Warning: The following is merely the opinion of one person on the internet. These opinions are under the influence of perceived logic and personal bias. Your opinions may and probably will differ
Hello everyone, VoidSamukai aka AbyssalKageryu here ready for a topic discussion. Today, I will be discussing about the most controversial ship that the US ever built: The Alaska class. Why are they so controversial you may ask? Well go to any forum that deals with naval topics and you will most likely find a heated discussion about whether or not these ships are battlecruisers or large cruisers.
Please note that all tonnages used here will for the most part be the fully loaded tonnages which will make some ships seem much more heavier than what you would think and others...not so much. You will be the judge of that. I should also note that the following is my opinions and your opinion may differ whether wrongly or rightly. I am never 100% correct and I am no naval historian: I’m just some nava; enthusiast like a lot of you here. So if I get anything wrong or if I am missing something important, please tell so in a respectable manner. The last thing I want is this already toxic topic to grow any more toxic.
Arguments for the Alaskas being large cruisers but not battlecruisers
The major argument for the Alaskas being large cruisers and not battlecruisers is the idea that they were upscale versions of the Baltimore class of heavy cruisers. The resemblance between the two are many and major. The Alaskas had the same number of main guns as the Baltimores (9 guns in 3 triple turrets), carried the same number of secondary guns in the same position (12 5inch DP guns in 6 two turrets two to each side of the ship and 2 in the centreline for and aft of the ship superfiring over the main turrets), had similar speeds and had a single rudder and no torpedo defences, both of which were akin to the US cruisers rather than US battleships. The differences between the two were that the Alaskas were twice as large (34,000 tonnes fully loaded compare to Baltimore at 17,000 tonnes), had 12inch guns rather than 8inch guns on the Baltimore, had thicker armour than the Baltimore (9inch belt compared to 6inch on the Baltimore) and had overall better anti aircraft capabilities.
Since there are quite a number of arguments, let’s break these things down and get to the root of the Alaskas
Guns: Many people use the fact that the Alaska class carried only 12inch guns as a reason to say she is not a battlecruiser. When the Alaskas were commissioned, battleships armed with 15-16inch guns were considered normal and the Alaskas were heavily under armed in this regard. However, they were not the only ships to be armed with small caliber guns. Both the Scharnhorst and Dunkerque class of battlecruisers (or battleships depending on who you ask) have guns with calibers similar to Alaska (11inch and 13inch guns) and carried a similar number. Now it was planned for the Scharnhorst to be eventually armed with 15inch guns, which was started on with the Gneisenau, and it is considered by critics that if armed with these bigger guns Scharnhorst would’ve been a true battlecruiser/battleship. However, even without these bigger guns, Scharnhorst has always still been considered a capital ship by most naval fans and referred to as the aforementioned battleship/battlecruiser.
Alaska’s guns are also quite power for their caliber, able to have similar performance to the 14inch guns found on many of the battleship at Pearl Harbour thanks to their modern design. With a high rate of fire, these guns were far more powerful than any gun fitted onto a cruiser. Even the guns found on the Admiral Graf Spee, which are also considered battleship caliber. So in terms of firepower while much lighter than that of contemporary battleship, it was certainly enough to be considered battleship firepower. More about firepower versus other battleships a little later.
Cruiser-like features: Being an upsized cruiser in terms of design it is no surprise that the Alaskas shared some similar features. The mains ones people bring up were the single rudder and lack of torpedo defence which were features of the Baltimore class cruiser. However, the same argument that the Alaskas were upsized cruisers are reasons why people call them battlecruisers. They usually reference the Invincible class battlecruisers built by the Royal Navy which were basically huge armoured cruisers with battleship guns. Many of Germany’s battlecruisers also could trace their design back to the armoured cruiser Blucher and people use this to call foul on the argument that being upsized cruisers does not equal battlecruisers since that is what battlecruisers used to be. So this can go many different ways. Both reasons have their merits equally so. I think this argument however has the ever tiny edge towards the large cruiser argument as it does make sense when you consider that the Alaskas were really upsized Baltimores but really it can go both ways.
Naval Classification: The US Navy went to great lengths to not have the Alaskas called battlecruisers but rather large cruisers. They were designated CBs rather than BCs which were what the Lexington class battlecruisers were designated and were not named after states but rather territories.
However, as history has shown, what a navy classifies a ship might not be truthful to what the ship is capable. Germany called their panzerschiffs armored ships or armoured cruisers despite having little armour and nothing in relationship to the earlier armoured cruisers. Britain also called the panzerschiffs ‘pocket battleships’ despite again the lack of armour (I for one think the term pocket battlecruiser is more fitting for the ships). German also called their WW1 era battlecruisers ‘large cruisers’ since until the Derflinger they could trace their design back to the armoured cruiser Blucher. Notice something familiar about the German ‘large cruisers’ and the Alaska class? One final example is how the British first called the Courageous class large light cruisers due to their weak armour and so that they could get past the fact that the admiralty was not allocating more funds for the battlecruisers. In the end however they were redesignated battlecruisers due to their fast speed, thin armour and massive guns. So if history has taught us anything, what a navy classifies a warship may not be actually reflective of the warship in question as a whole.
Deutschland class: Though few and in between, there are some people who point to the Deutschland class as to why the Alaskas were not battlecruisers but large cruisers or in some extreme cases heavy cruisers. Like the Alaskas, the Deutschland class carried bigger guns than what other cruisers carried and her armour was not as good as that of a true battleship (a reason why they are not pocket battleships). But that is where the similarities end. Alaska carried more guns than the German ships and was about double the weight of any cruiser at the time. Deutschland on the other hand was still a cruiser in terms of displacement: 14-16,000 tonnes fully loaded depending on the particular ship. In comparison, the Japanese Myoko commissioned a few years earlier weighed almost 15,000 tonnes fully loaded. Though to be more fair and to use a treat cruiser to compare, the US Portland class weighed around 12,000 tonnes fully loaded. So in terms of tonnage the Deutschland class were not that much bigger than existing heavy cruisers. The class also carried similarly weak armour protection compare to the rather more potent armour protection of the Alaskas.
Line of Battle: Of all arguments put forward to justify the Alaska to not be called battlecruisers, the idea that they were not able to go up against enemy battleships is the most confusing one. The simple reasons is that with the exception of the German battlecruisers in WW1, battlecruisers were not expected to go up against the massive guns and thick armour to battleships, In such an encounter the battlecruiser would use their superior speed to outrun the battleships and make a hasty escape. And this is what the Alaskas were designed: to use their high speed to run away from ships that they could not sink like battleships. So why people use this argument in the debate is beyond my understanding. Maybe there is something I am not getting. Who knows
Arguments for the Alaskas being battlecruisers but not large cruisers
I belong in this group and bias will be expected in this section, so you have been warned.
At 34,500 tonnes, the Alaskas were far bigger than any heavy cruiser built. In fact, she was almost twice as big as the biggest heavy cruiser built: the 20,000 tonne Des Moines. It also was not far from the comparable 38,000 tonne Scharnhorst and the 35,500 tonne Dunkerque both of which were called battleships by their navies though most naval fans tend to call them battlecruisers (Scharnhorst less so, but that is a toxic debate for another time). These 3 ships were all around the same size, had similar firepower and could go faster than most battleships.
It should be worth mentioning however that both the Scharnhorst and Dunkerque were commissioned and served in the late 1930’s, a good 5-6 years before the Alaskas. And as we all know, ships can grow much in that period of time. All one needs to do is look at HMS Dreadnought at 20,000 tonnes in 1906 verses the Queen Elizabeths in 1914 at 36,000 tonnes. But by that same logic, tonnage doesn’t have to drastically change. I mean, the Pensacola class cruisers of the 1920’s weighed in at 10,000 tonnes while the Baltimores weighed in at 16,000 tonnes despite the 20 year gap. So while age is something to consider it isnot a sole reason why to completely disregard a classification over another.
The Alaskas also require crew sizes of about the same of battleships and costed about the same to maintain as a true battleship, so many people compare them to the true battleships in terms of operational value. In fact, it was the cost of operating the Alaskas that lead to them having short life spans compare to the cheaper Des Moines and the more powerful Iowa. A few pictures also show Alaska next to the Iowa and it is clear that the Alaskas were not that much smaller than the larger battleship. In terms of size and tonnage the Alaskas certainly fitted the battlecruiser mold.
The designed role of the Alaskas is also another argument that people use to argue that they were battlecruisers. The Alaskas were designed to counter the large and powerful Japanese cruiser force that might attack the US carrier taskforces. They would also counter the rumoured Japanese large cruisers that were being designed. These roles were very similar to what battlecruisers were designed to do: hunt down enemy cruisers and other battlecruiser-like warships. And the design of the Alaskas reflected this role: armour enough to protect the ship from cruiser caliber shells, guns far more powerful than any gun carried by enemy cruisers and high seed to run away from bigger battleships and to catch up to enemy cruisers. It is no wonder people call the Alaskas ‘battlecruisers in all but name’.
Comparison to other ships:
So let’s compare the Alaskas with ships that I believe are comparable in terms of capability, size, type, era or so forth to get a sense of what these ships were capable of. I will not rego over ships already mentioned unless there is something special about them that must have its own section to.
Hood: As the largest battlecruiser ever built (48,000 tonnes is massive), Hood has many advantages compare to Alaska despite being 20 years older in terms of design. Her armoured belt was thicker than the Alaska though it didn’t cover as much of the ship. Hood had better firepower with her 8 15inch guns and had comparable speed. In a one on one battle, Hood has the edge compare to Alaska.
Scharnhorst: This ship is the one that most people compare the Alaskas to and with good reasons. Both ships weighed around the same range, both carried smaller caliber yet faster firing main guns in 3 triple turrets. Scharnhorst was even based on a cruiser design (though it was the rather large D class cruiser and I say large for its time and even then it was loosely based and not that obvious unless you dig around in the design history. Honestly Scharnhorst shares more with the Ersatz Yorck class battlecruisers than the D class cruisers so take that argument with a pinch of salt) and had guns fitted onto cruisers (though the 11inch guns on the Deutschland class and Scharnhorst class were slightly different and the Deutschland class were very unique cases in terms of cruisers). Scharnhorst als has torpedoes like German cruisers and had a secondary gun layout compare to the panzerschiffe. Again however, those cruisers were a special case so don’t take it too seriously. But regardless, the Scharnhorst has been called by most as a battleship or battlecruiser and, for a ship so similar to her, it would reason to call the Alaskas battlecruisers as well (not a battleship of course: she didn’t have the armour). Many people say that Scharnhorst was way better armoured, but this is something typical of German battlecruiser design. And despite having less armour the Alaskas were not that much lighter. So in terms of size, the Alaska definitely were comparable to the Schanrhosts.
Courageous: Considered by many (myself included) as the worst battlecruisers ever built, these ships have little in common in terms of design and purposes, so why are we comparing these two ships. Well, both were referred to as large cruisers at one point in life, until the Courageous were reclassified into battlecruisers, and for that reason it is a good idea to compare tonnage of these ships and battleships from around the same time. In terms of Courageous, the ships weighed about 22,000 tonnes fully loaded and carried 4 15inch guns in 2 twin turrets. They also had armour of only 3inches thick which is considered poor even by cruiser standards. Courageous could however reach a top speed of 32 knots thanks to her long length and powerful engines. The Queen Elizabeth class of battleships of which came into service only 2 years earlier weighed close to 36,000 tonnes fully loaded and carried 8 15inch guns in 4 twin turrets. They had a belt of armour of around 13inches thick which was standard for British battleships at the time and could travel at a top speed of 24 knots. Comparing the two ships, Courageous was about 66% the tonnage of the Queen Elizabeth, had half the number of guns of the same caliber, was 9 knots faster and had armour that was not even a quarter of the thickness of the battleship counterpart.
A battleship that was completed 2 years before the Alaskas was the South Dakota class. The South Dakotas weighed around 44,500 tonnes fully loaded and carried 9 16inch guns in 3 triple turrets as well as a 12inch belt of armour. Being a fast battleship, South Dakota could go 28 knots. Comparing the Alaska to the South Dakota, Alaska carried the same number of guns but they were smaller. She had less armour of about 3 inches less but could go about 5 knots faster. Tonnage wise, the Alaska were about 75% the weight of the Alaskas. So in terms of tonnage comparison the Alaska class was actually more on par to the weight of battleships of her time than the Courageous and yet Courageous was classified a battlecruiser in the end. Since we are talking tonnage, I guess I will throw in the Iowa class which weighed in 52,000 tonnes fully loaded (note this is during WW2, afterwards in times when the Alaskas were no more refits raised that number to 58,000 tonnes). This means Alaska was about 66% the weight of the Iowa which is a similar comparison to the Courageous Vs Queen Elizabeth.
Another interesting quirk of these comparisons is broadside weight. Using numbers from the Vanguard’s 15inch guns, the Queen Elizabeth’s broadside weight per minute would be around 15.9 tonnes. Having half the number of guns, Courageous would obviously have half the broadside weight. Meanwhile, Alaska’s broadside weight is around 14 tonnes per minutes while the Iowa’s broadside weight was about 22 tonnes. Again, Alaska’s broadside weight is around half that of Iowa’s, just like Courageous verses Queen Elizabeth. In fact, compared to Vanguard which was built after Alaska, the broadside weight of Vanguard was only about 2 tonnes more which as a whole isn’t that massive. Then again, Vanguard had only 8 guns that didn’t reload as quickly and they were of older design so it should be taken into consideration. However, Vanguard despite the lower broadside weight is still considered a battleship and with a similar broadside weight as well Alaska compares to other battleships around the same as Courageous did compare to ships of her era.
Kongo/Renown: Both of these ships have bigger guns than the Alaskas akin to the battleships of the era that they were built. Both had about the same overall armour protection which was designed to withstand cruiser caliber shells. Both also were faster than other battleships of their era and had worst armour to boot. Thanks to this, even though she is vulnerable to their firepower, Alaska’s guns are more than capable of penetrating the armour of the Kongo and Renown with her powerful shells and fast rate of fire. And it doesn’t help that Kongo and Renown are basically 30 years older than the Alaskas. In a one on one battle, Alaska has the advantage though will probably come out rather bruised up since the older battlecruisers still pack firepower enough to punch through Alaska’s armour.
O Class: With similar tonnage and slightly worst armour, the O class were the glass cannons of the modern battlecruisers. Though classified as battlecruisers by the Germans, one cannot help but imagine what would a battle between these giants would’ve resulted in. And what if the O class were fitted with 11inch guns like the Scharnhorsts. Would this make them large cruisers instead of battlecruisers since gun size matters so much to many people when deciding what type of ship a vessel is? Well I guess it does considering that the Mogami class of cruisers were called light cruisers at first when they had 6.1inch guns but then reclassified when they were rearmed with 8inch guns into heavy cruisers so I guess gun caliber does play an important role. At least for some people. But gun caliber alone doesn’t tell the whole story of a ship. It is the rest of the ship that tells the story. And in terms of tonnage, size and designed roles, the O class can claim to be a battlecruiser through and through. Just one with lousy armour, which is not something German battlecruisers were known for. Then again, those WW1 vessels were called ‘large cruisers’ so I guess there is that. A battle between the two ships would boil down to who can land the first disabling hits and who can land the most hits. In that sense, Alaska has the advantage in this battle though if Jutland has shown us anything it is that battlecruisers do not hold up to heavy firepower as well as battleships of the same era.
B-65 Class: With a similar size and firepower compare to the Alaska class, the B-65 class of battlecruisers if built would’ve been the most similar to the Alaskas. It would be interesting to see these two very similar ships in action. I bring this up simply because well, the B-65 was designed to counter the Alaskas, which was funny because the Alaskas were built to counter the B-65. In that sense, the B-65 was designed to counter a ship built to counter itself. Man this is getting really confusing. Moving on.
It is funny to compare the Alaskas to other battlecruisers for their time and to see how much they were comparable despite the US Navy trying to hard not to call them battlecruisers. Why the strong resolve? Why are people so driven to not call them battlecruisers when they were very comparable to other battlecruisers?
The difference between the types
In my honest opinion, to really understand the issue that the classification causes, we need to figure out what makes large cruisers and battlecruisers so different that they are considered two very different types of warships. So, what is a large cruiser and what is a battlecruiser? Well, to be honest, the differences between the two types are rather small. To put simply, large cruisers, the term the US navy used to term the Alaskas, were an upsized cruiser design armed with guns larger than what you would normally find on cruisers while the battlecruiser is a capital ship that trades either firepower or in most cases armour in order to achieve higher speeds than the battleships of the same era while being about the same size as a battlecruiser. Both of them were designs had thinner armour than battleships and were faster. They also were designed with the intent of destroying enemy cruisers or in some cases other battlecruisers.
So, why are people so intent in considering the two types as so different despite the fact that in terms of overall capabilities they are so similar? Well I guess it comes down to what people think of when they hear the names. People associate battlecruisers with ships that have battleship caliber guns but have less armour to gain higher speed. Thus people will start comparing them to battleships. When people think of large cruisers, people think of...well, large cruisers: ships that are basically what happens when someone supersizes a heavy cruiser and give it bigger guns. But they associate it with cruisers rather than battleships like battlecruisers are. So, do the Alaska share more in common with cruisers or with battleships and battlecruisers?
I think the Alaskas share traits from both. Her design basis fitted much more with cruisers than with capital ships of the time. But her designed role fitted many of the roles that battlecruisers were envisioned to do. They also cost as much to run as full fledged battleships and length wise fitted in the battleship club quite nicely (though they were not as wide as the US battleships. There is a reason why the Alaskas weighed 34,500 tonnes and the South Dakotas weighed 44,500 tonnes). In a sense, it will be inevitable that that Alaskas will be compared to ships bigger than her based on this. It can be agreed she was no heavy cruiser: she was way bigger and far more powerfully armed compared to even the most advance of heavy cruiser projects. But there are large cruisers and then there are large cruisers. And at 34,500 tonnes the Alaskas were practically cruisers the size of battleships. And not only that, their firepower was definitely battleship firepower. If Scharnhorst can be called a battleship even with her 11inch guns, than the Alaska can more than claim to be battlecruisers with 12inch guns.
Now a lot of people call the Alaskas ‘Heavy cruisers freed from the Treaties’ which would allow them to grow in size and firepower far greater than any treaty era cruiser. And it does make sense in this regard. Just take a look at the Yamato compared to ships of her time like King George V or Richelieu. Yamato was much bigger than either ship: almost double in fact. And compared to the Baltimores, the Alaskas were monsters with way better armour and firepower. But here is the thing: it is hard to call the Yamatos anything else other than battleship because there was nothing like her in the world. There were no larger ships similar to her so there is no other type of ships to compare other than other battleships like Iowa. With Alaska however, there are ships that we can compare to to with similar weight, type and capabilities. And these ships are the battlecruisers. So it makes sense to many to compare them and call the Alaskas battlecruisers because they are comparing her to battlecruisers of her time that were so similar to her. If there were more ships that were similar to Alaska that were built, then maybe people would compare her to them. Or perhaps they will compare them as well to other battlecruisers like Alaska. So we return back to the start of a loop that will never end with the rate the world is going.
It is a never ending cycle: when is big too big? When does a ship become so big that it becomes another ship? This question may never have an answer as ships evolve with time. A battleship during one time may become a cruiser in another time. A destroyer in one time may grow to the size of a cruiser in an earlier time. As long as warships continue to evolve, we can never get the definitive answer. But what we can do is compare ships of similar eras to get an idea of their capabilities. Whether people will use the Yamato example or use the Scharnhorst example to justify the Alaskas is a question yet to be answered. But I prefer the Scharnhorst example as there is room for a comparison. Not much can be compared to the monsters that are Yamato and Musashi, but there are ships that the Alaskas can compare with for better and worst. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m referring to the battlecruisers of other navies: similar size, firepower, armour, speed and cost of running. That last point is important because no matter how the Alaskas were designed or used, no matter if they became the new heavy cruiser of their generation, they will have practically the same operation cost as battleships like the North Carolina and South Dakota, not the cruisers like Baltimores or Clevelands. It is no wonder that the US Navy never considered them worth the money: about as expensive as superior battleships that could do pretty much everything that Alaskas did better with the exception of speed and they had the Iowas for that.
Many people also claim that the Alaskas were a simple progression of the heavy cruisers of the US Navy. But you know what else was a progression to cruisers back in the early days of the 20th Century? Battlecruisers. As cruisers got bigger and bigger, they began to become more like faster lightly armoured battleships which would lead rise to the idea of the battlecruiser to render these earlier cruisers obsolete. And the Alaskas were the size of battleship-type warships with battleship-like firepower even if both were on the lighter side which would’ve made the cruisers of her time obsolete in terms of battle capabilities, though the concept of the cruiser being a cheaper way to bring firepower to an area would’ve been useless for the Alaskas with how much she costed to run. But if Courageous could get away with it, the Alaskas can as well. And so we return to the argument on whether or not they were enlarged cruiser designs an argument for the Alaskas being large cruisers or actually battlecruisers.
My Thoughts on the Large Cruiser designation
I have no problems with a designation of large cruisers. I think it is a valid name for ships that have the tonnage between that of a cruiser and a battlecruiser and who have firepower in between. But I believe that the Alaskas weigh enough to belong in the battlecruiser category. A ship that would’ve better fitted as a large cruiser would’ve been the D-class cruiser of Germany that would’ve weighed 20,000 tonnes though with modifications plus actual tonnage the cruiser would’ve most likely weighed around the 23-25,000 tonne range. With 8inches of belt armour and 6 11inch guns this would’ve been the perfect description of what a large cruiser would’ve been if done properly. The P-class could also fit with their massive size of 24,000 tonnes (more likely to be 25-27,000 tonnes in real life) and powerful guns but rather weak armour at only about 4inches max.
Many arguments can be placed forward to argue about the Alaska’s designation and classification amongst other warships. It is really an argument that I can’t see truly resolved. All we can do is state our opinions with reasons and do so in a tasteful manner. And my opinion is that the Alaskas were battlecruisers in all but name. While there are many good arguments as to why they should be classified as large cruisers, there are also many good reasons that say that the Alaska class, no matter how flawed they were in design, were battlecruisers compared to other ships of their era. But it is unlikely that this argument will be solved overnight. Many more heated discussions will ensure over the next generations and only time will tell if this debate will ever be solved.
Plus, Scharnhorst and Dunkerque. I’m sure that people will want more reasons than simply the name of two ships (those people include me because seriously you need to explain what for crying out loud), but they do at least give one reasons for the debate.
Well that is my opinion on the debate. I would like to hear your opinions down below in the comments. If you have anything to say about the debate or the article, please comment down below. I would love to hear feedback and other opinions.