The Wine-Dark Sea:
The Americans

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
October 2019

When you stare at a game design long enough, you end up wanting to make changes. Some of those actually improve the game; most of those impulses are best left unheeded. Just before putting Great War at Sea: The Wine-Dark Sea (formerly titled Mediterranean Ultimate Edition) to bed, I made one final adjustment to the scenario and playing piece sets. The Red and White Russian fleets went away, to be replaced by an American squadron.

Since the Russian factions never fought each other in a sea battle, that took away a couple of hypothetical scenarios and some once-powerful ships that had seen better days (poor maintenance had greatly eroded their combat capability). It’s an interesting historical sideshow, but it takes place well after the end of the Great War and it just didn’t seem to fit the game’s story arc. I’m sure we’ll come back to them in an expansion book down the road.

The Plan
The Americans likewise did not fight in the Mediterranean, but in January 1918 the American Planning Staff presented serious proposals to the Allied Naval Council for an American deployment to the Adriatic Sea. Vice Admiral William Sims, commanding American naval forces in Europe, urged operations to occupy or destroy Austrian submarine bases and deny them to German and Austrian boats devastating shipping the Mediterranean. He emphasized the necessity that “radical steps be taken in the Adriatic.”

Those radical steps involved sending a squadron of American pre-dreadnought battleships to steam into the harbor at Cattaro on a dark night, shoot up the submarine facilities there and sink any Austrian warships found in the port. The plan eventually foundered on Italian unwillingness provide their own warships or to allow their allies to command such an operation without Italian participation in what they considered their own sphere of influence.

The American plan required sneaking all the way to the very back of the inlet.

Both the U.S. Navy Department and the British Admiralty thought the plan had a good chance of success, and the Japanese representatives to the Allied Naval Council also endorsed it. You can try it out yourself; while the Italian objections arose purely out of politics, parochialism and a desire to preserve their heavy ships for the post-war balance of power, they may have had a more realistic appraisal of the operation’s prospects.

The Americans counted on the Austrians having no modern heavy ships in the Cattaro anchorage, which was true (only the ancient Erzherzog-class pre-dreadnoughts), no appreciable coastal-defense artillery protecting the inlet itself (which was not true) and few torpedo craft within the anchorage (which was likewise untrue). Two armored cruisers stationed at Cattaro were disarmed after a mutiny in early February, but the Americans were not aware of this.

It’s a daring operation, and gives us the chance to present an operational scenario, an unusual threading-the-needle battle scenario for the attack itself, and some Austro-American battle scenarios.

The Ships
Sims suggested using five of the Connecticut-class pre-dreadnoughts for the attack (the sixth ship, Louisiana, had been damaged in a gunnery training accident). He apparently counted on the Italians contributing at least some heavy ships, which was unlikely, and so the American contingent would have had to have been increased had the operation actually taken place.

The Connecticut class pre-dreadnoughts don’t appear in any Great War at Sea games currently in print (we put them in the old Plan Black game that we released last century - yes, it’s been that long). So this is a good chance for completists to add them to their cardboard U.S. Navy.

The most modern of the American pre-dreadnoughts, the Connecticut class followed the semi-dreadnought design concept common to ships drawn up after the Russo-Japanese War, but before the advent of HMS Dreadnought (a period of less than two years). Medium-caliber guns, the war’s lessons seemed to show, could do almost as much damage to enemy battleships as the bigger weapons and could maintain a much greater rate of fire.

Connecticut and her five sisters carried four 12-inch guns in two twin turrets mounted fore and aft, like almost all pre-dreadnoughts. They also had eight 8-inch guns, in four twin turrets located at the “corner” positions. American battleships had carried the 8-inch gun as far back as the first such ship, Iowa, laid down in 1891. The secondary battery was also upgraded from the 6-inch guns of previous classes to a 7-inch weapon, and spotters found it impossible to distinguish the fall of 7-inch and 8-inch shot.

Connecticut was fairly large as pre-dreadnoughts went, and Congress sought to restrain costs by mandating a reduction in displacement from the 16,000 tons of Connecticut to 13,000 for the next pair of ships. Idaho and Mississippi were quickly judged to be failures and sold off to Greece (they appear in Greek colors in The Wine-Dark Sea). The next pair of battleships authorized returned to the 16,000-ton displacement of Connecticut.

South Carolina and Michigan are generally considered to be the U.S. Navy's first dreadnought-type warships, and in fact were designed before HMS Dreadnought. But where Dreadnought was a radical new design, South Carolina was in many respects an improved Connecticut. Early design studies simply replaced the twin 8-inch turrets of Connecticut with single 12-inch mounts, with an eye toward upgrading the six Connecticuts to the same standard.

That would eliminate the problem of confusing 7-inch and 8-inch splashes, but testing showed that the ship’s structure could not stand the added strain of the larger weapon's firing from that location. The designers then hit on a super-firing arrangement, mounting another twin 12-inch turret above and behind those already in place. Some feared that the crew of the lower turret would be killed by the blast effects of 12-inch guns going off so close over their heads despite the turret’s armored roof. Testing on board a modified coast defense monitor showed no ill effects to assorted livestock jammed into the lower turret, and the design went forward.

The South Carolina class kept the same 18-knot speed as Connecticut, and abandoned the medium-caliber battery entirely, with only 22 3-inch guns to defend against torpedo-boat attacks. Too slow to operate alongside the true American dreadnoughts during the Great War, South Carolina and Michigan escorted troop convoys to Europe alongside their near-sisters.

They’ve not appeared in a Great War at Sea game since the long-forgotten Plan Black, so this seemed like a good opportunity to get them back into cardboard. Had Sims gone ahead with his operation, the pair would have been natural additions (and probably necessary) to the attack force and politically would give the Americans added clout for deploying “dreadnoughts” to the Mediterranean.

I’m pretty satisfied with the Russians-for-Americans swap, getting some Americans into the game and letting them fight the Austrians (thereby upping the number of Austrian-involved scenarios, also a good thing).

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold needs no revisions.