Saturday, October 17, 2020

Fisher and the Battlecruisers

I have been reading Norman Friedman's book "The British Battleship 1905-1946

(The RRP is £45 for the hardback and even used copies are selling for something close to thirty quid, but if you have a kindle you can get the electronic version for a tenner.) 

The most interesting thing I've learned from it so far concerns not battleships but a closely related class of ship. It has given me a greater understanding of the mystery of how Admiral Jacky Fisher, certainly the most brilliant and transformative naval administrator Britain has had in the last two centuries and one of the greatest any nation has produced over all time, creator of the dreadnought battleship which revolutionised naval warfare, also created at the same time one of the most disastrous warship classes in history -  the battlecruiser.

Battlecruisers were some of the most beautiful, romantic and prestigious warships ever built. The very name is so evocative that ships so described turn up in the work of just about every novelist and game designer relating to either 20th century wet navies or science fiction space ones, from C.S. Forester to David Weber,  from the Klingon D7 to "Starcruiser Shenandoah" to "Master of Orion."

Unfortunately, although when they were actually used in the role for which Fisher intended them - to kill cruisers - battlecruisers were almost invariably successful, time and again force limitations led admirals to deploy battlecruisers in roles in which they were expensive and costly deathtraps.

Fisher's strategy was to replace a plethora of different designs of capital ship with different speeds, the individual ships mounting lots of different weapon types making both the gunfire of each individual ship and the movements of the units of the fleet almost impossible to co-ordinate, with a battle fleet with ships of similar (and fairly high) speed and reliability using turbine engines, fighting in line ahead formation. Each ship of that battle fleet  would have her main armament consisting of a single calibre of gun, making it vastly easier for a single director tower to spot and co-ordinate the fall of shot and control the angle at which the guns should fire to hit a moving target from a considerable distance. A substantial proportion of that main armament able to fire in any direction but all of it should be able to fire on either broadside. 

These battleships are called dreadnoughts after the first such vessel, HMS Dreadnought, which instantly made every other capital ship in the world obsolete when she was launched in 1906, and dreadnoughts ruled the seas until the rise of the aircraft carrier.

A fleet of dreadnought battleships in line ahead (that is, sailing in line one after the other) could be co-ordinated to direct the whole of its enormous firepower against a fleet to either starboard or port (right of left) with each individual battleship bringing a battery of enormous guns with devastating effect against a single target. (HMS Warspite, a superdreadnought of Fisher's era which was sufficiently ahead of her time in World War One that she remained a powerful and effective unit in the second war two decades later: in 1940 she hit the Italian flagship in a battle off Calabria at a range of 26,400 yards, putting the enemy battleship out of action for four months. In an even more amazing display of gunnery at Matapan the following year, a battle which took place at night, Warspite took an Italian cruiser out of the battle with her first salvo, from which five or six shells hit the enemy ship. 

These shells, fired from Warspite's fifteen-inch-calibre main guns, weighed a ton and a half: nothing ever built could stand up to that kind of punishment for long.

Dreadnoughts were to provide Fisher's line of battle, but as super-heavy scouts and to kill enemy commerce raiders he accompanied them with battlecruisers - ships the size of a battleship and with the armament of a dreadnought but which attained nearly the speed of a destroyer by sacrificing armour protection to a level not much greater than that of an armoured cruiser. 

To steal an expression quoted by C.S. Forester in another context but even more appropriate for battlecruisers, "The ship was an eggshell armed with sledgehammers and her mission in life was to give without receiving." My son tells me that the current generation of gamers have an expression for units with enormous hitting power but weak defences - they call them "glass cannons." 

How battlecruisers would actually be used, with most unfortunate consequences, was foreseen more or less correctly at the time.   The year after the first battlecruiser, HMS Invincible, was launched, the following words appeared in 1907 Brassey Naval Annual: 

"The Invincible class have been given the armament of a battleship, their superiority in speed being compensated for by lighter protection ... an admiral having Invincibles in his fleet will be certain to put them in the line of battle, where their comparatively light protection would be a disadvantage, and their high speed of no value."

The word "certain" was an exaggeration - plenty of British and German admirals had more sense - but sooner or later every navy which built battlecruisers or similar ships designated "fast battleships" ended up deploying them where they came into combat against regular battleships and came off second best. 

That is what happened to HMS Invincible herself at the battle of Jutland; to all the German battlecruisers at the same battle where they suffered enormous damage and despite superlative engineering the Germans were extremely fortunate to lose only Lutzow; to the Scharnhost and the Japanese Kirishima  in World War II, and most famously of all, to HMS Hood.

HMS Invincible was the third of three Royal Navy battlecruisers which blew up and sank at Jutland and Admiral Beatty famously said earlier in the battle when he lost the first two in action against German battlecruisers, "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today." And there was, but the main problem was they they were designed for one job and he was using them for a different one. 

So why on earth did a brilliant man create battlecruisers in the first place?

The most common response of naval historians is to treat Fisher as some kind of mad genius, and there is much in his makeup which makes it easy to present him that way. He was the ultimate "marmite" admiral in an era before that word was used to indicate something that some people love and others hate - practically every officer in the navy was either a supporter of Fisher or an opponent.

But I'm grateful to Norman Friedman for putting the creation of both the dreadnought and the battlecruiser into the context of the first decade of the last century - a context in which the latter doesn't seem so stupid after all.

Britain was facing the potential threat presented by the rapid build-up of the new German navy but also the navies of countries like Russia and France both of which we had fought wars against in the past. Although the triple entente made Britain, France and Russia allies from the year after the Dreadnought and Invincible were launched, it was undoubtedly wise for Fisher and the Admiralty to be prepared for the possibility that this alliance might collapse and we could have been faced with a battle against two or more of these powers at once.

All these nations had significant numbers of armoured cruisers - ships which were nearly as expensive to build and maintain as battleships, but which were a menace to anything else afloat in 1905 other than a  battleship. Such ships were an existential threat to the seaborne commerce on which Britain's trade  depended and something had to be done to protect it - and building both a strong battle fleet and enough cruisers to protect our trade against any potential threat from the cruisers of other nations would risk national bankruptcy.

The battlecruiser was intended to deal with that threat. With an armament that could send any cruiser ever built to the bottom in minutes, a higher speed than any armoured cruiser and many light ones, and extra-tall tripod masts enabling them to more reliably receive radio signals telling them where to catch and kill enemy commerce raiders, the battlecruiser was the ultimate answer to any attempt to use cruisers against Britain's sea trade. 

A battlecruiser in combat against a battleship was liable to come off worst: an enemy cruiser or even a cruiser squadron which was sighted by a battlecruiser had no chance at all. As Admiral Graf von Spee found out at the first battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914, when Winston Churchill and Fisher himself, who had been brought back as First Sea Lord at the start of World War one, sent HMS Invincible and her sister ship Inflexible to do exactly the job Fisher had originally created them to do, and they duly sent the Kaiser's top cruiser squadron  to the bottom.  

The lesson of this story: if you have a tool which is designed to do a particular job, it will usually do that job better than a different one. But when you are designing a tool or system, whether it be a combat unit or a computer setup, it's usually a good idea to think not just about what you currently plan to do with it but how in the future the people who are given that tool, system or unit are likely to want to use it. 


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