David Porter looks at one of military history’s doomed inventions
Admiral ‘Jackie’ Fisher was in many respects a genius – he was largely responsible for shaking the Royal Navy out of its Victorian complacency and introducing the ‘all big-gun’ dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers, which helped to transform it into a modern force capable of meeting the challenges of the First World War.
However, his belief in the overriding importance of speed and firepower led him to take the fast, thinly armoured battlecruiser concept to extremes. On being reappointed First Sea Lord in October 1914, he formulated the official requirement that led to the completion of three Courageous class ‘large light cruisers’.
These were 22,500-ton shallow-draft vessels intended to support his planned ‘Baltic Project’ – an Anglo-Russian landing on the coast of Pomerania. The first two, Courageous and Glorious, each had a main armament of four 15-inch guns in two twin turrets. Their secondary armament of six triple 4-inch turrets was widely condemned, as each turret had a low rate of fire, largely due to a 32-man crew who constantly got in each other’s way, and also because of poor rates of traverse and elevation.
Only the main turrets and conning tower had any significant armour protection, which left the hull dangerously vulnerable to even the 5.9-inch guns of contemporary German cruisers.
Initially, they were also structurally weak – just after being completed in January 1917, Courageous ran into bad weather during speed trials and suffered buckling of the forecastle between the breakwater and the forward 15-inch turret, as well as leaking fuel tanks. A total of 130 tons of stiffening were immediately worked in, and Glorious was also stiffened early in 1918.
The third of the class, Furious, was intended to be armed with two 18-inch and 11 new 5.5-inch guns. Whilst under construction, however, she was converted into a hybrid battlecruiser/aircraft-carrier, with a hangar and flying-off deck replacing the forward 18-inch turret.
Test firing of her aft 18-inch gun in mid-1917 showed that she was too lightly built to safely absorb its tremendous recoil. One shaken officer noted that ‘every time it fired, it was like a snow storm in my cabin, but instead of snowflakes, there was a shower of sheared off rivet heads.’
It was quickly decided that she showed far more promise as an aircraft-carrier than as a battlecruiser, and Furious was returned to the Armstrong-Whitworth dockyard at Wallsend in November 1917 to have the aft turret removed and replaced by another flight deck for landings, giving her both a launching and a recovery deck.
Furious was recommissioned on 15 March 1918, and her air wing of 14 Sopwith 11/2 Strutters and eight Sopwith Camels flew anti-Zeppelin patrols in the North Sea, before taking part in the raid on the Zeppelin base at Tondern in July 1918.
The Courageous class were dismal failures in their intended role, but all three were fully rebuilt in the 1920s as highly successful fleet aircraft-carriers – truly a case of ‘back to the drawing board!’
This article appeared in issue 109 of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.