Royal Navy Cruiser Classifications 1870s to World War One

HMS Aurora

HMS Aurora first-class cruiser (commons.wikimedia)

Understanding the history of warship classification can be a rather mind-boggling affair. The trouble is that after the 1850s time never stood still as far as the development of naval technology went. It was a time of leaps and bounds in terms of what new weapons and steam propulsion could achieve and this meant that what suited a specific type of ship in one decade no longer applied after the introduction of newer ships by the next decade. It didn’t help that on occasion the bureaucrats in the Admiralty liked to get a little creative with ships receiving designations such as “dispatch vessels” and “torpedo cruisers” whose roles weren’t as clear cut as their classification might imply.

The term “cruiser” itself was termed as a result of new technology creating new types of ships. Cruisers were effectively an amalgamation of two previous types; the steam corvette and the steam frigate. Cruisers in the Royal Navy were a classic example of this muddling over classifications and realizing this the Admiralty eventually settled on three distinct types of cruisers arranged in first, second and third classes. This was more than simply the Admiralty stretching its bureaucratic muscles. Having vessels fit in to categories helped identify the role in which it would be intended to carry out and thus determine the requirements to naval construction yards. Again this depended on what the designations represented at the time of design and it was not uncommon for vessels to be reclassified under a new classification as time went on. Nevertheless opinion still played a big part in determining what was what.

First-class Cruiser

HMS Orlando 1897 (commons.wikimedia)

HMS Orlando 1897 (commons.wikimedia)

The first-class cruiser represented the high end of the scale. These were the largest cruisers and were expected to operate in far off waters protecting the empire’s trade routes from commerce raiders, a role known as guerre de corse, and alternatively engage in the role itself when the opportunity presented itself. In terms of capability the first-class cruisers were second only to battleships.

Typically a first-class cruiser would have an armoured belt along the hull to protect from shells fired along the broadside and an armoured deck to protect from shells landing from above having been fired from a gun set to a high elevation. They would not generally be as well protected as a battleship however and the first-class cruiser would be expected to use speed and agility to escape the pursuit of a capital ship. That being said first-class cruisers would be expected to operate as part of the battlefleet providing support for the bigger guns of the battleships when the distance closed.

Like in battleships, first-class cruisers were often designed with mixed caliber weapons and thus suffered the same drawbacks in terms of targeting and logistics. One of the first vessels to receive the classification was HMS Shannon launched in 1875. The Shannon displaced around 5,500 tons and was armed with two 10inch main guns and a secondary armament of seven 9inch guns. The vessel was also fitted with a ram, something that had become quite fashionable in the middle part of the 19th century but very quickly became outmoded. Aptly demonstrating how quickly the size of cruisers in this category grew within twenty years first-class cruisers had reached around 15,000tons such as in the Blake-class of 1895.

Second-class Cruisers

Leander-class cruiser (commons.wikimedia)

Leander-class cruiser (commons.wikimedia)

Second-class cruisers were generally smaller than the first-class cruisers usually displacing between 3,000 and 7,000tons although there were examples that were positioned either side of these figures. Second-class cruisers didn’t have the protection of first-class cruisers and often lacked an armoured belt. Instead key sections of the ship received armoured protection such as the main machinery so that the vessel could still sail away from an unfavorable action. Once again there was some confusion as to what constituted this type of cruiser and there were a handful of ships that had the size and firepower of a first-class cruiser but had the lower protection of a second-class cruiser. In these instances, due to their size, the ships were classified as first-class cruisers.

Second-class cruisers were expected to primarily operate in the protection of trade routes but unlike the better armoured first-class cruisers they weren’t also expected to operate with the main force in big fleet actions. They were however expected to use their speed for reconnaissance purposes; travelling ahead of the main force to locate the enemy and then report back. When the first ship to be categorized as a second-class cruiser, HMS Iris, was launched in 1877 it was one of the fastest ships in the world being capable of achieving an enviable 18.5knots under trials.

Third-class Cruisers

HMS Archer third-class torpedo-cruiser (commons.wikimedia)

HMS Archer third-class torpedo-cruiser (commons.wikimedia)

The third-class cruisers were generally similar to second-class cruisers but were much smaller with the largest only reaching 3,000tons. They too had protection primarily centered on key components but their size meant they lacked the fuel for long distance operations and generally operated in home waters or from overseas garrisons. Naturally they were often less well armed than their first- and second-class brothers.

As well as the traditional trade route protection, guerre de corse and reconnaissance roles there were a number of third-class cruisers that had more specialized roles. These included vessels such as the Archer-class which displaced just over 1,000tons and was intended to protect the main fleet from the emerging threat posed by torpedo boats, a role which would eventually give way to the first destroyers. Another common role for third-class cruisers was that of flotilla leader for small formations of destroyers. The cruiser would carry the destroyer flotilla commander (Captain “D”) and his small staff who would direct and coordinate the small force’s operations which would often consist of convoy escort or enforcing a blockade line.


Technology and bureaucracy continued to advance as the 20th century dawned. While the older cruisers remained in service and often retained their classifications they were now starting to fall out of use. First-class cruisers eventually morphed in to Admiral Fisher’s battlecruiser concept which were as large as battleships but not as well protected. The requirements for what constituted a second- and third-class ship changed as armoured protection, power and weaponry improved and so cruisers fell in to two categories; heavy cruisers and light cruisers which generally carried out the roles of a second- and third-class cruiser respectively albeit with much better performance.



HMS Dreadnought

HMS Dreadnought – so influential it coined a new warship classification

HMS Lord Nelson with 12 inch main guns and 9.2 inch secondary armament.

HMS Lord Nelson with 12 inch main guns and 9.2 inch secondary armament.

The dawn of the 20th century was a messy period of transition for the world’s great navies and the Royal Navy was no exception. Amazingly, modern steam powered warships were still operating alongside warships equipped with a mixture of both steam and sail while the type and number of guns used were a varied mix of large and small. The early 1900s saw the navies of Britain, Germany, Japan, Russia and the USA embark on a re-equipment program to bring their whole fleets up to date and during this period armament in battleships became ever more powerful. Secondary (or intermediate) armament in particular became increasingly heavy with many ships adopting a main armament of 12inch guns and a secondary armament of 9-10inch.

Without a doubt the most influential naval battle before World War One was the Battle of Tsushima between the Japanese and Russian navies in 1905. The battle was the first real test of modern battleships but with no previous experience using such new weapons and ships the battle was largely fought with Nelsonian tactics. The battle was an overwhelming success for the Japanese navy and it established them as the dominant force in the Far East along with Britain’s colonial fleets but it also provided some valuable lessons to assimilate.

One of the biggest lessons from the battle was that the concept of having warships with a powerful secondary armament created fire-control problems. With no systems such as radar warships targeted one another by taking an estimate of the enemy ships position and firing. The splash would be plotted and then adjustments would be made accordingly. What was found at Tsushima was that with two different sized splashes from the different sized weapons the observers often became confused as to which gun produced which splash. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that other ships were firing at the same time and producing their own splashes. Another problem was that the heavier main armament outranged the secondary armament and when firing during the initial encounter at the most extreme ranges they couldn’t put enough firepower on the enemy to destroy them until the secondary armament came in to range.

Admiral FisherIf there was one person who took note of these lessons it was Britain’s Admiral ‘Jackie’ Fisher. Fisher was one of the most domineering leaders in the Royal Navy’s history and certainly one of the most influential. He pushed forward new ideas with an almost urgent zeal and impressed his views on both the design of new ships and the way they were operated. The lessons of Tsushima were obvious to many even before the battle including Fisher who had informally sketched designs for an all-big gun warship which he named HMS Untakeable. Fisher realized that having all big guns as opposed to a primary and secondary armament had numerous advantages not just with regards of targeting. It would ease the strain on the logistics chain to support the vessel which would only have to produce one type of shell. It would also mean that the all-big bun ship could put superior firepower on to an approaching enemy who could not respond in kind until he got closer to fire his secondary armament. Now that the flaws were proven and Fisher was now First Sea Lord he wanted to address them in a new class of ship that would be the epitome of modern naval design. After several months personally chairing a committee for developing the next battleship class for the Royal Navy the keel of the new ship was laid on October 2nd 1905. Its all-big gun armament comprising of ten 12inch guns was kept a secret however and it was believed by many that the new ship was a development of the previous King Edward VII-class.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world the victors of Tsushima, the Japanese navy, were applying the same lesson to one of their own ships. The Satsuma was to have been equipped with twelve 12inch main guns and work actually began ahead of the British ship with the keel being laid in May 1905. A number of problems with the size, complexity and cost of the gun and placing them on the hull that they were building led the Japanese to drop the idea and in the end eight of the guns were replaced by smaller 10inch weapons resulting in yet another ship with mixed armament. Had the ship been completed with its intended armament however then it is quite possible that the new warship classification could have been the Satsumas instead of the Dreadnoughts.

Had it been completed first the new warships could have been known as Satsumas not Dreadnoughts

Had it been completed first the new warships could have been known as Satsumas not Dreadnoughts

Around the world again the United States Navy actually put forward plans for an all-big gun ship before Fisher and his Dreadnought in the South Carolina-class. This powerful design was equipped with eight 12in guns, two less than Dreadnought but the South Carolina-class was arguably the better fighting ship because of the way the weapons were laid out. Dreadnought’s design had six of her guns in wing turrets which meant they could only fire on targets on that side of the ship. This seriously degraded Dreadnought’s ability to bring its full potential firepower to bear on to a target. The South Carolina’s however had their turrets mounted on the centreline allowing them to fire on either beam meaning more firepower could be brought to bear on a target. This arrangement was eventually copied by all other Dreadnoughts. The South Carolina-class lost the accolade of being the first all-big gun ships due to the time it took to build them which meant Dreadnought came first. Also, while their guns were better arranged than Dreadnought the rest of the design was inferior to the British ship using old fashioned triple expansion engines as opposed to Dreadnought’s turbines which gave it much greater speed.

In February 1906, HMS Dreadnought was launched and immediately rendered every other capital ship in the world obsolete. She was so instrumental in changing the nature of battleship design and technology that in the ultimate accolade the new type of ship became known as the Dreadnoughts. For the ships that came before it with their mixed calibres they found themselves with the less than flattering designation of pre-Dreadnoughts. While no specific criteria was laid down for what constituted a member of the Dreadnought community three factors had to be present in the design.

  • Weapons; main armament had to comprise all-big guns. This meant no mixing of size or indeed calibre (length) of the weapon. This latter requirement has proven the source of much debate amongst naval historians over whether the Japanese Settsu-class, the immediate follow-on to the Satsuma-class and considered by many to be Japan’s first Dreadnought, is a “true” Dreadnought. While she had an armament of twelve 12inch guns they were of two different calibres (8×45 and 4×50) meaning the guns had notably different performances. The term “all-big gun” is a little misleading as Dreadnoughts did have secondary weapons usually in the 3-6inch categories and these were intended for defence against fast attack craft such as torpedo boats.
  • Armour; it would make sense that if a country is going to build Dreadnoughts then it is likely to face a Dreadnought from a hostile country. Heavy armour was therefore a necessity. Despite their firepower Dreadnoughts were seldom agile and it meant that if two contemporary designs were to face one another then both would take damage during the exchange. Warships that would meet the other two criteria but trade armour for agility became known as Battlecruisers, an entirely separate naval concept.
  • Advanced fire-control; one often overlooked advance HMS Dreadnought brought to the arena was that of genuine fire-control techniques. HMS Dreadnought featured a heavy fighting top consisting of a large optical rangefinder mounted on a tripod. The rangefinder was 9ft long and provided the observer with a fairly accurate sense of direction and distance based on the size of the enemy ship as it appeared to him. This was however reliant on knowing the dimensions of the enemy ship so as to make the necessary calculations before firing but it dramatically reduced the number of wasted shells used to train on to a target and offered a much greater chance of getting that vital first hit on the enemy.

HMS Dreadnought might have given Britain the lead but it sparked a frenzied arms race that produced a number of Dreadnoughts among the world’s naval powers who felt they had to have at least one in their fleet in order to maintain prestige. This lead to a number of impressive and not so impressive ships.

  • Germany arguably built some of the finest Dreadnoughts of the era even if their first Dreadnought, the Nassau-class, was armed with 11.1inch guns as opposed to what was clearly becoming the standard 12inch weapon on others. Where German Dreadnoughts excelled was in their armour which meant that at the Battle of Jutland, the greatest clash of Dreadnoughts in World War I, German ships were often able to take severe punishment and remain afloat.
  • The Austro-Hungarian Empire only ever built one class of Dreadnought, the Teghetoff-class. These were smaller than most other Dreadnoughts of the era but packed a similar punch with twelve 12inch guns in a rather neat configuration that made good use of space. Much like the Austro-Hungarian Navy at large the ships had a rather unspectacular wartime career.
  • Spain has the unfortunate title of building the smallest and slowest Dreadnoughts in the Espana-class. They were also quite under-armed mounting only eight 12inch guns. The three ships were repeatedly damaged in accidents and in combat during the Spanish Civil War leaving their memory somewhat blighted.
  • Equally depressing is the story of the once powerful Imperial Russian Navy and their only Dreadnoughts of the Gangut and Marut-class comprising four vessels in total. The Imperial Russian Navy never seemed to recover from its loss at Tsushima its Dreadnought program reflected this. These four Dreadnoughts were seriously outnumbered by Germany and her allies and played only a limited role in World War I before falling in to Bolshevik hands after the revolution and they were seldom used again.
  • One of the most controversial Dreadnoughts leading up to the First World War was Brazil’s two British-built Minas Gerais-class vessels. Argentina, Brazil and Chile have a long history of naval competition and this has lead to them being referred to as the “ABC” powers in naval circles. The Minas Gerais was the first Dreadnought ordered by a South American country sparking an immediate arms race but also upon its completion it was by far and away the most powerful battleship in the world with twelve 12inch guns and very thick armour plating.

Leading up to and during the war Dreadnoughts became more powerful and better designed. The term “Dreadnought” was largely killed off however after war by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 which imposed limits on warships. To be labelled a Dreadnought was to imply an extremely powerful ship which was actually what the signatories of the treaty were trying to avoid. Also, the older generation of pre-Dreadnoughts were now being scrapped and so there was no need to distinguish the two types anymore which meant that the blanket term of “Battleship” returned. Nevertheless the ships that followed were true Dreadnoughts in concept and culminated in some of the most awe-inspiring Battleships/Dreadnoughts ever such as the American Iowa-class.

Torpedo Boat Destroyers – The First Destroyers

HMS DaringIn the 21st century the term “destroyer” in naval circles covers a wide array of warships of various capabilities and sizes. However when the term was coined in the last decade of the 19th century the vessel had a very specific type of role.

For centuries, during the age of sail, the European Imperial powers built bigger and grander warships to overwhelm enemy vessels and project their power abroad. Then in the second half of the 19th century technology began to change the face of naval warfare beyond recognition thanks to steam power, electricity and larger guns mounted in turrets. Even with these new technologies the Imperilaist powers continued their mad pursuit of bigger and better but another weapon threatened to throw everything off balance – the self propelled torpedo.

The torpedo was invented in Britain in 1866 by Robert Whitehead. The term had previously been used to describe a type of anti-ship mine which is why the American David G. Farragut is remembered for saying “Damn the torpedoes” during the Battle of Mobile Bay in the American Civil War; he was referring to an enemy minefield. It would actually be the Austrian government who would commission Whitehead to design and develop the weapon with the Royal Navy only becoming interested in 1870. The torpedo was a small weapon with big potential in that it was a self-propelled warhead that when it exploded against the hull of a ship could tear a massive hole in it especially in the early days when warships weren’t armoured against such weapons. Another effect it had was that when the warhead detonated it created a vacuum in the sea that was quickly filled with sea water that would slam against the weakened hull thus increasing its effectiveness beyond its own warhead.

whitehead torpedo

The world’s navies took a long time to appreciate the torpedo as a credible weapon; it was an extremely troublesome and imprecise weapon in those early days but perhaps most importantly to Victorian minds the torpedo launchers didn’t look as impressive as big guns. Nevertheless some naval strategists rallied around the new weapon and proposed that its effectiveness would be best used by a fleet of small warships operating close to the coast to protect against raiding and bombardment from naval vessels. Thus the torpedo boat was born and while the Royal Navy were initially hesitant over the use of such vessels, British shipyards produced some of the best for sale to other countries most notably in South America. The Royal Navy did commission its own torpedo boats starting with HMS Lightning in 1876 but the jury was still out at that time.

All that would change in 1891 during the Chilean Civil War. A pair of torpedo boats attacked and sank the rebel ironclad frigate Blanco Encalada in a daring attack. Several other large ships were sunk this way and finally the world’s navies began to appreciate the new weapon. New warships were designed to specifically counter the torpedo boats. The first were the “torpedo cruisers” which were effectively light cruisers with smaller calibre weapons that were more effective in destroying the small torpedo boats. These vessels were largely a failure however because they were too slow to be able to intercept the torpedo boats and lacked the range to properly support the fleet. Therefore a new warship type was proposed that was smaller yet again but fast and potently armed. These were the torpedo boat destroyers.

HMS Havoc - one of the first batch of 6 Royal Navy destroyers

HMS Havoc – one of the first batch of 6 Royal Navy destroyers

In 1892 the Royal Navy ordered its first torpedo boat destroyers and these would be powered by water tube boilers that would allow them to achieve the speed and range necessary to effectively counter the torpedo boats. The first torpedo boat destroyer, and indeed the first destroyer, for the Royal Navy was HMS Daring commissioned in 1895. Displacing just 290 tons she was armed with a 12-pounder main gun and three 6-pounder secondary guns plus three torpedo tubes. The class was a great success and more types followed.

The torpedo boat destroyer was required to provide a defensive screen against torpedo boats for the main fleet. If a torpedo boat attacked then it would use its lighter weapons which were quicker to reload than the main fleet’s guns to destroy them. Should a big ship attack the fleet then the torpedo boat destroyer could assist by attacking with its own torpedoes although this would have to be done as part of a coordinated effort with the big gun ships as the torpedoes still had a short range requiring the torpedo boat destroyer to get in close before firing.

As the 19th century passed in to the 20th century the torpedo boat destroyers began to take on other roles such as reconnaissance, minelaying, escort, fisheries protection and training duties. They were also among the first vessels to be used to hunt an even newer invention – the submarine. This meant that the term “torpedo boat destroyer” was no longer valid and it was therefore shortened simply to “destroyer”.


HMS Hood

HMS Hood – arguably the most famous Battlecruiser

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.

Admiral FisherIn 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.

HMS Invincible

HMS Invincible – the first purpose built Battlecruiser

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.

Seydlitz Battlecruiser

Germany’s SMS Seydlitz – one of the best Battlecruisers of the war

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.

Kirov class battlecruiser

Kirov-class Battlecruiser

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.