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Inventing A Modern Navy
Chaos and farce and catastrophe played a big part. But so did a few men of vision.
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
Changes in gun mounts, breeches, and elevating and training gears, for example, had made possible great increases in the rapidity of fire. But for a considerable period it proved impossible to devise machinery that would supply ammunition quickly enough to maintain the gunfire at maximum speed. Another and more striking ballistic example: The range of a 12-inch gun was in those years steadily extended. To achieve the maximum range, the gun had to be elevated. To achieve the maximum elevation, it was found necessary to cut so big a hole in the turret that four 12-inch enemy shells could enter at one time, destroying the gun, killing the gun crews, and dropping down the open ammunition hoist to explode the powder magazine and blow up the ship. Such a consequence was not easily apparent to constructors who had devoted their attention to separate parts in the system—the gun or the turret or the ammunition hoist. An eleven-year-old girl, taken around the gundeck of the newest ship in the Navy in 1900, seemed in a better position to assess the whole. She said at the end of her tour: “I thought you told me the guns were protected by armor. The armor is where the guns ain’t.”
What happened with gunnery systems happened also in the other technical spheres. The Navy was visited with all the trials and dangers both mechanical and human that attend any technological advance—from the uncontrolled flareback of a discharging gun to recurring deficiencies in a new kind of boiler; from the captain who went to pieces because he could not feel at home with the assembly of nuts, bolts, wires, and machines he was supposedly commanding to the chief engineer who found he could not manage the “new high powered triple expansion engines” and so locked himself in his cabin and cut his own throat.
So much for the technical difficulties. There was another major problem for those who were building the New Navy. Since there was no general agreement on what the ships were to be used for, it was hard to decide what kind of ship to build. All the old arguments—commerce destruction, harbor defense, peacetime “police force,” showing the flag- remained unresolved.
One way of dealing with this situation was to build every kind of ship one could think of that the new technology made possible. In the closing decade of the century, the Navy almost succeeded in achieving this end. The expanding fleet included “sea going coastline battleships,” cruisers “armored, sheathed and protected,” gunboats, torpedo boats, torpedo-boat destroyers, submarines, and, for old times’ sake, one armored ram. Four obsolete monitors were also being built.
This attempt to provide for every contingency produced near chaos. For instance, those “sea going coastline bat- tleships” were, as the description suggests, concrete examples of what can happen when the attempt is made to satisfy totally conflicting opinions simply by including all of them. As any seagoing battleship is expected to be, they were well armed and armored, but like any coast-defense vessel, they were slow, had a short cruising radius, and lacked the freeboard to fight in heavy weather in open waters, as seagoing battleships must do.
Another effort to find order and direction was based on the belief that the way out of the existing confusion was to exploit to the fullest the developing technology. This led to a continuing search for bigger, or faster, or better-armed ships—and also to some unexpected results. For instance, if it was accepted that the distinguishing feature of a battleship was its firepower, the obvious thing to do was to increase the weight of metal it could throw. As a result of technological advances, this metal could be thrown in many shapes and sizes. So it seemed obvious that the thing to do was to include as many of these shapes and sizes as possible in a battleship. Thus the New Hampshire was designed to carry four 12-inch, eight 8-inch, and twelve 7-inch guns, plus twenty 3-pounders. The object was to throw a maximum amount of metal under any conditions and at all possible ranges. But in fact, the firing of a battery of guns of one caliber interfered with the firing of all other guns of different caliber, and the situation was not improved by the fact that the 7-inch guns had been placed so near the waterline that they could not be used to fight in a moderate sea. At their worst, such efforts to push the technological to an extreme produced the kind of total failure that inspired a naval officer to say: “ Kentucky is not a battleship at all. She is the worst crime in naval construction ever perpetrated by the white race.”
In sum, in the closing decades of the last century, the Navy, intellectually and materially, was at sixes and sevens. To maintain a sense of order and direction in its operations, the Navy continued to rely on past experience. When the new ships went to sea, they followed on the whole the cruising patterns established in the days of sail in accordance with the vicissitudes imposed by Barbary pirates, fishing disputes, and the rum trade. And as in those early days, they cruised for the most part independently. As Adm. H. C. Taylor said in 1902, “We have been a Navy of single ships and will not be strong until we learn to think in squadrons.”