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“Old Half-Seas Under”
Commander L. J. Gulliver, U. S. Navy (Retired).—Rear Admiral Potter’s article on the U. S. ram Katahdin is of more than ordinary interest. This ship was an example of the persistence of an idea that was good for the day it came into being for men-of-war (about 1860) but an idea that had become of no practical value at the time the Katahdin was laid down.
The idea of sinking an enemy ship by ramming her in the middle—appealing as it naturally did to man’s primitive instinct to destroy a foe—proved to be one hard to shake off. For nearly forty years after the Battle of Lissa in which the Austrian men-of-war obeyed the signal “Ram everything grey” (the Italian ships were painted that color), ships of war were designed with rams on their stems under water. Midshipmen at the Naval Academy were drilled as late as 1903 in the evolution: “Stand by to ram.” The “style” then in all navies.
The ram idea took hold so powerfully in all navies that soon after its inception it took precedent over other design considerations and strangely enough it forced naval designers abroad to adopt (a) twin screws for men-of-war and (b) balanced rudders. Both of these new wrinkles were demanded by captains in order that their ships could turn on a dime—thus to achieve swift changes of direction for the purpose of ramming an enemy and also to dodge away from an enemy intent on ramming.
In other ways the ram was the tail that wagged the dog. The entire underbody of men-of-war was redesigned to achieve quick changes of direction and in later years it is noted that foreign men-of-war, the French in particular, made the ram do double duty, an offensive weapon and also to support the heavy weights of turrets and guns on the forecastle. (The ram, partly above the water line, was like a long big snout, on French ships projecting far beyond the stem at the level of the forecastle.)
The ram affected the design of men-of- war in other ways. The idea was that the guns should be placed in the ship where they could do their best work in conjunction with a ramming attack—as many guns as possible to shoot dead ahead. This companion idea of the ram had the strange but logical effect of changing fleet battle tactics. The ram enthusiasts said: “Go at the enemy in line abreast, all rams pointing at him; all guns in line with all rams.”
Arguing from the fact that Admiral Tegethoff’s Austrian warships sank their Italian foes by ramming, there were those who believed that big guns were unnecessary in ships that were designed for efficient ramming. Thus the British Polyphemus in 1881 and our own Katahdin.
And then came the time when rams got out of hand. The British Hercules rammed Northumberland; Minotaur rammed Belle- rophon; Vanguard was sunk by the ram of Iron Duke, and the Victoria, designed for ramming, was sunk by the Camper- down. These casualties proved what the ram could do and that since ships were so vulnerable to rams, they should be made detachable in times of peace. Therefore H.M.S. Shannon’s ram was made so that it could be taken off and left in the dockyard until war broke out.
In the World War navies were many ships with rams built into their stems. Certain German ships beached after the scuttling at Scapa Flow showed them with unusually long sharp beaks. It has been said that Germans then believed this style of bow reduced the hull resistance. The first Dreadnought’s designs were argued over by Admiral Lord Fisher who insisted she have a long ram to promote aggressiveness. Admiral Sir Percy Scott said: “All anti-submarine craft should have rams.” The Admiral’s vision was sound. British men-of-war rammed and sank 18 enemy submarines in the first two years of the World War. One was by the ram of the Dreadnought.
Many British destroyers at the commencement of the last war had steel spurs riveted to their stems under water.
The first time an iron ram was used in this country was on the bow of the Merri- mac when she steamed down from Norfolk, March 8, 1862, and rammed the Federal Cumberland. Her oaken underbody proved too tough for that ram—it broke off.
About 1880, the British laid down a class of ships to be “fleet rams.” They were known as “Vindictives”; shortened for maneuverability and armed with one less gun than ships of their tonnage—5,750.