Conflict over the Bay, 1943

Gradually the boffins and engineers had improved the lot of the air crews by developing ASV radar, more reliable depth charges, anti-sub bombs and acoustic torpedoes, while they now had better aircraft. The fact that Dönitz had now effectively withdrawn from engaging in the mighty convoy battles of the North Atlantic, was as much due to the losses inflicted on his boats, as the losses, also in 1943, of boats traversing the Bay of Biscay.

As 1943 got underway for 19 Group, so the actions increased week after week. Space does not provide as much detail of these actions as described in previous chapters, but in my book Conflict over the Bay (Grub Street, 1999) full coverage is given in a blow-by-blow account.

In the early months of 1943, German tactics had not yet changed. The Leigh Light had prevented U-boat commanders crossing the Bay at night, and they were forced to travel for the most part on the surface, especially if their batteries need to be recharged and the boat’s fresh air supply replenished. This made them vulnerable as ASV could pick them up more easily.

By May U-boat captains had been ordered to remain on the surface and fight back, their chances, Dönitz believed, would be better if they deflected an aircraft’s approach in the face of gunfire at low level – and the big Sunderlands and Liberators particularly, offered a huge target for gunners who held their nerve. As mentioned earlier, Coastal Command’s counter to this was to circle some way off, and either call up other aircraft in the vicinity in order to make a co-ordinated attack from different angles, thereby dividing the defensive fire, or, if in luck, one of the Navy’s anti-sub escort groups might not be too far away and could be homed in.

The 2nd Escort (or Support) Group in particular seemed to be able to roam the outer Bay areas with impunity, and was constantly on the alert for U-boats, coming or going. Captain F. J. Walker CB DSO*** RN, with five sloops, would be responsible for a number of U-boats attacked, sunk and damaged. Sadly he died in July 1944, aged forty-eight, from cerebral thrombosis, brought on by overwork and exhaustion. He lost a son serving aboard a submarine in the Mediterranean in August 1943.

By this time too, the USAAF had joined the fray, sending Liberator squadrons to England where they, like the Iceland-based USN units, came under Coastal Command control, joining the Battle of the Bay. Their first success came on 20 February, First Lieutenant Wayne Johnson of 1 Squadron USAAF damaging U-211.

Six days later one of Coastal’s best pilots, Squadron Leader P. J. Cundy, flying with 224 Squadron (Liberators), damaged U-508. He had already flown many sorties with 53 and 120 Squadrons and his experience was about to pay dividends. Wellingtons were still being used by 19 Group, and so too were Whitleys of No.10 OTU, released by Bomber Command in order to help support the group. On 22 March one 10 OTU crew damaged U-665. Quite a few boats were damaged in these early months, but some were also sunk. Pilot Officer J. B. Stark of 58 Squadron put his Halifax over U-528 on 11 May and his depth charges sent it to the bottom. Four days later, Wing Commander W. E. Oulton DFC, CO of the same squadron, sank U- 266. The next day, the 16th, Flying Officer A. J. W. Birch made it three for 58 by sinking U-463 – a tanker supply boat.

Another new innovation by the Germans, now that they were beginning to stay up and fight, was the introduction of flak boats, carrying extra defensive armament. They were intended to be ‘flak traps’ to surprise and destroy attacking aircraft. One was U-441. Most U-boats encountered were the Type VIIC and it was a few of this type that were converted (others being U-211, 256, 263, 271, 621 and 953). Sailing for her first mission in her new role on 22 May, U-441 was found by a Sunderland of 228 Squadron, piloted by Flying Officer H. J. H. Debnam. He attacked in the face of extreme anti-aircraft fire and, although he placed his depth charges around the sub, the boat’s gunners were on target and the flying boat dived into the sea with the loss of all on board. However, U-441 had been damaged sufficiently, and sustained crew casualties, for it to be forced to return to base for repair.

On the last day of May, Wilfred Oulton again encountered a U-boat, and began stalking it during an approach through cloud. Finally diving, he made a good straddle, leaving the boat in obvious difficulty and a second attack was made, after which the boat was seen to be trailing oil. Oulton kept the sub under observation while calling up another 58 Squadron aircraft, flown by Pilot Officer E. L. Hartley, but his charges fell short. A Sunderland of 10 RAAF Squadron was next on the scene and after two attacks the boat stopped and began to sink, with men appearing on deck in life-jackets. Another Sunderland arrived, from 228 Squadron, and made an immediate attack, bodies being seen thrown into the air as its charges exploded about the vessel. Oulton later received the DSO, and the two Sunderland captains received DFCs. There were no survivors from U-563.

“Biscay Excursion”
In March 1942, 236 Squadron RAF received the Bristol Beaufighter MkI.At first the squadron was used for shipping reconnaissance and escort duties, before in July it began operations against enemy shipping off the Dutch coast. At the same time detachments operated over the Bay of Biscay to protect anti-submarine aircraft against German attack.
David Pentland Art

These large four-engined aircraft were not the only aircraft operating over the Bay in 1943. The Germans had Junkers 88C fighters on the French coast and often made forays into the Bay to attack the RAF aircraft. It is amazing that the Germans did not make more of this, but fortunately they did not, although a number of running air battles between them did take place, and Coastal aircraft were lost. As a counter, the RAF sent Beaufighters out, hopefully to engage these Ju88s, but they also searched for U-boats. No. 236 Squadron also carried rockets and, on 1 June, Flying Officer M. C. Bateman found U-418 which he attacked and sank with his RPs. As these were still on Coastal’s secret list, Mark Bateman had to report sinking the sub with depth charges. He was awarded the DFC, although no mention of this attack was mentioned in his citation.

Another fight-it-out duel on the night of 13/14 June had U-564 shooting down a 228 Squadron Sunderland, from which nobody survived. The boat was damaged, however, and limped away, only to be located the next day by a Whitley of 10 OTU, piloted by Sergeant A. J. Benson RAAF. Buzz Benson shadowed the sub, and another boat (U-185) that had suddenly appeared to help, while carrying out homing procedure but was then given permission to make an attack. Benson selected U- 564 and also met gunfire, but his depth charges went down and finished her off. Benson’s Whitley was badly hit, with his hydraulics knocked out and one engine giving problems. He radioed base saying he was heading home but did not make it. He and his crew survived a ditching and were fortunate enough to be rescued by a French fishing boat, but when they suggested to the skipper that he take them to England, he had to refuse, as his family would suffer if the Germans discovered what he had done. Thus Benson and his crew were taken to a French port and ended up as prisoners, although he later heard he had been awarded the DFM and promoted to warrant officer. Survivors from U-564 were taken aboard U-185 although twenty-nine of them had been lost. U-564 had been a successful boat, having been credited with sinking at least nineteen ships and damaging others.

A Wellington of 172 Squadron sank U-126 on 3 July (Flight Sergeant A. Coumbis, who had damaged U-566 in April), while Peter Cundy of 224 sank U-628 on the same day. On board his Liberator was Lieutenant Colonel Farrant, an army officer helping to promote the use of a new anti-submarine bomb. These were called Hedgehog bombs, a 35lb device with a hollow charge. With enormous luck they found a surfaced U-boat and Cundy went in dropping depth charges and eighteen of these small bombs, that needed a direct hit to be effective. The boat engaged the approaching Liberator and did score some hits while the Lib’s gunners also hit the boat, knocking one man into the sea. In the first attack one depth charge actually bounced off the conning tower and in the second run more charges straddled the vessel. As the water cleared, several men could be seen in the water, and the Colonel was seen taking off his Mae West prior to throwing it down to the ‘poor devils’. He was, however, persuaded not to, as there might be a chance it might be needed for ‘the poor devils up here’. Cundy, who got home on three engines, received the DSO.

Despite the Germans staying up to fight, July was proving a successful month as far as kills were concerned. On the 7th one pilot, Flying Officer J. A. Cruickshank of 210 Squadron, damaged U-267. It would not be his last contact with a U-boat.

Terry Bulloch was now in 19 Group, flying with 224 Squadron. He had lost none of his skill and on 8 July sank U-514. He had been given something of a roving commission to fly where and when he wanted, so now flew a Liberator equipped with rocket projectiles which he was testing. On board he had Flight Lieutenant C. V. T. Campbell, an armament specialist, who just happened to spot the U-boat in amongst a group of Spanish fishing boats. Turning towards it, Bulloch could see half a dozen men on the conning tower and fired a pair of RPs at 800 feet distance, two more at 600 and then four from 500 feet, from a height of 500 feet. The boat disappeared, but came up again stern first at about a 20-degree angle. Not in the official report was that Bulloch also carried an acoustic torpedo, which he dropped as well, plus a couple of depth charges for good measure. Whatever got the sub, it was fatal and U-504, set for South African waters, was destroyed.

U-441, the converted flak boat, was back out after being damaged on 24 May, but it did not fare any better this time. She was found by Beaufighters of 248 Squadron on the 12th, and not some large Coastal aircraft that she could trap. The Beaus worked her over with their 20mm cannon, felling some of the crew who were on deck. After several strafing runs the boat went down, badly damaged, to return to home port once more. Ten of her crew had been killed and thirteen more wounded, including her captain. The flak-trap did not seem to be working.

Junkers Ju-88C-6 F8+BX, 13.KG40 Battle over the Biscay

No. 19 Group were still using their patrol areas; Musketry was mentioned previously. The areas did alter slightly from time to time, and other areas, named Derange, Seaslug and Percussion were also being used. Between 14 and 27 June patrols in Musketry had sunk one sub and damaged another, while outside them one had been sunk and five damaged. In July Musketry was extended, and within it Coastal sank seven and damaged two; outside it, four more were sunk and another damaged.

Another case where U-boat and aircraft were lost together came on 24 July. Flying Officer W. H. T. Jennings, 172 Squadron, was guided to a surfaced U-boat by his radar man and went in for an attack. The boat’s gunners opened up, hitting the Wellington and presumably killed or wounded the two pilots, for although the depth charges were released, the Wimpy ploughed right into the sub and blew up. Only the rear gunner, Sergeant A. A. Turner, survived. One charge had landed on the boat’s deck and exploded when the crew pushed it overboard. A Wellington of 547 Squadron arrived and attacked the crippled boat, its crew abandoning it. A RN destroyer later picked up thirty-seven Germans, but not, however, its captain, and, hearing shouts from the rear gunner some way off, found him too. Turner had been involved in two other damaging attacks earlier in the year, with other pilots.

Coastal Command HQ still had a fair idea where the U-boats were from the code breakers, but they needed to be on the surface if they were to be located by aircraft. One of the most dramatic events during this period occurred on 30 July. By this time the month had seen five sinkings, one by Flying Officer R. V. Sweeny, an American with 224 Squadron, flying with Pete Cundy’s crew. In company with another Liberator, from 4 Squadron USAAF, U-404 had been sunk on the 28th. The American B-24 had been damaged by the boat’s fire. Bobby Sweeney had been adjutant of the first American Eagle Squadron, his brother Charles having been the inspiration behind the Eagle Squadrons.

On the 30th, U-461, a type IV supply boat, was seen by Flight Lieutenant D. Marrows and his 461 Sunderland crew. By a strange coincidence, the aircraft letter was ‘U’, so it was U-461 meeting 461/U. U-boats were still making crossings of the Bay in groups for mutual protection, and the Marrows’ crew spotted three of them shortly before noon. Other aircraft had found them already, a Halifax from 502 Squadron coming over, and an American B-24, both of which were circling. As the B-24 made a move towards the boats – U-461, U-462 (another supply boat, a Type XI, and U-504, a Type IXC) – the B-24 met the full force of the boats’ gunners. This gave Marrows an opportunity to nip in, managing to straddle U-461 to good effect. Meantime, his gunners blazed away at the other two boats. As the water cleared, survivors could be seen in the water, and a dinghy was dropped, some sailors being seen to get into it. With one remaining charge on board Marrows went for another sub but gunfire made him break away after hits caught the Sunderland.

In the Halifax, Flying Officer August van Rossum, a Dutch pilot in the RAF, had seen the sloops of the 2nd Escort Group heading for the U-boats, and when he arrived, all three aircraft began making attacks, and even another Liberator, from 53 Squadron, joined in, but was hit by flak and headed off. By now the gunfire from the U-boats was making it necessary to bomb them from height, Van Rossum putting a bomb close to the stern of U-462, but he could also see that the U-boat attacked by the Sunderland was being abandoned. Just then shells from the approaching sloops began to explode near the subs. U-504, attacked by Rossum, limped away and began to dive, but the sloops harried her and depth charges finished her off.

On the first day of August, two Sunderlands, one from 10 RAAF, the other from 228 Squadron, sank two U-boats, U-454 and U-383, while on Musketry patrol but the Australian crew were shot down, just six of them being rescued by a sloop, and 228’s machine had also to limp back home, damaged ailerons making it impossible to turn. Everything was being thrown into the Bay battles, even a twin-engined Hampden of 405 RCAF Squadron, that, on the 2nd, assisted a US Liberator of 1 Squadron to sink U-706 in Musketry. This same day U-106 was destroyed by a 228 Sunderland flown by Flying Officer R. D. Hanbury, shared with a 461 Sunderland. Gunners on the boat continued to fight back even as their comrades were taking to dinghies, but then the sub blew up. Thirty-seven of its crew were picked up by a sloop.

A further U-boat group of three was spotted by the crew of a Wellington of 547 Squadron, flown by Pilot Officer J. W. Hermiston RCAF, on the 2nd. They were on their return to base when the airman manning the front gun saw the wake of the first boat. Informing his skipper, he was instructed to take photographs and then open fire when in range. Knowing they would meet the combined fire of the boats, Hermiston decided to drop an anti-sub bomb from 2,000 feet. Sergeant W. Owens, manning the gun, opened accurate fire at the boat, as the others began to close up. Hermiston then decided to drop depth charges, lowering to fifty feet to do so, but they overshot. Bill Owens opened up on other runs, but then all three boats went under. U-218 had been their main target and, while undamaged, Owen had caused so many casualties that she had to abort her mission to Trinidad and return to Brest.

The Germans now countermanded the order to remain on the surface and fight, for this had obviously caused considerable losses. A few still did stay up, but these were generally cases where the boat was surprised and it was too late to dive safely. Those encounters on 2 August were the last for the month, and there were only two in September, a Wellington of 407 Squadron RCAF sinking U-669 on the 7th and a Halifax of 58 Squadron destroying U-221 on the 27th. However, in this attack Flying Officer E. L. Hartley and crew, which included their Station Commander, Group Captain R. C. Mead, was hit by flak as he went in, forcing Hartley to ditch. Two men did not survive the crash, and the others were not rescued for eleven days by the Royal Navy. They had not been searching for them and it was pure luck that they saw their signal flares.

November saw just three successful attacks with two boats sunk and one damaged and just one sunk in December. It had been a momentous year and desperate summer but, with the losses in the North Atlantic, the U-boat arm was all but smashed. However, with the coming invasion, the U-boats and 19 Group, would have one last encounter.


U.S. Releases Video of Alleged Gulf of Oman Tanker Attacks

Screenshot of a US Navy video in which US Central Command claims Iranian forces are captured removing a limpet mine from Kokuka Courageous on June 13, 2019.

This post has been updated with a new statement from U.S. Central Command.

U.S. Central Command has released a video and photographs that officials say prove the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy attacked two merchant tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday.

As a result, the U.S. is sending a second warship to the vicinity of the two merchant vessels that were attacked in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday, U.S. Central Command said.

Guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG-87) is joining U.S. forces assisting a merchant tanker that has been abandoned by its crew after suffering damage from what U.S. officials are calling a deliberate attack.

Earlier Thursday, the crew of destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG-96) rescued the crew of a tanker that was allegedly attacked in the Gulf of Oman, officials told USNI News on Thursday afternoon.

“Twenty-one mariners from the M/V Kokuka Courageous, who abandoned ship, were rescued and are currently aboard USS Bainbridge,” according to U.S. Central Command spokesman Army Lt. Col. Earl Brown.
Bainbridge remains in close contact with the M/V Kokuka Courageous and is the on-scene U.S. command authority. No interference with USS Bainbridge, or its mission, will be tolerated.”

Kokuka Courageous, had initially reported damage to its starboard hull in an unspecified security incident. Iranian state television issued video of Front Altair burning from a hull breach on the starboard side of the ship.

Tanker War I


The Russian Navy WWI

Peter the Great founded the Russian Navy in the early 1700s. The main fleet operated in the Baltic Sea with a squadron on the Sea of Azov which expanded later that century to become the Black Sea Fleet. During the Crimean War the sailors and guns of the Black Sea Fleet played a distinguished role in the defence of Sebastopol. However, the Baltic Fleet was reduced to passivity having proved itself incapable of breaking the Anglo-French blockade. When the empire expanded eastwards a Pacific Squadron was established with its base at Vladivostok. The remilitarization of the Black Sea at roughly the same time led to a further period of expansion but due to limited resources, the Baltic Fleet was somewhat overlooked. However, pressure from France following the 1894 treaty led to an increase in the strength of the Baltic Fleet to counter the growing naval power of Germany. As a result French companies received ship-building orders as Russian heavy industry did not have the capacity to build complete, modern warships.

The Russo-Japanese War was a disaster for the Russian Navy that lost virtually all of the Pacific Squadron as well as much of the Baltic Fleet which sailed to its doom at the battle of Tsushima. With severely limited resources the navy was faced with the dilemma of, “we must know what we want” in terms of ship types and whether it should concentrate on the Pacific Ocean, the Baltic or Black seas.


Although there had been a Navy Minister for decades his role was that of junior partner in the War Ministry where the army was regarded as the more important service. Strategically the navy’s role was to support the army.

In 1906 a Naval General Staff was established under the new State Defence Committee but was almost immediately at loggerheads with the Navy Minister Admiral A. A. Birilov who regarded the new body as an upstart creation of little value. Both the Navy Ministry and the Naval General Staff produced plans for modernisation and reform, but neither was acceptable on the grounds of cost. Furthermore the army and the Council of State Defence objected, complaining that they exceeded the Navy’s defensive role. As the arguments and politicking dragged on the Tsar intervened. Nicholas II, in common with his cousins George V and Wilhelm II, liked ships and wished to expand Russia’s overseas influence by the possession of a strong, modern navy. However, the Third Duma (1907–12) preferred to invest the money that was available in the army. Consequently the annual naval estimates became a matter of prolonged debate.

A series of emergency grants provided for the replacement of several ships lost at Tsushima and as money from increased state revenues and French loans filled the treasury and Turkey began to expand its fleet in the Black Sea, it was decided to increase the size of the fleet both there and in the Baltic. While a considerable proportion of this money was invested in capital projects such as shipyards, dry docks and improved port facilities, a large ship building programme was also approved. With the appointment of a new Navy Minister who was more receptive to reform, Admiral I. K. Grigorovich, in 1911 the Duma began to look more favourably on the naval estimates. On 6 July 1912 the Tsar signed a £42,000,000 expansion plan. The problem was that many of the ships laid down under this programme were not scheduled for completion for some time. Furthermore they were highly dependent on foreign expertise and equipment, and the overseas contracts were not placed with Russia’s likely allies. As with heavy artillery procurement orders were made with German companies as well as those of Britain and France.


At the outbreak of war two Russian cruisers, paid for and on the point of completion in German yards, were commissioned into the German navy. According to the 1914 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships, four Dreadnoughts and two cruisers were also under construction for the Baltic Fleet, as were three Dreadnoughts and nine cruisers for the Black Sea Fleet. These new capital ships were to be complemented by thirty-six new destroyers and a large number of submarines and auxiliary vessels. The majority of these ships were due for completion within the next few years. By 1914 Russian naval expenditure only lagged behind that of Britain and the USA having overtaken Germany and other potential enemies. Indeed Russia and Britain were on the point of signing a naval agreement when the war broke out. But the Russian Navy was not to be committed offensively during the war years and the majority of its operations were defensive.


As noted in Plan 19 both fleets were subordinated to Stavka. The HQ of the Black Sea Fleet was at Sebastopol, the headquarters of the Baltic fleet at Helsingfors (Helsinki) in Finland, having major bases at Kronstadt and Riga. The Navy Ministry at Petrograd acted as a clearing house for orders from Stavka.

As the Pacific Squadron took virtually no part in the war it is mainly the operations of the Baltic and Black sea fleets that concern us here and as little or no co-ordination was possible each will be dealt with individually.

Baltic Sea Fleet

At the outbreak of war the Baltic Fleet put a carefully planned defensive mining programme into operation. Russian mines were reputedly the best and most effective used by any navy in the war. The objective of this was to prevent the movement of German naval units against the capital or the flank of NW Front. The officer in charge of mining was Captain A. V. Kolchak who was to advance swiftly to the rank of Admiral. The major achievement of the Baltic Fleet during 1914 was the capture of a set of German naval code books from the Magdeburg during August thus enabling Allied intelligence officers to monitor German movements.

For the next two years the Baltic Fleet’s major units were preserved in anticipation of a decisive fleet action. The burden of offensive operations was undertaken by the eleven submarines of the Baltic Fleet and a small number of British submarines that reached Russia via the Arctic or by running the gauntlet of German patrols at the mouth of the Baltic. Although the submariners of both navies did sterling work against coastal traders plying the Baltic, the bulk of the Russian fleet remained in harbour. Such passivity had a dire effect on the officers and men leaving them prey to apathy and politicisation. Protected by the increasingly complex web of minefields the sailors’ discipline eroded slowly. Cruises were limited due to the lack of British anthracite coal stocks which were in short supply (although interestingly enough, thousands of tons of coal had in fact been stockpiled at Archangel and Murmansk but were instead being used to ballast ships returning to their home ports after delivering munitions to Russia). The sailors’ dockside work was also inhibited by the blanket of ice that built up on the harbours and the ship building programme was held up because many of the vessels under construction were designed only to take German-made turbines. The overall result of all these problems was a number of crews with little or nothing to do.

When the army’s rifle shortage became critical in 1915 the navy exchanged its Russian rifles for the Japanese Arisaka to ease ammunition supply problems. Japan also salvaged ships from the Russo-Japanese War, which were re-commissioned by the Russians and a Separate Baltic Detachment was formed but it did not manage to return to the Baltic.


The first outbreak of trouble occurred on the cruiser Rossiia in Helsingfors during September 1915. The sailors protested about poor food, overly harsh discipline and “German officers”. Rumours of the treachery of the “German officers” had been growing since the loss of the cruiser Pallada when on patrol duties in November 1914, though the fact that it went down with all hands did not enter into the gossip mongers’ tales.

The navy seems to have had a greater proportion of officers with German sounding names than the army and being a smaller service they were more noticeable. Indeed the commander of the Baltic Fleet in 1915 was Admiral N. O. von Essen who apparently considered “russifying” his name during this period. Although the ringleaders aboard the Rossiia were arrested it did not prevent further problems in November 1915 when part of the crew of the battleship Gangoot rioted beyond their officers’ control over poor food. More worrying for senior commanders was the refusal of neighbouring vessel’s crews to train their guns on the mutineers. Finally the threat of a submarine putting torpedoes into the Gangoot put a stop to the mutiny. A series of arrests were made resulting in those men being assigned to disciplinary battalions. Disciplinary battalions, usually 200 men at a time, were often sent to NW Front until Twelfth Army complained that they more trouble than they were worth. Subsequently the disciplinary battalions were detained at the naval bases where they became progressively more difficult to control.

As 1916 wore on morale declined still further. Whenever ships changed commanders or officers transferred and attempts were made to tighten discipline where it was perceived to be too lax the men reacted with dumb insolence or worked at a snail’s pace. That November Grigorovich expressed his concerns to the Tsar during an interview at Stavka. However, Nicholas refused to discuss internal security matters nor did he respond to written reports on similar matters. The situation was summed up in a report from the commander of the Kronstadt base to the navy’s representative at Stavka. “Yesterday I visited the cruiser Diana…I felt as if I were on board an enemy ship.… In the wardroom the officers openly said that the sailors were completely revolutionaries.… So it is everywhere in Kronstadt.”

In November 1916 the Russian defences claimed their greatest victory. A force of eleven German destroyers became entangled in minefields while hunting coastal traffic and within forty-eight hours seven were lost and one severely damaged. There was no Russian shipping in the area as they had intercepted radio transmissions and stayed away.

Boredom and lack of activity were not the only reasons for the men’s increased disillusionment with the war and the regime. Service in the navy demanded a different sort of recruit to those of the army. The literacy rate amongst sailors was approaching seventy-five per cent, (in the army it was less than thirty per cent) a higher standard of proficiency with technology was vital as were teamwork and initiative, all qualities which fostered a more highly skilled and integrated body of men. The close proximity to urban, industrial centres inevitably led them to be exposed to extreme political viewpoints and the discussion of conditions ashore. Consequently when the revolution came in March 1917 the sailors of the Baltic Fleet were ready and willing to participate.

The Black Sea Fleet

The Black Sea Fleet (Admiral A. A. Eberhardt) followed a more aggressive policy, mounting operations against the Bosporus on 28 March 1915 and again the next month in support of the Gallipolli expedition. By way of drawing the Turks attention to the Black Sea coastline pretence was made of reconnoitring the shore for possible landing sites as had been agreed with the Western Allies. The Anatolian coastline slowly came to be dominated by the Russians which forced the Turks to rely more and more on the slower overland route to supply men and munitions for their Caucasian Front. When Bulgaria entered the war several raids were made against coastal shipping but the presence of German submarines limited such operations. However, it was in support of the right flank of the Caucasian Front that the Black Sea Fleet made its strongest contribution.

In August 1916 Kolchak was appointed commander of the Black Sea Fleet. In November the Black Sea Fleet suffered its greatest loss, the newly completed battleship Emperatritsa Mariia which blew up in Sebastopol harbour with over 400 casualties. For the remainder of the war the Black Sea virtually became a Russian lake and increasing use was made of the navy to ferry and escort supplies to the army. The reasons noted for the decline of the Baltic Fleet were much less pronounced amongst the Black Sea sailors. The simple fact that the men were more or less continually involved in an active war and were not subject to urban influences to the same extent as in the Baltic saved the Black Sea Fleet from the worst excesses of the March Revolution. Kolchak took many of his ships to sea when the situation in Petrograd became serious and only returned to harbour when the Tsar had abdicated. Thus, when dozens of officers of all ranks in the Baltic Fleet were being murdered by their men the Black Sea Fleet remained comparatively quiet.

The navy and the revolutions

The speed with which the Baltic Fleet’s sailors responded to the March events in Petrograd points to a sense of unity of purpose, although not necessarily a carefully tailored uprising guided by a single mind. When the revolution began the sailors supported it from the outset and were prepared to shoot any who stood in their way. This included their officers, although many were also killed as retribution for past behaviour. On 16 March Admiral A. I. Nepenin, commanding the Baltic Fleet, informed the Provisional Government, “The Baltic Fleet as a military force no longer exists.” As far as he could see his ice bound ships had raised red flags.

In both fleets committees were established with powers similar to those in the army. The difference between the fleets was Baltic Fleet’s greater degree of militancy and involvement with the affairs of Petrograd. During the July Days Baltic Fleet sailors were heavily involved but the actions subsequently launched to contain radicalism seem to have achieved little but the further alienation of the men. Despite this the sailors supported Kerensky during the Kornilov affair but by the end of September the Provisional Government exercised very little authority over them.

This rare German film shows the World War I assault known as Operation Albion. This was the German land and naval operation in September–October 1917 to invade and occupy the West Estonian Archipelago, then part of the Autonomous Governorate of Estonia, Russian Republic. The land campaign opened with landings at the Tagalaht, Saaremaa on 11 October 1917, after extensive naval activity to clear mines and subdue coastal artillery batteries. The Germans secured the island by 16 October. The Russian Army evacuated Muhu on 18 October. After two failed attempts, the Germans managed to land on Hiiumaa on the 19th and captured the island on the following day. The Russian Baltic Fleet had to withdraw from the Suur Strait after major losses (see Battle of Moon Sound). The Germans claimed 20,000 prisoners and 100 guns captured during the Operation Albion from 12 October.

However, when the Germans launched Operation Albion Kerensky sent an inspirational message to the sailors, which elicited the reply, “We will fulfil our duty… [but] not by order of some kind of pitiful Russian Bonaparte.… Long live the world revolution.”

The squadron in Moon Sound had been on station for over a month and knew the waters well. Although outnumbered the Russians inflicted considerable damage on the German capital ships but were unable to reach the transports. The British submarines were not called into action but from their commander’s diary the commander of the Baltic Fleet (Admiral A. V. Razvozov), “expected to give battle with his big ships as the enemy try and force the outer minefields.” The Germans ventured no further for the rest of the war. The ships of the Baltic Fleet had fought their last action and within a month the cruiser Aurora was to provide support for the Bolshevik coup. Ownership of the Black Sea Fleet passed to the Ukrainian Rada and Ukrainian sailors were transferred from the Baltic Fleet late in 1917.

War on Two Fronts, 1544-46, Battle of the Solent

The Mary Rose is a Tudor ship, built in 1510. In service for 34 years. Sank in 1545. Discovered in 1971. Raised in 1982. Now in the final stages of conservation, she takes her place in a stunning and unique museum.

The second season of Henry’s wars against France and Scotland therefore drove England into a strategic terra incognita and forced the realm to cope with the consequences of its military and administrative structures being pushed to breaking point and beyond.

If the war had been expensive and alarming during 1544, it would now become far more threatening and costly. The difficulties which Scotland presented to England became obvious when a large English raiding party was ambushed and annihilated at Ancrum Moor in February 1545. Eight hundred of the raiders were killed and another 1000 were taken prisoner. Compounding the blow to England, and the boost to Scottish spirits, was news that French troops would soon be dispatched to reinforce the Scots. In the event, it was not until June that 3500 French soldiers arrived in Scotland and, despite various alarms, no large-scale actions actually occurred in the north. Nevertheless, the prospect of a Franco-Scottish invasion compelled England to ready an army of 27,500 men from its northern counties, stiffened by more than 3000 foreign mercenaries shipped into Newcastle. Month after month, the bored Spanish, Italian, German and Albanian mercenaries waited for action in their various billets, often causing trouble with the local inhabitants. Several hundred more mercenaries spent the summer in camps in Essex and Kent. England’s defensive measures against direct attack from France also involved calling up the militia to create three armies of about 30,000 men each to defend the southern coasts, while another 12,000 men served aboard the fleet. There were also 7000 men at Boulogne and at least 15,000 in and around Calais, many of them foreigners. All up, Henry’s government had over 150,000 men in arms during the summer of 1545. Even if several thousand of these troops were costly foreign mercenaries, this was an extraordinary degree of mobilisation at a time when the total population of England and Wales was less than three million.

The great French offensive finally began in mid-July, when a fleet variously estimated at 30,000 men and 150 to 300 ships, including 26 oar-powered galleys, sailed from Normandy towards Portsmouth. The English fleet, under the lord admiral, Lord Lisle (who had been recalled from Boulogne at the end of 1544), numbered about 160 ships of all sizes. Although both fleets were built around a hard core of large royal warships, most vessels were armed merchantmen carrying contingents of soldiers who would defend their own ship, or attack an enemy vessel, using bows, handguns, bills and javelins. Most ships carried various forms of cannon, but there were relatively few large guns even aboard the biggest royal warships. The Mary Rose, one of the largest English warships, nominally carried 126 guns, but 50 of these were handguns, 20 fired light hailshot and only 12 were heavy bronze cannon. The ship also carried 250 bows, 400 sheaves of arrows and 300 staff weapons. Although the ship carried 185 soldiers and 30 gunners, many of these hand weapons were intended for the sailors, who were expected to fight when necessary. This was essential because naval combat was fought at close quarters. While cannon fire from a few hundred yards might damage an enemy ship and occasionally perhaps even land a crippling blow, the real fighting usually involved showering the enemy with arrows and iron and stone shot from short range, before finally boarding the now-battered enemy hulk and capturing it hand to hand.

Naval warfare was also critically dependent upon fickle winds. In late June, Lisle tried to launch a pre-emptive strike against the French fleet while it still lay in harbour. Unfortunately, the wind failed as the English fleet closed in, leaving it suddenly stranded and open to attack from the French galleys, whose oars enabled them to manoeuvre while the sailing ships were immobilised. Potential disaster for the English was only averted when a fresh breeze sprang up. This forced the galleys to seek shelter because the same wind which filled the sails of the English fleet and restored its mobility also made the sea too rough for galleys to function effectively. However, sixteenthcentury sailing ships were very limited in their ability to sail at an angle to the wind and this breeze soon threatened to blow the English fleet into treacherous shallows. Lisle wisely chose to withdraw and return home rather than risk shipwreck.

This frustrating engagement set the pattern for the naval campaign of 1545. When the French fleet finally arrived in the Solent on 19 July, the same light winds which had cost it nine days in crossing the Channel made it very difficult for the English fleet even to get out of Portsmouth. When Lisle’s fleet finally put to sea, the Mary Rose broached dramatically, drowning almost its whole crew in full view of the king, who was watching from ashore. Although the French claimed that it had been sunk by gunfire from a galley, it seems that the ship was flooded with water when its over-eager commander neglected to have the lower portholes closed before hoisting full sail. Incompetence was not restricted to the English side. The French admiral twice had to transfer his flag even before the voyage had begun because his first flagship caught fire and exploded, while the second ran aground in leaving harbour. Nevertheless, such dramas did not reflect the larger course of events. Frustrated by weeks of fluctuating winds and unwilling to risk precipitate action, neither side could get to grips with the other and force the sort of close-range combat necessary for decisive results. Although a few French troops landed on the Isle of Wight – where they were ambushed by the local militia and forced to withdraw – and 7000 men went ashore to reinforce the French army which was now besieging Boulogne, a full month’s manoeuvring off the English coast produced no result and the French fleet was forced to head home. Packed into their ships for weeks on end and suffering from poor victuals and hygiene, the soldiers and sailors of the French fleet had begun to sicken and die. This was the regular fate of fleets in the early modern period and a reminder that staying power was often no less important than firepower. In this instance, neither side was able to strike a telling blow and the English victory ultimately came from outlasting the enemy. The only decisive action came at the beginning of September when Lisle burned the French port of Tréport and destroyed 30 vessels in its harbour. However, disease showed no respect for nationality and the English fleet soon began to suffer the same fate as its French counterpart. By the middle of September, the naval campaign was over and both sides were trying to disinfect and demobilise their ships.

Campaign Against the Pirates, 66-67 BC

The lembos (Lat. Lembus, Plautus, Mercator, I, 2,81 and II, 1,35) was an Illyrian fast ship, probably originally used in piracy and very important for the Romans for its carrying capacity of men, equipment and booty. It could be open and aphract, with a strong ramming capacity and rowed at two levels (biremis). From this the liburna was developed.

Pompey, ordered to clear the seas of pirates, had full authority over the entire Mediterranean and Black Seas, and all land within 80km (50 miles) of the sea. He raised 500 ships, 120,000 soldiers and 5000 cavalry. He then divided this force into 13 commands. The only area left (deliberately) unguarded was Cilicia. Pompey took a squadron of 60 ships and drove the pirates from Sicily, into the arms of another squadron. Then he swept down to North Africa, and completed the triangle by linking up with another legate off the coast of Sardinia, thus securing the three main grain-producing areas that served Rome. Pompey then swept across the Mediterranean from Spain to the east, defeating or driving pirates before him. The remnants duly gathered in Cilicia, where Pompey had planned a full assault by both land and sea. A few pirate strongholds were destroyed, and there was a final sea battle in the bay of Coracesium, but thanks to Pompey’s clemency, most pirates surrendered easily.

POMPEY THE GREAT DEFEATS CILICIAN PIRATES, 66 BC It was Pompey the Great who was to crush the Cilician pirates and give freedom and security to the waterways of the Roman Republic. To do this, Pompey received from the Senate, after long debates, extraordinary powers in 67 BC: the proconsular power (Imperium Proconsolare) for three years throughout the Mediterranean basin to the Black Sea with the right to operate up to 45 miles inland. Fifteen legates were put under him with the title of propraetores and 20 legions (120,000 men) and 4,000 riders, 270 ships and a budget of 6,000 talents. In a rapid and well-organized campaign he defeated the pirates. Two months sufced to patrol the Black Sea and root out troublemakers; then it was the turn of Crete and Cilicia (App., Mithridatic War, 96). The pirates were destroyed in their own territories and they surrendered to Pompey a great quantity of arms and ships, some under construction, some already at sea, together with bronze, iron, sail cloth, rope and various kinds of timber. In Cilicia 71 ships were taken for capture and 300 for surrender. This scene shows an amphibious operation of Pompey the Great’s fleet against the pirates. The main Roman ship is a `Three’. The burning Cilician ships are two myoparones.

The early period of Roman expansion was marked by a succession of wars with neighbours near and far. First there were the other states in Italy and then Carthage. When Carthage was beaten, the Rome turned its gaze to the east. Macedonia, Greece and then Pontus (modern Asiatic Turkey) fell to Rome over a number of years. But it was while Rome was focused on these wars that piracy raised its head in the eastern Mediterranean.

For many years, the island of Rhodes had used its navy to suppress piracy in order to protect her position as a transit port in the lucrative east-west trade. However, Rhodes fell foul of the Macedonian kingdom and appealed to Rome, who sent a force of quinqueremes to defend her ally. The combined force compelled the Macedonians to sue for peace. Under the treaty, the Romans gained the small island of Delos, which they returned to Macedonia on the condition that it was run as a free port with no taxes or dues on goods entering or leaving. Unfortunately for Rhodes, the presence of this offshore tax haven undermined the revenues from her trade and the island and her navy went into long-term decline. With Rhodes no longer able to police the waters of the Mediterranean, the pirates spread their depredations beyond the eastern Mediterranean. Ports and coastal towns were sacked, shrines desecrated and cargoes, crews and ships taken at sea. The goods, ships and their crew were then sold off at various markets. Wealthy captives were held to ransom.

The ordinary merchants of the ancient world sailed in ships far simpler in design than the warships of the period. Such ships could not afford the expensive oarsmen of the warship and had to rely instead on the single main mast and single square sail with the optional refinement of bowsprit and second, smaller square sail. Later ships added a triangular sail above the main for extra propulsion. The merchant ships could be as much as 60m (200ft) in length, possibly with more than one mast, but were more usually just 30m (100ft) long and 8m (26ft) in beam, drawing just 3m (10ft) of water and carrying loads of around 100-150 gross tons. Built for capacity rather than speed, they were not fast – perhaps 5-6 knots if the wind permitted. Crews were kept to a minimum since they ate into the profits: 10-15 men were usual on a medium-sized ship; less on a smaller ship and more on a larger one.

While the sail-powered merchantman was dependent on the wind for speed, the oarpowered warship or pirate ship was unhampered by head winds or rough seas. Since the square sail meant the merchantman would sail fastest heading down wind, the pirate tactics were simple: cruise into the wind so that any prey coming the other way would find it next to impossible to escape. Alternatively, the pirates would lurk behind headlands for a quick spurt to catch any passing trader. Fear and intimidation were the best weapons to induce a quick surrender. Faced by a pirate ship apparently bristling with armed men and with no way to escape, most merchant ships would be forced to capitulate. The pirates could then use their oars to spin the ship around and bring their bows up to the victim’s stern, where it was safe to board. The crew would be bundled below and well trussed up and the pirates would install their own crew to sail the prize for home.

So widespread and powerful did the pirates grow that when the rebel leader Spartacus and his army of ex-slaves became trapped in the toe of Italy in 72 BC they negotiated with the pirates to evacuate the whole army – some 90,000 men, women and children – by ship. The pirates were then paid even more by the Roman politician Crassus not to fulfil the contract. The problem with piracy reached such a pass that two Roman Praetors, together with their staff, were captured by the pirates. Another squadron attacked Rome’s port at Ostia and sacked other towns in the region.

Pompey’s Appointment

In many ways, the Roman elite benefited from the pirate’s activities. For those who could afford to buy, piracy kept the price of slaves low and supply plentiful. On the other hand, it did interrupt trade. So the wealthiest classes in Rome, who needed to buy slaves to work their estates, benefited while the lower, merchant classes and their workers suffered. In 69 BC, however, the pirates excelled themselves and plundered the island of Delos. It comes as no surprise, then, that the consul Metellus was voted an army to reduce the pirate base in Crete. He headed off and set about his task, rounding up some pirates and settling down to besiege others in the main pirate base on the island.

In 67 BC, the Roman tribune Aulus Gabinus presented a bill to the Peoples’ Assembly to appoint the most famous general of the age, Pompeius Magnus – better known as Pompey – to sweep the pirates from the seas once and for all. The ramifications were enormous. Clearing the Mediterranean of the pirates would greatly ease the lot of the ordinary man. Indeed, prices in the markets of Rome fell significantly simply at the presentation of this bill. The Roman citizens, the plebs, were right behind the idea. However, the wealthy ruling classes, the senators and, to a lesser extent, the knights were almost universally against the bill. The one notable exception was Julius Caesar. Ever the populist, he supported the motion. It was passed.

Pompey had already enjoyed a very distinguished military career. He had first been appointed commander of an army at the age of 24, supporting Sulla’s side in an earlier civil war. Although he was occasionally accused of cruelty, he proved so successful during campaigns in Sicily and in Africa that he was acclaimed ‘Great’ by Sulla. He even asked for and was granted a triumphal procession that should not have been permitted given his youth and junior rank. No sooner had Sulla died than another civil war loomed and Pompey found himself in Spain, leading an army against Sertorius. Although he was supported by a second army under Metellus, it was Pompey who gained a second triumph. It was a truly remarkable achievement.

The resources initially proposed for Pompey in this next task were huge. They comprised some 200 ships plus oarsmen, sailing crew and marines totalling over 40,000 men. He was to be given 15 legates (military commanders), an unlimited treasury, and unlimited powers over the whole of the Mediterranean and up to 7km (4.5 miles) inland. However, the vote was postponed for a day and when the final amended version was passed the Assembly voted through an even bigger force. This consisted of no less than 500 ships, 120,000 infantry and 5000 cavalrymen, 24 senior military commanders and a pair of quaestors (magistrates responsible for military finances). Against this, however, the pirates were reputed to have 1000 ships at their disposal and bases both large and small all around the Mediterranean.

Pompey versus the Sea Pirates 67 BC

The pirates needed to avoid contact with more powerful military elements so that they could continue to extract plunder from less well defended ports and communities in the Mediterranean, while the Roman squadrons sought to round up the pirates and bring them to a very rudimentary justice. Pompey chose to divide the Mediterranean into discrete areas and conquer each in turn, starting in the far west off the coast of Spain. This drove the pirates steadily towards the southern shore of Turkey and the final bloody confrontation happened near Soli, in modern-day southern Turkey. There, Pompey’s assault routed the pirates, destroying their strongholds in the area. Although hailed as a great victory Empire, it was not successful in the long term. Just a few years later in Sicily, Anthony and Octavian had to combine to combat Pompey’s son, who had turned to piracy.

Planning and preparation are key to the success of any enterprise and Pompey’s orders were decisive. The Mediterranean was divided into 13 areas and each one was allocated a commander and a force appropriate to the threat in that area. Pompey retained direct control over a reserve of 60 of his best ships – almost certainly quinqueremes with well-trained crews. Starting with the waters west of Italy, the local commanders restricted the seaborne movements of the pirates and forced them ashore, where they were destroyed. It took only 40 days to sweep these seas clean of the menace. Those pirates that escaped, made their way back to bases along the inhospitable Cilician coast in what is now Turkey.

The greatest threat to Pompey’s success came from inside Rome. The general’s wide powers were both envied and feared, especially by those who benefited most from the activity of the pirates. The consul Piso, safe within the walls of Rome, went so far as to countermand Pompey’s orders, paying off some of the ships’ crews. While Pompey’s fleet sailed south around the foot of Italy to tackle the pirates in the Adriatic, Pompey himself hurried back to Rome. There, his friend and supporter Gabinius had already started the process of dismissing Piso from his position as consul. This would have been a dreadful and permanent stain on his family honour and reputation. Having got his crews back, however, Pompey had the bill withdrawn, and thus Piso lwas let off. Meanwhile, Rome had been transformed – the markets were full of foodstuffs from all over the Mediterranean and prices were almost back to normal. From Rome, Pompey made his way to Brundisium on the east coast of Italy and took ship for Greece and the final part of the war.

Some of the more cut-off pirate squadrons surrendered to Pompey, who confiscated their ships and arrested the men. He stopped short of having the pirates crucified – the normal form of execution for such a crime (all the survivors of Spartacus’ rebellion had been crucified). Thus encouraged, a large number of pirates also sent a message of surrender from Crete, where they were sitting out a siege by Metellus. Pompey accepted their surrender and despatched one of his own commanders, Lucius Octavian, with instructions that no one should pay heed to Metellus but only to Octavian. Mettelus was understandably livid and continued the siege. Octavian, following Pompey’s orders, now masterminded the defence of the city on behalf of the pirates. Eventually the city – and Octavian – were forced to surrender. Metellus humiliated his rival in front of the assembled army before sending him back to Rome with a flea in his ear.

Pompey’s rehabilitation worked. Around 20,000 former pirates were eventually settled in underpopulated inland areas like Dyme in Achea, on the northern coast of the Peloponnese, and Soli, in what is now Turkey. However, a substantial body of the miscreants occupied the mountain fastnesses of Cilicia with their families. The inevitable battle with Pompey’s men took place at Coracesium in Cilicia in 67 BC. That there was a battle and that the pirates lost it is about all that is known. Pompey’s victory was not surprising, however. The trained and experienced men of Pompey’s army and navy, with their proper equipment, were more than a match for the undisciplined pirates. It is worth recording that among the spoils of war after that last battle were 90 ships equipped with bronze-headed rams.

Breakout of the Admiral Graf Spee

5 August-29 September 1939: ‘The Curtain Lifts’

In his first War Directive, dated 31 August 1939, Hitler stressed the importance of leaving ‘the responsibility for opening hostilities unmistakably to England and France’, adding that should either country begin operations against Germany, German forces should simply hold the frontier and do nothing to compromise the defeat of Poland. Specifically, however, ‘The Navy will operate against merchant shipping, with England as the focal point . . .’ In fact contingent operations had already begun in late July, placing German naval forces in a position to respond to any hints that Britain might rally in support of Poland and to remove key units from the remote possibility of any enforced British blockade.

Secretly therefore, on 5 August, the German naval tanker Altmark, commanded by Kapitän zur See K.H. Dau and loaded with stores, food and ammunition, left Wilhelmshaven. The following day, in brilliant sunshine, she passed through the Strait of Dover, word of which was passed to the Admiralty, a first twitch of the curtain as it lifted upon the drama. The Altmark, a grey, black-funnelled tanker, was not a German-registered merchant ship, instead she flew the distinctive ensign of the Reich Service and was government owned. She doubled the South Foreland and Dungeness, then headed west, out of the Channel and across the North Atlantic, bound for Port Arthur on the Texan coast. Here she was to load 9,400 tons of diesel oil, ostensibly consigned to Rotterdam, but in truth to be held ready to operate in support of the Admiral Graf Spee.

The Panzerschiffherself was recalled from torpedo-firing exercises for a dry-docking on the 17th. While her bottom was cleaned and anti-fouled she was topped up with operational stores and a team of cypher decoding specialists from the B-Dienst service joined the ship, with some officers of the German naval reserve – men whose normal service in merchant ships had acquainted them with British trade routes, the nature of British-flagged shipping to be found on them and the familiarity to distinguish rapidly the identity, type and even the name of ships the Admiral Graf Spee would encounter.

Meanwhile, to augment this, on 19 August five U-boats sailed from Kiel, with a further nine leaving Wilhelmshaven; they had all been allocated ‘waiting positions’ in the North Atlantic.

Then, in the late afternoon of the 21st the Admiral Graf Spee, under the command of Kapitän zur See Hans Langsdorff, slipped seawards from Wilhelmshaven, heading north, to pass by way of the Iceland Faeroes Gap into the vast wastes of the Western Ocean. Two more U-boats, one of which was U-30 commanded by Kapitänleutnant zur See Fritz-Julius Lemp, and a second fleet-tanker, the Westerwald under Fregattenkapitän Grau, followed. She was intended to operate in support of Kapitän zur See Wennecker’s Deutschland, which left on 24 August and headed for a station off Cape Farewell, the southern tip of Greenland. Should any reaction emanate from London as events east of Germany unfolded, a show of muscle along Britain’s vaunted sea frontier might achieve a similar climbdown as had the Führer’s blandishments at Munich, but Hitler had taken no such precautions in the events leading to the Munich Crisis of 1938. In the operational orders issued to Langsdorff and Wennecker on 4 August it was clearly stated that: ‘The political situation makes it appear possible that, in the event of a conflict with Poland, the Guarantor Powers (England and France) will intervene’, and the Luftwaffe had been ordered to take advantage of any ‘favourable opportunities to make an effective attack on massed English naval units, especially on battleships and aircraft carriers’.

By the 25th, as the hours were counted down to the invasion of Poland, Norddeich Radio had transmitted a warning to all German merchant ships, alerting them to the possibility of war. The danger of British interception of German merchantmen on the high seas was critical. Two days later a second message followed, urging all merchant shipping to reach the Fatherland within four days, failing which they should head for a neutral or pro-German friendly port.

However, alarmed by intelligence, the British began seeking assurances that no military operations were in train. In Scapa Flow, the Royal Navy’s anchorage in the Orkney Islands, the Home Fleet was ordered to raise steam. Under Admiral of the Fleet Sir Charles Forbes the battle squadrons slipped their moorings and headed seaward in a show of strength and determination. Britain’s traditional first weapon of defence was already mobilized. Hitler faltered as the possibility became a probability, postponing his invasion; but he was unable to stay his hand for long. German forces began their advance into Poland at dawn on the 1st September; that evening a first British ultimatum was delivered from London. During the 2nd, as the overwhelmed Polish forces fought valiantly, refusing to cave in, intense diplomatic activity sought to halt Hitler. Then, on the morning of the 3rd, Great Britain and France rallied to their Polish ally and declared war.

While Forbes was ordered to carry out a sweep in the Iceland/Faeroe Gap in search of German merchant ships, particularly the liner Bremen, and HMS Somali, Captain Nicholson, of the 6th Destroyer Flotilla captured the Hannah Boge 350 miles south of Iceland, the waiting Panzerschiffs and U-boats, by a conspicuous and swift interdiction of British merchant shipping, might still prevent a declaration of war in support of a dying ally amount to full-blown hostilities. But then, on the very evening of the day on which a betrayed Neville Chamberlain had declared Britain and her empire at war with Germany, Lemp sank the British passenger liner Athenia off Malin Head.

Hitler had expressly forbidden the sinking of passenger liners and although Lemp was afterwards exonerated from charges of disobedience on the grounds that he believed the Athenia to have been an Armed Merchant Cruiser, the attack convinced the Admiralty that the Germans had embarked on unrestricted submarine warfare. Although initially far from perfect, merchant shipping was immediately organized in convoy, as much against the firepower of surface raiders, Hilfskruizers (fast cargo liners heavily armed as commerce raiders) and Panzerschiffs, as against the torpedo of the U-boat. But convoy could only be extended across the North Atlantic and south to Gibraltar and Sierra Leone. British merchantmen, owned by hundreds of private shipping companies, traded worldwide. For a sea officer of the Third Reich determined to interdict the enemy’s supply routes, there were opportunities galore not in the North, but in the South Atlantic.

In contact – but not in company – with Dau, Langsdorff headed south for his ‘waiting station’ off Pernambuco (modern Recife) on the shoulder of Brazil but adjacent to the so-called Atlantic Narrows.

Grossadmiral Raeder had prepared his small but modern navy for a war on trade to the best of his ability and in spite of the shortfall in time the Führer had assured him he would have. He knew, as Stephen Roskill pointed out after the war, that: ‘The effectiveness of surface raiders depends not only on the actual sinkings and captures which they accomplish but on the disorganization to the flow of shipping which their presence, or even the suspicion of their presence, generates’. Raeder’s first principle was, therefore, concealment; his second deception. Langsdorff and Wennecker were expected to take advantage of the vast areas of open ocean uncrossed by the traditional trade routes and far beyond the reach of air reconnaissance. It would be in such wild spots that the Panzerschiffs would rendezvous with their supply tankers. For the Admiral Graf Spee, a cruising ground in the South Atlantic had been chosen. Here two major British supply routes offered alternative targets. The route from the Rio de la Plata, much favoured by fast, frozen meat-carrying ships, would prove one area rich in pickings. The other, to and from the Cape of Good Hope, not only exposed the traffic to Cape Town, but also some services from Australia and India which, by taking in East African ports, favoured the Cape route rather than the transit of the Suez Canal. Not only did these twin major arteries of British imperial trade allow Langsdorff a choice of targets, but they could be struck anywhere along their attenuated lengths. He was to avoid their concentrated choke-points, for at such foci strongest naval protection would most likely be found. But both routes bore a mass of shipping, from the fast reefers, mentioned earlier, to the equally fast passenger and mail liners, cargo liners with valuable ladings of outward general cargo and homeward loads of produce from all over the world including tanks of Tung and palm oils, latex and tallow. There were also the heavily burdened tramp ships with their homogenous bulk cargoes of coal, steel, sugar, wheat, iron and manganese ore, loads of flax and rubber, their deck-cargoes of flammable esparto grass and timber. Nor did these ships trade directly between Great Britain and her partners, but provided shipping services to other nations. Disruption of these would have wider political implications detrimental to invisible earnings for the British economy. Moreover, to throw any pursuit off his trail, Langsdorff could disappear into the Southern Ocean and double either of the great capes, to reappear in the Pacific or the Indian Oceans, or to descend on the British and South African whaling fleet in the waters south of the Falklands. As his operational orders summed up: ‘The enemy is not in a position to carry his complete import requirements in escorted convoys. Independent ships can therefore be expected.’

Although specifically ordered to obey the Hague Convention and respect the Prize Regulations applied to cruiser warfare against unarmed civilian merchantmen, Langsdorff was to strike and withdraw, to keep the enemy guessing, to disguise his ship by means of wood, canvas and paint. The hoisting of neutral naval ensigns as they approached a victim was approved under international law, provided the belligerent ensign was run up prior to fire being opened. Above all, Langsdorff was to avoid any contact with British naval forces. If these should be encountered by accident and ‘even if inferior, are only to be engaged if it should further the principal task (i.e. war on merchant shipping)’. This, Langsdorff was to discover, was not merely more difficult than the staff officers in the Seekriegsleitung supposed when drafting his instructions, but would prove the very crux of the matter and the cause of his undoing.

His master, Erich Raeder, sensed this, and presciently wrote a reflection on the situation on 3 September, the very day that war broke out. Of his surface forces, the Grossadmiral said that they could ‘do no more than show that they know how to die gallantly . . .’ Specifically the achievements of the Deutschland and the Admiral Graf Spee, ‘if skilfully used, should be able to carry out cruiser warfare on the high seas for some time’. He added, just before he asked Korvettenkapitän Heinz Assman to countersign the document: ‘The Panzerschiffs, however, cannot be decisive in the war…’

Despite – or perhaps because of – these misgivings, Raeder had given his commanders the greatest possible latitude, allowing them the untrammelled judgement of the man-on-the-spot. Moreover, by way of encouragement, provided ‘operational possibilities were exhausted’ they might, in extremis, run into a neutral port where, however, they must ‘without fail [. . .] ensure that on no account the ship falls into enemy hands’. Having held out the carrot, Raeder could not conceal the stick: ‘I shall act without mercy against any commander who compromises the honour of the Flag and is found lacking in that energy which alone can bring success and achieve a position of respect for the Kriegsmarine. Rather death with honour than strike the Flag!’

Langsdorff’s escape undetected into the Atlantic was a model of careful navigational passage-planning, hugging the Norwegian coast as though on an exercise, taking a wide sweep north of Fair Isle and the Shetlands and passing through areas where shipping might be encountered during the hours of darkness. In this he was fortuitously assisted by a suspension on the 21st of the North Sea air patrols which had been a feature of British naval exercises during August. On the 23rd the Admiral Graf Spee was north-west of Bergen, she then slowed down until, on the 24th off Stokksnes, Iceland, she increased speed and swung south and west. Four days later, east of Cape Race, Newfoundland, she was heading due south, to meet the Altmark. Securing to a line trailed astern of the tanker, they passed a hose and topped up with fuel. Some unwanted material was disposed of and two 20mm guns were transferred to the tanker for her own defence. The two ships then proceeded south in company, sing-songs being organized to raise morale so that, by Sunday, 3 September, the Admiral Graf Spee was north-west of the Cape Verde Islands, adjusting her speed and making small and local alterations of course to avoid being seen by any merchantmen.

The first positive news of war came from a B-Dienst intercept of the BBC’s broadcast from Rugby. Langsdorff had forbidden his officers to listen to the BBC but the German signal notifying them of war arrived within the hour. Soon afterwards came an instruction not to attack French shipping – by which his ship would assuredly be reported – in an attempt by Hitler to divide the Western Allies. B-Dienst intercepts also informed him that British naval precautions were in hand, convoy arrangements were already made and naval forces were being built up at Freetown, Sierra Leone, the southern rendezvous point for North Atlantic convoys. Finally, further disheartening news came in the wake of Lemp’s precipitate action in sinking the Athenia: the immediate organization of convoy, but the otherwise quiescent attitude of the British and French persuaded Berlin – still trying to avoid a hot war with Britain – that commerce raiding was ‘inadvisable at present’. Maintaining radio silence the Admiral Graf Spee was to move father south, to ‘hold back and withdraw . . .’

Three days later, midway between Freetown and Trinidad, she altered course south-eastwards to her new ‘waiting position’, a vast scalene triangle with its dart-like and shallowest angle pointing at the Cape of Good Hope many miles away, but lying between the two major trade routes in the South Atlantic and where she and the Altmark arrived on 10 September. The two ships ran under reduced engine revolutions, biding the outcome of events upon the plains of Northern Europe. On 11 September Langsdorff secured his isolation by flying-off his Arado 196 floatplane to provide notice of any shipping and, with boats ferrying stores between the two ships, began a replenishment from the Altmark. While this was in hand the Arado sighted two vessels one of which they thought to be a British cruiser. To their horror it appeared to alter course and to head for the position of the Admiral Graf Spee and her consort. Hoping his aeroplane had gone unobserved but maintaining radio silence, the Arado pilot banked steeply and headed for home.

Immediately on receipt of this intelligence, Langsdorff aborted the replenishment and, recovering his boats and the Arado, sped away; Dau took Altmark on a diverging course. The alarm had been caused by HMS Cumberland, on her way from Plymouth to reinforce Commodore Henry Harwood’s cruiser squadron then off Rio de Janeiro. The abrupt and purposeful alteration of course had been merely a routine change from zig to zag as the Cumberland carried out standard anti-submarine procedure along a median rhumb-line. Langsdorff had no such comforting assurance, however, and his B-Dienst people were put to the task of diligent interception of British naval signals to discover whether or not their presence was known to the enemy.

Meanwhile, far away Hitler and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht vacillated over what to do next. On the 23rd the Führer, Keitel, Raeder and their respective staffs met at Zoppot to consider the situation vis-à-vis the Western Allies. Insofar as the Deutschland and the Admiral Graf Spee were concerned it was appreciated that, despite the support of the Westerwald and Altmark, their supplies were finite and they could not be asked to remain undetected indefinitely. There was also the awkward question of morale. Against this the second wave of U-boats would shortly be sent to sea and therefore an intensification of ‘war against merchant shipping’ should be initiated ‘at the beginning of October’. To this the Führer agreed. Accordingly, on 26 September, the Deutschland and the Admiral Graf Spee were ordered to operate against the British. French shipping – of less importance both to France and to the German war-effort – remained inviolate.

With the mask off, Langsdorff considered his position, helped by appreciations from Berlin and his B-Dienst specialists on board. He was aware that, on the 2nd October a Pan-American Neutrality Zone would be declared by the American government, warning the European belligerents that no attacks on shipping within 300 miles of the coast of the Americas would be tolerated. He also knew that Mussolini’s Italy would not, as she was bound to by treaty, come into the war at the side of her fellow Fascists, which meant that the British still had unrestricted access to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. He also learned of the dispositions of the British Royal Navy.

The Royal Navy was not far away. Prior to the outbreak of war, during an increase in international tension between the European powers, the Royal Navy had mobilized. As noted the Home Fleet was on a war footing prior to 3 September and, during extensive exercises in August, the Reserve Fleet had also been mobilized. Immediately on the outbreak of war, in addition to instituting convoy for all merchant ships on the home coasts and Western Approaches, the British declared a blockade of Germany. Its first acts were to intercept homeward-bound German merchantmen, hence Nicholson’s capture of the Hannah Boge off Iceland and Forbes’s unsuccessful sweep in search of the Nord-Deutscher Lloyd liner Bremen, which was already safe in Murmansk and from there by way of neutral Norwegian waters reached the Fatherland. Despite errors, such as that of the British submarine Triton sinking the British submarine Oxley, the blockade was effective, if only in that German ships preferred to scuttle themselves to avoid capture. Most notably, however, the liner Cap Norte, ‘which was carrying reservists from South America to Germany was successfully seized’, but not until 9 October (she afterwards became the troopship Empire Trooper). Farther afield, off the Rio de la Plata and in the first two days of the war, the British cruiser Ajax, flying the broad pendant of Commodore Henry Harwood, intercepted the German freighters Carl Fritzen and the Olinda. Off the West African coast the Neptune caught the Inn. Neither Harwood nor Vice Admiral D’Oyly Lyon, the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic, nor their masters in the Admiralty in London had an inkling that a powerful German raider lay in the offing between.

The War of Curzola (1294–9)

Veduta di Genova nell’anno 1481 (‘View of Genoa in the year 1481’) by sixteenth-century Genoese painter Cristoforo Grassi, depicting a parade of carracks and galleys in port.

Battle of Curzola in 1298

The truce of 1269 was renewed several times and a chary coexistence between the two mercantile maritime powers persisted in the eastern Mediterranean for more than twenty years. What finally fractured the peace was precipitated by neither Venice nor Genoa, but by the Mamluks of Egypt. Their conquest of Acre in 1291 contracted the trading environment available to western merchants in the East and sharply elevated competition for what was left. The Venetians, who had lost their substantial quarter in Acre, grew increasingly more resentful of the Genoese presence in the region. An incident in July 1293 amply revealed the sub rosa animosity between the two. Near Coron a small Venetian squadron of four galleys by chance came upon seven Genoese merchant galleys returning from ‘Romania’. Instead of giving way, the Venetians attacked, resulting in the capture of all their vessels.

The next confrontation would not be by accident. The loss of Acre to Christianity meant that trading posts in Cyprus, especially Famagusta, and in Armenia, specifically the Cilician port of Lajazzo (modern Ayas in Turkey) were all the more vital. And the Venetians wanted these entrepôts for themselves. In 1294 they sent at least fourteen war galleys (possibly as many as twenty-five) under Marco Basegio with the annual caravan to Famagusta and Lajazzo in the apparent hope of duplicating their success in the War of San Sabas thirty-six years earlier. They first raided the Genoese enclave in Limassol, but this served to alert the Genoese of Pera, who quickly armed a flotilla of merchant galleys under the command of Niccolò Spinola. The latter caught the Venetians off Lajazzo with their sails up, ill-prepared for battle, and scored an impressive victory. The Genoese easily outmanoeuvred the Venetian vessels, driving into many of them amidships. They seized nearly all of them.

This last clash signalled all-out war and spurred Genoa to a mammoth mobilization. The Genoese chronicler Iacopo Varagine claimed that the commune’s Credenza (war council) produced a fleet of 165 galleys, mostly triremes with crews of 220 to 300, amounting to around 45,000 men. Lesser estimates put the total crew complement at about 35,000, which was still, in the words of John Dotson, ‘the population equivalent of a substantial medieval city’. In an ostentatious display of logistical execution, the Genoese actually launched this gargantuan task force in August 1295 under Oberto Doria, the hero of Meloria, daring the Venetians to challenge it. They even went so far as to deploy it to Messina to make the meeting easier. However proud of their prowess at sea the Venetians may have been, they were not arrogant fools. They declined the offer, leaving the Genoese to return home, their blood-lust unsated.

Instead, in July of the following year the Venetians charged Ruggiero Morosini (nicknamed ‘Malabranca’, meaning ‘Evil Claw’) with conducting an armada of around seventy galleys on a raid of Pera. He not only left the Genoese colony in ashes, but also sank what merchant vessels he could find in the Golden Horn. Morosini later plundered Phocaea, a port on the west coast of Asia Minor owned at the time by the Genoese nobleman Benedetto Zaccaria, famed for his role in the Battle of Meloria. Thereafter, the Venetian admiral detached a squadron under Giovanni Soranzo which then proceeded into the Black Sea to prey on Genoese shipping and ravage the Genoese colony at Caffa (present-day Feodosiya) on the coast of Crimea. Nor did La Serenissima neglect Oltremare. Nine galleys were also dispatched under Frosio Morosini to pillage Genoese possessions on Cyprus and at Lajazzo. The Venetians had quite evidently learned the value of waging the guerre de course.

The Genoese had finally recovered enough from the rigours of amassing Oberto Doria’s massive armada of 1295 to attempt some measure of retribution in 1297. They sent a sizeable fleet of eighty war galleys into the Adriatic to wreak havoc on Venetian shipping and coastal properties, but they made the mistake of placing it under the split command of two admirals who reviled each other: Gando de Mari and Tommaso Spinola. They lingered in the area until their biscotti ran low, hoping in vain to engage the main Venetian fleet. It was then that the two had their predictable falling-out. Spinola wanted to remain longer; De Mari did not. The latter took fifty galleys and departed for Sardinia; Spinola stayed with the remaining thirty galleys until the Venetian admiral Andrea Dandolo chased him back to Sicily and beyond with an estimated eighty-two galleys. The Genoese would attempt to penetrate the Adriatic again the next year, but this time it would be under the unified command of Lamba Doria, the younger brother of Oberto Doria, and the results would be very different.

The particulars of the Battle of Curzola remain clouded by a crowd of conflicting accounts, the principal one of which is an epic poem by an anonymous Genoese author whose expressed purpose was to extol the exploits of his compatriots. There are, however, some common elements from which a general picture emerges. Late in the summer of 1298, after a brief stop at Messina, Lamba Doria led his eighty-five or so galleys into the Strait of Otranto. There a fateful storm scattered his armada and he ended up seeking shelter at the port of Antivari (present-day Bar in Montenegro) with about twenty of his ships. Around fifty-seven ships joined him the next day, but at least eight remained unaccounted for. These would later prove crucial, but for the moment Doria decided to proceed north along the Dalmatian coast, pillaging Venetian possessions as he went. By the end of August his fleet of about seventy-seven galleys had made it as far as the island of Curzola (modern Korcûla off the coast of Croatia). There, in an apparent attempt to draw the Venetian fleet out for battle, the Genoese ruthlessly ravaged the Venetian-ruled town of the same name on the east end of the island.

If that was their plan, it worked. When word reached the Rialto, the Venetians hastily collected a fleet, calling on Chioggia and their colonies all along the Dalmatian coast to supply ships. Even Marco Polo, believed to be a native of Curzola, provided a galley on which he personally served as captain. In all, ninety-five galleys and three navi were gathered under the overall command of Captain General Andrea Dandolo, the son of the former Doge Giovanni Dandolo. Manning such an armada so quickly proved a daunting challenge and must have resulted in crews below the calibre of those who normally served onboard Venice’s vessels. Manfroni went so far as to term them ‘a tumultuous collection of improvised crews’. But the size of this fleet made Dandolo overconfident: he ordered Maffeo Quirini, on patrol in the Adriatic with thirteen galleys, to return to Venice because he would not need his ships.

Dandolo’s armada found the Genoese on Saturday, 6 September at the east end of the narrow channel between the island of Curzola and the peninsula of Sabbioncello (Pelješac) jutting northwestwards off the Dalmatian mainland. Lamba Doria immediately ordered his galleys to link together in a line across the strait (about 1,600m or a mile wide abeam the town of Korcûla) and moor with their bows facing northwest towards the Venetians, presumably with the south flank anchored on the town of Curzola, which the Genoese had occupied. But he made no effort to engage. It was sunset and the onset of darkness rendered combat impracticable. So the two fleets sat warily watching each other through the night. Some Venetian sources even reported that Doria, daunted by Dandolo’s enormous armada, sought terms, but this has been discounted by most modern historians. If it happened at all, the Genoese naval commander was probably just playing for time in the hope that his straggling galleys would arrive in time. In any event, Dandolo not only rejected the overtures, but dispatched the famed corsair Domenico Schiavo in a columbet (a sort of small scout ship) to ensure that the Genoese did not attempt to abscond in the night.

On Sunday morning, 7 September 1298, the Venetians advanced amid the usual missile exchange. Details are scant, but Dandolo was said to have formed his fleet into a semi-circle with the apparent intention of enveloping the smaller Genoese force, particularly the exposed north flank. Doria therefore detached a squadron of eight to ten galleys to counter the encircling wing. It was repulsed, but when the Genoese galleys withdrew back into their line, several Venetian galleys evidently gave chase and the formation’s integrity broke down. ‘Thus, the Venetians ended up in the midst of the Genoese,’ reported the ‘Templar of Tyre’. At this point it seems Doria had his ships sever their anchor hawsers and bridling cables in order to manoeuvre at will. The Genoese may have had the advantage here: contemporary reports suggest that their galleys were larger, better equipped and more manoeuvrable. For instance, they were probably employing the highly efficient terzaruolo (three oarsmen per bench) rowing system and they almost certainly enjoyed the more responsive sternpost-mounted rudders. Many must have been triremes with crews one and half times the size of the Venetian biremes. In any event, the battle seems to have degenerated into a bloody free-for-all. Doria’s own son Octaviano was mortally wounded with a crossbow bolt. Legend has it that Doria had his son’s corpse dumped over the side in mid-combat on the premise that there could have been no more fitting interment. The contest was decided at the eleventh hour by the unexpected arrival of the missing eight or so Genoese galleys. These attacked one of the nearly exhausted Venetian flanks, causing its collapse.

It would be the largest battle the Venetians would ever fight against their Ligurian adversaries. It would also be their worst defeat. Of the ninety-six galleys that took part, perhaps only a dozen made it back to Venice, commanded by the resourceful Domenico Schiavo. Over 7,000 men perished. Estimates of those captured range from 8,000 all the way up to 16,000, including Andrea Dandolo himself. Reports of his ultimate fate vary, but the most oft-repeated version is that he killed himself by intentionally bashing his head against the rower’s bench to which he had been chained. One man who survived, of course, was Marco Polo, who was transported back to a Genoese gaol, where he would dictate his famous Travels to the Pisan, Rustichello. The victory clearly belonged to the Genoese, but it was a Pyrrhic one. Although La Serenissima had been rendered virtually defenceless by the annihilation of its armada, Lamba Doria found he was unable to press the advantage. ‘It seems that his losses, including deaths and injuries, exceeded those of the Venetians,’ surmised Manfroni. Doria instead burned all the captured galleys (presumably because he did not possess the manpower to crew them) and returned to Genoa to a muted homecoming.

Domenico Schiavo attempted to salvage some measure of Venetian pride the next year by leading a raid on Genoa itself. He seized some merchantmen and planted the flag of St Mark on the port’s mole (breakwater), but the war had in reality run its course. Neither power was in any condition to continue. The Venetians had to rebuild their fleet and the Genoese were, once again, afflicted by civil war. Francesco Grimaldi, the head of the Guelph faction, had instigated a rebellion against the Ghibelline rule of the Doria and Spinola families, turning Monaco into a rebel base. Both sides willingly embraced the peace brokered by Matteo Visconti, lord of Milan, in which Venice recognized Genoese supremacy over the Ligurian Riviera and Genoa did the same for Venice in regard to the Adriatic. The pact was signed in Milan under the auspices of Pope Boniface VIII on 15 May 1299. Marco Polo was released, along with many of his compatriots, in August.

The Battle of Acre (June 1258)

Reconstruction of Acre mid-Thirteenth Century

The naval engagement which took place off Acre on or about 25 June 1258 clearly illustrates an indisputable maxim endemic to all warfare: battles are usually complicated affairs in which the outcome is often determined by factors other than numerical superiority. When the Genoese admiral Rosso della Turca arrived at Tyre in the spring of 1258 he had with him his original complement of twenty-five galleys and four navi, plus eight galleys that the commune had hastily added at the last moment when it learned that Venice had sent reinforcements of its own to Oltremare. Waiting for him in the harbour were enough remaining Genoese galleys to give him a total of fifty. In the meanwhile La Serenissima had sent Andrea Zeno with another thirteen galleys, followed by Lorenzo Barozzi with about ten more. Three additional Venetian galleys came into Acre from Crete, giving Admiral Lorenzo Tiepolo a fleet of about forty galleys, four large navi and perhaps ten smaller vessels. So when the Genoese flotilla showed up outside Acre’s breakwater in battle formation in late June, it appeared to enjoy a modest numerical advantage. But, of course, that was not the whole story.

First of all, it seems the Genoese crews were deficient in quality and perhaps even quantity. The Annales Ianuenses indicated that Rosso della Turca’s fleet was hurriedly scraped together only after the republic’s leaders had heard that Venice had already dispatched naval reinforcements to Oltremare. This forced them to enlist ‘Lombards as soldiers [sailors], men who knew nothing of the sea’. In fact, the last eight Genoese galleys were launched ‘sine munitione perfecta’ (‘without being fully armed’ – meaning without a complete crew complement), ‘since in Oltremare they lacked galleys more than men’. The obvious implication is that Della Turca was expected to flesh out his crews with inexperienced Genoese colonists upon his arrival in the Latin Kingdom with little or no time to train them. It was a recipe for disaster – fully preparing a green crew for battle would have taken several weeks, if not months.

Furthermore, the Venetians had a vastly superior manpower pool from which to draw. It turns out that the Genoese were singularly unpopular in the Latin Kingdom. The Pisans, the Provençals, the Templars, the Teutonic Knights, most of the inhabitants of Acre and the overwhelming majority of the kingdom’s nobility all lined up behind the Venetians, while the Genoese could comfortably count on the support of only the Hospitallers and Philip of Montfort, the lord of Tyre. This was, in part, because the Genoese navigated the convoluted currents of Palestine’s politics rather poorly. In February 1258 the very powerful prince of Antioch, Bohemond VI, brought with him to Acre his sister, Queen Plaisance of Cyprus, along with her young son Hugh II, so that they could bid the barony to pay homage to the child ‘as the heir and lord of the kingdom of Jerusalem’. Almost all, including the Venetians and Pisans, agreed, but the Genoese, backed by their Hospitaller allies, refused. As a result, ‘the queen [Plaisance], on the advice of her brother the prince [Bohemond VI],’ recounted the ‘Templar of Tyre’, ‘had all the men of the lordship move to the aid – and into the pay – of the Pisans and the Venetians, against the Genoese, strictly prohibiting them from taking pay with the Genoese’. Bohemond even went so far as to hire ‘800 French troops’ at his own expense ‘to harass’ the Hospitallers and Genoese.

More fundamentally, the Genoese in Oltremare had apparently acquired the reputation of ‘not working and playing well with others’, earning the enmity of almost everyone. Thus when the Venetians and Pisans attempted to recruit others to their cause at the handsome rate of ‘ten saracenate bezants for the day’, there was no shortage of takers. ‘As a result,’ reported the ‘Templar of Tyre’, ‘they had plenty of men, and they boarded their galleys (forty in number), and equipped other barques, parescalmes and panfiles [various smaller vessels] (of which there were more than seventy), each of which had crossbowmen on board who did the Genoese a great deal of damage and harm.’ In an era when missile exchanges and hand-to-hand combat on the decks of engaged vessels were decisive in maritime warfare, a surfeit of so-called supersalienti (marines) was a distinct advantage.

Lastly there was the question of leadership. The supervision of the Genoese fleet was manifestly wanting. The commune had placed Rosso della Turca in overall command of the armada, but, according to the Genoese annals, had sent with him his son Mirialdo, ‘a staunch and upright man, so that in him, even more than in the father, faith was placed, on account of the old age of the parent’. Clearly, the commune had concerns about the elder Della Turca’s continued vigour. He had previously been Capitano del Popolo and had been mentioned in the Genoese annals as early as 1214 (forty-four years earlier), meaning he was probably in his late sixties or early seventies. Regrettably, Mirialdo died unexpectedly of unspecified natural causes a few days after the fleet reached Tyre. Thus when Rosso della Turca appeared before Acre with his armada that awful summer morning in June, he was not only still recovering from the rigours of the voyage from Genoa at an advanced age, but was also grieving over the loss of his son. He must have felt very old indeed.

The basic plan of the Genoese and their allies was sound. While the Genoese fleet sailed south from Tyre, Philip of Montfort marched overland with eighty horsemen and thirty archers to a place called La Vigne-Neuve, which must have been close enough to Acre to view the oncoming naval engagement. He was to be met there by Brother William of Châteauneuf, Master of the Hospitallers, with as many of his knights and Turcopoles as he could muster. Once Rosso della Turca had drawn out the Venetian fleet and destroyed it, Montfort and Châteauneuf were to penetrate the city through the Hospitaller compound and assist their comrades in the Genoese quarter ‘seize the two quarters of the Pisans and of the Venetians’.153 The two bands of confederates did, in fact, join up at La Vigne-Neuve, but what they saw happen out at sea was not what they had anticipated.

When the Genoese fleet first appeared offshore, the Venetians and Pisans hesitated ‘for fear that the Genoese on land would attack them, and that if they boarded their galleys and the Genoese who were at sea landed, they would lose everything’. They ultimately resolved the quandary by prevailing upon Brother Thomas Bérard, Master of the Templars, to guard their enclaves with his mounted brethren and Turcopoles. This accomplished, the Venetians and their allies boarded their vessels and rowed out to confront their Ligurian adversaries. It was then that the best opportunity for a Genoese victory occurred. A ‘contrary wind’ separated thirteen of the Venetian vessels from the rest as they emerged from the narrow mouth of the harbour.

If Rosso della Turca had positioned his fleet near the point of egress, he would have overwhelmed the divided enemy fleet as surely as his counterpart, Lorenzo Tiepolo, had done to Pasquetto Mallone’s flotilla at Tyre the year before. Instead of attacking, however, Della Turca absurdly proceeded to ‘prandere’ – that is, ‘to take the midday meal’. And, according to the Annales Ianuenses, he continued to do so ‘between Nones and Vespers’ – in other words, from about three in the afternoon to sunset. This gave the Venetian admiral Lorenzo Tiepolo plenty of time to safely egress his entire fleet and arrange it into battle formation with the wind at his back. The consequences for the Genoese fleet during the subsequent battle were nothing short of cataclysmic. Twenty-four of the fifty Genoese galleys were captured and 1,700 of their mariners were either killed or taken prisoner.

Exasperated, Philip of Montfort returned to Tyre. William Châteauneuf, the distraught Master of the Hospitallers, remained in Acre but perished of an un-disclosed illness within months afterwards. The consequences for the Genoese colonists of Acre were, perhaps, the most grievous. ‘When the Genoese, who were holding their quarter and who had defended it for so long and suffered so much and endured such shortages that an egg could hardly be found for a wounded man to eat, saw that their galleys had been defeated,’ wrote the ‘Templar of Tyre’, ‘they abandoned their quarter and took refuge in the Hospital.’ They eventually made their way up to Tyre, which then became the main Genoese entrepot in the Latin Levant. As for the Pisans and Venetians, they dismantled every edifice in the Genoese quarter, including the great fortified tower. Lorenzo Tiepolo personally transported the square pillars from the tower’s base back to Venice, where they stand to this day outside the baptistery of St Mark’s Basilica.