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Guarding the Seas

The cruisers of the Royal Navy patrol the trade routes of the British Empire, and guarantee the protection of merchant vessels in every ocean


A photograph taken from HMS Neptune a cruiser of the Leander class

CRUISERS on manoeuvres in the North Sea. This photograph was taken from H.M.S. Neptune, a cruiser of the Leander class, having a displacement of 7,030 tons. She was laid down in 1931 and completed in 1934. Her 72,000 horse-power turbine engines give her a speed of 32i knots. Her armament includes eight 6-in. guns, four 4-in. anti-aircraft guns and eight 21-in. torpedo tubes.

NELSON and his admirals called insistently for the frigate class of warship. Equally urgent was the call for cruisers from Jellicoe and Beatty more than a century later. The modern cruiser is the lineal descendant of the old-time frigate and performs exactly the same functions in peace and war as its predecessor of Nelson’s day.

Just as there were heavy and light frigates in that era, so the cruisers in the modern British Fleet range from 10,000 tons to 4,200 tons displacement, with armaments varying from eight 8-in. 256 pounders to five 6-in. 100-pounders. The feature common to all these cruisers, whether they are large or small, is a margin of speed over the battleship proportionate to that of the frigate over the ship of the line. Speed is the first requisite in a ship designed for cruiser duties, and weight must be saved at the expense of armament and protection. A striking, if extreme, example of the disparity between the engine power of battleship and cruiser is provided by H.M.S. Rodney and H.M.S. Arethusa. H.M.S. Rodney, a battleship of 33,900 tons, has engines of 45,000 h.p. for a speed of 23 knots. H.M.S. Arethusa, a light cruiser of 5,200 tons, is equipped with engines of 64,000 h.p. to drive her at a speed of 32¼ knots.

Since considerations of weight will not allow the use of heavy armour, the cruiser must rely for protection mainly on her speed. In the latest ships there is a patch of thin armour-plate on the sides in way of the machinery spaces, and a steel deck spans the ship for the greater part of her length. The lines of a cruiser’s hull are more graceful than those of a battleship’s hull. In H.M.S. Arethusa, for example, the ratio of beam to length is approximately 1 to 10, whereas in H.M.S Nelson it is well below 1 to 7.

HMS Coventry leading destroyers during manoeuvresThe smaller type of cruiser is apt to be lively in a seaway and will ship a good deal of water when steaming at high speed; but there is nothing grander than to see such a vessel running her full-power trials in a stiff breeze. The knife-shaped stem, shearing through the water at 30 knots, as it encounters an oncoming sea, rears up and exposes 50 feet of the underbody, with its glistening red coat of anti-fouling composition. Then the bows “’scend” and plunge deep, while green seas sweep over the fore deck to burst in sheets of spray over turrets and bridge.

COMBINED NAVAL EXERCISES. This picture shows H.M.S. Coventry leading destroyers during manoeuvres. Completed in 1918, H.M.S. Coventry is a cruiser of 4,290 tons. Her engines have a designed horsepower of 40,000, and give her a speed of 29 knots.

Even when the sea is calm a cruiser steaming at full speed is not on an even keel. Her bows lift up and the stern “sits down”, so that the quarterdeck becomes a tumbling mass of water. In such conditions life on board is not comfortable; but there is a certain thrill in the sense of tremendous power conveyed by the throb of the turbines underfoot and the roar in the funnels from the forced-draught fans in the boiler-rooms.

In time of peace British cruisers are formed into squadrons, and generally voyage and exercise in company. In the event of war most of the cruisers that are not attached to the battle fleets would be sent out to operate independently. That is why the command of a fine cruiser is the ambition of every naval officer of the younger school. Such a command gives the widest scope for initiative and the best opportunity of winning distinction.

The cruiser captain is sent to sea with sealed orders, which may direct him to proceed half-way round the globe to track down a commerce raider and then act on his own initiative. He will still be in radio touch with the Admiralty and with his immediate senior, but in times of crisis it is often advisable to preserve “wireless silence” lest naval movements should be prematurely divulged.

There are about thirty-five cruisers of the Royal and Dominion Navies in full commission. Five of these are attached to the Home Fleet and nine to the Mediterranean Command. The remainder serve on foreign stations, from which they would patrol the trade routes should danger threaten. That is the most important mission which falls to the cruiser. Cruisers are the policemen of those ocean highways which form the economic arteries of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Along these highways pass ships bringing food and raw materials to home ports. The cruiser is there to see that nothing interrupts the regular flow of this traffic, and that any strange craft found loitering or behaving in a suspicious manner is “moved on” or taken into custody without delay.

Secret Destinations

Cruisers have their regular “beats”, which from time to time are visited by the “sergeant”, in the shape of the flagship. In fair weather and in foul, the lean, grey ships pass to and fro, spending so many days at sea, so many in harbour. Periodically they return to dockyard for rest, overhaul and a polish up before returning to duty. Occasionally the routes of patrols are varied so that an intending malefactor who had chosen a quiet spot for his depredations might get an unpleasant surprise. Only the Admiralty and the local Commander-in-Chief know the precise destination of any one of the foreign service cruisers at a given moment.

Apart from the battle-cruiser, there are four main types of cruiser. Thirteen ships of the “County” class, average 9,800 tons, with a speed of 32 knots and a main armament of eight 8-in. guns. Smaller cruisers of this type are H.M.S. York, of 8,250 tons, and H.M.S. Exeter, 8,390 tons, mounting six 8-in. guns. They combine great speed with powerful armament, for the modern 8-in. gun can hurl its 256-lb. high-explosive shell a distance of more than 20,000 yards. These ships, however, have little protection. They carry no side armour, and, as their designers admitted, can be disabled, if not sunk outright, by one salvo of shell or a single torpedo or mine.

A “County” class cruiser costs nearly £2,000,000 to build; an international treaty has placed a ban on the building of further vessels of this type. They are unduly large for ordinary cruiser duties, and too vulnerable to be used as battle cruisers.

“County” cruisers can be identified by their towering sides, which are almost as lofty as the freeboard of a liner. These cruisers have flush decks, three raking funnels of unequal girth, two slender pole masts, and big-gun turrets at bow and stern. The interior of a “County” class cruiser is well designed, and the accommodation for officers and men is superior to that in any other class of cruiser.

HMS Apollo is one of the most modern cruisers in the British Navy

COMPLETED IN 1936, H.M.S. Apollo is one of the most modern cruisers in the British Navy. Her displacement (7,000 tons) is small compared with that of the cruisers of the “County” class. H.M.S. Apollo, H.M.S. Amphion and H.M.A.S. Sydney form the modified Leander class of cruiser. Their length between perpendiculars is 530 feet, and their 72,030 horse power geared turbines allow a maximum speed of 32½ knots.

These cruisers are propelled by geared turbines driving four shafts at a maximum speed of 32¼ knots. The machinery develops 80,000 horse-power. Except for H.M.S. York and H.M.S. Exeter, their oil capacity is 3,400 tons, sufficient for a run of 2,300 miles at full power or of 10,400 miles at an economical speed. The 8-in. gun with which these ships are armed is fitted for quick loading and can be fired at the rate of four rounds a minute. The complement of a “County” class cruiser is 650 officers and men.

The next largest type of cruiser is the Southampton class, consisting of H.M. Ships Southampton, Newcastle, Sheffield, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Gloucester. These were all laid down in 1934-36.

The British Admiralty considered that a ship of 7,000 tons was large enough for cruiser work, but as other nations were building cruisers of from 8,500 tons to 10,000 tons displacement, it was deemed necessary to restore the balance of power and lay down a group of big British cruisers. H.M.S. Southampton and her sisters are ships of 9,000 tons, with a designed sped of 32 knots and a main armament of twelve 6-in. guns. The guns are mounted in triple turrets, a system introduced for the first time into the British Navy for guns of this calibre. Another innovation is the mounting of eight 4-in. anti-aircraft guns, instead of the four carried by earlier British cruisers. In these ships, as in the “County” class, eight torpedo tubes are installed, though opinions differ as to the value of a torpedo armament in any ship larger than a destroyer.

Nearer to the ideal type of cruiser, in the opinion of the Admiralty, are the eight ships of the Leander class, completed in 1933-36. They average 7,000 tons, can steam at 32½ knots and are armed with eight 6-in. guns in turrets, four 4-in. anti-aircraft guns, many smaller pieces and eight torpedo tubes. Built of steel with special properties, they incorporate many weight-saving devices in structure and equipment.

In the first five, H.M. Ships Leander, Neptune, Orion, Achilles and Ajax, the boiler rooms are close together and the uptakes lead into a single large funnel. The last three units, H.M.S. Amphion, H.M.S. Apollo and H.M.A.S. Sydney, have their boiler compartments more widely spaced and carry two funnels. All eight ships have proved successful, as steamers and as seaboats. On her trials H.M.S. Leander logged over 33 knots, though the engines were not forced. In 1934 H.M.S. Achilles steamed from Gibraltar to Plymouth, a distance of about 1,000 miles, at an average speed of 28½ knots. This was a record run for a man-of-war of her type. The high-grade material and equipment used in the construction of a cruiser of the Leander class brings the cost to over £1,500,000. The normal complement is 550 officers and men.

Between the 9,000-tons Southampton class and the 7,000-tons Leander class, a group of four smaller ships was built - H.M.S. Arethusa, H.M.S. Galatea, H.M.S. Penelope and H.M.S. Aurora. Their displacement is only 5,220 tons, their speed 32¼ knots, and main armament six 6-in. Guns.

The thirty-five ships described above represent the entire fleet of cruisers laid down after the war of 1914-18. The remaining twenty-eight cruisers on the active list were all laid down during that war, though some of them were not completed until long afterwards. Of these veterans, four sister ships are H.M.S. Hawkins, H.M.S. Vindictive, H.M.S. Frobisher, and H.M.S. Effingham, of 9,996 tons to 9,770 tons. In three of these ships the original armament of seven 7·5 in. 200-pounder guns is to be replaced by a battery of 6-in. Guns.

HMS Devonshire was laid down in 1926 and completed in 1929

A “COUNTY” CLASS CRUISER with a displacement of 9,750 tons. H.M.S. Devonshire was laid down in 1926 and completed in 1929. There are thirteen cruisers of this type in the British Navy; further construction has been banned by an international treaty. The cost of building a “County” class cruiser amounted to nearly £2,000,000. The 80,000 horse-power geared turbines of H.M.S. Devonshire give her a speed of 32¼ knots.

H.M.S. Emerald (7,550 tons) and H.M.S. Enterprise (7,580 tons) were laid down in 1918 and are the fastest cruisers in the Navy. In light condition they can make 33 knots. So heavy was the 80,000 horse - power machinery that armament had to be limited to seven 6-in. guns. Sixteen torpedo tubes, however, are mounted in either ship. This is the most powerful torpedo battery carried by any ship in the Navy.

The eight “D” class cruisers are much smaller, and displace only 4,850 tons. They were built for a speed of 29 knots. Six 6-in. guns comprise their main armament. The thirteen ships of the “C” class are about 600 tons smaller. They mount five 6-in. guns and their speed is equal to that of the “D” class vessels.

You can read more on “Battleships and Cruisers”, “Going to Sea” and “The Navy Goes to Work” on this website.