World War I Centennial: Even Bigger Battleships, Part II


The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 32nd installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

August 22, 1912: Congress Approves USS Pennsylvania

In the early years of the 20th century, the United States, a burgeoning industrial power, looked to protect its booming overseas commerce with a powerful navy. Naval spending jumped from $55 million in 1900 to $139 million by 1910, and by 1912 the U.S. Navy was second only to Britain’s Royal Navy. The successful world tour of the Great White Fleet from 1907-1909 further convinced the American public and lawmakers of the importance of naval power, and the U.S. didn’t hesitate to take up the challenge presented by construction of the Royal Navy’s HMS Dreadnought in 1906, followed by even bigger “super-dreadnoughts” beginning with the Orion class in 1910. Thus as the naval arms race between Britain and Germany heated up in Europe, the U.S. splashed out considerable sums to maintain naval supremacy on its own turf.

On August 22, 1912, Congress authorized construction of the most expensive vessel ever built for the U.S. Navy up to that point – a cutting-edge super-dreadnought designed according to the latest principles in naval engineering. Like other dreadnoughts the $13 million USS Pennsylvania, considered by many observers to be the most powerful ship ever built when it launched in 1915, represented a careful balancing act between armament, armor, speed, and range: bigger guns would pack a more powerful punch, and more armor would make it harder to damage, but they would also add to its weight, slowing the ship down and decreasing its range. In the end the designers opted for a compromise, choosing the middle range of all four attributes for a well-rounded fighting ship.

When complete, the USS Pennsylvania would measure 608 feet long, displace 31,400 tons of water, and carry a crew of at least 915. With room for 5,780 tons of oil, equal to around 42,400 barrels or 1.8 million gallons, she had a maximum speed of 21 knots or 24 miles per hour and a maximum range of 8,000 nautical miles (9,200 ordinary miles) at lower speeds, reflecting the Navy’s preference for greater reach, allowing it to protect U.S. interests throughout the Western Hemisphere. She carried a dozen 14-inch-diameter guns, each of which could lob a 1,400-pound shell just over 13 miles, for a total broadside weight of 7.5 tons.

The Competition

By comparison, the Queen Elizabeth-class battleship design approved by the British Admiralty in June measured about 646 feet long and displaced 27,500 tons. With a minimum crew complement of at least 950 sailors, the Queen Elizabeth had room for 3,500 tons of oil – around 25,650 barrels or 1.1 million gallons – a top speed of 24 knots or 27.6 miles per hour, and an effective range of 5,000 nautical miles (5,750 ordinary miles) at lower speeds, reflecting its core mission area in the seas around Europe and particularly the British Isles. In the crucial area of armament, it carried eight 15-inch-diameter guns, each capable of throwing a 1,920-pound shell to a distance of almost 19 miles, for a total broadside weight of 7.8 tons.

Meanwhile the Bayern-class super-dreadnoughts currently under design in Germany measured 591 feet long, displaced 28,530 tons, and had a minimum crew complement of around 900. Like the Queen Elizabeth they had a range of 5,000 nautical miles, more than adequate for a confrontation with the Royal Navy in the North Sea, but a top speed of just 21 knots, like the Pennsylvania. They carried eight 15-inch-diameter guns which could throw a 1,653-pound shell over 13 miles.

Like these other super-dreadnoughts, the construction of the USS Pennsylvania would itself be an epic undertaking, spread out over several years and involving no small amount of bureaucracy. The contract was put out for bids on December 20, 1912, the contract was awarded to the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company and signed on February 28, 1913, and the keel was laid on October 27, 1913; the ship was finally launched on March 16, 1915. One other ship in the Pennsylvania-class, the USS Arizona, was ordered on March 4, 1913, laid down on March 16, 1914, and completed June 19, 1915.

After long service the Arizona would meet a tragic fate, sunk by the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, with the loss of 1,177 officers and crew. The Pennsylvania survived the bombing and World War II only to be done in by her own side: in 1946, now obsolete, she was subjected to a nuclear blast as part of the Operation Crossroads series of nuclear tests, then scuttled in 1948.

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