Maritime Australia in the 21st Century


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 Defence White Paper


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

Admiral Sir Max Horton, RN (1883–1951)



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

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

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

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

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

Northern Patrol

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fall of France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The RNAS Strikes!


‘Christmas Surprise’ by David Pentland

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Admiral Arturo Riccardi (1878–1966)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Admiral Jack ‘Frank’ Fletcher, USN (1885–1973)


Fletcher was the US admiral in command of several of the early campaigns in the Pacific, but he was blamed on more than one occasion for being overcautious, and maybe he was also just unlucky. Despite his reputation for caution and the loss of the carrier USS Lexington, he nevertheless stopped the Japanese from taking Port Moresby at the Battle of the Coral Sea, which could be said to have been a tactical victory for the Japanese, but a strategic victory for the United States.

Known throughout the United States Navy as ‘Black Jack’, Fletcher was born in Marshalltown, Iowa. He came from a naval family with an uncle who was an admiral. He attended the US Naval Academy at Annapolis from 1902 until 1906. On graduating, he served aboard the battleships USS Rhode Island, Ohio and Maine. In November 1909, he was posted to the destroyer Chauncey, part of the Asiatic Torpedo Flotilla and his first command was the Dale in April 1910. In March 1912, Fletcher returned to the Chauncey as her commanding officer. Posted to the battleship Florida in December 1912, he was at the occupation of Vera Cruz, Mexico, in April 1914, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor for distinguished conduct.

During the First World War, he was a gunnery officer until September 1917, when he took command of the Margaret and later was posted to the Allen in February 1918 before taking command of the Benham in May, escorting convoys across the Atlantic, for which he was awarded the Navy Cross. From October 1918 to February 1919 he stood by the Crane at San Francisco as she fitted out, afterwards becoming commanding officer of the Gridley on her commissioning. Returning to Washington, he was head of the Detail Section, Enlisted Personnel Division in the Bureau of Navigation from April 1919 until September 1922.

After serving in the Philippines, he returned to the USA for a posting at the Washington Navy Yards in 1925. He completed the Senior Course at the Naval War College, Newport in June 1930, and afterwards became Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief, US Atlantic Fleet in August 1931. In 1933 he was transferred to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, before becoming an aide to the Secretary of the Navy from November 1933 to May 1936. He took command of the New Mexico, flagship of Battleship Division Three in June 1936. In December 1937 he became a member of the Naval Examining Board and was appointed Assistant Chief of the Bureau of Navigation in June 1938. Promoted to rear admiral and returning to the Pacific on the outbreak of war in Europe, until December 1941 he commanded a succession of cruiser divisions. When Japan entered the war, he was commanding Task Force 11 with the carrier Saratoga and was sent to Wake Island, which was under bombardment by Japanese warships. On 22 December, Fletcher was recalled by a nervous Admiral Pye, who was acting as a replacement for the disgraced commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Rear Admiral Husband Kimmel, until Nimitz arrived.

For his part, Fletcher’s arrival at Wake Island was delayed by his frequent sending away of his destroyers to refuel so that they would be ready for high-speed action. It thus happened that in the early stages of the Pacific War Fletcher acquired an unwanted reputation for being overcautious, as TF11 was late in arriving at Wake Island, and allowed the Japanese to take the island unopposed. In some ways his caution can be understood with hindsight, as this was a war that was fought at sea in a way that few senior officers of his generation could have envisaged, and given the vast distances of the Pacific and the unknown demands of steaming at high speed in combat, the worry about running low on fuel in mid-battle can be understood.

Nevertheless, in May 1942, it was Fletcher who turned back the Japanese in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and while they inflicted heavier losses on the USN than he managed against the Imperial Japanese Navy, the strategic victory overall was his. One of the largest Japanese aircraft carriers, the Shokaku, was so badly damaged that she was not available for the next major move by the Japanese, against Midway. It also showed that the Japanese were no longer invincible, being fought to a standstill. The head of the USN, Admiral Ernest King, wrote to the British First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, that ‘On the whole we had rather the better of it and we seem to have stopped the advance on Port Moresby for the time being.’

Fletcher was still in command at the Battle of Midway on 4 June 1942, but when his flagship, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, was unfortunately lost, Spruance took over tactical command and in the end also took the credit for the victory, which saw four Japanese aircraft carriers lost in a single day. This was sheer bad luck for Fletcher as the battle marked the turning point in the war at sea in the Pacific. From this time onwards, the Japanese had lost all hope of victory, or even fighting to a negotiated settlement, and Japanese strategy became defensive.

All of this could be defended or attributed to misfortune, the sad fortunes of war, but in August, with the Americans on what they called the ‘offensive-defensive’ and starting the long island-hopping advance to victory, what happened at Guadalcanal could not be explained away.

Promoted to vice admiral, Fletcher was put in command of a carrier force to protect the Guadalcanal landings. Code-named Operation Watchtower, the landings on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on 7 August 1942 followed an inter-service spat between the USN and the United States Army over which service should take the lead in the Pacific War. In the end, the USN and USMC were given the lead in the Pacific War, a wise move given that amphibious landing succeeded amphibious landing, while in North Africa and Europe, the Army would have enough to occupy its planners. ‘Operation Watchtower’ was prepared in considerable haste, causing some to describe it as ‘Operation Shoestring’, but it was necessary to act quickly before the Japanese could complete the air base, Henderson Field, and deploy aircraft there.

At Guadalcanal, Vice Admiral Ghormley took overall command of the operation, while Fletcher was in command of Task Force 61 with three aircraft carriers, the USS Enterprise, Saratogaand Wasp, as well as the battleship North Carolina, six cruisers and sixteen destroyers. At stake were the landings by 19,000 men from Major General Vandegrift’s 1st Marine Division. A British officer, Rear Admiral Victor Critchley, commanded a force of cruisers to defend the transports.

The makeshift nature of the arrangements had been essential if the Americans were to act quickly and the Japanese were to be prevented from developing the defences of Guadalcanal and Tulagi. Had the enemy sufficient time to complete airfields, the invasion of the islands would have been much more difficult and costly. Initially, most of the fighting was on Tulagi, and at first the operation on Guadalcanal went well, but a steady war of attrition developed, especially around the key objective of Henderson Field, an airfield under construction. After losing twenty-one aircraft in a single day, Fletcher sought permission to withdraw, which Ghormley allowed, but the gap left in the US defences led to the Battle of Savo Island, which started during the early hours of 9 August. Allied warships under the British Rear Admiral Critchley, screening the transports, were surprised at midnight and defeated in little more than half an hour by a Japanese force of seven cruisers and one destroyer, commanded by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa. After inflicting initial heavy losses on the US and Australian force offshore, sinking four cruisers, HMAS Canberra, USS Astoria, Vincennesand Quincy, and circling Savo Island, Vice Admiral Mikawa did not continue to attack the US transports for fear of being attacked by USN carrier-borne aircraft, not realizing that Fletcher had withdrawn. Fletcher is sometimes criticized because his carriers were at the far end of their nightly withdrawal, and although steaming back ready for the morning, were still too far to away to provide protection. Had the Japanese realized the disposition of the Allied ships, an attack on the transports and on troops ashore could have resulted.

When the Japanese attempted to reinforce their garrison ashore on Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Eastern Solomon Islands developed. After the Japanese managed to land reinforcements on Guadalcanal on 18 August, Henderson Field became the scene of intense fighting. The first batch of Japanese reinforcements – just 915 men – showed that the Japanese had seriously underestimated the strength of the US forces, and was wiped out in a battle on 21 August. A steady war of attrition was then started by the Japanese, with reinforcements being landed under cover of darkness in an operation dubbed the ‘Tokyo Express’ by the Americans. A more determined effort to reinforce their troops on Guadalcanal came in late August when the Japanese sent four transports to reinforce their troops on the island, but the four ‘transports’ were really just elderly destroyers and again the total number of troops to be landed totalled just 1,500 men, as the Japanese were still underestimating the size of the US forces.

The Japanese move found Vice Admiral Fletcher with TF61, still including the carriers Enterprise and Saratoga, but with the Wasp away refuelling, and a total of 176 aircraft available. His opponent was Vice Admiral Nagumo, who had survived the Battle of Midway and had retained his command. Nagumo, who was now responsible for ensuring the safe arrival of the transports, had three aircraft carriers, Zuikaku and Shokaku, with 131 aircraft between them, and the smaller Ryujo, with thirty-one aircraft which, with a cruiser and two destroyers, was to act as a diversionary force. Given the small size and number of the transports, Nagumo had a considerable number of surface vessels to protect these and his carriers, with three battleships, ten cruisers and twenty-one destroyers in addition to those with Ryujo, compared with Fletcher’s single battleship, four cruisers and eleven destroyers.

The Americans were expecting increased Japanese activity and spotted Ryujo early on, but lost track of the Japanese ships by 21 August. On 23 August, American reconnaissance aircraft once again located the Japanese transports, but a strike launched from the US carriers failed to find them. The next day, Saratoga’s aircraft found the Ryujo at 1000 hrs some 300 miles north of TF61; this time the strike aircraft found her and promptly sunk her using bombs and torpedoes. Meanwhile, Japanese aircraft from Shokaku and Zuikaku found and attacked the USS Enterprise. The absence of the Waspmeant that, for the last time in the Pacific War, the Japanese had overall air superiority. Fighters from the Enterprise and the carrier’s AA defences fought off the first wave of Japanese torpedo-bombers, but a second wave of dive-bombers managed to hit the Enterprise three times, starting fires, although these were soon extinguished and the ship remained capable of limited operations. Nevertheless, Fletcher took the blame for the absence of one of his carriers and the lack of local air superiority.

On 25 August, United States Marine Corps aircraft based ashore on Guadalcanal and Esperitu Sanctu attacked the Japanese troop transports, sinking the largest one and a destroyer escort, while a cruiser was also badly damaged. By this time, in addition to the ships lost, the Japanese had lost a total of ninety aircraft against just twenty US aircraft, and Nagumo decided to withdraw.

The United States had won yet another battle in the Pacific War, the Battle of the Eastern Solomon Islands. It is hard to see why the Japanese, having put so much effort into escorting such a pitiful reinforcement convoy, had not assumed a more aggressive role, and the only justification can be that the strategy was one of tying down US forces. Nor did the Japanese cut their losses and abandon the islands as, despite losing the battle, they continued to maintain the ‘Tokyo Express’, while the destroyers engaged on these runs also took the opportunity to shell Henderson Field. On 31 August, a more substantial force of 3,500 Japanese troops were landed on Guadalcanal, building up their forces to a total of 6,000 men by early September, by which time the Americans had 19,000 men on the island. These Japanese troops were defeated in a night battle on 13/14 September.

Later, in a rare offensive by Japanese submarines, the 1-19 attacked the Wasp with three torpedoes on 15 September, with the ship catching fire and eventually sinking. In the end, the US forces prevailed, but could not prevent the Japanese from successfully evacuating some 13,000 troops. A more determined bid by the Japanese to retake Guadalcanal saw the Combined Fleet escorting Japanese reinforcements from Rabaul on 11 October, with the Battle of Cape Esperance following that night, although this was inconclusive. The USMC forces ashore were subjected to heavy bombing by Japanese carrier aircraft after the battle, and Vice Admiral Gormley took the blame for failing to stop the Japanese landing reinforcements and bombing the American forces ashore; he was replaced by Vice Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey.

Nevertheless, Fletcher was criticized for the premature withdrawal of his carriers, leaving the USMC units ashore without adequate air cover at a time when the Japanese Vice Admiral Nagumo had arrived with his aircraft carriers, the repaired Shokaku, her sister Zuikaku and the smaller Ryujo.

Fletcher was moved out of the way. In November 1942, he became Commander, Thirteenth Naval District and Commander, North Western Sea Frontier to calm fears amongst US and Canadian citizens of invasion from the north. A year later, he was placed in charge of the whole Northern Pacific area, remaining there until after Japan’s surrender, when his forces occupied northern Japan.

Post-war, Fletcher was appointed chairman of the General Board of the Navy, but he was not promoted until he retired in May 1947, when he was given the four-star rank of Admiral. He had lost much of his naval records in combat and in retirement he refused to reconstruct them or collaborate with the official US naval historian for the war. Many believe that in return he received an inadequate appraisal and that this attitude was picked up by later authors.

The Napoleonic French and Spanish Navies


Battle of Grand Port. On 22-24 August 1810, a British squadron of 4 frigates entered the bay of Grand Port to eliminate a French fleet of 2 frigates, 1 corvette and a captured East Indiaman. Historically, this is the only clear naval victory the French could claim during the Napoleonic Wars. It is the only naval victory to be engraved on the Arc the Triomphe. From left to right: Bellone, Minerve, Victor (background) and Ceylon, detail from Combat de Grand Port, by Pierre Julien Gilbert

Like the Royal Navy, the French and Spanish suffered from structural problems, but found them harder to overcome. The former were starved of manpower and naval supplies. France lacked the materials needed to replace serious losses at sea and, with the British blockade, supplies of timber, rigging, and sails from the Black Sea and the Baltic dried up. The monarchy had stockpiled vast stores of timber, rope, and other supplies, but the entire store for the Mediterranean fleet at Toulon was incinerated when the British took the port in 1793, burned down the naval arsenal, and towed off thirteen ships of the line. By 1795, French shipbuilders no longer had enough timber to construct larger vessels. In 1805, even with their own problems, the British outnumbered the combined French and Spanish navies by two to one. Meanwhile, despite the size of the French population, the numbers of those ‘following the sea’ were small, not least because in what was still primarily an agricultural economy, the usual nurseries of naval seamen—deep-sea fishing and commercial shipping—were relatively small. In all, it has been estimated that France had a reserve of no more than 60,000 trained sailors by 1789. Both the old regime and the Revolution therefore suffered from chronic manpower shortages. Recruitment was systematic, but overstretched: the French had tens of ships, but not enough men to sail them properly. All men in maritime towns and villages had to register on rolls which were divided into ‘classes’. Every three to five years, each ‘class’ was obliged to serve a year at sea. In theory, this would provide the navy with a trained reserve, but in practice this deeply resented form of recruitment had little effect because men found ways to avoid it. The Revolution retained this system, so did little to address the underlying problem. During the Terror of 1793–4, all sailors and maritime workers were made liable to conscription, but such measures could only go so far in providing the navy with skilled sailors. The effectiveness of the British blockade was such that, while the British could train their recruits ‘on the job’ on the high seas, a French squadron which sortied from Brest in July 1795 consisted of crews two-thirds of whom had never been to sea before. In such circumstances, the losses of the experienced men in battle (at a rate of 10 per cent at the ‘Glorious First of June’ in 1794 and the Battle of Aboukir in 1798) were disastrous.

Apart from a paucity of skill and practice, French and Spanish crews also had little experience of gunnery at sea, which was combined with a technical difference from their British opponents. While British guns were fired with flintlocks, both French and Spanish navies used slow-burning matches. The precise moment of firing was therefore unpredictable and so aiming a cannon from a ship rolling in the ocean swell was impossible. Above all, French gunners had what some French commanders were beginning to regard as the bad habit of firing not at the hulls of the enemy ships, but at the rigging in order to disable them. The instinct to do so may have come from the fact that the more experienced men in the French navy were frequently recruited from privateers. When chased by enemy ships, French privateers would usually blast at the enemy’s masts and rigging in the hope of slowing down their pursuers. Some French captains tried to break this habit, which wasted hundreds of shots, but with little success. A story circulated that when a French shell actually smashed into the hull of an enemy vessel, the stunned British crew recovered from the shock when a sailor stood exposed in the ragged gash in the ship’s side, joking, ‘My God, I’ll be safest here, because they’ll never be able to fire two shots through the same hole!’ The British always fired at the hull, because it could kill off and demoralize enemy gunners. It also left the masts and rigging intact so that, when the ship was captured, it could be sailed off as a prize. Moreover, by aiming low, a British gun was more likely to hit something, rather than see the shot whistle harmlessly past the enemy’s masts and rigging.

In addition to these problems, the French Revolution has often been blamed for breaking down discipline, while also destroying the experienced officer corps inherited from the Bourbon monarchy. It is certainly true that the early years of the French Revolution were accompanied by a wave of mutinies and insubordination which, by 1791, drove away much of the demoralized officer corps of the royal navy. In October that year, 47 per cent of officers based in Brest, home of the French Atlantic fleet, were absent without leave. By the outbreak of the war in 1792, there remained only 42 of 170 captains. This dissolution of the French officer corps seriously undermined the navy just as the French Republic was about to go head to head against the maritime might of Great Britain. The Revolution had responded to the crisis in April 1791 by opening naval commissions to any seaman with five years of experience at sea, which was aimed primarily at drawing in officers from the merchant marine. Naval historians have subsequently claimed that the admission of civilian sailors was a blow to the professionalism of the French navy. Yet it is important not to overstate the damage caused in the long run. The upper ranks of the professional officer corps may have been severely thinned by flight and absenteeism, but of 530 lieutenants in the old navy, 356 remained at their posts and rose rapidly during the decade or so before Trafalgar. The leading French protagonists during the campaign of 1805—Villeneuve, Rosily, Decrès, Missiessy—had all been lieutenants in 1789. While it is true that the commercial seamen drawn into the officer corps had no experience of sailing the heavier naval vessels, if given the chance to train they might have learned to do so. Yet they never did get that opportunity, because from 1793, the French coast was blockaded by the Royal Navy.

In August 1790, the National Assembly introduced a penal code for the navy, trying to relax some of the harsher punishments of minor infractions, while maintaining the discipline necessary for a military vessel. Punishments were formally calibrated according to the offence, removing some of the arbitrary power which captains had exercised over their crews. For some breaches of discipline, sailors were to be tried by a jury of their peers. Other cases were to be heard by courts martial. Nonetheless, some of the harshest penalties were retained, including flogging (which was abolished in the army in 1789), running the gauntlet, and the cale, by which the victim would be tied to a line lashed to the end of the yardarm, from which he would be repeatedly plunged into the water below. Punishments even for small transgressions could still include being tied to a mast or shackled in leg irons. Some French sailors had clearly expected a more radical overhaul of naval justice and their frustration was expressed in a mutiny in the roadstead off Brest that September. The target of the sailors’ ire was the harsher punishments, particularly those which they considered humiliating: the leg irons weighed down by trailing chains, for example, were likened to the chains worn by convicts who served in the penal galleys at Brest. The Assembly reacted to the mutiny by amending the Code, expunging some of the harsher punishments. Nonetheless, interference from the local authorities and from political clubs on shore continued to undermine the obedience of the sailors.

During the Terror, there was a concerted effort to restore discipline. Counter-revolution amongst the officers and the more intransigent breaches of discipline among the men were punished with death. In January 1794, for example, four mutineers had their heads sliced off by a guillotine erected on a pontoon in the roadstead of Brest, in front of the assembled fleet. The government’s naval expert, Jeanbon Saint-André, imposed a new penal code, which reserved the harshest of sanctions for defiance or disobedience, including being clapped in irons, flogged, imprisoned, or guillotined. The revolutionary government also sought to galvanize the sailors with patriotic fervour.

Discipline and motivation were all very well, but that had to be supported with material supplies. The provision of the scarce resources necessary for the navy could only continue if the Terror itself continued, with the economic controls associated with it. This was because the French economy of the mid-1790s was already struggling to meet the demands of the war on the continent. In 1793–4, the needs of both French maritime and territorial power could only be met from the threadbare French economy through coercion, that is, by terrorizing the population. Yet the Thermidorians (the republicans who toppled the Jacobins and ended the Terror in July 1794) were in no mood to continue with the draconian measures associated with the revolutionary dictatorship. They may inadvertently have prevented the Republic from building the revolutionary navy which was in the making.

The conflicting pressures of the war point to another major headache for the French—and it was perhaps the main reason why, for all the resources at its disposal, France was never able to obtain parity with the British. Geography ensured that, unlike Britain, France was ‘amphibious’, meaning a continental as well as a maritime state. The political desire to sustain both commitments was always there, but the wherewithal to do so was not. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the ravenous demands of the French war effort for men, money, and material could be met through exploiting the conquests in western and southern Europe, but this was of little use to the navy, since the territories conquered were not good sources of naval supplies, which came from the Baltic and the Black Sea. In any case, the expansionism which this involved, especially under Napoleon, committed France deeper and deeper to the continental war, as the great European powers, with British support, sought to cut France down to size. Despite the resources and political ingenuity at its disposal, France could be either a maritime or a territorial power. It could not be both.

The Spanish fleet suffered from similar structural problems. For one, despite its long coastlines, it faced a perennial shortage of manpower. In a system established in 1737, anyone who worked as a sailor or shipwright, even in such civilian activities as deep-sea fishing and ocean-going commerce, had to register on a list (matricula del mar) so that they could be called up in time of war, in return for which they were exempt from army conscription. By the French Wars, the numbers registered seemed to have hit a ceiling, at 65,000, which was not enough to man the Spanish navy, since the government’s own estimates required 110,000 men—and not all of those registered could be recruited as Spain still needed its fishermen, merchant sailors, and shipbuilders. Worse, the number of registrants dropped with the outbreak of war, while those who were already on the lists deserted in a flood: by 1808, the numbers on the register had shrivelled to 41,000 men.

The shortfall was made up of people who were semi-trained (if there had been time to train them) and some of whom had no experience of sailing at all: impoverished shepherds and landless peasants from such places as Castille and Extremadura. While British gunners needed 90 seconds to load, fire, sponge out, and reload a 32-pounder, their Spanish counterparts took five minutes. The captain of the Conde de Regla complained that of a crew of 500, no more than 60 had experience of the high seas, the rest being coastal fishermen or sailors ‘without training or any understanding whatsoever of a ship’s rigging or routine on board’—and there was no time to teach them. The situation was made desperate on the very eve of Trafalgar because yellow fever ravaged Spain’s ports, which decimated an already thinly spread pool of recruits.

There was also a shortage of naval stores: while the forests of the Asturias could supply most of the oak for Spanish hulls, Spain had serious difficulty in securing resin, tar, pitch, rope, and iron, which had to be imported from Russia and Sweden, supplies which were choked off by the British blockade while Spain was allied to France between 1796 and 1808, with only a brief period of peace in 1802–3. The situation was not this grim all the time: when they did have access to their empire, the Spanish built fine vessels. The colonial port of Havana produced some of the mightiest ships of line in the world, made from durable tropical wood like mahogany and teak, rather than European oak and beech: the Santisima Trinidad, captured by the British at Trafalgar and sunk in the storm which followed, was the largest vessel of the age. Yet, for all its virtues, the Spanish fleet was neither big enough, nor adequately manned to meet its long list of commitments, which included defending Spain’s overseas empire in the Americas and the Pacific, protecting its trade routes, and fighting the war in European waters.