Before the Battlecruiser - The Big Cruiser in the World’s Navies 1865-1910, Aidan Dodson

Before the Battlecruiser - The Big Cruiser in the World’s Navies 1865-1910, Aidan Dodson

This book looks at one of the more neglected type of warships, the ‘big cruiser’ of the late 19th and very early 20th century. When they were being built these were amongst the most glamorous of warships, often as large (if not larger) than contemporary warships, but faster, more lightly armoured and generally more lightly armed. They carried out a wide range of duties, with many service as flagships on the exotic foreign stations that gained much attention at the time (and appear to have been rather popular and exciting postings). However they were rendered obsolete by the appearance of the all-big-gun turbine powered battlecruiser, and thus played a largely secondary role in the First World War. This probably explains why they don’t get much attention, other than as the victims of more modern ships (although the most famous example of this, the battle of Coronel, actually involved armoured cruisers on both sides, the German ships were much more powerfully armed).

The ‘classic’ big cruiser eventually evolved into a fairly standard type. They were armed with three calibres of guns, carrying two, three or four of the largest guns in single turrets fore and aft, a larger number of a middle calibre guns along the sides (often in armoured casemates built into the side of the ship rather than small turrets) and a number of small calibre guns designed for use against torpedo boats. The last British examples of the type, the Minotaur class, carried four 9.2in guns in twin turrets fore and aft, ten 7.5in guns in five single turrets arranged on each side and sixteen 12-pounders (3in guns) scattered around the ship. The first battlecruisers, of the Invincible class, moved to an all-big gun armament of eight 12in guns (the same size as existing battleship), eliminated the middle calibre entirely, and were built with sixteen 4in guns for the anti-torpedo boat roll. In some ways the move to battleship calibre guns was as important as the shift to a single calibre of main guns.

When heavy cruiser construction began in the 1920s, the new ships didn’t really resemble either the ‘big cruiser’ or the battlecruiser. Instead they were limited by naval treaties, and emerged as rather lighter ships, more like enlarged versions of the ‘2nd class cruisers’ of the pre-war period. The first British cruisers, the Kent class, were larger but lighter and faster than the Minotaurs, and carried eight 8in and four 4in guns. In a stand-up fight they would probably have struggled against the best of the ‘big cruisers’, but were 10 knots faster.

The line of ships examined here thus came to a rather abrupt end with the appearance of the battlecruiser. The author suggests that the American Alaska class heavy cruisers of the Second World War owned more to the big cruiser than the classical battlecruiser, but other than that they had no real heirs.

The author has split the work into two parts, but it actually falls into three sections. The first section looks at the origins and development of this type of warship and its replacement by the battlecruiser. This covers the first five chapters, and includes the combat experiences of these ships when they were still considered to be state of the art. The second section looks at their use during the First World War, by which time no new big cruisers had been built for several years, and their slow removal from active service in the post-war period. The third section looks at each type of big cruiser, country by country and class by class, covering their technical specifications, layout and brief service histories. The development chapters are subdivided into country sections, which fits nicely with the way these ships evolved, with new classes often developed in response to developments elsewhere.

This is a interesting examination of a type of warship that I didn’t know much about, and certainly fills a gap in my library. These ships were some of the most powerful and advanced of their time, and their story is well worth telling, even if they had been superseded by the time most of them were put to the test of a major war.


Part I: The Rise and Fall of the Big Cruiser
1 - Genesis
2 - The Steam and Sail Era
3 - A new Beginning
Colour Section - Original Admiralty draughts
4 - The Golden Age
5 - The Final Generation
6 - Trial by Combat
7 - The Long Dying
8 - Retrospect

Part II: Technical and Career Data
9 - Argentia
10 - Austria-Hungary
11 - Chile
12 - China
13 - France
14 - Germany
15 - Greece
16 - Italy
17 - Japan
18 - Russia
19 - Spain
20 - Sweden
21 - United Kingdom
22 - United States

Author: Aidan Dodson
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 304
Publisher: Seaforth
Year: 2018

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