Shore Bombardment

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Or the shore bombardment of Tripoli during the First Barbary War

Bombardment of shore positions from the sea. This strategy began early in naval history, probably first with arrows and catapults. The introduction of guns at sea dramatically changed its impact. In the late seventeenth century the French employed a specially designed bombardment vessel, the galiote à bombe, an ideal gun platform for this purpose. Five of these ships participated in a highly successful shelling of Algiers in 1682 in which the forts were destroyed and more than 700 people killed. The success of these vessels again at Genoa in 1684 led the British to build their own bomb vessels.

Warships specially designed for shore bombardment were known in England as bomb ketches, bomb brigs, bombards, or simply bombs. The British deployed a few of these vessels to America during the War of American Independence. They might employ carronades and howitzers, but their principal armament was 1 or more 10- or 13-inch mortars. In 1804 U.S. Navy Commodore Edward Preble employed two bomb vessels against Tripoli.

Sometimes the mere threat of shore bombardment of a city was sufficient to produce capitulation. In May 1780 the leading citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, insisted on capitulation to the British rather than see their city destroyed by naval gunfire, and in 1898 Admiral George Dewey’s threat to bombard Manila brought about that city’s capitulation during the Spanish-American War.

Ship bombardment of shore positions was not always so successful. In 1801 the British sent a fleet to Copenhagen under Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. Admiral Horatio Nelson took most of the ships in close, where, although victorious, they were much cut up by land batteries and Danish ships anchored in broadside. In 1807, when the English again attacked Copenhagen, the fleet remained at longer range and employed Congreve rockets, fired from specially designed craft, to set portions of the city on fire and bring about a Danish capitulation.

The British experienced a costly lesson in the effects of ship-to-shore bombardment against Turkey in 1807, when Admiral Sir John Thomas Duckworth attempted to capture the Turkish fleet. His dilatory advance to Constantinople allowed the Turks time to mobilize, and Sultan Selim III rejected his ultimatum. In short order the Turks collected guns along the shore and opened fire on the British ships. Duckworth’s vessels sustained considerable damage, and he withdrew, although his ships suffered further damage in repassing the Dardanelles. British efforts in 1814 to subdue Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 were likewise unsuccessful (although this battle did produce the national anthem for the United States).

Shore bombardment was largely ineffective during the 1853–1856 Crimean War, especially in the October 1854 bombardment of Sevastopol. The French and British fired 700 tons of shot from 500 guns, but the Russian forts remained in action. Three new French ironclad steam batteries, operating at close range, had considerably greater success in October 1855, reducing the Kinburn Forts in an estuary at the mouth of the Dnieper and Bug Rivers.

During the United States Civil War, the U.S. Navy carried out a number of shore-bombardment missions. In February 1862 Union ironclads had success against the Confederate Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, but this fort was poorly sited at the water’s edge. When the same vessels attempted a few days later to subdue Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, the ships took a tremendous pounding from Confederate positions high on a bluff, the projectiles striking the ships’ armor at right angles. The ships were damaged and driven off. Despite high hopes that the new Union Monitor ironclad vessels would be successful in bringing about the surrender of Charleston, South Carolina, an April 1863 attack on that city by nine monitors was defeated by well-sited shore batteries, which badly damaged the attackers.

Early in the war the U.S. Navy also took delivery of at least 200 13-inch iron mortars. These guns were mounted aboard specially built barges and employed on the Mississippi River against Island No. 10, Fort Pillow, and during the Vicksburg campaign. They were also placed aboard converted schooner gunboats for the bombardment of Forts Jackson and St. Phillip at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Despite their frightful noise and explosive effect, the mortars were not terribly accurate and had little effect in these battles.

The British also discovered the difficulties of reducing land forts in their attack on Alexandria, Egypt, in July 1882. Although finally successful, the ships had to move in closer than originally planned. The bombardment also showed, as did that of Charleston in 1863, that ships alone were not sufficient to subdue well-sited forts and that landing parties would have to go ashore to secure them if they were in fact abandoned.

This lesson was forgotten during World War I, when in 1915 the British tried to force the Dardanelles with naval power alone. The battleships had trouble reaching behind the hills with flat-trajectory guns and in any case could not subdue the mobile howitzers, which were unable to hurt the battleships but did wreak havoc among the minesweepers. Ultimately troops had to be sent out, but by that time the Turks were prepared, and the Gallipoli campaign was a failure, ending in the evacuation of the troops. World War I also saw special monitors utilized for shore-bombardment purposes.

Shore bombardment was critical during World War II in both the European and Pacific theaters. The Allied landings on Sicily in July 1943 received critical help from naval gunfire.

Clearly the troops who landed at Salerno, Italy, in September 1943 suffered from the lack of preliminary bombardment. Allied warships, especially destroyers, had to be brought close to shore to engage German shore batteries, tanks, and infantry. On 13–14 September a German counterattack threatened a breakthrough, but naval gunfire helped turn the tide. It has been estimated that during the Salerno operation Allied warships delivered more than 11,000 tons of shell in direct support of the troops ashore. Destroyers also got in very close to duel with German shore positions during the June 1944 Normandy landings, and in the case of the American landing at Omaha Beach their fire—delivered at point-blank range—may actually have saved the landing.

In the Pacific theater shore bombardment was a vital part of U.S. operations against Japanese-held islands. The big battleships, with their 14- and 16-inch guns, proved highly effective in a shore-bombardment role. The Americans learned early on that longer preliminary bombardments were necessary, followed by close gunfire support from destroyers and larger vessels during the actual landings and once troops were ashore. Toward the end of the war, Japanese defenders countered by conceding the beaches to the attackers.

Shore bombardment was also important to United Nations forces during the Korean War, especially given the fact that Korea is a peninsula. Fire from the battleships, which could range out to 20 miles or more, was extraordinarily accurate. The battleship New Jersey and cruisers played an important similar role during the Vietnam War. During the 1991 Gulf War, the battleships Missouri and Wisconsin fired 1,102 of their 16-inch shells in support of the ground campaign.

Ships working close to shore are now vulnerable to a variety of defensive countermeasures, including missiles. As a consequence more stand-off weaponry, such as cruise missiles, has been employed. These highly accurate weapons were used with great effectiveness both in the 1991 Gulf War and in the 2000 campaign against Serbia.

No matter its form, it is unlikely that the need for some sort of shore bombardment will ever disappear as long as the necessity of landing troops on hostile territory remains.


Goodwin, Peter. The Bomb Vessel Granado, 1742. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989.

Muir, Malcolm, Jr. The Iowa Class Battleships: Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri & Wisconsin. Poole, Dorset, UK: Blandford Press, 1987.

Tucker, Spencer C. Handbook of 19th Century Naval Warfare. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 2000.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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