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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The United States Navy

Thomas P. Magruder
[Rear Admiral, U. S. N.]

published by
Dorrance and Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p13  I

Battleships and Battle Cruisers

All great naval battles of modern times have been decided by gunfire. Probably all major fleet engagements in the future similarly will be determined. The airplane, the submarine, the destroyer and the light cruiser have played and will play their important parts, yet they cannot of themselves win a decision. That is reserved for the big guns and for the vessels which carry them — the battleships and the battle cruisers.

Battleships may be defined as naval vessels of the largest tonnage, protected by the thickest armor and carrying the biggest guns. Battle cruisers are vessels as large as battleships, carrying guns of similar size, but less armor. Together the two types are known as capital ships. The big guns are their raison d'être. It is to carry and to serve the guns that these great vessels are built and manned. Largely because of the guns, the nation boasting a fleet with a superiority in capital ships — assuming equality in courage and tactical skill — will control the seas. Should a fleet weaker in battleships and battle cruisers essay an engagement, its defeat is probable. Should it avoid battle, the enemy fleet may take at will such a strategical position as to throttle commerce and, by resultant economic pleasure, to win the war. The tremendous contribution to  p14 victory made by the British Grand Fleet in 1914‑18 is universally recognized.

It will be remembered that the Washington Conference treaties limited the capital ships of each nation represented to a given ratio. Between the three great naval powers — the United States, the British Empire and Japan — that ratio was fixed at 5‑5‑3. As a result the United States has today eighteen capital ships of 525,000 tons; the British Empire has twenty such ships of 559,000 tons; and Japan has ten of 301,000 tons. The treaty ratios, it will be observed, apply to tonnage and not to numbers.

To understand clearly the difficult between a battleship and a battle cruiser, it is essential to comprehend the elements considered when a warship is designed. These elements are:


Displacement — that is, tonnage or size.


Armament — guns and torpedoes.


Protection — armor, armored decks and conning towers.


Speed — which is dependent on weight of machinery and fuel.

Now all four of these elements may be installed in a ship of any given displacement. Naturally the larger the ship the heavier may be the guns not thicker the armor. Thus capital ships grew larger and larger until certain ones attained a tonnage of 40,000, a draft of 32 feet, a speed of 34 knots, and carried 16‑inch guns and 14‑inch armor.

 p15  The only actual limit to the size of capital ships is that fixed by practicability. The depth of channels leading to naval ports, the size of dry docks and — particularly where the United States is concerned — the width and depth of the locks on the Panama Canal must influence their dimensions. The last is important to our own Navy because it must consider the possibility of carrying on a campaign in either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean. The Washington treaties, however, now limit the size of the capital ships to 35,000 tons.

Obviously any one ship cannot have a large number of heavy guns and, at the same time, the thickest armor and the greatest speed. Were this attempted the ship would sink. So there must be ever a compromise in the design of the capital ship.

Being given a displacement — let us say, for example, of 35,000 tons — the hull and bulkheads will represent a certain weight. If twelve 16‑inch guns are installed in turrets and thick armor is provided, there will remain only a certain limited displacement available for machinery and fuel. Always, of course, there must be reserved a small percentage of the displacement to care for the weight of the necessary supplies, airplanes, catapults and personnel. If a ship is heavily armored a smaller percentage of the displacement can be assigned for machinery; whereupon it follows directly that the speed must be moderate or slow and the fuel supply limited. American designers have always insisted that American ships carry the heaviest practicable armament and thick armor. Their reasoning is  p16 sound. As I have said, gunfire wins naval battles — gunfire combined with ability to withstand punishment.

The speed of ships in battle is, however, a valuable tactical factor. To assure this advantage some of the naval powers built enormous cruisers capable of making more than thirty knots. As this demanded that a very large part of the displacement be assigned to weight of machinery and fuel, it was essential to reduce the number of guns and to lighten the armor. The result was the battle cruiser — a fast battleship, but with fewer guns and less protection. The United States has no battle cruisers. The British and the Japanese each have four of such craft.

The present relative strength in capital ships of the three great naval powers follows:

Nation Tonnage No. Battleships Battle Cruisers
United States 525,850 18 18 0
British Empire 558,450 20 16 4
Japan 301,000 10 6 4

Gun power of the capital ships:

Caliber of Guns United States British Empire Japan

















 p17  The table above is most illuminating. Since the range of a gun depends upon its caliber, the fleet having the largest number of the heaviest guns has a decided advantage in battle. This may be more clearly indicated by the following comparison of the number of British and American ships which can come into action at various ranges.

Range in Action British Ships in Action American Ships in Action
30,000 yards















Here it is seen that at ranges from 22,000 to 24,000 yards the number of British ships in action could outnumber the American ships by from 33⅓ per cent to more than 50 percent. In view of the superior speed of the British fleet over the American fleet, which is estimated to be at least two knots, the British fleet — if we may consider theoretically the unthinkable possibility of an encounter — could choose the most advantageous range. However, ships and guns alone do not win battles. In the last analysis always it is the personnel that is victorious. The gunnery of the American fleet is second to that of no other nation. A broad statement — and a true one.

The speed of the American battleships is about 21  p18 knots. The speed of the Japanese battleships is around 23 knots, and Japanese battle cruisers can attain 27.5 knots. Of the British battleships, four have a speed of 21 knots, five of 23 knots, and seven of 25 knots. The speed of the four British battle cruisers is about 31 knots.

One of the newest and largest of all the battleships in the United States Navy is the Colorado, commissioned in 1923. Because of the Washington Limitation of Armaments Conference treaties, this is the last capital ship the nation will build for a number of years. A description of the vessel should give a clear and general idea of those marvels of marine engineering, the modern battleships.

The Colorado is 624 feet long on the main deck, has a beam on the water line of 97 feet and displaces 32,600 tons with normal load. Its speed is 21 knots. Exclusive of armor and armament, the vessel cost the Navy Department $27,000,000. Built primarily to fight in a great sea battle it may never fire a shot and yet give a return to the country for the great expenditure it represents. The ship is a vast experimental laboratory of marine engineering. Introduction of electricity not only for propulsion but for all power on shipboard has made such experimentation highly necessary. Commercial shipping interests cannot afford to try new ideas on a large scale; but they can benefit by the work of the Navy in that direction. The Colorado, as the latest type of naval vessel using electric propulsion and operation, provides invaluable data  p19 on the subject, which are freely given to our shipbuilders.

The main battery of the warship consists of eight 16‑inch, forty-five caliber guns, mounted in four turrets, two forward and two aft. The guns are the largest permissible under the treaty of Washington. In range and striking power they are unsurpassed. They can drop eight tons of steel and high explosive on the deck of an enemy twenty miles away — a blow that will disable any ship afloat. Such blows may be struck with amazing rapidity and accuracy. Three salvos can be fired in one minute. The accuracy of the fire is insured by efficient aiming of the fire control on the foremast, 140 feet above the water line. There are duplicate stations in other and better protected parts of the ship, to be utilized if the foremast is shot away. In addition to its heaviest armament, the Colorado carries twelve 5‑inch guns and four 3‑inch anti-aircraft guns. Two submerged torpedo tubes add to effectiveness in battle. Scouting planes are carried to provide the distant vision required in long-range action.

Almost as important as striking power is the ability to resist punishment. All the lessons taught by the great naval Battle of Jutland have been learned by our naval architects, who used this knowledge in designing the Colorado. An 18‑inch armor belt gives side protection. The turrets, ammunition tubes and fighting stations are heavily covered. Several protected decks give added security. There is protection from  p20 plunging as well as direct fire; from submarine torpedoes as well as from aerial bombs. Because of the great number of its water-tight compartments, it is doubtful whether the ship could be sunk even if struck by three or four torpedoes.

The United States Navy is unique in having for the propulsive force of its latest battleship the electric drive. The four propellers of the Colorado are electrically driven by direct-connected, two‑speed induction motors, each of 8,000‑horse power, supplied with current by two sets of turbogenerators. Each propelling motor can deliver a maximum of 8,375 horse power, having about 185 turns a minute. Steam is supplied to the turbines at 265 pounds pressure by a battery of eight oil‑burning water-tube boilers. All auxiliary machinery, as, for example, pumps and blowers, is driven by direct-current motors. To further this current the vessel is equipped with three 300‑kilowatt geared turbine sets.

The electric drive has many advantages. It assures greater efficiency and reliability than any other system of propulsion. Propeller shafts and steam pipes are shorter than in the less modern systems, as the motors can be placed near the propellers and the generators close to the boilers. Neither reversing turbines nor mechanical gears are required. The system also gives flexibility and, above all, the great tactical advantage of enabling the ship to reverse propellers at full power. In action this means greater maneuverability  p21 and increased ability to dodge torpedoes threatening the ship.

A complement of 65 officers and 1,350 men is required to operate the Colorado. The payroll amounts to approximately $110,000 a month. The government ratio provides daily more than three tons of nourishing, well-cooked food. Storerooms and refrigeration permit a three months' supply of provisions to be carried.

Living places for the personnel are spacious, light and comfortable. For additional comfort and sanitation the ship includes a hospital, with operating room; a dentist, with fully equipped office; a post office, with a mail clerk in charge; and a laundry which fixes no limit on the number of pieces.

Then there are in addition a library, a barber shop, tailor shop and cobbler shop, a ship's store and a telephone exchange. Attached to galleys, or kitchens, are a butcher shop and a bakery.

There are also industrial shops, including the carpenter shop, paint room, machine shop, foundry and smithy in this community afloat. The Colorado resembles in fact, a small, complete city with every facility and every convenience — even to a movie theater.

It may be of interest here to compare the latest type of British and Japanese battleships with the Colorado. The Japanese vessel Mutsu, completed in 1921, has the same main battery as the Colorado, is 1,000 tons larger, and has a speed two knots greater. It carries  p22 a secondary battery of twenty 5.5‑inch guns to the Colorado's twelve 5‑inch pieces. The British battleships, Nelson and Rodney, completed in 1927, are the most powerful capital ships afloat. Naturally they must remain so for three years to come. Today they represent the last word in battleship design. Following are some of the features of these super-dreadnaughts:


600 feet


106 feet

Horse power, full speed


Mean draft

30 feet


35,000 tons


23 knots

Fuel oil

4,000 tons

The main armament of each vessel consists of nine 16‑inch guns in triple turrets, two forward and one aft. The secondary battery has twelve 6‑inch guns in twin mounts, six 4.7‑inch anti-aircraft guns, four 3‑pounder guns and eight 2‑pounder machine guns. The ships are armed with torpedo tubes also.

The machinery of the Nelson — and the Rodney — is of the reduction-turbine type, driving two propellers. Each vessel has eight boilers of the three-drum small-tube type.

Oil fuel only is burned under the closed-fireroom system of forced draft. Superheaters are fitted to each boiler. There is one large funnel.

From the progress made in the design of the Nelson class, I anticipate that the naval architects of the treaty-power navies will strive, when replacements are permitted in 1931, to design a battleship carrying twelve  p23 16‑inch guns with a speed of 21‑23 knots on a displacement of 35,000 tons. Such a ship, in this country, would cost about $40,000,000.

The ancestor of the modern capital ship was Ericsson's little Monitor. A legacy of the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac was the system of mounting guns in revolving turrets. Today there are ships with four three-14‑inch-gun turrets. Tomorrow there may be ships with four turrets each having three 16‑inch guns, all mounted on the center line and capable of being trained on either side of the ship. With so great a concentration of gunfire, it will be possible to fire a salvo of shell weighing eleven and one‑half tons and projected speed of nearly 2000 miles an hour, and to fire a salvo every thirty seconds. These shell can hit a target seventeen miles away. At this distance the target is below the sea horizon and invisible to the gunners. The men point the guns in accordance with directions received from observers in airplanes. The observers spot the fall of the salvos and give directions by radio for changing the range and deflection, so that the officer controlling the gunfire may know how to straddle the target. This is known as the director system. One officer in a little compartment, high up on a mast, manipulates a director fitted with two telescopes — one for horizon train, or azimuth, and the other for elevation, or range — and a master firing key by which all turret guns are fired simultaneously. The two telescopes are mounted on turntables connected electrically to pointers at the gun, which follow  p24 those of the elevated telescopes. The "man behind the gun" never sees his target. He simply makes his weapon follow the pointer.

This system may be used on battle cruisers as well as on battleships. As I have observed before, the battle cruiser is in reality a very fast battleship whose speed is possible because of fewer guns and less armor protection. The increase in speed makes the ship expensive to build and to operate.

The British have the latest designed battle cruiser, the Hood, as well as the 1927 battleships, the Nelson and Rodney. The Hood is the largest warship afloat, and cost about $30,000,000. The Nelson and the Rodney each cost about $35,000,000. Differences between the Hood, a battle cruiser, and the Nelson, a battleship, are shown in the following comparison:

Nelson Hood
Displacement (tons)



Length (feet)



Beam (feet)



Draft (feet)



Horse power



Speed (knots)



Fuel oil (tons)



Armament — 16‑inch guns


Armament — 15‑inch guns


Armament — 6‑inch guns


Armament — 5.5‑inch guns


Armor (inches)



Torpedo tubes



 p25  Battle cruisers were originated by the British, who built many of them before the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Originally the type was designed: (1) to drive enemy cruisers from the seas, (2) to destroy enemy commerce, (3) to protect sea routes, and (4) to scout for and report information of the enemy's main fleet. The ships were planned for speed and gun power, so they could pierce screens of cruisers or destroyers. In a fleet action the battle cruisers were envisaged as acting as a fast wing, able, by virtue of speed, to concentrate on the enemy van or rear, or to give needed re‑enforcement to any part of the battle line. Later the Germans followed the initiative of the British and also built such warships.

Battle cruisers were used in the World War in the type of operation for which they were designed. A German squadron under Admiral von Spee created havoc with British shipping in the Pacific and South Atlantic. A British squadron including battle cruisers, commanded by Vice Admiral Sturdee, destroyed the German squadron off the Falkland Islands. In the early years of the war German squadrons attacked the seacoast towns of England. These raids were stopped by British battle cruisers, which, in the action of Dogger Bank, sank the old German cruiser Blücher and severely damaged the battle cruiser Seydlitz.

It may be recalled that on May 31, 1916, the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet were in the North Sea. Each fleet had its scouting forces — battle cruisers, light cruisers and destroyers — well  p26 ahead of the main body. The forces met in the afternoon and the five German battle cruisers engaged six British battle cruisers in a running fight leading toward the German fleet. In sixteen minutes the British battle cruiser Indefatigable was blown up and in thirty-eight minutes the battle cruiser Queen Mary suffered a similar fate. Their magazines exploded from the effect of gunfire. Soon after this the battle cruisers sighted the German High Seas Fleet ahead and were forced to turn about. They were followed by the German cruisers. The two fleets engaged in an indecisive battle, although the weaker German fleet inflicted greater damage upon the stronger British fleet.

At a critical moment in the battle, when the German battleships were outnumbered and in a poor tactical position, the German commander-in‑chief ordered the battle cruisers and destroyers to charge the enemy. This they did. The British ships turned away to avoid the menace of torpedoes and the German fleet maneuvered clear of a crucial situation. Owing to poor visibility a British squadron of old cruisers butted into the German fleet and in a few minutes three out of four were sunk or put out of action. The third British battle-cruiser squadron also rushed into range of the German ships and in twelve minutes the battle cruiser Invincible was blown up by enemy gunfire. Truly, "What's in a name?" Rear Admiral Hood and 1,025 officers and men went down in the Invincible. Only six members of the crew were saved. Incidentally the German battle cruisers had more and  p27 better armor protection than had the British. Yet to attain this they sacrificed speed and were forced also to carry lighter guns.

Ten minutes after the action started, the Lion, flagship of Vice Admiral Beatty, had the narrowest of escapes from destruction. A German shell penetrated the roof of one of the midship turrets. This caused the powder in the turret and tube from the handling room, which opened into the shell and powder magazines, to ignite. Immediately most of the turret and handling room crews were killed. The commander of the turret fell when both legs were shattered by the German shell. He managed to drag himself to the voice tube and to order the magazine doors closed before he died. This saved the ship. In the foretop with the gunnery officer, a young midshipman, perhaps sixteen years of age, was recording the incidents of the battle. When the turret was struck, flames from the burning powder within leaped high in the air and above the tops. "Look out for a bally big bump!" cried the midshipman to the gunnery officer. The bump never came. I have often wondered what were the feelings of this lad when he found himself still safe and sound.

A similar casualty happened in the after turret of the German cruiser Derfflinger. As in the Lion, the magazine doors were closed and the ship was saved from destruction. But in a second the lives of ninety officers and men were snuffed out by the fire from burning powder.

 p28  Just how important armor can be to a capital ship may be surmised from the fate of the vessels under heavy fire during the Battle of Jutland. The British battle cruisers had comparatively little protection; therefore they were faster than the German battle cruisers and carried heavier guns. In consequence, the Indefatigable, Queen Mary and Invincible were sunk soon after coming in range of the German battleships and battle cruisers.

During the battle the German battle cruisers suffered heavy damage. That they were not destroyed was due to better armor protection and good subdivision. Thus, the Lützow was struck by twenty-four heavy projectiles and yet remained afloat many hours, until the ship was finally sunk by the Germans to avoid any possibility of its falling into the hands of the enemy. The Derfflinger had twenty-three hits from heavy shells and limped into port drawing forty feet of water.

It was, however, the German battle cruiser Seydlitz that lived to tell the most exciting tale. This ship was struck by a torpedo. Fortunately the torpedo exploded forward and the bulkhead held, and, except for the disadvantage caused by a light list, the fighting power was not affected. Altogether the Seydlitz was struck by twenty‑one heavy shells, and lost 153 killed and wounded. So seriously was the Seydlitz damaged eventually that the forecastle became awash and on entering port the draft was forty‑two feet.

Since no nation may lay down a capital ship until 1931, naval architects have three years in which to  p29 design replacement vessels. Their work is made simpler by the fact that they are restricted to a displacement of 35,000 tons. The length and beam of the ships will depend upon the speed selected, as will also the armament and armor. Strategists and tacticians of the various nations will determine whether replacement ships shall be battleships or battle cruisers, and architects will design accordingly.

The speed of a fleet of capital ships is that of its slowest unit. That is a naval axiom. The United States battle fleet has a uniform speed of twenty‑one knots and contains no battle cruisers. It is probable, therefore, that the next battleship for the United States Navy will have a speed of twenty‑one to twenty‑two knots; twelve 16‑inch guns and very thick armor. It is probable also that this large number of the heaviest guns will be made possible by progress in engineering design and materials, permitting a reduction in the weight assigned for machinery and fuel. The naval architect also must provide plans to permit the vessel to carry airplanes, torpedo tubes and a large anti-aircraft battery, to protect its vitals from damage by torpedos and aerial bombs.

Such a monster of power will cost almost $50,000,000. Surely that will raise a protest from the passionate pacifist. Even the jingo and the choleric chauvinist may pause in their demands for replacements and augmented armaments. Undoubtedly it was the part of wisdom and good judgment to limit the capital-ship tonnage of the naval powers to the 5‑5‑3 ratio. The  p30 same wisdom and judgment should dictate a further reduction in capital-ship tonnage to about 350,000 for Great Britain and the United States and to 210,000 for Japan. This is one of the things that should be done but that may be left undone.

Not infrequently it is stated by self-styled strategists that airplanes have sounded the knell of battleships. Even navy and army officers — those who presumably know the history of warfare and, at least, of elementary strategy and tactics — have stated publicly that the day of the battleship is over; that one airplane costing a few thousand dollars can with one bomb destroy a great battleship costing $40,000,000 or more. Claims of similar nature were made for the automobile torpedo when it was perfected forty years ago; and these did not materialize, either when the torpedo was placed aboard a small fast boat — the torpedo boat— or when it was installed in a submarine vessel.

The gun, torpedo and bomb all have the three essential elements of a weapon of destruction — that is, range, accuracy and destructive power. Now it may be conceded that the gun has greater range and accuracy than the torpedo. A 16‑inch shell loaded with a high explosive has tremendous power for destruction, yet the explosive charge of a torpedo or a bomb is greater than that of any shell. The range of a torpedo is only about 12,000 yards. The range of the aircraft bomb may be hundreds of miles, but it has not the accuracy of the gun. The gun leads in accuracy,  p31 the aircraft bomb in range and the torpedo in drive power.

In choosing a weapon, however, the vulnerability of the carrier necessarily must be considered. It is obvious that the battleship is very much less vulnerable than is either the submarine or airplane. And the submarine is less vulnerable than the airplane. For protection the battleship relies upon armor, its own gunfire and maneuverability. The submarine protects itself by submergence. The bombing airplane has no protection except great speed, which makes it a difficult target for batteries.

Against the threat of every newly invented weapon, however, always there has been developed a method or system of parrying that weapon. The gun is the only weapon that must be conquered by its like. The threat of the torpedo boat was met by giving the battleships a large number of medium-caliber guns — the so‑called secondary battery — and building larger torpedo boats for their protection. For protection against automobile torpedoes after they are launched from a torpedo boat or submarine, capital ships are provided with blisters, or an outer skin. This skin explodes the torpedo without serious damage to the ship. Further, a battleship is so divided into small compartments that even five or six torpedoes exploding alongside may not sink it, the only effect being to increase greatly the draft and to reduce to some extent the speed.

The submarine menace is met by the gun, by destroyers,  p32 by the depth charge and by sound devices. To combat the bombing plane, there will be aircraft squadrons of fighting planes. These are small, very fast aircraft to which the larger and slower bombing plane must inevitably fall an easy victim.

Additional protection against planes is given by the installation of anti-aircraft batteries of machine guns so mounted that they may fire at any angle from the horizon to the zenith. Armored decks are also fitted, in the latest designed capital ships, to keep the bomb from damaging the machinery, magazines and other important parts. As weapons of offense at sea, airplanes have inherent limitations. The weather is one of prime importance. Their radius of action is limited to a few hundred miles. They cannot control the sea nor hold conquered territory.

In a recent statement discussing the battleship as an element of national defense, a distinguished officer and perhaps the United States Navy's leading strategist had this to say as to why a navy must have battleships:

"Trade on the sea or trade from overseas has always been borne in ships on the surface of the sea, so that the protection afforded has necessarily been by fighting ships. The efficacy of the protection has depended always and still depends upon the relative strength of the fighting ships. This fundamental requirement of superiority in fighting strength at the point where enemy ships come in contact with each other has resulted in the development of what today  p33 is known as the battleship — the ultimate development in a single unit of the maximum possible defensive and offensive power and mobility. Trade — ships carrying cargoes — must depend for their protection upon the superior fighting ability of the fighting ships that guard them.

"It goes without saying that notwithstanding the necessity for battleships, there is a corresponding necessity for the maximum possible development of those elements of warfare that contribute to the success of battleships. Life is always a growth and progress. One element of the progress of the day, so far as navies are concerned, is warfare in the air. Nations building battleships have to take this element into grave consideration and to meet in every possible way the defensive and offensive requirements which air development entails.

"It might be contended that vessels carrying aircraft alone could be used profitably unsupported by ships that place their primary dependence in war on a gun battery. Naval experience to date does not justify such a contention. Aircraft-carrying ships when unsupported fall an easy prey to vessels having long-range guns and special protection against the bombs which aircraft carry. One has only to consider the comparative helplessness of an aircraft carrier at night, or in bad weather, or in fog, to understand the tremendous difficulty under which such a vessel would operate if unsupported. It is, of course, possible to imagine ideal conditions under which the aircraft carrier  p34 might have an advantage against the battleship, but war cannot be planned for on the basis of ideal conditions; average conditions are the only safe criterion.

"In overseas expeditions where large numbers of troops may have to be transported, it is essential that the forces escorting these troops be at all times — twenty-four hours of each day — superior to any forces that may be brought against them. Such superiority may be had only through the agency of ships capable of offensive and defensive action every hour of the twenty-four. Ships that place their primary dependence upon guns are the only ones so far developed that can be depended upon for this service."

Since the War of 1812, when American frigates with their heavier guns consistently defeated British frigates, it has been the policy of the United States Navy to arm its ships with the heaviest possible batteries. Let that policy continue and America will have peace and, with a broad human sympathy, be in a position to engender a spirit of good will throughout the world.

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