Warship Wednesday Aug 10, 2016: The Dynamite Buffalo of Rio
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday Aug 10, 2016: The Dynamite Buffalo of RioHere we see the former cargo steamer turned auxiliary cruiser Nictheroy of the Brazilian Navy. She is armed with a very special gun.
A Dynamite Gun, that is.
In March 1892, a group of Brazilian navy commanders and army leaders started to run afoul of President Marshal Floriano Peixoto that led to an open manifesto between the military and the executive branch that basically said, either you listen to us and fix the government, or we will fix it for you. It wasn’t farfetched as the year before the Brazilian Navy had a hand in replacing President Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca.
Well, Peixoto called their bluff and by Sept. 1893 the Navy was in an open revolt known to history as Revolta da Armada, and the best ships, including the ironclad battleship Aquidabã (5,500-tons, 4×9.2-inch guns) went over to the rebels in Rio harbor/Guanabara Bay.
This left Peixoto fresh out of a Navy to command and his agents went about assembling what was derided as the “cardboard squadron” to blockade the rogue forces into surrender.
Guns were thrown on fishing vessels coastal steamers acquired locally and manned by whatever mariners could be enticed to put to sea, but everyone knew they and the handful of torpedo boats still loyal to the government would be no match for the big Aquidabã should the leviathan make a determined break for open water.
In New York, agents of the Peixoto government purchased the pleasure yachts Feiseen and Javelin as well as the merchant steamers Britannia (Norwegian-built, 2600-tons) and El Cid for rapid conversion to warships for the new fleet.
The SS El Cid, a 7,080-ton cargo ship with some accommodation for passengers, was built for the Morgan Line at Mr. Collis P. Huntington’s Chesapeake Dry Dock & Construction Company, only the sixth ship constructed by that yard, since known as Newport News Shipbuilding. Delivered for merchant service 24 August 1893, the Brazilians purchased her almost sight unseen on 26 October.
El Cid and her three sisters (El Sud, El Norte, and El Rio) were designed as auxiliary cruisers for wartime service if needed and had three deckhouses, a 17-knot speed (very fast for the merchantmen of the day), coal bunkers arranged to protect her machinery and boilers from naval gunfire, watertight bulkheads, and a main deck with weight and space reserved for a decent naval gun forward.
Speaking of guns, the Brazilians went all out.The Dynamite Gun
All guns are projectile weapons. In other words, they use force to propel an object down a barrel out to a target. The only thing that changes is the type of propellant and the projectile. In a Remington 870, a load of shot is scattered out of the muzzle by an explosion of smokeless powder set off by a primer. Well the dynamite gun does the same thing, it’s just that the projectile is made of TNT and it’s pushed out by a charge of compressed air. Kinda like a spud gun, but instead of a potato, you fire a bomb. The father of this device was one Edmund Zalinski.
Born in Kórnik, Prussian Poland on December 13, 1849, Edmund Zalinski immigrated to the US with his parents at age four. Not quite 15 years old, he dropped out of high school and volunteered for the Union Army during the Civil War. Serving in the artillery, he finished the war as an officer and remained in the Army once peace broke out. A pretty smart guy, he taught military science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while inventing several mechanical doo dads. One of these was a dynamite gun. Showing his device to the military, (he was still on the Army rolls as a First Lieutenant); it was love at first sight.
By the next year, Zalinski had teamed up with a company calling itself the Pneumatic Dynamite Gun Company of New York (presumably to tell itself apart from the Pneumatic Dynamite Gun Company of other towns) and was off and running. The gun was huge, and looked like something Jules Verne would use to shoot a missile to the moon. It had a 15-inch (379.5mm) bore. Using compressed air, it could catapult 500-pounds of dynamite more than two miles with better accuracy than the black-powder cannon of the era. The air was produced by a steam-powered (think locomotive) compressor fueled by coal.
Well the Navy liked the idea so much that they built the world’s first “Dynamite Cruiser.” Ordered for $350,000 from cruiser and battleship maker William Cramp and Sons, Philadelphia, she was laid down in 1887. Named appropriately the USS Vesuvius, its main battery would be these new guns. Mounting three of Zalinski’s 15-inch pneumatic guns, the guns were located with their breech along the keel of the ship three decks down and their 55-foot long barrels poking up through the 01 top deck. To aim the weapons, since the guns could not be turned, the whole ship tacked port or starboard while the pressure of the air was adjusted to correct range. Charges of various sizes ranging up to a quarter-ton could be used to do anything from bombard shore positions to sink ships and, being electrically fused, could fire on a delay or even while submerged.
Other than Vesuvius, the Brazilians were the only other
sucker taker for a large caliber Dynamite Gun naval mount. For the gun, they purchased one (1) full caliber 15-inch round and 10 10-inch sub-caliber projectiles meaning the ship had a very big but very brief bark. A further 2 full caliber rounds and 16 10-inch sub-calibers were loaded on the more lightly armed (2×4.7inch QF) steamer Britannia (renamed America by the Brazilians) who would serve as Nictheroy‘s escort of sorts.
As for the two yachts, they were stripped of their above deck structures, given a pivoting Hotchkiss torpedo tube and 1-pounder rapid-fire mount of the same make. They were hoisted aboard Nictheroy‘s deck for the voyage to Brazil.
Unlike on Vesuvius, in which the Dynamite Guns were fixed and the ship had to be tacked one way or the other to bring a target under fire, the gun on Nictheroy was made to slew port to starboard, allowing a much more efficient laying on target. A Rand air compressor below decks provided pneumatics for the gun.
Besides the 15-inch Zalinski forward, Nictheroy was well equipped from the works of Mr. Hotchkiss under the supervision of E. W. Very, late Lieutenant USN and now General Director of the Hotchkiss Ordnance Co, to include a 120mm rapid-fire single mount (with 50 rounds) aft of the after deck house, two rapid-fire 100mm mounts (with 200 rounds) on the bluff of the bow, eight rapid-fire 6-pounders (with 1,419 rounds) distributed broadside firing through the existing freight ports, nine 1-pounders (with 1,340 rounds) distributed on deck, and two 37mm revolving cannon on the bridge wings outside the pilothouse. Ports were cut for four torpedo tubes on deck to launch Howell automobile torpedoes of which the Brazilian agents bought 10, each with a 92-pound gun cotton warhead.
Two magazines were arranged in the former holds, reinforced with wooden planks, equipped with elevators, and flooding capabilities.
In the span of just 24 days from when the Brazilians purchased El Cid, she was armed, equipped, painted, and recommissioned as Nictheroy. With the two yachts turned torpedo boats lashed to her deck and her holds filled with new shells for her never-fired guns, Nictheroy left New York on 20 November 1893. Her escort Britannia/America, carrying most of her Dynamite Gun shells, set out five days later as her armament was held up in shipping, delaying her departure.
As amazing as it sounds, just four months later this little formation took on the mighty Aquidabã and won.
On 16 April 1894, the ironclad warship was anchored off the coast of Santa Catarina, near the Fortress of Anhatomirim. Early in the morning, the loyalist government-controlled former yacht turned torpedo boat Gustavo Sampaio, accompanied by three other torpedo boats and Nictheroy in support, attacked Aquidabã. They managed to pump at least one Honeywell torpedo (some sources say two) into the bow of the once-proud battleship and, her front compartments open to the sea, she settled in the mud as her crew fled after thoroughly wrecking her.
During the battle, Nictheroy took Anhatomirim and a smaller rebel battery under naval gunfire and kept them from plastering her mosquito boat squadron.
The next day, when Nictheroy and company returned, Aquidabã and the forts were deserted and, as reported by the New York Times, a boarding crew from the Dynamite cruiser soon struck up song on the ironclad’s organ.
Over the next few years, with the naval revolt ended, Nictheroy was increasingly sidelined, no longer needed. The ship was subsequently used as an accommodation hulk for the school for apprentice seamen at Rio de Janeiro.
Going back home
When the United States entered into war with Spain in 1898, Nictheroy‘s three sisters were bought by the U.S. Navy from commercial service and, after a few guns were added, were used as the auxiliary cruisers USS Yosemite, USS Yankee and USS Dixie.
Remembering the Nictheroy, U.S. agents approached the Brazilians and arranged to purchase the former American steamer for the battle line (they already had the only other Dynamite cruiser in service, USS Vesuvius) on 11 July 1898. However, the Brazilians had the last laugh and disarmed the Nictheroy completely, forcing her back to the East Coast to rearm.
Rearmed with a more traditional battery of 2×5″/40cals and 4×4″/40s and refitted, she was commissioned into U.S. service as USS Buffalo on 22 September 1898 at New York Naval Yard. However, as hostilities halted with the signing in Washington of a Protocol of Peace between the United States and Spain more than a month before, her wartime service was moot and she was decommissioned, 3 July 1899 after a cruise to Manila.
Buffalo was brought back out of ordinary 2 April 1900, to serve as a Training Ship, a role she maintained for the next five years. During this period, she undertook four voyages to the Philippines with replacement crews for the Asiatic Fleet and on one of the return legs accomplished a circumnavigation.
After layup at Mare Island Navy Yard in 1905, she was refitted for work as a transport and largely disarmed. She continued her operations carrying replacement crews to the far off Asiatic Fleet on China station, carried Marines to Nicaragua in 1909, and operated off Mexico during the troubles and civil war there.
In 1914, Buffalo undertook a seven-month expedition to Alaska to build radio stations and towers up and down the coast, many of which remained operational as late as the 1960s. Her expedition, which included some 44 civilian technicians, upgraded the facilities at Woody Island near Kodiak, on St. Paul and St. George in the Pribilof Islands, on the island of Unalga, and at Dutch Harbor near Unalaska as well as built new ones at Sitka and Cordova.
When World War I broke out, Buffalo transported the U.S. diplomatic mission to Russia’s Provisional Government after the fall of the Tsar in 1917 and was then refitted as a destroyer tender (AD-8), serving in Europe until Sept. 1919 when she transitioned to the Pacific, serving in China and Japan until 1922.
No longer useful, the aging steamer was decommissioned on 15 November 1922 at San Diego. She was used as a barracks ship until stricken from the Navy List on 27 May 1927. She was sold four months later for scrap. It is not believed that any artifacts remain from her although I would like to hope that some museum in Brazil has her Dynamite Gun in a dusty back room.
As for her merchant sisters turned SpAmWar auxiliary cruisers: El Sud/USS Yosemite hunted down the Spanish steamer Antionio Lopez during the war and was scuttled after being wrecked in a storm in 1900; El Norte/USS Yankee was very active off Cuba and survived as a Naval Militia training ship until she ran aground on Spindle Rock near Hen and Chickens lightship in 1908; and El Rio/USS Dixie (AD-1) gave her full measure as a warship then training ship and finally the Navy’s first official destroyer tender before she was sold for scrapping in 1922– meaning El Cid/Nictheroy/Buffalo was the last survivor of her class.
Displacement: 7,080 tons (6,635 t)
Length: 406 ft. 1 in (123.77 m)
Beam: 48 ft. 3 in (14.71 m)
Draft: 20 ft. 8 in (6.30 m)
Coal fired boilers
Speed: Designed for 17 knots, made 14.5 knots (26.9 km/h; 16.7 mph) in Naval service with armament.
Complement: A figure of 350 officers and enlisted given for Brazilian service. In U.S. service this was reduced to as little as 150 by 1898 and to >50 before 1909.
1×15 inch Dynamite Gun
1x 4.7-inch (120mm) rapid-fire single mount
2 4 inch (100mm) mounts
2 37mm revolving cannon
4 torpedo tubes
2x 5 in (130 mm) guns
4x 4 in (100 mm) guns
(*Disarmed by 1909 though her 5 inchers may have been removed by 1900)
*In 1917 she probably was rearmed, most likely with a few 3″/23 cal mounts and 6-pdrs though I cannot confirm this.
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