The World Today

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Earth in 2013

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Great Lakes Campaign: part 1


            On the morning of June 30, 1913, the USS Swordfish, a Salmon-class submarine, patrolled along the shores of Manitoulin Island. The day was sunny and half the crew loitered on the submarine’s deck while it cruised along Lake Huron’s surface. A few of the all-Irish crew tried their hands at fishing while others cleaned the 50mm deck gun and other maintained a vigilant watch over the lack. Though war had been declared against Britain a week earlier, the Swordfish had yet to encounter anything fiercer than a Canadian freighter which was quickly sent to the bottom.

            It was not until 1113, that morning did Seaman Conrad O’Donnell inform the boat’s skipper, Lt. Commander Edmund Fitzgerald that he spotted smoke almost directly ahead. Fitzgerald, like all submarine commanders in the Great Lakes, knew the Royal Navy planned to sortie from Owin Sound to strike before the American fleet could leave the confines of Lake Michigan. When exactly it sortied was not known, and was the purpose of the Swordfish’s, as well as several other boats’ patrol.

            Standing orders were to determine the size of the enemy fleet along with position and course. As the British struck at Mackinac Strait in the Second and Third Anglo-American Wars, their destination was obvious. Fitzgerald gave the order to submerge and his crew manned their battlestations. The Submarine spent more than an hour tracking the Royal Navy once they intercepted the fleet. The Anglo-Canadian fleet consisted of three battleships and battlecruisers, three cruisers, nine destroyers and ten smaller vessels.

            Instead of following orders, Fitzgerald made an attempt to reduce his report by one battleship. At 1442, the Swordfish launched two torpedoes towards the HMCS Leopard, scoring two hits on the battlecruiser and reducing its best speed to 10 knots. Immediately after the attack, Royal Navy destroys began to fan out from the battleships and cruisers, searching for the American submarine.

            Had Fitzgerald fired only one torpedo, the British and Canadians might have first suspected a mine, giving Swordfish time to escape. As it happened, sharp-eyed watchmen on the HMCS Lancer spotted the wake from the torpedoes and spread word of the enemy submarine’s general vicinity. Fitzgerald had little hope of outrunning determined destroyers and before he was forced to try, he ordered his boat brought close enough to the surface for its antennae to touch the sky. His warning over the wireless telegraph was short and memorable. Taking a page from Paul Revere, Fitzgerald informed Chicago simply that the British were coming.

            Whether or not Revere said ‘British’ or ‘regular’ or ‘redcoat’ remains unclear to this day, but what is known is that the Anglo-American struggle for the Great Lakes dates back to the founding of the United States of America. Though action on the lakes was light during the Revolution and occurred mostly after the Treaty of Paris when American forces took control of forts on the southern shore, fighting between the United States and Great Britain spread across all the lakes during the Second Anglo-American War (1812-14).

            During 1812 and 1813, the British and their Indian allies attacked and captured numerous forts along the American shores of the lakes, including Fort Mackinac, Fort Dearborne and Detroit. In the case of Mackinac, the American commander of the garrison surrender with next to no resistance offered. The British sweep through the Great Lakes during that war was one of the most humiliating defeats in American history. Only the Battle of Lake Eire fought on September 10, 1813, saved face with a decisive American victory and control over that lake.

            Actions on the Great Lakes during the Third Anglo-American War (1882-85) offered far stiffer American resistance yet resulted in almost the same number of British victories. The greatest battle on the Lakes during that war occurred on July 18, 1884, when the British and American Lake Ontario squadrons faced off near Galloo Island. The bloody three hour battle cost the United States dearly as its naval squadron on the lake was all but annihilated in a decisive British victory. With the United States Navy effectively erased from Lake Ontario, Royal Marines raided Rochester, Oswego and Niagara with impunity.

            Seven months before the disastrous battle, British forces landed again on Mackinac Island, laying siege to the island. American reinforcements attempted to reach Mackinac from Chicago, but were forced to turn back during a winter’s storm, leaving the soldiers of Fort Mackinac to fend for themselves. Unlike previous wars, the British could no longer call upon Indians to aid them as the natives were either expelled from the region decades before or assimilated into American society.

            Nevertheless, with the hope of aid dashed, Colonel Maxwell Eddington was forced to surrender the garrison, making it the second time in the fort’s history that the colors were struck, giving the British as much control over Lake Huron as they would have over Lake Ontario. The Third Anglo-American War ended poorly for the United States, forcing them to make territorial concessions to Britain and Canada in the Pacific Northwest. After falling twice in a century, the United States Navy was determined that Fort Mackinac would never fall again.

            During the 1890s, after a slight economic depression, both the Army and Navy’s budgets grew in size. Though the Great Lakes were of great importance, the region saw on a fraction of the naval dollars that both the Atlantic and Pacific received. Between 1895 and 1905, Fort Mackinac underwent renovation, refitting and expansion. The previous garrison of three thousand grew to eight thousands, and new 253 mm short batteries pointed out towards Lake Huron. Two squadrons of torpedo boats were delivered to the fort on June 8, 1907. Two minelayers found new homes in Mackinac’s small port.

            Mackinac was not the only location to receive new batteries. All of the important ports of the Great Lakes saw rings of fortifications erected in the decade leading up the Great War. Similar improvements occurred between 1903 and 1913 on the Canadian shores of the Lakes. After handedly defeating American forces in two previous wars, the Royal Navy made the mistake that most chronic victors eventually make. They forgot the axiom ‘always assume you enemy is as least as smart as yourself’. The United States Navy, as well as Army, was still viewed as a largely amateur force by the British and other European powers. By not taking their foe seriously, Britain made a costly blunder before the first shots of the Great War were fired in 1913.



            Both the American and Anglo-Canadian Admirals in overall charge of the 1913 campaign were obscure characters before the Great War. Both sides reserved the men believed to be their most able admirals for the war at sea. This did not mean than Charles Vreeland or Walter Cowan were inexperienced or incompetent. Far from it. Both ranked high in their academy days and both severed on numerous ships over the years. So why were these men stationed at what was to be a sideshow for the Great War? Vreeland with to serve out the remainder of his naval days in a quiet place and Cowan made more than one enemy in London that saw him exiled to Ontario.

            Charles E. Vreeland was born March 10, 1852, in New Jersey. At the age of 14, he joined the United States Navy as an apprentice, eventually winning political appointment to the United States Naval Academy. From his graduation in 1873 to 1911, when he was appointed commander of the Great Lakes, Vreeland saw service on numerous warships and watched first hand as they evolved from sail-and-steam to all big-guns. With the exception of a tour of Europe as a naval attaché between 1894 and 1896, Vreeland spent virtually his entire career at sea. He rose through the ranks slowly at first, only becoming an executive office of the USS Delphi in 1897.

            Vreeland was given command of the battleship Kansas on April 7, 1906. Vreeland remained in command of the Kansas during its 1905-8 tour with the Atlantic Fleet before his transfer to the USS Oregon, based in Chicago. He gained overall command of the Great Lakes fleet in 1911, with his promotion to Rear Admiral. The posting was not the most glorious of naval commands nor sought after, but as he approached his sixtieth year, Vreeland decided Chicago to be the perfect posting to remain at until his retirement, planned for 1913. As tensions with Britain grew and the situation in Europe intensified, the Navy Department convinced him to delay retirement for one year.

            One of the more capable officers serving under Rear Admiral Vreeland was one Captain Robert Doyle, commander of the USS Columbia. Doyle was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1870. Unlike his commanding officer, Doyle’s rise through the ranks paralleled that of a rocket through the stratosphere. He was accepted into the Naval Academy in 1889, graduated in 1893, and saw his first posting on the armored cruiser USS Boston. By 1900, he earned the rank of Lieutenant Commander and was appointed XO to the USS Hull, a newly commissioned torpedo boat destroyer. Following the Tierra del Fuego War, in which Chile successfully deployed torpedo boats to cripple an Argentine fleet, navies of the world rushed to produce ships capable of counteracting the small and maneuverable boats.

            As captain of the USS Des Moines, Doyle was on the fast track towards admiral’s stripes until, in 1906, he ran afoul of a Senator from Massachusetts who was known was harboring grudges. After pulling some strings, Doyle found himself relieved of command on the open sea and transferred to Chicago for a staff assignment at the Great Lakes Fleet headquarters. When Vreeland took overall command of the fleet, he assigned the veteran sailor as commander of the battlecruiser Columbia, ultimately saving Doyle’s career from oblivion.

            Commanding the eight thousand Marines garrisoned on Mackinac Island was one Major Thaddeus Monroe. Monroe was born in Wyoming Territory in 1873, an unlikely start for any United States Marine. He tried his hand on the family ranch for several years, until he grew tired of the same daily routine. Monroe left home at the age of 19 to enlist in the army, but opted for the Marine Corps when he learned that most of their postings were tropical paradises. After three years of fighting various wars in banana republics like Nicaragua, he soon learned that paradise and sweltering jungle went hand-in-hand. He earned a battlefield commission during his time in the 1897 Dominican Intervention.

            Two tours of duty in Guatemala proved Monroe a brilliant tactical commander, although he continued to struggle with overall strategic pictures. Monroe was more a hand’s on leader, preferring to lead his men from the front line than draw on maps fifty kilometers from the front line. He loved a good fight, and looked forward to action in the Bahamas when a fourth war against Britain appeared inevitable. He would see action on the front lines, but unfortunately for him, the Corps decided his skill would be put to better use defending Fort Mackinac, which was certain to come under attack. Monroe took the assignment, organized defenses and trained his men to repel an invasion. He also spent the better part of the winter of 1912-13 complaining about the weather.

            Commanding the join Anglo-Canadian Great Lakes fleet, Vice Admiral Walter Cowan lived a far more exciting career than his American counterpart. Cowan lacked much of the education that his fellow flag officers took for granted, never attending any fancy English school, but nonetheless entered the Royal Navy in 1884. As a midshipman, he saw action in the Medditerrean and Nigeria, at the latter location contracting malaria which invalidated him back home.

            He returned to service after a full recover in 1887, against serving on the Nile River, Indian Ocean and fighting pirates in Malaysia. Unlike Vreeland, Cowan had plenty of combat experience as both underling and commanding officer. At a banquet in 1910, Cowan entered a heated argument with a higher ranking admiral, insulting his superior and landing in a world of trouble. Only his many years of distinguished service prevented his career from ending. Instead, like the American Robert Doyle, he found himself exiled to as remote a posting from the open sea as a navy man could ever see.

            Cowan’s Army counterpart, Lieutenant General Reginald Wingate, was one of the few high ranking officers of the Great Lakes Campaign to actually volunteer for the backwater posting. Wingate was commissioned into the British Army in 1880 as a Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. With British influence growing fast over Africa and Southern Asia, Wingate saw action against numerous opponents in locales ranging from the Sudan to East Africa to Malaysia to the conquest of Burma.

            By 1905, Wingate’s career in the field was coming to an end as he was appointed Governor-General of British Sudan. After six years of administrative duty, Wingate hungered for a good fight, and lobbied London for a field posting. When he was offered command of a Canadian Army in 1912, he jumped at the chance. As a general, Wingate was privy to some strategic planning in London, and knew that both the United States and Great Britain were preparing for another war. Though the United States armed forces were viewed as amateurs by their British foes, Wingate still looked forward to testing his mettle against a civilized foe as well armed as him. Wingate planned not only to take Fort Mackinac like his predecessors for the two previous wars, but he intended to complete their work. When he took Mackinac, Wingate had no intention of returning it.


War Plans

            With success in the Third Anglo-American War, the British opted to change their war plan very little. The Royal Navy would sortie against Mackinac Island where they would secure the waters around the island. At such a time, ground forces would land and capture Fort Mackinac. With the island firmly in their possession, Britain and Canada could bottle up the bulk of the US Great Lakes Fleet in Lake Michigan. Plans for 1913 did vary from the 1880s in that the United States Navy split its main fleet, basing a detachment on Lake Superior. With Michigan bottled up, the Royal Navy would effectively divide-and-conquer Vreeland’s command, first eliminating the fleet London assumed would immediately sortie from Chicago, then hunting down the ships on Lake Superior. Squadrons of ships on Lake Erie and Ontario would be dispatched after the neutralization of the main fleet.

            An actual invasion of the United States, beyond raids conducted by the Royal Marines, remained on the table. However, with the British Army divided between commitments in Europe and North America, their initial plan was a holding action until enemies in Europe were defeated, much to the objection of their Dominion in Canada. Australian and New Zealander contingents would be rushed to North America to bolster the defense. Outright conquest was out of the question; the United States were too large. Not only was the population greater than Britain itself, but also better armed. Half the population owned firearms, and even if only a fraction had any military training, the rest would still be a menace.

            In the 1890s, the United States developed a serious of color-coded war plans in dealing with foreign and domestic enemies. War Plan Red was the course of action against the British Empire. Though the plan called primarily for military action in both oceans and Canada, it did allow for intervention in Britain’s colonies, such as smuggling weapons into India in hopes of fermenting a major uprising. A three-prong invasion of Canada was scheduled from Day One, with attacks across the Columbia, north out of the Great Plains, and an invasion of Ontario.

            The plan for the Great Lakes centered around holding Fort Mackinac. In terms of controlling the Lakes, the primary objective to the plan would be Lake Huron, with Lake Erie secondary and Superior and Ontario both tertiary. Control of the lake would cut Canadian trade on the lakes in half, and force them to rely upon solely on railroads to connect the industrial east with the agrarian west. Control of Huron would also allow the US Navy to support the US Army advancing across the York Peninsula. The naval guns themselves would only be of marginal assistance to an otherwise vast Army artillery corps. The main benefit of control of the lake is allowing a greater flow of war material to the front.

            Additions to War Plan Red by the United States Marine Corps call for possible amphibious assaults across the Great Lakes in the form of flanking maneuvers on the York Peninsula. Such assaults would only be launched if the advance across such a narrow front grinds to a halt, as it frequently did. British and Canadian war planners predicted such maneuvers in their worst-case scenarios. The result was years of constructing additional fortified lines, as well as naval guns watching any maritime approach.

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