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Waste of Steel: U.S. Navy Battlecruisers Were The Ultimate Paper Tiger

U.S. Navy Battlecruisers
Image: Creative Commons.

One of the mightiest warships of the U.S. Navy was also ironically the least useful. So goes the tale of the U.S. Navy battlecruisers. 

The U.S.S. Alaska and her sister ship U.S.S. Guam were the largest cruisers constructed by U.S. shipyards during World War II, ironically to counter a threat that never materialized. Although fast and powerful in their own right, the ships were rendered obsolete as offensive weapons by naval airpower and served out the war as escorts for aircraft carriers.

U.S. Navy Battlecruisers: How they Came About

The cruiser warship was conceived in the nineteenth century, as the advent of steam powder, shells, and other naval innovations reshaped seapower. The cruiser was conceived as a fast, heavily armed, but relatively lightly armored ship that could take on smaller groups of destroyers, protect civilian merchant ships, and carry out scouting missions. The cruiser was a ship that provided an important “economy of force” option that allowed naval commanders to detach them for missions that didn’t quite rate a battleship’s attention.

The U.S. Navy liked cruisers, and built a total of eighteen heavy cruisers before the outbreak of World War II. These fought in a number of pitched battles early in the war, particularly during the Guadalcanal campaign, before sufficient numbers of aircraft carriers eventually made air power the dominant arm of surface combat.

During the 1930s, the U.S. Navy suspected the Imperial Japanese Navy was building several large surface combatants to operated as commerce raiders. The IJN was believed to be building several fast, high-speed heavy cruisers along the lines of Germany’s Scharnhorst-class cruisers. A heavily armed commerce raider operating across the vastness of the Pacific, raiding Allied shipping was a real concern.

The U.S. Navy decided the best defense was a good offense and planned to build a small fleet of large cruisers, or CBs, to chase them down Japanese commerce raiders. Named after U.S. territories, the lead ship Alaska and her sister ships Guam, Hawaii, Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Samoa would hunt these commerce raiders down and sink them. Fast, heavily armed and with the range to hunt their prey, these ships–sometimes called America’s battlecruiser fleet—-would have been powerful enough to sink their opponents with minimal support.

U.S. Navy Battlecruisers: An Interesting Concept, in Theory

The battlecruisers were exceptional vessels. Each was 808 feet long, just sixty feet short of an Essex-class fleet carrier, with a beam of ninety-one feet. Fully loaded the ships displaced 34,253 tons, making each heavier than early examples of the Essex ships. The ships were powered by eight Babcock and Wilcox boilers driving four General Electric geared turbines. The cruisers could sail for twelve thousand nautical miles at fifteen knots and had a maximum speed of thirty-three knots.

Alaska and her sister ships were well-armed for their time, each sporting three turrets (two facing forward, one rearward) armed with three twelve-inch guns. Secondary armament consisted of a dozen five-inch (127-millimeter) dual purpose guns useful for smaller ships and aircraft. The ships would likely operate alone outside of the U.S. air-power umbrella, and for that reason were lavishly supplied with anti-aircraft guns. Alaska and her siblings each had fifty-six forty-millimeter and thirty-four twenty-millimeter guns AA guns. Each ship carried two aircraft catapults and four Vought OS2U seaplanes for scouting duties.

Where the Alaska-class came up light, however, was in armor. Much like the original turn of the century dreadnoughts, the CBs traded armor for speed, both as a means for chasing commerce raiders and avoiding enemy fire. Armor ranged from 9 to 5 inches of steel belt, 12.8 inches on the turrets, and 4 inches at the main deck. The conning tower had 10.6 inches of armor.

The battlecruisers were built New York Shipbuilding, with the first, Alaska, laid down just ten days after Pearl Harbor. Alaska (CB-1) was launched on August 15, 1943, by which time it was clear the Japanese had no such heavy commerce raiders. World navies had also been rattled by the sinking of the battlecruiser HMS Hood by the German battleship Bismarck and the destruction of another battlecruiser, HMS Repulse, by Japanese air attack. Heavy surface combatants were not doing well in the new age of naval air power, and heavy combatants with light armor like the Alaska-class ships were particularly not doing well. The U.S. Navy canceled construction of the last three ships in the class, Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Samoa in 1943.

Deprived of their mission, Alaska and Guam served in the Pacific as escorts for the fast carrier task forces, their heavy anti-air armament useful in downing Japanese aircraft. Both were transferred to the Naval Reserve in 1947 and ultimately scrapped in 1961. The third ship, Hawaii was 82 percent complete when the war ended. Although some consideration was given to making her a guided missile or command ship ultimately she too was scrapped.

U.S. Navy Battlecruisers: Just a Waste of Steel?

As good as they were, the Alaska class suffered a particularly cruel fate. The ships were outmoded even before they were built, and in hindsight it was an error to order six battlecruisers on the basis of an unsubstantiated rumor. Outsticked by airpower’s long reach, the cruisers became guardians of the very ships and aircraft that made them obsolete. Regardless, the Alaska-class ships were excellent ships that would have performed admirably for the task they were built for. If only the rumors of Japanese commerce raiders had been true.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. 

Written By

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Fransisco. His work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Esquire, The National Interest, Car and Driver, Men's Health, and many others. He is the founder and editor for the blogs Japan Security Watch, Asia Security Watch and War Is Boring.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Miguel Capilla Miralles

    October 12, 2021 at 5:14 am

    When they were conceived, in the early 1930s, almost nobody in the world saw that the battleship era was coming to and end with the carrier’s taking the main role. The Japanese B-65 become more than a rumour, they just lacked time and resources (the underwater protection and main weapons was tested and the ships were finally aproved por construction on 1942). Just like every last battleship design they were 20 years late.

    That aside, I see 2 huge errors here. Fist one, is the ship classification. They were not battlecruisers but large cruisers. While they look like the same looking at the specifications on paper, the diference lies in the design. Battlecruisers had a battleship-like internal design, while the large cruisers were designed like upsized cruisers (the Alaskas were like upsized Baltimores). The true USNAVY battlecruisers were the original Lexington class design, before the Washington Naval Treaty limitations repurposed them as carriers.

    The second error, again, is about ship classification but this time the Scharnhorst class. They were not battlecruisers but battleships. Germans classified them like battleships and British initially said they were battlecruisers. But after the war, and after they had more data about their design and construction, also they reclassified them as battleships. The only big difference here was the caliber. Again, this was due to treaty (weight) limitations (the British had the same problem with the King George V class battleships and also the original plans for the USNAVY North Carolina class was going to have lower caliber guns). After suffering heavy damage in drydock, the Gneasenau (the second Scharnhorst class ship) was undergoing repairs and upgrades to fit the originally intended 15 inch guns (like the Bismarck ones).

  2. Paul

    October 12, 2021 at 8:02 am

    A Task Force works as a Team, and Cruisers where then and are now successful ship class as they bring more Capabilities that smaller vessels cannot.

  3. Thomas W Hodge

    October 12, 2021 at 9:21 am

    your absolutely right, the battle wagons, were instrumental in kamakazi protection for the flat tops, and ask the japs defending the Pacific theater islands if they were paper tigers!!

  4. Jim

    October 12, 2021 at 10:51 am

    They weren’t obsolete for the role of carrier escort, in fact they were perhaps a more practical option than most battleships which were also relegated to the role in that the Alaska class could keep pace whereas only the Iowas and North Carolinas could attend without forcing the task force to slow down. The heavy anti-aircraft batteries on the Alaska put her almost on par with the BBs as they sported the same secondaries and AA guns.

    At the same time they packed guns which while light compared to the contemporary BBs, weren’t to be trifled with – anything less than a BB that did get close to the carriers would suffer. While they wouldn’t have ran off the Yamato at Leyte Gulf (which did retreat from destroyers and escort carriers), Alaska would have been a dangerous foe with that fleet for the Japanese cruisers, destroyers and older BBs.

    The advent of jets, SAMs and chain guns made all the AA escorts obsolete.

  5. Mark Alexander Smith

    October 12, 2021 at 12:13 pm

    Some misconceptions and the same old nonsense about battlecruisers.

    1. Admiral Fisher originally conceived of a ‘cruiser-killer’ to hunt down armored commerce raiding Cruiser warships – that is warships that ‘cruised’ up and down the shipping lanes. The original HMS Invincible had 12″ guns like USS Alaska. Germany followed this concept of the cruiser-killer. German ‘battle-cruisers’ would be armed with 11″ or 8.27″ or some other caliber of guns which they were sure would defeat any normal Commerce-raider. Things changed though. Admiral Fisher then thought that these large Cruisers could fight in fleet actions. In other words, they could take part in the Line of Battle and thereby deserve the moniker ‘Battle Cruiser.’ That is why subsequent ships designated as Battle Cruisers had 15″ guns. At the battle of Jutland, gun calibers of less than 15″ were not very effective. RN Battle Cruisers out gunned by a significant margin the German Battle cruisers but they were let down by a stupid decision to ignore safety procedures in ammo handling, poor gunnery skills and poor ammunition quality.

    HMS Hood was not really a Battlecruiser. She was originally designed as such but following the battle of Jutland she was re-designed to carry more armor. Hood had an angled main belt which gave her very fine lines and her belt was in fact thicker than that on Bismarck. However, the technology in the 1930’s had moved on from the first World War. Naval gunnery could make use of higher elevations to hit targets at longer ranges and hit the horizontal deck armor with plunging fire. Like Bismarck, HMS Hood had ‘turtle deck armor’ which means that the majority of the deck armor extended from the top of the main belt on the Port side to the top of the main belt on the Starboard side. This was OK when AP shells had simple contact fuses but in the Second World War, AP shells had delayed action fuses and the deck armor was not sufficient. That is why the Hood tried to close the range quickly and was only able to fire with her forward two turrets.

    The Alaska Class were not needed with so many fast Carriers available and so few Japanese Heavy Cruisers at sea. Plus the US had no merchant marine to protect.

    So either as a battlecruiser (cruiser killer) or as a Battlecruiser for fleet actions, the Alaska’s did not meet the requirement.

  6. Mark Alexander Smith

    October 12, 2021 at 12:25 pm

    The Scharnhorst Class were not Battlecruisers? I think they were battlecruisers. They were built in response to the French Dunkerque Class battlecruisers. They complied with the Treaty restrictions. The initial sea trials showed that they could make no less than 36kts but were very ‘wet forward’ making their front gun turrets unworkable. Scharnhorst went back to the builders and was given the iconic ‘Atlantic bow’ for more free-board. Even then, Scharnhorst was still wet forward in heavy weather. She was not as good a sea ship as HMS Renown (a real Battle-cruiser – no dispute there). Had Scharnhorst and her sister been given 15″ guns as planned, she would have been even more down by the bow. Even with 15″ guns, I think she might have just about met the 35,000 ton limit.

  7. Christopher Williams

    October 12, 2021 at 2:01 pm

    In a sense I agree with the improper classification issues assigned, however given the fact that they were designed to be faster than standard cruisers of the day as well as more heavily armed, I still think they would have earned their battlecruiser designation by virtue of the fact that the Brooklyn and later class of cruisers mounted no larger than 8 in mk 45 gun with a maximum range under 20k yards. In contrast, the 12in mk 45 guns of the battlecruiser as fitted could shoot in excess of 23k yards very close to the older 16 in mk45 guns of the North Carolina class and on par with the 15 in guns of the Bismarck. Even though the Bismarck has heavier armor, given the rated speed of the Alaska meant it would have had a hard time ranging the Alaska before the Alaska’s guns found the Bismarck; the 12 in guns of the Alaska firing a new type of armor piercing round would have had no difficulty gaining plunge for damage on the Bismarck before the latter could answer back.

    As far as the Scharnhorst and Gniessenau were concerned, they were neither battlecruisers nor full up battleships but were considered as pocket battleships by the German navy due to the fact that both, if I’m not mistaken mounted three triple turrets armed with 11 in guns which meant that were either one to face an Alaska class battlecruiser they would have been outgunned and possibly outflanked, their nominal speed being 31 knots max where the Alaska class could achieve 33 knots. That coupled with Alaska’s fire control radar and the larger caliber of guns, they probably would have fared better then their German opponents but it is likely they still works have suffered hits; the armor protection between the two was comparable. I think the designation of battlecruiser though hard to justify still fits as their gun size and overall dimensions rivaled even those of the Lexington class of battlecruiser turned aircraft carrier, considering the fact they were a scant 100 feet shorter than the Essex class carriers they ended up screening.

  8. Allan Williams

    October 12, 2021 at 2:34 pm

    I thought these were more in response to the German pocket battleships…Deutschland class.

  9. Richard Dickson

    October 12, 2021 at 11:51 pm

    This article shows a narrow view which does not cover the real reason for those large cruisers being built in the first place. The article was based on a very shallow view of cruiser warfare at the beginning of WW2 which was well before the US joined in.

  10. Miguel Capilla Miralles

    October 13, 2021 at 6:13 am

    As I said, Alaskas are “large cruisers”. Large cruisers is a different class above the heavy cruiser. Also Dunkerques were recognized as fast battleships by everyone. Germany had no battlecruisers after World War One (the Deutschland class was classified as “Panzerschiffe” that means something like “armoured cruiser” or “armoured ship” and are a class on their own).

    There were almost no battlecruisers at that time. Only 3 from the british and a turkish one. Around 10 years prior to the war, the Hood was in need of a extensive horizontal armour refit that was delayed year after year because peace time politicians don’t like to waste money on that kind of things. If she had undergone it, she would have been reclassified as a fast battleships because like Mark says in a comment above she had an impressive vertical protection on par with many battleships from World War Two era.

    One example of battlecruisers being reclassified as fast battleships are the japanese Kongo class battlecruisers. They underwent extensive armour , propulsion and gunnery upgrades (increasing gun elevation and changing the aiming systems). While they were underprotected against most of theyr rivals, they were faster and able to outrange most american battleships and were the most active Japanese capital ships of the war.

    Cristopher says that the Alaskas would have been reclassified as a battlecruiser because they were faster than most cruisers of the era. Like I said, the main difference between “large cruisers” and battlecruisers is the armour layout (I’m talking about how it’s positioned and not thickness). Both classes have the same cruiser killer role) so it’s very unlikely the would have been reclassified. Don’t think about “large cruisers” as Something below the a battlecruiser. They are the worthy successors of an old class.

  11. CAPT Jim Philpitt

    October 13, 2021 at 7:52 am

    Good article, although in the next to the last paragraph I believe Kyle may be confusing the term “Naval Reserve” (which is the Navy’s Reserve Component of personnel, aircraft, units, and shore installations and activities, renamed in the US Navy Reserve in 2005) with that of “Reserve Fleet” (now known as a Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility).

    ALASKA and GUAM were consigned to the Reserve Fleet, not the Naval Reserve when they were decommissioned and “mothballed” at one such facility, the former Military Ocean Terminal Bayonne, New Jersey. MOTBY was closed per a 1995 BRAC decision in 1999.

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