Crimson Seas, Part 1
Evolution of the Inland/Lake Battleship Design
By Milan Becvar
Great War at Sea has covered naval wars and situations around the world, both those that occurred and those that might have but did not. One of the great flash points that remained unlit was the Great Lakes between the United States and the Dominion of Canada. Had there been a prolonged period of tension between the United States and the British Empire both superpowers would have moved to defend and exploit the vast freshwater lakes that formed a mutual border between the United States and Canada.
U.S. Navy Plan Crimson adds the complete lake fleets of the United States and the Dominion of Canada to the Great War at Sea game system. Both the fleets built by these nations, extensive air assets and the military canals improved and built to allow strategic movement and redeployment to exploit the unique geography of the Great Lakes are included. The Lake or Inland Battleships form the core of this hypothetical Navy War Plan. Their evolution and Lake or Inland Battleship design is the focus of this article.
Road to War
War Plan Red, the U.S. plan for a war with Great Britain contained an important sub-plan titled War Plan Crimson. This was a separate but related War Plan that called for conquering Canada in exchange for what was expected to be an extensive loss of United States overseas possessions to the Royal Navy and its likely foreign allies. International relations are a forum where situations go from plans to reality. Relations between the British Empire and the United States deteriorated steadily from crisis to crisis and eventually reached a critical point. The situation between the U.S. and Canada changed from a guarded status quo to preparing to actively go to war and guarding against the enemy military plans. The question was how to do so and what tools would be best-suited to conduct the necessary military operations. The five Great Lakes in the centre of North America formed an important area between the United States and Canada and was an important focus of the military buildup for both countries. The form that these forces took is one of the more fascinating aspects of this unique naval war environment.
War of 1812 and the Lakes’ Demilitarisation
In the case of the Great Lakes, while ports could readily be provided with land-based artillery the lack of naval forces was a situation inherited from the aftermath of the War of 1812. The Lower Lakes in the early part of the 19th century were still a relatively remote frontier area without significant infrastructure. At great expense and effort, both sides during that conflict had created large formidable lake forces with vessels of comparable size to ocean-going ships of the line: anywhere from 50 to more than 100 guns. The United States had even built a giant 130-gun ship named after the great victory at New Orleans but once peace came there was a strong incentive to reduce the burden of maintaining a presence on what was still a frontier area.
The Rush-Bagot treaty provided for extremely limited naval forces on the Great Lakes as a saving to the treasuries of both Great Britain and the United States. The fleets were allowed to rot away without replacement or modernisation as they could quickly and easily be replaced. For a while the area remained a military backwater while it grew in population and economic importance. This was not, however, a remarkable example of pacifism or trust by both countries but a calculation based on economy and a type of “mutual risk” theory resulting from the nature of naval construction that involved wood.
More Technology Takes More Time
Part of the rationale for limiting naval strength at the time of the Rush-Bagot treaty was that contemporary ship technology enabled a relatively quick construction time (at the expense of long-term durability by not using seasoned wood). With sufficient effort an adequate naval force could be created within a year. From the lessons of the War of 1812, it was doubtful whether a land campaign alone would be able to succeed within the period of time before a naval force could be created. Both countries would be starting from the same point and neither would enjoy a significant advantage before the other caught up with its own construction.
What was true in the age of wooden ships was not the case when iron, steam and steel replaced the wooden walls and canvas sails. The time to build a sizeable steam-powered vessel out of steel or iron now multiplied to several years. The possibility of a naval gap if one side created such a force before the other guaranteed that the British Empire and the United States ironically renounced the Rush-Bagot limitations almost simultaneously.
Allowing the opponent to build a force to control the lakes without opposition would be military suicide while the imbalance existed. Prior tensions had already led to earlier attempts and announcements to abandon the naval limitation agreements. In 1864, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward announced that the United States intended to abrogate the treaty, but before the six months’ grace period had elapsed the United Stated retracted the statement. Once repeated tensions between Great Britain and the United States dragged on longer than the six-month annulment period the race was on.
What to Build? Bigger is Better!
When the Great Lakes were militarized inevitably the first naval units were hastily-armed merchant ships and fast motor launches along with some small torpedo boats partially dismantled and transported overland by rail. These would have to be sufficient until purpose-built vessels were completed. The size and scope of the environment immediately set in motion a process for the United States, and the Canadians with assistance from the Royal Navy, to develop appropriate and effective naval forces in an inevitable arms race. Several factors cumulated in ensuring that the outcome of the arms race on the lakes was fleets of large formidable naval vessels; perversely, not the least reason was economy.
The Great Lakes are a significant size (over 94,000 square miles) and capable of deadly weather conditions comparable to what ships face on the world’s oceans. In order to provide all-weather-capable forces, any ships designed had to be able to possess adequate sea-keeping abilities otherwise a more seaworthy fleet could dominate during adverse weather. Sizeable ships in turn were themselves sizeable investments and this demanded adequate protection and full use of hull capability by carrying significant armament which a civilian conversion could not provide. Bigger ships also provide certain economies from their size and permit a larger portion of their crew to be reservists or untrained new recruits than smaller fast vessels. Larger machinery units are easier to maintain than smaller high performance boilers and turbines and can carry more and larger calibre weaponry required to perform army support bombardments.
Purpose-built warships were needed. Commercial-standard construction does not support the mounting of significant armament (even with reinforcement) beyond approximately a 6-inch calibre. Any economic use of cargo capacity requires large internal spaces clear of obstruction and completely voids any attempt at providing serious armour protection. Public opinion also needs tangible proof of military protection of its coasts and found it hard to place confidence in armed transports or small craft to do the job.
And so the Lake Battleship was born. The continental European navies had experience building second- and third-class battleships used for coastal and harbour defence duties and a variation on these types evolved into a new battle unit ideally suited for inland lake operations that addressed all the criteria: Seaworthy, bombardment-capable, well-protected, economic and a symbol of confidence that the public could trust to guard their lives and property. The Lake Battleship or Inland Battleship in U.S. Navy terms became scaled-down battleships and later pocket dreadnoughts and formed the core of the Lake Fleets.
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