A fast battleship was a battleship which in concept emphasised speed without undue compromise of either armor or armament. Most of the early World War I-era dreadnought battleships were typically built with low design speeds, so the term "fast battleship" is applied to a design which is considerably faster. The extra speed of a fast battleship was normally required to allow the vessel to carry out additional roles besides taking part in the line of battle, such as escorting aircraft carriers.
A fast battleship was distinguished from a battlecruiser in that it would have been expected to be able to engage hostile battleships in sustained combat on at least equal terms. The requirement to deliver increased speed without compromising fighting ability or protection was the principal challenge of fast battleship design. While increasing length-to-beam ratio was the most direct method of attaining a higher speed, this meant a bigger ship that was considerably more costly and/or could exceed the naval treaty tonnage limits (where these applied, such as the Washington Naval Treaty shaping naval fleet composition after World War I). Technological advancements such as propulsion improvements and light, high-strength armor plating were required in order to make fast battleships feasible.
Unlike battlecruiser, which became official Royal Navy usage in 1911, the term fast battleship was essentially an informal one. The warships of the Queen Elizabeth class were collectively termed the Fast Division when operating with the Grand Fleet. Otherwise, fast battleships were not distinguished from conventional battleships in official documentation; nor were they recognised as a distinctive category in contemporary ship lists or treaties. There is no separate code for fast battleships in the U.S. Navy's hull classification system, all battleships, fast or slow, being rated as "BB".
Between the origins of the armoured battleship with the French Gloire and the Royal Navy's Warrior at the start of the 1860s, and the genesis of the Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth class in 1911, several battleship classes appeared which set new standards of speed. Warrior, at over 14 knots (26 km/h) under steam, was the fastest warship of her day as well as the most powerful. With the increasing weight of guns and armour, this speed was not exceeded until Monarch (1868) achieved 15 knots (28 km/h) under steam. The Italian Italia of 1880 was a radical design, with a speed of 18 knots (33 km/h), heavy guns and no belt armour; this speed was not matched until the 1890s, when higher speeds came to be associated with second-class designs such as the Renown of 1895 (18 knots) and the Swiftsure and Triumph of 1903 (20 knots). In these late pre-dreadnought designs, the high speed may have been intended to compensate for their lesser staying power, allowing them to evade a more powerful opponent when necessary.
From about 1900, interest in the possibility of a major increase in the speed of Royal Navy battleships was provoked by Sir John ("Jackie") Fisher, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. The Senior Officer's War Course of January 1902 was asked to investigate whether a ship with lighter armour and quick-firing medium guns (6 to 10 in, 150 to 250 mm calibre), with a 4-knot (7 km/h) advantage in speed, would obtain any tactical advantage over a conventional battleship. It was concluded that "gun power was more important than speed, provided both sides were determined to fight"; although the faster fleet would be able to choose the range at which it fought, it would be outmatched at any range. It was argued that, provided that the fighting was at long range, an attempt by the faster fleet to obtain a concentration of fire by "crossing the T" could be frustrated by a turn-away, leading to the slower fleet "turning inside the circle of the faster fleet at a radius proportional to the difference in speed" (Figure 1). War games conducted by the General Board of the U.S. Navy in 1903 and 1904 came to very similar conclusions.
Fisher appears to have been unimpressed by these demonstrations and continued to press for radical increases in the speed of battleships. His ideas ultimately came to at least partial fruition in the Dreadnought of 1906; like Warrior before her, Dreadnought was the fastest as well as the most powerful battleship in the world.
Dreadnought was the first major warship powered by turbines. She also included other features indicating an increased emphasis on speed:
In the decade following the construction of Dreadnought, the Royal Navy's lead in capital ship speed eroded as rival navies responded with their own turbine-powered "dreadnoughts". Meanwhile, in the UK, Fisher continued to press for still higher speeds, but the alarming cost of the new battleships and battlecruisers provoked increasing resistance, both within the Admiralty and from the Liberal government that took office in 1906. As a result, many potentially significant fast battleship designs failed to achieve fruition.
A notable abortive design was the 22,500-ton "X4" design of December 1905. This would have been a true fast battleship by the standards of the time, carrying the same armament and protection as Dreadnought at a speed of 25 knots (46 km/h). However, the British lead in dreadnought and battlecruiser construction was deemed to be so great that a further escalation in the size and cost of capital ships could not be justified. The X4 design is often described as a "fusion" of the Dreadnought concept with that of the battlecruiser, and it has been suggested that she "would have rendered the Invincibles obsolete".
Fisher was again rebuffed in 1909 over the first of the "super-dreadnoughts", the Orion class; of the two alternative designs considered, one of 21 knots (39 km/h) and the other of 23 knots (43 km/h), the Board of Admiralty selected the slower and cheaper design. Fisher had his dissent recorded in the board minutes, complaining "we should not be outclassed in any type of ship".
Fisher's aspirations for faster battleships were not fulfilled until after his retirement in 1910. Following the success of the 13.5-inch (343 mm) gun used in the Orion class, the Admiralty decided to develop a 15-inch (381 mm) gun to equip the battleships of the 1912 construction programme. The initial intention was that the new battleships would have the same configuration as the preceding Iron Duke class, with five twin turrets and a speed of 21 knots (39 km/h; 24 mph). However, it was realised that by dispensing with the amidships turret, it would be possible to free up weight and volume for a much enlarged power plant and still fire a heavier broadside than the Iron Dukes.
Although War College studies had earlier rejected the concept of a fast, light battlefleet, they were now supportive of the concept of a Fast Division of 25 knots (46 km/h; 29 mph) or more, operating in conjunction with a conventional heavy battle line, which could use its advantage in speed to envelop the head of the enemy line (Figure 2). Compared to Fisher's idea of speeding up the entire battlefleet, the advantages of this concept were that there would be no need to compromise the fighting power of the main fleet, and that it would be possible to retain the use of the existing 21-knot ships. Up to this time, it had been assumed that the role of a Fast Division could be fulfilled by the battlecruisers, of which there were ten completed or on order. However, it was realised that there were two problems with this assumption. The first was the likelihood that the battlecruisers would be fully committed in countering the growing and very capable German battlecruiser force. The second was that, as Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, put it, our beautiful "Cats" had thin skins compared to the enemy's strongest battleships. It is a rough game to pit ... seven or nine inches of armour against twelve or thirteen".
The new battleships would, in fact, be the most heavily armoured dreadnoughts in the fleet. The original 1912 programme envisaged three battleships and a battlecruiser. However, given the speed of the new ships, it was decided that a new battlecruiser would not be needed. The battleship design for the following year's programme, which became the Revenge class, also had 15-inch guns, but reverted to the 21-knot speed of the main battlefleet. Again, no battlecruiser was included, a decision which suggests that the fast battleships were perceived at that time as superseding the battlecruiser concept.
When the fast battleship concept was put to the test at the Battle of Jutland, the Queen Elizabeth class ships had been temporarily attached to Vice Admiral David Beatty's Battlecruiser Fleet at Rosyth (this was to release the Invincible-class battlecruisers of the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron for gunnery practice at Scapa Flow). The Queen Elizabeth ships proved an outstanding success, firing with great rapidity, accuracy and effect, while surviving large quantities of hits from German 28.3-centimetre (11 in) and 30.5-centimetre (12 in) shells and successfully evading the main German battlefleet during the so-called "run to the North". In the fighting, Warspite was severely damaged, suffered a steering failure and was obliged to withdraw, while Malaya suffered a serious cordite fire which nearly caused her loss. However, both ships returned safely to port. This was in notable contrast to the performance of the battlecruisers, of which three out of the nine present were destroyed by magazine explosions after a relatively small number of hits.
When the main body of the Grand Fleet came into action, the Queen Elizabeth ships were unable to reach their intended station ahead of the battle line and instead joined the rear of the line, seeing little further action. Meanwhile, the six surviving battlecruisers assumed the "Fast Division" role, operating ahead of the battle line with some success, exploiting their advantage of speed to damage the head of the German line with virtual impunity.
Jutland was a crippling blow to the reputation of the existing battlecruisers. However, it also reinforced the views of Commander-In-Chief Sir John Jellicoe that the Queen Elizabeth ships were too slow to operate with the Battlecruiser Fleet on a permanent basis. Based on combat reports, Jellicoe erroneously credited the German König-class battleships with 23 knots (43 km/h; 26 mph), which would mean that Queen Elizabeth ships, which were rated at 24 knots (44 km/h; 28 mph), would be in serious danger if they were surprised by a battlefleet headed by these ships.
Even before Jutland, Jellicoe had expressed concern at the lack of new construction for the Battlecruiser Fleet and the inadequacy of the ships already provided. Early in 1916, he had rejected proposals for a new fast battleship design, similar to the Queen Elizabeth but with reduced draught, pointing out that, with the five new Revenge-class nearing completion, the fleet already had a sufficient margin of superiority in battleships, whereas the absence of battlecruisers from the 1912 and 1913 programmes had left Beatty's force with no reply to the new 12-inch-gunned German battlecruisers. Jellicoe believed that the Germans intended to build still more powerful ships, with speeds of up to 29 knots (54 km/h; 33 mph), and hence called for 30-knot (56 km/h; 35 mph) ships to fight them. Although two new battlecruisers (Renown and Repulse) had been ordered in 1914, and were being constructed remarkably quickly, Jellicoe argued that, although their speed was adequate, their armour protection was insufficient. The 1915 design was therefore recast as a 36,000-long-ton (37,000 t) battlecruiser with eight 15-inch (381 mm) guns, an eight-inch belt, and a speed of 32 knots (59 km/h; 37 mph). A class of four ships was ordered in mid-1916.
The losses at Jutland led to a reappraisal of the design. As noted above, the British were now convinced that their fast battleships were battleworthy but too slow, and their battlecruisers—even the largest—unfit for sustained battle. As a result, the ships were radically redesigned in order to achieve the survivability of the Queen Elizabeths while still meeting the requirement for 32-knot (59 km/h; 37 mph) battlecruisers, although this reworking was flawed. The resulting ships would be the Admiral-class battlecruisers; at 42,000 long tons (43,000 t) tons by far the largest warships in the world. In 1917 construction was slowed down to release resources for the construction of anti-submarine vessels; when it became clear that the threatened German battlecruisers would not be completed, the last three were suspended and ultimately canceled, leaving only the lead ship, Hood, to be completed.
Although the Royal Navy designated Hood as a battlecruiser, some naval historians such as Antony Preston characterise her as a fast battleship, as she theoretically had the protection of the Queen Elizabeth ships while being significantly faster. On the other hand, the British were well aware of the protection flaws remaining despite her revised design, so she was intended for the duties of a battlecruiser and served in the battlecruiser squadrons throughout her career, other than a few months assigned to Force H in 1940. Moreover, the scale of her protection, though adequate for the Jutland era, was at best marginal against the new generation of 16-inch (406 mm)-gunned capital ships that emerged soon after her completion in 1920, typified by the US Colorado class and the Japanese Nagato class.
During the First World War, the Royal Navy was unique in operating both a Fast Division of purpose-built battleships and a separate force of battlecruisers. However, from 1912 to 1923 there was a series of advances in marine engineering which would lead to a dramatic increase in the speeds specified for new battleship designs, a process terminated only by the advent of the Washington Naval Treaty. These advances included:
By the early 1920s, the wealth of the U.S. and the ambition of Japan (the two Great Powers least ravaged by World War I) were forcing the pace of capital ship design. The Nagato class set a new standard for fast battleships, with 16-inch (406 mm) guns and a speed of 26.5 knots (49.1 km/h). The Japanese appear to have shared Fisher's aspiration for a progressive increase in the speed of the whole battlefleet, influenced partly by their success at outmanoeuvring the Russian fleet at Tsushima, and partly by the need to retain the tactical initiative against potentially larger hostile fleets. The immediate influence of the Nagatos was limited by the fact that the Japanese kept their actual speed a closely guarded secret, admitting to only 23 knots (43 km/h; 26 mph). As a result, the U.S. Navy, which had hitherto adhered steadily to a 21-knot (39 km/h) battlefleet, settled for a modest increase to the same speed in the abortive South Dakota class of 1920.
The Japanese planned to follow up the Nagatos with the Kii class, (ten 16-inch (406 mm) guns, 29.75 knots, 39,900 tons) described as "fast capital ships" and, according to Conway's, representing a fusion of the battlecruiser and battleship types. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy, alarmed at the rapid erosion of its preeminence in capital ships, was developing even more radical designs; the 18-inch (457 mm) gunned N3 class and the 32-knot (59 km/h; 37 mph), 16-inch (406 mm) gunned G3 class both of some 48,000 tons. Officially described as battlecruisers, the G3s were far better protected than any previous British capital ship and have generally been regarded, like the Kiis, as true fast battleships. The G3s were given priority over the N3s, showing that they were considered fit for the line of battle, and orders were actually placed. However, both the British and the Japanese governments baulked at the monstrous cost of their respective programmes and ultimately were forced to accede to U.S. proposals for an arms limitation conference; this convened at Washington, D.C. in 1921 and resulted in the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. This treaty precipitated the demise of the giant fast battleship designs, although the British used a scaled-down version of the G3 design to build two new battleships permitted under the treaty; the resulting Nelson-class vessels were completed with the modest speed of 23 knots.
The Italian Francesco Caracciolo-class battleships were designed to be similar to the Queen Elizabeth class, with eight 15-inch guns and a top speed of 28 knots (52 km/h; 32 mph), and therefore can be considered fast battleships. However, construction (begun in 1914–1915) was stopped by the war, and none was ever completed.
In 1938 the U.S., UK, and France agreed to invoke the escalator clause of the Second London Treaty, allowing them to build up to 45,000 tons standard. By this time, all three Allied nations were already committed to new 35,000-ton designs: the U.S. North Carolina (two ships) and South Dakota (four), the British King George V class (five ships) and the French Richelieus (two completed out of four planned, the last of the class, Gascogne, to a greatly modified design).
The UK and U.S. laid down follow-on classes, designed to the 45,000 ton standard, in 1939 and 1940 respectively. The U.S. succeeded in completing four of the intended six Iowa class, but the British Lion class were not built; two of the planned four units were laid down in the summer of 1939, but neither was completed because of limited capacity to produce the turrets and guns. They would have embarked nine 16-inch (406 mm) guns and, at 29 to 30 knots (54 to 56 km/h), would have been slightly faster than the King George V class. The UK did complete one final battleship to an "emergency" design, the Vanguard, a modified Lion design that could use the 15-inch (381 mm) gun mountings removed from the World War I "large light cruisers" Courageous and Glorious after their conversion to aircraft carriers. Her design revised during the war to adopt lessons from the loss of other ships, she was completed in 1946 and was similar in speed to the Lions.
The last U.S. battleship design was the first since 1922 to be entirely free of treaty constraints. The huge Montana-class battleships represent a return to "normal American practice" in battleship design, with massive protection, heavy firepower, and moderate speed (28 knots). At 60,500 tons standard, they approached the size of the Yamatos, which they resembled in concept. Five of these ships were ordered, but they were ill-suited to the needs of fast carrier task force operations, and none were laid down.
The following classes of warship have been considered to be fast battleships, in accordance with the definition used in this article and/or with contemporary usage. The list includes all new construction of the 1930s and 1940s, along with some reconstructions; this reflects the fact that, while not all of these ships were notably fast by contemporary standards of new construction, they were all much faster than the considerable number of capital ships built in the pre-treaty era and still in service at that time. All speeds are design speeds, sourced from Conway's; these speeds were often exceeded on trial, though rarely in service.