Ship Classes in Alternate History
By the Napoleonic period, ship classes now reflected the purpose of the ship, rather than in times previous the sail rig, or style of build. Ships of the line were designed to stand in the battle line, frigates were the eyes and ears of the fleet, and corvettes performed many minor roles. Within each classification there were many sub-divides, and at the edges the classifications could begin to blur – the heaviest frigate could take on and defeat the lightest ship of the line, if handled well.
With the growth of technology came confusion in ship naming terminology. An armoured frigate could destroy a wooden ship of the line, as the simplest example. Where ironclads were concerned, we see them for a period described as armoured frigates, armoured corvettes, central battery ships, and the new type monitors, named after the name ship of the United States type, but significantly different in terms of construction. Even here, though, lines begin to blur as technology develops, as turret warships with low freeboard may look akin to the original monitor, but perform more akin to a central battery ship of the period.
The word “cruiser” had always been around to define a role of ships, in Napoleonic times a role usually fulfilled by frigates. As ironclad warships developed, cruiser began to be the term applied to the type of ships below that of capital ships, a distinction largely by this time decided by the weight of the main armament, in terms of gun-barrel size, rather than number. A ship with four 12″ guns was by the late nineteenth century universally termed a battleship, whilst a ship of greater displacement, greater length, and with perhaps a dozen 8″ guns was termed a cruiser. The distinction made sense since gunnery ranges had opened up, it was no longer a matter of warships firing from lines at close quarters, and the larger the gun, usually the larger the range.
Battleships with larger guns, also usually had heavier armour, defending themselves against the guns of similarly-armed vessels. Thus, not only could they land a heavier blow on the enemy, they could also take greater punishment. Cruisers, in general, may have had an equal weight of shell, but by coming from numerous smaller guns this had less range and less hitting power, and when used against more heavily armoured battleships had less effect. In turn, cruisers usually had less armour and could take less punishment, especially from the heavier guns of the battleships.
There was always a blurring – older battleships were usually smaller than newer ones. Modern armoured cruisers could take them on with hopes of success. Before the Spanish-American War both sides blurred the distinction as to what was a battleship, and what a cruiser – and in the USA’s case, what job a monitor was supposed to perform in the modern style of naval warfare. Spanish cruisers were termed battleships by their own admiralty, and several observers, whereas looking back on it all as history, we term them cruisers, and are not surprised when a fleet of American cruisers sinks them all. In the Russo-Japanese War, Japanese armoured cruisers often stood in the line of battle, partly at this period due to the relatively low number of major fleet units in service in both fleets.
The coming of the Dreadnought confused the issue once again, a battleship that had the potential to make all then-extant battleships outdated. By 1914, the classification within battleships had come down to dreadnoughts, semi-dreadnoughts, and pre-dreadnoughts. The intermediate category, semi-dreadnoughts was more a stage in the design process, or a blip, with main heavy armamant split into two calibres of gun, as against the unified main armament of the dreadnought with its battery of eight, ten, twelve large guns of equal size.
This emergence of the all-big-gun warship, and a warship with faster engines and developments in armour placement, brought with it in turn a confusion of sub categorisation, some of which were important at the time but have since been forgotten, or become dis-used. This is especially the case with super-dreadnought, a term applied to 13.5″ gunned battleships in the Royal Navy, but one which became somewhat meaningless when the 15″ gunned warships came into service later on. Fast battleship was a term applied to some of these, the Queen Elizabeths, though not one particuarly relevant to the R class.
The battlecruiser is the best known sub-category of the dreadnought, the idea of up-gunning the armoured cruiser to a large gun-size equivalent to the battleship, but keeping the lesser armour of the cruiser, but the more powerful engines. Designed for speed and hitting power, the battlecruiser was by definition not designed for the battle-line, since their armour was intended not to be of the breadth and quality of the battleship. Of course, due to their gun size when it came to fleet engagements, the battlecruiser was viewed as an addition to the battle line, a vanguard that was fine in theory when they fought each other, but less so when engaged against the battleship.
There were of course blurred distinctions between armoured cruisers and battlecruisers, just as there were between pre-dreadnought battleships, and dreadnoughts. The Russians built a superlative modern armoured cruiser with 10″ guns (Rurik), the Italians some less excellent designs also with 10″ guns, a gun calibre usually considered to be for small battleships, but here used for large armoured cruisers, warships at least in the Italian case that were often termed battleships at the time, but not in hindsight. The Japanese also constructed what one might call semi-battlecruisers, armed with only 4 large calibre guns, but built to battlecruiser specifications. During the First World War, British First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher ordered built a class of large cruisers with large calibre guns, the Glorious and Courageous with 15″ guns, and the 18″ gunned Furious, ships with little purpose in any of the main theatres of war, but the ultimate in battlecruiser design theory if one went down the line of speed over armour, of which they had very little. Needless to say, no real purpose was found for these and eventually they ended up being converted to aircraft carriers.
Cruisers which had by the start of the twentieth century evolved into armoured cruisers, and light cruisers, with the even smaller scout cruiers a sub-category of the latter, evolved again during and after the war, especially with the Washington Treaty which banned the construction of cruisers with guns larger than 8″ and in so doing created the later distinction between light cruiser, and heavy cruiser (for example the 8″-gunned Prinz Eugen of Nazi Germany)
It might be thought that the terminology in use at various times was inevitable, but a look at ship types which came into existence, and then disappeared is useful, the monitor being somewhat in this class, although it never completely disappeared, being reinvented during the First World War as a coastal bombardment vessel, with additional such units constructed in the Second World War for a similar purpose.
The gunboat is a type of warship defined as having one or two large-ish guns, but being of small displacement. Some ships classed as gunboats and used by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War had large guns of the same calibre as those carried by Japanese battleships, but gunboats’ main purpose was either to intimidate the shoreline, or to act as enforcers of imperial will upon the rivers of lesser nations. The Panther at Agadir before the First World War is a prime example of this.
There evolved the sub-category torpedo gunboat, with the invention of the torpedo and the idea that if it were carried by a vessel of solid size it would be a more substantial weapon, than allocating them to minnows, such as the nascent torpedo boat. Eventually the torpedo gunboat died a death when the natural course of evolution was for the torpedo boat to evolve into the destroyer (originally termed “torpedo boat destroyer”) and over time for destroyers to grow in size until they were as large as small cruisers.
Aviso is another term one sees a lot in a short period, but then hears little of, being used to describe small, fast craft, lighter armed than a gunboat but able to perform many of the duties. Similarly the term sloop came to refer to such vessels, gunboats with less armour and lighter armament, such as the Korietz, sunk at Chemulpo with the Variag, at the start of the Russo-Japanese War.
But what really opens the discussion up is how generic terms such as battleships and cruisers made a return after the confusion of the terminology of the early ironclad era. This was to create a distinction in role that was no longer reflected in the size, displacement, or appearance of warships. In Napoleonic times it was easy to see what was a ship of the line, even if a third rate, and what was a frigate, since size and the number of decks was more or less all that the distinction was based upon. By the early ironclad period, an armoured corvette could be substantially larger than a turreted battleship but have less powerful armament. As the types of manufacturing developed, and ships naturally grew in size and displacement, it was not long before the most modern cruisers looked larger than the general battleship type.
The evolution of terminology (or devolution, back to generic terms) seems a foregone conclusion, but was born of confusion. As has been seen above, every time it seems, at least in hindsight, that a distinction in classification has been achieved, technological developments came along to derail it.
The term ‘dreadnought’ of course has the greatest potential for being different in any alternate timeline. To a degree the name was chosen because it was free on the navy list, and its turn was coming up, though there must also have been some thought given as to which of the available names would be most fitting for a revolutionary warship – Devastator or Thunderer would have done perhaps as well, whereas Princess Royal would not have seemed so apt. And of course, the Italians had a design on the table, and the Americans their own battleship under construction to the same theme – the South Carolina. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that had things gone differently dreadnoughts would have been called carolinas. It is more likely that they could have been called devastators, or thunderers, or even invincibles had that name (soon enough used for the first battlecruiser) been chosen instead of dreadnought.
And had the Dreadnought borne a name that was not so easily given over to a whole ship type, such as Princess Royal, then some other generic categorisation would have had to be used, super-battleship perhaps.
But could the evolution of ship names from Napoleonic to early twentieth century times have gone differently itself? Might not the First World War have seen fleets of armoured frigates, supported by armoured corvettes, with cruisers and avisos in attendance?
Is it fair to say it is less likely than what really happened, simply because to our ears it sounds more outlandish than what really did occur? Maybe to someone in the early ironclad era the idea that all the careful distinctions would be blown away and replaced by the generic terms battleship and cruiser would have seemed strange in itself.
And of course there is the destroyer to consider. This ship name now sounds obvious and ubiquitous and we think nothing of it, but its origins were in torpedo boat destroyer (tbd in 1900s parlance) and when considered logically, what else was a destroyer to be a destroyer of? Apart from its torpedo-firing function, more or less inherited from the torpedo boat, it could hardly take on and sink a cruiser, much less a battleship. It doesn’t sound strange to our ears to use the word “destroyer” to refer to the smallest ship in a battlefleet, one that could only destroy in limited terms.
More intriguing is the idea that a term such as destroyer could have been applied to battleships, in general, though this is probably less likely than the idea that an earlier generic occurred – eg that an 1880s HMS Devastator might have set a new standard and seen all subsequent ships built in her image named as devastators. In terms of what did happen, it is possible that the mid 1890s class of Majestics could have done this, setting as they did the new standard for battleship design, and doing so very gracefully. Henceforth all battleships would be built along those lines, but in reality nobody seemed to think to apply the term majestic, perhaps because it lacked the punch and thunder of such a term as dreadnought.
Battlecruiser as a term also seems natural to us, although in a sense is counter-intuitive – it is NOT designed to fight in the line of battle, though its being named such led to it being used in situations where it would be so employed. Originally they were termed dreadnought-cruisers, though again this is an awkward term in itself. In Imperial Germany, they continued to be referred to as armoured cruisers, not least because their construction was under a series of Navy Laws which gave permission for the building of, and replacement of, armoured cruisers over a period of decades. Since the traditional armoured cruiser was no longer constructed after the invention of the battlecruiser, then their retention of the name would be a realistic option in an alternate timeline – that the term “armoured cruiser” was no retained was more to do with politics and Britain wanting to make an impressive splash, say that HMS Invincible is as to the cruiser, what HMS Dreadnought was to the battleship.
The blurring of distinctions between classes also provides another possible way for an alternative nomenclature to develop. By the First World War, the largest German torpedo boats were as big as small destroyers. Without the invention of the destroyer as the intended catcher and sinker of torpedo boats, the torpedo boat’s evolution on its own would have led to their becoming larger and more powerful, but doing so whilst retaining the name “torpedo boat”.
Coast Defence Ships also blur the distinction – are they small battleships, or armoured cruisers? The Swedish Navy built ONLY coast defence ships, viewing them as compact battleships, but in the inter-war period the coast defence ships built by Finland, and for Thailand, were generally viewed as armoured cruisers, though by then the development of the battleship had gone on so long that the equivalence of types was long past.
This has been something of a hurried and generic overview. A more detailed version would look at examples, HMS Warrior, HMS Captain, USS Monitor, CSS Stonewall and so on. The potential for divergence is strong at many places within the evolution of major warships in the latter half of the nineteenth century. What this article does is to aggregate these for the purposes of a wide-ranging discussion.