Austro-Hungarian battleships 1 Division K.u.K. Tegetthoff Class. Pola 1917.

In 1906 there was a new club in town. One that only the richest and most powerful of nations could really afford to join. Its chief asset was bigger, faster, shapelier and more powerful than all that had gone before. Membership of this ‘exclusive’ club sent the message “don’t mess with us”. As with all new ‘must-have’s’ those who couldn’t afford to join, ‘wanted-in’ all the more, so they too would be seen as a ‘Great Power’. In 1906 the must have item was the dreadnought, and the Hadsbur’s wanted in.

The Tegetthoff Dreadnought class (often referred incorrectly to as the Viribus Unitis class) was destined to be the only class of dreadnought ever to be built and completed for the Austrian-Hungarian Imperial Navy. The class would after much scheming and politicking, be comprised of four ships, the Viribus Unitis (pronounced: “var-e-buss Unit-is”), Tegetthoff(“tea-gee-toff”) , Prinz Eugen, (“Prinz U-jen”)and the Szent István (“Scent ist-van”). Three of the four ship’s were to be built in, what was until 1918, the fourth largest city in the empire, Trieste. The fourth vessel, the Szent István, was constructed in the Empire’s Croatian port of Fiume. The allocation of the two construction sites was in an effort to ensure that both parts of the Dual Monarchy, or Empire, benefited from and agreed the funds for these four ‘status’ symbols.


In September 1904, the Austrian Naval League was founded and in October of the same year Vice-Admiral Rudolf Montecuccoli was appointed to the posts of Commander-in-Chief of the Navy and Chief of the Naval Section of the War Ministry. These two events help set the stage for what was to be an expansion of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, in to one that was deemed worthy of a ‘great power’. Montecuccoli commenced his tenure from day one, by championing his predecessor, Admiral Hermann von Spaun’s ideas, and pushed for both an enlarged and a modernized Imperial navy.

There were a number of other factors that was to help lay the foundation for the proposed naval expansion. Between 1906 and 1908 railways had been constructed that finally cut through the Austrian alps, linking both Trieste and the Dalmatian coastline with the rest of the Habsburg Empire. In addition lower tariffs on the port of Trieste led to the expansion of the city and a growth in the Austria-Hungarian merchant navy. These changes brought the ‘need’ for new battleships that were more than just the existing coastal defence ships. Before 1900 the empire had not seen the need for sea power in support to the Austrian-Hungarian foreign policy, plus the public had little interest in a navy. But in September 1902 the situation undertook a change when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and pro-naval expansionist, was appointed to the position of Admiral at the close of that years naval manoeuvre’s . This increased the importance of the navy in the eyes of both the general public and the two Austrian and Hungarian Parliaments. Franz Ferdinand’s interest in naval affairs had come from his belief, that a strong navy would be needed if the Empire was to successfully compete with its Italian neighbour. Ferdinand viewed Italy (an ally) as Austria-Hungary’s greatest threat within the region.

In 1882 Italy had joined the Triple Alliance with Austro-Hungary and Germany, all agreeing to fighting together against any possible mutual enemies (ie Great Britain, France or Russia). But despite the treaty Austria and Italy had a mutual rivalry they could never shed, something that had strengthened since the war in 1866, when an Austrian army defeated an Italian army several times and the Austrian fleet defeated the Italian fleet in the battle of Vis (Lissa) on July 20th 1866. Despite being ‘allies’ Italy’s navy, (the Regia Marina) remained the main regional opponent with which Austria-Hungary, often negatively, measured itself against. The gap between the Austro-Hungarian and Italian navies had existed for decades, and in the late 1880s Italy had claimed the third-largest fleet in the world, behind the French and Royal Navy. But by 1894 the Imperial German and Russian navy’s had overtaken the Italians in the world rankings. By that stage the Italians claimed 18 battleships in commission or under construction in comparison to just 6 Austro-Hungarian battleships.

With the completion of the final pair of Regina Elena class battleships, in 1903, the Italian Navy decided to construct a series of large cruisers rather than additional battleships. In addition a scandal erupted involving the Terni steel works’ armour contracts, which was to lead to a government enquiry and that in turn led to the postponement of a number of naval construction programs over the next three years. These factors meant that the Italian Navy was unable to commence any construction on another battleship until 1909, and this ‘unplanned holiday’ provided the Austro-Hungarian Navy with an opportunity to close the gap between their two fleets.

But even by 1903 the Italian lead in the naval arms appeared to be insurmountable for the Empire. Then the rules of the game changed in 1906, with the launch of HMS Dreadnought and the increased tempo of the Anglo-German naval arms race it brought. The value of the worlds existing battleships (or what history has relabeled as the pre-dreadnought) vanished all but overnight and the fleets of pre-dreadnoughts within the worlds navies were rendered obsolete. This presented the Austria-Hungarian Admiralty with an opportunity to make up for their past neglect in naval matters.

In the Spring of 1905, soon after his assumption as Chief of the Navy, Montecuccoli laid out his first proposal for a modern Austrian fleet. He envisaged a fleet comprising of 12 battleships, 4 armored cruisers, 8 scout cruisers, 18 destroyers, 36 high seas torpedo craft, and 6 submarines. The plans were ambitious, but they still lacked any ships of the size of the dreadnought type. The Slovenian politician and prominent lawyer Ivan Šusteršič presented a plan to the Reichsrat in 1905, seeking the (ambitious and unrealistic) construction of nine dreadnoughts. The Austrian Naval League also presented its own proposals for the construction of a number of the new dreadnought type. The league petitioned the Naval Section of the War Ministry in March 1909 to construct three dreadnoughts of 19,000 tonnes (18,700 long tons). They argued that the Empire needed a strong navy, in order to protect Austria-Hungary’s growing merchant navy, and in addition that Italian naval spending was twice that of the Empire.

With the completion of the final pre-dreadnought from the Radetzky class, Montecuccoli drafted his first proposal for Austrian-Hungarian’s entry into the ‘Dreadnought Club’. Making use of the newly established political support for naval expansion that he had raised in both Austria and Hungary, plus Austrian concerns of a war with Italy over the Bosnian Crisis during the previous year, Montecuccoli drafted a new plan to Emperor Franz Joseph I in January 1909. In it he called for an enlarged Austro-Hungarian Navy, now comprising of 16 (+4) battleships, 12 (0) cruisers, 24 (+6)destroyers, 72 (+36) seagoing torpedo boats, and 12 (+6) submarines. With what was fundamentally a modified version of his 1905 plan. The major new inclusion was the four additional dreadnought battleships with a displacement of 20,000 tonnes (19,684 long tons) at load. These ships would become in time, the Tegetthoff class.

The Naval Section of the War Ministry submitted its concept for the new dreadnoughts to the shipyard Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino (STT) in Trieste, during October 1908, who then hired the former “Engineering-Admiral” and now the shipyards naval architect, Siegfried Popper, to produce a design. Two months later in December 1908, the Naval Section of the War Ministry launched a competition for the design of the ships, open to all Austro-Hungarian naval architects, with the goal of securing designs in addition to those from the STT shipyard. The contest was to run for one year and the maximum displacement was to be off 20,000 tonnes.

The Italian entry to seek membership of the ‘Dreadnought Club’ with the Dante Alighieri (“Dant-ee Al-e-gare-ee” ) which had been designed by Rear Admiral Engineer Edoardo Masdea, Chief Constructor of the Regia Marina, and was based on the “All-Big-Gun” ship ideas of General Vittorio Cuniberti.

The General had proposed a battleship with all the main guns of a single calibre and positioned for broadside fire. Cuniberti has become best known to history, as the author of an article he wrote for Jane’s Fighting Ships in 1903, calling for a concept known as the “all-big-gun” fighting ship. Until that time the navies of the world-built ships which combined a mixture of large and medium calibre guns. There was constant experimentation to refine each nations new vessels calibers and layout.

The ship Cuniberti had envisaged would be a “colossus” of the seas. His main idea was that this ship would carry only one calibre of gun, the biggest available, at the time, 12 inch. This heavily armoured “Colossus” would have sufficient armour to make it impervious to all but the 12-inch (305 mm) guns of the enemy. Cuniberti’s article foresaw twelve large calibre guns, which would have an overwhelming advantage over the more usual four of the enemy ship. In addition his ship would be so fast, that she could choose her point of attack.

Cuniberti saw this ship discharging a sufficient enough broadside, all of that one large calibre, that she would overwhelm first one enemy ship, before moving on to the next, and destroying an entire enemy fleet. He proposed that the effect of a squadron of six “Colossi” would give a fleet such overwhelming power as to deter all possible opponents, (unless the other side had similar ships!). There was a cost for such a ship and Cuniberti’s contention was that this “Colossus” was available only to a “navy at the same time most potent and very rich”.

Cuniberti proposed a design based on his ideas to the Italian government, but the government declined for budgetary reasons, giving Cuniberti permission to write the article for Jane’s Fighting Ships. The article was published before the Battle of Tsushima, which only served to vindicated his ideas. There, the real damage was inflicted by the large calibre guns of the Japanese fleet.

The design work on the Italian dreadnought Dante Alighieri, (Motto “with the soul that wins every battle”(it was never to fight a battle!)), had put the Austro-Hungarian Navy in a bad position. The Italian ship was mainly a result of the leaking of Montecuccoli’s Spring 1905 memorandum, while his plans for the construction of the four new dreadnoughts still remained in their planning stages. Making the matter more complex was the collapse of Sándor Wekerle’s government in Budapest, which left the Hungarian Diet, for nearly a year, without a Prime Minister. With no government in Budapest to pass a budget, efforts to secure funding and begin the construction came to a halt.

In January 1908 the German navy magazine ‘Marine Rundschau’, carried the news that the keel of the first Italian dreadnought was about to be laid, and the news brought an Austrian-Hungarian reaction. Montecuccoli duly announced on the 20th February, during the meeting of parliament, the building of dreadnoughts of between 18,000 and 19,000 tonnes. In March, Germany was to launch her first dreadnought, the Nassau, and as a result Italy postponed the laying of the keel for her dreadnought, because Cuniberti and his chief naval engineer Edoardo Masdeo wanted to now rethink their own design. On November 5, 1908, the Navy asked the Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino and Danubius shipyards to participate in the application. The main criteria of the battleships to be built were August 1909: four triple firearms, 280 mm armor and a maximum displacement of 21 000 tonnes

The design competition that had been organised by the Austrian Naval Section was to be overshadowed by events during the next six months. In January 1909 Emperor Franz Joseph had approved Montecuccoli’s plans, who then circulated it amongst the governments in Vienna and Budapest. In March 1909 Popper presented his five designs for the ‘Tegetthoff’ class. These first drafts were merely enlarged versions of the Radetzky class and had yet to include the triple turrets which would become the hallmark later of the Tegetthoff’s. In April Popper was issued with a further set of proposals, named “Variant VIII” which included the triple turrets. At the same time the Austrians asked their German ally for information on the design of their newest class. The Kaiser’s permission was received in April and the Austro-Hungarian Captain Alfred von Koudelka was dispatched to Berlin to research the technical details of the German dreadnought projects. He was personally received by Admiral von Tirpitz and allowed by the Germans to examine their latest projects, which featured both excellent armour and underwater protection. Tirpitz made an effort to explain to Koudelka the importance of torpedo protection throughout the entire design process . He explained that there needed to be at least two meters distance between the hulls outer and inner walls, as well as between the inner wall and the torpedo defence wall. Tirpitz’s knowledge was based on a series of 1: 1 scale section experiments. In addition to help reduce the impact, coal must be stored between the inner and the torpedo wall. Tirpitz stressed that the hull should be sub-divided into watertight compartments with bulkheads of strong construction. He advised that the watertight bulkheads should not be weakened with the inclusion of doors, because of the chance of them accidentally being left open, and in addition that the bulkheads should be solid with no door, pipe or wires passing through them.

Koudelka had brought with him the plans made by STT and showed them to Tirpitz, seeking his opinion. Tirpitz replied that the armament (10×305 mm guns in twin turrets) was too much for the planned 20,000-ton displacement. He proposed leaving one of the turrets off and reducing the armor thickness, and a thickening of the armoured belt. In addition, he considered the planned torpedo protection of the ships to be defective, the importance of which he specifically called to Koudelka’s attention.

On his return to Austria, Koudelka recounted Tirpitz’s input to Siegfried Popper, who simply ignored the information. In spite of the warnings, Popper insisted on his own ideas, and threatened his resignation, which unfortunately was not accepted and the Navy did not challenge his insistence, so the German experience was ignored.

The distance between the outer hull and the torpedo wall was finally only 1.7 to 2.5 meters in line with Popper’s plans. The Germans also advised the Austrian to strengthen their underwater protection, to install no watertight doors below the waterline, increase the displacement of the ships to 21,000 tons, and reduce the number of main guns from 12 to 10. All points, the Austrians were to ignore, since the basic Tegetthoff design had already been passed on 27 April 1909. In the same month Montecuccoli’s memorandum found its way into the Italian newspapers, causing hysteria among the Italian population and their politicians. The Italian Government made use of the leaked report for initiating their own dreadnought program, and allocation for the navy of the funds it would require.

Finally on the 6th June the Italian Dreadnought ‘A’ (the future Dante Alighieri) was laid down at the naval shipyard in Castellammare di Stabia, and as a result the Austrian C-in-C saw no difficulty in obtaining the required funds in the 1910 budget (due to be discussed in November 1909). Two of the Radetzky class pre-dreadnoughts had been launched by this stage, and STT needed additional contracts to retain their force of skilled workers. In August 1909 Montecuccoli suggested that maybe, while the government resolved the budgetary issues, STT and Škoda might like to start construction at their own expense (and risk). When for political reasons the dreadnought funds were refused, Montecuccoli embarked on an elaborate campaign of deception to disguise the fact that the ships were to be built without any parliamentary approval. He claimed, erroneously, that the ship building industry was financing the construction on pure speculation, and the shipyards were very uneasy with the situation. It wasn’t until Montecuccoli took a 12 million crown (£12,559,526 at 1914 or £1,377,228,920.96 at 2017 prices) crowns credit on his own responsibility that the keels of dreadnoughts ‘IV’ and ‘V’ were laid down on 24th July, (Viribus Unitis) and 24th September 1910, (Tegetthoff). In the meantime, on the 20th August 1910, Italy had launched the Dante Alighieri and had already started construction of her second dreadnought, the Giulio Cesare on the 24th June. In addition France on the 1st September 1910, laid the keel of her first dreadnought, (the Courbet) to match the Central Powers’ growing dreadnought superiority in the Mediterranean.

The finalized contracts held penalty causes and in the Szent István these included: “For each whole tenth node to which the test drive speed should be lower than 19.75 knots, a reduction of the delivery price of 20,000 crowns court will enter … also excess weight is for each ton over the präliminierte Total weight of the machine complex of 1,056 t, a discount of 800 Kr. access … the warranty period is one year… The occurrence of warlike events: Should warlike events threaten or actually occur during the construction period, the contractor undertakes to strictly obey all instructions given to accelerate the construction of the ship and the machines from the kuk Kriegsmarine. A separate agreement will be reached on the rights and obligations that ensue, but any late drafting thereof may not affect the implementation of the acceleration referred to therein. Completion date is July 30, 1914.”.

Now that the construction of the first two dreadnoughts had been committed to, Austria-Hungary had to spend around 120 million Krone (very approximately 1 kr=£1), without the approval of either the Austrian Reichsrat or the Diet of Hungary, on a deal that was to be kept secret. Montecuccoli drafted several excuses to justify the dreadnoughts construction and the need to keep their existence a secret. These included the navy’s urgent need to counter Italy’s naval build up and desire to negotiate a lower price with their builders.

In April 1910 the agreement was finally leaked to the public by the newspaper of Austria’s Social Democratic Party, the ‘Arbeiter-Zeitung’, but the plans had already been completed and construction on the first two battleships, Viribus Unitis and Tegetthoff, was about to begin.

The two Austrian dreadnoughts were already into the early stages of construction when the joint parliamentary bodies met in March 1911 to discuss the 1911 budget. In his memoirs, former Austrian Field Marshal and Chief of the General Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, (the man who, three years later, would push the Emperor to permit Serbia no leeway and push him to declare war), wrote that due to his belief in a future war with Italy, construction on the dreadnoughts should begin as soon as possible. He also worked at a plan to sell the dreadnoughts to, in his words, a “reliable ally” (which could only be Germany), should the budget crisis fail to be resolved in short order. But ultimately in 1911 the Austro-Hungarian parliament agreed to Montecuccoli’s action and even added two more ships to the plan, the future Prinz Eugen, and Szent István.



The technical characteristics of weapons systems had an important influence on the fighting off Guadalcanal. In the interwar period, the firepower of surface ships had dramatically increased. Improvements in fire control—including more advanced models of the Ford rangekeeper—had made gunfire and torpedo salvoes more accurate; advances in fuse and shell technology had made shells deadlier; and new torpedoes had increased lethality. These enhancements combined to make ship combat more intense than ever before. However, the maximum effective range of these weapons was still limited by that of the human eye.

The upper limit of visual range at night off Guadalcanal was almost always within ten thousand yards; often it was within five thousand. At the battle of Savo Island, the Japanese opened fire on the northern group of Allied cruisers at about ten thousand yards, using searchlights. During the decisive portion of Guadalcanal II (sometimes “the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal”), the battleship Washington engaged the battleship Kirishima at 8,400 yards with the aid of radar ranging and star-shell illumination. At Cape Esperance, the Japanese were sighted at five thousand yards, and fire was opened almost immediately. Guadalcanal I descended into a melee because of the low visibility. The leading ships of the opposing formations first sighted each other at three thousand yards; fire was opened soon thereafter.

The close engagement ranges, combined with the lethality of the ships’ weaponry, explain why the combat off Guadalcanal was so furious and deadly. They also illustrate the importance of hitting first. Surprise was decisive in the night surface battles, a better predictor of victory than any other single factor. The other hallmark of these fights was extreme confusion. The Navy had anticipated that night combat might be chaotic. A 1938 doctrinal manual for light cruisers warned that night battle would develop quickly and be fast-paced, with only brief opportunities to score hits on opponents as they appeared out of the darkness. This emphasis found its way into drills and practices, which stressed getting on target extremely quickly. Hitting first was important in daylight action; in night combat, it was decisive.

Night battle practice—scores in which made up a significant percentage of a ship’s individual gunnery merit ranking—reinforced this emphasis by training crews to acquire and engage targets in the shortest possible time. The highest scores went to the ships that got on target the fastest and scored the most hits.6 The heavy cruiser Augusta gave an exceptional performance in March 1937 while flagship of the Asiatic Fleet:

A total of thirty-eight hits, or 42.2% on run one with the main battery, of which fifteen were early hits obtained in the first six salvoes in three minutes and ten seconds can be considered little short of remarkable. . . . The target diagram of hits shows the high degree of accuracy and consistency in both range and deflection, indicating extreme thoroughness of the director check and battery line-up as well as the accuracy of the fire-control procedure and spotting.

Augusta’s ability to get on target quickly was aided by her ranging technique. She fired “a three salvo ranging ladder in 500 yard increments by individual turrets” to determine more accurately the target range. That is, the first salvo would have been fired at a range five hundred yards beyond the estimated range, the second at the estimated range, and the third five hundred yards below that. Spotting from these three salvoes would have provided an accurate target range very quickly. In effect, she used her gun battery as a rangefinder.

Lloyd M. Mustin, a future admiral, served on board Augusta during this time and described how her gunners achieved such impressive scores: “I guess there were really two keys to our whole approach of taking a target under fire at night, both much interlaid with each other. One was heavy emphasis on the utmost speed in opening fire . . . [using] an estimated range. . . . [The other was] much more streamlined internal procedures that [permitted] . . . a minimum of required transmissions back and forth between the Captain on the bridge and the man who had the firing key in his hand.” Augusta’s approach of using the guns to find the range became standard procedure. Reports of night battle practices stressed that rough estimates of enemy course and speed were all that could be made before opening fire. Hits were to be obtained by firing immediately and correcting the fall of shot; there was no time to develop a model of the target’s movements. This was the opposite procedure from that used in daylight, when firing was deliberate, controlled, and based on precise calculation of the target’s future position.

Firing without a precise solution would introduce errors. Through experimentation, the Navy discovered that the best way to secure a large number of hits was a “rocking ladder.” Once they found the range, Mustin and his contemporaries altered the range up and down in slight increments with each salvo, “rocking” the shells back and forth across the target. The variation in range compensated for errors in the fire-control solution and increased the number of hits. At night, it was extremely easy to believe that shells were on target when in fact they were slightly short or long. Continually rocking the shells back and forth overcame this problem and became the prescribed doctrine for night firing. The results were impressive; Mustin described the target raft after one practice as a “shambles”—it had been “literally shot to pieces.” The emphasis on opening fire immediately was well worthwhile; all the night surface actions of the campaign—except for the last one—were to be decided by gunfire.

Radar too played an important role in the night battles of 1942. The Navy’s willingness to experiment allowed it to realize quickly the potential of using radio waves to develop a more detailed picture of the surroundings. However, the radars used at Guadalcanal were fairly primitive. Most displays were unsophisticated, and effective procedures to harness the information they provided had yet to be developed. Radar was not yet a transformational technology, but in the right hands, it was an extremely useful tool.

Radar research and development was performed under the auspices of the Navy’s technical bureaus. There were two parallel threads. Search radars, designed to provide early warning of approaching ships and planes, were the responsibility of the Bureau of Ships. BuOrd focused on fire-control radars, which could provide range, bearing, and other information necessary to augment fire-control solutions. The Navy’s heuristic emphasizing quick and effective gunfire led to the rapid development of the latter.

Search and fire-control radars used similar technology but were employed differently. Search-radar antennas were typically kept rotating so that they could scan the area around the ship. When an unknown echo was observed, the earliest installations—like the SC radars in use in 1942—had to be stopped so that range and bearing could be estimated. When its antenna was stopped, the radar could not search other sectors, increasing the chances that the operator would miss approaching contacts.

Fire-control radars were occasionally used to search like this, but their specialty was specific targets. The open architecture of the fire-control system made it easy to integrate radar into it; there was no need for major modifications to take advantage of radar information. Fire-control radars could augment existing fire-control procedures by providing the range to the target, reducing the need for ranging ladders and allowing the target to be “straddled” more quickly.

The Navy’s most modern fire-control radars, the FC (Mark 3) and FD (Mark 4) were used extensively off Guadalcanal. The FC was designed for surface fire control; the FD was similar but configured differently to allow it to be used against airplanes as well as surface ships. Both used lobe switching—alternating transmission in two lobes on either side of the antenna—to improve directional accuracy. Although some ships considered the FC and FD sufficiently accurate for “blind” firing, fire control was most accurate when using radar ranges and visual bearings. This helped ensure that the engagement ranges at Guadalcanal were short.

Initially, the standard radar display was the “A-scope,” a two-dimensional view of reflected signals on a specific bearing. The horizontal axis displayed range, while the vertical axis indicated the strength of the reflected signal. If the radar detected nothing, there would be no return, and the display would be dominated by “grass”—low-level noise signals detected by the receiver, akin to “snow” on early television sets.14 When the radar did detect an object, a vertical spike would appear at the appropriate range. The strength of the signal was indicated by the size of the spike. Strong signals produced a tall vertical “pip”; weaker ones were shorter. If using a search radar, the operator would stop the antenna and note the bearing and range. The nature of the display meant that the radar could either search, scanning for potential contacts, or focus on a single bearing, recording the specific location of a contact. It could not do both simultaneously.

It took effort to translate this information from the display into a picture of potential contacts. Search-radar operators were trained to focus on pips and accurately determine their range and bearing. They were not responsible for tracking the contacts they identified, and the A-scope made it very difficult for them to do so. Instead, they reported a series of ranges and bearings. Other members of the crew took this data and added the necessary context to create situational awareness. On large ships, like carriers and battleships, this was done in a Radar Plot. On smaller ships, it was done in the captain’s brain. Both mechanisms were frequently overwhelmed.

On fire-control radars, the focus of the A-scope could be narrowed. Operators could increase the resolution and zoom in on a small area of the display—either five hundred or a thousand yards in range—and see more detail around the target. This allowed them to determine target range very accurately and, if conditions were right, even to observe the splashes of shells. However, this procedure limited their view to a narrow window. If the target slipped outside, it could easily be lost.

Radar signals reflected off land as well as ships, and the peculiar littoral terrain near Guadalcanal made it difficult to identify contacts. Savo Sound is surrounded by three islands. Guadalcanal forms the southern border. To the north, Florida Island hems it in and forms the sheltered anchorage at Tulagi. The southern tip of Florida reaches toward Guadalcanal, forming the eastern entrance to the sound. Reefs segment that entrance into three separate channels: Nggela, Sealark, and Lengo. To the west, the small island of Savo divides the western entrance to the sound into two roughly equal channels. The proximity of land interfered with radar signals, cluttering displays with echoes from the islands and making it difficult or impossible to distinguish targets. This interference was a surprise, and it undermined prewar faith in radar systems. These limitations informed how radar was used and how battles were fought. Radar was not yet the sophisticated technology we think of today; for the first year of war in the Pacific, it was a rudimentary tool that did not seamlessly integrate with existing shipboard information systems. This largely explains why the Navy, despite this powerful new technology, found the battles off Guadalcanal so confusing and difficult.

However, some ships benefitted from much more sophisticated radar installations. One of the most important outcomes of the prewar work with radar was the development of the “plan position indicator,” the PPI scope. It was a dramatic improvement over the A-scope and vastly enhanced the ability of operators and their ships to process radar information. The PPI was the brainchild of Dr. Robert Morris Page of the Naval Research Laboratory. Page applied a particularly nautical solution to the problem of radar displays; he took the Navy’s established plotting paradigm—the top-down view—and devised a way to present radar information in a similar format. It was the first iteration of the display with which we are all familiar, with the radar in the center surrounded by a bird’s-eye view of contacts.

As the radar revolved, potential contacts appeared as pips. Each pip would remain momentarily on the screen, allowing the operator to record the bearing and range without pausing the radar’s scanning motion. The strength of the return, giving some estimate of the relative size of the target, was reflected in the size and brightness of the pip. The new display tightly integrated radar information with the mental models of the operators, making it much easier to translate that information into a picture of the surrounding world and increase situational awareness.

The first radar to use the PPI scope was the SG, the Navy’s first microwave search radar; later, it became the standard display for all search radars. A few ships that fought near Guadalcanal, including the cruiser Helena, destroyer Fletcher, and battleships Washington and South Dakota, were equipped with the SG radar and PPI scope. These ships consistently had better situational awareness in combat, but they lacked an effective means to share that picture with other ships in company.


They were missing because of invalid assumptions about how commanders and their ships would approach combat. The Navy recognized that a decentralized system—in which each commander applied his own judgment to his circumstances—could adequately deal with the complexity of combat. The emphasis on decentralized doctrinal development reflected this, and it made squadron and task force commanders responsible for formulating doctrines and plans to guide their forces in battle. To make the system effective, however, ships had to stay together long enough to absorb a common doctrine and create a shared context for decision making. But the demands of the Guadalcanal campaign and the needs of a two-ocean war combined to destabilize the Navy’s fighting units and undermine this process.

Creating a shared context took time and required preparation. Although the fleet had devoted significant attention to preparing for major fleet actions, it had spent very little time preparing for fights between smaller task forces. Individual task force and squadron commanders were expected to fill the gap and develop specific plans for their forces. Off Guadalcanal, they were consistently unable to do so. Forces were repeatedly thrown together piecemeal without the necessary time for indoctrination. The resulting problems are evident throughout the campaign. In the aftermath of the defeat at Savo, Vice Admiral Ghormley cited the lack of time available for indoctrination: “Detailed plans and orders for the Watchtower Operation were of necessity prepared in a short space of time immediately prior to its execution, giving little, if any, opportunity for subordinate commanders to contact commanders of units assigned to them for purposes of indoctrination.”

During Guadalcanal I, the lack of an effective doctrine was an acute problem. Rear Adm. Daniel J. Callaghan was given command of a “scratch team” formed from two separate forces the day before the battle. There was no time to indoctrinate the new ships, and because Callaghan had assumed his own post as a task-group commander (TG 67.4) barely two weeks prior to the battle, there was no doctrine even for his own force. Vice Adm. William S. Pye, president of the Naval War College, would note this deficiency in his comments on the action: “It seems . . . that the American force went into this action without any battle plan; without any indoctrination, or understanding between the OTC [Callaghan], and his subordinates; with incomplete information as to existing conditions in possession of subordinates.”

At Guadalcanal II, two days later, Rear Adm. Willis A. Lee was in a similar situation. None of his six ships had ever operated together before. His four destroyers were from four different divisions and possessed nothing resembling a common doctrine. The same held true for his two battleships. Lee suffered “from the same lack of practice in teamwork that had plagued Callaghan.”

Planning suffered along with indoctrination. Before the war, the Navy assumed the OTC would develop a battle plan that would explain his intentions and the way he expected to fight. It would provide context for the interpretation of task-force doctrine and help align decision making. To prevent confusion, these plans had to be concise and extremely clear. Unfortunately, the same circumstances that undermined the ability of task force commanders to develop common doctrines also inhibited the creation of battle plans. Captains frequently went into battle without the shared context required for effective coordination. Instead of fighting as cohesive units, the Navy’s task forces broke apart and fought as individual ships.

The Navy understood that this approach was very costly, but there was no alternative. The battles of Guadalcanal I and II came during the decisive moment of the campaign; Lee and Callaghan were fighting to ensure the survival of Henderson Field, which had become the key to victory. Success or failure depended on their ability to fight their confused collections of ships.

The Navy’s performance in the night battles of 1942 was also hindered by prevailing assumptions about how to employ torpedoes. The emphasis on major fleet action limited the Navy’s destroyer doctrine and focused destroyer commanders on attacking a well-defended enemy formation at night. In such an attack, torpedoes would be fired at the enemy battleships after the cruisers and destroyers had used their guns to penetrate the screen. This meant that destroyers were trained to preserve their torpedoes and use their guns first. Originally weapons of stealth, the Navy’s destroyers had lost the art of using their torpedoes in a surprise attack.

The 1929 Destroyer Instructions reflected these prevailing assumptions. Torpedoes were to be used primarily against the “objective,” the enemy capital ships. Only a limited number could be expended against other targets: “While the main mission of the attack is to sink the objective [enemy battleships,] . . . it must be remembered that favorable positions for torpedo fire are very seldom gained in night operations, and that every opportunity must be taken to inflict damage on any enemy ships encountered. . . . For this reason, destroyers are authorized to fire one torpedo at any destroyer and two at any cruiser or light cruiser encountered at such close range that there is a practical certainty of hitting.” The 1938 version of Night Search and Attack Operations reinforced the emphasis on preserving torpedoes for large targets: “While penetrating an enemy screen advantage will be taken of any favorable opportunity to torpedo enemy cruisers. Torpedoes will not normally be used against enemy destroyers.”

These assumptions led to simplistic interwar torpedo exercises. Battle Torpedo Practice C was the Navy’s standard night-torpedo exercise, designed to simulate an attack on an enemy battleship. It assumed that the target would be slow-moving and that the attack would come after the destroyer division had penetrated the enemy screen. This meant the target would be fully alert to the presence of the attacking destroyers, open fire to repulse them, and thereby reveal its location and provide a convenient point of aim for the destroyer torpedoes. Blinking lights simulated the battleship’s gunfire.

While the Navy’s gunnery exercises measured how quickly the guns were brought on target and how often they hit, successfully focusing crews on the importance of quick and accurate gunfire, Battle Torpedo Practice C considered only the accuracy of a single torpedo. If the torpedo hit the target, the ship received a perfect score. If it missed, the score was zero. Most destroyers, aided by the blinking lights, managed to hit. The only way they could improve upon their scores was to fire their torpedoes earlier in their attack runs. The artificialities of the exercises and emphasis on major action prevented the development of more sophisticated and effective torpedo tactics. Although there were extensive night exercises before the war, not one of those held in 1938 simulated an encounter like the battles off Guadalcanal, which were to be dominated by fast-moving cruisers and destroyers.

Immediately before the war, more complex exercises with faster targets and more challenging torpedo-fire-control problems were in fact introduced. But they came too late to alter the pervasive beliefs that enemy capital ships were the primary target for destroyer torpedoes and that most attacks would be delivered at close range against slowly maneuvering, well-illuminated targets. Off Guadalcanal, the Navy eschewed the potential of stealthy torpedo attacks and focused instead on gunfire as the dominant weapon.

The IJN approached the problem quite differently. Forced by the interwar naval-limitation treaties to accept a fleet of significantly smaller size, the Japanese had sought to redress the imbalance through technological innovation. The U.S. Navy failed to anticipate this and went to war assuming that Japanese ships and weapons would possess capabilities broadly similar to its own. That the Japanese would develop torpedoes with unprecedented range and striking power was wholly unanticipated.

The Type 93 Mod 2 torpedo, more commonly known as the Long Lance, was the IJN’s counter to the large size and fighting power of the American battle line. Introduced in 1936, it was capable of a range of 20,000 meters (21,900 yards) at fifty knots, its highest speed setting. Its warhead weighed 490 kilograms (1,080 pounds). The Navy’s contemporary, the Mark 15, had a range of only six thousand yards at forty-five knots; it carried an 825-pound warhead. The better performance of the Japanese torpedo was due to its larger size and the fact that it used pure oxygen as a combustion agent. The Mark 15 used regular air.

The Japanese also developed stealthy tactics that emphasized firing torpedoes before opening fire with their guns. At night, gun flashes created clear aim points. If torpedoes were fired and gunfire held until the torpedoes were among the enemy ships, the targets could be quickly overwhelmed by shells and torpedoes striking simultaneously. The lethality of this tactic was demonstrated at Savo Island.

American naval officers consistently underestimated the range and speed of Japanese torpedoes. They believed that submarines were firing them, not cruisers and destroyers. In the aftermath of Savo Island, Rear Admiral Turner expressed his belief that heavy cruisers Vincennes, Quincy, and Astoria “ran into [a] submarine and torpedo trap.” An intelligence summary issued after Guadalcanal I reflected a similar assumption about Japanese torpedo tactics: “Jap[anese] torpedo attacks are the biggest threat. They appear to succeed in firing well placed torpedo salvoes. They hit from the flank and also the disengaged side. They undoubtedly use destroyers and cruisers as well as submarines well placed in area.”

Ignorance regarding the range and accuracy of Japanese torpedoes resulted in tactics that played to their strengths. At the battle of Tassafaronga, Rear Adm. Carleton H. Wright maintained the course and speed of his cruisers while rapidly firing at Japanese destroyers. The cruisers’ gun flashes provided excellent points of aim, and their steady course carried them right into a barrage of enemy torpedoes. Two struck Wright’s flagship, the heavy cruiser Minneapolis; New Orleans, Pensacola, and Northampton were also hit. The Navy failed to recognize the true capabilities of the Long Lance until late 1943, far too late for the Guadalcanal campaign.



This article considers how the Royal Navy (RN) of the United Kingdom (UK) has evolved since the Cold War ended, and how it is likely to change in the future. In 1991, the RN was the world’s third most powerful navy, after the US Navy and the newly-formed Russian Navy. The service was also still benefiting from the prestige of its success in the 1982 Falklands War. Whilst it was expected that the ‘peace dividend’ being demanded by the public and politicians would mean a reduction in the RN’s size, no one anticipated that cuts would occur on a near-annual basis for the next twenty-five years. UK defence expenditure decreased from 4.1 per cent of GDP in 1990/91 to c. 2.0 per cent in 2015/16. The RN suffered disproportionately; excluding nuclear deterrent submarines it lost around two-thirds of its front-line strength during the period. The navies of China, France and India have all arguably now overtaken the RN in size and capabilities.

The current RN is undoubtedly at a low point in numbers, relative strength, and – perhaps – even in its institutional morale and prestige. The US Navy has become openly concerned about the declining capabilities of a navy that has been long been its key partner in arms.


The ‘downsizing’ of the RN between 1990 to 2015 is landmarked by the publication of a series of government ‘White Papers’, Ministry of Defence (MOD) policy documents, and various strategies; all intended to guide the changing mission, goals and objectives of the RN. Theoretically the required maritime capabilities and force levels could then be identified and provided. However, this never occurred as the necessary funding was not available. Many described in detail all of the maritime security challenges facing the UK, but then announced cuts to the RN. The most influential of these documents, in chronological order, were:

1990: Options for Change: During most of the Cold War the strategic context was clear – there was only one significant potential threat, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. As a result, the UK’s defence priorities were almost self-selecting in the 1970s and 1980s. For the RN, its focus was on providing Britain’s nuclear deterrent, contributing to NATO’s maritime forces in the Eastern Atlantic and the Channel and protecting home waters and ports. Anything that did not support these missions was always questioned, a notable example being the planned decommissioning of the ice patrol ship Endurance in 1982, which encouraged Argentina to invade the Falkland Islands. The only major out-of-area presence was the Armilla Patrol in the Arabian Gulf; this consisted of several frigates and destroyers to help protect UK and Allied merchant ships during the 1980’s Iraq-Iran War.

In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War was ending. The need to respond to the changing strategic environment and exploit cost-saving opportunities prompted the Options for Change review, published in July 1990. An unambitious document, its stated aim was for ‘smaller but better’ Armed Forces. For the RN this meant:

A reduction in personnel (trained and untrained) from 63,000 to 60,000.

Cutting the number of frigates and destroyers in service from ‘about fifty’ (actually forty-eight) to forty.

Reducing the number of nuclear attack submarines (SSN) to twelve, with five old boats decommissioning early.

Limiting the number of conventional submarines (SSK) to the four Upholder class already being built; the remaining Oberon class boats would decommission without replacement.

The aircraft carrier (three Invincible class light carriers with Sea Harrier fighter/attack aircraft) and amphibious forces (primarily two Fearless class assault ships) were untouched.

The RN performed well in the First Gulf War of 1990–1 but had a noticeable lack of influence in the command and conduct of operations, perhaps a sign of things to come. In 1991 a further reduction of 5,000 naval personnel was announced. Two years later, further cuts saw:

The number of frigates and destroyers reduced to thirty-five.

The disposal of twelve ‘River’ class minesweepers operated by the Royal Naval Reserve.

The withdrawal from service of the four new Upholder class SSKs, ultimately sold to Canada. This meant that the RN would now only operate nuclear submarines.

1994: Frontline First: The Defence Costs Study: The Defence Costs Study was a further assessment of spending, and was intended to maintain the fighting strength of the armed forces whilst achieving significant savings in support costs. In practice the cost savings achieved in the ‘tail’ were less than hoped, whilst the reduction in logistical support seriously impacted the effectiveness of the RN. The decline in personnel numbers continued, with the expectation that the naval services would be down to 44,000 by 1999.

Neither Options for Change or Frontline First redefined the role of the RN; they were essentially focused on reducing the defence budget. The main strategic theme of UK defence policy was still Eurocentric, and the MOD attempted to maintain balanced forces by just cutting everything a bit.

Lacking direction from government, senior officers in the RN had, by default, substantial freedom to develop new strategic concepts. Documents such as the Fundamentals of British Maritime Doctrine (published in 1995) and the Maritime Contribution to Joint Operations (1998) made a considerable impact beyond the service. The concept of expeditionary warfare outside the NATO area began to gain traction. Essential enablers for this would be new amphibious ships (already accepted by the government) and new aircraft carriers (not yet accepted, and potentially controversial given their cost). The RN seized every opportunity to demonstrate the operational flexibility and effectiveness of even small aircraft carriers. In the years 1993–5 the RN maintained a carrier in the Adriatic, helping to enforce the no-fly zone over Bosnia. The RN also regularly deployed a carrier task group to the Arabian Gulf, in support of sanctions against Iraq.

1998: The Strategic Defence Review (SDR): A new Labour government committed to a review of defence policy was elected in May 1997. This was to be a foreign-policy rather than cost-cutting exercise, with the declared goal that British forces would act as a ‘force for good’ in the world.

When the SDR was published in July 1998, it was clear that the RN’s new ideas had often prevailed. The review accepted that in a world of uncertain multi-centric threats, there was a need to create deployable expeditionary forces capable of operations at considerable distances from the UK. One of the SDR’s main decisions was to acquire two new large aircraft carriers to function as mobile airbases operating strike aircraft; another was greatly to enhance strategic sea and airlift capabilities. It also established a Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF) which would provide a pool of readily available, rapidly deployable, high capability forces from all three Services. In other initiatives, the SDR created a Joint Helicopter Command, which incorporated British Army, Royal Air Force (RAF) and RN helicopter squadrons; and a combined RAF/RN Harrier and Sea Harrier force (Joint Force 2000, later renamed Joint Force Harrier).

In line with the emphasis on rapid deployment, the SDR required the RN to change its focus from open-ocean warfare in the North Atlantic to force projection and near-coast (littoral) operations worldwide. Shallow water operations in UK waters were also given less importance. There was, however, little immediate change to the composition of the RN, which retained responsibility for maintaining the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. Small cuts in force levels included:

A reduction in destroyers and frigates from thirty-five to thirty-two.

A decline in SSN numbers from twelve to ten (but all equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles).

A modest fall in naval personnel.

As well as the new aircraft carriers, SDR committed the government to building new submarines, destroyers, frigates, amphibious and auxiliary ships, as well as buying a ‘Future Carrier Borne Aircraft’ (later renamed the Joint Combat Aircraft, or JCA).

The validity of SDR’s thinking was vindicated when, in 2000, the UK decisively intervened in the civil war in Sierra Leone to support its government. The RN impressed by quickly assembling a substantial task group off-shore. This included the light carrier Illustrious and the ships of the Amphibious Ready Group, centred on the helicopter carrier Ocean.

2002: New Chapter to the Strategic Defence Review: On 11 September 2001, the al-Qaeda terrorist group launched a devastating series of terrorist attacks on the United States of America. Although not immediately clear, this would also have a devastating effect on the RN.

In late 2001, the UK conducted a major exercise in Oman, ‘Saif Sareea II’, to demonstrate the JRRF concept. The RN committed no less than twenty-one naval vessels, again including Illustrious and Ocean. Whilst a success, the exercise was overshadowed by the start of American and, soon, British military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In February 2002, the MOD unexpectedly announced that its Sea Harriers would be retired from service by April 2006. Joint Force Harrier (JFH) would operate only RAF-owned Harrier aircraft thereafter. The reason given was that the Sea Harrier required expensive upgrades to remain effective that could not be justified given the aircraft would be replaced from 2012 by the JCA (a date that has since slipped to the end of 2018). It was also decided to evaluate whether the SDR was still adequate ‘to cope with the threats faced’.

The resulting Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter, published in July 2002, concluded that the SDR’s decisions had been broadly correct, but that changes were needed in the allocation of investment, ‘for example to intelligence gathering, network-centric capability … improved mobility and fire power for more rapidly deployable lighter forces, temporary deployed accommodation for troops, and night operations’. Worryingly for the RN, it was not mentioned once in the document. At the end of 2002, the frigate Sheffield was paid off without replacement.

2003: Delivering Security in a Changing World: In May 2003, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines contributed significantly to the second Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq. A large force of ships was led by the light carrier Ark Royal (operating as a helicopter carrier) and Ocean. A particular success was the seizure of the Al Faw Peninsula by 3 Commando Brigade.

At the end of the year, the MOD published a White Paper which again revisited aspects of the SDR. It stated, ‘The UK will remain actively engaged in potential areas of instability in and around Europe, the Near East, North Africa and the Gulf. But we must extend our ability to project force further afield than the SDR envisaged. In particular, the potential for instability and crises occurring across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and the wider threat from international terrorism, will require us both to engage proactively in conflict prevention and be ready to contribute to short-notice peace support and counter-terrorist operations.’

Unfortunately this policy could not be aligned with the immediate reality of costly military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the need for new equipment to support these. As no additional funding was available, cuts had to be made elsewhere. Accordingly, the paper also said: ‘Some of our older [naval] vessels contribute less well to the pattern of operations that we envisage, and reductions in their numbers will be necessary.’ In practice, this meant:

The withdrawal of three Type 42 destroyers and three nearly-new Type 23 frigates; the latter sold to Chile.

The decommissioning of six mine-countermeasures vessels.

The loss of further SSNs, ultimately taking the force down to seven boats.

Reductions in planned naval construction, particularly the cancellation of four of twelve planned Type 45 destroyers (another two were cancelled in 2008).

A 1,500 reduction in the number of trained personnel to 36,000.

The only compensation was that the paper confirmed, ‘The introduction of the two new aircraft carriers [the Queen Elizabeth class, or QEC] … early in the next decade’. The White Paper also set out the future roles of each of the services; in the maritime sphere it placed an emphasis on land-attack missiles and amphibious ships to project power ashore.

By mid-2005, the RN was down to twenty-five frigates and destroyers, against a backdrop of increased rather than decreased operational demands. The carrier Invincible was withdrawn from operational service in May 2005, five years earlier than previously planned.

2006: The Future Navy Vision: By 2006, the RN faced the reality that its expeditionary strategy was in tatters, its internal plans unrealisable, and that it was in danger of it becoming seen as militarily irrelevant. One of the two remaining carriers was still kept operational in the strike role, but its flight deck was usually empty of fixed-wing aircraft as JFH was stretched maintaining a squadron in Afghanistan. The newly-built amphibious ships were being used for other tasks as the Royal Marines had been committed to Afghanistan. Whilst up to 5,000 naval personnel were sometimes in Afghanistan and Iraq with 3 Commando Brigade, JFH, Joint Helicopter Command and other formations, this was not publicly recognised.

In 2006 the RN tried to make a stand by publishing its own vision for the future. It was drafted under the direction of Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, the First Sea Lord, who wrote, ‘Britain is preeminently a maritime nation whose people will continue to rely on the unhindered use of the sea for their security, prosperity and well-being. The world faces an uncertain, rapidly changing and competitive global environment in the early decades of the 21st century. My vision envisages a Royal Navy that … will contribute vitally and decisively to the security of the UK, to the preservation of international order at sea and to the promotion of our national values and interests in the wider world.’ The vision required a navy capable of Maritime Force Projection (the employment of military power at sea and against the land) and Maritime Security (the defence of the UK home-land and sovereign territories), enabled by Maritime Manoeuvre (seaborne access).

The document further stated, ‘A broadly balanced Fleet represents the most effective means of delivering this capability, both at home and abroad, as well as providing a reasonable assurance against the unexpected. This means that we will project and sustain Amphibious and Carrier Strike Task Groups simultaneously … [Also] our Fleet should have sufficient flexibility and size to deploy single ships and submarines on sustained, independent tasks on a routine basis, with the potential and capacity to switch quickly to combat and group operations.’

The Future Navy Vision document has stood the passage of time well but, unfortunately, has also been largely ignored given subsequent developments.

2010: Strategic Defence and Security Review – SDSR 2010: SDSR 2010, released on 19 October 2015, was a rushed review by a new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government, conducted in the context of economic depression and a projected £38bn ‘black hole’ in the equipment budget. In contrast to the new National Security Strategy (NSS) published a day previously, SDSR 2010’s focus was on immediate financial savings; a parliamentary committee could later find no evidence of strategic thinking in the document.

For the RN, the outcome was little short of a disaster. Decisions affecting it included:

Bringing only one of the two new Queen Elizabeth class carriers into service; the other would be placed in reserve or sold (the review seriously considered cancelling the ships; however, this would have cost more than completing them).

Joint Force Harrier would disband and the RN’s flagship and only operational fixed-wing carrier, Ark Royal, decommissioned.

Four Type 22 frigates would decommission, leaving an escort force of just six destroyers and thirteen frigates.

Three RFA ships would be withdrawn from service.

The RAF’s Nimrod MR4A replacement maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) project was axed.

Trained naval personnel would reduce from 35,000 to 30,000 by 2015.

SDSR stated that by 2020, the Royal Navy would be structured to provide:

Maritime defence of the UK and Overseas Territories, including the South Atlantic.

Nuclear Continuous at Sea Deterrence.

A credible and capable presence within priority regions of the world.

A very high readiness response force and a contribution to enduring land operations [by the Royal Marines].

The review was implemented as hastily as it had been conducted. Ark Royal arrived in Portsmouth on 3 December flying a decommissioning pennant, before being sold for scrap. Joint Force Harrier ceased to be operational on 15 December 2010; its Harriers were sold to the US Marine Corps for spare parts. Redundancy notices were soon being issued to naval personnel.

Critics of the review could take little satisfaction from the government’s discomfort when, in March 2011, it intervened in Libya’s civil war as part of an international coalition, and found that many of the required military assets had already been lost, or were about to be lost. For example, French and Italian aircraft carriers conducted intensive air attacks from positions just off the Libyan coast. Lacking an aircraft carrier, the main British air contribution was a small number of sorties by RAF strike aircraft, flying at considerable cost from bases in the UK and Italy. The decommissioning of the Type 22 frigate Cumberland had to be delayed by two months, as the ship was busy rescuing British and other foreign nationals from Libyan ports.

2014: National Strategy for Maritime Security: Presented by the Secretary of State for Defence in May 2014, this document defined ‘maritime security’ to be ‘the advancement and protection of the UK’s national interests, at home and abroad, through the active management of risks and opportunities in and from the maritime domain, in order to strengthen and extend the UK’s prosperity, security and resilience and to help shape a stable world.’ Building on the NSS, it established five maritime security objectives:

Promoting a secure international maritime domain and upholding international maritime norms.

Developing the maritime governance capacity and capabilities of states in areas of strategic maritime importance.

Protecting the UK, our citizens and our economy by supporting the safety and security of ports and offshore installations and Red Ensign Group-flagged passenger and cargo ships.

Assuring the security of vital maritime trade and energy transportation routes within the UK Marine Area, regionally and internationally.

Protecting the resources and population of the UK and the Overseas Territories from illegal and dangerous activity, including serious organised crime and terrorism.

The strategy only discussed at a very general level how the Royal Navy and other agencies might meet these objectives, and did not consider required funding and force levels. However, it did commit the RN to deploying ships in order to maintain vital trade routes and ensure freedom of navigation, and also to contributing to three military alliances which help deliver maritime security, namely NATO, the EU and Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).


2015: National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review – SDSR 2015: On 23 November 2015, the recently-elected Conservative government published the results of another defence review. This was undertaken in a very different context to 2010. British combat operations had ended in Iraq (2009) and Afghanistan (2014) but new threats had emerged. Russia was re-asserting herself militarily; China had become a substantial naval power and was claiming sovereignty of large parts of the South China Sea; whilst the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was considered a serious threat to UK security. Also, after considerable American pressure, it had been announced on 10 July 2015 that Britain would commit to continuing to spend 2 per cent of its GDP on defence every year until 2020.

SDSR 2015 described how the UK’s armed forces might look in 2025 [above] — for the proposed Royal Navy structure – and sought to plug the worst of the capability gaps created by SDSR 2010. For the RN, there was mixed news. Positively, the review confirmed a decision announced in 2014 that both QEC carriers would, after all, enter service to ensure that one would be continuously available as the core of a maritime task group. More negatively, the previous plan to replace all thirteen remaining Type 23 frigates with the same number of new Type 26 Global Combat Ships was reduced to eight; the cost of the new ships was simply too high. Instead, design studies would begin for a less sophisticated but cheaper general-purpose light frigate, a concept the RN has long resisted. The carrot was that more than five may eventually be built, increasing the size of the escort force.

Other major announcements impacting the RN included:

Confirmation that four ‘Successor’ strategic missile submarines would be delivered, although later than previously planned, as part of renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent.

Planned orders for two additional ‘River’ class patrol vessels, as well as three new logistic support ships for the RFA.

Investigation of the potential for the Type 45 class to operate in a ballistic missile defence role.

Acceleration of purchases of the F-35B Lightning II (selected for the JCA requirement) to ensure twenty-four will be available for carrier operations by 2023.

Planned acquisition of nine P-8 Poseidon MPAs to replace the Nimrods cancelled in 2010.

A slight increase in authorised (trained) personnel numbers to around 30,500 regulars.


  1. 32,500 regulars, including c.7,000 Royal Marines. There are also c. 5,500 reserves, of which around 1,800 are in the RFA.


Main naval air stations (NAS) bases are at Yeovilton & Culdrose. Following the retirement of the Sea Harrier STOVL jets in 2006, front-line fixed wing aircraft operations are carried out jointly with the RAF, with the new F-35B squadrons to be based at RAF Marham. Up to 138 F-35s will ultimately be purchased, with 24 expected to be available for front-line use by 2023. Current main helicopter types are:

AW-101 ‘Merlin’ HM2 sea control helicopters: 30 in service

AW-101 ‘Merlin’: HC4 transport helicopters: 25 being converted to new shipborne standard from RAF HC3 configuration, replacing legacy Sea King types.

AW-159 ‘Wildcat’ HMA2 sea control helicopters: 28 in service or on order. Replacing legacy Lynx HMA8. Additional Wildcat AH1 reconnaissance helicopters drawn from a shared pool.

Additional British Army and RAF Apache attack and Chinook transport helicopters can be embarked as necessary.  Insitu Scan Eagle UAVs are also used. The RAF is to order 9 P-8 maritime patrol aircraft for entry into service from c. 2020 onwards.

The next defence review is expected in 2020.


Force Structure: The current Royal Navy force structure is set out in Table above. The submarine flotilla is focused on four Vanguard class SSBN strategic submarines and seven SSN nuclear attack boats, whilst the force of major surface combatants comprises six modern destroyers and thirteen older frigates. Other key components include an amphibious force built around a helicopter carrier, two LPD amphibious transport docks and three auxiliary LSD dock landing ships (operated by the RFA) and an amphibious infantry brigade that includes three Commandos (battalions) of Royal Marines. The Future Force 2025 described by SDSR 2015 will be very similar with the notable exception of entry into service of the two new carriers Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales from 2017 onwards. This will result in the decommissioning (probably in 2018) of the current helicopter carrier Ocean, whose crew is needed to help man them. The last Invincible class carrier, Illustrious, has already been withdrawn from service, in 2014.

After the closure of numerous establishments in the 1990s and early part of the current millennium, most forces are based at or near the three remaining naval bases at the Clyde, Devonport and Portsmouth. In addition to its presence at its main air stations at Culdrose (HMS Seahawk) and Yeovilton (HMS Heron), the Fleet Air Arm has a growing presence at RAF Marham, from where it will jointly operate the F-35B from 2018.

Organisation: The command and the administrative structures of the Royal Navy had been greatly simplified since the early 1990s. For example, superfluous formations such as frigate and destroyer squadrons have gone, and many senior positions abolished or downgraded. Nevertheless, the RN still receives considerable negative publicity for having more admirals than major warships.

The First Sea Lord & Chief of Naval Staff (1SL) is the professional head of the Royal Navy. Until 1995 he was a 5* Admiral of the Fleet, thereafter a 4* Admiral. 1SL effectively reports to the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) – the professional head of the British Armed Forces and the most senior uniformed military adviser to the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister.

The 1SL is Chairman of the Naval Board, the body having practical responsibility for running the RN. His key lieutenants are the Second Sea Lord (2SL), a 3* Vice Admiral who is responsible for personnel and infrastructure, and the Fleet Commander & Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, a 3* Vice Admiral based at Navy Command Headquarters at Portsmouth.

Accountable to the Fleet Commander is the most senior sea-going post: Commander United Kingdom Maritime Forces (COMUKMARFOR). A 2* Rear Admiral; he will only go to sea for major exercises or combat operations. The two key RN operational formations in the first decade of the millennium were the UK Carrier Strike Group (UKCSG) and the UK Amphibious Task Group (UKATG), each commanded by a 1* Commodore. The UKCSG was disbanded following the elimination of the RN’s strike carrier capability in 2010, with UKATG being renamed the Response Force Task Group (RFTG). However, with the pending entry into service of Queen Elizabeth, the UKCSG organisation was re-established in 2015 and the commander of RFTG reverted to being titled Commander Amphibious Task Group.

Operations: By the start of the twenty-first century, the RN seemed to have successfully reorganised itself from its Cold War tasks. The previous focus on antisubmarine warfare in the North Atlantic had been swept away in favour of expeditionary forces capable of global deployment. Indeed, the RN’s frigates and destroyers were scattered around the world in a manner not seen since the 1960s.

In the immediate aftermath of SDSR 2010, the RN continued to operate at a high tempo. However, this was not sustainable, placing excessive demands on equipment and personnel. The RN has thus retrenched considerably, cutting some commitments altogether (e.g. participation in many standing NATO maritime groups), and making others part-time (e.g. its presence in the West Indies).

Since 1980, the RN has maintained a near continuous presence in the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean, under titles such as Armilla Patrol, Southern Watch and Operation ‘Kipion’. These operations were always considered temporary, so only ad-hoc support arrangements were made. The need for a permanent base in the region was finally recognised in December 2014 when the decision was announced to build the Mina Salman Support Facility in Bahrain, to be named HMS Juffair when completed in 2016. A 1* Commodore is already headquartered in Bahrain to command maritime forces in the region.

The new base will be the home port for four mine-countermeasures vessels, plus a ‘Bay’ class support ship and a repair ship. The base will also be frequently used by other RN assets in the region, typically including a Type 45 destroyer, a Type 23 frigate, a nuclear attack submarine and an RFA replenishment ship. The two escorts regularly participate in maritime security operations such as the multi-national Combined Task Force 150, the NATO-led Operation ‘Ocean Shield’, and the EU-led Operation ‘Atalanta’ – all essentially maritime security and counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa.

Other standing RN commitments include:

One Vanguard class SSBN continuously on patrol, providing the UK’s nuclear deterrent.

One frigate or destroyer at high availability in UK waters (the fleet ready escort).

A frigate or destroyer, with an accompanying RFA support ship, in the South Atlantic.

A patrol vessel (normally Clyde) based in the Falkland Islands.

The ice patrol vessel Protector, on station in the Antarctic region for most of the year.

One ship in the West Indies during the winter hurricane season: in 2015 this was the patrol vessel Severn.

Fishery, economic and maritime security protection duties around the UK.

In addition, the RFTG is exercised annually, usually by a four-month deployment to the Mediterranean.


The RN currently faces many challenges, the most significant of which include:

Maintaining Britain’s Nuclear Deterrent: The current four Vanguard class SSBNs are beginning to shows signs of their age and need replacing. They were due to start decommissioning in 2023 but this has had to be delayed, as the first of four new ‘Successor’ class submarines is not now expected to enter service until the early 2030s. Even this timetable assumes that detailed design and construction work proceeds to schedule.

If the ‘Successor’ project suffers from the lengthy delays that affected the Astute class submarines, there is a serious risk that the RN may eventually be unable to maintain a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.

Lack of Personnel: In October 2015, the Royal Navy had 22,480 trained regular personnel, and the Royal Marines 6,970, for a trained total of 29,450 regulars. There were another 3,030 regular personnel under training. This compares with a total of 35,240 trained personnel in October 2010.

Current manpower levels are insufficient to keep the fleet fully manned; in particular a shortage of 500 engineers badly affected operations during 2015. In smaller branches and specialisations (some with less than a hundred personnel), it is also difficult to maintain training capabilities, a coherent career path, and a reasonable work-life balance. The submarine service is a particular concern; it has become so small that the loss of just a few highly skilled and experienced senior rates and officers could cripple the service. Also new joiners (from commanding officers downwards) no longer have the opportunity to learn the ropes in conventional submarines; they now go straight to billion-pound nuclear submarines.

During the SDSR 2015 deliberations, the RN reportedly requested an extra 2,000 regular personnel, but got around 400, which will be slowly added to the 2015 authorised trained strength of 30,270. In spite of the increasing use of reservists, this may not be enough to stop a difficult situation getting worse.

Creating Carrier Enabled Power Projection: A big challenge facing the RN is regenerating its carrier force by bringing the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers in to service and then using these to deliver the concept of Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP).

CEPP was an idea developed as the RN fought to save the carrier programme from cancellation in SDSR 2010. It shifted the rational for the new carriers beyond their original carrier strike role (operating up to thirty-six JCAs). Instead, it emphasised the flexibility of the Queen Elizabeth class – particularly with regard to operating helicopters and supporting amphibious operations. This has required changes to the design to allow them to embark a substantial military force and operate a mixed air-group comprising both fixed-wing aircraft and multiple rotary-wing types effectively. Prince of Wales will be completed to the revised design, with – presumably – Queen Elizabeth eventually being retrofitted. The operating concept is much closer to that of the US Navy’s LHDs than traditional carrier operations, and represents a huge learning curve for the RN. Although Queen Elizabeth will enter service in 2017/18, she is not expected to be fully operational and able to deliver all aspects of CEPP before 2022.

CEPP presents a number of risks which will have to be managed. Firstly, it is dependent on the continuous availability of a QEC carrier, and the RN will struggle to keep one always fully manned and operational. Secondly, the QEC will be a hugely expensive, high value unit; accordingly escorting and supporting the carriers will dominate future RN operations. Thirdly, CEPP is ‘joint’, its application requires the availability and integration of British Army and RAF assets into embarked operations. Finally, the concept has killed a tentative plan for a low-cost replacement for Ocean, though there will be occasions where a helicopter carrier would offer a more appropriate and cost-effective presence than a Queen Elizabeth-based group. The Queen Elizabeths are now going to have to work closely with amphibious ships such as the Albion class; for reasons as basic as differences in maximum speed this will not be easy. New tactics and operational procedures will have to be developed.

Too few Submarines and Escorts: The RN has too few attack submarines and escorts to meet all the demands placed on the force. Operational studies have repeatedly shown that the RN needs at least eight attack submarines but funding permits only seven. Indeed, there are often only six when a Trafalgar class boat decommissions before its replacement Astute class enters service. The RN currently struggles to deploy even two submarines simultaneously.

The availability of the six Type 45 destroyers is lower than hoped, whilst the availability of the Type 23 frigates is being affected by their life extension programme, involving lengthy refits. No more than five or six escorts can be deployed at the same time – barely enough to meet current commitments. Moreover, a high-value aircraft carrier will need escorting from 2018.

The RN is reluctantly being forced to use patrol vessels for tasks previously fulfilled by escorts. In the long term it is hoped that the new light frigate can be built in sufficient numbers to increase the size of the escort force.

Maintaining the Industrial Base: A Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS) published by the MOD in December 2005 said ‘For submarines we have endorsed, but not yet committed funding for a 24-month SSN build drumbeat … The longer-term surface ship production drumbeat is of the order of one new platform every one to two years.’ This was to prove optimistic.

Table above shows ships ordered in the years 1990 to 2015. It can be seen that these peaked in 2000–1 as the MOD began to implement SDR. Indeed, the proposed construction programme was so large that UK shipyard capacity was expected to be inadequate, and the RAND Corporation was asked to develop a plan to optimise its use. Unfortunately by the time RAND completed their report in 2005, much of the construction programme was already in doubt. Progress continued on the £6.5bn Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier project only by the RN sacrificing almost everything else.

In 2015, despite work on the Queen Elizabeth class winding down, SDSR 2015 delayed the first Type 26 order until 2017. As a stop-gap, the MOD is buying five ‘River’ Batch 2 patrol vessels – three were ordered in 2014, with two more planned for 2016. Capable of world-wide deployment and equipped with a helicopter deck, they are a big step-up from the three Batch 1 ships, which will presumably be sold.

As a result of the lack of RN orders, and a failure to win exports orders, many UK shipyards have closed, most recently the Vosper Thorneycroft (later BAE Systems) facility in Portsmouth in 2014. BAE Systems Maritime – Naval Ships is now the only UK company able to build major warships, with a facility for submarines at Barrow-in-Furness, and two yards in Glasgow (at Govan and Scotstoun) for surface ships. BAE Systems has effectively become a monopolistic supplier, and the MOD is struggling to maintain a UK naval construction capability without paying excessive prices. For example, the MOD has baulked at the price being quoted to it for the Type 26s, and even hinted that it was prepared to order them overseas – a serious threat given the MOD’s landmark order in 2012 for four Tidespring class Fleet Tankers from DSME of South Korea.

UK naval construction has become shaped not by the needs of the RN, but by budgets and what the Treasury considers to be the lowest rate of naval construction rate that will allow BAE Systems Maritime and key suppliers such as Rolls-Royce to survive and thus preserve critical industrial capabilities.

Poor Public Relations: The Royal Navy has suffered from a relatively poor public image in the early part of the twenty-first century. The glory days of appearances in James Bond films, and the 1970s TV series Warship and Sailor are long gone. When the RN does feature in the media, it is often in a negative context: cost overruns, ship groundings, excessive drinking and the like. A particular PR disaster was the seizure by Iran in 2007 of two small boats from the frigate Cornwall carrying fifteen RN/RM personnel; their subsequent parading in the glare of the world’s media was described by Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, then 1SL, as ‘one bad day in our proud 400-year history’. An attempt in 2010 to repeat the success of Sailor with the TV series Ark Royal backfired due to the carrier’s obvious lack of aircraft, and the untimely announcement that she was to be decommissioned as a defence cut.

Perhaps even worse is the lack of naval experience and advocacy in political circles; Minister of State for the Armed Forces Penelope Mordaunt (a Sub-Lieutenant in the RNR) being an important exception. It is also notable that no admiral has held the top post of Chief of the Defence Staff since 2003. One former First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, concluded in a speech he made in October 2011, ‘ … the nation as a whole has forgotten its maritime tradition and nature of existence’. The RN badly needs a high-profile success story. It is also to be hoped that the Queen Elizabeth class will become an impressive symbol of British military power in the same way the carrier Charles de Gaulle has become for France.


The early years of the twenty-first century have been difficult time for the Royal Navy. The UK’s military focus on land conflicts during the period has had a negative impact in terms of funding and, consequently, force levels for the naval service.

However, the security of the UK and its national interests are inextricably linked to the sea. The UK is physically an island nation dependent on seaborne trade; it is the fifth largest economy in the world; it has world-wide interests and commitments; and it wants to remain a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Given these factors, the RN may well have reached its nadir; indeed, the advent of the Queen Elizabeth class carriers may mark the start of a recovery.

The Last Majestic Sailing in Company

A second group of warships followed some 12km behind the vanguard with the battleship Kongo at its heart. She was surrounded by an inner ring of heavy ships – the battleship Haruna and the heavy cruisers Chikuma, Kumano, Suzuya and Tone, with the light cruiser Yahagi fulfilling the same role as the Noshiro did in the first group. An outer circle of six destroyers completed this rear group.

Admiral Halsey, commanding US 3rd Fleet, had decided that the time had come to give Kurita’s Centre Force a searching examination and had sent scout planes out at dawn on 24 October to try to find its whereabouts. It was not certain at this stage that Kurita was intent on reaching the invasion site and doing battle with the US 3rd Fleet. It was just as conceivable that he might be intent on making for Manila Bay to bring reinforcements for the IJA troops on the ground in southern Luzon. Despite the advantages of signals intelligence, the Americans didn’t know for certain where Kurita was headed but the mystery was soon solved when a lone scout plane from the carrier Intrepid made radar contact with these enemy ships at 0746 hours on 24 October. It located them a few minutes later and reported the find at 0810 hours as they were passing south of Mindoro and moving eastwards in the direction of the Sibuyan Sea. Such a route meant only one thing to Halsey. Manila was out of the reckoning and Leyte Gulf was the obvious intended destination. This would be reached by going through the San Bernardino Strait. He ordered all his three task groups to close up and signalled McCain to abandon his trip to Ulithi and rejoin the rest of the task groups in the Philippines. It would take a couple of days to do just that since by this stage McCain and his ships were already roughly 600nm (1111km) east of the Philippines. In their absence, Halsey ordered an all-out attack on the Centre Force. In all a total of 251 planes flew off from his carriers to the Sibuyan Sea in four waves to attack Kurita’s ships. A mix of forty-five Avengers, Hellcats and Helldivers were the first ones to leave the Cabot and the Intrepid at about 0910 hours and they were followed by another forty-two from the same carriers at 1045 hours. A third wave of sixty-eight planes left the Essex and the Lexington within minutes of the second wave getting airborne, while a final group of ninety-six planes from the Cabot, Enterprise, Franklin and Intrepid began their sortie at 1313 hours.

Locating Kurita’s fleet at 1026 hours, the first wave of American planes found the enemy ships sailing in a battle formation notable for the fact that they were divided into two quite separate groups some distance apart. Each of these groups operated on the basis of an inner and outer set of concentric circles. Kurita’s new flagship, the Yamato, lay at the heart of the leading group. She was surrounded by a circle of heavy ships consisting of the super-battleship Musashi, the battleship Nagato, along with the heavy cruisers Chokai, Haguro and Myoko – all of which were spearheaded by the light cruiser Noshiro. Each of these ships maintained a distance of 2km from the Yamato at all times. Beyond this ‘inner’ 2km diameter circle was an outer ring of seven destroyers which maintained their positions a further 1.5km away from the inner core. A second group of warships followed some 12km behind the vanguard with the battleship Kongo at its heart. She was surrounded by an inner ring of heavy ships – the battleship Haruna and the heavy cruisers Chikuma, Kumano, Suzuya and Tone, with the light cruiser Yahagi fulfilling the same role as the Noshiro did in the first group. An outer circle of six destroyers completed this rear group. Kurita had devised this battle formation because he felt he needed better cover against the possibility of any heavy air attack launched by the Americans and trusted that the Japanese A.A. potential was as good in practice as it might be judged on paper. It wasn’t.

Although confusion reigns to this day about just what happened in these air strikes and who did what to whom, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the first strike succeeded initially in both torpedoing Myoko and knocking her out of the line and even more significantly obtaining both a bomb hit and torpedo strike against Musashi, one of the two behemoths in the Centre Force. Each wave thereafter targeted the super-battleship and more bombs and torpedoes struck home with devastating effect over the next few hours. At least thirty-two hits were recorded against her and she received eighteen near-misses before she finally sank at 1935 hours later that same day with the loss of 1,023 officers and crew. All the other battleships, including the Yamato, were bombed as well, but none of them received the treatment accorded to the Musashi, or were disabled even if they were hit. Four hours before Musashi sank, seeing his fleet worn away first by enemy submarines and then by Mitscher’s aircraft, Kurita had decided not to tempt fate any longer and to reverse course temporarily so as not to sail in daylight into the narrow confines of the San Bernardino Strait where his remaining warships could be subject to yet another deadly series of attacks. About an hour after Kurita turned round again and resumed his original course, he received an emphatic signal from Toyoda at 1815 hours that made it very clear where the Vice-Admiral’s duty lay. Attack was the only option and he was instructed to put his faith in divine assistance. Kurita knew what that meant. His presence in Leyte Gulf was essential regardless of what losses his Centre Force sustained in getting there. Abandoning his concentric circle formation, Kurita gathered his remaining ships into what Ugaki would later describe as a ‘compound column’ and pressed on towards his original destination.

Naval Bombardment of San Juan, Puerto Rico

Lithograph depicting the U.S. Navy bombardment of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on May 12, 1898. (Library of Congress)

Event Date: May 12, 1898

Naval bombardment of San Juan, Puerto Rico, by ships of the U.S. North American Squadron on May 12, 1898. Rear Admiral William T. Sampson sailed from Havana, Cuba, to San Juan in search of Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete’s Cádiz Squadron. Sampson’s ships arrived off San Juan in the early morning of May 12 and at 5:20 a.m. commenced a bombardment of Spanish military positions ashore. The American ships made three bombardment circuits. The cruiser Detroit led, followed by the battleships Iowa, Indiana, and New York; the double-turreted monitors Amphitrite and Terror; and the unprotected cruiser Montgomery.

The American warships fired a total of 1,360 shells before they broke off the engagement at 7:45 a.m. The Spanish shore batteries fired only 441 shells in reply. Neither side inflicted much damage on the other. American gunnery was abysmal. A majority of the U.S. shells went long, while others fell short. Probably only 20 percent of the shells hit in the general target area, and many of these failed to explode. In the exchange, the U.S. side suffered some minor damage, 1 man killed, and another 7 wounded. Spanish casualties amounted to 13 killed and perhaps 100 wounded, most of these civilians.

The shelling was controversial, for international law clearly required that noncombatants be warned before such an event, but Sampson claimed that his ships were firing not on the city but on its military installations and thus that no prior notification was required. The shelling made little sense, however. Sampson later justified it as a form of naval reconnaissance to ascertain, as he put it, enemy “positions and strength.” The shelling did serve to provide the American squadron with a baptism of fire. Secretary of the Navy John D. Long was not impressed and was also upset that Sampson had placed his ships at risk by shelling shore installations before he had concluded the pressing matter of locating and destroying Cervera’s squadron.

On May 13, Spanish governor-general of Puerto Rico Manuel Macías y Casado and the island press trumpeted the bombardment as the first Spanish victory of the war, and island merchants distributed food and gifts to the Spanish troops. Sampson, meanwhile, took his squadron to Haiti and then on to Key West, Florida, where he arrived on May 18.

Further Reading Mitchell, Donald W. History of the Modern American Navy: From 1883 through Pearl Harbor. New York: Knopf, 1946. Trask, David F. The War with Spain in 1898. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. West, Richard Sedgwick, Jr. Admirals of American Empire: The Combined Story of George Dewey, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Winfield Scott Schley, and William Thomas Sampson. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1948.

The Mississippi Squadron II

Bombardment and Capture of Island Number Ten on the Mississippi River, April 7, 1862

Colored lithograph published by Currier & Ives, New York, circa 1862.

It depicts the bombardment of the Confederate fortifications on Island Number Ten by Federal gunboats and mortar boats. Ships seen include (from left to right): Mound City, Louisville, USS Pittsburg, Carondelet, Flagship Benton, Cincinnati, Saint Louis and Conestoga (timberclad). Mortar boats are firing from along the river bank.

Captain A. M. Pennock, commandant of the naval station, and Walke of the Carondelet welcomed the new Mississippi Squadron commander. Although no records survive of their first meeting, Porter reportedly found Walke “an active, impatient man” with ideas similar to his own. The squadron needed attention. The army had signed up many recruits at ratings and pay levels higher than they deserved, causing old hands to grumble. Porter would have to ease some of those men out and discharge hundreds who had come down with river fevers. The squadron’s leaky, makeshift vessels were overdue for repairs, and poor conditions aboard had undoubtedly contributed to the number of ill sailors. Clearly, commanding the Mississippi Squadron would be no easy task.

In his cabin on the Benton, Porter assessed the squadron’s resources for fighting the war on western waters and found them wanting. He told the Navy Department he needed more of everything—gunboats, auxiliary craft, artillery, officers, crewmen, and, most of all, river craft suited for narrow, shallow rivers. Porter would retain the city-class ironclads, but to escort convoys and support the infantry, his squadron needed more versatile vessels. To meet Porter’s demands, the navy built dozens of what became known as tinclads, as well as two stern-wheeled monitors, the Neosho and Osage. The navy would also commission three ironclads, the Tuscumbia, Indianola, and Chillicothe, all launched in 1862, and convert the captured Eastport to carry 6.5-inch armor and eight guns. For his flagship, however, Porter chose the 260-foot tinclad Black Hawk, a former luxury cruise boat converted to carry thirteen guns. Never one to pass up an opportunity for amenities, Porter kept the rich wood paneling and chandeliers in the Black Hawk’s officers’ quarters and installed stalls for horses.

Just prior to the change of command, and for weeks afterward, Phelps carried on the squadron’s active operations at Helena. Without Kilty, Stembel, and Paulding, he had only Walke, Winslow, Dove, Bryant, and Thompson as captains. Phelps thought Winslow and Dove inefficient commanders but considered Walke a “fighting captain.” Fortuitously for Phelps, Winslow asked for a transfer, and Phelps managed to replace Dove with Richard W. Meade as captain of the Louisville. Bryant had fallen ill, so the Cairo also received a new captain, twenty-six-year-old Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge Jr. “Received on board Commander Selfridge as our captain,” George Yost wrote on September 12, 1862. “Capt. Bryant being in ill health he was sent home.”

The state of the flotilla’s gunboats appalled Phelps. The Cincinnati had sprung countless leaks, and its engines needed repair. The Carondelet had gone to the yard in Cairo after the engagement with the Arkansas. A survey had found the Louisville in a “disgraceful and dirty condition” and its executive officer, two masters, and surgeons incompetent. The situation in Ellet’s ram fleet was even worse. Disputes were rife, and the rams’ men had taken to plundering, stealing, and luring blacks from plantations. Fortunately, Lincoln realized the ram fleet needed to be under the Navy Department’s command. Consequently, on November 8, 1862, Alfred Ellet was promoted to brigadier general, and his rams were renamed the Mississippi Marine Brigade.

On October 19, with its engines repaired, the Carondelet headed downriver to Helena. It passed Island No. 10 on October 21 and then took on coal at Memphis. Bright and early on October 23, the Carondelet took a pilot on board and, Morison noted, “dropped down amongst the fleet. Came to anchor abreast the city. Here we found Benton, Bragg, Mound City, Louisville, and Cairo.” All the gunboat captains, including Selfridge, the Cairo’s new commanding officer, came on board and visited with Walke. According to Yost, Selfridge had clearly set out to make the Cairo a proper man-of-war with a regular routine. “We drilled considerable to day and I think that our Captain intends to try to soon have the best drilled crew in the fleet,” he wrote in his diary on October 13. “The boat looks much cleaner and nicer now than it ever did before.”

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati had completed repairs at Cairo and had received some new recruits, among them Daniel F. Kemp. On September 16, 1862, Kemp had enlisted in the navy for one year. Rated a landsman, he went by rail to Cairo, Illinois, to the receiving ship Clara Dolsen. Most of the recruits, Kemp recalled, were made guards, as the ship had no marines “to keep the crew in order.” Then, he wrote, “a gunboat came up the river one day. . . . This was the gunboat Cincinnati. We were taken on board the Cincinnati on November 6, 1862.” The new recruits’ first assignment was to take on coal. Kemp observed, “This was a hard, unpleasant job as none of us boys had been used to hard work. However, we were in Uncle Sam’s Navy now, and had to do whatever we were told to do whether we liked it or not. We were getting ready to go down to Vicksburg, and the firemen had to have coal.” Kemp vividly recalled their trip downstream: “We left Cairo one Sunday and started down the Mississippi for our destination, but the river was very low and our progress was very slow, for we had to take soundings quite often so as not to run aground.” The gunboat anchored a short distance from Island No. 10 for several days, due to low water and heavy fog. Then, as the gunboat steamed down the Mississippi, Kemp explained that they “took on board a lot of contrabands, and they were a jolly lot of darkies right from the plantation. They would get together at night and give us a gay old time, a regular plantation jig. The names of their leaders were Alex, Charley, and Black Hawk. Alex would do the patting, and Charley and Black Hawk would do the dancing and the usual shouting and yah yahing.” The Cincinnati continued past Columbus, Hickman, Fort Pillow, Memphis, and Napoleon before arriving at Helena. “We finally reached the fleet, and found anchored there, the Signal, Marmora (Mosquito), Mound City, Carondelet, and Pittsburgh. Also a packet boat and the Lexington, a wooden gunboat.”

The Carondelet had spent the first part of November at Helena, tasked to convoy any vessels running between Memphis and Helena, provided there was sufficient depth of water. Navigating the Mississippi River still proved a challenge, for there was barely enough water for his ironclad boats to move up or down the river, Walke reported to Porter on November 8. He requested any light-draft, armed steamers that were available. He had sent a number of sick sailors to Cairo but cautioned the admiral, “There is still quite a number of officers and men who are very much debilitated by the fever and ague this fall, and I am afraid they will not be fit for duty this winter.”

By the fall of 1862, officials in Washington had grown weary with the lack of progress in the West. Generals Buell and McClellan had been pursuing a style of warfare that reflected their limited war aims. The halting Union advances had prolonged the fighting, and now the president resolved to prosecute the war more aggressively. “The army, like the nation, has become demoralized by the idea that the war is to be ended, the nation reunited, and peace restored by strategy, and not by hard, desperate fighting,” Lincoln said. In late October he replaced Buell with William S. Rosecrans as commander of the Army of the Cumberland, and on November 7 he informed McClellan that Ambrose Burnside would supersede him. Lincoln urged his generals to renew the attack on Vicksburg, which had been delayed by military crises in Kentucky and Maryland and by a Confederate attempt to lever Grant’s forces out of northern Mississippi. Grant had initially declined to renew operations against Vicksburg, citing the need to rebuild railroads in northern Mississippi and Tennessee. In November, however, Lincoln replaced Butler with Nathaniel P. Banks as commander of Union forces in southern Louisiana and gave him the mission of opening the Mississippi River by coordinating an attack on Vicksburg and Port Hudson. Finally, Grant proposed a move south to Grenada, Mississippi, which he expected would engage Confederate forces and enable Sherman to make an amphibious assault downstream from Memphis to Vicksburg.

Naturally, Porter knew the reputation of the man everyone now called U. S., or “Unconditional Surrender,” Grant, but he had never met the general and knew nothing of his plans. One evening, the admiral attended a dinner party on board an army quartermaster’s riverboat. When a man in a rumpled brown coat and gray trousers appeared, the host said, “Admiral Porter, meet General Grant.” The two found a table away from the party guests and sat down. Without fanfare, Grant explained his plan to take Vicksburg. “I need your assistance, Porter,” Grant said, “all you can provide.” Impressed with Grant’s calm demeanor and his determination, Porter pledged his full support for the coming campaign. Then, without taking a bite of supper, Grant rose, clamped down on the cigar in his mouth, and announced he was going to ride back the way he had come.

Back on board the Black Hawk, Porter finalized the squadron’s plans to support Sherman’s expedition up the Yazoo River. Walke, who was now in charge of the Mississippi Squadron’s vessels based at Helena, was given the mission of securing all the landings on the Yazoo where the Confederates could erect batteries, determining the water’s depth, and dragging the river for mines. Porter then sent orders to his commanders to proceed to Helena and report to Walke.

On November 21 Walke, who was still suffering from what he called “Yazoo fever,” received orders to leave for the Yazoo as soon as possible. He was supposed to prevent the erection of batteries at the mouth of the river, or as far as federal guns would reach. If there was insufficient water in the Yazoo for his large vessels, he was instructed to send the Signal and Marmora with some good marksmen to secure a landing for General McClernand’s troops. The admiral also ordered Walke to take all the ironclads at Helena, except for the Benton and the former Confederate Bragg, plus the Lexington and Tyler, and secure control of as much of the Yazoo as possible. “Pick up all the good contrabands you can get, and something may be learned from the most intelligent of them and dispatch it to me,” Porter instructed. He explained that in about ten days he would be pushing downriver with all the light-draft boats he could get finished. Selfridge in the Cairo would be joining Walke at Memphis. The Cincinnati, Pittsburg, and Baron de Kalb, Porter wrote, “will be off on Monday.” With the Carondelet short fifty men, Walke realized he would have to take men from the Mound City and the Benton to fill his complement.

On November 24 the gunboat Marmora arrived with mail, and Morison reported that “dispatches also came in for our captain and immediately all hands were in motion, getting ready for a start down river to Vicksburg.” The next day Walke left Helena in the Carondelet with the Mound City, Signal, and Marmora. The Lexington, led by Lieutenant Commander James W. Shirk, was on its way to Helena with some refugee families. After dropping them off, the Lexington went down to Ashton, Louisiana, destroying every ferryboat it came across. Shirk brought back twenty-four contrabands, all of whom told him “that they are to be free on the 1st of January, but that their owners are getting ready to move them back from the river as soon as possible.” Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would go into effect on New Year’s Day 1863.

The Carondelet headed downstream accompanied by the Marmora and Signal, each towing a coal barge. On Wednesday, November 26, they met the Lexington, which followed them. The next day Morison wrote, “Picked [up] some more ‘contrabands,’ one of them having lived in the woods for over five months. Passed one plantation where all the slaves on it apparently wanted to come off, but being rather short of provisions, had to decline the honor.” The contrabands claimed that rebel troops had gone to Holly Springs and that all the blacks employed there had been sent to work on the forts at Vicksburg, as well as at another fort about forty miles below it.

The federal gunboats came to anchor off Milliken’s Bend at 4:00 p.m. on November 28, and Walke sent an armed boat crew from the Marmora on a tug. “As they landed, some guerillas in the woods fired on them and wounded one of ‘Marmora’s’ officers in the right side.” After this, they kept a lookout for enemy batteries along the shore. When the little flotilla reached the mouth of the Yazoo the next day, Walke sent the Marmora and Signal up to reconnoiter, accompanied by twenty men and the gunner from the Carondelet. The expedition ascended the Yazoo about forty miles but returned after encountering a masked battery. Although they did not engage the enemy battery, “they shelled the woods, thereby driving in the pickets from the river banks and killing a few of them,” Morison explained. They took two prisoners and a contraband on board and “found that the rebs were busy erecting some more batteries down towards the mouth of the river.”

Observing the water level, Walke decided not to take his ironclads up the river; instead, he sent the tinclads Marmora and Signal to sound the river and look for rebel activity. Suspecting rebel guerrillas in the area, Walke then sent a detachment of twenty armed men, under the command of gunner William Beaufort, to the Marmora to protect the crew while they sounded the river. At 2:15 p.m. his suspicions were confirmed when a party of men fired a volley of musketry at the Carondelet from shore. The gunboat immediately replied with four solid shots and two five-second shells.

Lieutenant Robert Getty took the Marmora and Signal up the Yazoo, and at Twelve Mile Bayou guerrillas fired down on the federal gunboats from the high banks. Getty shelled them, and they disappeared. Upon reaching Anthony’s Ferry, some twenty-one miles up the Yazoo, Getty reported, “I was again subjected to a severe and rapid guerilla fire, which was promptly returned with howitzers and rifles, silencing the enemy.” Finally, at Drumgould’s Bluff, Getty found the enemy’s fortifications. He studied them through his spyglass, determined they were indeed formidable, and then steamed back down to the mouth of the Yazoo. In his report to Walke, Getty claimed that his reconnaissance had confirmed the presence of rebel pickets and some cavalry. The guerrillas were active, he told Walke, but the Confederates had no batteries for twenty-three miles up the Yazoo from its mouth.

On December 1 Walke issued special orders to his commanders. He told them to keep a quarter watch during the night and to maintain sufficient steam to work their engines. Should the enemy fire on any of the vessels, the nearest one would fire immediately. If fired upon by a battery or field battery, then all vessels should go to quarters and place themselves in a position to engage the enemy to the best advantage. Recalling the friendly fire taken by the Carondelet after running past Island No. 10, Walke instructed his commanders to engage any enemy gunboat approaching the squadron with their bow guns in the first order of sailing, “being careful not to fire into each other.”

Walke also sat down to write a report to Porter. He informed Porter that the Confederate fort on the Yazoo “was said to be on a very high bluff concealed from view by another high point.” The passage up the Yazoo was clear to the fort, but he noted that “a land force would be needed to capture it.” He told Porter that he really needed more rams and noted, “The rebels have some good, large steamers at Vicksburg, and I suppose they will come out and surprise us, if they can, but I will keep a bright lookout for that. They can not attack us except with rams, or by boarding in the fog with large steamers.” Walke commented that the weather was “quite pleasant” but added that, having been on blockade duty on the Mississippi since September 1861, he would be happy to see the river open again, “as the ague and fever of this country is, like the rebels themselves, obstinate and treacherous.”