These British Cruisers Were Built to Counter a Russian Sailboat. Here's Why.

By Hood, Sam, 1872-1953 - State Library of NSW Call no. : DG ON4/7476 [1], Public Domain,
May 5, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Powerful-ClassHMS PowerfulHMS TerribleBoer WarRussiaRurik

These British Cruisers Were Built to Counter a Russian Sailboat. Here's Why.

But why?

The Royal Navy designed the Powerful-class of warships to counter a Russian cruiser—that still had sails. 


In the late 1880s, Russian cruisers plied the North Pacific. Some cruisers were fast enough to take merchantmen and ocean liners as prizes, which could be plundered and armed for service in the Russian Navy. The rumor was that Russia was building the Rurik for just this purpose—taking merchants. 

This was particularly odious to Britain, as the island nation depended on an extensive fleet of merchant ships to ply their wares abroad, and to bring goods and services back to the home islands. Without its merchant fleet, Britain would not be able to sustain its empire. 

For reasons that remain unclear, public worry about the Rurik approached paranoia and may have been stoked by the British press. Public sentiment was contagious and quickly spread to the Royal Navy, the protector of Britain’s merchant marine. 

The Rurik was an odd bird, which may have been what worried the Royal Navy. The Rurik used coal to heat steam engines, but also had three masts that carried sails to augment the engines. When not sailing under full power, the Rurik had a combat range of 19,000 miles, allowing the cruiser to reach Vladivostok from the Baltic without needing to refuel. 

For the time, it was lightly armored. The deck had only 2.5 inches of armor plating, and side plating was 12 inches at the thickest central point. Despite the weight savings of thinner armor, the Rurik only had a top speed of 21 miles per hour or about 18 knots. What the Rurik lacked in armor was made up in armament with four 8-inch guns and a whopping sixteen 6-inch guns, in addition to a large number of smaller quick-firing guns and torpedo tubes. 


Royal Navy planners intended to counter the very specific threat they thought the Rurik posed to British shipping. They assumed that in a high-speed chase, a large amount of coal would be needed to run down the Rurik, and the Powerful-class was accordingly made very long for additional coal storage—100 feet longer than the newest British battleships that were then being laid down. 

Despite the extra length, the Powerful-class was actually more lightly armed than the Rurik, sporting only two 9.2-inch guns and twelve 6-inch guns in addition to a number of smaller guns. The Royal Navy was not pleased with the Powerful-class. The Powerfuls required a larger crew than the preceding cruisers, were more expensive, and were only slightly better armed. 

On top of that, the Powerful-class was built to counter a specific threat from Russia, whose strength and speed were not only overestimated, but also unlikely to ever attack British merchant ships. 


Despite not being used for their intended purpose, both Powerful-class ships, the HMS Terrible and the HMS Powerful served in the Second Boer War to great acclaim in England, when gun crews from the ships brought some of their cannons ashore to provide embattled British forces artillery aid. The Terrible also served during the Boxer Rebellion in China. Both ships were later converted for troop transport or training, eventually being broken up for scrap—not too bad for two ships built to counter an imaginary threat.

Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture.

Image: Wikimedia