This is the second of a four part series commemmorating the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland.
Part I: SMS Lutzow
HMS Lion was the first of the Big Cats (also known as the “Splendid Cats”), and the sixth battlecruiser constructed for the Royal Navy. The Big Cats were supposed to be a leap ahead in battlecruiser construction, designed with centerline turrets in order to take advantage of a full broadside, and were nearly a third larger than the New Zealand. The name referred to the fact that three of the five ships authorized bore the names of large cats; Lion, Tiger, and Leopard. Tiger, however, was completed to an alternative design after the construction of the Japanese Kongo, and Leopard was never completed. The other two ships in the class were Princess Royal and Queen Mary, neither having particularly notable feline connotations.
Lion displaced 27000 tons, carried 8 13.5″ guns in four twin turrets (two forward superfiring, one amidships, and one rear), and could make 27 knots. Her armor protection was poor, although slightly better than that of the Indefatigable class. Lion became the flagship of David Beatty’s battlecruiser squadron, intended to counter and destroy the German battlecruiser squadron. While the Grand Fleet battleships were based at Scapa Flow, Beatty’s battlecruisers were stationed out of Rosyth, from whence they would be the first to intercept any movement by the High Seas Fleet.
The early part of the war was characterized by various German schemes to lure out and trap part of the Royal Navy in an engagement against the whole of the High Seas Fleet. None of these plans worked particularly well. In December 1914, Admiral Franz Hipper dispatched his battlecruisers to bombard several English towns. The operation, which came off successfully, deeply irritated the British public, which wondered what, if not to protect England, the purpose of all the battlecruisers and battleships of the Royal Navy was. Hipper decided to launch a second raid in January 1915, but British intelligence caught wind of the operation, and the Royal Navy battlecruisers were ready. Lion led a group of five British battlecruisers against Hipper’s force of the three battlecruisers and one armored cruiser. In spite of their numerical superiority, the British managed to sink only the Blucher, a German armored cruiser, and damage the remaining ships. Lion, at the head of the British line, was severely damaged, but managed to score a near-critical hit on the German battlecruiser Seydlitz. Only luck saved Seydlitz from a magazine explosion, although the Germans learned from the experience that battlecruiser magazines were vulnerable and had a tendency to explode.
Sixteen months later Lion would serve as Beatty’s flagship at the Battle of Jutland. Although the Grand Fleet had been alerted to the German sortie, Beatty and his squadron were the first to intercept the Germans. Beatty’s Rosyth squadron was supposed to consist of fifteen ships, including ten battlecruisers and the five Queen Elizabeth class fast battleships. However, HMAS Australia was under repair, Queen Elizabeth was in refit, three older Invincible class battlecruisers had been dispatched to Scapa Flow for gunnery practice. Thus, Beatty only had six battlecruisers and four battleships available for the scrum. Beatty’s questionable disposition of forces and poor British signalling meant that only the six battlecruisers would be involved in the opening skirmish with the Germans; the four fast battleships had received an incorrect signal and turned in the wrong direction.
Unaccountably, the British ships did not take advantage of their larger and longer ranged guns to engage the Germans at distance, and the two fleets began to fire simultaeneously. More poor British signalling left the order of fire confused and one of the German ships unmolested. Lion suffered the first major wound of the battle, as a 12″ shell hit her amidships (or “Q) turret. The hit peeled back the roof of the turret, and very nearly started a magazine fire. Major Francis Harvey, who had lost both legs to the explosion, managed to order the magazine flooded before dying, a move that saved the ship (and condemned many of his men to drowning). Harvey received a posthumous Victoria Cross. Had Lion exploded, things might have gone poorly for the British. Two of Beatty’s other battlecruisers would soon suffer magazine explosions, and the loss of the flagship would have left the British line in disarray. German fire would have been concentrated on fewer ships, and I suspect that the British would have lost at least one more battlecruiser (probably either New Zealand or Princess Royal) in addition to Lion.
Barham, Warspite, Malaya, and Valiant arrived to save Beatty and his ships from the Germans, and Lion was able to limp away. Another incidence of poor signalling prevented Beatty from reporting the size, position, and course of the German fleet to Admiral Jellicoe, a factor in the eventual escape of the High Seas Fleet. Lion continued to fire on German ships, although her role would never be as critical as in those first few minutes of the battle. After Jutland, David Beatty was promoted to command of the Grand Fleet. Much attention was paid to the failure of the British battlecruisers at Jutland, and future designs (including that of HMS Hood) were reworked to incorporate more armor. Regarding the battlecruiser concept, however, it is important to note that the German battlecruisers performed exceptionally well under fire, and that the battlecruisers that would survive into World War II would all be useful ships when employed carefully.
Lion, badly damaged, saw no further action in World War I. Along with her remaining sister, she was scrapped in accordance with the Washington Naval Treay of 1922. Beatty would later turn the surrender of the High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow from a somber affair into a humiliating one. He died in 1936.
Trivia: If you had to name your flagship after a German monarch, which one would you choose?