Thursday, June 25, 2015

USS Vesuvius: Dynamite Gun Cruiser

"Hiding behind the battleships and cruisers during daylight hours, the little warship would creep inshore at night to belch dynamite shells at the fortifications."1
USS Vesuvius was an experimental ship in the late 1800s when the US Navy was developing its new steel navy. Built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the ship was commissioned in 1890. The hope was that this small ship would have a formidable enough armament that it would be a cost effective threat to enemy battleships. At over 21 knots, speed was its best defensive measure.

The most unique aspect of this vessel were the three 15-inch guns protruding from the forward deck. They fired explosive shells which consisted of several hundred pounds of "desensitized blasting gelatin" in a metal casing. The casing was fitted with a wood sabot to ensure a seal in the barrel, which was vital as the volatile composition of these shells only allowed compressed air to be used as a propellant. Although the dynamite shell had great potential, and there was a stealth aspect to firing without gunpowder, the ship had some severe flaws for naval warfare. It had to be pointed where it wanted to fire, and its range was limited to less than 2 miles (controlled by air pressure). 

Layout of USS Vesuvius. The position of the guns can be especially noted in the side view.
15-inch guns
Note the different angles that the three gun tubes are in. These sections of the barrel could be raised and lowered to reload from the magazine on the forward side of the bulkhead in this picture. 
Ammunition was stored in these canisters in the compartment forward of the gun breeches. It is possible that the cylinders rotated much like a revolver. 
Controlling the air pressure for the guns. These stations were right behind the guns, in the same compartment. 

From 1890-1895, Vesuvius was part of the North Atlantic Squadron. As such, the ship participated in the International Naval Rendezvous in 1893. This naval review was held at Hampton Roads to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in America (one year late). Besides two squadron of Navy ships, vessels from several European countries and Brazil attended. 

The unique looking USS Vesuvius shown front and center in a poster commemorating the 1893 event.

After the Spanish-American War started, Vesuvius headed south for blockade and dispatch duty. However, on June 13, 1898, the ship came close to shore under the cover of darkness and bombarded Spanish positions near Santiago, Cuba. As the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships states, Vesuvius' bombardment did limited physical damage, but "caused great anxiety among the Spanish forces ashore, for her devastating shells came in without warning, unaccompanied by the roar of gunfire usually associated with a bombardment." 

Part of the problem with the bombardment was that as the ship was firing at night, the crew was literally firing blind. The dynamite guns could not be utilized effectively during the day because their limited range would put them in danger from enemy fire. Due to these shortcomings, the bombardment at Santiago was the last time the ship was used in combat and the dynamite gun technology was scrapped by the Navy. Vesuvius was converted into a torpedo test vessel in 1905 and was eventually decommissioned after World War I. 

1. John D. Alden, American Steel Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 48.

Story by Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator Elijah Palmer.

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