Perhaps the least known of all of America’s cruiser designs, the Worcester class cruisers are without equal. Incorporating all of the lessons learned during the Second World War, the warships were an ambitious design. Combining the size of a cruiser with the maneuverability of a destroyer, the ships were intended to destroy aerial targets just as easily as they would enemy ships. They would have singlehandedly fulfilled all of the roles of America’s various cruiser designs. This ambitious design came with a price. Large, complicated, and expensive, the Worcester class failed to live up to expectations. In this article, we will examine America’s last light cruisers and see what prevented these ships from being the greatest light cruisers ever.
The Worcester class was born from the vast experience gained from the many light cruiser designs fielded by the United States Navy. The Atlanta class cruiser in particular was the most important. Despite originally being intended as scout cruisers and destroyer leaders, the Atlanta class evolved into effective anti-air cruisers thanks to their substantial battery of sixteen 5″ dual-purpose guns. Despite the effectiveness of the 5″ round in the anti-air role, it was severely lacking in the anti-surface role. Only two ships of the Atlanta class engaged in surface combat and both ships were lost. Other US light cruisers that used the 6″ round fared far better in surface combat, however, the larger, heavier 6″ turret could not elevate or train fast enough to be useful in the anti-air role. Ships like the Cleveland class light cruisers that were armed with both 6″ and 5″ guns found themselves overweight and top heavy. United States naval designers sought a compromise. A class of cruiser that provided the exceptional anti-air capability of the Atlanta class cruisers while having a round powerful enough to destroy enemy ships.
The New Gun
Since 1937, the United States was working on a dual-purpose 6″ gun. It was first proposed for a new class of destroyer leader and then for the Montana class battleships, each time being cancelled. With the introduction of newer high-performance aircraft and the loss of the two Atlanta class cruisers, the 6″ dual-purpose gun was once again dusted off. While the gun itself was the same as used on other light cruisers, the loading system and turret were state of the art. Technology had evolved to the point that several shortcomings of the original mount could be rectified. The resulting 6″/47 DP Mark 16 was a technological marvel compared to previous cruiser guns. It had a fully automatic loading system that could load the gun at any elevation. This dealt with the issue of the crew struggling to load heavy rounds. It also had newer, more powerful motors that could elevate and train the guns just as fast as the 5″ dual-purpose guns. This solved the problems that hampered previous large dual-purpose guns.
The Worcester Class Cruiser Design
The final design of the Worcester class resembled a Juneau class light cruiser, itself an improved version of the Atlanta class. The ship mounted 6 two-gun turrets with three turrets forward and three turrets aft of the superstructure. In a feature borrowed from the Juneau class, only turrets 3 and 4 were superfiring. This helped lower the ship’s center of gravity which improved stability, an issue found in the Atlanta class.
Compared to other light cruisers, the Worcester class was massive. The cruisers were 680′ in length and had a 70′ beam. At standard load, the ships displaced 14,700 tons and at full load displaced as much as 18,000 tons. The spiritual ancestors of the Worcester class, the Atlanta’s, only displaced about 7500 tons at full load. Even the most powerful heavy cruiser of the Second World War, the Baltimore class, still displaced less than the Worcester class at 17,000 tons. Despite the large size of the Worcester class, they were nimble ships. With 125,000 horsepower, they could steam at 33 knots. They were also relatively maneuverable, with a tight turning radius. As anti-air cruisers they had the agility to maneuver around larger warships, protecting them in the escort role.
Supplementing the ships main weapons were twenty-four of the newest 3″/50 RF anti-aircraft guns. The successor of the 40mm Bofors, the 3″/50 RF was a rapid fire weapon capable of using VT fuses. The Worcester class was one of the first ships to be universally equipped with these mounts. Combined with her main battery, the anti-aircraft capability of the Worcester class was formidable.
A Failed Design?
Despite all of the potential and lofty expectations of the class, the Worcester’s have been described as failures. This was primarily due to the ship’s dual-purpose guns. One complaint was the extreme weight of the main battery. The equipment needed to make a viable 6″ dual-purpose gun was heavy, driving the weight of the cruiser up excessively. The twin mounts of the Worcester class actually weighed 20% more than the triple 6″ turrets of the Cleveland class cruisers. The guns also gained a reputation for unreliability. Just about every ship’s log mentioned a jammed turret during a gunnery shoot. The final complaint was a lower rate of fire than what was intended. Even during peak performance, the guns could only manage about 12 rounds per minute.
While the guns failed to live up to their expectations, it is important to remember that these were the first major auto-loading guns developed in the United States. They served as prototypes for many other guns developed during that time. As an advanced design, they incorporated a lot of untested technology. The biggest culprit was the dual feed system for each gun. One feed handled AP while the other handled HC rounds. It was hoped that this system would allow the gun to switch between ammunition types instantly, but it ended up being a constant source of jamming. The issues with the design were largely rectified with the larger 8″/55 Mark 16 used in the contemporary Des Moines class heavy cruisers. The 8″/55 Mark 16 used a single feed system which eliminated a majority of the problems found in the 6″/47. Consequently, the 8″/55 was to serve as the template for an improved dual-purpose triple 6″ mount. The new mount, capable of 25 rounds per minute, would replace the twin 6″ mount on new cruisers.
I would not agree with the opinions of others and call the Worcester class a bad design. Flawed perhaps, but certainly not bad. If anything, the ship was simply advanced and ahead of its time. Like any advanced weapon, it did suffer from using new and largely untested technology. Unfortunately, the Worcester class never had the opportunity to have the bugs worked out of this technology. This is largely due to the time in which the ships were built. The Worcester class came at a time when missiles were starting to establish themselves over guns as the primary weapon of naval warfare. Because of this, there was really no reason to sort out the issues that affected the Worcester class. The Navy felt, perhaps correctly, that it was more efficient to focus on the next phase of naval warfare rather than rectify issues in the Worcester design.
Overall, the Worcester class was a great design, but a victim of time more than anything else.
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