Silencing the Enemy: Cable-cutting in the Spanish–American War

November 6, 2015

The recent New York Times article about the concerns that Russia might be prepared to cut the submarine cables carrying voice and data traffic between North America and Europe conveys the impression that this is new territory for the United States. It is, in fact, not, and as an earlier War on the Rocks article noted, it was something that the United States experienced at the hands of the Germans during World War I. But the United States has itself cut cables in wartime as a means of disrupting the ability of an enemy power to command and control its distant forces. It conducted these operations during the short Spanish-American war of 1898. These actions reflected careful and innovative thinking by naval officers about the strategic significance of a technology central to the global economy of the day.

Documents at the Naval History and Heritage Command website offer a window into the prewar planning and execution of the cable-cutting operations. In addition, a number of participants wrote first-person accounts that appeared in popular and professional journals. Lt. Cameron McRae Winslow, who commanded one of the small craft used to attack cables in the Battle at Punta de la Colorados, published his in The Century Magazine in November 1898. Also, Capt. Caspar F. Goodrich discussed his direction of the cable-cutting efforts of the auxiliary cruiser St. Louis in the United States Naval Institute’s Proceedings in 1900.

The first attacks occurred in the Philippines, as Commodore George Dewey prepared for his extended stay in Manila Bay following his defeat of the Spanish squadron there in May 1898. When the Spanish governor-general refused to grant Dewey the use of the submarine cable from Manila to Hong Kong, Dewey ordered the USS Zafiro to find and sever the cable.   Doing so denied both powers rapid electrical communications with their home countries, but Dewey could remain in contact by sending the revenue cutter McCulloch the 600 or so nautical miles to Hong Kong with dispatches. Dewey subsequently ordered the severing of another cable from Manila to Capiz, which cut the rest of the island chain off from Manila.

The more dramatic attacks on the cables were in the Caribbean theater, where Spain was dependent upon other countries for its cable communications with the colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba. Two cable connections served Puerto Rico, including one at the capital of San Juan. But Cuba’s connections were more important. On the north side of the island, Havana connected to Key West by cable, making it easy for the United States to silence that connection in Florida. On the south side, several cables linked Cuba’s ports together and connected Cuba to other islands in the West Indies. The critical node was the port of Cienfuegos. If the cables there could be cut, then Havana and the western part of the island would be cut off from Santiago in the east, and thus also cut off from Spain and the rest of the world. Cutting the cables would help to make the blockade more secure.

As Lt. Cameron McRae Winslow later recounted in his Century Magazine article, the initial strikes occurred on May 11. Raiding parties from the cruiser Marblehead and the gunboat Nashville, carried in steam cutters and oar-powered sailing launches, attempted to locate the cables near the Colorados Point lighthouse at the entrance to Cienfuegos. The raiders, a mix of sailors and Marines, brought wire-cutting pliers, axes, hacksaws, and hammers to work over the heavy shore end of the cables they would find. Meanwhile, the Marblehead and Nashville were to provide covering fire against dug-in infantry along the shoreline and attempt to destroy the hut on shore where the cable connected to the telegraph network. The crews lacked any real idea where the cables were located, and the extensive coral prevented easy dragging with grapples. After some effort, however, the crews raised the first heavy cable, which took 30 men to lift onto the steam launches. One of the launches nearly swamped when the cable caught on coral and prevented the vessel from riding the heavy waves. The crews dragged the cable into deeper water, where it took more than 30 minutes to hacksaw. The raiders had to come closer toward the shore to attack the second cable, and as the work carried on Spanish reinforcements arrived at the coast. Lt. Winslow, spotting a third cable almost by accident, decided to attack this smaller one as well, but by this time the boat crews were coming under sustained rifle fire from the Spanish Mausers. Some of the sailors and Marines returned fire, a running gun battle raging while the shells from the Marblehead and Nashville crashed into the rocky shore close enough to spray the crews with rock fragments. As the fighting had become intense, and because the third cable was not important, the raiders withdrew to safety. It is remarkable, in retrospect, that 51 of the 112 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded in the Spanish–American War went to participants in this attack.

Within days the Navy stepped up its attacks on the remaining cables. Capt. Caspar F. Goodrich, who commanded the auxiliary cruiser St. Louis, later recounted in his article for Proceedings a conversation aboard the converted warship among his officers about how to make their ship more useful in the war effort. They settled on attacking cables, something that they had not done before. On May 13, the ship dragged up the cable between Puerto Rico and St. Thomas and cut it. Five days later, the St. Louis with the assistance of the Wompatuck attacked the cables off Santiago de Cuba that connected to Jamaica, while exchanging fire with the Spanish batteries around Morro Castle. They could not find the cables connecting Santiago to Cienfuegos. Goodrich recalled:

We made altogether in the St. Louis and Suwanee no less than fourteen drives for them at points varying from just outside the harbor mouth at Santiago to ten miles distant but we never succeeded in getting the wire or bringing up anything more than the grapnel itself with its prongs straightened out like the ribs of an inverted umbrella. The Santiago-Cienfuegos cables were our conspicuous failure.

The last attacks occurred on July 7, when the St. Louis attacked three more cables in Guantanamo Bay that connected Cuba to Haiti and Puerto Rico. The auxiliary cruiser Yankee and the cruiser Marblehead provided covering fire against both shore batteries and two Spanish gunboats determined to score some successes against the attacking Americans.

The efforts by the United States to cut Spain off from all contact with her colonies was not simply a spur of the moment action by clever officers. U.S. officials had considered these moves before the war. These wartime actions would provide important precedents and lessons about the rights and responsibilities of belligerents and neutrals over submarine cables in the future. Several of the cut cables belonged to British and French companies, not the Spanish. But the value of these cables negated their presumably neutral status. Not surprisingly, the British government would accept that cutting a neutral’s cable could be a proper military measure in wartime — a right that Britain herself would want, and would use, as a belligerent in the future. The strategic importance of cutting an opponent off from the rest of the world would be one of the important lessons drawn from the war, as Capt. George O. Squier of the U.S. Army Signal Corps would describe in an article for National Geographic magazine in 1901. Cables owned and operated by the enemy would become not only targets but valuable war prizes to be kept by the winner after a war. And, dependence upon a neutral’s cable network could become a vulnerability — in the eyes of some officers, the United States would only be safe if its own cable connections to places like the newly acquired Philippines were in U.S. hands. Such precedents and lessons continue to inform thinking about the security of international communications today.

 

Dr. Jonathan Reed Winkler is an associate professor of history at Wright State University. The author of Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I, he is completing a study of U.S. efforts to coordinate commercial and military global communications networks to meet transforming strategic requirements in World War II and the early Cold War. He enjoys his Bunnahabhain neat, and recalls fondly a bartender in Edinburgh, Scotland blaming Americans for ruining perfectly good single malt scotch by always putting it on the rocks.