The Town class was a group of twenty-one light cruisers built for the Royal Navy (RN) and Royal Australian Navy (RAN). These vessels were long-range cruisers, suitable for patrolling the vast expanse covered by the British Empire. These ships, initially rated as Second Class Cruisers, were built to a series of designs, known as the Bristol (five ships), Weymouth (four ships), Chatham (three RN ships, plus three RAN ships), Birmingham (three ships, plus one similar RAN ship) and Birkenhead (two ships) classes - all having the names of British towns except for the RAN ships which were named after Australian cities, the latter being known as the Sydney class, after the first RAN ship of the class, .
The Bristol class were all ordered under the 1909 Programme and commissioned in late 1910. They were 453 feet (138 m) long and had a full load displacement of 5,300 tons. They had a rather low freeboard which was rectified in the subsequent Weymouth-class. Their main armament was relatively light, with just two 6 inch (152 mm) single guns located fore and aft. Their secondary armament was more potent, with ten 4 inch (102 mm) guns in single turrets. Their anti-air warfare weaponry (AA) consisted of four 3 pounder guns and four Maxim machine guns. In World War I, the class's AA armament was increased with the fitting of a single QF 3 inch (76 mm) 20 cwt gun. They were second class cruisers and designed for a variety of roles including both trade protection and fleet duties. Overall they were considered a success but there were some criticisms that the ships were cramped, they could be lively gun platforms and that the mixed calibre armament could cause problems for fire control and the 4 inch guns were mounted too near the sea.
The Weymouth class were ordered under the 1910 Programme and commissioned between 1911-12 and differed from the Bristols in only a few aspects. They were fitted with a potent main armament, having eight 6 in (152 mm) guns in single turrets. Their secondary armament consisted of four 3 pounder guns. The class saw a number of alterations during the war, including the addition of one QF 3 in (76 mm) AA gun. They were also the first cruisers to be fitted with an aircraft, the Sopwith Pup, though the aircraft could only launch from the ship and not land on it and the pilot would have to ditch into the sea if it was not possible to reach land. Overall they were enlarged and improved versions of the Bristol class with a uniform 6-inch gun armament that were mounted in more weather resistant positions. They also mounted the more powerful 21 inch torpedo. In 1915 a single 3-inch anti-aircraft gun was added.
The Chatham class were ordered under the 1911 Programme and commissioned between 1912-1916. Three ships were built to the same design for the new Royal Australian Navy, where they were known as the Sydney class. The Chathams / Sydneys differed from the two previous sub-classes only slightly. Deck armour was reduced in order to allow the introduction of belt armour, and they had eight 6 in guns in single turrets. They had no secondary armament but did have AA weaponry that consisted of four 3 pounder guns. Their AA armament was further increased during the First World War, with the addition of four 3 in guns. As was common at the time the guns only had shields to protect them from splinters and so were spaced well apart to reduce the chance of a single hit knocking out several at once. The class also had aircraft fitted during the war. Chatham was briefly part of the New Zealand Naval Forces in 1920, subsequently the New Zealand Division, until it returned to the RN in 1924.
The Birmingham class were all ordered under the 1912 Programme and was commissioned in 1914. They featured slight differences in appearance and armament. Their main armament were nine 6 in guns in single turrets, with an additional 6 inch gun mounted on the forecastle in order to improve forward fire. Their AA armament was exactly the same as the Chatham sub-class and a 3 in (76 mm) gun was also added during the First World War. The class did not have an aircraft fitted during the war. Also more flare was added to the bow to improve sea keeping. Further improvement to the Birmingham class resulted in five ships of the Hawkins class. The similar Adelaide had built for the Royal Australian Navy' she had one of her funnels removed in the late 1930s.
The Birkenhead class were ordered in early 1914 for the Greek Navy as Antinavarhos Kontouriotis and Lambros Katsonis respectively. In early 1915 the contracts were taken over by the British Admiralty, the ships were renamed and were commissioned in 1915. They were modified versions of the previous sub-class. Their main armament was ten 5.5 in (140 mm) guns, a first for an RN class. Although firing a lighter shell the gun was easier to handle in rough weather and indeed the gun proved so successful that it was introduced properly into the RN, being fitted to a small number of warships, including the battlecruiser . One weakness of the gun was the gun shields which didn't reach the deck leaving the gun crews vulnerable to splinters. Their AA armament was exactly the same as the previous sub-classes. After the war, they were offered for sale back to the Greeks but this offer was not taken up.
The class saw much service in World War I and many of the ships left their mark on history. Ships of the class saw action at the Battle of the Falkland Islands and the Battle of Heligoland Bight in 1914. That same year, Sydney attacked in an action that lasted over an hour and resulted in the German warship being beached by her captain to avoid his ship sinking. Also that year, Birmingham became the first ship to sink a submarine when she rammed U-15.
In 1915, HMS Glasgow found which had escaped from the engagement at the Falkland Islands the previous year, in which Glasgow had helped in sinking . Dresden was eventually scuttled by her own crew. Ships of the class also took part in the Battle of Dogger Bank (1915).
In 1916, ships of the class also saw action at the Battle of Jutland, the largest surface engagement of World War I. In 1917, a Sopwith Pup from HMS Yarmouth became the first aircraft from a cruiser to shoot down an aircraft, specifically the Zeppelin L23. The ships of the class saw more service than mentioned above, including action against German merchant ships. During the course of the war, two ships of the class were sunk, these were HMS Falmouth and HMS Nottingham, both torpedoed by German submarines.
After the end of World War I, the surviving ships performed a variety of duties, including service on foreign stations. All ships, except Adelaide, were scrapped by the 1930s. Adelaide saw an extensive refit between 1938-39. However, Adelaide was obsolete when World War II began, and she saw limited service, performing patrol and escort duties in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. She was decommissioned in 1945, but recommissioned to become a tender at Sydney. She was broken up in 1949.