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The Spanish American War in Egypt

By Patrick McSherry

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Following the Spanish navy’s loss at the Battle of Manila Bay / Cavite in the Philippines, major elements of the Spanish Home Fleet under Admiral Camara were ordered to the Philippines. Tactics by the U.S. and Great Britain delayed the squadron’s passage through the Suez Canal. U.S threats to the Spanish homeland and the losses suffered at the Battle of Santiago forced the squadron to return to Spanish waters.

The Spanish American War in Egyptian Waters

Following Spain’s loss of its Philippine naval squadron at the Battle of Manila Bay / Cavite, in the Philippines, Governor-General Basilio Augustin y Davila communicated with his government in Madrid requesting reinforcement, particularly warships, to defeat Rear Admiral George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron. Spain responded by ordering a sizeable squadron to the Philippines. Included in this squadron, to be commanded by sixty-three-year-old Admiral Manuel de la Camara y Libermoore, was the battleship PELAYO and armored cruiser CARLOS V, the most powerful ships in the Spanish navy. Camara’s orders were:

“To avoid manifestly unfavorable encounters, considering as an essential point to avoid the useless sacrifice of the squadron and always to leave the honor of the troops without injury.”

These orders were rather different from those given Admiral Pascual Cervera, whose squadron was sent to Cuba. By Cervera’s his own admission in advance of its deployment that his squadron was being sent to its death.

PELAYO was the most formidable ship in the Spanish Navy. Displacing nearly 10,000 tons, almost twice that of Deweys OLYMPIA, she represented quite a threat to Dewey’s plucky squadron. Her two 320 mm guns (12.6 in.) and two 280 mm (11 in.) outsized OLYMPIA’s 8” guns considerably, which were the largest guns in Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron. The CARLOS V was also significant, displacing over 9,000 tons and armed with two 280 mm (11 in.) guns.

At the outbreak of the war, the PELAYO was undergoing a refit, and when she departed with Camara she was without the armor protection for her secondary battery. The CARLOS V was brand new and not yet operational when the war broke out. This was her first major assignment.

Joining these two vessels were a collection of other ships, including the Auxiliary Cruisers PATRIOTA and RAPIDO, the protected cruiser ALFONSO XIII, torpedoboat destroyers AUDAZ, OSADO, and PROSERPINA; transports PANAY and BUENOS AIRES, and four colliers with twenty thousand ton of coal. The ALFONSO XIII was quickly dropped from the squadron when it was found to be unfinished. The torpedoboat destroyers were intended to be with the squadron only as far as Port Said at the entrance to Suez Canal.

The squadron sortied from Cadiz on June 16, 1898. As many of the ships had fouled hulls – hulls with a growth of barnacles, seaweed, etc., their coal consumption would be higher than normal and their speed slower, both critical issues.

The squadron consisted of the following:

PELAYO – 9745 tons, main battery of two 12.6 in (320 mm) guns, two 11 in. (280 mm) guns, one 6.4 in. (162 mm) gun.

CARLOS V – 9235 tons, main battery of two 11 in. (280 mm) guns, eight 5.5 in. (140 mm) guns.

PATRIOTA – The former Hamburg-America Lines liner NORMANIA, 10,500 tons and armed with 4.7 in (120 mm) guns

RAPIDO -  the former Hamburg-America Lines liner COLUMBIA, 9500 tons and armed with 6.3 (162 mm) and 5.5 in. (140 mm) guns

PANAY (transport)

BUENOS AIRES (transport) (with the transports carrying 4,000 troops)

Four colliers

As the ships left the Atlantic and passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, the movement was reported to the U.S. government. Efforts had to be made to stop or slow Camara’s squadron to allow for Rear Admiral George Dewey in the Philippines to develop alternate plans for the defense of his Asiatic Squadron.

On receiving the data, the U.S. Navy took action and dispatched the monitors MONTEREY and MONADANOCK to Manila. However, the two vessels would have to be towed across the treacherous Pacific Ocean. This was a particular concern since the monitors had very low freeboard and low reserve buoyancy, issues typical of this class of warship – in short, they could sink much more easily than a typical warship, and the vast Pacific Ocean could be unforgiving.

As for Dewey’s options, they were limited since the Spanish squadron simply would have him outgunned and outranged. The odds were somewhat altered in that target practice training was at a higher level aboard the American ships, whereas on the Spanish navy’s budgetary constraints limited target practice. If Dewey simply decided to fight it out with the Spanish squadron, an American victory would still be unlikely. Alternately, Dewey could take the squadron into hiding in a remote bay and wait reinforcements and a chance to attack the Spanish ships piecemeal. Dewey could also take his squadron east and meet the MONTEREY, the monitor expected to arrive earliest, and then move against the Spanish, but, in spite of the MONTEREY’s two 12 inch guns and two 10 inch guns, the Asiatic Squadron would still be outgunned. He could plant his squadron in front of Manila where the guns from the city could reinforce the squadron, an action also considered by the Spanish Admiral Montojo before the Battle of Manila Bay. Montojo had rejected the idea so as to avoid loss of life in the city. None of these options were good. Without more firepower, Dewey’s situation was untenable.

The U.S. and Great Britain – the latter looking out for its own interests by supporting the U.S. – independently got to work to slow Camara’s squadron’s progress towards the Philippines. The Spanish squadron headed east across the Mediterranean and would have to pass through the Suez Canal. Knowing that the lifeblood of the warship was coal and that, since only one warship would be allowed to traverse the Canal at a time – a fifteen to twenty hour journey – Camara probably planned to recoal at Port Said at the entrance to the canal. Both the U.S. and Great Britain took advantage of this situation. The deputy U.S. consul general, Ethelbert Watt, purchased all available coal supplies, including coal for which Spain had issued contracts but for which it had not yet paid. The U.S. took the initiative to buy up all available coal along the remainder of the route to the Philippines. Camara had four colliers, and could live off of the coal contained in them for some time if needed, but a threat to Spanish squadron’s coal supply could not be taken lightly. Given the fouled hulls of some of the Spanish ships, and the inability to recoal enroute to the Philippines, coal supplies could be an issue in the long term for the Spanish as they advanced on the Philippines.

Great Britain, which controlled the Egyptian government, caused Egypt to stringently enforce the twenty-four hour limit on how much time the Spanish ships could stay at Port Said according to neutrality laws. Great Britain also had Egypt inform Camara that the Spanish vessels, as a nation at war, could not recoal even from its own colliers in Egyptian waters. Again, this just created more issues for Camara, but did not stop the squadron’s move east.

Camara’s squadron slowly passed through the canal. As one ship traversed the canal in fifteen to twenty hours, the completion of the passage was wired back to Port Said and the next warship began its journey through the canal. Finally, by July 5, the entire squadron was through the canal, with the exception of the AUDAZ, PROSPERTINA and OSADO, which Camara had decided in advance to leave behind, perhaps to save on coal.

Meanwhile, the U.S. took more decisive action to the stop the eastward movement of the squadron. On June 27 the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, John Long, ordered the formation of the “Eastern Squadron” to be commanded by Commodore John Watson. Watson had commanded the Cuban blockading force up to that time. The Eastern Squadron, initially to consist of the battleships IOWA, and OREGON, as well as the auxiliary cruisers YANKEE, YOSEMITE and DIXIE, was to cross the Atlantic and threaten the Spanish homeland, the defenses of which were lowered by the departure of Camara’s squadron. At the same time that the orders were issued to form the squadron, the news was purposely leaked to Spain via William Sims, a naval intelligence officer stationed in Paris.

With the loss of Admiral Pascual Cervera’s squadron at the Battle of Santiago on July 3, the need for Camara’s squadron for the defense of the Spanish homeland became all the more critical. Though Camara’s squadron had finally cleared the Suez Canal on July 5, on July 7 it received orders to return to Spain. The threat to Dewey and the Asiatic Squadron had be averted. The Eastern Squadron continued to exist on paper, though the ships assigned to it varied. Since Santiago, Cuba soon surrendered and negotiations for an armistice were soon underway, the Eastern Squadron was never physically formed as it was no longer needed.

With the return of Camara’s squadron to Spain, the Philippines would not be reinforced. The Spanish Governor-General of the Philippines, Basilio Augustin y Davila realized his predicament, and shortly entered into negotiations with Dewey regarding the surrender of Manila.

Aguilera A., "Pelayo," Buques de la Armada Espanola. (Madrid, 1969) 338, 343.

McSherry, Patrick, “Watson, John Crittenden,” Encyclopedia of the Spanish American and Philippine American Wars. Vol 2 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2009) 692

Mollan, Mark C., “Eastern Squadron” Encyclopedia of the Spanish American and Philippine American Wars. Vol 1 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2009) 193-194

Nofi, Albert A., The Spanish-American War, 1898 . (Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books, 1996) 273, 282, 283, 310-311, 330.

Tucker, Spencer, “Camara y Libermoor, Manuel de la,” Encyclopedia of the Spanish American and Philippine American Wars. Vol 1 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2009) 85.
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