Raid on Medway I

Upnor Castle, which lies opposite the dockyard at Chatham, played an important part in the defence of the yard at the time of the Dutch raid.

Attack on the Medway, June 1667 by Pieter Cornelisz van Soest, painted c. 1667. The captured ship the Royal Charles is right of centre.

On 13 June 1667 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary: ‘I do fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone, that I do this night resolve to study with my father and wife what to do with the little that I have in money.’

He, like many Londoners, was thrown into a panic by an extraordinary raid on the Royal Dockyards of Chatham, which contained in oak the defensive strength of England. Only a rusty chain and a tiny river-fort provided the last defence against invasion. That panic was shared by the government. A coastal town was captured and three capital ships and 10 lesser vessels were burnt, while around 30 vessels were scuttled and two others – including the pride and flagship of the navy, were towed away. The one-sided attack proved to be, it can be argued, the worst defeat in the Royal Navy’s history. And it vies with Majuba Hill (1881) and the fall of Singapore (1941) as the most humiliating defeat of British arms.

The Stuarts, by making friends of the Spanish and French, ensured that the threat from those two rival powers would be diminished for the best part of a century. That peace was interrupted when it became clear that the Parliamentarians were winning the Civil War against Charles I. A French squadron with transports evaded the navy in the North Sea and reached Bridlington, but was then destroyed in the harbour. Cromwell’s Commonwealth was not threatened from overseas, partly because in a Europe hit by financial crisis, no power was strong enough to mount a serious challenge. That did not change much when the Stuarts were restored.

But the Dutch, sometimes allies, sometimes enemies, were a different matter.

During the Commonwealth, Cromwell had successfully seen off the Dutch in a war sparked by trade disputes and fought entirely at sea. The English were victorious at the Battle of Scheveningen and the Dutch were forced to accept an English monopoly on trade with England and English colonies. Cromwell sought to avoid further conflict with the Dutch Republic.

The restoration of Charles II saw widespread demands at home to reverse the Dutch dominance in world trade. Charles, however, was personally greatly in debt to the House of Orange, which had lent enormous sums to his father during the Civil War. But a conflict soon developed over the education and future prospects of his nephew, William III of Orange. That dispute, which had wide implications for the royal houses of Europe, was temporarily solved, thanks largely to the diplomacy of Lord Clarendon, a favourite of the king. In 1664, the situation quickly changed when Clarendon’s enemy, Lord Arlington, superseded him as the king’s favourite. Arlington and the king’s brother James, Duke of York, the Lord High Admiral, saw the opportunity for great personal gain in a war with the Dutch. James headed the Royal African Company and hoped to seize the possessions of the Dutch West India Company. The two were supported by the English ambassador in The Hague, George Downing, who despised the Dutch. He, either falsely or over-optimistically, reported that the Republic was politically divided between Orangists, who would gladly collaborate with an English enemy in case of war, and a faction of wealthy merchants that would give in to any English demand in order to protect their trade interests. Arlington planned to subdue the Dutch completely by permanent occupation of key Dutch cities. Charles was easily influenced and became convinced that a popular and lucrative foreign war at sea would bolster his authority as king. Naval officers were hungry for promotion and fortune in a conflict which they thought would be a walk-over.

Enthusiasm for war became infectious. English privateers attacked Dutch ships, capturing about 200. Dutch ships were obligated by treaty to salute the English flag first. In 1664 English commanders provoked the Dutch by not saluting in return. Many Dutch commanders could not bear the insult. English propagandists got to work, invoking the Amboyna Massacre of 1623 when ten English residents in the Dutch fortress of Victoria were executed by beheading for alleged treason, after first being tortured by a seventeenth-century version of water-boarding. Scurrilous broadsheets demonised the Dutch as drunken and profane. Pamphlets documented, without any real evidence, Dutch atrocities in the colonies. Under such a mountain of print, most Englishmen believed, in the poet Andrew Marvell’s words, that the Dutch were the ‘undigested vomit of the Sea’. Such vilification was at least partially an expression of unease with the presence of notable Cromwellians in exile in Holland. Charles had some reason to be nervous about at least the possibility of a Dutch invasion coordinated with an uprising within England.

Behind such fear-fuelled bigotry was of course the time-honoured motive for war – mercantile competition. The English sought to take over the Dutch trade routes and colonies while excluding the Dutch from their own colonial possessions. Contraband shipping had gone on from English colonies in America and Surinam for a decade, and the English were in no mood to give up such revenues. The Dutch, for their part, considered it their right to trade with anyone, anywhere. They too suffered from myopic double standards as they themselves enforced a monopoly in the Dutch Indies and threatened to extend it to India, after having expelled the Portuguese from that region.

Relations were decidedly tense on all fronts. James sent the Royal African Company’s Robert Holmes to capture Dutch trading posts and colonies in West Africa. With royal authority, the English invaded the Dutch colony of New Netherlands in North America on 24 June 1664, and controlled it by October. The Dutch responded by sending a fleet under Michiel de Ruyter, which recaptured their African trade posts, seized most English trade stations there and then crossed the Atlantic for a punitive expedition against the English in America. In December 1664, the English suddenly attacked the Dutch Smyrna fleet. Although the attack failed, the Dutch in January 1665 decreed that their ships could open fire on English warships in the colonies whenever threatened. Charles used this as a pretext to declare war on the Netherlands on 4 March 1665.

Since their defeat in the First Anglo–Dutch War, the Dutch had become much better prepared. Beginning in 1653, a ‘New Navy’ was constructed, a core of 60 new, heavier ships with professional captains. However, these ships were still much lighter than the 10 biggest ships in the English navy. With the threat of war growing, in 1664 the Dutch decided to replace their fleet core completely with still heavier ships. Upon the outbreak of war the following year, the new ships were quickly completed, with another 20 ordered. In the run-up to hostilities, cash-strapped England could only build a dozen ships. During the course of the war the Dutch shipyards built seven vessels to England’s one.

Still, on paper England appeared, fallaciously as it turned out, to be a giant facing the little Dutch boy. Her population was four times as big and its confidence was still on a par with its post-Armada period. But money was tight, with few cities able to dig deep into their coffers. The Dutch burghers were able to spend the equivalent of £11 million on the war, the English barely half that. And God seemed to have deserted England. The outbreak of war was swiftly followed by both the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, bringing England virtually to her knees. Furthermore, the English fleet had already suffered severe cash shortages, despite having been voted a record budget of £2,500,000 by Parliament. The navy could only pay its sailors with ‘tickets’, or debt certificates, as Charles lacked an effective means of enforcing taxation. The only way to finance the war was to capture Dutch trade fleets.

The first encounters were, unsurprisingly, at sea and British naval power at first seemed supreme. At the Battle of Lowestoft on 13 June the English gained a great victory. It was the worst defeat of the Dutch Republic’s navy in history. However, the English proved unable to capitalise on the victory. The leading Dutch politician, Johan de Witt, quickly restored confidence by joining the fleet personally. He sacked ineffective captains and introduced modern tactics.

In August, de Ruyter returned from America to a hero’s welcome and was given supreme command of the confederate fleet. The 60-year-old de Ruyter was highly respected, even loved, by his sailors and soldiers, who used the term of endearment Bestevaêr (‘Grandad’) for him. A pious, lowly born man, cautious in his personal nature, he always led from the front and refused to back away from danger. He also, unusually for one of his standing, had an utter disregard for rank. Meanwhile, the Spice Fleet from the Dutch East Indies managed to return home safely after the Battle of Vagen. That hit English pockets hard.

Charles and his ministers sought foreign help. In the summer of 1665 the bishop of Münster, an old enemy of the Dutch, had been induced by promises of English subsidies to invade the Republic. At the same time, the English made overtures to Spain. Both strategies backfired. Louis XV was greatly alarmed by the attack by Münster and the prospect of an English–Spanish coalition. He feared that a collapse of the Republic could create a powerful Habsburg entity on his northern border, as the Habsburgs were the traditional allies of the German bishops. He immediately promised to send a French army corps and French envoys. There was consternation at the English court. It now seemed that the Republic would end up as either a Habsburg possession or a French protectorate. Either outcome would be a disaster for England. Clarendon, always having warned about ‘this foolish war’, was ordered to quickly make peace with the Dutch without French mediation. Instead, he encouraged the Orangists to seize power, but that was foiled by the return of de Witt from his fleet.

The Dutch created a strong anti-English alliance. On 26 January 1666, Louis declared war and days later Frederick III of Denmark was bribed into doing the same. Charles made a new peace offer, which vaguely promised to moderate his demands if the Dutch would only appoint William to some responsible function and pay £200,000 in ‘indemnities’. De Witt considered it a mere feint to divide the Dutch and their French allies. He was having none of it and decided to strike hard with a fleet of 85 ships.

Eighty English ships, under General-at-Sea George Monck, the Duke of Albemarle, set sail at the end of May to confront the threat. But 20 of them under Prince Rupert peeled off to intercept a phantom French squadron believed to be joining up with the Dutch – in fact, most French vessels were in the Mediterranean. Albemarle came upon de Ruyter’s fleet at anchor on 1 June and immediately attacked the nearest Dutch ship before the rest of the fleet could come to her aid. The Dutch rearguard under Lieutenant-Admiral Cornelius Tromp set upon a starboard tack, taking the battle toward the Flemish shoals and compelling Albemarle to turn about. A ferocious battle raged until nightfall. Albemarle’s strength was reduced to 44 ships, but with these he renewed the battle, tacking past the enemy four times in close action. With his fleet in too poor a condition to continue to challenge, he retired towards the coast with the Dutch in pursuit.

The following day Prince Rupert returned with his 20 ships, joined Albemarle. During this stage of the battle, Vice-Admiral George Ayscue, on the grounded Prince Royal, surrendered, the last time an English admiral did so in battle. On the fourth day the Dutch broke the English lines several times. The English again retreated, but de Ruyter was reluctant to follow because gunpowder was running low. The battle ended with both sides claiming victory, even though the English had lost 10 ships against the Dutch four.

One more major action was fought – the St James’s Day Battle on 4 and 5 August ended in English victory because they lost one ship to the Dutch two. It failed to decide the war as the Dutch fleet escaped annihilation and at this stage simply surviving was enough for the Dutch. Five days later, Charles made another peace offer to de Witt using the notorious Henri Buat, a Dutch cavalry officer with a track record of conspiracy, as an intermediary. Among the letters he took to The Hague, presumably by mistake, was one containing the secret English instructions to their contacts in the Orange party, outlining plans for an overthrow of the state’s regime. Buat was arrested, condemned for treason and beheaded. His accomplices in the conspiracy fled the country to England. De Witt now had proof of treachery within the Orange movement.

The mood in the Republic now turned grimly belligerent. To raise temperatures even higher, in August English Vice-Admiral Robert Holmes, during his raid on the Vlie estuary in August 1666, destroyed merchantmen and sacked the island of Terschelling, setting the main town aflame. In this he was assisted by a Dutch captain, Laurens Heemskerck, who had fled to England after having been condemned to death for cowardice shown during the Battle of Lowestoft.

After the Great Fire of London in September, Charles again reduced his demands in an attempt to withdraw from the war without losing face. He was rebuffed.

By the beginning of 1667 Charles’s active fleet was in a poor state owing to spending cuts and the remaining big ships were laid up. Johan de Witt saw his chance. Negotiations had been in progress at Breda since March, but Charles had been procrastinating over the signing of peace, hoping to improve his position through secret French assistance. De Witt vowed to end the war quickly with a clear victory, thereby ensuring a more advantageous settlement for the Dutch Republic. He sent his brother Cornelis to supervise the fleet’s preparations. The Dutch commanders, fearing the treacherous shoals in the Thames estuary, hired two English pilots, one a dissenter named Robert Holland, the other a smuggler who had fled English justice.

Admiral de Ruyter gathered together his various squadrons and set sail for the Thames on 4 June with 62 frigates or ships-of-the-line, about 15 lighter ships and 12 fireships. The fleet was in three squadrons: the first was commanded by de Ruyter himself, the second by Lieutenant-Admiral Aert Jansse van Nes, and the third by Lieutenant-Admiral Baron Willem Joseph van Ghent. The latter, on the frigate Agatha, was the real commander of the expedition; he had done all the operational planning as he had been the former commander of the Dutch Marine Corps, the first in history created for specialised amphibious operations. That was now headed by the English Cromwellian Colonel Thomas Dolman.

On 6 June a break in the fog bank revealed the Dutch task force sailing into the mouth of the Thames. The attack caught the English unawares. Despite ample warning from spies, no serious preparations had been made. Most frigates were at Harwich and in Scotland. Sir William Coventry had earlier dismissed the likelihood of the Dutch landing anywhere near London, believing that purely as a morale-booster they would launch a token attack on Harwich. That port was strongly fortified, leaving London protected by only a small number of active ships, most of them prizes taken earlier in the war from the Dutch. In March the Duke of York had ordered the discharge of most of the crews of the prize vessels, leaving only three guard ships at the Medway. The number of fireships was hastily increased from one to three, and 30 large sloops were prepared to row ships to safety in an emergency. But such measures merely underlined the lack of a clear line of command, with most responsible authorities giving hasty orders without bothering to coordinate them first. The result was utter confusion. King Charles stood aloof and English morale plummeted. English soldiers, not having been paid for months or even years, were not over-eager to risk their lives. England dithered while the main Dutch fleet took five days to manoeuvre around the shoals and reach the approaches to Chatham.

At the Royal Dockyard, Commissioner Peter Pett, despite having raised the alarm, sat on his hands until 9 June when, late in the afternoon, about 30 Dutch ships, Van Ghent’s squadron of frigates, were sighted off Sheerness. Pett sent a gloomy message to the Navy Board, lamenting the absence of Navy senior officials whose help and advice he believed he needed. When decisive action was required, Pett was more interested in avoiding future blame.

Van Ghent’s frigates carried marines who were landed on Canvey Island in Essex. They had strict orders not to plunder, as the Dutch wanted to shame the English whose troops had sacked Terschelling. Nevertheless, tCaptain Jan van Brakel’s crew couldn’t control themselves and commenced looting rather than soldiering. They were driven off by English militia and upon returning to the Dutch fleet found themselves under threat of severe punishment. Van Brakel offered to lead the attack the next day to avoid the penalty.

King Charles was finally spurred into action and ordered the Earl of Oxford to mobilise the militia of all counties around London. All available barges were gathered to lay a ship bridge across the Lower Thames, so that the English cavalry could quickly switch positions from one bank to the other. Musketeers from the Sheerness garrison were sent to investigate reports of Dutch raiding parties on the Isle of Grain. It was only in the afternoon of 10 June that the king instructed Albemarle to go to Chatham to take charge. Admiral Prince Rupert was sent to organise the defences at Woolwich a full three days later.

Albermarle found to his utter dismay that at Gravesend and Tilbury there were too few guns to halt a Dutch advance upon the Thames. To prevent such a disaster, he ordered all available artillery from the capital to be positioned at Gravesend. On 11 June he went to Chatham, expecting the backbone of England’s naval strength to be well prepared for an attack, but found only 12 of the 800 dockyard men present. Only 10 of the 30 sloops were there because the remainder had been used to ferry to safety the cherished personal possessions of senior officers, in Commissioner Pett’s case, his collection of model ships. No munitions or powder were available and the six-inch thick iron chain that blocked the Medway, installed in the Civil War to repel a possible attack of the Royalist fleet, had not been protected by batteries. Albemarle immediately ordered the transfer of the artillery from Gravesend to Chatham.

The full Dutch fleet arrived at the Isle of Sheppey on 10 June and launched an attack on the incomplete Sheerness Fort. Captain Jan van Brakel in Vrede, desperate to assuage the dishonour of his men, led and, followed by two other men-of-war, sailed as close to the fort as possible to batter it with cannon. Only the frigate Unity, stationed off the fort, was able to engage. It was supported by a number of ketches and fireships at Garrison Point, and by the fort itself where 16 guns had been hastily placed. The Unity fired one broadside, but when a Dutch fireship approached, she withdrew up the Medway, followed by the support vessels. The Dutch fired on the fort. Two men were hit and when the Scots soldiers of the garrison realised that no surgeon was on duty, they deserted. Seven remained, but their position became untenable when some 800 Dutch marines landed about a mile away. The fort and its guns were captured and blown up,

Confusion reigned on the English side, as Spragge, Monck and Admiralty officials issued conflicting orders. As his artillery would not arrive soon, Monck on the 11th ordered a squadron of cavalry and a company of soldiers to reinforce Upnor Castle. River defences were hastily improvised with blockships sunk, and the chain across the river was guarded by light batteries. Pett proposed that several big and smaller ships be sunk to block the Musselbank channel in front of the chain. HMS Golden Phoenix, HMS House of Sweden, HMS Welcome and HMS Leicester were scuttled along with the smaller vessels Constant John, Unicorn, John and Sarah. Spragge took soundings and discovered that this was not enough to block the second channel, several more were sunk, including the Barbados Merchant, Dolphin, Edward and Eve, Hind and Fortune. The job was done by men from the remaining warships, which were temporarily left crewless. They were placed in a too-easterly position on the line and could not be covered by fire. Monck then decided also to sink ships in Upnor Reach, presenting another barrier to the Dutch should they break through the chain at Gillingham. The defensive chain placed across the river had at its lowest point been lying practically 9ft under the waterline between its stages, leaving it possible for light ships to pass over it. The defenders tried to raise it by placing stages under it closer to the shore.

Raid on Medway II

De Zeven Provinciën was a Dutch ship of the line, originally armed with 80 guns. The name of the ship was also written as De 7 Provinciën. The literal translation is “The Seven Provinces”, the name referring to the fact that the Dutch Republic in the 17th century was a confederation of seven autonomous provinces. The vessel was originally built in 1664-65 for the Admiralty of de Maeze in Rotterdam, by Master Shipbuilder Salomon Jansz van den Tempel.

The ship served as Admiral Michiel de Ruyter’s flagship during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, taking part in the hard fought Dutch victory in the Four Days Fight, the bitter defeat at the St. James’s Day Battle, and acting as a command post as well as blockading the Thames during the Raid on the Medway. The vessel gave a good account of itself throughout the war, although it was partially dismasted during the Four Day’s Fight.

De Ruyter used De Zeven Provinciën as his flagship during the Third Anglo-Dutch War of 1672-1673. The ship served in all four major battles against the combined English and French fleet, fighting in the Battle of Solebay, the first and second Battle of Schooneveld and, in possibly its greatest moment, at the Battle of the Texel.

In 1692, the ship, now armed with only 76 guns, fought at the Battles of Barfleur and La Hogue during the War of the Grand Alliance. The vessel was severely damaged during the fight and, in 1694, De Zeven Provinciën had to be broken up.
De Zeven Provinciën measured, in English Feet, approximately 151 ft long by about 40 ft (12 m) wide by a little over 15 ft (4.6 m) deep. It was originally armed with 12 36-pdrs and 16 24-pdrs on the lower deck (although this had been changed to an all 36-pdr battery by the time of the Third Anglo-Dutch War), 14 18-pdrs and 12 12-pdrs on the upper deck, and 26 6-pdrs on the forecastle, quarterdeck, and poop deck.

The positions of Charles V and Matthais, both captured Dutch merchantmen, just above the chain were adjusted to enable them to bring their broadsides to bear. Monmouth was also moored above the chain, positioned so that she could bring her guns to bear on the space between Charles V and Matthias. The frigate Marmaduke and the Norway Merchant were sunk off above the chain; the large Sancta Maria foundered while being moved for the same purpose. Pett also informed Monck that the Royal Charles had to be moved upriver. He had been ordered by the Duke of York to do this on 27 June, but as yet had not complied. Monck at first refused to make available some of his small number of sloops, as they were needed to move supplies; when he at last found the captain of the Matthias willing to assist, Pett answered that it was too late as he was busy sinking the blockships and there was no pilot to be found daring enough to take such a risk anyway. Meanwhile the first Dutch frigates to arrive had already begun to move the Edward and Eve away, clearing a channel by nightfall.

Van Ghent’s squadron now advanced up the Medway on 12 June, attacking the English defences at the chain. First, Unity was taken by Van Brakel by assault. Then the fireship Pro Patria under commander Jan Daniëlsz van Rijn broke through the chain (or sailed over it according to some sources). She then destroyed the Matthias by fire. The fireships Catharina and Schiedam attacked the Charles V. The Catharina under commander Hendrik Hendriksz was sunk by the shore batteries but the Schiedam successfully set the Charles V alight. The crew was captured by Van Brakel.

The flagship Royal Charles, with only thirty cannon aboard and abandoned by her skeleton crew when they saw the Matthias burn, was then captured by the Irish flag captain Thomas Tobiasz. Only the Monmouth escaped. Seeing the disaster, Monck ordered the 16 remaining warships farther up to be sunk off to prevent them from being captured, making for a total of about 30 ships deliberately sunk by the English themselves. As Andrew Marvell observed: ‘Of all our navy none should now survive, But that the ships themselves were taught to dive.’ The Dutch anchored in the Medway when the tide turned.

The following day, 13 June, the whole of the Thames side as far up as London was in a panic as a rumour spread that the Dutch were transporting a French army from Dunkirk for a full-scale invasion. Many wealthy citizens fled the city, taking their most valuable possessions with them. Samuel Pepys, secretary of the Naval Board, wrote on the 13th:

No sooner up but hear the sad newes confirmed of the Royall Charles being taken by them, and now in fitting by them – which Pett should have carried up higher by our several orders, and deserves, therefore, to be hanged for not doing it – and turning several others; and that another fleete is come up into the Hope. Upon which newes the King and Duke of York have been below [London Bridge] since four o’clock in the morning, to command the sinking of ships at Barking-Creeke, and other places, to stop their coming up higher: which put me into such a fear, that I presently resolved of my father’s and wife’s going into the country; and, at two hours’ warning, they did go by the coach this day, with about L1300 in gold in their night-bag. … never were people so dejected as they are in the City all over at this day; and do talk most loudly, even treason; as, that we are bought and sold – that we are betrayed by the Papists, and others, about the King; cry out that the office of the Ordnance hath been so backward as no powder to have been at Chatham nor Upnor Castle till such a time, and the carriages all broken; that Legg is a Papist; that Upnor, the old good castle built by Queen Elizabeth, should be lately slighted; that the ships at Chatham should not be carried up higher. They look upon us as lost, and remove their families and rich goods in the City; and do think verily that the French, being come down with his army to Dunkirke, it is to invade us, and that we shall be invaded.

The Dutch continued their advance into the Chatham docks with the fireships Delft, Rotterdam, Draak, Wapen van Londen, Gouden Appel and Princess, under English fire from Upnor Castle and from three shore batteries. Cannon boomed and musketry rattled from Upnor. Dutch frigates suppressed the English fire, but suffered about 40 casualties in dead and wounded. The exposed structures of three of the finest and heaviest vessels in the navy, already sunk to prevent capture, now perished by fire: first the Loyal, set alight by the Rotterdam, then the Royal James and finally the Royal Oak. The latter withstood attempts by two fireships but succumbed to a third. The English crews abandoned their half-flooded ships, mostly without a fight, a notable exception being army Captain Archibald Douglas of the Scots Foot, who personally refused to abandon the Oak and perished in the flames. The Monmouth again escaped. The raid thus cost the English four of their remaining eight ships with more than 75 cannon. Three of the four largest ‘big ships’ of the navy were lost. The fourth, the Royal Sovereign, was safely but uselessly in Portsmouth. De Ruyter now joined Van Ghent’s squadron in person.

Pepys wrote:

Late at night comes Mr. Hudson, the cooper, my neighbour, and tells me that he come from Chatham this evening at five o’clock, and saw this afternoon ‘The Royal James,’ ‘Oake,’ and ‘London,’ burnt by the enemy with their fire-ships: that two or three men-of-war come up with them, and made no more of Upnor Castle’s shooting, than of a fly.

Cornelis de Witt, fearing that the English would finally get themselves organised and counter-attack, on 14 June decided against further penetration and withdrew, towing the Royal Charles along as a war trophy; the Unity was also removed with a prize crew. Dutch demolition teams rowed to any ship they could reach to burn her down as much as they could, thus ensuring their reward money. One boat even re-entered the docks to make sure nothing was left above the waterline of the Oak, James and London; another burnt the merchantman Slot van Honingen, ruining a precious salvage opportunity. The Dutch failed to completely destroy the Chatham dockyard, another missed opportunity. Such destruction could have put back the rebuilding of the English navy by decades.

The Dutch fleet, after celebrating by collectively thanking God for ‘a great victory in a just war in self-defence’ tried to repeat its success by attacking several other ports on the English east coast but was repelled each time.

On 27 June an attempt to enter the Thames beyond Gravesend was called off when it became known that the river was blocked by sunken ships and five fireships awaited the Dutch attack. On 2 July a Dutch force landed near Woodbridge north of Harwich, aiming to take the port, a position of immense strategic importance. But first they had to take the newly constructed Landguard Fort. What happened next did something to restore battered English military pride. Four officers and around 100 men, with 18 heavy cannon, were determined to fight. So, too, were the town militia.

Initially the Dutch fleet, due to unfavourable winds, was forced to sail north off Lowestoft before turning south to launch the attack. As they sailed northwards, the British militia, assuming another raid, marched along the coast shadowing the enemy fleet. When the Dutch turned south again, with a now favourable wind, so did the militia. De Ruyter’s fleet was joined by five troop transports sent out from Holland especially for the Harwich raid, commanded by the experienced Colonel Count van Hoorn. That took the attack force to about 850 infantrymen and 400 marines. The infantry commander was Colonel Thomas Dolman, the Medway veteran who had earlier served in the British army under Cromwell.

On Sunday 30 June, 70 Dutch ships anchored behind the shelter of a large sandbank known as the Gunfleet. The landing force embarked in a small fleet of around 20 small flat-bottomed sailing barges, known as galiots, At noon de Ruyter gave the signal and the galiots started for the shore.

Marines commander Colonel Francois Palm leaped out onto the gently sloping shingle, the first man to land, followed immediately by his men. To their right the infantry also poured ashore, led by Dolman. On the beach, the troops formed up as though on parade, while van Hoorn sent out a scouting party to ascend the low cliffs by a narrow track. Within two hours the Dutch were ashore safely, in good order, and without a shot being fired at them. The scouts brought back two civilian prisoners who told them that the fort’s garrison had been heavily reinforced and that 60 guns faced the raiders. Van Hoorn refused to believe them and ordered the attack.

While the Dutch soldiers of the assault group moved under cover of a large sand dune at around 1400 hours, the footsore English militia were on the wrong side of the River Deben. The river was swift-flowing with a surging tidal current. The militia cavalry trotted eight miles upstream to cross at Woodbridge while the infantry crossed in a tiny ferry-boat capable of carrying barely a dozen men at a time. It was agonisingly slow work in the face of immense danger. De Ruyter ordered forward a few of his galiots, each carrying a small cannon to bombard the 250yd crossing. The part-time British militia were attempting that most difficult military manoeuvre – a river crossing under artillery fire. The crossings were halted when just a few had reached the Dutch side of the estuary. They buried themselves in marsh ditches and waited for the ebb of the tide. As the water receded, the galiots that had been plaguing them were forced farther and farther from the shore until out of range. The river crossing started again at about 1600 hours.

The Dutch troops of the assault group were also forced to wait. The same tidal rush frustrated the Dutch admirals sent to bombard Harwich and Landguard Fort from the south and east. Their arrival in the selected firing positions with their squadrons coincided with the fall of the tide, and they too were forced out of range – even the largest cannon on the ships could barely reach the walls of the fort. The Dutch assault force was denied the flanking fire designed to keep the defenders’ heads down. The English had also removed all the marker buoys from the Harwich channels, so that the Dutch sailors had to navigate by memory and guesswork. Admiral van Nes’s flagship, the Delft, ran aground and had to be laboriously towed off later. The Dutch ships withdrew and most of their sailors were sent to reinforce the soldiers on land.

Soon after 1600 hours – just as the falling tide allowed the militia to the north to resume their interrupted river crossing – the Dutch soldiers, marines and sailors started their attack. The soldiers were organised in 18 infantry half-companies of about 48 men each, disposed in four sections, each with four grenadiers, the rest being musketeers and pikemen. The marines were all armed with carbines – short flintlock muskets much like the old firelocks.

Surprised by the sheer volume of musket fire poured at them, the vast majority of Dutch soldiers and sailors simply refused to leave the shelter of the dunes. Their musketeers, trying to fire from behind cover, tended to fire high. Some did make several gallant assaults against the walls, using their fascines to fill the ditch and their ladders to scale the walls. None made it to the top. At around 1730 the Dutch began to melt away, but officers rallied sufficient of the braver men for a second major assault. That, too, failed. At 1800 the attack on Landguard Fort was called off and the Dutch retreated towards the beaches.

Part of the volume of fire which had so surprised and dispirited the Dutch troops came from a tiny galiot the British had sailed to the harbour mouth. This vessel used grapeshot to great effect on the retreating Dutch. Having run that gauntlet, Colonel Dolman’s men made it to the beach, only to confront another threat. The English militia had come together and a mixed force of 1,500 infantry and cavalry were on high ground to the north challenging the Dutch flank guard. A separate two-hour battle now ensued as the Dutch used their musketeers to keep the British at bay, with small groups of men from both sides creeping around trying to out-manoeuvre each other. The British attempred to lure the Dutch forward from their lines by feigning a withdrawal, but instead the Dutch maintained the fire of their small portable cannon, using grapeshot against the infantry and round-shot against the cavalry. This harassing artillery fire was so effective that the British cavalry were unable to form up for a charge. Sunset ended the battle. At about 2030 hours the Dutch used the deepening darkness to disengage in a display of professional skill and they were all re-embarked by around 2200.

The casualties were never recorded properly by either side. One Dutch report listed ‘7 dead and 35 wounded in the whole fleet’, which does not accord with a British eye-witness account of ‘boat-loads of Dutch dead’ being rowed out to the ships. More believable is that the Dutch casualties were seven dead and 35 wounded in the ships themselves, while the soldiers and marines ashore suffered perhaps eight dead and 30–40 wounded at the fort. British casualties were very precisely numbered at the fort as one dead and four wounded, including their commander, Captain Nathaniel Darell, who received a musket ball through his shoulder. But, like the Dutch, there was no record of casualties during the withdrawal or in the battle with the enemy flank guard. The best guesses, given the nature of the battle, are 12–15 British killed and 20 wounded, and eight Dutch dead and 20 wounded. For the British it was a small price to pay for repelling the last opposed seaborne invasion of England.

Despite that Dutch failure, panic still ruled in London amongst the ruling class. Samuel Pepys noted in his diary on 19 July 1667: ‘The Dutch fleete are in great squadrons everywhere still about Harwich, and were lately at Portsmouth; and the last letters say at Plymouth, and now gone to Dartmouth to destroy our Streights’ fleete lately got in thither; but God knows whether they can do it any hurt, or no, but it was pretty news come the other day so fast, of the Dutch fleets being in so many places, that Sir W. Batten at table cried, By God, says he, I think the Devil shits Dutchmen.’ And on 29 July 1667: ‘Thus in all things, in wisdom, courage, force, knowledge of our own streams, and success, the Dutch have the best of us, and do end the war with victory on their side’.

Wharf official John Norman estimated the damage caused by the Medway raid at about £20,000, apart from the replacement costs of the four lost capital ships; the total loss of the Royal Navy must have been close to £200,000. Pett was made a scapegoat, bailed at £5,000 and deprived of his office while those who had ignored his earlier warnings quietly escaped any blame. The Royal James, Oak and Loyal London were in the end salvaged and rebuilt, but at great cost and when the City of London refused to share in it, Charles had the name of the latter ship changed to simply London. For a few years the English fleet was handicapped by its losses during the raid, but by around 1670 a new building programme had restored the English navy to its former power.

Total losses for the Dutch were eight spent fireships and about 50 casualties. In the Republic, the populace was jubilant after the victory; many festivities were held, repeated when the fleet returned in October, the various admirals being hailed as heroes. They were rewarded by a flood of eulogies and given honorary golden chains and pensions by the States-General and the lesser States of the Provinces; de Ruyter, Cornelis de Witt and Van Ghent were honoured by precious enamelled golden chalices depicting the events. Cornelis de Witt had a large ‘Sea Triumph’ painted, with himself as the main subject. This triumphalism by de Witt’s States faction caused resentment with the rival Orangist faction; when the States regime lost power in 1672, Cornelis’s head was to be ceremoniously carved out from the painting, after Charles had for some years insisted the picture would be removed.

The Dutch success in the Medway had a major psychological impact throughout England, with London feeling especially vulnerable just a year after the Great Fire. This, together with the cost of the war, of the Great Plague and the extravagant spending of Charles’s court, produced a rebellious atmosphere in London. Clarendon ordered the English envoys at Breda to sign a peace quickly, as Charles feared an open revolt.

On 31 July 1667, the Treaty of Breda sealed peace between the two nations. The treaty allowed the English to keep 27 possession of New Netherlands, which they renamed New York, while the Dutch kept control of the valuable sugar plantations of Surinam they had conquered in 1667.

The Raid on the Medway was a serious blow to the reputation of the English crown. Charles felt personally offended by the fact the Dutch had attacked while he had laid up his fleet and peace negotiations were in progress, conveniently forgetting he himself had not negotiated in good faith. His resentment was one of the causes of the Third Anglo-Dutch war, as it made him enter into the secret Treaty of Dover with Louis XIV of France. In the nineteenth century, jingoistic British writers expanded on this theme by suggesting it had been the Dutch who had sued for peace after their defeats in 1666 – although in fact these had made them, if anything, more belligerent – and that only by treacherously attacking the English had they been able to gain a victory.

The Republic was jubilant about the Dutch victory and the peace was generally seen as a personal triumph for de Witt. He consolidated his political power at home and reduced the powers of difficult provinces. But de Witt’s success would sow the seeds of his eventual downfall and nearly that of the Republic with him. Charles and Louis, both humiliated in turn, intensified their secret cooperation and would, joined by the bishop of Münster, attack the Dutch in 1672. De Witt was unable to counter this attack, as he could not create a strong Dutch army for lack of money and fear that it would strengthen the position of the young William III. That same year de Witt was assassinated and William became stadtholder.

The Royal Charles, her draught too deep to be of use in the shallow Dutch waters, was permanently drydocked near Hellevoetsluis as a tourist attraction, with day trips being organised for large parties, often of foreign state guests. After vehement protests by Charles that this insulted his honour, the official visits were ended and Royal Charles was eventually scrapped in 1672.

In 1676 de Ruyter took command of a combined Dutch-Spanish fleet to help the Spanish suppress the Messina revolt and twice fought a French fleet. At the Battle of Agosta a cannonball mangled his left leg. He died on 29 April 1676. He was given a full state funeral and buried in Amsterdam.

The Medway debacle, a humiliation for Britain’s military might, led to a major overhaul of coastal defences. Over 15 years, enormous sums were spent in both the Medway and the Thames, and in Portsmouth, Plymouth, Hull and Tynemouth. Many fortifications were designed by the country’s famed chief engineer, Sir Bernard de Gomme. Squat forts bristling with ordnance covered the main estuaries and waterways. In military circles, the lessons were learnt and never forgotten.

During the Second World War, on 14 December 1941, the Dutch minelayer Jan van Brakel hit the anchor buoy of one of the vessels protecting the entrance to the Medway. The commander reported this incident to the port authorities, signalling: ‘Van Brakel damaged boom defence Medway’. The instant reply was: ‘What, again?’

January 1945: U-boat British Inshore Campaign

The German army had launched its large-scale counter-attack through the Ardennes against the Anglo-American forces on 16 December, and the U-boats were ordered to redouble their efforts to coincide with the assault. There had indeed been an increase in the number of U-boats at sea and sinkings achieved, see earlier. The Ardennes offensive had stalled by the end of the year, and the German army would be pushed back to its starting lines by mid January. Nevertheless, Hitler’s HQ staff estimated that stockpiled war supplies for the Allied armies in western Europe must now have run out, and further supplies would have to be brought by sea, highlighting the role of the German U-boats in aiding the land war. The New Year appeared to hold much promise for the U-boats conducting the Inshore Campaign, and U-boat Command wrote an optimistic appraisal of prospects for the coming year, attached in the form of several appendices to the end of their war diary for 15 January. However, not mentioned in this document, there remained substantial worries for the future.

Firstly, the Inshore Campaign had never been intended to be anything other than a stop-gap measure, necessitated by the fact that the older U-boats had been driven out of their Biscay bases, and that their intended replacements, the long-range Type XXI ‘electric’ U-boats, had been repeatedly held up by unexpected flaws in design and by Allied bombing raids. It was quite evident that concentrating nearly all the available U-boat force within the confines of British coastal waters would enable equally the Allies to relax convoy restrictions elsewhere and to concentrate enormous anti-submarine measures around the British Isles. Indeed, there was already evidence reported by the few very long-range Type IXD2 boats moving through the south Atlantic that this relaxation had already occurred.

It was apparent to U-boat Command that to push too many U-boats into confined areas around the British Isles would do little to improve sinkings of enemy ships, while any Allied escort group making a sweep could hardly fail to find targets. This concern was explicitly stated by Doenitz to Hitler, in one of their regular conferences which took place on 1 March. Hitler was advised that heavier losses of U-boats had to be expected, and that only the introduction of the Type XXI fast long-range U-boats could disperse the enemy defences. Doenitz himself, centred for several months in Berlin and immersed in the many problems incurred by the Navy as a whole as Germany’s military situation deteriorated, now rarely took an active role in U-boat operations. Admiral Godt, Doenitz’s deputy, and Kpt zS Roesing directed the Atlantic war.

Secondly, as the crews acquired confidence in operation of the new types of schnorchel, they became increasingly reluctant to surface, even when they could safely do so as in the case of some U-boats heading out for patrols in mid ocean or around Canada. One of the inshore boats, U 480, had been forced to surface after a very long submerged cruise as a result of a schnorchel malfunction. The commander later reported that the whole boat shimmered with phosphorescence and the entire heavy flak armament, for defence against incoming bombers, was corroded through and useless. He chose to dive again at the earliest opportunity, and did not feel inclined to resurface. However, U-boats were required to surface to transmit radio signals, although they could receive such signals while submerged, so that few signals were being sent to U-boat Command. Electrical and corrosive problems had also been reported due to the dampness of the boat when continually submerged. A side effect of the continued submergence was the difficulty of navigation, which tended to rely on sightings of prominent shore features. On 12 January, in Experience Order 212, U-boat Command reminded U-boats that ‘Navigation in coastal waters is a matter of life and death’ and must be done properly and not casually.

The submerged boats navigated by dead reckoning, radio-navigational fixes from ‘Elektra-Sonne’, whose bearings from transmitters in several Axis countries (including Spain) gave the boat’s position, use of the echo-sounder to determine the sea depth (marked on charts) and periscope bearings on lights or land. In this respect, the lights blazing from neutral Eire were of considerable value. At the end of January U-boat Command could advise that one U-boat had navigated solely with Elektra-Sonne all the way home from mid-Atlantic, and that its position when checked by periscope outside its Norwegian base was in error by only two sea-miles.

Thirdly, the rapid advance of the Soviet armies had jeopardized the safety of the U-boat training areas, located around Danzig in the eastern Baltic. Minelaying by British aircraft had already disrupted the training, as the over-stretched German minesweeping organisation finally started to show the strain. The training flotillas were forced to move westwards to Luebeck Bay towards the end of January. This was unsatisfactory, since the waters of the western Baltic are shallow, and therefore unsuitable for deep-diving trials. Worse, the area was within range of radar-fitted bombers from Coastal Command that made periodic sudden attacks on the area during darkness. Nevertheless, the efficient German training organisation continued to turn out new crews faster than U-boats could be manufactured in which to employ them.

Fourthly, as previously recounted, the U-boats were very reluctant to send signals anyway, for fear of their position being located while transmitting. This reluctance was understood, and even endorsed, by U-boat Command, but it meant that weeks of complete silence might elapse before the naval staff could grasp whether a boat had had successes, whether a patrol area might be very promising with much merchant traffic (alternatively very heavily defended with little traffic), or whether the U-boat concerned had been lost. U-boat Command was forced generally to rely on the well-tried method of dead reckoning to assess the position of a U-boat. It could be assumed to start schnorchelling as soon as it left base, then it would travel sixty-seventy sea miles per day to its patrol area, of which naturally U-boat Command was aware. The U-boat was assumed to be there until its supplies ran out, and then its course home would be plotted by dead reckoning. This created a return-by-latest date, beyond which it was likely that the U-boat had been sunk. It may be recalled that the British submarine tracking station had found dead reckoning to be an unsatisfactory method for plotting a U-boat’s path from Norway to the British coast; however Allied Intelligence was handicapped by not knowing the final destination of the U-boat.

On 17 January U-boats returning from the North Channel, the Irish Sea and the Normandy invasion area were ordered to send their situation reports from about 500 miles west of Ireland. It soon became clear that U-boat commanders were increasingly reluctant to send any messages at all, even the required passage signal from which they would then receive orders for their final patrol grid. In late February U-boat Command had commented that too many commanders were allowing their radio staff to make them believe that circumstances were unfavourable for transmission on the outward journey, but apparently there was never any difficulty about the signal on the return passage. If necessary, the crew was to be informed that the boat would surface every day to improve transmission conditions, until the radio staff agreed that they were favourable! This ruthless attitude evidently provoked a reaction from U-boat commanders, since U-boat Command on 5 March was forced to clarify with an announcement to all boats at sea that ‘we want radio transmissions once south of Iceland. But not too many, act reasonably.’ Or the enemy might be expected to react.

In short, U-boat Command was painfully aware that it was ignorant of what was happening during the Inshore Campaign, and constantly feared the worst. A report made by a U-boat back in base that its patrol area was very favourable, resulting in further boats being sent to the same area, might be out of date even before the replacement U-boats sailed. Especially since Allied defences were obviously becoming stronger and better organised around the British Isles.

Hitler directed towards the end of January that ‘the U-boat war was to be strengthened by all means and speedily intensified.’ He expected the U-boats to have a decisive influence on the war, especially when the new types working up in the Baltic were ready for operations. This message was relayed by Doenitz to all U-boat commanders on 26 January. Two days later, Hitler was again reassured that U-boats in coastal waters were achieving considerable successes. Therefore the allocation of many U-boats to the area was justified, especially since ‘shipping losses so close to the British coast must be particularly disagreeable to the enemy’. Notwithstanding January’s losses, Doenitz planned to intensify the Inshore Campaign, using newly commissioned old-type U-boats as a stop-gap measure pending the arrival of the new Type XXI boats. His reasoning was that this strategy would tie down Allied forces that would otherwise interfere with the almost uninterrupted movement by sea of large numbers of troops from Norway back to Germany, where they could be deployed against the advancing Russian and Anglo-American armies. Sinkings might also interfere with the supply chain for the western armies. Thus he ordered a ‘Spring Offensive’ using all available U-boats.

In his memoirs, published after his release from prison in 1955, Doenitz wrote that there appeared to be ‘satisfactory developments’ in the U-boat war from the Inshore Campaign by the end of January, and therefore U-boat Command had decided to send all boats commissioned in February, as they became available, to British shores. Doenitz acknowledged that this was ‘not an easy decision to make’, since the enemy was certain to increase defences around Britain. In fact forty-one U-boats sailed from Norway in February, and by the end of the month there were fifty-one U-boats on patrol around Britain’s coastline. On 15 February, Hitler was informed that the Kriegsmarine had 450 U-boats in commission, the highest total ever, of which 237 were on patrol or being prepared for operations. More than half of the 237 boats were of the new Type XXI and XXIII boats. In the third week of February, Doenitz gave instructions that ‘Dockyards are to continue to work at full pressure … As many boats as possible [are] to be ready to proceed’. This would result in an increase in the numbers of boats at sea by the end of the month with maximum priority for fuel for the Atlantic boats.

All these developments were watched through decryption with mounting alarm by the western Allies. On 10 January, they learned that the headquarters of the notorious SS organisation had prohibited all party members from any speculation about U-boat operations, and considered that this order must presage a sudden U-boat onslaught. But on 5 February, British Intelligence was able to assert that there was still no sign of large-scale intensification of the U-boat war, despite Hitler’s direct command. By 19 February, a German communiqué had disclosed that U-boats were being sent to inshore areas where the density of shipping and chances of making sinkings were the greatest, but where also the fighting was the hardest and high losses could be expected. It was not until 26 February that it had become clear that things were hotting up, with forty-six U-boats now at sea (whereas only twenty-seven on 1 February).

The Germans were also watching events unfold with trepidation. By 11 February it had become clear, from the non-return of some U-boats, that losses had mounted significantly. However, the over-inflated claims of surviving commanders meant that U-boat Command believed that some 4.4 enemy ships, mostly merchant vessels, were being sunk for each U-boat lost. Although the causes of U-boat losses were unclear, these figures justified the continuation of the campaign particularly as there were no worrying reports of new types of Allied counter-measures. Indeed, the Naval Staff had computed that figures sunk per U-boat per patrol had reached 9,000 tons by December 1944, rising to 11,000 tons in January. These figures were as high as had ever been seen, although the long transit time of submerged boats to their patrol areas was reducing the all-important ‘tonnage sunk per U-boat per day at sea’. In fact, each boat now required an average of 24 days just to reach its patrol area.

Nevertheless, Doenitz could report to Hitler on 17 February that seven U-boats had newly returned safely from British coastal waters, and that their commanders had reported weak British defences and great confidence in the schnorchel. Consequently, more U-boats were being pushed into the same areas. He stressed once again just how important it was in the New U-boat War for the boats to remain submerged continuously. The Fuehrer expressed his delight with these results, and emphasised again the great importance militarily of the revival of the U-boat campaign.

Tactics were also being modified in the light of the experience of returning boats. U-boats were warned, in Experiental 217C (30 January) that it was safer to schnorchel during daylight, in clear conditions with a flat sea when the schnorchel would be clearly visible from the air. At least an approaching aircraft could be sighted by the air periscope, whereas at night the schnorchel could still be seen from the air but not the aircraft from the periscope. Some commanders had reported accurate night bombing of the schnorchel under such conditions. All U-boats were reminded on 11 February that they must stay at periscope depth and not rely on hydrophones to detect targets. Many experienced commanders had reported that, after attacking a convoy, the best tactic was to move away as quickly as possible, and not simply to sit motionless on the sea bed. This was communicated to crews at sea on 4 March. Passage into the English Channel via the shallow waters just to the west of Ireland had to be abandoned when boats reported that the Allies had discovered the route. As losses mounted, U-boat Command directed in early March that U-boats should avoid use of the schnorchel during daylight while on passage to their assigned billets, and that schnorchelling within the patrol area itself was to be carried out at night in secluded areas, such as inlets or bays. The periscope was also to be used cautiously. Another problem was that of exhaustion among the crew after protracted sojourns in the patrol area, and on 10 April commanders were given discretion as to whether to return to base or continue their patrols under such circumstances.

As a protective measure, U-boats sent to the west coast of Britain for the Inshore Campaign were first sent to a series of waiting areas west of Ireland in February, which allowed U-boat Command to receive the latest updates from returning boats and make its dispositions on that basis. The general idea was to spread the Allied defences, rather than focus all the U-boats in just a few selected areas. However, many of the assigned patrol areas had been transmitted in the special boat-specific cipher, and some of the U-boats lacked the means to decipher it, with the result that a few U-boats found themselves patrolling barren sea areas south-west of Ireland. Two commanders were severely reprimanded by Doenitz on 19 February for their failure to enter the English Channel or the Irish Sea on their own initiative, ‘where the enemy is to be encountered with certainty’. The Allies lost the ability to decrypt current German wireless transmissions for about a week from 1 March, but the effects were not serious and by the 12th British Intelligence had noted that ‘the focus of the U-boats is now the south-west approaches (to Britain)’; one week later a further note recorded that there was less U-boat activity in March, compared with February. Many of the boats on patrol had returned to base or been sunk.

For the Germans, successes seemed to be rising too, although claimed sinkings announced by OKW (German Military High Command, using figures from U-boat Command who provided them in good faith) were well in excess of the actual figures. Tonnage sunk per month by U-boats appeared to have risen steadily from the 33,500 tons of November 1944, when the boats of the ‘New U-boat War’ first reached their patrol areas, to 259,000 tons by March 1945. As early as 21 April 1943, Doenitz had stated his belief that the Allies could not withstand losses of merchant shipping vaguely assessed as ‘100,000 to 200,000 tons per month’ for any length of time.

The true figure for March was around 67,000 tons sunk, although this month’s mismatch between belief and reality was exceptionally wide. In fact the number of U-boats actually on station in their patrol areas had steadily declined during March as the boats of the ‘Spring Offensive’ returned home. Losses were attributed predominantly to deep-laid mines, which could be avoided by remaining in shallow waters. A striking feature of the claimed U-boat successes was that all boats that had returned home had reported having made successes. Doenitz pointed up modestly to Hitler that U-boat Command was counting only claimed successes from returning boats in its reports, and not the successes that sunken boats might be presumed to have obtained. In his memoirs, Doenitz adds that the reports from the commanders returning in late February and early March appeared to have justified the decision in late January to reinforce the U-boats in British coastal waters.

Hitler maintained a lively interest in the New U-boat War, especially as it was the only front in which successes appeared to be forthcoming. Towards the end of February he asked to be provided with a short summary of U-boat operations from 1939 to the current date, and the four page document is reproduced in the Kriegsmarine archives dated 28 February. The essence of this document was that the Allied mastery of the skies over most of the Atlantic in mid-1943 had suddenly stopped a highly successful U-boat campaign dead in its tracks. The older U-boats were not really submarines at all, but just ‘diving-boats’ vulnerable to attack whenever they returned to the surface to recharge their batteries. By contrast the schnorchel boats, even the old types, were not vulnerable to air attack, and this had resulted in a ‘fundamental change’. The Allies might still rule the skies, but they did not rule the waters under the waves. The document concluded with the reassuring news for the Fuehrer that the ‘sharp weapon of the pure submarine exists, and will become even sharper with the new U-boat types’.

There was worse news from the land fronts by the end of March. The Russians had reached Danzig, the western Allies had crossed the river Rhine (the last serious obstacle to a thrust deep into Germany), and the long-feared massive bombing attacks on unprotected German shipyards had begun. This finally caused a steep decline in the construction of the new, pre-fabricated U-boat types, and completed U-boats in dockyard hands were forced to move out to sea each night in order to escape the regular air raids. The minesweeping organisation had finally completely collapsed, and there were insufficient escorts for U-boats moving from Germany to Norway. This traffic now included many boats from the training flotillas, fleeing from the advancing Russians to Norway.

No fewer than fifty of the old Type VII boats with schnorchels were now ready for deployment from Norway, the necessary diesel fuel having been scraped together in January from some of the major diesel warships (for example from the so-called ‘pocket battleships’ Luetzow and Admiral Scheer) and other warships that had been laid up. Since reported results appeared to be so good, especially from the Channel area, another thirty-eight of these old boats sailed from Norway in March. Forty more boats sailed in April, but by now Germany was desperate for military relief of any sort, and some of the boats are thought to have sailed when not in a fit condition.

But now disaster struck. The Allied escort groups had learned to anticipate U-boat tactics, decryption frequently gave away their positions – transmitted by radio to the waiting boats – and sweeps of the allocated patrol areas by the highly trained groups mopped up all the U-boats within the area. All coastal waters were saturated with Allied escorts (many being Canadian-flagged, since the threat to the east coast of Canada had virtually disappeared), and every warship that could do so was pushed out from dock to aid the effort – some ships had earlier been damaged by the constant explosion of their own depth-charges in the shallow coastal waters. Doenitz’s prediction to Hitler had come true. As an example, the 21st Escort Group was assigned to protect convoys entering the north-west approaches, but when temporarily free from this occupation the ships spent their time during March looking into every bay and inlet of the area. The result was that all three U-boats off the North Channel were sunk without giving a tell-tale message to U-boat Command, and the Minches were cleared for shipping by the end of the month. The extent of the losses slowly dawned on U-boat Command during March, as U-boats failed to return by the time allowed through dead reckoning. The survivors reported a heavy build-up of naval and aerial defences within just two hours of making an attack, and U-boats were again warned that it was essential to change position after firing every torpedo.

U-boat Command had already become anxious about progress of the U-boat campaign during March, owing to the puzzling lack of reports of U-boat attacks from British ships. The Naval High Command (SKL) noted on 29 March that: ‘The strong losses suffered in the last month on the coastal convoy routes in the area around England necessitates the temporary, partial removal of the U-boats from the English coast. Those boats already there will therefore get new operational areas.’ On 7 April Doenitz informed Hitler that the old types of U-boat were just too slow after they had made an attack to evade this rapid concentration of Allied forces, but that the new ‘electric’ boats would not suffer from the same difficulty. For this reason, U-boat Command was planning ‘to remove [the older types of U-boats] from coastal waters for the present’. The boats would be stationed further west, to try to scatter British defences. Four days later, the SKL counted the known loss of eleven U-boats in March, of which nine had been deployed in British coastal waters.

After the war, staff from U-boat Command reckoned that, given much freedom of movement, too many U-boats had chosen to select the same patrol areas in the English Channel previously reported as favourable. At the time this was not appreciated, and on 30 March and 10 April U-boats bound for the western Channel were repositioned near the Scilly Isles and off southern Ireland. On 15 April, six U-boats bound for the North Channel were also moved west, while three boats scheduled for the Irish Sea were given free choice of patrol area. Thereafter, according to Hessler in his post-war account of U-boat Command for the British Admiralty, ‘we heard practically nothing of the course of operations after March’.

Little opportunity had the U-boat crews had in which to acquire experience for the ‘New U-boat War’. Previous patrols in U-boats obviously helped, but the most experienced crews were being withdrawn to man the new ‘electric’ U-boats. The time spent by the conventional Type VIIC schnorchel U-boats in reaching their patrol area, then in locating targets in seas swept clear of shipping by the convoy system, then the long cruise home, then the lengthy refit (a month or more) of a boat ruined by corrosion externally and by smoke and dampness internally, meant that even the most successful and lucky commanders managed just two inshore war patrols from Norway before the end of the war. Each round trip took rather more than three months, including dockyard time; the ‘New U-boat War’ began in October 1944 and ended in May 1945, and therefore lasted only seven months.

Demosthenes of Athens IV

The route the Athenian fleet took to Sicily

Map of the siege showing walls and counter-walls

Disaster in Sicily

The last and most fateful chapter in Demosthenes’ career took place on the island of Sicily, and he himself was largely to blame for it. In 415, the Athenians sent a large fleet to Sicily and used it in the following summer to besiege Syracuse, the most powerful city on the island. This is not the place to discuss in detail the vagaries of what is known as the Sicilian Expedition, but it is necessary to describe the circumstances awaiting Demosthenes when he arrived at Syracuse with large reinforcements in 413.

Before Demosthenes’ arrival, the Athenians had won consecutive victories on land and sea against Syracuse, primarily under the leadership of their experienced general Nicias. They had occupied Plemmyrium at the entrance to the Great Harbor of Syracuse, built a wall that partially surrounded the city, and gained access to Epipolae (“Overtown”), a plateau overlooking Syracuse. To the Athenians’ disadvantage, however, the Syracusans had occupied Olympeium (a fort southwest of the Athenian camp in the harbor, north of River Anapos), recaptured a fort at Labdalum on the western Epipolae, and built a counter-wall that prevented the completion of the Athenian wall. In addition, the Spartan general Gylippus arrived to aid the Syracusans in the summer of 414 and won a first land victory against the Athenians. He then left to collect reinforcements and allies in Sicily. Twelve Peloponnesian ships also made it to Syracuse, representatives of a newly invigorated Spartan fleet.

At this juncture, Nicias sent a letter to Athens, drawing a gloomy picture of the Athenians’ situation and prospects. He asked to be relieved of his command for health reasons and offered two alternatives: recall the expedition or send large reinforcements to Syracuse. The Athenians chose the latter option. They appointed two commanders on the spot as Nicias’ colleagues and substitutes if he died, giving Demosthenes and the veteran general Eurymedon the command over the new armada. Eurymedon was one of the generals who opposed Demosthenes’ request to occupy Pylos, and in 424, he returned from campaigning in Sicily with nothing to show for it. Demosthenes also came back empty-handed from Boeotia in the same year. Yet, with the talented Alcibiades in exile, the general Lamachus dead (shortly before in Syracuse), and the ailing Nicias away, the inventory of accomplished Athenian commanders was fairly limited. On the positive side, both new generals could use their respective connections in Corcyra, western Greece, and Sicily to help with the campaign, while Demosthenes’ proven resourcefulness promised quick results.

Eurymedon left immediately for Sicily with money and a few ships, but Demosthenes waited until early spring of 413 before sailing with sixty-five ships, 1,200 Athenian hoplites, and an unknown number of allied troops. On the way to his first major stop in western Greece, he plundered Laconian land and participated in the fortification of a site on the Laconian coast across from the island of Cythera, intending to use it as a shelter for refugee helots and as a raiding base. It is unclear whether he initiated the project, but the similarity to his tactics at Pylos, noted by Thucydides, clearly suggests his endorsement. From thence Demosthenes sailed to Acarnanian and Ambraciot waters, collecting troops from allied cities on the islands and the mainland along the way, including his old friends in Acarnania and the Messenian Naupactus. It was there that he heard bad news from Eurymedon, who had returned from Sicily: the Syracusans had succeeded in capturing Plemmyrium on the mouth of the Great Harbor, where Athenian grain, goods, naval equipment, and personal belongings were stored. The loss also reduced the Athenians’ control over the land from which they could launch and protect ships or to which they could retreat from battle. Contributing to the Athenians’ distress and low morale were the Syracusans’ increased interceptions of provisions brought by sea to the Athenian camp.

The worsening situation in Syracuse did not cause Demosthenes or Eurymedon to hurry there: they were busy drafting hoplites and light-armed troops in western Greece and southern Italy. Because the reported numbers of the new recruits are incomplete—we know only of 700 hoplites and 750 light infantry from Italy—they tell us little about the success of their recruiting. Yet their delayed arrival at Syracuse proved a costly risk, because it gave the Syracusans time to gain additional local allies, receive reinforcements from Greece and Sicily, and win a modest first victory over the Athenian navy in the harbor. Among their reasons for engaging the Athenian navy was their wish to forestall the arrival of the second armada. Demosthenes often relied for victory on his ability to predict and shape the enemy’s response to his actions. This time, his and Eurymedon’s calculated delay actually helped the enemy.

When the new Athenian fleet sailed into Syracuse harbor, however, it inspired disappointment, fear, and confusion in the enemy, and restored optimism and confidence to the Athenian camp. In his biography of Nicias, Plutarch describes Demosthenes’ showy entrance into the harbor:

Just then Demosthenes appeared off the harbors in a magnificent show of strength which dismayed the enemy. He had brought seventy-three ships, with 5,000 hoplites on board, and at least 3,000 others armed with javelins, bows, and slings. With his array of weaponry, with the figureheads on his ships, and the number of men employed in calling the time for the rowers and playing the pipes, he presented a fine display, designed to strike fear into the enemy.

Plutarch’s focus on Demosthenes is apt, because by all accounts he now dominated the scene. Thucydides ascribes to Demosthenes, not only an assessment of the situation when he arrived, but also a criticism of Nicias’ management of the war so far, although it is unclear if Demosthenes made it to Nicias’ face.56 He is depicted as almost a mirror image of the more cumbersome and passive Nicias, displaying decisiveness, a knowing-best attitude, and the confidence of a man who had a quick solution for the protracted campaign. In brief terms, his plan called for an attack against the Syracusans’ (third) counter-wall, which he identified as their weak spot. This was to be executed before the psychological impact of the fleet’s arrival wore off. Demosthenes is also said to have predicted two opposite outcomes of his plan: the fall of Syracuse or the Athenians’ withdrawal. That Syracuse did not fall and that the Athenians would withdraw only later and under worse conditions had much to do with the way he chose to implement his idea.

Nevertheless, the new vigor Demosthenes brought to the campaign appeared to have an effect. The Athenians descended on Syracusan lands around the River Anapos, and the enemy’s lack of response was optimistically interpreted as a yielding of control over land and sea to the Athenians. The next engagement was more sobering, however. Demosthenes used siege engines and frontal attacks against the Syracusan counter-wall but was repelled by the defenders. Under the largely self-induced pressure of having to take instant action, and with his colleagues’ consent, Demosthenes turned to his favorite modus operandi, a surprise attack.

He aimed to surprise the enemy on the Epipolae plateau by launching an attack from the relatively unexpected direction of the western and more accessible Euryalus Hill. More significantly, he took with him (according to one account) 10,000 hoplites and a greater number of light infantry for a full-scale night battle. There was no known precedent for fielding such a large force in a night combat, even in such bright moonlight as shone that night. The opposition consisted of a fort and sentries on the Euryalus, three fortified camps on the Epipolae, an advance guard of 600 men, and men in the city who could join the fighting. At first, everything seemed to go the attackers’ way. Led by Demosthenes and his colleague Menander, the Athenians went up the Euryalus, destroyed those they encountered, and took the fort there. Demosthenes, running ahead as at Megara, scattered the 600 advance guards who tried to oppose him. By now the surprise was gone, but Demosthenes and his men hurried on in order to exploit their momentum and to prevent the enemy from organizing a more effective defense. When the Syracusans’ commander Gylippus and his men came out of their camps, they were beaten back. In the meantime, other Athenian troops were busy tearing down the Syracusan counter-wall, whose guards fled. Yet the Athenian wave of attack collapsed entirely when it came up against its first stubborn opposition: a Boeotian unit that stood its ground and put the attackers to flight.

Because Demosthenes relied on surprise and speed for victory, he had to sacrifice order and effective communication with, and control over, units that were not in his vicinity. Poor visibility hampered his ability to respond to setbacks, while speed undermined the cohesion of his ranks. These conditions allowed an unyielding unit of defenders to repel the charge and caused the fleeing Athenians to sow confusion and uncertainty among their fellow combatants. According to Thucydides’ graphic account, the impaired visibility prevented the attackers from telling friends from foes, while those who kept arriving at the scene did not know where to join the battle. The only means of identification was the watchword, which the din of battle obscured, and which the enemy soon found out and used to its advantage. There were even incidents of Athenians’ dying from “friendly fire” and in near-clashes among fellow soldiers. Additional problems stood out because Demosthenes should have known better. At Acarnania, Sphacteria, and even Megara, he had won largely by his successful coordination of attacks from different quarters. On the Epipolae, there seemed to be no coordinated effort, only a rush forward to meet the enemy. At Acarnania, Demosthenes had used the Dorian-speaking Messenians to mislead the Ambraciots into believing that his troops were their allies. On the Epipolae, it was his own troops who fell victim to such confusion. Thucydides says that what confounded and terrified the Athenians most was the singing of Dorian paeans, because there were Dorian Greeks fighting on both sides. Finally, at Acarnania and Pylos, Demosthenes had made good use of local intelligence and the terrain to defeat the enemy. At Syracuse, those advantages worked in the enemy’s favor. Soldiers who had just arrived with Demosthenes were unfamiliar with the ground, lost their way, and were killed by the Syracusans even if they made it down from the plateau safely. In addition, the Athenians’ panicked retreat clogged the only narrow path down the Epipolae, and many of them fled their pursuers only to throw themselves off the high cliffs to their death. According to the sources, the Athenians lost between 2,000 and 2,500 men on and around the Epipolae. No other land battle during the Peloponnesian War resulted in so many casualties.

Like the plan of attacking Boeotia from different directions, the failure at Syracuse was not inevitable, but it could have been anticipated. Demosthenes took a gamble on surprise and lost disastrously, committing many men and assuming optimistically that shock and speed would compensate for the well-known difficulties of a night attack. His plan made it very difficult to direct the offensive and even the retreat.

The defeat had a significant impact on everyone involved, including Demosthenes. His arrival had caused fear among the Syracusans, which he wished to exploit, but now their fear changed into optimism and self-confidence, and they even used the victory to mobilize aid in Sicily. The defeated Athenians, who suffered also from unhealthy conditions in camp, grew despondent, and their leadership became divided. Demosthenes’ authority as the new commander who would change the course of the campaign suffered a devastating blow. When he recommended a return home, he was successfully opposed by Nicias, who had regained the prime leadership. It appears that the other Athenian generals also deemed Demosthenes’ solution of cutting their losses too radical, especially coming from the man who was responsible for the losses. Demosthenes then suggested evacuating the army to friendly Catana or Thapsus in Sicily, in order to raid enemy territory from there, or to fight at sea. Although his idea gained Eurymedon’s approval, Nicias successfully shot it down. Later the Athenians changed their minds about evacuation to Catana, but a lunar eclipse was interpreted as portending disaster, and no one could overturn Nicias’ decision to stay at Syracuse for twenty-seven days, as seers had prescribed. Because of my focus on Demosthenes’ generalship, I shall not dwell on the motives Thucydides attributes to Nicias on this and other occasions. The historian ascribes Nicias’ errors of judgment to his fear of the supernatural and of punishment at home if he returned, as well as to his belief that the Athenians could still take Syracuse. Whether Demosthenes’ suggestions were sound or not, his clouded reputation from the failed attack on the Epipolae forced him to defer to Nicias.

Demosthenes appears only sporadically in Thucydides’ narrative of the ensuing events. He is not mentioned among the generals who participated in the next naval battle in the harbor, though he may have fought in it. This engagement cost the Athenians their general Eurymedon, about 2,000 men, and at least eighteen ships, though they did repel a Syracusan attack on the Athenian walls. Thucydides suggests that the Athenian defeat at sea changed the Syracusan definition of victory from driving the invaders away to preventing them from escaping to a friendly base, and that they accordingly blocked the entrance to the harbor with a boom. In response, the Athenians set their slender hopes on an all-out naval battle, which, if successful, would allow them to sail out of the harbor, and if a failure, would compel them to march by land to a friendly place. They also limited their control over land to a small, fortified space next to the ships, which was easier to defend and allowed them to free troops to man the ships. The man in charge was Nicias, according to Thucydides, who credits him with a pre-battle exhortatory speech and with individual appeals to the ship commanders. Plutarch even suggests that Nicias refused to yield to the Athenians’ demand to retreat by land and insisted on a naval battle.

But Demosthenes’ possible contribution to the Athenian plan, or at least his support of it, can be gleaned from the fact that he was one of the generals who commanded the huge Athenian fleet of about 110 ships, as well as from the tactics chosen. Victory hinged on the Athenians’ numerical superiority (about 110 ships to 76) and their ability to convert the fighting into something like a land battle. The plan called for the light infantry on deck to shoot arrows and javelins at the enemy while the marines used grappling irons to prevent the enemy ships from backing away, finally boarding them to kill those on deck. Thucydides specifically mentions Demosthenes’ Acarnanian recruits among the light-armed troops who fought at the harbor. Demosthenes had little experience in maritime warfare, if any, but the kind of naval battle sought by the Athenians was as close as possible to the land fighting he was familiar with. In addition, the Athenians’ use of land forces on ships copied the Syracusans’ tactics, and Demosthenes had shown in the past his ability to learn from the enemy.

To judge by Thucydides’ description of the battle, the generals played only a limited role in it. The Athenians succeeded in breaking the barrier at the harbor mouth, but once the Syracusans joined battle, the fighting consisted largely of individual conflicts, with the generals mainly watching lest ships back away unforced from the fray. The Syracusans won because they made the Athenians fight a traditional naval battle in which the Syracusan lighter vessels enjoyed an advantage, destroying about fifty ships and losing only about twenty-five. Fear now dominated the Athenian camp. The troops were so desperate to leave by land that very night that they were willing to give up collecting their dead. But Demosthenes approached Nicias with a different plan, which illustrated the essence of his generalship. The general, who recommended surprise attack as the preferred solution for most military problems, suggested that they board the remaining triremes straightway and attack the enemy unexpectedly. One may admire Demosthenes’ resourcefulness in the face of adversity and his unconventional thinking, but his idea was unworkable for two reasons. The Athenians had lost faith in their ability to win at sea—understandably, in light of their two recent, consecutive defeats in the harbor. Moreover, they had only sixty ships left and about 40,000 people in camp, which meant that even a victory would give them little chance of evacuating so many people by sea, rather than by marching on land.

In the end, the Athenians waited two days before starting their march away from the harbor and generally north toward Catana. They were despondent, hungry, and full of guilt for leaving the wounded and dead behind. Thucydides’ emotive description of their retreat and tragic end is unsurpassed. Reduced to factual terms, it tells us that the Athenians formed a hollow square, Nicias leading the van and Demosthenes bringing up the rear, with the rest of the marchers in the middle. Their pace was slow and grew increasingly slower, largely because of their short supplies and the Syracusan opposition. Intentionally or not, Thucydides’ narrative of the Athenians in retreat evokes memories of the Spartans on Sphacteria, who were similarly harassed by elusive light infantry. With distress growing, the leading generals approved what would be Demosthenes’ last attempt at outwitting the enemy. The Athenians lighted many fires, as if camping for the night, but left under cover of darkness, changing direction toward the southwest, away from their Syracusan pursuers and toward the sea and friendly locals. The tactic won them freedom from pursuit only till the middle of the next day. They became disoriented and very fearful, and a gap was created between the van under Nicias and the larger rear under Demosthenes. Thucydides notes that Nicias’ men marched together and in good order, while Demosthenes’ troops moved more slowly and in disarray. It was as if a circle closed in Demosthenes’ career: his last retreat resembled his first one in Aetolia where his troops fled in disorder and suffered losses. In fairness to Demosthenes, we should note that the Syracusans attacked his men with greater frequency than they did Nicias’ division. Demosthenes arrayed his troops for battle in an enclosure, but the Syracusans did not take the bait: it was easier and safer to bombard the enemy with missiles from a distance. At the end of that day, exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and many injuries led Demosthenes to surrender with 6,000 of his troops on the condition that no one would be killed. Nicias capitulated two days later after losing many more men, a carnage that justified Demosthenes’ decision to spare his followers’ lives.

The sources are divided about Demosthenes’ fate. Thucydides, our most authoritative informant, says that the Spartan general Gylippus wished to bring both Demosthenes and Nicias to Sparta as living trophies, but the Syracusans “cut their throats.” Other sources mention a debate in the Syracusan assembly over their fate that ended with the same result. We are even told that Demosthenes tried unsuccessfully to kill himself when surrounded by the enemy, and that later, when he and Nicias learned in prison of their imminent execution, they took their own lives. Their bodies were then exposed to public display.

Pausanias, the Greek traveler of the Roman era, cites an Athenian inscription that commemorated the war dead, including those killed in Sicily, along with its interpretation by the Sicilian historian Philistus (c. 430–356):

The names of the generals are inscribed with the exception of Nicias, and among the private soldiers are included the Plataeans along with the Athenians. This is the reason why Nicias was passed over, and my account is identical with that of Philistus, who says that while Demosthenes made a truce for the others and excluded himself, attempting to commit suicide when taken prisoner, Nicias voluntarily submitted to the surrender. For this reason Nicias had not his name inscribed on the slab, being condemned as a voluntary prisoner and an unworthy soldier.

We don’t really know why Nicias’ name was not inscribed, but the contrast drawn between him and Demosthenes is surely unfair. Some scholars think that Thucydides is equally unfair in eulogizing Nicias as the man who, of all the Greeks of his age, least deserved his misfortune, saying nothing comparable about Demosthenes. Clearly, the last chapter of any commander’s career should not dominate the assessment of his entire generalship, but it is equally wrong to ignore it. Demosthenes was neither a hero nor a failure, but both, or one of these historical actors who do not easily fit a single category. He demonstrated original thinking and good planning skills in each of his campaigns. He was chiefly known for his victories at Pylos and Sphacteria and for establishing a permanent base in enemy territory. His success encouraged imitations as early as the year he captured Pylos (425), when the Athenians set up a post near Epidaurus to raid the adjacent territory. By 413, when the Spartans similarly occupied Decelea in Attica, and when Demosthenes himself fortified a site in Laconia opposite Cythera, such projects had become quite common. Demosthenes therefore deserves credit for coming up with a plan that was adopted by both his city and its enemy, although it is ironic that the Spartans made more effective use of it at Decelea than the Athenians did anywhere. In some of Demosthenes’ campaigns, he used military intelligence and light infantry very effectively, although Greek antecedents of such uses suggest that he was not their originator. He was a gambler who enjoyed good luck in some of his operations and suffered losses in others. He was a firm believer in surprise and deception as the best means of accomplishing his goals. His personality well suited these qualities: he was ambitious, aggressive, self-confident, daring, and a risk-taker, but also someone who tended to take failure as an endpoint instead of as a temporary setback. His impatience, however, was not as disastrous as his preference for a quick solution in the form of surprise attack, even when conditions disfavored it. With its share of successes and disappointments, Demosthenes’ career shows the benefits and pitfalls of having such a general in command.

The Naval Leagues of the Smyrna Campaign (1343-1352)

No naval league materialized during the pontificate of Benedict XII, but his successor, Clement VI, oversaw the formation of two naval leagues, the first in 1343, which formed the preliminary wave of the Crusade of Smyrna, and the second in 1350. The first operation was officially proclaimed as a crusade by Clement VI in the summer of 1343, although negotiations between the Hospitallers, Cypriots and Venetians had been ongoing since 1341. In total it was decided that twenty galleys were to be fitted out for this league: six from Venice, six from the Hospitallers, four from the papacy, and four from Cyprus, a number slightly lower than the league of 1333-4 and with the absence of the French. The fleet was to gather at Negroponte on the Feast of All Saints (1 November) 1343.

Once the captains of the galleys were appointed and other logistical considerations taken care of, the fleet assembled in the Aegean in the winter of 1343-4. In the following spring naval operations were undertaken against the Turks, which initially achieved a similar level of success to those in 1333-4. In one encounter in May, the crusader galleys won a notable victory against the Turks at Longos, a harbour on Pallena (the western promontory of the Chalkidike peninsula), where they ambushed and burned a fleet of some sixty vessels and captured a close relative of a Turkish emir. In October this was followed by an even more impressive feat when the crusaders launched a surprise attack on Smyrna, where they managed to capture the harbour and harbour fortress of the city from Umur Pasha, but not the acropolis overlooking the city which remained in his hands. Thereafter, it is likely that some of the combatants on the galleys remained to garrison the fortress at Smyrna, but the league, presumably now somewhat depleted in strength, still managed to repel an assault from the Turks led by a high-ranking naval officer, Mustafa, who was captured.

These initial successes, however, proved to be short-lived, as on 17 January 1345 the crusade leaders, including the papal legate Henry of Asti, and the captains of the papal and Venetian galleys, Martino Zaccaria and Petro Zeno, were killed outside the walls of the city. The Venetians and the Hospitallers diverted reinforcements to Smyrna in the spring, but soon after the Aydin-oglus began launching new raids in the Aegean from their other ports, especially Ephesos. In the wake of this setback and the ensuing stalemate, Clement VI looked to the West for a suitable commander to lead a relief army to Smyrna and revive the fortunes of the failing crusade. The most enthusiastic and possibly only response to Clement’s call came from Humbert II, the young and wealthy Dauphin of Viennois. He took the cross and was officially named as captain-general of the Christian army in May 1345. After marching through northern Italy, where chronicles report many people taking the cross, Humbert, accompanied by an army of around one hundred knights and eight hundred footsoldiers, sailed from Venice for the Aegean, reaching Negroponte in December 1345, where he joined up with six galleys from the league; the four papal galleys and one each from the Hospitaller and Venetian contingents. When in the Aegean, Humbert made several unsuccessful attempts to recruit allies to bolster his force before he was attacked by a Genoese fleet commanded by Simone Vignoso who went on to capture the island of Chios, which Humbert had been considering as a potential base for the crusaders. After this setback, the dauphin sailed to Smyrna, arriving in July 1346. Despite Humbert’s arrival, however, after this point the unity of the league began to crumble as the Venetians sought peace with the Turks and the Hospitallers sided with the Genoese, even preventing Venetian ships from entering the port at Smyrna. This infighting, plus the outbreak of disease amongst the crusader camp, forced Humbert to withdraw to Rhodes, whence he soon after departed for western Europe. Fortunately for the crusaders, by 1347 the Hospitallers and the Venetians had managed to settle their differences and in the following spring the galleys of the league, combined with Hospitaller reinforcements, won a notable victory against the Turks of Aydin and Sarukhan off the island of Imbros. In the spring of 1348 the Latins were given another boost when Umur was killed at Smyrna, apparently shot by an arrow when assaulting the walls of the harbour fortress.

However, the progress of the crusaders was quickly put on hold by the arrival of the Black Death. The great pandemic had been contracted by the Genoese during the siege of Caffa by the Mongols of the Golden Horde in 1346, after which it was carried to Constantinople the following May and then to the western coast of Asia Minor and the European side of the Straits in autumn. By 1348 it had spread to most parts of Anatolia and the Aegean, where it reportedly killed more than in any other area. The disease also reached Italy and southern France, where it is estimated that up to half the population of Avignon died during a seven-month period. The Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani, who is one of the most reliable informants on both western European and Aegean affairs, leaves a vivid testimony of the progress of the plague from the eastern Mediterranean:

Having grown in strength and vigour in Turkey and Greece and having spread thence over the whole Levant and Mesopotamia and Syria and Chaldea and Cyprus and Rhodes and all the islands of the Greek archipelago, the said pestilence leaped to Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and Elba, and from there soon reached all the shores of the mainland [.] And many lands and cities were made desolate. And the plague lasted till -.

Here Villani deliberately left a blank space after the word `till’ to be filled in once the disease had been lifted from Florence – a task that was never fulfilled: Villani too fell victim to the Black Death before completing his work. Considering the virulence of this pandemic, it comes as no surprise to learn that crusading operations were severely hampered by this outbreak. To add to this, Romania was suffering a severe shortage of grain caused by the closure of the Black Sea markets. The crusaders were thus forced to seek a truce with Aydin, the negotiations for which dragged on for some years. By the time the leaders of the league met at Avignon in 1350 to discuss its future, the Turks had begun launching new raids into the Aegean, which led to the renewal of the league and not the agreement of a truce. This new league was officially confirmed in August 1350, when it was decided that a small flotilla of eight galleys was to be assembled in the Aegean; three each provided by Venice and the Hospitallers, and two more from Cyprus. However, only a few weeks later war broke out between Venice and Genoa, thus ending any hopes of a Venetian contribution to this league. Due to the Venetian-Genoese war, the lack of funds and the ravages of the Black Death, less than a year after it was re-formed, this second naval league was officially dissolved by Clement VI in the summer of 1351. A year later the pope, who had done so much to facilitate the formation of two naval leagues, died.

Corsair Operations – 17th Century

Lorenzo Castro – A Sea Fight with Barbary Corsairs

Contrary to popular myth, the corsairs did not prey indiscriminately on all Christian shipping. The regencies frequently made treaties with individual European powers, by which their ships would be left alone in return for some form of tribute (sometimes financial, sometimes in the form of naval supplies, in which the regencies were singularly deficient). Even the more independent, and thus less easily constrained, ‘Sallee rovers’ made treaties with the Dutch during the 1650s. Inevitably, there were mistakes and misunderstandings which sometimes triggered fresh conflicts; these included disputes over the wording of passes which ‘cleared’ a ship from the corsairs’ attentions, and the presence of the goods of an ‘enemy’ country in a ‘friendly’ ship. The regencies were by no means always in the wrong when a breach occurred, for Western navies usually and indiscriminately regarded corsair ships as ‘pirates’ even during periods of peace, seizing them and enslaving their crews. The evidence is patchy, but it seems that at any one time many hundreds of North African Muslims were being held in captivity in Britain: far fewer than the many thousands of Westerners held in the regencies, but still a significant number.

Corsair booty was divided up in roughly similar ways in all the regencies, and in Salé. A proportion – about 10–12 per cent – went to the central authority, which in the case of the three North African regencies included a payment to the nominal overlord in Istanbul. Of the remainder, half went to the shipowners and half to the crew, with the captain receiving ten or twelve parts to the lowest seaman’s one or two. Even Christian slaves received two shares each on Algerine ships, the same as the gunroom crew and the best soldiers. This was all markedly more egalitarian than the distribution in Western European privateers, where the captain could expect up to forty times more than an ordinary crew member. To bring in this income, the corsairs usually opted for quite short voyages lasting for less than two months. The Algerines tended to operate in the western Mediterranean and around Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, as well as heading out into the Atlantic. The corsair ships of Tunis and Tripoli usually operated in the eastern Mediterranean and around Sicily. About half of Salé’s ships usually scoured the coasts of Spain and Portugal while the remainder operated further south, off the Canaries and Azores. All corsair crews were fully conversant with the seasonal patterns and favoured routes of Western merchant shipping; after all, many corsair captains and crewmen had first-hand knowledge of those trades from their previous careers. In addition to these everyday operations, corsairs sometimes ventured much further afield, sometimes with spectacular results in unsuspecting coastal communities. In 1627 they raided Iceland; in 1631 an attack on Baltimore, County Cork, carried off virtually the entire population of the village; and in 1654 they raided St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. ‘Sallee rovers’ were found at various times off the coast of Wales and Newfoundland, and even in the Thames estuary; in 1670, even when a British fleet was operating against Algiers itself, three Algerine warships were in the mouth of the English Channel. The agreement of a definitive peace with Algiers in the 1680s brought a squadron of Algerine ships on a ‘courtesy visit’ to Harwich in 1686, a circumstance that generated much correspondence from Pepys and his clerks. Although these distant voyages never formed a major part of corsair strategy, such as it was, their spectacular raids on foreign shores, set alongside the stories of Christian slaves in need of redemption from Barbary slavery, served to create a ‘black legend’ of the corsairs and a demonisation of Islam that pervaded Western perceptions for generations.

The North African regencies operated ships that were owned by the state and others that were owned by consortia of private shareholders. Prospective captains, or rais, were interviewed before a panel of serving officers prior to appointment, a meritocratic system that contrasted markedly with the patronage-based appointments made in most Western navies, including Britain’s. About half of the captains were Christian renegades, not all of whom necessarily converted to Islam before starting to prey on their co-religionists. The most notorious was probably Murad Reis, formerly a Dutchman named Jan Janszoon, who operated from Algiers and Salé at different times and commanded several of the most daring corsair raids, including those on Iceland and Baltimore. There were probably around 15,000 renegades in Barbary at any one time. They included the English renegade Jonas, known to the Moors as ‘Alcayd Abdalla’, who acted as an interpreter to the Moroccan ambassador Mohammad bin Haddu during his visit to England in 1681–2. A renegade Dover man named Wood was reportedly the lieutenant of a corsair ship in 1659, and a Welshman was found aboard an Algerine corsair in the Channel in 1671. Teonge encountered an English lieutenant on an Algerine ship in 1676. Five years later, Admiral Arthur Herbert took an Algerine prize in which he found an English renegade who had served under him in the Dragon ten years earlier; Herbert reported that ‘I caused him, after half an hour’s time to pray, to be hanged at the main yard arm, as I intend to serve all that I can take, that so infamously renounce their religion and serve against their country’.

The regencies relied exclusively on galleys until the early years of the seventeenth century, when renegade influence led to the adoption of sailing men-of-war. The corsairs operated a wide variety of ships: the largest were of about sixty guns, the equal of Third or Fourth rates, but the smallest were feluccas mounting three or four guns and carrying twenty to thirty men. Algiers had by far the largest fleet, comprising between twenty and forty vessels during the second half of the seventeenth century; in 1659 it had twenty-three large galleys, each with fifty guns and manned by 400 men. Its fleet suffered devastating losses at the hands of the British at Cape Spartel and Bugia Bay in 1670–1, but replaced them with twenty-five new ships of twenty to forty guns each built during the following four years. The fleets of Tunis and Tripoli were much smaller and consisted only of about ten to fifteen ships each. The sailing ships of all the corsair states were lighter, faster and lower in the water than their Christian counterparts. Salé ships were the smallest of all: the mouth of the Bou Regreg river was shielded by a treacherous sandbank which made it difficult for European ships to come in close enough to bombard the city of Salé, which was thus spared the fate that befell other corsair strongholds (at any rate until 1829, when longer-range naval ordnance finally ended the rovers’ activities), but it also forced the rovers to eschew the larger ships favoured by the North African regencies. Corsair tactics depended on boarding, a process accompanied by the ‘psychological warfare’ of making as much noise as possible during the approach to the potential prize. Consequently, corsair ships carried a large number of soldiers: about 140 on a galley, and between one and two hundred on the larger sailing ships.

Several captured corsair ships were incorporated into the British navy, albeit only briefly. The Tiger Prize, captured in 1678, saw much service in the early years of the French war before being expended in 1696 as part of a breakwater at Sheerness. The 46-gun Golden Horse of Algiers, taken in March 1681 after a fierce fight with the Adventure, became one of the guardships at Chatham before also ending up as a breakwater. Seven other Algerine prizes, taken between 1677 and 1683, were taken into Charles II’s navy, but all but one was sold off or lost before the ‘Glorious Revolution’. The same was true of three out of four Sallee rovers taken in 1683–4; the fourth, commonly and delightfully called the Sally Rose, was employed as a Sixth Rate until 1696.


HMS Scarab fighting in the Mediterranean, 1943.

In 1939 HMS Ladybird and HMS Aphis both had their BL 6″ Mk VII guns replaced with the longer BL 6″ Mk XIII guns. By WW2, this armament would receive another update. By the time of Operation Husky, HMS Cockchafer and HMS Scarab both replaced their 2 pounder Pom-Poms with 8 20mm Oerlikons. The Aphis acquired an Oerlikon and 2 20mm Bredas. 

The Mediterranean, 1940–4

The rapid victory won by Germany over Poland in 1939, followed by her stunning conquest of all Western Europe save the United Kingdom the following year, had left Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, feeling somewhat up-staged. On 10 June 1940, with the French Army already beaten to its knees and the British Expeditionary Force driven from the continental mainland, he declared war on France and Great Britain, commenting to his army chief of staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, that he ‘needed a few thousand dead so that he could sit at the conference table as a man who has fought’, and therefore share in the spoils. He did so against the advice of his service chiefs who warned him that in their present condition the Italian armed forces were only capable of fighting a short war, and that it would be 1942 at the earliest before they could be equipped on a scale suitable for a modern European conflict.

This did not trouble him unduly as he did not believe that Great Britain could possibly resist the might of Hitler’s Wehrmacht beyond September. Furthermore, within the Mediterranean and the Middle East, which was his own particular sphere of interest, the British were stretched so thinly that, on the basis of simple mathematics alone, an Italian victory seemed assured.

It was true that in the Middle East General Sir Archibald Wavell commanded some 50,000 British and Imperial troops, but these were deployed across a vast area stretching from the Syrian border to Somaliland. In Egypt itself, the very pivot of British power in the region, there were only 36,000 men, short of supporting armour and artillery, and it was difficult to see how this small force could possibly resist the 250,000-strong Italian Army in Libya. In Italian East Africa there were a further 200,000 men, poised to strike into the Sudan, Kenya and British Somaliland, the largest of whose garrisons numbered only 9,000.

At sea the revitalised Royal Italian Navy not only enjoyed a wealth of bases in the central Mediterranean, but also outnumbered Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet, although in capital ships the Royal Navy had a slight advantage, opposing six Italian battleships with seven of its own. In other classes of warship the Italian strength was as disproportionately overwhelming as it seemed on land, 21 cruisers being deployed against eight, 50 destroyers against 37, and 100 submarines against eight. It hardly seemed to matter that the Royal Navy had two aircraft carriers in the area, for it had been planned, a little optimistically, that the Italian fleet would receive massive support from the land-based Regia Aeronautica, which could put up about 2000 aircraft against the RAF and Fleet Air Arm’s handful of more or less obsolete types. Thus, when Mussolini spoke of the Mediterranean as Mare Nostrum, it seemed far from being an idle boast.

Unfortunately, the Royal Italian Navy, while containing some outstandingly courageous officers and men, did not relish the task it had been set. Psychologically, it was in awe of the Royal Navy and was further handicapped by limited fuel supplies; it also had to take into account British striking forces operating from the heavily fortified island of Malta, just 60 miles south of Sicily, which was to remain a permanent and very painful thorn in its side. When the two battlefleets clashed briefly on 9 July the Italians sustained some damage and retired. Although Mussolini claimed a victory, presumably because he still had a powerful fleet in being, his admirals thereafter remained shy of fighting a general engagement. On the night of 11/12 November Swordfish torpedo bombers, flying from the carrier Illustrious, crippled the Italian battlefleet in Taranto harbour.

We are, however, getting a little ahead of ourselves, for events on land had been almost as dramatic. Italy had obtained possession of Libya following her war with the Ottoman Empire in 1912. The establishment of a North African colony proved to be a difficult undertaking, largely because the Libyans themselves remained bitterly opposed to the idea. In Tripolitania, the western province, a degree of settlement had taken place, although it did not extend far inland. In Cyrenaica, the eastern province, a barren hinterland and Libyan intransigence meant that the Italians were even more confined to a coastal strip, where they had constructed elaborate defences around the ports of Bardia and Tobruk. It might, perhaps, be thought that in June 1940 the huge Italian army in Cyrenaica was brimming with self-confidence and looking forward to an easy victory. Such a mood, if it ever existed, was quickly dispelled when Wavell despatched his mechanised elements across the Egyptian frontier. During the next three months they beat up isolated garrisons, snapped up convoys, captured generals and made life very unpleasant for the Italians, inflicting some 3000 casualties in exchange for only 150 of their own. A visiting German officer was startled to be told that the Italian ‘will to resist’ remained unshaken and reported that ‘everyone seems scared stiff of the British’.

Despite his immense responsibilities, Admiral Cunningham was anxious to provide Wavell’s tiny army with as much gunfire support as possible. For the moment, all he could offer were three now elderly Insect class gunboats, of which he commented in his memoirs:

I had gladly accepted the offer of these little ships for service in the Mediterranean, as their small size and shallow draught made them difficult targets for bombs or torpedoes, while their two 6-inch guns, though old, were useful weapons. Of these the Ladybird, Aphis and Gnat, later joined by the monitor Terror with her pair of 15-inch guns, all gave grand service off the Libyan coast in 1940–41 on the sea flank of the army. Over long periods they bombarded every night, paying particular attention to Bardia and Tobruk as the battle on shore surged to and fro.

First into action was Ladybird, which, under Lieutenant Commander J. F. Blackburn, was ordered to proceed west from Mersa Matruh and, disguised as far as possible as a merchant vessel, penetrate Bardia harbour and destroy any shipping there. After dusk on 23 August the enemy’s coast defence gunners spotted her approaching and opened a heavy but inaccurate fire to which Ladybird replied with her 6- and 3-inch armament. She then slid into the harbour, a narrow inlet surrounded by cliffs, but found it deserted. For the next 25 minutes Blackburn pounded installations and buildings ashore, quickly destroying a solitary field gun which opened fire in return. Emerging into open water again, Ladybird once more became the target of the coastal artillery, the aim of which had improved considerably. As heavy shells threw up fountains of water all round her, the gunboat replied with her heavy weapons and pom-poms. Blackburn took sharp evasive action and laid smoke, making good his escape, covered by the Australian destroyer Waterhen. As Bardia was one of the most heavily fortified ports in North Africa, this astonishing piece of cheek could have done nothing for the morale of its Italian garrison.

Meanwhile, Mussolini had been nagging his commander-in-chief in North Africa, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, to invade Egypt or face the sack. To his credit, Graziani recognised that while he had by far the bigger army, it was insufficiently mechanised to fight a successful desert war. Nevertheless, on 13 September he began a ponderous advance which, four days later, brought him to Sidi Barrani, just 60 miles into Egyptian territory. There, having established an advance post at Maktila, he began digging himself in with a chain of fortified camps stretching south-west into the desert, refusing to budge further.

Near the Egyptian–Libyan frontier the escarpment between the desert plateau and the coastal plain can be crossed by two routes, one at Solium and the other at nearby Halfaya Pass. The Italian army had perforce to advance through these. On 14 September the Ladybird appeared off Sollum, battering the enemy’s transport and artillery at the very point where it was unable to escape off the road. Satisfied that he had caused damage, casualties, confusion and panic, Blackburn withdrew before any coherent response could be organised. On her return to Mersa Matruh, Ladybird was joined by Aphis under Lieutenant Commander J. O. Campbell. During the next few weeks the two Insects, now known collectively as Force W, carried out many similar harassing missions.

Wavell’s devastating counter-offensive, codenamed Operation Compass, began during the night of 8/9 December. Spearheaded by a regiment of Matilda II tanks, which at that stage were invulnerable to any gun the Italians possessed, the counter-attack force passed through a gap in the chain of fortified camps, isolated Sidi Barrani from the west, and proceeded to storm each camp in turn. On 10 December Sidi Barrani itself was taken and the routed Italian army was streaming back towards the frontier, leaving 38,000 of its men to be taken prisoner.

Force W had now been joined by the monitor Terror. During Operation Compass the enemy’s advance post at Maktila had been pounded by Terror, standing well offshore, and by Aphis, which closed in to a point-blank 3000 yards; badly shaken, the Italians tried to escape westwards to Sidi Barrani, which had been simultaneously bombarded by Ladybird, only to find that it was already in British hands. For the next few days the two Insects harried the retreating army without mercy while Terror pounded targets within the Bardia perimeter with her 15-inch guns. Sometimes the enemy responded with an air attack on the ships and sometimes with MAS (motor torpedo) boats, all attacks being beaten off without casualties or damage.

On the night of 16/17 December the Aphis crept stealthily along the coast towards Bardia. By 06:30 she had reached the harbour entrance undetected and glided inside. Within, she found three supply ships at anchor, using just six rounds of 6-inch to reduce them to blazing wrecks. During the next hour Campbell’s main armament fired a further 100 rounds, turning a fuel depot into an enormous fireball and engaging every likely target within sight. Each time the guns fired, the cliffs sent back a quadruple echo, so that the cumulative noise level was deafening. Out at sea, those aboard the watching Terror could also see dense black smoke clouds boiling up out of the enclosed harbour.

‘Seems to be having a good time!’ mused Commander Hayes, her captain.

At length, with his gun crews exhausted and the Aphis coming under increasingly heavy machine gun and mortar fire, Campbell decided to head for open water. This was the moment that the outraged coast defence artillerymen had been waiting for. For ten miles they pursued the little gunboat with their heavy shells, but her sudden twists and turns left them baffled and the covering fire provided by the Terror’s 15-inch guns cannot have helped. There can be little doubt that the battery commanders received a furious tongue lashing from the fortress commander, General Bergonzoli, better remembered by his nickname of ‘Electric Whiskers’, for when Aphis reappeared off the port the following day they were much quicker off the mark and Campbell wisely decided not to press his advantage. Both he and Blackburn were awarded the DSO for their forays into Bardia.

By the New Year Wavell’s troops, under the operational command of Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor, had caught up with the fleeing Italians and were ready to mount an assault on Bardia. The devastating preliminary bombardment was delivered not just by O’Connor’s artillery, but also by the battleships Barham, Valiant and Warspite and their escorting warships, supplemented inshore by Force W, which had been joined by a third Insect, the Gnat.

It was enough to stretch the resolve of even good troops to breaking point, and that of the Italians was already shaky. When the assault went in on 3 January, the combination of Matildas and aggressive Australian infantry proved unstoppable. By the evening of 5 January all of Bardia was in British hands. Immense quantities of equipment were captured and another 38,000 men began their weary trudge into the prisoner of war cages. ‘Electric Whiskers’ Bergonzoli was not among them, having successfully evaded capture and made his way to Tobruk. British casualties amounted to 500, of whom only 150 were killed.

As Force W had retired from the bombardment phase it had come under air attack. Aboard Aphis several men were killed or wounded when the gunboat was strafed. With two of his loaders dead and another man wounded, Petty Officer Leslie Poore served B gun alone until he was joined by a stoker and a cook. Simultaneously, Able Seaman Bennett Chapman, though seriously wounded, continued to man the 2-pounder pom-pom until he collapsed. Both were awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

Immediately after the fall of Bardia, Force W became the Inshore Squadron under the command of Captain H. Hickling and was joined by three minesweepers, four anti-submarine trawlers and a variety of smaller vessels including schooners, lighters and store ships. On land the advance continued and Tobruk was invested. Once again Terror, Ladybird and Gnat took part in a preliminary bombardment against selected target areas within the defences. The same careful preparation went into the assault on Tobruk as had gone into that on Bardia. At 06:30 on 21 January the Matildas and Australians broke into the perimeter and by the afternoon of the following day all resistance had ended. Yet more guns, tanks and supplies were captured and another 25,000 prisoners were taken.


Ladybird off Bardia on 31 December 1940

Ladybird’s gunners in action during the bombardment of Bardia, 31 December 1940

Following the Sidi Barrani débâcle, Marshal Graziani had complained bitterly that he was being compelled to wage ‘the war of the flea against the elephant’, recommending that the army should be withdrawn as far west as Tripoli. Since this meant abandoning the entire province of Cyrenaica, Mussolini thought that he had lost his mind. However, the loss in succession of Bardia and Tobruk placed a different complexion on the matter. After making a brief stand along the line of the Wadi Derna, the Italians did decide to retire into Tripolitania, using the coastal route through Benghazi. Alerted as to what was happening, O’Connor despatched the 7th Armoured Division across the base of the Benghazi Bulge while the 6th Australian Division pursued the retreating enemy along the coast. On 5 February the Italian Tenth Army suddenly found itself trapped between the two at Beda Fomm. During repeated attempts to break through, its commander, General Tellera, was mortally wounded. Following the failure of his last attack on the morning of 7 February his successor, General Bergonzoli, surrendered. Over 25,000 prisoners were taken, as well as over 100 tanks, 216 guns and 1500 wheeled vehicles.

In addition to their bombardment duties, the Insects had been kept extremely busy throughout the campaign. Their shallow draught enabled them to act as supply carriers, and at one time they were delivering 100 tons of urgently needed drinking water daily to the army. They also brought reinforcements forward and ferried hundreds of tractable prisoners back to Mersa Matruh on their decks.

Only a single Italian division and fugitives from vanished formations lay between O’Connor and Tripoli. The probability is that if the advance had continued Tripoli would have been taken and the Desert War would have ended there and then. That, however, is hindsight. At the time, Churchill decided that once the threat to Egypt had been decisively dealt with, Wavell should send troops to Greece to assist in the defence of that country, leaving a screening force in Cyrenaica to guard against an Italian revival. Unfortunately, the campaign in Greece ended in defeat, as did the subsequent defence of Crete, and the Royal Navy was required to pay a high price in lost or damaged ships during the subsequent evacuations.

The second consequence of the British victory in Africa was that Hitler was forced to provide support for his tottering Italian ally, who from that point became the junior partner in the Axis alliance and something of a liability. While Italian reinforcements and German armoured units were hastily shipped into Tripoli, the Luftwaffe quickly made its presence felt. In command of the German element of the new Axis army in Libya was the then Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel. It quickly became apparent that while he was nominally subordinate to the Italians, in practice it would be he who made the going. On 31 March he opened his first offensive, cutting across the base of the Benghazi Bulge and provoking a hasty British withdrawal. He failed to capture Tobruk but entered Bardia unopposed and secured the Halfaya Pass and Solium escarpment crossings on the Egyptian frontier.

Having been assured by Cunningham that Tobruk could be supplied by sea, Wavell decided that it would be held, thereby depriving Rommel of the deep-water port he needed to ease the strain on his long supply line. Initially the garrison would consist of Major-General Leslie Morshead’s 9th Australian Division, supported by British artillery and armour. Unable to make any impression on the defences, Rommel was forced to spend the rest of the year maintaining a regular siege, simultaneously fending off British attempts to relieve the fortress. Two such attempts, the first in May and the second in June, resulted in failure and Wavell being replaced by General Sir Claude Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief Middle East.

The Inshore Squadron had not escaped unscathed during these events. The Luftwaffe’s Ju 87 dive bombers, the legendary Stukas, were especially troublesome. Whereas the Italians had preferred to area bomb from high altitude, the Stukas bored straight down on their targets like black-crossed pterodactyls, sirens howling and bombs screaming. To anyone beneath a Ju 87’s attack-dive it seemed as though he had become the pilot’s personal target and until one got used to it the experience was very frightening. The Stukas were, of course, very vulnerable to fighter attack, but for the moment the British had few fighters to deploy and their only worry was the volume of anti-aircraft fire that could be directed at them. As the principal target of the German dive bomber squadrons during this period, the Royal Navy quickly developed a grudging respect for their professionalism and courage. At Benghazi Terror was narrowly missed by a bomb on 22 February, the damage being such that several of her compartments were flooded. This was compounded when, on her way back to Tobruk, she struck two mines. She was then subjected to further air attacks, the combined effect of which was to break her back. On 25 February her captain took the decision to abandon her and two hours later she rolled over and sank.

Naturally, the dive bombers were drawn to the increased maritime activity centred on Tobruk, which Rommel mistakenly believed was an evacuation rather than a reinforcement of the garrison. On 10 April Ladybird slid into the harbour, having taken part in an abortive attempt to secure the island of Castelorizo, off the Turkish coast, as a motor torpedo boat base. Castelorizo, it should be mentioned, was part of the Dodecanese group, which Italy had also won from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, and lay within comfortable striking distance of Rhodes, the principal island in the group. The operation was badly planned, although Ladybird had nothing with which to reproach herself. After the initial landings, the Italian defenders had retired to a fort on a hill above the town. This Blackburn turned into a ruin with a dozen well-placed 6-inch shells, so that when the landing force closed in, the defenders streamed out with their hands raised. Now short of fuel, the gunboat set off for Cyprus and at this point the enemy on Rhodes began to react. Ladybird was subjected to a series of air attacks, and although her triple rudders gave her the ability to twist and turn unpredictably, she was hit by a small bomb which wounded all the forward 3-inch gun crew. Drawing as little water as she did, she began to roll wildly as bombs churned up the sea all round her. Evidently satisfied, the airmen departed; to his surprise, Blackburn learned later that the Italian radio had reported his ship as being sunk. Meanwhile, the enemy had further reacted by landing fresh troops of his own on Castelorizo, and as the British landing force lacked heavy weapons it was agreed that it should be taken off. Disappointing as the Castelorizo operation was, several valuable lessons were learned, among which was that the poor performance of the Italians in North Africa could not be taken for granted everywhere.

On her return to Alexandria, Ladybird, accompanied by Gnat, was sent through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea, where an Italian destroyer flotilla based at Massawa was thought to be on the point of interdicting the route between Suez and Aden. In the event, the threat did not materialise and, after undergoing a brief refit at Port Said, Ladybird sailed west to Tobruk.

While the Luftwaffe’s intervention had originally been made from bases in Sicily, Rommel had recovered so much territory that it was now operating from airfields in Cyrenaica. The Stuka squadrons menacing Tobruk harbour were based at Tmimi, supported by more bombers and fighter escorts at Gazala and Derna, all a comparatively few minutes’ flying time to the west. The harbour was also within range of the German heavy artillery, so for her own protection Ladybird took up her berth in the lee of the sunken freighter Serenitas. On the night of 14/15 April the purpose of her presence became apparent. Blackburn took her out into the darkness and sailed west until she reached a position off Gazala. She proceeded to pound the airfields savagely, her shells exploding among parked aircraft, bomb dumps, barracks and a tank leaguer in which several vehicles were set ablaze. Satisfied with the night’s work, Blackburn withdrew into his lair. Every few nights Ladybird repeated the treatment, her attack on 28 April being particularly successful in that a large concentration of enemy transport vehicles, the very lifeblood of desert warfare, was left wrecked and burning. Elsewhere, she used her guns in support of sorties made by Morshead’s belligerent Australian garrison.

Naturally, the Luftwaffe did not take kindly to all this. It was fairly obvious that the source of their troubles lay somewhere in Tobruk harbour, against which they mounted a heavy raid during the afternoon of 7 May. Mistakenly, the Stukas took the fleet minesweeper Stoke as their target. She sank after being hit repeatedly, her survivors being rescued by the Ladybird’s crew. Stoke’s captain has left a vivid account of the attack:

All knew that under existing conditions in the harbour and with no fighter protection and the enemy aircraft doing as they liked it was only a matter of time before a ship was hit, but there were no complaints. Guns’ crews stuck to their weapons until either they were blown away or there were no aircraft left to shoot at.

If the German airmen thought they had solved their problem they were mistaken, for on the night of 11/12 May Ladybird was back battering their airstrips. It was, therefore, in a vengeful spirit that a total of 47 Ju 87s and Ju 88s returned to the attack at about 15:15 the following afternoon. With a quiet efficiency born of familiarity the Ladybird’s crew went to action stations, manning her anti-aircraft armament. This included the 3-inch guns, the 2-pounder pom-pom, and Lewis light machine guns, supplemented by captured Italian weapons including a 20mm Breda cannon and two 8mm Fiat machine guns.

Three Stukas led the attack on the gunboat, howling down through the tracer that snaked up to meet them. One bomb from the first plane burst on the pom-pom mounting, destroying the weapon and killing its crew. Shards of flying metal cut down the two Fiat gunners. Almost simultaneously a second bomb penetrated the boiler room and exploded within, blowing out the sides of the hull. Ladybird, mortally hurt and afire aft, began to settle by the stern with a list to starboard.

The second explosion had flung the Breda crew off their feet. Led by CPO Albert Thornton-Allen, who had already been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for the probable destruction of two Italian aircraft during the Castelorizo affair, the semi-stunned men quickly got their weapon back into action. All round them every one of the ship’s remaining anti-aircraft weapons was hammering away at the attackers. One of the Stukas, its pilot shot dead at his controls, failed to pull out of its dive and plunged into the harbour; another, trailing smoke and flames, disappeared behind the town to explode in a fireball in the desert beyond.

Lieutenant Diack, the ship’s first lieutenant, gave Blackburn his damage control report. The fire was approaching the after magazine, which could not be flooded because the valves could no longer be reached; it was impossible to raise steam; the ship’s back was all but broken and she was continuing to settle. Blackburn gave orders that the wounded should be taken off in the motor sampan and waited with the rest of his crew for the boats which were already approaching the stricken vessel.

The fire spread throughout the ship, sending up a dense cloud of black smoke until she settled into the mud on an even keel in just ten feet of water. The White Ensign continued to fly from her broken foremast for the remainder of the siege as though the fighting Ladybird refused to die. Nor did she. Her 3-inch gun remained above water and, having been returned to working order by the Royal Artillery, was manned by them during subsequent air raids.

The Ladybird had been a ship with her own personality and a strong esprit de corps among her crew. As she was well known to the Mediterranean Fleet and the army, her loss was a matter of great sadness. General Morshead, by no means the most sentimental of men, sent Blackburn a sympathetic note. Admiral Cunningham received the following message from the commanding officer of the South Staffordshire Regiment:

All ranks of South Staffords having had opportunity of getting to know officers and crew of HMS Ladybird and seeing so much of their co-operation in the Western Desert, wish to express their sympathy at the loss of this gallant little ship.

Cunningham himself had something of a soft spot for Ladybird:

The Ladybird’s sailors were intensely proud of their ship and her record. I visited some of her wounded in hospital and was greatly struck by their cheerfulness. Two young men in adjacent beds with only one leg between them made a very deep impression on me. They took their disability in such a fine spirit.

Aphis and Gnat had meanwhile been active in the Gulf of Sollum. On 12 April, as Rommel’s advance units began consolidating their positions on the Egyptian frontier, Campbell received orders to investigate how matters lay in Bardia. Once more the Aphis penetrated the harbour in darkness and Campbell had himself rowed to the wooden jetty on its north shore. He had barely set foot upon it when he heard voices nearby, talking in German. The port was clearly in enemy hands and he quietly retraced his steps to the boat. So absorbed were the sentries in their conversation that neither its departure, nor that of the Aphis herself, attracted their interest.

Both gunboats duelled regularly with enemy artillery in the Sollum/Halfaya Pass area. On one occasion Gnat sustained minor damage but wiped out the offending battery in return. Having completed repairs, she replaced Ladybird at Tobruk and on the night of 14 May eliminated a heavy battery that had been bombarding the port area. Captain Poland, now commanding the Inshore Squadron, suggested that Davenport should strike his topmast to make her less conspicuous, and this was done. He also directed the gunboat to berth in a small creek which was eventually named Gnat’s Cove. There, during the day, she sweated out the North African summer beneath camouflage nets, emerging at night to make the enemy’s life as much a misery as had Ladybird. By now, Cricket, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Edwin Carnduff, had also reached Port Said from the Far East. After a long and difficult passage she required a refit but had to wait her turn while the dockyard dealt with larger warships damaged during the fighting off Greece and Crete. At length the work was completed and in June 1941 she received her first assignment, which was to join the sloop Flamingo and the whaler Southern Isle in escorting a small convoy bound for Tobruk.

At this stage almost anything that could float was being used to supply the embattled fortress. The convoy consisted of two small and very elderly Greek coasters, one of which was 50 years old and could only slop along at 4½ knots, thereby reducing the speed of the rest to a snail’s pace. Air cover was provided by British and South African fighters but as the ships approached Tobruk during the afternoon of 30 June, these became involved in dogfights with enemy fighters escorting waves of dive bombers.

Carnduff successfully avoided damage during the first three attacks by waiting until he saw the bombs leave the aircraft and then jamming his triple rudders hard over, leaving the bombs to explode in the spot where she would have been. When the fourth German attack came in, however, the enemy had clearly decided to limit his options. While a Stuka approached from abeam, a Ju 88 came in from ahead. Carnduff delayed his helm order until the last possible minute, causing the Stuka to miss, but the Ju 88’s 1000-pound bomb fell close alongside. The gunboat staggered under the impact of the explosion. Her decks were swamped with cascading water which flooded the engine and boiler rooms, wrecking the dynamo. Several men sustained leg and ankle injuries from the transmitted Shockwave. Worst of all, the ship’s frame was buckled, her bottom plating was distorted into metallic ripples, her machinery was damaged, she was making water and was down by the stern. While Flamingo escorted the convoy into Tobruk, Southern Isle stood by the crippled Cricket until nightfall and then towed her back to Mersa Matruh. The gunboat had fought her last fight.

Aphis relieved Gnat at Tobruk, continuing the work of battering the enemy’s airfields and heavy artillery. The months of August, September and October were taken up with the relief by sea of the 9th Australian Division with the British 70th Division. During the early hours of 21 October, Gnat, having rejoined the fray after a rest period, was escorting several ‘A’ lighters – motorised landing barges – on their return journey from Tobruk, when she was torpedoed by U.79. The explosion blew off her bows, threw up such a column of water that she was all but swamped and flung on to her beam ends, and started fires. Slowly she righted herself but remained with a list to starboard and down by the head. While the crew were tackling fires and shoring up bulkheads, two more torpedoes were fired. One missed. The other, though running true, simply grazed its way under the gunboat’s after part without exploding; imagining that he was dealing with a conventional warship, the U-boat captain had failed to allow for the fact that the gunboat’s stern was drawing even less water than before.

The immediate danger past, Davenport was able to go slow ahead for a while in the hope that the shored bulkhead would hold. Gradually, however, with her deck awash, settling slowly by the head and steerage way lost, he was compelled to shut down the boilers. Help arrived in response to his report of the incident and the gunboat was taken in tow stern-first by the destroyer Griffin. Even so, as the sea rose during the night, it was considered unlikely she would survive. The crew were taken off but at dawn Gnat was still afloat, albeit with her rudders now clear of the water. The tow continued at four knots through a moderating sea until, west of Mersa Matruh, the naval tug St Monance appeared. Davenport and eleven of his men returned to the ship to transfer the tow from the Griffin. At 13:00 on 22 October, over 30 hours after the torpedo had struck, Gnat entered Alexandria to receive Admiral Cunningham’s congratulations on a fine piece of seamanship. Some consideration was given to welding the undamaged bow of the Cricket to the Gnat’s still serviceable afterpart; that, after all, had happened in World War I to the similarly damaged destroyers Zulu and Nubian, thereby creating a new destroyer, the Zubian. Unfortunately, such were the difficulties involved and the pressures on the dockyard that the idea did not proceed. Though decommissioned, Gnat ended her days, still fighting, as an anti-aircraft gun platform at Fanana.