The sinking of the USS Maine on 15 February, 1898 precipitated the Spanish-American War. The ship was docked in Havana, Cuba, which was at that time a Spanish colony when it mysteriously exploded during the night. The U.S. cried foul play on the part of the Spanish, and the incident served as a convenient casus belli for the U.S. The subsequent war effectively ended Spain’s 400 year reign as an Imperial power, particularly in the Caribbean and Pacific.
The war was a clear demonstration of the new industrial might of the United States, which easily defeated Spanish fleets around the world. Many of the bases captured from Spain, such as the Philippines and Guam, became important U.S. possessions by the start of World War II.
USS Yorktown was completed in 1937 as one of the US Navy’s very first fleet aircraft carriers. Critically, she and the other US carriers were not present at Pearl Harbor, preventing their destruction by the Japanese. It could not be known at the time, but it appears this good fortune ultimately prevented Japanese victory in the Pacific.
She took part in the Battle of the Coral Sea, where she was damaged. Patched up in time to take part in the Battle of Midway in early June 1942, her dive bombers hit the Japanese carrier Soryu with three 1,000 pound bombs, setting her afire and effectively destroying her. Yorktown was, however, struck by bombs and torpedoes from a Japanese counter attack. Her damage control crews managed to save the ship from immediate danger, but she was surprised two days later, on June 6th by a Japanese submarine. Two more torpedo hits made further salvage operations untenable, and Yorktown capsized and sank early the next morning.
The German ‘K’ class cruisers were built in the late 20s to fulfill scouting duties for the main battle fleet while maintaining adherence to the Washington Naval Treaty limiting cruiser tonnage. The projected role of the ships dictated the odd arrangement of main armament, with two turrets aft, which would allow for greater firepower to be brought to bear against a pursuing enemy.
The German cruiser force was very active during the 1940 invasion of Norway, and the ‘K’ class was heavily involved. However, two of the three were sunk on successive days- 9 and 10 April. Konigsberg was sunk in Bergen Harbor on the 10th by land-based British Skua dive bombers. She would prove to be the first major surface combatant sunk by air attack in history.
Hiryu was one of the original six Japanese Fleet Carriers that took part in the raid on Pearl Harbor. Over the course of the next seven months, she supported attacks against Wake Island, Australian bases around Darwin, and Allied interests in the East Indies. Together with Akagi, Soryu and Kaga, Hiryu formed the main striking force targeting Midway Island, which would have served as in important base for any future attempt at invading the Hawaiian Islands. She was the only Japanese carrier that survived the first American dive bombing attack during the Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942. She then launched two counter attacks against the American fleet, effectively destroying the American carrier Yorktown, before aircraft from Enterprise and Hornet attacked and left her dead in the water. Her survivors were transferred to Japanese escort vessels, with the exception of her captain and soon-to-be Vice Admiral Yamaguchi, who chose to remain on board while Hiryu’s wrecked hulk was sent to the bottom by Japanese destroyers.
CSS Alabama was a steam/sail powered commerce raider built in Britain for the Confederate States of America during the US Civil War. Launched in July of 1862 and placed under the command of Raphael Semmes, whose brother was a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army, the Alabama sailed as far as the Indian and South Pacific Oceans. Taking a total of 65 Union ships prize over the course of her two year cruise, she put into Cherbourg, France on 11 June 1864. Three days later, USS Kearsarge arrived off Cherbourg to blockade Alabama. Semmes sent a written letter to the captain of the Kearsarge in which he formally offered battle, “…to-morrow, or the morrow morning at the farthest.”
On the appointed day, June 19th, Alabama boldly sailed out of Cherbourg, making straight for Kearsarge. Over the course of the engagement, Alabama’s gunnery, while heavy, proved inaccurate, and she was sunk about an hour after first opening fire.
HMS Glorious was completed as a Courageous class battlecruiser in 1917. Along with her sister ships, Courageous and Furious, she was converted to an aircraft carrier in accordance with the Washington Naval Treaty. Off the coast of Norway in June, 1940, she was caught by the notorious German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau while escorted only by two destroyers, the Ardent and Acasta. All three ships were sunk by the heavy gunfire from the Germans in what was one of the Kreigsmarine’ major successes of the war. It turned out that Glorious would be one of the very few aircraft carriers sunk by gunfire during the war.
The USS Phoenix had an operational history of well over 40 years. Laid down in Camden New Jersey in 1935, she was present at Pearl Harbor, where the Brooklyn class light cruiser escaped damage. Her main armament of 15 six inch guns was particularly heavy for a light cruiser. She served with distinction in the Pacific during World War II and was sold to Argentina in 1951. The Argentinians renamed the ship “General Belgrano” and modernized her several times, including an overhaul that saw British SAM missile batteries installed during the 70’s. Yet when the Falklands War broke out between Great Britain and Argentina in 1982, General Belgrano was considered one of the major ships of the Argentine Navy. Her significance lies mostly in the fact that she is the first warship to have been sunk by a nuclear powered submarine, HMS Conqueror, on 2 May, 1982, while attempting to establish Argentine naval superiority around the Falklands.
The greatest contribution the Italians could make for the Axis during the war was at sea. Sensing impending war, the Italians embarked on an emergency battleship building program in the mid to late 30s. The result was the extremely impressive Littorio class, which featured a main battery of nine 15 inch guns, with 12 six inch guns for a secondary armament. The class also incorporated a heavy armor belt as well as an innovative torpedo defense system. All this was accomplished while the ship could still make 30+ knots.
Unfortunately for the Axis, the Italian Navy scored few major successes during the war. Roma is most significant for being the first capital ship to be destroyed by a guided missile. On 9 September 1943, she was attacked and destroyed by German bombers, who hit her with two FX 1400 radio controlled glider bombs as she was steaming to join the Allies after the Italian Armistice which ended Italy’s involvement in WWII.
HMS Exeter was one of the most famous British warships of the early part of the war. Her fame was due mostly to her brave role in the 1939 Battle of the River Plate, in which two British cruisers and one New Zealand cruiser of the South American station engaged the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. Exeter, although seriously outgunned by the German warship, bore the brunt of the action allowing the smaller cruisers Ajax and Achilles to close with Graf Spee for torpedo attacks. Exeter was nearly sunk, while Admiral Graf Spee suffered only superficial damage in the battle. However, the battle was ultimately a success, as the German captain Langsdorff scuttled his ship in Montevideo harbor somewhat inexplicably (a post about Graf Spee will be up some day).
Exeter was deployed to the Pacific in 1941, but was lost to the Japanese during the disastrous battles of the Java Sea.
Mikuma was a Japanese heavy cruiser that was sunk at the Battle of Midway, June 6, 1942. While her sinking is generally an afterthought compared to the destruction of the Japanese aircraft carriers, Mikuma had proven a thorn in the side of the Allies for the entire war to that point. She was heavily involved in the Java Sea battles of early 1942, when she and other Japanese cruiser forces swept combined British-American-Australian-Dutch naval forces from the Eastern Pacific, paving the way for the invasion of the Dutch East Indies.