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US Navy Interwar Cruiser Design and Development


MIDN 1/C Andy Rucker


Professor McBride
28 February 2005

During the years between World War I and World War II, the

cruiser evolved from something resembling a minor battleship to

a type similar to a minor battle cruiser. After expending huge

amounts of money on the naval arms race that preceded World War

I, the great powers of the world agreed to limit the size and

composition of their navies by the Washington Treaty of 1922. In

order to prevent the transformation of cruisers into

battleships, the treaty limited the type to a displacement of

10,000 tons and guns no larger than 8 inch. However, combining

heavy armor, high speed, and large guns was impossible to do on

the 10,000 ton limit. Thus, American naval architects in the

1920’s and 1930’s were forced to make sacrifices in protection

to maintain the speed and armament required. Historians have

since labeled the resulting ship type the “Treaty Cruiser.”

Even before the interwar period, cruisers played a vital

role in American naval policy. Cruisers were a key component of

the new Navy from the outset of American naval reconstruction.

Starting in 1883, the United States Congress authorized three

cruisers that formed the core of the “Squadron of Evolution,”

demonstrating America’s renewed commitment to naval power. The

US Navy envisioned the cruiser as a multi-purpose ship and over

the course of the next several decades the cruiser evolved

slowly and its missions changed little. One of the principal

tasks cruisers were intended to perform was to be the fast

scouting arm of the fleet. Before the advent of aircraft and

wireless telegraphy, cruisers performed the hazardous but

necessary duty of locating the enemy fleet, discerning its

composition, and returning that intelligence to one’s own fleet

by steaming back to it at full speed and relaying the

information visually. This was tactical scouting, and it was

crucial to the outcome of a naval battle at that time. Cruisers

also to be performed strategic scouting which could determine

not only the course of a battle, but the outcome of a war.

Strategic scouting, also described as distant scouting, involved

roughly fixing the location of an enemy fleet as it left port or

arrived in a war zone.1

Secondary to the scouting role was that of chasing down

enemy commerce raiders. American naval officers, informed by the

disaster wrought by Confederate raiders on Union shipping during

the Civil War, were consistently concerned about preventing a

repeat occurrence in another general naval war. The logic was

that if the enemy were to use a fast and well-armed ship to sink

merchant vessels, then an equally fast and well-armed ship would

be needed to counter it. Finally, the cruiser had to be able to

perform what was referred to as “peace time cruising,” where by

the cruiser would travel to distant ports of call and show the
Norman Friedman, U.S. Cruisers: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis:
Naval Institute Press, 1984), 3.

flag of its nation, demonstrating that government’s concern with

the area as well as its power.2

In the late 19th century and early 20th century technical

limitations made building one ship that could perform all of

these missions impossible. For example, early steam propulsion

was limited to reciprocating engines that were inefficient,

bulky, and allowed for maximum speeds of only 20 to 24 knots. If

engines large enough to reach high speeds were fitted to a ship,

armor and armament necessarily had to be sacrificed. Thus, the

many missions assigned to cruisers led to several distinct types

of cruiser in the US Navy by the outbreak of World War I in

1914. Scout cruisers were built with light armor and armament,

but with the highest speed possible. Armored cruisers, on the

other hand, were built with heavier armament and armor

sufficient enough to withstand a hit from their own battery. In

this sense, armored cruisers became minor battleships and served

as such. The protected cruiser was a third type that was

something of a compromise. It sacrificed some armor to gain

speed over an armored cruiser and was better armed than a scout

cruiser. However, it was still slower than the scout cruiser and

the type came to be regarded as terribly vulnerable.

The aftermath of the First World War markedly changed this

division of cruiser designs. Technological innovations such as

Friedman, 3

the submarine, aircraft, long range torpedoes and gunnery, and

steam turbines coupled with reduction gearing impacted the

supposed role of the cruiser greatly. Additionally, the end of

World War I left the balance of naval power forever changed.

Germany’s defeat and the subsequent scuttling of the High Seas

Fleet in Scappa Flow ended her reign as a competitive naval

power. The US Navy was pushing hard for equality with the

British Royal Navy. Japan, having taken over German territorial

possessions in the Pacific and increasingly seeing both Great

Britain and the United States as rivals, had renewed motivation

for increasing the size of its fleet. Thus, in the years

immediately following the Armistice in 1918, the world’s powers

appeared to be locked into another naval arms race.

However, the Washington Naval Conference of 1922 diffused

this situation. The resulting treaty signed by the five powers

of the United States, Britain, Japan, France, and Italy limited

naval construction through limitations on tonnage and other

characteristics. Battleships, being the main symbol of naval

power and the most expensive ship type, were regulated heavily

with an imposed 10 year hiatus in new construction and a gross

tonnage limit. Cruisers were somewhat less closely limited,

since there was no total tonnage limitation. However, individual

ships were still limited to 10,000 tons maximum displacement and

guns no larger than 8 inches.3 It was under these treaty

limitations and the technological advanced mentioned previously

that the US Navy thus began developing the first of what came to

be known as Treaty Cruisers.

American design work on the first ships to conform to the

10,000 ton limit actually began before the Washington Naval

conference was concluded. In hearings conducted before the

General Board of the Navy in 1920, the characteristics of a new

class of scout cruisers were debated. The design was to be armed

with “not less than 6 – 8” guns on the center line.”4 This ship

was also to be equipped with oil-fired boilers to enable

“smokeless steaming,” and have a “full speed of not less than 35

knots.”5 However, to attain these features the ship was to carry

belt armor only 3 inches thick, and deck armor that was only 2 ¼

inches thick.6 In addition to these features, the General Board

dictated these new scout cruisers be fitted to carry aircraft

and torpedoes, as well as “be fitted as flag ships.”7 These

particular aspects of this design speak of the growing

importance of aviation to a cruiser’s scouting duties, as well

as the view that flag ship duty fitted cruisers because they

Friedman, 4
United States Navy Department General Board, Hearings before the General
Board of the Navy, 1917-1950 (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Incorporated,
1983), microfilm, 1920, 323.
Navy General Board Hearings from 1920, 324.
Navy General Board Hearings from 1920, 323.
Navy General Board Hearings from 1920, 323.

were large and fast ships. One final note of interest from these

1920 debates is the use of the term “light cruiser” in

conjunction with the design. In fact, a member of the Board

named Admiral Winterhalter described the design for the new

scout cruiser as “Our conception of light cruisers.”8

The cruiser contemplated by the Board in 1920 was not built

in 1921 as planned. However, the design became the basis for the

first ships to be built under the restrictions of the Washington

Treaty. In 1923, The General Board once again debated the

characteristics for the new class of what were now firmly

referred to as light cruisers. For this debate the Bureau of

Construction and repair developed six different proposed designs

for the board to consider, lettered “A” through “F.” Scheme “A”

closely matched the design from 1920, and featured a high speed

of 34 knots with only minimal protection around the ammunition

magazines.9 Scheme “F” possessed significant protection,

including a 8 inch armor belt, but developed a speed of only

27.5 knots.10 Thus, schemes “A” and “F” represented the different

extremes of the armor versus speed debate. Schemes “B,” “C,”

“D,” and “E” featured various steps down in either gun power or

speed in order to gain armor.11

Navy General Board Hearings from 1920, 312.
Navy General Board Hearings from 1923, 78.
Navy General Board Hearings from 1923, 78.
Navy General Board Hearings from 1923, 78.

In the ensuing debate, scheme “A” emerged as the favored

option for a majority of the officers present. Interestingly,

scheme “F” is scarcely mentioned. Several members supported

schemes “D” and “E,” but it would seem that the speed sacrificed

by scheme “F” was considered unacceptable by the members.12 The

reasoning Board members used in the debate is enlightening as to

the proposed uses and missions of the planned ships. These ships

were still intended for the purposes discussed by the Board in

1920. However, additional tasks were also proposed. A Board

member named Captain Tompkins argued that based on his

experience with war games at the Naval War College, light

cruisers would be essential to repelling destroyer attacks on

the battleship fleet. Since destroyers of the time were capable

of speeds in excess of 33 knots, Tompkins argued “we should at

least have that speed for the cruisers.”13 Destroyers were

clearly viewed as the greatest threat to the light cruiser,

principally because of the former type’s high speed. Thus, the

light cruiser design needed protection from the guns of enemy

destroyers. In essence, the General Board decided that light

cruiser design should follow a philosophy similar to that of the

battle cruiser, which is to have “Speed enough to get away from

superior ships in armor and armament, and protection enough to

Navy General Board Hearings from 1923, 59.
Navy General Board Hearings from 1923, 60.

get away from destroyers.”14 Another officer explained his

support for the scantily protected scheme “A” by pointing out

that the protection to be gained by sacrificing some speed would

amount to very little. Thus, he argued, it would be better to

forego protection and get all the speed that could possibly be


The General Board also envisioned these new cruisers as

carrier killers. Even in the early 1920s, the Board recognized

that aircraft carriers would be vital asset in future naval

operations.16 These light cruisers were seen as offensive units

that could wrest control of an area from the enemy fleet by

attacking the enemy’s carriers. The Board then reasoned that

other navies must also be planning to attack American carriers

in much the same fashion.17 Thus, the Board required the new

cruiser design to be able to successfully engage not only the

enemy surface screen, but the enemy’s carriers as well. This

necessitated that the new light cruisers be armed with as many 8

inch guns as possible, since carriers with heavy gun armaments

existed or were building in foreign navies at the time.

The General Board decided on this armament in the face of

debates it conducted in 1921 as to the relative merits of the 6

inch gun versus the 8 inch. The Board classified 6 inch guns as
Navy General Board Hearings from, 1923, 67.
Navy General Board Hearings from, 1923, 60.
Navy General Board Hearings from, 1922, 753.
Navy General Board Hearings from, 1922, 758.

rapid firing, which meant that they could get off several shots

per minute. In contrast, the Board referred to 8 inch guns as

quick firing, meaning they were capable of one or perhaps two

shots per minute.18 The fact that 6 inch ammunition could be

handled by a person while 8 inch shells and powder required

mechanical handling accounted for the 6 inch gun’s higher rate

of fire. While the 8 inch gun theoretically had a longer range,

the gun laying equipment of the time negated that advantage to a

considerable extent. At the 1921 debate, Board member Admiral

McVay championed the idea of 6 inch gun cruisers pointing out

that a 6 inch gun could fire 4 shots to every one round fired by

an 8 inch gun. At the same meeting, another officer named

Commander Rowcliff described the 8 inch gun as “A sort of

mongrel type; it is not heavy enough to be effective against an

armored ship, and has not been light enough to get much rapidity

of fire.”19 The General Board nevertheless accepted these

shortcomings and armed the first treaty cruisers with 8 inch


By 1925, the Board completed the design that would serve as

the basis for the treaty cruisers. The first two ships were

commissioned in 1930 and 1929, and were named Pensacola (CA 24)

and Salt Lake City (CA 25), respectively. The fact that these

ships were armed with 8 inch guns meant that under the 1930
Navy General Board Hearings from, 1921, 19.
Navy General Board Hearings from, 1921, 21.

London treaty they were reclassified as heavy cruisers instead

of light cruisers. Pensacola and Salt Lake City were armed with

ten 8 inch guns arranged in two triple turrets super-firing over

two twin turrets fore and aft. This unique design was

necessitated by the limited hull volume in the area where the

lower turrets were located, which prevented the instillation of

the wider triple turrets in that location.20 Another concern was

that by locating the triple turrets in elevated positions, a

greater portion of the battery would be drier in a seaway.21

However, this design choice contributed to an excessive

metacentric height in these ships, which caused them to roll

badly. Thus, the next batch of ships commissioned between 1930

and 1931 included Northampton (CA 26), Chester (CA 27),

Louisville (CA28), Chicago (CA 29), Houston (CA 30), and Augusta

(CA31) featured only nine 8 inch guns in three triple turrets

with two forward and one aft. Otherwise, this second group

closely followed the minimal armoring practices of the first two


The next group of ships ordered by the Navy was CAs 32-36,

and they were designed as slightly lengthened versions of the

Northampton class. However, before their construction began the

Bureau of Construction and Repair concluded that the Northampton

Stefan Terzibaschitsch, Cruisers of the US Navy 1922-1962, tran. Harold
Erenberg (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 53.
Friedman, 123.

class the third group was to be based on would be as much as

1,000 tons under the 10,000 ton weight limit when completed. The

Bureau saved more weight than expected in the Northampton class

by the use of aluminum fittings and electric welding in their

construction.22 Furthermore, the weight calculations made by the

designers turned out to be overly pessimistic in some cases.23 As

a result of this unexpected weight savings, Construction and

Repair decided to redesign this third group to include increased

ammunition stowage and armor protection in order to take full

advantage of the 10,000 tons allowed by the treaty limit.24

However, the Navy awarded the contracts for Portland (CA 33) and

Indianapolis (CA 35) to civilian yards, and the penalties that

would have resulted from changing the design so drastically were

deemed unacceptable.25 Thus, these two ships followed a design

based on the Northampton class as originally planned and this

group was divided into two classes.

The rest of the ships were built to a new design and

included New Orleans (CA 32), Astoria (CA 34), Minneapolis (CA

36), Tuscaloosa (CA 37), San Francisco (CA 38), Quincy (CA 39),

and Vincennes (CA 44). These cruisers all mounted the same nine

8 inch gun armament arranged in three triple turrets that the

Northampton and Portland classes carried. However, the New

Navy General Board Hearings from 1925, 539.
Navy General Board Hearings from, 1925, 539.
Friedman, 139.
Friedman, 139.

Orleans carried that armament in turrets fully armored against

direct hits from 8 inch guns, the first American treaty cruisers

to do so.26 Previous classes mounted their 8 inch guns in “gun

houses” that afforded protection from shell fragments only, not

direct hits. Construction and Repair also upgraded the

protection around the magazines and machinery of this design,

with the intent of creating a “zone of immunity” in which the

ship was immune from 6 inch gun fire, while a 6 inch gun

equipped opponent would still be within range of the cruiser’s 8

inch guns.27

The signing of the London Treaty of 1930 by Britain, the

United States, and Japan marked a turning point in interwar

cruiser construction. If the Washington Naval Treaty primarily

regulated capitol ships, the London Treaty focused much more on

lesser combatants such as cruisers. The London Treaty

differentiated cruisers for the first time based upon their

armament. Ships with guns 6.1 inches in diameter or larger

became heavy cruisers, while ships with guns smaller than 6.1

inches became light cruisers. Furthermore, the London Treaty

extended the total tonnage maximum and ratios placed on

battleships and carriers by the Washington Treaty to cruisers.

The United States was left with 180,000 tons for heavy cruisers

and 143,500 tons for light cruisers for a total of 323,500 tons
Friedman, 144.
Friedman, 142.

for cruisers of all types.28 When the aggregate tonnage of

current ships was subtracted, there was only about 73,000 tons

available in the light cruiser category for new construction.

As a result of the London treaty, the US Navy turned from

the 8 inch cruiser to build the Brooklyn class of light cruiser.

This nine ship class included the Brooklyn (CL 40), Philadelphia

(CL 41), Savannah (CL 42), Nashville (CL 43), Phoenix (CL 46),

Boise (CL 47), Honolulu (CL 48), St. Louis (CL 49), and Helena

(CL 50) and was completed between 1937 and 1939.29 At nearly

10,000 tons, the Brooklyn class displaced as much as the New

Orleans class heavy cruisers they followed. These ships were

armed with fifteen 6 inch guns arranged in five triple turrets

with three forward and two aft. The middle turret of the forward

three superfired over the other two, while the third forward

turret pointed directly aft when trained in.

The US Navy adopted this gun configuration in order to

maximize the number of guns carried while minimizing the

magazine area to be protected. This gun plan also avoided the

excessive top weight that would have resulted from placing three

turrets in a superfiring arrangement. For these reasons, the

contemporary Japanese Mogami class cruisers and the British

Nelson class battleships also adopted this gun arrangement. The

Friedman, 164.
M. J. Whitley, Cruisers of World War Two: An International Encyclopedia
(Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995), 248.

6 inch guns carried by the Brooklyn class were of a new and

improved type. They utilized what was referred to as “semi-

fixed” ammunition, meaning that the shell and propellant were

both contained in a single casing.30 The smaller size of the 6

inch gun and its ammunition meant that hand loading was

possible, and this granted a much greater rate of fire compared

to 8 inch guns. The advantages of the 6 inch gun discussed by

the General Board in 1921 thus finally came into play with the

Brooklyn class.

While the London Treaty of 1930 directed the attention of

the US Navy towards building light cruisers, it did not

completely halt heavy cruiser construction. The Navy

commissioned two additional heavy cruisers in 1934 and 1935 to

take advantage of excess tonnage left over by weight savings in

previous ships. One of these heavy cruisers was the Vincennes,

the last of the New Orleans class, and the other ship was the

Wichita (CA 45), the only ship of her class. Based on the hull

design and machinery of the Brooklyn class, the Wichita carried

barbettes and magazines redesigned to accommodate nine 8 inch

guns arranged as in previous heavy cruiser designs. The 8 inch

guns were of a new type, and were mounted slightly further apart

in their turrets than they were in previous designs.31 Experience

with earlier cruiser designs revealed that firing three 8 inch

Whitley, 248.
Whitley, 254.

guns simultaneously in close proximity to each other caused the

muzzle blast to interfere with the projectiles early in their

flight. This interference resulted in an unacceptable dispersion

pattern at battle ranges. Spacing the guns further apart and

firing the middle gun separately from the outboard pair helped

to alleviate this problem.32

The Brooklyn class and the Wichita featured a number of

changes over previous cruiser designs. First, these two classes

had a flush deck that gave them greater freeboard. This in

translated into better sea keeping and increased hull depth at

the stern that allowed for placing the aircraft hangar there,

along with the catapults.33 Placing the aviation facilities in

this location as opposed to amidships reduced top weight and

reduced interference from the superstructure. The Wichita and

the last two ships of the Brooklyn class also featured improved

boilers that allowed for a decrease in the amount of space

devoted to machinery and mounted the 5 inch 38 caliber dual

purpose (DP) gun in their secondary battery. This 5 inch gun

also formed the main battery of the last of the interwar

American cruiser designs, the Atlanta class.

The Atlanta class light cruisers resulted from the second

London Naval Treaty, signed in 1936. The British, still reeling

from the Japanese announcement to withdraw from all naval

Friedman, 214.
Terzibaschitsch, 107.

treaties in 1934 and the construction of 10,000 ton light

cruisers, made one last attempt to limit arms through

negotiation. Among its other clauses, the second London Naval

Treaty removed the overall tonnage quotas, but reduced the

maximum displacement of individual ships to 8,000 tons.34 In

response to this treaty, the US Navy laid down the Atlanta 1940,

four years after the last of the Brooklyn class. The Atlanta

class is thus considered here as an interwar design, even though

she was not completed until several weeks after the Japanese

attack on Pearl Harbor. Atlanta was the first cruiser of less

than 10,000 tons to be laid down by the US Navy since before

World War I, and she mounted sixteen 5 inch DP guns in eight

dual turrets and carried eight torpedoes. Thus, in many ways she

was an intermediary between the 10,000 ton treaty cruiser and

the destroyer just as the Omaha class scout cruisers were

intermediaries between the WW I four piper destroyer and the

armored cruiser.35 Ultimately, these ships came to be regarded by

the Navy as anti-aircraft cruisers, since World War II proved

the effectiveness of the 5 inch 38 cal. gun when used in that


However, the Atlanta class came to be something of an

aberration in US cruiser design. With the coming of World War II

Friedman, 218.
Whitley, 256.
Friedman, 447.

and the ending of treaty limitations, the Navy began a massive

construction program for heavy cruisers and light cruisers to

bolster the limited number of treaty ships. America built an

astonishing 24 Baltimore class heavy cruisers and 40 Cleveland

class light cruisers during the war. Both classes were much more

closely related to the Wichita and Brooklyn classes than to the

Atlanta. The Baltimore class carried the standard American heavy

cruiser armament of nine 8 inch guns, same as the Wichita. The

Cleveland class ships carried three less 6 inch guns than the

Brooklyn, but mounted a heavier secondary armament to

compensate.37 While both the Baltimore and Cleveland classes were

freed from tonnage limitations and were thus considerably

heavier than their predecessors, they were nevertheless directly

derived from the last of the treaty designs. As a result, the

protection on both classes of these ships was not significantly

greater than it was in the Brooklyn and Wichita class.38

The mass-produced wartime cruisers were not the ideal ships

envisioned in the interwar period the General Board. Naval

officers wanted cruisers that were fast, well protected, and

heavily armed, but technological limitations prevented naval

architects from producing a ship with equally optimal

characteristics in all areas on a displacement limited to 10,000

tons by treaty. While the coming of war removed treaty

Whitley, 261.
Whitley, 270.

limitations, it did not also allow for sufficient time to

develop cruiser types that were completely optimized and could

be put into immediate production. Thus, the interwar cruiser

designs of the US Navy had considerably long lasting

consequences. The treaty cruisers formed the nucleus of the US

Navy’s surface screen when war began, and under the pressures of

rapid expansion to meet a two ocean war the Navy was forced to

base its initial designs on the treaty-limited ships constructed

during the interwar period.

Works Citied

Friedman, Norman. U.S. Cruisers: An Illustrated Design History.

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1984.

Terzibaschitsch, Stefan. Cruisers of the US Navy 1922-1962.

Translated by Harold Erenberg. Annapolis: Naval Institute

Press, 1984.

United States Navy Department General Board. Hearings Before the

General Board of the Navy, 1917-1950. Wilmington: Scholarly

resources Incorporated, 1983. Microfilm.

Whitley, M.J, Cruisers of World War Two: An International

Encyclopedia. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995.