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The White Fleet


The White Fleet visit to Albany

We hope this article will help enrich your knowledge of the American Great White Fleet and its association with Albany.

The Albany Historical Society, in conjunction with the Albany Port Authority, worked extremely hard to commemorate this event. The Albany Historical Society wishes to offer its sincerest thanks to Roger Cunnington, Craig Anderson and Society CEO Andrew Eyden for their tireless efforts in making this project a reality.

Our sincerest thanks and gratitude also to both the Royal Australian Navy for sending the HMAS Sirius and the HMAS Darwin and to the United States Navy for sending the USS Shoup to Albany for the commemorative event held on the weekend of 13-14 September 2008. It was truly a momentous occasion for us to have three large naval vessels in our port at the one time. See pictures at right.

The cruise undertaken by those 16 naval vessels so long ago was, and still is, the largest circumnavigation of the globe by sea. The benefits to Australia from the visit of the original White Fleet are still being felt today and in many ways it was the catalyst that helped create such a warm relationship between our two nations.

Background and reasons for the Great White Fleet

President Theodore Roosevelt sent the fleet of 16 white-painted battleships on the 14-month world cruise for a number of reasons, principally as a global public relations event. America had been quietly building up the second largest navy in the world, with no one paying attention. The voyage was planned as an announcement to the World that said, “Hey, we're here.” The headline "TR PR" would have been an accurate, as well as succinct description.

Other reasons to send the fleet were: -

The Fleet

With the exception of the few highest-ranking naval officials, nobody was aware of Roosevelt's intention to send the fleet around the world. All anyone else knew was that the fleet would be steaming from the east to west coast in a training exercise.

Late on the first day of steaming, Rear Admiral Evans, the fleet’s Commanding Officer announced, that after a short stay on the West Coast, the fleet would return home by way of the Pacific, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean and then to the Atlantic. When this announcement became general knowledge the next day, countries throughout the world tendered their invitations for the fleet to visit their ports.

This complemented the Australian Government’s misgivings in holding an overwhelming faith in British naval supremacy. Realising the nature of the strategic problem of dividing the Royal Navy’s battle fleet, in the event of potential Japanese aggression against the interests of the British Empire, Prime Minister Alfred Deakin deliberately breached protocol by bypassing British authorities and despatching a timely invitation direct to Washington. It worked as intended, a direct challenge to Britain that there were alternatives to Australia in forming its own navy, outside a British alliance. This goodwill gesture is reciprocated by Admiral Sperry’s (the fleet’s commanding officer to Australasian ports) promise, “You need never be afraid so long as the Stars and Stripes float above the seas”.

The Ships Participating in the 2nd Leg

16 battleships were powered by horizontal tube boilers powering triple expansion reciprocating engines. All were twin screw. The ships' details may be found here.

The Cruise

The fleet sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia on 16 December 1907. The 1st Leg took the fleet, via the Straits of Magellan, where the Chilean cruiser Chacabuco guided the ships through the Straits, to San Francisco, where it arrived on 6 May 1905.  It called at several South American ports on the way.

While in San Francisco, the battleships Maine and Alabama were detached to form a special service squadron and were replaced by the Illinois Class Wisconsin (BB-9) and the Virginia Class Nebraska (BB-14), both already located on the west coast. The reason behind this change was due to Maine's voracious appetite for coal and Alabama's engine problems. The six destroyers and their tender remained with the Pacific Fleet, while the battleships and their tenders continued the round the world cruise. Maine and Alabama departed on their own circumnavigation after the main fleet’s departure, which omitted Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China. They entered the Mediterranean before the main fleet reached Albany.

On 7 July 1905, after visiting several US west coast ports and now commanded by Admiral Charles Sperry, recently promoted from Rear Admiral and Flag Officer of the 4th Division during the 1st Leg, the fleet set sail from San Francisco on its 2nd Leg. The strictly kept itinerary was Honolulu (16-22 July), Auckland (9-15 August), Sydney (20-27 August), Melbourne (29 August - 5 September), Albany (11- 18 September) and Manila (2 October).

The fleet was split into 2 squadrons, each of which was split into 2 divisions of 4 ships each, as follows:-
1st Division: ConnecticutBB-18, Kansas BB-21, Minnesota BB-22, Vermont BB-20
2nd Division: Georgia BB-15, New Jersey BB-16, Rhode Island BB-17, Nebraska BB-14

3rd Division: Louisiana BB-19, Missouri BB-11, Ohio BB-12, Virginia BB-13
4th Division: Illinois BB-7, Kearsarge BB-5, Kentucky BB-6, Wisconsin BB-9

Each division had its own Flag Officer. Connecticut was the Flagship of the whole fleet, in which Admiral Sperry sailed. Rear Admiral Richard Wainwright was the Flag Officer of the 2nd Division, Rear Admiral William H. Emeroy the 3rd Division and Rear Admiral Seaton Schroeder the 4th Division. The Commanding Officer of each ship had the rank of Captain. The order of ships in each division appears to have been kept throughout the cruise and was probably established by the relative seniority of each ship’s Commanding Officer.

The passage of each leg was planned at a slow 9.5 knots to economise on coal fuel consumption. The plans for the coal replenishment appear to have been a bureaucratic bungle. As the US Navy had few of its own colliers, reliance was placed on chartering merchant ships, mainly British owned and registered but under contract to American firms. The Navy Department planned the arrival of an appropriate number of colliers at the fleet’s designated fuelling ports of call. The Bureau of Equipment then had the responsibility of letting the charters in sufficient time for the American coal to be loaded at American ports and the ships to make their passages to the designated port before the fleet’s arrival.

This was particularly important after long passages, as the battleships’ bunkers would be all but empty. The first hiccup occurred at Auckland, where only 3 of the 6 expected colliers had arrived. As in Auckland, local suppliers in Sydney had been advised that their assistance would not be required, so no additional stocks were available. Admiral Sperry reported to the Bureau of Navigation that this was the result of Navy Department negligence, which “caused great embarrassment...entailed coaling day and night in Auckland ...to distribute limited amounts of coal throughout the fleet, and meant that coaling would have to be conducted in Sydney and Melbourne”. Through ingenious use of local ships loading at Wollongong, existing coal hulks and coal brought direct to Sydney from the mines, the fleet was able to maintain its itinerary uninterrupted.

Ships would normally go into port and take on coal every two weeks. "Coaling ship" was an all hands evolution and a dirty job. It would take several days to coal a ship. Afterward, the crew would spend several more days cleaning the ship, inside and out, fore and aft, since coal dust settled everywhere. A member of the "black gang" on the battleship Connecticut described coaling day. "Our ship held about 2,000 tons of the stuff. All the deckhands would go down into the collier (coal supply ship) and fill these big bags with about 500 pounds. Then they'd hoist 'em over to us down in the coal bunkers and we'd spread out the coal with shovels until all the bunkers - about 20 - were full to the top."

The ship’s crews were obviously put under a lot of stress to complete the coaling in each of the Australasian ports of call and participate in a “scrubbed up” state in the hectic program of parades and social activities organised in their honour at each port of call.

The GibraltarAlbany – Fleet Week - Thursday 10th to Friday 18th September 1908

HMS Gibraltar, Commander C.F. Morgan, arrived from Portsmouth on Wednesday morning. The Gibraltar .... received orders to pick up relief crews for the Australian squadron and make Albany on 10 September, there to receive the United States fleet on the succeeding day. .... Gibraltar bunkered 750 tons of coal on arrival.

The fleet was expected to arrive in King George’s Sound at midday on Friday 11th. (Thousands of sightseers from every part of the State flocked to Albany by special trains (the motor era was still distant) and the accommodation of the port was severely taxed for the period the Fleet was at anchor  ... but unfortunately it arrived just after dawn, and due to poor ship-to-shore communications, only a few people actually saw the ships arrive.

“The weather, which had been gloriously fine during the preceding week, had become unsettled in the night and rain was falling intermittently as day dawned. Looking to seaward, a heavy mist restricted the range of vision, and the vessels must have approached within 12 miles of the shore before they became visible. (Perhaps this is the reason why no photos of the arrival can be found – the visibility was too bad, and/or the photographers did not get up early enough. – Author’s observation.) As they came nearer...every movement of the ships could be clearly discerned from the points of vantage overlooking the Sound. Six o’clock had just gone when the first battleship emerged from the misty barrier, which approached so near to the land as to almost obscure Breaksea Island. One by one the magnificent engines of war came into view until 15 could be seen. (Kansas, a sister of the flagship, had remained behind in Melbourne for mail, conduct an enquiry into the collision of the naval collier and a local steamer in Hobson’s Bay as well as recovering as many of the 221 deserters as possible. She departed in company with the store ship Culgoa on 10 September.) Under easy steam the vessels advanced into the Sound and at a quarter past seven Connecticut dropped anchor within 2000 yards of the Forts. Two others took up positions in line with the flagship and then, in rows of four, the remainder settled down into places nearer Middleton Beach. At a quarter to eight the last anchor was run out and the 15 ships which, after all, only occupied a very small section of King George’s Sound, presented a spectacle that will long live in the memories of those who witnessed it.

At 8 am the flagship, Connecticut, fired a 21-gun salute, which was replied to by the Forts. HMS Gibraltar then saluted (13 gun salute for an Admiral), and the Connecticut having responded, the Chilean warship (General Baquedano1) followed suit to have the compliment similarly acknowledged.

The first to board the flagship was the Harbour Master, Captain Winzar, and he was followed immediately by Captain Sweetland, RAA. and Captain Pendlebury, CSO, who called officially on behalf of the Defence Department. Later on Captain Gilliat, ADC, visited the Connecticut as representative of the Governor, Mr Bernard Parker as representative of the Government, and Mr W. Kingsmill, MLC, as representative of Parliament.
The Connecticut remained outside until about 11 o’clock, when she entered the harbour and was anchored just off the end of the Deepwater Jetty... Then in turn during the day the Louisiana, Georgia, Nebraska, Rhode Island and New Jersey steamed into the harbour and anchored. The three colliers - Teviotdale, Tottenham, and Kildane - were immediately attached and coaling started.”

At the time of writing the article, it was estimated that three of the battleships would have completed coaling by Saturday morning and would return to their anchorages in the Sound, their places being replaced by 4 other battleships. Only Connecticut remained at her anchorage off the Deepwater Jetty for the duration of the fleet’s stay. During Friday the store ships Panther and Glacier were also brought inside.

At night the battleships were brilliantly illuminated, but the unsettled weather conditions marred the effect and kept many people from witnessing the display. 

Six colliers had been scheduled to meet the Fleet in Albany, but only 5 arrived in time. These were:-

Ship's name
Arrival date
Cargo tonnage
28 Aug
8 Sept
12 Sept
16 Sept
16 Sept

The total of 13, 650 tons was sufficient for the Fleet’s requirements. The sixth collier, King Robert, had only cleared Natal (Brazil) on 6 September and on 15 September was still more than two weeks away.

According to the Albany Port Register, all these ships were British owned and registered. They sailed via the Cape of Good Hope, but did not call at Cape Town. The Fleet’s 5 auxiliary ships also required bunkers as well as the 16 battleships.

On 15th September the colliers Taurus and Epsom, with 13,606 tons of cargo coal, entered King George’s Sound.

Chilean warship General BaquedanoGeneral Baquedano, the Chilean warship, was the Chilean Navy’s training ship. She was an auxiliary sailing vessel, more precisely, a 3 masted barque rigged auxiliary vessel. Her call at Albany, coinciding with the visit of the US fleet, is interesting, as it is the second occasion she had met with the fleet during its cruise. The first occasion was when the fleet passed by Valparaiso during its 1st Leg. As that port was too deep to permit safe anchorage for the fleet, the sixteen battleships steamed by the city in line ahead. Chile’s President Montt and other dignitaries boarded the General Baquedano to take the salute from the passing ships.

The festive atmosphere of the occasion in the town is well described by the adverts appearing in the Albany Advertiser:-

“The Swan River ferry, S.S. Zephyr, had travelled from Fremantle especially for the event. Her services were advertised as “... will leave the Town Jetty EACH DAYat 8 p.m. for a CRUISE THROUGH THE ... AMERICAN WHITE ARMADA, calling at BATTLESHIPS OPEN FOR INSPECTION during the day, and giving passengers an unequalled opportunity of VIEWING the ILLUMINATIONS at night. FIRST-CLASS BAND, specially engaged from Perth, on board for all trips, with complete repertoire of music suitable for the occasion. Highest Quality of Refreshments obtainable on board. RETURN FARE, 2s.”

A steamer Una also advertised excursions departing the Town Jetty at 10.30 a.m. with cheap fares – 1s Return, as did the local tugs Dunskey and The Bruce, described as “favourite launches”, departing daily at 10 am and 3 pm, also for 1s Return. (One wonders what a one-way trip would have included.)

Other adverts associated with the visit included SKUTHORPE’S BUCKJUMPERS, described as Australia’s Greatest Devils of Horses, Mules, Ponies and Cattle next to the Town Hall; FLEET WEEK SPORTS to be held at the Parade Street Recreation Ground on Sept 14, 15 and 16, including a Tug-of-War, Longest Place Kick, Throwing Cricket Ball, Throwing the Weight, Sailors’ Race (in uniform), Sack Race, Siamese Race & High Jump; a Log Chopping and Hewing Contest; Jack Callaghan, “the Lasso King – the Rope Demon – equal to any Texan Expert Living”. Cash prizes were offered to the winners of all the competitions.

Influences of the Cruise

The cruise of the Great White Fleet had many effects. The main ones are summed up briefly as follows.

Rather than being viewed as President Roosevelt’s “big stick” to wave at Japan, official records indicate that the cruise was the act of a prudent president testing the competence of the fleet before it was called to action.

Handling the invitations for the ships to visit, as well as the fleet’s requirements at its ports of call, tested the diplomatic services.

Valuable experience was provided to the crews involved. A tight schedule was planned prior to the fleet’s departure – and kept. This was made possible by the economic use of coal, using a cruising speed of approximately half the battleships’ full speed. Maintaining this was made possible by the very careful rationing of coal stoked into the ships’ boiler furnaces.

Operating away from home required a high level of self-reliance of the ships’ engine room staffs and their ability to make repairs themselves. The number of engine room breakdowns was far fewer after the return of the fleet than during the first leg of the cruise.

Steaming at a reduced speed provided commanding and bridge watch keeping officers and staff with plenty of signalling, changing and maintaining formation, range finding and gunnery.

Chartering foreign flag colliers for refuelling was found to be extremely unreliable, particularly when the fleet was in Australasia. It brought home the reality, that unless a reliable source of re-fuelling and provisioning could be found; the fleet ran the risk of being immobile and ineffective when operating far from home.

Recommendations for the navy to operate its own colliers for its own use, was acted on after the fleet returned. However, only 7 such units were in commission at the outbreak of World War 1. The refuelling and provisioning of warships did not become fully managed by the navy until liquid fuels superseded coal.

The ready invitation of the fleet to visit New Zealand and Australia, as well as the overwhelming welcome provided by the citizens of the ports visited, certainly caused the British Government some embarrassment, but it was insufficient motivation for an effective Pacific flotilla to be supplied by the Royal Navy. This in turn was one of the main reasons for founding the Royal Australian Navy in 1911.

Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet – James R. Reckner
Navy Department Library -The Cruise of the Great White Fleet By JO2 (Journalist Second Class) Mike McKinley
Maritime Power in the 20th Century – The Australian Experience – David Stevens
Albany Advertiser – 12 September 1908
The Cruise of the Atlantic Fleet - A Condensed Log of the Cruise - Part II
Albany Advertiser – 3 April 1941
Naval Historical Society – ‘Navy-Day-by-Day (1900 – 1913)’

The Albany Historical Society sincerely thanks Maritime Research Officer Roger Cunnington for his tireless research and contribution to the White Fleet Celebrations.

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