Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 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, June 27, 2018: The unsung turbo-electric wonder boat
Here we see the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Chelan (WPG-45), lead ship of the 250-foot Lake-class of patrol gunboats in 1930, likely off Alaska. Although the Lakes didn’t give a lot of service overall to their country of birth, they did yeomen work for the Allies in WWII and the humble Chelan, innovative when she was built, had the distinction of landing blows on enemy submarines (of German, Italian and Japanese origin– a hat trick) in several theaters.
The modern USCG, formed in 1916 from an amalgamation of a number of different small federal maritime services, was stuck by and large with the craft it inherited from the old Revenue Marine of the Treasury Department such as the sail-rigged steel-hulled cruising cutters Gresham, McCulloch and Seneca. By Prohibition, these ships, many slow and elderly, were phased out in favor of newer 165-foot and 240-foot (Tampa-class) cutters augmented by 31 relatively new destroyers from the Navy. However, the destroyers weren’t good sea ships and the Navy eventually wanted them back, leading to the improved Lake-class.
Designed specifically by the Coast Guard, engineering Capt. Quincy B. Newman worked up a cutting edge (for the time) turbo-electric plant that ran the whole ship from a single main turbine. As noted by Schenia, these were the first ships to use a G.E. alternating current synchronous motor for propulsion with Curtis auxiliary generators tied to the main. The ship used two small B&W boilers for light off, but after the motor was engaged the steam wasn’t needed. It should be noted that this class predated the giant use of turbo-electric drives on the carriers Lexington and Saratoga.
The whole affair was very efficient and allowed for Chelan and her sisters to pack a very large commo locker in their day– three different receivers and matching transmitters. It should be noted that the Prohibition USCG service’s intelligence branch was at the time the country’s leader in HF/DF and SIGINT, used for tracking bootleggers on Rum Row.The ice-strengthened hull (built for use on the post-Titanic International Ice Patrol) was an improvement of the 240-foot Tampa-class that preceded them, with a raked stem and cruiser stern to make them handle high seas better and they could make 17.3-knots, which is decent for a 1920s gunboat not intended for fleet operations. Armament was one 5″/51cal main gun forward of the bridge house and a 3″/50 pointed over the stern with a pair of 6-pounder (57mm) guns port and starboard just after the main battery.
The 10 ships of the class, all named after lakes, were built by Bethlehem in Quincy (the first five), G. E’s Hanlon Dry Dock in Oakland (the next four) and the 10th at United Drydock on Staten Island at a cost of $900,000 a pop. Chelan, named for a 50-mile long freshwater lake in Washington State, was first with her keel laid 14 November 1927. The last to complete was Cayuga on 22 March 1932– a whole class constructed from start to finish in under five years. Go ahead and try that today!
Chelan cut her teeth on the international ice patrols and patrolled the dozens of serious club regattas up and down the East Coast that were popular in the day, besides flexing her muscles towards the end of the federal government’s war on booze. Transferred out west soon after, stationed then in Seattle in the Pacific Northwest, she left out on a regular series of Bering Sea patrols in Alaskan waters each summer that was replete with oceanography, survey and met duties (the ship’ sick bay was temporarily rebuilt to serve as a laboratory,) in addition to fisheries patrol and enforcing federal law in the wild territory.
She would also serve as a floating federal court and, in 1936, carry a Congressional Party to Unalaska for a fact-finding mission that resulted in the Alaska Indian Reorganization Act.
An interesting 376-page report on one of these summer cruises is here.
By 1937, Chelan was back on the East Coast, based in Boston, Massachusetts, and conducting more ice patrols. That March she answered a distress call from 1,600-ton Norwegian steamer SS Bjerkli in a fresh northwesterly gale, rescuing 16 officers and crew.
Her sisters throughout the 1930s were similarly engaged in conducting routine patrols, cadet cruises, rescues and serving as training ships. Sister Cayuga spent 1936 with Navy Squadron 40-T enforcing the rule of law off Spain during that country’s Civil War while Itasca served as the point ship (due to her large radio suite) for Amelia Earhart’s failed bid to reach Howland Island from Lae, Papua New Guinea on her round-the-world flight.
By 1939, Chelan, now armed with depth charges and sound gear, was keeping a weather eye out to keep the country neutral in the raging World War while keeping abreast of North Atlantic weather patterns and conducting surveys and war patrols around Greenland the following year.
Then in September came the class’s part in the infamous “Destroyers for Bases Agreement” between the U.S. and UK that saw 50 aging WWI-era Caldwell, Wickes, and Clemson class destroyers largely from mothballs followed by the 10 Lake-class cutters on Lend-Lease, the latter under a decade old, transferred to London in exchange for access to a number British overseas bases.
By twist of fate, old Revenue Marine vessels that the Lakes replaced, such as Gresham, McCulloch and Seneca, were repurchased by MARAD for the Coast Guard to press back into service once the U.S. entered the war.
The transfers took place at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the RN Queen Elizabeth-class battleship HMS Malaya was under repair after being torpedoed by U-106, alongside the Revenge-class HMS Resolution that was likewise having her hull patched up after she was torpedoed by the French submarine Bévéziers, with dreadnought men forming scratch crews.
Chelan was handed over 3 April 1941 and renamed HMS Lulworth (Y.60) while her class was designated as Banff-class escort sloops while flying HMs ensign. She arrived in Clyde the next month and LCDR Clive Gwinner, RN, was made her first British skipper.
USCGC Cayuga (HMS Totland)
USCGC Champlain (HMS Sennen)
USCGC Itasca (HMS Gorleston)
USCGC Mendota (HMS Culver)
USCGC Ponchartrain (HMS Hartland)
USCGC Saranac (HMS Banff)
USCGC Shoshone (HMS Landguard)
USCGC Tahoe (HMS Fishguard)
USCGC Sebago (HMS Walney)
By July, with a British 4-inch gun installed in place of her U.S. 5-incher, her 3-inch and 6-pdrs deleted and a few 40mm and 20mm AAA guns added to a suite that now included many more racks of depth charges, Chelan/Lulworth was deployed for convoy defense on the UK-West Africa route.
Given camouflage, she would later add RN HF/DF and Type 271 Radar gear to her party favors.
Not to run through the minutiae of her daily activities, she would spend the rest of the war on an impressive series of convoys, forming a part of at least 47 of them all the way through the summer of 1945 across the North Atlantic, North African and Burma theaters. The highlights are as follows:
In August 1941 she picked up 27 survivors from the torpedoed Norwegian merchant Segundo off Ireland followed by 37 survivors from the British merchant Niceto de Larrinaga and 5 from the British merchant St. Clair II off the Canaries the next month.
While escorting convoy OS 10 on 31 October 1941, Lulworth attacked U-96 with a spread 27 depth charges during a full moon. Lothar-Günther Buchheim, a Sonderführer in a propaganda unit of the Kriegsmarine and later author of Das Boot, was aboard U-96 at the time. His record of the incident was included in his non-fiction U-Boot-Krieg book published in 1976.
On 12 May 1942, Chelan defended convoy SL109 bound for Liverpool from the combined efforts of U-126, U-161 and U-128, depth charging until she ran out of cans. Her sister Mendota was not so lucky, hit by two torpedoes fired by U-105 and sank south-west of Ireland following a magazine explosion.
In June while off the Azores, Chelan reclaimed 20 survivors from the torpedoed British tanker Geo H. Jones from the sea.
On 14 July 1942, while defending convoy SL 115, she was damaged sustained while ramming and sinking the Italian submarine Pietro Calvi on the surface off the Azores.
Lulworth, along with her sisters, was assigned to the invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch, where fellow Lakes Ponchartrain (sunk by the French destroyer Typhon) and Sebago (set aflame by the French sloop Surprise,) were lost at Oran while transporting Allied troops in close enough to assault the harbor.
By September 1943, she was detailed to the Eastern Fleet operating in the Indian Ocean where she depth charged Japanese submarine I37. Fast forward to 1945, and Chelan was present at the Bay of Bengal for the Dracula landings by the British. Damaged in a grounding in June 1945, she finished the war in Rangoon as an element of the Zipper landings along with sisters Champlain/HMS Sennen and Tahoe/Fishguard, the latter of which were too far used up to ever make it back to the U.S after VJ-Day.
Her British equipment removed, Chelan was handed back to the U.S. at Boston on 5th January 1946 and sold for scrap the next year after being raided for her parts to keep a quartet of her sisters still alive. A sad ending to a ship that had a lot of history and was only 15 years old.
Of the four other Lake-class vessels that survived British service long enough to be returned post-war, most had a short run back with their long-lost family as they had been replaced by the newer 255-foot cutters of the Owasco-class (which, embarrassingly enough, often used recycled Lake names, which required the USCG to rename the original 250-foot Lakes save for Itasca and Champlain, when put back into service.) Cayuga/Totland became USCGC Mocoma while Saranac/Baniff became USCGC Tampa.
By 1954, all were decommissioned and headed for the scrappers.
The class is remembered in a scale model of the Baniff-class escort sloop by White Ensign.
Displacement: 2,100 full (1929), 1662 trial
Length: 250 ft (76 m)
Beam: 42 ft (13 m)
Draft: 12 ft 11 in (3.94 m)
Propulsion: 1 × General Electric turbine-driven 3,350 shp (2,500 kW) electric motor, 2 boilers, 1 4-bladed prop
Fuel Oil: 90,000 gallons (300t)
14.8 kn (27.4 km/h; 17.0 mph) cruising
17.5 kn (32.4 km/h; 20.1 mph) maximum
Complement: 97 (as built), 200 in RN service
1 × 5″/51
1 × 3″/50
2 × 6-pounder (57 mm)
1 × 5″/51
1 × 3″/50
1 Y-gun depth charge projector, depth charge rack
(1941, British service)
1x 102/45 CP Mk II QF 4-inch Mk V naval gun
1x 76/45 Mk II QF 12-pounder 1gun
2x 40mm Bofors
4x 20mm/70 Mk III
1x 24-cell Hedgehog Mk X ASW-RL
2x depth charge throwers
2x stern depth charge racks with 8 charges on each. (100 cans carried altogether)
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