Iowa Class Battlecruisers – We Ask If America’s Most Powerful Dreadnoughts May Actually Have Been Battlecruisers


War History Online presents this guest article by Chris Knupp

On the surface, history can appear a rigid, unmoving thing. That once something is historically established, it remains that way forever. However, the truth of the matter is that history is largely pliable. The more blurry facts can be easily be bent to support a particular view. A small, but popular opinion is that the Iowa class battleships of the US Navy could be considered battlecruisers. What are battlecruisers and why would anybody think the Iowa class is like them? I will look at the rationale for this opinion and refine the lines that separate battleship from battlecruiser. With a bit of digging, we will find out whether we need to refer to these dreadnoughts as the Iowa class battlecruisers from now on.

Iowa Class

Why would the Iowa class be considered Battlecruisers?

I have found two prevailing arguments in favor of classifying the Iowa class as battlecruisers.

1) Their armor was unable to withstand the firepower of their own guns.

2) They sacrificed armor to achieve higher speeds.

It is true that these ships were exceedingly fast and that armor wise they were a departure from traditional practice. However, is this enough to brand them as battlecruisers? To compare, let us examine the concept behind battlecruisers and see what made them different from battleships.

What Are Battlecruisers?

HMS Hood

HMS Hood, the largest battlecruiser ever built. Her weak protection became her undoing in her famous fight against the battleship Bismarck.

Battlecruisers were a short-lived vessel only used during the first half of the 20th century. They were conceived on the idea that faster capital ships would be both more effective and more flexible than the slower battleships in combat. Battlecruisers were designed to fulfill the following criteria:

  • Use their superior speed to chase down slower vessels.
  • Outgun weaker vessels while being able to outrun more powerful ones.
  • Harass enemy shipping lines and disrupt trade.
  • Support the main fleet by defending against cruisers.

To achieve these objectives, battlecruisers were designed for maximum speed. They achieved this speed by sacrificing armor, firepower, or a combination of the two. For the most part, battlecruisers were designed for speeds greater than 25 knots while the slower battleships were only capable of 21 knots.

At first, battlecruisers were fairly effective when deployed in the manner in which they were intended. The Battles of Heligoland Bight and the Falkland Islands were instances of battlecruisers fulfilling their roles and destroying enemy cruisers. However, as the war progressed, battlecruisers became increasingly less useful. Coordinated actions by large fleets ensured that they were only as fast as he slowest vessels involved. In latter engagements like the battle of Jutland, they fared poorly when forced to directly engage the more heavily armored battleships.