HMS Renown – Battle-cruiser 1916 – 1948

Ship histories and stories
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June 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

WHEN CHURCHILL BROUGHT ADMIRAL FISHER back as First Sea Lord in October 1914, he could not have dreamed that Fisher would soon reintroduce battle cruisers, which Churchill strongly disapproved of as a type. With the building of the fast well armoured battleships of the Queen Elizabeth class it seemed that the battle cruiser had been superseded. But when two of Fisher’s battle cruisers won an easy and complete victory off the Falkland Islands in November over Spee’s obsolescent and much slower cruisers. Fisher immediately obtained Cabinet approval to rescind the suspension of further capital ship construction by using material allocated to two cancelled Revenge class battleships – Renown and Repulse.

Fisher argued that the new battle-cruisers would be able to hunt down any enemy commerce raiders or cruisers and would be vastly superior in speed and armament to any German battle cruisers. But he really wanted them for his great Baltic invasion scheme because of their light draught.

In a brief letter to the Director of Naval Construction dated 12 December 1914 Fisher gave his staff requirements; ‘Battle cruiser Rhadamanthus. Speed 32 knots – Six 15 inch guns – Twenty 4 inch automatic guns all on top deck (20° elevation) Range (? yards) (30° elevation Range 14,000 yards) – armoured like Indefatigable – 2 Torpedo Tubes – All oil – Radius of action at ( ) knots ( ) miles. Freeboard forward 35 feet aft ( ) feet. Length 750 feet – Beam ( ) feet.

That’s the sort of label to put on the model. I’m sure you’ll benefit by 750 feet instead of 720. The Rhadamanthus will immortalize you.’

The proposed design involved a number of new developments compared with the battle cruisers of the Lion class and the Tiger. Instead of 13.5 inch guns, the more powerful 15 inch guns were to be fitted. Oil fuel was to be used exclusively. The secondary armament, in conformity with Fisher’s dictum that battle cruisers should have the lightest secondary armament, were only 4 inch guns, while the Tiger had a much more powerful secondary armament of 6 inch guns. The worst feature proved to be the armour protection, which in the case of the side armour was only 6 inches thick as in Indefatigable, it was however much longer but only 9 feet wide.

There can be little doubt that if Fisher had been the great naval genius that many claimed, he would have seen the wisdom of having fast well armoured battleships instead of very lightly armoured battle cruisers, but in his mind speed was everything and in any case he was blinded by his extraordinary Baltic project which demanded very light draught.

Various stories of the very hurried design of the Renown and Repulse are still current, but the most accurate version is that of the Director of Naval Construction Sir Eustace d’Eyncourt, who wrote: ‘On Christmas Day 1914 I had an urgent call to discuss the proposed design with Fisher; and after that we had to work day and night to get out a sketch design in record time. The keels of the two ships were actually laid, one at Fairfield’s (Renown) and the other at Clydebank on 25th January 1915, exactly a month after we had decided on the design, and this date happened to be Fisher’s 74th birthday. In order to get construction started, we laid the keels although the design was not yet completed, but was gradually developed as the building proceeded; actually, the design was just kept a step ahead the whole time, for both Renown and Repulse were remarkable for the speed with which they were completed’.

With the Dreadnought in mind, Fisher stipulated a building time of only 15 months, which proved impossible. Renown completed on 20th September and Repulse on 18th August 1916.

The Renown class differed from all previous British battle cruisers in having only three turrets, the guns fitted being 15 inch as in the Revenge class. The previous battle cruisers had four turrets with 13.5 inch guns, but the 15 inch gun was far more powerful, the weight of shell being 1,950 pounds, while the lighter gun fired a shell which weighed 1,400 pounds. The broadside of the Renown was therefore slightly more than the broadside of those battle cruisers with eight turrets with 13.5 inch guns.

The secondary armament of the Renown class was not, however, as powerful as that in the Tiger, which carried twelve 6 inch guns, while the Renowns had seventeen four inch guns in two single mountings and five triple mountings. The torpedo armament consisted of two broadside submerged 21 inch tubes forward of A turret.

The designed legend displacement was 26,500 tons, which included 1,000 tons of oil fuel. Length over all was 794 ft and the beam 90 ft. Renown’s deep displacement was 30,835 tons.

The poor protection of the new battle cruisers was considered most unsatisfactory in the Grand Fleet, and the Commander-in- Chief, Admiral Jellicoe lost no time in reporting this to the Admiralty. On 20th October 1916 he sent a long account of the inferiority of the British battle cruisers and the superiority of the Germans; he referred to the new ships as ‘freaks’ and compared them very unfavourably with the new Hindenburg. He tended to exaggerate the superiority of the German battle cruisers, which he said had the armour of battleships, which was hardly correct. However his bitter comments had the desired affect, and both ships were promptly put in hand for additional protection. About 500 tons of additional protection was fitted and the legend displacement increased to 27,420 tons. Nearly all the additional protection consisted of horizontal armour.

Renown served in the 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron until 1919, and conveyed the Prince of Wales on his tour to the USA and Australasia in 1920-21 and to India and Japan in 1921-22. She underwent a long refit in 1923-26 prior to joining the Battle Cruiser Squadron, Atlantic Fleet. The two ships had so many refits that they were affectionately known in the Service as ‘Refit’ and ‘Repair’. The Royal Cruise with the Duke of York took nearly six months with the ship visiting ports in New Zealand and also Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne, Fremantle, Suez, Malta and Gibraltar.

When designed the Renown class were given a modified form of internal bulge to give additional underwater protection, and during the 1923-26 refit an additional external bulge covering the full length of the side armour was also fitted. During the refit the side armour was increased in thickness to 9 inches.

In view of the many harsh comments made on the Renown class design, it is interesting to quote Captain Halsey’s letter to the Director of Naval Construction in 1920 when the Prince of Wales was onboard; ‘The ship is a perfect marvel to me; she steams beautifully and is extraordinary economical; she burns a little over a ton per knot at twenty knots and she is perfectly wonderful in a heavy sea – in fact I never knew that any ship could behave as she does, as she is not abnormally wet, in fact in a head sea she is wonderfully dry, and her steadiness is extraordinary. We have now been about 18,000 miles since leaving England, and mostly at 20-25 knots, and the ship has behaved splendidly’. Over twenty years later Admiral Cunningham was a passenger onboard in bad weather and wrote ‘It was my first trip in the Renown and I greatly admired her weatherly qualities at speed’.

In 1936 it was decided to reconstruct Renown and also fit new engines and boilers. In addition the secondary armament was vastly improved by removing all the four inch guns and fitting twenty 4.5 inch dual purpose guns in twin turrets. The reconstruction followed the general pattern of the battleships Warspite, Queen Elizabeth and Valiant and in particular the last two battleships. All ships were considerably altered in appearance with modern tower bridges and fixed catapults. Previously major refits added to the displacement but in the case of these reconstructions the displacements were considerably reduced by the installation of modern and much lighter engines and boilers.

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