WWI Cruiser Warfare

Minotaur-class cruiser (1906) first class armoured cruiser, 14,600 tons, 4-9.2in, 10-7.5in

Challenger-class cruiser (1902) second class cruiser, 5,880 tons, 11-6in

In 1914 the Royal Navy had twelve designated cruiser squadrons (although one had no ships in it), all of which were based around, or entirely comprised of, armoured or first-class cruisers. By 1918 there was only one armoured cruiser squadron left in commission (the 2nd) and light cruiser squadrons comprised the majority of the cruiser force, the older and bigger ships having been retired to depot or base ship status.

The interdiction of an enemy’s trade on the high seas had always been a major facet of naval warfare. Whether it be Drake and Raleigh, licensed privateers plundering Spanish ships for the Virgin Queen in the sixteenth century, or Joseph Barss in the Liverpool Packet capturing fifty American vessels in the war of 1812, the disruption of an opponent’s trade was seen as a legitimate (and profitable) activity.

For most of the nineteenth century the British considered that their most likely opponent at sea would be the French, and vice versa. However, the French also observed that they were deficient in heavy ships (battleships) and unlikely to make up the deficit for reasons of cost and resources.

Out of this strategic conundrum was developed a new concept known as the Jeune École (Young School). Its adherents advocated a two-pronged strategy: first, the use of small, powerfully equipped units to combat a larger battleship fleet, and secondly, commerce raiders capable of ending the trade of the rival nation. Without overtly saying so, the plan was clearly aimed at Britain, the largest navy in the world at the time and heavily reliant on trade for economic prosperity and survival.

The French developed and commissioned a new class of vessel specifically designed as raiding ships for this role, such as Dupuy de Lome. Laid down in 1888, but with typical French lassitude not commissioned until 1895 – by which time her originality had been lost – she was capable of 23 knots, and intended to raid enemy commerce ships during extended cruises. She was the first true armoured cruiser, superior to existing British protected cruisers, especially in her relatively thick steel armour. She could control the fighting range with her superior speed and her heavy armament of multiple-calibre quick-firing guns, all of which were mounted in gun turrets which contrasted with her putative opponents, where guns were mounted in lightly  protected casemates or pivot mounts.

Such strategic thinking exerted a considerable influence on the development of smaller navies during the century, particularly as they tried to compensate for weaknesses in battleships. These developments were not lost on German navy planners either, especially the aspect of a war on trade. So it was that both Britain and Germany approached the war with this strategic intent of a war on commerce in mind. For Britain, the navy had not just to bottle up the North Sea but also had to both prosecute actions against German trade worldwide and protect British merchant shipping from interdiction by enemy raiders. Neither country was self-sufficient in food or vital war materials, and both assumed that the other could be severely incapacitated by a successful cruiser warfare campaign.

Cruiser warfare was planned to be conducted under so-called `prize rules’. These, originally drafted at the Treaty of Paris in 1856 and subsequently reratified at the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, stated in essence that passenger ships could not be sunk, crews of merchant ships were to be placed in safety before their ships could be sunk (lifeboats were not considered a place of safety unless close to land) and only warships and merchant ships that were a threat to the attacker might be sunk without warning.

The Treaty of Paris also gave legal basis to the concept of blockade. The agreement, among other things, permitted `close’ but not `distant’ blockades. A belligerent was allowed to station ships near the three-mile limit to stop or inspect traffic with an enemy’s ports; it was not allowed simply to declare areas of the high seas comprising the approaches to the enemy’s coast to be off-limits. Britain ignored this treaty in 1913, when it determined that its strategy against Germany would henceforth be based on a distant blockade.

Goods not permitted to pass through a blockade were designated as contraband. The definition of contraband was established by the Declaration of London in 1909 (and which Britain, in fact, never ratified). Three definitions of contraband were established: one of `absolute contraband’, namely, articles which were clearly war materials; and another deemed `conditional contraband’, which comprised articles capable of use in either war or peace. This `conditional’ list included items such as ore, chemicals and rubber, all of which were becoming increasingly important to any modern war effort. The third category was a `free list’, containing articles that could never be deemed contraband.

Following the lead of the Hague Conference of 1907, the Declaration of London of 1909 considered food to be conditional contraband, subject to interception and capture only when intended for the use of the enemy’s military forces. Among the corollaries of this was that food not intended for military use could legitimately be transported to a neutral port, even if it ultimately found its way to the enemy’s territory. The starvation of an enemy’s populace was therefore meant to be outlawed as a weapon of war. The House of Lords had refused its consent to the declaration, which did not, consequently, ever come into full force.

Jacky Fisher thought that the submarine changed the rules and made the international agreements irrelevant. In 1912, by then retired from the post of First Sea Lord where he had done much to bring the submarine into service, he presented a paper to the Cabinet. Fisher developed the argument that submarines would find adherence to prize rules impossible for a simple practical reason: a submarine could not capture a merchant ship, for it would have no spare manpower to deliver the prize to a neutral port; neither could it take survivors or prisoners, for lack of space: `. there is nothing a submarine can do except sink her capture’. If a merchant ship were armed, as was permitted by a conference in London in 1912, then a submarine was surely able to view her as a potential attacker and destroy the ship. Further, he asked, `What if the Germans were to use submarines against commerce without restriction?’

His view did not gain favour. Winston Churchill, supported by senior naval opinion, said it was inconceivable that `this would ever be done by a civilised power’. In this he was to be much mistaken.

To prosecute trade warfare, both the British and German navies thought that they would need cruisers to roam the seas, being the successor ship to the frigates of Nelson. These were long-range ships, designed to operate for considerable periods away from base and to defend themselves against similar antagonists, whilst being speedy enough to catch and destroy any prey. At the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had 108 cruisers, but at least half of them were obsolete and many had been decommissioned to the Third Fleet. Many more were unsuited to the job now required. In reality, only a few dozen were really appropriate for the task. In part this was because British cruiser design had gone down a dead end.

In 1888 a three-class system had been introduced, originally based largely on size, and influenced by the developments of the Jeune École. Armoured and first-class cruisers (many of which were still in use in 1914) were generally over 10,000 tons, and most carried two or more 9.2in guns and a large number of 6in or 7.5in guns. These were generally called `armoured cruisers’, but by 1914 were both unsatisfactory and obsolete as commerce raiders or for trade protection duties. Their size varied: the largest were as large and expensive as battleships, and often required a larger or similar size of crew owing to their need for more boilers (to give both speed and range) than a battleship, and at full speed they generally needed more stokers. Their need for considerable quantities of both men and coal made them less than useful in distant deployments. The surviving second- and third-class cruisers were distinguished mainly by their largest guns. The second-class cruisers generally all carried at least two 6in guns. The third-class cruisers carried 4in guns and were smaller ships.

The second-class cruiser went out of fashion after the Highflyer class of 1899-1900, and no new designs appeared until the Bristol class of 1909- 1910. These ships saw the older triple expansion engines replaced by turbines and coal power substituted by a mix of coal and oil. They were known as `light cruisers’. While the Bristol- and Weymouth-class cruisers only carried deck armour, the Chatham-class cruisers of 1911-1916 carried a belt of armour on the waterline. Light cruisers were excellent ships and ideal for commerce interdiction and protection. But they were also in great demand to serve with the Grand Fleet, acting as `the eyes of the fleet’, and were in short supply for other duties as a result.

There were also `scout-class’ cruisers, very lightly built and of short range, carrying even smaller guns than the third-class cruisers. They were sometimes used as `destroyer leaders’, but were eventually superseded by the increasingly seaworthy destroyers, whose faster speed made them much better and rather less expensive.

Jacky Fisher inherited much of this confused thinking when he became First Sea Lord in 1904. At that point there were fifteen classes of first-class cruisers including the Shannon class, the last Royal Navy ironclads to be built, which had a propeller which could be hoisted out of the water to reduce drag when under sail, and ten other classes of second-class vessels.

What is more, he knew that the Germans planned to use their fast passenger liners such as Wilhelm der Grosse and Kaiser Wilhelm – capable of 21 and 23 knots respectively – as 6in-gunned trade interdiction cruisers. At these speeds no British cruiser could catch them.

His response was twofold. First, to scrap 154 cruisers, sloops and other vessels `too weak to fight, too slow to run away’; and secondly, to introduce the super-cruiser, originally known as a Large Armoured Cruiser (LAC) which would combine high speed with heavy gun armament. These were the Invincible-class ships, 25.5 knots and eight 12in guns, launched in 1907. They made all other cruisers obsolete. The LACs were predators, able to outrun anything which had heavier arms and outshoot anything which could match their speeds. They were intended to work in pairs attached to a light cruiser squadron, hunting down enemy cruisers and protecting British trade. It was not until 1913 that they became regarded as the fast arm of the Grand Fleet (under Beatty’s urging) and were thus thrust into the line with the battleships – a role for which neither their design or armour protection equipped them – and were now commonly called `battlecruisers’. And so when war came, they were not allocated to the duty intended (except once at the battle of the Falkland Islands) and the paucity of the Royal Navy’s cruiser resource was once more thrown into sharp focus.

The consequence of this rather scattergun approach to cruiser design was that, despite the apparent numerical strength of the British cruiser force, the reality was a shortage of useful vessels and the most versatile type – the light cruiser – was in demand everywhere.

In order to make up the deficit, the Admiralty hit upon the idea of arming large passenger liners. These had the advantage of being generally speedy, and good sea boats able to stay on station for long periods. Their rather obvious disadvantage was that they were unarmoured, contained a lot of flammable material and presented a huge profile as a target to an enemy (Otranto, for example, attached to the 4th Cruiser Squadron on the outbreak of war, was nicknamed `The Floating Haystack’). Designated Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMCs) and armed with old and surplus 4.7in and 6in guns, they were pressed into service to fill the gap. Fisher was a fan, stating that `large mercantile vessels are the best scouts’, but he was in the minority.

Passenger liners were requisitioned by the Royal Navy for conversion at the beginning of the war. Initially, it was intended to include the very largest ocean liners, such as Aquitania and Mauretania, but it was found that their huge size precluded them from practical employment. The logistics involved in their heavy fuel consumption and in providing suitable ports for refuelling and resupplying was very limiting. Additionally, their massive silhouettes made them easily recognisable from long distances. Mauretania, although converted and armed, was never commissioned as an AMC, while Aquitania was commissioned for two weeks, which ended after she collided with the steamer Canadian in August.

The German navy, always at a quantitative disadvantage versus Britain, had hit upon the idea of arming passenger liners as far back as 1895. They had developed elaborate plans to put a large number of such ships into service, calling them Hilfskreuzer. However, the outbreak of war had caught the Kaiserliche Marine on the back foot and they had only three large passenger liners in the North Atlantic. Coupled with Vice Admiral Graf von Spee’s armoured cruiser force at Tsingtau and the light cruisers Karlsruhe in the Caribbean and Königsberg in German East Africa, these ships formed the entirety of the German commerce-raiding force at the commencement of hostilities (although they did have twenty-one submarines in home waters). It was to prove impossible for them to add to these ships in the early months of war, as the British distant blockade denied them access to the high seas and their passenger liners, well known before the war, were impossible to disguise as anything other than themselves.

The Royal Navy, in fact, credited the German programme with more success than it achieved and was convinced that, at the outbreak of war, every American Atlantic port would hold a German Hilfskreuzer ready to mount its guns and prey on British trade. Admirals Cradock and Stoddart, with the 4th and 5th Cruiser Squadrons respectively, were deployed off the eastern coast of the Americas and the mid-Atlantic to counter this perceived threat.

And so both sides went to war on each other’s vital trades with a mixture of the obsolete and obsolescent, the mongrel and the unlikely. This was cruiser warfare in 1914.

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