The Modern Cruiser – The evolution of the ships that fought the Second World War – Robert C. Stern

The Modern Cruiser – The evolution of the ships that fought the Second World War – Robert C. Stern

The cruiser was probably the most varied class of major warship, coming in a range of sizes from tiny scout cruisers not much larger than later destroyers up to massive armoured cruisers and battle cruisers that were at least as large as the battleships of their period (the last British battlecruiser, HMS Hood, was the largest warship in the world for twenty years!). This book focuses on the development of the cruisers that fought in the Second World War, a series of ships whose designs were a direct result of the Washington and London Naval Treaties. These imposed limits on ship size, the size of main guns, and on the number of ships that could be produced (either directly or by imposing tonnage limits).

I like the structure of this book. Each chapter looks at a particular period, and the cruisers produced in that period in response to the naval treaties in place at the time, and the response of other countries to the same limits. As a result we get much more focus on the ‘why’ of particular designs than is normally the case, and a much clearer picture of the impact of the treaties, and of rumours about other country’s designs. The ships are thus placed much more firmly in their context than is often the case.

One interesting point is that before the First World War, with no treaty limits to worry about, most countries ended up producing rather unimpressive larger cruisers. The armoured cruiser, and its successor the battlecruiser, tended to combine battleship guns with cruiser speed and significantly less armour than the battleships. As a result they were perfectly capable of defeating older cruisers, as demonstrated in the South Atlantic in 1914, when the modern German armoured cruisers easily sank older British examples, but were then just as outclassed by the battlecruisers sent to catch them. However the temptation was always there to use armoured cruisers or battlecruisers in a fleet battle, and the damage suffered by British armoured cruisers and battlecruisers at Jutland proved that they were simply too vulnerable to go up against proper battleships. At the same time they seem to have been so powerfully armed that their commanders couldn’t resist the temptation to get involved when they shouldn’t have!

The author is a little unfair when he looks at the British position during the various disarmament conferences. The British and Americans both went into these conferences hoping to get an agreement that suited their own national interests, while at the same time preventing their rivals from producing ships that would undermind those interests, so the Americans wanted a smaller number of heavier cruisers to protect their interests in the western Pacific, while the British wanted a larger number of smaller cruisers to protect their extensive maritime interests. Both sides had perfectly valid reasons for their position – the Americans didn’t want smaller cruisers, the British couldn’t built the smaller cruisers they wanted if everyone else was building bigger ones.

The one section that doesn’t really work is the second Test of Battle chapter, where the author admits that the examples he picked didn’t live up to his own expectations. The main clash examined here is the big cruiser battle at Savo Island off Guadalcanal was chosen in an attempt to explain why some classes of heavy cruisers survived while others didn’t, but the answer turns out to be nothing to do with the technical differences between the ships and everything to do with the amount of damage they suffered. While I can appreciate how difficult it would be to change plans after putting a great deal of effort into researching this battle, it would have greatly improved the chapter.

Other than that this is an excellent work, well structured and painting a good picture of how the naval treaties impacted on cruiser design, and on how the desires of each naval power impacted on the naval treaties.

1 – Cruisers in all Sizes and Shapes – A First Glimpse of the Future: 1897-1914
2 – The Test of Battle, Part 1: 1914-1916
3 – War Production and the Gold Standard – the Hawkins Class and their Contemporaries: 1914-1922
4 – The Washington Treaty and its Immediate Consequences: 1920-1922
5 – Treaty Cruisers – The First Generation: 1922-1926
6 – Treaty Cruisers – Trying to Stem the Tide: 1926-1930
7 – Treaty Cruisers – The ‘Big Babies’: 1930-1936
8 – Treaty Cruisers – The Last of the Type: 1934-1938
9 – True Babies – London’s Offspring and Other (Mostly) Small Cruisers: 1936-1941
10 – Mass Production: 1935-1944
11 – The Test of Battle, Part 2: 1939-1945
12 – The More Things Change…: 1946-

Author: Robert C. Stern
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 288
Publisher: Seafort
Year: 2020

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