Minotaur shows wartime modifications as she is seen arriving in Portsmouth on 15 December 1918. She had just formed part of the escort for the High Seas Fleet as it surrendered on 21 November. Her bridgework has been extended and her searchlights regrouped. By April 1918 she, Achilles, Cochrane, and Duke of Edinburgh each had a single 3in anti-aircraft gun. She also had two 3pdrs on her shelter decks. Shannon had no 3in gun, but she did have two 6pdr AA guns on her shelter decks. Monmouth class cruisers (but not the Devonshires) generally had two 3pdr AA guns on their upper decks (Cornwall had three, but Berwick had hers removed). The surviving Drakes had no such guns, but Bacchante and Euryalus each had two 3pdrs on their upper decks.
Shannon shows standard wartime modification to the largest armoured cruisers. Her foremast was reinforced by tripod legs to carry a director for her 9.2in guns (the cylinder atop the new platform just below her spotting top). Her fore topmast was taken down to make it difficult to judge her course from a distance (her dazzle camouflage helped). All the armoured cruisers of this last generation which survived Jutland were given tripod legs to support a main battery director, but (see below) the director platform remained empty for some time.
Director design was authorized in February 1915, and orders placed in April/August 1916, but production and installation were deferred in view of the higher priority of light cruiser installation. Thus the official British naval fire control history gives dates of completion of director installation as: Minotaur (August 1918), Shannon (October 1918), Achilles (October 1918), Cochrane (November 1918), Duke of Edinburgh (October 1918). Confusingly, according to the postwar Admiralty publication describing progress in gunnery 1914-18, two of the five big armoured cruisers received director control for their main batteries in 1916, one in 1917, and two in 1918 (the ships are not specified). By the end of the First World War, three armoured cruisers had secondary battery directors: two were fitted in 1916, and one in 1917. Presumably these were the programmed dates, not the actual ones, and presumably, too, they reflect dates of refits during which tripod legs were fitted to the foremast.
Headlong change is difficult to handle. The steel cruisers had very durable hulls, but they were obsolete long before they wore out. Yet, given the growth of foreign cruiser forces, the Royal Navy needed to maintain its numbers. In 1902, with few steel cruisers yet disposed of, the Royal Navy had 163 cruisers built, building, or authorized. Against that France had 65, Russia 32, and Germany 38. The Royal Navy needed the numbers to fill out the stations envisaged in the focal area strategy, and also to support its main fleets. By the turn of the twentieth century, small affordable cruisers no longer seemed adequate to face potential foreign commerce raiders. What could the Royal Navy do?
There were really only two possibilities. One was to make the most of the large fleet of existing hulls, modernizing to keep them viable. The other was some radical change in the strategy of trade protection.
Modernization could not work. The Orlandos were a case in point. When modernization was proposed in October 1902, it was hardly enough that they were perfectly good seaboats. They were ‘a mass of wood work’, with little steel under their wooden decks. Their 6in guns were close together on the upper deck, protected only by 1¼in shields. One shell bursting among them would put several out of action. A shell bursting on the deck underneath would cause greater damage to guns and crews. Nor were the ships well protected against torpedo attack, as their 6pdrs were mostly on the main deck, where control was nearly impossible. They were much too slow, good for only 16.5 to 16.8kts under natural draught on full-power trials, and 13.5 to 14kts on a sustained basis (3/5th power). This was aside from their notorious overweight, which submerged their belts and left them effectively unprotected. First Naval Lord Admiral Walter Kerr decided to repair the Orlandos as they came in for refit, and to retain them for emergency service only.
Admiral Sir John Fisher adopted the second alternative. In October 1904 he was appointed First Sea Lord (a title he much preferred to First Naval Lord), with a specific mandate for radical change to cure the Royal Navy’s persistent and worsening financial problem. That was why he spent so much of his time pressing for ‘the scheme, the scheme, nothing but the scheme’, by which he meant an integrated approach to modernization – and to cost control. Cost control included discarding the mass of cruisers which, like Orlando, were worthless as fighting ships. Three of the Orlandos were sold in 1905, one in 1906, and three in 1907. With them went the Medeas and many older cruisers. Others became depot ships.
Fisher initially accepted the focal area concept of trade protection, but he presumably knew that he would not long have the numbers it demanded. In the Mediterranean he had developed a new kind of naval warfare. There he faced the French and Russian fleets. He had to deal with them separately before they could unite. He could not maintain separate adequate fleets off both Toulon and the entrance to the Turkish straits. Without radio, cruisers at both places could not alert a British fleet more centrally located. Fisher realized that the telegraph line the French used to communicate with the Russian Black Sea Fleet passed through Malta. He arranged to intercept and decode the messages. He could predict the movements of the two fleets, and he could hope to intercept them at sea – not out of the usual blockading position – before they merged. Scouting was vital: Fisher’s Mediterranean Fleet had to spot its quarry as early as possible. Among other things, Fisher’s new concept of intelligence-based operations demanded the greatest possible fleet speed, because information was intermittent and of fleeting accuracy. Fisher was proud that he had led the engineers of his fleet to achieve a reliable 18kts, where most of the world’s fleets, whatever their rated speeds, were only good for about 14kts.
Fisher took with him to the Admiralty the idea that intelligence, properly handled, could become the basis for naval operations. That included dealing with raiders. To the extent the Admiralty kept track of merchant ship sailings and arrivals (for example through local British consuls), it could detect patterns of raider operation in merchant ship sinkings (non-arrivals). Merchant ships equipped with radio, which was just coming into service, could report they were under attack. Enemy raiders could be tracked, albeit only approximately. Instead of placing large cruisers everywhere a raider might go, fast cruisers in the right places could be directed towards the expected positions of the raiders. Fisher wrote about large fast cruisers directed centrally by the Admiralty, which would collect all the intelligence, hounding the enemy’s cruisers to their deaths.
Of course there were other reasons to seek higher speed in large cruisers, and the idea that such ships could work with a battle fleet had not died at all. The big change that Fisher instituted was to abandon building anything but the largest possible cruisers, which became the battlecruisers. At the outset, in 1905-6, Fisher seems to have envisaged a merger of the battleship and the big armoured cruiser. He ordered three such ships – and only one new-type battleship, HMS Dreadnought. In 1905 the big armoured cruisers still seemed to have battleship protection. The Royal Navy was leading the world in what was then considered long-range fire control, and as ranges opened 6in Krupp Cemented armour still seemed adequate. The situation was changing, however. Improving capped shells raised the minimum standard of true battleship armour. Fisher was compelled to accept a program with many more battleships than big armoured cruisers.
Intelligence-based operation made possible the thin blockade the Royal Navy operated during the First World War, initially with large cruisers and then (using the 10th Cruiser Squadron) with converted liners. Intelligence as to which ships were carrying which cargo where translated into directing the cruisers to meet specific merchant ships far out to sea, mainly north of Scotland (where the liners’ seakeeping and speed really mattered).
Fisher was responsible for great efforts to extend gun range through improved fire control. In 1904 the Channel and Mediterranean Fleets both experimented with improved techniques intended to increase effective range to 4000yds. Within a few years the fleet was doing much better; by about 1910 the expected battle range was 8000yds. About that time the armoured cruisers were given prominent fire control tops forward and aft, the forward top being higher than the after (which was generally well below the cross-trees). The Black Princes and their successors were unusual in that their after fire control tops were as high as their forward ones. Powerful and Terrible and the Diadems had similar tops. In at least some cases ships had range repeating drums on these tops. They were removed about 1914.
The big cruisers envisaged as part of the battle fleet stayed in the fleet. They had the same armour as first-generation battlecruisers, and they were still faster than most battleships. They were still useful scouts. In August 1914 the Grand Fleet included one battlecruiser squadron and three cruiser squadrons, all of them consisting of 23-knot armoured cruisers. Two consisted of big cruisers with heavy belts, the other (3rd Cruiser Squadron) of ‘Counties’. Each squadron consisted of four cruisers. The rest of the cruisers were dispersed around the world, including armoured cruiser squadrons in the Mediterranean and in China. In January 1916 the Grand Fleet included four squadrons of such ships (four in 1st CS, three each in 2nd, 3rd, and 7th. Again, that made sense, because these ships were as well protected as the early battlecruisers (though they had nothing like as much firepower). Black Prince and Defence were blown up at Jutland, but severe damage to Warrior left her flooding, not exploding (her captain thought that in calmer seas he could have made it home). After Jutland, although some big armoured cruisers were nominally part of the Grand Fleet, they were used only on detached duties.
The great wartime surprise was underwater warfare. All the tactical experience gained in exercises involved targets that could be seen. Any ship which could not be seen, apart from a small torpedo boat, could not see or attack. The pre-war Royal Navy found that poor visibility made it difficult or impossible to block the North Sea as completely as it might like, but radio intelligence soon reduced that problem. Submarines and mines were an entirely different proposition. That was demonstrated when U 9 sank three armoured cruisers in a few minutes in the Channel: Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy. They were patrolling to protect the ‘steam bridge’ which now brought British troops to France rather than the other way around. Among other things, their sinking demonstrated that, however well White’s coal belt might protect against shellfire, it was irrelevant against torpedoes – which had been a recognized threat (albeit not from submarines) for many years.
That Drake did not sink immediately after having been torpedoed (2 October 1917) suggests that the problem was not simply survivability but the absence of survivable auxiliary power: if the boilers were put out of action, the ship could not maintain pumps (Drake hoisted a ‘not under control’ signal after being torpedoed). King Alfred managed to beach after being torpedoed or mined in Lough Swilly on 11 April 1918.
War experience showed that White’s two-storey casemates had been a mistake; officers complaining that the lower guns were too close to the water had been right. War operation required constant high-speed steaming and frequent alterations of course (for example to zig-zag), which poured water into the lower casemates in anything but the calmest weather.
The eight main deck guns of the Diadem class were removed, two being mounted on each side of the upper deck in spray shields, the others being surrendered.
In the Drakes, the three forward main deck guns were moved to the upper deck in spray shields, the after pair remaining. Four 12pdrs were landed, leaving eight mounted on the shelter decks and the tops of the casemates.
All three lower deck casemate guns on each side in the Monmouths were moved to the upper deck and fitted with spray shields, their lower-deck ports being plated up. They were mounted between the two double casemates. That displaced six 12pdrs, which were mounted on the forward casemates and the after shelter deck. According to the official history, the ships’ seakeeping was much improved. The first ship refitted was HMS Lancaster (1915).
The Devonshires had only two lower-deck guns on each side, which were mounted in spray shields on the upper deck abaft the 7.5in turret on each side. That displaced 3pdrs, which were landed. According to the official history, this ‘greatly increased the utility of these cruisers in the work which they had to perform during the war’, presumably meaning open-ocean patrol.
According to the post-war official history, it had always been recognized that the 6in guns of the Black Prince class armoured cruisers were ‘quite useless in anything but the calmest weather’. These were the first ships to have their 6in guns moved. Three were mounted on each side of the upper deck between the 9.2in turrets, and one on each side of the forecastle; the other two were landed. Even in their new positions, the exposed 6in guns were considered of little value due to the ships’ low freeboard.
Other wartime changes included rearrangement of searchlights (some were moved to the foremast under the fire control top) and reductions of topmasts – which had been raised to improve radio performance, but made ships visible at excessive ranges. After Jutland the surviving ships of the final armoured cruiser generation were given tripod foremasts supporting directors.
Although the mass of cruisers built during the previous decade were not discarded, they were clearly being reduced to secondary roles. Several Apollo class cruisers were modified for a new role, as cruiser minelayers. The success of offensive minelaying, by both sides, had been a major surprise of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. It led the Royal Navy to resume work on offensive (contact) mines, which it was then in process of abandoning. These weapons would have to be delivered by fast ships capable of penetrating waters under enemy observation. Plans called for the capacity to lay 4000 mines, 500 per ship.
The Apollo class cruiser Iphigenia was the first converted. Her armament was landed and two mine rails laid along her decks. Seven others followed. The ships were disarmed on the ground that they would not revert to their original cruiser role during their remaining service life, and that they would be protected by cruisers while laying mines. By May 1908 questions were being asked about their need for guns in the minelaying role. DNC offered to provide two 4.7in guns on the forecastle. Controller was unimpressed. He doubted that a pair of guns forward would do much good, particularly if the ships were fleeing enemy forces. There was no point in remounting the ships’ former 6in battery, but he did think it might be wise to mount some light QF guns to defend against an enemy’s inshore squadron of light torpedo boats, perhaps using 6pdrs removed from destroyers (which were then being rearmed with heavier guns). He observed that there was no point in testing mines to see whether they would explode if hit by gunfire: if a minelayer were pursued before she could lay her mines, she should simply drop them in the path of the enemy ships. The last two ships were given the 6pdrs, but this armament was soon condemned as insufficient, Vice Admiral Home Fleet recommending four 4.7in or 4in. In 1911 the favoured armament was two 4in on the forecastle and two more on the poop, but on 7 March 1911 First Sea Lord decided against taking any action.
The issue did not die. DNO proposed one 4.7in on the forecastle (on the centreline, where the single 6in gun had been mounted) and two more on the poop. Controller liked the idea; later the ships were assigned four 4.7in each.
By April 1915 all the Edgar class cruisers had surrendered their 9.2in guns to M 15 class monitors. Four were modified for bombardment duty: Edgar, Endymion, Grafton, and Theseus. Work began in December 1914, the first two being completed the next March (however, the April 1915 armament list shows only Theseus rearmed). They were given two single 6in at the ends where the 9.2in guns had been mounted, and they retained their earlier broadside battery of ten 6in (in April 1918 Edgar and Grafton each had only one centreline 6in). They were given monitor-style bulges (the only cruisers thus modified), timber stiffening, and prominent bow gallows for paravanes. They lost 4kts but seakeeping and handling were reportedly not changed. Thus modified, Grafton survived a torpedo on 11 June 1917, and Edgar survived an April 1918 hit. All four served in the Dardanelles and then in the Mediterranean.
Vindictive (the only one of her class to serve as a cruiser during the First World War) was an entirely different kind of assault ship, modified specially for the Zeebrugge raid (23 April 1918) and then scuttled at Ostend (10 May 1918). She was given a false upper deck, mortars, and other close-range weapons. She did not apparently retain her original 6in guns. Photos of her badly damaged after the Zeebrugge attack show a large fighting top added to her foremast, and her bridge was protected by splinter mattresses. Another tower was erected aft, the mainmast having been removed.