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Cruiser: A Noun; A Verb; An Adjective.
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The classification of the "cruiser" as either "light" or "heavy" were “officially” made in 1922, although most people familiar with navies “know” that a "cruiser" is a warship smaller than a battleship and larger than a destroyer.
Oh, do they, now…?
Little earthworm in the ground; you see no sight; you hear no sound,
Boring out tunnels down beneath without the benefit of teeth.
Without no feet, no arms, no hands, we are behooved to understand
Just how, with attributes so few, we named a planet after you.
Johnny Hart ca 1965
So much for naming stuff…
In the dark recesses of naval history stretching back before the Spanish Armada of 1588, a “cruiser” was any vessel preying on shipping. This included those rouges with Letters of Marque and Reprisal in hand that were not commissioned vessels in recognized state navies, but were not restricted to them. A “cruiser” was any ship of any size, commissioned warship or private vessel, that was playing The Prize Game I talked about a few weeks ago. Naval circles technically refer to this activity as commerce raiding. That was until…well, probably the late 18th Century…or so.
There was no solid definition for “cruiser” in naval parlance before the 19th Century or thereabouts, and even then it wasn’t fixed or consistent, so the exact timeline is fuzzy.
What affected the definition was ship size and role. As ships got larger, the crews, of course, did too. The limitation of any sailing ship is how much water it can carry. Few sailing ships could carry more than a month’s worth of water—about a gallon per man per day—at one time. “Cruisers” expected to be at sea for months at a time, sometimes years, making water stops along the way and making profits for the owners or host countries while hurting the enemy. Though a 100-gun battleship could be a “cruiser,” it was impractical to send a thousand men (or more) out to sea for months at a time hoping to find prizes sufficient to pay for the enterprise, or stop in at small islands for water. And sometimes there was a great deal of hope required.
“Cruisers” by the early 1800s were ships of 20-40 guns.
There were even smaller coastal and river “cruisers,” but the majority were what the Royal Navy called “sixth-rate ships” and “frigates.” After Trafalgar in 1805, most of the Spanish and French warships going to sea were smaller than 40 guns, as neither wanted to challenge British naval supremacy for quite a while. That meant a lot of Guerre de course, the French term that strictly translates into “war of the routes,” or commerce raiding. Also in this period, the upstart Americans built some “large frigates” with then-enormous (for a frigate) 24-pounder guns on their gun deck that changed naval warfare forever. Constitution and her sisters could not only outfight most British vessels that could catch them, they could give many line-of-battle ships (those with 60 guns or more) a good bashing before running away.
Constitution and her sisters redefined the “cruiser” as a serious warship type.
This came at a most inauspicious time, because just about then the steam-powered vessel became practical, albeit not for deep-ocean travel…yet. Still, coastal “cruising” became somewhat more dangerous for sailing vessels. A ship/boat could “cruise” along a river or coast and on a shipping lane. That “cruiser” could take prizes easily near a neutral port, or even a friendly one in restricted waters like the Mediterranean or the North Sea, making a profit for the “cruise.” But steam plants made it harder for sailing ships to catch the “packet ships” that traveled on a regular schedule between two points. So navies started to build “cruising ships” with paddlewheels.
The “cruiser,” as most people kind-of know it today, was born because of the steam engine.
Of course it was nowhere near that simple because there were a plethora of kinds of “cruisers” in the 19th Century: Armed merchant, armored, dispatch, light, merchant, protected, and torpedo…and there were the corvettes and the frigates and the avisos and signal and dynamite and 1st Class and 2nd Class and 3rd Class and…but all that’s for later.
Cruiser Rules: Rules That Weren’t
All “cruising” vessels were subject to the mysteries of 17th Century “cruiser rules,” a generally accepted, unwritten and even undeclared “law of the sea” that had no means of enforcement; a Gentleman’s Agreement, if you will. Generally speaking, cruiser rules governed when and how an armed ship could attack a merchantman. First, no non-warship could be attacked without warning. Merchant vessels showing the flag of a belligerent state were to be hailed to stop and, if they failed to stop, warning shots were to be fired.
But there were complications…
The expression “false flag” comes from the routine practice of merchant ships and warships showing national colors that were not theirs; often neutral, sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile. This practice often started a dance of flag raising and lowering while both ships maneuvered for a favorable wind, a fog bank or squall, or even for a shoal or the lee of land. The merchantman often stood a good chance of escaping, frustrating the most ardent “cruiser.” Nothing but “honor” constrained this practice, but…
Yesterday’s honorable is today’s quaint and tomorrow’s inexpedient.
John D. Beatty
The longer a conflict lasted and the longer a “cruiser’s” voyage was, the more likely the warning shot would be through a sail or upper deck…by accident, of course.
Merchant vessels in the sailing era weren’t unarmed.
They often had guns sufficient to ward off pirates (the image of the large pirate vessel so common in entertainments is fiction, by and large) and smaller warships. Further, shipowners would not be happy with captains who didn’t try to run or evade fast enough: merchantmen could often outrun warships. Just giving up to an enemy warship had its perils too, especially for ships falling prey to an unscrupulous “cruising” captain or for merchantmen in the hands of a zealous merchant skipper determined not to give up at all.
And that was the easy part…
If the merchant ship stopped, the cargo, crew, and passengers were all subject to search and seizure. If a neutral ship stopped, only the cargo was supposed to be searched and the status of the cargo determined. Then started another delicate dance of “guess what the status really is.” Was food a “hostile weapon of war?” How about medical supplies? Gold and silver? Textiles? How about slaves? If you said “yes” to all the above, you’re in exactly the same position as any “cruiser” or merchant skipper.
Any cargo could be called a weapon of (a long) war.
Regardless of belligerent status, the cargo and vessel were either seized, destroyed or sent into a neutral or friendly port…depending on circumstances and the whims of the “cruiser” captain. Now, sometimes, the cargo couldn’t be destroyed, or it was too big, or the “cruiser” skipper just didn’t want to bother, and the merchant vessel was sunk or sent on its way under bond (read ransom). The former meant that the crew and passengers were either taken into custody by the “cruiser,” or they had to take to the boats…providing there were enough boats. This left passengers and crews either adrift in the ocean or in hostile hands. Exactly the same place they would have been if the “cruiser” had just sunk the merchantman in the first place. The latter was a legal device that often took years to resolve and meant, in an honor-bound sense, that the ship could not carry cargoes for the belligerent until the bond was paid.
The fatal flaw of cruiser rules was their flexibility.
As the above suggests, they were so flexible they could be tied into knots. In 1856, Great Britain and France got together in Paris and came up with the Paris Declaration of Maritime Law that tried to put all this on paper, abolish the Letter of Marque and Reprisal, and define just what “blockade” meant. Even on paper, cruiser rules were still subject to the identical interpretations and implementations by humans as before. The most helpful of the Declaration was that the signatories who said they would abide by it, codified it. Like I said before, the US didn’t sign. Neither did several other countries.
Then came the submarine…
In 1907, the London Declaration reiterated the notional cruiser rules, but along came WWI and those little submarines, vulnerable on the surface and too small to take on passengers. Cruiser rules for them were dangerous. Then the British started building Q-Ships: merchantmen with hidden guns that attacked submarines after false flag stopping. That made cruiser rules useless, even though people discussed them right up until WWII. By then, the “cruiser” was a warship type (or types), but infrequently did they go “cruising” as of old.
Not much in Soldier’s Business about cruisers or cruising, but there is a story about a torpedoed ship. In “Lifesaver,” a woman describes her adventure saving men who had to abandon a torpedoed troopship one night in the Atlantic during WWII.
Sergeant’s Business contains stories about people in trouble, about what happens after the carnage, about heroes and mistakes, about memory and forgetting, about honoring and living. Get it at your favorite booksellers or get one autographed from me.
Battle of Britain Reconsidered
Washington Naval Treaty: The Cruiser Defined…sort of…
On 21 October:
1797: USS Constitution is christened in Boston, Massachusetts. She was the first of the US Navy’s “large frigates” that cruised (yes) before there was a Navy Department. The 44-gun ship is still afloat, though with very little of her original fabric. “Old Ironsides” is simultaneously the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world, the oldest commissioned vessel in the US Navy, and, believe it or not, the only currently commissioned US warship that has fired a shot in anger at an enemy vessel…really.
1918: Germany cancels its unrestricted submarine warfare policy. In an effort to get President Woodrow Wilson to back an armistice, the German naval high command ordered its submarines still at sea to not attack any vessels but warships, and only those of belligerents. Wilson, already leaning towards the idea of an armistice, urges France and Britain to meet with German peace commissioners.
And today is TRAFALGAR DAY, observed primarily in Great Britain. On this day in 1805, Admiral Nelson’s British fleet defeated the combined Franco-Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar, Spain. While the battle ended the threat of French invasion of Britain, it came at the cost of Lord Nelson’s life, killed by a French sharpshooter.