The Awesome Alaska Class: America’s (Not Quite) Battlecruisers

Power Plant

The Alaska class utilized the same machinery as the larger Essex class carriers. Eight boilers drove four turbines producing a total of 150,000shp. At standard output, the Alaska class cruisers were able to achieve up to 33 knots. Their high speed enabled them to easily keep pace with carriers and during World War 2, they were known to be exceptional escort vessels.

While fast in a straight line, they were not particularly agile. With their long length and single rudder, they had a large turning radius of 800 yards. Most US ships, even some of the larger battleships and carriers, could turn inside of the Alaska class.

Cruiser or Battlecruiser?

Alaska alongside Missouri

USS Alaska alongside the Battleship USS Missouri. The large size of the Alaska class is evident.

The designation of the Alaska class has always been a source of argument among historians. Even the US Navy themselves appears confused by the ships. Initially labeled with the battlecruiser designation of CC early in development, they were later relabeled with the CB designation of large cruiser. Afterward, the Navy made it a habit to discourage the labeling of these ships as battlecruisers.

Despite Naval policy, modern historians commonly designate them battlecruisers and for good reason.

  • Like traditional battlecruisers, the Alaska class were lightly armored, but fast and powerfully armed.
  • They were designed to hunt down commerce raiders as well as sweep the oceans of enemy cruisers, both roles that battlecruisers were originally intended to perform.
  • They were expected to use their speed to hunt down anything slower while evading anything more powerful.
  • They were also expected to operate outside of the main battle line and support the fleet through interception of support vessels.

With this in mind, why would a ship designed to perform the battlecruiser role be labeled anything else? Surely if it looks like a battlecruiser and performs like a battlecruiser, it must be a battlecruiser.

The likely explanation for the large cruiser designation is due to the construction and design of the Alaska class rather than role.

Traditionally, battlecruisers were of the same size and possessed the same armament that battleships did. The Alaska class did not meet either of these criteria. As torpedoes became more prevalent, all capital ships (including surviving battlecruisers) were intended to have torpedo defense systems installed. In the Alaska class, torpedo protection was sacrificed and anti-torpedo bulges were omitted entirely.

With the exception of armor, battlecruisers shared many similarities with battleships. However, the Alaska class would be an exception. They used the same armor scheme, weapons arrangement, and general design characteristics of  heavy cruisers but on a much larger scale. In this regard, the term “large cruiser” is accurate.

Final Opinion

Alaska Colored Photo

The best way to look at the Alaska class might be to ignore the older ideas of a battlecruiser and look at them as their own design.

Other nations fulfilled the battlecruiser role by designing vessels like battleships, but stripped of armor and other features to gain speed. The US however, went with a different approach. They fulfilled the battlecruiser role by creating a larger, more powerful heavy cruiser. A cruiser design already offered less armor and higher speed, but by enlarging the ship they gaining the heavier firepower.

They were a unique design, much like the other hybrid types the US was fond of during World War 2. For instance, the Iowa class could be seen as a fusion of Battleship and Battlecruiser. A battleship that could fulfill the battlecruiser role with its high speed. Likewise, the Alaska class could be described as a fusion of heavy cruiser and battlecruiser, a large cruiser that could act as a battlecruiser due to its larger size and heavier firepower.

There were many battlecruisers, there were many heavy cruisers, but the Alaska design was its own unique design between them.

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Author: Chris Knupp

All photos provided by the author.