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.


Gloster Meteor (Reconnaissance Variants)


Despite the pace at which jet technology progressed in the immediate post-war years the RAF’s first jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, remained quite a potent aircraft until the dawn of the 1950s when swept wing fighters took centre stage rendering it obsolete. With the vast majority of the world’s fighter aircraft still piston powered or subsonic jets, the Meteor with its relatively high speed and altitude performance was a logical platform for a reconnaissance aircraft to replace the wartime Supermarine Spitfire and De Havilland Mosquito reconnaissance aircraft.

There were several attempts to fit cameras in to the early variants of the Meteor but most of these came to nothing. One of the more promising was the Meteor FR.5 based on the Meteor F.4 but despite a prototype being built it was not pursued because advances in foreign jet technology were about to make the F.4 inadequate. However in 1948 the Meteor F.8 emerged powered by two Derwent 8 engines each producing 3,500lbs of thrust which gave the aircraft sufficient power to comfortably reach speeds in excess of 600mph and it was this airframe that was chosen as the basis for the first reconnaissance Meteor.

Meteor FR.9

Meteor FR9

The Meteor FR.9 was a minimum change approach to the requirement for a reconnaissance Meteor. A new nose section was designed that featured three observation windows (forward, port oblique and starboard oblique) for a single Williamson F24 camera. The F.24 was a proven reconnaissance system having been used operationally in the war by the Spitfires the Meteor was replacing. The camera was most effective in the low altitude role as its 5″ x 5″ format didn’t allow for the production of detailed enough photographs of wide areas as is required with the high altitude role. With only one camera onboard the Meteor’s F24 had to be ground aligned to the relevant window before take-off and this necessitated an extra amount of planning for missions to ensure that when the aircraft overflew the target the correct window was facing the area of interest.

Other than the camera installation the FR.9 was essentially a Meteor F.8 going as far as to retain the fighter’s four Hispano V 20mm cannons (these were sometimes faired over and the ammunition removed to squeeze an extra few miles an hour out of the aircraft). Just how similar the two versions were was highlighted by the Israelis who acquired a handful of second hand FR.9s and removed the camera equipment and windows to make more F.8s. The first of 126 Meteor FR.9s flew on the 22nd March 1950 and deliveries began in July of that year to No.208 Squadron based in Egypt protecting the Suez Canal. Meteor FR.9s primarily served in West Germany however in the low level reconnaissance role before being completely replaced by Supermarine Swifts by 1961.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 8 (3,500lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 592mph
  • Service Ceiling: 43,000ft
  • Length: 44ft 7in (13.59m)
  • Wingspan: 37ft 2in (11.32m)
  • Armament: 4x 20mm Hispano V cannons

Meteor PR.10


The next chapter in the story of the reconnaissance Meteors was the high altitude PR.10. Like the FR.9 the PR.10 was based on the Meteor F.8 but differed in two key areas; it was fitted with the longer span wings of the Meteor F.3 while the tail unit was taken from the Meteor F.4. Both of these features were included to improve high altitude performance and stability while the more powerful Meteor F.8’s Derwent 8 engines were retained as was the F.24 camera installation of the Meteor FR.9 making the PR.10 the Frankenstein of the Gloster Meteor family. In an effort to lighten the aircraft as much as possible to gain the maximum altitude the guns were deleted and the aircraft were unpainted save for the national markings and serial numbers (a fully painted MD-80 airliner for example has a staggering 155lbs of paint on it). All these efforts resulted in the PR.10 being able to achieve an altitude in excess of 47,000ft compared to the F.8/FR.9’s service ceiling of 43,000ft.

As the F.24 camera was more suited to low-to-medium level operations the Meteor PR.10 had two F.52 cameras in the rear fuselage for high altitude work. These were positioned in the ventral position to cover large areas below the aircraft and for this purpose produced larger photographs (8.5″x 7″) than the F.24 despite having a similar working mechanism.

Squadron deliveries of the PR.10 began in December 1950 and production totalled 59 airframes. In 1951 the aircraft were first flown in West Germany and during this time the aircraft took part in a number of provocative cross border flights that were only stopped when the Soviets began deploying the MiG-19 “Farmer” to intercept them. Even after this development the Meteor PR.10s continued to fly at the very edge of the border between East and West Germany photographing Warsaw Pact forces on the other side of the Iron Curtain until they were replaced by the superlative Canberra PR.9 in 1961.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 8 (3,500lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 541mph
  • Service Ceiling: 47,000ft
  • Length: 44ft 7in (13.59m)
  • Wingspan: 39ft 11in (12.18m)
  • Armament: None