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Panama Canal - Strategic Imperative

US interest in building a canal to connect the Altantic and Pacific began in 1870 when President Ulysses S. Grant, stimulated by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1867, ordered the US Navy to conduct surveys of possible canal routes in Central America. During the Spanish-American War it had taken the battleship Oregon sixty-four days to rush from San Francisco to Florida via Cape Horn. Oregon departed San Francisco on 19 March 1898 and on 24 May 1898 anchored off Jupiter Inlet, FL, reporting ready for battle. Altogether, Oregon had sailed over 14,000 miles since leaving San Francisco 66 days earlier. On one hand the feat had demonstrated the many capabilities of a heavy battleship in all conditions of wind and sea. On the other it swept away all opposition for the construction of the Panama Canal, for it was then made clear that the country could not afford to take two months to send warships from one coast to the other each time an emergency arose.

The Spooner Act, signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt on 28 June 1902, authorized purchase of a zone in Panama for construction of a canal. After an almost bloodless revolt on 3 November 1902, Panama declared itself a republic. The plan President Roosevelt signed into law in June 1906 called for a canal with three locks on the Atlantic side, three on the Pacific side, and a lake in the middle created by damming the Chagres River at Gatun. On 26 February 1907, Roosevelt announced that Army engineer Major George W. Goethals was going to Panama to complete construction of the Panama Canal. On the recommendation of the Navy, Goethals increased the lock widths from 100 to 110 feet. Lock construction began in 1909. The canal would have opened in 1913 but for slides in the Culebra Cut. Although the start of the war in Europe overshadowed it, the canal officially opened on 15 August 1914 when the liner Ancon passed from the Atlantic to the Pacific side.

The Panama Canal could serve as a kind of deterrent to Japan when the US fleet was in the Atlantic, and to Germany when the US Navy was deployed in the Pacific. The strategic flexibility provided by the Panama Canal could make up for the numerical inferiority of US battleships. While the canal made it possible to shorten the trip between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, should the size of battleships be increased to compete with foes, the US would have to increase the size of its ships to the point where they could no longer transit the canal, the US would lose this inherent advantage.

The first American battleships in the mid-1890s had been home-ported in the Atlantic. Prior to New Year's Day 1906, the Navy had what was then known as the Atlantic Station, which made up most of the United States Navy. On 01 January 1906, the Navy's Atlantic Fleet was established, consisting of: the Battleship Force, Cruiser Force, and the Destroyer Force. None of these forces, however, were organized in the manner of the type commands of later years. The most renowned operation of those early years was the formation of the "Great White Fleet," which departed Norfolk, Va., on 16 December 1907, to become the first fleet of warships to circumnavigate the globe. They returned to President Theodore Roosevelt's welcome on 22 February 1909.

The opening of the Kiel Canal in 1895, linking the Baltic with the North Sea, created a strategic waterway between the two seas which could be used by the "largest man-of-war," enabling the German fleet to mass either in the Baltic or in the North Sea at a few hours notice without having to circumnavigate Denmark, and thus run the risk of attack in Scandinavian waters and to avoid both the stormy waters round Skagen. In the years ensuing the canal became a part of Germany's naval establishment, and German battleships that could now take safe refuge in the Baltic were floated in increasing numbers in conscious rivalry to those of England.

The Kiel Canal was nearly 61 miles long and has a depth of 29 feet, and the docks are narrow, and the battleship Kaiser Frederick III, which was built to fit it, has a mean draft of 25 feet 9 inches. It was assumed that the difference between the draft of this ship and the depth of the canal and the size of the locks left plenty of room for future developments. The German fleet had been built to fit the Kiel Canal. The Kiel Canal was shallow and its locks small, the docks lacked depth, length, and breadth.

The Second Hague Peace Conference of 1907 [15 June-18 October 1907] produced twelve separate conventions. During the Second Hague Peace Conference America and Britain tried and failed to get arms limitation agreements. President Theodore Roosevelt suggested that the size of battleships be limited to 15,000-ton class vessels, to halt the construction of Dreadnought-type battleships. The limits were opposed by the Germans in no small measure because they saw them as efforts to limit German naval growth, then perceived as a challenge to the absolute supremacy of the Royal Navy in European waters, as well as world-wide. An increase in German and Japanese naval power was expected to place a heavy burden on the US which straddled both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. At the beginning of October 1906, the US military assessed that even if the Congress were to give the green light for the construction of two battleships a year, the US would be unable to keep up in the global race to become the second strongest navy in the world after England.

The first battleship of the dreadnought class placed in commission by England in 1906 made the Kiel Canal obsolete as an adjunct to warfare because no ship of dreadnaught dimensions could be passed through its locks. By 1907 the general trend of naval policy in the United States, Great Britain, and Japan toward concentration of fighting power in colossal ships was unwelcome in Germany, because it bid fair to render the German Navy obsolescent. Its rebuilding on a larger scale was immediately undertaken, while the keels of German dreadnaughts were laid down in the years after 1906. Germany soon developed plans for deepening the Canal, with completion planned by 1914-1915; but until the enlarged canal was ready for use the power of the German navy was maimed. It was enlarged from 1907 to 1914 to take larger naval ships and was called the Kaiser-Wilhelm Canal. The formal reopening in the week ending on 01 July 1914, was overtaken by the news that Archduke Francis Ferdinand. Enlarged, its width ranges from 336 to 531 feet (102.5 to 162 meters), and it was 36 feet (11 meters) deep. During World War II, even the Tirpitz could pass through the Kiel Canal.

The hull dimensions of the largest ships [Panamax-size vessels], were limited by the length and breadth of the lock chambers of the Panama Canal. Panama Canal lock chambers are 305 m long and 33.5 m wide, and the largest depth of the canal is 12.5-13.7 m. This yields a maximum ship breadth (beam) of 32.3 m (105 ft - leaving a total of five feet of margin within the 110 foot width of the lock), a maximum overall ship length of 294.1 m (965 ft), and a max. draft of 12.0 m (39.5 ft).

The BB-45 Colorado Class , the first unit of which was laid down in 1917 with a beam of 97 ft 6 inches, retained the capacity to transit the Canal. The BB-49 South Dakota Class, laid down in 1920 with a beam of 106 feet, was at the uppoer limit of warships that could transit the Canal [as were all susequent battleships]. The BB-67 Montana, which was not built, would have had a beam of 115 feet, too large to transit the Canal. The 1917 Tillman Maximum Battleships designs all retained the 106 foot beam required to transit the Canal, while the 1934 Maximum Battleship pushed the envelope a bit furher, wth a beam of 107 feet. During World War II, Essex Class carriers, with a beam of 93 feet, faced no difficulty transiting the Canal. Launched in 1945 with a beam of 121 feet, the CV-41 Midway class aircraft carriers faced no prospect of transiting the Canal, nor did any subsequent large carriers.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:55:02 ZULU