Warship Wednesday, June 28, 2017: The Kansas cruiser, by way of Peru
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 their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, June 28, 2017: The Kansas cruiser, by way of Peru
Here we see the Lima-class gunboat USS Topeka at anchor in Long Island Sound, New York, circa 1904. Ships present in the background include the destroyer tender USS Prairie (left) and a torpedo-boat destroyer. By this time, Topeka was already almost 25 years old, had switched flags and names a confusing number of times, and had 25 years of service ahead of her.
She and her sister had a rather odd story rooted in Latin American naval lore.
To understand the Topeka, first, we need to understand the ironclad turret ship Huáscar.
Built for a princely £81,000 in England at Laird Brothers to a design by British ironclad wonk Captain Cowper Coles, she was commissioned scarcely a year after the U.S. Civil War for the Peruvian Navy. At 1,900-tons and capable of 12-knots in the open ocean, she carried a pair of 10-inch guns in a Coles-patented revolving gun turret and was protected by as much as seven inches of armor. The Peruvians were very happy with the vessel and she was the fleet flag.
However, in a four against one ironclad face-off during the Battle of Angamos on 8 October 1879, in the War of the Pacific, Huáscar was captured by the stronger force of the Chilean Navy. Peruvian Admiral and naval hero Miguel Grau Seminario was killed as was 32 of her crew.
The loss of the big ironclad sent agents from Peru to Europe looking for not one but two modern ships to replace her in the battle line. A string of talks to buy first the armored frigate Roma from Italy, then the armored ship Danmark from the Danes, and finally two old British-made ironclads from the Ottomans, were frustrated by the actions of Chilean diplomats abroad.
Finally, through some hoodwink and the equivalent fee of £200,000 (collected by popular subscription from the public), the Peruvians were able to have two cruisers built at the Howaldtswerke shipyard in Kiel, Germany–disguised under a Greek shipping company and completed as the freighters Socrates and Diogenes. At about 1,800-tons, these 250-foot long vessels were about the same size as the lost Huáscar and could make 16.2 knots, making them a good bit faster, but they were unprotected.
The unarmed ships were completed by Howaldtwerke in 1881, and the two “Greek” freighters shipped for England where they were to be outfitted with a suite of four Armstrong 4-inch guns and various smaller Hotchkiss pieces, then sail as the Peruvian Navy cruisers BAP Lima and BAP Callao respectively.
However, this was not to be.
Once in Britain, the Chileans pressured the Queen’s government to impound the ships there for the duration of the war. After the conflict ended, the Peruvians were only able to afford one of the vessels and, in 1889 after an eight-year saga, finally called Lima home while Callao was left swaying in England, unwanted and signed over to the Thames Iron Works in lieu of nearly a decade of dock rental and upkeep on the pair.
There, the German-built and unused formerly Peruvian cruiser sat for nearly another decade as the Brits offered her to prospective buyers without much luck– though she was nearly purchased by Japan in 1895 for use against China– with Thames even going through the trouble of overhauling her in 1896. She was made ready at the time for an armament of six 4.7-inch Armstrongs (two forecastle, four in broadside sponsons) 10 six-pounders, and six three-pounders.
Then came a rather exciting little conflict known to history as the Spanish-American War, and Thames was able to make a deal with agents working on behalf of Washington– garnering the distinction, as reported by the May 7th, 1898 Western Electrician, of “being the only vessel of the kind ever purchased by telephone.”
The U.S. Navy purchased 102 ships on the open market in early 1898 for a total of $18,243,389.29. The cheapest of these, the 16-year old 100-ton commercial tug Hercules (commissioned as USS Chickasaw) was picked up for just $15,000. The most expensive, the brand new British Armstrong-built 3,800-ton Brazilian Navy cruiser Amazonas (commissioned as USS New Orleans, a former Warship Wednesday alumni), was bought for $1.43 million. This made Diogenes/Callao a comparative deal at $170,327.50 (the odd number attributed to the exchange rate with pounds sterling).
Purchased on 2 April 1898 (more than two weeks before the actual Declaration of War by the U.S. Congress), Diogenes/Callao was renamed USS Topeka, and placed in commission the same day, Lt. John J. Knapp in command. She was the first U.S. ship named for the Kansas capital city.
Two weeks later she cleared Falmouth in an unarmed state, headed to the New York Naval Yard where she was painted gray, picked up 6 4-inch/40 cal guns, six 3-pounders, a pair of one-pounders, and a Colt 1895 machine gun.
By 11 July, Uncle’s newest warship joined the blockading forces off Havana, ordered to assume station off Bahia de Nipe, located on the northeastern shore of Cuba almost directly opposite Santiago de Cuba on the island’s southeastern coast.
Her time off Cuba was exciting, though only lasted about a month, as noted by DANFS:
On 17 July, she and Maple captured the Spanish sloop Domingo Aurelio off Bahia de Nipe. Four days later, Topeka joined Annapolis, Wasp, and Leyden in a foray into Bahia de Nipe. The four warships encountered no real resistance from the Spanish and, therefore, easily captured the port and sank the Spanish cruiser [actually a sloop, 920t, 6×6.2″] Jorge Juan, abandoned by her crew.
Following the capture of the Bahia de Nipe littoral, Topeka steamed to Key West with dispatches. She returned to Cuban waters on 28 July and remained until 5 August, when she again steamed to Key West. She made one more voyage to Cuba in mid-August, visiting Port Francis on the 14th before heading north on the 15th.
The action with the Jorge Juan is described more in the Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine of the day, which holds the Spanish vessel had both her masts shot away and was awash when the Americans took her over following a sharp action.
Over the next several years, Topeka assisted as a control ship for new warship trials, participated in wireless telegraphy experiments, exercised gunboat diplomacy in the waters of the Dominican Republic and Panama when U.S. interests were threatened, embarked on a training cruise to the Mediterranean, and performed other tasks as needed.
Topeka was placed out of commission on 7 September 1905 and assigned duty as station ship at Portsmouth where she served as an auxiliary to the converted collier USS Southery, then serving as the prison ship for the Portsmouth Naval Prison, which was under construction.
By 1915, the Navy had disposed of most of the 102 SpanAm War ships taken up from trade, selling them for a total of just $1.167 million, about 5 percent of the amount Uncle had paid. Topeka was one of the few still afloat by then.
When the U.S. entered World War I, Topeka was converted to a training ship and thousands of new recruits walked her decks before the Armistice. Around this time, she was re-engined with a pair of Ward boilers replacing her four German ones and two 1,000ihp DeLaval geared turbines replacing her old horizontal compound engines.
The 38-year-old gunboat was called in off the bleachers once more and, on 24 March 1919, Topeka was recommissioned at Boston, CDR Earl P. Finney in command. However, it was not to last. After a brief patrol off the Gulf coast of Mexico, she was again placed out of commission on 21 November 1919 at Charleston Navy Yard. Designated PG-35 in 1920, then IX-35 (the designation for unclassified miscellaneous auxiliaries) the next year. In 1922, she was put on the market for sale and after “no satisfactory bids were forthcoming” the Navy decided to keep the old girl a bit longer.
Transferred to Philadelphia, she was used as a pierside trainer until 1930 when she was stricken for good to remove her tonnage from the U.S. Navy’s tally sheet under the London Naval Treaty and free it up for a more valuable use. She was sold for scrap in May.
Topeka‘s bell currently sits on the parade deck of the Marine Corps Security Force Company Guantanamo Bay, Cuba while one of her 4″40 cals (American Ordnance Co. no. 152) used to sink the Spanish sloop-of-war Jorge Juan in 1898 is at the Washington Naval Yard.
Topeka’s name has gone on to grace a WWII light cruiser (CL-67) and a nuclear attack submarine (SSN-754), the former scrapped in 1975 and the latter in active commission since 1989.
As for her sister, Lima, the Peruvian cruiser was used in the 1890s as a diplomatic vessel and notably visited Valparaiso, Chile, to repatriate the mortal remains of Admiral Grau along with the 32 fallen Peruvian crew members from Huáscar, and other war heroes including Col. Francisco Bolognesi Cervantes, the patron of the Peruvian Army. Lima was disarmed in 1926 and retained as a tender for the Peruvian submarine flotilla until she was stricken in 1950.
Lima was later apparently used by the government as a public-school ship at the Amazon city of Iquitos for a time and her final fate has faded into history, though one Spanish source claims she was still stranded in the river as late as 1999.
As for Huáscar, she served the Chilean Navy through 1897 and today is one of the few early ironclad era warships still afloat, serving for the past several decades as a museum.
Displacement: 1,800 designed, 2,255 long tons (2,291 t) normal
Length: 259 ft. 4 in (79.04 m)
Beam: 35 ft. (11 m) at the waterline
Draft: 16 ft. 5 in (5.00 m) aft
Propulsion: 4 cylindrical boilers, 2 engines, 1800shp, 2 shafts, 300 tons coal (re-engined about 1915)
Speed: 16.2 knots
Complement: 167 officers and enlisted
(Designed, never fitted)
4x 4-inch Armstrong
6 × 4″/40 cal
6 × 3-pounder guns
2 × 1-pounder guns
1 × Colt machine gun (M1895 Colt–Browning machine gun)
4x 3″/23 guns
If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International
They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find. http://www.warship.org/membership.htm
The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.
With more than 50 years of scholarship, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.
PRINT still has its place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.
I’m a member, so should you be!