The British County Class cruisers of the inter-war period made up the bulk of Britain’s fleet of heavy cruisers in World War II and thus, as a group, were a significant part of the Royal Navy ‘s cruiser force between 1925 and 1945. Like all the heavy cruisers built between the wars, the genesis of these ships lay with the Washington Treaty of 1922, rather than in the historical progression of cruisers over the preceding decades. While the British proposed the establishment of a limit in cruiser size to 10,000 tons and eight-inch guns, their own requirements really called for smaller, more numerous ships. The 10,000 ton provision really best suited American needs, given the requirements of a potential Pacific war. Yet it was the British who suggested these numbers, in order to retain their new 9,500 ton, 7.5-inch gunned Hawkins Class ships. Once all the other major powers began planning to build to this limit, the Admiralty felt compelled to compete and build to the maximum as well. And so, during the 1920's all the major powers began to build eight-inch gunned 10,000 ton cruisers. These ships were not at the time known as "heavy" cruisers. There existed at the end of World War I three basic classes of cruisers: Armored cruisers, light cruisers, and scout cruisers. As the 10,000 ton, eight-inch gunned cruisers were universally designed with limited armor protection, they did not take on the name "armored," instead, being variously labeled "tinclads" or "treaty cruisers" by the press, or more officially "light" cruisers by the government. The term "heavy" cruiser came into use in the 1930's only when the first of the Geneva Conference six-inch gunned cruisers began to enter service and a distinction became necessary.
Given the treaty limitations and realities, the Admiralty began planning an appropriate design. The basic scheme resulted in a ship mounting eight eight-inch guns with a speed of 31 knots. But when all of these requirements were met, only about 1,000 tons was available for armor protection. The result was limited protection to the magazines and machinery and very little else. Initially the Admiralty’s plan was to build some forty ships (the Washington Treaty placed no limitation on total cruiser tonnage) but as military budgets were soon slashed during the post war years, the final number of eight gunned ships produced was thirteen. By that time, the Geneva Convention had placed a limit on total eight-inch gunned cruiser tonnage, with Britain and the United States limited to180,000 tons each. As the British were required to count their three Hawkins Class ships in this total, plus two later ships of a different design, the Exeter and York, the British had no remaining tonnage available for eight-inched gunned ships. Ultimately, these ships formed the entire fleet of British heavy cruisers in World War II because, unlike the United States, the British built no eight-inch gunned cruisers after 1931.
The thirteen eight gunned Counties were comprised of three classes, all similar in appearance, though differing in detail. The first group, the Kent Class, comprised seven ships, the Kent, Berwick, Suffolk, Cumberland, Cornwall, Canberra, and Australia. The second, the London Class, the Devonshire, London, Sussex and Shropshire, and the third the Dorsetshire and Norfolk. All thirteen ships had a simple, characteristic look: three evenly spaced funnels, two turrets forward and two aft. Over time, all of the ships underwent changes. It would require a great deal of discussion to enumerate all of them, but some of the major and most visible ones should be noted especially as these sometimes create confusion. It was not long after construction of the Kent’s that changes were dictated. The importance of ship board aviation soon compelled the addition of catapults. In the mid to late 1930's large box-like hangers were added to Berwick ,Cornwall, Suffolk, and Cumberland. The latter two ships had their quarterdecks cut down, as a weight saving device. During the course of the war, these hangers and catapults were removed on the surviving ships, thus once again altering their appearance. Although all thirteen ships were built with single four-inch guns, it was decided in the 1930's to replace these with twin shielded mounts. While this was accomplished in most ships, some still had singles at the outbreak of the war, and Canberra was sunk still mounting single weapons. All the ships mounted torpedo tubes. To accommodate weight increases, however, the tubes were eventually removed on all of the Kent’s. The Australia and Canberra received scant attention before the war, the most significant changes being the addition of catapults. But during the war Australia received substantial modifications, especially after being severely damaged by a kamikaze at Lingayen Gulf in January 1945.
With the exception of the London, changes to the other two groups were much more circumspect. These ships were completed with catapults, and no hangers were ever installed. All these ships retained their torpedo tubes, but eventually had their single four-inch guns replaced with twin mounts. Suffice it to say that during the war all thirteen ships had their anti-aircraft armaments substantially increased, radar added and with rare exceptions, tripod masts replaced pole masts. The London was an unusual case. Before the war it was decided to rebuild the class along the lines of the Fiji Class light cruisers, but only work on London was commenced before the outbreak of the war. When the ship emerged from reconstruction in February 1941, her appearance indeed was similar to the Fiji, but the increased weight of the new structures severely strained the hull and she required a further refit lasting from December 1942 to May 1943. In retrospect it was fortunate that the other ships did not undergo such extensive reconstruction. London’s was not considered a great success and the Royal Navy would have been better served had the reconstruction not taken place. Nevertheless the ship served actively until she was retired in 1949. But in the end, the ship was actually scrapped several years before the rest of her sister ships, and even two of the Kent’s out served her. All of the ships saw extensive service during the war, proving their value by participating in numerous engagements and contributing materially to the successes of the Royal Navy. Of the thirteen ships, only the Cornwall, Dorsetshire, and Canberra were lost, the first two in April 1942 to Japanese dive bombers, and the latter to gunfire and torpedoes at the Battle of Savo Island in August 1942.
About the Models
The Tremo London is the oldest model shown. Tremo, or Treforest Moulding Ltd., produced a wide array of 1:1200 models in the late 1930's, especially Royal Navy ships. The model shown has not been altered from its original state. The hand-made wood Shropshire model by Broman was most likely made in the late 1950's. With the exception of these two models all the other models shown are by Argonaut or Neptun. The models displayed here are by no means a complete survey of all 1200/1250 scale models of these ships. Many other models of them were made by such well known manufacturers as Bassett-Lowke, Wiking, Comet, Framburg and Superior. Argonaut has produced several others not shown here. All of the Argonaut models pictured here have been re-masted, and the Canberra is a modification by the author of the Argonaut Berwick. The Dorsetshire is painted in colors of the China Station, on which she served in the late 1930's.