Lord Fisher was not content with the invention of Dreadnought, the all big gun battleship which would render the fleets of the world obsolete. The mission of the Royal Navy was not limited to the destruction of the enemy battlefleet. Fisher was worried that smaller, less capable navies might attack British trade through the use of commerce raiding armored cruisers. These cruisers could typically outpace even Dreadnought, and could make the defense of Britain’s trade lifeline difficult. Accordingly, before Dreadnought had even left the slip, Fisher commissioned a design for a new kind of ship, the battlecruiser. HMS Invincible was the first of this kind.
HMS Invincible displaced 18000 tons, carried 8 12″ guns in four twin turrets (one fore, one aft, and two wing), and could make 27 knots. Although roughly the same size as Dreadnought, Invincible sacrificed one turret and a lot of armour for six extra knots of speed. Invincible could either outgun or outrun any ship in the world. Against armoured cruisers, she was, well, invincible. Facing battleships, she had the speed to withdraw. The Royal Navy would build eleven more battlecruisers, culminating in HMS Hood. The German Navy, feeling the need to match the British, built seven, and the Japanese four.
HMS Invincible began the war with the First Battlecruiser Squadron, based in Britain. Her first action was the Battle of Heligoland Bight, in which a group of British battlecruisers intercepted a destroyed a few patrolling German light cruisers. Developments in the Far East, however, drew HMS Invincible away. At the beginning of World War I, Germany controlled a naval base at Tsingtao. A crack German squadron including Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, Germany’s best two armored cruisers, had been transferred to China before the war. The German position in Asia was untenable, however. British and Russian forces could easily occupy the German territory, and the Japanese were making ominous anti-German noises. Admiral Graf Maximilian Von Spee decided to take his squadron into the Pacific in an effort to do as much damage as possible before being caught. There was a small chance, if the German ships were lucky, that they might make it back to Germany. Spee’s squadron wreaked havoc in the Southeast Pacific for a couple of months before the British were finally available to collect the ships necessary to track it down. The first British effort ended in disaster, however; the British cruisers became detached from a pre-dreadnought battleship, and were destroyed at the Battle of Coronel. This defeat outraged British public opinion, and the Admiralty decided to deal with Spee by sending HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible to the South Atlantic.
Admiral Graf von Spee’s squadron attacked Stanley on the morning of December 8, 1914. The Admiral had no idea that Inflexible and Invincible were in port. Had the Germans launched an immediate and all out attack, they might have had a chance of seriously damaging or even crippling the British ships. On the other hand, Admiral Graf von Spee can hardly be blamed for retreating before an overwhelimingly superior force. The British Admiral, Frederick Sturdee, was unfazed by the initial German attack, and ordered the crew to take in breakfast while the battlecruisers raised steam. When Inflexible and Invincible were ready, they proceeded to leave Stanley, track down the German cruisers (they had an advantage of 3-4 knots) and destroy them at range. The ensuing battle was deeply unsporting, but Scharnhorst and Gneisenau did manage to score a number of hits on their poor shooting Royal Navy opponents before sinking.
HMS Invincible returned to Great Britain, but missed the Battle of Dogger Bank. In May 1916, Invincible was flagship of the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron, temporarily operating with the Grand Fleet out of Scapa Flow rather than with the rest of the battlecruiser squadrons. Her commander was Read Admiral Horace Hood, part of a family with a long history in the Royal Navy. Invincible did not arrive at Jutland early enough to participate in the “Run to the South” where five German battlecruisers managed to destroy two of six British battlecruisers. When the Grand Fleet appeared on the horizon, the German fleet began to turn to the south. Hood joined his ships to Beatty’s surviving battlecruisers, and Invincible began to hammer SMS Lutzow, the flagship of Admiral Hipper’s German battlecruiser squadron.
Unfortunately, the Germans noticed Invincible’s excellent gunnery, an unusual characteristic in a British ship. Lutzow and Derfflinger poured fire onto Invincible, and a salvo from Lutzow hit the British ship on its middle turret. Invincible was not designed to take heavy fire from battleships, but the admirals of neither the Grand Fleet nor the High Seas Fleet could resist pressing their battlecruisers into front line combat. Invincible exploded and sank, taking all but six of her crew of 1021 with her, including Admiral Hood. That was twice the number of survivors of the battlecruiser Hood, destroyed almost twenty-five years later. A much larger number of sailors probably survived the initial explosion, but it was not the policy of the Royal Navy to pick up survivors during battle. Invincible came to rest in two pieces, with her stern protruding just above the water. As the rest of the Grand Fleet passed by, the name Invincible was clearly visible on the stern of the wreck.
Trivia: What battleship devoted the highest percentage of its displacement to armour?