The Rebirth of the German Navy
  • The Rebirth of the German Navy

    In 1923, the Deutsche Volksflotte was a depleted and demoralised fleet. It had been formed after the war, partly as a way of keeping order among the ranks of socialist-mind sailors, and partly to assist the German government in portraying itself as a moderate socialist state.

    For five years, the fleet had been lying idle and falling apart. The German government dared not use it to intervene in the Russian revolution, for fear of angering either the Western Allies or the sailors themselves, who it was feared might desert to the communists if they were ordered into battle alongside Baltic, Finnish or White Russian forces.
    That began to change in 1921, as Russian National Federation (RNF) forces began to draw wider support, including from the monarchist Whites.

    In January 1922, the battleship Ostfreisland fired her first shots in support of Estonian forces as they launched an attack on the ‘Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic’ that had been established across the border. Thirty miles to the East, HMS Ajax and Centurion kept an eye on events ashore, as RNF forces attacked the cradle of the Red revolution; Petrograd.
    Although not allied to the RNF, the British were there to ensure no Red warships escaped. They were suspicious and surprised to see a German warship in action, and the news that the German fleet (or at least one ship of it) had come out in support of what was obviously a German-backed Estonian offensive was almost as momentous as the subsequent capture of Petrograd by the RNF.

    After five years of decline, the German fleet was stirring, but even so it was in poor shape. Of its eight battleships and three battlecruisers, only three were truly fit for sea, while two would clearly never sail again, having been damaged during the war and never repaired.

    The German economy had initially recovered, but then sagged badly after the end of the war. However, by 1922 there were clear signs of real growth. As the economy approached the pre-war levels of 1912/13, and the Communists in Russia were in retreat, the German government began to eschew some of its socialist trappings, cutting back on state control of industry (which was now at least partly re-capitalised and growing) while maintaining a strong social programme with regards to such popular matters as education and the rights of tenants.

    It also marked the end of the ‘Peoples’ names for institutions and organs of the state. It had always been window-dressing to help keep hard-line German socialists under control, but now it was thoroughly discredited. The ‘people’s revolution’ in Russia had failed to deliver any of the things the people actually needed, and the bulk of the German public were now far from being socialist revolutionaries. ‘People’s Parks’, ‘People’s Factories’, and so on, were no longer in vogue.

    On the 13th February 1923, the flag of the Deutsche Volksflotte, the German People’s Navy, was hauled down for the last time. In its place, the new ensign of the Reichsmarine was hosted, itself little different from the Imperial German Ensign that had flown proudly over the once-mighty Imperial German battlefleet.

    On the same day, Germany’s greatest naval hero was appointed C-in-C of the new fleet. Count Ferdinand Graf von Spee had caused the British and their allies tremendous trouble, almost from the first to the last day of the war, and unlike the commanders of the High Seas Fleet, his reputation was unsullied by the mutinies and defeats of 1917.
    The Boss Drinks Uncle Joe’s
  • The Boss Drinks Uncle Joe’s

    Since fleeing Bolshevik Russia over his failures in the Polish campaign and his ongoing disagreements with Lenin and Trotsky, Josef Djugashvili, the self-styled ‘Stalin’, had led a precarious life in several European countries.

    Initially, he had returned to Vienna, seeking to ferment a new socialist uprising, but this effort soon turned to Germany, where there seemed to be stronger communist movements. However, the moment had passed; Germany might have gone communist in 1918 or ’19, but by the time of Stalin’s arrival in 1921, the German state was stronger and the people were less tempted by the promises of socialism. In order to finance a rebellion in Munich, he returned to one of his previous talents; that of organising bank robberies.
    In this area of operations, Stalin proved to be rather successful, and even when most of his gang were shot or rounded up during a siege in 1922, he escaped with enough money to reach Serbia, from where he headed East.

    For the next few years, Stalin claimed in his diaries to have been seeking new opportunities to bring revolution to the people, but in practice he seems to have had a variety of dubious occupations in the virtually lawless villages and towns of Southern and Eastern Russia. His mind was clearly not yet free of the grip of socialism, and it was in China that he furthered his ambitions for revolution, by organising local bandits and meeting the leaders of China’s communist movements. Whether he actually had any influence over them is less obvious, but it is certain that he made contact with elements of the Chinese underworld during this period.

    By 1927 he had reached Shanghai, where he sought funding for Russian revolutionary movements with the help of his new Chinese comrades. ‘Seeking funds’ actually involved running protection rackets and holding up travellers, with the aid of local Triad gangs, who Stalin seems to have impressed with his capacity for sheer unadulterated brutality as and when it was necessary.
    In fact, almost none of the money went to any socialist organisation, as Stalin had identified a new goal; the United States. By this time, it was hard to see the man as any form of communist, and although he perhaps deluded himself that he was acting ‘in the interests of the people’, he had almost effortlessly entered that most capitalist of professions: organised crime.

    Laundering funds through his Chinese associates, he changed his name, bought himself a small tanker and had it fitted out. On April 16th, 1928, his ship sailed into San Francisco harbour and began to unload her cargo; nearly 400 tons of Dutch oil, and 800 tons of Chinese-made whiskey and vodka. The stuff was distributed through local Chinese gangs, with Stalin’s share of the profits enough to set him up in business in the States.

    Another run with the ship made him another good return, but the Chinese were becoming greedy and Stalin realised that smuggling was too risky. With the assistance of Russian-born Americans, he sold his interests in the tanker and headed inland, realising that while everyone else tried to smuggle alcohol into America, it would be far easier to make it in the country, if it could be done at scale and securely. Just as social revolution could use capitalist infrastructure to promote itself, crime could use legitimate business to disguise itself.
    In this approach, he and his select group of Georgian and Russian friends were well ahead of local gangsters. They might have had a front for laundering money and providing some veneer of respectability, but by acquiring influence with the owners of small chemical and petroleum plants, Stalin’s gang industrialised bootlegging, entirely within profitable and legitimate business.
    His method of distribution followed the same pattern, but here it was impossible not to tread on the toes of existing gangs, who in the early days often responded the only way they knew how, with violence. Here however, they were rank amateurs in comparison to Stalin and his former Chekists and bandit soldiers. Entire families were butchered without warning, usually leaving only one elderly survivor. That soon sent the word out so effectively that Stalin was soon able to simply use the services of local gangs, in a mutually beneficial and thoroughly profitable way. Anyone who stepped out of line was taken care of.

    Many years after his death, it emerged that he gained a great deal of his later legitimacy with the American government through informing the nascent FBI on émigré communists who were then active in America. He also tipped them off about his rivals in the criminal underworld, and in return they did him the occasional favour by damaging his competition. Other than his closest network of associates and his chief of staff, the clever but vile ‘Lawrence’ Beria, everyone was merely a tool to be used, and disposed of as required.
    As his businesses expanded, the amount of violence directly attributable to Stalin actually fell, as he recognised that there were always new markets and products to expand into, rather than sitting still and fighting to control a tiny area. By the time prohibition was repealed in 1935, his legitimate income probably exceeded his criminal one.
    He had made one other wise move in the preceding years; unlike some American gangsters, Stalin had maintained a low profile, preferring to create a brand around his product rather than himself. When alcoholic beverages became legal once again, his products were already well known, and his industrial-scale production could be rapidly scaled up, unlike the networks of hillbillies and smugglers who were far more numerous, but less organised.

    His second fortune was made entirely legitimately, and ‘Josef’s Beverages Incorporated’ was later listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Its post-war advertising campaign, The Boss Drinks Uncle Joe’s, featuring a cheerful-looking Stalin himself, was undoubtedly responsible for skyrocketing sales.

    He died at his home in Santa Barbara in 1953, a multi-millionaire, and his funeral was well attended by his employees, his friends, beside a few older associates; men who came to make sure he was dead. Thus ended the life of a communist turned capitalist, a brutal thug turned genial marketing icon. A man for whom the control of information and the romantic mythology of the gangster made into something of a hero.
    Even today, his smiling moustached face can be seen on every bottle of Uncle Joe’s Tennessee Whiskey, one of America’s most valuable brands.
    Good Intentions on the Road to Hell
  • Good Intentions on the Road to Hell

    The Washington Treaty of 1921 stated that a ‘light battleship’ of under 23,000 tons Standard Displacement would only use up 14,000 tons of a nations’ capital ship tonnage allocation. The clause was created to massage the figures in favour of the Royal Navy, by allowing them to keep larger numbers of ships, while having tonnage parity with the US Navy.
    The classification also helped to keep the French in the Treaty, as it allowed them to have seven battleships for the same Treaty tonnage as Italy’s six (all existing French ships fell under the ‘light battleship’ classification, while Italy’s 30,500-ton Caracciolo did not).

    The clause was hastily added and was used as a negotiating tool, changing several times before reaching its final form. In 1921, it never occurred to negotiators that anyone would want to build new 23,000-ton ships. British, American and Japanese concepts had been heading for 50,000 tons, and designers had devoted their efforts towards what could be built on ‘as little as’ 36,000 tons.

    However, following the end of the war, old rivalries and new realities began to surface. Italy and France still needed to secure the sea lanes links to their African Empires, while even a limited force in the Mediterranean gave them influence with the British. The French felt the need to deter any possible Italian adventurism in North Africa. The Italians weren’t going to be pushed around by the French, and they also had near-neighbours in Serbia, Greece and the Ottoman Empire who possessed capital ships.
    Neither nation was likely to be in a position to challenge the major powers, and both faced financial constraints. Against that, their fleets only had to be capable of fighting their likely enemies – the older, smaller ships of the various Mediterranean nations. Italy had a single 15” fast battleship, and Greece had a lone 14” vessel, but everything else in the region had either 12” or 13.5” guns. With a treaty allocation of just 12,000 tons/year, each power could only complete one new 16” super-dreadnought every three years.

    In 1922, the Italian government had tried to arrange an exchange of territory; in return for parts of Slovenia, the Serb government would give Italy a series of islands in the Adriatic, securing access to the port of Fiume. The issue was muddied by Slovenes who sought full independence and who delayed the matter through attempting to arrange a plebiscite organised by the League of Nations. Afraid of angering other powers and scuppering the deal, Italian forces backed off from confronting these Slovenian dissidents on several occasions that summer. The matter was eventually resolved between Italy and Serbia directly, but it left the Italian government looking weak.
    Meanwhile, a series of inconclusive skirmishes between Greek-backed Anatolian separatists and Ottoman forces had been defused by the League, leaving the Greek government looking equally ineffective. To try to regain the initiative and boost their own popularity, the Greek government then demanded the return of the Dodecanese islands from Italy, and sent the Greek Navy to exercise near the islands, in what were nominally Italian waters.
    The Regia Marina responded by despatching a fleet, including the battleships Cavour and Duilio, to reinforce the islands. Wary of igniting a conflict, the Italians secured the harbours and patrolled the sea lanes, but out at sea the Greeks proved more agile. The battleship Salamis repeatedly intercepted and evaded the Italian squadron in both national and international waters, seemingly trying to goad the Italians into firing first. Neither the Cavour or the Duilio could keep up with the fast Greek ship, and the Italian Admiral requested reinforcements of torpedo boats.

    These were on their way when a Royal Navy squadron arrived in the Aegean, and the Greeks were persuaded the return to their home waters. The islands were secured, but within the Regia Marina, the inability to intercept the Salamis was grave cause for concern. Their only fast battleship, the Caracciolo, had been under refit, and seemed likely that the Navy would need more fast vessels in the future.

    By the autumn of 1923, a new Italian government included members of the Fascist party, whose views reinforced the need to make a bold statement about the nation’s future power and prosperity. In addition to the military requirement, nothing said ‘power’ quite like a battleship.
    A 36,000-ton vessel was out of the question financially, but Italian designers had a valuable trick available, if they were prepared to go for something smaller. In 1916, the battleship Da Vinci had suffered an internal explosion in harbour and was deemed to be a total loss. However, the wreck had been salvaged, and four of her five turrets (two twins and two triples) and their 12” guns were in good condition and could be re-used.
    What really sold the plan was the idea of using the ‘light battleship’ clause to permit the building of two new ships, each with eight 12” guns, for which only two new triple turrets and six guns would be needed. The Italian Navy had already begun a cruiser programme, and high-powered machinery could be adapted from that.

    This pair of fast ships could be used to put the slow French fleet off-balance if needs be, while each would be capable of taking on the Serbian, Greek or Turkish vessels.

    Italy BC line.png

    Etna as completed​

    Outline of the Vesuvio class.
    LOA: 667’, Beam: 90’
    22,500 tons designed Standard Displacement; 27,350 tons Full Load.

    8-12” guns (3-2-3), 8-5.3” guns (4x2), 4-3.9” guns (HA).

    12” (actually 300mm) Belt, 3” (75mm) Main Deck, 10” Barbettes, 12”-4” Turrets, 10” Conning Tower, 1.5” Torpedo Bulkhead.
    Rated power: 120,000shp for 32 knots
    Vesuvio on trials: 138,200shp for 33.32 knots at 22,780 tons, real sea speed about 31 knots.
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    France Founders
  • France Founders

    The Marine Nationale had also discovered the light battleship, quite independently of the Italians. Although she had one more dreadnought than Italy, France lacked a direct counter to the fast and powerful Caracciolo. A single 36,000-ton ship was proposed in 1922, but the costs associated with building it and a new 15” or 16” gun were too high at that time.

    Three of the obsolete ‘Dantons’ were hastily decommissioned after the signing of the Washington Treaty; their only value had been to support the rationale for a large French battleship tonnage.
    The other two were more useful, as Verginaud became a partially armed training ship, and Voltaire would continue to see service for many years as France’s first aircraft carrier. Stripped of her armour belt and turrets, she could meet the 16,000-ton Treaty limit. She had a single hangar added amidships with a capacity of up to 22 planes, and a landing and take-off deck of just over 380’ in length. The funnels were ducted over to port, and several deckhouse arrangements were tried over the following years. She was never more than an experiment, but proved to be a useful start, and was certainly a cheaper option than the new-build carrier that had also been proposed.

    However, the loss of the battleship France in August 1922 and a series of minor mutinies left the fleet demoralised, although clemency for the mutineers and an agreement to improve the sailors' lot went a long way to restore basic trust. Beside pay and conditions, new ships were needed. A trio of 7,500-ton cruisers armed with eight 6.1” guns had already been authorised, and in November construction of a pair of 10,000-ton cruisers was agreed, with each to be armed with eight 8” guns.

    That was a small first step, but it was the best that could be accomplished in 1922. However, the loss of the France had focused minds back onto the issue of capital ships. Both French and Italian navies now had six dreadnoughts each, and the Italian ships were slightly more modern and more powerful.

    Heavy battleships were too expensive and could only be built in tiny numbers, and so quite independently of the Italians, in 1923 French naval architects started development of a ‘light battleship’.
    Before the war, ambitious naval expansion plans had been set in motion. All these had been suspended in 1914, but a number of guns and equipment for turrets still existed. As in Italy, the use of guns and part-complete quadruple turrets from pre-war orders would help to keep costs in check. Originally, only a single ship as a replacement for the France was proposed, but as news of the new Italian construction reached Paris, a second ship was added in 1924, and a third was added in 1925 in place of an 8” cruiser.

    With one turret forward and one aft, the ‘Lille’ class were odd-looking ships. Like their Italian counterparts they used machinery derived from new French cruisers, in their case the ‘Duquesne’ class.
    In other ways, they were a more advanced design than the Italian ships. The 240mm belt was external, but was inclined with the side of the hull at 11-degrees, in an arrangement reminiscent of the British Hood. A shallow bulge was present below the belt, and a fine hull gave excellent performance at the cost of being wet forward in Atlantic conditions.
    Their 340mm guns were an improvement on those fitted to the ‘Bretagne’ class battleships. The Model 1912M fired a longer shell with a 5/infinity-crh nosecone and a weight of 1,221lbs. The quadruple turrets were modified to allow a 23-degree elevation; rather low by modern standards, but with the new shell, maximum range was a very adequate 28,000 yards.

    Officially, the ships were listed as 22,950 tons Standard, although the design as approved was 23,150 tons, with weight reductions expected during construction. It remains unclear whether these were ever achieved, as trials were run at relatively realistic displacements. In any case, weight was soon added in the form of additional anti-aircraft weaponry, as was permitted under the terms of the Treaty.

    Lille Light BC.png

    Toulon as she appeared in the late 20s​

    Outline of the Lille class.

    LOA: 697’ Beam: 91’
    22,950 tons Standard Displacement; 28,000 tons Full Load.

    8-13.4” guns, 8-5.1” guns, 4-75mm guns (HA).

    9.5” Belt, 3” Main Deck, 10” Barbettes, 12”-3” Turrets, 12” Conning Tower, 1.5” Torpedo Bulkhead.

    106,000shp for 31 knots
    (Lyon on trials: 113,650shp = 31.16 knots at 26,350 tons, real sea speed 29-30 knots).
    Second-Rate Battleship
  • Second-Rate Battleship

    By 1923, the Royal Netherlands Navy had grown to the point where it could operate its fleet of ex-German warships. However, the threats it faced overseas were evolving, and the Java (the former German battlecruiser Lutzow) had proved to be something of a disappointment. Hastily completed in wartime and damaged in action at Stavanger, she was proving to be the least reliable of the four Dutch capital ships.
    The Washington Treaty imposed few limits on the Dutch; their limits were more the realities of limited manpower and facilities. Since the war, they had completed two 6,700-ton cruisers armed with 5.9” guns, and design work had commenced on a 10,000-ton cruiser when news of the Japanese ‘Myoko’ class reached The Hague. Intelligence suggested an armament of ten 8” guns and a high speed, probably on a displacement of well over the 10,000 tons the Japanese had declared.

    Aware of the inadequacies of the Java, the Dutch government decided to build a larger vessel in place of the large cruiser. She would be built in Holland, but with major components contracted out to German firms, and use of battleship tonnage was quite acceptable, as the Netherlands had plenty of Treaty tonnage to spare. After consideration of a variety of design, the one chosen was a 658’ ship armed with nine German-built 24-cm guns in triple turrets, one forward and a superfiring pair aft, separated by a machinery room.
    Armour consisted of a deep and extensive 6” belt, with 6” barbettes and turrets, a 2.5” deck and 1.5” torpedo bulkhead, all intended to resist 8” fire at any likely range.
    Assisted by the lure of a low price for certain components, the German-Dutch design team were allowed to experiment, and the ship had 120,000shp on three shafts, with a 6,000hp auxiliary diesel engine on the centre shaft for cruising. Displacement was 18,950 tons Standard, and 22,800 tons Full Load. The Eendracht was laid down in November 1923 and was completed in 1927, and proved to be as fast as was promised, achieving 32.1 knots on trials when only 450 tons off Full Load.

    Across the Atlantic, the construction of the French and Italian light battleships had been noted and largely ignored, however the ‘Myokos’ and the Eendracht had a far greater effect. These fast, powerful cruisers and cruiser-killers would be deployed on the periphery of America’s overseas territories. Meanwhile, the US Navy had wanted a battlecruiser force for many years, but in 1924, it only had two such ships; the Lexington and the Constellation.

    However, the authorisation for their four sister-ships had never been formally cancelled, only their construction and financing, as it was considered impossible to build them under the restrictions imposed by the Treaty.
    Through 1922 and ’23, the US Navy commissioned their two giant battlecruisers and studied various options as to how they might best be deployed. The reality was that they needed to operate as a pair in the face of strong foreign battlecruiser forces; the Japanese ‘Amagis’ or the British ‘Admirals’. Individually, they were strong ships, but were perhaps rather large for the role of reinforcing cruiser squadrons and dealing with the threat of ships such as Myoko.

    By the autumn of 1923, the Navy had once again concluded that the ‘battle scout’ showed great potential in counterbalancing foreign fleets, but that they would need more than two of them to do so effectively. Use of the existing authorisations made that possible, although for different reasons neither the Navy Department nor the Treasury were keen to build four 36,000-ton ‘small Lexingtons’.
    By a combination of improved technology and gaming the Treaty, the US Navy would finally lay down the first pair light battlecruisers in 1924. A further pair would follow in 1925.

    On such a small displacement as 23,000 tons, sacrifices had to be made and the ships’ torpedo protection was not up to the usual American standard. A very thin, three-layer version of the normal five-layer system was backed by just a ¾” bulkhead, with the intention of limiting damage rather than keeping it out of the ship entirely. However, the designers tried to ensure that no one (or even two) torpedo hits could ever cripple the ship, by alternating the machinery and fire rooms, as was being done in cruisers. A hit might knock one ‘unit’, but the others would be far away from the explosion and might therefore be unaffected.

    Main armament was the subject of much debate, with arguments for four or six 16” guns ranged against eight or nine 14”. In the end, an arrangement of eight 14”/45 guns was selected, but for somewhat unfortunate reasons. Four or six guns was considered too few, and while the idea of nine guns in three turrets was attractive, the 14”/50 guns and their triple turrets were rejected, as they were proving to be miserably inaccurate in service, so much so that the lower-powered 45-calibre weapons were considered to be superior at the time the ships were being designed.
    Less than a year after the ships were laid down, the problems with the 50-calibre guns were overcome, ironically thanks to the new shell that was being designed for the 14”/45 guns of the light battlecruisers. A scaled-down version of the ‘long’ (one ton) 16” shell, the new 14” shell was heavier and longer than the old one. Quite by accident, that was found to be partly the cause of the trouble, as the shorter old shells sometimes slipped back out into the chamber after they were loaded.
    However, it was too late to change the design, and the ships would be built with eight 14”/45 guns, which could fire a 1,500-lb shell at 2,525 ft/sec, capable of penetrating a 12” vertical plate at 20,000 yards.

    Armour was somewhat lighter than the Lexingtons, with a 436’ long, 14’ deep, 9” belt and a 2.5” deck, covering machinery and magazines in the usual American ‘all or nothing’ arrangement. However, this would be partially augmented by 1” splinter protection that ran along the edges of the upper deck for the entire length of the belt. Primarily intended to protect AA guns and keep out small bombs, it would be fitted as part of improvements to air defence, as permitted by the Treaty. Elsewhere, armour was relatively light by American standards, with 9” barbettes, 10” turret faces and thin 1” splinter protection to the secondary battery of ten 5” guns.
    Several weights were omitted from the declared ‘Standard’ displacement, as the designers considered that they were not part of the equipment needed to make the ship ‘ready for battle’. These included the two scout aircraft, their fuel, cranes and stores, and there was an allocation of only 60 rounds-per-gun for both 14” and 5” armament, a saving of 340 tons over the magazines’ full capacity of 100 and 250 respectively.
    The design came out at 23,060 tons, which the designers considered quite acceptable.

    However, they then took advantage of the 3,000-ton modification allowance to retro-fit the ships with six 4” anti-aircraft guns, plus the weight of their magazines, hoists, spotting and sighting positions. The 1” deck and other details of splinter protection were added as part of these improvements. In the condition in which the ships would actually sail, true Standard displacement would be about 24,300 tons, while Full Load was close to 29,000 tons.

    Power output was to be 108,000 shp using lightweight geared turbines and the fine, deep hull was intended to provide considerable speed. However, propulsive coefficient was somewhat disappointing and the ships were overweight, and so they never reached their design speed of 32 knots, except when run light. On trials in 1927, at a relatively realistic seagoing displacement of 27,050 tons, USS Alaska achieved 31.43 knots with 114,200 shp, although it was noted that the machinery could probably have been forced harder.
    In service they proved a bit inclined to roll, but were otherwise good steamers, capable of 30 knots in most weathers thanks to their high, flared bows.

    It was originally proposed to use the names of the four cancelled ‘Lexingtons’, but there were objections to the use of the name USS United States on a comparatively small ship, while the accidental loss of the France a few years earlier had provided a further warning that naming vessels after the nation itself could have unfortunate drawbacks.
    Nevertheless, the Navy did not consider them battleships, traditionally named after States of the Union, nor were they ordinary cruisers, named after towns and cities. Ultimately, a compromise was reached; larger than a town, smaller than a state, and the lead ship, USS Columbia, would give her name to the class.

    Columbia BCa.png

    USS Hawaii as completed​

    The Italians had been first to take advantage of a loophole in the Treaty, although through a combination of financial constraints and the need to use existing equipment meant that they hadn’t exploited it as fully as they might have done.
    Quite independently, but a little later, the French had taken full advantage of the ‘Light Battleship’ clause, while the Americans had stretched it to a point at which they were arguably cheating, by making almost immediate use of the 3,000-ton growth allowance that was allowed under the Treaty.

    Unfortunately for all of them, the British would then choose to show that they were no strangers to bending the rules.
    Cruiser Warfare
  • Cruiser Warfare

    By 1924, it was obvious that all the Washington Treaty nations were rushing to construct significant numbers of 8” cruisers. In particular, the USA already had plans for six such ships (in addition to the four ‘Newarks’ she already had), and while the Japanese program had been gravely disrupted by the Great Earthquake of 1923, they were clearly determined to press on with the construction of powerful cruisers armed with six or ten 8” guns.
    Britain had been obliged to accept the Washington limits on total cruiser tonnage and 8” guns, as she had received favourable terms regarding capital ships and had pushed through a submarine agreement that was of greatest benefit to Britain. The Royal Navy would have preferred a cruiser limit of 7,500-8,000 tons, with 6” guns, as these would be quite adequate for protecting the sea lanes, serving as destroyer leaders, or acting as scouts for the fleet. So prevalent was this view that the first cruisers ordered after the signing of the Treaty in 1922 were a pair of 7,500-ton ‘Fox’ class, mounting four of the 6” twin turrets used on the ‘Nelsons’ on much the same hull as the E-class.

    However, the existence of the 9,500-ton ‘Hawkins’ class, armed with 7.5” guns, had made the 8”, 10,000-ton limit unavoidable, particularly when both America and Japan were already building cruisers with 8” guns.

    After the Treaty was signed, it remained a fact that the Royal Navy needed new ocean-going cruisers, and so the 1923 programme included ships that followed the obvious Washington template. The four ‘Londons’ displaced 10,000 tons, had large, high hulls for seaworthiness, long range and a design speed of 32½ knots. Armament consisted of eight 8” guns and six 21” torpedo tubes, with an anti-aircraft battery of four 4” guns and four of the new 1-pdr automatic cannons.
    They were only lightly armoured, with 2” sides and 1½” deck protection over the machinery, and internal Hood-style box protection to the magazines, with 3” bulkheads topped by 2” crowns. The turrets, directors and bridge were armoured against nothing more than splinters, and it was all the designers could do to give the turrets a 3” face; barely adequate against 6” shellfire. Efforts to save weight were described as ‘ridiculously punctilious’ by the Deputy DNC, as there was debate over such items as the type of wood used in mess deck tables, and whether six or seven showers should be available for stokers. They came out at just over 10,000 tons, but close enough that the total could be safely ‘rounded down’, thereby avoiding having to notify the other powers.

    No battleships were ordered in 1923, but the programme did include the 16,000-ton aircraft carriers Hermes and Pegasus. Hermes was intended to operate with a fleet, was armed with six 6” guns and could carry up to 40 planes, using the machinery of a cancelled ‘D-class’ cruiser for a speed of 25 knots.
    Pegasus was an ‘aviation cruiser’, intended to address the problems seen in Cavendish. She was 702’ long and carried eight 8” guns in the same turrets as the ‘Londons’. A 380’ flight deck lay in between, with room for up to 26 aircraft below. There was 3” side protection over machinery and magazines, with a 1.5” lower deck. Money was saved by using part of the machinery of the scrapped HMS Courageous, and she achieved 29.9 knots at 19,210 tons when on trials in 1927.

    In the background, battleship development was proceeding slowly, and the ideas proposed for a 1924 ship centred around a companion for Rodney, to allow the formation of a 28-knot division of two ships with 16” guns. Designers had concluded that nine 16” guns could be provided on a ship that looked much like a shortened ‘D-33’ battlecruiser, although protection was little better than that of Rodney.
    An alternative was an improved ‘Nelson’, which appeared attractive once it became clear just how underweight those ships would be. Designers concluded that a 26½ knot version could be provided by a slight lengthening of the hull, and with very little cost in protection. However, it was not tactically compatible with any existing ship.

    The prospect for a radically new 1924 battleships died slowly in the closing months of 1923, as the design office was busy with the new carriers, the 10,000-ton cruisers, a cruiser-minelayer, three experimental destroyers and a new type of coastal patrol vessel, in addition to the expansion of the submarine design group in the expectation that new boats would be laid down under the 1926 programme, when the Treaty moratorium would have expired.
    In the end, the 1924 Programme included an slightly improved ‘Nelson’, with a 2’ wide strake of 12” armour added below the belt, better splinter protection for the secondary turrets and hoists, and slightly improved machinery delivering an extra 1,000 horsepower. HMS Trafalgar was laid down in October 1924 and completed in August 1927.

    Meanwhile, it became ever clearer that the new, large cruisers would not be cheap to build or to operate. Admiral Jellicoe’s 1919 review of the Empire’s naval defence needs had concluded that the RN needed at least 70 cruisers. Some of these could be smaller or older types, and a few roles could probably be carried out by aircraft, but the thought of building and manning even 20 ships such as London or Pegasus had the Treasury in a lather, when each one cost about a third as much as a battleship to build, and half as much to run. In recent years, several ‘Orion’ and ‘King George V’ class battleships had been operated with oil-firing and reduced crews, showing that capital ships could be operated relatively economically. Although these old ships were slow, they could bring a level of firepower to colonial stations that could never be answered by cruisers.
    In addition, the overall Treaty restriction of 350,000 tons meant that the RN could never build enough 10,000-ton ships. Another pair of ‘Londons’ were ordered under the 1924 programme, but it was clear that something would have to change if numbers were to be sustained.


    In anticipation of the 1925 programme, the Admiralty therefore sought a means to nullify the need for these expensive ‘Treaty Cruisers’. If the concept could be rendered wholly or partly invalid, then the RN could revert to building smaller, cheaper 6” cruisers, which could be backed up by heavy ships when necessary.
    The proliferation of ‘light battleships’ also meant that the RN would be well advised to consider a counter, both in the Mediterranean and in advance of any possible Japanese construction. There was also the consideration that the category had originally been created as a way of distorting tonnage limits in favour of the RN, and that the advantage in numbers it provided should not lightly be given up, if there was a valid use for the type.

    What the Royal Navy wanted was a ship capable of crushing any Treaty Cruiser it encountered. However, to do that meant using valuable battleship tonnage, and so to justify itself, such a ship must also be capable of other duties, including engaging enemy capital ships, even if perhaps only in a peripheral role. That was almost exactly Admiral Fisher’s original description of a battlecruiser, but the idea would need to be updated in light of the experiences of war.

    To catch enemy cruisers, the ship would have to achieve a speed of over 30 knots. An equivalent of the mighty Furious or Howe, the two largest warships in the fleet, was clearly impossible, however a faster Panther could comfortably be built within the 23,000-ton limit. However, with 13.5” guns and armour protection that was inadequate against much more than 12” fire, Panther would be no match for a modern 15” or 16” gun ship, and the Admiralty wasn’t interested in building new second-rate battlecruisers using precious capital ship tonnage.
    The next class, the ‘Renowns’, were effective modern ships, but their true Standard Displacement was 33,000 tons after improvements to their armour and underwater protection. However, if redesigned from the keel-up with lightweight machinery and a new hull form, it seemed possible that a ship like Renown might just possibly be built for around 23,000 tons.

    Through the winter of 1924/25, design teams produced numerous concepts. The most basic, ‘1924-A’ was a relatively well-balanced ship with eight 13.5” guns in four turrets, adequately armoured against its own guns at battle ranges of 15-25,000 yards.
    The ‘1924-B’ series attempted to do the same with 15” guns, but before long, the design ran into problems. It seemed the constraints of the 23,000-ton limit would have to be stretched, and new thinking on armour and armament would be needed before a design could close. In desperation, the anti-aircraft battery was provided by making use of the Treaty exemption that up to 3,000 tons could be added to a ship ‘for the purpose of improving means of defence against air attack’.

    By the end of 1924, they had gone back to first principles. Ships such as Howe were close to being ‘fast battleships’, but the battlecruiser had originally been created as a powerful form of cruiser, not as a fast form of battleship. The work done on the ‘Londons’ had created new lightweight hull designs and the ‘E-class’ cruisers had shown that using highly forced destroyer-type machinery in a large ship was quite safe and practical.
    In the New Year, the experimental destroyer Amazon ran trials with machinery using 300-psi superheated steam, showing that further improvements were possible.
    Last edited:
    The Impossible Ship
  • The Impossible Ship

    In the autumn of 1924, the Admiralty became aware that the Americans were working on a new class of fast capital ship. Unofficial sources said that the US ships would make use of the ‘light battleship’ definition, and that designs with eight or nine guns of 14” calibre were under study.
    By the New Year, more than a half-dozen outline British designs had been prepared, and the matter was moving in the direction of which should taken forward for construction.


    Charles Coles, the Deputy Director of Naval Construction Sat at the head of the table. The meeting was about the Royal Navy's next class of capital ship, a light battlecruiser. It was up to him and the others to navigate their way through the minefield of possible options and produce a recommendation at the end.
    A few days earlier, the Engineer-in-Chief had confirmed that in a battleship-type environment, it would be possible to deliver 120,000shp from machinery that weighed no more than 2,800 tons. Coles knew there were early indications that figure could be improved on by using superheated steam, but this was not the moment to complicate matters.

    ‘I favour B3’, said Sir Malcolm Strang as he flicked through a series of blueprints.
    ‘I think many of us do’, observed Coles, ‘but it would be heavy weather taking it through the Admiralty.’
    There were a few faint smiles; nautical phrases were so embedded in the language that it was impossible to avoid them altogether.

    The sketch in front of Strang showed design ‘1924-B/3’; a handsome three-funnelled ship which would carry eight 15” guns in twin turrets. It had highly forced, fast running machinery based on that of the E-class cruisers, although it would be reinforced to cope with the shock of firing the heavy guns. In other ways it was relatively conventional; the hull form was modelled after Hood, with an external belt inclined with the hull, a built-in bulge and a break in foc’sle aft of Q-turret.
    Coles knew that it had numerous problems, but that they could all be summed up in one way; the design was too conventional. Nevertheless, that was the reason it was popular, as it used safe, well-understood ideas that could be built without great expenditure on new, unproven concepts.


    Superficially a Hood on 23,000 tons, but with an 8" belt she stood no chance in 1925.​

    ‘You know the problem’, continued Coles, ‘protection is only adequate against 14” fire over magazines, with 12” elsewhere. The Admirals will say she’s another Queen Mary waiting to happen – she’s too lightly protected.’
    ‘That they will’, said Captain Arbuthnot, the Service’s official representative at the meeting. Following post-war trials, it was now widely accepted that the explosion of the battlecruiser Queen Mary at Stavanger had been triggered by a German shell penetrating her belt and exploding in or near the magazine.
    ‘I’m sure we can squeeze a little more armour in, particularly with what we’ve learned from C2’, suggested Strang, whom Coles had noted particularly favoured B3, perhaps because it was powerful and yet the most traditionally battlecruiser-like of the various designs before them. Strang had served on cruisers and then on Renown during the war, and although he had since left the Service to find a new home in the DNC’s office, he was a plodding old-fashioned sailor at heart. It was a pity he was here at all.
    Coles glanced up at the portrait at the other end of the room, at the firm, but nonetheless slightly cheeky face of Admiral Fisher. The old Admiral wouldn’t have put up with Strang for more than about a minute, but Coles had neither Fisher’s level of influence nor his mercurial personality. Diplomacy was the order of the day. Strang was a well-connected Baronet, who hunted with the First Sea Lord. He might be rather stupid, but he was a potentially useful ally.
    Today was a day for persuasion, and he turned towards Strang.

    ‘How would you deal with the armour problem?’, he asked.
    ‘I don’t see it as a problem,’ replied Strang, ‘we can thicken the belt amidships to provide protection against 14” fire.’
    ‘Yes…’, mused Coles, while thinking no, ‘but what happens when they have to face ships with 16” guns?’
    ‘They don’t’, replied Strang confidently, ‘they’re to counter cruisers and other light battleships.’

    ‘Couldn’t we reduce length by using triple turrets?’, asked Reginald Tyrrell, the newest member of the group, a youngish man who had only joined two weeks earlier. Coles could see he had a bright future, but he was still a bit wet behind the ears at present.
    There were murmurs of agreement and several people moved to speak, but Coles got in first.
    ‘No Mr Tyrrell’, he said firmly, ‘We looked at that with B4, and it was worse; the hull was over stressed by the weight of the turrets, and could be armoured against nothing more than 12” fire, if I recall… it would also be a brand-new turret, with all the Treasury problems that would entail.’
    Cost was a significant factor, but Coles also knew that hull stresses were the reason for the A-B-Q-Y arrangement of B3, rather than a more modern A-B-X-Y. It was just too old-fashioned a design, he thought once again.
    As this thought passed, there were a few nods from around the room, and Coles resumed.

    ‘I remain unconvinced by B3. Now, Mr Tyrrell has just mentioned B4, and although that design did not meet our requirements, in my view we should develop it further, using more modern ideas about the layout of armour.’
    The Navy’s newest ‘Nelson’ class battleships used armour that was mounted inside the hull, rather than outside as in Hood or the B-series. The scheme had its detractors, who argued that it would make damage more difficult to repair, and that the thin skin of the hull could be riddled by light fire. However, Coles and most of the DNC’s office knew that it was the one of few realistic ways to reduce weight while preserving protection. Internal armour could be sloped sharply inwards towards the bottom of the ship, so that descending shells would strike it at a steep angle, thereby increasing its resistive power.

    Young Tyrrell looked encouraged, but it was Strang who spoke first.
    ‘Rather than start again, what about improving B3? If we took the lessons from C2 and applied them to B3, we could have it all.’

    Coles had to resist the temptation to sigh; it was clearly going to be a long day.
    ‘C2’ was another unsatisfactory attempt to shoehorn nine 15” guns into a workable design, by relying on thick sloped edges to the main deck instead of a traditional armour belt. It saved weight, but it wasn’t very good at protecting the waterline, and would tend to throw shell fragments up into the body of the ship. However, the C-series had an advantage that Coles knew had promise; they used a deep flush-decked hull to reduce stresses and keep weight down.
    He and nearly half of his design staff had just finished with the London-class cruisers, which used just such a hull, built using longitudinal framing, which saved a little more weight by cutting down the number of heavy transverse frames inside the hull.
    The private yards were still complaining about this ‘new method’, even though it was actually more than 15 years old. Still, he thought, the Londons would have blazed the trail by the time these ships were built.

    ‘C2 has its merits’, he said, lying cheerfully, ‘but I know we can do better. All the designs in front of us today are adequate to deal with ten or twelve-thousand-ton cruisers, but none of them are good enough to risk in a fleet action.’
    There were mumbles of surprise, and agreement from around the room.
    ‘As Sir Malcolm says, a combination of B3 and C2 would be a start, but I believe we need to incorporate an internal belt, and be far more ruthless about what is and what is not armoured. We are not building a battleship, but we are using battleship tonnage, so this new ship must be safe to engage anything it may encounter, even if it does not do so for long, or does so with the assistance of heavier forces.’
    Handing out a plain manilla folder, he continued, ‘Gentlemen, I have here a proposal from Vickers regarding a new hoist layout for gun turrets, which they claim would save considerable weight and improve flash-protection. Bearing this in mind, and given the history of turrets being put out of action, even when they are not wrecked, I believe we must ask ourselves whether using thousands of tons of turret armour is an essential part of a light warship…’
    Build them by the Mile…
  • Build them by the Mile…

    Elijah Cromwell, superintendent at Dock B, Beardmore’s yard, looked out over the wharf from his office at the top of the dockside sheds.
    The steel hull of HMS Indomitable had been launched last month, and currently lay alongside the fitting-out dock. Three huge holes seemed to dominate the foc’sle deck, deep cavities into the hull where the turrets would eventually sit.
    Today, they would remain unfilled, but Indomitable would be receiving the first section of her superstructure, which currently lay on the dockside, looking strangely like the upperworks were emerging out of the solid dock. While the smooth lines of the hull had been growing on the slip, the decks and gangways of what would be her aft control tower, searchlight platform and boat deck had been assembled on the wharf. Parts of it were even welded together, using a new electric-arc machine installed specially for the job.
    Cromwell had his hopes and his doubts about the technique; it was far from proven, and he knew the Navy thought so too. They had insisted that no load-bearing areas be welded, and the method hadn’t been used on the hull at all.

    More than eighty lines connected the completed deckhouse to the huge crane that could lift a thousand-ton turret with ease. Today it would be lifting barely a fifth of that.
    Beardmore’s had pioneered this method of prefabrication, and knew it required previously undreamt-of precision. It was no good building the superstructure a cable trunking in one corner of a compartment, when the men building the hull below had fitted it on the other side. They had therefore taken the Admiralty drawings of the ships and improved them, forming a ‘design line’ on the foc’sle deck, the line at which everything had to meet from top and bottom.

    They’d passed the drawings back to the DNC’s office, who had reportedly been impressed. With suitable compensation paid to Beardmore’s, their sketches of the entire layout of the deck at 1” to 1-foot had been passed on to the yards who were building Indomitable’s four sister-ships.
    He smiled to himself; despite this co-operation, they were in an informal race with Portsmouth Dockyard to complete the first of the Royal Navy’s new battlecruisers. If they won, the Directors had promised all staff a bonus, subject to the quality of the workmanship being maintained, of course.

    The craning completed, he had to busy himself with the countless details of fitting out; most importantly the defect that had come to light in the port boiler of No.4 Room. Yarrow’s were claiming that it was Beardmore’s who had damaged the boiler when it was being fitted into the hull early in construction.
    It was a new design with a superheater and would also run at a high pressure than in previous battleships, so it had to be built and tested to higher standards than previosuly. Initial tests were fine for the ship’s eleven other boilers, but this one leaked, even when cold and filled with water. An inspector from Yarrow’s had said the drums had been twisted slightly during installation, damaging the packing between the drums and the hundreds of heating tubes.
    Privately, Cromwell knew this was probably true, as Yarrow’s were renowned for delivering very high-quality machinery. However, they also took pride in building it as light as possible, and Indomitable’s boilers had thin-walled tubes and a boxy air pre-heater on one side, which he suspected had been mis-used as a hoist point when the boiler was lowered into the ship. His records showed it had been done on a Friday afternoon, and no doubt the men had been keen to finish the job.
    However, he couldn’t admit any of that to the men from Yarrow’s. He mustn’t acknowledge it was Beardmore’s liability, and then there was the Boilermaker’s Union to consider. The shipyards’ productivity was up, but production was flat and employment was falling. Now would be a bad time to suggest that the fitters hadn’t done their jobs properly. They were already agitated over calls for a ‘General Strike’ in support of the miners, and while that had so far been avoided, suggestions of further changes to working practices were a source of friction.

    He suspected there would be a compromise; Yarrows would supply and fit new parts, and Beardmore’s would cover half the cost. Until then, it was best to keep his mouth shut.

    The following day, there was another problem; four hundred reels of lead-coated wiring had been delivered. On previous ships, this would be fine, but Indomitable and her sisters used a new lighter-weight rubberised canvas and aluminium wrapped wire. Aside from saving more than 30 tons over the whole ship, the Navy wanted no more lead coatings, as if the ship caught fire, they could melt and make the situation worse.
    Mercifully this problem couldn’t cause any strikes. No, this was a problem of paperwork; what had been ordered, did the yard want the cable for other purposes, and if it was wrong, where was the wire that had been ordered?
    He sent his assistant to search the cabinets for the right order bill, while he picked up the telephone, mentally stiffening his resolve before engaging the stores department more closely.
    The Deck-Armoured Battlecruiser
  • The Deck-Armoured Battlecruiser

    Anyone could build a fast, well-armed, well-armoured ship on forty or fifty thousand tons, but to build one on 23,000 tons must surely mean that it would be a lesser vessel; a second-rate battleship, or a poorly armoured battlecruiser?
    In 1924, few thought that it could be done. Even the men who did it, didn’t think that it was a certainty when they started their work. In classical terms, it wasn’t possible, but a combination of new technologies, new ideas and a willingness to accept that not everything on a ship had to be protected equally meant that it was shown to be achievable; with every accountant’s trick and sea-lawyer’s fiddle, there were literally tons to spare.
    Design ‘1924-B/3’ had shown that a powerful ship could be built on 23,000 tons (particularly if the designers ‘cheated’ by planning to add up to 3,000 tons of improvements to torpedo protection and air-defence later). However, the weight of the four armoured turrets made it a marginal design.

    In the New Year of 1925, two ideas came together. One was the concept of limiting the protection of a ship to a well-armoured citadel around the waterline, rather than trying to extend heavy armour far up the hull. The other was the consideration that damage to armament could be tolerated, providing such damage did not automatically result in the loss of the ship.
    Both at the Battle of Stavanger and in other, smaller actions, ships had been lost due to progressive flooding, torpedo hits or (most probably) to shells penetrating and exploding inside their magazines. Providing there were adequate means to prevent fires spreading from turrets to magazines, a hit on a turret would not destroy a ship; it would merely reduce its fighting ability. If it were essential to save weight, it was therefore a legitimate design choice to reduce armour on areas other than magazines and accept the risk that turrets might be lost.

    Associated with that was a new weight and labour-saving mechanism that had been proposed a few months earlier, by the armaments firm Vickers. They proposed simplifying (and lightening) the usual multi-stage system of below-deck handling rooms, shell bogies, lower hoists, turret handling rooms and upper hoists.
    In their new system steps would be eliminated or combined, and more of the process would happen below the armour deck.
    Deep in the ship, a series of ‘cages’ (one for each gun above) would be filled through flash-tight scuttles from the magazines, and by fixed rammers for the projectiles. The cages would be sitting on a combined hoist and turntable, which would then raise them up to the level of the armour deck while simultaneously turning them from the fore-aft loading position of the magazines until they matched the train angle of the turret above.
    Unlike in traditional turrets, the heavy armour deck would extend through the barbette, and a central disk of this thick deck would turn with the turret. Once correctly orientated, the ‘cages’ would pass through holes in this deck, each of which was surrounded by a short armoured trunk . Now above the armoured citadel, the charges and shell would still be protected, as each cage would rise into a splinter-proof armoured hood which would be waiting for it. The cage would latch into the hood and the whole unit would then be lifted up, allowing flash-tight shutters to close the holes below as the hood rose out of the armoured trunk.
    The cage and hood would rise all the way up to the gun by a traditional winch hoist, before shell and charge ramming took place as usual.

    The amount of handling machinery was reduced, but there was no opportunity to arrange the shells and charges between upper and lower hoists. They therefore had to be inserted in the cage in the correct order, with the shell and the bottom and the charges on top. This meant the magazines would return to their pre-war position above the shellrooms.
    The system eliminated the handling room below the turret and the shell bogies, saving considerable space and weight. However, it meant that all guns had to be loaded together, as the below-armour hoist and turntable would supply of all the turret’s hood/cage assemblies simultaneously.

    If the magazines were safely isolated behind heavy armour, turret protection could be reduced.
    However, one of the ship’s primary missions was to destroy cruisers, and it would be absurd if the main armament could be knocked out by a cruiser’s guns.
    The three main turrets were therefore protected by a 7” faceplate, with 3” sides and rear, while barbettes would be 5” where exposed, reduced to 3” inside the hull. This would keep out 8” gunfire at practical battle ranges and would also be ample proof against splinters from larger shells. The only exceptions were the roofs of the turrets, which had only a ½” weatherproof plate ‘as designed’. A 5½” thick plate would later be added on top as part of permitted improvements in horizontal armour.

    Away from the citadel, the ships were only ‘protected’, rather than armoured.
    Above the armour deck the sides of the ship had 2” of protective plating over their 1” skin, in a similar fashion to a light cruiser. To improve resistance to flooding near the waterplane, the double hull also covered this space between the main and upper decks, and a thin layer of armour would be added to the edges of the foc'sle, justified as part of improvements to bomb protection.

    Fisher section2.png

    Armour scheme, with and without improvements.​

    The ships were designed so that they would not be ‘inconvenienced’ by 8” fire, but they also had to be safe to fight battleships. The objective here was to ensure that battleships could be engaged at certain ranges, without the Captain having to concern himself over the immediate safety of his ship.
    As the scouting force of a fleet, or in a pursuit action, or when trying to turn the head of an enemy line, the ships would engage enemy battleships at relatively long ranges. At these ranges, the deck presented a larger target than the shallow belt needed to protect the machinery and magazines, and was therefore of relatively high importance.
    The machinery was armoured against 15” gunfire, with the 9” inclined belt capable of resisting the 1,920-lb shells at ranges above 19,000 yards, and the 3½” thick deck providing protection below 22,500 yards.

    It was vital that the magazines be proofed against the heaviest gunfire, which the ships’ Chief Designer, Charles Coles, defined as the 2,340-lb shell that was fired at 2,450fps by the British 16” Mk.2 gun. Why he did not choose the higher-performance Mk.2* is something of a mystery, although there wouldn’t have been any weight to spare for any additional armour if he had.
    An 11”, 20-degree inclined belt would defeat these shells above 17,500 yards, and a 4” deck would keep them out below 23,500. This heavier armour also covered the transmitting station and part of the aft engine room, partly to guard against the possibility of end-on fire reaching the magazines.
    If the Captain were able to keep the ship at an angle to the enemy, those minimum ranges could be reduced, but the design objective was the ships could be ‘safely fought’ on any course at ranges around 20,000 yards.
    Britannia Waives the Rules
  • Britannia Waives the Rules

    Few believed that it would be possible to fit a combination of a useful armament, a high speed and any level of adequate armour onto a 23,000-ton ship, but they reckoned without Charles Coles, the Deputy Director of Naval Construction. He had come up through the design office during the Fisher years and had seen the successes and failures of war. He also came from a family of engineers and could perhaps see a little more widely than many of his colleagues what was and wasn’t possible, both mechanically and industrially.
    The concept of a light battleship had met with extreme scepticism at the Admiralty, but Coles’ persistence and the specifications of the ships he ultimately presented assisted in changing their minds. The fact that the RN could sustain its numerical advantage by building five ‘light battleships’ using just two years’ Treaty allocation was also attractive.
    When they saw that each of these new ships was quite capable of menacing a ‘proper battleship’, and that Coles had practically re-invented the battlecruiser, their minds were soon made up.

    Even so, there were still hurdles in the way.
    It proved impossible to fit nine guns in three identical turrets. A reduction in calibre, either to 13.5” or 14” was considered, and alternatively, an outline design featuring six heavy guns in twin turrets was prepared, permitting an increase in both speed and armour. However, mounting a lighter armament meant these expensive ships might not be able to challenge the latest battleships, while long-standing preferences and fire-control considerations suggested a minimum of eight guns.
    It was therefore decided to fit eight, by using one twin turret in place of a triple. The largest weight savings could be made by fitting this in ‘B’ position, reducing the diameter of the longest barbette and giving the greatest benefit to topweight.

    By the spring of 1925, Coles and his designers had a ship of 728’, with a transom stern and a beam of 93’ 6”, and they were optimistic that it could meet the tonnage limit. However, design calculations at that time showed an estimated Standard Displacement of 24,640 tons.

    Further savings had to be made, and the most radical piece of redesign was a decision to fit the outer part of the bulge and the torpedo bulkhead after construction was completed (and therefore justifying these weights as a separate, legitimate increase in torpedo protection). After some allowances, this removed 1,100 tons from the Standard Displacement and transferred it to the additional 3,000 tons that were allowable under the Treaty. A further 210 tons was transferred by arranging to fit the rotating disk of armour deck inside the barbettes at the same time as the turret roofs.

    Subdivision of unarmoured spaces and the machinery was to be as extensive as possible, as underwater protection was necessarily limited. Unlike the more capable torpedo protection systems of the latest battleships, the objective of the system was to try to ensure the survival of the ship, but not necessarily its survival as an effective fighting unit.
    Even with the ‘outer bulge’ fitted, the system would never be more than 13’ deep, and in most places, it was just 10-11’. The boilers sat three-abreast and the rooms ran out to the torpedo bulkhead, leaving no room for a coffer dam behind. This reduced the effectiveness of the torpedo protection, and so Coles did his best to compensate by putting each set of three boilers in a separate room, making four boiler rooms. These would be further split up by using a machinery space and the secondary magazine to separate two pairs of rooms, making it highly unlikely that a single torpedo hit could disable all the boilers.

    Above decks, the twin turret would be a cut-down version of the triple, with the centre gun removed. In addition to improvements elsewhere in the ship, the weight saved helped to allow a 36’ rangefinder and an auxiliary fire-control position to be fitted into the rear of B-turret.
    Just 40 rounds-per-gun would be included in the legend, as it was found that no RN Captain would hesitate to engage with such a level of ammunition available. However, even when the magazines were full, they could only contain 68-rpg for the aft guns, and 81-rpg for the forward guns; another sacrifice in such a compact ship.

    As built, the ships would have just four secondary guns, each of 4” calibre. A further eight 4” anti-aircraft guns and a director system would be fitted after completion, with all the guns in new twin mounts that would be capable of both high and low angle fire. A dozen 1-pdr machine cannons would complete the AA fit.

    Barbettes stayed at 5” and 3” inside the hull, but were reduced to 3” and 2” over the innermost 90-degree arc where they were shielded by the hull and superstructure. A few tons were saved by thinning engine room bulkheads in favour of deck armour, and the lower deck over the steering gear was reduced to 3”. Thanks to more detailed calculations, 50 tons could be taken out of the hull, allowing splinter protection to be added to the aft DCT. The forward unit had 6” armour protection for both itself and its communication tube down to the armour deck, and all other communication lines were duplicated.

    By the beginning of June 1925, designers had reached a Standard displacement of 22,895 tons, permitting a modest Board Margin of 100 tons. Heavier-than-expected turret machinery and the appropriation of 12 tons for splinter protection around the bridge used up half of this within weeks.

    Approximately 2,440 tons was scheduled to be added at the ships’ first refit, which would nominally happen after the first sea trials.
    This including the additional 5.5” armour for the turrets roofs, 1.5” blast-proof plating for the foc’sle deck around the guns, and teak deck planking amidships (all justified as providing additional protection against air attack). A 1½” torpedo bulkhead would be added inboard of the double hull as the bulge was being fitted, as the armour plates could be fitted through the gaps in the hull that would be available during the process of fitting the outer bulge.
    With these and the additions in ammunition and other equipment, true Standard Displacement was 25,865 tons, and Deep Load was 30,905 tons.


    The 10th February 1927 was an icy day, but in Portsmouth and on the Clyde, two handover ceremonies took place. HMS Fisher and Indomitable were formally delivered to the Navy, and within another three months, their sisters Invincible, Indefatigable and Anson were handed over.

    Their eight 16” Mk.2* guns could challenge anything afloat, and their armour would keep enemy 16” shells out of the magazines at longer battle ranges. With a design speed of 32 knots at normal load, they could catch almost anything afloat. Anson’s performance was typical of the group; on trials she achieved 31.99 knots at 29,310 tons, with 134,600shp. The only ship that was pushed was Invincible, making 32.82 knots on trial, but at just 27,850 tons, and by forcing the machinery up to 140,600 shp.
    Just as importantly, they could reach 30 knots, even when close to Deep Load and a few months out of dock.

    The Admiralty knew they would be tricky ships for any foreign power to counter. On that cold winter’s day, there were more than a few who wondered, with a wry smile, whether ships such as Fisher would supplant the battleship, just as Admiral Fisher himself had once predicted.

    Fisher side 2b.png

    HMS Fisher as refitted in 1928.​
    Fisher-class Legend
  • Fisher-class Legend

    Length 728’, Beam 93’ 6”, Draught 24’ 10” at a normal load of 28,000 tons
    Deep load ~ 30,900 tons

    8 x 16” Mk.2* (A3-B2-Y3), firing a 2,360-lb shell at 2,450-fps. Maximum elevation 30-degrees, maximum range 35,000 yards
    12 x 4” QF Mk.V in twin HA mounts
    12 x 1-pdr Automatic cannons in twin mounts

    Turrets - 7" faces, 6" roofs, 3" sides and rear
    Barbettes – 5” above deck, 3” below. Inward-facing sections reduced to 3” and 2”
    Belt – 11” over magazines. 9” over machinery
    Upper Belt – 2” protective plating over 1” side
    End Bulkheads - 11" Forward, 10" Aft
    Main Deck – 4” over magazines, 3½” over machinery
    Foc’sle deck – 1½” edges around turrets
    Torpedo bulkhead - 1½”

    12 boilers, 4-shaft reduction turbines operating at 300-psi, 600F.
    Nominal output 132,000shp for 32 knots.

    Approximate breakdown of weights, as built and with Treaty additions:
    Fisher weights.PNG
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