July 04, 2018

The Newport Conference and the US Dreadnought

The US Navy's expansion, beginning in the mid-1880s in response to Mahan's new strategic thinking, was conducted largely without seagoing experience. Long build times, rapid technological progress and a focus on getting as much firepower into as small a hull as possible meant that the resulting ships were slightly cramped and not particularly suited for prolonged operations on the high seas.


Wyoming at the 1912 Naval Review

That changed when Theodore Roosevelt sent most of the US fleet around the world, in a cruise designed to emphasize the growing power of the US Navy and test the ability of the ships resulting from the build-up to operate over the long distances that would be necessary in a war with Japan. The white paint schemes of the cruising ships meant they were universally known as the Great White Fleet.


Arkansas, sister to Wyoming

Even as the fleet departed the US, the first classes of American dreadnoughts were under construction. Some naval officers, such as William Sims,1 were already critical of the existing system where the bureaus were in control of ship design and construction. Even after the dawn of the "New Navy" in the 1880s, the "material bureaus", the departments responsible for weapons, engineering, and construction, were only responsible to the Secretary of the Navy, and had no direct contact with the seagoing elements of the fleet.2 Simms and his colleagues had the backing of President Roosevelt, and the cruise served as the catalyst for a major change in how the US built warships.


Wyoming on trials. Note the casemate forward, soon deleted due to wetness.

The first reports emphasized the fact that the ships were very wet, even in moderate seas. Fixing this meant more freeboard3 and moving casemate-mounted secondary guns higher as well. It was also discovered that the standard 8' wide belt was inadequate, as the lower edge was often exposed due to the pattern of waves produced by the ship's motion. The bow wave, even at low speed, overlapped the upper edge of the belt, which could lead to flooding in the bow from hits by light shells. Solving these problems meant a bigger ship.


Arkansas while serving with the Grand Fleet, 1918

In July of 1908, a conference was held at Newport, Rhode Island to digest the lessons of the ongoing cruise, and to investigate the American battleship design process more generally. The result was the decline of the bureau system and the ascendancy of the General Board, an organization of serving officers, which was responsible for selecting the characteristics to which ships were designed. Another change was an increased emphasis on readiness for war. The most visible sign of this was the change in the color of the fleet from a peacetime white to the wartime grey that American warships have sported ever since.


Aerial view of Wyoming, 1927. Note the extensive bridgework compared to early photos.

The first class of ship to be designed under this system, the Wyoming class, fulfilled most of the hopes of the reformers. They were a third larger than their predecessors,4 some of the largest battleships in the world, and had the more extensive armor and higher freeboard required for ocean-going performance. There was debate over the proper armament. Many wanted to go to the 14" gun, to match recent British developments. However, the US 14" gun was still experimental, and a 5-turret 14" gun ship would have trouble docking, while a 4-turret 14" ship would be underarmed. Instead a 6-turret design was selected, with an improved 12"/50 gun replacing the 12"/45 of previous American dreadnoughts.5


Arkansas, sister of Wyoming, after extensive modernizations

The Wyomings adopted an unusual hull form, with a flush deck to avoid a break in the hull girder causing stress concentrations. This allowed the secondary guns to be placed about 4' higher in the ship. The central 10 guns (5 on each side) were in an armored casemate, while the other 9 guns below the main deck were unarmored, as were the two guns above the main deck. The casemate also provided improved protection to the uptakes.6 Underwater protection was also improved with the first proper torpedo bulkhead on an American battleship.


New York

The Wyomings were authorized in 1909, and in early 1910, the American 14" gun was successfully fired. This swung the design of the 1911 battleship, which became the New York class, in favor of the 14" gun. 10 of these guns could be fitted on a ship the same size as the Wyoming. Another major innovation was the addition of a plotting room, reflecting the increasing US focus on long-range battle. Unfortunately, it was a late addition, and was placed above the armored deck, protected only by splinter armor. It was also too late to adjust the armor scheme to reflect this, and the only change from Wyoming's scheme was an extra inch of belt armor.


Texas serving with the Grand Fleet, 1918

There were other detail improvements made to the New Yorks. The underwater torpedo battery was doubled from two to four tubes in view of the increasing power of torpedoes. The Wyomings had both been propelled by direct-drive turbines, but New York and Texas reverted to triple-expansion engines. Triple-expansion engines were considerably more efficient than turbines, allowing a 25% increase in steaming range. This was a uniquely American decision, as the US prized range for Pacific operations, and forced lubrication made the engines sufficiently reliable, at least at first. By the 30s, the reciprocating members of the battle fleet were not particularly popular. Design speed was increased from 20.5 to 21 kts, although there wasn't a major difference in trial speed.


New York, 1942

In service, both classes were reasonably successful, although the secondary armament was very wet in a seaway. The forward casemates in particular were so wet that they were soon emptied, and the guns moved on deck. These were the earliest American battleships to survive into WWII, and Texas is the only battleship of the era to survive today.


Texas today

The concerns about long-range battle had a much greater impact on the next classes of ships, the famous Standard Type. These were the first battleships with the armor scheme that would become standard by the 1930s, and will be my subject next time.


1 Sims made his name by reforming naval gunnery, serving as an American equivalent to Percy Scott.

2 I'm honestly not sure how this structure came to be. My knowledge of the USN before the 1880s is fairly minimal.

3 The height of the ship's deck above the waterline.

4 The Wyomings were 26,000 tons, while the largest US battleships in commission at the time were only 16,000 tons, and the previous Floridas were just under 22,000 tons.

5 Interestingly, this gun would go on to have a longer continuous service life than any other American heavy gun, from the time Wyoming commissioned in 1912 until Arkansas was destroyed in 1946 during the Bikini Island atomic bomb tests.

6 The term for the ducts from the boilers to the stacks.

Comments

  1. July 05, 2018cassander said...

    I’m not so sure about this. The problem is that the carrier features are really vulnerable to gunfire, and if they get damaged, you now have a poorly-armed light cruiser. That might be badly on fire. I wouldn’t try this kind of thing in the North Atlantic. Too much chance of getting caught. In the South Atlantic or Indian Ocean, it would be great. There, there are no convoys, or if there are, the escort is a couple corvettes, which you can indeed dispatch. Destroyers are just too dangerous.

    You'd definitely prefer to stand off, and certainly wouldn't want to close into torpedo range, but 9 6" guns is as much firepower as at least 3-4 destroyers, and presumably with better accuracy at range. I like my chances, especially if I can hit the convoy with u boats at the same time.

  2. July 05, 2018bean said...

    I think you're in the wrong thread. But I'll continue this here, I guess. I'll agree that the math is in favor of the flight-deck cruiser in a typical engagement. But the chances of deck damage is pretty high, and that means you're not able to fly. Not to mention the issues with torpedoes.

  3. July 05, 2018Inky said...

    The underwater torpedo battery was doubled from two to four tubes in view of the increasing power of torpedoes.

    I'm curious, how often were torpedoes used by battleships actually? Since you also mention addition of plotting room for improving long range combat capability. Those two developments seem to be diametrically opposed, sas long range combat is basically antonymous to torpedo warfare (Long Lance being the notable exception). They also don't seem like all that good of a fit for this kind of ship - torpedoes mean one had to close in to an enemy and aim with all of the ship, which clashes with the long range design. I wonder if they were added more as a last ditch / third-line auxillary. Also, why not launch from the deck, as destroyers do?

  4. July 05, 2018bean said...

    I’m curious, how often were torpedoes used by battleships actually?

    Pretty rarely. The only case I'm certain of is Rodney, which fired a few at Bismarck, but I think that some of the battleships at Jutland launched torpedoes. A check of Campbell turns up nothing, but it's getting late and I'm very tired.

    They also don’t seem like all that good of a fit for this kind of ship - torpedoes mean one had to close in to an enemy and aim with all of the ship, which clashes with the long range design.

    Increasing torpedo range was one of the main drivers of efforts to increase gunnery ranges. As for aiming, I can't remember when they gained the ability to use gyros to angle torpedoes. Also, British doctrine around this time (don't know about American) was to try for "browning shots", basically using statistics to fire blindly at the enemy line and hope for hits.

    I wonder if they were added more as a last ditch / third-line auxillary.

    No, there were serious plans for torpedo battleships. Gunnery ranges in this era were a lot shorter, particularly before the advent of radar allowed bad weather to be seen through.

    Also, why not launch from the deck, as destroyers do?

    There were a couple of battleships with above-water torpedo tubes, although I don't know of any on the deck. It's a matter of protection. Destroyers had none. Battleships had to be able to take a pounding and keep fighting. And I suspect that torpedoes would be unhappy with battleship levels of muzzle blast, but I have no proof of that.

  5. July 06, 2018Lapsed Pacifist said...

    'Uptakes' take the exhaust fumes up to the stack.

    Proper exhaust draws new air into a combustion engine like a firebox. Without a good chimney, what you have is an open bonfire, not a steam engine. So you need to control your exhaust because sometimes there will be a lot, but other times your huge smokestack is too big to create the chimney effect with a small volume of gas. So you have uptakes which are smaller ducts that are designed to create a steady draft away from the boiler in a way that dumping exhaust gasses into a large empty smokestack does not. So you have smaller uptakes that act as proper chimneys, then the stack which just directs the exhaust generally upwards. IIRC, steam engines had uptakes with louvres to open and close them as part of the control system.

  6. July 06, 2018bean said...

    That seems like a good guess for the etymology, which I was too lazy to go looking for/think about. And thanks for the good explanation of their purpose, too. (I will point out that the stack, at least at high power, was also important to providing draft.)

  7. July 07, 2018Cassander said...

    @bean

    No idea how that ended up here.

  8. July 09, 2018Tony Zbaraschuk said...

    So when the US battleships reached Scapa Flow in WW I, how did they and the British compare themselves to each other? What were the observations when two separate strains of dreadnought development cross-pollinated?

    (And obviously there was knowledge shared before then, pre-WW I being a much more open place with regard to technical stuff and publically debated naval budgets, but there's something about operating together that probably leads to deeper knowledge.)

  9. July 09, 2018bean said...

    So when the US battleships reached Scapa Flow in WW I, how did they and the British compare themselves to each other? What were the observations when two separate strains of dreadnought development cross-pollinated?

    The Americans were generally impressed by the British, particularly their gunnery. The British were largely impressed by American habitation standards, although they thought there were flaws. I'd have to check Friedman for more details. There was a major exchange of design ideas during the war, which had impacts on both sides going forward.

  10. July 09, 2018BakerEasy said...

    @bean

    I can’t remember when they gained the ability to use gyros to angle torpedoes.

    I remember looking into this one a while back - around 1910 looks to be when they started becoming available, and relatively widespread by the outbreak of the war.

  11. July 09, 2018bean said...

    Much before 1910, torpedo ranges were short enough you could probably just aim the whole ship and have a reasonable chance of hitting. Afterwards, you can aim the torpedo. Makes sense.

    And thank you for running that down. I've been busy lately, and didn't want to launch the search myself.

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