Unlike their Mediterranean competitors the Turks had no established maritime culture. To become an Admiral in the Turkish fleet required no prior naval experience and the post would often be given to a governor of a coastal province. Similarly, captains and crew were not trained sailors. The captains typically rose through the ranks, from a crew that would also have had little previous nautical knowledge having been recruited through the levy of young men from the regions in the same way as the army. The only requirements to man the oars were regarded to be strength and health. On the other hand, tending the rigging and sails was a skilled job, so the riggers were usually levied from coastal areas where they might be assumed to have some knowledge of ships. Europeans regarded the Ottoman navy as inefficient, but when in 1539 the Turks had to recruit 23,538 oarsmen for a fleet of 150 ships it would be impractical for all of these to be experienced sailors. Criminals and prisoners-of-war were also used to make up the numbers. The Imperial galleys would also carry a complement of around sixty troops.
Typically, Italian galleys had around twenty-five pairs of oars, one oar per man, supported by an outrigger, with two to three rowers sharing the same bench. This method, alla sensile, favoured by the Venetian Republic, required skill, and the oarsmen were often professional free men. Other less democratic regimes preferred the use of slaves, convicts or prisoners of war and a simpler method was developed known as al scaloccio, where all the rowers on the bench pulled the same oar. The skill of the oarsmen was matched by their shipwrights, who were so skilled that using a forerunner of modern assembly-line techniques they could assemble a galley in a day. The final development of this type of vessel was the galleass, a low vessel of over 200 tons, rowed by more than 200 galiotes and carrying as many armoured soldiers. The merchant Richard Chiswell (1696) described seeing a galleass under construction in the Venice arsenal; ‘they are very great and unwieldy Vessels, carrying 700 Soldiers and Seamen, beside 300 rowers, and are mounted with 32 brass demi canon.’ An even larger ship, as the name implies, was the gallygrosse. As the oars grew larger they required more men to manipulate them, rising to as many as seven, and they were grouped together in threes. By the 16th century the increased numbers required meant that even the Venetians had to resort to the use of slaves.
The advances in naval technology and warfare were spurred on by the great age of global maritime exploration and discovery during the 15th and 17th centuries. By the end of the 16th century, the requirements of protecting their colonial interests in the Americas and fighting off English buccaneers meant the Spanish had to maintain two largely separate fleets, one in the Atlantic mainly of large ocean going and heavily gunned sailing ships, and one in the Mediterranean, where naval warfare had hardly advanced, still reliant on the fighting galley.
A portent of things to come, which went largely unheeded at the time, came during the Holy League’s defeat by the Ottomans at the Battle of Preveza (1538) when the cannon of a great Venetian galleon soundly repulsed the enemy’s galleys. The two great naval encounters of the century epitomised the difference between the Mediterranean and Atlantic methods of warfare. At the Battle of Lepanto (1571) the Spanish and their allies of another Holy League took on the Ottoman navy in the last great battle using oared galleys, and won; in 1588 the galleons of the Spanish Armada took on the English sailing ships in the Channel, and lost. The lesson was that, by maintaining two distinct types of fleet in each theatre meant that they had fallen behind the technical advances of the English who had developed faster, more manoeuvrable ships capable of carrying heavier guns. The English seamanship and gunnery was also superior, and utilising the latest tactics that took advantage of the wind and deploying the ships in a line (hence ‘ships of the line’) they could fire devastating broadsides from distance, negating the need to board the enemy ship. This success of a smaller organised navy over larger opponents finally swayed the balance towards sail. Although Lepanto did not end Ottoman dominance in the eastern Mediterranean, their continued reliance on galleys meant they fell behind western advances. The new English and Dutch warships that began to penetrate the Mediterranean were far superior, so much so that in 1607 the privateer Sir Thomas Sherley boasted that one English warship could defeat ten Turkish galleys. To face the increased western threat, the Turks had to modernise, but to make such large-scale changes meant levying an extraordinary tax burden on its population fostering discontent and unrest. The easier course of action was to avoid naval confrontations.
Before the arrival of the English and Dutch, an important tactic of galley warfare was to attempt to separate the quicker galley from its slower moving escort under sail. To counter this, hybrid vessels were developed that combined sail and oars. These hybrids found particular favour among the pirates who continued to plague the Mediterranean, and the Barbary pirates of the north African coast developed their own version of a galliot or half-galley known as the fusta. Light, narrow, and nimble it was typically powered by up to thirty-six rowers per side, two to a bench, and one or two lateen sails. Like a traditional galley, it was the oarsmen’s job to bring the ship in and out of harbour and to engage with the enemy in battle when manoeuvrability was needed, while the sails could be used to save the rowers’ energy. With its shallow draft it was perfect for coastal waters, where it could hide ready to pounce on any passing ship, and combined with its speed and mobility, and its up to ten small calibre cannon, it was ideal for both war and piracy. The fusta was used by Barbarossa and his brothers in their conquest of Algiers, which they eventually handed over to the Turks, and it continued to be used by other north African corsairs to terrorise Christian shipping and the islands and coastal areas during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Ottomans found it useful, particularly in the west, to augment their navy by co-opting the Barbary pirates into their ranks.
Whereas the Atlantic navies had developed tactics designed for naval warfare, the opposing commanders at Lepanto, who were better versed in land warfare, had treated their fleets like armies. They required their oars-men to manoeuvre their ships into position facing one another and then proceeded to slug it out. The only sophistication was to attempt to outflank the enemy or to make a breakthrough, which was achieved by having the fleets line up abreast or in a crescent formation. A hundred years on, the innovations of the 16th century had changed the nature of naval warfare considerably. Now that the gun batteries were universally deployed on the sailing ships’ sides, the ‘line ahead’ formation, all the ships in a line, had become the default. The line of attack was now sideways for maximum deployment of the guns rather than prow ahead for ramming or for a boarding bridge. The continued use of galleys by the Venetians and Turks meant they presided over an ever-diminishing sphere of influence, while the Atlantic powers were becoming global operators.
This did not mean the Mediterranean was entirely forgotten, the Spanish and the French had seaboards in both seas and by the mid-17th century their rivals, the British, confirmed their desire to be a permanent presence there by establishing a Mediterranean Station or Fleet. This became firmly established by the capture of Gibraltar, which became its base, in 1704, formalised by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Such successes during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) left Britain as the strongest European naval power. It may not have had a standing army; but, as other nations invested their money elsewhere, it maintained a permanent professional fleet, with a bureaucracy housed in the Admiralty, in the belief that it would guarantee its future liberty and its greatness. Britain enjoyed its role of pre-eminence in the Mediterranean until mid-century when it was challenged by a resurgent France.
The British may have had more ships, manned by first class crews, but complacency had let them be overtaken by the French in warship design. The French began building larger two-decked ships capable of delivering a heavier broadside than its equivalent 74-gun British third-rate ship (ship of the line). With a state of the art hull, it was faster and more seaworthy, but it had disadvantages. Its rigging was inferior and it could not withstand an enemy barrage as effectively. The race was on to develop a hybrid ship that combined speed, manoeuvrability and firepower with the durability and internal strength, and the cheapness, of the British ship. The result was the new 74-gun ship introduced in 1755 that combined the speed and power of the French ship with the robustness of the British model. At the Battle of the Nile, thirteen out of Nelson’s fourteen ships would be these 74s. The personnel were modernised too, introducing more formalised ranks, and conditions for the men, particularly provisions, improved. This did not mean men were no longer press-ganged (forced compulsory service) in times of war; the practice continued until 1815.
A favoured policy of the British during the wars with France that followed the French Revolution was the use of the ‘open blockade’ to confine the enemy fleet in harbour. This required the crews to spend many days of inactivity afloat. Despite the improvements, conditions for the ordinary sailor were often harsh, and the strains imposed on them during the long years of the French wars came to a head in a series of mutinies, the most famous of which was at Spithead in 1797. After a number of demands were met by the Admiralty most of the sailors returned to their duties, but it did not quell all the discontent. The most effective officers decided that the best remedy was to keep the men active at all times. Nelson, an admirer of the ordinary seaman, was able to maintain discipline where crueller and weaker captains were not.
The British warship was a strangely egalitarian institution. Many of the officer class were of aristocratic birth, promoted through their family connections, but there was opportunity for a man of humble origins to rise up on merit. The lower deck was a community of all nations. On board the 120-gun first-rate frigate, HMS Caledonia, which took part in the blockade of Toulon in 1814, there were Swedes, Frenchmen, Portuguese, North Americans, Brazilians, Germans, Italians, Russians and Africans. In the novel Mr Midshipman Easy (1836), Captain Marryat describes his fictionalised experiences aboard the frigate HMS Imperieuse, commanded in the Mediterranean by the colourful Thomas Cochrane between 1806–8. The young 17-year old midshipman is taken under the experienced protection of Mesty, ‘a great man in his country’, who after coming to Britain to escape slavery has enlisted in the Royal Navy. He may have found freedom, but despite his admirable qualities of bravery and leadership there is a limit to equality. Mesty is given limited responsibility, but it is Easy who will be promoted to captain.
Nelson was not only a great leader but also a tactical innovator. He believed that if his subordinates were well briefed he could rely on them using their own initiative to seize the moment, giving him greater flexibility while remaining in control. His favoured method was simple enough, to attack ‘from to-windward’, i.e. with the wind behind, and then to break through the enemy line. At the Battle of the Nile this meant that as the leading ships at the front of the French line were being attacked those at the back were unable to tack up-wind in time to help them. The victory re-established British supremacy in the Mediterranean and with the addition of Malta, which became the Royal Navy’s principle base there, the British sphere of influence had moved further east.
By the early-19th century the Ottoman navy had begun to modernise. They were still using galleys when their fleet was crushed by the Russians at Chesme (1770), an encounter notable for the use of fireships. Fireships had a long history, they had been used to great effect by the English against the Spanish at the time of the Spanish Armada, but by the early 1800s their use had gone out of fashion in Western navies. When the Greeks rose up in revolt against their Ottoman masters in 1821, they pitted their meagre resources against the might of an Empire. Their small navy of mainly converted merchant ships were challenging a far larger and superior fleet for dominance in the Aegean. To help their land army they blockaded ports and one of the tactics they resorted to was the use of the fireship. The Western allies were then somewhat taken aback when the Ottomans deployed fire ships against them at the Battle of Navarino, no doubt prompted by their successful use by the Greek rebels. This time the tactic gained the Turks little. The allied victory was the last major battle fought completely between traditional wooden sailing ships; steam ships were used in addition to sailing ships by the Russians and Turks at the Battle of Sinop (1853) during the Crimean War.
The ‘long peace’ (a misnomer because there is always a war somewhere) between the Napoleonic and First World wars did not mean that the countries, particularly the great powers, neglected their armed forces. For the British this primarily meant the navy, but all the naval powers embarked on a fierce competition to out-do one another. The first steam-powered warship, the Demologos, was a floating battery used to protect New York harbour from the British during the Anglo-American war of 1812, and the Royal Navy began to experiment with a number of small steam warships from the 1820s. Ironically it was the Greek irregulars that deployed the first steamship in war. The Perseverance, built in Deptford in 1826 under the instruction of the English Philhellene Frank Abney Hastings, was renamed the Karteria and under his command it successfully took part in a number of engagements during the Greek War of Independence. Thomas Cochrane, who was now employed by the Greek navy, ordered five more steam-powered warships from London but due to delays two arrived too late to take part, while the other three never made it. The deployment of the Karteria was so effective that George Finlay wrote in his History of the Greek Revolution (1861):
The battle of Salona afforded the most satisfactory proofs of the efficiency of armament of steam-boats, with heavy guns, which Captain Hastings had so long & warmly advocated. The terrific & rapid manner in which a force so greatly superior to his own was utterly annihilated by the hot shot & shells of the ‘Karteria’ silenced the opponents of Captain Hastings’s plan throughout all Europe. From that day it became evident to all who studied the progress of naval warfare, that every nation in Europe must adopt his principles of marine artillery, & arm some vessels in their fleets on the model he had given them.
Steam was the future and with the introduction of the Paixhans naval gun by the French in 1824 the days of the wooden sailing ship were numbered. Explosive shells, fired at a high trajectory and low velocity from howitzers or mortars, had only been used in ground warfare until this point. Naval guns required a flat trajectory and for some time cannon balls had been augmented by canister shot, a container filled with small metal balls that burst open upon firing giving the effect of a shotgun. The Shrapnel shell invented in 1784 was a development of canister, using a time fuse to break it open over the target. The Paixhans gun’s ability to fire explosive shells at a flat trajectory was used for the first time by the Russians to devastating effect on Turkish wooden ships at Sinop. The first steam ships used paddles for propulsion, but by mid-century the paddle had been superseded by the screw propeller, which gave more space amidships and better scope for the firing of broadsides.
The race was now on between Britain and France, each trying to outdo the other. The French took the lead when they launched the first ‘iron-clad’, Gloire, in 1859, but it was soon followed by the improved British ship, Warrior (1860), larger and built of iron rather than ironclad. The ironclads were first tried out in battle off the Dalmatian island of Lissa in 1866 when the Austrians defeated a larger Italian force. With its occupation of the Dalmatian coast Austria, later Austro-Hungary, had become an increasingly important player in the Mediterranean since the end of the 18th century, and the Regia Marina, had been formed in 1861 on the unification of Italy. The Battle of Lissa was the united Kingdom of Italy’s naval baptism of fire. The ironclads still had some features of the old galleys; they carried sails in case of need and they had a ram shaped bow. Lissa was the last naval battle to feature ramming as a tactic; while the mast was phased out, its success meant the ram shaped bow remained a feature for the next fifty years of warship design.
As Alfred Thayer Mahon pointed out, there were similarities between steam power and the galley as opposed to sail; both can move in any direction independent of the wind. The wind could also cause high waves, rendering the lowest gun deck out of action. During the American Civil War warships were deployed with guns in armoured turrets to considerable advantage, but this development was impractical for sailing ships and by 1870 sails were being abandoned altogether. Manoeuvrable turrets also meant the abandonment of guns along the ships’ sides on a number of decks. This gave the steamship the ability to both attack head-on and to deliver a broadside as a ship of the line.
To protect its interests overseas Britain was prepared to back up its concerns with a show of naval force. The term ‘gunboat diplomacy’ became common usage for interference by the imperial powers in lesser nation’s affairs after Lord Palmerston despatched a naval squadron in 1850 to protect a Gibraltarian British citizen from rioting in Athens. During the controversial action known as the ‘Don Pacifico Affair’ the gunboats blockaded Piraeus and bombarded Athens. Britain’s confidence in its navy meant it was not only able to protect its citizens wherever and whoever they were but also able to impose its will. In the Mediterranean it protected the Italian leader Giuseppe Garibaldi during his revolt that would lead to Italian independence; it maintained the balance of power between Russia and Turkey; and it assisted in the annexing of Egypt to ‘protect’ the Christian population and look after European interests.
By the turn of the century the arms race, which had led to the development of ever more powerful guns, better armament and bigger ships, culminated in the launching of the Dreadnought in 1906, the fastest and best armed ship afloat. From now on every other navy would be measured by how many dreadnoughts they could build. The dreadnoughts were followed by ‘super-dreadnoughts’, and so on, and by 1914 the Royal Navy had forty dreadnoughts and battlecruisers carrying more accurate 15-inch guns. Meanwhile a new force was rising in the East and the Japanese had shown the accuracy of their guns utilising their own new director system in their victory over the Russians at Tsushima in 1905.
Torpedo boats and submarines had been in development since the early 19th century. In the War of 1812 the Americans used torpedoes, i.e. a bomb on the end of a pole, to ram the British ships, but the modern self-propelled torpedo was perfected by the English engineer Robert White-head in 1866 from an Austro-Hungarian design. It was first used in the Russo-Turkish War of 1878, the fallout from which procured independence from the Ottoman Empire for the Balkan states of Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, autonomy for Bulgaria and handed Cyprus over to the British. Initially the use of torpedo boats against battleships was slow to find favour, but they would come into their own during the Second World War.
The first successful use of a submarine to sink an enemy ship was during the American Civil War. The French were the first to substitute mechanized power for human propulsion in 1863 and the installation of the Whitehead torpedo turned the submarine into a viable weapon (the last Whitehead torpedo was used operationally in Norway in 1940) but it would take almost fifty years of development before the submarine came into widespread naval use. By 1914 the German navy was leading in submarine technology and the U-boat was ready to emerge into the mythology of the two World Wars.
The British battle fleet formation of 1914, favoured by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, was based around the dreadnoughts at the centre proceeded by a mobile squadron of cruisers for scouting, with further forward the light cruisers to make contact with the enemy, all protected by flotillas of destroyers to ward off U-boat torpedo attacks. It was highly organised and rigidly planned, the antithesis of Nelson’s system. After the great fleets of Germany and Britain had barely came into contact in the Atlantic, it was decided to send a large fleet to the Dardanelles. The battleships proved ineffective against Turkish mines and heavily defended shore batteries in their attempt to gain access to the Black Sea. Back in the Atlantic, the battle fleets finally engaged at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Although it left the British Grand Fleet heavily bruised with the loss of three battlecruisers and eleven other ships, the German ships were so badly damaged that they had to remain in harbour for weeks. As a result, the Germans decided to rely on their submarines and it became the Royal Navy’s turn to enforce a blockade on Germany.
The First World War saw the introduction of many of the elements that would play a more significant role when war resumed in 1939: convoys of merchant ships with naval escort, the depth charge, asdic for the detection of submarines, naval aircraft. Flying boats or aircraft launched from cruisers were used for bombing and reconnaissance, or in the Mediterranean with limited success to make torpedo attacks. In 1918, HMS Argus became the first carrier able to launch and retrieve aircraft, and in 1924, the year of the formation of the Fleet Air Arm, it was followed by the Hermes, the first purpose-built full-length aircraft carrier. But in the inter-war period it was the USA and the Japanese who were the front-runners in the development of aircraft carriers.
In 1922, the naval powers, Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the USA, signed the Washington Treaty, an agreement limiting the construction and number of warships of each nation. This effectively ended Britain’s supremacy as a naval power. Matters reached a low ebb for the Royal Navy when, during the austerity of the 1930s, wages and conditions had deteriorated so much that the ratings mutinied. Despite the Washington Treaty other navies, particularly Japan and Germany were modernising and expanding and the Royal Navy was no longer able to intervene as before in world affairs, standing by as Mussolini used the Suez Canal to transport his troops for the invasion of Abyssinia. By the end of the 1930s Britain had reversed its policy and began to reinvest in the navy, making it still the largest in the world, with more battleships and aircraft carriers than any other, but outnumbered in each ocean and sea.
The British went into World War II trusting that the concept of the battle fleet still held good. Germany’s attempt to starve out Britain by submarine attack on the convoys had failed, and, it was believed, would do so again. The greater threat was thought to be the German ‘pocket battleships’, heavily armed but theoretically lightly built to be in accordance with the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles (1919). Britain also relied on its soft power, the bases and financial links around world and its control of fuelling stations and sea-lanes for merchant shipping. In the Mediterranean this meant Gibraltar, Malta and Suez, which enabled it to put pressure on neutral trading nations and to starve out belligerent ones. But the nature of warfare was about to change significantly; it would be mass bombing and the importance of air cover that would dictate the course of events and without aerial support both armies and navies would struggle. Although submarines (and frogmen with mini-submarines favoured by the Italians) would play their part, air supremacy would prove more decisive. Germany relied heavily on its U-boats in both wars, but lost even though their submarines were undefeated. It was the failure of the Luftwaffe that was the real blow.
James Sommerville, commander of Force H in Gibraltar and a veteran of the First World War, was initially sceptical as to the use of naval aircraft and the deployment of aircraft carriers, but after the success of the air attack from the carrier HMS Illustrious on the Italian fleet at harbour in Taranto, the first of its kind, he changed his mind. As Admiral Andrew Cunningham, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, was to put it: ‘Taranto, and the night of 11–12 November 1940, should be remembered for ever as having shown once and for all that in the Fleet Air Arm the Navy has its most devastating weapon’.
Communications had improved considerably since 1918, allowing aerial reconnaissance and bombardment to become more effective. As the Italian and German airbases were within range of Malta they were able to bomb the island and to harry the Mediterranean convoys, making it necessary for the RAF and Fleet Air Arm to give both protection and to support offensive actions. The combination of the possibility of attack by submarines and aircraft forced a change in naval tactics. The line-ahead and ‘ship of the line’ was abandoned in favour of close defensive formations, with aircraft carriers and other essential ships protected by a ring of gun-ships and torpedo boats reminiscent of the ancient Greek tactic of the kiklos, a circular formation with all the warships with their prows turned outward employed 2,500 years earlier.
The air attack from the carrier HMS Illustrious on the Italian fleet at harbour in Taranto.