British and German Battlecruisers: Their Development and Operations. By Michele Cosentino and Ruggero Stanglini. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2016.
Reviewed by Dr Gregory P. Gilbert
THERE are a number of excellent reference works on World War I battlecruisers so it is a reasonable question to ask: Why do we need another one? In truth the latest work by Cosentino and Stanglini is much more than a rehash of past information released to coincide with the flood of books released to mark the centenary of the 1914-1918 war.
Their work, for the first time, present a ‘global picture’ that includes historical, political, strategic, economic, industrial, technological and operational aspects, to assess the performance of British and German battlecruisers. The authors follow a different approach by bringing together these elements that have generally been treated separately in previous publications.
The first chapter describe the underlying naval policies that led to the strategic requirement for battlecruisers by both the navies of Britain and Germany. Next the author’s describe the ‘birth of the battlecruiser’ in terms of the specific strategic, economic and technological challenges leading up to World War I. The rise of armoured cruisers and the introduction of the ‘all-big-gun’ capital ship led to the requirements of the first ‘Invincible’ class battlecruisers. The strategic and economic realities of the British Empire led to the development of the unique large, fast, all-big-gun, cruiser which was soon conveniently labelled a battlecruiser to distinguish it from the ‘Dreadnought’ type of battleship. The battlecruiser concept generated significant design and build challenges – hull and protection, propulsion and machinery, fuels, guns and fire control, electrical machinery (Green steam to the British old salts), wireless telegraphy and production limitations. All these challenges were addressed and the battlecruiser ship systems evolved until by 1920, when HMS ‘Hood’ was commissioned, the battlecruiser design had reached a peak of efficiency within its imposed strategic limitations. The long and useful life of the ‘Hood’ and other British battlecruisers, which lasted into the 1940s, demonstrated that the battlecruisers did not become obsolete overnight, however after WWI the operational requirements for battlecruisers and battleships merged into the high-speed, super battleship type. In retrospect the development of the battlecruiser should be seen as a critical step in the design and evolution of the high speed battleship of World War II and the Cold-War periods.
Chapters 3 and 4 provide comprehensive details of the battlecruisers of the Royal Navy and the German Navy (Kaiserliche Marine) respectively. Although much of this information is available elsewhere in previous publications, ‘British and German Battlecruisers’ contains the most complete descriptions that have ever been assembled together in one book. These chapters also contain significant new material taken from archival sources and republished in a useful and readable form. For instance, I did appreciate the level of technical detail provided on each class of ship, whether they be British or German. Too often, in the past, such technical detail has been glossed over or left unsaid, but today when the majority of readers have not experienced the whistle of steam propulsion and auxiliaries nor experienced the fire methodology of large-calibre ship’s guns or the sickening thud of a large-calibre shell against one’s own armour plate, it is difficult for a reader to appreciate the importance of the ship technologies of the early 20th Century. Fortunately this book has sufficient technical detail to help bridge the gap between modern expectations and past practice.
Chapter 5 discusses the operational use of British and German battlecruisers throughout WWI. Here the major controversies of the past are examined in light of recent assessment and reconsideration of the evidence, and clear outcomes are presented. I, for one, see these as a useful summary of the corrections to the ‘mythology’ of battlecruisers that are long overdue. A single example will suffice. On p. 187 the author’s state: ‘British battlecruisers have often been criticised for their poor protection but the major risk (and, at Jutland the cause of the loss of three of them) was not actually insufficient thickness of decks and belts but fires and ammunition explosions. Thus, British losses were caused not so much by design choices as by incautious storage of propellant charges and ammunition-handling procedures that were incompatible with safety.’ This is a conclusion with which I would wholeheartedly agree. Indeed – the influence of operational mis-statements by senior naval commanders on the design of battlecruisers after Jutland – would be a useful subject for a future naval history research student to examine.
As with most Seaforth publications this book is well presented, extensively illustrated and contains a useful bibliography and index. The colour plate section and the Appendix describing battlecruisers of other nations provide additional useful information. The ship details and accompanying line drawings by Stanglini are excellent. Unfortunately part of the detail shown in these battlecruiser line drawings is often swallowed by the binding.
‘British and German Battlecruisers’ is highly recommended for the WWI buff and the naval historian. It is both a delight to read and a useful sourcebook. Enjoy!