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
“Photo by Simmonds, Portsmouth,” USN NH 94220
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.
1888 Brassey’s layout via Wiki commons
Her 10.35-inch Krupp breechloaders, which could be oriented inside her gun house to fire through four different gun ports forward/aft and port/sbd via turntables and tracks. Image is an 1880 print published in the magazine, “O Occidente”
She was a nice-looking ship for her time and often appeared on goodwill voyages around the Med and even into the Baltic.
Portuguese hermaphrodite ironclad Vasco da Gama, with her canvas aloft, Illustrated London News, July 15, 1876
Couraçado Vasco da Gama, in a print published in the magazine “O Occidente” in 1880
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.”
Vasco da Gama, 1897 Spithead review, from a handout of the event published by The Graphic, which said “”Portugal sent the Vasco da Gama (Captain Bareto de Vascomellos), a small battleship of 2,479 tons, built at Blackwall in 1875. she is armed with two 10.2-inch guns and seven smaller guns.”
The Naval Review at Spithead, 26 June 1897, by Eduardo de Martino via the Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 405260
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.
Nave da battaglia Vasco Da Gama 1903 (AS Livorno, Archivio storico del Cantiere navale Luigi Orlando)
Navios da Marinha de Guerra Portugueza no alto mar 1903 by Alfredo Roque Gamerio, showing ‘cruzadors” Vasco da Gama, Don Carlos I, S Rafael, Amelia and Adamastor to the far right. Note the black hulls and buff stacks
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.
Her 1914 Jane’s Listing.
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.
Vasco da Gama’s crew in the “Revolta de 14 de Maio de 1915” in Portugal
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.
VASCO DA GAMA Portuguese Battleship 1915-20, probably at Lisbon, note the Douro class destroyer, NH 93621
Via Ilustracao Portuguesa: Commander Leote do Rego and the French naval attaché on Vasco da Gama 1916, posing with a deck gun which looks to be her 6″/45cal EOC
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.
Via Ilustracao Portuguesa Vasco da Gama tour by Spanish King Alfonso XIII 1922
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.
Cruzador Couraçado Vasco da Gama. Aguarela de Fernando Lemos Gomes. Museu de Marinha RM2572-492
An excellent scale model of her, as originally built, exists in the Maritime Museum, in Lisbon.
Portuguese ironclad Vasco da Gama (1876), Maritime Museum, 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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