Also called the Battle of Mackinac Strait or Battle of Fort Mackinac, this battle was the first British-Canadian counter-offensive following the declaration of War. Part of Britain’s own war plan against America called for it to drive American Naval forces from the Great Lakes. This called for bottling up much of the American Great Lakes’ Fleet on Lake Michigan while the British took control of the other four lakes. Not only would this allow the British, and the Canadians, uninterrupted supply lines for armies operating on American soil (none at the time), but it would also force the Americans to withdraw from the York Peninsula and cut off their iron mining regions in the west from the steel mills in the east.
Under the command of Vice Admiral Walter Cowan, a British fleet of two battleships (on BB and one BC), three cruisers, nine destroyers and ten smaller vessels, sailed ahead of a marine flotilla destined to occupy Mackinac Island. The British plan called for surprise, which was shattered on June 30, 1913, when the submarine Swordfish, commanded by Commander Edward Fitzgerald, spotted the British fleet and moved in to attack. A torpedo managed to hit the battlecruiser Leopard, but caused only slight damage, a rupture in the midship that was easily patched. In return, British destroyers hunted down the primitive submarine and sank it. At the time, Cowan was not aware if U.S. subs were equipped with the newly invented wireless transmitters. Though primitive, they were capable of transmitting a morse code pulse to warn that the British were coming.
On July 2, the British fleet entered Mackinac Strait and began to bombard the fortress upon Mackinac Island at 1133. A century ago, a British fleet made the same move and forced the fort to surrender before taking control of Lake Michigan during the Second Anglo-American War. Fifty years later, during the Third Anglo-American War, the British again attacked the fort, but this time took it by assault. Cowan planned to be the third to take the island in just over a century. Unbeknown to the British, Fitzgerald did get a signal back to Chicago, and the American fleet stationed their sortied.
The United States Navy split its forces on Lake Michigan into two columns. The western column, commanded by Rear Admiral Charles Vreeland, consisted of two battleships, two cruisers, four destroyers, seven frigates and torpedo boats. The eastern column, commanded by Commodore Robert Doyle, consisted of a lone battlecruiser, another lone cruiser, three destroyers along with a dozen torpedo boats. When the two columns converged on Mackinac Island, midday on July 3, Vreeland took overall command for what would turn out to be a short battle.
Given British superiority in overall firepower, Vreeland played his own gambit. He would send ahead the torpedo boats and smaller craft to launch their torpedoes at the British. He expected to loose many of the boats, after all, Destroyers were designed to destroy torpedo boats. However, he had hoped to open a breach in the British formation to exploit. At a distance of ten kilometers, the British guns began to open up on the Americans. At that distance, their aim was poor, and only a handful of near misses gave the Americans cause for alarm. The U.S.S. Columbia, a battlecruiser, did have a shell land close enough to cause minor damage to its hull.
In design, the British and Canadian Great Lakes Battleships were fifteen percent larger than their American counterparts, and sported 300mm guns, as opposed to the 203 and 253 mm used by American Great Lakes Battleships and -cruisers. Their armor was thicker as well. British cruisers had close to the same advantage against their American counterparts. American warships were lighter armed and armored, but also traveled faster than their enemies. American gunnery tended to be better on the Great Lakes, as was shown when shells from the Oregon made contact with a British destroyed that strayed too close, and tore it to pieces.
Many of the torpedoes missed, either be dodged, or simply sailing beneath the enemy bows. However, the bulk of the torpedoes were aimed at the largest ships; battleship Port Royal, battlecruiser Leopard and a cruiser steaming close to them. Seven torpedoes did hit, including one that took out the Leopard’s rudder. Two more torpedoes ruptured the battleship’s hull, reducing its speed by half. The cruiser received such a lashing, that it began to list. Before the day was out, it would be abandoned and capsized. With one capital ship mortally wounded and the other crippled, Cowan now had to face the Americans at a disadvantage. No British admiral had ever retreated from battle against the Americans on the Great Lakes, and Cowan did not wish to be the first.
When the American battleship and battlecruiser came into range, they quickly changed his mind. Shells from the Oregon and Susquehanna destroyed three destroyers and broke an addition cruiser in half. British shells caused their own damage, sinking an American destroyer and crippling two more, along with a cruiser Columbia even received hits, knocking out one of its two turrets. It was the fact that the Royal Marine transports would be within range of American guns within a day that caused Cowan to retreat. The transports were lightly armed, fast destroyers that would have stood little chance against the Americans. He would not condemn so many marines to their death just to save his own pride. At 1605, Cowan gave the order to withdraw. Not retreat, but to withdraw. He had every intend on returning as soon as his ships were repaired, and reinforced by ships from Lake Superior and Huron.
The Americans would not give Cowan, or any British admiral, a second change to seal Lake Michigan. Within a week, addition torpedo boats have arrived on seen, and damage to most of the ships was repaired. The Columbia did have to return to Chicago for repairs, but it would be replaced by ships arriving at Mackinac from Lake Superior. Addition soldiers were rushed to reinforce Fort Mackinac, and a small airstrip was built on the island. It could not project power against the Royal Navy, but would serve to base scouts. Addition guns were placed on the island in the following month, as were fortifications on either side of Mackinac Strait. Admiral Vreeland would not give the British a second chance to take Mackinac. As soon as he was reinforced, he took the fight to the British on Lake Huron.
Battle of Lake Huron
Following their victory at Mackinac, the America Great Lakes Navy took up pursuit of their British counterparts once Mackinac Island was reinforced. By September of 1913, Vreeland set his fleet out, reinforced by two cruisers and the battleship Minnesota, across Lake Huron to hunt down what was left of Cowan’s fleet. Seaplanes launched from the northern shores of Michigan scoured the lake for the British fleet for a week before the first signs were detected. On September 7, Cowan’s fleet was spotted nearing Georgian Bay. Cowan had hoped to shelter in Owin Sound and repair the damage his ships sustained. At this point in the war, scouting planes were, if armed at all, very lightly armed. Bombers did not come into serious play for a couple more years. Had the Americans had these bombers, they might very well have sunk the British fleet from the air.
Instead, Vreeland ordered his fleet to sail across Lake Huron towards Georgian Bay. Cowan’s own scouts learned of the American’s approach. A squadron of five torpedo boats made runs on the Americans, missing the battleships at the cost of three of their own. One ship was eventually abandoned, but the fifth returned to Owin Sound with word of an American fleet approaching. The term fleet is used very loosely on the Great Lakes, for what Vreeland commanded would have been a glorified squadron on the high seas. Cowan had little choice but to put his whole fleet to sail, including the damaged Leopard. The British Admiral had no reinforcements aside from a few gunboats that nominally defend the naval base at Owin Sound. These followed Cowan towards their destined fate.
On September 15, 1913, just a few days over a hundred years since the Battle of Lake Erie, the American and British Great Lake Navies clashed some twenty kilometers of the northwest tip of the Bruce Peninsula. The battle was joined at 1103, when the Port Royal fired the first shots of the battle. British torpedo boats charged the Americans under the cover of the big guns. The shells fell short and wide, hitting a destroyer, ironically named the USS Oliver Perry. The destroyer was knocked out of action by hits from the British battlecruiser’s functioning turret, and began to list at 1108. The torpedo boats finished off the Perry and hit three more destroyers. The destroyer screen was tight enough that British boats could not penetrate to threaten the two American battleships and two battlecruisers.
By 1145, the playing was over and both formations began battling each other at ranges less than two kilometers. A British and American destroyer destroyed each other at under 300 m distance. Just before midday, Vreeland passed between Bruce Peninsula and the British Fleet, crossing Cowan’s ‘T’. All heavy caliber guns fired upon the lead ship, the battleship Port Royal. Of the shots fired, seven hit the battleship, including one just below the bridge’s superstructure. Cowan and his command staff were killed in the explosion. More hits punctured the aft and destroyed the rudder. The Port Royal began to turn to the port, no longer under human control. Seeing this, the following ships changed course, not realizing just what happened.
Both fleets lined up broadsides against each other. Several of the British shots hit their mark, damaging the Minnesota and killing its own captain. Over a hundred were killed when a boiler exploded onboard the Susquehanna. The damage to the Americans was painful, but not life threatening. Three destroyers were gutted during the exchange, with the loss of several hundred more sailors. The British losses were far worse. The earlier wounds on the Leopard were opened again by a torpedo run by one of the American destroyers lost. Explosions below the water line broke the back of the battlecruiser, which snapped in half at 1205. Only a handful of survivors, and none of them officers, were plucked from the lake. The out-of-control Port Royal was hit five more times, with two shots ripping open spontoons and causing the ship to enter a dangerous twenty degree list to its port. At 1211, the battleship capsized and went down. An addition royal cruiser and four destroyers were lost in the fight. By 1300, the British fleet on Lake Huron was effectively annihilated, and the remaining wounded ships limped away from battle. Two destroyers steamed towards Detroit in hopes of breaking through to Lake Erie, but the remainder of the ships headed towards Owin Sound.
The two destroyers were sunk by shore batteries attempting to cross over to Lake Erie, and the remaining ships were bottled up in Owin Sound. Vreeland sailed his own fleet within range of the Sound and began bombarding the naval base. Little damage was caused to the base, and none of the warships suffered any more serious damage, though a light cruiser was hit and ended up beaching itself. Vreeland sailed back towards Lake Michigan, victorious in clearing Lake Huron of British forces. Several American submarines set up a blockade of Owin Sound, and supply ships used the Huron side of the York Peninsula to resupply American forces in Canada. The Great Lakes were cut in half, and British and Canadian naval forces on Lake Superior remained isolated. American warships sortied into Lake Superior and hunted down the British cruiser and destroyers stationed upon it by the middle of 1914. Taking control of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario would not be as easy.