The French Navy in the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697)

The action at La Hogue in May 1692 formed a crucial scene in the wider context of the Battle of Barfleur. This was a naval battle of the War of the League of Augsburg [Nine Years’ War], 1689-97, fought between an Anglo-Dutch and a French fleet. It was not finally brought to a conclusion until 24 May in the Bay of La Hogue, in the course of which the French flagship ‘Soleil Royal’ as well as the ‘Triomphant’ and the ‘Admirable’ were burned by the English. The centre of this dramatic scene is occupied by a group of six French ships burning. A seventh is shown burning on the shore. They have been attacked by the boats of the Anglo- Dutch fleet which are also attacking another group of ships further round the Bay of La Hogue, one to the left which is also burning. On the extreme left in the distance the Allied fleet can be seen at anchor. In the right background a third lot of shipping is burning near a town. An odd feature of the picture is that two of the ships in the nearest group wear white flags with a blue cross, a flag associated with 17th century French merchant ships. The painting is signed ‘Diest fe.’ Diest, Adriaen van Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection

Until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England installed William of Orange as King of England, the French Navy had few issues to plan for as the Dutch were only aggressive when France chose to start a war (mainly on land), while the English were allied with France for much of the time. The events of 1688 changed this, uniting the two maritime powers, and for the first time in decades threatening a challenge to the dominant French superpower. Forthwith the role of the French Navy altered from supporting the army in campaigns against the Dutch to safeguarding French commerce against the likely aggression of the combined Anglo-Dutch forces. A building race ensued, while at sea the Navy began its campaign by a successful operation to land and supply the army of King James in Ireland. This culminated in the inconclusive Battle of Bantry Bay in May 1689, an action which led to a formal declaration of war.

France rapidly consolidated its battlefleets, bring the Toulon-based Flotte du Levant around to the Atlantic coast and joining the existing Flotte du Ponant at Brest. By 1690 France was clearly on its way to equalling, if not overtaking, the combined strengths of the allied English and Dutch Navies in the Channel. William of Orange’s priority had been to land his ground forces at Carrickfergus in June 1690, leading to his success in defeating James at the Battle of the Boyne on 11 July. Meanwhile Louis ordered his Vice-Amiral du Ponant, Comte de Tourville, to enter the Channel with his 84 ships (and the 15 galleys under the Chevalier de Noailles).

His initial remit had been to attack the English at Plymouth, Torbay and Portland, and then to attack the enemy’s main base at Portsmouth before proceeding to the Straits of Dover. However, these instructions were later amended by Louis, instructing Tourville to seek out the enemy fleet and do battle wherever the opponents met. A major battle in the Channel (off Beachy Head – known to the French as Béveziers) on 10 July pitted 70 French vaisseaux (plus 5 frégates légeres and 18 fireships) against 34 English and 22 Dutch ships. The English lost only one ship (the 70-gun Anne) while the Dutch lost a total of 7 ships and 3 fireships. While most English ships were undamaged, the majority of the remaining 15 Dutch ships were severely damaged and required dockyard repairs before they could face the French again. The battle demonstrated the capabilities of the French fleet; its victory in that battle gave the French control of the waterway for almost two years.

Seignelay, Colbert’s son and successor, died in November 1690. His replacement, the Comte de Pontchartrain (Louis Phélypeaux), who was also the Controleur général des finances, began by continuing Colbert’s strategy, but lacked Seignelay’s prime interest in the Navy and long awareness of naval affairs. The French naval campaign of 1691 was dominated by the `Campagne du Large’; Pontchartrain’s instructions to Tourville, issued on 26 May 1691, instructed the latter to cruise for three months in the Western Approaches (the entrance to the Channel) and to try to capture the homebound merchant fleet en route from Smyrna (Izmir). The French fleet, comprising 73 ships (plus 21 fireships) sailed from Brest in June and returned in August from this `distant cruise’ without fighting a fleet action, but since 1690 the Allied strength had improved both in quantity (92 ships) and in quality. The French advantage was lost by 1691. In 1692, without waiting for the completion of the major battlefleet units under construction, Louis ordered the fleet’s commander, Comte de Tourville, to put to sea and challenge the Allies, even though the French at that time were numerically inferior to their opponents.

A realisation by Louis soon after of the tactical error came too late, as Tourville had followed his orders, and the countermanding message from Louis failed to arrive in time. The resulting contest off Barfleur resulted in a bruising defeat for the French, even if no ships were lost in the actual battle. The retreating French fleet was split up, with twenty ships making for the safety of Brest, while three heavily damaged ships, including Tourville’s flagship Soleil Royal, were stranded at Cherbourg, while another twelve sailed east and took refuge in the port of La Hougue. All fifteen were boarded and set on fire a few days later by the Allies.

The losses sustained to the battlefleet at Cherbourg and at La Hougue, while not in themselves catastrophic (French construction was able to fill the gaps with even more powerful 1st and 2nd Rank ships) had significant tactical and strategic consequences. The fact that the destruction at La Hougue had been carried out by ships’ boats rather than by fireships convinced the French that building new fireships was a waste of resources; those on order or projected were cancelled, and on the limited occasions France employed fireships thereafter, they were always converted purchases or prizes.

Notwithstanding the major efforts to achieve battlefleet superiority until 1692 (which ironically would have achieved success by 1694 if continued), Louis XIV was always more concerned with continental strategy than maritime dominance, and Pontchartrain’s views were closer to the King’s than Colbert’s and Seignelay’s commercial and naval strategy. During the financial crisis of 1693-94, Pontchartrain ceased ordering large battlefleet units, and in October 1693 wrote to the intendants at each major dockyard to tell them that no new battlefleet vessels were to be begun, although those already building could continue. The procurement strategy turned instead to vessels which – together with French privateers – could disrupt English and Dutch commerce. Indeed, as part of this strategy, a considerable number of battlefleet units were loaned out to partnerships put together for privateering on a strictly commercial basis. While causing concern in the allies’ mercantile interests, this was never enough to affect the outcome of the war.

Moreover, it was now realised that France’s strength in naval construction could be undone if their Ponant and Levant Fleets were kept separate. Initially, the allies maintained a posture of concentrating warships in the Channel, to ward off invasion attempts and control commerce, a strategy held since Elizabethan times; this left France, even with its (temporarily) reduced naval strength, in control of the Mediterranean. William III adopted a policy, against the urging of his Council and naval commanders, that would challenge France in Mediterranean waters and – more importantly – would deter any attempt to deploy the Levant Fleet northwards. He dispatched an Anglo-Dutch fleet (under Adm John Berkeley and Lt-Adm Philips van Almonde) into the Mediterranean in 1694, and ensured that it wintered there – in Cadiz Bay, where an English base was established to shelter and repair the fleet. As a consequence, the Levant Fleet was confined to port at Toulon, or at best able to operate in the Western Mediterranean only. And as a result, maintaining control of the Straits of Gibraltar became a permanent aim of the English.

Pontchartrain’s son, Jérome Phélypeaux, the new Comte de Pontchartrain, was awarded the survivance of his father’s office three years later. When Louis de Ponchartrain received the top-ranking position of chancelier de France (Minister of Justice), Jérome in September 1699 became Secretary of State for the Navy, but with only the mere addition of the portfolios of the Colonies, the Sea Fishing, the Maritime Trade and the Consulates: therefore, he was to become the politically weakest Secretary of State for the Navy of the reign.


The Century of The Rise of Navies

The ‘Royal Prince’ and other Vessels at the Four Days Battle, 1–4 June 1666

The seventeenth was the century of the rise of navies.

At the start of the century the commercial exclusivity upon the great waters attempted by Portugal and Spain was already gone. The determining race for power and mastery upon the seas had begun, with the Iberians already seen as the weakening participants in the race against the swiftly rising powers of England, Holland and France. Navy had not yet resolved into any firm concept of permanent standing navies. War at sea depended upon any existing warships being hastily supported by armed merchantmen.

Sea fighting itself remained in its brawling infancy still heavily influenced by galley fighting. Nowhere had there yet arrived any firmly defined tactical rules for sea battle manoeuvre, or set rules governing use of sail and wind in battle. Much less were there sustained ideas embracing grand oceanic strategy. Ocean was still too large a vision for comfortably adjusted existence in most Western minds, which were yet too obsessed with the religious convulsions of Europe to be seriously distracted by a goal still too abstract. Terrestrial conflict was the principal menace. Military power, land fighting and armies, therefore naturally remained the predominant concern, diminishing the role of navies and their professional evolution. But since the struggles on land were seldom far removed from the Atlantic coasts or the Narrow Seas of north-western Europe, the Channel and the North Sea, it was in those confined waters that Western naval development had to find its evolution.

All of Europe was convulsed by the last great surge of religious and dynastic upheaval at the heart of which burned the bitter enmity between Bourbon France on the one hand and the alliance of the Hapsburgs of Austria and Spain on the other. Europe was plunged into crisis, and from crisis into prolonged war. The conflict that raged from 1618 to 1648 became known as the Thirty Years War, more cruel and savage than anything so far.

Out of that bloody upheaval would emerge a new Europe, and with it new and different concepts of naval strategy. The Thirty Years War might well be regarded as the signal period that delivered naval strategy to the Western mind, bringing with it the concept that the deployment of naval power could seriously hamper or affect the battle fortunes of the land, and with it the fate of nations and the destiny of empires. And it restored the Mediterranean to a central role in Western maritime history.

It was with France, however, under Louis XIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, that the strongest effort to restructure naval power was begun. He laid down a programme for a fleet of some forty major warships, half of them 34-to 40-gun ships. But Richelieu’s greatest contribution may have been his innovating establishment of the principle of a navy on two seas, with an Atlantic fleet at Brest and a Mediterranean force at the new naval base he established at Toulon. France’s own Mediterranean naval strategy was thereby set in motion, with dramatic impact when France finally entered the Thirty Years War in 1635.

Richelieu had seen his new base at Toulon as a key to defeat of the powerful Austro-Spanish armies that were fighting the Dutch in the Lowlands and the Germans east of the Rhine and would be fighting the French along their own German frontiers once France became fully involved. Richelieu’s surprising and original strategy centred upon Toulon as a means of cutting Spanish supply and reinforcement of its armies inside Europe. For Spain the shortest route for maintaining her armies inside the Continent was from Corunna up through the Narrow Seas to the Spanish enclave of Dunkirk and on to the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium). But that had become impracticable. The Dutch with their experienced and belligerent navy controlled the Narrow Seas.

Denied the direct supply route through the Narrow Seas Spain’s alternative route of reinforcement and supply had to lie through Genoa. From there they passed to Milan and thence through various Alpine passes to the valley of the Rhine. Toulon became Richelieu’s base for cutting communication between Spain and Genoa, thereby undermining the whole Spanish-Austrian campaign inside the Continent. That shift of the Brest fleet to Toulon initiated the great strategic deployment that would prevail in French naval policy in the future as it shifted fleets to match requirement: if not Brest to Toulon, then Toulon to Brest. Toulon became a name, a strategic determinant, to be coupled eventually with that of Gibraltar. The two were to become the opposing points of critical strategic command in the western basin of the Mediterranean. From the Straits to the Italian peninsula they would create a maritime reach of ‘transcendent importance’ where, in Mahan’s memorable words, preponderant naval power determined gigantic issues, swaying the course of history again and again in successive wars of that century and thereafter when ‘it was not chiefly in the clash of arms, but in the noiseless pressure by the navies, and largely in the Mediterranean, that the issues were decided’.

In the Thirty Years War the western Mediterranean thus assumed a new significance in the power struggles of Europe that it was never to lose.

In reply to the French example Charles I set out to match Richelieu’s naval construction programme, the controversial expense of which was to contribute to the circumstances that cost him his crown and his life. The British navy’s real future was moulded by his usurpers. For revolution, civil war and regicide in England were to deliver a wholly new concept of navy and naval administration. New ideas and new commitment were infused by the rigorous military minds that had come to control England’s reconstituted Commonwealth destiny.

For the British, Oliver Cromwell and his soldier-generals fathered the modern navy. Cromwell delivered to the quarterdecks of a new fleet of ships military commanders, colonels who were called generals-at-sea, some of whom were to establish themselves in the front rank of Britain’s greatest sailors. It was these soldiers who set the English navy on its evolutionary course towards its greatness in the century ahead, and who by deciding that universal supremacy at sea was the navy’s rightful goal helped to mould the particular prowess that went towards ensuring its achievement.

The unique distinction of Cromwell’s sailoring soldiers was that they were to combine pride of seamanship with drilled military efficiency and crisp tactical command, without imposing any distinction of land commanding sea, which remained the inclination of the French and the Spanish. With Cromwell there finally arrived the full commitment to a standing navy. The established tradition of composing a navy in an emergency by hurriedly arming merchantmen was abandoned. A standing navy meant ships built by the state and maintained by it only for naval purposes, the principal of which became defence of commerce. For Julian Corbett no change in English naval history was greater or more far-reaching than that. ‘It was no mere change of organisation; it was a revolution in the fundamental conception of naval defence. For the first time protection of the mercantile marine came to be regarded almost as the chief end for which the regular navy existed, and the whole of naval strategy underwent a profound modification in English thought…the main lines of commerce became also the main lines of naval strategy…what they were really aiming at was the command of the sea by the domination of the great trade routes and the acquisition of focal points as naval stations.’

The Dutch, with their command of Europe’s carrying trade and their expanding colonial empire across the world, had shown the way, notably with their seizure of the Cape of Good Hope. Their squadrons were protectively posted wherever their trade moved. And it moved everywhere, nourishing the wealth of their tiny state. The example was too powerful to be ignored.

A new class of warship had emerged, the frigate, small, fast-sailing, flush-decked ships that originated from the dockyards at Dunkirk where design was affected by the demands for the privateering vessels built and stationed there. Frigates were among the first ships ordered for the Commonwealth navy, whose reconstruction had passed from the hands of politicians to professionals. Aboard the new wooden walls pay and conditions for sailors were improved.

After the turmoil of the Thirty Years War the Dutch republic, the now wholly independent United Provinces, might have seemed to be the natural ally of the English military republic. But the mercantile strength and naval power of the Dutch had aroused both the ire and the envy of Cromwell’s Commonwealth.

Released from the burden of war, Holland was left free to concentrate upon the accumulation of wealth and power from its vast mercantile resources. Its merchant fleet totalled ten thousand vessels employing 168,000 seamen. England scarcely possessed a thousand merchantmen. The carrying trade of most of Europe, from the Baltic to the Levant, and including much of England’s, was with the Dutch. They now had the monopoly of the eastern trade, having seized many of Portugal’s Asian possessions. They held the monopoly of trade with Japan. Their colonial possessions in the East extended from India to include Ceylon and the whole of the Indonesian archipelago. They had colonies in West Africa, South America and, notably, held New Amsterdam in North America. In 1652 they seized the pivotal point of east–west trade, the Cape of Good Hope. Backing them was a strong navy led by experienced seamen.

All of this Cromwell was driven to challenge, despite a desire for a compact between the Protestant states as a caution against the rising power of France.

By 1653 England was at war with the Dutch, the first of three wars that would follow in quick succession before the end of the century. With Spanish sea power now in permanent decline, the English–Dutch wars represented the beginning of the final process of elimination between the three surviving naval powers, Holland, England and France, for command of the sea.

These Anglo-Dutch wars were radically different from any that preceded them, the real beginning of modern naval warfare. They changed the tactical and strategic character of naval war and rivalry, being sea war between equals, between sailors of the highest professional proficiency and commitment, and fought within a confined sea space that demanded exceptional tactical skill.

With these wars mercantilism had arrived in full, determining manifestation. It would be the motor of a new age of oceanic commercial rivalry dedicated to ruthless elimination of opponents. Mercantilism was the conviction that oceanic commerce compelled narrow self-interest, the need to overtake or drive out rivals in trade and colonial possession, and to deny access wherever profits were greatest, particularly in the East and the Caribbean. Mercantilism was the fever that had developed naturally and ever more rapaciously through the seventeenth century as sea power diversified and the Dutch, the English and the French as well as others began intruding upon Spain and Portugal’s attempts at global exclusivity. Elizabethan piracy and privateering had been mercantilism’s first offspring. Established naval power became the next.

This first of the Dutch wars was an uneven affair. It saw the rise of the foremost of the Dutch admirals, Tromp, de Ruyter and de Wit. They were opposed by the British commander in chief Robert Blake and a new general seconded to the navy, General George Monck. It was a war in which the English and the Dutch were evenly matched in strength and seamanship. But by concentrating on control of the vital approaches to the Dutch coast the English cut off Dutch trade and brought Holland near to ruin. It was left to Cromwell in 1654 to allow a generous peace, for fear of wholly ruining a potential Protestant ally against France.

The Western world had come to yet another point of pivotal change. Cromwell died in 1658. In 1660 Charles II was restored to the English throne. A wholly different Europe had arisen from the destruction of the Thirty Years War. The chaotic age of religious tumult and its savage wars was over. Spain, the source of so much of it, was in rapid and permanent decline. The power of the Austrian Empire too was crippled. Hapsburg Austria, humbled by the defeat of its overambitious lunge for Continental power, now found itself facing an ambitiously ascendant France to the west and to the east continuing assaults against its empire from the Ottoman Turks.

In France Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, set out to transform France’s naval power and character as profoundly as Cromwell had changed that of England. When Colbert took office in 1661 he visualized a huge navy of ships ranging from twenty-four to 120 guns. In 1664, as Colbert’s vast naval programme was being laid out, the Dutch and English were again at war. The English peremptorily seized New Amsterdam, or New York as we now know it. There was no quibbling about motive. General Monck laid it out bluntly: ‘What matters this or that reason? What we want is more of the trade which the Dutch now have.’ This short war stands as one of the most significant in naval history.

The circumstances were different from the last. The Commonwealth Navy was now Charles II’s ‘Royal Navy’, with his brother, the Duke of York, the future James II, as Lord High Admiral of England. Restoration had brought demoralizing factional tensions within the navy. But Monck, who had helped organize the king’s return from exile, was still afloat, commanding the larger division of the battle fleet, with Prince Rupert, the Duke of York’s cousin, the other division.

The war was fought in the Narrow Seas and essentially settled through three battles, which together defined basic naval tactics for the next hundred years. For it was this war that made visible, clearly and distinctly for the first time, that grand vision of two battle fleets passing parallel in strict line of battle while firing broadsides at one another: the Line. Naval warfare had so far lacked any clear directional control. In action the impulse was towards melee with the ships of the various squadrons breaking off into individual engagement. Clear, firm instructions covering the movements of a fleet in action were yet to emerge. But Cromwell’s soldier-admirals, with their rigorous military minds, had made the first serious effort to approach naval battle formation and tactical strategy as a matter of ordered, scientific procedure that required strict compliance. Their instructions were issued in 1653 during the first Dutch war. One of these was that ‘all the ships of every squadron shall endeavour to keep in line with the chief, unless the chief be…disabled…Then every ship of said squadron shall endeavour to keep in line with the admiral, or he that commands in chief next unto him…’ That battle code was amplified in 1666 by the Duke of York, who strengthened the instructions for keeping the line. But it was only towards the end of this second war that the line made its first full appearance before a surprised maritime world. It did so with one of the greatest battles in naval history: the Four Days Battle in the first week of June 1666.

Mahan described the battle as ‘the most remarkable, in some of its aspects, that has ever been fought upon the ocean’. Certainly nothing was ever to match it for horror and endurance: four days of near ceaseless fighting, seven thousand dead, nineteen ships lost. Only at Jutland in 1914 would Britain suffer as severely.

The fleets were huge, the English with some eighty ships, the Dutch with around one hundred. Fought in the Narrow Seas, in the waters bounded by Dover and North Foreland and Calais and Dunkirk, the action veered indecisively from one coast to the other over four days until it exhausted itself, with the Dutch admiral de Ruyter having the better of the English in the final action. The loss of the English over the four days was the greater of the two, with five thousand killed and three thousand taken prisoner. They lost seventeen ships. The Dutch lost two thousand men and two ships. The English had had the worst of it but it was de Ruyter who preferred to withdraw before carrying it into a fifth day.

The courage of the English was the more remarkable for the fact that the Royal Navy under Charles was in a poor state. There was no money. The sailors were hungry, rations were short. Pay was years in arrears. Maintenance aboard ship and on shore had been low. Those conditions had induced some three thousand English and Scottish sailors to sell their services to the Dutch. Shamelessly and derisively they had shouted their dollar price to their brothers from the decks of the Dutch ships.

What the battle would always stand for above everything else was its vivid display of the new tactic of line. General Monck had at the start signalled for ‘line of battalia’. The close-hauled ‘line’ thereafter was performed with a skill and perfection that hardly suggested its novelty. One French observer, the Comte de Guiche, marvelled at the admirable order of the English. Nothing equalled their order and discipline, ‘leading from the front like an army of the land’.

Line represented the final rejection of the lingering influences of galley fighting. Right into the Four Days Battle the Dutch, like all others, still preferred that for battle their ships should continue sailing in line abreast, as galleys did, with consequent melee. But with the English the primacy of the big gun had become established and they had come to put emphasis upon their broadsides, which for maximum effect meant that gunfire should be positioned directly opposite the enemy, a beam of it, that is, parallel to it, unloading shot at its rigging and into its sides.

Why would the seemingly obvious have taken so long to evolve? The idea of line was, nevertheless, old. The first suggestion of it had shown in fighting instructions prepared by Sir Edward Cecil, one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s commanders in the fleet Raleigh took to Guiana in 1617. Cecil suggested that in action the whole fleet should follow the leading ship ‘every ship in order, so that the headmost may be ready to renew the fight against such time as the sternmost hath made an end, by that means keeping the weather of the enemy, and in continual fight until they be sunk…’ But the concept received little favour. Fighting instructions for a fleet remained vague or absent. By 1618, however, it was plainly recognized that sea fighting had changed from all times before. A Commission of Reform had described the demise of galley traditions by reporting that ‘sea fights in these days come seldom to boarding, or to great execution of bows, arrows, small shot and the sword, but are chiefly performed by the great artillery breaking down masts, yards, tearing, raking, and bilging the ships, wherein the great advantage of His Majesty’s navy must carefully be maintained by appointing such a proportion of ordnance to each ship as the vessel will bear’.

There were sound reasons for line of battle by the time of the Dutch wars. The sizes of navies and of ships were both at a stage of rapid growth. Greater size of fleets brought forward the problem of battle confusion. The smoke and melee arising from a denser concentration of ships locked in battle than in former times made signals and instruction more difficult during action. Huge opposing fleets produced intensive close action on a scale never before experienced. This demanded order upon confusion.

The second Dutch war expired with a peace in which Britain acknowledged the supremacy of Holland in the East Indies but retained New York and New Jersey, thereby joining all her colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America. It was an outstanding prize for a war in which Britain could by no means claim to have been entirely victorious. The greatest gift of the war, however, was line, shared by all.

Although the rest of the seventeenth century was convulsed by the dynastic and military upheaval that accompanied the domineering ascent of Louis XIV, it offered nothing to naval development. France had now been raised to the height of the new power assembled for her by Colbert. Louis XIV wanted sea power, colonial empire and dominance of oceanic trade. France looked set for an eventual challenge to English ambition in all of that. But by focusing on the Continental domination Louis forfeited what Colbert was striving for on his behalf.

The final quarter of the sixteenth century saw Europe convulsed by its greatest sequence of dynastic wars, the last of which, the War of the Spanish Succession, changed the map of Europe and colonial possession.

The sickly Spanish king, Charles II, a Hapsburg, had died and in his will declared Louis XIV’s seventeen-year-old grandson Philip, the Duke of Anjou, to be his heir, possessing an undivided Spanish empire. Louis XIV began to rule Spain from Versailles on behalf of the adolescent Philip of Anjou, now Philip V of Spain. For England and Holland France’s command over all Spanish possessions became intolerable provocation. On 15 May 1702, England, Holland and Austria declared war on France. This war, like its immediate predecessor, was also to be a war of land battles, marked by an absence of notable naval action, except for a single battle at the very end.

The Duke of Marlborough, in charge of the combined English and Dutch forces, demanded a strong Mediterranean squadron to go out to seize Toulon. The response by Sir George Rooke, the admiral appointed to command the Mediterranean squadron, was obstructive. When early in 1704 Rooke unavoidably found himself in the Mediterranean his performance initially was dismal. He made no show at Toulon. The French fleet there under Admiral Comte de Toulouse had been reinforced by the fleet from Brest. Rooke felt that the combined fleet was too powerful for his squadron and retreated towards the Straits of Gibraltar where, peremptorily, as if to compensate for the lack of anything to show before he returned home, he seized Gibraltar, on 23 July 1704. That brought Toulouse with his Toulon fleet down in an effort to recapture the Rock. He met Rooke off Malaga. This, the only naval battle of the war, was hard but indecisive. The combatants drifted apart and made no further contact, which was just as well since Rooke had used up all his ammunition.

The Treaty of Utrecht concluded the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 and, in addition, gave England the island of Minorca where Port Mahon provided a key base from which to operate against Toulon. England’s Mediterranean situation gained further advantage under Utrecht as Spain lost Sicily and Naples to Austria, with Sardinia going to another ally, Savoy. This meant further strategic limitation upon France and its navy within the Mediterranean. Austria acquired the Spanish Netherlands, which for England removed the fear of France on the Scheldt and the North Sea coast. As icing upon the cake of prizes England had Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Hudson’s Bay ceded to her by France. The war had been as costly to Britain as to the others, yet she had emerged from it wealthier than before, her trade flourishing and her credit unsurpassed.

With France, however, the situation was bleak. Regardless of her immense domestic resources, she was in a state of ruinous depression. Reconstruction of the country’s naval and economic fortunes required a long peace. Holland was the worst off. Her naval strength and commerce had suffered badly from the war, the cost of which had drained her wealth. She would never recover the commercial supremacy of the past two centuries.

England had now become Great Britain: the union of England and Scotland in 1707 had made it so. Usage of ‘England’ would now begin to fall away in official though less so in common use. A new dynasty occupied the English throne. Queen Anne died in 1714 and was succeeded by the Hanoverian George I.

Britain could with much satisfaction review the evolution of her own maritime accomplishments after such a tumultuous century. A standing, professional navy was solidly established.

For all, a powerful new stream of history had begun to flow, and mingled with it a different sense of the underlying power and significance of naval strength.

Italian Navy 1940

Of the various design teams from the subordinate powers that were pressed into action around the globe, arguably none managed to produce a range of vessels under the treaty limits with more flair and panache than the Italians. Encouraged by the fascist dictatorship that Mussolini had erected after becoming prime minister in October 1922, the Italian Navy needed no second bidding to create something of a stir in the Mediterranean. Apart from the appearance of their ambitious 10,000-ton cruisers – TRENTO and TRIESTE – in 1927, units of the new light `condottieri’ type Giussano class (5,110 tons) were achieving sea trial speeds of roughly 40 knots by 1930 without sacrificing armaments to do so. Their new destroyers were soon going even faster, even though they were notoriously poor sea keepers and rolled viciously in bad weather. Speed was, of course, an extremely useful asset for any vessel to have at her disposal, but better protection for her crew was imperative if she was to be combative as well as swift and be able to make any lasting impression on those that she would be employed against.

Wartime shortages and the British blockade had made the situation critical in some areas even during Italy’s nine months of “non-belligerence.” In January 1940 the nation had possessed only twelve days’ worth of coking coal for blast furnaces (which suffered damage if allowed to go out), and some individual facilities had access to no more than a single day’s supply in reserve. The situation could only grow worse as the war progress, and Italy moved from being a bystander to being a participant, with the much greater consumption of strategic materials implied therein. By the summer of 1943 Germany had provided the Italians with some forty million tons of coal, one of the few areas in which their allies largely kept their economic agreements. The Germans had also supplied the Italians with 2.5 million tons of various metals during the same period, but even this was not enough to prevent key factories in Milan and Torino from reporting, in 1942, that for every five hours worked they stood another hour idle for lack of raw materials. Oil remained an even greater problem area. By a careful policy of purchasing abroad and stockpiling during the pre-war years, the Italian Navy had managed to amass some 1,800,000 tons of oil in reserve by June 1940. At a projected wartime consumption rate of 200,000 tons per month for full operations, that would be the equivalent of nine months’ supplies. The Army and the Air Force were in much worse shape, each having access to about 100,000 tons of petroleum products (including lubricants). Although the needs of these latter two services did not approach the prodigious thirst for bunker oil of the Navy’s big ships, their holdings nonetheless amounted to no more than a few months’ supplies. Essentially, the Army and Air Force had managed to stockpile just enough to survive the short war Mussolini predicted in late May 1940, and nothing more. The Army’s situation was so bad that in 1939, when the first Italian armored divisions were formed, and deployed to their defensive home stations, none of these units had access to enough fuel for more than 120 miles’ driving. As war approached the Army had undertaken plans for establishing and stocking large fuel depots in North Africa, a perhaps rather rare piece of strategic foresight which would have proved immensely helpfull to the Axis cause in that theatre had it been implemented. But in the face of the climate of scarcity described above this kind of planning represented little more than wishfull thinking, and Italian as well as German motorized units in the desert were to suffer severe fuel shortages which by the second half of 1942 came to seriously hamstring even their tactical capabilities. During the war overall Italian oil imports fell to one-fifth of the country’s normal peacetime usage! In spite of its own energetic preparations, the Navy, which had much higher consumption rates, was the service which was hit the hardest by this drought in liquid fuels. The Regia Marina, which had eaten up a good share of the pre-war military budget (each new battleship cost roughly 850 million lira, for example), was probably the best-equipped branch of the Italian armed forces. The Italian Navy had its share of serious technical shortcomings and difficulties, primarily its unpreparedness to fight an air-sea war, lacking radar, aircraft carriers, or an air force of its own. Still, the Italian battle fleet boasted some impressive ships. The two brand-new Italian battleships, the LITTORIO and the VITTORIO VENETO, were among the best in Europe when they went fully operational in August 1940. At 41,000 tons, they each mounted nine 381-mm/15-inch guns, managed a remarkable speed of 30 knots (equivalent to roughly 34.5 mph), and were very well protected, as both ships demonstrated by surviving hits of all kinds– torpedoes, shells, bombs, even rocket-propelled glider bombs– during the war. They were also among the best-engineered battleships in the world at the time of their introduction, and proved fairly efficient for their size. The Italians also had four small battleships (CAVOUR, CESARE, DORIA, and DUILIO), which dated back to the First World War, but had all since been modernized and up-gunned. (The improvements involved removing one 305-mm/12-inch gun turret, boring out the ten remaining guns to 320-mm/12.6-inch calibre, and modifying the remaining turrets to permit the guns a greater elevation. The ships also received new engines, giving a top speed of 28 knots, and additional protection below the waterline, the latter upgrade however proving insufficient, as single torpedo hits sank the DUILIO and the CAVOUR at Taranto). The Regia Marina could in addition deploy seven modern heavy cruisers, all armed with eight 203-mm/8-inch guns, four of which (TRIESTE, TRENTO, BOLZANO, GORIZIA) were very fast (35 knots or more) but lightly armored for their size, and the other three (ZARA, POLA, FIUME) of normal speed (32 knots) but somewhat better protected. The Italian Navy had sizeable fleets of light cruisers (many of them remarkable for their high speed), destroyers, smaller destroyer escorts, and submarines, with a fair percentage of modern designs in all these categories. But as the war progressed, lack of fuel began to drastically curtail the Navy’s very ability to operate. As mentioned, the Italian naval command estimated wartime needs at about 200,000 tons of oil per month. This meant a nine-month supply at the start of hostilities. However, when war was declared the Navy was immediately forced to turn over 300,000 tons from its own stocks for Air Force and civilian usage. With France tottering and the British ground forces already fled from the continent, Mussolini was at this stage gambling on a short war. When the conflict dragged on much longer than the Duce had confidently predicted, the Regia Marina was forced to scale back its actual consumption to 90,000 tons per month, then to 60,000 tons. This was reaching an absolute base level, however, since the crucial convoys to North Africa, which the Italian Navy made its top operational priority throughout the war, in themselves required about 175,000 tons of fuel every three months, if they were to be properly escorted. Vigorous British opposition made the provision of such escorts imperative, but if the Italians were to continue putting their full efforts into the convoy activities on the level demanded, there would be virtually no fuel left for anything else. And, indeed, by the second half of 1942 even submarine sorties were curtailed by fuel shortages, so that only a small percentage of the boats in operational condition were able to actually deploy on war patrols (for instance, of 55 boats theoretically available to attack Allied shipping to French North Africa after the “Torch” landings in November 1942, less than a dozen subs were actually used for these missions due to lack of fuel). The crisis became so acute for the surface vessels that as early as spring 1942 the Italians had to resort to pumping fuel out of their battleships and cruisers, leaving the big ships immobilized in port, in order to keep the vital escorts running. Likewise, in 1943 Italian mine-laying efforts also came to a virtual halt, as even these small vessels were emptied of their fuel to permit continued operations by the escort craft. The severe shortages had, of course, all kinds of operational ramifications, none of them good from the Italian point of view. After June 1942, when the mere fact of their sortie forced a British convoy to Malta to turn back, the battleships were essentially confined to port due to lack of fuel– they would not come out again until Italy surrendered, and they dashed to Malta to give themselves up. Training throughout the fleet suffered as well, and in fact had been cut back due to fuel shortages even in the pre-war years. Practically all of the oil the Italians received during the war came from Romania, either directly in the Italian purchase of the scanty amounts still up for sale outside of the German-Romanian trade agreement, or indirectly through the Germans. In Axis joint planning, their German allies undertook to fulfill the Italian Navy’s needs (at the Merano naval conference and thereafter), but the Germans proved woefully unable to keep their promises in this matter. By the spring of 1943, by which time the Regia Marina’s own stocks had long been completely exhausted, the Italian Navy in one month received from its allies only 24,000 tons. The “paralysis” of the Italian fleet many non-Italian authors complain about was obviously at least as much a matter of material than of psychology.

When the Italians joined the war on the side of the Axis on 10 June. 65 Although four of its six battleships were not immediately operational, the Regia Marina Italiana (Royal Italian Navy) still had seven heavy cruisers, fourteen light cruisers, sixty-one destroyers, 144 torpedo boats and 117 submarines at its disposal from the outset. As such, its deployment in the Mediterranean and the Aegean was bound to complicate the Allied war effort in these seas and through its active presence in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean potentially compromise the safe operation of the Suez Canal as well. Dudley Pound and his trusted VCNS Tom Phillips certainly believed that with the French Navy apparently out of the equation, the Italians could make things very uncomfortable for the British in the Mediterranean. While they were in favour of withdrawing the fleet from Alexandria, neither Churchill nor his combative C-in-C Mediterranean, Admiral Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham, would hear of it. Churchill’s fervent support for an active presence in the Mediterranean was crucial in convincing the COS to endorse the decision to retain the Alexandria base for the time being. This left Cunningham with a fleet that was certainly capable of holding its own in the Eastern Mediterranean, but whose scattered units looked acutely vulnerable at both Malta and Gibraltar without substantial French support and with the Spanish dictator General Franco weighing up the option of abandoning neutrality in favour of joining the Axis Powers as Hitler and Mussolini fervently wished he would.

It was with unalloyed relief that both Cunningham and Somerville put their recent confrontations with the French behind them and sought to take the fight to their real enemy – the Italians – in the Mediterranean during the next few weeks. An initial 105-minute engagement between the two fleets took place off the southeast coast of Calabria during the afternoon of 9 July. Although indecisive, the Battle of Punta Stilo demonstrated that Admiral Inigo Campioni’s capital ships were fast and were well supported by light forces that had `outnumbered, outgunned and outranged’ Cunningham’s own cruisers. When the numerical advantage enjoyed by the Italians in all types of aircraft was also factored in, Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet looked decidedly shorthanded and desperately in need of a modern carrier if it was do something more than merely hold its own in these waters. Churchill wanted much more than a mere stalemate in the Mediterranean and was prepared to support the call for reinforcements to be sent to Alexandria so that the fight could be taken to the Regia Marina. His enthusiasm for doing so was heightened by the action off Cape Spada (Crete) on 19 July and in the Gulf of Bumbah (off Tobruk) on the following day when a mixture of Allied warships and carrier aircraft got much the better of the Italians. What these three encounters in July revealed was an underlying inconsistency in the performance levels of the Italian Navy. While it could be good on occasion, it could also be demonstrably lame on others. It was a mercurial condition that afflicted the other services too, and left both friends and enemies alike wondering just what to expect from the Italians in the war.

Although it was tempting for those in Whitehall to dismiss the bombastic Mussolini as a preposterous poseur and his military as more of a liability than an asset to the Axis cause, the fact was that both were still perfectly capable of complicating the strategic picture for the British and they demonstrated this art to perfection by invading British Somaliland at the beginning of August. Once again the British were forced to retreat and conduct the latest of their series of evacuations – a small scale affair from Berbera to Aden – within a few days. Success in one theatre was quickly followed by failure in another. Throughout the war Italian combined arms operations routinely promised more than they actually delivered. Too often the degree of liaison between the services or the level of competence of any one of them left much to be desired. Above all, however, the failure of the Italian military to make the most of its geographical position was to be a recurring and galling theme for the fascist leadership. An early example of what was to come was shown in late August when an important Allied reinforcement convoy (Operation Hats) sailed through the heart of the Mediterranean to join Cunningham’s Fleet at Alexandria defying and evading aerial reconnaissance, submarine patrols and an Italian Fleet bristling with five battleships, thirteen cruisers and thirty-nine destroyers that had been deployed to detect and destroy it.

New major ships delivered to the Italian Navy during the war. The chief of these were the last eight big destroyers (1,820 tons) of the SOLDATO class (the first batch of eleven had entered service just prior to the war), and the three fast but very small cruisers of the “Roman Generals” class (because that’s what they were named after). None of these ships was available before 1942, and the Italians didn’t have much luck with the cruisers. The first one to come into service, the ATTILIO REGOLO, had only been operational for two months when it had its bow blown off by a British submarine’s torpedo while returning from a minelaying mission in November 1942, putting it out of action for six months. The TRAIANO had not even gone fully operational before it was sunk in its Sicilian harbor by a British underwater assault team using methods deliberately copied from the Italian special shipping attack units, this in January 1943. The SCIPIONE, while passing through the straits of Messina to take up a new assignment as a minelayer in the Ionian Sea in July 1943, was attacked in these narrow waters by four small British motor torpedo boats. But this time the Italians got the upper hand, and the SCIPIONE, with some very accurate shooting, sank two of its assailants and set another one on fire.

There was one aspect of naval warfare in which the Italians were indubitably the world leaders in 1940-43, not only in theory and practice, but also in the development of the relevant technology. That was in special attack methods, particularly geared toward destruction of enemy ships in their harbors via penetration by small undersea or surface units. The Italians lumped these methods under the title “mezzi navali d’assalto” or “naval assault craft.” The Italians had indeed pioneered the modern applications of this field during the First World War, when they produced some remarkably sophisticated devices (including one which crawled like a tank over the ocean floor) and had scored a stunning success with the sinking of the Austrian battleship VIRIBUS UNITIS. In 1940 these special assault methods were divided into four categories. The first of the “mezzi navali d’assalto” were the “explosive motorboats” (“motoscafi esplosivi”). These were exactly what the name implied, small, fast boats (of very shallow draft to aid in negotiating potentially blocked harbor entrances), filled with explosives, which were to be rammed into enemy ships. Unlike the later Japanese “kaiten,” this was not intended as a suicide mission. The operator of the boat, once zeroing in on his target, locked the steering mechanism, and then, at about 100-200 yards away, rolled off a special platform built on to the back of the boat for this purpose, and swam like hell in the opposite direction (exceptional swimming ability was one of the prerequisites for inclusion in the elite force formed to employ these various attack methods). Although five of these craft were later sent to the Black Sea, their most memorable employment was in a raid on Suda Bay, the main British naval base on Crete, in March 1941. Six boats, deployed from the destroyers CRISPI and SELLA, managed to enter the harbor, and these sank a tanker and a freighter, as well as damaging the heavy cruiser YORK so badly that the ship had to be beached, and although later used as a sort of semi-floating headquarters (thus leading to later claims by German Stuka pilots that they had “sunk” the cruiser) it never sailed again.

The most dangerous, and most successful, of the Italian special attack craft were the “piloted torpedoes” (“siluri pilotati”). Also known as SLC’s (for “Siluro a Lenta Corsa” or “Slow-running Torpedo”), these were small underwater vehicles, which looked very much like a torpedo, on which the two crewmen sat, straddling the craft as if on horseback and breathing with “scuba” type oxygen tanks. A small electric motor drove the device at a top speed of 4.5 knots, although the normal operating speed was half that, and the “torpedo” could dive to about 100 feet (30 meters). The craft could travel under its own power for up to 15 miles, though more often 10-12 miles under actual operating conditions (at top speed, however, the battery ran out after about four miles). The “piloted torpedo” had a detachable, 661-lb (300 kg) magnetic warhead (early in the program lighter warheads were used, but the 300 kg was both the most common and the most effective), fitted with a time fuze, which was attached to the underside of the target vessel. The Italian specialists who operated them called them “maiali” (“pigs”), because when attacking a ship they looked like piglets suckling at a sow’s belly. A number of Italian subs were specially fitted to transport and launch the “siluri pilotati.” Seven Italian submarines were converted for various special attack operations at one time or another, but of these only four (originally the IRIDE, GONDAR, and SCIRE, later the AMBRA as a replacement after the first two of these were sunk) were actually employed on “live” missions with this equipment. The conversion for all four of these boats involved the installation of three watertight containers on the sub’s deck, each holding a single “piloted torpedo,” which could then be prepared for action while dry and launched by the submarine while submerged.

A third class of the “naval assault craft” were the midget submarines (“sommergibili tascabili”). The RMI experimented with both a two-man and a four-man version (the two-man called the CA, the four-man the CB). The CA was slow in reaching operational service, but twelve of the four-man type, the CB, were eventually built before the surrender to the Allies. At 36 tons, these little craft had a top speed of 7.5 knots surfaced or seven knots submerged. They could achieve a range of up to 1,400 miles on the surface (at three knots), but only about 50 miles submerged. Armament consisted of two external 17.7-inch torpedo tubes, mounted in much the same fashion as on the MAS torpedo boats, and in fact the CB, with its rather high foredeck and low, streamlined bridge, when surfaced bore an uncanny resemblance to the MAS. Six of the midget subs were sent to operate against the Soviets in the Black Sea in May 1942, and they had some success there. In June 1942 the CB-3 sank the Russian STALIN-class submarine S-32, and a few days later the CB-2 sank the smaller Shchuka-type sub Shch-306. One CB-type midget was lost during operations (to air attack while in port), the survivors eventually given to the Royal Romanian Navy. The Germans praised the dedication to duty demonstrated by the crews of these little boats on extensive patrols blockading the Soviets in Sebastopol during the Axis conquest of the Crimea. The final special attack tactic worked out by the Italians was the use of what were called “Gamma men.” These were not machines, but humans– strong, trained ocean swimmers, wearing flipper fins on their feet and towing small magnetic mines attached to their belts. They were usually carried to the scene of their assaults in submarines (some being deposited behind enemy lines in Tunisia by this method of insertion as late as the opening weeks of 1943, although in this case without much result).

However, there was at least one notable incident, Franco Maugheri and the SIS (naval intelligence), involving a bit more cloak-and-dagger stuff. In July 1943, an experienced Italian “frogman” named Luigi Ferraro, helped by SIS agents who accompanied him on the mission, made his way in disguise to Alexandria, his suitcases full of magnetic mines and diving gear. By staying on the move, he managed to remain undetected by the authorities long enough to mine (after long swims from remote beaches to the anchorages) two ships at Alexandria, and two more at Mersina in Syria. Three of the four vessels were sunk, the British saving the fourth when they discovered the mine attached to its hull before it exploded. Ferraro also managed to make his getaway. It is worth noting that Italian intelligence had a pretty fair network of agents and informants in Egypt, who in particular kept them regularly informed of shipping movements at Alexandria and Aboukir (although one of their greatest successes, the sinking of the two battleships at Alexandria, remained unknown to them for several weeks, as all of the crews of the “piloted torpedoes” involved were captured, and the ships settled on the bottom at their shallow berths still looked like they were afloat at first glance in aerial reconnaissance photos).

The Italians formed a special unit to employ the “mezzi navali d’assalto,” which was given the cover name 10th MAS Flotilla (“decima mas” to the Italians). The unit did have a few MAS boats assigned to it, both to legitimize the cover story and also to assist in operations (for example, the attempt on Malta of July 1941, of which more later). It also included the specially-modified submarines described above, and had other larger naval units attached as necessary (for example, the two destroyers used in the Suda Bay operation and the fast transport DIANA for the Malta attempt). The original commander of the 10th MAS was Commander Giorgini.

The Italian Navy did indeed fight the powerful British Royal Navy for 39 months in the Mediterranean– and fought to something like a draw, with wild swings of momentum and dominance, from the summer of 1940 until the fall of 1942, when the balance swung to the British for the last time. And it did so with minimal German assistance, at least in the surface war (German submarines achieved a few spectacular successes when they first appeared in late 1941, but proved a minor factor in the long run– the most palpable German contribution to the Mediterranean sea war was arguably in the air). Likewise, the Italian merchant fleet provided the bulk of the transport that kept the North African theatre operational for almost three years (with almost entirely Italian escorts), in a grueling convoy war that consumed considerable resources on both sides. But the reach of the Regia Marina ranged much further than the Med, Aegean, etc. Italian submarines operated in both North and South Atlantic, in the Caribbean, off the coasts of the United States and Brazil. They cruised on missions to the Indian Ocean and back, and in fact often enjoyed their best success in these various waters more remote from Europe proper (for example, during the “happy time” for German U-boats off the US coasts in early 1942, five Italian subs also operating in American waters between them sank 14 ships totalling 88,000 tons, a fairly merry outing as well. The most successful Italian submarine of the war, in terms of tonnage sunk, the LEONARDO DA VINCI, sank six ships totalling 58,000 tons on a single cruise into the Indian Ocean and back, accounting for roughly half its total in the war). The Italians were also the first navy in the world to operate submarines in the Red Sea. Italian subs and blockade runners (and the colonial sloop ERITREA) sailed into the Far East, some of them all the way to Japan and let’s not forget that small detachment of Italian marines stationed in China between the wars.

The French Navy on the Eve of the Second World War

In 1914 the French Navy consisted of 690,000 tons of combatant ships in commission, with an additional 257,000 tons under construction. At the time of the Washington Treaty of 1922, the combat fleet totalled only 485,000 tons in commission and a mere 25,000 tons under construction—an obvious indication that even obsolete ships were not being replaced. All of the other principal naval powers had emerged from the conflict larger and more modern. The French Navy lost forty per cent of its fighting strength, and the remaining Fleet units were ill assorted and decrepit. Morale was low. Neither the Government nor the public seemed to have any interest in naval affairs.

Nevertheless the Navy proved faithful to its trust. The funds which were allocated were spent wisely and in accordance with a carefully planned program. By comparison with other Government departments it revealed a constructive doctrine and an integrity that impressed even the members of Parliament. The Ministers of the Navy, who invariably entered office with prejudices against the seagoing service, became strong supporters. Among the best can be mentioned François Pietri, who served more than two years, and Georges Leygues, who died in his post in 1933 after having served as Naval Minister for more than seven years and through eight different changes of Government. It was Leygues who remarked to Lieutenant Commander Paul Auphan, “I served for fifteen or twenty years in practically every Ministry of the Republic before coming to the Navy. I found competent people everywhere. But here one is completely astounded to find his staff working indefatigably without demanding the Legion of Honor at the end of a month or a promotion at the end of three. What is most heart warming is the Navy’s discipline, loyalty, and absolutely unselfish devotion to duty!”

As his principal adviser and private secretary (Chef de Cabinet), Leygues, who was a deputy from the Department of Lot-et-Garonne, chose his godson and compatriot, François Darlan, at that time a commander. Darlan was the son of an influential member of Parliament who had been a Minister and Keeper of the Seals under the Third Republic. In spite of some shortcomings and a timidity which he hid under a brusque manner Darlan had a thorough knowledge of his profession, along with good commonsense and a quick mind. With his family connections he was naturally well known in political circles—something that is rarely a handicap in any country. With a mischievous sense of humor young Darlan would often introduce himself as “the naval officer with the greatest backing.” Be that as it may, Darlan’s position in the office of the Minister of the Navy insured that that service would at least receive a sympathetic hearing in Government circles—something which it had often lacked. So this teamwork of Darlan and Leygues, furthered by a succession of able Chiefs of the Navy General Staff—Admirals Louis Violette, Georges Durand-Viel, and, later, Darlan himself—achieved wonders in the revival of the Navy.

For instance, the Navy had long wanted the enactment of a law establishing the strength of the fighting fleet—personnel as well as ships—on which to base an orderly, year by year program of ship building.1 The Navy would then have had a solid base on which to negotiate at future disarmament conferences. The Navy failed to secure the enactment of such a law; the Army succeeded. The Navy had to content itself with empirical programs, established annually, and always subject to the hazards of parliamentary debate. In this manner, the Navy managed to obtain, between wars, the assent of ever-changing Parliaments for sixteen yearly programs for new combat construction and ten supplementary ones for auxiliaries—a total of 705,000 tons of combatant ships, plus 126 auxiliary craft.

In 1924 the Navy presented to Parliament a program calling for 175,000 tons of battleships, 60,000 tons of aircraft carriers, 360,000 tons of light craft, and 96,000 tons of submarines—a total of 691,000 tons of combatant ships (the same tonnage as in 1914, excluding auxiliaries). The program never passed.

Naturally all these ships were not completed by 1939, for the more important programs were the latest ones. However, by 1939 the Navy was approaching that strength which its officers considered the minimum necessary to insure the nation’s independence in time of peace and its security in time of war. This goal was not reached without critical struggles, not only with the politicians of their own country but of other countries as well.

For, as has been said, it is utopian indeed to hope to establish international disarmament if one country looks upon the armaments of its neighbors more critically than it looks at its own. And that was the story of the disarmament efforts of the later 1920’s and the 1930’s. On the one hand the charter of the League of Nations, to which most of the naval powers belonged, provided for a reduction of armaments, “taking into account the geographical position and the particular problems of each State.” On the other hand the United States was not a member of the League of Nations, so the naval powers which were signatories to the Washington Treaty were obliged to hold separate discussions on the only question which interested the Americans: that of naval armaments considered independently from land and air armaments.

In 1924 the “Preparatory Commission” which the League of Nations had established met at Geneva to study questions relating to disarmament. The English advocated limitation by specific categories—heavy cruisers, light cruisers, destroyers, etc.—which would automatically have insured control of the seas for the British by establishing their supremacy in each class. The French, on the contrary, advocated global limitation, which would permit complete freedom of action and leave the door wide open for “surprises.”

By “surprises” is meant new inventions, new ship designs, or development of entirely new classes which would outmode existing ships possessed in superior numbers by another power.

The discussions were deadlocked for three years. The French Navy offered a compromise plan, but the British refused to budge.

Then the United States intervened with an invitation to a naval conference with the view of extending the ratios of the Washington Treaty to all categories of ships. The French refused to be caught twice in the same trap, and Italy also declined the invitation. In 1927 the three remaining powers—Japan, Britain, and the United States—met, but could arrive at no agreement. The United States Navy, which had a greater need than Great Britain for heavy cruisers, refused the proposal of Britain in that category, where-upon the British began to veer around to the French point of view. In March, 1928, a British-French compromise plan began to take shape, which, however, required the acquiescence of all the powers. The United States not only rejected it, but to emphasize the rejection the U.S. Congress passed a building program providing for fifteen 10,000-ton cruisers. The whole attempt at arms limitation ended with the utopian but impractical Briand-Kellogg Pact, signed at Paris, by which all the great powers “renounced war”—but without any of them renouncing the right to arm.

The next conference of the five major naval powers assembled at London, in 1930. Again the Americans, though having no part in the League of Nations, wished to extend the ratios of the Washington Treaty to all navies and to all types of ships. Even if the French had been willing to discuss such a ratio in relation to the United States and British Navies, her interests in the Mediterranean were such that she could never have accepted parity with the still greatly inferior Italian Navy. The new construction program had now been in effect for eight years, and public opinion and the Government were behind the growing French Navy.

In 1932 the scene shifted to Geneva, where the General Disarmament Conference of the League of Nations met after eight years of preparation. The conference was dominated by the question of what rights were to be accorded Germany. That nation, noting that the victorious powers had not yet disarmed, as prescribed in the Versailles Treaty, asked for either disarmament all around or equality of armament for Germany. When this was refused, Hitler promptly withdrew from the conference. Later he decreed universal military service in Germany without anyone contesting it, since it was naval armaments alone that interested Great Britain at that time. The final result of the Geneva Conference was that the League of Nations no longer engaged itself with matters of naval armaments.

However, behind the scenes, the French and Italian naval experts carried on their own negotiations. It was to the interest of both countries to reduce expenditures. Unofficially they agreed on a formula of limited scope which would preserve the existing naval ratios of the two countries, without any commitment for the future. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs reluctantly accepted the Navy’s recommendation, but the British, informed of the unofficial agreement, still pressed for parity for the Italian Navy with the French Navy. Encouraged, in 1934 Mussolini announced the laying of the keels of two 35,000-ton battleships in the near future. The French Navy, which had only the Dunkerque under construction, immediately obtained funds for the construction of the Strasbourg as a makeweight.

In 1934 Japan gave the required two-year notice that she would not renew the Washington Treaty, which, as a matter of fact, she had already been secretly violating. France sent out a similar notice in order to emphasize once and for all that she would not accept naval parity with Italy. Though the diametrically opposed points of view of the various nations had been recognized for a long time, nevertheless a call was sent out for a new conference to be held in 1936 to work out some sort of substitute for the Washington Treaty.

While France was preparing for the new conference with the hope that the threatening German rearmaments might also be taken under consideration, the British Government took the initiative by negotiating directly with Hitler. In June, 1935, following a visit to Berlin by Anthony Eden, she conceded to Germany the right to a Navy thirty-five per cent the strength of the Royal Navy, and the possibility of increasing this ratio to forty-five per cent in the case of submarines.

France was thus confronted with a fait accompli. The German Navy, which had already laid down two capital ships of 26,000 tons each, plus 12 heavy cruisers, 16 destroyers, and 28 submarines, would now be in a position to build up a global tonnage of 420,000 tons instead of the mere 100,000 tons she was permitted under the Treaty of Versailles.

Looking back after the intervening years, one can understand the cold logic of Great Britain in officially recognizing German naval rearmament and agreeing to a limit, even a very large one, rather than having no agreed limit at all. It would have been commonsense if the French too had been just as realistic and had jettisoned the ineffectual legalisms of the Versailles Treaty to which she still clung. At that time, however, the French Navy could not avoid the feeling of being abandoned—left alone and misunderstood in a world of increasing menace. Accordingly the French Navy that year obtained authorization for the construction of two more battleships, to be named respectively the Richelieu and the Jean Bart. With such additions the Navy was confident that, even without the British Navy as an ally, it could cope successfully with the combined German and Italian Navies.

And international peace in Europe was becoming steadily more precarious. More exasperated than hurt by the sanctions imposed on her for the Abyssinian campaign, Italy intensified her rapprochement with the German Reich. Germany reoccupied the left bank of the Rhine without the slightest reaction to this flagrant violation of one of the most important clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. And an ideological civil war broke out in Spain, where the German-Italian fascists on one side faced the democrats, anarchists, and Soviet communists on the other.

Part of the French naval forces were called upon to cruise for many months off the Spanish coasts in order to protect or evacuate French nationals. In 1937, French ships escorted an average of 500 merchantmen each month around the Iberian Peninsula. In the harbors, the Navy saved the lives of many nationals, even Spanish. It had no part, however, in delivering the shipments of arms which the Socialist-dominated government of France was sending to Republican Spain at the expense of the French Army’s own stockpile. Convinced from their contacts with the officers of other navies that another European war was inevitable, the French Navy vigorously prepared for it.

For the London Conference of 1936 had been a complete fiasco. Japan had appeared merely to announce that she would no longer participate, and that she reserved complete freedom of action in the future. Neither Germany nor Russia was represented at all. Italy sent word that she would not know how to negotiate with nations which had just previously applied sanctions against her. All that Britain, the United States, and France could do was to establish qualitative limits (tonnage, size of guns) for each type of ship, to bind themselves not to exceed them, and to make known their building programs in advance to each other. This last was a needless clause since in every democratic country building programs only came into being after long hours of public debate. These agreements were pretty fairly observed, yet since no controls were provided, compliance depended entirely upon the good faith of the nations themselves.

In France, while the masses were engrossed in the social reforms with which they were being appeased, the Navy, ever vigilant, vigorously pressed its reorganization. The regulations were modernized; training was intensified; construction of a new naval base at Mers-el-Kebir was begun. To insure fuel oil for the Fleet, the Navy encouraged the establishment of refineries and of commercial petroleum stocks in the homeland. Moreover it stocked approximately 3,000,000 tons of petroleum products in tanks in the vicinity of its navy yards. By 1939, reservoirs with a total capacity of 1,200,000 tons—most of them underground—had been completed. In a country where the civilian work week had been reduced to five days, naval personnel worked six days a week, and an extra hour each day. This expansion all had to be done despite only a minor share of the defense budget, the Air Force being allotted twenty-seven per cent and the Army fifty-two per cent against the Navy’s twenty-one.

In 1938 the Navy obtained funds for the construction of two aircraft carriers, but unfortunately these ships were barely under construction when the war began. Following the Munich incident, it hastily increased its building program by two battleships, two cruisers, two super-destroyers, eighteen regular destroyers, and eighteen submarines, but only a few of these ships reached the stage of being given a name.

The result of the Navy’s dogged perseverance was that at the beginning of the war France possessed a strong, modern, homogenous fleet, the composition of which is shown in Appendix A. Not counting the old battleships—though these too saw action during the war—there was not one combat ship over 13 years old. The ships were well built and dependable; their gunnery was excellent. The new super-destroyers—actually small cruisers—proved themselves the fastest ships in the world. Modern communications, including ship-to-ship voice radio, had been installed. The listening devices were good, but the submarine detection gear, of the asdic type, was still in the research stage. All the ships had been trained in day and night squadron maneuvers.

One major defect existed—a weakness in aviation striking power and also a weakness in air cover, owing to the lack of aircraft carriers and to the inadequate antiaircraft batteries. Perhaps because of lack of imagination, perhaps because of conservatism, the French Navy had concentrated more on building battleships than it had on aircraft carriers. One reason for this was undoubtedly the controversy that had arisen since World War I between the Air Ministry and that of the Navy. The Navy had had its air arm transferred to the newborn Air Ministry and had only regained shipboard aviation in 1932. During those years the aviation personnel were tossed from one Ministry to the other, and the two services devoted more time to squabbling than they did to working together on the problems of the future. Politically the Air Ministry was backed by the progressive parties, while the Navy gained its support mostly from the ranks of the moderates. These rivalries between the services did not disappear until the very advent of war.

Notwithstanding all this, French naval aviation in 1939 consisted of approximately 350 combat planes, manned by picked personnel. At the same time large plane orders, some placed with American industry, were building up the air arm at a rapid rate. The squadrons underwent intensive training, especially in reconnaissance and search, illumination, sea patrol, and anti-submarine warfare.

Theoretically the provision of air cover to the fleet operating at sea and of air strikes on enemy forces was partially the responsibility of the Air Force. Actually the very opposite occurred in 1940. At the time of the German invasion then, the combat air squadrons of the Navy were the only ones in existence in France—and these were placed at the Army’s disposal for service on the Oise River front.

The Navy also had some very good anti-aircraft weapons (75-mm., 90-mm., and even 130-mm. on the Dunkerque), but these were sadly handicapped by lack of radar. Except for this lack, the naval base at Toulon, some 200 kilometers from the Italian front, was one of the best defended against air attacks. In 1940 the 90-mm. batteries of the Navy were called upon to defend Paris, as the Army had nothing equivalent to them. The main weakness in the Navy’s anti-aircraft defense—other than lack of radar—was an insufficiency of machineguns and light guns of 25-mm. or 40-mm., for use against low-flying planes and dive bombers. The need of such weapons would be bitterly felt in the Norwegian expedition and later off the northern coast of France. One difficulty was that the Navy was dependent upon the Army, which was charged with furnishing her with light automatic guns. And the complete lack of divebombing and low-flying attack planes in the French Air Force was not conducive to impressing the Army with the critical need for an adequate number of short-range anti-aircraft weapons.

Time will not be taken here to relate the Navy’s struggle even to retain its status as a distinct service. Sometimes proposals were made to incorporate the Navy into a super-ministry of National Defense, which, of course, would be completely dominated by the Army. Again the proposal was to subordinate the Navy High Command to an over-all Commander of the Armed Forces. Only the stubborn intelligence of the Navy frustrated these attempts.

Only when there is unity of strategic aim should there be a single command. But the problem of France in case of war with the Axis powers was twofold, with each part having no relation to the other. It was the Army’s mission to prevent the invasion of the country, and, if possible, to carry the war to the enemy. The Navy, on the other hand, had the mission of keeping the sealanes and the seaports open so that the country and its fighting men could receive the supplies they needed. Only at places where sea and land fronts joined was there any problem requiring single command.

Such a place was Dunkirk in 1940, when a single command was set up there at the time of the evacuation by the French and the British.

As for the rest, all that was needed was coordination and cooperation between the services, and the Navy considered this sufficiently well taken care of by the Committee of the Chiefs of Staff (Comité des Chefs d ‘Etat-Major). In 1939 the presiding officer of this Committee was General Maurice Gamelin, Commander in Chief-designate of the Army, who was assisted by a staff made up of officers from all three services. General Gamelin held the title of Chief of Staff of the National Defense, which made him the principal military adviser of the Government. In this connection he, of course, had the benefit of the advice of his colleagues. But the conduct of naval operations remained entirely outside his jurisdiction.

These operations fell within the province of the Chief of the Navy General Staff who, merely a collaborator of the Navy Minister in time of peace, assumed the title of Comander in Chief of the French Naval Forces in time of war. In 1939 the Chief was Admiral Darlan.

Experience had vastly matured this officer. Among other assignments he had commanded the Atlantic Squadron with brilliance. Chief of the Navy General Staff at the time, he had attended the coronation of King George VI, as did the chiefs of all the foreign navies. But he did not appreciate the protocol which, as he said, placed him during the coronation service “behind a pillar and after the Chinese admiral.”

At that time the two highest permanent grades in the French Navy were vice admiral and rear admiral. Although wearing an extra star as Chief of the Navy General Staff, Darlan’s permanent rank was only vice admiral, which ranked him after all regular four-star admirals, be they Chinese or Panamanian. Darlan came to the conclusion that there was only one step to take, so upon his return to Paris he had himself elevated to the rank and dignity of Admiral of the Fleet, equivalent to the Royal Navy rank of that name. Thenceforth when Darlan spoke at international meetings in the name of France, he had insured himself an equal footing with anyone else present.

Later on, the French naval officers of that time were reproached with being individualistic, aloof from the rest of the country. Some politicians even accused the Navy of being hostile to the political institutions of the day.

This may partly be attributed to the conflicting attitudes the French were to take at the time of the armistice and during the German occupation. The truth of the matter was that the Navy of those days was a tightly knit and homogenous group of dedicated officers and men—a Navy in which all were proud to serve and in which everyone obeyed without question the orders of their superiors, and these superiors in turn unhesitatingly carried out the directives of the Government, regardless of the political party which might for the moment be in power. Differently from the Army, whose strength lay mostly in mobilized reservists, eighty-six per cent of the Navy’s personnel was made up of volunteers, reenlistments, and career petty officers. If the Navy seemed aloof from the general public, it was mainly because they did not engage in politics, and because, as professional seamen, their viewpoints were on a worldwide basis rather than confined to the limited horizons of the average Frenchman.

The French Navy of 1939 may best be described by the four words which for over a century have been lettered in gold above the quarterdecks of all French men-of-war. On one side of the panel there appears the motto “Honor and Country,” and on the other side, facing it, the words “Valor and Discipline.” Not one of those four virtues but would be needed by the seamen of France in the ordeal to come.

Navy of Carthage

CARTHAGE Showing naval port.

Carthaginian Tetrere: The Marsala ship

Reconstruction by Michael Leek

Punic hepter. The dimensions of the holds of the military port of Carthage permitted only vessels of 4.80 m wide, the size of a trire, in the islet of the Admiralty with the exception of two holds of 7 Meters wide. The heavy units of Carthage seem to have been very rare, it is quite possible that there never was any deer in service in its fleet. The Hepter above, extrapolated directly from the Penteres of the fleet, did not exceed six meters in width, while embarking 420 rowers and 80 soldiers: It was the flagship of the fleet.

While the army of Carthage (more of which later) was generally of a mercenary character, its navy was very much a citizen affair, as was to be expected from such a maritime power. Unlike the army, which tended to be raised for any temporary crisis and disbanded when it was over, the navy of Carthage had a more permanent status with a pool of trained sailors to fight in its naval wars. The Carthaginian navy that reigned supreme in the western Mediterranean, therefore, was a highly skilled and professional force rich in knowledge of navigation and fighting at sea, which, by the time of the struggle with Rome, was built around the quinquireme as the standard fighting ship of the day.

Ancient warships, which needed to move rapidly in any direction regardless of wind, depended mainly on muscle power. The quinquereme was so named not because it was propelled by five banks of oars but probably because the ratio of its oar-power to that of the classical trireme (which certainly did have three banks of oars) was 5:3. How many banks of oars a quinquereme had, and how many oarsmen manned each oar, is not known for certain. It is known from excavations of ship sheds at Carthage that a Carthaginian quinquereme was not much larger than an Athenian trireme, the practicable ultimate in the fast, ram-armed, oared warship (around 45m in overall length and less than 6m at the beam compared with around 37m in overall length and less than 4m at the beam) and thus similarly built for speed, long and narrow. It is therefore postulated that the quinquereme developed directly from the trireme. Its crew, however, was much larger than that of a trireme (300 to 200) and it could carry many more marines: up to 120 crammed on a Roman quinquereme when fully manned for battle, and apparently 40 as a standard complement. One suggestion is that there were three banks of oars like the trireme, but with two oarsmen to an oar at two of the three levels (i.e. arranged 2:2:1). Since a trireme had a crew of 200 of which 170 were oarsmen, we would expect 270 of the 300 crew members of a quinquereme to be oarsmen. Thus, with an oar crew of 270 the quinquereme would have 81 oars a side.

Such vessels were formidable in a sea fight, designed essentially to be highly manoeuvrable and capable of being driven by oars at high speeds for short spurts in battle, with the result that their sea-keeping qualities were not good. Lack of space in the hull for food and water, low freeboard, low cruising speed under oars, and limited sailing qualities lowered their range of operations. Hence naval engagements customarily took place near the coast, where ships could be handled in relatively calm water and there was some hope for the shipwrecked. Sails were used for fleets in transit, but when approaching the battle area the masts would be lowered and the ships rowed. There were only two methods of fighting, which placed contradictory demands on warship design. The first was manoeuvre and ramming. Theoretically, this called for the smallest possible ship built around the largest number of oarsmen. The Carthaginian navy with its minimum number of marines followed this naval doctrine. The other was boarding and battle. This called for a heavier ship able to carry the maximum number of marines, the naval doctrine adopted, as we shall presently see, by the unfledged Roman navy, which very much favoured an aquatic version of a land battle.

Whether boarding or ramming, oar-powered warships had to collide, and this tended to limit their tactical capabilities. However, a numerically inferior fleet manned by good seamen should have had endless opportunities for the sort of hit-and-run tactics ably demonstrated by the legendary Carthaginian captain, Hannibal ‘the Rhodian’, during the First Punic War, of which more elsewhere. For their class, Carthaginian quinqueremes tended to be light, swift and manoeuvrable, just as had been the triremes of the Athenians in the heyday of their naval skill, and Carthaginian oarsmen, like the Athenian oarsmen in the balmy days of their empire, were well practised in the intricate battle manoeuvres designed for ramming attacks on vulnerable sides and sterns, the diekplous and the periplous. It is distinctly possible, as was the case in democratic Athens, that many of the poorer citizens of Carthage derived their livelihood from service as rowers in the large, busy imperial fleet. If this was so, then it may well have contributed to the city’s political stability.

The famous naval installations at Carthage, namely the vast inner harbour as round as a cup, provided covered slipways, or ship sheds for around 220 warships and all the facilities for their maintenance. This military facility was a restricted area, walled off from the landward side, and its only seaward approach was through the outer mercantile harbour, whose narrow entrance could be quickly closed off by heavy iron chains if danger threatened. In actual fact, both harbours were landlocked, artificially excavated basins. Modern, full-scale excavations at the naval harbour date its final form to the second century BC, during the years between the Second and Third Punic wars and before the destruction of the city by the Romans, although the evidence is not certain and it is possible that this was a period of rebuilding. Yet after the second war, Carthaginian naval strength was finally broken and Carthage was forbidden by a clause in the peace treaty with Rome to have a navy. Technically, therefore, the city had no need of a costly harbour to house and to furbish 200-plus ships of war. Nonetheless, the sheer scale of the naval installations is a clear reflection of the wealth of Carthage, and economically the Carthaginians do not seem to have suffered in the long run as a result of their territorial losses and war indemnities.

In the centre of the naval harbour was a round artificial island, the Ilôt de l’ Admirauté, on which stood the admiral’s headquarters, rising high above the surrounding facilities and fortifications and enabling him to keep a weather eye on the far horizon. Below the headquarters were thirty stone-built ship sheds. The archaeological evidence also reveals the slipways, mostly 5.9m wide and with a gradient of 1:10, built with rammed earth. In them socket holes placed at roughly 60cm intervals have been found, and these once held the upright timber staves that shipwrights employed to support the hulls of ships under construction or repair. A fighting ship was antiquity’s most complicated piece of machinery, and artefacts recovered in the associated debris include copper nails for use in shipbuilding and terracotta moulds used in metal casting.

Warships of this period were not ‘Hearts of Oak’. For lightness and flexibility combined with strength, ship timber was mostly of softwoods such as pine and fir. Theophrastos, Aristotle’s equally multi-talented successor, lists the three principal timbers for building ships as fir (elatê), pine (peukê), and cedar (kedros), the last having become more readily available from Syria as a result of Alexander’s conquests.23 Beforehand, in his trademark clinical tone, he had compared the fir and the pine:

The latter is fleshier and has few fibres, while the former has many fibres and is not fleshy. That is why the pine is heavy and the fir light. Long ships [i.e. warships] are made of fir for the sake of lightness, whereas round ships [i.e. merchantmen] are made of pine because it resists decay.

Elsewhere he says pine is second-best timber for warships because it is heavier. The emphasis on lightness for ship timber is obviously a prime consideration in the overall design of a plank-built warship. However, one result of using softwoods was that its hull tended to soak up water like a sponge. Consequently, all warships, great and small, were manhandled out of the water as often as possible so as to dry and clean the hulls.

The hulls would not only become waterlogged and leaky, but they would also suffer from that scourge of wooden ships, the naval borer or shipworm, the maritime equivalent of a woodworm or deathwatch beetle. Ancient shipwrights avoided using certain woods for the hull planking because they were thought to be susceptible to it, the larch particularly so according to the elder Pliny. The hulls of stubbier, rounder merchantmen were as a rule protected by a drastic and expensive, but effective remedy, first by applying a layer of linen cloth soaked in pitch and then covering this with lead sheathing. However, the additional weight of metal made lead sheathing highly undesirable for warships. Theophrastos remarks that the harm done to a ship’s hull by the naval borer is impossible to repair. Once hauled up in a ship shed, however, the caulking of worm-holes during the process of maintenance, and an application of pitch as a sealant, would have gone some way to remedying the effect of the naval borer provided the hull planks were not too much worm-eaten. Theophrastos explains the methods used to obtain pitch from fir, pine and cedar, and Pliny speaks too of pitch being produced from various trees and extracted by heat from pitch pine (taeda) for the protection of warships.

Before we take our leave of the warship, a brief mention should be made of the diekplous and the periplous.

The diekplous was a battle manoeuvre involving single ships in line abeam, the standard battle formation, in which each helmsman would steer for a gap in the enemy line. He would then turn suddenly either to port or to starboard to ram an enemy ship in the side or row clean through the line, swing round and smash into the stern of an enemy ship. The top-deck would be lined with marines and missile-men at the ready, but their main role was mainly defensive. The primary weapon was the attacking ship’s ram. Polybios, in his lively account of the sea battle off Drepana, describes it as such: ‘To sail through the enemy’s line and to appear from behind, while they were already fighting others [in front], which is a most effective naval manoeuvre’. The Carthaginian quinqueremes executing this ‘most effective naval manoeuvre’ were well constructed, had experienced oarsmen and, even more important, the best helmsmen.

The periplous was either a variation involving outflanking the enemy line when there was plenty of sea room, or the final stage of the diekplous, when the manoeuvring vessel, having cut through the line, swung round to press home a ramming attack from the stern. Once the enemy formation had broken up, the periplous would have become the most important tactical option available to the helmsman. And so the periplous was a tactical manoeuvre that a single, skilfully handled vessel performed to make a ramming attack that did not involve a prow-to-prow contact. Even so, it required room for its execution, and timing was of the essence. It also called for high speed and, what is more important, smart-as-a-whip steering promptly supported by adept oarsmanship. It is interesting to note that Polybios finishes by saying that Roman quinqueremes were unable to perform these manoeuvres ‘owing to weight of the vessels and their crews’ lack of skill’.



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.