Battlecruisers were large warships in the first half of the 20th century that were first introduced by the British Royal Navy. The battlecruiser was developed as the successor to the armoured cruisers, but their evolution was more closely linked to that of the dreadnought battleships. The first such ship, the Invincible, was originally designated a "dreadnought cruiser".
Battlecruisers shared the very large main armament of battleships, and were generally as large and costly as battleships of the same generation. They traded off armour or firepower for higher speed, which was made possible by their powerful engines and slender hulls. The earliest battlecruisers carried significantly less armour than the equivalent battleship, meaning they were not intended to stand up against the guns they themselves carried.
The relationship between the battlecruiser to the battleship was never entirely clear cut. The invention of the battlecruiser in the Royal Navy was driven by Admiral Jackie Fisher, who envisaged them as a revolutionary new type of armoured cruiser which could replace the battleship as Britain's principal weapon at sea. Fisher's idea centred on battlecruisers operating for imperial defence, vectored in by a global information grid and central plotting in the Admiralty to destroy weaker vessels that would prey on merchant shipping in international waters, while engaging more powerful warships with accurate gunnery at greater ranges.
However, the battleship continued to dominate naval warfare through the First World War, and the battlecruiser was principally used to provide a fast and hard-hitting addition to a battleship fleet. Battlecruisers formed part of the navies of Britain, Germany and Japan in WWI and took part in many naval battles between Britain and Germany, including the Battle of Jutland. By the end of the war, there were very few differences between the design of a battlecruiser and that of a fast battleship. Britain, Japan and the United States all designed battlecruisers after the end of World War I which were as heavily armoured as a battleship, though faster and not so heavily armed. The Washington Naval Treaty, which limited capital ship construction from 1922 onwards, treated battleships and battlecruisers identically. The new generation of battlecruisers planned was scrapped under the terms of the treaty.
From the 1930s, only the Royal Navy continued to use 'battlecruiser' as a classification for warships . Nevertheless, the fast, light capital ships developed by Germany and France of the Scharnhorst and Dunkerque classes were and are often referred to as battlecruisers. These ships were armoured as well as many battleships but carried a lighter calibre of armament.
World War II saw battlecruisers in action again. However, no battlecruisers were begun during the war; battleship construction was cut back to provide resources for extra aircraft and aircraft carriers. Since the start of World War II, no battlecruisers have been built. However, a number of ships have been described thereafter as battlecruisers.
The battlecruiser was a dramatic evolution of the armoured cruiser and 'second-class battleship' designs of the 1890s, principally due to the British Admiral Jackie Fisher. At the turn of the century, the modern armoured cruiser was a fast and powerful vessel which was capable of threatening trade routes worldwide, or of working closely with a battleship fleet. The Royal Navy, and Fisher in particular, was concerned with the damage armoured cruisers (particularly those of the French Navy) might inflict on British trade worldwide in the event of war. Fisher envisaged British armoured cruisers becoming faster and more heavily-armed to deal with this threat. He was also very fond of the "second-class battleship" HMS Renown, a lighter, faster battleship. As early as 1901, there is confusion in Fisher's writing about whether he saw the battleship or the cruiser as the model for future developments.
In the period 1902-1904 the mainstream of British naval thinking was clearly in favour of heavily-armoured battleships, rather than the fast ships which Fisher favoured. However, a shift away from the mixed-calibre armament of the 1890s pre-dreadnought to an "all-big-gun" design was already on the cards. Preliminary designs circulated for battleships with all 12-inch or all 10-inch guns and armoured cruisers with all 9.2-inch guns.
In summer 1904, after Fisher's appointment as First Sea Lord, the decision was taken to use 12-inch guns for the next generation of battleships, because of their superior performance at long range. The armament of the next armoured cruiser was much more controversial. The size and cost of the next generation of armoured cruisers meant that it was very desirable that they should be able to play a role in a battleship action, and this meant 12-inch guns. This was the same logic which had led the Japanese to arm their latest cruisers with two 12-inch guns as their main armament. However, it is also quite possible that Fisher pushed for the cruiser to have the same armament as the battleship because he held out hope that the cruiser design would be the replacement for the battleship. The decision to give the next generation of armoured cruisers an 'all-big-gun' armament was the crucial moment in the development of the battlecruiser. If the ships had been armed with only 10-inch or 9.2-inch guns, they would merely have been better armoured cruisers.
The radical changes to shipbuilding policy which Fisher was making across the board meant that he appointed a Committee on Designs in December 1904. While the stated purpose of the Committee was to investigate and report on the requirements of future ships, the key decisions had already been taken by Fisher and his associates.. The terms of reference for the Committee were for a battleship capable of 21 knots with 12-inch guns and no intermediate calibres, capable of operating from existing docks; and a cruiser capable of 25.5 knots, also with 12inch guns and no intermediate armament, armoured like HMS Minotaur, the most recent armoured cruiser, and also capable or working from the existing docks. The battleship became the revolutionary battleship HMS Dreadnought, and the cruiser became the three ships of the Invincible class.
The three Invincibles were Inflexible, Invincible and Indomitable. Their construction was begun in 1906 and completed in 1908, delayed perhaps to allow their designs to learn from any problems with Dreadnought. The ships fulfilled the design requirement quite closely. The Invincibles had a displacement similar to that of the Dreadnought but twice the power to give a speed of . They had eight guns, compared to ten on Dreadnought. There was armour 6 or 7 inches (150 to 180 mm) thick along the side of the hull and over the gunhouses, whereas Dreadnought's armour was 11 inches (280 to 300 mm) at its thickest. The class had a very marked increase in speed, displacement and firepower compared to the most recent armoured cruisers, but no more armour.
The Invincibles were to have the same role as the armoured cruisers they succeeded, but the new ships were expected to be more effective all-round. Specifically their roles were:
Confusion about how to refer to these new battleship-size armoured cruisers set in almost immediately. Even in late 1905, before work was begun on the Invincibles, a Royal Navy memorandum refers to "large armoured ships" meaning both battleships and large cruisers. In October 1906, the Admiralty began to classify all post-Dreadnought battleships and armoured cruisers as "capital ships", while Fisher used the term "dreadnought" to refer either to his new battleships or the battleships and armoured cruisers together. At the same time, the Invincible class themselves were referred to as "cruiser-battleship", "dreadnought cruiser"; the term "battlecruiser" was first used by Fisher in 1908. Finally, in November 1911, Admiralty Weekly Order No. 351 laid down the decision that "All cruisers of the Invincible and later type are, for the future, to be described and classified as battlecruisers in order to distinguish them from armoured cruisers of the older type.
In the period from the launching of the Invincibles to just after the outbreak of the First World War, the battlecruiser played a junior role in the developing dreadnought arms race. The battlecruiser was never wholeheartedly adopted as the key weapon in British imperial defence, as Fisher had perhaps wished.
Britain's strategic circumstances had changed markedly between the conception of the battlecruiser and the commissioning of the first ships. While the prospective enemy for Britain had previously been a Franco-Russian alliance with many armoured cruisers, it was now clearly Germany. Diplomatically, Britain had entered the Entente cordiale in 1904 and the Anglo-Russian Entente. Furthermore neither France nor Russia posed a particular naval threat; the Russian navy had largely been sunk or captured in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, while the French were in no hurry to adopt the new dreadnought battleship technology. Britain also boasted very cordial relations with two of the significant new naval powers; Japan (bolstered by the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, signed in 1902 and renewed in 1905), and the USA.
These changed strategic circumstances, and the great success of the Dreadnought, ensured that she rather than the Invincible became the new model capital ship. Nevertheless, battlecruiser construction played a major part in the renewed naval arms-race sparked by the Dreadnought.
For the first few years after their completion, the Invincibles entirely fulfilled Fisher's vision of being able to sink any ship fast enough to catch them, and run from any ship capable of sinking them. An Invincible would also in many circumstances, be able to take on an enemy pre-dreadnought battleship. The Invincibles were so far ahead of any enemy armoured cruiser that it was difficult to justify building more or bigger cruisers. This lead was extended by the surprise both Dreadnought and Invincible produced, which prompted most other navies to delay their building programmes while radically revising their designs. This was particularly true for cruisers, because the details of the Invincible class were kept secret for longer; this meant that the next German armoured cruiser, Blücher was armed with only 8.2-inch guns, and was obsolete before she was even launched.
The Royal Navy's early superiority in capital ships led to the rejection of a design of 1905-6 which would essentially have fused the battlecruiser and battleship concepts. The 'X4' design combined the full armour and armament of Dreadnought with the 25-knot speed of Invincible. However, the additional cost could not be justified given the existing British lead and the new Liberal government's need for economy; the slower and cheaper Bellerophon, a relatively close copy of Dreadnought, was adopted instead.
However, by 1911 Germany had built battlecruisers of her own, and the superiority of the British ships could no longer be assured. Von der Tann, begun in 1908 and completed in 1910, carried eight 11.1-inch guns but with 11.1-inch (280mm) armour was far better protected than the Invincibles. The two Moltkes were quite similar but carried ten 11.1-inch guns of an improved design. The German Navy did not share Fisher's view of what a battlecruiser should be; however, it was entitled to build armoured cruisers under the terms of the Navy Laws, and used this authority to match or better the British battlecruisers.
The next British battlecruisers were three of the Indefatigable class. These ships were slightly improved Invincibles, which corrected some flaws in the earlier ships but were built to fundamentally the same specification. The British were hampered on this occasion by the secrecy surrounding German battlecruiser construction and particularly about the heavy armour of Von der Tann. Political pressure to reduce costs also played a role in the selection of the Indefatigable design, and this class is widely seen as a mistake.
The next generation of British battlecruisers were markedly more powerful. By 1909-10 the political climate had changed; the desire for cost-cutting was now outweighed by a sense of national crisis about rivalry with Germany. A brief political crisis an naval panic resulted in the approval of a total of eight capital ships in 1909-10. Fisher pressed for all of them to be battlecruisers, but was unable to force his way, and had to settle for six battleships as well as two battlecruisers of the Lion class. These carried eight 13.5-inch guns; the standard armament of the British "super-dreadnought" battleships of the same period was ten 13.5-inch. Speed increased, to 27 knots. Lion also carried better armour than previous British battleships, with 9 inches on the armour belt and barbettes; nevertheless, protection was not as good as in German designs. The two Lions were followed by the very similar Queen Mary
In contrast to the British focus on increasing speed and firepower, Germany further improved the armour and staying power of their next battlecruiser. Seydlitz, designed in 1909 and finished in 1913, was a modified Moltke; speed increased by one knot to 26.5 knots, while armour was up to 12 inches thick, equivalent for the Helgoland class battleships of just one or two years earlier. Seydlitz was Germayn's last battlecruiser to be completed before World War I..
The next step in the battlecruiser design came from Japan. The Imperial Japanese Navy had been planning the Kongō class ships from 1909. The Japanese navy was determined that, since the Japanese economy could support relatively few ships, each ship would be more powerful than its likely competitors. Initially the class was planned with the Invincibles as the benchmark. However, on learning of the British plans for Lion, and the likelihood that new U.S. Navy battleships would be armed with 14-inch guns, the Japanese decided to radically revise their plans and go one better. A new plan was drawn up, carrying eight 14-inch guns, and capable of 27.5 knots, thus marginally having the edge over the British Lions in speed and firepower. The heavy guns were also better-positioned, being superfiring both fore and aft with no turret amidships. The armour scheme was also marginally improved over the Lions with 9 inches of armour on the turrets and 8 inches on the barbettes. The first ship in the class was built in Britain, and a further three constructed in Japan.
The next British battlecruiser, Tiger, was broadly on the model of Lion but also influenced by the design of the Japanese ships. She retained the eight 13.5-inch guns of her predecessors, though these were positioned for better fields of fire. She was faster (making 29 knots on trials), and carried a heavier secondary armament. Tiger was also more heavily-armoured on the whole; while the maximum thickness of armour was the same at 9 inches, the height of the main armour belt was increased.
1912 saw work begin on three more German battlecruisers of the Derfflinger class, the first German battlecruisers to mount 12-inch guns. These ships, like the Tiger and the Kongō, had their guns arranged in superfiring turrets for greater efficiency. Their armour and speed was similar to the previous Seydlitz class.
In 1913, the Russian Empire also began the construction of the four-ship Borodino class, which were designed for service in the Baltic Sea. These ships were designed to carry twelve 14-inch guns, with armour up to 12 inches thick, and a speed of 26.6 knots. The heavy armour and relatively slow speed of these ships makes them more similar to German designs than to British ships; however, construction of the Borodinos was halted by the First World War and all were scrapped during the Russian Revolution.
By 1914, only Britain, Germany and Japan had battlecruisers, with Russia building some. On several occasions, it had already been possible to point to moments where the concepts of battlecruiser and battleship might be seen in the same vessel. This was true of the 1906 'X4' design, and the Russian Borodinos. However, it was even more true of the most recent British battleship design. The Queen Elizabeth class was designed to make 25 knots, as much as the first battlecruisers had achieved, while carrying eight 15-inch guns and armour up to 15 inches thick.. The Queen Elizabeths were the first true fast battleships, and could have brought the end of the development of the battlecruiser as an independent line. It was principally due to the influence of Jacky Fisher that the battlecruiser continued.
For most of the combatants, capital ship construction was very limited during the War. Germany finished the Derfflinger class and began work on the Mackensen class. The Mackensens were a development of the Derfflinger class, with 14-inch guns and a broadly similar armour scheme, deigned for 27 knots.
In Britain, Jackie Fisher returned to the office of First Sea Lord in October 1914. His enthusiasm for big, fast ships was unabated, and he set design staff to producing a design for a battlecruiser with 15-inch guns. Because Fisher expected the next German battlecruiser to steam at 28 knots, he required the new British design to be capable of 32 knots. He planned to convert two Royal Sovereign class battleships, which were at an early stage of construction and on which work had been suspended because it was felt that the war would be over before the ships were finished. Fisher finally received approval for this project on 28 December 1914 and they became the Renown class. With six 15-inch guns but only 6-inch armour they were a further step forward from Tiger in firepower and speed but were even less well-protected.
At the same time, Fisher resorted to subterfuge to obtain another three fast, lightly-armoured ships which could make use of the several spare 15-inch gun turrets left over from battleship construction. These ships were essentially light battlecruisers, and Fisher can occasionally be found referring to them as such, but were officially classified as "large light cruisers". This unusual designation was required because construction of new capital ships had been placed on hold, while there were no limits on light cruiser construction. They became the Courageous class, and there was a bizarre imbalance between their main armament of 15-inch (or 18-inch in Glorious) guns and their armour, which at 3 inches thickness was on the scale of a light cruiser. The design was generally regarded as a bizarre failure, though the later conversion of the ships to aircraft carriers was very successful. Fisher also speculated about a new mammoth but lightly-built battlecruiser which would carry 20-inch guns, which he termed HMS Incomparable; however, this never got beyond the concept stage.
It is often held that the Renown and Courageous classes were designed for Fisher's plan to land troops (possibly Russian) on the German Baltic coast. Specifically, they were designed with a shallow draught, which might be important in the shallow Baltic. Howevever, this is not clear-cut evidence that the ships were designed for the Baltic: it was considered that earlier ships had too much draught and not enough freeboard under operational conditions. Roberts argues that the focus on the Baltic was probably unimportant at the time the ships were designed, but was inflated later, after the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign.
The final British battlecruiser design of the war was the Admiral class, which was born from a requirement for an improved version of the Queen Elizabeth battleship. The project began at the end of 1915, after Fisher's final departure from the Admiralty. While initially envisaged as a battleship, senior sea officers felt that Britain had enough battleships, but that new battlecruisers might be required to combat German ships being built (the British overestimated German progress on the Mackensen class as well as their likely capabilities). A battlecruiser design with eight 15-inch guns, 8 inches of armour and capable of 32 knots was decided on. However, the experience of battlecruisers at the Battle of Jutland meant that the design was radically revised and transformed again into a fast battleship concept with armour up to 12 inches thick but still capable of 31.5 knots. The first ship in the class, Hood, went ahead according to this design. The plans for her three sisters, on which little work had been done, were revised once more later in 1916 and in 1917 to improve protection..
The Admiral class would have been the only British ships capable of taking on the German Mackensen type; however, German shipbuilding was drastically slowed by the war, and while two Mackensens were launched, none were ever completed. Work on the three additional Admirals was suspended in March 1917 to enable more escorts and merchant ships to be built to deal with the new threat from U-boats to trade. They were finally cancelled in February 1919.
The German battlecruiser Goeben was perhaps the ship which made the most impact early in the War. Stationed in the Mediterranean, she and her escorting cruiser evaded British and French ships on the outbreak of war, and steamed to Constantinople with two British battlecruisers in hot pursuit. Goeben was handed over to the Turkish Navy, and this was instrumental in bringing Turkey into the war on the German side. Goeben herself, renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim, saw engagements against the Russian Navy in the Black Sea and against the British in the Aegean.
The original battlecruiser concept proved successful in December 1914 at the Battle of the Falkland Islands. The British battlecruisers Inflexible and Invincible did precisely the job they were intended for when they chased down and annihilated a German cruiser squadron, centered on the armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, along with three light cruisers, commanded by Admiral Maximilian Graf Von Spee in the South Atlantic Ocean. Prior to the battle the Australian battlecruiser HMAS Australia had unsuccessfully searched for the German ships in the Pacific.
During the Battle of Dogger Bank, the after turret of the German flagship Seydlitz was pierced by a British 13.5 inch shell from HMS Lion which detonated in the working chamber. The charges being hoisted upwards were detonated, and the explosion flashed up into the turret and down into the magazine, setting fire to charges in the process of being handled. The gun crew tried to escape into the next turret, allowing the flash to spread, destroying both turrets internally. Seydlitz was saved from near-certain destruction only by emergency flooding of her after magazines. This near-disaster was due to the way that ammunition handling was arranged and was common to both German and British battleships and battlecruisers, but the lighter protection on the latter made them more vulnerable to the turret or barbette being pierced. The "working chamber" had been introduced in HMS Formidable (1898) and was intended to prevent such a dangerous flash, but instead made such an event more likely. The Germans learned from investigating the damaged Seydlitz and instituted improved measures to ensure ammunition handling was flash tight. The British remained unaware of the weakness, to their great misfortune at the Battle of Jutland.
Apart from the cordite handling, the battle was mostly inconclusive, though both Lion and Seydlitz were severely damaged. The British flagship Lion's lost speed causing her to fall behind the rest of the battleline and Admiral Beatty was unable to effectively command for the remainder of the engagement. A British signalling error allowed the German battlecruisers to withdraw, as most of Beatty's squadron mistakenly concentrated on the crippled armoured cruiser Blücher, sinking her with great loss of life. Blücher herself was obsolete, out of all the ships in the battle, and so she had proved to be a liability to the rest of the German squadron, which was otherwise an all battlecruiser squadron.
At the Battle of Jutland 18 months later, both British and German battlecruisers were employed as fleet units. The British battlecruisers became engaged with both their German counterparts, the battlecruisers, and then German battleships before the arrival of the battleships of the British Grand Fleet. The result was a disaster for the Royal Navy's battlecruiser squadrons: Invincible, Queen Mary and Indefatigable exploded with the loss of all but a handful of their crews. This was due to the vulnerability of the working chamber which the Germans had discovered after the near-loss of Seydlitz at Dogger Bank and had taken preventative measures against. The British ships not only had lighter armour but also lacked flash tight ammunition handling arrangements, due in part to lack of awareness and experience, and also as it would improve their rate of fire to compensate for poor accuracy. Each was lost to a single salvo penetrating the turret and detonating in the working chamber. Beatty's flagship Lion herself was almost lost in a similar manner, save for the heroic actions of Major Harvey.
The better armoured and flash tight German battlecruisers fared better, in part due to poor performance of British fuzes (their shells exploded on impact with the ships armour instead of penetrating the armour before exploding thus causing more damage). Lützow for instance only had 117 killed despite receiving more than thirty hits, though she had sufficient flooding that she was scuttled. The other German battlecruisers, Moltke, Von der Tann, Seydlitz, Derfflinger were all heavily damaged and required extensive repairs after the battle, Seydlitz barely making it home, for they had been in the very centre of enemy fire for much of the battle. No British or German battleship was sunk during the battle with the exception of the old German pre-dreadnought Pommern, the victim of torpedoes from British destroyers.
Through the 1920s and early 1930s only Britain and Japan retained battlecruisers, often modified and rebuilt from their original World War I designs. The line between the battlecruiser and the modern fast battleship became blurred; indeed, the Japanese Kongō class were formally redesignated as battleships.
Hood was the largest ship in the Royal Navy when completed; thanks to her great displacement, she seemed to combine the firepower and armour of a battleship with the speed of a battlecruiser, causing some to refer to her as a fast battleship.
The navies of Japan and the USA, seeing a threat from Hood, laid down battlecruisers to rival her. The Imperial Japanese Navy began four Amagi class battlecruisers. These vessels would have been of unprecedented size and power, being as fast and well armoured as HMS Hood whilst carrying a main battery of ten 16" guns - the most powerful armament ever proposed for a battlecruiser. The United States Navy responded with the Lexington class battlecruisers, which if completed as planned would have been exceptionally fast and well armed, but would have carried armour little better than that of the very first battlecruisers. The final stage in the post-war battlecruiser race came with the British response to the Amagi and Lexington types: four 48,000 ton G3 battlecruisers, vessels of comparable size, power and speed to the Second World War Iowa class battleships.
The Washington Naval Treaty meant that none of these designs came to fruition. Those ships which had been started were either broken up on the slipway or converted into aircraft carriers.
In Japan, Amagi and Akagi were taken in hand for conversion into aircraft carriers. In 1923 the Amagi was damaged beyond repair by an earthquake and was broken up on the slips, the hull of one of the proposed Tosa class battleships, Kaga, being converted in her stead.
In Britain, Fisher's "large light cruisers" were converted to carriers. Furious had already been converted to an aircraft carrier during the war and Glorious and Courageous, which had no place in the post-Treaty navy, were similarly converted.
The United States Navy also re-tasked two battlecruiser hulls as aircraft carriers in the wake of the Washington Treaty: USS Lexington and Saratoga were both designed as battlecruisers (the hull designations were originally CC-1 and CC-3) but converted part-way through construction, although this was only considered marginally preferable to scrapping the hulls outright (the remaining four: Constellation, Ranger, Constitution and United States were indeed scrapped).
In total, nine battlecruisers survived the Washington Naval Treaty. Most of these ships were significantly updated before World War II, although the Royal Navy sold HMS Tiger for scrap in 1932 on the grounds that she was worn out, and in addition, the Turks did not have the means to upgrade the Sultan Yavuz Selim (ex Goeben of the Imperial German Navy).
The other two Royal Navy WW I battlecruisers retained, the HMS Renown and the Repulse were modernized significantly in a series of refits between 1920 and 1939. Like several other elderly British capital ships, the Renown underwent a total reconstruction between 1937 and 1939 to make her suitable for acting as a fast heavy escort warship for aircraft carriers. Similar rebuildings planned for the Repulse and the Hood were cancelled by the events of WW II.
Unable to pursue new construction, the Imperial Japanese Navy also chose to improve its existing battlecruisers of the Kongō class (the Hiei, the Haruna, the Kirishima, and the Kongō) by increasing the elevation of their guns to 40 degrees, adding anti-torpedo bulges and additional armor, and building on a "pagoda" mast. The 3,800 tons of additional armor slowed their speeds, but between 1933 and 1940, replacement of heavy equipment and an increase in the length of the hull by 26 ft (8.0 m) allowed them to reach up to once again. They were reclassified as "fast battleships" and their high speed made them suitable as aircraft carrier escorts, although their armor and guns still fell short compared to surviving World War I-era battleships in the American or the British navies.
Superficially, their distinctive battleship-like masts (especially in the Scheer and the Graf Spee) and larger scaled armament, compared to contemporary cruisers, earned them the name "pocket battleships" by friend and foe alike. They attained fairly high speeds of 26 knots (52 km/h), and reasonable protection, while (allegedly!) staying close to the displacement limit, by using welded rather than riveted construction, just two main turrets, and replacing the normal steam turbine power with a pair of massive nine-cylinder diesel engines driving each propeller shaft (a reversion from turbine to reciprocating engines). After the loss of the Graf Spee, the remaining two ships were reclassified as so-called "heavy cruisers", having heavier guns and thicker armor than standard heavy cruisers, but at the cost of speed (they in fact had basic cruiser armor, except for their heavy turrets). When the "pocket battleships" were commissioned, they were hypothetically outclassed by British WW I-era true battlecruisers in speed, weaponry, and protection, but the Kriegsmarine supposedly hoped for a temporary advantage. The pocket battleships also had the advantage of superior cruising range, and being smaller, they were harder to hit.
Two more German heavy ships were built later in the 1930s, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, which were considerably more powerful than pocket battleships - with nine heavy guns rather than just six, and they were classified as true capital ships. At 38,900 tons fully-loaded, they were somewhat larger than the French Dunkerque class. The two ships of the Gneisenau class were fast and well-armored, though their armament was relatively light-weight when compared with a battleship, consisting of three triple 280 mm (11-inch) gun turrets. At the time, guns that were 305 mm (12 inches) or larger could only be produced at the rate of one per year regarding treaty restrictions, and because the Germans did not want to alarm the Allies, this led to the ships being equipped with 28.0 cm guns. Their barbettes, nonetheless, were designed to accept twin 380 mm (15 inch) turrets (six guns total) when enough became available. However, circumstances and the fates of the two ships - the Battle of North Cape where the Scharnhorst was badly damaged by shellfire and sunk by torpedo, and the Gneisenau, heavily damaged by bombs and her repair sacrificed to higher priorities - meant that this plan was abandoned. The Royal Navy categorized them as battlecruisers since they followed the Imperial German Navy design lineage of trading off gun-size for protection and speed. The German Navy nonetheless categorised them as battleships. The follow-up to the Gneisenau class was not a battlecruiser, but rather the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, each of which had an additional turret and was armed with eight 38.0 cm guns installed at the onset, making them fully fast battleships.
As a response to the German pocket battleships the French decided to build the Dunkerque class in the 1930s. They were labelled "fast battleships", being considered scaled down but still balanced versions of that type of ship, and were armed with 330 mm (13 inch) guns arranged in two quadruple turrets located forward. Considered to be true capital ships, they were considerably larger, faster and more powerfully armed than the German pocket battleships they were designed to hunt. This last design illustrated inter-war technological developments. The ultimate limit on ship speed was drag from the water displaced (which increases as a cube of speed) rather than weight, so heavier armour slowed World War II battleships by only a couple of knots (4 km/h) over their more lightly armoured brethren. Heavy guns mounted on fast and well armoured fast battleships invalidated the concept of the battlecruiser as a ship class in its own right.
Admiral Graf Spee had been at sea at the start of WWII and engaged in a successful commerce raiding spree. Off the coast of South America, Admiral Graf Spee encountered the British heavy cruiser Exeter and light cruisers Achilles and Ajax. Admiral Graf Spee inflicted heavy damage on Exeter but in turn suffered considerable topside damage from the light cruisers. The pocket battleship's armour mostly held, but she sustained several critical hits which would have made the ship unseaworthy for returning to Germany, and she was forced to retire to neutral Uruguay. Unable to stay in port any longer without internment, and led to believe by the nature of British radio transmissions that aircraft carriers and gunned battlecruisers were too close to evade, her captain elected to scuttle his ship, and then accepted responsibility for its destruction by committing suicide.
Allied battlecruisers such as Renown, Repulse, Dunkerque and Strasbourg were employed on operations to hunt down the commerce raiding German battlecruisers, but they rarely got close to their targets, Renown enjoying a brief clash against the German 11-inch battlecruisers, scoring three non-critical hits on Gniesenau but being unable to keep up in bad weather. The one stand-up fight was when the Bismarck was sent out as a raider and was intercepted by HMS Hood and the battleship Prince of Wales in May 1941. However, the elderly British battlecruiser was not match for the brand new German battleship and the Bismarck's 15 inch shells caused a magazine explosion in Hood reminiscent of the Battle of Jutland. Only three men survived.
Gneisenau and Scharnhorst hunted together and were initially successful at commerce raiding, sinking the British armed merchant cruiser Rawalpindi in 1939. Following repairs from damage during the Norwegian campaign, the two battlecruisers set out commerce raiding once again in 1941 and sank 22 merchant ships. They returned to Brest in northern France but found this port was vulnerable to Royal Air Force attacks and were obliged to return to Germany. They did so in the Channel Dash, a daring and successful run up the English Channel. However, they were both damaged by mines and although Scharnhorst was repaired, Gneisenau was damaged again in RAF bombing raids and was eventually disarmed and sunk as a blockship. Scharnhorst was employed once more to attack commerce and attempted to raid the Arctic convoys in December 1943. However, she was surprised by the battleship HMS Duke of York with the cruisers Jamaica, Norfolk and Belfast at the Battle of North Cape and sunk on 26 December 1943. gunfire from Duke of York crippled her turrets and engine room, then the attendant British cruisers and destroyers closed in and finished her off with torpedoes.
The use of battlecruisers as commerce raiders was curtailed following an attack by the Admiral Scheer on a convoy guarded by the HMS Jervis Bay, an armed merchant cruiser. It persuaded the British Admiralty that convoys had to be guarded by battleships or battlecruisers. The older R-class battleships and the un-upgraded Queen Elizabeths (Malaya and Barham) were used for this task, for which they were quite adequate despite their age, and subsequently the smaller German ships were forced away from their quarry. Additionally, the air gap over the North Atlantic closed, Huff-Duff (radio triangulation equipment) improved, airborne centimetric radar was introduced and convoys received escort carrier protection. The results of some of these developments were illustrated by the successful defence of convoys at the Battle of the Barents Sea and the Battle of the North Cape.
The Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine both deployed battlecruisers during the Norwegian campaign in April 1940. The Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst were engaged by HMS Renown in appalling weather and although they had stronger armor than their counterpart, the British ship could hit them harder and at a longer range due to the German ships having difficulty with their radars. They disengaged after Gneisenau sustained damage. One of Renown's 15-inch shells passed through Gneisenau's director tower without exploding, severing electrical and communication cables as it went. The debris caused by the passing shell killed one officer and five enlisted men, and destroyed the optical rangefinder for the forward 150mm turrets. Main battery fire control had to be shifted aft due to the loss of electrical power to the director tower. The second shell from Renown struck the aft turret of Gneisenau, knocking it out of action.
Later in the campaign they returned and sank the light aircraft carrier HMS Glorious (a converted battlecruiser herself) and her destroyer escort. One of the destroyers (HMS Acasta) succeeded in damaging the Scharnhorst with a torpedo, and later a submarine did the same to Gneisenau, forcing both ships to spend several months in repair. The pocket battleship Lützow was similarly damaged by HMS Spearfish during the campaign.
The Japanese Kongō class battlecruisers were significantly upgraded and re-rated as "fast battleships", and they were used extensively as carrier escorts for most of their wartime career due to their high speed. However their WW I-era armament was weaker and their upgraded armour scheme was still not up to contemporary dreadnought standards. During the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on 12 November the Hiei was sent out to bombard US positions. She suffered extensive topside damage from gunfire of US cruisers and destroyers, with her engine room being penetrated at close range by an 8-inch shell from San Francisco. The next day, Hiei was attacked by waves of aircraft from Guadalcanal’s American held airfield (Henderson Field), which eventually made salvage impossible, and so she was left to sink north of Savo Island. A few days later on 15 November 1942 Kirishima, engaged the U.S. battleships South Dakota and Washington, and was scuttled following mortal damage from nine 16-inch hits inflicted by the Washington, which disabled her turrets and holed her below the waterline. In contrast South Dakota survived 42 hits (including only one 14-inch hit, but many 8-in. heavy cruiser shells), all to her superstructure, and was back in operation four months later. The Kongō survived the Battle of Leyte Gulf, but she was sunk on 21 November 1944 in the Formosa Strait by three torpedoes from the U.S. Navy submarine USS Sealion (SS-315). The Haruna was involved in bombardment operations at Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Philippine Sea, and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. She was attacked by American carrier aircraft of Task Force 38 and USAAF B-24 Liberator bombers while at Kure IJN naval base on 28 July 1945 and sank at her moorings.
On the eve of World War II, there was a late renaissance in popularity of ships between battleships and cruisers. While some considered them battlecruisers, they were never classified as capital ships, and they were variously described as "super-cruisers," "large cruisers" or even "unrestricted cruisers." They were optimised as cruiser-killers, fleet scouts and commerce raiders. The Dutch, Japanese, Soviets and Americans all planned new classes specifically to counter the large heavy cruisers being built by their naval rivals - especially the Japanese Mogami class cruisers. The Germans also designed a class of lightly protected battlecruisers.
The first such battlecruisers were of the Dutch "1047" design. Never officially assigned names, the Dutch wanted them to protect their East Indies Colonies. They designed these vessels with the assistance of the Germans and Italians; at the time the Netherlands planned to stay neutral in World War II. They broadly resembled the German Scharnhorst Class and had the same main battery, but would have been considerably lighter and only protected against gun fire. Although the design was completed, work on the vessels never commenced as the Germans overran the Netherlands in May of 1940, while the first ship would have been laid down in June of that year.
The Germans planned to build three battlecruisers as part of their Z Plan for the expansion of the Navy. With six 15 inch (38 cm) guns, high speed, excellent range but very thin armor, they were intended as commerce raiders. Only one of these was ordered shortly before World War II broke out and no work was ever done on it. No names were assigned, and they were known as O, P, and Q. The new class was not universally welcomed in the Kriegsmarine, their abnormally light protection gaining the class the derogatory nickname Ohne Panzer Quatsch (without armour nonsense) within certain circles of the Navy.
The only class of these late battlecruisers to be laid down were the United States Navy's three Alaska class "large cruisers", Alaska, Guam and Hawaii - of which only Alaska and Guam were completed. The Alaskas were classified as "large cruisers" instead of battlecruisers, and their status as non-capital ships is evidenced by the fact that they were named for territories or protectorates (as opposed to battleships, which were named after states, or cruisers, which were commonly named after cities). But with a main armament of nine twelve-inch (305 mm) guns in three triple turrets and a displacement of 27,000 tons, the Alaskas were twice the size of the preceding Baltimore class cruisers and had guns some 50% larger in diameter - . However, they lacked the thick armoured belt and torpedo defense system of true capital ships and, unlike most battlecruisers, they were considered a balanced design (according to cruiser standards) as their protection could withstand fire from their own caliber of gun, albeit only in a very narrow range band. They were designed to hunt down Japanese heavy cruisers, though by the time they entered service most Japanese cruisers had been sunk by American aircraft or submarines. Like the contemporary Iowa-class fast battleships, their speed ultimately made them more useful as carrier escorts and bombardment ships than as the sea combatants they were developed to be. Hawaii was approximately 90% complete when hostilities ceased, and was laid up for years while various plans were debated to convert her large hull into a missile ship or a command vessel; she would eventually be scrapped incomplete. Three additional hulls, to be named Philippines, Puerto Rico and Samoa, were cancelled outright.
The Japanese started designing the B64 class, which were similar to the Alaska but with guns. News of the Alaskas led them to upgrade the design, creating the B65. Armed with guns, the B65's would have been the best armed of the new breed of battlecruisers, but they still would have had only sufficient protection to keep out 8-inch shells. Much like the Dutch battlecruisers, the Japanese got as far as completing the design for the B65s, but never laid them down. By the time the designs were ready the Japanese Navy recognised that they had little use for the vessels and that their priority for construction should lie with aircraft carriers. Like the Alaskas, the Japanese did not call these ships battlecruisers, referring to them instead as supersized heavy cruisers.
The fruits of this program were the project 82 (Stalingrad) cruisers, with 36,500 tons standard load (42,300 tons full load), 9 guns 305 mm and a speed of . Three ships were laid in 1951–52, but after Stalin's death they were canceled in April 1953. Apart from high costs, the main reason was that gun-armed ships became obsolete with an advent of guided missiles. Only a central armoured hull section of the first cruiser Stalingrad was launched in 1954 and then used as a target for rockets.
The Soviet Kirov class of Raketny Kreyser (Missile Cruiser), displacing approximately 26,000 tons, is classified as a battlecruiser in the 1996–7 edition of Jane's Fighting Ships, even though in actuality they are very large missile cruisers. Their classification as battlecruisers arises from their displacement, which is roughly equal to that of a World War I battleship, and the fact that they possess more firepower than nearly every other surface ship. However, the Kirov-class lacks the heavy armour that distinguishes battlecruisers from regular cruisers and they are classified as "heavy missile cruisers" in Russia. There were four members of the class completed, Kirov, Frunze, Kalinin, and Yuri Andropov. As the ships were named after Communist personalities, after the fall of the USSR they were given traditional names of the Imperial Russian Navy, respectively Admiral Ushakov, Admiral Lazarev, Admiral Nakhimov, and Petr Velikiy. Due to budget constraints two members of this class have been decommissioned, although Petr Velikiy and Admiral Nakhimov are in active service and funds are being gathered for possible repair of Admiral Lazarev. Nakhimov was returned to service early, at the beginning of 2006, possibly due to increasing tensions in the Middle East and potential Russian naval involvement therein.
In most cases, the temptation to add extra big guns to the main fleet proved hard to resist. As a result, battlecruiser squadrons were added to the line of battle. — a role for which they were not designed and one that exposed them to great risk.. The armour on a battlecruiser remained that of (or slightly more than) a normal cruiser. Thus the ships could dish out a lot more punishment than they could absorb. Any advantage they had in speed was lost when locked into formation at the speed of the slowest battleship in the line of battle. Heavy shells from opposing capital ships could easily penetrate their thinner armour. During Jutland, both British and German battlecruisers scored hits on each other. The British ships came off poorly, where the German ships' fared better due to better internal protection and poor performance of the British shells.
Some have often cited the weaker armour on British battlecruisers, compared to their German counterparts, as responsible for their loss. The Lion's closest contemporary was perhaps the Seydlitz. Both were similar in displacement and speed. German battlecruisers did sacrifice gun calibre for thicker armour but they were not significant such that they made the difference in battle, since both Lion and Seydlitz had their magazine armour penetrated at some point during their careers. Rather, it was the cordite handling procedures; the near destruction of the Seydlitz at the Battle of Dogger Bank had convinced the Germans that they had to take more precautions. After this battle, some of the British battlecruiser force ships began to store too many cordite charges outside the magazine, while leaving open the flash-protection doors, in the pursuit of a tactical doctrine popular in the BCF after Dogger Bank involving rapidity of fire. This practice of taking "rate of fire" ideas to excess was not practiced in the Grand Fleet.
During World War II large-scale close range fleet actions did not occur. Battlecruisers were paired with battleships in roles such as raiding (German), convoy escort, or as part of task forces. In operations where battlecruisers did fight battleships, such as Hood and Bismarck, Scharnhorst and Duke of York, Kirishima and Washington, the battlecruiser was destroyed by gunfire. They were equally vulnerable to aircraft, as many World War I designs lacked the torpedo protection system developed for World War II capital ships, and during World War II several were lost in this way.