The Battle Cruiser in the Royal Navy

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The Royal Navy created the first Battlecruiser with the completion of H.M.S. Invincible in 1909, though she was not initially called such. The evolution of the name, and the arguable phase shift to the later Large Cruiser type offer a story rich in nuance, varied in each telling, and couched in the voice of strained rationalisation.

History in the Royal Navy

In an interesting lecture to the Institution of Naval Architects of March, 1893, entitled "On the Present Position of Cruisers in Naval Warfare", Rear-Admiral Samuel Long stated that the size of cruisers had grown to such an extent that it would "justify attaching the name of battle-cruisers to many of them." Later in his talk, he made these remarks:

In considering the duties of cruisers attending on fleets, I shall confine myself to those intended to act as look-out ships, observing that it is possible first-class or battle-cruisers may be attached to fleets to play the part assigned by Lord Howe to his fast-sailing battle-ships on May 28, 1794, so well described by Captain Mahan [a fast squadron harrying the rear of the French battle line]. In fact, it seems not impossible that offensive power and speed may be developed in future battleships at the expense of armoured protection. The duties of scouting for intelligence, while avoiding action, would doubtless be best fulfilled by mercantile auxiliaries and ships like Iris and Mercury.

It is noteworthy that Long publicly thanked Rear-Admiral (later Admiral of the Fleet Lord) John A. Fisher, the Controller of the Navy, and A. John Durston, the Engineer-in-Chief, for their assistance with information on cruisers, it being not implausible that the two of them were aware of what was contained in the paper. A month later, however, Long died following a riding accident.

In November, 1900, Fisher, now Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, wrote to the new First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Selborne, on naval requirements:

But here I must put in the remark for your careful attention that if what I read in the French newspapers is correct, their new big cruisers are really Battle-ships in disguise, and our new 1st class cruisers ought to be designed accordingly.[1]

He enunciated around the same time:

In regard to Cruisers, the fact has been overlooked that no number of unprotected or unarmoured or smaller type of Cruisers can cope successfully with even one thoroughly powerful first-class armoured Cruiser. An infinite number of ants would not be equal to one armadillo! The armadillo would eat them up one after the other wholesale!"[2]

In a lecture of 1902, Fisher stated that, "It is a cardinal mistake to assume that Battleships and Armoured Cruisers have not each of them a distinct mission." Ruddock Mackay's take on Fisher's lecture was that the armoured cruiser's mission was "to outpace and eliminate enemy cruisers."[3]

In July, 1904, he wrote that, "All are agreed that battleships must for the present be continued, and that their characteristic features, distinguishing them from armoured cruisers, are more powerful guns and more armour."[4] In papers presented to the Earl of Selborne in October, he wrote, "At the present moment naval experience is not sufficiently ripe to abolish totally the building of battleships so long as other countries do not do so." Selborne commented, "Indeed not! The battleship is essential, just as much as 100 years ago. Ask the Japs."[5]

The First Battle Cruisers

A Committee on Designs was instituted by Fisher in December, 1904 and first met on 3 January, 1905, to consider designs for a battleship, an armoured cruiser, and three types of torpedo craft.[6] The terms of reference for the armoured cruiser design were set as follows:

Speed, 25 knots.
Armament, 12-inch guns and anti-torpedo-craft guns. Nothing between. 12-inch guns to be as numerous only as is consistent with the above speed and reasonable proportions.
Armour to be on similar scale to "Minotaur" class.
Docking facilities to be carefully observed.[7]

Admiral Sir Reginald H. S. Bacon, who served as Fisher's Naval Assistant and later as Director of Naval Ordnance (D.N.O.), later gave his opinion (reiterated in 1940[8]) on the philosophy behind the battle cruiser:

The speed of the Invincible was definitely fixed at 25 knots. This gave her some margin over the German Transatlantic liners. Hitherto we had subsidized, for a huge annual sum, some of our own liners to fight those of Germany, in spite of the fact that they had never been designed to fight and were totally unfitted to do so. For weeks, however, discussion continued about the armament of the Invincible 9.2-inch versus 12-inch; but in the end the 12-inch gun won on the unanswerable plea that ships, of the size and tonnage necessary in order to build an Invincible, should have an additional use in being able to form a fast light squadron to supplement the battleships in action, and worry the ships in the van or rear of the enemy's line. They were never intended to engage battleships singlehanded; but they were designed to assist in a general action by engaging some of the enemy's ships which were already fighting our battleships.[9]

Matthew Seligmann has argued forcefully in support of Bacon's contention,[10] concluding that: "the origins of the battlecruiser lay in the threat from Germany's fast ocean liners."[11] As Seligmann notes, however, we may never know quite what the exact origins of the battle cruiser in the Royal Navy were owing to weeding of Admiralty files, and, as Captain (later Admiral) Philip W. Dumas confided to his diary in 1907: "there is only one person who knows what Sir J. Fisher wants and that is JF himself."[12]


One "Large Armoured Cruiser" was included in the 1908-1909 building programme.[13] When discussing the estimates in June, 1907, it had apparently been suggested that two armoured cruisers be constructed, armed with 9,2-inch guns, which were intended for "pressing home a reconnaissance" in addition to commerce protection. Under pressure from the Liberal Cabinet to economise, the number of armoured cruisers was reduced to one.[14] This ship's design, essentially an enlarged Invincible (or Design E.), was approved by the Board of Admiralty in November, 1908. The armoured cruiser was named Indefatigable on 9 December and was laid down at Devonport on 23 February, 1909.[15]

Lion Class

In the 1909-1910 estimates, it was announced that the programme would consist of "4 Battleships (Dreadnought type)", with provision "for the rapid construction of four more large armoured ships, beginning on 1st April of the following financial year [1910]."[16] One of the "4 Battleships" was actually the Lion, laid down on 29 November, 1909. Princess Royal was laid one of the four additional large armoured ships, and was laid down on 2 May, 1910. On the Board of Admiralty, apparently the new Second Sea Lord, Vice-Admiral Sir Francis C. B. Bridgeman, had insisted that the eight capital ships in the 1909-1910 programme be battleships.[17]

The 1910-1911 programme included "5 large armoured ships,"[18] of which one was the Queen Mary, laid down on 6 March, 1911.


Again in 1911-1912, the programme consisted of five large armoured ships.[19] The Tiger formed part of this programme, and was laid down on 20 June, 1912. As detailed by John Roberts, "The debate on the design of the 1911-1912 battlecruiser continued somewhat longer than in the case of earlier ships." The chief delay was the replacement of McKenna as First Lord by Winston S. Churchill in October, 1911. On 20 November Churchill requested that the tender of the armoured cruiser design be delayed while the design was reviewed, and tender wasn't provisionally accepted until 2 March, 1912.[20] Apparently on 10 November, 1911, Churchill had written to Battenberg, soon to become Second Sea Lord, that he intended to press for the construction of four battle cruisers, but was persuaded to continue building battleships by Briggs, the Controller, and Moore, the D.N.O.[21]


1911 Origin of the Term

On 24 November, 1911, Admiralty Weekly Order 351 was promulgated, declaring that: "All cruisers of the “Invincible” and later types are for the future to be described and classified as “battle cruisers.” in order to distinguish them from the armoured cruisers of earlier date."[22]

On 31 January, 1913, the Admiralty announced that all cruisers were to be divided into three class: "Battle Cruisers," "Cruisers," and "Light Cruisers." For the first time classes were to be formally "grouped tactically and administratively," and battle cruisers were grouped into battle cruiser squadrons.[23]

In his report on the 1913 naval manœuvres, Vice-Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, Commander-in-Chief of the Red Fleet (representing the German High Sea Fleet), noted first among several points:

(a.) The immense value of battle cruisers of the highest speed.
They dominate the situation absolutely. This has been shown time after time in both the recent and in previous manœuvres. They can drive off any other cruiser with great ease, they can shadow a battle fleet with equal ease, and it is almost impossible to shake them off in the daytime ; the only method by which they can be disposed of is by waiting till dark and then attacking them with destroyers.
A Commander-in-Chief will certainly sacrifice a good deal to compass the destruction of hostile battle cruisers, as he cannot feel safe until they are disposed of.
Battle cruisers, or at any rate some of them, must have a speed at least equal to that attained by the battle cruisers of possible enemies. The value of powerful armament and good protection in a ship of great speed is enormous, but if an opposing vessel has considerably greater speed even with less offensive qualities it will be difficult to shake off.[24]

In his "Remarks on the Conduct of a Fleet in Action", dated 5 December, 1913, the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleets, Admiral Sir George A. Callaghan, gave the "principal functions" of the battle cruiser in action:

Battle-Cruisers. — The primary function must be that of engaging the battle-cruisers of the enemy. There are many reasons for this, the most important being that, owing to their great power and speed, battle-cruisers, if not in the line of battle, can force all inferior vessels to give way, and, consequently, if the enemy’s battle-cruisers are not “held,” their power to inflict damage on ships of weaker types is unchecked, and they are able to assume positions from which they can concentrate on, or enfilade, the line of battle, cover the attack of light-cruisers and torpedo-craft, etc.
If the enemy has no battle-cruisers with his fleet, the function of our battle-cruisers may be an equally definite one; they may be employed as a fast division of the battle-fleet, or comparative freedom of action may be given to the Admiral commanding to attack the enemy in the manner (indicated above) he may judge best.[25]

Upon receiving some papers from Rear-Admiral David R. Beatty, commanding the First Battle Cruiser Squadron, the First Lord, Winston Churchill, wrote back on 15 April, 1914, with his thoughts on the usage of the battle cruiser:

In your enumeration of battle cruiser functions ought you not to include what is to my mind the most formidable and disconcerting of all, viz — rupturing an enemy's cruiser line and attacking his cruisers of all kinds wherever found.
This is what bothers us: and surely we should also make it bother them.[26]

In the Home Fleets General Orders concerning cruiser work, dated 29 April, 1914, Callaghan noted:

The 1913 naval manœuvres were productive, on two occasions, of experience of a battle-cruiser squadron keeping touch with a powerful force of enemy battleships under conditions of variable visibility by day, which, at times, necessitated them closing within gun range. This might or might not be desirable, according to circumstances and the composition of the enemy force, but, if the enemy is in superior strength, injury or disablement of the battle-cruisers might result with no compensating gain.
The lesson deduced is that battle-cruisers should be associated with light cruisers which will act as their "eyes," whilst they form the support which enables the light cruisers to maintain their position against all but ships of power equal to or greater than that of the battle-cruisers behind them.[27]

Writing to Callaghan on 2 July, Beatty wrote:

Tactically the position of the B.C.S. in Battle is to such as to be able to frustrate the attacks of the Enemy's T.B.s on our Battle Fleet.[28]

Redistribution of the Battle Cruisers

In July, 1914, the Board approved a future reorganisation of cruisers in full commission. Upon Tiger being ready for service, Invincible would join the battle cruisers in the Mediterranean, and that New Zealand would join them "as soon as convenient." In March, 1915, also the date of Rear-Admiral Beatty's time being up, the First Battle Cruiser Squadron would be split up, and with eight light cruisers formed into two separate mixed cruiser squadrons. The Rear-Admiral Commanding the Third Cruiser Squadron would transfer his flag from Antrim to Tiger. In December, 1915, the four battle cruisers in the Mediterranean would return to Home Waters, and with eight Calliope class light cruisers would be split into the Third and Fourth Mixed Cruiser Squadrons. These new squadrons are referred to as either Cruiser Squadrons or Battle Cruiser Squadrons.

Under this arrangement, it was envisaged that in December, 1915 the battle and light cruisers of the First Fleet would be composed thus:

First Cruiser Squadron Second Cruiser Squadron Third Cruiser Squadron Fourth Cruiser Squadron
Lion RAdmRN.png Princess Royal RAdmRN.png Indefatigable RAdmRN.png Inflexible RAdmRN.png
Tiger Queen Mary Indomitable Invincible
Royalist Penelope Cordelia Conquest
Undaunted Galatea Caroline Cleopatra
Aurora Inconstant Comus Calliope
Arethusa Phaeton Champion Carysfort

While Moltke was in the Mediterranean, New Zealand was to remain there. If not, she was to join the Third Battle Cruiser Squadron in the First Fleet. The withdrawal of the battle cruisers from the Mediterranean was to be compensated for by the transfer of the five oldest dreadnought battleships to that theatre, and the pre-dreadnoughts Queen, London and Bulwark. In April, 1917 these three ships would be replaced by St. Vincent and Vanguard.[29]

Rear-Admiral Charles E. Madden, commanding the Second Cruiser Squadron, dissented from the proposal, writing: "Each type of ship under consideration has definite characteristics of its and uses; the mixing of types in composite squadrons would adversely affect the full development of these characteristics."[30] Madden described the duty of the battle cruiser: "as the advanced look-outs to a fleet pursuing an offensive policy." He criticised the proposed composite squadrons as being suited for only a few situations, whilst homogeneous squadrons would have trained together and could be readily combined with squadrons of a different type of ship to meet any situation.[31]

Neverthless, war intervened and the reorganisation was never carried out.

Great War

When Princess Royal was detached in November, 1914, Beatty was moved to write to Jellicoe on the 13th. It is considered worth quoting in toto:

I have the honour to point out that, by the present disposition of my Squadron, I am confronted with the possibility of situations of great difficulty which I had never anticipated. Being in command of the only force which can deal effectively with the German "Cruiser Squadron" I have always assumed that our duty would be to sail instantly and engage it if it put to sea.

2. Having assumed hitherto that for offensive purposes the enemy's Cruiser Squadron would consist of 4 Battle Cruisers, the BLUCHER and 6 Light Cruisers, my intention was to engage them when and where they could be found, and considered that the superior quality of our ships would have counterbalanced the possible inferiority in numbers.

3. Now that the inferiority in our numbers has greatly increased (owing to detachment of PRINCESS ROYAL and TIGER being as yet unfit to take her place) and a situation has arisen which has never been previously contemplated or considered possible, I am obliged to ask for a ruling as to what is considered the proper course for me to pursue.

4. It was accepted as a principle by the late and concurred in by you that my Squadron should always consider the enemy's Battle Cruiser Squadron as their objective and it was never considered possible that our Battle Cruiser Squadron would be greatly inferior to that of the enemy.

5. From the experience gained during the few operations of the war it has been emphasised most markedly on each occasion that superiority will always annihilate inferiority without the inferior force being able to inflict compensating damage on the superior force.

6. Again it would be highly detrimental to the prestige of the Navy and cause considerable loss of morale, which at this juncture is of the highest importance if an enemy force bombarded our coasts and arsenals and we did not engage them at once; or if the enemy cruiser squadron swept the North Sea and we could not bring them to action except with an inferior force, viz. LION, QUEEN MARY and NEW ZEALAND.

7. I raise this question only because I feel that in a situation so extremely grave I ought to obtain guidance from higher authority who are conversant with all the circumstances and the exact dispositions of the enemy forces.

8. It may be assumed that the enemy will take advantage of the detachment of the PRINCESS ROYAL to undertake an offensive movement.[32]

Forwarding Beatty's letter to the Board of Admiralty, Jellicoe noted the probability that Derfflinger was armed with 14-inch guns. Also:

We cannot rely on much if any superiority in gunnery in my opinion.

The German Fleet has shewn itself to be highly efficient and their gunnery in any action in which they have not been hopelessly inferior has been excellent.

He ended:

I can only inform Sir David Beatty as I have done, that he must do the best he can with the force at his disposal endeavouring to separate the enemy ships by suitable manoeuvring, but I hold a very strong opinion that we are running the risk of losing an opportunity of inflicting a severe defeat on the enemy, if nothing worse, by not adhering to the principle of concentration in the decisive theatre.[33]

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur K. Wilson's reaction was blunt:

The inferiority of Admiral Beatty's squadron to the German cruiser squadron even with the addition of the Blücher is so slight that it should not make any difference in his duty to engage the latter if opportunity offers.

The Derfflinger cannot have had so much time as the Tiger to get into good gunnery order.

It is on gunnery efficiency more than numbers that the result of an action depends.[34]


On 3 September, 1916, Jellicoe replied to a missive from Beatty:

With regards to your letter of 25 August, B.C.F.01, renewing your request that the Fifth Battle Squadron may be attached to the Battle Cruiser Fleet, I do not concur in this proposal, as I consider such a division of the Battle Fleet to be strategically unsound.
2. The supposed new enemy disposition, to which you refer, does not lead me to modify this view; indeed, I consider it to be a false move on his part and advantageous to us, since it reduces the speed of his battle-cruisers to that of the attached battleships.
3. The function of our battle-cruisers is that of a powerful scouting force; the addition of battleships of lower speed is a handicap to the scouting force.
4. I do not consider that the events of 31 May show that the presence of the Fifth Battle Squadron was preferable to that of the Third Battle Cruiser Squadron. I should have preferred the whole of the battle-cruisers in company, as the superiority over the German First Scouting Group would have been more marked, since all the battle-cruisers would have been in action from the commencement and their speed would have admitted of their keeping out of range of the enemy battle fleet.[35]


  1. Fisher to Selborne. Letter of 19 December, 1900. Fisher Papers. Churchill Archives Centre. FISR 1/2/13. F.P. 56.
  2. Fisher Papers. Churchill Archives Centre. FISR 8/1. p. 75. F.P. 4702. Quoted in Mackay. p. 270. In light of this statement, it would be interesting to learn Fisher's opinion on the question of Goeben as a "Superior Force" in comparison to the First Cruiser Squadron in 1914.
  3. Mackay. pp. 269-270.
  4. Quoted in Fisher Papers. II. p. 28.
  5. Quoted in Fisher Papers. II. p. 41.
  6. Fisher Papers. I. pp. 198-201.
  7. Quoted in Bacon. One. p. 259.
  8. Proceedings (March, 1940). pp. 393-394.
  9. Quoted in Bacon. One. p. 256.
  10. Seligmann, Matthew S. (June 2008). "New Weapons for New Targets: Sir John Fisher, the Threat from Germany, and the Building of HMS Dreadnought and HMS Invincible, 1902-1907".
  11. Seligmann. p. 331.
  12. Seligmann. p. 331. Quoting Dumas diary entry for 19 May, 1907.
  13. Statement of the First Lord of the Admiralty Explanatory of the Navy Estimates, 1908-1909. Cd. 3913. p. 4.
  14. Mackay. pp. 386-389.
  15. Roberts. p. 28.
  16. Statement of the First Lord of the Admiralty Explanatory of the Navy Estimates, 1909-1910. Cd. 4553. pp. 3-4.
  17. Lambert. "Sir John Fisher and the Concept of Flotilla Defence, 1905-1909." p. 644.
  18. Statement of the First Lord of the Admiralty Explanatory of the Navy Estimates, 1910-1911. Cd. 5063. p. 3.
  19. Statement of the First Lord of the Admiralty Explanatory of the Navy Estimates, 1911-1912. Cd. 5547. p. 3.
  20. Roberts. pp. 36-38.
  21. Sumida. pp. 258-259.
  22. Admiralty Weekly Orders. "351.—Description and Classification of Cruisers of the "Invincible" and Later Types." C.N. 22866/11.—24.11.1911. The National Archives. ADM 182/2.
  23. Admiralty Weekly Orders. "49.—Nomenclature of Cruisers." M. 11175/13.—31.1.1913. The National Archives. ADM 1/8327. My thanks to Dr. John Brooks for a copy of this document.
  24. "Naval Manœuvres, 1913. Report by Vice-Admiral Sir J. R. Jellicoe, K.C.B., K.C.V.O., Commander-in-Chief, Red Fleet." Undated. The National Archives. ADM 116/3381. f. 4.
  25. Naval Tactical Notes. Volume I. O.U. 6183. p. 35. My thanks to Stephen McLaughlin for this document.
  26. Winston S. Churchill. Companion Volume II. Part 3. pp. 1974-1975.
  27. Home Fleets General Orders. "12. Remarks on Cruiser Shadowing." The National Archives. ADM 137/260. p. 3.
  28. "No.029/127." The National Archives. ADM 116/1939. f. 47. My thanks to Dr. John Brooks for excerpts from this catalogue reference.
  29. This section on future dispositions is based on "Battle and Cruiser Squadrons-Programme." The National Archives. ADM 1/8383/179. My thanks to Stephen McLaughlin for supplying me with a copy of this docket.
  30. "Enclosure No.1 to Second Cruiser Squadron Letter No.47.B/5 of 11th June 1914 to the Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleets." ADM 116/1939. ff. 57-58.
  31. ADM 116/1939. ff. 59-60.
  32. Beatty to Jellicoe. Letter No.023 M. of 13 November, 1914. Copy in M.03873/14. The National Archives. ADM 137/995. ff. 209-210.
  33. "Employment of Battle-Cruisers in Action." No. 473/H.F.0010 of 19 November, 1914, in M.03873/14. The National Archives. ADM 137/995. ff. 207-208.
  34. Undated WIlson minute on M.03873/14. The National Archives. ADM 137/995. f. 211.
  35. H.F.0022/448. The National Archives. ADM 137/2134. f. 50.


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