Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Volcano with no Flames

In the late 1800's there was a revolution in explosive technology. Dynamite was invented in 1867. Up until then black powder had been the main explosive, alongside nitro-glycerine. Dynamite was safer than either of these two explosives. The logical thought follows, why not use it as a shell filling? A nice big bang without the problems of the earlier explosives. The trouble is "safer" isn't the same as "safe". Dynamite could still be detonated by the jolt of firing it from a gun, meaning it would explode in the gun barrel with disastrous effects. However, in 1883 Edmund Zalinski, an ex Union Army artillery man, demonstrated a gun that could fire dynamite filled shells. He managed this feat by using compressed air that was piped into a gun barrel to achieve a much smoother acceleration, which made it safer. Although air weapons had seen previous use in the form of the Girandoni rifle, with its air bottle, the Zalinski gun needed a large air tank storing air at 1000psi. This necessitated a powered compressor, at the time the only form of compressor available was a steam engine. This meant the Zalinski gun was limited to fixed fortifications or, as would soon be shown, warships. 
A battery of Zalinski guns, at San Francisco

In 1886 USS Vesuvius started undergoing construction, at the William Cramp and Sons shipyard. She was launched in 1888 and commissioned two years later. She looked a bit like a steamer or yacht, but she was fast for her time managing 21 knots. Her battery of three 15 inch dynamite guns were fixed in position, facing forwards. The arrangement meant she was rather front heavy. This wasn’t helped by the fact the ship had to be pointed at her target, to give you an idea of how unworkable she was for ship combat, she had the largest turning circle in the entire US Navy at the time. Range was set by the amount of air fed into the guns and their pressure. However, she did have a very shallow draught, and because of this it allowed her to travel up rivers to cities across the US, where she was used for propaganda. The idea of the guns was seen as revolutionary at the time, and because of this she received some fame as a wonder weapon that would alter the balance of power. In truth the navy knew she wasn't that effective with a limited range, unwieldy and with no real protection. 
Her guns could fire a 500lb charge of dynamite to a range of one mile, however a smaller 100lb shell could be fired out to 2.3 miles. The smaller shell was loaded into the gun with wooden sabots. 
USS Vesuvius
Despite these defects she was to see action. During the American Spanish War the US Navy blockaded a cruiser squadron in Santiago. The plan was drawn up that USS Vesuvius would conduct a shore bombardment. She took on two guides who had visited the area before, and after spending the day lurking behind the blockading squadron she moved cautiously forward. She reached the mouth of the harbour and discharged three rounds blindly towards the enemy harbour. To the sailors of the blockading force it sounded like a giant was coughing in the darkness, but there was no muzzle flash to give away her position. 
The forts defending the harbour fired a few shots at random into the night. The first shell struck a ridge line that lay between the enemy harbour and the USS Vesuvius. The second impacted at the base of the ridge line, the third hurtled over the ridge and splashed into the harbour. The detonations would rattle windows up to five miles distant and throw debris at least 200 feet into the air. 
Her job completed the USS Vesuvius retreated in reverse, at her top speed. She passed a light ship that was trying to get out of the line of fire at such speed it seemed like the light ship was still at anchor. For eight nights she conducted these bombardments. Although she never hit anything of importance her shells arriving without warning did have a negative morale effect on the defenders. 
Another scheme involving her was also hatched. It was suggested that the large explosions from her guns could clear the mine fields surrounding the harbour and allow the US blockading force to enter. This idea was quickly binned as the US ships would have the enter the harbour line astern behind the USS Vesuvius, and if she were sunk the entire plan would be impossible, and the squadron would be exposed to the enemy fortifications. 
When the US forces pushed into Santiago the Spanish resistance crumbled, and the cruiser squadron was forced to make a breakout attempt, and it was utterly crushed.
Battle of Santiago Bay, as the Spanish squadron comes out, you can see the headlands that the USS Vesuvius had to shoot over.
The USS Vesuvius never fired another shot in anger, although she did damage one more ship. After she was converted to a torpedo testing ship she managed to torpedo herself in 1915, and had to be run aground to prevent her from sinking. In 1922 she was decommissioned and sold for scrap. 
If you want to see plans and more pictures of the ship, including the internals, visit this page.