The battlecruiser was a type of warship poised dangerously between the true battleship and the cruiser. They carried the big guns of the battleship, but without the armour needed to take on similarly armed ships. The battlecruiser was a short-lived concept. It officially emerged in 1912 to describe ships already in service, while the last battlecruiser to be completed was HMS Hood in 1920.
The first ships to be considered as battlecruisers were the three ships of the Invincible class, laid down in 1906 and completed in 1908-1909. They were initially described as armoured cruisers, and followed the standard pattern of such ships. Over the previous decade the Royal Navy had been building increasingly large armoured cruisers, starting with the 12,000t Cressy class of 1897, armed with two 9.2in and twelve 6in guns and protected by up to six inches of belt armour. The last class before the Invincible was the Minotaur class, of 14,600t ships armed with four 9.2in and ten 7.5in guns. These ships were based on the Lord Nelson class battleships, but with reduced armour to provide increased speed.
At the same time as the armoured cruisers were getting bigger, the old second class, or light cruisers, were being abandoned. The last class to be designed had been the Highflyer class of 1899-1900, three 5,880 ton cruisers (with two similar Challenger class ships built in 1904-5). At this point the Royal Navy under Admiral Fisher believed that the armoured cruisers could perform the trade protection duties of the cruiser, while the destroyers could scout for the fleet. The armoured cruisers were also expected to provide a fast wing to the battle fleet.
The existing armoured cruisers were made obsolete by the HMS Dreadnaught – not by her big guns but by her speed, which at 21kts was three knots quicker than the previous Lord Nelson class and approaching the speed of the cruisers. The next general of armoured cruisers would clearly have to be much faster.
This was achieved by producing a much larger ship. The Invincible class armoured cruisers were 5,000 tonnes heavier that the Minotaurs, and carried eight of the 12in guns that were then standard on battleships. They had a speed of 25.5kts, fast enough to operate ahead of the battleships, but at the cost of thinner armour – 6in belt armour at its thickest, compared to 11in on the Dreadnaught.
The fundamental problem with the battlecruisers was their cost. Each Invincible class battlecruiser cost 50% to construct than a Minotaur class. It was impossible to build enough of them for the trade protection role, while their big guns meant that they would increasingly come to operate with the battle fleet. The tendency for the battlecruisers to become larger and even more expensive eventually resulted in HMS Hood, a 45,200t monster who remained the biggest ship to serve in the Royal Navy until extra equipment pushed the HMS Anson up to 45,360t in 1945.
The 1,000t destroyers of the period were too small and too vulnerable to enemy cruisers to act as scouts. The Royal Navy would have been better off using the same resources to produce more battleships and newer cruisers. This was recognised in 1910, with the construction of the Bristol Class light cruisers.
The image of the battlecruiser was badly tarnished by the battle of Jutland. In earlier engagements they had performed well, especially at the Falklands, where their high speed and firepower had destroyed the German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. At Jutland three British battlecruisers were destroyed, each after massive explosions. These were probably caused by poor cordite handling – this dangerous explosive was carried in cloth containers by the British but in metal cartridges by the Germans, while an obsession with rapid firing may had resulting in a lack of care being taken to reduce the danger of fire reaching the ships magazines. In contrast, only two battleships were lost during the war – the Vanguard in an accident and the Audacious after hitting a mine.
The battlecruisers were built in comparatively small numbers. Only fifteen battlecruisers were completed between 1906 and the end of the First World War, with four more under construction, of which only HMS Hood would be launched, and even she was not complete until 1920. Of those fifteen ships, the Furious was converted into carrier during the war. During the same period thirty five battleships were built, while in the eight years between 1910 and 1918 fifty six light cruisers were built.
The British battlecruiser fleet consisted of the three ships of the Invincible class (HMS Indomitable, HMS Inflexible and HMS Invincible), three of the Indefatigable class (HMS Indefatigable, HMS Australia and HMS New Zealand), two each of the Lion, Renown and Courageous classes (HMS Lion, HMS Princess Royal, HMS Renown, HMS Repulse, HMS Courageous and HMS Glorious), and four individual ships – HMS Queen Mary, HMS Tiger, HMS Furious and HMS Hood
At the end of the war Britain had eleven surviving battlecruisers, as well as HMS Furious, already converted into a carrier and the Hood, approaching completion. Seven of the older ships were soon sold off, while of the remaining five the Courageous and the Glorious were also converted into carriers.
These ships did not perform well during the Second World War. The Hood was famously sunk by the Bismarck, HMS Repulse was lost in the Far East, while the Courageous was sunk by U-29 in 1939 and the Glorious was caught and sunk by the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau during the Norway campaign on 1940. Of these sinkings, only that of the Hood could be said to have been caused by flaws in the battlecruiser concept, once again at the hands of German shell fire.
In comparison of the five Queen Elizabeth class battleships still in service in 1939, HMS Barham was sunk and the rest survived the war, and of the five Royal Sovereigns only the Royal Oak was sunk.
Germany responded to the British battlecruisers with seven of their own big gun cruisers, starting with the SMS Von der Tann, launched in 1909 and competed in 1911. She carried similar guns to the British ships, had better armour but was slightly slower. Two ships of the Moltke class followed, one of which was the SMS Goeben, famous as one of the German ships that eluded the Royal Navy to reach Turkey. They were followed by SMS Seydlitz, SMS Derfflinger and Lützow and finally SMS Hindenburg. Four ships of the Mackensen class were planned but never completed. The comparatively small numbers of ships involved means that a statistical analysis of their comparative performance during the war is of limited value. The Germans lost one of their seven battlecruisers (14%), the British three of their sixteen (18%), with all four sinkings taking place during the battle of Jutland. The problem for the image of the British battlecruisers was that they exploded dramatically, while the German ship, while badly damaged, was eventually deliberately sunk by one of her own destroyers
Elsewhere only the Japanese ever built battlecruisers, constructing eight before 1918 (of which four survived to be sunk during the Second World War). Russia laid down four, but none were completed, while the French examined the idea and got as far as producing some designs, but never began any building work.