A Motley Crew in the American Revolution


In October 1765 a mob of sailors wearing blackface and masks, and armed with clubs and cutlasses, visited the home of wealthy Charleston merchant Henry Laurens. Eighty strong and warm with drink and anger, they had come to protest the Stamp Act, recently passed by Parliament to raise tax revenues in the American colonies. Responding to the rumor that Laurens had stored in his home the stamped paper everyone would be forced to buy in order to conduct the business of daily life, they chanted, “Liberty, liberty, and stamped paper!” and demanded that he turn it over so that they could destroy it in an act of defiance. Laurens was rattled, as he later explained: they “not only menaced very loudly but now & then handled me pretty uncouthly.” Finally convinced that Laurens did not have the paper, the men dispersed across the waterfront, shedding their disguises and straggling into the smoky taverns and bare boardinghouses, onto the damp wharves and creaky ships.

Their protest had consequences. Parliament, taken aback by colonial protests, would soon repeal the Stamp Act. And in Charleston, one thing led to another, as a mob met in January 1766 to cry again for liberty. This time the protesters were African slaves, whose action caused greater fear and “vast trouble throughout the province.” Armed patrols stalked the city’s streets for almost two weeks, but the tumult continued. Since Charleston’s harbor was crowded with ships, the seafarers were soon “in motion and commotion again,” styling themselves, said a cynical Laurens, the “Protectors of Liberty.” South Carolina governor William Bull looked back over the events of late 1765 and early 1766 and blamed Charleston’s turmoil on “disorderly negroes, and more disorderly sailors.”

Laurens and Bull identified a revolutionary subject, often described by contemporaries as a “motley crew.” Rarely discussed in the American Revolution, the history of the motley crew extends from the piracies of the 1710s and 1720s to the slave revolts and urban insurrections of the 1730s and 1740s. The defeat of these movements allowed slavery and maritime trade to expand, as gangs of slaves extended plantation acreage and gangs of sailors manned ever-growing fleets of naval and merchant vessels. Britain confirmed its place as the world’s greatest capitalist power by defeating France in the Seven Years’ War in 1763, protecting and expanding its lucrative colonial empire and opening vast new territories in North America and the Caribbean for the hewing of wood and the drawing of water. And yet at the very moment of imperial triumph, slaves and sailors opened a new cycle of rebellion.

Operations on sea and land, from mutiny to insurrection, made the motley crew the driving force of a revolutionary crisis in the 1760s and 1770s. They helped to destabilize imperial civil society and pushed America toward the world’s first modern colonial war for liberation. By energizing and leading the movement from below, the motley crew shaped the social, organizational, and intellectual histories of the era. Their stories demonstrate that the American Revolution was neither an elite nor a national event, because its genesis, process, outcome, and influence depended on the circulation of proletarian experience around the Atlantic. Such circulation would continue into the 1780s, as the veterans of the revolutionary movement in America would carry their knowledge and experience to the eastern Atlantic, initiating pan-Africanism, advancing abolitionism, and helping to revive dormant traditions of revolutionary thought and action in England and Europe more broadly. The motley crew would help to break apart the first British empire and inaugurate the Atlantic’s age of revolution.

Two meanings of “motley crew” appear in this chapter. The first meaning refers to an organized gang of workers, a squad of people performing similar tasks or performing different tasks contributing to a single goal. The gangs of the tobacco and sugar plantations were essential to the accumulation of wealth in early America. Equally essential were the crews assembled from the ship’s company, or ship’s people, for a particular, temporary purpose, such as sailing a ship, making an amphibious assault, or collecting wood and water. These crews knew how to pull together, or to act in unison, not least because they labored beneath the whip. The first meaning, then, is technical to plantation and seafaring work. The economies of the eighteenth-century Atlantic depended on this unit of human cooperation.

The second meaning describes a social-political formation of the eighteenth-century port city. “Motley crew” in this sense was closely related to the urban mob and the revolutionary crowd, which, as we shall see, was usually an armed agglomeration of various crews and gangs that possessed its own motility and was often independent of leadership from above. It provided the driving force from the Stamp Act crisis to the “Wilkes & Liberty” riots, to the series of risings of the American Revolution. The revolts of the eighteenth-century Atlantic depended on this broader social form of cooperation.

To say that the crew was motley is to say that it was multiethnic. This was characteristic of the recruitment of ships’ crews since transoceanic voyaging began with Columbus and Magellan. Its diversity was an expression of defeat—consider the deliberate mixing of languages and ethnicities in the packing of slave ships—but defeat was transformed into strength by agency, as when a pan-African, and then African American, identity was formed of the various ethnicities and cultures. Originally “ethnic” designations, such as the “free-born Englishman,” could become generalized, as shown by the case of the African sailor Olaudah Equiano.

This chapter will show how the second (political) meaning emerges from the first (technical) one, broadening the cooperation, extending the range of activity, and transferring command from overseers or petty officers to the group. We will observe the transition from one to the other in the actions of the motley crew in the streets of the port cities. As sailors moved from ship to shore, they joined waterfront communities of dockers, porters, and laborers, freedom-seeking slaves, footloose youth from the country, and fugitives of various kinds. At the peak of revolutionary possibility, the motley crew appeared as a synchronicity or an actual coordination among the “risings of the people” of the port cities, the resistance of African American slaves, and Indian struggles on the frontier. Tom Paine feared precisely this combination, but it never materialized. On the contrary, the reversal of revolutionary dynamics, toward Thermidor, shifted the milieu of the motley crew, as refugees, boat people, evacuees, and prisoners became the human form of defeat.


Sailors were prime movers in the cycle of rebellion, especially in North America, where they helped to secure numerous victories for the movement against Great Britain between 1765 and 1776. They led a series of riots against impressment beginning in the 1740s, moving Tom Paine (in Common Sense) and Thomas Jefferson (in the Declaration of Independence) to list impressment as a major grievance. Their militancy in port grew out of their daily work experience at sea, which combined daring initiative and coordinated cooperation. Sailors engaged in collective struggles over food, pay, work, and discipline, and brought to the ports a militant attitude toward arbitrary and excessive authority, an empathy for the grievances of others, and a willingness to cooperate for the sake of self-defense. As Henry Laurens discovered, they were not afraid to use direct action to accomplish their goals. Sailors thus entered the 1760s armed with the traditions of what we call “hydrarchy,” a tradition of self-organization of seafaring people from below. They would learn new tactics in the age of revolution, but so too would they contribute the vast amount they already knew.

Part of what sailors knew was how to resist impressment. This tradition had originated in thirteenth-century England and continued through the Putney Debates and the English Revolution, into the late seventeenth century, with the expansion of the Royal Navy, and on to the eighteenth century and its ever-greater wartime mobilizations. When, after a quarter century’s peace, England declared war against Spain in 1739, sailors battled and often defeated press gangs in every English port. Fists and clubs flew in American ports as well, in Antigua, St. Kitts, Barbados, Jamaica, New York, and New England. Admiral Peter Warren warned in 1745 that the sailors of New England were emboldened by a revolutionary heritage: they had, he wrote, “the highest notions of the rights and liberties of Englishmen, and indeed are almost Levellers,” referring to one of the most radical groups of the English Revolution.

During the 1740s sailors began to burn the boats in which press gangs came ashore to snatch bodies, cutting their contact with the man-of-war and making “recruitment” harder, if not in some cases impossible. Commander Charles Knowles wrote in 1743 that naval vessels pressing in the Caribbean “have had their Boats haul’d up in the Streets and going to be Burned, & their Captains insulted by 50 Arm’d Men at a time, and obliged to take shelter in some Friends House.” After Captain Abel Smith of the Pembroke Prize had pressed some men near St. Kitts, a mob of seamen “came off in the road and seized the Kings boat, hawled her up . . . and threatned to burn her, if the Captain would not return the Prest Men, which he was obliged to do to save the Boat, & peoples Lives, to the great Dishonour of Kings Authority (especially in Foreign Parts).” These attacks on the property and power of the British state were intimidating: by 1746 the captain of HMS Shirley “dared not set foot on shore for four months for fear of being prosecuted . . . or murdered by the mob for pressing.”

The struggle against impressment took a creative turn in 1747, when, according to Thomas Hutchinson, there occurred “a tumult in the Town of Boston equal to any which had preceded it.” The commotion began when fifty sailors, some of them New Englanders, deserted Commander Knowles and HMS Lark. In response, Knowles sent a press gang to sweep the Boston wharves. A mob of three hundred seamen swelled to “several thousand people,” seized officers of the Lark as hostages, beat a deputy sheriff and slapped him into the town’s stocks, surrounded and attacked the provincial council chamber, and posted squads at all piers to keep naval officers from escaping back to their ship. The mob soon faced down Massachusetts Governor William Shirley, reminding him of the murderous violence visited upon sailors by the press gang in 1745 and threatening him with the example of Captain John Porteous, the despised leader of Edinburgh’s City Guard, who after murdering a member of a protesting crowd in 1736 was seized and “hanged upon a sign post.” Governor Shirley beat a hasty retreat to Castle William, where he remained until the riot ran its course. Meanwhile, armed sailors and laborers considered burning a twenty-gun ship being built for His Majesty in a local shipyard, then picked up what they thought was a naval barge, carried it through town, and set it aflame on Boston Common. Commodore Knowles explained their grievance:

The Act [of 1746] against pressing in the Sugar Islands, filled the Minds of the Common People ashore as well as Sailors in all the Northern Colonies (but more especially in New England) with not only a hatred for the King’s Service but [also] a Spirit of Rebellion each Claiming a Right to the same Indulgence as the Sugar Colonies and declaring they will maintain themselves in it.

As sailors defended liberty in the name of right, they captured the attention of a young man named Samuel Adams, Jr. Using what his enemies called “serpentine cunning,” and understanding “Human Nature, in low life” very well, Adams watched the motley crew defend itself and then translated its “Spirit of Rebellion” into political discourse. He used the Knowles Riot to formulate a new “ideology of resistance, in which the natural rights of man were used for the first time in the province to justify mob activity.” Adams saw that the mob “embodied the fundamental rights of man against which government itself could be judged,” and he justified violent direct action against oppression. The motley crew’s resistance to slavery produced a breakthrough in revolutionary thought.

Adams thus moved from “the rights of Englishmen” to the broader, more universal idiom of natural rights and the rights of man in 1747, and one likely reason why may be found in the composition of the crowd that instructed him. Adams faced a dilemma: how could he watch a crowd of Africans, Scotsmen, Dutchmen, Irishmen, and Englishmen battle the press gang and then describe them as engaged simply in a struggle for “the rights of Englishmen”? How could he square the apparently traditional Lockean ideas in his Harvard master’s thesis of 1743 with the activities of “Foreign Seamen, Servants, Negroes, and other Persons of mean and vile Condition” who led the riot of 1747? The diversity of the rebellious subject forced his thought toward a broader justification. Adams would have understood that the riot was, literally, a case of the people fighting for their liberty, for throughout the eighteenth century the crew of a ship was known as “the people,” who once ashore were on their “liberty.”

The mass actions of 1747 moved Adams to found a weekly publication called the Independent Advertiser, which expressed a remarkable, even prophetic variety of radical ideas during its brief but vibrant life of less than two years. The paper reported on mutiny and resistance to the press gang. It supported the natural right to self-defense and vigorously defended the ideas and practices of equality, calling, for example, for popular vigilance over the accumulation of wealth and an “Agrarian Law or something like it” (a Digger-like redistribution of land) to support the poor workers of New England. It announced that “the reason of a People’s Slavery, is . . . Ignorance of their own Power.” Perhaps the single most important idea to be found in the Independent Advertiser appeared in January 1748: “All Men are by Nature on a Level; born with an equal Share of Freedom, and endow’d with Capacities nearly alike.” These words reached back exactly a century to the English Revolution and the Levellers’ Agreement of the People, and simultaneously looked forward to the opening words of the Declaration of Independence of 1776.

Another connection between 1747 and 1776 appeared in Jonathan Mayhew’s sermon A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers, delivered and published in Boston in early 1750. The eminent clergyman delivered his sermon at a time when the riot and its consequences were still on the minds of towns-people, especially the traders and seafaring people who made up his own West Church. By 1748 Mayhew’s preachings were considered heretical enough to get one listener, a young Paul Revere, a whipping by his father for his waywardness. By early 1749 Mayhew was tending toward what some saw as sedition, saying that it was not a sin to transgress an iniquitous law, such as the one that legalized impressment. Mayhew defended regicide in his sermon of January 30, the anniversary of the execution of Charles I, which was to him no day of mourning but rather a day for remembering that Britons will not be slaves. Like Adams before him he argued passionately for both civil disobedience and a right to resistance that utilized force; indeed, passive nonresistance, Mayhew claimed, was slavery. Mayhew’s influential defense of the right to revolution could not have been made without the action of the riot and its discussion among Sam Adams and the readers of the Independent Advertiser.

The ideas and practices of 1747 were refined and expanded during the 1760s and 1770s, when Jack Tar took part in almost every port-city riot, especially after the end of the Seven Years’ War (1763), when the demobilization of the navy threw thousands out of work. For those who remained at sea, the material conditions (food, wages, discipline) of naval life deteriorated, causing many to desert. The Admiralty responded with terror. In 1764 deserters John Evans, Nicholas Morris, and John Tuffin took seven hundred lashes on the back; Bryant Diggers and William Morris were hanged. Admiral Alexander Colvill admitted that these were, for desertion, “the most severe punishments I ever knew to have been inflicted.” Such deadly punishments at sea imparted a desperate intensity to shoreside resistance once the press gang resumed its work.

Sailors revived their attack on the king’s naval property. They recaptured pressed men, forced naval captains to make public apology, and successfully resisted efforts in court to convict any member of the mob of wrongdoing. Soon after, another mob of maritime workers in Casco Bay, Maine, seized a press boat, “dragged her into the middle of Town,” and threatened to burn it unless a group of pressed men were freed. In Newport in 1765 a mob made up of sailors, youths, and African Americans seized the press tender of HMS Maidstone, carried it to a central location in town, and set it ablaze. As popular antagonism toward the customs service rose in the late 1760s, sailors began to attack its vessels. Thomas Hutchinson wrote that in Boston in 1768, “A boat, belonging to the custom-house, was dragged in triumph through the streets of the town, and burnt on the Common.” Seamen threatened or actually torched other vessels belonging to the king in Wilmington, North Carolina, and in Nevis in 1765, in Newport again in 1769 and 1772, and twice in New York in 1775. Sailors thus warned local leaders not to sign press warrants as they twisted the longest and strongest arm of state power.

In the late 1760s sailors linked movements in England and America by engaging in revolts that combined workers’ riots over wages and hours with protests about electoral politics (“Wilkes and Liberty,” in which the London mob supported John Wilkes, the journalist and ruling-class renegade, in his battles with King and Parliament). The sailors of London, the world’s largest port, played leading roles in both movements and in 1768 struck (took down) the sails of their vessels, crippling the commerce of the empire’s leading city and adding the strike to the armory of resistance. Seamen’s strikes would subsequently appear on both sides of the Atlantic with increasing frequency, as would struggles over maritime wages, especially after the reorganization of British customs in 1764, when officials began to seize the nonmonetary wages of seamen, the “venture” or goods they shipped on their own account, freight free, in the hold of each ship. In leading the general strike of 1768, sailors drew upon traditions of hydrarchy to advance a proletarian idea of liberty. One writer, looking back on the uprising, explained: “Their ideas of liberty are the entering into [of] illegal combinations.” Such combinations were “a many headed monster which every one should oppose, because every one’s property is endangered by it; nay, the riches, strength, and glory of this kingdom must ever be insecure whilst this evil remains unchecked.”

Sailors also continued the struggle against impressment, battling the press gangs in the streets of London in 1770 (during the war against Spain) and 1776 (during the war against the American colonies, not a popular cause among sailors). “Nauticus” observed the clashes between seamen and the navy in London in the early 1770s and wrote The Rights of the Sailors Vindicated, in which he compared the sailor’s life to slavery and defended the right to self-defense. He echoed the Putney Debates more than a century earlier when he imagined a sailor asking a magistrate, “I, who am as free-born as yourself, should devote my life and liberty for so trifling a consideration, purely that such wretches as you may enjoy your possessions in safety?” Like Sam Adams, Nauticus went beyond the rights of Englishmen, pitting the rights of private property against common rights and the “natural rights of an innocent subject.” John Wilkes also began to argue for the right to resist impressment in 1772.

The motley crew helped to create an abolitionist movement in London in the mid-1760s by setting in motion the eccentric but zealous Granville Sharp, who became one of slavery’s most implacable foes. The key moment was a meeting in 1765 in a queue at a London medical clinic between the obscure, flinty clerk and musician, Sharp, and a teenager named Jonathan Strong, formerly a slave in Barbados who had been pummeled by his master into a crippled, swollen, nearly blind indigent. Sharp and his brother, a surgeon, nurtured him back to health, but two years later his former master imprisoned and sold him. To prevent such inhumanity, the African sailor Olaudah Equiano pushed Sharp to study the law and the writ of habeas corpus, the most powerful legacy of the “free-born Englishman,” because it prohibited imprisonment or confinement without due process of law and trial by jury, and thus might be employed against impressment and slavery alike. Sharp believed that the law should be no respecter of persons and concluded in 1769 that “the common law and custom of England . . . is always favourable to liberty and freedom of man.” He was especially moved by the struggles of black sailors on the waterfront; he used habeas to defend several who struggled to resist reenslavement, often by the press gang. Sharp won a lasting victory in his legal defense of James Somerset in 1772, which limited the ability of slaveowners to possess and exploit their human property in England. Habeas corpus, however, was suspended in 1777, although not without opposition. Meanwhile, the police magistrate, John Fielding, founded the “Bow Street Runners,” an urban metropolitan parallel to the notorious slave “padrollers” of the southern plantations. He paid close attention to the motley crew in London and observed their westward circulation back to Caribbean insurrections.

Sailors and the dockside proletariat attacked slavery from another angle in 1775, when they went on strike in Liverpool, as three thousand men, women, and children assembled to protest a reduction in wages. When the authorities fired upon the crowd, killing several, the strike exploded into open insurrection. Sailors “hoisted the red flag,” dragged ships’ guns to the center of the city, and bombarded the mercantile exchange, leaving “scarce a whole pane of glass in the neighborhood.” They also trashed the property of several rich slave-trading merchants. One observer of the strife in Liverpool wrote, “I could not help thinking we had Boston here, and I fear this is only the beginning of our sorrows.”

There was a literal truth to the observation that Boston, the “Metropolis of Sedition,” had popped up in English ports on the eve of the American Revolution. An anonymous eyewitness noted that multiethnic American sailors “were among the most active in the late tumults” of London in 1768. They were “wretches of a mongrel descent,” the “immediate sons of Jamaica, or African Blacks by Asiatic Mulatoes.” When such seamen chanted “No Wilkes, No King!” during the river strike of 1768, they displayed the independent revolutionary spirit that informed their actions ocean-wide. An escaped indentured servant named James Aitken, better known as “Jack the Painter,” took part in the Boston Tea Party, then returned to England to wage revolutionary arson in 1775 against the king’s ships and shipyards, for which he was captured and hanged. The mobility of sailors and other maritime veterans ensured that both the experience and the ideas of opposition carried fast. If the artisans and gentlemen of the American Sons of Liberty saw their struggle as but “one episode in a worldwide struggle between liberty and despotism,” sailors, who had a much broader experience of both despotism and the world, saw their own as part of a long Atlantic struggle between slavery and freedom.


The French Navy in Norway

Starboard broadside view of Le Triomphant manning the rails

French destroyer Le Malin underway c1940

The French part in this campaign consisted in sending to Norway, via the British Isles, a total of approximately 25,000 men, 1,200 draft animals, 1,700 vehicles, 170 guns, and 12,000 tons of supplies. That at least was what was routed through the port of Brest for Greenock, the improvised base in Scotland, between April 15 and May 8. But there was time only to send some 15,000 men on to Norway before the expedition was cancelled and the country evacuated. To escort and transport these troops and their supplies, there was assembled 6 fine auxiliary cruisers, 13 passenger liners, and 23 cargo ships, each of which was equipped with antiaircraft guns (25-mm. and 40-mm.) before leaving Brest. The requisitioning of that many ships strained the national shipping program which was necessary to support the whole wartime economy of France. Since the original plan called for sending over a third French division of approximately 12,000 men, the English promised to provide the necessary transport. When they were unable to do so, the French had to choose between providing the additional shipping for Norway and suspending a good part of the vitally important traffic between North Africa and the French homeland. The plan for sending the additional division was therefore abandoned.

In the man-of-war category the French Navy at one time or another had the following ships engaged in the Norwegian campaign: one cruiser (which was replaced by another when the first was damaged by an enemy bomb), six super-destroyers (two of which were sunk), five destroyers, six auxiliary cruisers, three fleet-tankers, two base repair and supply ships, two patrol vessels, and a hospital ship. At the same time, in the North Sea but operating under orders of the British Admiralty, there were thirteen French submarines and their tender, which, along with the super-destroyers, took effective part in the war against the German lines of communications.

The opening of the Norwegian campaign required the movement of all the Allied dispositions to the north. The English plunged into the Skagerrak, where they carved out some fine successes for themselves at the expense of the German invasion transports. The zones assigned to French ships—notably the approaches to the Heligoland Bight—proved less rewarding, though no less dangerous. French submarines in those waters were detected on a number of occasions, and were hunted and depth charged by the German patrols. In general, they came out of it well. The Calypso, caught in an antisubmarine net, managed to free herself; in a cruise of 10 days at sea she had to run submerged for a total of 187 hours. Human errors compounded the risks, while real opportunities for a shot at the enemy were rare. Only the Orphée succeeded in getting in two shots at a surfaced German U-boat, which, however, avoided them by putting her helm hard over.

Special attention must be made of the bold patrols carried out by French 1,500-ton submarines—such, for instance, as that of the Casabianca, which penetrated far into enemy-held Norwegian fjords. It was the same with the activities of the minelaying Rubis. On three separate occasions—May 8, May 27, and June 9—she skillfully planted her mines in the channels used by the Germans along the Norwegian coast. The first field was laid to the south of Egersund, the second off Bleivik, and the third in Hjelte Fjord, one of the entrances to Bergen. Inasmuch as the Rubis was at sea on this operation on June 4, when the others were recalled to France by Italy’s imminent entry into the war, she did not return with the squadron. It was because of the strong urging of the British that she stayed on to lay a fourth minefield—this one off Trondheim, on June 26, only eight days before the sad affair at Mers-el-Kebir—and that the Rubis became one of the first units of the Free French Naval Forces.

To upset the German antisubmarine dispositions, which were causing both the French and British trouble off the Skagerrak, the British Admiralty planned to stage a destroyer raid in these waters. But the Commander in Chief of the British Home Fleet opposed the raid as being too risky in light of the enemy’s air capabilities. It was finally decided to send in a division of French super-destroyers, whose high speed would permit them to go in and still get clear of the most dangerous areas before daylight.

Leaving Rosyth, the super-destroyers Indomptable, Malin, and Triomphant, of 3,200 tons each, and all capable of making 40 knots, crossed the North Sea during the day and swept the Skagerrak as far east as the longitude of Hamburg, which point they reached at 0100 the next morning without having sighted a thing. Reversing course and increasing speed to 34 knots, they had a brief engagement around 0300 with some German motor torpedo boats and two patrol trawlers. One of the latter was hit, but succeeded in escaping behind a smokescreen. One or two of the motor torpedo boats were also thought to have been hit and set on fire, but postwar information proved this erroneous. During the remainder of the morning, and despite the presence of British fighter planes, the super-destroyers were bombed by German planes, frequently at close range, but succeeded in returning safely to base. The only casualty was a propeller shaft on one of the ships which was thrown slightly out of line by a near miss.

The French Admiralty proposed that the super-destroyers be sent back immediately for another raid, but the British High Command preferred to employ them in Norway. They accordingly remained in the north until the threat of war in the Mediterranean obliged their recall.

Meanwhile, in accordance with the original plan of the campaign, a British brigade had made an initial landing at Namsos on April 17. Two days later Rear Admiral Jean Cadart’s three auxiliary cruisers—El Djezair, El Mansour, and El Kantara—approached the small harbor under strong escort. They carried three rifle battalions with their light equipment—in all, 3,000 men and 500 tons of supplies. During the course of the afternoon they were subjected to repeated enemy air attacks, during one of which the cruiser Emile Bertin, acting as protective screen, was hit and forced to retire. Because of the constant bombing, Admiral Cadart’s cruisers could remain in the harbor only during the three or four hours of darkness, but they succeeded in unloading all their troops and all the supplies onto the docks. Neither troops nor material were to remain there very long, however.

On April 22 the auxiliary cruiser Ville d’Alger arrived with reinforcements—1,100 men. A snowstorm and the damaged docks prevented her going alongside, and unloading had to be carried out by small boats. In order to clear the harbor before daylight the Ville d’Alger had to leave with 350 men, all the transport mules, and most of the antiaircraft guns still on board. However, on April 27 three daring French cargo ships succeeded in landing more food supplies, gasoline, 25-mm. guns, ammunition, etc. Unfortunately all this material was bombed and set on fire by German planes almost as soon as it was landed, thus depriving the troops ashore of material with which they might have been able to hold on.

Before these last ships could leave the harbor, even, the word was given that Namsos was to be evacuated. Taking on board 1,000 men, the ships got under way once again and managed to return home comparatively unharmed, despite a vigorous harassing pursuit by the German bombers.

The task of evacuating the remainder of the landing force was entrusted to a British cruiser and Admiral Cadart’s three auxiliary cruisers, the El Djezair, El Mansour, and El Kantara. Since the Ville d’Alger had been disabled in her last trip to Norway, these three ships, plus the British cruiser York, left from Scapa Flow and reentered the Namsos rattrap at 2300 on the 2nd of May. The city as well as the docks was still smoking from the previous bombing, and leaping flames occasionally reddened the night.

Reembarkation of personnel was begun immediately; there was no thought of trying to bring off any of the equipment. All that could be done with this was either to blow it up or to dump it into the sea.

As day broke, the troops already embarked grew nervous and impatient to get under way. But gray-bearded Admiral Cadart coolly made an inspection round of the whole dock area to make sure that all the British rear guard troops were off. Finally the ships pulled out, loaded with 1,850 French troops, 2,354 British, and a few Norwegians—plus 38 German prisoners.

The return trip was a nightmare. The German air attacks were continuous. A German dive bomber succeeded in hitting the super-destroyer Bison (Captain Jean Bouan, the 11th Destroyer Division Commander). The Bison’s magazines exploded. From the Montcalm, flying Admiral Derrien’s flag, one of the Bison’s 138-mm. guns, with its crew, could be seen flying high in the air. The survivors were picked up by a British destroyer, which itself was sunk only two hours later. Later on, what remained of the Bison’s survivors barely missed being wrecked still a third time—an experience which the participants would never forget.

The other Norwegian landings were the primary concern of the British, since their main objective was Narvik, the northern terminal of the iron ore traffic to Germany. This port was still held by 2,000 German soldiers, reinforced by some 1,800 sailors from the crews of the destroyers sunk there by the British on the 10th and 13th of April, plus 600 or more soldiers brought in by plane—a total of some 4,400 men.

As an opening move, a powerful British surface and naval air force clamped a tight blockade on Ofot Fjord, leading Narvik. Three English battalions had already been landed outside the port, but though they had the assistance of some Norwegian troops, they had made no headway. The terrain inland was broken, rugged, desolate, and still covered with snow. To assist in the Narvik operation the British Command called in two French forces: one consisting of three battalions of “Blue Devils” (Alpine mountain troops), and the other of two battalions of the Foreign Legion and four of Polish depatriated troops—a total of 11,800 men, with 2,000 tons of light equipment. The heavy equipment was following in many cargo ships.

Notwithstanding frequent enemy air attacks, the landings were carried out under far better conditions than those at Namsos—the only ship casualty was one French super-destroyer slightly damaged. The difficulties were mainly material in origin, rather than human: wharves too short, with no unloading facilities; a shortage of charts and pilots; and the irritating loss of anchors and anchor chains in very deep water. The Alpine troops were landed on the last two days of April, the Foreign Legion and the Poles on the 9th and 10th of May.

On May 27, a grand combined attack of the British Naval Forces, commanded by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cork and Orrery, and the French troops, commanded by General Marie Béthouart, drove the Germans out of Narvik with heavy loss. To the Norwegians was given the honor of being the first to enter the recaptured city. Only the two senior commanders knew, however, that for the past 24 hours they had carried in their pockets the order to blow up the port installations and to evacuate Norway.

As has been said earlier, the Norwegian operation was undertaken chiefly as a diversion—a flank movement permitting the utilization of naval forces not employed elsewhere—and the whole concept had been based on the supposed impregnability of the Maginot line. But 15 days before, the Germans had broken through this front and the sweep of their armored divisions threatened to encircle the whole left wing of the Allied armies. At the very hour when General Béthouart was making his entry into Narvik, almost 500,000 French and British soldiers stood compressed into the Dunkirk pocket.

Béthouart’s few thousand men would have made no difference at Dunkirk, even if they could have been transported there. However, their continued operation in Norway served no useful purpose, either. Furthermore, a declaration of war by Italy was imminent, and France had need of every man, gun, ship, and plane for the defense of the homeland.

The Allied troops at the Narvik bridgehead—24,000 men in all—were evacuated from northern Norway on June 8. Part of these French troops, in addition to those in Scotland who had not yet been transshipped to Norway, were still in Britain during the tragic days of the armistice.

Offhand, the whole Norwegian expedition would seem to have been a defeat for France and Britain. The objective of cutting Germany’s iron ore route was not realized. Instead, it was the Germans who, by capturing Norway, would for a long time deprive England of her share of the Swedish exports. And the tragedy of it all was that the results might have been reversed if the expedition had not been delayed for five fatal days by the bickering over Mr. Churchill’s pet scheme of sowing the Rhine with river mines.

Yet, there were a few bright entries on the opposite side of the ledger, too. The damages and losses suffered by the German Navy were far greater comparatively than those suffered by the Royal Navy—a fact which was to be enormously important to Britain in the future. And these German Navy losses7 at this particular time did not encourage it, in case there had been such a thought, to operate in the lower North Sea on the right flank of the German armies during those critical last days of the Battle of France.

Germany’s naval casualties were 3 cruisers, 10 destroyers, 4 submarines, 1 gunnery training ship, and 10 small ships lost; and the battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau damaged. British ship casualties were 1 aircraft carrier, 1 cruiser, 7 destroyers, 3 submarines, 1 sloop, 1 antiaircraft escort ship, and 14 trawlers lost, plus 1 Polish destroyer. French casualties were 2 super-destroyers (the Bison, lost under the circumstances already stated, and the Maillé-Brézé, destroyed at Greenock on April 30 by the explosion of one of its torpedoes). Despite Germany’s Air Force and submarines, not one single British or French troop transport was sunk.

One of the most revealing aspects of the Norwegian campaign was the complete degree of collaboration achieved between the British and French Navies. It was during this campaign that the British Admiralty, fully occupied in northern waters, proposed that the French Navy assume responsibility for the Mediterranean.8 Never in history had there been more cordial relations than those established in the battle area of the sea off Norway. Not merely was this collaboration in the technical field, but in the far more important field of human relations—the spirit of comraderie between the French officers and their brethren of the Royal Navy. Whether they sailed with the Home Fleet or on escort duty off the fjords of Norway, French and British ships, side by side, learned to sustain and to parry the fierce attacks of Germany’s formidable Air Force.

The proposal was presented by the British on April 16, and the French Admiralty immediately gave its agreement. But at a meeting of the Interallied Supreme Command on April 23, it was decided to maintain the status quo.

Top 10 myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada encounter of 1588 was undoubtedly an important and fascinating battle. However, even today it is frequently surrounded by common myths and confusions that date back to Victorian Era days. The battle itself was followed by 16 years of land and naval war between England and Spain in which the Spanish were mostly successful and renewed their control over the high seas, a basic fact that many texts and popular accounts often fail entirely to mention. Spain retooled its navy and shipped three times as much silver in the 1590s as before. The Spanish invasion force, moreover, was never referred to (by Philip or anyone else in Spain) as the “Invincible Armada”; medical resources on the Spanish coast were mobilized with surprising rapidity and effectiveness to tend to sick and wounded returning sailors in 1588, suggesting that the Spaniards very much were prepared for the potential failure of the Spanish Armada and run-ins with rough weather. These are just a few of the common myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada battle; a list of the “Top 10” myths is compiled and tackled below.

Please feel free to quote from, print, and cite the text below as, Top 10 myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada, history’s most confused and misunderstood battle,” by Wes Ulm, Harvard University personal website, © 2004.

(1a) Myth: The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was a decisive victory for the English that marked England’s triumph in its war with Spain. Spain never again tried to land forces in England after that, failed in its bid to end English buccaneering against Spanish treasure ships, and challenged England only on land, not at sea.
(1b) Fact: False on all counts. The Spanish Armada confrontation was not at all decisive; it was merely an early sea battle in a long, intermittent, but often grinding land and naval war between England and Spain that lasted from 1585 until 1604. As I’ll discuss below, Spain defeated England in most of the land and naval battles after the Armada and won a favorable treaty in 1604. Spain, in fact, dispatched three more Spanish Armadas in the 1590s that were dispersed by storms. Furthermore, in 1595, the Spanish, in fact, did succeed in landing troops in western England, where they attacked and burned several towns before disembarking, as will be detailed below (myth #10a). Of all the common Spanish Armada myths, this one—the failure to even acknowledge the most basic, incontrovertible fact of the war that was waged between England and Spain after the Armada—has always stricken me as the most puzzling. It’s akin to teaching the history of the US Civil War and halting at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, or discussing the Second World War and stopping at the Fall of France in 1940, without mentioning the Battles of Midway, El Alamein, Guadalcanal, or the D-Day Normandy invasion at all! A grossly misleading, terribly incorrect impression of the conflict is thereby imparted. The key here is to recognize that the Spanish Armada was merely one battle, an early one in a long war; this simple fact is often unrecognized and unacknowledged, contributing to many of the other common myths.

(2a) Myth: The defeat of the Spanish Armada was the beginning of England’s control of the high seas. Spain never recovered from the Spanish Armada fiasco and relinquished control of the ocean lanes to the English. England’s status as mistress of the seas would be unchallenged for centuries as the British Empire grew in size, and the vaunted English navy could trace its dominance of the sea lanes to the Spanish Armada’s defeat in 1588.
(2b) Fact: One of the most common statements about the Spanish Armada, and one that is totally false. Spain recovered quickly from the Armada debacle and defeated England on land and at sea in multiple military engagements in the decade following the Spanish Armada. (In fact, an English Armada sent in 1589, the year after the Spanish Armada, suffered a crushing defeat against Spain, just as its Spanish counterpart did against England in 1588.) One of the most important consequences of the Spanish Armada was that it altered assumptions about naval warfare, since the English at Gravelines had opted for smaller, rapidly reloading, more maneuverable light coastal defensive ships in place of the heavy ocean-going galleons with single-firing cannon (followed by seize-and-grapple tactics) used by Spain. The most eager students of the English naval innovations and tactics were… the Spaniards. Philip’s post-Armada squadrons were much more agile and nimble than those prior to it. The Spaniards developed and implemented an efficient convoy system that enabled them to ship three times as much gold and silver from the Americas after the Spanish Armada than before it—indeed, Spain transported more precious metals in the decade of the 1590s than in any other! England’s buccaneering sea dogs were no longer able to raid Spanish treasure transports effectively, a fact that was underscored by the complete failure of a privateering expedition by Sir John Hawkins and Sir Martin Frobisher in 1589-1590 against Spanish shipping. Furthermore, both John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake—the most famous of England’s privateering pirates—were killed in a disastrous raid against Spanish America in 1595, a multi-pronged attack against Spanish colonies in the Americas that was anticipated and utterly crushed by Spanish defenses, one of the worst defeats that the English navy would ever suffer. Spain’s post-Armada navy was retooled and expanded, and Spain ruled the waves for most of the 1600s; in contrast, by the last year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, England remained relatively weak as a sea power, and its maritime strength during the early years of the Stuart Dynasty (James I and Charles I in the early 1600s) grew only gradually and haltingly. When Spain was finally replaced as a naval bellwether in the late 17th century, it was the Dutch who assumed the mantle of dominant sea power, defeating England in several Anglo-Dutch Wars of the late 1600s. Only in the mid-1700s does England truly emerge as the naval power controlling the sea lanes, after victories in consecutive Anglo-French wars (including the famous French and Indian War with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the victory that finally enabled England to dominate North America and spread its empire on a global scale).

(3a) Myth: Spain was eclipsed as a great power following the Spanish Armada, sinking into insolvency and rapid decline, while England became rich, prosperous, and powerful.
(3b) Fact: Spain definitely did not slip into insignificance following the Armada defeat. As noted above, Spain in fact defeated England on land and at sea in numerous battles of the decade after the Spanish Armada and retained substantial influence over affairs in Europe and the Americas well into the 1600s. Crushing debt afflicted both Spain and England as a result of their war; by the close of Elizabeth I’s reign, the English were nearly £3,000,000 in debt and had sold offices and crown lands to avoid slipping further, and Spain’s Philip II had declared several bankruptcies in parallel. In addition to the exorbitant expenses in the conflict against Spain, the English were dragged into a draining, costly, inconclusive guerrilla war against Ireland from 1594-1603 led by an Irish lord named Hugh O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone. Late Elizabethan England also suffered crop failures, famines, and plagues that engendered severe poverty in much of the country. Most importantly, the continuation of the war with Spain drained English financial resources and hindered trade, leaving a severe financial burden for the Stuart kings of the early 1600s. This debt, in conjunction with the Stuarts’ profligacy, would contribute to the crisis between monarch and Parliament which caused the English Civil War of the mid-1600s, a particularly bitter and bloody conflict that would split the nation. As for Spain, the nation was eventually crippled in the late 1600s by internal corruption, failures in its monarchical system— marked by feeble rulers with a propensity to play favorites and indulge prodigally in festivities— and severe inflation caused in part by its precious metals shipments from the New World. However, in a military sense, the most decisive defeats it suffered were in the Battles of Rocroi and Passaro against the French in the 30 Years’ War (1618-1648), not the English. It was these land defeats that most severely enfeebled Spain as a European power, enabling the French to replace Spain as Europe’s dominant nation during the reign of Louis XIV.

(4a) Myth: The British Empire—in the sense of the long-term settlement and colonization of distant overseas territories—was initiated following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, since settlement was now finally opened up to the English and other northern Europeans.
(4b) Fact: Not by a longshot. Once again, we have to remember that the war dragged on unsuccessfully for England after the Spanish Armada, and the country’s resources and seafaring vessels had to be spared for the conflict against Spain. The failure of the English Armada in 1589, an English-led expedition to Spain and Portugal, frustrated attempts to break Spain’s naval power, and the material, financial, and human cost of this defeat prevented expeditions to North America—probably contributing to the failure of the Roanoke Colony in what is now Virginia in the United States, which had been attempted in the 1580s but from which there were no survivors. When the Treaty of London in 1604 officially ceased hostilities between Spain and England (the treaty having been signed by England’s King James I, who had succeeded Elizabeth in 1603), England lacked a permanent settlement in the Americas or anywhere else. It was only after this negotiated peace that England was finally freed to begin colonization, following on the heels of Spain, Portugal, and France.
(5a) Myth: Spain’s King Philip II craved nothing less than the wholesale conquest of England with the Spanish Armada, and the annexation of the island country as a colony of New Spain. England would have been converted into a Catholic nation and, had the Spanish Armada been successful, we’d all be speaking Spanish today.
(5b) Fact: Philip II had relatively modest goals with the Spanish Armada and never intended to “conquer England,” let alone convert the English populace to Catholicism en masse or compel them to speak Spanish. As I discuss in more detail below in this article’s main text, Philip’s center of attention was on the European Continent—in fact, his principal enemies were the Protestant rebels from the provinces of the Netherlands, then a part of Spain, as well as Protestant French Huguenots and Portuguese nationalists who opposed Philip’s annexation of Portugal in 1580. England was more peripheral to Philip’s scheme, and his objective with the Armada was chiefly to stop England from interfering with Philip’s central aims elsewhere—namely, to cease English military and financial support of the Dutch insurgents (whom the Protestant English had been assisting considerably) and to halt English buccaneer attacks on Spanish treasure ships. Philip certainly did seek to win tolerance for English Catholics and restore them to a more exalted status but, as discussed in the text, conditions in England since Henry VIII’s break with Rome had rendered it virtually impossible for Philip or anyone else to have forced England to convert back into a Catholic country. There was no viable Catholic replacement for the Protestant Elizabeth I since Mary Queen of Scots had been executed in 1587. Moreover, Spain’s problems in the Netherlands, the logistical issues posed by England’s location as an island nation, and the experience of Spain’s invading armies on the Continent clearly indicate that even an entirely successful Spanish Armada invasion in 1588 would have had little cultural effect on England.

(6a) Myth: In the Battle of Gravelines, the chief confrontation between the English defensive fleet and the Spanish Armada, the English won a stunning underdog victory, having been outnumbered and outgunned by the vastly more imposing Spanish Armada fleet.
(6b) Fact: The English were neither outnumbered nor outgunned at the Battle of Gravelines, as is so often claimed. There was a rough parity in the sizes of the fleets; Spain had more bulky galleons, but England had more total ships in the water.

(7a) Myth: The Battle of Gravelines was a titanic clash on the high seas, one of the largest and most extraordinary naval battles in history. The English ships inflicted heavy damage on the Spanish Armada vessels while suffering little of their own, sinking a large number of Spain’s ships and forcing the Spaniards to flee.
(7b) Fact: The Spanish Armada battle at Gravelines itself was definitely not a titanic naval clash, but a short, inconclusive, rather anticlimactic encounter between two large fleets, both of which committed major blunders and neither of which damaged each other significantly. It’s true that the Spanish Armada caused little damage to the English ships, but then, neither did the English ships cause much harm at all to the Spanish fleet, as discussed in the main text below. It was an unusually ferocious September Atlantic storm as the Spanish vessels were rounding the tip of Ireland, that damaged and/or sank most of the Spanish Armada ships that did not return to port, either directly or in compelling the vessels to beach on the rocky Irish coast. Most of Spain’s casualties from the Spanish Armada invasion resulted when sailors died of or were incapacitated from disease and exposure, not from battle wounds. In any case, most of the Spanish Armada ships did manage to return to port in Spain or Portugal. Many of the lost ships had already been in a state of disrepair, while Philip II’s crucial Atlantic class vessels—the most seaworthy in the Spanish Armada and designed for oceanic traversal, the key to Spain’s New World empire and the newly conquered Philippines archipelago in the Pacific Ocean—returned to the Iberian Peninsula largely intact. In fact, excellent seamanship was displayed by both the English and Spanish sides in their encounter, and it is quite remarkable that the Spaniards did not suffer greater losses considering the unremittingly powerful storm they had encountered.

(8a) Myth: The Spanish Armada was dubbed “the Invincible Armada” (La Armada Invencible) by an overconfident, swaggering King Philip II of Spain and his advisors, having been so nicknamed since they all assumed that the Armada was so strong that it could never be defeated by the English.
(8b) Fact: This tale is repeated with bewildering frequency—and it’s utterly, absolutely false. The Spanish Armada was never, ever referred to by King Philip or his Spanish ministers as “the Invincible Armada” (“La Armada Invencible”); this term was an English invention, not a Spanish one, used by English historians who later described the battle, yet the term is frequently attributed to the Spaniards incorrectly. In fact, the rapid mobilization of Spanish resources upon the return of the Armada ships to harbor in Spain lucidly demonstrates that the Spaniards had been very much prepared for the Armada’s potential failure. Populations in coastal towns were rapidly drafted and quickly responded to aid the often injured and seasick sailors; food supplies, hospital beds and equipment, and physicians were immediately and efficiently mustered for the Spanish Armada’s crews, saving hundreds of lives.

(9a) Myth: The English suffered barely any casualties at all in the Spanish Armada encounter, celebrating their victory with great revelry following the departure of the Armada fleet from England’s coastal waters.
(9b) Fact: The English themselves suffered thousands of casualties among their sailors in the Spanish Armada engagement due to exposure and outbreaks of infectious disease, and the battle’s aftermath was characterized not by celebration but by finger-pointing, infighting, and bitter protestations when many sailors were not compensated for months.

(10a) Myth: After the Spanish Armada’s failure to invade England, the Spaniards were never able to successfully land troops on English soil. This was a continuation of England’s long and remarkable defensive tradition, in which no hostile military force has ever succeeded in landing troops on the territory of the English island mainland since the Norman Conquest.
(10b) Fact: Not true! The claim that England has never suffered a hostile landing since 1066 is repeated with extreme frequency; and it also happens to be inaccurate. That’s because in 1595, a Spanish force led by Don Carlos de Amesquita managed to achieve just that, even though the Spanish soldiers had not intended such a landing initially. Amesquita’s small force had been patrolling the waters of the English Channel when they encountered a scarcity of potable water. Navigating the rough and fickle winds in the Channel, Amesquita’s troops were blown ashore near Cornwall on the western English coast. The Spaniards easily intimidated or defeated local militia resistance and set fire to much of Penzance and surrounding localities while plundering the hamlets for whatever victuals, nautical aids, and freshwater supplies that they could find. Eventually the English began to muster a professional army and summon naval forces under Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, but the Spanish managed to evade their adversaries when Amesquita’s force decamped and returned home to the Iberian Peninsula— after holding a traditional Catholic Mass on English soil.

The rest of this essay fleshes out the material summarized above with greater detail and a more in-depth picture of the conditions surrounding the Spanish Armada clash and its aftermath. Intended as a companion to the English Armada article, this piece cuts through the myths and lays out the facts of the Spanish Armada battle, still significant in numerous respects as discussed below, but in ways far more subtle and intricate than are generally appreciated.

Please feel free to quote from, print, and cite this essay as, Top 10 myths and muddles about the Spanish Armada, history’s most confused and misunderstood battle,” by Wes Ulm, Harvard University personal website, © 2004.


1943: Channel Battles I

A rocket armed Mk. IV, flying with No. 184 Squadron, flying rocket attacks on coastal shipping from Manston.

If it was true that 1942 had witnessed its share of Allied disasters, it could at least be said that the year ended on a note of victory, with General Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army inflicting a decisive defeat on General Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika at El Alamein and Allied forces going ashore at Algiers and Oran early in November. As the 160 British warships and the many merchant vessels detailed to take part in the North African landings (Operation Torch) assembled mainly in the Clyde and Loch Ewe, their activities have no part on this narrative, except for the mention that the British coastal convoys were virtually stripped bare of escorts for quite a long period in October and November 1942, when German S-boat activity was again on the increase with the onset of the long, dark nights. On the night of 18/19 November, for example, the German 5th Flotilla, comprising S68, S77, S82, S112, S115 and S116 engaged a convoy off Plymouth and sank the armed trawler Ullswater and two coasters with torpedoes.

The success, however, was not all one-sided. On 13/14 October 1942, the German armed merchant cruiser Komet, harbour-hopping through the Channel with an escort of four destroyers, was sighted soon after leaving Le Havre by Swordfish aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm. Flares dropped by the Swordfish brought five British destroyers and eight MTBs to the scene, and the fight was on. Komet was hit many times by gunfire from the destroyers and set ablaze, and at 0116 she exploded. Some of the enemy destroyers were damaged, apparently by the Komet’s gunners, firing wildly in the confusion. The destroyer HMS Brocklesby was damaged by a shell from a German coastal battery after the engagement. The damage was not serious and she was at sea again on the last night of October, attacking a small enemy convoy and sinking one of its vessels.

The first major attempt by the enemy to attack a British coastal convoy in 1943 occurred on the night of 24/25 January, not in the Channel but in the North Sea, when 16 S-boats of the German 2nd, 4th and 6th Flotillas tried to attack a convoy off Lowestoft but were driven off by the destroyers Mendip and Windsor. On 3/4 February, destroyers made a sortie from Plymouth to attack enemy shipping off Alderney, sinking two coasters, Hermann and Schleswig-Holstein, and on the following night the Polish destroyer Krakowiak, which had taken part in the Alderney mission, beat off an attempted S-boat attack on a convoy near Start Point.

Since March 1942, enemy shipping and coastal targets had been frequently attacked by the Hurricane IIB fighter-bombers based at Manston with No. 174 Squadron, and No. 175 Squadron at Warmwell. In September 1942 the Westland Whirlwind Mk Is of Nos. 137 and 263 Squadrons, newly converted to the fighter-bomber role, also deployed to Manston and Warmwell respectively and were soon engaged in similar operations. Shipping attacks did not meet with much success, but on 10 February the German armed merchant cruiser Schiff 14, attempting to break through the Channel under escort by the 8th Motor Minesweeper Flotilla, was bombed by Whirlwinds and forced into Boulogne. She was again attacked there with no result, but the attempt to force the Straits of Dover was abandoned and the ship was ordered back to the Baltic. This was the last attempt to send an auxiliary cruiser into the Atlantic.

By this time, RAF Coastal Command was operating its first dedicated Strike Wing. Formed by No. 16 Group at North Coates on the coast of Lincolnshire in November 1942, it consisted of two squadrons equipped with the Bristol Beaufighter Mk VIC; No. 236 Squadron armed with cannon, machine guns and bombs, and No. 254 Squadron armed with cannon and torpedoes. Early in 1943 these two units were joined by No. 143 Squadron, equipped with the Beaufighter Mk XIC for use in the anti-flak role.

The role of the North Coates Strike Wing, and others like it that were formed subsequently, was to assume great importance in 1943, as German convoy defences grew stronger. In addition to the merchant vessels themselves, which ranged from 1,000 to 10,000 tons (the average being about 3,000 tons) and which were all armed, the Germans used so-called Vorpostenboote, armed trawlers crammed with flak guns of all calibres, and Sperrbrecher (literally ‘barrier breaker’ ships which were former merchant vessels of up to 8,000 tons). Then there were purpose-built mine-sweepers, Minensuchboote (M-class minesweepers to the British), which swept just ahead of the convoys and which were also heavily armed; Räumboote or R-boats, 125-ton close escort vessels armed with 20mm cannon; Schnellboote; and sometimes destroyers. Any aircraft attacking the convoy therefore had to contend with a storm of flak ranging in calibre from the heavy weapons – 105mm and 88mm – on the Sperrbrecher, down through 40mm, 37mm, 20mm cannon and 7.92mm machine-guns on the smaller escort craft and the transports themselves.

The first attack by the North Coates Wing was made on 20 November 1942, against a convoy near the Hook of Holland. In addition to the naval escorts, it was also protected by Me 109s and Fw 190s. The mission was a disaster. The strike aircraft lost contact with their anti-flak Beaufighters, a promised escort of Spitfires failed to show up, three Beaufighters were shot down, two more crashed on return and five more were badly damaged. All there was to show on the credit side was one tug sunk and a couple of armed trawlers slightly damaged.

It seemed that the failure of this sortie might have placed the whole future of the Strike Wing concept in jeopardy. But after several weeks of training under the energetic leadership of Wing Commander H.N.G. Wheeler (whose predecessor, Wing Commander Fraser, had been killed in the November attack) the North Coates Wing finally had a chance to prove itself on 18 April 1943, when a strike was laid on against an enemy convoy off the Hook of Holland. Twenty-one Beaufighters, escorted by 22 Spitfires of Nos. 118 and 167 Squadrons and eight Mustangs of No. 613 Squadron, hit the convoy hard, sinking the 4,906-ton freighter Hoegh Carrier, shattering the minesweeper M-201, which had to be towed into Den Helder, and damaging several other vessels. There was no air opposition, and all the RAF aircraft returned to base.

The real key to success in anti-shipping work, as would later be proved time and again, was the rocket projectile, and in this respect much pioneering work was carried out by the Hurricanes of No. 184 Squadron, formed at Colerne in Wiltshire in December 1942 under the command of Squadron Leader Jack Rose DFC, a highly experienced Hurricane pilot. The Squadron was initially equipped with Hurricane Mk IIDs, armed with two 40mm Vickers ‘S’ guns – used successfully in the Western Desert by No. 6 Squadron – and two Browning .303 machine guns. Jack Rose describes the Squadron’s subsequent activities:

As we collected more aircraft and built up the Squadron, one of our essential activities was the calibration of the 40mm guns, which were remarkably accurate. When the aircraft was set up to fire into practice targets at the butts, the normal standard was all rounds in a pattern of eight inches by five at 540 yards. As the Vickers guns were mounted below the wings, when fired in flight the recoil depressed the nose of the aircraft, so that after each pair of guns was fired the gunsight had to be re-positioned on the target before the next pair was loosed off. After practice, it proved possible to fire off four pairs with high accuracy on the run-up to a ground target, so with 32 rounds – sixteen to each gun – we could achieve a possible average of four attacks.

The Squadron was operational by early March, 1943, and we were expecting a posting to a busier airfield. However, on 4 March we became involved in Exercise SPARTAN, which involved large elements of the Army and many RAF squadrons under simulated battle conditions. We did not know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the preparation for D-Day, some fifteen months away. We lived under field conditions, under canvas – which was no joke in early March – and moved rapidly from one airfield to another. Each squadron which was to work closely with the Army had an ALO – an Army Liaison Officer – permanently attached to it, and apart from a few key personnel all ground crew became part of a mobile airfield establishment, enabling the squadrons to move rapidly from airfield to airfield and then start up in business immediately on arrival.

Early in 1943 we were equipped with Hurricane IVs, carrying a bank of four rockets under each wing. These had either 25lb armour-piercing heads or 60lb semi-armour-piercing high-explosive shells. The damage that these rockets could inflict proved to be very impressive, and I remember being told that if all eight rockets with the larger warheads were fired at once, the result would be approximately that achieved by a broadside from an eight-inch gun cruiser. The most usual technique was to fire the rockets in a ripple, that is one pair at a time during the approach run. As there was no recoil from the rockets, there was no need to re-sight in between each pair of rockets being fired, as in the case of the Vickers ‘S’ guns. We could, if we wished, use the Vickers guns instead of the rockets and occasionally we did so, but after a time we stuck to the RPs [rocket projectiles].

The firing range we used was Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey, where the officer in charge of the range did his best to provide very substantial targets anchored offshore for our benefit; but as none of these targets lasted longer than one or two attacks we cast around for something more substantial. Our Army Liaison Officer, who was with us at the time, arranged for me to meet a brigadier in charge of an infantry tank brigade near Canterbury, and over a drink we discussed our problem. As a result, we were supplied with an unserviceable Churchill tank and later a Sherman too. They were transported to the Leysdown range and were set up on the beach, providing first-class durable targets. All attacks were recorded by the range officers, and my log book shows such scores as 26 and 28 rounds out of 32 fired from the Vickers guns and three or four out of eight using the 25lb AP rockets.

As Jack Rose points out, operations with the Hurricane IV’s against heavily defended targets brought their share of problems.

The Hurricane IV’s low speed in comparison with contemporary fighter aircraft, and its poor armament after the rockets had been released (one Browning .303 in each wing) meant that operations could only be carried out in selected circumstances: Spitfire fighter cover, when this could be arranged, good low cloud cover or the use of semi-darkness. Spitfire escorts were unpopular with the Spitfire pilots as all our operations were at low level, and to maintain effective contact with us this meant flying lower, slower and longer than they would have liked.

Cloud cover was useless unless we could escape into it quickly, so this ruled out medium and higher cloud. My log book records a number of instances (usually entered in the log book as Operation TWITCH) when we started out, mostly from Manston, but were recalled before reaching the enemy coast as cloud cover was reported by the Met. people to have lifted. Firing the rockets at low level in the dark was not on, as a regular practice, so we made use of darkness to approach the enemy coast. Timing our arrival for about first light so that with eyes by then accustomed to the gloom, we could attack and make a quick getaway while there was still half an hour or so to dawn.

In June 1943 a couple of such attacks were made on shipping off the Dutch coast. The first of these, on 17 June, consisted of four aircraft (we normally flew four aircraft on such operations) piloted by myself, Flight Lieutenant Ruffhead, Flying Officer Kilpatrick (Australian) and Flying Officer Gross (Canadian). We each fired our eight 60lb rockets in ripples at ships anchored close inshore and we all returned with nothing more than a few bullet holes. Soon afterwards we had a visit from someone from Boscombe Down, who was rather put out that a special PR flight had not been laid on to record the damage inflicted by the rockets. This was, I believe, the first use in Western Europe of rockets fired from fighter-type aircraft. Later, of the four of us on that operation, Ruffhead, Kilpatrick and Doug Gross were all killed.

The next such attack, a few days later, was carried out by myself, Warrant Officer Starmer (missing on this sortie), Flight Lieutenant ‘Dutch’ Holland and Flight Sergeant Wallace, who was later killed. ‘Dutch’ Holland later had a miraculous escape when he was shot down in a Typhoon attack on a concentration of enemy armoured vehicles well to the south of the Allied beachhead on D-Day Plus One; he had a series of hair-raising adventures before he managed to link up with friendly troops. ‘Humph’ Russell of 164 Squadron was shot down during one of the anti-shipping operations and, was a PoW for the rest of the war.

While we were at Manston, we thought up, in collaboration with some Swordfish pilots who were stationed there with us, a possible joint action to enable us to make rocket attacks at night. Enemy shipping made maximum use of darkness to slip around the northern coast of France and the Netherlands, spending daylight hours under the protection of the guns of the various ports en route. As the Swordfish had radar and could also drop flares, we thought that it might be possible to synchronise our activities so that a Swordfish, at reasonably safe height, could locate an enemy vessel and drop a flare between it and the land, thus silhouetting the target for a Hurricane IV low-level attack out of the darkness on the seaward side. It was on such an attempt that ‘Killy’ Kilpatrick, a very capable pilot, disappeared.

Although Jack Rose is correct in his assumption that his squadron pioneered the operational use of rocket projectiles by single-engined fighter-bombers in Western Europe, these weapons had been operational with aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm and RAF Coastal Command since April 1943, although it was not until 23 May that the first success was registered when a Swordfish from the aircraft carrier HMS Archer sank the U-752 off the Azores. Five days later, the U-594 was sunk by an RP-equipped RAF Lockheed Hudson north of the Balearic Islands.

By April 1943, rocket rails had also been fitted the Beaufighters of No. 236 Squadron, and work had begun on those of No. 143 Squadron. Meanwhile, as RP training continued, so did shipping attacks by the North Coates Wing’s torpedo and anti-flak Beaufighters, and on 29 April the Wing sank three vessels for the loss of one Beaufighter of No. 143 Squadron.

The Strike Wing suffered a serious reverse on 1 May, when 31 aircraft set out to hunt the cruiser Nilrnberg and three destroyers off south-west Norway. The mission was beyond fighter escort range and the Beaufighters were badly mauled by Me 109s and Fw 190s, No. 254 Squadron losing three Torbeaus and No. 143 Squadron two anti-flak Beaufighters. The whole Wing was forced to jettison its bombs and torpedoes as the aircraft took evasive action.

The next attack, on 17 May, was accompanied by a strong fighter escort, and the Beaufighters sank the German freighter Kyphissia (2,964 tons), the minesweeper M-414 (775 tons) and the flak ship Vp 1110 off the island of Texel.

Meanwhile, a detachment of No. 236 Squadron been sent to Predannack, in Cornwall, and it was from here that a Beaufighter attacked and sank the U-418 on 1 June, marking the first success for an aircraft of this type using rocket projectiles. The submarine was heading for Brest when it was sighted by Flying Officer Mark Bateman, who was accompanied by a naval specialist, Lieutenant-Commander F.J. Brookes, RN. All four RPs hit the U-418, which went to the bottom with the loss of all hands.

1943: Channel Battles II

The ex-whaler Harstad. HMT Harstad 1943. The auxiliary minesweeper was torpedoed and sunk in Lyme Bay (50°24′21″N 3°01′41″W) by Kriegsmarine E-boats with the loss of 22 of her 23 crew.

The Strike Wings of Coastal Command now had a viable anti-shipping weapon, and in the months to come they would put it to devastating use. Meanwhile, the spring of 1943 had seen a surge of naval activity in the area of the English Channel. On 27 February, the 5th S-boat Flotilla carried out a particularly audacious sortie, four craft – the S65, S68, S81 and S85 – penetrating into Lyme Bay and attacking a convoy that had assembled there. In a matter of minutes, they torpedoed and sank the freighter Moldavia (4,858 tons), the Tank Landing Craft LCT 381 (625 tons) and two escort vessels, the armed trawler Lord Hailsham and the whaler Harstad. The S-boats retired without loss. On the next night, an attempt to attack a southbound German convoy by four Coastal Force MGBs was broken up by accurate defensive fire from seven escort vessels, MGB 79 being sunk. (The convoy had earlier lost the patrol boat V 1318, which struck a mine off Ijmuiden.)

A mine also accounted for Schnellboote S70, lost during a sortie by the 2nd, 4th and 6th S-boat Flotillas into the area of Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth on the night of 4/5 March 1943. The enemy craft were driven off by the destroyers Windsor and Southdown and the corvette Sheldrake, and the following morning they also lost the S75, attacked and sunk off Ijmuiden by Spitfires and Typhoons. In addition to this sortie, S-boats attempted to attack a convoy off Start Point, but this was frustrated by accurate fire from the Polish destroyer Krakowiak. The Schnellboote were again active on the night of 7/8 March, attempting to attack shipping near the Sunk Lightship, but the raid was broken up by the destroyer Mackay and four MGBs. Two S-boats collided while taking evasive action; one of them, S119, was sunk by MGB20 after her crew had been taken off by S114 the other craft involved in the accident.

The middle of April saw a flurry of intense naval action, beginning on the night of 12/13 when a German convoy was attacked by MGBs 74, 75, 111 and 112, both sides sustaining slight damage. On the next night, the 5th Schnellboote Flotilla, led by its redoubtable commander, Kapitänleutnant Klug, scored a resounding success off the Lizard Head in an attack on Convoy PW323, comprising six merchant vessels, the Hunt class destroyers Eskdale and Glaisdale, and five armed trawlers. Four Schnellboote – S90, S112, S116 and S121 – broke through the defensive screen and S90 hit Eskdale with two torpedoes, bringing her to a standstill. She was later sunk by S65 and S112. Meanwhile, the 1,742-ton freighter Stanlake was torpedoed by S121 and finished off by the S90 and S82.

All four S-boats returned to their base without loss.

There was a better outcome for the British on the night of 27/28 April, when the destroyers Albrighton and Goathland attacked a German convoy of two medium-sized merchantmen, escorted by two trawlers and a minesweeper, 60 miles north-north-east of Ushant, off Ile de Bas. Both freighters were hit by torpedoes and heavily damaged, though neither was sunk, but one of the escorting trawlers – UJ 1402 – was destroyed by gunfire. HMS Albrighton became involved in a 90-minute close quarter gun battle with some S-boats that arrived on the scene and received damage that put her out of action until the end of May.

With the advent of the light nights of summer as in the previous year, the excursions of the S-boats into British waters became less frequent, and minelaying by aircraft and destroyers intensified. On the night of 2/3 May, Dornier 217s of KG 2 laid mines in the estuaries of the Humber and Thames and also on the convoy route between Dover and the Thames Estuary, and on 11/12 May 36 aircraft sowed mines on the Humber– Thames convoy route. Six aircraft were lost, mainly to Mosquito night-fighters. On the following night, craft of the 1st, 7th and 9th Minesweeper Flotillas, carrying out Operation Stemmbogen – which involved sowing mines in the southern part of the North Sea, west of the Hook of Holland – were attacked by four MTBs, which hit and sank the M8 with two torpedoes. A further major German minelaying operation was undertaken during the last week in May by S-boats of the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th Flotillas, which laid mines between Cherbourg and Peter Port, the Isle of Wight and Portland, and in Lyme Bay. The latter objective was mined three times again in June, when mines were also sown off Start Point. In all, the Schnellboote laid 321 mines in the course of 77 sorties. The first week in July saw another German ‘harbour-hopping’ operation, with the Elbing class destroyers T24 and T25 moving westwards through the Channel from the North Sea. During the move they were unsuccesfully shelled by the Dover gun batteries, attacked off Dunkirk by three MTBs and attacked in Boulogne by Typhoons. On the night of 9/10 July they joined five minesweepers in escorting a convoy, which was attacked by the destroyers Melbreak, Wensleydale and Glaisdale. The minesweeper M135 was sunk in the ensuing battle, but HMS Melbreak was badly damaged.

During this period, the main opportunities for engaging the Schnellboote came when the latter were detected moving from port to port. On 24/25 July, for example, S68 and S77, en route from Boulogne to Ostend, were attacked by British MTBs and MGBs, which sank S77 north of Dunkirk, while on 11 August craft of the 4th and 5th S-boat Flotillas, transferring to L’Abervach in readiness for a sortie against Plymouth Sound, were attached by Typhoons. S121 was sunk, S117 badly damaged and four others slightly damaged out of the seven-boat force.

There was a resurgence of German minelaying activities in October 1943, with the return of longer hours of darkness, and an increase in actions against convoys. It was during one such action, on 23 October, that the Royal Navy suffered a further severe loss.

For some time, Allied Intelligence had been aware that a blockade runner, a fast, ultra-modern cargo vessel of 10,000 tons named Milnsterland, had been heading back to Germany from Japan with a cargo of rubber and strategic metals, both vital to the German war effort. By a series of incredible circumstances, she had evaded Allied air and naval patrols on the homeward run and had reached Brest, where she was attacked by B-25 Mitchell medium bombers without success. Following the usual harbour-hopping procedure, Münsterland then moved on to Cherbourg, where she was attacked by the Typhoons and Whirlwinds of Nos. 183 and 263 Squadrons, both operating from Warmwell.

Meanwhile, the Royal Navy had also tried to intercept her, with unfortunate results, during the passage from Brest to Cherbourg on the night of 22/23 October. The British naval force comprised the light cruiser Charybdis, the Fleet destroyers Grenville and Rocket and the Hunt class destroyers Limbourne, Talybont, Wensleydale and Stevenstone. Münsterland was escorted by six minesweepers of the 2nd Flotilla, two new radar-equipped patrol vessels, V718 and V719, and five Elbing class destroyers providing an outer screen.

Charybdis made radar contact with the enemy force off Ushant at 0130 on 23 October. Her accompanying destroyers also made contact at about the same time, but no information as to the probable size and composition of the enemy force was exchanged.

By this time the Germans were aware of the British warships approaching to intercept them, and the outer destroyer screen obtained a visual sighting on Charybdis, which was seen turning to port. The leading destroyer, T23, immediately launched a full salvo of six torpedoes at her. At 0145 the British cruiser opened fire with starshell, and her lookouts at once sighted two torpedo tracks heading towards her port side. One, or possibly both, torpedoes struck home and Charybdis came to a halt, listing heavily to port.

By now the other German destroyers had joined in the action, firing several more torpedoes at the British destroyers coming up behind the stricken cruiser. Charybdis was hit again, while a torpedo launched by T22 struck HMS Limbourne. The cruiser sank very quickly, and despite determined attempts to save her, Limbourne was also beyond redemption. She was sunk by torpedoes from Talybont and Rocket, which returned to Plymouth with the other surviving destroyers.

The action had cost two warships, the lives of 581 officers and ratings, and had achieved nothing. The enemy convoy escaped unharmed, and the next morning air reconnaissance revealed Münsterland at Cherbourg and the five Elbings at St Malo. As mentioned earlier, the freighter was subsequently attacked by Typhoons and Whirlwinds through flak described by one pilot as ‘a horizontal rainstorm painted red’. Two Whirlwinds out of 12 were shot down and two more crashed on return to base, and the Typhoons lost three aircraft out of eight, but the Münsterland was damaged and her progress delayed. She eventually reached Boulogne, where she was attacked early in January 1944 by rocket-firing Typhoons of No. 198 Squadron and damaged again. This time, although five aircraft were hit, all made it back to base, two crash-landed at Manston. The Münsterland story finally came to an end on 20 January, when, after leaving Boulogne, she ran aground in fog west of Cap Blanc Nez and was shelled to pieces by the Dover guns. The Typhoon pilots of Nos. 198 and 609 Squadrons, arriving when the fog lifted, relieved their frustration by firing their rockets into what was left of the superstructure.

In the closing weeks of 1943, the tactical air forces were assigned to the first of a lengthy series of attacks on a new threat that had been perceived across the Channel: the launching sites, then under construction in the Pas de Calais, for the V-1 flying bomb. With the heavy bombers of RAF Bomber Command and the USAAF preoccupied with the strategic air offensive against Germany, this new task fell to medium bombers and single-engined fighter-bombers, including the Hurricane IVs of Nos. 164 and 184 Squadron, as Jack Rose explains:

In the winter months of 1943–44, just before we re-equipped with Typhoons, we carried out a series of attacks on so-called NO-BALL (V-1) targets in northern France. We were then operating from Woodchurch, one of the airfields scattered over Romney Marsh speedily constructed of wire mesh on grass. My log book records attacks on numbered NO-BALL sites 40, 88, 28, 46, 81 etc and also on named sites at Montorquet, Bois Nigle, La Longueville and so on. We usually flew, again in fours, when the cloud conditions gave the maximum cover if needed. Photographs were always used for the final approach.

I can remember seeing an intelligence report at about this time in which damage to the NO-BALL sites was given in relation to the weight of bombs dropped by various types of aircraft. The categories were heavy bombers, medium bombers, and rocket firing aircraft. Although we had loads of only 480 lb (8 x 60 lb), the damage inflicted by our attacks per ton of ‘bombs’ dropped was, I suppose understandably, very much greater than the damage per ton dropped by the – mostly American – medium and heavy bombers.

Nevertheless, the damage inflicted by the Hurricanes of the two ground-attack squadrons was achieved at considerable cost; on one occasion, during an attack on a No-Ball site that cost Flight Lieutenant Ruffhead his life, three out of the four Hurricanes he was leading failed to return. Many of the most severe losses were sustained when the enemy defences were fully alerted – as, for example, when a section of Hurricanes made a faulty landfall and consequently had to make a longer approach to their target. Because of the losses, the Hurricanes were given a Spitfire escort whenever possible.

Woodchurch, the rocket-firing Hurricanes base during their costly anti-No-Ball sorties, was only one of many similar advanced landing grounds (ALGs) that had sprung up all over southern England, close to the Channel coast, during the year. For in 1943 Britain had been gradually turned into a vast arsenal, and strips such as these would soon enable the Allies to wield the weapons that were now being forged to hurl their armies across the Channel, and to establish secure foothold in occupied Europe.

Many of the ALGs that were refurbished in 1943 were originally so called ‘scatter’ fields, emergency landing strips created at the time of the Battle of Britain as insurance against the principal fighter airfield being made unserviceable by enemy bombing, which they sometimes were. With the battle won hundreds more sites were inspected south of a line from the Thames to the Severn to provide a springboard for the aircraft that would eventually spearhead an assault on the German-held coastline of Europe. The list was eventually shortened to 72, but such was the need for food-producing land that the airfield construction scheme was strongly opposed by the War Agricultural Executive Committee, and in the end only 25 proposals were accepted, of which 23 involved ALGs to be constructed along the Channel coast from Kent to Hampshire. Eleven of the new ALGs were allocated to the United States Army Air Forces, (USAAF) whose advance units had become operational in the United Kingdom in the summer of 1942. The original target date for the completion of the ALGs was March 1943, but construction was set back somewhat by a shortage of materials and, not least, by the English weather.

Hand-in-hand with the ALG construction programme went the formation of a so-called ‘Composite Group’ of fighter, fighter-bomber, light bomber and reconnaissance squadrons which, operating at first from the new forward airfields near the coast, would support an Allied expedition to France. On 1 June 1943, this formation was re-designated the Tactical Air Force (TAF), and with this the old Army Co-Operation Command became defunct. Later, the designation was again changed to Second Tactical Air Force, its role being to support the Anglo-Canadian Group of Armies. The American armies training for the invasion of Europe had their corresponding tactical air support in the form of the IX Tactical Air Command.

In November 1943 a large number of RAF squadrons were transferred from the various other commands to the Second TAF, which now comprised four groups. No. 83 and 84 Groups were to provide tactical support for the 1st Canadian and 2nd British Armies, No. 85 Group was to defend the Allied bridgehead across the Channel once it had been established, and the medium bombers Marauders, Mitchells, Mosquitoes and Bostons of No. 2 Group were to Strike at communications and supplies behind the enemy lines. There was also a Reconnaissance Wing and an Air Spotting Pool, and the massive task of furnishing air transport and supply fell to No. 38 Group. All these formations, together with the mighty power of the United States Ninth Air Force, were incorporated into the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, commanded by Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory.

So, gradually, the machinery that would place a great body of men on the beaches of Normandy in the coming year was being fitted into place. But although the Allied armies were undergoing the type of training that would ensure no repetition of the Dieppe débâcle, and although the Allied air forces were reaching a pinnacle of strength of over five and a half thousand aircraft, enough to ensure complete air supremacy when the landings were achieved, there was still the physical problem of shipping the armies across the English Channel and of safeguarding them in passage; and only the Allied navies could achieve this twin objective.

In December 1943, as preparations for the great leap across the Channel gathered momentum, there was still a long way to go; and there was more than one major obstacle to be overcome.

Japan – Navy of the early 1890s

Battle of the Yalu River (1894)

For the most interesting practical lesson in tactics and the naval matériel of the early 1890s it is necessary to look east to Japan, another island nation with an industrious population in a mood of expansion. Although she lay in much the same position off Asia as Great Britain off the coast of Europe, she had until recently used the sea as a barrier instead of a highway; this had started in the seventeenth century when realization of the greater power of European guns and fighting ships had forced her into self-imposed total isolation. When in mid-nineteenth century she had been forcibly opened to western trade, the same realization of western fighting superiority had been the main spur behind a complete reversal of her former policy; she had plunged into forced industrial revolution and westernization, centred on ships, guns and heavy engineering. And as the European nations through the following decades penetrated into the neighbouring mainland of China and Manchuria, opening up spheres of influence for trade and annexing territories from that once great empire, Japan also developed an export trade, first in hand-made silks and cottons, then in machined products which undercut western goods in price and began to penetrate the rest of the Pacific to the west coast of America.

Meanwhile her shipping was able to prosper, as British lines had rather neglected the area, and from 1888 a system of shipbuilding and navigating subsidies provided further stimulation. At the same time she was acquiring a modern navy. She could not afford battleships, so she adopted a policy very similar to Italy’s, centred on fast but not-so-large cruisers with complete armoured decks below water, coal and cellulose or cork in cellular compartments about the waterline, and a heavy armament. The first of these were built by Armstrongs and launched in 1885. They were followed by six more powerful vessels, two built in France to French design, two in Britain, and two at her own yards at Yokosuka, as copies of each type. All these mounted broadsides of 6-inch or 4.7-inch QF guns; in addition the three to French design each carried one great 66-ton 12.6-inch gun in a 12-inch steel barbette on the upper deck. By 1894, with these advanced vessels as the spearhead of her fleet and with an equally well-equipped army, she felt able to take her new-found Western spirit of technology and commercial expansion a stage further, and like the westerners themselves lop off pieces of continental Asia for herself.

The first piece she chose was the peninsula of Korea, barely 100 miles from her southern islands and of great strategic value, flanking the southern entrance to the Sea of Japan, commanding the Yellow Sea and the northern Chinese commercial ports. She established disputes with China over this nominally independent territory, declared war with her guns in a manner to become familiar in the next century, and started landing troops in the north west of the peninsula. When the Chinese, finding they could not concentrate their own troops fast enough by land, also started moving them by sea, using their warships to cover the transports, they came in sight of the Japanese fleet off the mouth of the River Yalu, and battle ensued.

The main Chinese strength lay in two battleships, Chen Yuen and Ting Yuen, about 7,500 tons each, which had been built in 1881–2 as smaller versions of the Inflexible, but with their main armament mounted en barbette instead of in turrets. Their central citadels were protected by 14-inch compound armour and each mounted four 12-inch, 35-ton Krupp guns in two pairs arranged in echelon, so that they all had direct ahead and astern fire; their broadside arcs were, however, restricted by the opposite guns and the funnels and other obstructions. They also mounted a 6-inch breech loader at either end, some light guns and two torpedo tubes. Their unarmoured ends were closely subdivided, packed with cork around the sides, and protected below the water by a 3-inch armoured deck. They had been the Barnaby ideal of well-balanced second class battleships when originally commissioned. Now, their absence of QF guns and their speed, which had sunk to 10 knots at most, rendered them obsolescent. By contrast the latest Japanese cruiser Yoshino, built by Armstrongs, could make 23 knots.

Apart from the two big ships, the Chinese had another pair of smaller barbette ships each mounting two 8¼-inch Krupp breechloaders and protected by cork cellular subdivision and a short armoured belt whose top was flush with the waterline, therefore little use; and also six smaller cruisers. The fatal defects of all these ships were low speed and a complete lack of medium or large calibre QF guns; it was calculated after the battle that all together could only fire 33 rounds in 10 minutes, against the Japanese 185. Besides this the service was poorly maintained and corruption was rife in the administration; while the accommodation of the ships was exquisitely carved, lacquered and gilded, some of the shells for the heavy guns had been filled with sand instead of bursting charges, or left empty.

The Japanese fleet on the other hand was efficient to the point of fanaticism. Its officers had been brought up in the warrior code of the Bushi, which imposed knightly ideals of courage, simplicity, self-sacrifice and absolute loyalty to the Emperor above all personal interests. They despised luxury, even pleasure, as corrupting influences, and lived only for their profession, working longer hours than their men, exposing themselves to more danger, eating the same simple food, sleeping like them on a straw mat—all the time training and preparing for war. The naval service, like the army, was a simple extension of the intense nationalism of this emergent nation.

At the Yalu it proved its worth. The Chinese, led by Admiral Ting in the Ting Yuen, advanced to action at 6 knots in line abreast; no doubt because all the ships had been built in the ‘strong ahead-fire’ period. Ting had previously given three principal orders: that all ships should fight in pairs, fight bows-on if possible, and follow his movements if they could; thus he adopted the tactics of the French school, long since discarded in the British, German and even sections of the French service. He placed his two strong ships in the centre of the line, flanked by three smaller ironclads, flanked by the cruisers; the smallest, oldest and weakest were on the right wing.

The Japanese approached this formation in two divisions formed in one long line ahead. Leading was the fast Yoshino, with the Japanese-built cruiser of the same class and the two older Armstrong cruisers; these formed the flying squadron. After them came the main body containing the French-designed cruisers with 66-ton guns, led by the Matsushima flying the flag of Admiral Ito, and following them were four older and smaller ships which would have been better left out of the battle. Ito headed for the Chinese centre at first, but seeing the weak ships on their right, he altered course across their front and signalled his intentions to attack the right and fight at 2,000 to 3,000 yards; the fleets were then perhaps six miles apart, the sea between them smooth as glass. As the range came down to 5,000 or 6,000 yards the Chinese big ships opened fire, but the shots plunged harmlessly into the water and the Japanese did not reply until some 15 minutes later when the leaders came abreast of the Chinese right wing at something outside 3,000 yards. At the same time they altered to starboard. As they did so Admiral Ting led his two battleships out from the Chinese centre in an attempt to close and perhaps ram the main body of the Japanese.

Almost at once the Chinese force lost cohesion; trying to wheel their front round to face the Japanese attack on the right, they lacked the speed and simply turned in pairs to face the right, becoming hopelessly scrambled as rising waterspouts from the Japanese QF guns, at first several hundred yards short, moved up to them. The Japanese ships, mostly hidden in funnel and gun smoke, meanwhile kept perfect line ahead formation as they passed down the right wing. Then the flying squadron, running out of ships to fight, led around to port 180 degrees and opened their other broadsides as they came back to the weaker Chinese ships, many of which were already ablaze. In the meantime the main Japanese squadron turned to starboard and completed a full turn right around the Chinese, eventually returning to Ting’s pair of battleships, which they started to circle like hungry wolves at about 2,000 yards range, firing everything they had, and soon reducing the upperworks to shambles of torn, twisted metal and starting fires whose smoke made it difficult for the gunners to see. The Chen Yuen did, however, succeed in putting one 12-inch shell into the Matsushima’s battery, which burst with devastating effect, firing the ammunition, decimating the guns’ crews and forcing her to retire to put out the fires.

The flagship was the third Japanese to be so seriously damaged as to be out of the fight; previously two of the old vessels at the end of the line had come too close to the Chinese heavy guns. Meanwhile four of the Chinese had been destroyed by gunfire and one sunk in collision, and after over four hours of firing the Chinese admiral retired. Sunset was approaching and Ito decided not to pursue, possibly for fear of torpedo attack after dark. Nevertheless it was an undoubted Japanese victory, and while all except the three severely damaged Japanese ships kept the sea, the Chinese put into Port Arthur to effect repairs, only coming out again to retire across the Straits to the harbour of Wei-hai-wai.

As the first fleet engagement since Lissa, the battle attracted a great deal of professional comment and analysis, much of it restatement of previously held convictions. Probably the main verification was the great value of side armour; this was particularly noticeable in the engagement between the two Chinese battleships and the main body of the Japanese, for while these powerful cruisers had been circling and firing continuously, achieving some 200 hits with their QF guns on each of the big ships from short range, they had not destroyed the battleships’ flotation or stability, nor had they pierced the central citadel once—the deepest impression they made in the armour was about 3 inches, which makes it improbable that they hit at all with their 66-tonners—and although they had reduced the unarmoured portions to tangled, charred wreckage the total casualties from both battleships had only been 17 killed, 35 wounded. Against this the Matsushima had lost 57 killed and 54 wounded; she was however the heaviest sufferer. Among the jeune école, of course, the battle was held to prove that unarmoured ships could stand up to and even beat armoured ships. But this was an extreme and unscientific view as the Japanese had only been hit by 10 12-inch and some 60 smaller projectiles and many of these had failed to explode. For the British historical school the Japanese ‘hail of fire’ from ‘decisive range’ had been the battle winner—together with the spirit of their officers and men.

As for tactics, line ahead appeared to have proved indisputably the better formation; only a very few diehard theoreticians, noting the faulty disposition of the Chinese line abreast with the heaviest ships in the centre instead of at the wings, doubted it. Fewer still adhered to the ‘group’ ideas which had been tried by the Chinese, and had led to utter confusion, one fatal ramming and complete lack of cohesion. All in all, and despite the inequality in moral and matériel factors, the action suggested that in tactics, design and ordnance the battleship was developing along the right lines. It was noticeable, for instance, that neither ramming nor torpedoes had influenced the fighting at all; the Chinese had fired theirs at about 2,000 yards range, way outside any possibility of hitting and the Japanese had never approached closer than about 1,500 yards, three times Whitehead effective range.

After this action the naval war was confined to troop transporting, Japanese naval bombardments in support of their troops ashore, and torpedo boat attacks on the thoroughly demoralized remnants of Ting’s ships in Wei-hai-wei; here the Chinese boom and mine defences proved ineffective and as there were no anti-torpedo boat patrols nor net defences, nor medium calibre QF guns, the Japanese boats were able to get right into the harbour and sink the flagship, Ting Yuen, and one other ship for the loss of only two boats and twelve men.

The complete ascendancy that the Japanese Navy attained at the Yalu and subsequently allowed them practically undisputed movement by sea, and they used this to encircle and take Port Arthur and then Wei-hai-wei, where the only remaining Chinese ship of force, the Chen Yuen, fell into their hands. Then, holding all the keys to the Yellow Sea Japan imposed a treaty on China which gave her not only Korea and the island of Formosa way to the south, but also the spur of Manchuria just to the west of Korea known as the Liao-Tung peninsula which terminated at Dairen and Port Arthur; she also extracted a cash indemnity perhaps 50 per cent more than the cost of the war.

This sudden triumph of a colonial intruder came as an unpleasant shock to the European powers already in China, particularly Russia: Vladivostock, her principle maritime outlet in the East and the terminal to which the trans-Siberian railway engineers were slowly progressing, was now completely surrounded by Japanese territory and at the mercy of a Japanese naval blockade; moreover Japan had established a commanding foothold in Manchuria, which Russia had long disputed with China, and which she had expected to acquire for herself now that China had become, in the words of one of her contemporary statesmen, an ‘outlived Oriental State’. So when the established colonial powers protested at the Japanese treaty it was Russia, together with her friend and financial partner France, and also Germany in a violently expansionist and opportunist mood, who forced Japan to give up some of her gains, particularly the Liao-Tung peninsula. Russia and France then joined to pay China’s war indemnity, as a reward for which the Chinese allowed the trans-Siberian railway to be built straight across Manchuria to Vladivostok. This was a major triumph for Russian diplomacy; when complete the railway and its hinterland became an extension of Russian power in the heart of the disputed province, and gave her a new mobility of force and influence in the area. Not content with this, a Russian fleet two years later took over Port Arthur, the key base which their diplomats had denied the Japanese, and following this Moscow forced a railway concession up the length of the peninsula to become eventually the southern extension of the trans-Siberian.

These cynical and dangerous Russian gains not only increased tensions around the carcass of China, but thrust Japan firmly into what the French and Germans regarded as an Anglo-Saxon orbit: Great Britain and America wanted to preserve China so that she would be open to the trade of all nations, and as Russia became the most immediate threat to this policy, so their interests coincided with Japan’s, still smarting with resentment at being denied some of the chief fruits of victory.

Meanwhile Japan was on the way to becoming a first class naval power: in 1895 she had ordered from Britain two 12,300-ton battleships, virtually reduced ‘Royal Sovereigns’ with 12-inch main armament and 6-inch QF as a secondary battery, and two years later three 15,000-ton ships similar to the British class which followed the ‘Royal Sovereigns’. The Russians could scarcely allow such a strong force to go unchallenged if they wished to retain Port Arthur so they introduced a new naval programme in 1898, headed by eight battleships. In keeping with their French entente these were in the French style with long or complete waterline belts, great tumble-home, high and mostly unprotected sides, and towering superstructures. Like the French ships their stability was suspect: they were narrow and their main belts rose less than a foot above the waterline. Both main and secondary batteries were, however, protected in turrets.

From the British point of view the emergence of two battleship powers outside Europe, where they could not be blockaded or brought to battle by the Mediterranean or Home squadrons, threatened to compromise the policy of command given expression in the 1889 Naval Defence Act. Although the immediate response was to strengthen the China squadron with second class battleships and to build a class of smaller, lighter draft battleships which could traverse the Suez canal and quickly reinforce the eastern ships, realization was coming that complete sovereignty over the oceans of the world could not be maintained for ever. It was not expressed thus, indeed ‘navalists’ and ‘jingos’ were having a high time urging the British public to reckon up their battleships (‘Ten, twenty, thirty, there they go . . .’) but in the background there were voices in favour of a formal alliance with Japan to safeguard British trade and interests in the East.

Equally significant, there were stirrings within the Admiralty, again not expressed in policy, for an unofficial alliance with the United States Navy, or at least a pooling of information so that both services could act in concert in support of free trade and the status quo in the Pacific. No doubt behind this was a feeling that America and England should spread Anglo-Saxon ‘civilised’ values throughout the world, but it was also a practical response to the emergence of yet another ocean-going battlefleet outside Europe.

Carlo Pellion, Count of Persano’s Folly

Turin’s military monuments were not all erected to commemorate individual kings and commanders. Some of them are collective memorials, representing units of the armed forces, principally the bersaglieri (who are always shown running) but also the cavalry, the carabinieri and the Alpine regiments. Only one monument, that dedicated to the men who went to the Crimea, contains a statue of a sailor.

Piedmont had no nautical traditions; indeed, until it was given Liguria by the Congress of Vienna, it possessed no coastline except around Nice. Its insignificant navy did little in the early wars of the Risorgimento and was never required to fight a proper battle. United Italy, however, had an extremely long coastline. Since it also had aspirations to join the Great Powers, it set about building an impressive fleet, though its only plausible enemy was Austria, which had little naval history or ambition of its own. By 1866 this new fleet included twelve new ironclads and was commanded by an admiral, four vice-admirals and eight rear-admirals. The Austrian navy was smaller, slower and less well equipped: it possessed only seven ironclads. The Italian force was thus superior in all material respects though generally inferior in most human ones, most markedly in the abilities of the admirals in command.

The Italian commander was Carlo Pellion, Count of Persano. Unlike Garibaldi, who was a seaman both by birth and by aptitude, the Piedmontese Persano had seafaring neither in his blood nor in his upbringing. He came from the inland rice-growing area of Vercelli and was apparently unable to swim. Some people believed he chose to be a sailor because there was so much less competition for posts in the navy than there was in the army. He himself owed his very rapid promotion not to his exploits but to his talent at flattery, intrigue and making himself popular at court. He managed to ingratiate himself with Cavour and became an unlikely friend of Azeglio, possibly because that amorous statesman was attracted to his English wife. A vain and quarrelsome individual with a taste for fighting duels, Persano was both frivolous and irresponsible: he once asked Azeglio, who was prime minister at the time, to give him a false passport so that he could pursue a ballerina in Austrian-held Milan. His friend refused to help.

Persano’s seamanship could be embarrassing. In 1851 he ran his ship aground outside Genoa harbour when carrying Piedmont’s contribution to the Great Exhibition in London. Two years later, even more embarrassingly, he ran aground again, this time while transporting the royal family to Sardinia for a hunting trip; apparently he was trying to take a short cut and hit some rocks that were not marked on his charts. Although he was arrested and reduced in rank for six months after this episode, the setback did not harm Persano’s career. In 1860 Cavour entrusted him with the job of shadowing Garibaldi and stirring up trouble in Palermo and Naples, and in the autumn of that year Persano assisted Cialdini in the capture of Ancona by bombarding the papal port from the sea. Over the next two years he became a parliamentarian, the minister of the navy and the admiral who in 1866 found himself in charge of the fleet at Ancona under government orders to defeat the Austrians and rescue Italy’s reputation after the fiasco of Custoza.

Persano was not, however, eager for combat and, although he had only brought his ships up from Taranto, claimed that they needed an overhaul. To repeated orders from Agostino Depretis, the current naval minister in Florence, he responded with a range of reasons for delay: the fleet was not ready, the crews were not trained, water had got into the cylinders and something was wrong with the coal; most important of all, the Affondatore (the Sinker), the best and newest ship, was still on its way from England, where it had been built. When Depretis told him to make himself master of the Adriatic, Persano replied that he had no proper charts of the one conceivable sea where his navy might fight. While the fleet was still being overhauled after its voyage from Taranto, the audacious Austrian admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff appeared with his navy off Ancona, fired a few salvoes and waited for the Italians to come out and engage him; when they remained in port without returning fire, he sailed away and claimed a moral victory.

An exasperated government eventually used the threat of dismissal to force Persano out and attack the island of Lissa off the Dalmatian coast. The navy was duly shelling the Austrian batteries on the island and preparing to land its troops when Tegetthoff reappeared and made a reckoning unavoidable. While Persano was organizing his line, the long-awaited Affondatore steamed up, its arrival persuading him to abandon his flagship, the Re d’Italia, and direct the battle from an armour-plated turret on the new vessel. Most of his captains were unaware, however, of the changeover and continued to look for signals from the Re d’Italia – until it was rammed and sunk by Tegetthoff’s own flagship. The simultaneous loss of another ship, which caught fire and exploded, convinced Persano that the battle was lost, even though he flagship. The simultaneous loss of another ship, which caught fire and exploded, convinced Persano that the battle was lost, even though he still easily outnumbered the Austrians and could have carried on the fray. Like the generals at Custoza, he converted a setback into a disaster and, as with Lamarmora, ordered an unnecessary retreat, leading his ships back to Ancona, where expectant crowds were waiting to cheer captured Austrian vessels.

Lissa ended the career of Persano, who was accused of cowardice but cashiered for the lesser sins of negligence and incapacity. The defeat had other repercussions, especially for the future of the Italian navy, which henceforth tried to avoid battles on the open seas; one consequence of this was the disaster of November 1940, when the British disabled half the fleet that lay anchored in the harbour of Taranto. Yet the most insidious effect of the 1866 war was its impact on the psyche of the Italian nation. The very names Lissa and Custoza became reproaches, incitements to redress and redemption. Instead of persuading Italians not to attempt to become a Great Power, they encouraged them to try even harder. As Austria seemed the obvious place to seek such redemption, Victor Emanuel suggested to Bismarck in 1878 that a joint attack on the Habsburgs would give each of them victory and new territory. When the chancellor replied that Germany was big enough already, Italy abandoned the idea, became an ally of Austria and embarked on colonial adventures in Africa. Yet the defeats of 1866 rankled and continued to do so well into the twentieth century. The obsession with amends was a fundamental motive in the decisions to take part in the world wars in 1915 and 1940.

Ironclad Palestro

The only high-seas fleet action of the ironclad era was the Battle of Lissa fought between the Piedmont/Italian and Austrian navies on 20 July 1866. The opposing fleet commanders were two very different personalities. The Austrian admiral, Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, upon the declaration of war, immediately made for the Italian port of Ancona and challenged the Italian fleet to battle. For various unconvincing reasons, the Italian commander, Count Carlo Persano, refused to come out. Persano was the type of officer often highly praised in peacetime for his organizational ability, which usually consists of reorganizing the previous reorganization. Persano hoped to win by his material preponderance, which was, in all truth, his only advantage. His fleet could boast of 11 ironclads (soon to be increased to 12) compared to Tegetthoff’s technologically inferior seven. But Tegetthoff had already won a moral advantage off Ancona. He also drilled his crews constantly while Persano idled his time, conducted a useless bombardment of the Austrian island of Lissa, and continued to complain that the odds were still not in his favor.
On 20 July, Tegetthoff’s fleet appeared in the Adriatic mist in a ramming formation something like a flying wedge, and his captains had their straightforward orders: “Armored ships charge the enemy and sink him.” Tegetthoff knew that he had to get in close to the Italians to negate their superior rifled gun range with his own concentrated fire and his ram bows. Persano’s exhausted command was confused, scattered, and unready. Persano added to their trials by a series of complex and conflicting orders, particularly when he discovered that his fleet faced the wrong direction. Then Persano decided to transfer his command to the newly arrived ironclad ram Affondatore (Sinker) but neglected to inform his captains. As it was, Affondatore failed to touch any of its enemies with its truly de Bergerac snout, although its rifled guns wrought sad execution at pistolshot range on the timber upperworks of several Austrian ironclads.
A point-blank melee followed, with the ironclads ramming and maneuvering to avoid the ram-mostly the latter. (The Italian wooden warship contingent, for unexplained reasons, remained aloof from the battle.) The Austrian Kaiser (the only ship-of-the-line ever to fight ironclads) scraped by the Italian Re di Portugallo, broadside flaming, leaving its bow sculpture on the Italian’s deck. Yet very little damage was inflicted on either side, as the ironclads mutually avoided or harmlessly bumped into each other and their broadside discharges bounced off armor plating. The misnamed Italian ironclads Terrible and Formidabile proved useless-the former loitering with the spectator wooden ship squadron, while the latter left for Ancona to repair what its captain claimed was serious damage from the Lissa Island bombardment. Meanwhile, Persano dashed about in Affondatore, incognito, turning away from several ramming opportunities, although the ram did fire some three shots at the Don Juan de Austria, breaking off some armor plates.
The battle turned decidedly more deadly when the Austrian flagship Ferdinand Max suddenly rammed the putative Italian flagship Re d’Italia, which heaved on its beam ends and sank like a stone. For decades following, the example of the Italian warship would be held up as a prime example of the awful power of the ram. Actually, Re d’Italia was almost dead in the water at the moment of its ramming. Still, considering the weakness of the guns of that era against armor plate, and the technical inferiority of Tegetthoff’s warships, ramming was probably his most promising tactic.
Lissa’s immediate aftermath for the Italians was almost as grim as the battle itself. The ironclad Palestro, set afire during the battle, soon after exploded with all hands. Affondatore later foundered, not from battle damage but from stormy seas. When the wretched Persano inquired as to the whereabouts of his cherished ram, the reply was perhaps unintentionally ironic: Affondato (sunk). The real tragedy of Lissa is that it was unnecessary; the Austrians had already agreed to an armistice and to hand over Venetia (the bone of contention) by way of France, but the Italian leadership vaingloriously felt that they had to appear to win the province and city by their own efforts.