Origins of the ship’s design
Early years of the 20th century saw the emergence of a new breed of British warships – battlecruisers. The new ships were direct descendants of the armored cruiser class vessels, although their design was based on somewhat different principles.
The new ships were to be large and fast: the lack of heavy armor and/or armament would be offset by the installation of powerful machinery allowing the battlecruisers to achieve impressive speeds. In practice a battlecruiser’s armament was comparable to that of a battleship, although the armored protection was greatly reduced – the hull could be easily breached by shells of the same caliber as used by a battlecruiser’s own guns. The new warships were tasked with several types of missions. Their speed allowed them to perform scouting and pursuit duties and, during a sea battle, they could be easily dispatched to the area were their guns would be most urgently needed. The speed advantage was especially useful while employing the classic “capping the T” or “crossing the T” tactic (crossing a battle line formation of enemy vessels and firing a broadside, which denied the enemy any opportunity to respond).
One of the most fervent supporters of the battlecruiser concept in the Royal Navy was John “Jackie” Fisher. The first three warships representing the new breed (the Invincible class) were introduced in the first decade of the 20th century. Soon the Germans and the Japanese followed suit and built their own battlecruisers. The new design’s baptism of fire would come during World War I. In combat operations the new vessels performed very well (victories in the first battle of the Heligoland Bight and the Falkland Islands), which seemed to prove the viability of a battlecruiser concept. These early success stories gave Admiral Fisher the necessary leverage to convince the Admiralty to shelve the construction of the sixth and the seventh Revenge class battleships (also known as the Royal Sovereign or R class) in favor of two battlecruiser units. Design stage and the actual construction of the ships progressed at a record pace, since the Royal Navy wanted the new vessels to join the fleet before the war’s end (which, according to many at that time, was just around the corner). A decision was made to keep the names previously reserved for the battleships: Renown and Repulse. The new ships’ hulls were 50 m longer than the previously planned battleships and required longer slipways, which meant that the entire construction process and the stock of materials already in place had to be moved to new locations. As a result the battlecruisers were built in Scottish shipyards at Govan (Renown) and Clydebank (Repulse).
The outcome of the Battle of Jutland was a dramatic wake-up call for the enthusiastic supporters of the battlecruiser concept. Three Royal Navy vessels of that type (HMS Queen Mary, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Invincible) exploded and sank quickly with a massive loss of lives after being hit by German ships. Their fate demonstrated that eliminating adequate armored protection on ships of that size was indeed a fatal mistake. Although the Royal Navy tried to rectify the problem by installing additional armor on both Renown and Repulse during numerous refits and modernizations, the final outcome was still far from sufficient. When the two ships entered service they were almost identical. Over the years and after countless refits (which gave rise to rather unflattering nicknames of HMS Refit and HMS Repair) the ships’ characteristics became more and more divergent. In keeping with the Royal Navy tradition HMS Repulse received her official badge and motto: Qui Tangit Frangatur (“Who touches me is broken”).