"The United States has also introduced some novel ideas in warship construction, though like ourselves, not always with success." (The Naval Annual 1910, Types of Warships, by Vice-Admiral Sir S. Eardley-Wilmot, at page 96)
When the United States government finally awoke after two decades of slumber in connection with the navy, it discovered it had no fleet. In 1883 the first ships ordered were protected cruisers and a dispatch vessel. By 1886 it was determined that the time had come to build large armored warships but the United States lacked not only infrastructure for building them but also lacked trained naval architects. The first two battleships ordered were clearly British in concept. The USS Maine was originally laid down as an armored cruiser and was little more than a modified copy of the British built Brazilian Riachuelo. The other ship was Texas, which was based on a design prepared by a British naval architect. Both of these were rerated as 2nd class battleships before completion. In 1890 Chicago, the 2nd largest city in the United States hosted an exhibition that was called a World’s Fair by some. All sorts of wonders were on exhibit as canals were built and buildings were strung with electric lights. One such wonder was USS Illinois, the new battleship design for the United States Navy. This USS Illinois was a full-scale replica of the first truly American battleship design. Made of bricks and mortar, the USS Illinois, was built in accordance to the original plans for the Indiana class battleships.
From the initiation of the construction of wholly American designs, the United States Navy ran a see-saw course between innovation in battleship designs, followed by retrenchment with corrections to ideas that didn’t quite work as envisioned. The Indiana class was innovative in packing very heavy armament with heavy armor on a modest displacement. There were however, severe drawbacks to the design. The very low freeboard realistically limited the battleships to coastal operations, in spite of Oregon’s passage around Cape Horn in 1898. Also the 13-inch main gun turrets were not balanced. When the guns were swung broadside, the weight of the guns submerged the armor belt facing the enemy. The second battleship design addressed the deficiencies of the Indianas. The USS Iowa was given 12-inch guns to save weight. The weight saved was used to add a forecastle deck that ran to the end of the superstructure with much higher freeboard than found in Indiana. The turrets were also changed to an elliptical shape with a bustle overhanging the rear of the barbettes. This allowed balancing weights to be placed at the rear of the turrets, which countered the weights of the barrels. The design was far better balanced than that of the Indiana and with her higher freeboard, she was a much better sea boat. However, many officers were unhappy about the lighter main gun armament. With the third battleship design, the USN went with another full boatload of innovation. With the intent to again maximize offensive power, the Kearsarge and Kentucky again reverted to 13-inch guns with the detriment of a very low freeboard. Of course the true innovation was the double story turrets with twin 8-inch guns placed atop the 13-inch gun turrets. This experiment was an abysmal failure. (Click for review of the ISW Kearsarge) With the failure of this unique design, the USN swerved back to a less innovative battleship design. That design was the USS Illinois class.
This design was the USS Illinois. Finally the Land of Lincoln had their own steel battleship, rather than a brick mock-up. The Kearsarge and Kentucky had not even been laid down when design work on the following Illinois class was begun. In March 1896, three months before congressional authorizations for the class, a special board was appointed by the Secretary for the Navy to examine the best plan for installing the main armament and other design features of battleships to be authorized that year. The board visited the USS Indiana that had just been completed in November 1895, the incomplete USS Iowa that had just been launched that March, and studied the design characteristics for the Kearsarge, which was not laid down until June 1896. The board recognized that any battleship design of a set displacement was a series of compromises and that any feature could not be emphasized without taking away something from other design features. The three major features were armament, armor and speed, as characterized by machinery. Two other intertwined features were seaworthiness and habitability.
As a starting point the board assumed that the displacement for the new design would be the same as with the Kearsarge design and that the required speed of 16-knots and same range would be approved. The board departed from the previous three designs in recommending that the eight-inch intermediate guns not be mounted. Their view was that a new 6-inch gun with increased rate of fire could make up for the deletion of the 8-inch ordnance and that the intermediate weapons complicated ammunition supply. Further, the weight saved by deletion of 8-inch turrets could be employed to enhance other features. However, the board wished to employ the same 13-inch main guns as was to be fitted to the Kearsarge class. The main gun turrets were to be placed as close together as the design would allow in order to limit the area to be covered by the maximum width of armor. The secondary would be a new model of 6-inch rapid-fire guns, which promised far better performance from the slow firing model found on the Indiana. Seven were to be mounted on each broadside in such a way as to allow four to fire ahead and two behind.
An innovation in this process was to change the trial displacement and requirements. With Indiana the location of the waterline and placement of the belt armor was determined upon the assumption that the ship would carry only one-fourth of her total capacity for coal. Even with the Indiana at half capacity, much less full load, the armor belt would be far more submerged than as designed. For Iowa the calculations were based on one-third coal capacity. For the Illinois design the trial standard would have the coal capacity at two-thirds full capacity. This decision placed the armor belt at optimum position for the most likely scenarios in which the class might engage in combat. It is interesting to note that post World War One Japanese designs also adopted a similar 2/3rds capacity rule for their new warship trials. The board emphatically recommended that no feature should significantly detract from the seakeeping qualities of the design.
President Grover Cleveland called for two new battleships but Congress authorized three. Congress further authorized an increase of 1,000-tons in the new design from the preceding 10,000-ton Kearsarge design. However, in large measure because of the board recommendations and contrary to normal design practice, the three ships of the Illinois class actually were of almost the same displacement as the Kearsarge. The Illinois design had exactly the same length and beam as the Kearsarge but because of the closer placement of the turrets, the superstructure length was shorter. As Iowa had addressed the low freeboard of the Indianas, so too did the Illinois address the low freeboard of the Kearsarges. As with Iowa design, the Illinois design was given a high forecastle that ran to the aft end of the superstructure. Some authorities have stated that the Illinois design was a copy of the British Majestic class design. This is based upon the fact that the Illinois had her two stacks side by side, as in Majestic, rather than the traditional one behind the other layout. This stack placement in fact had more to do with the design requirement to have the main gun turrets placed as close together as possible, rather than any deliberate copying of the Majestic. To shorten the space, the machinery area had to be reduced in length. One way to do this was to change the internal arrangement of the machinery. Two boiler rooms of two compartments each were arranged back to back with the rear of the boilers meeting at centerline. Instead of taking up length, the new boiler arrangement took up width, shortening the length of the machinery spaces. It was anticipated that this arrangement would also increase the efficiency of the fire-rooms. Boilers were inboard of the fire-room working spaces with coal-bunkers aligned along the outboard sides of the fire-room. This allowed coal to be brought to the boilers over a shorter distance. The two rows of boilers placed back to back along centerline determined that twin side by side stacks would be fitted to vent the fumes from the boilers. Although the navy hoped that the machinery layout for the class would be more efficient than the traditional tandem design, the Illinois class never fulfilled this prediction. Their speed was not increased and they proved to be coal hogs.
Another obvious external difference from proceeding designs was the shape of the main gun turrets. All eight of the earlier battleships had the vertical side pill box turret designs. In this feature the USN may have copied the Royal Navy Majestic design, which had introduced the style of turret employed by the Illinois. The sides of the counterbalanced turrets still had a slight curve but the forward face was angular and slanted back at a sharp angle. The USN had recognized the ballistic benefits of slanted armor from before the time of the American Civil War. This benefit was one reason that Confederate iron clads were given slanted armor casemates, however, it was not until the Illinois design that the USN returned to employ the concept. Rather than cluster the secondary guns together as in Kearsarge, the Illinois spaced them out so that large numbers would not be disabled by a single shell strike. Four were on each side amidships with another pair one deck higher in sponsons on each side. The final pair was located in sponsons on main deck near the bow. These two, along with the forward two in the upper deck sponsons provided the required four-gun bow fire. The aft pair in the upper deck sponsons provided the required two gun rearward fire.
The 13-inch gun main armament were the same 13-inch/35 Mk II guns as fitted to the Kearsarge. These guns fired a shell weighing 1,116 pounds. The secondary guns were 6-inch/40 Mk VII, compared to the 6-inch/30 Mk III guns in Maine and the Indianas and 6-inch/35 guns in Texas. Shell weight for these was 104 pounds compared to the 100 pounds shell weight of the previous marks. For light QF gun armament 6 pounders were located in the fore and aft superstructure and in hull casemates beneath the forward turret and also at the stern. One pounder QF guns were mounted on the fore and aft bridges and also in the lower fighting tops. Upper tops contained .30 Colt machine guns. Four 18-inch above water torpedo tubes were mounted. To fir the Whitehead torpedoes carried, elliptical armored doors swung upward. Each tube could be trained within a fairly short arc as wheels were fitted to the rear end of each tube. A total of eight torpedoes were carried. As could be anticipated the much higher freeboard made the ships of the Illinois class much better gun platforms than the Indianas or Kearsarges.
"Up to within a few years ago, high speed was not considered essential in America for battleships. The argument, as expressed in an official report, was as follows: - ‘The best vessel is not necessarily the one that most quickly can get in or out of battle or keep out of battle, but is rather the one that can remain in battle the longest after she gets there. With equal displacement, higher speed means deficiency in some other quality.’ There is truth in this if extra speed is given at the expense of armament." (The Naval Annual 1910, Types of Warships, by Vice-Admiral Sir S. Eardley-Wilmot, at page 96) This statement certainly applied to all of the American predreadnought battleships through the Maine class, which followed the Illinois. Although she had almost 1,000shp more power than the Kearsarge (12,647shp vs 11,674shp), had the same dimensions and weighed almost the same, the Illinois still had the limited 16.5-knots maximum speed of the Kearsarge. The armor scheme was almost identical to the Kearsarge with the same belt and barbette armor thickness. The turret faces had less armor (14-inch vs 17-inch) because of the enhanced ballistic properties of the sloped face. Casemate armor was slightly thicker in the Illinois but the slope of the armor deck was slightly thinner. Harvey nickel steel was used for the belt.
Although Illinois BB-7 was the lead ship in the class it was the USS Alabama BB-8 that was laid down first. Construction of the Alabama was awarded to the Cramp Yard of Philadelphia. Cramp was the most experienced shipyard in the country and from the start proved more efficient and quicker at building Alabama than Newport News in building the Illinois or Union Iron Works in building the Wisconsin. Alabama was laid down in December 1896, two months before Illinois. She was launched in May 1898, five months ahead of Illinois. Alabama was completed in October 1900, a full eleven months ahead of Illinois. Because of the speed of construction of the Cramp Yard Alabama differed from the other two. With the Kearsarge class four boat cranes were fitted. One was placed in each quarter of the superstructure. The original Illinois design called for the same arrangement. Cramp had already worked the four cranes into the Alabama when the navy changed the design. The cranes were reduced to two located just aft and to either side of the funnels. Illinois and Wisconsin were built with just the two cranes but Alabama had the four as initially designed. (Photographs of model of USS Alabama BB-8 1:96 scale replica by Robert Bracci exhibited on the USS Alabama BB-60 at Mobile, Alabama.)
Illinois was the last of the three to be commissioned in September 1901. Some modifications were made early in their careers. The hull 6pdr QF guns were soon removed but their now empty casemates remained. Likewise, the torpedo tubes were also removed fairly early. Alabama and Illinois were part of the world cruise of Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, although Alabama dropped out due to machinery failure upon reaching San Francisco. Although Wisconsin had spent only a little over five years in commission, she went in for a refit in November 1906. The other two served until 1909 before they too were refitted. This refit significantly changed the appearance of the class. With the construction of the all big gun battleships Michigan and South Carolina, the USN had adopted the cage mast as a replacement of the distinctly old fashioned military masts. There was little need for these relics with their light QF guns in fighting tops as battle gun range had dramatically increased, through experience of the Russo-Japanese War. With Wisconsin this major refit first landed the fire military mast and replaced it with a cage mast. The bridge was greatly simplified with an open bridge placed above and behind the armored conning tower. Light guns were landed and four new 3-inch and four new 6-pdrs were installed on the superstructure. Subsequently a cage mast also replaced the military mainmast. With Illinois and Alabama cage masts replaced both military masts at the same time. Illinois was the only ship of the trio to receive new machinery during this 1909-1912 refit. She received new water-tube type boilers, which undoubtedly extended her service life.
Their service during World War One was confined to training. After the United States entered World War One in 1917, the huge construction program for smaller ships required a tremendous number of lighter guns. The ships of the Illinois class were stripped of six 6-inch guns and all of their 3-inch guns to provide ordnance for new construction. The fates of all three ships were uniquely different. Wisconsin suffered the most ignominious fate as she was decommissioned in 1920, sold and went to the breakers in 1922. Alabama was transferred to the War Department, i.e. US Army, for testing of a new weapon system. As one of the few technically Army battleships, BG Billie Mitchell’s army bombers used Alabama as a stationary target. Anchored in Chesapeake Bay near the Indiana BB-1, which were also bombing target, the Alabama was sunk by Martin bombers on September 27, 1921. The hulk of the ship, which rested in shallow water, was sold for scrap in 1924. Illinois had a long life past her very limited time as a first class battleship. On July 17, 1920 she was renamed simply BB-7 to free her name for new construction. In October 1921 she was transferred to the New York State Naval Militia, which was the naval equivalent to the National Guard. She lost her number and was an unclassified hulk. Under the terms of the Washington Treaty she was demilitarized. After 20 years, the old Illinois finally was given a new name. On January 23, 1941 she was christened Prairie State, which harkens back to her original name. She was given the number of IX-15 the following month. She was a fixture in New York harbor until she was stricken in March 1956 and sold for scrap in May. (History from: American Battleships 1886-1923, 1980, by John C. Reilly, Jr. and Robert L. Scheina)
The Commanders/Iron Shipwright USS Illinois BB-7
This model portrays the Illinois as commissioned with military masts and full QF complement. This may be the last of the ISW line of USN predreadnoughts to portray the subject with the early military masts, as the next in the series, USS Ohio BB-13 of the Maine class, will portray the ship as modified with cage masts. The kit is suitable for either the Illinois or Wisconsin but would need modifications to portray Alabama because of the four, rather than two, cranes found on BB-8. As with any predreadnought, the hull casting dominates the model. Invariably superstructure of predreadnoughts was minimal compared with what would follow with dreadnought type all big gun battleships, although the USN took a minimalist approach to superstructure even with her dreadnoughts. Although, only six months separated the Illinois class from the Kearsarge class and the fact that the two classes shared the same length and beam, the Illinois appears much more modern. That can be attributed to two sources. Although Illinois mounted the same main guns the new slanted face turret design makes that ship appear modern compared to the old fashioned pillbox type turrets on Kearsarge. Finally with Illinois, the USN quit flirting with low freeboard designs that reflect a monitor heritage, rather than a high freeboard blue ocean battleship comparable to foreign designs.
The full hull one-piece casting is well cast with a lot of character. By character I refer to all of the architectural features, which characterized this class. From profile the armor belt instantly stands out. This runs from the aft barbette to the bow right above the ram. The line of the belt is further accentuated by a number of small fittings to the narrow top shelf of the belt. On each side of the lower hull there are two sets of lines, which indicate the location of the bilge keels. These are neither cast on the hull, nor included in the smaller parts. They are to be fabricated by the modeler out of plasticard. This is no problem but the first version of the instructions did not provide a template. However, it is my understanding that the second version of the instructions would add the bilge keel templates. The armament positions on the hull are very well defined. The 6-inch gun sponsons at the bow are very prominent with very narrow lips running at the top and bottom of the casemate adding extra relief. The four 6-inch gun casemate positions on each side of the hull amidships are cleanly and deeply incised into the hull. On all of these casemate positions, as well as the QF positions at the stern of the hull, locator holes are not provided for gun barrels. In checking barrel placement in photographs of the class, it appears that the barrels in the forward casemate rested low in the positions, while the barrels in the amidships positions rested in a centered position. No six-inch gun barrels were provided in the kit. Since there is a noticeable taper to them, there is more work involved than simply using cut brass or plastic rod.
Right above the belt, just aft of the forward turret and forward of the aft turret are the four armored exterior covers for the torpedo tube positions. Each cover is in relief out from the hull and have two well defined hinges on the tope edge. At the stern there are two QF casemates on each side. These positions had rectangular doors that would swing down in order to deploy the guns. With the ISW Illinois these doors are displayed in a closed position. At the bow there are large oval fittings for the anchor hawse. On this fitting on each side both anchor hawse are placed. This fitting appears to be another area in which the design of the ships diverged. From referring to photographs it appears that only Illinois featured this particular shape of fitting. Alabama and Wisconsin had smaller individual fittings for each anchor hawse. If this confuses you, check the photographs of the period postcards of the ships that accompany this article. Also on each side there are two rows of port holes or scuttles. The lower row, which is found at the stern as well as the bow are the standard round variety but the upper row, found at the bow only are of a different design. The USN, as well as other navies of the period, had some round port holes/scuttles placed inside a larger square window. The entire square cover could be opened to allow greater ventilation. There was some variance with the placement of these fittings as well. The Illinois and Wisconsin had one of these positions between anchor washboard and forward 6-inch sponson, while the Alabama had two positions in this area. With the ISW hull, these square windows are raised in relief. The bow of course features an intricate scroll with a thin bulkhead rising at the tip of the forecastle above. Be careful about handling the bow of the casting. The raised bulkhead above the bow scroll is very delicate and easily broken at deck level.
The forecastle is remarkably clean. It appears less cluttered than most designs of the period. On each side are the slanted anchor wash boards with a four-sided raised lip on the inboard side. Each wash board has a cat at the rear of the wash board. In my sample there was a small casting void at the tip of each cat. Other forecastle deck detail includes five access coamings, two winches, one windlass, four bollard base plates and four very small fittings forward of the windlass. Bollard posts are not part of the hull casting. They should be cut from rod and mounted on the deck plates provided. Other than the voids on the cats, there were three pinhole voids in fittings. A little dab of superglue should easily fill these.
In contrast to the uncluttered forecastle, the shelter deck amidships features high level of fittings. Six boat position fittings are cast on this deck. Each such position has two cradles/chocks and a centerline ridge. The largest of the fittings on this deck are the large oval conning tower forward and small circular tower aft. Neither of these positions have vision slits. There are prominent solid bulkheads along the forward and aft edges of this deck. The casting of these bulkheads provides good base plate along the bottom and vertical support gussets. There are two raised plates that are bases for the boat cranes and raised square coamings framing the two stacks. Centerline in addition to the conning towers there are a large ventilation louver and deck winch. Six more access hatches, four with wheels, are found at this level. Finally there are ten small square base plates which form the bases for various ventilator funnels. There is some cleanup to be done on this area. The fittings are well formed but there is resin splash attached in some areas that needs to be removed. This is most commonly found with the boat cradles/chocks and bulkhead support gussets. A little careful work with a hobby knife should solve this problem.
The low quarterdeck is really emphasized by the two level drop from the shelter deck to the quarterdeck. As with the forecastle, the quarterdeck is uncluttered. Dominated by the barbette for the aft turret, there are nine access coamings, four base plates for bollards, one windlass and a small fitting aft of that. The windlass had some resin splash, which will need to be removed with a hobby knife. As a whole the hull casting is well done but in addition to the splash and pinhole voids covered in the description of the decks, the hull sides also have similar areas to be cleaned. There are areas of resin splash to be removed here and there on the hull sides, especially associated with the bottoms of the forward sponsons. There are also a few almost microscopic pinhole voids on the hull sides. I can’t see them with my unaided eye but with the magnification of macro-photography a few do appear. In common with every Commanders/Iron Shipwright full hull one-piece casting, the bottom of the hull has a resin pour ridge to be removed and a substantial number of voids. These voids range from pinholes to some that are of moderate size. With my sample the centerline seam was significant and would need some sanding. When assembled and mounted on blocks or pedestals the voids on the bottom should not appear. However, if you wish to fill them, then a film of bondo, followed by sanding after it has dried is probably the best approach. One area of the lower hull that is visible after completion is the area of the propellers. Here there are two shaft housings and keel at the position of the rudder. There were voids found here that should be filled and sanded or else they will detract from the assembled kit.
Smaller Resin Parts
The bridge superstructure consists of a very manageable seven pieces. The forward bridge has the combined chart house/bridge wings piece and a separate piece for the deck above the chart house. Also the two lower levels of the military mast are included for this area. I like the design of the chart house as only thin resin film fills each window of the chart house. The modeler has the option of simply painting this film black to represent the window panes or else can use a hobby knife to remove the film and use Micro-Klear to actually provide glazed windows. This further presents the opportunity to provide extra detail within the chart house, although I don’t know how much of it could be seen through the windows without some form of internal lighting. The resin window sills are delicate, so some breakage is likely to occur in removing the film. A third option is to remove all of the window frames and replace these with brass vertical ladder that has suitable spacing between the rungs to match the spacing between the vertical frames of the bridge windows. This will give you an even more delicate look that can be further enhanced with Micro-Klear windows. The aft superstructure consists of a simple deck and two lower levels of the military mainmast. The decks/platforms have support bracing cast on the underside and opened rectangles for the brass inclined ladders found on the photo-etched fret. As far as defects, there was a small notch missing at the edge of one deck and the seam lines on the towers for the military masts were somewhat uneven.
The twin side by side stacks are also readily identifiable features of this class, as the Illinois class was the only USN battleship class to use this arrangement. The resin stacks are well formed and have very good steam pipe detail with attachment brackets. Additionally the horizontal support bands are very prominent. These in fact may be a little over-scale but I like their effect as it emphasizes the detail of the stacks. Three boat cranes came with the kit but you only need two. They had good detail, including a pulley block at the head of the crane. However, my samples did have some voids to be filled and there is some resin splash to be removed.
The smallest of the resin parts can be placed into four categories; QF guns/bridge fittings, ship’s boats, ventilator funnels and running gear. The QF guns are OK. They have good detail and a slight amount of flash. As with most smaller parts, ISW provides spares. Almost invariably some small parts will not be suitable and spares are needed. For the QF guns almost all were suitable, except for a couple whose barrels were too short. Other bridge fittings include mast search light platforms and the searchlights. The platforms have support bracing underneath and the searchlight detail is quite good. The ship’s boats provided in this kit are the same variety as provided in other USN predreadnoughts from ISW. If you already have one of these models, you know what you will get. There are spares provided, as not every boat is perfectly cast. With the numerous ventilator funnels you also receive extra parts. Quite a few have uneven seams to be smooth and some have voids along the funnel rim. However, I believe by culling out the ones with the most glaring defects, you’ll still have more than enough, after sanding seams, to fit out the vessel. The cowling openings have decent but not exceptional depth. The anchors, rudder and propeller shafts pose no problem, as they were all well formed. However, I must mention the propellers them selves. Spares are provided and you will probably need them. The propellers are generally OK, except they do have flash and pour stubs to be removed. In the process of cleaning them up, they are extremely vulnerable to breaking a propeller blade at its base with the hub. Use extreme care in cleaning up these pieces.
Brass Photo-Etch Fret & Instructions
Normally I use separate sections for these two items. However, I received an early sample of the ISW Illinois, before the photo-etch fret was back from the etchers. I still do not have a fret of the photo-etch for the kit, although the fret is already packaged with the kit for the production run. However, you can see what is on the fret from its outline in the instructions. Traditionally for the Great White Fleet series, Ted Paris provides custom fitted railings for each deck with no need to adjust common railing. From the instructions it appears that there are two frets of brass photo-etch, which are dominated by railing. Other parts include bridge wing supports, inclined ladders, crane block & tackle, and vertical ladder.
The set of instructions that are shown here are the first run. They are rudimentary and have been improved in a subsequent addition. The model is rather simple to assemble as there is very little guess work involving what part goes were. Nonetheless, the first edition of the instructions does omit some crucial features. There should be templates for the bilge keels and there are none. The aft mainmast drawing shows a one level mast, rather than the two level masts. The exact placement of the bridge wing supports was not shown. There was no mention of what diameter rod to be used for the secondary barrels. Although the specific railing for all bridge, platform and shelter decks are indicated, as well as railing around the anchor washboards, specific forecastle and quarterdeck railing is not designated. It is my understanding that these defects were addresses in a modified set of instructions.
The Commanders/Iron Shipwright USS Illinois BB-7 is presented in the standard ISW format. The one-piece full hull kit has very good to excellent detail but does require some clean up for voids and resin splash. The smaller resin parts are of variable quality but ISW does recognize this and provide spares. There is a good set of brass photo-etch, which contains the exact length custom fitted railing for each deck. Although the kit is very easy to assemble, the first edition instructions still lack necessary information. However, in spite of problems, ISW provides all of the ingredients for a head turning battleship build.