The Cruiser (part 3): the British in the inter-war period

by Chris Chant on 01/08/2011

For the previous installment, see The Cruiser (part 2): Emden
Black and white photo of HMS Coventry, cruiser warship of the British navy, on a glassy sea and under a grey sky

The main implication of World War I, as far as cruiser design was concerned, was that the naval reconnaissance role was better undertaken by aircraft than by the cruiser, which was thereafter operated mainly in alternative roles such as escort of major convoys, commerce protection and raiding, and gunfire support of amphibious operations. This had become evident to the British in the later stages of World War I, when they had started to build cruisers somewhat larger than the standard light cruisers that had proved so effective in the earlier part of the war. Many of these latter were still comparatively new ships and were retained in service during the 1920s and 1930s, increasingly for second-line tasks such as the protection of trade routes. The oldest classes to survive into World War II were the ‘Caledon’, ‘Carlisle’ and ‘Ceres’ classes, which totalled three, five and five ships respectively. The ‘Caledon’ class ships were altered little in real terms from the standard in which they fought in World War I, but the three of the ‘Ceres’ class and all of the ‘Carlisle’ class ships were modified considerably in overall capability by their conversion to an anti-aircraft cruiser standard. Coventry and Curlew were prototype conversions with a primary armament of 10 4-in (102-mm) anti-aircraft guns in single high-angle mountings and 16 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in two octuple mountings, but the definitive standard adopted for the other six ships was eight 4-in (102-mm) anti-aircraft guns in four twin high-angle turrets and four 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in a quadruple mounting.

Four of the five ‘Improved Birmingham’ class cruisers survived for limited service in World War II, and in basic terms these larger and generally more effective ships had a displacement of some 9,700 tons, an armament of seven or five 7.5-in (191-mm) guns in single mountings and four or five 4-in (102-mm) anti-aircraft guns in single high-angle mountings and, reflecting the increased threat posed by aircraft in World War II, eight 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in two quadruple mountings and 10 20-mm anti-aircraft cannon, protection in the form of a 3-in (76-mm) belt and 1.5-in (38-mm) deck, and a speed of 30.5 kt on the 65,000 hp (48465 kW) delivered to four shafts by steam turbines. Another survivor from World War I and its immediate aftermath was the ‘D’ class of eight light cruisers originally built in the ‘Danae’ and ‘Delhi’ classes, and the two cruisers of the ‘E’ class completed in the early 1920s with a displacement of some 7,550 tons, an armament of seven 6-in (152-mm) guns and three 4-in (102-mm) anti-aircraft guns, protection in the form of a 2.5-in (64-mm) belt and 1-in (25-mm) deck, and a speed of 33 kt on the 80,000 hp (59650 kW) delivered to four shafts by steam turbines.

The completion of these ships preceded the limitation treaties agreed in the 1920s and 1930s. These treaties placed no limit on the numbers of cruisers that could be built, but did impose qualitative and, later, total tonnage restrictions while at the same time granting the right to replace elderly ships. In combination with analysis of operational experience in World War I, the conditions imposed by the treaties paved the way for the evolution of the cruiser into two forms differentiated primarily by gun calibre: the light cruiser was generally a smaller type with guns of up to 6-in (152-mm) calibre and only limited armour protection, while the heavy cruiser was a larger type with guns of up to 8-in (203-mm) calibre and relatively more effective armour protection.

In British service, the first of these modern cruiser classes was the ‘Kent’ class of seven heavy cruisers, including two for the Royal Australian Navy, with a displacement of some 9,800 tons, an armament of eight 8-in (203-mm) gun in four twin turrets, eight 4-in (102-mm) anti-aircraft guns in four twin high-angle turrets, eight 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in two quadruple mountings, and eight 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes, protection in the form of a 5-in (127-mm) belt and 4-in (102-mm) turrets, and a speed of 31.5 kt on the 80,000 hp (59650 kW) supplied to four shafts by steam turbines. The same basic pattern of armament was followed in the ‘London’ class of three heavy cruisers and the ‘Norfolk’ class of two heavy cruisers, but the number of 8-in (203-mm) main guns was reduced to six in three twin mountings in the two smaller heavy cruisers of the ‘York’ class that followed in the late 1920s. The service life typical of a British heavy cruiser in the first half of World War II is exemplified by that of Exeter which, as noted below, had been designed and built in the 1920s as a cheaper counterpart to the high-quality but costly ‘County’ class cruisers. In a relatively brief career in world War II, Exeter was a participant in victory against the odds and then catastrophic defeat, but in the process acquired a superb reputation as a fighting ship. Though successful in its primary aim of preventing expensive and politically destabilising competition in the construction of capital warships, the Washington Naval Treaty of 1921 had exactly the opposite effect on cruiser construction, for the treaty’s limits of a 10,000-ton displacement and an 8-in (203-mm) calibre armament rapidly became the standard into which naval architects crammed as much capability as they could. In the case of the UK, however, the Admiralty wanted not so much a few very powerful ships but rather a larger number of individually less capable ships possessing the endurance to allow them to patrol British maritime trade routes and ‘show the flag’ in distant parts of the empire and the world.

It was thus with some reluctance that the Admiralty did agree to the production of a class of 8-in (203-mm) heavy cruisers as an answer to such ships in service or under construction for other navies. This agreed type was the ‘A’ or ‘County’ class of 13 ships starting with the four vessels of the ‘London’ subclass in the 1925/26 estimates and following with the seven and two ships of the ‘Kent’ and ‘Norfolk’ subclasses respectively. The ships had powerful armament, excellent endurance, high speed and a good standard of habitability, but these features were bought only at the expense of protection. The ships also cost £2 million each, which was seen as a very high unit price at a time when all national expenditure was being trimmed. The inevitable result was the creation of the very much smaller ‘B’ class cruisers with a standard displacement reduced from about 9,900 tons to less than 8,400 through the reduction in the hull length from 630 ft (192 m) to 515 ft (157 m): this meant the reduction of the main battery from eight 8-in (203-mm) guns in four twin turrets to six 8-in (203-mm) guns in three twin turrets, and the reduction of the bunkers from 3,200 to a mere 1,900 tons resulting in a considerable reduction in range. The three funnels of the ‘A’ class were reduced to two by the trunking of the two forward uptakes into only one casing, which was therefore thicker than the after unit. Protection was very light, with a 2-in (51-mm) horizontal deck to protect against long-range plunging fire and a 2/3-in (51/76-mm) vertical belt over the machinery spaces to protect against short-range flat fire.

Black and white photograph of HMS Exeter, cruiser warship of the British Navy, moored off the coast of SumatraAlthough a class of seven ‘B’ class cruisers was originally planned, financial cutbacks meant that in the event only two were built. The first of the class was York, followed into service during 1931 by Exeter, the fourth ship to carry that name and constructed, appropriately, at Devonport Dockyard. On the outbreak of World War II Exeter, the ‘County’ class heavy cruiser Cumberland and the ‘Leander’ class light cruiser Ajax constituted the South American Division of the forces available to the Royal Navy’s Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic. This enormous area of water was important mainly for being crossed by several very important trade routes. The German naval high command understood full well the vulnerability of the UK’s maritime trade and had constructed ships designed specifically for the decimation of the shipping plying these routes. Among these ships were the three Panzerschiffe or ‘pocket battleships’. These were well protected, had Diesel engines for great endurance, and possessed a nicely balanced armament including six 11-in (280-mm), eight 5.9-in (150-mm) and six 4.1-in (105-mm) guns. The German rationale was that these ships could outfight what they could not outrun, and outrun what they could not outfight. Shortly before the outbreak of war, two of the ‘pocket battleships’ moved into the Atlantic. One of these was Admiral Graf Spee with orders, in the event of hostilities, to disrupt British trade but at the same time to avoid action with warships that could cause damage far from dockyard facilities. The ‘pocket battleship’ started work in earnest near the end of September 1939, sinking the liner Clement off the Brazilian coast. To catch the Admiral Graf Spee the French and British assembled no fewer than eight separate hunting groups. Of these Force G comprised the South American Division reinforced by the Royal New Zealand Navy’s Achilles, a sister ship of Ajax. Led by Commodore Henry Harwood, this division had a huge operational area, but despite Admiral Graf Spee’s activities over a large part of the South Atlantic and even the Indian Ocean, Harwood was of the firm belief that the German ship would eventually attempt to disrupt the important shipping routes to and from the estuary of the River Plate between Argentina and Uruguay. That Harwood was right in his assessment was confirmed on 13 December, when Admiral Graf Spee was sighted off the coast of Uruguay. At this time Harwood has only three of his cruisers, Cumberland being near the Falklands. Harwood had carefully discussed his tactical thinking with his captains, and the British plan to divide the fire of the German ship went smoothly into operation as the cruisers deployed with Exeter on one side and the two light cruisers on the other side. The action began at a range of more than 19,000 yards (11315 m) as Admiral Graf Spee initially fired on the two light cruisers, which could put up a greater volume of fire. however, as Exeter’s salvoes began to straddle Admiral Graf Spee, Captain Hans Langsdorff ordered the fire of his ship to be switched to the British heavy cruiser. Turning nearly 180° from its initial south-easterly course, Admiral Graf Spee had Exeter slightly abaft her port beam, with the six 11-in (280-mm) guns of her primary battery bearing, but was able at the same time to engage the two light cruisers with the 5.9-in (150-mm) guns of her secondary battery. The Germans had the advantage of radar which could pass ranges to the gunlayers, and Exeter was soon hit by three 11-in (280-mm) shells, losing a turret and the steering. The heavy cruiser, now under emergency control, pressed on and launched its starboard torpedoes without effect. Hit again, Exeter started listing to starboard and turned in that direction to fire her port torpedoes, which Admiral Graf Spee again evaded. By this time the damage was beginning to tell on Exeter’s accuracy and rate of fire. The pocket battleship secured two more hits on the heavy cruiser, this time putting another turret out of action and starting a fire that soon became serious. Exeter was now forced to pull out of the fight, disengaging and steaming to the south. The two light cruisers, which had not yet suffered any significant damage, now manoeuvred to create the threat that would deter Admiral Graf Spee from pursuing Exeter. But the German ship now seemed unwilling to press home her tactical advantage and tended to the west, with Ajax and Achilles shadowing, to reach the roads off Montevideo.

Admiral Graf Spee had suffered only modest casualties (including 36 killed by comparison with Exeter’s 61 killed), and the physical damage she had suffered from 21 hits was superficial. Nevertheless, in the belief that very much more capable Allied forces were about to reach the area and so prevent any chance of a return to Germany, Langsdorff ordered the scuttling of his ship, after which he committed suicide. Thus the British tactical reverse of the Battle of the River Plate became a major operational victory. After receiving temporary repairs at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, Exeter returned to the UK for a considerable time in dockyard hands for major repairs.

Once these had been completed, the ship proceeded to the Far East, where the situation was worsening in a most threatening way. In December 1941 the Japanese committed themselves to World War II, and as part of their initial moves to extend their empire into south-east Asia and defensive perimeter in the Pacific, swept into Malaya and Burma before falling on the Dutch East Indies. An extemporised assembly of Australian, British, Dutch and American warships made up the so-called ABDA force which, by the end of February 1942, had been badly mauled as it tried without success to check the Japanese amphibious advances. In February 1942 Singapore fell and Java remained the last Allied bastion before Australia, which at the time was though to be a Japanese objective. On 21 February 1942 it was reported that two Japanese forces were approaching Java: the larger, eastern group comprised 41 merchant ships carrying the main invasion force and covered by four cruisers and 13 destroyers under the command of Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi. Under a Dutch officer, Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, a force of five cruisers (including Exeter) and 10 destroyers sailed to intercept this invasion fleet. Measured in terms of firepower, there was little difference between the forces of the Allies and the Japanese, but the latter were superior in the size and armament of their individual cruisers, and in the morale of its men. Battle was joined on 27 February, and after an opening gunnery duel the Japanese launched a determined torpedo attack at the moment when Exeter, lying second in the Allied cruiser line, was hit in the boiler room by an 8-in (203-mm) shell from Nachi. On fire and her speed reduced to a mere 5 kt, Exeter pulled out of line and the ships astern of it were thrown into confusion. Covered by four destroyers making smoke, Exeter turned south, in the process taking the liaison officer and the code books through which the Dutch-speaking Doorman communicated with the English-speaking remainder of his force. Successive probes by Doorman’s reorganised force against the Japanese transports were successfully parried by the Japanese warships, the Allied ships being driven back to the point at which the crippled Exeter once again became embroiled. Harried by Japanese light cruisers and destroyers, the British heavy cruiser was saved only by the spirited defence of the escorting destroyers, of which Electra was lost. The battle now moved off to the north once more in a number of short but sharp little engagements. After nightfall disaster struck the Allies as Doorman was killed when both his Dutch cruisers were sunk, but Exeter and her remaining screen meanwhile reached at least temporary safety at Surabaya. Patched and partially refuelled, the little group set off during the evening of the following day in an effort to reach Ceylon.

Fire and smoke on the sea, as British Navy cruiser HMS Exeter comes under attackThe ABDA combined force had ceased to exist, for the Battle of the Java Sea had cost the Allies not only their two Dutch cruisers but also all but five of their destroyers. Exeter’s little flotilla was spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft as it left Surabaya, and even though it was capable of 23 kt by daybreak on 1 March, Exeter found herself confronted by a Japanese force of four heavy cruisers and four destroyers. In a wholly unequal battle that lasted for more than two hours and was typified by determined attacks by the destroyers Encounter and US Pope, Exeter finally succumbed to gun and torpedo hits, rolled over to starboard and sank. The two destroyers were also sunk in the following 30 minutes.

Construction during the 1920s gave the Royal Navy a strong force of heavy cruisers, and in the 1930s the service’s focus switched to the replacement of the light cruiser types surviving from World War I with more advanced ships designed to complement the new generation of heavy cruisers. The first result of this effort was the ‘Leander’ class of light cruisers of which eight were constructed as five for the UK and three for Australia. The British ships had a displacement of some 7,200 tons, an armament of eight 6-in (152-mm) guns in four twin turrets, eight 4-in (102-mm) anti-aircraft guns in four twin high-angle turrets, eight 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in two quadruple mountings, and eight 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes, protection in the form of a 4-in (102-mm) belt and 2-in (51-mm) deck, and a speed of 32.5 kt on the 72,000 hp (53685 kW) delivered to four shafts by steam turbines. The three Australian ships differed in their displacement of some 6,900 tons and lack of 2-pdr ‘pom-pom’ anti-aircraft guns. The following ‘Arethusa’ class of four ships was somewhat smaller with a displacement of some 5,250 tons, an armament of six 6-in (152-mm) guns in three triple turrets, eight 4-in (102-mm) anti-aircraft guns in four twin high-angle turrets, eight 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in two quadruple mountings and six 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes, protection in the form of a 2-in (51-mm) belt and deck, and a speed of 32.25 kt on the 64,000 hp (47720 kW) delivered to four shafts by steam turbines.

The next class to come out of British yards was a hybrid type combining the size and most of the protection of the heavy cruiser with a beefed-up version of the typical light cruiser armament. This was the ‘Southampton’ class, of which 10 examples were built in three subclasses totalling five, three and two ships respectively. The first two subclasses had displacements of 9,100 and 9,400 tons respectively, an armament of 12 6-in (152-mm) guns in four triple turrets, eight 4-in (102-mm) anti-aircraft guns in four twin high-angle turrets, eight 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in two quadruple mountings and six 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes, protection in the form of a 4-in (102-mm) belt and 2-in (51-mm) deck and turrets, and a speed of 32 and 32.5 kt on the 75,000 or 82,500 hp (55920 and 61510 kW) respectively delivered to four shafts by steam turbines. The ships of the last subclass had a displacement of 10,000 tons, an armament of 12 6-in (152-mm) guns in four triple turrets, 12 4-in (102-mm) anti-aircraft guns in six twin high-angle turrets, 16 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in two octuple mountings and six 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes, improved protection in the form of a 4.5-in (114-mm) belt and 2-in (51-mm) deck, and a speed of 32 kt on the 80,000 hp (59650 kW) delivered to four shafts by steam turbines. The ships proved remarkably resilient in service, and saw very extensive use.

When the ships of the ‘Southampton’ class were being laid down in the mid-1930s, it had already become clear that the warplane was rapidly becoming one of the most potent weapons faced by naval forces, and the British responded to this increasing threat with a classic class of dedicated anti-aircraft cruisers, the ‘Dido’ class, of which 16 examples were completed in 11- and five-ship subclasses with a displacement of 5,450 and 5,770 tons respectively and an armament in the first subclass of 10 5.25-in (133-mm) dual-purpose guns in five twin turrets, eight 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in two quadruple mountings and six 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes, or in the second subclass of eight 5.25-in (133-mm) dual-purpose guns in four twin turrets, 12 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in three quadruple mountings and six 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes. Features common to both subclasses were protection in the form of a 3-in (76-mm) belt and 2-in (51-mm) deck, and a speed of 33 kt on the 62,000 hp (46225 kW) delivered to four shafts by steam turbines.

Next in British construction came the ‘Fiji’ class that reverted to the standard light cruiser concept, and these 11 ships were completed in eight- and three-ship subclasses whose common features included protection in the form of a 3.25-in (83-mm) belt and 2-in (51-mm) deck, and a speed of 33 kt on the 72,500 hp (54055 kW) delivered to four shafts by steam turbines. The first subclass had a displacement of 8,000 tons and an armament of 12 6-in (152-mm) guns in four triple turrets, eight 4-in (102-mm) anti-aircraft guns in four twin turrets, nine 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in two quadruple and one single mountings and six 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes, while the second subclass had a displacement of 8,800 tons, and an armament of nine 6-in (152-mm) guns in three triple turrets, 20 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in five quadruple mountings and 20 20-mm anti-aircraft cannon in 10 twin mountings.

The last British cruiser class of World War II was the ‘Minotaur’ class, of which six examples were completed in three-ship subclasses during or immediately after the war to a design based on that of the second ‘Fiji’ subclass. The features that the two types shared were principally the hull and the protection, the latter in the form of a 3.5-in (89-mm) belt and 2-in (51-mm) deck and turrets. The ships of the first ‘Minotaur’ subclass had a displacement of 8,800 tons, an armament of nine 6-in (152-mm) guns in three triple turrets, 10 4-in (102-mm) anti-aircraft guns in five twin turrets, 16 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in four quadruple mountings, eight 40-mm anti-aircraft guns in eight single mountings and six 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes, and a speed of 32.5 kt on the 72,500 hp (54,055 kW) delivered to four shafts by steam turbines, while the ships of the second ‘Minotaur’ subclass, whose construction had been suspended at the end of World War II and resumed only at a later time, had a displacement of 9,550 tons, an armament of four 6-in (152-mm) dual-purpose guns in two twin turrets and six 3-in (76-mm) anti-aircraft guns in three twin turrets, and a speed of 31.5 kt on the 80,000 hp (59650 kW) delivered to four shafts by steam turbines. It should be noted, however, that reduction in the number of guns carried by the ships of the second subclass was more than counterbalanced by the incorporation of the latest fire-control methods, which included extensive radar equipment.

In World War II existing cruisers were extensively modified as they underwent refits or major repairs after suffering battle damage. The major part of this improvement effort was devoted to the upgrading of the ships’ anti-aircraft capability by the addition of 20-mm cannon in place of the original machine-guns, the later replacement of these 20-mm cannon by 40-mm weapons, the boosting of fire control by the addition of radar systems to the original fit of optical systems, the removal of aircraft (between one and three depending on the specific class) together with their associated hangar and catapult facilities as long-range warning of ships and aircraft was increasingly and more reliably provided by radar, and in many ships the removal of one of the after main gun turrets to provide additional deck area for anti-aircraft weapons and radar equipment.

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