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Wednesday 31 August 2016

WARSHIPS OF THE PAST: Tiger class cruisers of the Royal Navy

Written by D-Mitch

HMS Blake as a helicopter cruiser
Laid down in 1941-42, the three cruisers of the Tiger class were originally to have been sister ships to Superb, an improved variant of the Swiftsure class cruisers (also known as the Minotaur class), a modified version of the Crown Colony class cruisers, but their construction was slowed down. Finally, the ships were launched in 1944-45 and they were left incomplete until their future had been decided. It was not until 1951 that a plan was agreed under which the three ships would be completed as advanced gun-cruisers due in large part to the perceived threat of the new powerful Soviet Sverdlov class 210-meter cruisers. Their completion took significant amount of time and they joined the fleet between 1959 and 1961, nearly two decades after they have been laid down. The Tiger class cruisers were the last class of all gun cruisers completed for the British Royal Navy. With the three “new” cruisers entering the fleet, the Royal Navy decommissioned their half-sister, Swiftsure and Superb, and both were scrapped by 1962.

HMS Swiftsure - outside Sydney Harbour 20 December 1945
The two new "state-of-the-art"
gun mountings
The two new "state-of-the-art"
gun mountings
The ships mounted two state-of-the-art rapid firing 6"/50 Mk.26 twin mounts, and what was possibly the ultimate anti-aircraft gun of the time, the Vickers 3"/70 Mk.6 in twin mounts. The former was the first British 6" (15.2 cm) design to use cartridges instead of bagged powder charges in over sixty years and it could spit out 20 rounds per minute through its water-cooled barrels in a range approximately to 23km. These weapons were controlled by the Gun Direction System (GDS1) using the Type 992 radar. This system enabled the ships to engage multiple targets within a few seconds of each other and was technically very advanced for its time. It is believed that HMS Tiger had all hydraulic control; HMS Blake had all electric control while HMS Lion had one of each. The 3in gun could deliver 120 rounds per minutes per barrel (although it was limited to 90 rounds per minutes in service due to excessive barrel wear problems) in a maximum range of close to 18km. They were water-cooled, fully automated and with a very high rate of fire but in practice they were very unreliable and incapable of firing more than a few rounds without a stoppage. The 3in mounting was prone to ammunition feed breakdowns and required much maintenance to keep in service. This type of gun mounting armed also Canadian destroyer escorts (Restigouche and Mackenzie classes) apart from these three British cruisers.

Forecastle of HMS Blake during a visit of five Royal Navy warships to San Francisco in 1978. Photo: Skoshi8
25-round burst from the front 6in gun turret of HMS Tiger
3in gun mount arrangement
6in gun mount arrangement

HMS Cumberland in 1955 with the
3in turret in X position
HMS Cumberland in the '50s with the
6in turret in B position
It is worth of mention that HMS Cumberland, an old County-class heavy cruiser that had been commissioned in 1928, was then refitted at Devonport between 1949–1951 for further service as a gunnery trials ship especially for the guns that were about to be mounted on Tigers. She lost all of her 8-inch turrets, and for a few years had a prototype dual 6-inch automatic turret (testing the concept for later installation in the then building Tiger-class cruisers) in 'B' position, and a prototype automatic dual 3-inch turret (also slated for the Tigers) in 'X' position. She was the last of the three-funneled heavy cruisers to remain in service.

HMS Tiger in her original configuration
HMS Tiger in her original configuration

The differences among the sisters were few. Lion and Blake had a raised circular platform at the end of the highest deckhouse on the after superstructure for the magnetic compass; thy also had larger bridge wings to the admiral's (lower) bridge, extensions to the forecastle, and trunks on either side of the stacks leading from vent fans atop the boiler space casings.

HMS Lion in Malta
Seacat launch from HMS Blake
By 1964 the Conservative Government saw the Tigers as no longer affordable or credible in the surface combat or fleet air defence role and approved their conversion into helicopter carriers. The refit was very expensive; during the conversion a major fire broke out aboard HMS Blake causing considerable damage and raising the costs still further. Due to the high cost of the program only two of the ships followed the conversion while HMS Lion was cannibalized for spares and then scrapped in 1975, after eight years in reserve. As a gun cruiser, Tiger served 8 years, Lion 5 years, and Blake 2 years. The original plan retained the full three twin 3 inch mounts however, during the conversion of Blake the plan was changed to allow the cruisers to operate, four (4) of the more capable Westland Sea King carriers, although only three (3) Sea Kings could actually, ever be accommodated and serviced in the longer hangar which extended further into the main structure of the ship, and greater cost and forcing the replacement of the side 3-inch gun mounts (which fire arcs were now too restricted) with much less effective Seacat GWS22. Seacat was a British short-range surface-to-air missile system intended to replace the ubiquitous Bofors 40 mm gun aboard warships of all sizes for use against fast jet aircraft that were proving to be too difficult for the latter to successfully intercept. It was the world's first operational shipboard point-defence missile system and was designed so that the Bofors guns could be replaced with minimum modification to the recipient vessel and (originally) using existing fire-control systems about 6km max range.

In 1965, work began on Blake to convert her to a helicopter cruiser while Tiger began her conversion in 1968. The conversions left Tiger and Blake some 380 tons heavier with a full displacement of 12,080 tons and their crew complements increased by 169 to 885.

HMS Blake in her final configuration
HMS Blake in her final configuration

The bridge of HMS Blake with
two of the four Type 903 FCS atop
HMS Tiger helicopter cruiser
The helicopter conversion involved removing the aft 6in and its aft tracker (Type 903 fire control system) as well two of the three 3in gun turrets that were located midships at each side of the aft funnel (in their place were installed Seacat quad SAM launchers) and constructing a huge hangar and flightdeck which enabled them to accommodate four Westland Wessex helicopters (later Sea King) that had the ASW role with their sonars and Mk44 torpedoes. It should be mentioned that only three helicopters could be stowed in the hangar, two fore and aft and one athwartships in the forward part of the hangar (nose to port). Above the hanger was a flying control position while below the first were the facilities to support the helicopter squadron such as briefing rooms, workshops, accommodation rooms and stowage for the helicopters' torpedoes.

HMS Blake before and after her conversion

The ships were fitted with five sets of stabilizers, similar to those of County class destroyers, in order to provide a stable platform for operating the helicopters in adverse weather conditions. A full new suite of sensors were added during this refit as well such as a new long range air search radar, new height finder, ESM etc. Blake retained her original funnel height, but on Tiger both funnels were raised. There were also numerous small differences in detail between the two especially with regard to communications antennas and ventilation duct arrangements.

Modified photo of Tiger class helicopter cruiser. For a high resolution image click here.
With the new equipment, and their existing command and control facilities, they made excellent task group flagships. The fact that they could steam at an economical 16-knots (the going rate for convoys) for 8,000 nautical miles on a single fill up made it clear they were intended for distant travels.

The converted Tigers were a halfway step towards a fully air-capable cruiser. The Invisibles light aircraft carriers that followed later were direct descendants of the escort cruiser with an emphasis on command and control, their original heavy air defence armament and with the air wing consisting of ASW helicopters and Sea Harriers instead of guns. In 1969 a Royal Air Force (RAF) Harrier jet landed on Blake as part of trials. Watch here a short video of a Harrier taking off from the helicopter deck of the cruiser HMS Blake.

HMS Blake
Harrier takes off from HMS Blake
Harrier aboard HMS Blake

Harrier taking off from HMS Blake

Westland Wessex operates from
HMS Blake

HMS Blake with her helicopters
Seacat quad SAM launcher of HMS Blake
However, such large ships with obsolete armament, without long range anti-aircraft missiles (in contrast to WWII US ships that were converted to missile cruisers), that required a large crew in order to operate, did not stay in active service for long time and before the end of the decade both ships were stricken and scrapped shortly afterwards. It was an unsuccessful and expensive conversion that drained much needed resources better used elsewhere. The HMS Tiger was decommissioned first in 1978 (sold for scrap in 1986) while HMS Blake was decommissioned in 1979 (sold for scrap in 1982), being the last cruiser of the Royal Navy till today. HMS Blake was the last cruiser in commission in the Royal Navy. In December 1979, a few days before she was decommissioned, she enjoyed the distinction of firing the Royal Navy's last 6" (15.2 cm) gun salvo in the English Channel. You can enjoy more than 300 photos of HMS Blake here.

HMS Blake alongside to a a County class destroyer
HMS Tiger

HMS Blake with four Sea King
HMS Blake with four Sea King
Just a few days after the Falklands War started in 1982, both Blake and Tiger were rapidly surveyed to determine their condition for reactivation. The survey determined both ships to be in very good condition and were put into dry-dock (Blake at Chatham, and Tiger at Portsmouth) and round-the-clock work reactivation work immediately begun. By mid-May it was determined that the ships would not be completed in time to take part in the war and the work was stopped. Finally, the HMS Blake sold for scrap few months later in August of 1982 and HMS Tiger four years later.

HMS Blake at full speed



  1. Excellent post on a ship I didn't know anything about! I recently finished a larger book on the Falklands War. Wonder if it would have made any difference had the cruisers been reactivated in time to join that one ...

    1. Thank you for your comment! I doubt if their reactivation would have made any difference. With their unreliable armament, weak CIWS, absence of long-range SAM, large crew and size would have been easy target for the Argentinian subs (Type 209, if..) and aircrafts. The British would have to protect these ships with a large number of surface combatants at all cost complicating in that way the operations. The key to the operations was the air supremacy and in that role Tigers could not contribute by carrying just a pair of Harriers with reduced armament. In regard to the helicopters, the Royal Navy had about 23-25 surface combatants that could carry a helicopter in contrast with the Argentinians that had only 5-6. So, also there the Tigers' contribution would have been insignificant. Finally, for sure the Royal Navy could not afford a loss similar to Belgrano's.

  2. I have eeen very few photos of the Tiger class under reconstruction. The Lion was shot in a famous photo moored in a Scottish Loch in the 1940s but little work was done on it after launching in mid 1944 and one would expect quite a lot of deterioration laid up in those waters for 8/10 years. You show one picture of HMS BLake apparently being laucnched in 1945 with little detail and there are also a few pictures published of the late stages of Blake fitting out in 1961. The only other relevant photo is the famous picture of the half sister Swiftsure largely reconstructed to Tiger rebuilt shape in Chatham dockyard in March 1960 with the Mk 23 triple 6 inch turrets apparently reinstalled significantly its show a Tiger not a Belfast bridge.
    It appears the Sandys 1957 Defense Review approved the continued reconstruction of the 3 Tigers and Suberb and Swiftsure as anti aircraft flak ships.
    Much of the available evidence is that the Tiger class was effectively cancelled in mid 1944 to give priority to escort carriers and destroyers and the orders transferred to # 15,00o0 Neptunes for which construction of 12 triple Mk 24 turrets continued to the end of the war.

  3. At every stage of their evolution the Tiger class seemed very close to cancellation and they seemed remarkably unsuited to any of their intended post WW2 roles of surface action, AA protection for carriers and amphibious landings or as AS ships. The large 6 inch gun marks considered and fitted to these cruisers Mk 23,24 and eventually Mk 26 all seem to occupy too much space and weight above and below the deck for postwar use- and the alternative generally favoured between 1944-1950 for N2 cruisers and Colony cruiser modernisation was limiting turrets to the 100 ton 5.25 (alternatively, I would favour a ligtweight twin Mk 22 or Mk 24 mod electric of the same weight).
    In the surface role postwar the RN faced heavily armed Chinese and Russian coastal Naval batteries with 6- 12 inch guns and RN heaviest gunned and armoured cruiser, HMS London was a write off after his last fight up River Yangtzee, due to hits from Chinese heavy artillery. The main potential adversary the Soviet Union cruisers had 6-7 inch guns but had far heavier armour and speed and power in Northern and Artic waters. The RN victory in the battle of the North Cape in late 1983 and was achieved due to communication intercepts and a lucky hit by the 8 inch cruiser Norfolk in the opening exchange with took out the Schnarnhorst surface radar gun fire directors. It was clear in the battle than the large German battlecruiser had superior speed in the Northern waters and only the larger hulled Belfast and Norfolk could hold her and that the lightly armoured Brtish cruisers were often slowed with by hits to their increased amounts of electronic and electrical equipment and such compontents neeed much heavier armouring and protection in future. The Fiji class ( the basis of the Tiger) were a war emergency design too small to sustain the chase in the Bismark and Schnarhorst operations despite the magnificent fight of HMS Jamaica. If you look of the video of HMS Tiger on trials in 1959 one is staggered how little modernised it is beyond the late 1930s Fiji model. The real operating speed of a Tiger was probably about 29 knots max and only medium range at carrier task force speed.
    The anti aircraft role of the tigers could more effectively be carried out by smaller targets such as the T41 frigate which offered 992/965 radar and the ability to engage 3 simultaneous targets. By 1960 the Brtish Daring destroyer with MRS3 fire control fitted was a possible alternative and Winston Churchill saw that type of cruiser destroyer as the RNs future and both the Venezuela 3 turret Battle class and particularly the Chilean destroyers built by Vickers with 4 single automatic 4 inch 45rpm fire and 6 40mm L70 singles seemed ideal in slightly stretched form with an improved stabalised 4 inch still probably being lighter than the Tigers win 3/70 AA guns. Some RNZN and RCN officers did see the twin 3 inch as an outstanding weapon, a view forcefully emphasised by Ian Bradley. a brilliant RNZN/RN AS officer of the Admiral, John Coward generation. The view of Ian Bradely was the twin 3/70 should have armed the Leanders. My own view is a single 3/70 was the better option.
    Most of all the Tiger seemed to replicate the ideas that were known to have failed in USS Worchester in 1950, USS Northhampton in 1954 and USS Norfolk in 1955. Which indicated a comprehensive failure for fully automatic 5 and 6 inch guns to achieve reliable fire at more 10-17rpm. The USS Juneau (2) CLAA 119 a USN equivalent of the Didos was modernised in 1950-1 with the latest DC/AW 14 3/50 and 12 5 inch and massively outpreformed the new Worchester class with its 6 inch automatic guns. The money spent on the Tigers could certainly have been better spent of the alternative of 1954 off 2/35,000 ton carriers and modest furthur modernisation of the later Colony and Minotaur class with 992/965 and replacement of usless old twin 4 inch mounts with US 3/50s, which would have fitted easily into the space for the existing turrrets.

    1. So many details, so much information! Thank you for your comments Frederick, you really enriched my article about the Tigers. A nice book which I used for the above article, is the British Cruisers: Two World Wars and After (you can read parts of it at

      Please complete the contact form located at the right slide bar so we can discuss via email. Thank you again!

  4. I served on HMS Lion 64/65 when she was Flagship on the Home Fleet. Although Lion was cramped and noisy and the food inedible, she was air conditioned on the mess decks and we had bunks. Lion looked the part sleek, fast with real cruiser lines. The photo of Lion shown here was when we attended the Independance of Malta in 1964. Can I ask a question is D Mutch - David Mutch ex Com Mutch RN, also my boss in DML Devonport if so greeting fm Charles Davis 62-90 RN.

    1. Thank you sir for your comment. No, there is no relation between me and Mr. Mutch, I am not British. If you have personal photos of HMS Lion, I would be glad to post them here with your signature ( I can add it for you). You can contact me in the form at the right side-bar.

      Kind regards,