An Experiment in Failure: The Beautiful, Flawed, Expensive, and Expendable Alaska Class Large Cruisers

Line drawing of Alaska in 1945

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The three ships of the Alaska Class were among the most confusing and curious designs of warships ever built for the US Navy. They had their genus in the early 1930s when the Germans deployed the Deutschland Class Pocket Battleships, which in reality were heavy cruisers with 11” guns designed for long range commerce raiders. Both the Americans and French began to design something larger and faster. The French produced the excellent Dunkerque Class which could be classed as as either a Battlecruiser, or Fast Battleship. The American designs languished on the drawing board due to bureaucratic conflicts between those who believed a specialized ship to track down commerce raiders was necessary, and those who thought such designs were a waste of money and resources.

Alaska and Guam Together 

However in the late 1930s a rumor of Japanese “super cruiser” put them back into the planning stage  with President Franklin Roosevelt being a supporter of the concept. In truth the Japanese had no such ship on the drawing board, but still the process of trying to figure out what the ship and its mission would be perplexed designers. Add this to political pressure and  the resulting confusion had nine different designs underway at the same time, everything from a 6,000 ton modification of the Atlanta Class anti-Aircraft cruiser, an enlarged heavy cruiser, to a 38,000 ton fast battleship. Eventually the Naval General Board Chose in essence what was a greatly enlarged, up-armored and up-gunned modification of the Baltimore Class heavy cruisers.

The confusion even manifested in what the Navy decided to call the class. Based on their size, speed and armament they looked like Battlecruisers, but if you compared them to other battlecruisers they had severe deficiencies in armor and anti-torpedo defenses when compared the the old but still effective British Hood, Repulse, and Renown, the French Dunkerque Class, the German Scharnhorst Class, and the Japanese Kongo Class, which were all battlecruisers or fast battleships.

The Navy classed them as Large Cruisers and deigned them as CB. The Navy designated Heavy Cruisers as CA, Light Cruisers as CL, and the US Navy’s one attempt to build large Battlecruisers, the Lexington Class were designated as CC before they were cancelled with two of the four ships , Lexington and Saratoga completed as Aircraft Carriers. Likewise the naming of the class straddled the line between States and Cities. Battleships were named after States, cruisers were named after cities, but the Alaska Class were named after territories. While Alaska and Hawaii became states later, they were not states at the time. The ambiguity of their names reflected the confusion of their design and mission.

They were designed to hunt and kill the German Pocket Battleships, the imagined large Japanese Cruisers, and as a counter the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau which in 1939 and 1940 had created havoc in the Atlantic raiding convoys and sinking the Royal Navy Aircraft Carrier HMS Courageous.


USS Missouri (Top) with USS Alaska (below) at Norfolk Naval Station 1944

As designed the ships were 809 feet long and 91 feet wide, displaced 27,000 tons, and mounted 9 12” guns in three turrets, and and were capable of 33 knots.  They used the expanded hull design of the Baltimore Class, and used the same propulsion system as the Essex Class Aircraft Carriers. The ships mounted a large anti-aircraft battery of twelve 5” 38 caliber Dual Purpose guns, fifty-six 40mm cannons in quad and twin mounts, and thirty four 20mm light anti-aircraft guns. But even this was less than they could have mounted. That was because instead of placing the ship’s aviation facilities on the fantail as was done on the Brooklyn Class Light Cruisers, the Heavy Cruiser Wichita, the Cleveland Class Light Cruisers, the Baltimore Class, and all the modern battleships, to the earlier midships aviation facilities including port and starboard catapults. The Navy’s experience in combat during the Guadalcanal Campaign showed this arrangement to be a vulnerability in surface actions. Despite this the design was not changed.

Their armor protection was proof against 8” and 11” shells but could not withstand the heavier shells of battleships. In addition, to keep the ships at their designed displacement, no below the waterline torpedo protection was provided. The lack of that would have made them vulnerable That being said they had a good anti-aircraft battery, could keep pace with the fast carriers, and conduct shore bombardment operations against the Japanese mainland. None engaged any type of ship that they were designed to fight. The Alaska and Guam were the only two ships of the class completed and which saw service in the war. They were both decommissioned having served barely two and a half years active service each. Hawaii was launched but construction was suspended when she was 84% complete, and she was never commissioned.

The Scharnhorst: She and the Gneisenau were the threat that the Alaska’s were designed to counter

Alaska was laid down in December 1941 shortly after Pearl Harbor, launched 15 August 1943 and commissioned on 17 June 1944. Her sister ship, Guam was launched on 12 November 1943 and commissioned 17 September 1944.  The final ship of the class to be built the Hawaii was launched after the war in November 1945 with her construction halted when she was 84% complete in 1947. Three planned ships, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Samoa were never laid down.

Aerial View of USS Alaska

While fast and large with more than adequate firepower the purpose that they created for no longer existed by the time that they were commissioned.  Of the German Pocket Battleships, Graf Spee had been scuttled in 1939, while Lützow the former Deutschland, and Admiral Scheer were bottled up in the Baltic. The Scharnhorst had been sunk by a 12 ship British task force led by the HMS Duke of York on December 26th 1943 after mounting an attack on a Murmansk convoy at the Battle of North Cape.  Her sister Gneisenau had been heavily damaged in the “channel dash” and bombing in Kiel. While being refitted to replace her nine 11” guns with six 15” guns the work was discontinued after the sinking of the Scharnhorst. Her main battery and secondary armament were removed and used to reinforce the Atlantic Wall, mostly in Norway.

The USS Guam in 1945

With their natural opponents no longer a factor in the war the Alaska and Guam were sent to the Pacific where they spent their time escorting fast carrier task forces, conducting naval gunfire support missions off Okinawa and conducting sweeps in Japanese waters as part of the initial blockade of Japan.  Following the war Alaska and Guam were active in Operation Magic Carpet the return of US servicemen from the Far East to the United States. Alaska and Guam were decommissioned in February 1947 remaining in reserve until stricken from the Naval List. Alaska was scrapped in 1960 and Guam being in 1961. The fate of Hawaii was be debated for years. Suggestions included to complete here her as the first guided missile cruiser (CG) and later a Command Cruiser (CC) were rejected as too expensive and she was sold for scrap in 1959.

Incomplete and undervalued the Hawaii being towed to the breakers in 1959

The era of the Battle Cruiser which began with the launching of the HMS Invincible in 1907 culminated in with launching of the HMS Hood, or arguably the  Dunkerque or Scharnhorst Classes, but not with the Alaska Class. They looked a lot like battlecruisers, but that is where the similarity ended.  It was an ignominious ending for expensive and practically unused ships being broken up. But it had to be. Their lack of underwater protection, barely average armor protection, ill designed aviation facilities, and main battery which was unique, expensive, and had a tendency to break down ensured that they could not have another mission. Instead, for a much more affordable cost, Baltimore Class cruisers were converted into guided missile cruisers or retained as naval gunfire support ships. Likewise, Cleveland Class light cruisers were converted to guided missile cruisers. One of the Baltimore Class, the Norfolk was converted into a Command Cruiser, and two others converted into the light fleet carriers, and later command ships, Wright and Saipan. 

In light of the need for a combination of substantial naval gunfire support, on a platform large enough to support the latest Aegis air defense radars and missiles to protect an Expeditionary Strike Group, capable of ballistic missile defense, and equipped with combat proven 6”, 8”, or 16” guns for naval gunfire support missions, Tomahawk Cruise missiles, and the latest anti-ship missiles and close in protective missiles and guns is needed. The existing Zumwalt Class, Arleigh Burke Class, and Ticonderoga Class, are incapable of fulfilling such a role. The ships would have to be cable of independent operations, and have the capacity to incorporate new technologies including laser weapons, newly developed combat drones capable of ship to shore, ship to ship, and ASW operations, are needed. The ships would have to be capable of extended independent operations, and have substantial protection against current anti-ship weapons, and torpedoes. It seems  to me that a new class of Battle Cruisers, in effect a new, enlarged and much improved Alaska Class would be in order.

The Alaska Class was a failure in design and practice. By the time they were completed their primary mission no longer existed, and the compromises in their design ensured that they would be incapable of any real modernization that would make them effective components of a modern Navy. It was not the first or last time the US Navy, the Royal Navy, or any other Navy has design and built a lemon.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under Foreign Policy, germany, History, imperial japan, Military, national security, Navy Ships, nazi germany, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

2 responses to “An Experiment in Failure: The Beautiful, Flawed, Expensive, and Expendable Alaska Class Large Cruisers

  1. Kristin High

    Padre,

    Ouch! I’m not sure I would go so far as to assert “lemon”. Perhaps “white elephant”? Their main battery rifle was quite effective, and there was nothing wrong with the triple turret. RDF DCT, propulsion, Ack-Ack, and secondary armament were all excellent.

    They were more heavily protected and more heavily-armed than a Baltimore-Class 8-Inch Gun Cruiser. If there was a flaw, it lay in the failure to provide the ships with Capital Ship anti-torpedo protection. Against marauding Japanese 8-Inch Cruisers, the Kirishima-Class Battle Cruisers—or the proposed Japanese new-construction Battle Cruiser—the ships were extremely vulnerable. The Japanese liked the torpedo, and their ships were literally overloaded with them. Against the German Armoured Cruisers, there would be little contest, the German ships being outclassed in speed, protection, and main battery. Against Salmon & Gluckstein, though, they USN Large Cruisers were finely matched.

    The American ships’ speed is superior “on paper”, but the German ships proved to be faster than official credit, especially in typical Atlantic weather and seas. Scharnhorst outran all of the British cruisers at North Cape, and even the new RN Destroyers of the ‘S’- and ‘R’-Classes could only catch her up slowly—had anyone besides Erich Bey been in command of the German “squadron”, North Cape would have been uglier for the RN; of course, had anyone other than Frasier been in command of the British Home Fleet, the same may be said (and the Germans have had an easier time of it).

    As it turned out, the war went quite differently than expected in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Japanese raided Allied supply lines exactly once, in April 1942 in the Bay of Bengal, and even then most as cover for other operations (Operation C and the passing of troops to Burma by sea).

    The lack of a mission beyond Anti-Commerce Raiding was a fate very similar to that confronting the USN Battleships. Built for a mission that they were not present for—Halsey, again—they, too, were expensive anachronisms. Like the CBs, the American BBs wound up providing Shore Bombardment and A/A defence, which were tasks for which they were very expensive. At least stores were plentiful, unlike the handful of rifles for the CBs and their unique ammunition.

    KAH

    • padresteve

      You make some good points, and the shells fired by the 12” guns had about as much or more penetration power as the 14” shells fired by the pre-treaty battleships. There were two flaws in the turret, they were advanced, very advanced, but had an automatic rammer which frequently jammed when the guns were fired. The second was that they were incredibly expensive to produce, more than the 16” guns of the modern Battleships. The lack of torpedo protection also extended to shells that hit below the waterline and armored belt, which well could have been fatal in an encounter with the German ships. The placement of their aviation facilities denuded them of an even stronger AA armament, probably sacrificing four 5” 38 twin mounts. It is also true that any of the battleships laid down after 1942 pretty much lacked a traditional battleship mission, the reason for the cancellation of the last two Iowa Class ships, and the later Montana Class. However, they had the capability of being recommissioned and armed with Harpoon and Tomahawk in the 1980s, and their armor was proof against most of the anti-ship missiles then existent, the Alaska Class Class had almost no capacity for conversion to CGs that could not be done just as effectively by converting CLs and CAs, or even the CC command ship which was done with Norfolk. Honestly, I wish so many compromises had not been used as they were beautiful ships. Likewise the fact that the Navy built them so late rather than earlier in the 1930s when they could have been used against the ships that they were designed to hunt and kill, at least in the Atlantic, I wouldn’t have wanted to see what would have happened to the in either the Java Sea or the Solomons against Japanese cruisers and destroyers equipped with their array of Long Lance torpedos. As far as North Cape, it was Bey’s decisions that doomed his flagship.

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