Operation Brazil and Lone Wolf U-507 1942

B-25B “Lero-Lero”

Unit: Agrupamento de Aviхes de Adaptatio (Adaptation Airplane Group), Forca Aerea Brasileira

Serial: 10 (FAB-2310, US 40-2310)

Circa 1942. This is one of the first B-25’s of FAB.

FAB B-25’s arrived at Salvador in 1942 and then located at BANT, BAF and BAS (BAF – Base Aerea de Fortaleza (Fortaleza AB), Ceara / BANT – Base Aerea de Natal (Natal AB), Rio Grande do Norte / BAS – Base Aerea de Salvador (Salvador AB), Bahia). Her sisters was 40-2263, 40-2255, 40-2306, 40-2309, 40-2316 and 40-2245. The last one, the ’45’ was the first Brazilian airplane to engage an enemy in battle. In this case, the Italian submarine ‘Barbarigo’ in May 22, 1942.

Brazil’s air force had become active in hunting and attacking German submarines so it was already in the fight though the nation was officially neutral, but between August 15 and 19, the sinking of six ships off the Brazilian coast took the republic into the war. Notably the army wanted to revenge the deaths of the 16 officers and 125 men of its Seventh Artillery Group on the passenger ship Baependy (sunk on August 15). The sinking of the Baependy raised questions that went unaddressed, about the competence of army leaders who did not take adequate precautions against the known submarine threat. They may have thought that peaceful coastal traffic would not be attacked. It may puzzle readers that the Brazilian Navy did not provide an armed escort. The two services were not accustomed to cooperating, and the navy did not yet have an anti-submarine capability. A Brazilian officer of that era, Nelson Werneck Sodré, in his memoir, condemned the ineptitude of Dutra and Góes for allowing such an obviously dangerous troop movement and the insensitivity of the army bureaucracy in indemnifying the survivors with a mere month’s pay, whose payment was delayed. Unfortunately Sodré fertilized the Nazi-created rumors of American responsibility for the sinkings by saying that there was no proof that the submarines were German.

Of course there was proof, Sodré was either ignoring it or perhaps he did not want to believe it. Both Germany and Italy had submarines operating in the South Atlantic. On June 2, 1942, the Brazilian press reported that Brazilian air crews flying B-25s had sunk two Italian subs. Radio Berlin warned that retaliation would be swift. Authorities in Natal ordered a blackout to make night attacks more difficult. Marines at the Natal Air Base dug trenches and set up machine guns. Fear gripped the people of Natal because of the radio threats. The German government saw Brazilian cooperation with the American forces as the end of Brazilian neutrality and believed that when Brazil was ready it would formally enter the war. Likewise German officials seemed offended that a military nonentity of mixed race would dare take defensive measures against Axis vessels. The commander of the German Navy, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, on June 15, 1942, met with Hitler, who approved a massive submarine attack on Brazilian ports and coastal shipping, called “Operation Brazil.” Thereafter a number of subs, variously reported as eight to ten, left French ports for the South Atlantic.

The Brazilian fleet was all but obsolete and had no experience or appropriate vessels to combat submarines. The great 305 mm guns on its two 1910 battleships were useless against subs. The ports without anti-submarine nets were defenseless. Submarines could stealthily enter the great bays at Rio de Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia to sink vessels anchored there, and at Recife the area protected by the seawall was so small that many ships were anchored outside it. They made easy prey. The German submarines would encounter a Brazilian fleet “incapable of efficiently reacting to a surprise attack.” The hard truth was that “the extreme fragility of Brazilian naval defense was similar to that in the Army and in the recently created Air Force.” Brazil was paying the price for successive governments’ inability to pull the country out of its deep underdevelopment.

The reader should recall that Brazil of 1942 was totally dependent on the sea for transport among its coastal cities north of Rio de Janeiro. Vitória, Salvador, Maceió, ecife, Natal, Fortaleza, São Luis, and Belém were basically islands separated one from the others by vast stretches of land. Brazilians, at the time, described the country as an archipelago. There were no long-distance connecting railroads or all-weather highways. Indeed in 1942–1943, “there were eighty miles of paved road in that vast country outside of the cities.” Rudimentary aviation was available only to a small portion of the elite. The first regular flight between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo began in August 1936 with two 17-passenger German-made Junkers . That same year construction began on Brazil’s first civilian airport, Rio’s Santos Dumont , which would be completed only in 1947! Significantly it was built on landfill in Guanabara Bay partly to accommodate the seaplanes of international airlines. Everything moved by water, which meant that the Brazilian economy could be shattered by submarines. The consequences of such an attack for the political situation could only be bad. Vargas was slowly recovering from his May automobile accident and would be in no condition to hold things together. Moreover, despite the political-military accord signed with the United States in May, the Brazilian high command was not hurrying to implement it.

Providentially, Hitler had approved “Operation Brazil” with the stipulation that before it was launched there should be a review of the diplomatic situation. That brought the plan to the foreign ministry and the desk of former ambassador to Brazil, Karl Ritter, the same who had been declared “persona non grata” and expelled by Oswaldo Aranha. Ritter was responsible for liaison between the foreign ministry and the military. Such a submarine offensive against still officially neutral Brazil would mean expanding the war. Ritter argued that pushing Brazil into the conflict could have negative consequences for interactions with Chile and Argentina, who still had diplomatic and commercial relations with the Axis. Besides he thought that Italy and Japan ought to be consulted before such an attack. From an operational point of view, an attack was complicated by the great distance from Europe and the submarine’s vulnerability during the 26 days en route. The submarines would have to surface regularly to recharge their batteries and so would be vulnerable to attack. It was true that because Brazil was neutral, its cities would be lit up at night making it easier to see targets in silhouette, and Brazilian coastal shipping would likely still be brightly lit. It should be noted that submarine attacks on ports had some recent precedence. In February 1942, a German submarine attacked a refinery on Aruba and a Japanese sub fired on a refinery at Santa Barbara, California.

There is some confusion regarding when “Operation Brazil” was cancelled and when and who ordered the attacks in August. Colonel Durval Lourenço Pereira carefully reconstructed the dating and origins of the various orders and contra-orders showing that Admirals Donitz and Raeder in their defense testimonies during the Nuremberg trials and American historians were inaccurate about timing and responsibility. The startling reality is that, instead of a wolf pack of submarines, there was only one submarine, U-507, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Harro Schacht, whose attack procedures were strikingly inhuman.

Korvettenkapitän Harro Schacht

U-507 was one of the original vessels designated for the campaign against Brazil. When the foreign ministry, that is, Karl Ritter, objected to “Operation Brazil,” it was cancelled and the submarine commanders were told to destroy their orders. They were given other missions in the Atlantic. On August 7 Lieutenant Commander Schacht requested by radio to “freely maneuver” along the Brazilian coast. Jürgen Rower, a distinguished German historian, was puzzled by U-507’s mission, but suspected that it might have been motivated by the naval command’s desire for retaliation for Brazil’s participation in allied anti-submarine operations. He thought that it contradicted Hitler’s cancelation of “Operation Brazil” and that it was a “foolish mistake.” It was a mistake that had frightful consequences for the passengers and crews of defenseless Brazilian coastal transports.

U-156 (foreground) and U-507 (background) on 15 September 1942

On the afternoon of July 4, 1942, Schacht’s U-507 and a companion vessel U-130 headed into the open ocean from the port of Lorient on the coast of Brittany. Their destination was a stretch of ocean between the tiny Brazilian islets of São Pedro and São Paulo and the islands of Fernando de Noronha. The islets are 590 miles from Brazil’s northeastern shore. Their mission was to patrol one of the quadrants by which the German navy divided the vast ocean. The outward voyage was uneventful except for an encounter with a sonar-equipped destroyer, which detected the U-507 and launched four depth charges. The charges missed the submarine but caused some slight damage that produced a constant loud pinging sound that Schacht feared could be detected at a distance.

After passing the Azores, Schacht was ordered by radio to operate jointly with U-130 commanded by Captain Ernst Kals and the Italian sub Pietro Calvi, but that very day a British destroyer sank the Calvi. On the afternoon of July 23, the two German subs were given their patrol quadrants being told that traffic crossed those quadrants in scattered fashion in a northeasterly direction and vice versa. They were patrolling a stretch of the Atlantic narrows between Dakar and Brazil, focused on convoys and single vessels coming from Trinidad and Georgetown. Their orders took the two subs in autonomous directions. Brazil itself was beyond their area. So how did U-507 end up in Brazilian waters?

Schacht’s U-507 was now on its own and seeing no targets, the crew practiced submerging and firing the deck gun. Isolated from his colleagues deployed across the South Atlantic, Schacht was the only commander who did not have any “victories.” His earlier companion Kals had sunk two ships, but in more than a month since leaving Lorient, U-507 had not fired a single torpedo. For ten days he did not see any ships at all, which led him to think that maritime traffic had been diverted westward toward the Brazilian coast. The boredom and tedium must have been corrosive on the crew’s morale. On the surface the heat of the equatorial zone, the glare of the sunlight reflecting off the sea would have been physically draining, and while submerged the stink of the diesel engines and the sulfuric acidy smell from the electric batteries mixed with the odors of the unwashed crew wearing the same uniforms for weeks must have been extremely distasteful. There was only one toilet available for the 56 crew men. On August 3 the sub was 90 nautical miles from the coast of Ceará when it turned back toward the open ocean. Reaching a point northeast of the islets São Pedro and São Paulo, Schacht made a decision that “would bring unexpected consequences for the Axis war effort.”

Late on the night of August 7, he asked permission from the Submarine Command to operate freely on the Brazilian coast. Some 15 hours later, he received the go-ahead from Submarine Command: “Change course and head for Pernambuco.” This exchange of radio messages shows that historians have been wrong for decades attributing the attacks on Brazilian coastal shipping to the considered planning of the German navy or to orders from Hitler. In reality, it was the decision of a lone sub commander seeking victims. It coincided with the presence of a convoy (AS-4) at Recife ready to head to Africa carrying critically important Sherman tanks for British forces, and German naval leaders hoped that U-507 could do some damage to it and subsequent convoys. In an analysis related to “Operation Brazil,” German naval planners had given Pernambuco considerable importance for the security of Allied convoys. On August 14, a radio message to Schacht emphasized Recife as a resupply and gathering point for convoys and ships from Florida via Georgetown to Natal, St. Helena Island, and Cape Town. Schacht had other ideas. He considered heading toward Rio de Janeiro, however, was dissuaded by his declining fuel supply. The meaning of Submarine Command’s repeated instructions to Schacht was that he was to attack the allied convoys heading toward Cape Town and not Brazilian coastal shipping. On his own he did the opposite. Did Schacht’s disobedience allow Convoy AS-4 to escape unscathed? If so perhaps he contributed to the German defeat at El Alamein? He apparently believed that the reason he had not encountered ships during the previous days was that the Allies had shifted their routes further to the west along the Brazilian coast. He had the idea that oil tankers were coming into the Atlantic through the Strait of Magellan and up the South American coast to a crossing point to Freetown in Africa. He shied away from Pernambuco, which perhaps he thought was too heavily protected. Admiral Ingram had chosen Recife for his headquarters because he believed that Recife’s closeness to Cape São Roque, the nearest location to Africa and thus “most strategic point in South America,” made it the best port for his operations.

August 1942 Disaster on the Coast of Sergipe and Bahia

Schacht took up station off the coast of Bahia and its great port of São Salvador. There he ran less chance of discovery before he could strike. If U-507 was detected, it could plunge into the deep waters off Bahia. The captain was not a coward, but he was cautious. He was one of the German Navy’s 2% of submarine commanders responsible for 30% of sinkings during the war. It is notable that of the 870 U-boats sent after Allied shipping, fully 550 did not sink or damage a single ship. Of a total of 2450 Allied merchantmen sent to the bottom, 800 were sunk by only 30 commanders. Harro Schacht was among that number and was one of Germany’s most intrepid and daring submariners. It is not clear whether he thought he was disobeying orders, perhaps he considered a radio message of July 5 authorizing attack without warning “against all Brazilian merchant ships, including disarmed and recognized as Brazilian” as sufficient sanction. Of course, the July 5 message did not give permission to attack vessels in Brazilian waters. The German Submarine Command never gave an order to attack Brazilian coastal shipping. Recall that Hitler had expressly vetoed “Operation Brazil.” At the Nuremberg trials, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, commander of the German Navy, testified that his submarines had attacked Brazilian ships because they lacked clear identification as neutral and that Germany had advised all South American countries to illuminate their vessels so that they could be recognized at night. However, Brazil had not been so advised, even though Raeder’s testimony implied that it had. Schacht did not long survive these events and left no explanations of his conduct, but all the evidence points to his action as violating orders by sinking seven ships in Brazilian coastal waters. The leading scholar of the submarine attacks, Durval Lourenço Pereira, reached the firm condemning conclusion: “The massacre in the waters of the northeastern litoral happened thanks to the initiative and the personal decision of Lieutenant Commander Harro Schacht”.

Since February 1942 Brazil had lost 12 ships to Axis submarines, but they had all been off the East Coast of the United States or in the Caribbean and adjacent waters. Somehow such losses could be accepted as costs of doing business traversing known war zones. Being attacked while traveling from one state to another via “our territorial waters” would elicit very different emotions. Meanwhile the South Atlantic took on increasing importance in the summer of 1942 because the Germans successfully shut down British convoys using the Arctic above Scandinavia to reach the Russian port of Archangel. The losses were so heavy that the Arctic route had to be discontinued. FDR and Churchill were determined to keep the Soviet Union fighting. The best alternative route was to convoy from the United States via the South Atlantic, around Africa through the Indian Ocean to Iran and thence overland to Soviet territory. An idea of the importance of the route can be seen in the 47,874 aircraft that were shipped disassembled to Russia via the “Persian Corridor.” The route was some 10,000 nautical miles longer than the Arctic one, but there was no other choice. This meant that Brazil and the bases there increased in significance. Brazil was literally the keystone in the edifice of the logistical war. And the war was not going well for the Allies. On January 2, 1942, Manila fell to the Japanese, who also swept over the Netherlands East Indies, then in the next month, the British surrendered Singapore, losing 130,000.

troops taken captive. The Doolittle Raid on Tokyo on April 18 was predictive of the future and boosted Allied morale, but did little to change the immediate dark trend. In Egypt, on June 21, Rommel’s supposedly weakened Africa corps surprised the British by seizing Tobruk in a relatively brief combat, losing another 6,000 soldiers to the Nazi forces, along with all their armament. Loss of the Suez Canal loomed as an alarming possibility. The Germans would get to 70 miles from Alexandria before being stopped at El Alamein on June 29. Without doubt the war could be won or lost in the South Atlantic. Armies cannot fight without weapons and all sorts of supplies and so safe routes for shipping were crucial to obtain victory. That is why the Axis was sending submarines into the South Atlantic and why the Allies had to destroy them.

Ironically Schacht’s impatience and decision to head to Brazil caused him to miss the S.S. Seatrain Texas which was carrying 250 Sherman tanks steaming for Cape Town and, via the Red Sea, for Port Suez. At Cape Town the British gave it the code name “Treasure Ship.” The US Merchant Marine history concluded that “These Sherman tanks, the first Allied tanks which matched the German Mark IV Panzer in firepower, were a decisive factor at the battle of El Alamein which began on October 23, 1942, and resulted in an Allied victory.” Of course, the intense air cover that Army Air Corps planes gave to the British Eighth Army played an extremely important role, and they would not have been there without Brazilian cooperation and the Parnamirim base at Natal.

Leaving his assigned quadrant caused U-507 to miss the important cargo targets. Schacht’s next action would cause war between Brazil and Germany. He was heading south away from Recife and toward Salvador da Bahia. Submarine Command’s instructions allowed attacking without warning all merchant vessels cruising with their lights out. He was aware that Brazilian coastal ships carried both cargo and passengers. Strictly speaking passenger vessels were not on the list of approved targets, but he could have been frustrated after 40 days at sea and still carrying his compliment of 22 torpedoes. He was moving southeast and would encounter the passenger steamer Baependy on a north-northeast heading. The confrontation of these two vessels had a certain irony to it. They had the same birthplace, at the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg. The Baependy had been launched 40 years before and had fallen into Brazilian hands during World War I. U-507 was laid down in 1939. The Brazilian vessel had its running lights on, but its flag and name were in the dark. As Schacht maneuvered into attack position, he saw a light on the horizon, likely another ship. If he acted quickly, he could get two victims. He launched two torpedoes each with an explosive mixture equal to 280 kilos of TNT.

It was 1825 hours and the unwary Baependy was 1500 meters away [1600.4 yards]. On board the Brazilians had just finished dinner and were gathering to celebrate a crew member’s birthday. Soldiers, most of whom were Cariocas, were on the rear deck playing their pandeiros, drumming on cans, and singing sambas. This happy scene was undisturbed as both torpedoes missed their mark and continued on in the darkness. Schacht had miscalculated the speed of the Baependy. He raced ahead and came back at a better angle before launching two more torpedoes at 1912 hours. In his diary he noted “two shots to prevent any possibility of radio transmission by the steamer.” An SOS from the ship could reveal the submarine’s presence. Even if the captain of the Baependy could have seen the torpedoes, at their 40 knot speed, he could not have avoided them. The two torpedoes hit the Baependy about 30 seconds apart.

The 320 passengers were stunned, some frozen in absolute fear, others screaming and trying to reach the deck. Captain Lauro Mourinho dos Reis of the Seventh Artillery Group recalled that glass and wood fragments flew in every direction cutting and killing indiscriminately. The second torpedo had hit the engine room; the lights went out, leaving everyone to struggle for a way out in the dark. Up on deck flames shot into the night. It had happened so rapidly that, despite frenzied efforts, only one of the lifeboats could be let down. Finally on deck Captain Lauro understood that he had to jump overboard to avoid getting sucked under by the sinking ship. A machinist saw the ship’s captain covered in blood on the bridge sounding the ship’s whistle repeatedly as it went under. Those who could not swim thrashed about uselessly, while others held on to floating pieces of wreckage. It had been four minutes from impact to the ship going down prow first. For the 28 survivors in the lone lifeboat, it would be a long dramatic night of terror before they reached land.

Schacht knew he had hit a passenger vessel but did nothing to help the survivors. Instead he attacked the second ship, the Araraquara, a relatively new, luxury vessel He noted that it had its running lights on and was “brilliantly illuminated” but it lacked any mark of neutrality. Two hours after sinking the Baependy, the U-507’s torpedo exploded amidship plunging the Araraquara into darkness. It listed and broke in half and within five minutes it and its 131 passengers were gone. Four crewmen clung to wreckage, one hallucinated and threw himself into the sea, and the others lived to tell the tale.

On August 16 at 0210 in the morning, on the north coast of Bahia, the third victim was the Anibal Benevolo, with 154 passengers and crew on board. Asleep, they had no time to panic; the vessel went down in 45 seconds. Only four crewmen managed to save themselves. U-507 continued toward Salvador. So far it was very successful from a coldly martial point of view. The three ships had not been able to sound an SOS; the German submarine was advancing on Salvador undetected. One of the reasons Schacht chose this region is that the depth of the sea plunges from 40 meters north of the city to 1000 meters at the bay’s mouth. If discovered, he could easily dive to the sub’s maximum depth of 230 meters. Unhappily for Schacht nothing seemed to be afloat in the great bay, except a small sailboat that he did not regard as worth his bother. Before dawn on the 17th, he went back to deep water, where at 0841 he spied a steamer going north. It was the Itagíba, carrying the rest of the army’s Seventh Artillery Group among other passengers. At a distance of 1000 meters, the torpedo hit the ship in the middle. Its passengers managed to get off in lifeboats, although two of the boats were hit or dragged under by the sinking ship. Ten minutes had elapsed.

In an act of temporary mercy, Schacht chose not to sink the yacht Aragipe which came to rescue the people in the crowded lifeboats. Likely he simply did not want to surface to use his deck gun, so as not to reveal his position. The Aragipe was able to crowd on 150 terrified survivors; the remainders were picked up by two of the lifeboats. Meanwhile in Salvador an alarm had been sounded and vessels were held in port. One ship, the Arará, unaware of the warning, had gone amidst the floating wreckage to pick up 18 survivors. Observing through his periscope from 200 meters away, he waited until all were onboard before firing the torpedo. Raising the periscope again to survey the scene, he could only see one lifeboat with five “non-whites” in it.

Later in the afternoon, Schacht saw a passenger ship coming his way. It was painted gray and did not have a flag or other marks of neutrality. He fired and the torpedo hit its mark but it did not explode. The unnamed vessel was moving too fast for U-507 to catch it before it reached safety in the port. He noted in his log: “It is not possible to stop it with artillery during the day, considering the nearness of the port and the aerial danger.”

It was now clear to the Brazilian and American authorities that submarines were operating in Bahian waters. From Recife the destroyer USS Somers and cruiser USS Humboldt steamed south, and seaplanes from VP-83 squadron flew out on patrol. Meanwhile Schacht, on August 18, had taken U-507 out to sea to make repairs on a mechanical problem in a launch tube. The seaplane PBY Catalina 83P6 found it exposed on the surface and attacked with machine guns and depth charges. U-507 dived rapidly. The pilot, Lt. John M. Lacey, USN, thought he had sunk it because an oil slick and air bubbles appeared on the surface. But all the attack had done was cause a leak in an oil tank. Schacht steered his boat south toward Ilhéus in search for more targets. But the only vessel encountered was a small coastal sailing boat, on August 19, that his crew boarded but not understanding Portuguese learned nothing useful. The Jacyra was carrying a disassembled truck, cases of empty bottles, and cacao. The mestiço crew were sent toward shore and the Germans blew up the vessel. Why they took the trouble to destroy such a harmless craft is a mystery. The smell of fuel oil alerted them to the leak in the tank and the need for repairs. The next day U-507 returned to the entrance to the Bay of All Saints where he found the lighthouses were shut down, but oddly Salvador was still lit up brightly. On the 22nd Schacht encountered the Swedish ship Hammarem without lights and launched a torpedo, but missed. A second one hit its mark but did not explode. As dawn broke he surfaced and fired the 105 mm gun on the rear deck hitting the bridge. The crew abandoned the burning ship, while Schacht maneuvered to fire his last torpedo from the stern tube. Turning north he set course for France. He left behind a Brazil lusting for revenge.

Businesses with German names were sacked. Police rounded up Germans. What some called Brazil’s “ Pearl Harbor” provoked clamorous street demonstrations throughout the country. The streets of Fortaleza, Ceará, filled with people breaking into stores owned by real or supposed Germans and Italians and setting them afire. The police could not control the mob. In Vitória, Espírito Santo, on the 17th the authorities could not quell the rioters, who wrecked some 25 buildings, but took all Axis nationals into custody, while in Belém do Pará, news of the sinkings resulted in mobs destroying some 20 stores, offices, and houses of alleged Axis nationals and sympathizers. In Manaus there were loud anti-Axis demonstrations that saw numerous Axis nationals being beaten and injured. In Natal there was destruction of Axis property and “genuine enthusiasm against enemy for the first time….” São Paulo saw large groups of students shouting for war and a huge number in the plaza in front of the Cathedral clamoring for action. The US Consulate in Porto Alegre reported that there was a systematic smashing of shops belonging to supposed Axis sympathizers. “All around the Consulate at this minute stores are being demolished.” The material damage was already great.40 The outraged Brazilian people demanded a response.

Inadvertently, U-507 would contribute to the eventual Allied victory by its unauthorized attack on Brazilian shipping. After pulling Brazil into the war, Schacht returned to his home base at Lorient in France. Unlike a previous voyage this time there were no medals and the reception was not warm. U-507 retuned to sea in late November and cruised back to Brazil, where it patrolled off of Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte. In conducting attacks Schacht changed his procedure to take prisoner the fated ship’s captain to obtain precise information about cargoes and navigation routes. By New Year’s 1943, he had three British merchant marine captains on board the U-507. In a twist of fortune, on January 13, 1943, a USN Catalina PBY, flying out of the base at Fortaleza, spotted the submarine and dropped four depth charges totaling 884 kilos of TNT making direct hits.

U-507’s voyages of death were ended thanks to the Brazilian-American alliance.

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Famous Cutting-Out Expeditions

The Capture of the Chevrette, 1801. The original painting, by  Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) is perhaps the best – and certainly most dramatic – depiction ever of a boarding action. 

As illustrations of cool daring, of the courage that does not count numbers or depend on noise, nor flinch from flame or steel, few things are more wonderful than the many cutting-out stories to be found in the history of the British navy. The soldier in the forlorn hope, scrambling up the breach swept by grape and barred by a triple line of steadfast bayonets, must be a brave man. But it may be doubted whether he shows a courage so cool and high as that of a boat’s crew of sailors in a cutting-out expedition. The ship to be attacked lies, perhaps, floating in a tropic haze five miles off, and the attacking party must pull slowly, in a sweltering heat, up to the iron lips of her guns. The greedy, restless sea is under them, and a single shot may turn the eager boat’s crew at any instant into a cluster of drowning wretches. When the ship is reached, officers and men must clamber over bulwarks and boarding-netting, exposed, almost helplessly, as they climb, to thrust of pike and shot of musket, and then leap down, singly and without order, on to the deck crowded with foes. Or, perhaps, the ship to be cut out lies in a hostile port under the guard of powerful batteries, and the boats must dash in through the darkness, and their crews tumble, at three or four separate points, on to the deck of the foe, cut her cables, let fall her sails, and—while the mad fight still rages on her deck and the great battery booms from the cliff overhead—carry the ship out of the harbour. These, surely, are deeds of which only a sailor’s courage is capable! Let a few such stories be taken from faded naval records and told afresh to a new generation.

In July 1800 the 14-gun cutter Viper, commanded by acting-Lieutenant Jeremiah Coghlan, was attached to Sir Edward Pellew’s squadron off Port Louis. Coghlan, as his name tells, was of Irish blood. He had just emerged from the chrysalis stage of a midshipman, and, flushed with the joy of an independent command, was eager for adventure. The entrance to Port Louis was watched by a number of gunboats constantly on sentry-go, and Coghlan conceived the idea of jumping suddenly on one of these, and carrying her off from under the guns of the enemy’s fleet. He persuaded Sir Edward Pellew to lend him the flagship’s ten-oared cutter, with twelve volunteers. Having got this reinforcement, and having persuaded the Amethyst frigate to lend him a boat and crew, Mr. Jeremiah Coghlan proceeded to carry out another and very different plan from that he had ventured to suggest to his admiral. A French gun-brig, named the Cerbère, was lying in the harbour of St. Louis. She mounted three long 24 and four 6-pounders, and was moored, with springs in her cables, within pistol-shot of three batteries. A French seventy-four and two frigates were within gunshot of her. She had a crew of eighty-six men, sixteen of whom were soldiers. It was upon this brig, lying under three powerful batteries, within a hostile and difficult port, that Mr. Jeremiah Coghlan proposed, in the darkness of night, to make a dash. He added the Viper’s solitary midshipman, with himself and six of his crew, to the twelve volunteers on board the flagship’s cutter, raising its crew to twenty men, and, with the Amethyst’s boat and a small boat from the Viper, pulled off in the blackness of the night on this daring adventure.

The ten-oared cutter ran away from the other two boats, reached the Cerbère, found her with battle lanterns alight and men at quarters, and its crew at once jumped on board the Frenchman. Coghlan, as was proper, jumped first, landed on a trawl-net hung up to dry, and, while sprawling helpless in its meshes, was thrust through the thigh with a pike, and with his men—several also severely hurt—tumbled back into the boat. The British picked themselves up, hauled their boat a little farther ahead, clambered up the sides of the Cerbère once more, and were a second time beaten back with new wounds. They clung to the Frenchman, however, fought their way up to a new point, broke through the French defences, and after killing or wounding twenty-six of the enemy—or more than every fourth man of the Cerbère’s crew—actually captured her, the other two boats coming up in time to help in towing out the prize under a wrathful fire from the batteries. Coghlan had only one killed and eight wounded, himself being wounded in two places, and his middy in six. Sir Edward Pellew, in his official despatch, grows eloquent over “the courage which, hand to hand, gave victory to a handful of brave fellows over four times their number, and the skill which planned, conducted, and effected so daring an enterprise.” Earl St. Vincent, himself the driest and grimmest of admirals, was so delighted with the youthful Irishman’s exploit that he presented him with a handsome sword.

In 1811, again, Great Britain was at war with the Dutch—a tiny little episode of the great revolutionary war. A small squadron of British ships was cruising off Batavia. A French squadron, with troops to strengthen the garrison, was expected daily. The only fortified port into which they could run was Marrack, and the commander of the British squadron cruising to intercept the French ships determined to make a dash by night on Marrack, and so secure the only possible landing-place for the French. Marrack was defended by batteries mounting fifty-four heavy guns. The attacking force was to consist of 200 seamen and 250 troops, under the command of Lieutenant Lyons of the Minden. Just before the boats pushed off, however, the British commander learned that the Dutch garrison had been heavily reinforced, and deeming an assault too hazardous, the plan was abandoned. A few days afterwards Lyons, with the Minden’s launch and cutter, was despatched to land nineteen prisoners at Batavia, and pick up intelligence. Lyons, a very daring and gallant officer, learned that the Marrack garrison was in a state of sleepy security, and, with his two boats’ crews, counting thirty-five officers and men, he determined to make a midnight dash on the fort, an exploit which 430 men were reckoned too weak a force to attempt.

Lyons crept in at sunset to the shore, and hid his two boats behind a point from which the fort was visible. A little after midnight, just as the moon dipped below the horizon, Lyons stole with muffled oars round the point, and instantly the Dutch sentries gave the alarm. Lyons, however, pushed fiercely on, grounded his boats in a heavy surf under the very embrasures of the lower battery, and, in an instant, thirty-five British sailors were tumbling over the Dutch guns and upon the heavy-breeched and astonished Dutch gunners. The battery was carried. Lyons gathered his thirty-five sailors into a cluster, and, with a rush, captured the upper battery. Still climbing up, they reached the top of the hill, and found the whole Dutch garrison forming in line to receive them. The sailors instantly ran in upon the half-formed line, cutlass in hand; Lyons roared that he “had 400 men, and would give no quarter;” and the Dutch, finding the pace of events too rapid for their nerves, broke and fled. But the victorious British were only thirty-five in number, and were surrounded by powerful forces. They began at once to dismantle the guns and destroy the fort, but two Dutch gunboats in the bay opened fire on them, as did a heavy battery in the rear.

At daybreak a strong Dutch column was formed, and came on at a resolute and laborious trot towards the shattered gate of the fort. Lyons had trained two 24-pounders, loaded to the muzzle with musket balls, on the gate, left invitingly open. He himself stood, with lighted match, by one gun; his second in command, with another lighted match, by the other. They waited coolly by the guns till the Dutch, their officers leading, reached the gate, raising a tumult of angry guttural shouts as they came on. Then, from a distance of little over ten yards, the British fired. The head of the column was instantly smashed, its tail broken up into flying fragments. Lyons finished the destruction of the fort at leisure, sank one of the two gunboats with the last shot fired from the last gun before he spiked it, and marched off, leaving the British flag flying on the staff above the fort, where, in the fury of the attack, it had been hoisted in a most gallant fashion by the solitary middy of the party, a lad named Franks, only fifteen years old. One of the two boats belonging to the British had been bilged by the surf, and the thirty-five seamen—only four of them wounded—packed themselves into the remaining boat and pulled off, carrying with them the captured Dutch colours. Let the reader’s imagination illuminate, as the writer’s pen cannot, that midnight dash by thirty-five men on a heavily armed fort with a garrison twelve times the strength of the attacking force. Where in stories of warfare, ancient or modern, is such another tale of valour to be found? Lyons, however, was not promoted, as he had “acted without orders.”

A tale, with much the same flavour in it, but not so dramatically successful, has for its scene the coast of Spain. In August 1812, the British sloop Minstrel, of 24 guns, and the 18-gun brig Philomel, were blockading three small French privateers in the port of Biendom, near Alicante. The privateers were protected by a strong fort mounting 24 guns. By way of precaution, two of the ships were hauled on shore, six of their guns being landed, and formed into a battery manned by eighty of their crews. The Minstrel and her consort could not pretend to attack a position so strong, but they kept vigilant watch outside, and a boat from one ship or the other rowed guard every night near the shore. On the night of the 12th the Minstrel’s boat, with seven seamen, was in command of an Irish midshipman named Michael Dwyer. Dwyer had all the fighting courage of his race, with almost more of the gay disregard of odds than is natural to even an Irish midshipman. It occurred to Mr. Michael Dwyer that if he could carry by surprise the 6-gun battery, there would be a chance of destroying the privateers. A little before ten p.m. he pulled silently to the beach, at a point three miles distant from the battery, and, with his seven followers, landed, and was instantly challenged by a French sentry. Dwyer by some accident knew Spanish, and, with ready-witted audacity, replied in that language that “they were peasants.” They were allowed to pass, and these seven tars, headed by a youth, set off on the three miles’ trudge to attack a fort!

There were eighty men in the battery when Michael and his amazing seven rushed upon it. There was a wild struggle for five minutes, and then the eighty fled before the eight, and the delighted middy found himself in possession of the battery. But the alarm was given, and two companies of French infantry, each one hundred strong, came resolutely up to retake the battery. Eight against eighty seemed desperate odds, but eight against two hundred is a quite hopeless proportion. Yet Mr. Dwyer and his seven held the fort till one of their number was killed, two (including the midshipman) badly wounded, and, worst of all, their ammunition exhausted. When the British had fired their last shot, the French, with levelled bayonets, broke in; but the inextinguishable Dwyer was not subdued till he had been stabbed in seventeen places, and of the whole eight British only one was left unwounded. The French amazement when they discovered that the force which attacked them consisted of seven men and a boy, was too deep for words.

Perhaps the most brilliant cutting-out in British records is the carrying of the Chevrette by the boats of three British frigates in Cameret Bay in 1801. A previous and mismanaged attempt had put the Chevrette on its guard; it ran a mile and a half farther up the bay, moored itself under some heavy batteries, took on board a powerful detachment of infantry, bringing its number of men up to 339, and then hoisted in defiance a large French ensign over the British flag. Some temporary redoubts were thrown up on the points of land commanding the Chevrette, and a heavily armed gunboat was moored at the entrance of the bay as a guard-boat. After all these preparations the Chevrette’s men felt both safe and jubilant; but the sight of that French flag flying over the British ensign was a challenge not to be refused, and at half-past nine that night the boats of the three frigates—the Doris, the Uranie, and the Beaulieu—fifteen in all, carrying 280 officers and men, were in the water and pulling off to attack the Chevrette.

Lieutenant Losack, in command, with his own and five other boats, suddenly swung off in the gloom in chase of what he supposed to be the look-out boat of the enemy, ordering the other nine boats to lie on their oars till he returned. But time stole on; he failed to return; and Lieutenant Maxwell, the next in command, reflecting that the night was going, and the boats had six miles to pull, determined to carry out the expedition, though he had only nine boats and less than 180 men, instead of fifteen boats and 280 men. He summoned his little squadron in the darkness about him, and gave exact instructions. As the boats dashed up, one was to cut the Chevrette’s cables; when they boarded, the smartest topmen, named man by man, were to fight their way aloft and cut loose the Chevrette’s sails; one of the finest sailors in the boats, Wallis, the quartermaster of the Beaulieu, was to take charge of the Chevrette’s helm. Thus, at one and the same instant the Chevrette was to be boarded, cut loose, its sails dropped, and its head swung round towards the harbour mouth.

At half-past twelve the moon sank. The night was windless and black; but the bearing of the Chevrette had been taken by compass, and the boats pulled gently on, till, ghost-like in the gloom, the doomed ship was discernible. A soft air from the land began to blow at that moment. Suddenly the Chevrette and the batteries overhead broke into flame. The boats were discovered! The officers leaped to their feet in the stern of each boat, and urged the men on. The leading boats crashed against the Chevrette’s side. The ship was boarded simultaneously on both bows and quarters. The force on board the Chevrette, however, was numerous enough to make a triple line of armed men round the whole sweep of its bulwarks; they were armed with pikes, tomahawks, cutlasses, and muskets, and they met the attack most gallantly, even venturing in their turn to board the boats. By this time, however, the nine boats Maxwell was leading had all come up, and although the defence outnumbered the attack by more than two to one, yet the British were not to be denied. They clambered fiercely on board; the topmen raced aloft, found the foot-ropes on the yards all strapped up, but running out, cutlass in hand, they cut loose the Chevrette’s sails. Wallis, meanwhile, had fought his way to the wheel, slew two of the enemy in the process, was desperately wounded himself, yet stood steadily at the wheel, and kept the Chevrette under command, the batteries by this time opening upon the ship a fire of grape and heavy shot.

In less than three minutes after the boats came alongside, although nearly every second man of their crews had been killed or wounded, the three topsails and courses of the Chevrette had fallen, the cables had been cut, and the ship was moving out in the darkness. She leaned over to the light breeze, the ripple sounded louder at her stern, and when the French felt the ship under movement, it for the moment paralysed their defence. Some jumped overboard; others threw down their arms and ran below. The fight, though short, had been so fierce that the deck was simply strewn with bodies. Many of the French who had retreated below renewed the fight there; they tried to blow up the quarter-deck with gunpowder in their desperation, and the British had to fight a new battle between decks with half their force while the ship was slowly getting under weigh. The fire of the batteries was furious, but, curiously enough, no important spar was struck, though some of the boats towing alongside were sunk. And while the batteries thundered overhead, and the battle still raged on the decks below, the British seamen managed to set every sail on the ship, and even got topgallant yards across. Slowly the Chevrette drew out of the harbour. Just then some boats were discovered pulling furiously up through the darkness; they were taken to be French boats bent on recapture, and Maxwell’s almost exhausted seamen were summoned to a new conflict. The approaching boats, however, turned out to be the detachment under Lieutenant Losack, who came up to find the work done and the Chevrette captured.

The fight on the deck of the Chevrette had been of a singularly deadly character. The British had a total of 11 killed and 57 wounded; the Chevrette lost 92 killed and 62 wounded, amongst the slain being the Chevrette’s captain, her two lieutenants, and three midshipmen. Many stories are told of the daring displayed by British seamen in this attack. The boatswain of the Beaulieu, for example, boarded the Chevrette’s taffrail; he took one glance along the crowded decks, waved his cutlass, shouted “Make a lane there!” and literally carved his way through to the forecastle, which he cleared of the French, and kept clear, in spite of repeated attacks, while he assisted to cast the ship about and make sail with as much coolness as though he had been on board the Beaulieu. Wallis, who fought his way to the helm of the Chevrette, and, though wounded, kept his post with iron coolness while the fight raged, was accosted by his officer when the fight was over with an expression of sympathy for his wounds. “It is only a prick or two, sir,” said Wallis, and he added he “was ready to go out on a similar expedition the next night.” A boatswain’s mate named Ware had his left arm cut clean off by a furious slash of a French sabre, and fell back into the boat. With the help of a comrade’s tarry fingers Ware bound up the bleeding stump with rough but energetic surgery, climbed with his solitary hand on board the Chevrette, and played a most gallant part in the fight.

The fight that captured the Chevrette is almost without parallel. Here was a ship carried off from an enemy’s port, with the combined fleets of France and Spain looking on. The enemy were not taken by surprise; they did not merely defy attack, they invited it. The British had to assail a force three times their number, with every advantage of situation and arms. The British boats were exposed to a heavy fire from the Chevrette itself and from the shore batteries before they came alongside. The crews fought their way up the sides of the ship in the face of overwhelming odds; they got the vessel under weigh while the fight still raged, and brought her out of a narrow and difficult roadstead, before they had actually captured her. To quote the Naval Chronicle for 1802:

All this was done, in the presence of the grand fleet of the enemy; it was done by nine boats out of fifteen, which originally set out upon the expedition; it was done under the conduct of an officer who, in the absence of the person appointed to command, undertook it upon his own responsibility, and whose intrepidity, judgment, and presence of mind, seconded by the wonderful exertions of the officers and men under his command, succeeded in effecting an enterprise which, by those who reflect upon its peculiar circumstances, will ever be regarded with astonishment.

 

 

The Scourge of the Atlantic I

Fw 200, “SG+KS” of I.Gruppe/KG 40.

Seated facing each other in the high-backed walnut chairs of the Air Council Room in King Charles Street were the top brass of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The man who had called the conference was Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, the newly appointed Chief of the Air Staff. Confronting him across the square walnut table was the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, Chief of the Naval Staff.

The highly polished furniture, the rich velvet of the curtains, the thick pile of the carpet, the solid permanence of the stone fireplace, and the graceful aerobatics depicted in the World War I paintings on the panelled walls, failed to create the usual atmosphere of relaxation and confidence. The date was Tuesday 12 November 1940, the time four o’clock in the afternoon.

The Battle of Britain had been won, but Britain still stood alone against a powerful, ruthless and impatient enemy. Four days earlier, Hitler had sworn to intensify the air and U-boat war. Britain was to be bombed and starved into submission.

The November fogs that might have blanketed London as a target had failed to materialise, and the gales that had restricted enemy air activity the previous night had blown themselves out. The sky was clear, and the moon was full. Across the English Channel the Luftwaffe were preparing to renew their onslaught, with London the main objective.

As the conference deliberated, the lights in the room were switched on and the curtains punctiliously drawn. From a score of heavily sandbagged Government departments in adjacent Whitehall, drably attired civil servants scurried off home to beat the black-out.

As night fell the sirens wailed, and within minutes the guns of the barrage thundered. Soon, from the outskirts of the city, the first bombs reverberated. But the men closeted in the luxurious isolation of the Air Council Room paid no heed. They did not allow the bombing to interrupt their proceedings. In any case the bombing, for the moment, was not their prime concern. Nor were the U-boats, though they were headache enough. To the unrelenting battle of attrition in the Atlantic, in this first winter of the shooting war, a new dimension had been added, and the brass-hats had been caught off their guard. They faced what seemed an insoluble problem, yet it was one to which they had to find the answer. ‘If we fail in this,’ said one of them, ‘we lose the war.’

Before the German conquest of Norway in April 1940, Britain’s trade routes were menaced by U-boat and surface raider only. The threat from the air was confined to the routes along the east coast Even after Norway fell, Britain’s merchant shipping crossing the Atlantic, or plying to and from the southern hemisphere, could safely use the south-western approaches, rounding Southern Ireland before passing through St George’s Channel and into the Irish Sea. But with the fall of France in June 1940, Germany commanded the entire Western European seaboard from Norway to the Pyrenees. Former French airfields were occupied by the Luftwaffe, and it was from one of these airfields, Bordeaux-Merignac, that the Nazis unleashed a new threat to Britain’s lifelines in the Focke-Wulf 200, or Condor, soon to be described by Prime Minister Winston Churchill as the ‘scourge of the Atlantic.’

The Condor, aptly named despite its genesis as a peacetime airliner, began its depredations against Allied merchantmen in August 1940, and in two and a half months these huge four-engined bombers, hurriedly converted from the civil version, sank nearly 90,000 tons of Allied shipping. With dimensions and wing area roughly equivalent of the Lancaster and Halifax bombers of later years, they were capable of reaching more than a thousand miles out into the Atlantic, far beyond the range of Britain’s shore-based fighters, and at once it was clear that the Germans had found one of Britain’s weakest links, Under the command of the experienced and dedicated Oberstleutnant Edgar Petersen, the Condors of the newly formed I. Gruppe/Kampfgeschwader 40 exploited it eagerly.

Frustrated in their invasion plans, the Nazis abandoned their efforts to attain air superiority over the English Channel and concentrated their resources first on the destruction of Britain’s industry and morale by night bombing and second on the severing of her vital trade lifelines. Patrolling at 2,000 feet and 190 miles an hour, searching for single ships or stragglers, the Condors that autumn began to sink ships almost at will.

In vain did the British Admiralty close all southern ports to heavy shipping, switch convoys to the Clyde and the Mersey, and re-route their ships as far as possible away from Bordeaux. On 26 October the 42,000-ton Canadian Pacific luxury liner Empress of Britain, operating as a troopship but sailing without escort, was bombed and set on fire eighty miles west of Bloody Foreland, by a pilot named Bernhard Jope on his first operational flight Sailing from Cape Town to Liverpool, she had encountered good weather and was a day ahead of schedule. Jope sighted her, circled, and flashed a recognition signal; but he was fairly certain that in this position she must be an enemy vessel. He worked round to her stern, then turned in suddenly on the same course, opened fire, and dropped his first bombs. Until the last moment the crew of the liner thought the aircraft was friendly. In two further attacks Jope met heavy return fire from the troopship’s three-inch and Lewis guns and his Condor was severely damaged, but he managed to limp back to Bordeaux.

Next day the 5,000-ton Alfred Jones was bombed and badly damaged 150 miles west of Malin Head; and six more ships were bombed and in some cases abandoned off the west and north-west coast of Ireland in the next ten days. Although medium bombers like the Heinkel 111 and the Junkers 88 had operated successfully in the North Sea, the range of these types was restricted and in every case the attacking aircraft was a Focke-Wulf Condor.

The loss of the Empress of Britain – she was given the coup de grâce two days later by a passing U-boat while a tow was being attempted – stood out as a devastating blow. She had taken three years to build and in wartime she was irreplaceable. Some defence against the new predator had to be found.

The man sounding off most shrilly in the corridors of Whitehall was an R.A.F. air commodore named Donald Stevenson, Director of Fighter Operations at the Air Ministry. Denouncing what he saw as the Admiralty’s complacency, he kept thumping home the message that the Western Approaches were Britain’s lifeline, without which the war was lost East coast traffic, which he felt the Admiralty were treating as of equal importance, was not comparable in his view. There was no alternative to the Atlantic route, whereas east coast traffic, in the last resort, could always be transported by road or rail. In any case losses in coastal waters, which had reached a peak during the first phase of the Battle of Britain in July, had fallen off considerably since then. No doubt this was an oversimplification; but Stevenson argued with some force that the naval staff be invited to review their routeings and priorities so that fighter protection in the Atlantic to the greatest practicable range could be provided.

In an impassioned plea to Portal, Stevenson submitted that the Condor bomber was one of the most serious problems of the future. It could find ships and convoys at great distances, and it was unrealistic to suppose that shore-based fighters could help. They would only be effective against the shorter-range He. 111 and Ju. 88. The overseas convoys must face the fact that they must rely on local protection only – their own guns, plus anything that the Navy could provide in the way of carrier aircraft.

Stevenson did offer Portal one crumb of comfort, but he warned that it was a crumb upon which Britain might choke. The Germans had started the Condor war on Britain’s trade, he said, with a small unit backed up by a very limited production programme. Indeed, essentially the Condor was not a war machine at all. It still followed the structural lines of its predecessor, hastily strengthened for war purposes. Even the new Condors that were coming off the production line of the Focke-Wulf factory at Bremen followed the same constructional principles, so that the machines, although well armed, were far more susceptible to damage from enemy defences and from minor accidents than the averagely robust operational type. The Condor might well be decisive, warned Stevenson, in a maritime war against Britain’s trade, but only if it were employed in considerable numbers before Britain could find an antidote. ‘It looks as if Germany has repeated the same kind of mistake as she made in 1914–18 with her U-boats,’ conjectured Stevenson. This was very fortunate for Britain; but it could not be expected to last. Germany had ample bases, and production was bound to be increased. By the spring of 1941, Britain’s arrangements to secure her vital trade against this form of attack must be completed.

Stimulated by these and other outpourings from Stevenson, Portal called a conference to discuss fighter protection for Britain’s convoys, to which he invited Sir Dudley Pound and his vice-chief, Admiral Tom Phillips (Fifth Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Air Services), and the commanders-in-chief of the two R.A.F. commands most closely concerned – Fighter and Coastal The agenda was prepared by Stevenson; and even on the morning of the conference he was sending urgent minutes to Portal. This was the conference that met on that fateful afternoon of 12 November 1940 in the Air Council Room in King Charles Street.

The meeting began with a discussion of the various methods by which the activities of the Condors might be countered. The Condor factory at Bremen, and the Condor base at Bordeaux, must be singled out for bombing attack. Anti-aircraft armament for merchant ships must be substantially improved, even if it meant – as it assuredly would – denuding shore defences. But no one believed that these measures were more than palliatives. The obvious requirement was for high performance fighters capable of making interceptions to the limit of Condor range; but the only way of achieving this was by providing them as an integral part of convoy escorts, which meant aircraft carriers. And with the sinking of the Courageous and the Glorious in the early months of the war, and the demands of the Mediterranean theatre, the aircraft carrier cupboard was bare.

Second best seemed to be to transfer squadrons of the new twin-engined Beaufighter to Northern Ireland. But there were objections. The Beaufighters, helped by ground radar stations which vectored them on to their targets, were doing a good job in a defensive role where they were and could ill be spared. Attempts to locate Condors in the wide open spaces of the Atlantic were not likely to succeed. It was one thing for a Condor to locate a convoy, it was quite another for a Beaufighter to track down a Condor, even with the aid of Intelligence gleaned from the secret radio intercept service at Cheadle. Nevertheless the Admiralty favoured above all else the strengthening of the long-range fighter force in Northern Ireland.

The Air Staff had assessed the requirement as a minimum of three Beaufighter squadrons, and the transfer was duly made. It was nothing like enough. There might be as many as four convoys in the danger zone at any one time, to say nothing of unescorted vessels, and to maintain continuous patrols would have required ten times as many aircraft, equivalent to the entire Beaufighter output for the next twelve months. Even then some of the attack areas would have remained out of reach.

Arising from this discussion, however, the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Training), Rear Admiral H. R. Moore, interposed a suggestion. If special ships in each convoy were equipped as mobile radar sector stations, they could guide the Beaufighters on to their Condor targets. This sounded like good sense; and an unnamed Air Ministry representative at the conference went one better by suggesting a refinement – ‘to fit such a ship with a catapult so that two or three fighters could be carried for interception purposes’.

The notion of the expendable fighter, flown by a pilot on a one-way ticket, had been anonymously born.

Even in the rarefied atmosphere of the Air Council Room, it was difficult enough to take decisions and make recommendations; and when it came to translating these policies into reality, the complications multiplied tenfold. However, the Condor crews themselves, by further bombing attacks off the west and south-west coasts of Ireland, concentrated the thoughts of one man’s mind wonderfully. After producing a further paper for Portal immediately after the conference, Stevenson was writing to him again within a week. Since the meeting, he said, several more ships had been bombed. He listed the Apapa (9,000 tons), the Fishpool (5,000 tons) and the Empire Wind (7,500 tons); two sunk, the third on fire and sinking. Even as he was compiling his list, news reached him of the bombing of two more ships. One of them, the 10,000-ton Nestlea, the convoy commodore’s ship, lay abandoned and sinking. Both, Stevenson alleged, had been routed within a hundred miles of the south-west point of Ireland, where they were ‘easy money’. Why were the Admiralty still routeing ships in this way?

For the Admiralty, of course, the routeing of convoys presented a ceaseless dilemma. Especially vulnerable were the routes to and from Gibraltar, where the flank was continually exposed to the Condor base. The Admiralty’s answer was to route convoys further and further west to stretch the Condors to the uttermost; but this had the disadvantage of widening the gap between shore-based air cover from south-west England and Gibraltar. While the right compromise was being sought, convoys continued to suffer.

Another thing that angered Stevenson was the Admiralty’s attitude, expressed in conference, towards warning their convoys of the known approach of Condors. So vital to Britain’s conduct of the war was the knowledge she gained from her intercept service that no one dare risk compromising it. But surely, argued Stevenson, it was not beyond the wit of the Admiralty to devise a safe method of passing the necessary information? The screw was being turned, and the effect of shortages was already becoming apparent on the industrial scene. Stevenson recommended that all convoys should approach from the north-west, where Condors from both France and Norway were at the limit of their range, pass into the danger area in darkness, and rely on protection from land-based fighters from dawn. But the Admiralty, with the menace of U-boats and surface raiders still the major threat, thought otherwise. For the long term, however, Stevenson pinned his faith on the expendable fighter. ‘We should get moving on this at once.’

Thus fertilised, the idea of the expendable fighter took root in Portal’s mind, and he sounded Pound on the practicability of allocating a ship fitted with radar, catapult and fighter to accompany each convoy. Pound approved in principle; but in a situation where shortages were endemic, the catapults, the radar equipment, and above all the ships and the aircraft, had to be found.

It was thought at first that tankers, with their lengthy foredeck, would be the type most easily adapted to mounting a catapult rail; and it was believed that the aircraft most likely to be available in numbers was the single-engined twin-seat Fairey Fulmar. But tankers, it was soon realised, were too slow. A speed of 10–12 knots would be needed to assist the launch, and another requirement was the ability to turn quickly into wind for launching, which the tanker lacked. The Fulmar was also dismissed as too slow, except as a stopgap; its margin of speed over the Condor was reckoned to be not more than 10 m.p.h. After a flirtation with a new light-weight wooden aircraft, the Miles M.20, which would have been easy to catapult but which never reached the production stage, investigations were begun into modifying the Hawker Hurricane. This tough little aircraft, in the process of being superseded in fighter squadrons by the Spitfire, seemed likely to prove the ideal choice.

As for the catapult, the type normally used to launch aircraft from ships was hydraulically operated and had a cordite cylinder, but it was too cumbersome, too sophisticated and too expensive for general use in merchant ships, while the lighter naval type could not launch a fighter of the weight of the Hurricane at the velocity required. The alternative was the simple rocket catapult, propelled by banks of 3-inch rockets; and the rockets happened to be available. All these matters, however, remained for the moment in the realm of investigation, and no decisions could be taken until the results of preliminary trials were known.

One measure that could be quickly implemented, however, was the bombing of the Condor base, and on the night of 22/23 November a sizeable force from Bomber Command set out to attack Bordeaux-Merignac. Of the forty-three crews detailed – in eighteen Wellingtons, eleven Whitleys and fourteen Hampdens – thirty claimed to have dropped their high-explosive and incendiary bombs in the target area, and they reported explosions and fires amongst hangars and buildings. But although German accounts confirm that the raid did considerable damage, further raids were less successful, and the activities of the Condors were never interrupted for long.

 

The Scourge of the Atlantic II

Test launch of a Hurricane at Greenock, Scotland, 31 May 1941

While the air marshals continued to pursue the idea of the expendable fighter with optimism – ‘Bert’ Harris, Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, and Wilfred Freeman, Vice-Chief, among them – the admirals on the whole were not enthusiastic. They still preferred to see the strengthening of Coastal Command. Churchill agreed with the air marshals. ‘The eight-gun fighter,’ he wrote, ‘will be a powerful deterrent.’ Yet it was the Admiralty who were the first to take action operationally. They ordered H.M.S. Pegasus, a former seaplane carrier that was being used as a catapult training ship, to sail on 9 December with the next outward bound convoy, carrying two Fulmars for catapulting. Tom Phillips thought little of their chances because of their speed limitations, but believed it was the best that could be done at short notice.

The priority the Admiralty were giving the problem, however, did not satisfy Churchill. ‘What have you done,’ he demanded of Pound on 27 December, ‘about catapulting expendable aircraft from ships?’ Three days later, on 30 December, a final decision was taken – although still only in principle – to fit out an unspecified number of merchant vessels for the catapulting of one or more unspecified types of aircraft. They were to be known as Catapult Aircraft Merchant Ships, or Camships, and their numbers were to depend on trials and an operational experience. These Camships were to sail as an integral part of convoys: they would fly the Red Ensign, and they would carry normal freight. Since they would be in the danger zone for no more than a few days at a time, once during the outward journey and once on the return, the watch-keeping was unlikely to be so onerous that one pilot could not cope with it. But where were the vessels to come from? To withdraw freight carriers from convoy service for the fitting of catapults and radar equipment, and for training, would impose an unacceptable reduction of working tonnage, so only vessels under construction, big enough to take a 75-foot steel runway mounted over the forecastle head, were to be fitted. This meant a delay of several months before the scheme could start operating.

Meanwhile, as a stopgap, four ships that were being fitted out for service as auxiliary naval vessels were to be adapted for catapult work. These ships, which had been banana boats in peacetime, were the Ariguani, the Maplin, the Patia and the Springbank, and they were to be known as Fighter Catapult Ships. Each was to carry two expendable fighters, one hoisted in readiness on a catapult trolley and the other stored as a reserve, with the necessary gantries to hoist it into position. As naval auxiliaries they would fly the White Ensign and form part of the convoy escort; they would not carry freight. They would be employed in the danger zone only, accompanying convoys to the western limit before returning with incoming convoys. With approximately seventeen days of concentrated watch-keeping in prospect, and a spare aircraft, they would need three pilots to cope.

While the British sought to improvise an antidote to the Condor, the Germans aimed to capitalise on a weapon that was itself an improvisation. Before the war the Focke-Wulf Condor, designed by the firm’s technical director Kurt Tank, had broken many records on the commercial air routes and had gone into service with Lufthansa and Danish Air Lines. An order from Japan early in 1939 had stimulated design work on a reconnaissance version, and this proved useful when, on the outbreak of war, Germany found herself lacking any long-range reconnaissance aircraft. Göring, urged by Udet, had cancelled production of a projected long-range bomber, and Hitler, believing that he could avoid war with Britain, had trusted to the blitzkrieg for a quick and easy victory. The only suitable aircraft on the drawing board was the Heinkel 177, but it was nowhere near production. The Luftwaffe thus found itself obliged to look for a suitable aircraft to fill the gap. It was Edgar Petersen, formerly Director of the Instrument Flying School at Celle and a flyer with much long-range peacetime experience, who suggested the Condor.

Some progress had already been made with the training of crews. With the increasing risk of war against Britain if Poland were invaded, an investigation was ordered in the spring of 1939 which revealed that all combat units lacked experience of flying over water, and a special course was established at Oldenburg to which Petersen was appointed Director. Then on 1 August 1939, with the formation of the new Fliegerkorps X, Petersen was transferred to its staff.

Summoned soon afterwards to General Hans Jeschonnek, the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, Petersen was ordered to prepare proposals for the formation of a long-range unit for attacking marine targets in the Atlantic. An examination of available types showed Petersen that the FW 200 alone had sufficient potential range, and he submitted his proposals accordingly. Jeschonnek approved, the Focke-Wulf company were duly asked to produce a military version and ten machines were ordered. Four of these were earmarked for transport work, but the remaining six were fitted with defensive armament and bomb-racks. Auxiliary fuel tanks built into the fuselage increased their maximum range to over 2,000 miles. To prepare for the delivery of these six modified Condors (or Kuriers, as the military version was called, though the name Condor soon reasserted itself), a Staffel was formed under Petersen at Bremen on 1 October.

Petersen was careful to choose pilots who were expert in blind flying, and navigators who had specialised knowledge of astro navigation. Most of them had served as instructors at the instrument flying schools, and the Staffel soon developed the discipline and charisma of an élite corps.

While the Condors underwent conversion, the crews passed the winter in training flights over the North and Baltic Seas. Then in the spring of 1940 the unit was redesignated I./KG 40 and began operations, flying armed reconnaissances in support of the German invasion of Norway and bombing sorties against British shipping engaged in the campaign.

Following the Allied débâcle the unit was expanded into two Staffeln, redesignated I. Gruppe KG 40, and re-equipped with an improved mark of Condor, the 200 C-1, which differed from its predecessor principally in that the ventral or belly gondola was considerably lengthened, allowing a 20-millimetre cannon to be fitted to the forward section to silence the guns of target vessels, firing forward and down. The ventral armament was completed by a 7.9 millimetre machine-gun in the rear of the gondola, firing aft and down. The dorsal armament consisted of a 7.9 machine-gun in a forward turret, with an all-round field of fire, and a similar weapon to the rear. The four BMW engines, as in the earlier version, each developed 850 hp, and they could lift five or six 250 kg (551 lb) bombs and a crew of five. These consisted of pilot, co-pilot, navigator (who also served as radio-operator, bomb-aimer and gunner), engineer-gunner, and rear dorsal gunner. The economical cruising speed was approximately 180 mph and the radius of action with a full bomb-load about 1,100 miles.

Early in July, following the fall of France, the transfer of the new Gruppe to a newly acquired airfield at Bordeaux-Merignac was begun; but its true métier was still not fully understood, except perhaps by Petersen. The first phase of the Battle of Britain had started and it was perhaps inevitable that KG 40 should be thrown into the fray. With two big aerial mines suspended externally, the Condor crews, operating in darkness, began a minelaying campaign against Britain’s east coast ports; but thus handicapped the Condors suffered disastrously in speed and stability and became too vulnerable a target for the ground defences. When two Condors were lost on minelaying operations on the night of 19/20 July, Petersen urged that such operations be discontinued. Unable to get permission through the ‘usual channels’, he by-passed them and appealed by telephone direct to Jeschonnek. ‘This wasteful business of mining will have to stop,’ he told Jeschonnek. ‘Otherwise we shall lose all our planes and crews.’ Although taken aback at Petersen’s outburst, Jeschonnek knew his man and agreed. (The two men had served together in the secret air force in Russia in 1929.) Petersen went on to urge that the Gruppe be allowed to begin the work for which it was formed, equipped and trained, and Jeschonnek was sympathetic. But with the Battle of Britain rapidly approaching its climax, the Gruppe was next recruited into the night bombing of Britain’s cities, and missions were flown to the Liverpool-Birkenhead area on four successive nights in August. By this time, however, the Condors had begun operating against Allied merchant shipping, mostly in the North Atlantic, and they soon began to enjoy spectacular success. Co-operating with Marine Gruppe West at Lorient, the Condors took off singly from Bordeaux in the early morning and flew out across the Bay of Biscay as far as 24 degrees west before describing a right-hand semi-circle that took them north of Scotland on their way to a landing in Norway, returning by the same route two days later. Any convoys cut by this huge arc thus came under surveillance, and single ships and stragglers were attacked on sight.

Lacking any sophisticated form of bomb-sight, the Condor crews attacked their targets visually from abeam at low level, diving down to masthead height, where the guns of escort vessels were powerless to interfere. ‘You could hardly miss,’ says Petersen. ‘Even without a bomb-sight at least one of the bombs would find the ship provided you kept low enough.’ Some pilots, learning from experience that what little armament the merchant ships themselves carried was invariably mounted astern, directed their bombing runs along the length of vessels from the bow, pulling up steeply after they had dropped their bombs to avoid collision with masts. It was in this period, from late August to mid-November 1940, that the Condors sank nearly 90,000 tons of Allied shipping and damaged a good deal more.

These were the sinkings that first stimulated the search for a counter-measure by the British naval and air staffs. But they did not satisfy Petersen. Despite well-earned awards of the Knight’s Cross to pilots like Captains Fliegel and Daser and Lieutenants Verlohr and Buchholz, as well as to Jope and himself, and despite the posting-in of the cream of the bomber training schools, Petersen could not contain his frustration. At just about the time that Stevenson was warning Portal that an intensification of the Condor threat must be anticipated, Petersen was appealing to Hitler for a dramatic increase in Condor production. ‘If I had enough aircraft to send out between forty and fifty a day,’ he is reported to have said, ‘the blockade of England could be really effective.’

Clearly Petersen was not given to over-statement, a characteristic which may have told against him in Nazi Germany. Anyway, for the moment at least, he was no more successful in his pleadings than Stevenson had been. Throughout 1940 only thirty-six Condors were built, and although an improved variant – the 200 C-3, incorporating four 1,000 h.p. Bramo-Fafnir radial engines and other refinements – was in preparation, production was still limited to four or five machines a month. Indeed throughout the winter of 1940/41 the Gruppe continued to operate two Staffeln on about fifteen aircraft, of which rarely more than eight were serviceable at any one time.

This problem of serviceability, which was to dog the Condor for many months, was directly traceable to the haste with which the military version had been adapted from the commercial. The basic structure of the Condor, as has been noted, was not designed to meet the demands of continuous operational flying, and the chosen methods of attack, often involving violent evasive manoeuvres at low level, imposed too great a strain. The most frequent faults were that the rear spar failed and the fuselage aft of the trailing edge of the wing cracked.

Despite these drawbacks, however, the two Condor Staffeln, backed up by one small factory with an output of little more than one aircraft a week, continued to sink ships and exert an influence on the sea war out of all proportion to their size. The short-term measures taken against them proved inadequate, further bombing raids on their bases found defences strengthened and dispersal effective, and the expendable fighter, coupled with strong defensive armament on all merchant ships, seemed the only hope of relief.

This relief, though, was still a long way off, and meanwhile the Naval Air Division of the Admiralty put forward an imaginative proposal to erect dummy aircraft on selected ships on a simulated catapult The Intelligence Division would then spread a rumour that merchant ships were being equipped with fighters, and it might be some time before the bluff was called, giving a deterrent effect meanwhile. Objections were that the deception would be so obvious at the ports of embarkation that the enemy would soon get to know the truth, and that even it the ruse didn’t fail completely it might only attract Condor attack. But with real fighters and real catapults in prospect, the enemy might well guess wrong at a later date. Five old Fokker seaplanes and two dummy biplanes were sent to Liverpool and Glasgow, but only two had been fitted when, in June 1941, the idea lapsed on the introduction of the first Camships. It was, however, resuscitated later on the Russian convoys.

The need for fighters at least equal in performance to the Hurricane was underlined on 11 January when a Fulmar was catapulted from Pegasus to attempt an interception. This launching, the first of the so-called expendable fighters, took place 250 miles off the Irish Coast and the pilot was able to reach land, so it lacked an essential element; but there were important lessons to be learnt from it. The ship being attacked was five miles distant from Pegasus on the port beam, clearly visible, and although the Fulmar got off quickly the ship was bombed and hit and the Condor pilot already heading for the sanctuary of cloud when the Fulmar began the chase. Indeed the cloud conditions were such that a launching would hardly have been ordered had the pilot not been within reach of land. In the short pursuit that developed, the Fulmar was exposed as far too slow. The Fulmar pilot, Petty Officer F. J. Shaw, landed safely at Aldergrove in Northern Ireland.

By this time the Condors were finding it more profitable to head out into the Atlantic to a point about 25 degrees west, carry out a two-hour search, and return to Bordeaux, rather than continue to Norway; and their tactics paid off so well that forty-three ships suffered attack by Condor in the first two months of 1941, of which twenty-six were sunk. The worst day of all was 9 February, when five Condors led by Captain Fritz Fliegel sank five freighters in the same convoy, 400 miles south-west of Lisbon and over a thousand miles from Bordeaux.

The Condor crews were claiming 363,000 tons of Allied shipping sunk to date, eighty-five ships in all. Nineteen of these were sunk in February alone. The British knew only too well that, unlike some of the bragging of the Nazi leaders, the claims of the Condor crews were soundly based.

In these early months of 1941, sorties by German surface raiders, among them the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the cruiser Hipper, wrought further destruction, while the U-boats, which as in 1914 had begun the war underprepared, were known to be building up for a decisive campaign. On 30 January Hitler boasted that a combination of sea and air power would soon encompass Britain’s starvation and surrender. ‘In the spring,’ he promised, ‘our U-boat war will begin at sea, and they will notice that we have not been sleeping. And the Air Force will play its part.’

Early in March 1941 the Luftwaffe established a new anti-shipping command under Fliegerführer Atlantik, with a headquarters near the U-boat base at Lorient. Its task was to direct air operations against Allied shipping in the Atlantic in close co-operation with the C-in-C Submarine Fleet. Up to this time it had been rare for Condors to shadow convoys in order to call up U-boats, but now the arrival of a Condor often presaged attack by U-boat.

Churchill’s reaction was typical. ‘We have got to lift this business to the highest plane, over and above everything else,’ he told Pound. Nine months earlier, on 18 June 1940, he had heralded the Battle of Britain. Now he proclaimed the Battle of the Atlantic.

In view of various German statements [he announced in a historic directive of 6 March 1941], we must assume that the Battle of the Atlantic has begun …

We must take the offensive against the U-boat and the Focke-Wulf wherever and whenever we can. The U-boat at sea must be hunted, the U-boat in the building yard or in dock must be bombed. The Focke-Wulf and other bombers employed against our shipping must be attacked in the air and in their nests.

Extreme priority will be given to fitting out ships to catapult or otherwise launch fighter aircraft against bombers attacking our shipping. Proposals should be made within a week …

Preparations for the employment of the expendable fighter after nearly four months of uncertainty and delay, were at last given the impetus that was needed. Within three months of this directive, four Fighter Catapult Ships were operating and the first of the new Camships was about to sail.

 

Battleship Potemkin

By 1905 the Imperial Russian Navy was a relatively potent force, possessing a powerful battle fleet and with auxiliary squadrons disposed in the farthest dominions of the Tsar. In February 1904 the Japanese attacked the Russians in the Liaotung Peninsula where, in ports leased from the Chinese, they over-wintered their Pacific Fleet. This the Japanese swiftly defeated, and gained the ascendancy, besieging Port Arthur and compelling the Russian High Command to dispatch Admiral Rozhdestvensky’s Baltic Fleet half-way round the world to recover the initiative. Unfortunately Rozhdestvensky was annihilated off the island of Tsu Shima by Admiral Togo in May, and the resulting national humiliation further inflamed an already simmering social unrest in Russia itself.

The defeat of Rozhdestvensky’s fleet was attributed to inefficiency inherent in the privileged system over which the Tsar presided. Because of the war Russia’s finances were in a mess, and hundreds of thousands of lives had been squandered. The civil disturbances occurring throughout the country attracted a severe backlash from the representatives of autocracy, and encouraged those in Russia who sought an overthrow of the traditional and outmoded system of government, any opposition to which was pitilessly crushed. Significantly, the ranks of the navy included a large number of political activists mostly belonging to the Social Democratic Party. A substantial proportion of these were in ships belonging to the Black Sea Fleet, which had taken no part in the Russo-Japanese War and whose morale was already low in consequence of the monotony of their duties and the long periods they lay inactive at their base at Sebastopol. At the end of June the news of Tsu Shima cast a further gloom over this squadron, which was then ordered to sea for gunnery exercises.

The first ship to leave, ahead of the others though escorted by the torpedo boat N267, was the Kniaz Potemkin Tavritchesky, better known to history as the `Battleship Potemkin’. Kapitan II Ranga Evgeny Golikov headed from Sebastopol for Tendra Bay, close to the Romanian border and not far from Odessa, where he anchored his ship. On Tuesday 27 June Golikov was enjoying his lunch when he received a report from his executive officer, Kapitan III Ranga Ippolit Giliarovsky, that the men were in a mutinous mood. The political activists had been seeking a pretext to foment trouble, and it had come to hand in the form of stinking, maggot-infested meat which the men refused to eat. This had been taken on board shortly before the battleship sailed in circumstances which bred a swift-travelling rumour that the contractors were corrupt and the captain and officers had profited from the swindle.

Golikov cleared the lower deck and, having learned that the meat was certified fit for the consumption of the sailors and stokers by Surgeon Smirnov, addressed the crew. Smirnov apparently agreed that the meat had attracted the eggs of some flies, he told them but there were only on the surface and after proper cooking the meat was edible. Golikov concluded by recalling his ship’s company to their duty to the Tsar, and then dismissed them. All might have passed off peaceably, for the majority of the Potemkin’s crew were long-service men who if not docile were certainly not radicals, had not Giliarovsky recalled the muster. Golikov meanwhile had retired to his cabin, unaware that his younger second-in-command had decided to take a harsher line with the mutineers.

Giliarovsky now paraded the ship’s marines under arms, and it is alleged that he ordered a tarpaulin to be spread on the sacred planking of the quarterdeck. Neither the purpose of the tarpaulin nor indeed its actual presence is clear; the horrors of this insurrection were much embellished by the later effects of Sergei Eisenstein’s film, purporting to be documentary in intent but in fact perverse and propagandist. Whether the tarpaulin was there or not, the presence of the marines suggested to the returning seamen that bloodshed might ensue; certainly coercion seemed to be intended. Seeing only Giliarovsky and the armed marines, with no sign of their captain, the men drew the conclusion that some among their number were to be taught a lesson in the prescribed Tsarist manner.

Among them was Afanasy Matushenko, a revolutionary who had been working on a plot to suborn the entire squadron when it arrived at the anchorage. The present situation was clearly too good to waste, and Matushenko called out to the marines not to fire on their shipmates. Others, thought to have been members of Matushenko’s revolutionary cell, tried to disarm the gunners. As they surged forward, Giliarovsky allegedly compounded his high-handed stupidity by firing at one of them, Gunner Grigory Vakulenchuk, who fell mortally wounded. There followed a confused struggle in which a midshipman beside Giliarovsky was also mortally wounded, and an attempt by the gunnery officer, Lieutenant Tonn, to mediate and avert the frightful carnage that seemed about to ensue resulted in his death. With the men’s blood-lust provoked, all sense of reason vanished; revolt against generations of acquiescence, fawning and victimization spread through the Potemkin like fire. As other officers appeared they were shot at; Some who attempted to escape by jumping overboard where exposed to opportunist rifle fire. A handful was picked up by the N267 but most were massacred. Captain Golikov was apprehended and executed; Smirnov was caught in his cabin trying to kill himself. After being brutalized he was killed and thrown overboard. Lieutenant Alexeyev, the navigating officer, was found attempting to reach one of the magazines. Pleading that he was only obeying Golikov’s last orders, he begged for quarter and threw in his lot with the mutineers. He was granted his life on condition that he handle the Potemkin according to the instructions he would receive.

As Kapitan III Ranga Baron von Jurgensburg attempted to steam the N267 out of the Bay and out of range, his vessel received a shot from the Potemkin’s secondary armament. Intimidated, he brought his torpedo boat back alongside the battleship where he, his own officers and those he had rescued were secured in custody aboard the Potemkin.

The vast majority of the Potemkin’s crew had taken no part in the mutiny, though many were mute and astonished witnesses. As the situation gained momentum they stood stupefied by Matushenko’s oratory. From atop the capstan so recently vacated by Golikov, the revolutionary harangued them: they were heroes; they had lit the torch of revolution and were the first to throw off the chains of slavery. Soon they would carry the whole squadron with them, and then join their comrades ashore. It was heady and inspiriting stuff.

Matushenko was now in command, with Alexeyev ready to navigate the ship towards Odessa, a few miles along the coast, and Engineering Lieutenant Kovalenko, a Marxist sympathizer, keen to provide the motive power. At Odessa it was planned to make contact with revolutionary elements which were fomenting daily confrontations between strikers and the Tsarist forces. In addition to the police, the latter included Cossacks under General Kokhanov, the local military commander.

The arrival of the Kniaz Potemkin Tavritchesky off Odessa that evening flying the red flag encouraged the forces of reform and revolution. A student leader named Constantin Feldmann came aboard at the head of a group of ardent socialists. Learning of the death of Gunner Vakulenchuck in the night and of the desire of his shipmates to give him a suitable funeral, Feldman suggested that his body be landed as a symbolic act about which the revolution might coalesce. Most of the Potemkin’s bewildered crew merely wanted Vakulenchuk properly buried. As happened in most mutinies, once the heat of the insurrectionary moment had passed, there was a sense of rudderless impotence. If not exactly a political reaction, it was enough to persuade a disappointed Feldmann and his colleagues not to expect much from the Potemkin. The battleship’s presence offshore was stimulating enough, however, and when Vakulenchuk’s body was landed next day at the foot of the Richelieu steps it attracted sufficient popular attention to provoke Kokhanov into ordering the Cossacks to clear the crowds. Eisenstein is believed to have grossly exaggerated what followed; nevertheless few authorities entirely write off the event as anything other than `a massacre’. (In the so-called `Boston massacre’ of March 1770, be it recalled, British infantry actually killed only three and wounded two people.) Dismounting from their ponies, the Cossacks descended the wide steps firing over the heads of the assembly and then, as the populace appeared defiant, into the body of the crowd. Kokhanov claimed the dead to number 500, while the total number killed in Odessa over several days is put ten times higher.

Throughout the 28th Matushenko received demands from the shore that the revolutionaries aboard should assist the townspeople by opening fire with their guns, but he demurred. All would be well when the rest of the squadron arrived, he assured them though what exactly he meant by this he did not say. In the meantime the Potemkin had been taking coal aboard; that done, her crew had been subjected to further haranguing by Feldmann. As time passed, none of the rest of the Black Sea squadron arrived – only the solitary auxiliary Vekhia, bearing Golikov’s widow and heir. In a hiatus that day, Vakulenchuk’s body was buried by a dozen unarmed seamen, who were fired at by the Cossacks as they made their way back to the Potemkin’s boats; three of them were killed.

Matushenko’s confidence in his fellows aboard the other ships of the squadron was misplaced. At Sebastopol, in the temporary absence of the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Chukhnin, Vitse Admiral Krieger had learned of the defection of the Potemkin and ascertained the loyalty of the rest of the squadron. Ordering one ship to remain at her moorings, Kontr Admiral Vishnevetsky was to take three battleships, one cruiser and four torpedo boats to Odessa to overwhelm the mutineers, Krieger prepared to follow in his flagship, the Rostislav. Off Odessa the loss of some of the burial party focused the attention of the Potemkin’s crew on the shore. Feldmann’s blandishments were one thing, the death of their own comrades quite another. Informed that a meeting of the Tsarist military was to take place in the theatre at 19.30 that evening, the Potemkin’s secondary armament fired two blank warning shots and two live rounds. The latter landed wide and killed only more citizens; it was bathetic. Word had also arrived that the Black Sea Fleet was on its way.

Next morning Matushenko and his committee, along with Feldmann, saw the smoke of the approaching squadron. The hands were piped to their stations and the anchor was weighed. Alexeyev was ordered to head towards Vishnevetsky and the Potemkin’s guns were manned. Whether the Russian admiral doubted the temper of his men or feared the potency of Matushenko’s gunners is unclear. What is certain is that he turned away and headed for Tendra Bay `to await reinforcements’, presumably Admiral Krieger and his flagship. He earned himself a severe reprimand, but he met Krieger, who had brought another man-of-war with him in addition to the Rostislav. Forming two divisions, the Black Sea squadron next headed back towards Odessa. Here its approaching smoke signalled the end of a performance by the ship’s band on the quarterdeck of the Potemkin which, having seen off Vishnevetsky, had re-anchored off Odessa.

Once again the mutineers weighed anchor, manned their guns and steamed towards the advancing columns. Receiving a radioed demand to surrender, Matushenko told Alexeyev to maintain course and speed, sweeping aside the cruiser Kazarsky which was acting as advanced picket. What happened next was worthy of Eisenstein’s drama; the men on most of the opposing ships poured out of their gun turrets and abandoned their battle stations to cheer the Potemkin as she passed between them. Krieger, Vishnevetsky and the other captains and officers could only wring their hands in frustration. When the Potemkin had passed through the lines, Alexeyev turned her about and overtook the squadron, heading back towards Odessa. As Krieger ordered the squadron to turn away, the battleship Georgi Pobjedonosets (George the Conqueror) followed in Potemkin’s wake, anchoring in company off Odessa a little later.

Matushenko and Feldmann went aboard her only to find that the mutiny aboard the second battleship was incomplete: parts of the ship were in loyalist hands and the petty officers were resisting the demands of the revolutionaries. Feldmann talked himself hoarse convincing the waverers, and by the following dawn the revolutionary `fleet’ appeared to consist of the two battleships, the N267, the storeship Vekhia and a collier from which the Potemkin had bunkered.

This was an illusion. The following morning the Georgi Pobjedonosets was in fact uncommitted, and further attempts to suborn her failed. In the end her anchor was weighed and she headed for the inner harbour of Odessa, only to ground on a shoal, and afterwards to beg forgiveness from the Tsar. By now General Kokhanov had called up artillery and the heights above the town were invested with heavy guns. Taking the city was impossible, and with every hour that passed the men aboard the Potemkin became increasingly disillusioned. They knew what the regime would do to them if they submitted. For those in any doubt there was the example of the fate of the protesters of Bloody Sunday, who in the previous January had gone peacefully to present a petition to the Tsar at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. They had been shot down for their pains, and 130 of their number killed. While unwilling to prosecute the revolution so fervently called for by Matushenko and Feldmann, the majority knew that surrender meant death, or exile in Siberia. Not even rotten meat could persuade them to martyr themselves; instead they would head for the Romanian port of Constanza.

Hearing of Krieger’s humiliation on his return to Sebastopol, Admiral Chukhnin complained that `the sea is full of rebels’ and sanctioned Lieutenant Yanovitch’s wish to lead an attack by volunteer officers in the destroyer Stremitelny to avenge the deaths of their colleagues. Filled with zealous young bloods, the Stremitelny left after dark on 1 July but arrived off Odessa to find that the Potemkin and the N267 had slipped away some hours earlier.

On their arrival off Constanza the mutineers aboard the Potemkin appealed to the Romanian authorities for water, fuel and stores, but King Carol’s government repudiated any notion of offering them sanctuary. Disappointed, the Potemkin and the N267 put to sea again, avoiding the approaching Stremitelny and the battleships Sinop and Tri Sviatitelia, whose officers had persuaded their crews to remain loyal and do their duty.

Enclosed in a land-locked sea as she was, the Potemkin’s fate was now sealed, but Matushenko and his men were not yet ready to give up. Short of water they headed out to sea, bypassing Sebastopol and their hunters. In company with the little torpedo boat N267 they headed for Feodosia, on the far side of the Crimean peninsula from the Russian naval base. On board the daily routines went on, supervised by the petty officers, while Feldmann dreamed up revised plans for taking the revolution to the Chechens of Caucasia. When the battleship arrived off Feodosia, the ship’s ruling committee was welcomed, but only fresh water was offered them. Matushenko responded by demanding coal and food as well, or the battleship’s guns would blow the small town off the face of the globe. As the townsfolk fled to the hills Matushenko and Feldmann took a party of men to seize a coal hulk, and were fired upon by an infantry foot patrol. Three seamen were killed as the rest leapt back into the Potemkin’s picket boat and headed for their ship. Rifle-fire followed and another man was hit and fell into the water with a cry; courageously Feldmann dived after him. The picket boat steamed on, and a few minutes later a boat was pulled out from the shore to capture Feldmann and the wounded sailor.

For Matushenko and the others hell-bent on revolution the game was all but up, for now the Stremitelny arrived: failure, exile and death confronted them. Their vision of social justice was extinguished, and the Black Sea was `watered by our tears’. Only a breakdown in the Stremitelny’s steam-turbines prevented the affair ending then and there, but once again an element of farce prevailed. The Potemkin and her consort again escaped, weighing anchor and steaming away, to arrive off Constanza again on 8 July. Here the committee decided to scuttle the ship, and those of her crew who wished to do so were allowed to land, and gave themselves up to the Romanians. About five hundred were suffered to stay, and the Romanian government eventually rejected Russian attempts at extradition, on the grounds that the seamen’s act had been political, not criminal.

Some of these men found themselves caught up in a Romanian peasant revolt in 1906 and were subsequently deported to Russia, where the authorities promptly sent them into exile; some returned to Russia under an amnesty, only to find themselves tried, condemned and exiled like the others; a few emigrated to Britain and Argentina. But not all the Potemkin’s crew had followed Matushenko: about three hundred surrendered to the Russians, who almost within hours finally caught up with the Potemkin. Courts-martial condemned seven of those remaining to death; nineteen others received life sentences in Siberia, a further thirty-five long penal sentences. Incredibly, Alexeyev and the handful of surviving officers, pleading that they had been obliged to do as they were bid to save their lives, were exonerated. Feldmann later escaped from prison to Austria, and is today remembered in Odessa, where after the successful Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 the Nikolaevsy Boulevard was renamed in his honour.

As for Matushenko, he evaded the Ochrana’s agents in Romania and headed for New York where he worked for some time, associating with Russian emigre radicals and caught up in revolutionary fervour. In 1907 he foolishly returned to Russia using false papers, only to be recognized, tried and hanged at Sebastopol. As for the ship whose name is better remembered than those of any of the human participants, except perhaps the `martyred’ Vakulenchuk in Russia, the tragi-farcical nature of the mutiny aboard the Kniaz Potemkin Tavritchevsky was not at an end with her scuttling. Even this was botched. By 11 July the water had been pumped out of her, she had been re-floated, and the Imperial Russian naval ensign of St Andrew’s cross was re-hoisted. Taken in tow by the Tri Sviatitelia (the Holy Trinity) she was taken back to Sebastopol, where in October she was renamed Pantelymon – meaning a peasant of the most humble stock – and remained inactive throughout the First World War. Then, in 1919, as the tide of revolution closed on the Crimea, Tsarist officers scuttled her a second time, to prevent her falling into the hands of the Bolsheviks. Her final and lasting resurrection was in 1925, when to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of what Soviet historians came to call the First Bourgeois-Democratic Revolution Sergei Eisenstein made his celebrated film of the incident, dramatizing the events in five sequences that have, like his storming of the Winter Palace, come to be regarded as reality itself.

In reality there was no stirring climax, only the end common to most mutinies – failure. Such is the power of the moving visual image, however, that the mutiny aboard the `Battleship Potemkin’ is as well-established a myth as that aboard the Bounty. Perhaps the most interesting fact about the mutiny aboard the Kniaz Potemkin Tavritchesky is that it established itself as a key event solely because it coincided with the civil unrest in Odessa, circumstantially linking mutiny with social change. What had its genesis in a specific, traditional ship-board complaint about bad food has become a defining moment in the great move for social change and the advancement of the less well-off. The first mutinies, those against Magellan and Drake, were about command, fomented among those vying for high office. Later, exemplified by the masterly revolt at Spithead, they concerned genuine grievances, only to be followed by a degenerate series of cathartic expressions of discontent, envy and malice on the path of minorities challenging an inadequate command structure backed by law and usage, neither of which proved of the slightest use when mutiny actually occurred. With the possible exception – which if anything proves the general rule – of some evidence of political agitation at the Nore, the mutiny aboard the Potemkin marks another shift in gear; it is the first mutiny to become indissolubly linked with a greater social movement and a more general aspiration for real change, as opposed to a redress of complaints.

Had not the ship anchored off Odessa, and had not the indefatigable Feldmann and his associates clambered on board full of revolutionary zeal, it is unlikely that the Potemkin mutiny would have acquired this iconic status. As was so often the case in earlier mutinies, it is clear that Matushenko and his colleagues had little idea what to do once they had seized the ship, committed murder and placed themselves outside the law. Any ray of hope that might have been kindled by the ambiguous conduct of the Black Sea squadron under Kontr Admiral Vishnevetsky soon evaporated. The indifference or confusion of the majority of the Potemkin’s crew as to what was going on suggests that in due course the affair would have fizzled out, as it did on the Georgi Pobjedonosets.

Destroying the Enemy’s Forces by a Decisive Action at Sea I

The Battle of Iquique (Spanish: Batalla de Iquique or Combate Naval de Iquique) was a confrontation that occurred on 21 May 1879, during the naval stage of the War of the Pacific, a conflict that pitted Chile against Peru and Bolivia. The battle took place off the then-Peruvian port of Iquique. The Peruvian ironclad Huáscar, commanded by Miguel Grau Seminario, sank Esmeralda, a Chilean wooden corvette captained by Arturo Prat Chacón, after four hours of combat.

The destruction of the enemy’s naval forces could be accomplished by a decisive action or their weakening over time. Normally, these two methods are used in combination. The most effective but also most difficult method is by engaging a major part of the enemy forces at sea and/or their bases and destroying them in a short and decisive action. A decisive action should be optimally executed at the beginning of the hostilities at sea. Until the advent of submarines and aircraft, control of the sea was obtained by destroying enemy surface ships. Today, this objective is more difficult to accomplish because control of the surface could be disputed also by enemy submarines, aircraft, and mines.

In the past, a decisive naval battle was considered the principal method of employment of naval forces to obtain control of the sea. A decisive naval battle was understood as a clash between major parts of the opposing fleets that results in such damage to one side that it drastically changes naval situation. Still, what mattered the most were not initial intent and the losses inflicted on the opposing fleet or one’s losses but whether the ultimate objective was actually accomplished. Sometimes one side inflicted larger losses in materiel and personnel, but that did not necessarily mean that the ultimate objective was accomplished; the opposite was also true. In several notable cases, the results of a decisive naval battle were inconclusive, but one side was able to accomplish its ultimate objective. In a war between two numerically weak fleets, the loss of even a single or a few ships might have a decisive effect on the course of a war at sea, as the example of the War of the Pacific between Chile and Peru/Bolivia (1879–1883) shows.

Naval classical thinkers emphasized the critical importance of a decisive naval battle for obtaining control of the sea. Mahan was perhaps the most consistent and strongest believer in the absolute importance of a decisive battle. He claimed that control of the sea’s communications could be obtained only through “decisive battle.” Mahan stressed that the “fleet’s destruction is an essential prerequisite for the conquest of the enemy’s territory and attack on his commerce. The same result would be achieved, though less conclusively and less permanently if the enemy fleet is reduced to inactivity by the immediate presence of a superior force.” Similarly, Admiral Philip Howard Colomb (1831–1899) believed that “…it serves no purpose to try to obtain the mastery of the sea by any means than by battle and this is so serious that no other objective can be put in comparison with it.”

Castex agreed with Mahan that the enemy “fleet must be defeated in order to obtain command of the sea.” He observed that one’s actions should be directed against the enemy fleet because its destruction “will very probably irreparably compromise the rest of the enemy’s organization.” The best method of disposing of the enemy fleet is to wage a decisive naval battle. In case the enemy chooses to “shut himself up in a port,” then he should be tightly blockaded in order to prevent his escape or “…to force him to do battle as soon as possible if he does.” After having dealt with the enemy fleet, the stronger fleet can exercise command of the sea. Yet Castex also cautioned that the stronger fleet should not exercise command of the sea prematurely because that might undermine the freedom of action essential to the destruction of the enemy fleet.

French Navy captain and well-known theoretician René Daveluy (1863–1939) emphasized that to “reduce an enemy to impotence it is necessary to disarm it, that is to say, destroy the established force which is a guarantee of its power. The necessity of attacking the established force of an enemy leads directly to battle.” Another French Navy captain, Gabriel Darrieus (1859–1931), wrote that to consider the fleet of the enemy as the principal force that must be destroyed or reduced to impotence is to fulfill most surely the object of the war.

A well-known and influential British theorist, Admiral Herbert Richmond (1871–1946), wrote that the “the first and fundamental step toward gaining the command of the sea is always the destruction of the massed forces of the enemy. If these forces are unwilling to fight, the possibility exists of putting the enemy in the dilemma of either fighting at what may appear to him as a disadvantage or of sacrificing some essential element in his national economy, trade, a vital position, or the assistance of an ally.”

In contrast to Mahan and other classical naval thinkers, Corbett contended that to obtain command, it is not always necessary to fight a decisive naval battle. He wrote that “under certain conditions, it may not be the primary function of the fleet to seek out the enemy’s fleet and destroy it, because general command may be in dispute, while local command may be with us, and political or military considerations may demand for us an operation for which such local command is sufficient, and which cannot be delayed until we have obtained a complete decision.” However, Corbett erred because one cannot obtain local control of the sea without destroying at least a part of the enemy fleet. A stronger side should also avoid the state of disputed, or contested, control. Experience shows that, as in a war on land or in the air, the best way to proceed is in most cases to focus one’s efforts on destroying the strongest part of the enemy forces – or the enemy’s operational center of gravity. Once this is successfully accomplished, a stronger side would not have great difficulties in accomplishing other operational tasks. Corbett also noted that as long as the weaker fleet remains in existence, it will try to avoid a major clash with its superior opponent. This is probably true. But, again, a stronger side should not just accept that situation without trying to entice or lure a weaker side into a major clash.

Corbett also emphasized difficulties in seeking a decisive battle. He wrote that in land warfare, it is possible to specify with some precision the limits and direction of the enemy movements because they are determined by roads and physical obstacles. This is not the case at sea. In Corbett’s view, “seeking to strike out at the enemy at sea the chance is greater that we would miss him. However, experience shows that only a few decisive naval battles have taken place far from the shore. Hence, it was very rare that the opposing fleets did not locate the whereabouts of each other.

In the seventeenth century, opposing fleets fought major battles with a large number of ships of the line. For example, in the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654), each side in a battle had on average some 70 to 120 ships. However, with the increased size, seaworthiness, and greater effectiveness of guns, fleets became numerically smaller. For example, in the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, the British had only 27 ships of the line against the Franco-Spanish fleet of 33 ships of the line. The ships of the line were the mainstay of the battle fleets in 1652, as they were in 1805. Yet their lethality was, of course, far less than that of first-rate ships of the line in Nelson’s times.

In the era of the oar/sail, a large number of major naval battles were fought. By the eighteenth century, the number of major battles in a war was progressively reduced because the ships of the line became larger, and hence it took much longer time to build them than it did in the seventeenth century. Normally, a decisive naval battle was fought in a single day and lasted for only a few hours. However, in several notable examples, decisive results were achieved by fighting a series of successive minor tactical actions spread over two or more days and sometimes over a relatively large part of a given maritime theater. For example, the British victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 was achieved through a series of small-scale clashes conducted over seven days in the English Channel. Afterward, a large number of the Spanish ships wrecked in stormy weather while rounding Scotland and Ireland.

In the era of oar/sail, relatively few ships were sunk in major naval battles; most of them were captured. For example, the first three Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652–1654; 1665–1667; 1672–1674; the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War was in 1780–1784) were perhaps the bloodiest of all naval wars; not many ships of the line were sunk, but great damage was inflicted, on both sides, to the masts and riggings and personnel. Only a few commanders, notably Dutch Admiral Michiel Adriaanszoon de Ruyter (1607–1676) and the Danish Admiral Niels Juel (1629–1697), inflicted disproportionate losses on their enemies. In most cases, major parts of the opposing fleets escaped to fight again.

Prior to the era of steam, only relatively few major naval battles were “decisive,” that is, either resulting in the destruction of a major part of the enemy fleet or having decisive results on the course and outcome of war at sea or on land. Yet in several cases, a decisive naval battle had a major impact on the course or even outcome of the war on land. In a few notable cases, as, for example, the battles of Salamis in 480 bc and Actium in 31 bc, it has changed world history. However, the decisiveness of a major naval battle apparently declined in the medieval era. As the Anglo-Dutch Wars show, a strong opponent was able to relatively quickly reconstitute its navy and then resume struggle for disputing command of the sea. In the War of Grand Alliance, 1688–1697, naval battles became less decisive than they were in the Anglo-Dutch Wars. Although the French Navy had a combined strength of the British and the Dutch navies, it missed every opportunity to achieve a decisive victory.

A major reason for the lack of decisiveness of naval battles was the relatively low effectiveness of the shipboard guns and the rigid application of the line ahead formation. For more than one hundred years, a war at sea had shown the futility of fighting in an unbroken line ahead with van, center, and rear trying to engage the respective parts of the enemy line. One of the reasons for such a profound lack of thinking was the general lack of interest in the theory of naval tactics by many naval officers. Corbett observed that the reason for the sterility of naval tactics in that era was that “unintelligent admirals, pedantically absorbed in preserving their formation, contented themselves with fighting ship to ship and trying to manoeuvre for a concentration on part of their adversaries’ line.” He claimed that the system of engaging two battle lines was fully adopted in the Battle of Texel in 1665 (fought on 13 June). It replaced the older system of fighting in groups of ships.

The situation gradually changed for the better in the late eighteenth century when some aggressive and very innovative commanders, specifically British admirals Edward Hawke (1705–1781), Samuel Hood (1724–1816), John Jervis (1735–1823), Adam Duncan (1731–1804), and above all Horatio Nelson (1758–1805), introduced tactical innovations that allowed for far more decisive results. They used maneuver to achieve local concentration and attack exposed parts of the enemy fleet.

In fact, it was a Scottish landlubber and amateur scientist, John Clerk of Eldin, who, in his book Essay on Naval Tactics, Systematical and Historical (written in 1779 and published in 1782), gave an answer on how to improve tactics of the battle line. Clerk analyzed fighting instructions and concluded that the Royal Navy’s naval tactics were all wrong.  He pointed out that during the Anglo-Dutch Wars, naval instructions were much improved but that they were “…admirably fitted for fighting in narrow seas, where these battles were fought but not for bringing on an action with a fleet of French ships, unwilling to stand a shock, having sea room to range in at pleasure, and desirous to plays off maneuvers of defence, long studied with the greatest attention.” Clerk argued that decisive action can be fought only by concentrating superior forces on weaker forces. In other words, decisive victories could be won only by close, concentrated fighting. Yet his book met with derision by admirals, who believed that they cannot be taught by an amateur. According to some sources, Nelson read Clerk’s book. In fact, the commanding officer (CO) of Admiral Nelson’s flagship Victory, Captain (later Vice Admiral) Thomas M. Hardy (1769–1839), stated that

Lord Nelson, read Mr. Clerk’s works with great attention and frequently expressed his approbation of them in the fullest manner. He also recommended all the captains to read them with attention and said that many good things might be taken from them. He most approved of the attack from to-windward, and considered that breaking through the enemy’s line as absolutely necessary to obtain a great victory.

Major changes in the way of how to fight war at sea had its origins in the English Navy (renamed the Royal Navy in 1660). During the Anglo-Dutch Wars a belief took hold in the English Navy that, in a war at sea, one’s efforts should be focused on the enemy fleet, not on maritime trade, and thereby on destroying the enemy’s power of resistance. Such warfare required the effective use of state-owned ships specialized for war with as little as possible assistance from privately owned ships. It required discipline, fleet tactics, and a navy of warships to make war in the modern sense of the term. The experience in combat led the Royal Navy to adopt the first Articles of War that provided statutory regulations regarding the Royal Navy’s crews. The first fighting instructions were issued in 1678. They were revised several times (in 1688, 1690, 1695, and 1702) to allow more initiative on the part of subordinate commanders. The first Permanent Sailing and Fighting Instructions was issued in 1703 during the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714). They were for the first time used in the naval battle of Málaga on 24 August 1704 and with slight modifications until 1783.

The first three Anglo-Dutch Wars had a major influence on the evolution of the concept of the control of the sea. In the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654), the British attacked the Dutch convoys and blockaded the Dutch coast. Naval battles came as result of one side or the other trying to protect a convoy or making a way free for the convoy. Reportedly, the Dutch Admiral Maarten Tromp (1598–1653) was the first who realized in 1653 the best way to protect a large convoy is to obtain command of the sea.

In the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667), the Dutch partially stopped their maritime traffic. Both sides tried to obtain command of the sea. Only afterward they would attack maritime trade and blockade the enemy coast. In the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672–1674), the British and the French attempted to threaten Holland with seaborne invasion in addition to land invasion. A defender was much more under threat than in the previous wars. The struggle for control of the sea in the intervening waters was much more important than in the previous wars. The Anglo-French fleet had to transport and land an invasion army. The Dutch were forced on the defensive because they had a smaller fleet. Hence, they had to make greater efforts to obtain sea control.

Corbett wrote that the English focus of fighting a decisive action in the First Anglo-Dutch War was carried to the extreme. Not much thought was given to exercising control of the sea. Also, the British emphasis on offensive action was the main cause for neglecting the need to sustain combat by bringing in fresh reinforcements. Hence, the British Navy suffered from exhaustion. After the battle, its fleet had to return to its home bases. In some major naval battles, the British inflicted larger losses on the enemy fleet but either failed or were unable to pursue the Dutch fleet. This, in turn, gave the Dutch sufficient freedom of action not only to secure their maritime trade but also to deliver severe blows on British trade. The question was how to induce the Dutch to fight a decisive action. To seek the enemy off his coast and thereby force him to leave his protected bases would not lead to a decisive action. One way was to attack the enemy maritime traffic instead of carrying out sporadic attacks. An effort to stop completely the enemy trade but far away from his coast led to a major naval battle, as the example of the Four Days’ Battle in June 1666 illustrates. In the Seven Years’ War, Admiral George Anson (1697–1762) tried for two years to secure a decision by seeking out the enemy fleet. Yet he failed, and the British fleet was exhausted.

In a war between two strong opponents, a single or even several major naval battles did not necessarily secure absolute and permanent control of the sea. As the example of the first three Anglo-Dutch Wars illustrate, a strong opponent was able to relatively quickly reconstitute its fleet and then resume the struggle for disputing command of the sea. Sometimes, a weaker fleet was still able to challenge the presence of the stronger fleet even after suffering a major defeat. But even when a weaker fleet was kept under observation, it did not follow that a stronger fleet had secured undisputed control of the sea. An active and energetic enemy, operating from a long coastline endowed with numerous harbors, invariably would take the opportunity to launch attacks and cause a diversion of one’s efforts. For example, the Royal Navy, after its great victory in the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, still faced the threat posed by the remaining French/Spanish naval forces. Between November 1805 and June 1815, some 87 warships were sunk or captured by the enemy. Also, the victory at Trafalgar did not negate the need to escort merchant ships. In another example, Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō (1848–1934) had to keep close watch on the movements of the remaining Russian ships based at Port Arthur and Vladivostok after his decisive victory at Tsushima in May 1905. The experience also shows that decisive victories at sea were largely wasted if the remnants of the enemy fleet were left at large or if not followed by an invasion of enemy-held territories.

In the era of oar/sail and the early era of steam, most major battles that turned out to have a “decisive” result occurred when one or both sides were carrying out missions that are today considered part of exercising sea control. Most major battles that had decisive results took place while one of the fleets provided cover for or attempted to prevent a large landing, supported army troops operating in the coastal area, protected/attacked a large convoy, or imposed/lifted a naval blockade. In contrast, attacks aimed to destroy an enemy fleet in its anchorage/port did not happen by an accident. Also planned were major battles aimed to prevent an enemy large-scale seaborne invasion, as the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805 illustrates.

In the era of sail, a large number of major battles between the opposing surface ships took place because of the need to defend/attack convoys of merchant shipping. This was especially the case during the first three Anglo-Dutch Wars. For example, in the inconclusive battle off Plymouth on 26 August 1652, both the British and the Dutch claimed victory. Admiral Michiel de Ruyter commanded 30 warships while the British General-at-Sea George Ayscue (ca. 1616–1671) had 40 large warships, eight smaller and four fireships. The Dutch lost more people, but the British fleet suffered more damage. In the aftermath of the battle, Ayscue sailed for Plymouth while de Ruyter assembled the convoy and sailed home.

In the Battle of Kentish Knock on 8 October 1652, the Dutch fleet of 64 warships led by Admirals de Ruyter and Johan de Witt (1625–1672) engaged some  British warships under General-at-sea Robert Blake (1598–1657). This battle took place in the areas between Dunkirk and Nieuwpoort. The British claimed to have captured two Dutch warships, and one was burned at no losses for themselves. The Dutch sources claimed 600 dead and wounded and heavy damages to the British ships. De Witt wanted to resume the fight the next day, but a war council decided against doing so because of damages on other Dutch ships. The next day (9 October), the British attempted to pursue the Dutch fleet but abandoned the chase because of the shallows close to the Dutch coast. De Witt’s attempt to secure the Dutch maritime trade by attack on the enemy naval force failed. In the aftermath of the battle, the British had greater control of the English Channel.

One of the most decisive naval battles of the First Anglo-Dutch War was fought off Dungeness on 10 December 1652. Because of their victory in the Battle at Kentish Knock, the British expected (wrongly) that the Dutch would not be able to repair their damages and would not reappear at sea. In the meantime, a small English squadron in the Mediterranean was worsted by the Dutch squadron, and the English Mediterranean trade became wholly unprotected. Hence, the British detached some 20 ships to the Mediterranean. This proved to be a big mistake. On 9 December, Blake, with only 37 warships and some small craft, was at Dover when Admiral Tromp, with a fleet of 73 warships plus small craft and fireships, left a 300-ship convoy off the Flemish coast and appeared near Goodwin-Sands. Both fleets clashed the next day at Dungeness. Blake lost five warships (two were captured and three sunk), while Dutch lost only a single ship. For some reason, Tromp did not try to pursue and complete the destruction of the enemy fleet. Such energetic warfare was unknown to him. He was mainly concerned with the safety of the convoy and was satisfied with partial success in the battle.

After the battle off Dungeness, control of the English Channel was for a few weeks in Dutch hands. The English ships were driven into the Thames Estuary. The port of London was closed. The British trade in the Channel was brought to a standstill. The lessons of dividing a fleet were not lost on the British. Afterward, they focused their efforts on defeating the enemy main body, and their Dutch opponents did the same. The Dutch concluded that their fleet should not escort large convoys in the Channel and narrow seas in the presence of a strong British fleet. As for the British, they put all their energies into strengthening their navy and on maintaining superiority in the decisive area.

The situation changed for the better for the British in the aftermath of their victory in the three-day Battle of Portland on 28 February–2 March 1653. This was one of the most decisive battles aimed to protect a large convoy. It encompassed the sea area from Portland to Cap Gris-Nez. The British had ready some 70 warships, many of them newly built. This fleet was under the command of three generals-at-sea: Robert Blake (2598–1657), Richard Deane (1610–1653), and George Monck (1608–1670). Admiral Maarten Tromp (1598–1653) had some 80 ships. Tromp also had the problem of protecting a 250-ship convoy. The Dutch acknowledged the loss of three ships sunk, one captured, and several others burned. The British losses were a single ship sunk and several others, including three or four large warships, damaged. The Dutch had 1,500–2,000 men killed, while the British had some 2,000 dead and wounded. Both sides had large personnel losses. On the last day of the battle, on 1 March near the Isle of Wight, the British captured two Dutch warships and 10 to 12 merchant ships. Many ships that subsequently left the convoy were captured by the British. On 2 March, more Dutch ships were destroyed or captured. By the end of the day, both fleets were near Cap Gris-Nez. The Dutch losses in these three days of fighting were about a dozen warships while the British lost only a single ship. Other sources claimed that the Dutch lost only four warships and 30 merchant vessels; the rest of the convoy managed to escape. The result of this battle was unfavorable for the Dutch because the British fleet obtained control of the Channel.

In the aftermath of the victory at Outer Gabbard in 2-3 June 1653, Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland) demanded the loss of Holland’s sovereignty as the price for peace. The Dutch were unwilling to accept that demand and raised a new fleet to lift the British blockade of their coast. On 8 August 1653, Admiral Tromp with 90 ships came to fight Monck with 100 ships at Katwijk. Tromp was joined the next day by a squadron under de Witt from Texel in the vicinity of Scheveningen. The Dutch penetrated the British blockading line, and in the subsequent mêlée both fleets suffered great losses. The Dutch lost 12 to 13 ships, 500 killed, 700 wounded, plus 700 captured. The British had half of the Dutch losses in ships. Monck won a big victory, but he was unable to conduct a pursuit. He had to leave for England to reconstitute his forces and thereby was forced to lift the blockade of the Dutch coast. This was then used by the Dutch to bring in a large convoy from the Sund and Norway.

Several decisive battles resulted in obtaining local control of the sea, although initially the main purpose was to support a landing on a hostile shore. For example, the Battle of Mylae (Milazzo today) in 260 bc during the First Punic War (264–241 bc) took place when the Roman fleet of some 130 ships led by Second Consul Gaius Duilius was on its way to land troops in Sicily. The Roman fleet was opposed by the Carthaginian fleet of some 120–130 ships under Hannibal Gisco (c. 300-290–258 BC). The Carthaginians were overly confident in their better seamanship and had contempt for the Romans as sailors. The Romans were using for the first time the corvus, a boarding device that allowed them to transform the fight at sea into land combat. They were successful in grappling some 50 Carthaginian ships, while the remainder of the Carthaginian fleet escaped. Duilius did not pursue the Carthaginians but instead sailed to the western tip of Sicily, where he landed troops just in time to relieve Segesta (Calatafimi-Segesta, southeast of today’s Trapani), which was under siege by the Carthaginian commander Hamilcar Barca (ca. 275–228 BC). Afterward, First Consul Lucius Cornelius Scipio (b. ca. 300 BC) landed on Corsica and captured the city of Aléria and expelled the Carthaginians. In 258 bc, Second Consul Gaius Sulpicius Paterculus made several successful attacks on the African coast.

In the Battle of Cape Ecnomus (Poggio di Sant’Angelo, Licata, Sicily, today) in 256 bc, the Roman fleet achieved a decisive victory. Despite vastly exaggerated claims, both the Roman and the Carthaginian fleets probably did not include more than 100 ships. The Carthaginians lost some 30 ships, and 64 other ships were captured, while the Romans lost only 24 ships. The Carthaginian fleet left the area while the Roman fleet returned to Sicily to rest its crews, repair the ships, and repair as many as possible captured enemy ships. After few days of refit on Sicily, the Romans resumed sailing and landed their army on the coast of Africa. However, they were not particularly successful on land. After few years, the Carthaginians restored their strength.

The Battle at Actium

The Battle at Actium on 2 September 31 bc during the Roman Civil War (32–30 bc) between the two leaders of the Second Triumvirate, Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) (the third triumvir was Aemilius Lepidus) had a decisive effect on the subsequent history of Rome and Western Civilization. Antony (83–30 bc) was assigned to rule Rome’s eastern provinces including Ptolomaic Egypt, ruled by Queen Cleopatra. His military and naval resources were drawn from Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. However, he had to leave a strong occupation force in these territories (four legions in Cyrenaica, four in Egypt, and three in Syria). Antony depended on the sea for supplying his army in Epirus. He was unable to carry the war to Italy without possessing control of the sea. His army of about 100,000 men marched from Macedonia to the shore of the Gulf of Ambracia (also known as the Gulf of Arta). Antony’s fleet consisted of about 800 ships, including 500 warships (200 were provided by Cleopatra). He embarked some 20,000 legionaries onboard his ships and burned all the ships for which he lacked personnel.

Octavian’s naval commander, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa commanded some 230 beaked ships and 30 unbeaked. The majority of his ships were triremes and quadriremes. Many were light, swift galleys – liburnae (built by the Dalmatian pirates).

In the ensuing battle, Antony lost some 200 ships while about 5,000 men were killed. Cleopatra and Antony fled the scene of battle with about 60 ships. Afterward, the opposing armies faced each other for one week before terms of surrender were agreed. After Antony’s legions in Cyrenaica and Syria heard about the defeat in the battle of Actium, they went over to Octavian. It took Octavian another year before he invaded Egypt and finally defeated Antony.

Octavian’s victory in the battle at Actium transformed the Mediterranean into a Roman lake and established Pax Romana on both land and sea. It secured the unity of the Roman Empire for some three hundred years and saved the Roman Empire from probable dissolution. For the first time in history, a single people held absolute sway over the entire Mediterranean.

Destroying the Enemy’s Forces by a Decisive Action at Sea II

Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada; the Apothecaries painting, sometimes attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. A stylised depiction of key elements of the Armada story: the alarm beacons, Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury, and the sea battle at Gravelines.

One of the most important decisive naval battles in history was the British defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The strategic objective of the Spanish King Phillip II (1527–1598) was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) and the Tudor dynasty and rule England by force. The main reason for Phillip II’s decision to invade was to stop England’s interference and subsidies to rebels in the Spanish possessions in the Low Countries, principally the Dutch provinces and thereby stop English interference in the Spanish Netherlands. The Spanish King Phillip II directed the commander of the expedition, Duke Medina Sidonia (1550–1615), to sail up to the Thames Estuary and then to cover a landing on English soil of about 17,000 men [led by General Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma (1635–1689)], deployed in Flanders. Medina Sidonia would be involved in combat only if Farnese’s troops could not be landed without enemy opposition.

The Spaniards assembled a large fleet to cover the projected invasion of England. When it sailed out from La Coruña on 23 July 1588, Medina Sidonia had under his command 137 warships and 27,500 men (including 7,000 seamen and 17,000 soldiers), plus some 60 cargo vessels with 6,000 men. The Armada included 20 galleons, four galleasses and galleys each, 44 armed merchantmen, 23 transports, and 35 smaller vessels. The British fleet consisted of 197 ships (including 23 ships that voluntarily joined during the fight) with about 16,000 men.

After many delays, the powerful armada approached the western entrance to the English Channel. The British main fleet was then deployed at Plymouth while one squadron was at the Thames Estuary. The first clashes between the British ships and the Armada took place off Plymouth and Portland on 21 and 22–23 July, respectively. Yet Medina Sidonia continued to sail up the Channel and anchored off Calais. On 29 July, the largest battle took place near the small port of Gravelines in the Flanders. The Spanish losses were very heavy. By the nightfall of 29 July, they lost 11 ships and 3 ships sunk from English gunfire that evening plus 8 ships lost from other causes. A large number of the Spanish ships were heavily damaged. The Spaniards had much larger personnel losses than the British: 600 dead and 800 wounded. The British losses were only 50–100 dead. The Armada never recovered from the losses it suffered from the English guns in the Battle of Gravelines.

In the aftermath, Medina Sidonia was unable to make a junction with the army in Flanders and effectively gave control of the Channel to the British fleet. The British ships went home to replenish stores, fearing another Spanish attempt to land. Because the return route to Spain via the Channel was blocked, Medina Sidonia decided to take advantage of the southerly wind and return home by sailing through the Channel, across the North Sea, and then around Scotland and Ireland. However, he lost some 50 ships in a heavy weather while rounding Scotland and Ireland. The remaining 65 ships, with some 10,000 starved and fever-stricken men, reached home waters by the end of September. The total Spanish losses in personnel were very heavy – some 20,000 dead. The British victory led eventually to the collapse of the Spanish power. It restored the strategic initiative to England. It led England to create a large maritime empire and ultimately acquire the status of world power. Also, the defeat of the Spanish Armada led to the rise of Dutch sea power.

In the Battle of Solebay (also called the Battle of Southwold Bay) on 7 June 1672 (during the Third Anglo-Dutch War), the Dutch Admiral Michiel Adriaenszoon de Ruyter (1607–1676) defeated a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet and thereby prevented the landing of an invasion army and broke up England’s attempt to blockade the Dutch coast. The Anglo-French fleet under the Duke of York, consisting of 71 ships (45 English and 26 French), faced the Dutch fleet of 61 ships led by Admiral Michiel de Ruyter. The allies also had 16 small ships, 35 transports, and two dozen fireships, while the Dutch fleet had 14 small ships, 22 transports, and three dozen fireships. The Anglo-French ships carried 5,100 guns and 33,000 men while the Dutch ships had 4,500 guns and 21,000 men. In addition, the allies had some 2,000 soldiers ready for embarkation at Dunkirk. In the ensuing battle, the British lost four and the Dutch only two ships. Yet both sides suffered heavy losses in personnel: 2,500 killed and wounded on board the English ships, while Dutch losses were about 2,000 killed and wounded. Both sides claimed victory. However, de Ruyter was a clear victor. He remained another night in the vicinity of the enemy fleet and left the area on the second night without being pursued.

In two battles off Schooneveldt (near the Scheldt River Estuary) on 7 June and 14 June 1673, the Dutch fleet under de Ruyter engaged a much stronger combined Anglo-French fleet commanded by Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619–1682). The Dutch fleet had some 64 ships and about 14,700 men. The Anglo-French fleet consisted of 86 ships and some 24,300 men. The first battle ended inconclusively; the Dutch lost a single ship while the allies lost two. Both sides suffered almost equal damage. The second battle was also inconclusive; neither side lost ships. However, a dozen of the British ships suffered heavy damage, while the Dutch had only a few ships damaged. The British lost nearly 2,000 men while Dutch losses were half that many. As a result, the allies had to abandon their plan for landing in the United Provinces. Also, the route for the arrival of a large Dutch convoy became open. This dual naval battle is considered a Dutch victory. De Ruyter obtained control of the sea for the next six to seven weeks. He was able to keep scouting ships close to the British coast, while his main fleet was at anchor at Schooneveldt. He also sent a squadron of 28 ships to reconnoiter the Thames Estuary. On 3 July 1673, he left his anchorage with the entire fleet to demonstrate to the British that the Dutch held command of the sea and was not destroyed, as the rumors were then circulated in England and Europe.

During the War of the Grand Alliance, the French fleet was preparing to transport a Franco-Irish army to Ireland to restore James II to the English throne. The plan was that Admiral Anne-Hilarion de Costentin, Count de Tourville (1642–1701) would command some 50–60 ships of the line (13 of these would come from Toulon). However, the Toulon squadron under Admiral Victor-Marie D’Estrees (1660–1737) never arrived. Tourville had available only 44 ships of the line. Yet he received a direct order from Louis XIV that he had to engage the enemy regardless of the size the enemy force. To prevent invasion, the Anglo-Dutch fleet of 82 ships engaged Tourville’s squadron near Cape Barfleur on 29 May 1692. The battle was tactically inconclusive. The French did not lose any ships, although they suffered heavy damages. In the battle off La Hague on 2 June, some 99 Anglo-Dutch ships of the line engaged 44 French ships. In the initial clash, neither side lost a single ship. It was only during the four-day-long retreat that Tourville lost some 15 ships of the line. The British pursued the withdrawing French fleet all the way to Cherbourg. In the aftermath, the Anglo-Dutch fleet controlled the Channel. However, except for some minor actions, the Anglo-Dutch fleet was generally passive.

The main reasons for the French defeat were the rigid orders issued by King Louis XIV and the execution of those orders by Tourville.96 Although the French replaced the lost ships of the line, far more important was the psychological effect of the defeat on the French king, the Navy, and population at large. The public was accustomed to the glories and successes of Louis XIV. In the aftermath of the Cape Barfleur/La Hague battles, the French radically changed their strategy. They gave up on the employment of their navy against the enemy fleet and focused on the war against the enemy maritime commerce. For the next five years, the French Navy mostly conducted commerce raiding (guerre de course, “war of the chase”) against the allies. As result, it decayed as a combat force. Mahan wrote that the main reason was not defeat at Cape Barfleur/La Hague but the exhaustion of France and the great cost of the continental wars. Admiral Richmond wrote that the French losses were not greater than what the allies suffered in the battle of Beachy Head. However, the allies with their greater resources could recover from their defeat, while the French, lacking such resources, could not. The French fleet continued to operate at sea, but attempts to regain control of the Channel were abandoned.

Painter Nicholas Pocock’s conception of the situation at 1300 hours.

One of the most decisive naval battles in the era of sail was the Battle of Trafalgar on 20 October 1805, fought to indirectly prevent an enemy landing. The British Admiral Horatio Nelson’s 27 ships of the line met and decisively defeated 33 Franco-Spanish ships of the line (15 were Spanish), led by Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve (1763–1806). The British objective was to prevent the Franco-Spanish fleet from reaching Brest and then cover the then widely believed Napoleon I’s intent to invade England. Although the British lost no ships, many of their ships were badly damaged. Their casualties were about 1,700. The British captured 14 enemy ships while 11 ships withdrew to Cádiz, where they were promptly blockaded by Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood (1748–1810). Four surviving French ships of the line were captured on 4 November. The Franco-Spanish casualties were 2,600 dead and 7,000 prisoners (including Admiral Villeneuve).

Victory at Trafalgar freed England from further threats of invasion, secured its naval predominance, and offered the prospect of more energetic efforts in the war on land. However, that was not immediately known because of Napoleon I’s decisive victories at Ulm in October and at Austerlitz in December 1805. It was only later that the British forces took a conspicuous part in the Peninsular Campaign and elsewhere.

Many influential historians believed that the defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar ruined Napoleon I’s plan to invade England. However, Napoleon I had decided even before Villeneuve arrived in Cádiz in August 1805 to move his army against the Austrians (which eventually led to the siege of Ulm and the surrender of some 27,000 Austrian troops on 19 October 1805). Mahan wrote, “Trafalgar was not only the greatest and most momentous victory won either by land or by seas during the whole Revolutionary War…No victory and no series of victories of Napoleon produced the same effect on Europe…. A generation passed after Trafalgar before France again seriously threatened England at sea.” For Napoleon I, the prospect of defeating the British Navy vanished. In Mahan’s view, the defeat at Trafalgar forced Napoleon I either to impose his rule on all Europe or to abandon the hope of conquering Great Britain. Hence, he tried to compel every state on the continent to exclude British commerce and thereby exhaust the British resources if it continued the war. Napoleon I issued the Berlin Decrees on 21 November 1806, which imposed a Continental Blockade against all trade with Britain. They were followed by the Milan Decrees in December 1807. The blockade stretched from Spain to Russia. The ultimate objective was to weaken Great Britain and force it to accept peace.

A well-known and highly influential British general and theoretician, J.F.C. Fuller (1878–1966), asserted that Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar on 20 October 1805 had a profound effect. Among other things, it shattered forever Napoleon I’s dream of an invasion of England. It allowed England to become an undisputed master of the oceans that eventually led to Pax Britannica. Without Trafalgar, there would be no victory in the Peninsular War (1807–1814), and it is “hard to believe that there would ever have been a Waterloo.

In the Battle of Lissa on 20 July 1866, a weaker but much better led and trained Austrian fleet defeated the Italian fleet and thereby obtained command of the Adriatic. The original intent of the Austrians was to prevent the Italians from landing and capturing the critically important island of Lissa (Vis today) in the central Adriatic. Italian Admiral Carlo Pellion di Persano (1806–1883) commanded a force consisting of 12 modern ironclads (totaling 46,000 tons), and 23 wooden ships (frigates, gunboats, dispatch vessels, and transports totaling 28,000 tons). However, instead of focusing on the destruction of the incoming enemy fleet and thereby obtaining sea control, he unwisely engaged shore batteries as a preliminary to the landing ashore. Persano was surprised by the sudden appearance of the Austrian squadron under Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff (1827–1871). The Austrian squadron was greatly inferior to the Italians in the number of modern ships and guns. Its total tonnage was some 47,000 tons. It consisted of seven screw frigates (totaling 27,000 tons), seven screw wooden frigates, one steam-powered two-decker, and nine gunboats (totaling 20,000 tons). Tegetthoff realized before departing the Fasana roadstead in Pola (Pula today) on 19 July that the only way to achieve victory was to use some unorthodox method of engaging the enemy fleet. In the ensuing clash that quickly became a mêlée, the Austrians rammed and sunk two Italian ironclads while two other ships were heavily damaged. The Italians also had 38 officers and 574 men killed and 40 wounded, plus 19 captured. The Austrian losses were only one steam-powered two-decker damaged, 38 dead, and 138 wounded. However, Tegetthoff was unable to pursue the enemy fleet because his ships were slower. The Italians had forgotten that the true strength of a fleet resided not in excellence of weapons alone but also in the training and quality of personnel. The Italian fleet lacked organization, discipline, and sea training. Its crews were raw and unskilled in gunnery, and its officers were inexperienced.

The Austrian victory not only determined the question of command in the Adriatic but also had a highly positive effect for Austria on the peace settlement. On the same day that the Battle of Lissa was fought, the armistice ended the hostilities between Austria and Prussia on the land front. The Austrians withdraw to the Isonzo River and thereby left Venice in Italian hands. France and Prussia pressured Italy to conclude an armistice on its own with Austria. Yet the Italian Prime Minister Bettino Ricasoli refused the call and insisted on obtaining “natural” frontiers for Italy. These included the direct cession of Venice and the South Tyrol and a guarantee that Italian interests in Istria would be respected. However, the Italian government ignored the fact that Tegetthoff had won command of the sea and that the Austro-Prussian armistice had strengthened Vienna’s hand. On 12 August 1866, Austria and Italy signed an armistice at Cormons. The peace treaty was signed on 3 October 1866. Although Austria was forced to cede Venice to Italy, it was able to retain control of the rest of the Adriatic coast.

The Battle of the Yalu River on 17 September 1894 was the largest naval engagement of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. It ended in a decisive Japanese victory. The battle was the result of the Chinese landing of some 5,000 troops at the estuary of the Yalu River on 16 September. The transports were escorted by Chinese warships. The Chinese squadron consisted of 14 ships (two armorclads, four cruisers, six protected cruisers, two corvettes and torpedo boats each), while the Japanese squadron was composed of 12 ships (three armorclads, seven protected cruisers and one corvette, plus one gunboat and transport each). The Chinese losses were heavy: five ships sunk and three damaged. The Japanese had only four ships damaged. The Chinese crews fought bravely but lacked skills. Perhaps the most important effect of the battle was that the Chinese fighting spirit had been broken. In the aftermath of the battle, the Chinese fleet withdrew to Lueshunkou for repairs and then to Weihaiwei. The Japanese did not attempt to pursue the Chinese ships. The Chinese fleet was later destroyed in the Battle of Weihaiwei on 20 January–12 February 1895.

Some decisive naval battles were fought to recapture an important position and/or to prevent further enemy conquest, as was the Battle of Lepanto on 7 October 1571 in the Gulf of Corinth, the Ionian Sea. The Christian fleet of the Holy League, composed of Venice, Spain, Sardinia, Genoa, and the Papal States, plus several other Italian states under the command of the Hapsburg Prince Don John of Austria (1547–1578), inflicted a heavy defeat on the Ottoman fleet. Venice’s objective was to destroy the Turkish fleet and thereby regain Cyprus (lost in 1570). Spain was not particularly interested in the Mediterranean commerce because its interests were primarily in Peru and Mexico. However, the Spaniards wanted the Turks to be crushed so that they would not threaten its possessions in Italy (Kingdom of Sardinia) and the Spanish commerce in the Mediterranean. On 7 October, the Christian fleet consisted of 108 Venetian and 81 Spanish galleys, along with 32 galleys provided by the pope and other smaller states, plus six Venetian galleasses. The Christian ships carried 84,000 men, including 20,000 soldiers. The Turkish fleet under Sufi Ali Pasha (d. 1571) consisted of 210 galleys with about 75,000 men (50,000 sailors and 25,000 soldiers). The Turks had the numerical superiority, but their perhaps greatest advantage was psychological. The Ottoman armies and fleets were the terror of Europe. Nevertheless, the Christian ships were better armed and their soldiers better armed and protected.

In the ensuing Battle at Lepanto (Naupaktos or Nafpaktos today) on the northern coast of the Gulf of Corinth, the Christian fleet inflicted huge losses on the Ottoman fleet. The Turkish losses were heavy: 107 galleys were captured, and 80 burned and sunk. They had 25,000 men killed and 3,500 captured. About 15,000 slaves (12,000 were Christians) were liberated. Only about 60 Turkish ships, with 10,000–12,000 men, escaped. The Christians lost only 13 ships, but about 7,700 men (4,800 Venetians, 2,000 Spaniards, and 800 Papalini) were killed in combat, and about 8,000 were wounded. Defeat in the Battle of Lepanto was a major blow to the Turkish sultan Selim II’s prestige. The Christian victory saved the Venetian-controlled islands of Corfu and Zante in the Ionian Sea and most of Dalmatia from Turkish conquest.

A relatively large number of major naval battles were fought to provide support to the army operating in the coastal area. For example, one of the most decisive naval battles in history, the Battle of Salamis in August (or September) 480 bc, was aimed to cut off the Persian army’s retreat from mainland Greece. In the Second Persian Invasion of Greece (480–479 bc), King Xerxes I (519–465 bc) led an army of only about 20,000. The Persians had about 1,000 ships and the Greeks 367 ships. Athens and its allies (Sparta and Corinth) The battle was conducted over three days and coincided with the land battle at Thermopylae. The Persians lost about 200 and the Greeks about 40 ships.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Salamis, the morale of the Persians was broken. The Phoenician contingent, terrified of harsh treatment and the reproaches of Xerxes I, slipped their cables secretly at night and sailed for home. In 479 bc, the Greeks won a great victory at Mycale (east of the island of Samos) on or about 27 August 479 bc by destroying the remnants of the Persian fleet. The Battle of Salamis ended all Persian attempts to conquer Greece. It essentially saved the Greek and Western Civilization and thereby changed the history of the world.

In the Peloponnesian War (431–404 bc), Sparta’s commander Lysander (d. 395 bc), with an inferior force, captured all but nine (some sources say 20) out of 180 ships of the Athenian fleet off the mouth of the Aegospotami River (across from the Hellespont) in 405 bc. The battle lasted about one hour. This victory allowed the Spartans to advance to Athens and force the Athenians to surrender in April 404 bc.

During the First Punic War (264–241 bc), in the battle of the Aegetes Islands (near Lilybaeum) in 242 bc, the Romans inflicted a heavy defeat on the hitherto much more successful Carthaginians. The Romans did not decide until 243 bc to build a fleet. Afterward, they constructed some 200 quinqueremes. The Carthaginians assembled a fleet of some 250 ships and sent it to Sicily. The Romans proved to be much superior in seamanship than were the Carthaginians. They sunk some 50 enemy ships and captured another 70. They also taking some 10,000 prisoners. Their own losses were 30 ships sunk and 50 crippled. Many Carthaginian ships escaped, and the Romans were unable to pursue them. This naval battle decided the outcome of the struggle on Sicily. The Carthaginian army under Hamilcar Barca and the few strongholds left in Sicily were utterly isolated. The Romans starved the Punic garrisons on Sicily. Both Rome and Carthage were exhausted. However, it was Carthage that sued for peace. Carthage was forced to evacuate Sicily. Afterward, the Romans were masters of both the sea and land. Carthage lacked either the will or resources to restore its previous naval dominance.

The Battle of Naoluchus (at the northwestern tip of Sicily, some ten miles from Messina), on 29 or 30 August 36 bc, had a decisive effect in the civil war between Octavian [later emperor Augustus (63 bc–AD 14)] and Sextus Pompey (67 –35 bc), which was also called the “Sicilian Revolt” (44–36 bc). Octavian’s fleet, led by Agrippa (64/63–12 bc), defeated the fleet led by Sextus Pompey. Octavian landed three legions on Sicily, and these forces were supplied by the sea. Pompey’s position became desperate, and he assembled some 280 ships at Messana. Agrippa’s fleet consisted of some 130 vs. Pompey’s 150–160 ships. Pompey’s fleet was predominantly composed of smaller and faster ships that were better suited for fighting pirates. Agrippa won a decisive victory. He lost only three ships, while Pompey lost 28 ships, 17 ships escaped, and the remainder were captured. Pompey escaped to Messana and then fled to the east, ending Pompey’s resistance to the Second Triumvirate.

The outcome of the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) was essentially decided by the British defeat and subsequent surrender of some 8,000 British troops under General Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805) in the Siege of Yorktown on 19 September 1781. This defeat was not militarily catastrophic but had an enormous political and psychological impact. Among other things, it fatally undermined Parliament’s confidence in the British government. The French fleet under Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse (1722–1788) made a major contribution to that victory in the Battle of the Chesapeake (or Virginia Capes) on 5 September 1781. This battle was a result of an agreement between General George Washington and the French General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur de Rochambeau (1725–1807) on 21 May 1781. Both then agreed that the effort of the French West Indies Fleet should be directed against either New York or the Chesapeake. De Rochambeau notified de Grasse that he personally would prefer Chesapeake because the French government refused to provide force for the siege of New York. By 15 August, the allied generals knew that de Grasse’s fleet would reach Chesapeake. The French governor of Cap Francoise (Cap-Haïtien today) spared a force of 3,500 men upon the condition that the Spanish squadron would anchor at the place that de Grasse had procured. The governor also raised money for the Americans from the governor of Havana. De Grasse arrived at Lynnhaven within the Chesapeake (near Cape Henry) on 30 August. He had 28 ships of the line. On 25 August, the French squadron of eight ships of the line led by Commodore Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, Count de Barras (1719–1793) sailed out of Newport, Rhode Island, to join de Grasse.

Some 2,500 American troops under Washington and 4,000 French troops under de Rochambeau crossed the Hudson River on 24 August and then continued their advance toward the head of the Chesapeake Bay. Their objective was to defeat the British troops under Cornwallis. After he heard about de Grasse’s departure, British Admiral George Brydges Rodney (1718–1792), then in the West Indies, sent 14 ships of the line under Admiral Samuel Hood (1724–1816) to the North American waters. Because of his illness, Rodney left the West Indies for England. Hood reached Chesapeake Bay three days before de Grasse did. After reconnoitering the Chesapeake Bay and finding it empty, he sailed to New York, where he met five ships of the line under Admiral Thomas Graves (1725–1802), who as a senior officer took command of the entire force. Graves left for Chesapeake Bay on 31 August. He hoped to intercept de Barras before he joined de Grasse. De Grasse, expecting de Barras to arrive, remained outside Chesapeake Bay for five days without taking any action against the British fleet.

On 5 September, Graves appeared with 19 ships of the line in the vicinity of Cape Henry. Graves was surprised not to find the enemy fleet in Chesapeake Bay. He believed that de Grasse had 14 ships of the line. However, de Grasse had under his command 24 ships of the line. That same day, de Grasse received a request from George Washington to support his troops on the move from Philadelphia to Virginia. De Grasse assigned seven ships of the line to that task but wanted to wait on the return of his boats before deploying them. In the meantime, de Grasse received information about appearance of the British fleet.

In the ensuing clash, only Graves’ van and center became heavily engaged; yet de Grasse extricated his ships and returned to the Chesapeake Bay. Graves left the scene of action for New York with 18 ships of the line in order to repair damaged ships. The British lost some 90 men killed and 246 men wounded. The French losses were about 200 men. Graves failed to bring badly needed reinforcements to Cornwallis. The lack of naval support made Cornwallis’s end inevitable. On 14 September, de Grasse transported American and French troops to the proximity of Yorktown, where they joined with troops of Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834). By 28 September, Yorktown was completely encircled by the American and French troops. De Grasse remained in the area until 5 November, when he left for West Indies.

De Grasse suffered eventual defeat in the Battle of Saints (between Dominica and Guadalupe) on 12 April 1782. His fleet of 29 ships of the line met 34 British ships of the line under Rodney and Hood. Seven French ships were captured, including the flagship. Within a week two, more ships were captured. However, this great British victory came too late to affect the outcome of the American Revolutionary War.

Some major battles have taken place when a weaker side tried to either prevent the establishment of, or lift the existing naval blockade by a stronger side. For example, in the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the Battle of Lowestoft on 13 June 1665 was fought because the Dutch tried to prevent a second blockade of their coast by the British. The British fleet of some 110 ships under the Duke of York inflicted a heavy defeat on the Dutch fleet under Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam. The Dutch lost some 17 ships and 4,000 men while the British lost only two ships and 800 men. Yet the Duke of York, for some reason, failed to pursue the withdrawing Dutch ships.

The British victory in the Battle of Cape of St. Vincent on 14 February 1797 allowed the subsequent blockade of the Spanish fleet. The British fleet of 15 ships of the line plus five frigates and two smaller ships under Admiral John Jervis encountered the Spanish fleet of 24 ships of the line, seven frigates plus one brig and four armed merchantmen led by Admiral José de Córdoba y Ramos (1732–1815) on the way to Cádiz. The Spanish fleet had passed the Strait of Gibraltar on 5 February 1797. Its task was first to cover a convoy carrying quicksilver and then to join the French squadron at Brest for the planned invasion of England. However, because of unfavorable winds, Córdoba’s squadron was pushed much farther into the Atlantic than intended. As result, it was unable to reach Cádiz before it was intercepted by the British fleet. In the ensuing clash, the British captured four ships of the line, including two three-deckers. Some ten Spanish and five British ships of the line were heavily damaged. The Spanish had 260 dead and 350 wounded. The British losses were only 73 dead and about 400 wounded. Jervis did not pursue the beaten enemy. He was not a commander who would take a substantial risk for a doubtful further gain. In the aftermath of the battle, Jervis imposed a blockade on Cádiz. The Spanish fleet at Cádiz remained blockaded until the Treaty of Amiens in March 1802.

Only relatively few decisive naval battles were planned from the outset to obtain control of the sea. For example, at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), the British obtained command of the “narrow sea” (the English Channel) after decisively defeating the French fleet in the Battle of Sluys (on the inlet between west Flanders and Zeeland) (also called the Battle of l’Ecluse). In 1338, the French King Phillip VI started hostilities at sea. Two years later, the British King Edward III declared himself king of France. He wanted to start new conquests, although he did not have a navy. Hence, he demanded from various parts of England that all ships 100 tons and larger to be in his service. Edward III also planned to have a strong army to be transported to the port Sluys, near Damme in Flanders. He put some 200 ships to sea on 22 June 1340. The next day, this force was joined by some 50 ships. The French fleet of some 400 ships (only 190 were large ships) appeared at Blankenberge, about 10 nm west of Sluys. In the battle on 24 June, the French fleet suffered a major defeat, and the British suffered no losses. This battle was decisive because the British for the first time obtained one of four narrow seas washing their shores.