From Missouri to Mississippi
US Pre-Dreadnoughts in Great War at Sea, Pt 2
By David Hughes
October 2015

Within months of the destruction of the Maine in February 1898, the United States Navy was authorised to build three new battleships. In memory one ship was to bear her name, but to avoid confusion I am naming the class after the first ship laid down, Missouri. The condition was that they were not to exceed the earlier Illinois class in displacement. This politically dictated limitation led inevitably to compromise, a problem that would often plague the navy for the next 40 years.

In this case it was exacerbated by the decision to increase the speed from the lethargic 16 knots of Illinois. Fortunately American steelmakers could at last provide Krupp steel. America in this period, just like Poland between the wars, was notorious for ignoring patents and copyright, and it seems that Carnegie and others simply copied the Krupp product and claimed it as their own conception. Massive weight could be saved by using 11 inches of off-brand Krupp instead of 16.5 inches of Harvey steel.

Fitting out USS Missouri at Newport News, 1903.

Another saving came when the heavy 13.5-inch guns of the previous class were replaced by new-model 12-inch 40 calibre guns. Gunnery experts claimed that a smaller shell fired at a higher velocity would be more effective. This saving was used to provide an extra pair of secondary guns, for a total of sixteen six-inch pieces, all behind the barbette armour. Four of these guns were placed on the upper-deck where their elevation made them much more effective. Utterly useless were a pair of these guns placed just behind the bow. All fired under local control, where spray rendered this pair ineffective.

The reduced armour weight allowed the boilers and engines to be increased, giving the class a speed of over 18 knots, at last matching the speed of European battle lines. One peculiarity was that the triple funnels of the class were at different heights in each ship. The highest were those of Maine, next those of Missouri, and Ohio the shortest of all. Maine was also the least satisfactory, plagued by boilers that consumed coal at a ferocious rate, so much so that she was left behind when the “Great White Fleet” crossed the Pacific.

The three ships of this Missouri class saw little active service, partly because their new guns initially proved to be weak and prone to blowing off their muzzles. All three were broken up to comply with the terms of the Washington Treaty.

The following Virginia class proved to be much more controversial. It must be remembered that they were designed after the Battle of Santiago, but before the Illinois and Missouri classes had entered service. At Santiago the only guns to hit had been the 8-inch, so it was decided that they new ships had to revert to carrying these. The problem was that since Santiago, new guns with much faster rates of fire had been developed. To fit the heavy 8-inch it was necessary to revert to the peculiarly American "stacked turret" already adopted for the Kearsarge class.

Virginia shows off her bizarre, and useless, "stacked" turrets, 1918.

In the earlier class the concept had been vaguely plausible because the ancient 13.5-inch only fired once every couple of minutes or so, in between which the 8-inch on top could in theory happily bang away. But the new 12-inch guns were almost as fast to load as the older 8-inch. Since firing from the upper turret brought activity in the lower to a shattered halt for a few precious seconds, it meant that the 8-inch were regarded as an useless encumbrance.

Apart from this aberration the design took full advantage of the extra 1,500 tons of displacement allowed. An extra (and much more useful) twin 8-inch gun turret was mounted on each beam, with twelve single 6-inch guns emplaced in the casemate. The belt was still the 11 inches of Krupp steel found in the Illinois class but was now was also more extensive. Just like British battleships built five years earlier, a belt of armour now extended along the waterline from bow to stern. During this period American battleships took longer and longer to build, in this case over five years from keel-laying to completion.

All five members were still in the active fleet in 1917 and were then used for convoy protection and training. All were declared surplus by the Washington Treaty. Rhode Island, Georgia and Nebraska were scrapped while New Jersey and Virginia herself were used as targets in the celebrated tests of the ability of aircraft to destroy capital ships. Both sank after bombs penetrated their weak (on average one to two inches) deck armour. The pieces for the Missouri and Virginia classes are found in the Avalanche Press game Remember the Maine.

With the Connecticut class of 1902 the United States Navy finally acquired a group of ships fully equal to those being built abroad. The standard displacement jumped to 16,000 tons (1,000 more than the Virginia) allowing for a much more sensible turret layout.

The ships had the usual twin 12-inch turrets fore and aft backed up by four twin 8-inch turrets mounted on each quarter. Both were 45 calibre guns, the 12-inch being the first mountings of this type. Even more impressive was the tertiary armament. Although it seemed strange to pick another gun of a very similar size, the designers nevertheless installed twelve 7-inch guns in single mounts. The type was chosen as using the heaviest round (at 165 pounds) that could be carried by a single (presumably strong) man.

This is an early indicator of the emphasis laid by American designers on theoretical penetration factors, in this case that different guns would hit those precise areas of an enemy ship whose armour could be penetrated by that specific gun-type! In truth the 7-inch seems to have been unsatisfactory and its use was restricted to these last pre-dreadnought classes.

Louisiana, of the Connecticut class, seen in New York, 1910.

The six ships are officially divided into two groups, with the last four known as the Vermont class. However the only significant distinction was in the last to be started, New Hampshire, in which the primary guns were modified to allow all-elevation loading and there was some redistribution of armour. All were faster than previous classes, exceeding 18 knots on trials.

Above all with their appearance the United States served notice that it had entered the big leagues when it came to ocean-going navies. Not only were these powerful vessels, but it had built six of them at the same time, demonstrating the latent power of the national shipbuilding industry. Only Great Britain managed to build a larger battleship class. Also there were five different yards capable of building ships of this size: Connecticut, Kansas and New Hampshire at three different New York shipyards and Vermont in Massachusetts. Only the Newport News Yard was required to build two ships and it was able to construct both Louisiana and Minnesota at the same time. It must be remembered that the four huge armoured cruisers of the Tennessee class, almost as large and equipped with four 10-inch guns (in some navies these too would have been considered battleships), were under construction at the same time.

These ships formed the core of the "Great White Fleet" and were thought valuable enough to be modernised as early as 1910, when they were given the towering cage masts that were the identifying feature of American battleships during the Great War. They were active throughout the war. Minnesota managed to hit a German mine off the American East Coast, and in so doing became the only American battleship to be damaged by an enemy in the period stretching from the Battle of Santiago in 1898 to Pearl Harbour in 1941. All had to be scrapped to comply with the Washington Treaty.

The next two pre-dreadnought battleships of the Mississippi class were smaller. This was the first time that had happened, and was the result of two factors. One was the belief of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan that instead of a few big ships America should build more but smaller battleships. Most admirals considered this bizarre, based as it was on the apparent value of two 74-gun ships over one 100-gun ship at the time of Nelson.

It also seemed attractive to politicians. This impacted on the second factor: The American Congress was asserting more and more authority over not just the price, but also the size and quality of the ships it authorised. In this case it stipulated that two ships were to be built, each not to exceed 13,000 tons.

Mississippi fitting out in Philadelphia, 1907.

There followed a frenzied and unhappy debate over what features of the Connecticut class should be removed or reduced in order to meet the displacement limit. In the end it was decided to drop the speed by one knot and reduce the number of 7-inch guns from twelve to eight. Since they only cost 5.8 million each compared with the nearly 8 million dollars of a Connecticut, it could be argued that Mahan had a point.

The appearance of the dreadnought battleship instantly made them all obsolete. One can only wonder what would have been a better buy — three Connecticut or four Mississippi class, since both heavy guns and protection were identical. However, service experience showed that the smaller ships had a much slower cruising speed (8.5 compared with 10 knots) and their coal capacity was only three-quarters that of the larger ship. No doubt factors such as these made the Navy accept the offer to sell them to Greece, especially since it was assured that the money received would be used to build new dreadnought battleships with the same name. As Kilkis and Lemnos, they served in the Greek Navy until sunk by a surprise dive-bombing attack in 1941.

I think that the later pre-dreadnoughts should be treated as dreadnoughts of their country for game purposes. In this case only the Connecticut class (although note that the same is true of the Tennessee-class armoured cruisers) would qualify. During the Great War it seems that the Greek Navy maintained their two new ships well, so they also should be defined as dreadnoughts for game purposes. I suspect that their condition degenerated after the loss of the Greek-Turkish War.

Sail these American battleships in Remember the Maine