The term “Battlecruiser” was a classification of warship that emerged in the early 1900s. At the time the Battleship was the epitome of sea power and in the build up to World War One a rapid arms race saw the building of bigger and better battleships culminating in the all-big gun Dreadnoughts. Battleships were the spiritual successors of the old Ship-of-the-line and had heavy firepower and armour but this resulted in a significantly reduced top speed compared to other types of warships such as Cruisers.
In 1905, Baron John Fisher of the Royal Navy was appointed Admiral of the Fleet and immediately set about implementing his own ideas of how warships should not only be used but built. He proposed building a warship that would have the equivalent firepower of a Battleship but have the speed and agility of a Cruiser. In the 1900s this could only realistically be achieved by sacrificing armour in order to reduce the ship’s weight. Fisher argued that the resulting warship would be able to outgun any Cruiser that could catch it and outrun any Battleship that could challenge it. Effectively the new type would have the best of both types and so the term “Battle(ship)cruiser” was coined. The Battlecruiser would therefore operate in small squadrons or flotillas independent of the main fleet and its slower Battleships and wage war against patrol vessels, destroyers, cruisers and merchant ships.
Fisher’s vision was realized in the Invincible-class launched in 1908 and considered by many to be the first Battlecruiser. In reality it was the first purpose built Battlecruiser as there had been several ships built previously that would later fall in to the category of Battlecruiser. This included the Japanese Tsukuba-class built a year earlier and was originally categorized as a Battleship but its performance was more in line with the newer warship type.
At the time of the launch of the Invincible-class the Dreadnoughts were the undisputed kings of the seas. Fisher compared the performance of the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought to his first Battlecruiser and was pleased with the results. Both vessels were armed with 12inch guns, eight in Invincible and ten in Dreadnought, but Invincible was faster by around 5 knots. This gave the ship the ability to sail away from any unfavourable action with the more powerful warship. In a one-on-one engagement it seemed Fisher had been proven right and he therefore instigated a building program of several new classes of Battlecruiser. Germany and France had seen the advantage of this type of vessel too and began building their own Battlecruisers. The Battlecruiser was here to stay it seemed.
As the Battlecruiser became a regular sight in the ranks of the Royal Navy an unexpected problem was creeping in totally unnoticed. The new Battlecruisers looked every bit as powerful as their Battleship counterparts but with an ability to steam faster they developed an aura of prestige. This resulted in overconfidence in their effectiveness and the almost total ignorance of their lack of armour. Some even argued that the Battlecruiser was superior to the Battleship thanks to its agility and should be used to attack the lumbering Dreadnoughts. Even Fisher who had conceived of their use fell in to this trap.
With the outbreak of war in 1914 the Battlecruiser was about to have its finest hour in the Battle of the Falkland Islands when Admiral Graf von Spee commanded a flotilla that attempted to destroy the Royal Navy supply base at Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands. His flotilla consisted of two armoured cruisers, two light cruisers and three auxiliaries. The British Battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible dashed south with a few support ships and battled von Spee’s force on the 8th December 1914. The result was an overwhelming success for the Battlecruisers that outgunned anything in the German flotilla. The Germans lost all but one of their ships, a single auxiliary survived the encounter, while the Royal Navy ships suffered only light damage.
This action was precisely what the Battlecruiser was designed for but it only furthered the myth of the Battlecruiser’s power however and by the time of the Battle of Jutland on the 31st of May 1916 Battlecruisers were being used the same as Battleships. This was true for Britain, France and Germany and it would have disastrous results as most of the major casualties at Jutland on both sides were Battlecruisers. One of the best Battlecruisers of the entire war was Germany’s SMS Seydlitz and it survived one of the heaviest bombardments of any ship that destroyed most of the machinery and superstructure. Only a truly Herculean effort by the crew saved the ship and she returned home to be repaired and then eventually scuttled after the war. While the battle was a success for the Royal Navy it had shattered the Admiralty’s belief in the Battlecruiser concept and priority now switched back to building Battleships.
The end of World War One saw the end of the term Battlecruiser, at least in new ships, with HMS Hood being the last British Battlecruiser. Vessels of a similar nature continued to be built however especially in light of the Washington Treaty of 1922 which limited warship displacement and armament. This saw the era of the pocket-Battleship which had the firepower, speed and armour (in varying degrees) of a full Battleship but were smaller than their World War One predecessors. The entire Battlecruiser concept was eventually negated by the arrival of so-called Fast Battleships that were fully fledged Battleships that were powered by new steam turbine engines that produced speeds equivalent to the Battlecruisers.
In a bizarre twist however the Battlecruiser was resurrected albeit in a totally new concept in 1980 with the appearance of the awe-inspiring Kirov-class in the Soviet Navy. There has been no western equivalent to this incredible surface combatant that combined the displacement of a Battlecruiser with a bewildering array of weaponry ranging from close-in gatling guns right the way up to nuclear armed surface-to-surface missiles. The Soviet and Russian navies have never really been able to adequately explain the thinking behind this incredible vessel although it was likely expected to battle its way through a carrier groups’ defences and fire its long range missile at the carriers. Arguments rage even today over just how successful this class of ship would have been had the Cold War turned hot in the 1980s. Perhaps an important lesson is to be applied from the history of the Battlecruiser in that while the Kirovs looked impressive their effectiveness in a modern (perhaps even nuclear) war might not be as hoped.