Heavy Cruisers (CA)

Photograph of USS New Orleans

Naval Historical Center #71787

Heavy cruisers were a creature of the naval disarmament treaties. Up to the end of the First World War, cruisers served as scouts for the main battle fleet, as commerce raiders or escorts, and to show the flag in distant colonies.  For these roles, 6” (152mm) or smaller guns were perfectly adequate, and this was the standard cruiser armament.  However, the British had experimented with 7.5" (190mm) guns on the Hawkins class, and so the Washington Treaty of 1922 limited non-capital ship gun caliber to 8” (203mm). This immediately became a new standard for cruiser armament.  Under the London Treaty of 1930, ships whose guns met the older standard of 6” caliber became known as light cruisers, and those with the newer 8” standard caliber became known as heavy cruisers. The Japanese referred to them as "C" and "A" cruisers, respectively, while making a distinction between these types and the Mogamis or "B" class cruisers, which were initially heavily armed with 6" guns but were later converted to 8" gun cruisers.

The U.S. Navy switched from 6" to 8" main armament with remarkably little debate, only to find that providing adequate protection on a 10,000 ton ship armed with 8" guns was problematic. The Bureau of Ordnance preferred the 6" gun, believing that the 8" gun "has always been sort of a mongrel type; it is not heavy enough to effective against an armored ship and has not been light enough to get much rapidity of fire" (quoted by Friedman 1984). However, the General Board still strongly supported the 8" gun. Ultimately, the debate within the U.S. Navy was settled by diplomatic developments. The Royal Navy had never developed much enthusiasm for the 8" cruiser concept, believing that a larger number of smaller cruisers better served British interests. The London Treaty of 1930 therefore limited the United States to 18 heavy cruisers, Britain to 15 heavy cruisers, and Japan to 12 heavy cruisers. Both the United States and Britain subsequently switched back to an emphasis on light cruisers in their construction programs.

Because heavy cruisers were both more numerous and more expendable than capital ships, they were often the backbone of surface forces in restricted or distant waters.  For example, heavy cruisers were central to many of the surface actions of the Guadalcanal campaign.  When battleships were committed by either side, the heavy cruisers continued to fight alongside them, at considerable cost to themselves.

Japanese heavy cruisers

Furutaka class

Idzumo class

Mogami class

Myoko class

Takao class

Tone class

U.S. heavy cruisers

Baltimore class

New Orleans class

Northampton class

Pensacola class

Portland class


British heavy cruisers

Hawkins class

Kent class

Norfolk class

Russian heavy cruisers

Kirov class


Evans and Peattie (1997)

Friedman (1984)

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