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Workhorses: The Brooklyn Class Light Cruisers

The Brooklyn Class Light Cruisers were the most modern cruisers in the US inventory when war broke out in on December 7th 1941.  The ships were built under the provisions of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922.  Displacing 9700 tons to remain within treaty limitations they mounted a powerful armament of fifteen 6” guns mounted in 5 turrets, three forward and two aft.  Their design, especially their armament was designed in response to the large Mogami Class light cruisers of the Imperial Japanese Navy which initially mounted the same main battery before being converted to Heavy Cruisers.  The layout of the main battery in both classes of cruisers was identical.

Pre-war shot of Honolulu, typical of Brooklyn Class

Authorized in by Congress in 1933 the ships were designed with a large transom which housed the aircraft hangar with twin catapults and crane. This was a departure from previous US cruisers which housed the aircraft and their volatile fuels midships which would prove a liability in combat against the Japanese in the Solomons campaign.  The new hangar design was carried forth on all new cruisers and battleships built by the US subsequent to the Brooklyn Class.

There were 9 ships in the class, one of which the Wichita was completed as a Heavy Cruiser mounting nine 8” guns in triple turrets and is considered a separate one ship class.  In addition to their main battery they mounted eight 5” 25 caliber dual purpose guns and a light AA battery which was continuously increased throughout the war. Their steam turbines produced 100,000 shaft horsepower to give the ships an official speed of 32.5 knots which was exceeded by some of the ships.

The ships Brooklyn CL-40, Philadelphia CL-41, Savannah CL-42, Nashville CL-43, Phoenix CL-46, Boise CL-47, Honolulu CL-48, St. Louis CL-49 and Helena CL-50 were involved in some of the most intense combat of the war serving in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.  Of the ships one, the Helena was lost in surface combat and several others taking severe damage without sinking.  Half of the surviving ships of the class would serve in foreign navies for many years following the war a testament to their toughness and utility.

The lead ship of the class the Brooklyn served exclusively in the Atlantic and Mediterranean where she engaged Vichy warships during the invasion of North Africa and took part in the landings at Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Southern France where she provided naval gunfire support to troops ashore. Following the war she was decommissioned in January 1947 and transferred to the Chilean Navy in 1951 under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program. She was renamed O’Higgins and served until decommissioned in January 1992 and sold for scrap. She sank while being towed to India for scrapping in November 1992.

Philadelphia had a similar career to Brooklyn. Launched in 1936 and commissioned in 1937 she too served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean supporting the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Southern France.  She was decommissioned in February 1947 and transferred to Brazil in 1951. Renamed Barroso she served until 1973 and sold for scrap.

Late war view of St Louis

Savannah was launched in May 1937 and commissioned in March 1938 and like Brooklyn and Philadelphia served exclusively in the Atlantic and Mediterranean supporting amphibious landings, searching for German commerce raiders and blockade runners and supporting various escort missions. At Salerno she was struck and severely damaged by a German FX-1400 radio guided bomb which struck her number 3 gun turret penetrating to the lower handling room where it exploded tearing a large hole in the ship’s bottom and opening a seam in the ship’s side.  Her crew performed heroically to control the damage and get the ship to Malta but she lost 197 sailors in the attack. Following temporary repairs she returned to the United States for repairs and modernization which were complete in September 1944. She served in a number of capacities in the Atlantic and was decommissioned in February 1947, stricken from the Navy List in March 1959 and sold for scrapping in January 1966.

Nashville was launched in October 1937 and commissioned in June 1938 initially serving in the Atlantic until her transfer to the Pacific Fleet in February 1942.  While in the Atlantic she took part in the Neutrality Patrols and following the commencement of hostilities continued convoy escort duties.  Her first mission in the Pacific was to escort the Carrier Hornet CV-8 on her mission to launch Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s Army Air Force B-25s on the Tokyo raid.  Nashville sank a scout vessel which had discovered the task force.  On return from the mission she was assigned to the defense of the Aleutians until November 1942.  She then was transferred to the South Pacific where she participated in raids and bombardments of Japanese shore installations until while shelling Vila Airfield on Kolombangara on the night of 12 May 1943, she had an explosion of powder charges in one of her forward turrets, killing 18 and injuring 17.  The damage required her to be sent to Bremerton for repair and modernization and she would return to duty in August to join carrier task forces in raids in the Central Pacific before again moving to the South Pacific where she participated in the New Guinea campaign and as well as other missions until May of 1944.  She took part in the invasion of Leyte and the Battle of Leyte Gulf guarding beachheads and transports and fending off Kamikazes while providing naval gunfire support to troops ashore. While conducting similar operations off Negros Island she was struck by a Kamikaze with two bombs aboard. Nashville was struck on one of her port 5” mounts the bombs exploding above her deck. The blazing aviation fuel and explosions killed 139 crew members and wounded 190.  Following repairs at Bremerton she went back to the Southwest Pacific lending her battery to landings at Brunei Bay, Borneo, and protecting carriers in the Makassar Straits.  She was decommissioned in June of 1946 and sold to Chile in January 1951 where she was renamed Captain Prat where she served until she was decommissioned in May 1982 and sold for scrap in April 1983.

Phoenix was launched in March of 1938 and commissioned in October of the same year. She became part of the growing Pacific Fleet and was the first modern light cruiser assigned in the Pacific. She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and would serve throughout the war in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific and was engaged in heavy operations around New Guinea and other islands in the area frequently involved in shore bombardment, amphibious assaults and raids and having to engage attacking Japanese aircraft.  In September 1944 she was assigned to the covering force of old battleships assigned to 7th Fleet for the invasion of the Philippines.  As part of this force under Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf she took part in the destruction of the Japanese Southern Force at the Battle of Surigo Strait where her gunners aided in the sinking of the Japanese battleship Fuso. Phoenix continued operations with 7th Fleet in the Southwest Pacific supporting shore operations and fighting off swarms of Kamikazes without damage to herself. Following the war she was decommissioned in July 1946 and transferred to the Argentinean Navy in April 1951 where she was renamed 17 de Octubre and later General Belgrano. She received a number of modifications while in Argentine service including ASW helicopters and the Sea Cat Air Defense missile system.  Still in active service at the time of the Argentinean invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 she was sent to sea with two destroyers.  She was discovered by the British attack submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoed and sunk on May 3rd 1982 with the loss of 323 men, ending a 44 year career of service to the United States and Argentinean Navies.

Boise was launched in December 1936 and commissioned in August 1938. Following her shakedown cruise she was assigned to the Pacific Fleet. On December 7th 1941 she was in the Philippines after having completed a convoy escort mission.  She was sent south to join the rest of the Asiatic Squadron and our Australian, British and Dutch Allies to for the ABDA (American, British, Dutch, and Australia) task force opposing the southern advance of the Japanese aimed at Java and the Dutch East Indies.  She struck an uncharted shoal on January 29th while conducting operations in the Sape Strait forcing her to return to the United States for repairs. This probably prevented Boise from sharing the fate of most of the rest of the squadron including the HMS Exeter, USS Houston, HMAS Perth and Dutch light cruisers DeRuyter and Java, most of which were sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea in February. After repairs she returned to the South Pacific where she took part in a number of actions including the Battle of Cape Esperance where she helped sink the Japanese Heavy Cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubiki. She was damaged in this action and returned to Philadelphia for repairs.  Following her repairs she was dispatched to support the landings on Sicily before returning to the Pacific where she served from January 1944 to June of 1945 conducting almost non-stop operations around New Guinea, Borneo and the Philippines. She returned to San Pedro for overhaul and was there when the war ended. She decommissioned in July 1946 and sold to Argentina in January 1951 and commissioned as Nuevo de Julio in 1952.  She served until 1978 when she was decommissioned and was sold for scrap in August 1981.

Honolulu had one of the most active careers while engaged in operations against Japanese Naval units with far less time devoted to gunfire support missions.  She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and following that took part in convoy escort missions until she went north to screen Alaska from Japanese attack in May 1942 a task that she engaged in until November.  She then reported to the South Pacific and was part of operations against the Japanese Fleet in the Solomons. She took part in the Battle of Tassafaronga, the Battle of Kula Gulf where she helped sink a destroyer and the Battle of Kolombangara where she was instrumental in sinking the Sendai class light cruiser Jintsu and a destroyer. She then supported amphibious operations in the Central Pacific including Saipan and Guam and the Leyte Gulf landings in the Philippines.  While operating off Manus Island she was stuck by an aerial torpedo receiving heavy damage which required her withdraw to the United States for major repairs which were still being completed when the war ended. She decommissioned in February 1947, stricken from the Naval Register in November 1959 and sold for scrap.

St. Louis was launched in April 1938 and commissioned in May 1939. After time conducting neutrality patrols at the onset of the war in the Atlantic she was transferred to the Pacific Fleet in November 1940. She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and was one of the few major fleet units to get underway and out to sea during the attack.  She supported carrier operations and convoy escort missions until she was sent north to that Aleutians where she operated until October when she returned to the States for a brief overhaul before being assigned to operations in the Solomons. Operating on a nearly nonstop basis against the Tokyo Express she took part in the Battle of Kula Gulf and the Battle of Kolombangara where she received partial credit for the sinking of the Japanese light cruiser Jinstu. During the battle she was torpedoed in the bow and after temporary repairs returned to the Mare Island. Following repairs St. Louis returned to the Solomons in November 1943. She was struck by a bomb which killed 20 crew members on January 14th requiring her to return to Purvis Bay for repairs. The repairs complete she returned to the Solomons until June when she took part in the invasion of the Marshalls at Guam and Saipan. She damaged her number three propeller and had to return to the States for repair following the Guam bombardment.  Upon her return she served at Leyte Gulf until she was hit by two Kamikazes in a short span receiving heavy damage and resulted in the loss of 15 sailors killed, 1 missing and 43 wounded.  She again sailed for repairs and returned to action against the Japanese home islands and Okinawa. Following this she supported operations against Japanese installations on the Asian mainland.  Following the war she took part in the Yangtze River patrol force and then returned to the United States in January 1946.  She was decommissioned in June 1946 and transferred to Brazil in January 1951 being commissioned as Tamandare. She was decommissioned in June 1976 and sold for scrapping in 1980. While being towed to Taiwan for scrapping she sank on August 24th 1980.

Helena firing at Kula Gulf just before being torpedoed and sunk

The Final ship in the class, Helena was launched in August 1939 and commissioned in the following month.  She was at Pearl Harbor and mooed at the 1010 Dock where she was hit by a torpedo and damaged. After repairs she reported to the South Pacific and the Guadalcanal campaign.  She escorted carriers. Helena had the most modern surface search radars and at Battle of Cape Esperance in Iron Bottom Sound, Helena had sunk cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubiki.  She then took part in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in which a weaker American force turned back a Japanese force with heavy losses on both sides including the Japanese Battleship Hiei and the American cruisers Atlanta, Juneau and 4 destroyers. Helena continued operations in the Solomons and at the Battle of Kula Gulf was sank by Japanese torpedoes fired by destroyers on July 5th 1943.  168 of her sailors were lost in the action. Helena was the first US Navy ship to be awarded the Naval Unit Commendation.

The General Belgrano ex-USS Phoenix sinking after being torpedoed by HMS Conqueror at the Battle of Falkland Islands

The class found its niche in the war primarily in shore bombardment and Naval Gunfire Support as well as in the sharp surface actions in the South Pacific. Only one, Helena was lost.  Six were transferred to South American Navies making and served for many years in those navies. None survive today but the ships were instrumental in the success of many operations.

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The Treaty Cruisers: A Warship Review

Note: Since childhood I have loved naval history and the study of various types of warship design throughout history. My favorite period is really from the Spanish-American War through the mid 1970’s.  I find the leaps in Naval design and architecture, weapons and fire control systems and the diversity of the types of ships built absolutely fascinating.  Not only initial designs but the various modifications and modernizations of various ships or classes of ships went through during their service careers. The cruisers of the inter-war period were some of the most ascetically pleasing warships to ever grace the high seas. They were well proportioned, and graceful while still looking every part the warship.  This is something that many ships in our modern era lack, despite the fact that their armament despite limited gun power is formidable. With VLS launchers and Harpoon Missile tubes they pack a punch, but unlike the old cruisers, their offensive teeth are hidden. I had the privilege of serving aboard the USS HUE CITY CG-66 which is about the same size and displacement of the Chester Class

I think I actually began reading Naval history back in 2nd or 3rd grade, and it was not uncommon for me to spend hours at the public library going through reference stacks to read old issues of “Jane’s Fighting Ships” and the main collection to check out every book on Naval Warfare and warships that I could find. One of the most interesting types of ship to me was the Heavy Cruisers built under the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty. The treaty had several major provisions but today I only deal with the restrictions on Heavy Cruisers, the response of treaty nations to the limitations and the combat summary of each class.  This is all pretty much out of the deep recesses of my sometimes dark mind and tonight I didn’t have to crack a book to write this.  It’s thanks to having one of those phonographic memories that just keeps going around and around. This is another one of the things that I am passionate about.  Anchor’s Away! Peace, Steve+

atago

IJN Atago

The Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922 set a number of limits on warship construction and fleet composition.  One of the ship types limited by the treaties was cruisers, notably heavy cruisers.  These ships, descended from the Armored Cruisers developed by the navies of the great powers prior to the First World War were considered a major part of each of the navies of the signatory nations.  The armored cruisers had 8-10 inch guns and a relatively substantial armored belt.  The type was not particularly successful as with few exceptions they were used in fleet actions where they were under-gunned and under-armored.  They were most successfully used in overseas service against raiders or commerce.  The most famous of the type were the German Scharnhorst and Gneisenau of the German Far East Squadron.  Smaller and faster than a battleship, the type had developed by the 1920s into a ship that could be used for fleet screening and scouting as well as showing the flag in foreign waters where many were found.  The Washington treaty did not limit numbers of these ships as it did Battleships and Aircraft Carriers, but it did place maximums on the gun size and displacement of individual ships.   A heavy cruiser could be armed with 8 inch guns and were limited to 10,000 tons displacement.  Of course this led to compromises in the designs of the ships which frequently gave up protection for speed.

uss pensacolaUSS Pensacola

The Americans were the leaders in the development of the treaty cruisers.  The Japanese only built one class of cruiser, the Kako class which complied with the terms of the treaty.  They mounted 6- 8” guns and displaced about 8,600 tons.  They were fast but because of their light displacement were top-heavy.  Subsequent classes, the Nachi and Atago classes violated the tonnage limits by as much as 4,000 tons while the Japanese reported them as 10,000 tons. They were armed with 10-8”guns in five turrets, had good protection and also mounted 12 24” “Long Lance” torpedo tubes.  Two subsequent cruisers of the Kumano and Tone classes were built in the 1930s. The Kumano class of about 13,000 tons were initially classed as “light cruisers” mounting 15- 6” guns prior to being re-armed with 10-8” guns.  The Tone’s mounted 8- 8”guns in 4 turrets all mounted forward leaving the entire aft section for use as a seaplane launching area; the Tone class carried 8 float planes for fleet scouting.

hms exeterHMS Exeter

The British treaty cruisers abided by the limits included the York and Exeter, of the same displacement and armament as the Kako class except they were slower, a common feature of British ships which were generally slower than their American and Japanese counterparts.  The later County class ships were armed with 8- 8” guns and were distinctive looking having three funnels. The County class included such famous ships as the Norfolk, Suffolk and Dorsetshire which played critical roles in the chase and sinking of the German Battleship Bismarck. Australia had two Counties, the Australia and Canberra which did most of their service in the Pacific. The Counties were armed with 8- 8” guns and were distinctive with their three funnels.  They were slower than their Japanese or American counterparts.

uss houstonUSS Houston with President Roosevelt Aboard

The first American treaty cruisers the Pensacola and Salt Lake City of about 9,500 tons with an unusual arrangement of 10- 8” guns mounted in 4 turrets.  However it was the Chester class which was the quintessential U.S. Treaty Cruiser design.  These ships, and the later Astoria class, also displaced 9,500-10,000 tons and mounted 9- 8” guns in three turrets.  A further “treaty” cruiser was Wichita, converted from a St. Louis class light cruiser. All were fast but were lacking in armored protection and none mounted the torpedoes found in Japanese or British ships.  Some of the more notable ships in the U.S. treaty classes included the Houston which served as the Flagship of the Asiatic Fleet which was sunk at the Battle of the Java Sea. The Augusta which took Franklin D Roosevelt to Argentia for the signing of the Atlantic Charter in 1941; The San Francisco which helped stop the Japanese fleet in a point blank encounter in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and Indianapolis which with just weeks left in the war having completed the secret mission to deliver the Atomic bomb was sunk by a Japanese submarine.

PrinzEugen-2Prinz Eugen

The Germans did not build true “heavy cruisers” until the late 1930’s and their ships, the Hipper, Blucher and Prinz Eugen mounted 8- 8” guns and displaced about 19,000 tons.  The German “Pocket Battleships” Deutschland, Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer, mounted 6-11” guns on a hull of about 11,000 tons (officially 10,000) in compliance with the Treaty of Versailles restrictions on German battleships.  They were designed to outgun and be more heavily armored than the heavy cruisers and be faster than battleships, much more in the Armored Cruiser tradition.  During the war the German Navy reclassified them as Heavy Cruisers. None of these ships were built under the treaty limits for cruisers.

hms suffolkHMS Suffolk

These ships saw distinguished service throughout the war.  The British ships remained their only heavy cruiser design throughout the war. The ships took part in the sinking of the Graf Spee and Bismarck. They also suffered heavily; York was sunk at Crete and Exeter in the Java Sea. Cumberland and Dorsetshire were sunk by Admiral Nagumo’s carriers which had attacked Pearl Harbor, in the Indian Ocean. Canberra was sunk at the Battle of Savo Island off Guadalcanal.  Some of the British Ships remained in service until the 1950s and all eventually we paid off and sent to the breakers.

The Japanese ships were involved in almost every major action of the Pacific war.  Fast, heavily armed and manned by well trained crews they dominated almost every surface action of the early war in the Pacific.  The were key at the Battle of Java Sea and Savo Island where they annihilated Allied or American cruiser and destroyer squadrons. In action so often they were destroyed leaving only two marginally operational at the end of the war. Three of the four Kako class were lost in the Solomon’s.  They were all involved at Savo Island, and the last survivor, Aoba was lost at in harbor to U.S. air strikes at Yokosuka at the close of the war.  The Nachi class saw considerable service and were the workhorses of the Japanese cruiser force. They were the principle executioners of the ABDA fleet in the Java Sea battles and continued their service until late 1944 and the end of the war. Nachi and Ashigara were sunk in the aftermath of Leyte Gulf while Haguro fought the last surface action of a major Japanese combatant in a surface action of the war against a British force in 1945 and was sunk. and Myoko survived the war in a damaged condition being surrendered in Singapore.  The Chokai class also served throughout the war and three of the four were lost at Leyte Gulf. The Atago and Maya were lost to the U.S. Submarines Darter and Dace, Chokai in the action at Samar to combined U.S. destroyer and air attacks from TAFFY-3. Takao survived the war in a damaged condition having been torpedoed at Leyte Gulf but making port.  Of the later cruisers Mikuma was sunk at Midway and Mogami survived almost unimaginable damage in that battle.  Mogami was sunk by the resurrected Pearl Harbor Battleships at the Battle of Surigo Strait while Kumano and Suzaya were lost off Samar.  Chikuma and Tone also served in many battles, it was Tone’s float plane which was delayed in launching and discovered the U.S. carriers at Midway too late. Chikuma too was lost at Samar; Tone was sunk at anchor at Yokosuka in 1945.  Leyte Gulf in a sense could be described as the “Death Ride” of the Japanese Cruiser force.

The U.S. cruisers fought valiantly in nearly every engagement of the Pacific war and a few in the Atlantic.  Houston was immortalized by her actions with ABDA in the Java Sea against hopeless odds.  Astoria, Vincennes and Quincy were sunk in the Savo Island debacle.  Northampton and Chicago lost also in later actions in the Solomon’s.  San Francisco and Portland fought toe to toe with the Japanese Battleships Hiei and Kirishima in the epic Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, inflicting so much damage on Hiei that she was later sunk by American Aircraft the following day.  Indianapolis met an unlikely fate at the close of the war being sunk by a Japanese submarine after returning from a secret mission delivering the Atomic bomb.  A series of unfortunate events led to her loss not being noted with the result that most of the survivors of the sinking being lost to the elements and shark attacks while waiting days for rescue.   Others survived horrific damage from “Long Lance” torpedoes and Kamikaze attacks.  Following the war the Pensacola’s were expended as targets and the remaining ships placed in “mothballs” until the late 1950s when all were scrapped.  Some artifacts of San Francisco including her mast are at “Land’s End” park in that city.

uss san franciscoUSS San Fransisco Returning After the  Naval Battle of Guadalcanal

Of all the navies involved only the United States Navy and German Kriegsmarine built or attempted to build new classes of heavy cruisers during the war.  The US Navy brought out the Baltimore Class which was highly successful and built upon lessons learned from the Treaty Cruisers and the follow on Oregon City class which incorporated design improvements based on experience with the Baltimore Class.  Some of these ships would be converted into the first US Guided Missile Cruisers. The later Des Moines Class the largest class of all gun cruisers ever built with fully automated 8″ gun systems.  Of these ships only Salem survives in Quincy MA as a museum ship, sadly the Des Moines which had been slated to become a Museum ship in Milwaukee was scrapped in 2007 .

No treaty cruiser survives today.  Their service, heroic, unceasing and tireless service is remembered only by their surviving crews and a few naval historians and buffs.  The epic damage control actions of the San Francisco are still taught at the Naval Surface Warfare School.  They have passed into history, of those sunk some have been rediscovered, the Ballard expedition discovered and photographed the wrecks of Astoria and Quincy and their Australian consort Canberra in the waters of “Iron Bottom Sound” off Guadalcanal.  The German “Prinz Eugen” though not a treaty cruiser survived the war and was expended as a target in the Atomic bomb tests.  Her wreck lies capsized and submerged at Bikini Atoll.  An attempt to salvage her by a German group was abandoned and one of her screws was brought back and placed on display near Kiel, Germany.

Though all had design drawbacks due to the treaties, the American and British ships performed magnificently and without their service, especially in the early days of the war history today might be different.  Here’s to gallant ships and steadfast crews. May they never be forgotten.

Peace,

Steve+

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