Treaty Cruisers

Treaty Cruisers: the first International Warship Building Competition. By Leo Marriott. Pen and Sword Books Ltd. First Published 2005, Republished 2019

Reviewed by Greg Swinden

The Washington Naval Treaty of 1921 was meant to limit the size (both tonnage and warship numbers) of the navies operated by Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Japan and the United States.  It was envisaged the subsequent treaty would prevent a repeat of the accelerated warship construction that had helped push the European nations to war in 1914;  however the treaty was doomed to fail and in some respects created its own new naval arms race that partly led to another war in 1939.

Leo Marriott, an air traffic controller and historian, has written a number of books on aviation, naval and military subjects including Treaty Cruisers, Catapult Aircraft, Jets at Sea and Early Jet Fighters: British and American 1944-1954.  Treaty Cruisers was originally published in 2005 and republished in 2019 (both in hard copy and e-book) and remains one of the best accounts of the background and building of heavy cruisers during the inter war period.  

The book begins with an analysis of the Washington Naval Conference, held in the United States during 12 November 1921 – 6 February 1922, which established tonnage limitations for the five signatory nations, and Germany, as well as the design constraints for the various types of warships.  Amongst these was the heavy cruiser which was set at a maximum of 10,000 tons and with a main armament not exceeding 8 inch guns.   Due to these limitations the ships became well known at ‘Treaty Cruisers’.

Each involved nation interpreted the Washington Naval Treaty based upon their strategic needs such as Britain’s requirement to protect is global sea lines of communication and similarly for the United States while maintaining a semi-isolationist view while fearing the rise of Japanese militarism. France and Italy had overseas colonies to maintain and both saw the Mediterranean as ‘their sea’ while Japan and later Germany, as military dictatorships, acted in their own best interests. Therefore each nation used its tonnage ‘allocation’ to build its inter-war cruiser force as it saw fit. This led to different design features such as ship size, armament (which often failed to fully take into account the threat of air attack in the future), armour, range and speed and the use of embarked catapult launched aircraft. The book provides a chapter, and supporting technical appendices, for each nation’s cruisers.

Treaty Cruisers concludes with an analysis of how each country’s heavy cruiser force operated during World War II, in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, South East Asia and the vast Pacific Ocean.  The cruisers operated in roles both expected such as convoy and task group escort, patrols to maintain sea lines of communication and ship to ship actions but also in the more mundane but equally important naval gunfire support role – especially in the Pacific campaign.  

For the RAN the Washington Treaty created two notable events.  The first was the inclusion of the RAN in the Royal Navy tonnage quota which saw the battle-cruiser HMAS Australia scuttled off Sydney Heads in April 1924 in order to increase Britain’s ability to build newer ships.    While many in Australia at the time mourned the ship’s passing the disposal was mostly symbolic as Australia, despite being only 11 years old, was well and truly obsolete by this stage.  

Secondly the RAN acquired two ‘Treaty’ cruisers in the late 1920s; the 8-inch County class cruisers HMA Ships Australiaand Canberra.   Both saw active service during World War II with Canberra badly damaged and later scuttled after the Battle of Savo Island in August 1942 (she absorbed many shell hits and a torpedo strike yet remained afloat and, with the benefit of hindsight, could have been towed out of the operational area and repaired rather than sunk).  Australia was badly damaged by Kamikaze attacks at Leyte Gulf (October 1944) and Lingayen Gulf (January 1945) but was repaired and continued to serve on until 1954 – both ships a testament to the quality of their construction.  

Overall Treaty Cruisers is a good analysis and worth the read.  

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