Friday 17 February 2017

Protected Cruisers in the Pre-Dreadnought Era

It is always gratifying to an author to received feedback from readers, particularly when detailed research to support a story is recognised and appreciated. I was therefore delighted to be contacted recently by an American reader, Douglas R. Smith, who was intrigued by the central role played in my novel Britannia’s Spartan by HMS Leonidas, a fictional member of the innovative and real-life Leander class of “protected cruiser” which entered service with the Royal Navy in the 1880s. I’m proud therefore to welcome Douglas as a guest blogger today. I’ve no doubt you’ll enjoy his article.

by Douglas R. Smith

The British Empire was vast and overextended in the late 1800s, and dependent upon vulnerable sea lanes. To compensate it had a Navy equal to the next two contenders combined. British bankers and businessmen built a network of intercontinental telegraph lines, reaching all of the way to New Zealand by 1876, with London at the center. The role of protected cruisers was for protecting commerce, and raiding that of the enemy, often operating distantly and independently around the globe.
1891 Telegraph Map 

Telegraph Connections (Telegraphen Verbindungen), 1891 Stielers Hand-Atlas, Plate No. 5, Weltkarte in Mercators Projection. Uploaded to en:Wikipedia on 03:53, 16 February 2006 by w:User:Flux.books == Licensing == {{PD-
"Britainia's Spartan" by Antoine Vanner is the story of the shakedown cruise of the fictional HMS Leonidas, first of her class. Captain Nicholas Dawlish has earned the honor of being her first commander. We have followed his meteoric career in earlier books, and like all career people, he must struggle to find a balance, and determine if that balance is worth the personal cost. In a similar way a warship must find a balance between speed, firepower, and protection, and do so at an acceptable cost in lives and resources. This is an outline of naval dynamics with respect to protected cruisers in the dawn of the Pre-Dreadnought Era, when hydraulics, electricity, and triple reciprocating steam engines were enhancing the capabilities of warships, but before submarines, destroyers, and airplanes, much less carriers and tenders for them, changed the nature of naval warfare. 
HMS Leonidas - Nicholas Dawlish's command in Britannia's Spartan

HMS Leander, analog to the Leonidas
Armed with ten 6" breechloaders, and carried two 2nd class torpedo boats. 
She became a destroyer depot ship in 1904.
Source : "The Navy and Army Illustrated" Scanned by Steve Johnson.
Downloaded from Steve Johnson's cyber-heritage website :
Armored cruisers ( the Russian Navy favored them ) relied on a steel belt for protection, much the same as the battleships. Often a belt included a ram in the bow, a relic of ironclad steamships fighting against wooden ships.  But since weight was the enemy of speed, armored cruisers were little better than battleships at commerce raiding. Not too cost effective. Protected cruisers relied on clever use of curved steel to deflect shells away from, and coal bunkers to protect, the machinery and magazines below water level. It worked well provided you didn't collide with armored ships. The weight savings resulted in greater speed and the range to defend a far-flung empire.

It's always nice to have superior range in a main weapon. That's been true ever since the trebuchet. You can hit the enemy, but they can't hit back. HMS Leonidas had a main battery of all 6" breech loading rifles. A bigger gun could do more damage, but a contemporary  7", 8", 9", or even 10" breach loader wouldn't necessarily have more velocity, accuracy, or effective range ( about 10,000 yards). It would require separate powder charges and shells in the magazine, complicate handling,  adding weight and reducing speed, particularly as a bow chaser, where it would be most advantageous. The alternative solution would have been to develop lighter shells for long range situations, but the trade-off would be reduced impact.
Japanese protected cruiser Izumi left elevation plan
The British-built protected cruiser Chilean Esmeralda 1884  (aka IJN Izumi after 1894 ).
A bow ram, 10" chasers, a 6" broadside, and 3 sizes of other guns, 
but no torpedo launchers until the sale and refit. 
Source: Janes Fighting Ships, 1904 edition Sampson, Low, Marston and Co, London
In Nelson's era, sailing ships of the line tended to have lighter weapons as the decks got higher, ranging from 32-pounders to swivel guns. It didn't much matter at "pistol shot range" in the days of sail when rate of fire was the key.  As the range opened up in the Pre-Dreadnought Era, it became difficult to correct the aim because they couldn't differentiate the splashes. The continuous smoke from the rapid-fire weapons never cleared, so they couldn't see well enough to aim anything properly. The innovative “all big gun” design of the HMS Dreadnought solved these issues.

Adding extra "tools" to the armament to anticipate a multitude of situations, such as several small rapid-fire breach loaders of various sizes to defend against torpedo boats, is a design temptation for an independent command. This "Swiss Army knife approach" requires more crew and training, complicates ammunition storage and handling, and versatility comes at the expense of role specialization and refinement.

Torpedoes as we know them were in the early stages, with an effective range limit of only 800 yards, less for a moving target. Lethal, but more of a coup d' grace than a stand-off weapon. HMS Leonidas carried two launchers on each broadside. Pairs of torpedoes are much harder to avoid than solo ones, but crippled ships aren't so nimble. Perhaps it wasn't a very practical addition to the armament.

An alternative arrangement would be for the cruiser to carry a pair of torpedo boats, (like HMS Leander, and the fictional Kiroshima in Britannia’s Spartan) which could be launched for coordinated night attacks. More skill, but more effect. In terms of costs in cash and lives, it takes a lot of torpedo boats to equal a battleship, so they were the emerging threat at the time. France embraced them as part of her “Jeune Ecole” doctrine.  The Americans were developing flywheel powered torpedoes, which had no telltale bubble trails. A pair of torpedo boats carried aft would lift the bow and improve the ship's trim, offer an option against a battleship (when a gun fight was out of the question) , and would enhance blockading a hostile port or protecting a friendly one (more so with the addition of a few sea mines) . They might also come in handy for patrolling, carrying messages, search and rescue, or on convoy duty. They add weight, but would replace some boats and torpedo launchers. 
HMS Vulcan, a torpedo boat depot ship launched in 1889 carried six 16' torpedo boats,
two counter-mining launches, and eight 4.7" guns.
From 'The Royal Navy : a history from the earliest times to the present' Vol 7 by William Laird Clowes, 
published 1903 by Samson.Low, Marston and Co. London.
Available at, 
Public Domain, File:HMS Vulcan 1889.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Gatling being fired from a fighting top
Ships retained masts, yards, and sails as backup propulsion and to stretch the coal supply on long voyages, but the sailing rigs had less area and the ships more weight than their predecessors, and weren't practical. In combat, these rigs often became a liability that would obstruct a battery, create splinters, or act as a sea anchor when hit. Radios hadn't been invented yet, so they didn't need an antennae mast. They did still need signal halyard and lookout platforms, and they were good places to mount Gatling guns and search lights to defend against night torpedo boat attacks. An observer or gunner couldn't see much from a mainmast close to the smoke stacks. A foremast and it's supports interfered with the bow chaser and the view from the bridge. It took years for naval architects to sort things out.

The first designated torpedo boat destroyer went into service in 1895. Navies would adopt submarines at the turn of the century, radio 1905, HMS Dreadnought in 1906, and floatplanes circa 1910. In 1912 the effective range of the torpedo was as much as 6,000 yards. By then the value and versatility of the destroyer was proven, and they were replacing torpedo boats. Naval warfare would become "modern". But in the early 1880s, other cruisers, battleships, and torpedo boats were the recognized perils, and how to optimize the new cruisers to fulfil the role of commerce raiders or protectors was the question.

Douglas R. Smith was born in Pennsylvania in 1959, where he developed an interest in history and reading historical fiction. This included Pre-Dreadnought navies, because they established both Japan and the USA as world powers. He worked in agriculture, sales, and insurance. Now he and his wife Karen are in Wisconsin, enjoying their retirement, dining, Disney, and travel.

Britannia's Spartan 

Six-inch breech loading guns represented the cutting edge of naval technology in the early 1880s. In my novel Britannia’s Spartan they are seen in use on both British and Japanese ships. The splendid woodcut below shows Japanese crews managing just such a weapon in the war of 1895 against China. 

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