Guenther Prien, the son of a judge, was born in Luebeck, an ancient city on the Baltic, in 1908 and spent his formative years there, developing a fervent love for the sea, which remained with him for the rest of his life. Later his parents separated, and his mother moved to Leipzig with her three children. Apparently Judge Prien made no further financial contribution to his estranged family, because Frau Prien was barely able to make a living selling peasant-lace and pictures she painted. Frequently, she was afraid to open bills because she had no money to pay them. At the age of 15, the stocky, friendly Guenther, who had chubby cheeks and a ready smile, left home so that his mother would have one less burden. It was the era of high inflation, when the value of the German mark fell from 12 per U.S. dollar to more than 4.2 trillion marks per dollar. Using foreign exchange he earned working as a guide during the Leipzig Industrial Fair, young Guenther paid for his admission to the Hamburg-Finkenwaerder Seaman’s School (called the Seaman’s Factory), where he learned the rudiments of seamanship. He then obtained a job on the SS Hamburg as a cabin boy.
The Hamburg was lost in a winter gale, but Prien was fortunate enough to reach the coast of Ireland, where he was rescued. Not unduly upset by this shipwreck, young Prien spent the next several years on other ships, learning his trade. By hard labor and concentration he earned his master’s ticket but could not find a ship, as the German merchant marine had been overwhelmed by the Great Depression. At age 24, the unemployed sea captain was forced to enlist in the Voluntary Labor Service in order to feed himself. He was very unhappy at this occupation (for which he received room and board, but no money), and when he learned that the German Navy was recruiting merchant officers for a naval reserve, he was quick to sign up. Guenther Prien enlisted at Stralsund as an ordinary seaman in January 1933, beginning his career in the Kriegsmarine.
Prien again worked his way up from the bottom and eventually managed to wangle an appointment to the U-boat school, where he was befriended by Werner Hartmann, the commander of U-26. At Hartmann’s request Prien was assigned to his submarine, which served in the Spanish Civil War. In 1938, Prien attended the U-boat commanders’ course and was given his first command in 1938. His boat was U-47. By now Prien was married and had a young daughter. Even so, his love for the sea had not diminished. He once astonished his messmates by announcing, “I would rather have a decent month’s maneuvers in the Atlantic than any leave.” He distinguished himself in the Bay of Biscay maneuvers and impressed Captain Karl Doenitz, the head of the U-boat arm.
Prien was out on patrol in the North Sea on September 3, 1939, when France and England declared war on Nazi Germany. Two days later Prien sank his first ship, a French steamer, which was followed to the bottom by the British cargo ships Rio Claro and Gartavon. When he returned to base in mid-September, Admiral Raeder decorated him with the Iron Cross, Second Class, and gave the entire crew of U-47 a two-week leave. On Sunday, October 1, shortly after he returned to duty, Prien was summoned to the depot ship Weichsel, at anchor at Kiel, where he met with Captain Doenitz. The future grand admiral quickly came to the point: “Do you think that a determined commander could get his U-boat inside Scapa Flow and attack the enemy naval forces lying there?” After a short pause, he added, “I don’t want you to give me an answer now. Think it over. Report back on Tuesday and let me have your considered opinion then. Whichever way you decide, it will not be a black mark against you. It will not affect the high opinion we have of you.”
Prien was temporarily stunned. Scapa Flow was the principal base of the British Home Fleet and a port hitherto considered impenetrable to submarines. This Orkney Islands base also had a special place in German naval history. It was here that the officers of the Kaiser’s navy had scuttled the Imperial High Seas Fleet after World War I. A victory here would have a tremendous psychological effect on the German Kriegsmarine. On the other hand, two U-boats had tried to sneak through its defenses during World War I, and neither had come back. But Doenitz had received a communication from a merchant captain who had been to the port of Kirkwall, just north of Scapa Flow, a few weeks before, and he reported having heard that the eastern entrances to the Flow had been neglected. A Luftwaffe photo reconnaissance flight confirmed this fact: there was a 17-meter gap between sunken blockships in Kirk Sound, the northernmost of the eastern passages, by which a bold commander might enter the great basin of Scapa Flow.
Lieutenant Prien reported back to Doenitz the next day: he would do it. They set the time of the attack for the night of October 13–14. U-47 left Kiel on October 8. On the morning of October 13, Prien submerged outside the British home port and told his crew of their mission. They were enthusiastically in favor of it despite the obvious dangers. Prien surfaced at 7:15 p.m. that evening to find the entire sky illuminated by a brilliant display of the northern lights, which made it almost as bright as day. After suppressing an oath, Prien decided to try it anyway. Slowly the U-boat moved into Scapa Flow, working its way against the current, only just avoiding collision with the blockships. British security, however, was lax, and the German submarine was not sighted. At 12:58 a.m. Prien lined up on what he thought were the battleships Royal Oak and Repulse. (Actually, what he thought was the Repulse was the old seaplane-carrier Pegasus.) At a range of 4,000 yards he fired four torpedoes; however, one tube misfired and only one of the other three detonated—on the anchor cable of the Royal Oak.
Prien now expected the base to become a beehive of activity, but there were no alarms, searchlights, destroyer attacks, or coastal artillery fire. Were the British asleep? With incredible daring, Prien decided to launch a second attack. He calmly turned south and made a wide circle around the anchorage on the surface, while his torpedomen loaded four fresh “fish.”
Prien had no way of knowing that his first attack had caused so little damage that the battleship’s captain and the other officers who went to investigate thought the explosion must have been internal. No general alarm was signaled. At 1:16 a.m. Prien launched his second attack, firing all four torpedoes at the Royal Oak. Two of them hit the huge battleship and exploded, igniting a magazine. A thunderous explosion ripped the 31,200-ton ship apart, filling the air with flying wreckage. The Royal Oak capsized and sank in 13 minutes, taking with her Rear Admiral H. F. C. Blagrove and 832 crewmen. Meanwhile, U-47—which was still surfaced—withdrew at high speed. Prien had a bad moment when a destroyer came straight at him with searchlights blazing but miraculously turned away before sighting the vulnerable U-boat. By 2:15 a.m. Prien had again skirted the blockships and was back in the open sea.
When U-47 returned to friendly waters, it was escorted to dock at Wilhelmshaven by two destroyers. It was met by cheering crowds, a band, and a delegation of VIPs, headed by Doenitz and Grand Admiral Raeder, who came on board and shook hands with every member of the crew: a most unusual gesture for him. He then conferred the Iron Cross, Second Class, on every one of them and announced that Doenitz was promoted to rear admiral. Prien himself was to make a personal report to the Fuehrer. That afternoon Hitler’s personal Wulf-Vogel and a Ju-52 landed at Wilhelmshaven: Hitler wanted to see the entire crew. When they landed at Tempelhof the next day, the entire route from the airfield to the Kaiserhof Hotel was black with people screaming, “We want Prien!” Hitler received them in the Reichschancellery the following day and decorated their captain with the Knight’s Cross. They were Hitler’s guests for lunch and Goebbels’s guests at the Wintergarten Theater that evening. Afterward they went night-clubbing and, in their honor, the ban on dancing was lifted for the evening.
Guenther Prien was now an idol of the Third Reich—a far cry from his days of poverty and unemployment just a few years before. He was, however, the same officer he had always been. Fame embarrassed him. Fan letters, which he received by the mailbag, he handled by simply throwing them away unread, stating that he was not a movie star. He still loved to drink beer and tell stories with his comrades and friends and by all accounts had a wonderful gift for humor. On duty, however, he was a different man. Here there was no room for sentiment. Here Guenther Prien was all business, a man who believed in practice, practice, practice, and both he and his officers were scathing in their rebukes for the slightest mistakes. Discipline aboard U-47 was very strict indeed, but then both morale and pride were quite high. In late 1939 the men painted a bull on the conning tower of U-47, and from then on Prien had a permanent nickname: the Bull of Scapa Flow.
U-47 went out on its third wartime patrol in mid-November 1939, heading for the North Atlantic. Its commander was relieved to escape the limelight that his victory at Scapa Flow had inflicted on him. East of the Shetland Islands he fired a torpedo at the British cruiser Norfolk and thought he had sunk her, but the torpedo had missed and exploded in the ship’s wake. U-47 had no chance for a thorough investigation, as it was instantly forced to dive and was subjected to depth charges dropped by three destroyers for several hours. After escaping this harrowing experience, Prien resumed his patrol and, five days later, torpedoed a large passenger steamer amidships. She was, however, able to limp away, while U-47 was again subjected to depth-charging.
Lieutenant Prien’s next target was a heavily laden tanker, which did not escape: it exploded in a “terrifying tower of flame” and sank in two minutes. The next day he torpedoed a second tanker with the same result. Finally, on the way home, he fired two torpedoes at a 4,000-ton freighter but missed. To Prien’s amusement, the freighter never knew that it had been under U-boat attack.
Due to damage caused by drift ice and depth charges, U-47 was not ready for action again until mid-March 1940. After an unsuccessful patrol, cut short by fuel pump failure and abysmal weather, Prien returned to Wilhelmshaven on March 29. In the first days of April, he went back to sea with a new mission: steal through the heavily mined waters of the Skagerrak and help screen the German naval forces taking part in the invasion of Norway. On April 7—three days before the invasion began—Prien received a signal announcing the birth of his second daughter. This news did not affect his daring one bit. He closed to within 900 yards of the British battleship Warspite and fired two torpedoes, one of which exploded prematurely. The other failed to detonate. He also launched a surprise attack on an Anglo-French convoy of three large transports, two cruisers, and three freighters at anchor in the Bydden fjord—a U-boat commander’s dream. Prien fired eight torpedoes into the transports, but all eight either failed to explode or took wildly erratic courses and missed everything except the rocky beaches of Norway. Then Prien ran aground while taking evasive action, damaging his starboard diesel. He only just managed to free his boat and make for the open sea, from which he headed for home. An angry and depressed Prien reported to Doenitz that “it was useless to send him to fight with a dummy rifle.”
U-47 was not the only submarine with torpedo difficulties, as we have seen. It did not return to sea until June, when the problem was solved.
Kapitänleutnant Prien. From Bundesarchiv – CC BY-SA 3.0 de
With Norway conquered and the torpedoes running true and exploding when they were supposed to again, Doenitz sent his U-boats back to the North Atlantic. He divided them into two battle groups: Prien and Roesing. Prien was given the task of attacking a Halifax convoy, which was returning home. June 1940 was one of Germany’s best months in the naval war. The navy and Luftwaffe combined to sink 140 merchant ships—a total of 585,496 tons. Prien alone accounted for more than 10 percent of the total. He fired all his torpedoes and sank 66,587 tons of shipping, including the 15,501-ton Amndom Stat. The second-leading U-boat ace that month was Lieutenant Engelbert Endrass, who sank 54,000 tons of enemy shipping. Endrass had been Prien’s second-in-command at Scapa Flow.
June to October 1940 was the period of the U-boat aces—Prien, Kretschmer, Endrass, and others. Prien was the first to be credited with sinking more than 200,000 tons of Allied shipping and was the fifth German officer to be decorated with the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross. (After the war, when it was possible to calculate actual instead of estimated totals, Prien’s figures were reduced to 160,939 tons.) He was soon surpassed by Otto Kretschmer of U-99, who would go on to become the leading U-boat ace of the war, sinking 44 ships (266,629 tons). It was the era of “wolf pack” tactics—of concentrated attacks by entire groups of U-boats. On the night of October 17–18, Prien led three other boats in a wolf pack strike against a British convoy. The joint effort, conducted at close range, resulted in the sinking of eight more Allied ships. There were no U-boat losses. Prien’s patrols in the winter of 1940–1941 were less successful due to the normal North Atlantic gales, storms, and poor visibility. Even when a target was sighted it was difficult to get off a shot. Meanwhile, the British gradually forged ahead in the field of technological warfare at sea. They developed ASV radar and began systematically training escort commanders and equipping Coastal Command’s bombers with depth charges, instead of the heretofore ineffective bombs. Also, the strain of this intensive type of warfare was beginning to tell on the U-boat crews and commanders. No one, however, ever reported detecting any evidence of strain or pressure on the face of Guenther Prien. Now operating out of Lorient, he looked forward to each new mission, although he still enjoyed partying and beer-drinking with comrades. In late January 1941, he took Lieutenant Wolfgang Frank, his officers, and two midshipmen with him on one of his excursions into the interior of France, where they dined in a small village at an inn run by an old Breton woman famous for her cuisine. The submariners consumed bottle after bottle, while Prien regaled them with humorous tales about adventures on yachts, merchant ships, and submarines. Frank recalled that he was “filled with a passionate eagerness to be in action again.” The next day, just before he departed, he shook hands with Frank. “This time it is going to be a good trip,” he said. “I can feel it in my bones.”
After being given flowers by a French female admirer, Guenther Prien began his tenth wartime patrol. It was not like old times, however. On March 8, six weeks after putting to sea, Prien led an attack on Convoy OB-293, outward bound from Liverpool to Halifax. The battle took place south of Iceland. The U-boats sank two merchant ships, but their own losses were devastating. Hans Eckermann’s U-boat was so badly damaged that he was forced to drop out of the battle and limp back to Lorient, which he was able to do in the general confusion. Then U-70 was brought to the surface by depth charges from two corvettes, where it was scuttled by its captain, Lieutenant Commander Joachim Matz. Even U-99 under Otto Kretschmer was driven off by OB-293’s strong escort, which was led by Commander James Rowland in the World War I destroyer Wolverine. But the redoubtable Guenther Prien persisted in the attack, sinking his 28th merchantman in the process. In heavy seas and thick weather he struck again at dusk on March 8, penetrating the escort screen in a rain squall. Then, all of a sudden, Prien’s luck deserted him. Before he could fire, the squall dissipated, the overcast broke, and U-47 found itself in the fading sunlight, in full view of the Wolverine. Prien crash-dived immediately, but the Wolverine reacted with equal swiftness by hurling a pattern of depth charges. At that range, with U-47 already picked up by Rowland’s asdic (sonar), they could hardly miss. U-47 was badly damaged, and the Wolverine picked up the rattle of propeller shafts out of alignment. Prien stayed under water until nightfall, when he surfaced again, about a mile from the point of Rowland’s original attack. The Wolverine was on him immediately. Prien crash-dived again—for the last time. This time the depth charges blew U-47 apart. A few minutes later bits and pieces of debris came to the surface—the sure sign of a “kill.” There were no survivors.
For some time OKM withheld the news from the nation and the next of kin on the faint hope that Prien’s prolonged silence was due to the failure of his wireless transmitter. By early April, however, Doenitz and his staff gave up all hope. Doenitz and Raeder then pressed for a public announcement of Prien’s death, but Fuehrer Headquarters would not release the news until May 23. Prien was then posthumously promoted to full commander for gallantry in action.
Prien was such a hero to the German people that a number of incredible rumors began to circulate about his death. Prien and his crew had mutinied and been sent to a penal labor battalion on the Russian Front; Prien and his men were sent to a penal battalion for making false and exaggerated claims of tonnage sunk; Prien had refused to put to sea in an unseaworthy boat, so Doenitz court-martialed him and he was sent to a concentration camp at Esterwegen. Here, according to one story, he starved to death. According to another version, he was executed by a firing squad shortly before the Allies arrived. Most incredibly, Prien had had an accident and drowned—in his bathtub! When it comes to such bizarre and weird stories, Prien’s case is not unique. Similar stories were heard about other U-boat commanders, generals, and Luftwaffe aces who were missing in action. Similarly imaginative tales gain currency even today, especially those about deceased rock and roll singers and other pop culture idols. The Bull of Scapa Flow was killed in action against his enemy in the North Atlantic on March 8, 1941. He died exactly as he had lived.
Prien was not the only U-boat ace lost in March 1941. On March 17, U-100 under Lieutenant Joachim Schepke was damaged during an attack on Convoy HX-112. As it limped away, the surfaced U-boat was sighted by a newly developed British radar set and rammed by the destroyer Vanoc. Schepke, who had sunk 39 Allied ships (159,130 tons), was on the conning tower when the Vanoc struck and was crushed to death by the destroyer’s bow. There were few survivors. Schepke, who had been born in Flensburg on March 8, 1912, was a holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves.
Later on March 17, 1941, the same night on which Joachim Schepke was killed, the British destroyer Walker sighted U-99 with his asdic device. The escort brought the submarine to the surface with depth charges and, with the help of the Vanoc, sank the German vessel with gunfire. Among the prisoners fished out of the ocean was Lieutenant Commander Otto Kretschmer, the leading U-boat ace of World War II. He is credited with sinking 47 ships, which displaced 274,333 tons, including a British destroyer. Otto Kretschmer had been born in Heidau, Silesia, near Liegnitz (now Legnica, Poland) on May 1, 1902. As a 17-year-old, he spent almost a year in the United Kingdom, where he became fluent in English. He entered the service as a sea cadet in April 1930, and served aboard the light cruisers Emden and Koeln, before transferring to the U-boat branch in January 1936. He assumed command of U-35 in 1937 and operated off the Spanish coast, although he sank no vessels in the Spanish Civil War. Later he commanded U-23 (a coastal U-boat) and U-99.
Kretschmer was known as Silent Otto because of his use of “silent running” tactics (including slow approaches, which minimized propeller noise) and because he did not like to transmit radio dispatches while on patrol. He was also known for his motto “One torpedo, one ship.”
Silent Otto was a chivalrous opponent and, in the days before the convoys and the wolf packs, forced lone merchant ships to surrender. He put the crews in lifeboats, provided them with blankets and alcoholic beverages, and gave them a compass and the heading to the nearest land.
A U-boat commander from the beginning of the war, he sank eight ships, totaling 50,000 tons, on a single patrol in the summer of 1940 and was awarded his Knight’s Cross by Grand Admiral Raeder in the harbor of Lorient. Ironically, his Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords was presented to him by the commandant of the prison camp at Bowmanville, Canada. On March 17, 1941, he was forced to surface after repeated depth charges damaged his boat. He found himself in the middle of a British convoy and was forced to scuttle U-99. He spent the rest of the war in POW camps.
After the war, he married Dr. Luise-Charlotte Mohnsen-Hinrich (nee Bruns), a war widow. He joined the West German Navy in 1955 and retired in 1970 as a rear admiral, junior grade (Flotillenadmiral). He and his wife celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1998 by taking a cruise on the Danube. Here Kretschmer attempted to climb a ladder, as he had done thousands of times before. This time, however, he slipped, fell, and struck his head. Silent Otto never regained consciousness. He died in a hospital in Straubing, Bavaria, on August 5, 1998.
The most highly decorated member of the U-boat arm was Captain Wolfgang Lueth, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds. Born near Rita in Estonia on October 15, 1913, he joined the German Navy in the mid-1930s, received command of his first submarine (U-138) in January 1940, and, as an Oberleutnant zur See, was awarded his Knight’s Cross on October 24, 1940, for sinking 49,000 tons of enemy shipping in 27 days.50 Later, he commanded U-43 and U-181. By the time he left his last undersea command in November 1943, he had sunk 43 ships, totaling 225,712 tons, making him the number two U-boat ace of World War II. He had also sunk an Allied submarine. In August 1944, Lueth was promoted to Kapitaen zur See and named commander of the Naval School at Muerwik/Flensburg, which became Nazi Germany’s last seat of government, under Doenitz. He was shot and killed by a German sentry on May 14, 1945, after the war was over but before the rump Doenitz government was disbanded. Captain Lueth was buried at Flensburg on May 16, with full military honors—the last such funeral in the history of the Third Reich. The subsequent court-martial acquitted the sentry: after being challenged, Lueth had given him the wrong password.
Erich Topp [left]
The third leading U-boat ace was Commander Erich Topp, captain of U-57, U-552, and U-2513. A native of Hanover, he was born on July 2, 1914, and joined the navy in 1934. He was commander of U-57 from June 5 to September 3, 1940, when it was sunk in a collision with a Norwegian ship. In the meantime, he had sunk six enemy ships. In December 1940, Topp was given a second command: U-552. Between July 1940, and August 1942, he sank another 29 Allied merchant ships and brought his total to 197,460 tons. He was awarded the Swords to his Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves on August 17, 1942.
Topp sparked an international incident on October 31, 1941, when he sank the U.S. destroyer Reuben James, the first American naval vessel sunk in World War II. He was promptly verbally attacked by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his famous “rattlesnakes of the sea” speech. Some observers thought Roosevelt was about to use the incident to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, but he did not. The reasons were simple: Roosevelt “forgot” to mention that the Reuben James was escorting a British convoy at the time, was not flying the American flag, and was on a depth-charge run against another U-boat when it sailed in front of Topp’s periscope. One of the torpedoes blew off the entire bow and detonated the magazine. It sank instantly. Many of the 115 American sailors who died were killed when their own depth charges detonated. Only 44 survived. It is significant that Topp was never even indicted as a war criminal for the incident, much less convicted.
Years later, at a banquet, Admiral Topp met a survivor, who described the awfulness of the incident to him, and what is was like to be left floating in the burning oil, struggling for his life. Erich Topp was so appalled and horrified by this conversation that he refused to ever discuss the affair again.
Topp commanded U-552 until October 1942, when he assumed command of the 27th U-boat Flotilla at Gotenhafen, East Prussia (now Gdynia, Poland). Here he helped develop the XXI Elektro submarine, which came too late to help the Third Reich. Topp took personal command of U-2513 in the last days of the war and sailed it to Horten, Norway, where he surrendered it to the Western Allies.
After the war, Topp became a fisherman and had a second career as an architect in Remegen. He joined the West German Navy when it was formed in 1955 and retired as a Konteradmiral (two-star admiral) in 1969. For many years thereafter, he visited Texas every Christmas, to visit his daughter and grandchildren. He died in Suessen on December 26, 2005. He was 91 years old.
Engelbert Endrass, who was born in Bamberg on March 2, 1911, was Prien’s watch officer and second-in-command at Scapa Flow. Shortly thereafter, he was given command of his own submarine (U-46) and became a leading U-boat ace himself, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander and sinking 22 ships (128,879 tons). As commander of U-567 he was killed in action on December 26, 1941, while he was attempting to sink the British aircraft carrier Audacity. Depth-charged by escort vessels, U-567 vanished northeast of the Azores. There were no survivors.
Lothar Von Arnauld De La Periere
The leading U-boat ace of all time was Lothar Von Arnauld De La Periere. His family was French until 1757, when his great-grandfather, a 26-year-old artillery lieutenant, cut down a prince of the House of Bourbon in a duel and fled the country one step ahead of the police. Jean-Gabriel Arnauld de la Periere then joined Frederick the Great’s army and rose to the rank of full general. The Arnaulds served Prussia and Germany from then on.
Lothar was born in Posen, Prussia (now Poznan, Poland), on March 18, 1886. He attended the cadet schools at Wahlstatt and Gross-Lichterfelde, and joined the Imperial Navy in 1903. After eight years service on three different battleships, Arnault became a torpedo officer aboard the light cruiser Emden in 1911. After that, he was adjutant to Admiral Hugo von Pohl, the chief of the Admiralty Staff and an early advocate of U-boat development and unrestricted submarine warfare. Arnauld transferred to the U-boat branch in 1915, and assumed command of U-35 in November. He sank a record 194 ships (453,716 Gross Registered Tons) during World War I, and received the Pour le Merite in 1916.
Most of Arnauld’s “kills” were undramatic. He would stop a merchant vessel, inspect its papers, allow the crew to board lifeboats, and then sink it with his 88mm deck gun. Sometimes this procedure was not practical. Arnauld fired a total of 74 torpedoes during the war and scored 39 hits.
Arnauld remained in the navy during the Weimar era, where he served as a navigation officer on old pre-dreadnoughts and as commander of the Emden (1928–1930). Promoted to captain, he retired in 1931, and then taught at the Turkish Naval Academy from 1932 to 1938. He also briefly joined an anti-Nazi political party in the early 1930s.
Captain von Arnauld was recalled to active duty when World War II began. Promoted to rear admiral on June 1, 1940, he was naval plenipotentiary for Danzig and the Polish Corridor (September 1939–March 1940). He became Naval Commander, Belgium-Netherlands (May–June 1940); Naval Commander, Brittany (June–December 1940); and Naval Commander, Western France (December 1940–February 1941). He was promoted to vice admiral on February 1, 1941.
Admiral von Arnauld was named naval commander south on February 19, 1941. He was en route to his new command when he was killed in an airplane accident at the Paris-Le Bourget Airport on February 24. He is buried at the Invalidenfriedhof (the German national cemetery) in Berlin.
A representation of St Petersburg in 1716 by the contemporary architect Marcelius (no first initial available), showing the administrative and logistical hub of the Baltic fleet in its early years. The view is taken from the banks of the Neva looking across towards the centre of the city, with an unidentified warship anchored to the right and various small craft going about their business on the river. Visible on the opposite bank are the building slips, with a launching under way just beneath the towers of the Admiralty looming in the distance. To the right is the Church of St Isaac of Dalmatia showing the typical features of a Russian Orthodox church. The buildings scattered along the waterfront include the workshops of ship designers, the iron works (smithies) of the navy and the magazines of the fleet.
This drawing of St Petersburg in 1725 at the death of its founder Peter I should be compared with that from 1716. Both show the spire of the Admiralty dominating the skyline, but this drawing shows the impressive building from two perspectives. The cleared space in the lower picture is devoted to the drilling and housing of the Russian army and was as much a part of the underpinnings of Russian power as the fleet under construction in the upper. Both drawings show a line of battleship being launched from the slip immediately below the Admiralty tower, an indication that this artist knew of and was influenced by the 1716 representation. Details are hard to come by, but an observant eye can note that the building slips in the 1725 drawing are occupied by larger warships than those seen the 1716 drawing – a sign of the significant growth in ship size in a single decade.
Prior to the completion of St Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland in 1703, Russia’s major commercial seaport to the West was Arkhangel’sk at the mouth of the Dvina River on the White Sea facing the bleakness of the Arctic Circle. The shipyard servicing Arkhangel’sk was the Solombala Yard located on the Solombala islands at the mouth of the North Dvina and opened in 1693. Arkhangel’sk was never fully eclipsed by the naval hub of St Petersburg as the major production centre for the Russian sailing navy and did not finally cease operation until 1859 with the launch of the paddle frigate Solombala.
Arkhangel’sk had significant advantages as a builder of sailing warships in spite of its wretched climate and its distance from central Russia. The northern larch and pine forests provided an abundant supply of cheap timber and the extensive river network flowing into the Dvina made its transportation to the shipyards easy and cheap. Meaningful price comparisons are difficult during this period, but the cost of the larch used for a Russian 74 in 1805 was worked out at £9,000–9,500 as compared to £48,000 for the cost of properly seasoned timber for a 74 built in England at the same time. Arkhangel’sk had the additional advantage of having ready access to abundant iron ore deposits in the nearby Ural Mountains for the production of ordnance and other warship equipage. The shipyard was also sufficiently remote from the Baltic area as to be free from the likelihood of conquest by land or blockade by sea and the production of warships could continue unabated regardless of unfavourable military events to the south.
Ships completed in the northern yards were only commissioned as warships at St Petersburg after a one to two month working up voyage around the entire extent of the Scandinavian peninsula and then northwards again across the entire length of the Baltic from the straits of Denmark to the naval bases of St Petersburg. This long, arduous, and occasionally dangerous voyage gave Russian commanders a unique two-fold opportunity to work up untrained groups of landsmen with no previous experience with the sea into reasonably competent seamen and also to reveal weaknesses and defects in their newly completed warships.
There was, of course, another side to the coin. Pine and larch were not well suited for use in sailing ships, being liable to rapid dry rot and deterioration in service. The British and other European naval powers turned to the use of pine only during periods of great desperation, and ships so constructed were only expected to have useful service lives of five to seven years. The very ease of transportation of timber by floating it down the Russian waterways leading to the Solombala Yards was in itself a major accelerant to the rapid deterioration of the timber employed by saturating it with moisture at the very point in its life when it was most in need of drying out and seasoning. Floating large quantities of green, newly cut timber on water and then immediately employing it in the construction of warships was the worst possible use of ship timber irrespective of the economic advantages of the process. A one-year seasoning period was specified before the timber was used in construction, but this guideline was not always adhered to, and could not suffice to undo the damage already done. It can only be said at this point that cheapness and ease of construction had a greater priority for the Russia sailing navy than long life and durability in service. The ships produced were still effective warships during their abbreviated service lives and the wisdom of this policy must remain a matter for debate. The situation improved considerably after the accession of Nicholas I with the replacement of the waterborne transportation system by the slower and more expensive method of transportation by road and by rafting. This, in turn, had to await further emergence of Russia from a primitive medieval economic system into one more closely in step with modern European developments.
A final drawback to the use of Arkhangel’sk as a builder of sailing warships lay in the fact that completed ships could only make the long journey to St Petersburg if they were able to leave Arkhangel’sk during a one to three month window early in the season and this, in turn, might be further constricted by a late spring thaw. If the new ships missed the window for departure, they were left to deteriorate through the stresses of yet another arctic winter with increased probabilities of separation of seams and leaking when the voyage became possible in the ensuing year.
The long 2,600-mile voyage from Arkhangel’sk to St Petersburg and the exposure of untried ships early on to severe weather conditions even during summer months may have been beneficial with respect to the working up untrained crews and for uncovering defects in construction, but it was also something of a curse, with warships constructed of poorly prepared materials being subjected to unusually severe hull stresses at the very beginning of their service lives. In addition, the transit through the narrow Straits of Denmark and then along the coast of Sweden was simply not a viable option during wartime at the very time when new construction was most urgently required.
In spite of all of the drawbacks to the use of Arkhangel’sk as a construction centre, some 247 major warships were completed by the Solombala Yards between 1702 and 1855 as against the smaller total of 171 by the more strategically located Main and New Admiralty Yards at St Petersburg between 1706 and 1844 (or 202 if allowance is made to include ships built at Kronshtadt and Okhta). This total for Arkhangel’sk included 64 standard 74s, 78 66s, 21 54s and 84 frigates of all sizes. These figures, both for Arkhangel’sk and the Baltic shipyards, are of course only close approximations and subject to debate on numerous counts. Nevertheless the pattern is clear, Arkhangel’sk built more and smaller ships in all categories while St Petersburg built fewer and larger warships.
No other nation during the sailing ship era was faced with conditions approaching those imposed by this remarkable combination of poor construction materials and long transit from point of production to point of utilization. Arkhangel’sk was unique.
The Bykovskaya shipyard located at Byk on the northern Dvina in the vicinity of Arkhangel’sk was the only private shipyard of significance in Russia that was contracted to build warships. Founded in 1734 by a private merchant N. S. Krylov, Bykovskaya was primarily a builder of merchant and fishing vessels but also built a small number of frigates and auxiliary vessels. The yard was finally closed in 1847.
Shipyards located in the St Petersburg Area
This section includes those yards built in and around St Petersburg including Lake Ladoga in the early years and extends to include a complex of shipyards built along the Neva River as well as the island fortress of Kronshtadt outside of St Petersburg. Some of these yards were abandoned at the end of age of sail while others continued in use, sometimes in different forms and under different names, to the present.
A short-lived shipyard built in the mouth of the Syas’ River which enters Lake Ladoga from the east. Four small frigates were built there between 1702 and 1704.
Lodeynoe Pole (Olonetskaya)
The earliest shipyard in the area, Olonetskaya, or Olonets as she was also called, was built inland on the Svir River which enters Lake Ladoga to the northeast of the future site of St Petersburg. The town serving the shipyard came to be known as Lodeynoe Pole (Boat Field) and the shipyard was known as Olonetskaya until renamed Lodeynopol’skaya Yard in 1785. Completed ships had to cross Lake Ladoga and proceed up the Neva to reach the sea. Between 1703 and 1711, Olonetskaya completed two 52-gun ships, ten snows, two bombs and various other smaller craft. Throughout the eighteenth century, the yard continued to build galleys and small craft. Between 1806 and 1820, an additional twenty additional ships were constructed there including two small frigates. The shipyard formally closed in 1849.
St Petersburg Main Admiralty Yards
The site of the new Russian capital of St Petersburg in 1703 was chosen by Peter I with an eye on its strategic positioning at the head of the Gulf of Finland, with its excellent defensive potentialities and its potential for controlling the entire Baltic to the south. The naval shipyards on the Neva River had access to Russian river waterways for the transportation of timber from the interior comparable to that of the Arkhangel’sk shipyards along with the added advantage of readily available supplies of high quality Kazan’ oak along with abundant supplies of larch. Fewer warships were completed in the shipyards around St Petersburg than those at Arkhangel’sk, but St Petersburg was entrusted with the honour of constructing the great majority of the Baltic fleet’s prestigious First and Second Rates as well as the more important of the heavy frigates. It seems likely that this division of labour between the two yards was a result of the greater durability and life spans that could be hoped for from ships built of higher quality timber than was available to the northern yard, especially when spared the trials of the long transit from Arkhangel’sk.
St Petersburg was very nearly as long-lived as its northern compatriot and rival, with the main admiralty yards continuing to build major sailing warships for the Russian Navy from their founding in 1706 to 1844. The total production of both the St Petersburg Main Admiralty and New Admiralty yards taken together (but excluding Okhta and Kronshtadt) was 21 100-gun ships, 30 80-gun ships, 20 70-gun ships, 33 64/66-gun ships, 14 52-gun ships and 53 frigates of all categories.
Located slightly downriver from the Main Admiralty Yards, the Galley Yard was primarily involved in the production of galleys and other oared craft until it converted to the New Admiralty Yard in 1800 (see below).
Galernyy Island Yards
This site is referred to as Galernyy Ostrovok (Gallerny Island in Russian) throughout the data section. The site was founded in 1719 and built small galleys and sailing ships including 50 Crimean War gunboats, before beginning to construct larger craft from 1858. It was merged with the New Admiralty Yards in 1908.
Two plans of the naval base of Kronshtadt completed on Kotlin Island in 1713. The top view depicts the base in 1721 as planned by Peter I. The lower shows the changes made by 1741–3. Both reveal the heavy fortifications that guaranteed its dual status as both the guardian of the Russian capital at St Petersburg and as the major naval base for the Baltic fleet. No serious assault on St Petersburg would have been possible without first reducing this fortress, and the guns of Kronshtadt retained their deterrent value throughout the course of the Napoleonic Wars – and long after.
The main naval base for the Russian Baltic fleet was created in 1713 located on the Kotlin Island protecting the approaches to St Petersburg. Both a fortress and a naval base, Kronshtadt was primarily involved with major repairs. Construction activity was largely limited to important larger ships and to specialized prototypes because of the difficulty involved in transporting quantities of timber to the island. With the lonely exception of Sviatoi Pavel 86 of 1753, the production of major warships at Kronshtadt began in 1771 with the laying down of the 10-gun bomb Iupiter and continued through 1813 with the launching of the 100-gun Rostislav. Twenty-two warships ranging in size from First Rates to cutters were constructed there between 1753 and 1813 including four First Rates, one 80, one 66, eight rowing frigates and eight smaller ships.
With the great dry dock facility begun at the order of Peter I and completed in 1752, along with its vast complex of workshops, Kronshtadt has remained the main arsenal, repair and maintenance base for the Russian Baltic fleet to the present day. In 1857 it was determined that Kronshtadt was no longer suitably placed to act as an operational centre for offensive fleet operations. Plans were accordingly made to move fleet operations and the Admiralty headquarters to Rogervik, while retaining Kronshtadt as the armoury and repair centre of the Baltic fleet. Although financial constraints prevented the fulfilment of this project, the harbours serving Kronshtadt were deepened over several years beginning in 1859. A second attempt at providing a more forward operating base for the fleet was undertaken in the 1880s at Libava (now Lithuanian Liepaia), but these were abandoned in their turn in favour of Revel’ in 1912.
Also known as Okhtenskaya, this yard was located on the Okhta River, a branch of the Neva in the vicinity of St Petersburg. Builder of small vessels between 1781 and 1794. Between 1810 and 1862, Okhta became a major shipyard, completing eight 74s, nine heavy frigates and 49 smaller ships.
The New Admiralty yards in St Petersburg were built on the Neva on the site of the former Galley Yard in the final year of the Emperor Paul’s short and tragic reign in 1800; 25 major sailing warships were built there between 1806 and 1866, including two First Rates, one completed as a steamship, twelve 80-gun ships, four 74s and three 44-gun heavy frigates. An additional four wooden screw and paddle cruising ships were also completed there between 1844 and 1866. New Admiralty continued to produce iron and steel hulled warships until 1908 when it merged with the Galernyy Island yard.
Facing the North Sea and the Atlantic, the kingdom of France possessed, in theory, around 2500 kilometres of coastline, stretching from the estuary of the Zwyn in Flanders to Hendaye on the frontier with Castile. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, however, only the counties of Ponthieu and Artois on the north coast were ruled directly by the French king; other territories including Flanders, Normandy, Brittany, Poitou and Gascony were fiefs of the French Crown, but were ruled directly by dukes or counts who often followed their own policies. This was particularly the case with the territories which were ruled by the Kings of England as dukes, first of Normandy from the Conquest till c.1204 and from c.1417 to c.1450, and second of Gascony (also known as Aquitaine) from 1152, when the future Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine, till 1453. Brittany, under its own duke, also pursued independent policies until the last years of the fifteenth century, when the French king took over the direct rule of the duchy by marrying Anne, the heiress of the last duke in 1491. As a consequence of this situation, kings of France had taken little interest in maritime matters, until the collapse of English rule in northern France in the reign of King John extended their power over most of the Channel coast. The kings of France, initially Philip II Augustus, now had control over a coastline in the north of their kingdom with excellent ports, where maritime trade was on the rise, and where skilled and adventurous seamen could be found in large numbers. They also had the power to demand feudal service at sea from these mariners and their ships in much the same way as the English Crown could rely on its power to conscript ships and crews for royal fleets. As Michel Mollat put it, ‘Philip [II] did not have a fleet but he had ships’. It was a fleet raised in this manner which met with the English at the battle of Dover in 1217.
Sources for French naval forces
There are not, however, many surviving French equivalents of the letters patent, commissions and accounts which allow historians to examine in detail the fleets largely made up of conscripted merchant ships raised by English kings from the thirteenth century onwards. It is easier to find evidence of the measures taken by French kings to defend their coastline by fortifying ports and building castles, for example at Montreuilsur-Mer and Boulogne. After their control also extended by the mid thirteenth century to the coast of Poitou and Saintonge, the fortifications of the major port of La Rochelle were also strengthened, although it was not until 1345–47 that the twin towers which guard the harbour entrance were built. These still exist and the Tour St Nicholas, in particular, is a very imposing structure; the watch tower is more than 35m above sea level. A chain was stretched across the entrance to the harbour between the two towers on which cannon were also mounted. Harfleur had similar towers, while at Honfleur across the estuary of the Seine one tower was built by the French in the mid fourteenth century, and another built c.1430 when the town was ruled by the English.
Le Clos des galées
The idea of special facilities for French royal maritime forces first took shape in 1240 on the Mediterranean coast of France. In that year Louis IX founded the port of Aigues Mortes in the marshes of the Camargue, on the small section of the southern coast of France between Marseille and Montpellier, under direct French royal rule. From this vantage point the French monarchy acquired direct experience of the sophisticated form of galley warfare which dominated these southern waters in the second half of the thirteenth century. The war between Charles II of Anjou, Louis IX’s nephew, and ruler of Provence, and successive kings of Aragon, usually known as the war of the Sicilian Vespers, had a major naval component with galley battles fought in the waters off Sicily and Catalonia. Both the Aragonese kings and Charles built galley fleets and, from c.1270, began the development of large galley-building shipyards at Barcelona or Marseille. It is very probable that awareness of these events and the effectiveness of galleys as warships was one of the motivations for Philip IV of France to establish a galley-building yard of his own, in the north of his kingdom on the river Seine at Rouen. Shipbuilding had gone on at Rouen since at least 1226, and the tidal regime in the river ensured the town’s success as a port, despite its distance from the sea. It was also, of course, well placed if the primary opponent of vessels to be built in the yard was England.
The yard was established around 1293–95, with the initial task of setting up the enterprise in the hands of Genoese shipwrights, some of the most successful and experienced workers in this field in the Mediterranean. It was initially quite a modest enclosure, defended only by ditches and a palisade, but eventually became a galley yard on the model of those in Genoa or Barcelona, with substantial buildings including housing for the officers and workers and covered galley sheds. It was designed round a basin leading off the river itself, with the entry and exit of vessels controlled by lock gates. It was certainly a much more impressive establishment than the temporary buildings and hedged enclosures used by the English Crown at Ratcliff on the Thames in the mid fourteenth century.
It is hard, however, to be sure how effective the Clos was as a shipbuilding yard since there are considerable gaps in the surviving documentation. In some ways it was more use as providing winter shelter for galleys according to the usual practice in the Mediterranean. At Rouen they could be taken out of the water and placed in covered galley sheds in the yard. It is also the case that, under the supervision of the director of the Clos, ships were also built for the French Crown in other ports. Jean Ribaut was responsible for building three new barges at Rouen in 1369–70 and others in Dieppe and Caudebec. After 1376 more vessels were ordered by the Crown from the Clos des galées, but it is not clear that the work on all of these was finished.
It was certainly also used as a storage facility and victualling yard; the French fleet that fought at Sluys was assembled there, and in 1355 a fleet was provided with victuals for one month comprising biscuit, beef, salt pork, herring, dried peas and beans, salt, and onions. The administration of the yard was reorganised in the 1370s in the reign of Charles V and given greater responsibility for the provisioning of expeditions and the provision of artillery, in addition to that for the building and repair of royal ships. The surviving accounts for Jean Champenois, master of the Clos des galées for 1382–84, however, make depressing reading. The inventory section of the accounts makes clear that despite the expenditure of a certain amount of money in wages and supplies, there were no vessels in the Clos ready to go to sea. The galleys St Agnes, St Cross, and St Victor required repairs and lacked some equipment. The Madeleine was rotten and beyond repair, while three old horse transports had been on the stocks for at least twenty-seven years. The only other vessels were four half-built barges. In 1385, probably as part of the preparations for an abortive French attempt to invade England, biscuit for fifty-three vessels was provided by the yard; around thirty of these ships were, however, hired from Spain and most of the remainder came from Harfleur. This flurry of activity was followed by a long slow decline into inertia under corrupt officials. By the time the Clos was overrun by the English and burnt down in 1417, the yard was no longer engaged in building or repairing ships. The final expenditure recorded was nothing to do with these matters but with the repair of the stained glass windows with armorial borders in the hall and the chapel of the ‘ostel du clos des gallees lez Rouen’.
As the editor of the greater part of the surviving accounts has pointed out, the establishment of the Clos by Philip IV does not represent the fulfilment of a wish to have a permanent navy. In her view the only thing permanent about the Clos was the officials and their salaries. The number of ships built or based in the Clos was too small for any kind of permanent navy and, moreover, they were not kept in a ‘sea-ready’ condition but allowed to deteriorate in times of truce. There were no permanent crews for the vessels, with most of the galleymen coming from the Mediterranean when an expedition was in preparation, a process which could take some time and lead to delays in the fleet putting to sea. Finally, Philip IV and the kings who succeeded him had other means of raising a fleet. It has been estimated that a French king could raise a fleet of from one to four hundred ships in French ports using his powers of conscription, and also had the ability to hire at least forty of the best Mediterranean galleys, usually from Genoa or Castile, whenever he chose. Galleys were not suitable for commercial use or for fishing in northern waters, and therefore could not be put to other uses in time of truce. Even so, in the view of the editor of the surviving documents, the little ‘nutshells’, most with a capacity of less than one hundred tuns, built in the yard made ‘England tremble for more than a century’.
The policy of Philip IV
Even if the galleys built in the Clos desgalées did not have quite such a dramatic effect on English mariners as this remark implies, there is little doubt that Philip IV was unusual among French kings in spending much care and attention on a maritime policy intended to deal with not only the English, but also the Flemings, especially those in the merchant towns on the coast who were in rebellion against the French Crown. As well as acquiring a squadron of his own ships, he also created the office of Admiral of France; the first was Otton de Toucy, followed by the Genoese Enrico Marchese, and the Castilian Benedetto Zaccaria. The King was able to defray the considerable cost of these innovations by imposing a duty on ships which had to be registered for royal service when needed.
The highpoint for the Clos, and in some ways for the medieval French navy, was the preparations for a possible invasion of England in the first half of the fourteenth century. These began in 1338, some two years before the battle of Sluys. Ordinances for the French fleet were drawn up in the same year, which in many ways are very similar to some of those we have looked at for the English fleet, produced at much the same time. The French fleet was to be ordered in ‘battles’ or ranks with the mariners from the Seine and Flanders in the van, followed by those from Dieppe and Picardy. The systems of signalling by flag for councils of war, or for the first sighting of an enemy ship, was the same as those for the English fleet. The administration of the admiralty was also clarified at this time; a vice admiral would be appointed with assistants in Leure, Dieppe, Abbeville and Boulogne. Payments for these officials and the Clos would come from the Chambre des Comptes via the Clerc des arbaletriers with funds provided from a special aide voted by the estates of Normandy.
Well might Philip VI consider that he now possessed a truly Grande Armée de la Mer, the phrase used in surviving orders and accounts. To oppose the English in the early months of 1340 there were 200 ships mustered at Rouen from ports all along the northern coast of France. Among these were three galleys, twenty-two vessels which were either barges or the smaller bargots and seven nefs that are all described as being in royal ownership. In addition three Genoese galleys, commanded by one Barbavera, had been hired by the French. In total, victuals and other provisions had to be provided for over twenty thousand men before they set off for the estuary of the Zwyn. As we have seen, the battle was a disaster for the French with very high casualties. Many of the men lost would have been skilled and experienced mariners; their loss was a serious matter for France and may have led to a curtailment of maritime endeavours for some time.
In 1346/7, at the time of the invasion of France by the English which ended with the siege of Calais, it is notable that Philip VI’s initial response to the threat posed by English preparations was to turn to galleys hired from the Mediterranean, not to rely on the resources of the Clos or French shipowners. In the first months of 1346 he concluded an agreement with Carlo Grimaldi to hire from him thirty-two galleys and one galiot crewed by around seven thousand men. Unfortunately for Philip, the force did not arrive in French waters until 19 July 1346, by which time Edward III’s army had already disembarked at Saint-Vaast-la-Hogue. During the long English siege of Calais over the winter and spring of 1346/7, the Grimaldi galleys did little to bring relief to the town. An early success in breaking through the English blockade was not followed up; at the end of October the galleys were taken out of the water and disarmed according to the custom in the Mediterranean.
The flotillas which did have some success in bringing in supplies to the starving town were made up of ships from all the ports along the French coast, acting, according to Bourel de la Roncière, the historian of the French navy, entirely out of patriotic fervour. He included in his account of the siege some stirring stories including the tale of hundreds of women in Dieppe who dragged an overloaded victualler free of the mud in the harbour by hauling on ropes. This vessel formed part of a relieving force which got through the English defences in late March. No others were successful. The fact that Calais was in English hands from 1347 did to some extent limit the freedom of movement of French ships in this part of the Channel. As a consequence of these defeats, the French Crown had also to a degree lost its appetite for new maritime initiatives; better to rely on galleys hired from its southern allies than to use France’s own resources.
The fortunes of the Clos des galées and the French navy, however, revived in the reign of Charles V, along with those of France in general. English fortunes were at a nadir, especially following the defeat at La Rochelle, which to one commentator signified the loss of English control of the Golfe de Gascogne. Ordinances issued in 1373 and 1377 reorganised the Clos and the Admiralty under the leadership of Jean de Vienne, who proved himself as competent and imaginative a leader in warfare at sea as he had done on land. The letters appointing the new Mâitre et garde of the galley yard in 1374 make plain how bad things had apparently become before this date. Victuals and other equipment were rotten and spoilt, while the galleys themselves were in such a condition that they could not put to sea in any emergency. The new master Estenne de Brandiz came from the south where he had been in charge of ‘pors et passages’ in Carcassonne and Beziers, and had proved himself by organising the return of the pope from Avignon to Rome. The success of Vienne’s strategy of destructive raids on English coastal towns is neatly summarised in the report on the doings of the Armée de mer drawn up at the end of 1380. The purpose of the report was to finalise the sums owed by Charles V to the King of Castile for the hire of twenty galleys which had been involved in many of these raids. The purpose of the squadron had always been to do as much damage as possible to the Isle of Wight, Jersey and Guernsey, and other places. The report declared that they had burnt ‘Vincenezel’ (Winchelsea) and Rye, had raided up the Thames in August, and had finally left for Spain at the end of September. Their base was Harfleur, more convenient for this sort of activity than the yard up the river at Rouen.
The fifteenth century
It is also reasonable to suppose that Charles V had a deliberate policy of increasing the French monarchy’s direct control over the maritime regions and coasts of France, both to extend his own powers and because of the economic benefit this would bring France. Most of this unravelled in the reign of his son Charles VI. The failure of the enormous efforts put into the projected invasion of England in 1386 perhaps created a climate in which no one in a position of power or authority wished to be associated with endeavours like this. Rather than grandiose projects including an invasion by a large French fleet, security in the Channel could be better provided by gaining the political support of the Burgundians and the Dukes of Brittany.
In the early years of the fifteenth century, as we have already seen, the French monarchy turned once again to the well-tried medium of hired vessels, at this period largely from Genoa, to defend themselves from the forces of Henry V. The issue of royal ships or even a royal navy did not come to the fore again until the 1450s when the defeat of the English had returned the northern coasts of France, with the sole exception of Calais, to French control.
The whole issue of the attitude of the French monarchy to maritime affairs at this time was debated with vigour in a pamphlet supposedly recording a debate between the heralds of France and England. Written sometime after the battle of Castillon in 1453, which ensured the loss by the English of all their French territories except Calais and the Pale, the Herald of France pours particular scorn on the English claim to be ‘roys de la mer and then mounts several arguments in favour of France exerting her own power at sea. Apart from better natural resources in harbours and shipbuilding materials than England, the Herald claimed that the King of France, without leaving his palace, could destroy all the great ships of England by shutting them out of the immensely profitable trades in wine and bay salt. He recalled the reign of Charles V and the way in which he had successfully deployed forces of galleys against the port towns on the English coast and had even sent a fleet up the Thames which had attacked the city with cannon fire. In his view, these raids could be easily repeated any time the French king wanted. The French could also easily wage war against the English at sea if they wished. It was true that the French nobility was not enthusiastic about going to sea – seasickness is mentioned as a particular problem – but this was not a matter of importance. The French could get as many ships as they needed from their Spanish allies and, moreover, since the French had authority over Genoa more ships, both carracks and galleys, could come from there. Finally, the writer makes a plea to the French crown:
Item, et pour ce je prie Dieu qu’il doint au roy de France cuer et courage de vous faire guerre a la mer, car ce sont les verges de quoy il vous peut chastier et refroider vostre hault couraige et a tous vos voysins quant il luy plaira l’entreprendre.
Unfortunately the precise date of the composition of this pamphlet is not known, otherwise the recommendation to restart raids on the English coast might be thought to have inspired that on Sandwich in 1457.
One individual who would have thoroughly agreed with the Herald’s conclusions would have been Pierre de Brézé, the grand seneschal of Normandy from 1451–61. He had been in the service of Charles VII of France since 1437 and was much involved in the reconquests of Normandy by the French and the defeat of the English. A fragmentary account for the years 1452–58 preserved in the archives of the Musée Condé has cast light on his activities as an active promoter of the guerre de course against the English in the Channel. He held shares in at least two ships, the carvel Marquise and another ship called the Poulle. These were based at Honfleur and put to sea with the clear aim of taking English ships and profiting from their cargoes and the ransoms of their crews. A tenth of any profits after some expenses, including the victualling of the ships, had been taken into account went to the Admiral of France. Like the raid on Sandwich in 1457, of which de Brézé was one of the leaders, these were at least semi-official voyages. De Brézé’s main aim was political and military, to wrest mastery of the Narrow Seas from the English. Any personal profits were a secondary matter. The accounts reveal a degree of success; in 1456 his ships took the Ghost of London, the George of Hull and another smaller ship. The final profit after expenses and the tenth due to the admiral, made up of the value of the cargoes of wool and lead on the ships taken, the ransoms of the prisoners, and the sale of the Ghost, came to just over 76k 6s.
The Herald’s impassioned plea for a coherent naval policy by French kings was also largely ignored by Charles VII’s successor Louis XI. He was concerned to encourage French maritime commerce, but concentrated his efforts on political manoeuvres aimed at securing power in Burgundian territories and in Brittany. One of the principal ways in which he attempted to achieve this was by continuing the policy of encouraging the activities of the corsairs who swarmed in French ports, letting them attack Flemish and Breton shipping almost with impunity. Mollat summed up Louis’ attitude to any form of navy by remarking that it was hardly possible to speak of the ‘marine royale’ at this time. Since many of his political intrigues were successful, Louis XI would have cared little for this verdict. Once the long-running and destructive war with England was over, France had other preoccupations, most of which had little impact on maritime or naval matters. Her rulers’ eyes turned southwards towards Italy, away from the Channel and the Atlantic, and made little effort to acquire their own naval forces.
Ordnance experiments in the 1870s involving testing pressures in gun bores revealed that performance could be significantly enhanced by utilizing slower-burning gunpowder and longer barrels. Slow-burning large-grain powder, known as prismatic powder, prolonged the length of time that the charge acted on the projectile and thus increased both muzzle velocity and range. The problem with this was that the projectile left the barrel before all the powder was consumed. This could be solved by longer barrels, but that made muzzle-loading next to impossible. The slower-burning powders also required a powder chamber of diameter larger than that of the bore. All these factors, and the need to protect gun crews during the loading process, prompted a renewed search for an effective breech-loading gun.
Although breechloaders had been tried at sea in the modern era, beginning in 1858 in the French Gloire and later in the British Warrior, problems led to them being discarded. In 1864 the Royal Navy reverted definitively to muzzle-loading ordnance, but other nations, especially the French, moved ahead with breechloaders.
The old problem of ineffective sealing at the breech was only slowly overcome. In 1872 a French Army captain named de Bange came up with a “plastic gas check” that helped prevent escape of gases at the breech, and in 1875 France adopted the breechloader. At the same time brass cartridge cases, already used for small arms, came into use for the smaller breech-loading guns.
An accident aboard HMS Thunderer in the Sea of Marmora in January 1879 helped prompt the Royal Navy’s return to breechloaders. Simultaneous firing was under way, with the main guns fired in salvo; during this, one of the battleship’s 12-inch muzzle-loading guns misfired. This was not detected from the force of the discharge of the one gun, and both guns were run back in hydraulically to be reloaded. When they were again fired the double-charged gun blew up, killing 11 men and injuring 35 others. This could not have happened with a breech-loading gun, and in May the Admiralty set up a committee to investigate the merits of breech-loading versus muzzle-loading guns. In August 1879 after a committee of officers examined new breechloaders built by Armstrong in Britain and Krupp in Germany, the Royal Navy decided to utilize the breechloader in three battleships entering service in 1881-1882.
Another change in the period was to guns of steel, which accompanied enormous increases in gun size. Krupp in Germany began producing cast steel rifled guns in 1860. The change to steel guns was made possible by the production of higher-quality steel. At the same time that the Royal Navy went to the breechloader it adopted the all-steel gun, in which a steel jacket was shrunk over a steel tube and layers of steel hoops were then shrunk over this. The system of jackets and hoops over an inner steel tube was followed by one in which steel wire was spun on under tension varying with the distance from the bore. This helped eliminate barrel droop. Such “wire guns” continued in British service until the 1930s. Bore lengths of the guns increased from 35 to 45 calibers and even from 40 to 45 calibers.
The larger guns of the period required mechanized ammunition hoists and complex breech-loading gear. Their metal carriages recoiled on inclined metal slides that pivoted under the gun port. The slides were trained laterally by means of transverse truck wheels moving on racers, iron paths set into the ship’s deck.
Naval Gun Turret
Following the decision to arm ships with a few large-bore pivot-mounted guns as their principal armament, the next step was an armored turret to protect the guns and their crews, especially during the lengthy reloading process. During the Crimean War (1853-1856), Royal Navy captain Cowper Coles designed two floating batteries to engage Russian shore batteries at close range. The second of these mounted a 68-pounder protected by a hemispheric iron shield, which during action proved largely impervious to hostile fire.
In March 1859 Coles patented the idea of turrets aboard ship. He advocated guns mounted on the centerline of the vessel so as to have wide arcs of fire on either side of the ship and halving the number of guns previously required for broadsides fire. Coles’s persistence, coupled with the powerful support of Prince Albert, led the Admiralty in March 1861 to install an experimental armored turret on the floating battery Trusty. The test was a success, for 33 hits from 68-pounder and 100-pounder guns failed to disable it.
The Coles turret turned on a circumferential roller path set in the lower deck, operated by two men with a hand crank. Its upper 4.5 feet of armor came up through the main or upper deck and formed an armored glacis to protect the lower part. The crew and ammunition entered the turret from below through a hollow central cylinder.
The first British seagoing turreted ship was the Coles-inspired Prince Albert of 1864. It mounted four 9-inch muzzle-loading rifles, one each in four centerline circular turrets, turned by hand; 18 men could complete a revolution in one minute. The problem of centerline turrets in a ship of high superstructure and sail rig and very low freeboard (the latter the result of a design error) contributed to the disastrous loss at sea of the Coles-designed HMS Captain in 1870. Most of its crew drowned, Coles among them.
In the United States, John Ericsson’s single revolving turret the Monitor entered service in March 1862. The Monitor and many follow-on types all had very low freeboard. This lessened the amount of armor required to protect the ship, allowing it to be concentrated in the turret. Unlike the Captain, however, the Monitor had no high superstructure or sail rig.
Ericsson’s turret was all above the upper deck, on which it rested. Before the turret could be turned, it had to be lifted by rack and pinion from contact with the deck. A steam engine operating through gearing turned the turret around a central spindle. The Monitor was the first time that a revolving turret had actually been employed in battle, in its March 9, 1862, engagement with CSS Virginia.
Sharp disagreement continued between those who favored the revolving turret and supporters of broadside armament. Renewed interest in the ram-in consequence of the 1866 Battle of Lissa-and larger, more powerful guns helped decide this in favor of the turret. The ram meant that ships had to fire ahead as they prepared to attack an opposing vessel; heavier guns meant that ships needed fewer of them and that these should have the widest possible arc of fire. The elimination of sail rigs and improved ship designs heightened the stability of turreted warships.
Turrets continued to undergo design refinement and received new breech-loading guns as well as heavier armor, indeed the thickest aboard ship. Relatively thin top-of-turret armor on British battle cruisers, however, led to the loss of three of them to German armor-piercing shells in the Battle of Jutland (May 31-June 1, 1916). The battle cruiser turrets also lacked flash-protection doors and the means of preventing a shell burst inside the turret from reaching the magazines. The largest battleship ever built, the Japanese Yamato had 25.6 inches of steel armor protection on its turrets.
Hogg, Ivan, and John Batchelor. Naval Gun. Poole, Dorset, UK: Blandford, 1978.
Lambert, Andrew, ed. Steam, Steel & Shellfire: The Steam Warship, 1815-1905. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992.
Padfield, Peter. Guns at Sea. New York: St. Martin’s, 1974.
Tucker, Spencer C. Handbook of 19th Century Naval Warfare. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 2000.
Hawkey, Arthur. Black Night off Finisterre: The Tragic Tale of an Early British Ironclad. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999.
Hough, Richard. Fighting Ships. New York: Putnam, 1969.
Four months before the Battle of the Barges on Lake Borgne, a British force, including the 74-gun Ramillies, the 44-gun Pactobus, the bomb-ship Terror, and the brig Dispatch, appeared off Stonington, Connecticut, the bustling shipbuilding, shipping, and fishing town on Long Island Sound. The British Commodore was Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, who, as flag-captain on the Victory at Trafalgar had responded to Horatio Nelson’s dying whisper, “Kiss me, Hardy.”
Carrying out Admiral Cochrane’s grim order to destroy the coast towns and ravage the country, Hardy gave the town inhabitants one hour to leave. Through their magistrates, Stonington’s sea-people and farmers told Hardy to do his worst; should their town be destroyed, they vowed, “we will perish in its ruins.”
Hardy’s worst, it would soon develop, was among the worst examples of Royal Navy gunnery ever recorded. During the three-day siege, more than 50 tons of His Majesty’s hot lead, fire, and iron rained on or near Stonington; but, incredibly, almost no damage was done. Not a single American life was lost in the bombardments, although one of the half-dozen wounded later succumbed.
Lord Nelson, dead those nine years, must have been spinning in his grave as the round shot, bomb, and rocket bombardment plowed the local fields, aerated the lawns, pruned the orchards, and ventilated about 40 buildings—without destroying any.
Word of the siege of Stonington was to delight Americans up and down the seaboard. It would unite in mirth all those who read the advertisement in the New York newspaper: “Just received, and offered for sale, about three tons of round shot . . . very handsome, being a small proportion of those which were fired from His Britannic Majesty’s ships on the un-offending inhabitants of Stonington, in the recent brilliant attack on that place.”
When, at last, the mauled and mortified British slipped away, bearing the 20 British tars who had been killed and the 50 who were wounded by Stonington’s two 18-pounders, Royal Navy gunnery was being immortalized:
They killed a goose, they killed a hen,
Three hogs they wounded in a pen;
They dashed away—and pray what then?
That was not taking Stonington.
But, to the townspeople, it had not really been comical at all. While all could breathe easily as each new Congreve rocket or shell exploded harmlessly, none could be sure that the next round would. Nor could any of the besieged be sure that the ordeal would not continue for three weeks or three months. There were black hours of depression, too, when it seemed that the many fires could not possibly be kept under control; yet, somehow, they were.
Seen in its true perspective, Stonington was not a place where a funny thing happened. It was, rather, the site of one of the most gallant affairs of the war. The courage of its people enheartened their countrymen. Moreover, it disheartened an enemy that had been emboldened by its recent easy possession of Eastport, Maine; and it dissuaded Hardy from more attempts to capture or destroy any of Connecticut’s seaports.
This was the town, these were the people, and these were the times that spawned Nat Palmer.
Commodore Hardy had appeared off Stonington two days before the 15th birthday of Nathaniel Brown Palmer. Born on 7 August 1799, the son of a lawyer, Nat had grown up amid the sights, sounds, and smell of the sea, wistfully watching the last long pulls on sheets and halliards as ships departed from Stonington and nearby Mystic to all parts of the world. At 14, he had gone to sea.
Over the next 36 years, “Captain Nat” became known and respected throughout the port cities of the world, first as a captain of the Western Ocean packet ships Siddons, Garrick, Huntsville, and Hibernia, then as the epitome of clipper ship captains in the Houqua, Samuel Russell, Paul Jones, and Oriental.
Sailor/author Captain Arthur H. Clark revered Palmer because “Probably no one ever brought up so many young men who afterward became successful shipmasters, while his character and example were an inspiration to many who never sailed with him.” One who sailed with him for the first time was Nat’s wife Eliza’s 16-year-old brother, David Sherman Babcock, who afterward became renowned as the captain of the clipper ships Sword Fish and Young America.
To Clark and his The Clipper Ship Era, published in 1910, we are indebted for a description of the breed of captain Nat Palmer exemplified:
Above all things it was necessary that the captains should be thorough seamen and navigators; also that they should be men of robust health and great physical endurance. . . There were frequently desperate characters among the crew and steerage passengers, who required to be handled with moral courage and physical force, while the cabin passengers were usually gentlemen and gentlewomen of good breeding, accustomed to courtesy and politeness, which they expected to find in the captains with whom they sailed. These requirements evolved a remarkable type of men, hearty, bluff, and jovial, without coarseness, who would never be mistaken for anything but gentlemen.
This, then, is what Nat Palmer became. Let us look now at an incident in the Antarctic that helped to shape his life.
At the beginning of February 1821, two ships of Imperial Russia, the Vostok and the Mirnyi, rounded Cape Horn and cruised south into the ice-choked Weddell Sea searching for uncharted land that might prove the existence of the legendary Antarctic continent. Twelve months before, this small squadron, under command of Captain Thaddeus von Bellingshausen, had explored the islands east of the Cape and was now, a year and a half out of Kronstadt, completing a circumnavigation of the world in the south polar latitudes.
On 31 October, they had weighed anchor out of Port Jackson at Sydney, Australia, and for more than 80 days had been laboring through unknown seas, far to the south of any previous voyagers.
Nine days out of Sydney, the flagship had sprung a leak, and the water pumped out over the lower deck kept the crew’s quarters continually damp and chill. During frequent fierce gales the ships struggled under shortened sail through mountainous waves, sliding down the steep leeward slopes to wallow heavily in the troughs, often heeling over and shipping drenching seas. On Christmas Day, while Orthodox services were being held and the Russians were thanking God for the redemption of mankind and the deliverance of their blessed land from armies of the French invaders, the Vostok rammed over a block of submerged ice that broke the anchor bed, raised the anchor block and spindle, ripped away some of the ship’s protective sheathing, and almost breached the hull. That day the watch sighted almost 250 icebergs before night closed in.
For the next month, only a few patches of fine weather broke an uninterrupted season of snow and mist; and the Russians were ready to alter course for warmer latitudes, lay in at a hospitable harbor for repairs, and set sail for home. Their voyage was already a notable one; they had sighted and surveyed dozens of unknown islands, two of them the first discovered below the Antarctic circle. But they had not yet succeeded in their principal objective: to determine the existence of a continental land mass.
Thus, as they steered southward from the Horn, they were making their last thrust for Antarctica, whose secret had remained hidden behind barriers of offshore ice and the great fogs that drift in from the south. On 5 February, the Vostok and Mirnyi sighted the high cliffs of the recently discovered South Shetlands, their ghostly, snow-clad shores but dimly visible. The wind blew SW by S, and the sea ran a strong swell from the west. The summer temperature stood at 34 degrees Fahrenheit. During the early hours of the night, stars shone faintly overhead through thin clouds, while blacker clouds to the east hid the land. As the heavy dew thickened to a fog, the Russians lay to, to avoid running on the reefs and breakers around the islands. The ships’ bells sounded across to each other throughout the night.
On the morning of the sixth, the Russians prepared to continue cruising to the south. The sun had not yet burned off the fog from the ice-choked straits and, in this desolate sea, there was only the sound of waves slapping against the grinding ice and the cries of sea fowl. Captain von Bellingshausen recalled that, “Round about us birds were diving, penguins were calling, albatrosses, gulls, pintades, blue petrels, and cormorants were flying about in all directions.” As the weather showed signs of clearing, the ships started through a channel between rocky headlands.
Suddenly, the fog lifted to reveal a small sloop in the straits ahead. The stranger sent up the American flag, and the Russian commander, replying with the black and gold imperial eagle, sent over a boat to invite the captain on board. After a brief interval, the deputation returned; and a young man in sealskins climbed over the rail and announced himself as, “Captain Nathaniel Palmer, of the sloop Hero, fleet tender to the sealing expedition from Stonington, Connecticut.”
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free.
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
The man who stood before the Russian commander was only 21 years old, but he was already hardened by seven years at sea. Nat Palmer was used to sailing at night and in fog, for he had learned his trade as a blockade runner along the coast of Long Island. Born on 7 August in the last year of the eighteenth century, he was only 12 when war broke out with England, and hostile ships blockaded Stonington and its neighboring ports. Mr. Madison’s war was highly unpopular among many of the New England coastal towns, whose trade and revenues were now threatened more by war than they had been by an occasional British impressment. Many of the ports remained neutral, welcomed British frigates, or even paid ransom without protest, while angry talk of secession sounded in the chambers of council and assembly.
The Stonington men were made of sterner stuff. When the British bombarded their town in August 1814, they had manned the shore batteries and had driven off the fleet. Meanwhile there was profit and adventure to be had for a little danger, and damn the British gunboats! So, in 1813, Nat Palmer went to sea; and if his sloop hugged the coast, there were special skills that one could learn better here than out in the mid-Atlantic. Dodging British warships in the dark, navigating by nose and nerves around shoal waters and enemy interceptors, were to prove good preparation for the Antarctic ice. Detection could mean death by broadside or boarding party, or capture and confinement in rotting prison hulks. Palmer soon became a pilot, and after the war, captained a small coasting sloop. Then, when he was but 19, he was invited to sail as second mate under Captain James Sheffield on a sealing expedition to the south polar seas.
American seamen had gone a-whaling since the earliest days of the colonies; but it was not unitl the late eighteenth century, after Captain Cook had discovered that the pelts of fur seals and sea otters brought high prices in Canton, that Yankee crews made sealing a major industry.
The Russians held an exclusive control on the rookeries in their northern Pacific territories, particularly the Pribilofs; but the islands off the southern tip and western shores of South America were the home of millions of seals waiting for those bold enough to take them. The islands were ostensibly owned by Spain, but Argentina and Chile were too feeble to make effective protest against the British and American marauders, although the latter sometimes threatened each other.
Among the Yankees, by far the greatest number of sealers came from Stonington, whose hardy and venturesome captains made many voyages to the South Atlantic and ranged out into the South Pacific. By Palmer’s time, they had been active in this trade for over twenty years, with such success that the familiar rookeries were almost depleted, and new ones had to be found. Profits were so great and plunder so ruthless that over three million seals were exterminated in Alexander Selkirk’s lonely Juan Fernandez islands, while they were slaughtered in the Falklands as spectacularly as the bison were to be seventy years later in the American West.
For over two hundred years, no significant new discoveries had been made of land below Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, aside from Captain Cook’s sighting the snow-capped peaks of South Georgia Island and Southern Tule (Sandwich Land) in 1775. But there were legends of lands lost below the horizon, of the elusive Auroras, thought to have been discovered in 1600, when a Dutch ship commanded by Dirck Gherritz was blown off course to 64 degrees south latitude. Perhaps these were rediscovered in February 1819, when the British brig Williams, under Captain William Smith, came across a chain of subpolar islands running west to northeast, some 400 miles south of Cape Horn. This accidental encounter occurred only because the Williams, en route to the Pacific and Peru, had beaten far south of the usual sea lanes to avoid rough weather. Smith reported his discovery to British agents in Valparaiso and again at Buenos Aires but refused bribes offered by American sealers to disclose the location of the new islands.
It was at this time that Edmund Fanning of Stonington promoted a voyage to find new sealing grounds in the South Atlantic. A successful veteran of 22 years in the sealing industry, a man who had three times circumnavigated the world, Fanning had heard of Gherritz’ voyage and of the Auroras and dispatched a ship to rediscover them. This was the Hersilia. Just built at Mystic seaport, of 130 tons burthen, with special copper sheathing as protection from submerged ice, it was the Hersilia on which Nat Palmer signed as second mate.
Almost three months out of Stonington, the Hersilia put in at the Falklands for water and fresh food. Leaving Palmer and another sailor on one of the islands to procure provisions, Captain Sheffield sailed off in search of the legendary lands to the south. The bleak Falklands were hardly a very hospitable place to be left, but they were visited often enough that Palmer and his companion would soon be rescued if the Hersilia should founder. They had a ship’s boat, their skinning knives, tinder boxes, a couple of muskets, and some of the ship’s supply of firewood. It was common practice for sealing vessels to leave a crew for as long as six or nine months on some island where they would make their kills, salt down the seals, and cure the skins, while the ship explored for other rookeries, leaving additional seamen at likely locations. After a suitable interval, the sailors and sealskins would be picked up.
Many expeditions brought along women to stay at the shore camps, help with the sealing and cooking, and provide companionship when required. Usually there was only one woman per camp, and they were sufficiently in demand that they became well-known at the sealers’ ports of call. While freed from the hazards of stormy sailing, the crews had no easy time of it ashore, with primitive shelter against wind and weather and scanty supplies of food. For the most part they had to forage for themselves and survive on seal meat, penguin eggs, and the flippers of young sea elephants. As a mate, Palmer received some of the ship’s supplies for his brief stint ashore—navy bread and mess beef, with some rum to improve the circulation and warm the blood.
He and his companion set to work gathering vegetables and butchering some of the animals that ran wild on the island. But they were not alone for long, for a few days after the Hersilia’s departure, another ship stood off the island, the Espirito Santo from Buenos Aires, with British papers. When Palmer piloted her into safe anchorage, the crew revealed that they were bound for rich but secret new sealing grounds. Three days later, when the Hersilia returned, Palmer told Captain Sheffield his news and persuaded him to pursue the course taken by the British.
Laying on all sail, the Hersilia came upon the uncharted South Shetlands four days later, where the Espirito Santo was anchored in a natural harbor while its crew were ashore slaughtering seals. The Stonington men needed no invitation to join in the hunt and stopped only because they had insufficient salt to cure a full cargo of sealskins. With 8,868 pelts, the Hersilia reluctantly returned home bearing news of vast numbers of seals remaining on the islands. Her cargo, though only half of capacity, brought an impressive $22,000, for the pelts turned out to be of much finer quality than those of Cape Horn seals.
As the first Americans to visit the South Shetlands, the Stonington men did not intend to sit idly ashore while others profited by their discovery. Promptly on their return, they prepared a full scale expedition of five ships. This time Nat Palmer had his own command, the Hero, fitted out as fleet tender. The Hero hardly seemed the ship to make history, for it was a small coasting sloop similar to those Palmer had sailed through British blockades. The vessel was less than twice the length of a ship’s launch, but her size served well for exploration in shoal and shallow waters, where she could run close inshore. Built 19 years earlier at nearby Groton, the Hero was 47 feet long, 17 feet wide, and six feet nine inches deep for shoal draft. Her burthen was a mere 44 tons. Yet, Yankee privateers smaller than Palmer’s sloop had taken British prizes over ten times their tonnage. For this voyage to the Antarctic, the Hero carried a crew of only five men. Besides the captain, there were the mate, Phineas Wilcox, 28; second-mate Richard Fanning Loper, 21, who later was to become a famous shipbuilder; 16-year-old seaman Stanton L. Burdick; and seaman Peter Harvey, a 31-year-old Negro.
Three of the Stonington fleet sailed in the spring of 1820, but it was not until the end of July that the Hero, in company with Captain Ephraim Williams’ Express, set her sails for the south. Leaving the Spanish Main and summer seas far behind them, they arrived at the Falklands in late October and then set course for Staten Island and Cape Horn. The 45-mile-long Staten Island, off the east tip of Tierra del Fuego, seemed to a later voyager, Herman Melville, “like a pile of glaciers in Switzerland . . . gleaming in snow-white barrenness and solitude.”
In these latitudes summer was but a whisper of wet wind in the long winter whiteness. Here squalls came screaming out of the southwest, spearing seamen with sleet and hail and smothering the decks with snow.
I wish to God I’d never been born
To go a-ramblin ’round Cape Horn.
And many a ship attempting to round the Horn had been chased by howling west winds clear across the Atlantic to the Cape of Good Hope and had chosen to continue sailing east to seek the South Pacific by way of the Indian Ocean.
In what passed for summer below the Horn, navigation was obstructed by the polar ice pack that broke off from the continental shelf and floated northward into the sea lanes. To find open water and steer a sailing ship through the ice was a difficult and dangerous maneuver, especially in a strong wind, which kept the floes in movement and could block passages or open long leads through the loose ice. Many of these floes were formidable islands, miles in extent and high enough to break the force of Antarctic gales. As the packs ground together, they could trap a sailing ship, crushing its keel or heeling it over so that it jammed, unable to extricate itself.
Less dangerous than the pack ice were the massive bergs rolling in the swell. A ship might pass as many as two hundred bergs a day, of all sizes and shapes, from tables to towering sentinels. Some were like stately galleons, moving majestically through the icy waters. Others were grotesque and misshapen, hollowed with arches and caves into which the surf slammed and roared. Often the ice split with a crack like a cannon, sending large splinters sliding and crashing into the sea. Sometimes hundreds of tons broke off, imperiling ships not only by the danger of their fall but by the immense waves churned in their wake. As they rose and fell, tilted and turned by the tides, the icebergs might be worn away on one side until they capsized and rolled up greenish-blue. Some were covered with bird guano, while others hosted hundreds of penguins flapping their wings or waddling and diving after the ships.
There was abundant life in this wild waste of waters, as ships cruised through schools of blowing porpoises and grampus or killer whales, while overhead wheeled giant fulmars, white-rumped terns, whale-birds, mollymauks, cape pigeons, and light-brown, white-patched Egmont hens. Most majestic was the albatross, “that white phantom [which] sails in all imaginations,” that Melville hailed as “a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime,” and that duller mariners would call a gooney.
In these latitudes, weather was utterly unpredictable, with violent gales followed by dead calm. Often the wind increased so rapidly that it was difficult to shorten sail. There could be simultaneous fog and wind; and even in calms, the currents were strong and the seas ran high. Sometimes the surface was glazed or slick and sluggish as oil, but lifted occasionally by long, slow swells. The skies were usually dismal, with sun and stars rarely visible through a rift in the clouds.
From December to March, conditions were bad enough, with the temperature hovering around freezing; but in the southern winters, the seas south of the Horn were the wildest in the world. Life aboard sailing ships was appalling. There was no escape from the intense, penetrating cold. The wind cut like a blade and sent stinging spray to freeze on the lower rigging and the sailors’ ice-crusted beards. Battering waves broke over the bows and swirled waist-deep into the scuppers, while the driving damp veered drunkenly from rain to sleet or snow or hail. Furling the jib required a certain skill, as the bows plunged under, submerging the clinging seamen and then see-sawing them high into the air and under again, like a ducking stool driving at six knots. Decks had to be shoveled free of snow or covered recurrently with ashes lest their ice-slick surfaces, helped by the abrupt heaving of the ship, send the crew sprawling with broken limbs and cracked heads. With the decks continually awash or frozen over, the crew were at least spared the ritual of scrubbing and swabbing.
But there was no relief from the damp and cold. The pale, infrequent appearance of the sun was too weak to thaw or dry wood, canvas, or men. Despite tarred boots, socks were always sufficiently water-logged to cause frostbite or trenchfoot. Worse than the large, wet flakes of snow was the freezing rain that drenched a man through. Weather seldom permitted clothes to be dried against bulkheads or on lines strung topside, and there was no fire below except for cooking. The only chance for some warmth was to huddle in bed, in dark quarters cramped as a coffin, wrapped in wet underwear and damp blankets.
There was no doctor aboard, no adequate medicine, no way to treat colds or to dry cuts, which would fester in the lingering moisture. Melville recorded that for warmth, “This is the time for oil-skin suits, dreadnaughts, tarred trowsers and overalls, sea-boots, comforters, mittens, woolen socks, Guernsey frocks, Havre shirts, buffalo-robe shirts, and mooseskin drawers. . . . Whatever they can rake and scrape together they put on—swaddling themselves in old sails, and drawing old socks over their heads for night-caps.”
To keep out rain, scupper water, and heavy seas, the forecastle was sealed up like a tomb, where the close air added to claustrophobia. Aside from the strenuous activity of manning the ship, there was no room for exercise, let alone privacy, especially on a sloop as small as the Hero. The only recreation was spinning yarns to while away the watches. There were no facilities for bathing or shaving, unless one desired to douse himself with cold sea water and scrape the brine through his beard.
Cramped and numbed as they were, the crews would stumble about at their work in a semi-conscious stupor, like mechanical toys with disjointed limbs. Their breath was a frosty vapor, and they had to beat their hands together constantly to restore the circulation. Aloft, seamen could not wear gloves; it was impossible to reef the canvas with them or grip the ropes without slipping. Squalls and spray iced the shrouds and yards and made the lines as rigid as strands of cable. Nets and rigging were so slick with snow that top-men sometimes slipped off to be lost overboard or crash to the deck. Often the frozen canvas was almost too stiff to be furled, a job that was even more perilous for men aloft, sometimes at night, in tempests of near-hurricane strength, leaning over the icy yards and supported by only a strand of rope, as they precariously tilted like inverse pendulums over the ship lurching far below. To descend, they must slide down ice-glazed ropes. In less desperate moments, they could shake the snow out of the sheets and chip or scrape the ice, being careful not to slash rigging or canvas. Always the lookouts must keep watch for ice in the offing, and their cries of warning were a restless alarm.
That night off Cape Horn I won’t soon forget,
It gives me the horrors to think of it yet.
We were diving bows under and all of us wet,
A-making twelve knots with the skysails all set.
Why, then, should men repeatedly venture into this white wasteland? These were not Odysseus’ warm, wine-dark seas of the middle world, tempting with sirens and sorceresses, but rather the bitter brine of the Viking and ancient Anglo-Saxon seafarer. To be sure, there were profits: for the owners, perhaps seven times their initial investment, with sizeable shares for the men. But there were other, safer ways to wealth, while many a seaman’s body vanished without even a winding sheet, and old age found few sailors secure.
Yet, neighbors on land might never see more of the world than the adjoining acreage or town market, while New England mariners were at home in exotic ports and used distant seas as their highways. Despite the confinement and discipline of shipboard, there was a wild freedom here and a sense of endurance, of personal, physical accomplishment against the elements that was denied to shopkeepers ashore. The youthful Melville, not yet bound by the badge of a customs inspector, found that “in those for ever exiled waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns.”
But Palmer was hardly thinking of all this as he secured wood and water at Staten Island. The Hero arrived in the South Shetlands on 10 November 1820, and was soon set to work ferrying sealskins from shore to ship. Hunting was good and the fleet took over 60,000 pelts between November and February. The Hero also acted as commissary vessel to the fleet and shore crews, carrying supplies of navy bread, beans, peas, mess beef, prime pork, codfish, dried corn meal, rice, flour, coffee, molasses, butter, potatoes, four and one-half barrels of rum, four barrels of gin, and two and one-half barrels of Teneriffe wine. Clearly, the Stonington men fared better than the usual sealers.
Having seen to the well-being of the squadron, Palmer sailed off alone to chart the islands and explore for better harbors. Rounding the high cliffs of Deception Island, he found entrance on the south to a sizeable inlet formed by the broken mouth of a volcanic crater. Here was a deep harbor kept free from ice by thermal activity in its waters. This was to become the main anchorage for sealers and whalers in the Shetlands. In later years, supplies were stored here for shipwrecked seamen, and a small church was built. When, almost a century later, Shackleton and his crew were adrift on an ice pack in the Weddell Sea, they thought of making a landfall here and tearing down the church to get timbers for a new ship and to convert its pews into planking for the decks.
The volcanic vapors often created mists, but when weather was clear, lookouts from the Hero’s masthead sighted land a great distance to the south, and Palmer set out to survey it. Between Deception Island and the mainland was a 50-mile strait jammed with drifting ice. Luckily, the usual fog had been blown away by freshening winds. For three days, Palmer cruised along the coast of the Antarctic continent to prove that it was not an island. His log for the third day, Friday, 17 November reads:
This 24 hours commences with fresh Breeses from SWest and Pleasant at 8 P.M. got over under the land found the sea filled with immense Ice Bergs at 12 hove Too under the Jib Laid off & on until morning—at 4 A.M. made sail in shore and discovered—a strait—Trending SSW & NNE—it was Literally filled with Ice and the shore inaccessible we thought it not Prudent to Venture in ice Bore away to the Northered & saw 2 small islands and the shore everywhere Perpendicular we stood across towards friesland Course NNW—the Latitude of the mouth of the strait was 63-45 S Ends with fine weather at SSW.
Prevented from landing by masses of pack ice, Palmer turned his helm north and made a reconnaissance of other islands in the volcanic South Shetland chain. In clear waters, their white pinnacles could be seen from a great distance, standing sheer up from the sea to towering summits as high as 6,600 feet. But they were often enclosed in great fields and floes of ice and by mountainous drifting bergs so that they were concealed from the view of lookouts on the tilting surface of the sea. Some of these islands thrust up a solitary spire, while others presented a range of jagged ridges. When the fogs rolled away, their tops were still lost in the perpetual overcast of clouds.
Even after the islands were sighted, Palmer had to pick his way carefully to find channels not choked with ice. Close inshore the foaming surf broke over low barrier reefs to seethe onto narrow beaches strewn with great rocks from the overhanging cliffs. On some of the shores, innumerable seals were swarming, while thousands of penguins stood by in formal ranks and ponderous sea elephants lay, sluggishly respiring through their eight-inch trunks.
Discovering a strait between Livingston (Friesland) and Greenwich Islands, Palmer ventured in and located on the latter a sheltering anchorage, which became known as Yankee Harbor. On the opposite slopes of Livingston Island was a populous and as yet unspoiled rookery. When he reported this news, the Stonington fleet left its unsheltered cove and shifted its base to Yankee Harbor. Palmer returned to fleet-tending duty.
In the middle of January, he was again released to go exploring and once more coasted southward, crossing the straits to the Antarctic highlands. Here, 500 miles below Cape Horn, Nat Palmer came upon the northernmost tip of the polar continent, a spike of precipitous mountains broken off from the Andes, a narrow peninsula projecting hundreds of miles out from the main land mass. Behind the barrier of ice, strange peaks rose in serried ranks, ridge behind ridge mounting up to a high plateau that led off beyond the southern horizon into an unknown void. Here was a lifeless wilderness of terrifying whitness, the haunt perhaps of some vengeful spirit beckoning the reckless mariner into a vast emptiness, a frozen hell. Astern was 7,000 miles of homeless ocean.
Palmer headed southwest and explored the edge of the peninsula as far as 68°, some 330 miles south of Yankee Harbor.
As the weather closed in, he cruised north again, under light sail and laying to at night, since, as he recalled, “most of the time the mist was so dense I could not see the lookout on the forecastle.” At midnight, between 5 and 6 February, Palmer came on deck to take the watch, and struck one bell. To his surprise, he got an unexpected response. Perhaps it was an echo from the ice. But, at one o’clock:
I struck the two bells that were answered by a human hand; though I could not credit my ears, and thought I was dreaming; excepting for the screeching of the penguins, albatross, pigeons, and mother carys, I was sure no living object was within leagues of the sloop, but the sound of bells continued until the sun lifted the fog. My chief officer, who laughed at the idea of a human soul being close at hand, insisting that the sound was “tricky” called me at seven bells during his watch, saying that voices were heard, and before the trencher board was laid, the fog lifted, presenting to our view a frigate on the starboard bow, and a sloop of war on the lee quarter, with Russian colors flying.
For the earliest and probably best account of this dramatic and unexpected encounter, we turn to Edmund Fanning, who had organized the expedition which was Palmer’s first voyage to Antarctica. In Voyages Round the World (1833), Fanning wrote:
On the Hero’s return passage to Yankee Harbor, she got becalmed in a thick fog between the South Shetlands and the newly discovered continent, but nearest the former. When this began to clear away, Captain Palmer was surprised to find his little barque between a frigate and a sloop of war, and instantly ran up the United States’ flag; the frigate and sloop of war then set the Russian colors. Soon after this a boat was seen pulling from the commodore’s ship for the Hero, and when alongside, the lieutenant presented an invitation from his commodore for Captain P. to go on board; this of course was accepted. These ships he then found were the two discovery ships sent out by the Emperor Alexander of Russia, on a voyage around the world. To the commodore’s interrogatory if he had any knowledge of these islands then in sight, and what they were, Captain P. replied, he was well acquainted with them, and that they were the South Shetlands, at the same time making a tender of his services to pilot the ships into a good harbour at Deception Island, the nearest by, where water and refreshments such as the island afforded could be obtained; he also informed the Russian Officer that his vessel belonged to a fleet of five sail, out of Stonington, under command of Captain B. Pendleton, and then at anchor in Yankee Harbour, who would most cheerfully render any assistance in his power. The commodore thanked him kindly, “but previous to our being enveloped in the fog,” said he, “we had sight of these islands, and concluded we had made a discovery, but behold, when the fog lifts, to my great surprise, here is an American vessel apparently in as fine order as if it were but yesterday she had left the United States; not only this, but her master is ready to pilot my vessels into port; we must surrender the palm to you Americans,” continued he, very flatteringly. His astonishment was yet more increased when Captain Palmer informed him of the existence of an immense extent of land to the south, whose mountains might be seen from the masthead when the fog should clear away entirely. Captain Palmer, while on board the frigate, was entertained in the most friendly manner, and the commodore was so forcibly struck with the circumstances of the case, that he named the coast then to the south, Palmer’s Land; by this name it is recorded on the recent Russian and English charts and maps.
When the fog lifted, the commander of the two Russian ships beheld the tiny America sloop Hero, whose captain, Nat Palmer, pointed to the trio of towering peaks, background, on what is today known as the Palmer Peninsula.
Possibly Fanning overdramatized the Russian’s reaction. In a later, questionable account that Palmer is supposed to have told the American consul in Hong Kong, von Bellingshausen paced the cabin in considerable agitation, asking what his imperial master would think at his having lost the discovery to a boy scarcely out of his teens in a ship little larger than the Vostok’s launch. This version attributes to him a melodramatic and undoubtedly spurious speech in which he places his hand on the American’s head, exclaiming, “. . . my grief is your joy. Wear your laurels. With my sincere prayers for your welfare, I name the land you discovered in honor of yourself, noble boy, Palmer’s Land.”
There was no need for such heroics, for the contrast was sufficiently striking without them. On the one hand was the 41-year-old senior Russian commander, with his staff, in full uniform. A portrait of him done not much later shows him to have aristocratic features, a thin, slightly drooping guardsman’s moustache, flowing sideburns, and dark hair slightly receded from a high forehead. A later portrait of his second in command, Lt. Lazarev, shows a stocky, thin-lipped man with heavy jowls and thick eyebrows, a fleshy Roman nose, and the air of a bantam rooster. Confronting them was the 21-year-old Connecticut captain in a sou-wester and sealskin coat and boots, his thickly-matted beard matching his tangled, unwashed brown hair. He was an impressive six feet tall, and a contemporary described him as being kindly, but having a gruff exterior and appearance “much like that of a shaggy bear.”
The contrast between the ships was equally striking. Dwarfing the 47-foot sloop, with her five-man crew, the Vostok was 129 feet 10 inches long and 32 feet 8 inches in the beam. She carried a total crew of 117, including 15 officers, an astronomer from Kazan University, an artist from the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, and two surgeons. The Mirnyi was of 230 tons, 120 feet length, and 30 feet beam, carrying a complement of 72 men, including another surgeon and an Orthodox priest. Both ships were extremely well equipped and victualed.
Von Bellingshausen spoke little English, but Lazarev had served four years in the British Navy and acted as interpreter. Palmer let the Russians copy his charts and told them his was the first ship to circumnavigate the South Shetlands. Von Bellingshausen was quite struck with the size of the Hero; and Palmer recalled that, “It was with great difficulty that I could make the old admiral believe I had come from U [sic] States in so small a vessel.” The interview lasted about an hour, during which lunch was served, probably the cabbage soup, fresh pork, pickled cabbage, lemon juice, and rum punch that was provided on feast days. Then Palmer returned to his ship, rejoined the Stonington fleet, and two weeks later, sailed for home.
But Palmer was not yet through with the polar seas. Now that the Antarctic continent was discovered, the question still remained: What lay beyond? Did the continent cover the pole, or was it, like Australia, simply an immense island with more seas to the south? No traveler had visited the ends of the earth, and who knew what mysteries were hidden behind the mountainous coast, still waiting to be revealed. The unknown still beckoned with an icy hand.
Late in 1821, he sailed again to the South Shetlands. Commanding the 80-ton sloop James Monroe, he went exploring to the northeast, in company with the British sloop Dove, under Captain George Powell. Seals had been all but exterminated, and the frustrated hunters encountered mostly sea leopards. Their main accomplishment was the discovery of the South Orkney Islands.
Two years later, Palmer transported Simon Bolivar’s army from Cartagena to Chagres in Panama and carried back Spanish prisoners from Chagres to St. Iago. On his return home, his ship Cadet ran aground and foundered off the New Jersey coast. Perhaps Nat Palmer had enough of the sea for the moment, for, in 1826, he married Eliza Thompson Babcock; but he was soon sailing again, taking his wife along.
Eliza would stay at home when, in 1829, Palmer commanded an ambitious venture to sail beyond the ice barrier into supposedly warm waters which, some suspected, were open all the way to the South Pole. The guiding spirit in this undertaking was Jeremiah N. Reynolds, an indefatigable propagandist for American exploration in the South Atlantic.
Aided by a wealthy New Yorker, Reynolds outfitted three ships for the Antarctic. Palmer commanded the flagship Annawan, supported by Benjamin Pendleton in the Seraph, both brigs of 200 tons. The third vessel was the 84-ton schooner Penguin, captained by Palmer’s younger brother Alexander.
In the middle of October 1829, they weighed anchor from New York harbor and set course for the south, “expecting to have the pleasure of entering into the South Pole.” But it was also intended that this pleasure would be mixed with business. The three ships were to rendezvous near the Horn at Staten Island and then search southeast for seals before exploring the unknown. The Penguin arrived first; and Alexander Palmer was already busy sealing when his brother anchored alongside at Port Hatches on 5 January. Without waiting for Pendleton, they cruised among the South Shetlands, hunting seals as far east as Elephant and Clarence Islands. For over a month, miserable weather kept them from having much success. On Sunday, 21 February, Nat Palmer stepped from the jib-boom of the Annawan to the taffrail of the Penguin, and spent the day consulting with his brother. They decided to abandon sealing and to sail westward in search of lost islands reported a generation earlier by other navigators on their return from the Pacific.
The voyage was dogged by misfortune from the outset. When the Palmers turned from sealing to exploring, the southern summer was almost spent, and snowstorm followed snowstorm. The shrouds and halliards were encased in ice; and the crew, the blood almost frozen in their hands, often had to spend all night throwing snow overboard to prevent foundering. Every time the ship lurched violently, masses of ice would shake down from aloft. Foul weather reduced visibility to about 100 feet, and the water looked black and thick in the night fog. Often the vessels were trapped in an enclosure of grinding ice in the dark. Shaking out their topsails again, they would pass under the lee of towering icebergs and navigate through loose drifts or around the solid icefields that repeatedly barred their way. Sometimes they struck with glancing blows that damaged the hull. Winds of hurricane strength whipped the seas to fury, sucking away the water beneath one side of the ship and rearing immense perpendicular waves on the other quarter to crash down and drown the decks beneath their deluge. The Annawan and Penguin reeled under such hammering blows. Seething water carried away the taffrail and stove in the boats. And always there was the massive menace of the ice. Many of the crew were disabled; and after weeks of danger in this terrifying, lifeless desloation, the men began to turn mutinous.
In the Antarctic, even the best of navigators needs luck to avoid disaster; the right combination of fog, storm, and ice can make escape impossible. Despite incredible hardships, the Palmers explored the seas between the latitudes of 50 to 63 degrees south and the meridians of 61 to 103 degrees west, yet failed to discover new lands.
To calm his rebellious crew, Palmer abandoned the search at the end of March and bore up the west coast of Chile, looking for seals and taking a number of sea elephants for their tongues and flippers. At the island of Mocha they found droves of wild horses; and here Jeremiah Reynolds learned from a New York whaler the legend of Mocha Dick, the white whale. On his return home, he wrote the story for the Knickerbocker Magazine, where it came to the attention of young Herman Melville, who would transform it into Moby-Dick.
Meanwhile, Palmer’s crew were rebellious again. He put in at Valparaiso and left the more mutinous seamen ashore in care of the American consul. Then he turned for home to salvage what profit he could from the voyage. Pendleton managed to obtain a government indemnity for the expenses of the Seraph.
Palmer made another trip on the Annawan and subsequently left the Antarctic. He thereafter became a captain on the Collins packet line and later a distinguished designer and captain of clipper ships. He died at San Francisco in 1877 on a return trip from the Orient.
It is debatable whether there is any political significance to the Russians’ losing to America the credit for discovering Antarctica. Had the Russians attempted to establish bases there, the Monroe Doctrine might indeed have been invoked, since it was formulated in part because of Russian expansion in the Pacific Northwest. Von Bellingshausen’s expedition, however, was a purely scientific venture, while it was the Yankee sealers who were out for cash and possible overseas bases.
Yet, Palmer had other than material motivations; his venturesome and inquiring mind was never content with the commercial aspects of his voyages but drove him into perilous explorations of the unknown. It is fitting that the beckoning finger of Antarctica is called the Palmer Peninsula.
Captain Semmes and First Lieutenant Kell on the Alabama, 1863
Vegetius, writing in the fourth century AD, describes how Roman skiffs used for reconnaissance had their sails and rigging dyed Venetian blue
which resembles the ocean waves; the wax used to pay ships’ sides is also dyed. The sailors and marines put on Venetian blue uniforms also, so as to lie hidden with greater ease when scouting by day as by night.
Warfare at sea has obviously been subject to bluff and deception for as long as warfare on land. In 1264, during the long wars with Venice, the Genoese decided to intercept the ‘caravan of the Levant’, an annual convoy that the Venetians sailed to Egypt and Asia. The caravan was an event of great moment. Its dates of departure and return were fixed by strict laws, as were the numbers of men on each vessel and the conduct of the convoy itself. The commanders and captains were chosen by the Great Council and in times of war the Senate pronounced the chiusura del Mare (‘closing of the sea’), a decree that forbade any vessel from leaving the convoy, while arrangements would be made to escort it with war galleys. The Genoese well understood the importance of this convoy to Venice and decided to send Simone Grillo with twenty galleys, two large vessels and a contingent of 3,500 men to intercept it. In reply, the Venetians assembled a force of no fewer than forty-seven galleys under ‘a brave man and wise, and sprung of high lineage’, Andrea Barozzi. This ‘noble captain’ set out for Sicily expecting to intercept the Genoese before they in turn could attack the caravan.
Alas for Barozzi, on this occasion his wisdom failed him. The Genoese were indeed there, but all he found was ‘a boat in which there were men who told him on inquiry that the Genoese galleys had passed four days previously, bound for Syria’. After a hastily assembled council of war, Barozzi set off in a fruitless pursuit and as soon as the news reached Venice orders were given for the immediate departure of the caravan, which had been delayed owing to the supposed presence of the enemy in the Adriatic. Grillo now emerged and put his fleet into position at Durazzo to await the arrival of the caravan, the movements of which he was kept fully informed of by an underwriter of the Great Council (who, the chronicles note with barbed acidity, came from Treviso). When in due course the caravan was intercepted, its commander, Michele Duaro, tried bravado, throwing some chicken coops in front of the Genoese line and bidding them fight the chickens. However, this served no purpose and with no escort of warships the caravan was soon destroyed, as grievous a blow to Venetian prestige as to her material well-being.
Not only does this episode illustrate an early example of deception in naval warfare, but it also shows the importance of commerce to naval strategy. While the principles of warfare and of deception apply equally on land and at sea, there are obviously fundamental differences. While land warfare is fought with units containing thousands of men and hundreds of pieces of equipment, naval warfare is conducted with dozens of units or (more usually) fewer, each of relatively great value. More importantly, it is fought over a vast area, with no natural cover. The size of the ships also makes it hard to conceal or disguise them and their shapes make identification of their nationality and class quite simple, so that deception is difficult – but not impossible. Since it was common in the days of sail to capture enemy shipping rather than to destroy it, it was equally common for foreign-built ships to serve with the navies that had captured them, and therefore not unusual to see them bearing different colours from their country of origin. Over the years many other measures have been adopted to suggest that a ship is not what it appears, giving plenty of scope for tactical deception.
Thomas Cochrane, tenth Earl of Dundonald, was a daring and inspirational leader who was always prepared to use guile combined with forethought and audacity to overcome large odds, in other words a master of deception. He was convinced (and proved) that a single ship correctly handled, preying on coastal shipping and coast defences, could cause the enemy loss and distress out of all proportion to the effort expended. He took great pains over the training and welfare of his men and this paid dividends in their performance. His first command was the 168-ton brig HMS Speedy, which he operated off the Spanish coast in 1800. Knowing the Spaniards would soon come to recognize his vessel for an enemy, he repainted it to resemble the neutral Dutch ship Clomer, which had been trading in the area for some time. He also recruited a Danish speaker whom he provided with a Danish uniform. Towards the end of December he gave chase to what appeared to be a heavily laden, unarmed merchantman, only to discover as he drew near that he too had been duped. It was a Spanish frigate with some 200 men and heavy guns, which now put down a boat. He ordered below everyone who looked British, and set his ‘Dane’ to tell the Spaniards they were neutrals. When this failed to put them off, one of his men hoisted a yellow flag (quarantine) to the foretop and the ‘Dane’ said they were just out of Algiers. The Spanish knew that Algiers was suffering from an outbreak of bubonic plague and quickly returned whence they had come.
Three months later Cochrane was chased by an enemy frigate, which gained on him throughout the day and was guided at night by the faint glimmer of light from the little brig. But as they drew near towards daybreak, the enemy frigate found it had been chasing a tub with a lantern in it and the brig was nowhere to be seen. Cochrane later used the same ruse again. Commanding the frigate HMS Pallas in March 1805, he was chased by three French 74-gun ships of the line off the Azores. After conducting a brilliant manœuvre to run back on them, he was pursued for the rest of the day and all night, but when they closed in for the kill all they found was a ballasted cask with a lantern made fast to it.
Captain Raphael Semmes and the Confederate cruiser CSS Alabama forged a formidable reputation as a commerce raider. The Alabama sank no fewer than eighty-three US merchantmen as well as the heavier gunboat USS Hatteras (which she lured to her doom by pretending to be a merchant blockade runner), and was probably the most famous ship in the world at the time. The USS Kearsarge had been pursuing the Alabama for a year in European waters when, as she lay at anchor in the Scheldt estuary near Vlissingen on Sunday 12 June 1864, her captain, John A. Winslow, received word from the US minister in Paris that his elusive quarry had steamed into Cherbourg the day before. Winslow wasted no time and two days later found his prey still in Cherbourg roads, where he stopped engines and lay to. Unable to engage within the confines of a neutral port, Winslow retired beyond the three-mile limit required by international law, intending to intercept Alabama when she emerged He took precautions against a surprise night attack but was most worried that Alabama might try to slip away. The following day, however, he received a note from Semmes via the American vice-consul that indicated his intention to fight at the earliest opportunity and begging Winslow not to depart.
The two ships were evenly matched. Both were three-masted and steam-propelled, and if the Kearsarge mounted a combined broadside firing 365 pounds to the Alabama’s total broadside of 264 pounds, the latter’s Blakely guns outranged and were more accurate than the Dahlgrens of the Kearsarge. However, the speed and manœuvrability of the Alabama were declining and Semmes had intended to put her into dry dock for two months and thoroughly clean the keel and overhaul the boilers. Nevertheless, he wrote in his journal that ‘the combat will no doubt be contested and obstinate, but the two ships are so evenly matched that I do not feel at liberty to decline it.’ He had confidence in the ‘precious set of rascals’ that was his crew. Besides, his luck had never yet failed him and he busied the crew preparing the ship, waiting for Sunday, which he deemed his lucky day.
Sunday dawned bright, clear and cool and after a leisurely breakfast the Alabama was cheered out to sea by crowds along the mole and in the upper windows of the buildings, where a fine view could be had of the forthcoming action. Excursion trains had brought sightseers from Paris, and Cherbourg was packed with excited crowds shouting ‘Vivent les Confedérés!’ In a new dress uniform Semmes delivered a stirring oratory to his men before taking station on the horseblock just before the mizzen mast. Then at 1057 hours, with watch in hand, at a range of about a mile, he asked his executive officer if he was ready: ‘Then you may fire at once, sir.’
No hits were scored as the range closed to half a mile, when Winslow returned the fire and the two ships began to circle to starboard, firing furiously at each other. A Blakely round scored a direct hit on the sternpost of the Kearsarge but fortunately for Winslow it was a dud. A three-knot current bore the ships westward and as it did so so their circles became tighter until the range dropped to about a quarter of a mile by the seventh and final revolution. Once they were on target, the US guns inflicted tremendous damage. At the same time, Semmes watched in horror as everything his own guns fired at the Kearsarge bounced harmlessly off the sides, including solid shot. Realizing the desperate state of his old vessel, Semmes ordered full sail for the coast but Kearsarge was not to be denied. When Semmes saw the wreckage to which the lower decks had been reduced, he ordered the colours to be struck saying: ‘It will never do in this nineteenth century for us to go down, and the decks covered with our gallant wounded.’ Captain and crew abandoned the rapidly sinking ship, which went down at 1224 hours, just ninety minutes after she had opened the action.
Only after the battle did Semmes discover that the Kearsarge had 120 fathoms of sheet chain suspended from scuppers to waterline, bolted down and concealed behind an inch of planking: he had been fighting an ironclad! Semmes protested this was unfair. ‘It was the same thing’, he said, ‘as if two men were to go out and fight a duel, and one of them, unknown to the other, were to put on a suit of mail under his outer garment.’ Perhaps, but Commodore David Farragut had employed the same stratagem two years previously, when he ran past the forts into New Orleans.
The development of the ironclad increased the size and cost of ships. At the same time, improved armaments increased the range at which actions were fought and reduced the scope for capture, making sinking a more likely outcome of an action and thus making it increasingly difficult and expensive to replace losses. But losses must be accepted if control of the seas is to be gained and maintained, as it must be if commerce is to flow unhindered. However, the official history of the First World War describes how
by a strange misreading of history, an idea had grown up that [a fleet’s] primary function is to seek out and destroy the enemy’s main fleet. This view, being literary rather than historical, was nowhere adopted with more unction than in Germany, where there was no naval tradition to test its accuracy.
On the one occasion the German Battle Fleet did enter the North Sea to fulfil its aim, it achieved a marginal tactical victory over the British (in simple terms of losses) at the Battle of Jutland, but there can be no doubt as to the strategic result of the battle. The British did not deceive the Germans but simply faced them down, and the German Battle Fleet spent the remainder of the war sitting idly in port while the British naval blockade helped squeeze Germany to ultimate defeat. However, British nervousness of the German Battle Fleet forced her to denude some other vital positions of destroyers, such as Dover. Thus the Dover patrol had to rely on bluff to prevent German naval forces operating from the Belgian ports from interfering with the vital cross-Channel traffic.
Meanwhile, Britain herself came perilously close to being squeezed to defeat by Germany’s commerce raiders and U-boats during both world wars. An early effort to counter this threat was camouflage paint schemes. Transport and cargo ships were painted neutral blue, grey or sea-green in the hope of avoiding detection for as long as possible. Warships, on the other hand, are not looking to avoid contact but instead require every fighting advantage they can muster, particularly in the early stages of an action. One result was a proposal by an eminent Scottish zoologist, John Graham Kerr, whose study of marine vertebrates suggested that odd patterns of white and grey might help make ships harder to identify. Although the Admiralty circulated his suggestions as early as October 1914, it left responsibility to individual captains and was later shelved. It took further prompting from another painter, P. Tudor Hart, and an RNVR lieutenant, Norman Wilkinson (a marine painter and poster designer who had served in the Dardanelles campaign) who wrote to the Admiralty on 27 April 1917, to create what was known as ‘dazzle’ camouflage. In poor visibility, at long range or at high speed, this served to hinder an observer’s ability to identify a vessel accurately, perhaps long enough to give it a precious advantage. It also made judging the vessel’s speed more difficult – very important when trying to fire at long range. Gunnery officers and submarine captains had to ‘track’ moving ships on calibrated range-finders and periscopes, but the pattern distorted the image and made it harder to secure a hit. Refinements of the same technique included false bow waves to give the impression of greater speed, false waterlines which were designed to inhibit accurate estimation of range, and painting the upper works a lighter colour to blend them with the sky. The effectiveness of the technique was questionable but it raised morale and was therefore retained, mainly for merchant shipping. Nevertheless, during the Second World War the Admiralty Research and Development Section employed the naturalist and artist Peter Scott to develop further patterns.
The vulnerability of shipping to aircraft, demonstrated among other instances by the destruction of HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales by the Japanese on 11 December 1941, made it essential to camouflage ships from the air. On the open ocean, ships could not avoid being spotted by aircraft in the vicinity. For example, a US aircraft north of Guadalcanal flying at 18,000 feet spotted five destroyers belonging to Rear-Admiral Tanaka’s ‘Tokyo Express’ at a distance of eight to ten miles, and sighting fast-moving warships at greater ranges was not unheard of in good conditions. Attempts were made to design patterns that gave some protection from aerial attack, but these were seldom effective, at least while a ship was at sea. Eventually, technical developments such as radar and acoustic torpedoes made dazzle patterns largely redundant, but they continued in use throughout the Second World War.
If a ship was inshore, by its very nature it might be found if aircraft looked in the bays, rivers and ports. Paint might go some way to protect it in such circumstances, blending it with its surroundings just long enough to put a bomb aimer off, but a photo interpreter could probably identify its class precisely and thus reveal its speed, firepower and cargo capacity. Nets and, where appropriate, cut vegetation might help to make the tell-tale shape of a ship blend in with the shoreline and barges and floating material could be used to break up the characteristic shape of bow and stern.
Another early measure adopted to counter U-boats was the arming of merchant ships in 1915, which was followed by the creation of Q-ships. These were merchant ships armed with concealed guns and torpedoes manned by naval crews, designed to lure the U-boats – which preferred to destroy merchant vessels by gunfire – to a position where they themselves could be destroyed. The Q-ships were eventually credited with eleven U-boat kills out of a total for the First World War of 192. During both wars the Germans operated similar ships as merchant raiders. Perhaps the most famous example was the Atlantis, commanded by Kapitän zur See Bernard Rogge during the Second World War, one of nine such ships which sank 850,000 tons of Allied shipping and kept the Allies busy for three and a half years. The Atlantis logged over 100,000 miles in 622 days at sea and accounted for twenty-two Allied freighters, making her the most successful surface raider of the war. In the course of her wanderings she pretended variously to be the Krim (Russian), the Kasii Maru (Japanese), the Abbekerk (Dutch) and the Antenor (British).
Carrying huge stocks of fuel and food, Atlantis mounted behind collapsable bulkheads an armament of one 75mm and six 150mm guns and six light anti-aircraft guns, plus four torpedo tubes, mines and a Heinkel He-114 seaplane for reconnaissance. She had a dummy stack and cargo booms and carried a variety of fake foreign uniforms and clothing, male and female, which the crew could use as appropriate. In addition, there was a large supply of paint to change her name and the colour of the superstructure. It is perfectly legal for a ship to operate in this fashion, providing it displays the correct national flag before opening fire, and Rogge adhered strictly to this law, as well as endeavouring whenever possible to pick up survivors, who were treated graciously.
Rogge trained his gunners to shoot out a victim’s radio equipment first, which would allow the remainder of his operation to take place in slow time. None the less, a stream of QQQ messages (‘I am being attacked by a disguised merchant ship’) eventually helped the Admiralty to track him down. The final clue to Atlantis’s whereabouts in November 1941 was provided by ULTRA intercepts ordering her to resupply submarines south of the Equator. On 22 November a seaplane from HMS Devonshire (sent to nearby Freetown to look for her) sighted a suspicious merchant ship and opened fire while Atlantis was in the process of replenishing U-126. Rogge tried one last desperate trick. He signalled urgently (and indignantly) that he was the Polyphemus, a Dutch ship, then gave the signal RRR: an Allied cipher that an enemy warship was close by. Unbeknown to Rogge, this cipher had recently been changed to four Rs. A new precautionary system introduced by the Admiralty to plot the whereabouts of every single known ocean-going merchantman confirmed Devonshire’s suspicions and when word came from Freetown that this ship could not possibly be Polyphemus, Rogge and his crew were forced to take to the boats. Afraid of lurking U-boats, Devonshire made off, and after a series of extraordinary adventures Rogge and the survivors were eventually picked up by U-boats and returned to Germany.