The Wine-Dark Sea:
The Americans

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
June 2024

The U.S. Navy didn’t see any surface combat during the First World War rinvolving its major warships, but that wasn’t for lack of effort. A squadron of American dreadnoughts served with the British Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, and another was stationed in Ireland to counter the possibility of German heavy surface raiders breaking into the North Atlantic.

The Americans did not deploy major units to the Mediterranean, in no small part to prevent their coming under the command of the Italians or the French. That also kept the Americans out of the constant, destructive bickering between the putative Allies over who would control the fleets in the Mediterranean. There would be no clash of American and Austro-Hungarian battleships.

But there could have been. American naval planners suggested sending the older American battleships into the Adriatic Sea to challenge the Imperial and Royal Navy, in waters their allies feared to enter. And we’ve included that proposed operation in Great War at Sea: The Wine-Dark Sea.

The Plan
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 also appear in Great War at Sea: Plan Olive. 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 the 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.

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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 and three children. He will never forget his Iron Dog, Leopold. Leopold needed no revisions.

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