruisers in the 1930s which were stout warships but egregiously under-gunned (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau).  Both sank in WWII (one intentionally).

The United States and Japan were participants in WWI, but their navies saw little combat action.  Interestingly, these two rising pacific powers were building warships which rivaled Britain’s in numbers and frequently exceeded anything in Europe in terms of quality and capability.  By the end of the war, the U.S. Navy was virtually equal in size to Britain’s and possessed an array of battleships which were the most heavily armed and armored in the world at a modest sacrifice in speed.  Most notably, it completely eschewed the battlecruiser concept (note:  the U.S. did build two battlecruisers during WWII, but these ships – USS Alaska and USS Guam, officially classified as large cruisers – were only used in their intended role and never fought enemy capital ships).  The Japanese built four battlecruisers which they modernized in the 1930s and reclassified as fast battleships (IJN Kongo, IJN Hiei, IJN Kirishima IJN Haruna;  all of which were sunk in WWII).

After the war, the Washington Naval Treaty had a huge impact on the remaining major naval powers (i.e. the signatories:  Great Britain, United States, Japan, France, and Italy;  Germany had scuttled its surrendered fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919).  Both the number of warships and their size in each category were severely limited.  The treaty was not, as it might seem, an attempt to ensure a lasting peace.  Rather, it was driven by cost-cutting motives after the tremendous expenditures of the dreadnought race.  Several battlecruisers then under construction or already completed were allowed to be converted into aircraft carriers (HMS Courageous, HMS Glorious, HMS Furious, USS Lexington, USS Saratoga, IJN Akagi, and IJN Amagi which was destroyed in an earthquake and replaced by IJN Kaga).  Aside from the remaining battlecruisers still in service and the two American anomalies previously noted, it was apparent that the concept was being abandoned (even by the British).

Ironically, Cuniberti’s and Fisher’s fascination with a fast and powerful capital ship could have been developed in a different way.  The culmination of the battleship, a concept which would also become extinct by the end of WWII, achieved the speed desired by those visionaries.  The key was the steam turbine engine powered by oil-fired boilers which both came into use before WWI.  Designers already knew that larger and longer ships were capable of increased speed due to the internal space available to install additional boilers, and also due to their hydrodynamic hull shape.  In other words, armor protection need not have been sacrificed.  That it was sacrificed is evidence of the incredibly rash building competition, primarily between Britain and Germany, during the dreadnought revolution.  The last battleships constructed by Japan, the U.S., and the U.K. (two of the Yamato class, four of the Iowa class, and one of the Vanguard class, respectively), in particular, were as fast or faster than dreadnought-era battlecruisers while being heavily armed and armored.

The WWII battles involving battlecruisers were fewer and smaller but memorable nonetheless.

In the spring of 1940 during the Norway Campaign, sister ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau encountered HMS Renown in the Norwegian Sea.  Very high winds and rough sea conditions made naval operations hazardous even for large capital ships.  Despite the Germans’ two-to-one advantage, their much smaller 11″ guns could only inflict minor damage on the lightly armored British battlecruiser while its 15″ guns soon knocked out a turret and fire control systems on the Gneisenau.  It then switched fire to Scharnhorst which compelled the Germans to disengage at high speed.  Renown, although technically one knot faster, couldn’t keep up in the bad weather.  All three battlecruisers sustained additional damage in the chase mainly due to flooding.  Two months afterwards, the two German warships hunted down the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious (which was evacuating aircraft from Norway, and which ironically was intended to be a battlecruiser) and sank her along with two escorting destroyers one of which severely damaged Scharnhorst with a torpedo.  In late February 1942, Gneisenau was bombed by British airpower at Kiel (Germany) while in drydock.  Her forward 11″ gun magazine was penetrated causing a destructive and deadly explosion.  Prior to that, the warship struck a mine during the just completed “Channel Dash” and an underwater shipwreck, was hit by aircraft bombs and a torpedo in 1941, and another mine in 1940, all of which had caused significant damage.  On March 27th 1945, she was intentionally sunk as a blockship at Gotenhafen (Gdynia, Poland).

One year later, the new battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen attempted to breakout into the Atlantic Ocean through the Denmark Strait and attack British merchant shipping.  HMS Hood and the newer battleship HMS Prince of Wales (she still had construction workers aboard fitting-out the ship) were tasked with covering that breakout route, and they spotted the German warships in the early morning of May 24th.  Vice Admiral Lancelot Holland, in command aboard Hood, had wanted to “cross the T” of the German southwesterly advance (i.e. position his ships in front of and perpendicular to the enemy) so that all his 18 heavy guns (8-15″ and 10-14″) could fire while only 4 of Bismarck’s 8-15″ guns could return fire (note:  Prinz Eugen’s 8-8″ guns had much shorter range).  Due to uncertainty about Bismarck’s exact route, however, Holland had reduced speed earlier and was subsequently out of position when contact was made.  Consequently, he had to approach head-on with the Germans crossing his T.  Holland increased speed to close the distance as rapidly as possible not only to hasten the turn which would bring all his guns to bear, but also to limit the amount of time Hood’s thin deck armor would be exposed to high angle plunging fire;  however, he erred in not allowing his two ships to maneuver independently which would have split the German counterfire and targeted them with his own crossfire.  A mistake in target identification (Bismarck and Prinz Eugen had similar silhouettes) caused Hood’s four forward guns to initially fire at Prinz Eugen instead of Bismarck while Prince of Wales’ forward 6 guns concentrated on Bismarck.  Admiral Günther Lütjens, in command aboard Bismarck, did not want to engage because he was under orders to avoid enemy capital ships;  but, he acquiesced when Captain Ernst Lindemann protested thusly:  “I will not allow my ship to be shot out from under my ass!”  The first hits (probably from Prinz Eugen) struck Hood on the boat deck and set ablaze readied anti-aircraft ammunition which likely aided the Germans’ aim.  Just as Hood was turning to port and theoretically entering her “zone of immunity” (i.e. close enough to the enemy to flatten the trajectory of incoming projectiles which would strike her stronger side armor instead of her weak decks), one or more 15″ shells from Bismarck hit near the mainmast forward of her aft turrets.  What exactly occurred then is unknown, but it’s likely that the shell(s) penetrated down to a 4″ gun magazine and started a fire that spread to an adjacent 15″ gun magazine and triggered a tremendous explosion which shot a tower of flame hundreds of feet high into the air and broke the ship into two halves which sank almost immediately.  Prince of Wales, whose guns were malfunctioning, had to maneuver to avoid the wreckage.  She was struck several times by the German ships and withdrew, but registered three hits on Bismarck which cutoff crucial fuel supplies and caused flooding in the forward and port sections of the ship.  This damage was sufficient to force Lütjens to head towards occupied France for repairs, but the Royal Navy finally caught up and sank Bismarck three days later in a massive effort pushed by Prime Minister Churchill.

HMS Hood (illustration of explosion)

Late that year, battlecruiser HMS Repulse and the repaired HMS Prince of Wales (Force Z) were sunk in the South China Sea by enemy aircraft when Britain haphazardly tried to oppose Japanese amphibious landings on the Malay Peninsula which threatened its Far East bastion of Singapore.  This debacle – in which Churchill also played an active part – is especially egregious since Japan had just decimated U.S. naval forces at Pearl Harbor with airpower, and because Britain ironically had done the same to Italian naval forces at Taranto a year earlier.  It was already clear that battleships, much less battlecruisers or any other type of warship, were extremely vulnerable to air attack and that proper air cover was now essential.  If the 1940 raid on Taranto wasn’t enough to prove that the aircraft carrier had become the preeminent naval instrument of war, then the 1941 raid on Pearl Harbor certainly did.  Excuses have been made to lessen the criticism of British leadership which point out that no capital ship had ever been sunk solely by airpower when maneuvering freely at sea;  but, this outdated rationale ignores the advancements in warplane technology and deployment which were readily apparent at that time.

In the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (November 12-15, 1942), two fast battleships née battlecruisers were among the powerful naval forces Japan had sent to retake control of that strategically important airstrip (Henderson Field) in the Solomon Islands.  U.S. Marines had successfully invaded in August, maintained air supremacy during daylight hours, but could barely withstand the relentless Japanese attacks at night. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet) made one last major attempt to eliminate the American naval forces under Vice Admiral William Halsey Jr. (South Pacific Area Commander), reinforce his land forces on the island, and to recapture Guadalcanal.  In the early morning of the 13th, the stronger Japanese fleet (commanded by Vice Admiral Hiroaki Abe) – including IJN Hiei and IJN Kirishima – moved into “Ironbottom Sound” southeast of Savo Island to confront U.S. cruisers and destroyers which were still learning how to conduct nighttime combat operations.  In the confused melee that followed, the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco damaged Hiei’s steering and power generators before being ravaged by the big Japanese guns (Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan, in command of the U.S. fleet, was killed).  Around midday, torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and high-level bombers attacked the crippled Hiei (which sank later that night) as the Japanese were planning to tow her away.  That evening, the Japanese tried again (commanded by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa) to bombard Henderson Field (the battered American warships had withdrawn), but they couldn’t put the airstrip out of operation.  The next morning, U.S. warplanes sank 7 of the 11 Japanese troop transports and forced its withdrawal.  Before midnight on the 14th, the Japanese returned (under Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondō’s command) and was met by the new battleships USS South Dakota and USS Washington (led by Vice Admiral Willis “Ching” Lee Jr.) plus a scratch force of destroyers.  South Dakota had disabled herself with a maintenance mishap which caused an electrical failure.  She went into the fight anyway and suffered multiple hits from Kirishima, but her strong armor protection prevented any vital damage.  Meanwhile, Washington approached unnoticed and pounded Kirishima at point-blank range with 9-20 16″ projectiles which put all her main guns out of action, set her aflame, caused heavy flooding, and jammed her rudder.  The Japanese retired, and the crippled battlecruiser capsized and sank three hours later on the 15th.  This proved to be the decisive battle for Guadalcanal.

On Christmas Day 1943, Konteradmiral (equivalent to a Rear Admiral) Erich Bey in command of the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst and a few destroyers based at Altafjord (Norway) was alerted to an allied merchant convoy transporting war supplies to the Soviet Union and headed out into the Barents Sea to attack it.  Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser commanded distant covering forces for the convoy which included the battleship HMS Duke of York (sister to HMS Prince of Wales), a heavy cruiser, three light cruisers, and several destroyers.  His intention was to use the convoy as a lure and to destroy the Scharnhorst with superior forces.  Early on December 26th, he was notified of the German warship’s movements.  Because the horribly bad weather had grounded Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft, and despite a reported sighting by a U-boat, Bey couldn’t locate the convoy and decided to detach his destroyers to expand the search area.  At 9am, the British sighted the now unescorted Scharnhorst and gunfire was exchanged between it and the pursuing cruisers.  Scharnhorst was hit twice which knock out her radar leaving the battlecruiser virtually blind in a snowstorm, but she struck HMS Norfolk with two 11″ shells which disabled an 8″ gun turret and the radar.  Bey ordered his destroyers to attack the convoy (which they never found), and he headed back south to port at high speed.  However, Fraser sprung his trap.  Duke of York opened fire and knocked out Scharnhorst’s two forward turrets with its first salvo.  Bey tried to use his ship’s greater speed to outmaneuver the British battleship but was hemmed in by their cruisers.  His surrounded battlecruiser managed to hit Duke of York’s masts, but it was being bombarded by an array of naval guns.  One 14″ projectile pierced Scharnhorst’s belt armor and eviscerated a boiler room which reduced her speed by two-thirds.  Torpedoes launched from the destroyers then struck her (1 on the starboard side, 3 on the port side) which caused more serious damage.  The British onslaught continued with heavy gunfire and numerous torpedoes until Scharnhorst became a blazing wreck, turned over and sank a few hours later with great loss of life.  The Battle of the North Cape marked the last time in history a battlecruiser fought a surface engagement.

Scharnhorst (painting of her sinking)

Shortly after midnight on November 21st 1944, an American submarine (USS Sealion) sighted IJN Kongo and two battleships (IJN Yamato and IJN Nagato) heading north through the Formosa Strait.  Two of the six torpedoes fired struck the battlecruiser causing severe flooding in her boilers.  She detached and changed course towards the port of Keelung (Formosa) for repairs.  Fifteen minutes later, the flooding became uncontrollable and the warship developed a 45 degree list to port.  Less than 10 minutes after that, while the crew was being evacuated, the forward 14″ gun magazine exploded sending her and over 1,200 crewmen to the bottom.  The last survivor of those four sister battlecruisers, IJN Haruna, was sunk by U.S. carrier aircraft on July 28th 1945 while moored at Kure Naval Base south of Hiroshima, Japan.

In conclusion, the battlecruiser concept was a product of reckless haste and intense rivalry between the major and would-be naval powers of the world at the advent of the most disastrous warlike period in human history.  Its fatal flaw, in hindsight at least, should have been recognized much sooner especially because a better technological solution for increased battleship speed was contemporaneously available.  This strategic blunder directly resulted from the stubborn hubris of otherwise brilliant military men such as Jackie Fisher.  The cost was high, not just in terms of the expensive capital ships which were lost or destroyed, but particularly in terms of the thousands of human lives which were lost or harmed.

Excepting the 7 or 8 vessels which were converted to aircraft carriers, there were 22 battlecruisers of the major navies which saw combat action in the world wars (see the table below).  Of the 17 that served in WWI, 4 were sunk outright (23.5%).  When extensive battle damage is considered which kept warships out of service for extended periods, the loss rate is much higher (at least four times higher than that for battleships, see:  Dreadnought – A History of the Modern Battleship (1964) by naval historian Richard Hough).  Of the 5 battlecruisers that served in WWII, 3 were sunk and 1 was wrecked – a loss rate of 60% or 80% (depending on how the wrecked ship is categorized).  The total number of crew deaths for these eight warships at the time of their loss is 7,390 – an average of 923.75 per vessel.  This figure is reflective of the battlecruiser’s tendency to suffer catastrophic damage.

But, the story of the battlecruiser cannot be fully told without mentioning its most redeeming yet intangible quality.  These warships were beloved by the designers who conceived them, by the workers who built them, by the sailors who served on them, and by the citizens who paid for them.  This romanticism was felt much more strongly than for any other ship of war or peace, including its brawny elder brother the battleship.  It is not coincidence that decades after its demise the hit 1960s science fiction television show Star Trek portrayed the iconic starship Enterprise as a “battlecruiser” – that fast, powerful, yet vulnerable and elegant vessel which still roams the wide open reaches of our galaxy with its brave and adoring crew… a true lioness of sea or sky.

The Battlecruisers of World Wars I and II

Columns:  Navy (Ger = Germany, UK = United Kingdom), ship class, ship name, date launched, displacement in tons, main guns (number of, diameter in inches), maximum belt armor thickness in inches, maximum deck armor thickness in inches, designed speed in knots, ultimate fate plus number of crew killed when sunk or wrecked.

Addendum – July 18th 2022:  Including the 4 Japanese WWI battlecruisers which were upgraded and reclassified as fast battleships before WWII, and including the 2 U.S. battlecruiser anomalies classified as large cruisers, the final numbers are as follows:

Excepting the 7 or 8 vessels which were converted to aircraft carriers, there were 28 battlecruisers of the major navies which saw combat action in the world wars (see the table below).  Of the 17 that served in WWI, 4 were sunk outright (23.5%).  When extensive battle damage is considered which kept warships out of service for extended periods, the loss rate is much higher (at least four times higher than that for battleships, see:  Dreadnought – A History of the Modern Battleship (1964) by naval historian Richard Hough).  Of the 11 battlecruisers that served in WWII, 7 were sunk and 1 was wrecked – a loss rate of 64% or 73% (depending on how the wrecked ship is categorized).  The total number of crew deaths for these twelve warships at the time of their loss is at least 9,055 – a minimum average of 754.58 per vessel.  This figure is reflective of the battlecruiser’s tendency to suffer catastrophic damage.

Columns:  Navy (Jap = Japan, US = United States), ship class, ship name, date launched, displacement in tons, main guns (number of, diameter in inches), maximum belt armor thickness in inches, maximum deck armor thickness in inches, designed speed in knots, ultimate fate plus number of crew killed when sunk or wrecked.