Caribbean Empires:
Spain’s Battleships

Not long after we published Great War at Sea: Remember the Maine, I decided that at some point we would issue alternative-history expansions looking at how that war might have played out a decade, a decade and a half or two decades later. Eventually I decided to do all three of them, but to publish them as exclusive Premium Content downloads for our Gold Club, with the first appearing as part of the 2021 Twelve Days of Christmas promotion.

In this version of history, the yellow journalism of 1898 and the accidental explosion of the “battleship” Maine bring the United States and Spain to the brink of war, but no actual declaration is made. During the decade following the 1898 war scare, both Spain and the United States strengthen their naval forces in anticipation of an actual naval war. In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt forms the Great White Fleet in Hampton Roads, but instead of dispatching them around the world on a cruise of friendship, the head for the Caribbean to wrest away Spain’s empire. A report of a Spanish torpedo attack, later proven to be false, is all it takes to obtain a declaration of war (these being the days when American presidents still observed such formalities).

Let’s have a look at the battleships of Spain’s augmented armada.

Spain built just one battleship before the Disaster of 1898s, the weak and slow Pelayo. In Remember the Maine we included her projected (but never built) sister ship, and two follow-on classes of somewhat better warships.

The Spanish receive two examples of the French-built Charlemagne class in Remember the Maine; in Caribbean Empires, we added four more. Charlemagne was not a very good fighting ship, but Spain had a long relationship with French shipyards and had the Armada sought a next-generation battleship after Pelayo, she likely would have come from a French yard.

Charlemagne, and her mythical Spanish near-sisters, carried the standard pre-dreadnought main armament of four 12-inch guns in a pair of twin turrets, one fore and one aft. Charlemagne had ten 138mm guns in a casemate as her secondary armament; the Spanish ships have replaced these with British-made Mark VII 6-inch guns.

The first pair of these (the two included in Remember the Maine) would have been built in France, and their four sisters in Spanish shipyards. Thanks to the Disaster of 1898, no further battleships would be ordered for the Armada – or even projected – for another decade. But in the absence of such a debacle, the French ships seem a logical choice.

They are not as capable as the contemporary American battleships, but there are six of them and they usually appear together. They balance their lack of speed with fairly thin hull armor and weak armament. But there are six of them.

In our alternative history the Spanish follow these disappointing ships with a cutting-edge British design. Remember the Maine includes three of these ships, a slightly modified version of the British King Edward VII class pre-dreadnoughts. They carried four 12-inch guns, four 9.2-inch guns and ten 6-inch guns – the lessons of the Spanish-American War seemed to teach that a great many faster-firing guns of lighter caliber would be more important in a naval engagement than a smaller number of heavier weapons. Spain began to lean more heavily on Britain for warship designs as the Armada rebuilt itself from the Disaster of 1898, and a third generation of Spanish battleships would have had a heavy British influence (even if they were constructed in Spain).

Caribbean Empires adds two more, giving the Spanish five of what Royal Navy sailors would call the “Wobbly Eight.” They’re very capable ships, for their time at least, and give the Armada vessels that can stand up to most of the American battleships. Unfortunately for King Alfonso XIII’s fleet, the Americans have many more than five such ships.

Spain also had a fruitful relationship with Italian shipbuilders, and the Ansaldo combine is the source of the Armada’s final class of new battleships. By the 1920’s, Italian producers were offering “export” versions of the warships built for the Regia Marina, typically smaller ships with less armament than their big sisters, but less expensive as a result.

Juan de Austria is an export version of the Cuniberti dreadnought that was never actually built for the Royal Italian Navy. The original version, as sketched by Cuniberti, carried a dozen 12-inch guns with twin-mount turrets fore and aft and on either side for eight guns, and four single-mount turrets at the “corner” positions. The Italians did order a similar but much smaller ship; the Regina Elena class fast pre-dreadnought battleships had single-mount turrets for 12-inch guns fore and aft, and three twin-mount turrets with 8-inch guns along either flank for a total of a dozen guns.

Our export version – which was never ordered or even designed – is a compromise between the two ships. Juan de Austria carries a twin turret fore and aft, each mounting a pair of 12-inch guns, and a single 12-inch gun in a single mount on either flank, for a total of six heavy guns. A twin mount for 6-inch guns occupies each “corner” position, giving her eight such weapons, plus a dozen 4-inch guns to ward off enemy torpedo boats.

That’s a considerably lighter armament than the Cuniberti dreadnought, which appears to carry far more heavy guns than her stated displacement (17,000 tons) could have borne while still making a high speed (for the pre-dreadnought era, as she would have been powered by older-style reciprocating engines rather than turbines). Juan de Austria displaces about 17,000 tons, the same as Cuniberti’s design, keeping her 21-knot speed but carrying sufficient armor to withstand the fire of enemy battleships.

That makes her a reasonable counter-weight to the American Connecticut and Pimlico class pre-dreadnoughts, which are about the same size and with similar firepower – Connecticut has fewer heavy guns, but many more mid-sized weapons. The Spanish have four of them, and they are the core of the Armada’s battle line.

And those are Spain’s battleships. Next time, we’ll look at the Spanish cruisers.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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