On June 26, 1897 the press and population of the United Kingdom basked in the knowledge that their Royal Navy was superior to the most likely combinations of enemy powers, lead by France and Russia. The French had made a run of it in the preceding ten years but the tremendous building programs of the Royal Navy in the 1890s had put paid to their pretensions of achieving anything close to parity with the Royal Navy. June 26 saw the Spithead Naval Review honoring Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Only the newest and most powerful British units were present but these were so numerous and powerful that Vanity Fair published on July 1, "The pride of the seas is ours now as it has been for centuries, and regarding Saturday's evidence of the fact few Englishmen can have felt unready to attack by sea any combination that could possibly be formed for the lowering of the Union Jack....We are a great people, and we realised it on Saturday as we have never realised it before." However, there was trouble brewing in paradise. Earlier that year some members of the Admiralty had expressed disquiet over an apparent change in the building policy of the French navy. It had been clear that the French had discontinued an effort to build large numbers of battleships but now they had shifted to a new type of vessel, the armored cruiser and were building a lot of them.
As the French navy fell further behind the Royal Navy in construction of battleships in the last two decades of the 19th Century, some French officers devised ways to overcome their numerical inferiority. Called the "Ecole Jeune" the Young School, these officers thought outside of the box to develop new strategies to overcome the British preponderance in numbers. One path was to develop small, cheap ships that could sink expensive battleships. This path resulted in the development of the torpedo boat. Another path was centered around the destruction of British commerce. The Confederate Navy had been very successful during the American Civil War in dispatching raiders to attack Union merchant and whaling fleets and the depredations of CSS Alabama, CSS Shenandoah and other raiders caused such destruction that the USA merchant marine never fully recovered.
As the British reveled in the strength of the Royal Navy at the Diamond Jubilee, there indeed had been a change in French building policy. The French navy had realized that they had no hope of winning a building contest of battleships for direct confrontation against the Royal Navy, so they changed directions and strategy. Instead of a direct attack against the overwhelming power of the Royal Navy, they would use an oblique attack against English commerce. This was centered around the construction of cruisers superior to those possessed by the Royal Navy. Two types of cruiser types were selected for construction, both were designed to attack British merchant ships. One was for a corsair cruiser, which emphasized speed. It was not designed to take on British cruisers on the trade routes and was given the highest speed possible to avoid British adversaries. The sole mission for this design was to sink merchant ships. Best symbolized by the Guichen, protected cruiser laid down in 1895, these raiding cruisers were lightly armed and armored for their size. However, their two strongest qualities were top speed and bunker capacity. Guichen had a top speed of 23.5 knots, which was extremely fast for the time and could carry twice to three times the amount of coal of more conventional cruiser designs. This would provide a very long range compared to conventional designs. High speed gave the ships the ability to avoid British combat forces, as well as the ability to overtake even the fastest British merchantman, the large liner. The long range clearly pointed to their sole mission, raiding far flung trade routes. The reborn USN also had Minneapolis and Columbia, built for the same mission with the same characteristics. The second cruiser design was built for combat to overcome British forces on the trade routes. The armored cruiser added a belt of armor at the waterline, as well as having the armored deck of the protected cruiser. Their armament and protection made them superior to the British cruisers assigned to far flung stations with the mission of protecting trade routes and in fact made them superior to all of the existing RN cruiser designs. The first such ship was the Dupuy de Lome laid down in July 1888 and by the time of the Diamond Jubilee, the French navy had ten armored cruisers finished or building.
The Royal Navy had experimented earlier with armored cruiser designs but these early designs were plagued by the armor technology of the day. In the 1870s and 1880s armor came in the form of wrought iron. Wrought iron armor was very heavy and to achieve adequate protection in the race against the rapidly developing ordnance of the time, armor belts had to be very thick. The trend towards massive wrought iron armored belts reached its peak with the British battleship HMS Invincible, which had a full two feet of armor at the thickest point of her belt. The weight of wrought iron armor doomed early British armored cruiser designs. Only a very thin armor belt of a short height could be provided, so that the ship was still very vulnerable to shells striking above or below the belt. The weight of the wrought iron belt also caused the ships to be slower than other cruiser designs. The Royal Navy only produced a handful of such ships and invariably had a low opinion of their all around qualities. It was the French navy that started using steel instead of wrought iron and the Royal Navy was slow to follow. Steel was more difficult and expensive to cast, so for awhile the Admiralty penny-pinchers held ascendancy over Royal Navy designs. No need to invest large sums in new technology when it was still unproven. Let those crazy French waste their money on this new fangled steel technology, while John Bull stayed with the tried and true wrought iron. Of course after some time even the most antediluvian admiral realized that the French were onto something. A practical armored cruiser only came into being in the last ten years or so of the 19th century, when technology allowed a face-hardened steel belt. Whether it was the Harvey process or subsequent Krupp process of casting steel armor with a especially hardened face, the new technology allowed all types of warships to employ the same protective qualities of warships carrying more than twice the thickness of wrought iron armor. What's more, the weight of face-hardened steel armor was less than half that of wrought iron armor.
The first class of new armored cruisers was the Cressy class. Comprised of six ships, the Cresseys could easily be distinguished by the multitude of J-shape funnels blooming from their decks. Armed with two 9.2-inch and twelve 6-inch guns, they seemed to be adequately armed but they were too slow. With a top speed of 21 knots, it would be difficult to run down opposing cruisers of similar speed, let alone the very fast French armored and corsair cruisers. Even bigger cruisers were needed to address a requirement for high speed. However, to provide the requisite speed, these cruisers would be as expensive to build as contemporary battleships and would be far larger, which limited the number of docks that could accommodate them. There was another downside. To feed and run the massive coal fired power plants required for high speed in a huge warship, faster cruisers would need crews far greater than that required in a first line battleship. First Lord of the Admiralty Goschen objected to very large, high speed armored cruisers not because of their high cost or great size but because they would drain the available manpower for the rest of the fleet. Partly to justify the high costs of large armored cruisers, the Admiralty added another mission to the large cruisers not found in previous cruiser designs, that of participation in fleet actions. When Sir William White, Chief Contractor of the Royal Navy, reported on the Cressy design, he commented that if correctly designed, an armored cruiser would be capable of engaging battleships in fleet actions. This predates by almost a decade, the very same concept justifying the direct descendant of the armored cruiser, the battle cruiser.
Although the First Lord was opposed to a very large, high speed armored cruiser, the Sea Lords were in favor of such a design. In the end the Sea Lords' views prevailed and the next class of armored cruiser addressed that need for high speed. Four gigantic armored cruisers, capable of 23 knots were ordered. This was the Drake class. In size and appearance the Drake class was in many ways an armored cruiser version of the huge Powerful class of protected cruisers laid down in 1894 but with a much greater armor fit. At over 14,000 tons displacement, they were 3,000 tons heavier than the preceding Cressy class. This greatly increased weight and size bought two additional knots in speed and four additional six-inch guns. For their size they were under gunned, with two 9.2-inch guns mounted in single gun turrets and a broadside of eight 6-inch guns mounted in double level casemates. The prominent ventilator cowls of the Cressys were eliminated in favor of windsails of canvas, which would catch the wind for ventilating the hull. With a high freeboard, they were good seaboats and all four exceeded their designed horsepower by at least 1,000ihp on trials. Early in their careers, it was common for service speeds to exceed their trial speeds. They could all run at high speeds for long periods of time, absent a machinery breakdown. Their great size made them popular as flagships for cruiser squadrons. All four were laid down in 1899 and launched in 1901. HMS Leviathan was the last of the four to be laid down. She was laid down at the John Brown yard in Clydebank on November 30, 1899, launched July 3, 1901 and completed June 16, 1903. After trials Leviathan was assigned to the China station and remained there until 1904. She was transferred to the Mediterranean Fleet and served there in 1905 to 1906. After that tour, she, as well as her three sisters spent most of their time operating with the Channel or Home Fleets. Although two of the class, Drake and Good Hope, were lost during the First World War, Leviathan survived the war to be sold for scrap in 1920.
Combrig has just released 1:700 scale resin and brass models of three of the four ships in the class. These are Leviathan, Drake and Good Hope. This article presents a photographic review of the Combrig Leviathan. A more extensive review will appear for the Combrig Good Hope and Drake. All three have the same brass photo-etch fret of specialty parts for the class. Railing, inclined ladders and other generic parts should be acquired to finish full detail treatment of these models.
Leviathan is a proper name for a member of this class of gigantic armored cruiser. For years the members of this class were among the largest and fastest warships in the world. Now, thanks to Combrig, 1:700 models of these giants can grace the Home Fleet of any modeler.