The Sloop Of War


The growth in the size of sloops (drawings to the same scale). Many of the Merlin class sloops of 1745 were converted to ship rig in the 1750s, although this was under consideration in the 1740s.

The year 1727 saw the death of George I and the coronation of his son who, like his father, would preside over a generally peaceful period, at least until 1739 when war would erupt again, this time with Spain in the Caribbean. This war later widened into the War of the Austrian Succession, which brought France into the conflict on the side of the Spanish. In the meantime the areas of tension affecting British possessions and trade overseas remained centred on the Caribbean and the Western Mediterranean. It was protection of these areas, particularly the Caribbean and the transatlantic trade, that was to result in the ever-increasing demand for sloops and small Sixth Rates.

The pivotal point in the history of the sloop of war was undoubtedly 1732, for it was in that year that the Admiralty and the Navy Board recognised a need to establish standard requirements in terms of measurement, burthen, armament and crew for general-purpose sloops. From this time onwards the size and number of cruising and bomb sloops in the Royal Navy was set to increase massively. Why this was so, during a period of comparative peace, is the central question: the answer, putting it broadly, was that the time was ripe. British naval capabilities and responsibilities were expanding, the transatlantic trade with the Caribbean was growing, the colonies themselves were becoming better established and the Mediterranean continued to be a region of potential instability. This all added up to an environment where a small, fast and handy vessel would be of great use, one that would work under the umbrella of British naval superiority and whose employment was economical but adequate for the job in hand. In broad terms the size was to remain close to 200 tons throughout the 1730s rising to 250 tons in the 1740s when there was an increase in gun calibre from 4pdrs with the introduction of the short 6pdr. This weapon was to remain the preferred armament for the sloop until the coming of the carronade in the late eighteenth century. From the late 1740s onwards ship rig would be increasingly common, either by conversion or through new-building, and burthen would eventually rise to 350 tons.

These increases in number and size reflect the nature of the wars that were about to engulf Europe and its overseas possessions. These started with the ‘War of Jenkins’ Ear’ in 1739 between Britain and Spain. The unusual name for this war points up the root cause of the problem. Jenkins was the captain of a merchant ship which in 1731 was apprehended by the infamous Spanish Guarda Costa for dubious reasons relating to trade. In the ensuing fracas Jenkins had his ear cut off. Eight years later this incident was to become a retrospective ‘last straw’ in the British determination to harry and assault Spanish possessions and trade in the greater Caribbean.

It was essentially a war about trade and the licence that allowed Britain to provide slaves to the Spanish colonies of Central America. The conflict lasted until 1748, being subsumed in 1740 into the greater War of the Austrian Succession. Although France and Britain were engaged against each other on land from the outset, France did not declare war until 1744, following this with an attempted invasion that failed whilst still at sea. In 1740, the Royal Navy under Vernon was initially successful, capturing the small poorly defended Spanish port of Porto Bello in what is now Panama. But thereafter almost all the amphibious operations against Spanish possessions failed, not least due to the sickness and disease that invariably accompanied a long operation in the tropics, but also due to the difficulty of establishing harmonious inter-service relationships. Much of this was on the personal level.

The war in the Americas continued with the failure of British amphibious operations, largely through the afore-mentioned disease but also due to the well-defended nature of the Spanish ports. The element of surprise had been lost and the targets selected by Britain’s admiral in the region proved to be too hard a nut to crack. At sea privateers on all sides, French, Spanish and British, attacked each other’s trade, but only the British regularly used naval ships to provide escort to commercial shipping. Once again the sloop of war had the opportunity to engage her arch-enemy, the privateer.

In the Mediterranean 1744 saw a combined Franco-Spanish fleet sail from Toulon. There followed an indecisive engagement with the British fleet, based at Mahon but with orders to blockade Toulon and prevent the Spanish, with French assistance, from reinforcing their forces on the Italian peninsular. Britain, although only minimally involved in the plethora of land battles that punctuated this war, was an ally of Austria and its Hapsburg rulers and therefore as part of that alliance was committed to using its power at sea to support the Austrian cause in Italy. The Spanish interest in Italy lay in their desire to repossess the inheritance of their last Hapsburg king. The question arose over the right of a woman, Maria Theresa, to succeed to the Hapsburg Austrian Empire, an outcome unacceptable to many and providing Spain with an opportunity to grab parts of Italy.

At home, a Channel fleet under old Admiral Norris kept an eye on French moves for an invasion across the Channel or through a Jacobite rebellion in the North. In the event the invasion failed at sea and the rebellion, initially successful with Prince Charles Edward’s forces reaching Derby, turned into a rout at Culloden near Inverness.

The few naval successes in this period, apart from Porto Bello, came towards the end with the foundation of a new strategy that kept the British fleet at sea in the Western approaches when at war with France. From this position Britain could guard the Channel, since the seaborne element of any French invasion force must make use of Brest. It also allowed the British to attack French squadrons and convoys from an up-wind position; it also guarded any approach to Ireland and the Irish Sea, often a vulnerable point in the past. The difficulty was to sustain squadrons in waters that were habitually rough and gale-blown. However, Torbay, on the South Devon coast, offered a reasonable refuge in all winds except from east to south. The last major engagements of the war were fought off Finisterre, on the west coast of France, against French convoys, and both were successful. At the second Battle of Finisterre the British squadron was commanded by a young rear admiral named Edward Hawke. He destroyed the escort but the convoy escaped towards the West Indies, so immediately following the engagement he sent the fastsailing sloop Weazle III to Jamaica to warn of the arrival of an unescorted French convoy. The necessary action was taken to ‘welcome’ them.

The series of engagements of this war – at home, in the Americas, the East Indies and in the Mediterranean – can be seen as providing the British Navy and Army with experience that they would put to good use in the Seven Years War of the following decade. They also supplied the incentives to establish defensible bases capable of sustaining a large naval force and a victualling and logistic system to keep those bases and their ships in a condition to dominate their region.

At times the Royal Navy had been severely overstretched but by the conclusion of this war some hard lessons had been learned, and it had just about re-affirmed its position as the most powerful in the World. This was to be challenged in the next conflict, the Seven Years War (1757–1763), by a revitalised French Navy. Spain elected to remain neutral for most of the war, but very unwisely decided to enter it in 1761 on the side of France, which allowed a British Navy, at the height of its success and confidence, to seize both Havana and Manila. In this war Britain was to secure a dominant position in the Indian subcontinent, in North America and Canada and in the greater Caribbean. It left Britain with a global empire to protect but it provided her navy with bases from which she could dominate the seas.


Indonesian Navy 2016


The Indonesian Navy’s procurement is currently split between small numbers of ‘high-end’ vessels and larger numbers of less sophisticated patrol and missile craft. Typical of the latter is the lead KCR-60 missile-armed fast attack craft Samapri, seen here on exercises with the Royal Australian Navy’s Wollongong in March 2016. (Royal Australian Navy)


Two images of the first Indonesian ‘Sigma 10514’ frigate Raden Eddy Martadinata, being floated out from PT Pal’s dockyard in Surabaya in January 2016. Construction of two ships is currently underway and more could be ordered in what is probably the most important Indonesian surface warship construction programme. (Piet Sinke via Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding)


Indonesian naval procurement continues to be split between a small number of ‘high-end’ war-fighting vessels and large numbers of relatively unsophisticated patrol ships of various shapes and sizes for constabulary roles. 14 Further progress has been made in both areas over the last year. However, the long-term target of achieving a 274- strong fleet – including over a hundred combatants – by 2024 that was first announced in the Minimum Essential Forces modernisation programme initiated in 2009, looks set to be substantially scaled back to a little over 150 units. In effect, new deliveries are just about matching the pace of withdrawals.

The most costly front-line programme in progress is for the construction of three new Type 209 submarines to an improved version of South Korea’s Chang Bogo design. The first of these, Nagabanda, was rolled-out in March 2016 by DSME and should be delivered on schedule during 2017. DSME is also building a second member of the class, Trisula. Construction then scheduled to switch to PT PAL in Surabaya where a new facility should start work on the final boat from October 2016. The selection of the Type 209 design makes sense given Indonesia already has substantial experience of operating a pair of similar boats since the early 1980s. However, it appears that other designs are also being examined for further construction that is ultimately intended to extend the underwater flotilla to between ten and twelve submarines. These include Russia’s ‘Kilo’ class and the French DCNS ‘Scorpène’ design.

Meanwhile, construction of surface combatants is being assisted by a long-standing alliance with the Dutch Damen group, which delivered four ‘Sigma 9113’ class corvettes between 2007 and 2009. Assembly of a follow-on class of larger ‘Sigma 10514’ light frigates has transferred to PT PAL, who are currently building two units. The first of these, Martadinata, was launched on 18 January 2016. It seems that it is currently hoped to build at least six of the class to replace the elderly Van Speijk class frigates, which are reported to fall due for decommissioning from 2017 onwards.

Other surface assets include the three Bung Tomo class corvettes originally ordered by Brunei from BAE Systems and delivered in 2014 and the three older Fatahillah vessels built in the Netherlands in the late 1970s. The first of these has been completing a mid-life upgrade led by Ultra Electronics but it is not known whether this work will extend to the two other ships. Fifteen Project 1331 ‘Parchim 1’ are also still in service, although one – Pati Ununs – was partly sunk in a grounding incident in May 2016 and may not be repaired.

Turning to smaller vessels, recent years have seen an expansion in orders of fast attack craft based on the KCR-40, KCR-60 and KCR-63 designs. However, reports suggest that production of the KCR-63 Klewang class trimarans will not progress beyond a single vessel and that the SAAB combat suite envisaged for the boat will no longer be fitted. However, a fourth KCR-63 vessel has been ordered to supplement the three already in commission, whist the KCR-40 hull has been selected as the basis for a more lightly-armed patrol vessel variant.

Whilst current focus is on indigenous construction, foreign yards have been contracted for specialised ships. For example, the first of two Rigel class hydrographic ships built by OCEA in France arrived in Indonesia in May 2015. Her sister, Spica – commissioned in October of the same year – followed in December. A new sail training ship is also under construction at the Freire Shipyard in Spain for delivery in 2017.

Maritime Australia in the 21st Century


SAM GOLDSMITH analyses three possible options for a better surface combatant mix for the RAN. In considerable technical detail, this forensic examination is essential reading for naval personnel and anyone concerned with getting the best force for Australia’s future. The full paper is here.

As a very large continental-scale island, Australia’s maritime credentials should be obvious. Australia has 25,760 km of coastline and 58,920 km2 of sea area under its jurisdiction. It is relatively isolated, but is flanked to the north by the Indonesian archipelago. Its geostrategic location, with strong ties to the Asian markets, and important military links with the USA and South East Asia make Australia vitally important. “As a significant medium power in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia inescapably is a participant in the most politically, economically, and strategically dynamic part of the world. …

As a maritime trading state highly dependent upon secure sea lanes of communication stretching from the Middle East to North America, Australia is tied comprehensively and profitably to Asia’s economic success.” As Commander Simon Bateman RAN points out: “Australia is a medium power on a world scale [and] Australia is also a medium maritime power.” It is interesting to note that Australia defines ‘medium power’ following Hill[1]; such is Hill’s influence on RAN thinking. Australia has contributed to both wars against Iraq and also the war in Afghanistan as well as taking unilateral action in its own backyard when it intervened in East Timor. Australian forces have also been at the forefront of disaster relief operations such as in Aceh and other areas affected by the 2004 tsunami. Australia’s security concerns are diverse, yet it places its focus on the maritime element.

It is significant that the title of the 2009 White Paper was Defending Australia in the Asia-Pacific Century. The Australian government bases its decisions on ‘strategic interests’ which are “those that endure irrespective of specific passing threats that may complicate our outlook from time to time.”

There is also a desire for operational autonomy whereby Australia must have the means to “act independently where we have unique strategic interests at stake, and in relation to which we would not wish to be reliant on the combat forces of any foreign power.”

Despite the wide type of security threats that Australia faces, “taking into account the strategic drivers, regional geography, and Prime Minister Rudd’s stated emphasis in 2008 on naval power, it should come as no surprise that by far the most significant force-structure initiatives in the white paper relate to maritime capability.” Under the subheading ‘Enhancing Our Maritime Forces’ the 2009 Defence White Paper explains, “The major new direction that has emerged through our consideration of current and future requirements is a significant focus on enhancing our maritime capabilities.

By the mid-2030s, we will have a heavier and more potent maritime force. The government will double the size of the submarine force (12 more capable boats to replace the current fleet of six Collins class submarines), replace the current Anzac class frigate with a more capable Future Frigate optimised for ASW; and enhance our capability for offshore maritime warfare, border protection and mine countermeasures.” Overall, Australia’s maritime focus “point toward the RAN’s being a well-balanced but vastly more capable and flexible regional naval force in the future.” The maritime theme was reaffirmed in the 2013 Defence White Paper.

2014 Defence White Paper


Royal Navy Officer 1942–1983. Editor of the Naval Review, 1983–2002 and reviews editor from 2002. He has been a member of Council, Greenwich Forum, 1983—date. He is extensively published with 14 books and numerous articles on maritime subjects including: Rear Admiral J. R. Hill, Maritime Strategy for Medium Powers, (Beckenham, Croom Helm, 1986); and as ‘Marlowe’,(1976) ‘The Medium Maritime Power-I’, Naval Review , Vol. 64, No. 2, 106–112; and (1976) ‘The Medium Maritime Power-II’, Naval Review , Vol. 64, No. 3, 213–221; and (1976) ‘The Medium Maritime Power-III’, Naval Review , Vol. 64, No. 4, 321–328; and (1977) ‘The Medium Maritime Power-IV’, Naval Review , Vol. 65, No. 1, 36–45; and Rear Admiral R. Hill, (1981) ‘Apocalypse When?’ RUSI Journal, 126: 2, 63–65; and (1984) ‘Maritime Forces for Medium Powers’, Naval Forces , Vol. 5, Issue 2, 26–32; and (2000) Medium Power Strategy Revisited, (Royal Australian Navy, Sea Power Centre).

Admiral Sir Max Horton, RN (1883–1951)



During the First World War, Horton had been one of Britain’s ablest submarine commanders. There could therefore have been no one better to lead the fight against the German U-boat menace as Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches from 1942. His overriding responsibility was for the safety of the convoys crossing the North Atlantic, a role that became increasingly important as the content of the convoys started to include US and Canadian troops coming to the UK for the invasion of Europe.

Horton joined the Royal Navy as an officer cadet at Dartmouth on 15 September 1898. By the outbreak of the First World War, he was already a lieutenant commander in command of one of the first British ocean-going submarines, the 800-ton HMS E9. Surface ships rather than other submarines were the more usual victims of submarine attack. On 13 September 1914, Lieutenant Commander Max Horton was in command of E9 when she surfaced 6 miles south of Heligoland to find the German light cruiser Hela only 2 miles away. Closing to a range of about 600 yards, E9 sent two torpedoes towards the enemy ship before diving. As the submarine dived, an explosion was heard. Surfacing, Horton found that his prey had stopped, but enemy gunfire forced him to dive again and to stay down for an hour. Surfacing again, he could see nothing other than trawlers searching for survivors. On his return to his base at Harwich, Horton flew the pirate flag, the ‘Jolly Roger’ skull and crossbones, establishing a tradition in the Royal Navy’s submarine service for boats returning from a successful operational cruise. Horton’s next success came on 6 October while patrolling off the Ems, when he torpedoed and sank the destroyer S-126.

In the face of growing German U-boat activity, it had been decided to take the offensive, sending British submarines to the Baltic, where they could in turn wreak havoc on German shipping, in effect giving the enemy a taste of his own medicine. The idea had first been floated at a conference with Jellicoe aboard the Iron Duke on 17 September 1914. By the time implementation was in hand, the proposed flotilla had become just three boats, E11, E9 and E1, with three hand-picked commanders, Lieutenant Commander Martin Nasmith, Lieutenant Commander Max Horton and Lieutenant Commander Noel Laurence respectively. Laurence was the senior officer.

Submarines were the only warships that could hope to enter the Baltic unobserved, at least in theory as the charts showed that there was not enough depth for submarines to submerge in the Kattegat, between Denmark and Sweden. Horton, commander of E9, suggested that the way to enter the Baltic was to run on the surface, but with the submarine trimmed down as low as possible in the water in the hope that at night the small conning tower of these early craft might not be noticed. His first patrol in the Baltic was nearly his last as he only narrowly missed being seen and rammed by a destroyer. German patrols were not the only hazard awaiting him. On one occasion his boat was frozen in port, and although he managed to get an ice-breaker to get out into the Gulf of Finland, once in the open sea E9 started to ice up, and frozen slush clogged vents and valves froze solid. Spray froze on the rigging wires, the torpedo-tube caps and the periscope. Horton was determined to discover whether or not E9 could still dive and to everyone’s surprise, once she submerged, the warmer water soon melted the ice and the submarine was able to operate normally. The other major problem was that the British submarines were using Russian ports, but as the Russian forces fell back before the German advance on the Eastern Front, they had to change bases constantly. Operations were finally abandoned in 1917 because of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Between the wars, Horton, now a captain, served as commanding officer of first HMS Conquest and of the battleship Resolution during the 1920s. He was promoted to rear admiral on 17 October 1932, flying his flag aboard the Queen Elizabeth-class battleship Malaya. Three years later he took command of the First Cruiser Squadron, flying his flag aboard London. Promoted to vice admiral in 1937, he commanded the Reserve Fleet.

Northern Patrol

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Horton was put in command of the Northern Patrol enforcing the distant maritime blockade of Germany in the seas between Orkney, Shetland and the Faeroes. In 1940, he was made commander of all home-based submarines, even though he was far more senior in rank than the C-in-C Submarines had traditionally been, due to a new Admiralty regulation that the C-in-C Submarines had to be an officer who had served aboard submarines in the First World War. Many believed that this regulation was forced through for the sole purpose of ensuring that Horton was on a very short list of qualifiers for the post, in order to ensure his rapid transfer to submarine headquarters at Aberdour, so great was the desire of some within the Admiralty to have him revitalize the submarine arm. Horton also had his own ideas and moved his headquarters from Aberdour, where he was subjected to the whims and prejudices of the fleet commanders at Scapa Flow, to Northways in north London. He claimed that this was because he wanted a freer hand in running his command, but many feel that it was because Northways was located near some of his favorite golf courses (he is said to have played a round of golf almost every day during the war).

He was promoted to the four-star rank of admiral on 9 January 1941 and was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches Command on 17 November 1942. He took up his role as C-in-C Western Approaches at the most critical time of the war, with heavy losses to merchant shipping. Nevertheless, by May 1943, the situation had been transformed. He put in hand a series of changes in the way the escort ships were to be used. In addition to the escort group system, he oversaw the introduction of support groups, which would accompany the convoys but have the freedom to pursue submarines to destruction, being allowed to leave the convoy for long periods. These support groups proved to be decisive in the crucial spring of 1943, taking the battle to the U-boats and crushing the morale of the U-boat arm with persistent and successful counter-attacks.

Horton is widely regarded as one of the most crucial figures in the Allied victory in the Atlantic. The use of merchant aircraft carriers, the MAC-ships, and then escort carriers, helped close the Atlantic Gap – that section of the crossing that was beyond shore-based air cover – while the longer-range of aircraft such as the Consolidated Liberator also ensured greater security for the convoys. The increased number of purpose-built escort vessels, together with the Ultra intelligence that gave Horton the position of the U-boat wolf packs, all contributed to the Allied success. While much of this was the work of others, Horton was responsible for the overall control and coordination, and has been credited with showing untiring zeal, shrewdness and good strategic sense in the disposition of his forces. Perhaps his secret was that this successful submariner understood the workings of the minds of the U-boat commanders.

After the war, in August 1945, and at his own request, Max Horton was placed on the retired list in order to facilitate the promotion of younger officers. He was in any case past the peacetime retirement age. He was awarded the Knight Grand Cross in the Order of the Bath. He died on 30 July 1951 at the age of sixty-seven.

Admiral of the Fleet Lord Cunningham of Hyndhope, RN (1883–1963) I


Christened as Andrew Browne Cunningham, perhaps inevitably he was known affectionately as ‘ABC to his subordinates, not that many would have dared address him as such. His early career was typical of that of many British naval officers, graduating from the Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. Between the two world wars, he also suffered the inconvenience and insecurity of being ‘rested’ on half pay, even as a rear admiral. This was an old British naval tradition in peacetime for officers of the rank of rear admiral and below whenever there were more senior officers than posts, and one that did not end until the Second World War.

Andrew Cunningham was born at Rathmines, County Dublin, Ireland, on 7 January 1883 to Scottish parents. He was sent to Edinburgh Academy. The family had no maritime connections and Cunningham only had a vague interest in the sea, but he decided that he would like to join the Royal Navy and was sent to a Naval Preparatory School, Stubbington House, which specialized in sending pupils through the Dartmouth entrance examinations, in which he showed a particular ability for mathematics. Dartmouth at the time was organized and run much as a boarding school, which meant that parents had to pay fees.

At Dartmouth, Cunningham’s introduction to the Royal Navy was as a cadet aboard the hulked training ship HMS Britannia in 1897, where one of his classmates was the future Admiral of the Fleet James Fownes Somerville. He passed out 10th in April 1898, with first-class marks for mathematics and seamanship.

He joined HMS Doris as a midshipman in 1899 and was in South Africa at the start of the Second Boer War. By February 1900, he had transferred into the Naval Brigade ashore looking for action, which he saw at Pretoria and Diamond Hill. He returned to sea, still as a midshipman in Hannibal in December 1901, before joining the protected cruiser HMS Diadem the following year, during which he also took sub-lieutenant courses at Portsmouth and Greenwich. In 1903, he was a sub lieutenant in the battleship Implacable in the Mediterranean, but after six months he was transferred to Locust to serve as second-in-command. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1904, and in 1908 was awarded his first command, HM Torpedo Boat No. 14.

Cunningham’s career spanned the end of the old Victorian navy with ships that, as Admiral Sir Jacky Fisher put it, ‘could neither fight nor run away’, and the twentieth-century navy in which the submarine and the aeroplane achieved overwhelming importance. He was a young officer when the all-big-gun battleship emerged, and took some time to appreciate the importance of air power, although he was to use this very effectively. He proved himself to be an outstanding commanding officer at sea during the First World War, winning the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) with two bars.

In 1911 he was given command of the destroyer Scorpion, which he commanded throughout the war. In 1914, his ship was involved in the shadowing of the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and cruiser SMS Breslau, which were chased across the Mediterranean, but which passed through the Dardanelles to reach Constantinople. Cunningham stayed on in the Mediterranean and, in 1915, Scorpion was involved in the attack on the Dardanelles. Cunningham was promoted to commander and awarded his first DSO. In late 1916, he was engaged in convoy protection, a duty he regarded as mundane, probably because he had no contact with German U-boats during this time, later stating that: ‘The immunity of my convoys, was probably due to sheer luck.’ When Scorpion paid off on 21 January 1918, he had been aboard the ship for the unusually long period of seven years. He was transferred to Vice Admiral Roger Keyes’ Dover Patrol in April 1918.

Post-war, Cunningham commanded another S-class destroyer, the Seafire, on duty in the Baltic. The British Government had recognized Latvia’s independence after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Throughout several potentially problematic encounters with German forces trying to undermine the Latvian independence movement, according to his flag officer, Vice Admiral Cowan, Cunningham exhibited ‘good self control and judgement’, and ‘Commander Cunningham … has proved himself an officer of exceptional valour and unerring resolution.’

Afterwards, Cunningham was awarded a second bar to his DSO and promoted to Captain in 1920. On his return from the Baltic in 1922, he was appointed Captain of the British Sixth Destroyer Flotilla. Further commands followed including the destroyer base, Lochinvar, at Port Edgar in the Firth of Forth in 1926. Later, Cunningham became Flag Captain and Chief Staff Officer to Cowan while serving on the North America and West Indies Station. The late 1920s found Cunningham back in the UK participating in courses at the Army’s Senior Officers’ School at Sheerness, as well as spending a year at the Imperial Defence College. Afterwards, Cunningham was given command of the battleship Rodney. Eighteen months later, he was appointed Commodore of Pembroke, the Royal Naval barracks at Chatham.

In September 1932, Cunningham was promoted to rear admiral and became Aide-de-Camp to King George V, before being appointed Rear Admiral (Destroyers) in the Mediterranean in December 1933. He hoisted his flag in the flight cruiser Coventry and used this time to practise fleet handling. There were also fleet exercises in the Atlantic Ocean where he learnt the skills of night actions that would prove their value at Matapan.

On his promotion to vice admiral in July 1936, further active employment seemed remote. However, a year later, due to the illness of Sir Geoffrey Blake, Cunningham assumed the combined appointment of commander of the British Battlecruiser Squadron and second-in-command of the Mediterranean Fleet, with Hood as his flagship. He retained command until September 1938, when he was appointed to the Admiralty as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, although he did not actually take up this post until December 1938. He accepted this shore job with reluctance since he loathed administration, but the Board of Admiralty’s high regard for him was evident. During a six-month illness of Admiral Sir Roger Backhouse, the then First Sea Lord, he deputized for Backhouse on the Committee of Imperial Defence and on the Admiralty Board.

The outbreak of war found Cunningham as an acting admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet, which he regarded as ‘the finest in the Royal Navy’. It was clear that the Mediterranean theatre would be crucial during the war, with the ‘Med’, in British naval slang, being part of the route from the British Isles to India, the Middle East and Australia. Italy’s expansive plans in North Africa were clear from the Abyssinian crisis onwards and the close relationship between her Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, and the German Führer, Adolph Hitler, was all too obvious. The two countries had also sent forces to support the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. Italy was geographically positioned to cut the Mediterranean in half and also posed a threat to the Royal Navy’s main base in the Mediterranean, Malta. All in all, everyone was surprised when the Italians did not declare war in September 1939.

The Mediterranean Fleet was one of the plum commands in the Royal Navy, second only to what was, at different times, termed as the Grand Fleet, Atlantic Fleet and, in 1939, the Home Fleet. It had a base at Gibraltar as well as at Malta, while Alexandria in Egypt was shared by the British Mediterranean Fleet and the French Marine Nationale, but Egypt was run almost as a British colony or protectorate, and the country’s navy even had a British admiral in command.

Despite the importance of his command and of the three bases, there was no fighter defence for Gibraltar or Malta at the outbreak of war, while Cunningham had just one aircraft carrier in 1939, the converted flight battlecruiser HMS Glorious, which was called to home waters for operations off Norway in spring 1940. The even older Eagle, a converted battleship, was recalled from the Indian Ocean as a replacement. The Royal Navy in the Mediterranean was outgunned by the Italian Navy, which had six battleships against the Royal Navy’s three. It took the French Mediterranean Squadron to redress the balance.

The Fall of France

When Italy finally entered the war in June 1940, shortly before the fall of France, it was simply a matter of good luck for Cunningham that the Italians did not move swiftly to seize Malta. The island was bombed from the morning after the declaration of war, but not shelled by Italian battleships and cruisers, and no attempt was made to land troops. The Royal Navy possessed the ability to inflict serious damage on the Italian Navy and did so, especially at the Battle of Cape Matapan and at Taranto.

The fall of France had created an unexpected problem for the Royal Navy. The ships of their erstwhile ally were scattered at a number of ports, in the Atlantic from Portsmouth and Plymouth in the UK to Dakar in West Africa, and in the Mediterranean from Casablanca in French Morocco, Mers-el-Kebir and Oran in Algeria, to Alexandria in North Africa. While the Royal Navy was reluctant to take action against the French, the attitude of the new Vichy French Government was an unknown quantity, although it was known to include pro-Axis elements. It was important that the ships should not fall into German hands and it was the ships at Alexandria that posed yet another problem for Cunningham.

Cunningham had every sympathy with his French counterpart, Vice Admiral Godfroy, who was under orders from his Admiralty to sail, but was trying to confirm that the order was authentic. While de Gaulle was already in the United Kingdom intent on establishing the Free French forces, this move was not universally accepted by all French émigrés, and at this early stage of the war, with so few personnel available to de Gaulle, and the future policies of the Vichy regime not known, few were inclined to commit themselves. After all, the Germans had not occupied the whole of France, and they did not wish to be classed as traitors.

Naturally, most of the personnel involved wished to return home. Darlan had issued orders that ships were to be scuttled if there was a risk of them being seized by the Germans, but it was also clear that they were not to be handed to the British either. Cunningham later recalled:

Though I had no doubts of the good faith of Vice Admiral Godfroy, it was impossible for the British fleet in Alexandria to go to sea for operations against the enemy leaving behind in harbour fully efficient units of the French Navy. Immediately we were out of sight they might … go back to France, where there was no assurance that they would not fall into German or Italian hands and be used against us.

Admiralty pressure on Cunningham to act decisively and quickly was considerable. It says much for his character that he refused to be hurried into taking action that could further affect Anglo-French naval relations.

Cunningham knew that his only alternatives were to intern the ships or risk unnecessary bloodshed on both sides by sinking them. After initially appearing to accept internment with the repatriation of most of his ships’ companies, while the vessels would be relieved of their fuel and the warheads taken off their torpedoes, the Vichy Government’s orders to sail forced Godfroy to change his mind. He instructed his ships to raise steam – a process that would take up to eight hours. Cunningham was alerted and, going on deck, saw not only that the ships were raising steam, but that their guns had been uncovered and they were ready for action, with the real possibility of a close-range gun battle in Alexandria harbour. The British warships immediately did the same, removing the tompions (muzzle covers) from their guns.

Cunningham immediately ordered his commanding officers to visit the French, while the flagship signalled each French warship in turn advising them of the British Government’s offer of repatriation if the warships were put out of use. The visitors to the French warships were not unwelcome, but in many cases the decision was taken out of their hands as French ratings held meetings on deck, while the French commanding officers visited Godfroy on his lag-ship, Dusquesne. Later, Godfroy asked to see Cunningham and they agreed that all fuel oil was to be discharged from the French ships, their guns were to be disabled, and some 70 per cent of their crews were to be landed and eventually repatriated.

No attempt was made to press the French ships into the Royal Navy. Leaving small crews behind meant that the ships were maintained ready for the day of liberation.

By 7 July, the French fleet no longer presented a threat, allowing the British to leave Alexandria without any concern over possible French action to seize the port or the Suez Canal. Cunningham had shown considerable skill and diplomacy in a difficult situation – in modern terminology he had defused the situation.

The RNAS Strikes!


‘Christmas Surprise’ by David Pentland

On December 25th, 1914, the Royal Navy carried out the first ever co-ordinated sea and air attack on an enemy target. Three RN seaplane tenders with several warships as escorts, sailed into the North Sea and set up a temporary base at the small island of Helgoland. On Christmas Day, the tenders launched a total of nine Short seaplanes of various models in near-zero temperatures. The engines of two of the planes refused to start in the freezing conditions and both aircraft had to be winched back on board but the remaining seven aircraft managed to get airborne. Photos of the December 25th Cuxhaven raid published in the Illustrated War News five days after the operation
Their objective was the Zeppelin sheds at the Nordholz air-base near Cuxhaven.Poor visibility and heavy anti-aircraft fire hampered the bombing attack on the air-base and the damage inflicted was limited. However the British were pleased with the results of the raid as it proved the feasibility of such operations and none of the aircrew’s lives were lost. Of the seven aircraft who participated in the raid, three were recovered intact by the tenders, three more landed near the Island of Nordeney and their crews were rescued by a British submarine (the aircraft were deliberately scuttled) and the last aircraft was reported missing but the crew was rescued by a Dutch trawler. One of the aircrew who took part as an observer was Lieutenant Erskine Childers, famous for being the writer of the espionage novel The Riddle of the Sands which had been a bestseller before the war. A staunch Irish nationalist, Childers became radicalised after the war and was a leading figure in the Anglo-Irish troubles prior to his death by execution in 1922.



It was clear that the RFC had an important, possibly crucial, part to play in the land war. The same could not be said of the Royal Naval Air Service and the war at sea. In August 1914 the War Office had insisted on control of the country’s air defences, even though almost all of its aircraft were already earmarked for France. At the Admiralty, the First Lord, Winston Churchill, took advantage of the army’s predicament to move in. Soon the Royal Naval Air Service had taken over the responsibility and a rudimentary aerial defence system was put in place. The RNAS set up a string of seaplane bases in east coast ports, facing Germany. In early September the army grudgingly accepted the situation and – for the time being at least – ceded the air over Britain to the navy.

The admirals’ conviction that the special needs of the navy made close co-operation with the army impossible had led them to ignore the amalgamation the creation of the RFC was supposed to bring about, and had carried on their own course, training their own pilots and buying their own aircraft. Such was their power and political prestige that their disobedience went unpunished and was accepted as a fait accompli with the official recognition of the RNAS in July 1914. The navy’s headstrong attitude, however, was not easy to justify. Wresting control of the domestic air space from the army was an empty victory, as in the first months of the war the German air force stayed away. Effort concentrated instead on how to put the navy’s aeroplanes to use at sea. Flight brought huge potential advantages to the prosecution of naval warfare. In theory, aircraft could carry out reconnaissance from ships at sea, launch offensive and defensive operations against hostile aircraft and bases, attack enemy weak points on the ground and patrol the seas in search of enemy forces, in particular submarines. Huge logistical and mechanical problems had to be overcome, however, before the simplest tasks could be attempted.

Navy aviators were nonetheless innovative and daring. It was the RNAS that carried out the first offensive action by British fliers, a bold if ineffective attack launched on 22 September 1914 from its base at Ostend against the Zeppelin sheds at Dusseldorf. On 8 October, having fallen back to Dunkirk, the navy tried again. This time Flight Lieutenant Reggie Marix, aboard a Sopwith Tabloid, succeeded in dropping a couple of bombs on a hangar. They were tiny, weighing only twenty pounds each, but the results were sensational. Inside the shed was a just-completed Zeppelin and the explosions ignited the hydrogen, generating a fireball that leapt 500 feet.

Another big operation was in the planning. Four Avro 504s were dismantled, shipped to Le Havre, then driven to an airstrip at Belfort on the Swiss–French border. On the freezing morning of 20 November, three of them set off to bomb the Zeppelin factory, 120 miles away, at Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance in southern Germany. Once again the results were impressive. A hydrogen-generating plant erupted, workshops were blown up and an airship badly damaged, delighting Winston Churchill, who described it as ‘a fine feat of arms’.

This was another land-based effort and the RNAS could be said to be encroaching on operational space that logically belonged to the RFC – although at this time the army had no interest in long-range bombing. Then, on Christmas Eve 1914, the RNAS launched another imaginative operation that pushed the boundaries of the new technology and provided a glimpse of where the combination of warplanes and warships could lead. At the heart of the operation were three ships – Engadine, Riviera and Empress. They were large, fast, cross-channel ferries that had been converted into seaplane carriers. They set sail from Harwich at 5 p.m., escorted by two cruisers, ten destroyers and ten submarines. Their destination was a point forty miles off the Friesian island of Wangerooge. From there, the nine Short ‘Folders’ on board the carriers were to set off to bomb the Zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven. The airships were not the primary target, however. The main intention was to lure at least some of the German High Seas Fleet lying at Wilhelmshaven, just down the coast to the south, out into the North Sea where battle could be joined.

The mission began in the icy dawn of Christmas Day. In the freezing conditions, two aeroplanes failed to start and the others sputtered along on misfiring engines towards the target. The clear conditions quickly gave way to dense cloud and the pilots failed to see the objective, let alone bomb it. On the way back they dropped a few bombs on ships moored in the Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven, then tried to rejoin the fleet at a pick-up position off the island of Borkum. It was a hugely perilous exercise. Fuel was running low and four of the aeroplanes that had been hit by anti-aircraft fire had to ditch. By a stroke of luck three landed near a submarine, but the rescue was interrupted by the arrival of a Zeppelin, which proceeded to bomb. One of the raiders was picked up by a destroyer and two more by the carriers. Another put down near a Dutch merchantman. Astonishingly, no one was killed in the operation. Although the mission had failed in its aims it had nonetheless been an important event. The episode had demonstrated that ships could work with aircraft to project force in a way that land-based aeroplanes at that time could not. This development was in keeping with the underlying principle of British sea power, that by possession of a large navy, a small island was able to amass wealth and power, while enhancing its own security by its ability to hit its enemies at long range.

The significance of what had happened was clear to the man who planned the raid, Squadron Commander Cecil L’Estrange Malone. ‘I look upon the events which took place on 25 December as a visible proof of the probable line of developments of the principles of naval strategy,’ he wrote in his official report. ‘One can imagine what might have been done had our seaplanes, or those sent to attack us, carried torpedoes instead of light bombs. Several of the ships in Schillig Roads would have been torpedoed and some of our force might have been sunk as well.’ L’Estrange-Malone, a remarkable figure who would go on to become Britain’s first Communist MP, had grasped that at some point, the success or failure, in fact the very survival of a naval force, would depend on the strength and efficiency of its air forces and air defences.

That time was still some way off. The Cuxhaven raid was not repeated. Instead the RNAS would soon be preoccupied with one of its consequences. The fright that the Germans had received produced a strengthening of the anti-aircraft batteries around ports and bases, but also persuaded them to press ahead with air attacks on England. Rather than wait for long-range aeroplanes capable of doing the job, it was decided to use Zeppelins, and when the raids began early in the New Year it was naval pilots who had the task of hunting them down.

The results of the attacks on the Zeppelin sheds did not justify the effort and expenditure of manpower and resources that went into them. It was accepted that there might be future benefits in developing what was essentially a doctrine of strategic air warfare, but for the time being they were theoretical. The army’s needs were obvious and pressing. It was inevitable that in the battle for resources the RNAS would lose out.

With the Western Front frozen it was clear that the war would not be over by Christmas. Many more soldiers would be needed. The British Expeditionary Force began to swell, and at the end of December divided into First Army, under Haig, and Second Army, under Sir Horace Lockwood Dorrien-Smith, while in Britain the War Minister, Lord Kitchener, issued a call for volunteers that brought tens of thousands flooding in. If the RFC was to do its job it would have to match the expansion. Plans were made for fifty new squadrons – more than ten times the number that had gone to France in August. Its structure was reorganized to harmonize with the new army arrangements. The squadrons were now divided into wings, which were teamed with the First and Second armies, with the expectation that there would be many more to follow.

Admiral Arturo Riccardi (1878–1966)


Riccardi had the unfortunate task of taking over from a predecessor deemed to have failed in the eyes of Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini. Evidence of the failure was not hard to find, with three out of Italy’s six battleships sitting on the bed of the major naval base at Taranto.

Born in Pavia in 1878, Riccardi saw action with the marines in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900–1901 and also further action during the First World War, although this would have been relatively limited. Post-war, he spent a period as a staff officer before being promoted to rear admiral in 1932, and after joining the Fascist Party in 1934, he was later promoted to vice admiral in 1935. His responsibilities included naval personnel, making him the equivalent of the Royal Navy’s Second Sea Lord. Succeeding the disgraced Admiral Domenico Cavagnari as Chief of Staff of the Regia Marina on 11 December 1940, Riccardi also held the position of the Navy’s Under-secretary of State.

His duties included liaison with the Kriegsmarine over the defence of Italy, but despite Riccardi forcing a more aggressive strategy at sea, Italian failures continued with the Battle of Cape Matapan, the big clash between the Italian and British navies, where the Axis air power was not provided by the Italian Regia Aeronautica but by the German Luftwaffe.

Riccardi had taken up his new post at a time when Italy had proved incapable of subjugating Yugoslavia and Greece, but the Germans pressed him to cut British maritime communications between Alexandria and Athens. Italian ships were sent into the waters south of Greece to attack British convoys, but British aerial reconnaissance soon spotted the Italian ships. This was a marked contrast to the situation with the Italians, which lacked their own naval air power and relied upon the Air Force to provide reconnaissance as well as air strikes, but cooperation between the two services was so poor as to be virtually non-existent.

The Battle of Cape Matapan exposed a major weakness in Italian battle plans, which was that they did not expect to engage an enemy at night. Lacking radar, night gunnery would have been difficult, but not impossible given training and suitable optical instruments.

Mussolini had boasted that the Mediterranean was ‘Mare Nostrum’, which meant ‘our sea’, but while Italy effectively cut the sea in two, it never controlled it. It was only a matter of time after the Allies invaded North Africa in November 1942, followed by an amphibious and airborne assault on Sicily the following spring. When Benito Mussolini was overthrown, Riccardi also fell from grace and was replaced on 25 July 1943.

While some maintain that Riccardi was a specialist in naval air power, the truth was that he, and other Italian naval officers, had precious little experience of air power. His failure to ensure that the fleet under his command at Taranto was adequately protected was unforgivable, but he was promoted further. It was not his fault that Italian aerial reconnaissance was so bad that the presence of the British Mediterranean Fleet was not detected, but even so, there was complacency at Supermarina, the Italian Admiralty, which took it for granted that British forces would be detected in time for Italian warships to leave harbour and engage them.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that Riccardi did not face charges of being a war criminal.


Although it was a substantial force on paper, the Italian navy suffered from fundamental problems. Italy lagged in several key areas of naval technology. One area was sonar, which was just beginning to be introduced at the start of the war. Also, in the disastrous March 1941 Battle of Matapan, the Italians discovered to their dismay that the Allies had deployed radar on their warships. The Italians did not deploy their first warship radar until a year later, in March 1942. Ironically, Italy’s scientific community had been working on radar in the mid-1930s, but the Italian government did not fully support its efforts. Of ULTRA intercepts, the Italians knew nothing, although they assumed the Germans were letting the Allies know about Italian operations, and the Germans assumed the Italians were doing the same.

Italian ship armor plate was inferior as judged by Allied standards. Italian heavy ships relied on long-range gunnery, but guns in cruiser and destroyer turrets were mounted too close to each other, thus interfering in the flight of shells, a problem compounded by an immoderate 1 percent weight tolerance for shells. This resulted in excessive salvo spreads, as opposed to the much tighter British salvos.

The Italians sought to avoid night fighting by their heavy ships, and the navy lacked flashless night charges for ships with 8-inch or larger guns, an error not rectified until 1942. The navy dropped night-fighting training for large ships in the 1930s, precisely when the British navy was adopting such tactics for its heavy ships, including battleships. Italian losses in night surface actions during the war would be heavy and almost completely one-sided.

Italy also experienced problems with its submarines. There were three classes of subs. The large oceangoing submarines were part of the new oceanic navy. Many were based out of Bordeaux, France. In 189 patrols, they sank over 500,000 tons of Allied ships, with another 200,000 tons damaged. They also conducted mostly ineffective runs to Japan for key war sup- plies, and they operated in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Medium and small submarines hunted closer to home. In the Mediterranean Sea, these classes conducted 1,553 patrols with dismal results when contrasted to the successes tallied by far fewer German submarines dispatched to that theater. This outcome was, in part, due to the Italian doctrine that called for submarines to submerge during daytime and wait for a target to come within range. The Italians eschewed attacks on the surface in wolf packs at night. Their torpedoes were reliable but had smaller warheads than those of most other nations, thus causing less damage. Despite its long coastline and its colonies, Italy had only 25,000 mines in 1939, and most dated of these from World War I.

In the 1920s, the Italians experimented with the snorkel, a tube to the surface that allowed submarines to secure air while submerged, but they ultimately dropped its development as a dead end. Their submarines also suffered from slow submerging speeds—they were two or three times slower than German boats. Italy also had to rebuild many of its submarines during the war because their large sails (the superstructure where the surface bridge and periscope were located) were easily picked up by radar. Italian periscopes were too short, and the Mediterranean itself was a much clearer sea then the Atlantic, which made it easier for Allied pilots to locate submerged submarines.

In spite of these limitations, the fuel-strapped Italian navy fought bravely during the war and transported to Africa 85 percent of the supplies and 92 percent of the troops that left port. In numerous battles above, on, and below the seas, the navy sank many Allied warships and forced the British to maintain a powerful naval force at both ends of the Mediterranean. In September 1943 when Italy switched sides in the war, the bulk of the Italian fleet joined the Allies.

Italian naval losses before the armistice consisted of 1 battleship, 11 cruisers, 44 destroyers, 41 large torpedo boats, 33 MAS-style PT boats, 86 submarines, and 178 other vessels. After the armistice, Italy lost 1 battleship, 4 destroyers, 5 large torpedo boats, 25 MAS boats, 3 submarines, and 23 other vessels. Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic, organized in north Italy, seized some Italian warships, and most of these were subsequently sunk; the most important was the heavy cruiser Bolzano. Total wartime personnel losses for the Italian navy came to 28,837, with 4,177 of this number occurring after the armistice. Up to the armistice, Italy also lost 2,018,616 tons of merchant shipping.