Lion Class battlecruisers

The Lion class battlecruisers were a significant improvement on the two previous classes of British battlecruisers (Invincible and Indefatigable classes). Like the contemporary Orion class battleships they carried 13.5in guns, which increased the weight of their broadside from 6,800lb in the 12in armed battlecruisers to 10,000lbs with 1,250lb shells and then to 11,200lbs with 1,400lb. Their belt armour was made 50% thick, going from 6in to 9in. At the same time their top speed was increased by 2kts, to 27kts.

Plans of Lion Class Battlecruisers
Plans of
Lion Class

The two Lion class battlecruisers fought at each of the main battles in the North Sea during the First World War, and both survived the war despite taking heavy damage on occasions. Despite this, they are now a much criticised design. Some of the problems with their design were clear at time. The Orion class ships carried their guns in five twin turrets, with a superfiring pair at each end and an amidships turret. On the Lion class ships this awkward amidships turret was retained, and the rear superfiring turret removed. This complicated the internal layout of the ship, and the central “Q” turret had a limited arc of fire.

The Lion class ships were originally designed with their gunnery control platforms immediately behind the fore funnel, causing problems with smoke and heat. The Lion was completed with this layout and had to be modified in 1912, while the Princess Royal was modified during construction.

The level of armour protection provided is the main target of criticism of these designs, but in most cases this involves a significant level of hindsight. In 1909, when the Lion was laid down, the battlecruiser concept had not yet been tested – indeed these two ships were designed and built as armoured cruisers, and only became known as battlecruisers late in 1912. Seen with this in mind, their 9in armour was a 50% improvement over the armour protection of previous armoured cruisers. The first real test of the battlecruisers did not come until 1914, and at first they appeared to have earned their keep, helping to defeat von Spee’s squadron at the Falklands and sinking two German cruisers at Heligoland Bight. Their reputation also survived the battle of Dogger Bank, where the Lion would take very heavy damage and survive. Only at Jutland would the British battlecruisers prove to be vulnerable.

HMS Lion from the left
HMS Lion from the left

Even there, the thin armour would seem to have been less of an issue than the very poor protection against flash and fire between the gun turrets and their magazines. While flash, where high temperature gases released by an explosion almost instantly passed down the connecting passageways, was blamed for the loss of the three battlecruisers at Jutland, the Lion was nearly lost when a fire threatened to spread to the magazine from the turrets, suggesting a lack of fireproof barriers. 

The 9in armour of the Lion class ships was adopted as a response to the design of the first four German battlecruisers, each of which was armed with 11.1in guns. This gamble would not pay off. In January 1912 the Germans laid down their first 12in battlecruiser, the Derfflinger. The Lion was completed soon afterwards, in May 1912, and for two years did indeed face 11.1in guns, but in November 1914 the Derfflinger was complete.

The Lion class ships never really gained any advantage from their 13.5in guns. Beatty’s battle cruiser force seems to have neglected gunnery practice, a fact acknowledged in May 1916 when the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron was sent to Scapa Flow to take part in “exercises”.  

Let down in battle by known weakness of battle cruiser force gunnery compared to Grand Fleet, acknowledged in 1916 by detaching the 3rd BCS to Scapa for practice

HMS Lion served as Admiral Beatty’s flagship from January 1913 until he was promoted to command the Grand Fleet. In that role she fought at Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland, taking heavy damage at the two later battles. At Dogger Bank a number of 11in and 12in shells pierced her armour

HMS Princess Royal served at the battles of Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank and Jutland, suffered serious damage at Jutland. She was one of the three battlecruisers detached from the Grand Fleet in 1914 during the hunt for Admiral von Spee’s squadron, reinforcing the North America and West Indies Squadron from mid November until the end of December.

Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed



5,610 nautical miles at 10kts

Armour – deck


 - belt


 - bulkheads


 - barbettes


 - turret faces


 - conning tower





Eight 13.5in Mk V guns
Sixteen 4in Mk VII guns
Four 3pdr guns
Two 21in submerged torpedo tubes

Crew complement






Ships in class

HMS Lion
HMS Princess Royal

British and German Battlecruisers - Their Development and Operations, Michele Cosentino & Ruggero Stanglini. A useful volume that covers the development, design and construction of British and German battlecruisers, their wartime deployments and both side's plans for the next generation of battlecruisers, of which only HMS Hood was ever completed. Having all of this material in a single volume gives a much better overview of the two Navy's battlecruisers, their advantages and flaws, and their performance in and out of battle. Concludes with a look at other nation's battlecruisers and battlecruiser designs [read full review]
cover cover cover

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (15 November 2007), Lion Class battlecruisers ,

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