Torn between two buddies…

A recently got an e-mail asking me where I stand in the latest dispute between Kevin and Laurence Simon. Laurence is a bit miffed at Kevin, and is making no bones about his feelings (no great surprise there).

This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself friends with people who don’t get along. In fact, it seems I have a bit of a gift for it. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve ended up like this, and it probably won’t be the last time.

But, where do I stand on the matter? Do I think that Laurence has a legitimate beef, or is he just looking for a fight?

This will be my first, last, and only comment on the whole matter.

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During World War II, the United States commissioned a rather odd class of ships. The Alaska-class warships were true “white elephants” of their day, falling pretty much between contemporary heavy cruisers and battleships. That ambiguity has led to huge debates about whether they were cruisers or battlecruisers, an argument that has outlived the ships themselves, the last of which was scrapped 45 years ago.

The navy fed into the controversy, giving them the designation CB (Cruiser, Large). CA was reserved for heavy cruisers, while the aborted Lexington-class battlecruisers of the 1920’s had been given the designation CC. By giving them a different designation from standard cruisers, they fed the theory that these were indeed battlecruisers, without the name that had been disgraced by the poor performance of the classification during World War I.

The basic concept of a battlecruiser was, originally, a large, fast scouting ship that carried battleship-caliber guns, but cruiser-level armor. Its mission was to “outfight anything it couldn’t outrun, and outrun anything it couldn’t outfight.” This was a wonderful idea, right up until someone else started putting those ships in the water. At that point, it became, as some people so memorably put it, a case of “eggshells armed with sledge hammers.” And once that happened, Naval higher-ups started looking at their sheer size, their guns, and started putting them into the sort of roles that battleships took — a role that they were singularly unsuited to fulfill, as the catastrophic destruction of the HMS Invincible, the HMS Indefatigable, and the HMS Queen Mary at the Battle of Jutland, lost with nearly all hands. Then, in 1940, the HMS Hood also went down with nearly all hands.

So, back to the point: a battlecruiser is a battleship-sized vessel with battleship-sized armament that is faster and less armored than a contemporary battleships. How does that match up with the Alaskas?

As far as size, they seem to fit. They’re longer than all US battleships but the Iowas, a full 120′ longer than the South Dakotas and 80′ longer than the North Carolinas. And for their 12″ guns, they match the then-venerable Arkansas, and actually are larger than Germany’s twins, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, which carried 9 11″ guns (but were designed to eventually replace the triples with 15″ twin mounts). And they were fast — they could move at over 30 knots.

But were they truly battlecruisers? I think not.

First, about their main guns. The 12″ was a remarkably powerful gun, but it wasn’t a battleship-caliber weapon. The US had converted to 16″ guns exclusively for battleships in the 20’s, and never looked back. Other navies had built new battleships recently, but they’d had 14″ guns at the smallest. The 12″ gun simply wasn’t battleship-caliber when the Alaskas were designed.

Second, their secondary battery. The 5″/38 caliber gun was probably the finest dual-purpose gun of World War II, proving useful both against ships and aircraft. Nearly every ship the US built during World War II from a destroyer up to battleships and aircraft carriers used that gun, and the Alaskas were no exception. But where battleships had the guns along the beam, the Alaskas followed the pattern laid down for cruisers: a hexagonal layout, with one fore and one aft (above and superfiring the main guns) and two on each beam.

Thirdly, their aircraft. The US used catapults to launch floatplanes from cruisers and battleships, using the planes for both scouting and spotting long-range gunnery. The “fast battleships” all had their catapults on the stern, as did most cruisers. But the Alaskas carried their aircraft amidships, like the Chesters, the Portlands, and the New Orleans – class cruisers.

Fourthly, their stern. American battleships had evolved from the tapered stern to a more curved shape, while cruisers had evolved the “transom” (squared-off) rear end. The Alaskas followed this model, and the only battleship to also adapt it was Britain’s HMS Vanguard.

I once considered a drug metaphor for warships. Battlecruisers were “battleships on speed” or “battleships on cocaine,” with the corresponding weight loss and increased energy, but more fragility. By that model, it’s clear that the Alaskas were far more “cruisers on steroids” — bigger, stronger, and with the rise of the airplane as the weapon of choice, ultimately impotent.

And they were ALMOST truly beautiful ships. What the hell were the designers thinking when they stuck all those pieces of junk on the smokestack?

And if anyone’s wondering just what this has to do with the dispute between Kevin and Lair, all I can say is I’ve never seen Mr. Holland’s Opus, so I make do as best as I can.

The deafening silence
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