What are Battlecruisers? A battlecruiser is generally considered to be a warship smaller than a battleship but larger than a typical cruiser. Battlecruisers were envisioned in the years prior to World War I as a high speed capital ship. Ships capable of outrunning any vessel that could not be outgunned. Intended for use as commerce raiders and accompanying dreadnoughts (an early designation for battleships stemming from the name of the first true battleship, the HMS Dreadnought) in the line of battle. Battlecruisers were mostly abandoned as a warship class by the end of the Second World War.

operation enduring freedomThe first warships officially designated as battlecruisers were those of the HMS Invincible class, the three ships of which saw service in the First World War. Originally conceived by a team of warship designers in Great Britain led by Admiral Jackie Fisher.  The battlecruiser concept grew out of the need for a heavily armed and speedy vessel. A vessel that could prey on enemy commerce lanes while retaining the ability to destroy most warships it might encounter.

The gunnery and speed requirements of such a vessel necessitated a decrease in armor plating relative to that on a standard battleship. The battlecruiser was only intended to accompany friendly battleships when included in a battle line, not individually engage the enemy’s. The positive aspect of this design trade-off was exemplified in the Battle of the Falkland Islands on December 8, 1914. A  squadron of Royal Navy vessels led by two battlecruisers engaged and sank two armored cruisers of the Imperial German Navy without the battlecruisers suffering significant damage.

Battlecruisers Of The Royal Navy

Weakness of armor and the introduction of submarine warfare proved fatal to the appeal of battle cruiser in the long term. In the 1916 Battle of Jutland between the Royal Navy and Imperial German Navy battle cruisers were included in the battle lines of the respective powers. Three battle cruisers of the Royal Navy were lost at Jutland, two of which exploded with heavy loss of life when ammunition magazines were struck by German shells.

The unrestricted submarine warfare utilized by Germany in World War I proved that heavy, expensive capital ships were not needed and were not ideal for commerce raiding. Relatively cheap submarines in high numbers nearly strangled British supply lines in that war.  The lack of enemy commerce available to raid relegated British battle cruisers to conducting patrols that could neither defend against U-Boats nor bring the German fleet to battle.
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First Word War

After the conclusion of the First World War capital ship designs largely focused on increasing the speed and armament of the battleship rather than improving the battlecruiser. Battleships constructed in the 1940’s were typically faster than battlecruisers of the first World War. However, several capital ship classes were built that in spirit conformed to the idea of the battlecruiser.

The German Scharnhorst class was one.  The sister ships of the class, although classified as battleships by the German Navy, performed the role originally intended for battlecruisers by engaging in commerce raiding. American and French designs of the Alaska and Dunkerque classes also paid homage to the battlecruiser role. British battlecruisers took to the seas once again in the Second World War, although with catastrophic results. The Hood was sunk in battle with the German battleship Bismarck, and the Repulse was destroyed along with the new battleship Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft.

In the modern naval era, the battlecruiser has largely receded into history. One possible exception is the Kirov class built by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Significantly larger than any cruiser built by the Soviet Union or United States, two ships of the Kirov class are in service with the Russian Navy, and one other may be reactivated in time. Armed with powerful missiles and powered by nuclear reactors, the Kirov class may be the last of their kind.


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