Welcome back, we left off with cruiser so it is time to move onto the big stuff!
The term battlecruiser (or battle cruiser) is one the turns up a lot and there is no doubt that it is one that still carries a certain glamour. Historically the battlecruiser is a type that first appeared at the start of the twentieth century having evolved from an earlier category ship called the armoured cruiser. The armoured cruiser was a vessel as large as a contemporary battleship, while having smaller guns, thinner armour but longer range and greater speed. As combatants they were considered second only to the battleships and would often serve as flagships on more distant postings. The battlecruiser was envisioned as a vessel carrying battleship sized guns with the then new steam turbine engines, giving them a marked advantage in both speed and firepower over their predecessors.
So marked that in fact that when during World War One battlecruisers came up against contemporary armoured cruisers, the result was utterly one sided. In the run up to the Great War, with the expectation of mass fleet actions, the battlecruiser was envisioned as a kind of heavy scout, one that would brush aside the enemy’s forward screen and identify the location of the main force. With their lighter armour they were not expected to engage comparably armed ships. Unfortunately in practice commanders couldn’t resist the opportunity to add extra heavy guns to the main battle line. The battle cruisers’ reputation never entirely recovered from the loss of four battlecruisers at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 (while only one elderly battleship was sunk) and in certain academic quarters it is questioned whether as an idea the battlecruiser was bad one from the outset. Between the two World Wars the largest warship afloat was in fact a battlecruiser – HMS Hood. The type ultimately was superseded by the last generation of battleships which could match their speed with compromising protection, I’ll cover that later.
In science fiction portrayals of the type vary mostly in terms of where it stands in the overall hierarchy. Star Trek – with the odd exception – has mostly chosen to use the term battlecruiser for the peak combatants of the Federation and other major races. Given that within the Star Trek setting speed expressed as a high warp figure is usually the measure of a vessels’ power, combined with long range these ships seem to have, the term is fairly appropriate.
In other setting the battlecruiser is very much more of an intermediate step between cruiser and battleship.
Which in a lot of setting seems to leave the type without a clear role; is it a big cruiser or a small fast battleship? A question that mirrors the problems that bedeviled the real battlecruiser. Personally I’ve made only limited use of the term but it is one that is useful for science fiction writers giving as it does a sense of a vessel with both enhanced fighting ability but sufficient mobility for all sorts of other roles, including that of a flagship for postings further from home.
Of all the naval terms used by SF battleship is probably the best known. Historically the battleship began in the age of sail as ‘The Line of Battle Ship’; equipped with cannons firing out of the sides of the hull. Also known as ships of the line this arrangement meant that logically squadrons and fleets of these ships fought in long lines, where each ship could bring its guns to bear unhampered by friendly ships. Ships of the Line are generally classes according to the number of guns they carried, HMS Victory in Portsmouth, with her hundred plus guns is an example of a First Rate, the most powerful ships of the age. During the 19th century The Line of Battle Ship changed from wooden walls and black powder cannons to steel hulls and steam power. The fleet with the most battleships (The United Kingdom for really all of the century) was the one that ruled the waves.
One thing that does tend to be overlooked in regards to the battleship is its symbolic status. During the nineteen and early twentieth century, a battleship – for those that could afford them – was symbol of a countries economic prowess. While for those nations that could actually build them, they were a very tangible demonstration of that nation’s technological abilities. When in the eighteen nineties the USA made the decision to rebuild its navy – which by that stage was little more than a collection of antiques left over from the civil war – a very deliberate decision was made to have them designed and built in America, thereby demonstrating the USA’s arrival as a major power. The battleship’s usefulness in combat came from the fact that it was bigger, better armed and better protected than anything else bar another battleship. In theory anyway. Between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and World War One, a period when ship design radically changed, there was only one serious battleship clash – Battle of Tsushima in 1905. It was also until the coming of the aircraft carrier the most expensive thing afloat. This years we saw the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, the largest battleship battle ever fought and one that ended inconclusively because battleships, with their vast price tag and build time of years, were too precious to be idly risked. Ultimately the battleship was replaced as the main combat unit by the aircraft carrier. A lot of sources will say that this was due to the destruction of the American battleships at Pearl Harbour but in fact it was the sinking of the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse off Singapore a few days latter that confirmed that power had shifted. Still the battleship remained useful until beyond the end of World War Two, not least because once equipped with suitable anti aircraft guns they were capable of shielding other ships are part of a layered defence from enemy aircraft. The last generation of battleships are often referred to as fast battleships as these vessels were as fast as the earlier battlecruisers, but without the weaker protection.
In SF probably the best example of a space battleship (in the West anyway) comes from New Battlestar Galatica, a vessel a vessel that this really more of a battlecarrier than a pure battleship but during the course of the series it was shown that a battlestar was a very capable combatant even without its fighters being able to hand out a beating.
As well as take one.
The battlecarrier idea with a vessel capable of directly engaging a target but also to launch fighters. In reality the battlecarrier idea never gained much traction mainly because the flight deck large turrets both needed to occupy the same space and if aircraft were to be able to operate, they needed to be kept well clear of the water, which would make the battlecarrier a large target in a gun battle.
This one really isn’t a true warship class and within SF something of a personal hate. In 1906 Great Britain launched the first of a new series of battleship – HMS Dreadnought. Up to that battleships had been powered by machinery called reciprocating engines, while their armament was a small number of large guns and larger number of smaller pieces. Dreadnought was equipped with steam turbine engines, which allowed her to go faster for longer and dispensed with the smaller guns in favour of a larger number of heavy guns. Dreadnought set the pattern that would be followed up to the end of the battleship age but up to the end of World War One a substantial number of the older type remained in service. To distinguish between the new and the old, the term dreadnought and pre-dreadnought came into use. The terms dropped out of use once the pre-dreadnoughts were retired but the term dreadnought has remained to be used in SF as a gunship even larger than a battleship.
The aircraft carrier is probably the most self explanatory warship class and recognizable type of warship, with its long clear fight deck and offset bridge structure, a vessel that carries a substantial number of aircraft which represent its main offensive capacity. Armament of the carrier itself is limited to self defence. The early carriers were usually conversions of battleships or battlecruisers, with the full length deck and offset bridge structure (usually called the island) developed through trial and quite a lot of error. The main advantage of a carrier is the aircraft that represented its teeth could be changed or replaced comparatively easily. A battleship with three quarters of its guns shot away is going to have to head home for repairs, a carrier that’s lost three quarters of its planes could fly on replacements within hours.
In SF the pure aircraft or fighter carrier seems to be something of a rarity with the battlecarrier a more popular choice, likely because from a storytelling point of view a vessel that has to keep well clear of enemy ships is less exciting than one that gets in close. To a certain extent this makes some sense as a lot of setting with space fighters don’t give these craft any faster than light capability, meaning the carrier has to get into harms way to deliver its fighters. There are also possible variants to the concept, carriers for landing troops or depending on the technology level of the setting, fighters for fighting in an planet’s atmosphere is ground bases haven’t been established ( for such ships I used the term drop fighter carrier )
Other Misc terms
A term originating from the American Civil War, this type was low freeboard vessel (not much hull above the waterline) with turret mounted armament. During World War One the term changed to refer to a shallow draft vessel ( not much hull below the waterline ) designed for shore bombardment.
Ranging from small boats to medium sized ships, these vessels are designed to deliver troops and materials without needing a proper dock.
Now this is an odd but fun one. By World War One sonar had not been invented, making the detection and hunting of submarines difficult. One of less crazy idea (and by god there were some crazy ones) was the Q-Ship, a converted civilian ship – usually a small tramp steamer – with its cargo holds often filled with barrels for added buoyancy and a few guns carefully concealed. This allowed it to continue to masquerade as a transport, one large enough to be worth destroying but small enough not to be worth a torpedo. When encountered, the sub would hopefully surface to attack with its deck gun at which point the Q-ship would drop its disguise and open fire. The actual history of the Q-ships includes some anecdotes which even fiction writers would struggle to make up.
So there we have it, a basic guide to ship classifications but as I said on this topic where there is no such thing as one single right answer. As ever thoughts and comments welcome.