Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Oct 16, 2019: The Everlasting VDG
Here we see the coastal defense “battleship” (cruzador-couraçado) Vasco da Gama of the Royal Portuguese Navy, June 1895, at the opening of the Kiel Canal, with a German Sachsen-class pre-dreadnought to the right. Da Gama is the only unit of the Portuguese Navy to be described as a capital ship and she outlasted most of her contemporaries, remaining the most powerful vessel in Lisbon’s fleet for six decades.
While Portugal’s naval needs were primarily colonial in the late 19th Century, which was satisfied by a series of lightly armed frigates and sloops, something more regal was needed for sitting around the capital and spending time showing the flag in European ports. Enter VDG, the third such Portuguese naval ship named for the famous explorer, with the two previous vessels being 18th and 19th-century ships-of-war of 70- and 80-guns, respectively.
Built originally as a central battery casemate ironclad with a barquentine rig by Thames Iron Works, Blackwall, this English-designed warship first hit the waves in 1876– just over a decade removed from the Monitor and Merrimack. Originally mounting a pair of Krupp-made 10.35-inch (26cm RKL/20 C/74) black powder breechloader guns in a central raised battery, the 200-foot steamer carried a whopping 9 to 10 inches of iron plate in her side belt and shields. Her steam plant allowed a 10-knot speed, which was adequate for the era.
She was a nice-looking ship for her time and often appeared on goodwill voyages around the Med and even into the Baltic.
This included being one of the 165 vessels present among the 30 miles of wood, iron, and steel for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Spithead fleet review in 1897. VDG was in good company as the Royal Navy had on hand “53 iron-clads and armoured cruisers, 21 more than the nearest rival, France.”
In the mid-1890s, five modern warships– largely paid for by public subscription– were ordered to give VDG some backup. These ships, all smallish cruisers with long legs for colonial service, included the Rainha Dona Amélia (1683-tons, 4×6-inch guns, built domestically), Dom Carlos I (4250-tons, 4×6-inch, ordered from Armstrong Elswick), São Gabriel and São Rafael (1771-tons, 2×6-inch guns, ordered from Normand Le Havre), and Warship Wednesday alum, Adamastor.
In 1902, with the newer ships on hand, VDG was taken offline and sent to Italy to Orlando where she was completely rebuilt in a move that saw her cut in half and lengthened by 32-feet, fitted with new engines, guns, and machinery. The effect was that, in a decade, Portugal had gone from one elderly ironclad to six relatively effective, if light, cruisers of which VDG was still the largest and remained the flagship of the Navy.
She emerged looking very different, having landed her sail rig, picked up a second stack, and been rearmed with a pair of 8″/39.9cal Pattern P EOC-made naval guns in sponsons. She even had her iron armor replaced by new Terni steel plate. Basically a new ship, her speed had increased and she was capable of 6,000 nm sorties, which enabled her to voyage to Africa in service of the crown, if needed.
It was envisioned that VGD would be replaced by two planned 20,000-ton modern battleships (!) on the eve of the Great War, however, that balloon never got enough air to get off the ground due to Portugal’s bankrupt state treasury. Therefore, she soldiered on.
It was after her refit that she saw a period of action, being involved in assorted revolutions and coup attempts in 1910, 1913 and, along with other Portuguese Navy vessels, in 1915 that included bombarding Lisbon and sending revolting sailors ashore.
Nonetheless, during World War I, although Portugal was not involved in the fighting in Europe in the early days of the conflict, VDG escorted troop reinforcements to Portugal’s African colonies in Mozambique and Angola, where the country was allied with British and French efforts to rid the continent of German influence.
In February 1916, her crews helped seize 36 German and Austro-Hungarian ships holed up in Lisbon on the eve of Berlin’s declaration of war on the Iberian country. Once that occurred, she served in coastal defense roles, dodging some very active German U-boats in the process.
Once her only shooting war had ended without her actually firing a shot in anger, VGD still served as a ship of state and carried the commanding admiral’s flag.
Finally, in 1935, she was retired and scrapped along with the other five 19th century cruisers than remained. These vessels were all replaced en mass by a shipbuilding program that saw 5 Vouga-class destroyers ordered from Vickers along with a trio of small submarines and six sloops. This replacement fleet would serve the country’s seagoing needs well into the 1960s.
While her hull was broken, VDG’s 1902-era British-made guns were removed and reinstalled in 1936 in a series of coastal defense batteries at Monte da Guia, Espalamaca, Horta Bay and Faial Island in the strategically-located Azores, which remained active through WWII, and then kept ready as a wartime reserve until at least 1970. Some of those emplacements are still relatively preserved.
Further, Vasco da Gama is remembered by maritime art.
An excellent scale model of her, as originally built, exists in the Maritime Museum, in Lisbon.
Her name was reissued to a British Bay-class frigate, ex-HMS Mounts Bay, in 1961 which went on to serve as F478 into the 1970s and then to a MEKO 200 type frigate (F330) commissioned in 1991.
Displacement:2,384 t (2,346 long tons; 2,628 short tons)
Length: 200 ft pp
Beam: 40 ft
Draft: 19 ft
Installed power: 3,000 ihp
Sail plan: Barquentine rig
Speed: 10.3 knots
Complement: 232 men
Belt: 9 in (230 mm), iron plate
Battery: 10 in (250 mm)
2 × Krupp 10.35″/18cal 26cm RKL/20 C/74
1 × Krupp 15cm RKL/25 C/75
4 × 9-pounder guns
Displacement: 3200 tons, full load
Length: 234 ft.
Beam: 40 ft
Draft: 18 ft
Installed power: 2 VTE, Yarrow water tube boilers, 6,000 ihp
Speed: 15 knots
Range: 6,000nm on 468 tons coal
Complement: 260 men
Armor: Terni steel; belt: 250 – 100mm, deck: 75mm, shields: 200mm
2 x EOC 8″/39.9 Pattern P guns
1 x EOC 6″/45
1 x QF 12-pounder 12-cwt gun (76mm)
8 x QF 3-pounder Hotchkiss 57mm guns
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The so-called “Black Army” is a designation often used by collectors to describe the late World War I finish techniques applied to Colt’s M1911 GIs between May 1918 and March 1919. Although given the standard brushed Colt “Carbonia Blue” finish, it was applied to more roughly finished frames and slides, which resulted in a noticeably darker hue that looked more black than blue.
As few of these wartime guns escaped later arsenal parkerization and mixmaster modification to the M1911A1 standard, original “Black Army” models are highly sought after, commanding prices in the $7K range.
Now it seems that Colt is set to debut a limited run of brand new Black Army repros.
More details in my column at Guns.com
Morphy’s has some very interesting and historically significant artifacts coming up in two different auctions this month.
This weekend, they have a very well-preserved Dutch-made .79-caliber smoothbore Type III flintlock musket and corresponding matching bayonet. These types were common in the Colonies before the “Shot Heard Round the World.
Not just any gun, it can be traced directly to Major John Simpson, who, as a young private of the 1st New Hampshire Regiment, fired the first shot at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775.
Of further note, Simpson was the grandfather of Ulysses S. Grant and great-grandfather of Meriwether Lewis of Lewis & Clark fame.
Valued at between $100,000-$300,000, it is anticipated that several institutions and high-end private collectors will be vying for it. More here.
Another relic from the same battle is headed to the gavel on Wednesday, October 30, comes from the Stephen Hench collection. Hench, as you may know, was a noted martial arms historian and co-authored Moravian Gunmaking.
From some 31 vintage powder horns in the auction, one stands out.
Dated “1775” it was owned by 1st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment Minuteman Daniel Kinne of Patridgefield (now Peru), Massachusetts, who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The bold inscription on the horn reads: “Danniel/kinne: Deakon (sic.) in ye Church At / Partridgefield / His horn charlston [sic., Charlestown, Boston] Sept. Ye 1775 / 1775 on bunkor (sic.) hill June Ye/17 was The Fight.”
Noted powder horn collector Walter O’Connor knew of only five other powder horns inscribed to soldiers who fought at Bunker Hill.
The example in the Hench collection is believed to be one of only three extant horns bearing the name of a Minuteman from that battle. It is also possibly the only such horn that details the battle. It is expected to make $25,000-$50,000 at auction. More here.
Looming from the fog of the Pacific into San Francisco Bay is the Iowa-class super dreadnought USS Wisconsin (BB-64), seen passing under the Golden Gate Bridge on 15 October 1945. She is carrying returning soldiers home from the Pacific as part of Operation Magic Carpet.
Also note her lengthy homeward bound pennant, denoting continuous overseas duty for more than nine months and returning to a U.S. port. Commissioned 16 April 1944, she had her shakedown on the East Coast and joined Halsey’s 3rd Fleet at Ulithi Atoll via the Panama Canal and Hawaii on 9 December, bound for points West.
The MiG-25 Foxbat dazzled NATO when it was first spied in 1964. Theoretically capable of Mach 3 and reaching altitudes as high as 115,000 ft., the giant interceptor sent a chill through the West, especially when it was feared it was a strike aircraft.
Then, in September 1976, when Soviet Red Air Force Lt. Viktor Belenko famously defected with his late-model Foxbat-P and U.S. analysts got a first-hand look at the beast, they saw it was terribly flawed. Constructed of stainless steel due to its size and weight, its engines were fragile and could be easily damaged, especially at high speeds. The electronics left a lot to be desired. Lacking a look-down-shoot-down radar, it was limited in combat.
To fix some of the MiG-25’s shortcomings, the Soviets developed what was termed the “Super Foxbat” in the late 1970s. The airframe was crafted from a blend of composite nickel steel, various alloys, and titanium. Featuring a longer fuselage to accommodate a more advanced PESA-style radar able to track 24 airborne targets even among ground clutter and an RIO to take advantage of it, the MiG-31 Foxhound was born.
Although out of production since 1994, the Russians have about 100 updated MiG-31BM models, complete with glass cockpits, HOTAS controls, the late gen Zaslon (Flash Dance) phased array radar, and other good stuff. Still, the 26-ton monster looks like a Cold War pterodactyl.
Check out this recently released video of the aircraft operating around Perm, notably the very region where Gary Powers was lost in 1960.
Two retired captains at CIMSEC have an interesting take on the current number of flag officer slots in the Navy. Of note, during WWII at the height of the Fleet’s size, there were an amazing 6,084 commissioned vessels but only 256 men wearing stars. The number of admirals remained about the same through Vietnam and most of the Cold War, even while the size of the force constricted greatly. Then, in the past quarter-century, the number of flag slots exploded like mushrooms on the lawn after a cool rainstorm.
By 2012, the 280~ ship Navy had 359.
While the military, writ large, is clearly more sophisticated than it was in the past, and while political, acquisition and joint/combined organizations impose a greater demand than ever before for senior representation, it is still hard to understand how the number of flag officers and senior executives are sustained in the Navy with intractable fervor even as the active ship list has declined by about 70 percent.
Portugal has a long and treasured military history. For more than 115 years the Portuguese Army (Exército Português) has issued German-made 9mm steel-framed pistols starting with the DWM Luger in 1906 and moving to the Walther P-38 after WWII.
Dubbed the M1961, the single stack P38 saw lots of service in places like Angola and Mozambique during the African bush wars of the 1960s and 70s, and still equips soldados in Afghanistan and Mali today.
Now, at the end of an era, Lisbon has gone Glock, adopting the Austrian-made polymer-framed G17. The model selected by the Portuguese Army, a Gen 5 variant, includes several features from the G19X such as a Coyote Tan scheme, night sights, and lanyard ring.
More in my column at Guns.com.