American Greyhounds: The Armed Merchant Cruisers

Yale (left) and St. Louis (right) alongside Oregon-class battleships just to give a size comparison

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Doesn’t this guy have something else to write about?” Well, like many of you I’m stuck at home with not much better to do than watch the impeachment doin’s, hear the State Farm commercial with Smokey Robinson’s “Cruising” in the background, and let my dogs out in the backyard. Sorry, you’re stuck with weird Spanish American War ships.

As America sank into war in the spring of 1898, there was real fear the navy simply didn’t have enough ships to take an offensive war to Spanish possessions in the Philippines and the Caribbean AND defend the critical east coast ports from Boston to Miami. They turned to private shippers and shipowners to press additional vessels into service. From private yachts to trans-Atlantic liners, all kinds of ships donned navy gray and joined the U.S. Navy.

The St. Louis by War Times Journal is a bit bigger and beefier than the Yale. The model probably has a few too many guns (it only had four 5-inch guns)

That includes four trans-Atlantic passenger steamers that were leased to the Navy for a fee. These were the SS Saint. Louis, SS Saint Paul, The City of Paris, and City of New York. All four of these ships were quite large, measuring 550-600ft. St. Louis and St. Paul were about 15,000 tons and the two City ships were bigger still. By comparison, the Oregon class battleships were 350 ft. long and just over 10,000 tons. All that armor and big guns. They were all pretty fast at around 20 knots, and with a sprinkling of medium and light guns, posed a danger to lightly-armed or unarmed Spanish merchant vessels.

War Times Journal Yale showing off its recently added mizzen-mast.
Yale was launched as City of New York. Once held the speed record for trans-Atlantic crossings. Yale may have appeared in these colors when it crept into San Juan harbor in May 1898

The two City class ships were re-named Yale and Harvard respectively. Both took part, separately in actions in San Juan harbor, and neither particularly distinguished themselves. Yale was the first American ships to arrive off Santiago harbor after Cervera’s cruisers ducked inside and kept an eye on things until Sampson’s blockading force arrived. Harvard spent the war mostly serving auxiliary duties, transporting troops and supplies to the American headquarters at Guantanamo, Cuba.

Saint Louis and Saint Paul became St. Louis and St. Paul. St. Louis was best known for tearing up trans-Atlantic cables off Santiago and Cienfuegos, isolating these strongholds from Europe. The big ship went on to hold many of the survivors of Cervera’s squadron after the Battle of Santiago Bay. St. Paul fought at the second naval battle of San Juan. It engaged the wretched Velasco-class cruiser Isabel II and the destroyer Terror, doing significant damage to the latter and driving both ships back into port.

When I saw that War Times Journal had St. Louis and Yale I was intrigued. But they were part of their printed plastic range and at over 40 bucks a whack pretty expensive. But, sucker that I am, I bit on the St. Louis. After I ordered I received an e-mail from Jim at WTJ letting me know they were able to print the ships on DLP that would save me money and he’d credit me back. Like 50%. I was all in. I added Yale to a subsequent order, and now have Harvard coming.

Both models are really big, just short of six inches long. Nicely detailed with holes for masts. I painted them in Vallejo Light Grey with a little dry brush of Vallejo Sky Grey. I painted the greenhouses that each seemed to affect in Vallejo Ivory, though it wouldn’t surprise me if they painted those grey too. Apparently Yale didn’t get a gray paint job and used its Inman Line markings to sneak into San Juan harbor past the shore batteries. That’s an option. Like I said, I have another Yale coming, so something to think about.

I went with pretty simple masts. No fighting tops. Both ships are made with the mast holes pre-made. I stubbornly believed that Yale had only two masts despite the three holes, so moments ago, after another look at photos, found myself making and painting a third. Doh!!


I set some goals for the year. It’s never too early to check in

Planes 6/150 I haven’t done much since wrapping up the two engine fighters and reconnaissance planes. I have a nine Tojo fighters waiting for paint. I’ll try to get these done before the end of the month

Ships. 11/50 You can see where my time has gone this month. I have three American protected cruisers on hand with some more ships on the way, but I really don’t have that many more left to focus on.

28mm figures 0/400 Well that’s kind of sad. I have a dozen Woodland Indians about half done. I need to get more done. Would like to be at 24 by the end of the month.

Not a lot so far, but things are coming along.

Monitors–A Blast From the Past

USS Amphitrite at anchor. Note the low freeboard.

This should be a story about American Civil War ships, and in a way it is. If there is an enduring naval image from that conflict it is the arrival of the Monitor off Hampton Roads the night of March 8, 1862 to save the Union fleet from destruction. Or maybe it is Admiral Dupont’s over-matched flotilla of Passaic-class ships taking on the massed guns of Charleston’s defenses. Perhaps it is the Tecumseh turning turtle as she struck a mine entering Mobile Bay.

Despite the rapid decrepitude that spread through the U.S. Navy after the end of that conflict, the spirit of the monitor continued. Though the Congress undid and sold off many of its solid wartime investments, some ships remained in reserve. Many, built with unseasoned wood, rotted away. A few, such as the sloop Trenton served admirably until her destruction in the great storm in Apia harbor in 1889. The double-end gunboat Monocacy served with distinction in China until 1903. But for the most part, the navy added little and mostly disintegrated into irrelevance until its rebirth in the late 1880’s.

USS Terror in illustration

But there was this business about the monitors. Donald Canney in his Old Steam Navy: Ironclads 1812-1885 recounted the scandal around the “rebuilding” of the Monadnock class double-turreted ships as well as the huge Puritan in the 1870’s. Though intended to be reconstruction and modernization of the old wooden-hulled ironclads, shipyards up and down the east coast and in California got a piece of the action. The reconstruction turned into scrapping the old ships and building new iron-hulled monitors that took more than a decade. What emerged was six ships with iron-hulls, Civil War era engines, and some decent guns. All these ships played a role in the Spanish American War.

The four Miantanomoh class monitors–Miantanomoh, Monadnock, Terror and Amphitrite all entered service between 1891-96. They were the smallest of the ships at just under 4,000 tons. Their engines were virtually antiques and their freeboard was barely above the water. They were hard to target, but could hardly fire their main armament while under way. They mounted four fairly modern 10-inch guns in two turrets.

The Puritan was the largest of the squat, homely ships, weighing in at about 6,000 tons, or about the same size as the martyred USS Maine, or ACR-2 USS Texas. Commissioned in 1896, Puritan mounted four pretty modern 12-inch guns. Also had a higher freeboard than the Miantanomohs.

This is such a great photo of the Monterey settling in to “fighting trim.” Note, this picture is taken in San Francisco Bay not in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Photo from John D. Alden’s priceless American Steel Navy

The Monterey at 4,100 tons was built in San Francisco and served on the West Coast. She had a double-bottom, and could fill it with seawater to submerge to “fighting trim” with its decks actually under water. Authorized by Congress to meet strict specifications, the planned four 12-inch gun armament exceeded the contracted displacement, and settled on two 12-inch guns in the bow turret and two 10-inch guns in the stern turret.

Amphitrite, Terror, Miantanomoh and Puritan all served in the Caribbean during the 1898 war. They made their way to sea and performed important bombardment missions. Monterey and Monadnock made their way across the Pacific to the Philippines where they joined Commodore Dewey’s fleet. Even the moth-balled Civil War era Canonicus class monitors were activated to perform harbor defense with their ancient smoothbore guns.

If you’ve hung in this long, thanks. Matt Lawson of Brown Water Navy has added the monitors to his 1/1250 range, and I happy to say I’ve added them to my collection. They’re kind of uninteresting as far as ships go, but the models are beautifully uninteresting. Puritan is solid and good sized. Monterey is odd with it’s pair of mis-matched turrets. The Miantanomohs are small but quite nice.

The smaller monitors can be ordered as a four pack, which I did. They are cheaper that way and cheap is always good. Because of their lack of hull thickness they are pretty fragile and require some care in the fine detail plastic, which is pretty brittle. In trying to cut the mold mark off one of the ships I also accidentally removed the bridge and various other bits, so care is required. Still some great stuff.

More than you want to know about the Spanish American War era monitors.

At Last, The Good Stuff–The Spanish Armored Cruisers

The three Vizcaya class armored cruisers: Maria Terese, Vizcaya, and Almirante Oquendo.

I have, good-natured person that I am, been very consistent about building all my Spanish ship models, without regard to quality or quantity, without concern for modernity or obsolescence. Whether they had iron armor or no armor, modern rifled guns or antique muzzle loaders I’ve built em. I’ve carefully constructed masts. Gave ’em a nice black hull (with dry-brushing!!!), white superstructure, buff stacks and masts. I’ve got 23 painted Spanish ships, that are mostly trash. Tiny unprotected cruisers that would be threatened by a herd of feeding manatees.

However, the Spanish are saved, sort of.

All my long-awaited ship orders have arrived, and among them the Spanish armored cruisers that so affected American war-planning during the Spanish American War. Wartimes Journal sent me the three Vizcaya class cruisers (Vizcaya, Maria Teresa, and Almirante Oquendo), Cataluna, and Cristobal Colon. The latter was offered with or without main armament, as it appeared and was sunk during the Battle of Santiago Bay. I was charitable and ordered it with ten-inch guns. They are very nice minis.

Cataluna has full gun turrets and white upper hull. The Cataluna was a decent ship but was not completed early enough to take part in the Spanish American War along with her sisters Princesa de Asturias and Cardinal Cisneros

The Wartime Journal DLP printed plastic ships are very cool, but they have many mold marks that have to be removed. With a sharp knife. This creates several problems. The first is I have to actually locate all the mold marks, preferably before priming. Then I actually have to remove them. I almost always replace an X-acto blade when I sit down to do this work with my precision (not) cuts. Some bits I mistake for detail are actually mold marks and I discover this when I’ve painted my third color. It’s okay, I just leave ’em for consistency on all the models.

Close up of Vizcaya

In any case, Spanish armored cruisers were a lot of fun to build. They are big ships with big masts. I used .032″ brass rod for the masts, and .020″ rod for yards. Tiny .006″ wire for gaffs. I tried some of the WTJ medium fighting tops. I liked them a lot. Very easy to use. If I had to do it again I might have ordered the assortment of fighting tops, but I would have been short of appropriate sizes. In any case, the pre-made product is worth your time and money.

Cristobal Colon is the Johnny Cash of Spanish cruisers–all in black. Also the smallest of the lot.

The three Vizcayas and Cataluna each have two masts, Cristobal Colon has one. I did have to use my pin vise to enlarge the pre-drilled holes for the larger masts. Not a big deal. I assembled each ship’s masts separately meaning I got each ships masts to look the same, whether that was right or wrong, but they might not look the same from ship to ship.

From there it was just on to paint, which varies slightly from ship to ship. The Vizcayas and Cataluna have buff main battery hoods, while Cristobal Colon is just pretty much black. The Vizcayas also have that cute thin white stripe that has eliminated several years of good vision from my future.

Most importantly they’re done and join the Spanish fleet. They are the spine of the Spanish navy. They’re pretty big and fast. They have a sparse main battery of really big guns with a fine secondary armament. Some good armor too on the belts and barbettes, but the turrets aren’t really armored, just steel hoods. Even so, they match up pretty well against American cruisers such as New York or Brooklyn. They could run away from the American battleships until, of course, they couldn’t.

The armored cruisers fill out the Spanish nicely. I still have ships to paint and I am making one last order each to WTJ and Shapeways. From the former I’ll have one copy each of the remaining shore batteries. I’ll have one more Cataluna, the gunboat El Cano, a generic Spanish destroyer and the American armed merchant cruiser Harvard. Brown Water Navy has added more stuff I can’t seem to live without. All Spanish, beginning with the armed merchant cruiser Rapido, the destroyer Destructor, and the Fernando El Catolico gunboat

I think that will end my ship purchases for the time being.

Yeah, right.