A Van de Velde drawing of a Spanish two-decker of 1664.
Although the ‘Decline of Spain’ in the seventeenth century has been exaggerated by many historians, the Spanish armada that served Kings Philip IV and Carlos II was plainly no longer the formidable instrument that had served their predecessors, and it suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Dutch in the Downs in 1639. Spain’s severe financial problems meant that it sometimes struggled to get an effective fleet to sea: in 1644 it planned for a fleet of thirty ships, costing over 1,150,000 ducats, and ended up with none, while in the 1660s it usually budgeted for only about twenty to forty ships in service every year. Spain had four permanent galley squadrons in the Mediterranean, one based at various ports on the Iberian Peninsula itself and the others at Naples, Sicily and Genoa. These declined in strength during the seventeenth century, and each contained about half a dozen vessels by the 1650s and 1660s. Spain also maintained a separate ‘Armada of Flanders’ in the North Sea. This was forced to move to Spain in the 1640s when its base at Dunkirk was lost, but the subsequent recapture of that port led to a revival both of the Armada and of the Dunkirk privateers that had wreaked havoc earlier in the century. These ships made serious depredations against English coastal shipping in the mid-1650s, when perhaps 500 merchant ships were captured, but the final loss of Dunkirk in 1658 effectively ended the careers of both the privateers and the ‘Armada of Flanders’. The latter survived in name alone, based at Ostend, but by the late 1660s it consisted of just one ship. Responsibility for naval administration was divided between several departments of state. The Council of War had responsibility for the Iberian Peninsula itself, and this had a sub-committee, the Junta de Armadas, which ran the Atlantic fleet, and another, the Junta de Galeras, which ran the galleys. The Junta de Guerra de Indias had responsibility for the Indies fleet.
During the first half of the seventeenth century Spanish naval administrators and shipbuilders engaged in a long debate about the relative merits of beam and bulk on the one hand, fine lines and speed on the other. By the 1650s this had effectively been resolved (as it was in Britain) into a preference for larger, beamier ships that would be more effective gun platforms. The vast Nuestra Señora de la Concepción of 1,500 tons was launched at Pasajes in 1656, and several ships of 700–1,000 tons were launched in the 1660s, most of them built by Miguel de Oquendo at Usúrbil. Other ships were built in Spanish overseas possessions, notably at Havana, where the shipbuilders could exploit local hardwoods. Because they were intended to operate on the high seas, the largest Spanish ships were more heavily built but also more lightly armed than their British equivalents. They also seem to have retained ‘catwalks’ for quarter-galleries long after the fashion died out in other European navies.
Lower naval administration, and victualling in particular, was undertaken by an elaborate hierarchy of officials known as veedors, proveedors, contadors and pagadors. The process of victualling was particularly problematic in Spain, where transport from the interior to the ports was often long and difficult, and which experienced many years of dearth during the seventeenth century. Recruitment, too, was a recurring problem. Unlike their British counterparts, Spanish seamen were almost all pressed, which ensured that desertion was endemic. Consequently, ships were rarely docked or repaired, to minimise the opportunities for desertion, but this inevitably had an adverse effect on their seaworthiness and lifespan. There were many exemptions, and independently minded provinces resisted the press ferociously. Shortfalls were common, though these were made up to some extent by the recruitment of foreigners from France, Genoa and especially Ragusa. Commissioned officers were drawn largely from the ranks of the nobility, and many were soldiers; indeed, the Spanish navy had a parallel hierarchy of officers for soldiers and seamen, and it was usually soldiers who were appointed capitán de maryguerra, the captain of the ship. The highest office of all, that of captain-general of the Armada del Mar Océano, invariably went to aristocrats, such as Francisco de la Cueva, eighth Duke of Albuquerque, a former cavalry general and colonial viceroy who commanded the armada in 1662–4. Nevertheless, a few career seamen still made it to high command.
Britain was at war with Spain from 1654 until 1660. The Restoration brought a de facto cessation of hostilities in European waters, if not in the West Indies, where intermittent fighting continued until at least 1663. British support for Portugal in its war of independence, which lasted until 1668, kept relations strained, but they improved in the 1670s and 1680s, when Cadiz and Gibraltar were often used as bases for ships operating against the Barbary corsairs. But tensions occasionally resurfaced, and there were a number of tetchy disputes over the exchange of salutes between British ships and Spanish fleets or ports. Admiral Arthur Herbert had a number of clashes with the authorities at Cadiz, and in the early 1680s Captains Matthew Aylmer and Cloudesley Shovell were both forced to salute Spanish fleets.
Portugal nominally regained her independence from Spain in 1640, when a national revolt led to the proclamation of the Duke of Braganza as King John IV. A war of independence continued until 1668, but Portugal had already re-established itself as a major naval power. In 1650 its navy consisted of thirty-three warships of some 26,000 tons, a force comparable in size to those of Sweden, Denmark and even France. Thereafter it declined in size, until by 1690 it had only 11,000 tons of shipping; a major building programme in the decades that followed rectified the situation. The administration of the navy was controlled closely by the crown, and the service operated both warships for service in the Atlantic and large transport vessels for voyages to the East Indies. Portugal’s extensive overseas commitments (Brazil was recovered from Spain in 1654) meant that its naval resources were severely stretched, though in 1662 two colonies, Tangier and Bombay, were transferred to England in return for ongoing military assistance against the Spanish. Lisbon was often used by British warships for refitting, cleaning and replenishing stores and as a port of call for ships in transit to or from the Mediterranean. At least one Englishman commanded a Portuguese warship in this period: Jacob Reynolds, a Londoner, who was captain of the St Luis in 1661.
In March 1918, a United States navy memorandum characterized the Adriatic Sea as “practically an Austrian lake, in which no Allied naval operations of importance are undertaken.” The assessment came just four weeks after the Austro-Hungarian navy suffered its worst mutiny of the First World War, foreshadowing the complete collapse of the Dual Monarchy’s armed forces, and the empire itself, a mere eight months later. The domination of the Adriatic by Austria-Hungary, right up to the eve of the Armistice, remains one of the more remarkable, and overlooked, dimensions of the conflict of 1914-1918. Indeed, the Dual Monarchy hardly rated as a strong candidate to assert local naval power effectively, even during the long prewar period of peace. Compared to Europe’s other five great powers at the turn of the century, only Russia was less urbanized, only Russia and Italy less industrialized, and none had a less extensive coastline. None, too, was so dominated by another great power, as Austria-Hungary depended on its German ally not just for support and protection in the military and diplomatic sense, but also for nearly half of its foreign trade. Worst of all, Austria-Hungary was a multinational anomaly in a Europe dominated by great power nation states, and its own leaders – the House of Habsburg and the ministers serving it – had a long history of lacking either the imagination or the resolve to make the changes needed to ensure the long-term viability of the empire. In the one great attempt at political reform, the Compromise of 1867, the traditionally dominant German Austrian minority agreed to share power with the most recalcitrant of the host of nationalities they ruled, the Hungarians, but at the expense of all the others, thus saddling the empire with a constitutional structure that doomed it to failure. In the face of such obstacles, it appears all the more remarkable that Austria-Hungary was able to articulate maritime interests, develop overseas trade with partners as distant as China and Japan, and build a navy strong enough to safeguard the empire’s Adriatic littoral as well as show the flag overseas. Indeed, the unique coalition of special interests that supported Austro-Hungarian sea power – interests that reached far inland, and united a number of otherwise-hostile national groups – serves as an intriguing example of the sort of cooperation the multinational empire needed to counter the centrifugal forces of nationalism, the forces that ultimately caused its demise.
Background, to 1866
Austria acquired its first seaport, Trieste, in 1382, but its foothold on the Adriatic remained insignificant until the Napoleonic wars. In 1797 the demise of the Venetian Republic added Venetia, Istria, and Dalmatia to the Habsburg empire, an inheritance confirmed after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. From then until 1848, Venice served as base for the imperial navy, a modest force dominated by Venetians, with Italian as its language of command. While its focus remained on the Adriatic, the navy’s frigates and smaller sailing warships defended Austrian interests throughout the Mediterranean, bombarding a Moroccan pirate port in 1829 and supporting the British navy in the Near Eastern Crisis of 1840. Widespread desertions during the Venetian revolution of 1848-49 facilitated the navy’s rebirth as a multinational force based at Pola (Pula) on the Istrian peninsula, with German Austrians providing most of the officers and Croatians a plurality of the manpower. Venice remained Austrian until 1866 but its eclipse was well underway long before then. Trieste’s status as a free port (1719-1891) attracted Greek, Armenian, and Jewish merchants whose Eastern Mediterranean connections brought lasting benefits to the city. In 1836 Trieste became home to the empire’s first steamship company, the Austrian Lloyd, and in 1857 the completion of a railway across the Alps linked Trieste with Vienna and the nascent rail network of central Europe.
While Emperor Franz Joseph (reigned 1830-1916) had little appreciation for sea power, the empire’s maritime interests benefited from the patronage of his younger brother, Archduke Ferdinand Max, and later of his nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Ferdinand Max, better known to history as Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, entered naval service in 1851 and became commanding admiral just three years later. The archduke accelerated the navy’s transition from sail to steam power but kept Austria out of the European naval race of the 1850s, in which Britain and France built dozens of steam-powered wooden ships of the line. His wisdom paid dividends at the end of the decade, when the leading navies started to build armor-plated steam frigates as their capital ships, rendering all wooden battleships obsolete. Austria built just one steam ship of the line, the Kaiser (1858), which was eventually converted to an ironclad.
France’s victory over Austria in the War of 1859 opened the way for Sardinia-Piedmont to become the catalyst for a united Italy, proclaimed two years later. The Austrian navy spent the brief war blockaded by a superior French force, a humiliation that gave Ferdinand Max the justification he needed to add armored warships to the fleet. After the Sardinians ordered two ironclads from a French shipyard late in 1860, the archduke placed orders for the first pair of Austrian ironclads. Over the next six years Italy commissioned twelve ironclads, eleven of them built in foreign shipyards, while Austria struggled to respond with seven, all built in Trieste. But before the two rivals met in battle in the Adriatic, the Austrian navy received a call to action from an unexpected quarter. In 1864, when Austria joined Prussia and the smaller German states in a war against Denmark over the Schleswig-Holstein question, the Danes blockaded the north German ports. Denmark’s overwhelming naval superiority over Prussia left Austria holding the key to victory at sea for the German allies. The war’s decisive naval battle occurred on 9 May, when a small unarmored squadron under Captain Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, in the steam frigate Schwarzenberg, engaged Danish forces off Helgoland. The Danes subsequently withdrew to the Skagerrak, ending their blockade. The Austrian ironclads saw no action, but two of them were included in a larger force that followed Tegetthoff’s squadron to the North Sea, ensuring the Danes would not reimpose the blockade. The navy’s baptism of fire in 1864 also marked the emergence of Tegetthoff, elevated to rear admiral, as the leading figure within the Austrian navy, filling the void left when Ferdinand Max had departed for Mexico earlier that year.
The war of 1866 and its aftermath
After the War of 1864, the Austro-Prussian relationship deteriorated over a proposed reform of the German Confederation, and the two countries began to prepare for war. Prussia concluded an alliance with Italy and, as the price of securing French neutrality, Austria accepted Emperor Napoleon III’s demand that it cede Venetia to Italy after the war. The Austrians believed the cession would ensure Italian neutrality too, but Italy declared war anyway, hoping to acquire more than just Venetia. In the ensuing War of 1866, the Austrian army thus had to fight separate campaigns in the north (which it lost) and the south (which it won), while the naval action was limited to the Adriatic. The Italian ironclad fleet included just three armor-plated wooden ships along with nine ships of iron construction, and carried the latest imported ordnance; in contrast, Tegetthoff’s flagship, the 5,100-ton Erzherzog Ferdinand Max, and the six other Austrian ironclads were armor-plated wooden ships armed with guns from the ImperialRoyal Foundry at Mariazell. After the Prussians crushed the Austrian northern army at Königgrätz (3 July 1866), then marched to the outskirts of Vienna, the Austrians had to redeploy their victorious southern army to defend the imperial capital. The Italian army then occupied Venetia unopposed, and Italian leaders planned landings in Istria and Dalmatia, now claimed for Italy because they had once been part of the Venetian Republic. To clear the way for the landings, the Italians first planned to “take possession of an important station in the Adriatic,” the island of Lissa. They were on the verge of putting troops ashore when Tegetthoff arrived off the island with the Austrian fleet on 20 July. In the melee that followed, inferior Austrian guns and incompetent Italian gunners ensured that neither side would inflict serious damage on the other. Tegetthoff used ramming tactics to compensate for his weaker artillery, and at the climax of the four-hour engagement, his Erzherzog Ferdinand Max rammed and sank the Italian flagship Re d’Italia. A second Italian ironclad, the Palestro, caught fire and exploded as the Italian fleet withdrew. “The whole thing was chaos,” Tegetthoff confided afterward to a friend. “It is a miracle that we did not lose a ship.” The peace settlement that autumn awarded the Italians only Venetia, which they would have received without going to war at all.
The stunning victory earned Tegetthoff a promotion to vice admiral, but it was his role leading the mission to bring Maximilian’s body back from Mexico the following year that earned him the undying gratitude of Franz Joseph. In 1868 the emperor confirmed Tegetthoff as commander of the navy and lent his support to a fleet plan including fifteen ironclads. Tegetthoff’s premature death in 1871 left it unrealized, and also ushered in a long period of less effective naval leadership. His legacy included the widespread emulation of his ramming tactics, reflected in warship designs that continued to include exaggerated ram bows long after the increasing range of naval artillery rendered fanciful any notion of one warship ramming another in battle. More important for Austria-Hungary, the memory of Tegetthoff’s decisive victory against a superior Italian foe heartened the Habsburg fleet, and haunted the Italian navy, right down to 1918.
Meanwhile, amid the post-Tegetthoff malaise, the navy grew weaker than its Italian rival. It registered few accomplishments aside from being the first to adopt the self-propelled torpedo, invented by Johann Luppis, an Austrian captain, and developed by British expatriate Robert Whitehead at a factory at Fiume (Rijeka), Hungary’s leading port after the subdivision of the empire in 1867. The new torpedo technology laid the foundation for the Jeune École, the French navy’s “Young School,” which by the 1880s promoted a strategy of cruiser and torpedo warfare as the key to challenging British naval power worldwide. During that decade the Jeune École had a near-universal impact, as most of the great powers built many more cruisers and torpedo boats, and fewer battleships. Austria-Hungary embraced the new strategy after the conclusion of the Triple Alliance (1882), which united the Dual Monarchy with Germany and Italy, eliminating the navy’s anti-Italian raison d’etre. While Italy, thereafter, dreamed of becoming a Mediterranean power on a par with France, Austria-Hungary hedged its bets by developing a torpedo deterrent in the Adriatic to defend itself in case Italy changed its foreign policy. Between 1876 and 1893, the navy commissioned just two battleships. Otherwise, its largest new units were the 4,000-ton “ram cruisers” Kaiser Franz Joseph I (1890) and Kaiserin Elisabeth (1892), protected cruisers intended for service as flotilla leaders for torpedo boats. By the early 1890s Austria-Hungary had the weakest navy, by far, of any of the six great powers of Europe.
In the first years after Austria-Hungary resumed its battleship program in 1893, the buildup was justified not by a deterioration of relations with Italy but by the goal of putting the Triple Alliance in a better position to counter the new Franco-Russian alliance in the Mediterranean. Over the next thirteen years Austria-Hungary ordered twelve battleships: three each of the 5,600-ton Monarch class, the 8,300-ton Habsburg class, the 10,600-ton Erzherzog class, and the 14,500-ton Radetzky class. The navy also commissioned three armored cruisers. Aside from one battleship and one armored cruiser laid down in the Pola arsenal, all were built in Trieste by the Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino. Starting with the armored cruiser Maria Theresia (1895), the navy ordered all of its armor plate from Witkowitz of Moravia, and from 1901 it ordered its guns from Bohemia’s Skoda works rather than Germany’s Krupp. In 1901 the navy leadership won over traditionally anti-navy Hungarian leaders by promising Hungarian firms a share of naval spending equal to the Hungarian contribution to the joint budget of the Dual Monarchy. Thus, in a divided domestic political landscape a broad pro-navy coalition evolved which represented the interests of nationalities far from the Adriatic.
During the same years, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, became the empire’s leading naval enthusiast after travelling to Japan in 1892-93 aboard the cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth. The archduke’s patronage of the navy became more significant as Franz Joseph grew older and allowed his heir to assert more influence, especially over the armed forces. While Franz Ferdinand never openly opposed Austria-Hungary’s alignment with Germany, the degree of dependence troubled him more than it did most of the empire’s leaders. As a result, he viewed the development of overseas trade, and of the naval forces to support it, as crucial to the Dual Monarchy’s future as an autonomous great power. In the years after the completion of the Suez Canal (1869), the Austrian Lloyd had extended its service to the Far East, enabling Trieste to establish itself as a leading point of entry for European imports from Asia. Amid the ensuing prosperity, Trieste grew to become continental Europe’s fifth-busiest port (after Hamburg, Rotterdam, Marseilles, and Genoa). By 1913, the overall value of the city’s trade with Asia far surpassed the figure for the Asian trade of all ports of the kingdom of Italy combined. While the Lloyd eventually opened a line to Brazil it did not add service to North America, leaving a void that was filled after 1895 by the Austro-Americana, which ultimately handled over half of Trieste’s emigrant traffic with the United States. The Lloyd also never served the Western Mediterranean and Western European ports, leaving that trade to a Hungarian company, the Adria Line, established in 1882 at Fiume. The growth of Fiume, modest compared to Trieste, nevertheless sufficed to make it continental Europe’s seventh-busiest port by 1913.
Bombarding of Ancona by August von Ramberg, depicting Austro-Hungarian battleships shelling the Italian coastline in May 1915
At the turn of the century, Germany’s decision to challenge Britain’s hegemony at sea transformed the Triple Alliance into an anti-British bloc no longer attractive to Italy. The program outlined in Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s navy laws of 1898 and 1900 made the German fleet the world’s second-strongest as of 1905; by then, Britain had resolved its differences with France (1904) and would soon achieve a rapprochement with Russia (1907), creating the Triple Entente. A visit to Toulon by the Italian fleet in 1901 provided the first sign of a warming of Franco-Italian relations; Italian navy leaders soon considered Austria-Hungary, not France, to be their most likely future rival. Thus, for more than a decade before the outbreak of the First World War, Europe’s greatest naval race outside of the North Sea occurred in the Adriatic, where the nominal allies renewed their old rivalry. Counting all battleships laid down in the past twenty-five years, by 1905 Austria-Hungary had just twelve to Italy’s eighteen. As the navy scrambled to catch up, it continued to benefit from the patronage of Franz Ferdinand and the support of a broad domestic political coalition. The web of connections linking Skoda, Witkowitz, and the Stabilimento Tecnico Triestino coalesced into a first-rate naval-industrial complex, enabling Austria-Hungary to build larger warships much faster than Italy, indeed, faster than any country other than Britain and Germany.
In December 1906, the commissioning of Britain’s 18,110-ton Dreadnought – the largest, fastest, and most heavily armed warship yet built – rendered all existing battleships obsolete. The resulting clean slate gave fresh hope to inferior naval powers willing to pay the price to catch up with superior rivals, but Austria-Hungary decided to proceed with the construction of the three 14,500-ton Radetzky class pre-dreadnoughts, just funded in the autumn of 1906, before considering dreadnoughts of its own. Italy laid down its first dreadnought in June 1909, after learning that the Dual Monarchy was considering a fleet plan including four 20,000-ton dreadnoughts. A constitutional crisis in Hungary delayed the implementation of this plan, and Austria-Hungary finally laid down its first dreadnought, the Viribus Unitis, in July 1910, followed two months later by the Tegetthoff, for which the class of warships was named. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1910, the Italians laid down three more dreadnoughts, prompting Austro-Hungarian legislators to approve a second pair in March 1911, to give both navies four. Like the older battleships of the fleet, the Austro-Hungarian dreadnoughts were built entirely from domestic resources, at an exorbitant cost ultimately covered only by giving the navy one quarter of the entire defense outlay in the last fiscal year before the First World War. Work began on the third and fourth dreadnoughts in January 1912, the Prinz Eugen at Trieste and the Szent Istvan at Fiume’s Danubius shipyard, the first firm in the empire’s Hungarian half to receive a major warship contract. Italy responded later that winter with its fifth and sixth dreadnoughts. Thanks to its more efficient shipyards, in October 1912 the Dual Monarchy became the third European power to have a dreadnought in commission, when the Viribus Unitis entered service after a building time of just twenty-seven months. Italy’s first dreadnought, completed in forty-three months, finally entered service in January 1913.
Each navy would have three dreadnoughts in service by the time the war began in July 1914, but before then their rivalry took an unexpected turn. After the Italo-Turkish War (1911-12) temporarily strained Italy’s relations with the Triple Entente, the Italians, in December 1912, agreed to an extension of the Triple Alliance, then, in June 1913, to a Triple Alliance naval convention. War plans called for Admiral Anton Haus, the Austro-Hungarian naval commander, to head a battle fleet including the newest units of the Austro-Hungarian and Italian navies, joined by any German warships that happened to be in the Mediterranean, with the mission of engaging the French fleet and blocking the transport of colonial troops from North Africa to France. The convention became moot on 31 July 1914, when Italy condemned Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia as an act of aggression. Over the months that followed, Italy pursued a policy of neutrality that was increasingly hostile to the Dual Monarchy, before finally joining the Entente under the terms of the Treaty of London (26 April 1915).
The First World War
A week after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary secured the support of Germany for a war against Serbia, assuming that the threat of German intervention would suffice to keep Russia out of the conflict. Russia’s decision to stand behind the Serbs gave Germany the continental war it wanted and left Austria-Hungary fighting for German war aims under German direction. While the British navy, concentrated in the North Sea, imposed a blockade on Germany, the French blockaded the mouth of the Adriatic. The access to overseas trade that had been such an important corrective to the empire’s economic dependence on Germany thus ended, leaving Austria-Hungary even more at the mercy of its ally. Haus kept the fleet at Pola throughout the initial phase of the war, explaining to a subordinate that “so long as the possibility exists that Italy will declare war against us, I consider it my first duty to keep the fleet intact.” The French initially deployed dreadnoughts and pre-dreadnoughts in the lower Adriatic but grew less aggressive after Haus transferred his small submarine force from Pola to Cattaro (Kotor), the Austro-Hungarian base at the southern tip of Dalmatia. Following the torpedoing and near loss of the dreadnought Jean Bart in December 1914, the French navy sent no capital ships into the Adriatic. After a U-boat torpedoed and sank the armored cruiser Léon Gambetta off the southeastern tip of Italy on 27 April 1915, the French no longer deployed any warship larger than a destroyer north of a line approximately three hundred miles (480km) south of Cattaro.
The prudence of Haus in the face of a vastly superior foe left his fleet intact to take on the Italian navy. On the evening of 23 May 1915, within hours of Italy’s declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, he steamed out of Pola with the three dreadnoughts then in commission, backed by nine pre-dreadnoughts and a host of smaller warships, for a punitive bombardment of the Italian coastline. The Italians entered the war supremely confident but within two months assumed the same cautious posture as the French, after they lost the armored cruisers Amalfi and Garibaldi to submarine attacks within a span of eleven days in July. That autumn the Italians learned that their warships were not necessarily safe even in port, when Austrian saboteurs, on the night of 27 September, blew up the pre-dreadnought Benedetto Brin at Brindisi. During 1916 the Italians moved their dreadnoughts to Taranto, well out of harm’s way, and repeatedly pleaded for more help to contain the Austro-Hungarian threat. The French and British appeased them by sending more warships to the mouth of the Adriatic, enabling the Dual Monarchy’s “fleet in being” to tie down an ever-greater number of Allied warships that could have been put to better use elsewhere. Further Italian losses during 1916 only reinforced their timidity, most notably the dreadnought Leonardo da Vinci, sunk on 2 August at Taranto by Austrian saboteurs, and the pre-dreadnought Regina Margherita, which on 11 December fell victim to a minefield off Valona, Albania. By then, confirming that they had conceded the Adriatic to the Austrians, the Allies attempted to close the mouth of the sea by deploying the Otranto Barrage, anti-submarine nets dragged by trawlers and drifters commandeered from fishing fleets, backed by minefields, on the model of the Dover Barrage, deployed by the British to block German access to the English Channel from the North Sea.
After making Pola and Cattaro available to German U-boats during the first round of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1915, Austria-Hungary again supported the Germans after their fateful decision to resume the campaign early in 1917, despite the American intervention it was likely to provoke. The Austro-Hungarian navy agreed to send its own submarines out of the Adriatic to attack Allied convoys in the central Mediterranean, and to assign more personnel to support the German U-boats operating out of Cattaro. To weaken the antisubmarine barrage at the mouth of the Adriatic, the navy launched a series of ever-larger and more aggressive attacks, culminating in the Battle of the Otranto Straits (15 May 1917), a successful cruiser raid led by Captain Miklos Horthy that opened the straits to German and Austro-Hungarian submarines for the following six weeks. But for the Central Powers, the shift away from large-unit surface operations idled most of the sailors of their fleets and increased the likelihood of unrest aboard those ships. In July 1917 the first demonstrations swept the Austro-Hungarian fleet at Pola. Then, during January 1918, sailors of the fleet joined in a strike by workers in the Pola arsenal. Finally, on 1-3 February 1918, a serious mutiny temporarily paralyzed the naval forces at Cattaro. The uprising included sailors of all nationalities of the empire, reflecting the predominant influence of war weariness encouraged by socialist politics, which gave it more in common with the mutinies that swept the Russian and German navies in 1917 and 1918 than with the concurrent unrest in the Austro-Hungarian army and home front. Following the suppression of the Cattaro mutiny, four of its leaders were executed and almost four hundred others imprisoned. Afterward, a radical reorganization of the naval hierarchy left Horthy as fleet commander in place of the ineffective Admiral Maximilian Njegovan, who had succeeded Haus upon his death twelve months earlier. The Hungarian captain’s extraordinary promotion to rear admiral forced the twenty-eight senior officers who outranked him either to retire or to accept posts on land.
In the war’s last year, Horthy’s one bold stroke met with disaster on 10 June 1918, when the dreadnought Szent Istvan was torpedoed and sunk by an Italian torpedo boat while making its way down the Dalmatian coast from Pola, along with the other three dreadnoughts of the Tegetthoff class, for an attack on the Otranto Barrage. Horthy hoped the attack would force Italian and French dreadnoughts out of Taranto for a battle at the mouth of the Adriatic, but the sinking of the Szent Istvan – the only major warship lost by Austria-Hungary in the entire war – forced the cancellation of the operation. Afterward Austro-Hungarian morale plummeted, dashing Horthy’s hopes for a revitalizing victory. He continued to vouch for the battle-readiness of the fleet, at least through the summer months, but it never sortied again. In the autumn of 1918, while Germany made peace overtures to the Allies, the Dual Monarchy began to disintegrate internally as Emperor Charles (who had succeeded Franz Joseph in 1916) tried in vain to salvage the situation. On 30 October, one week after the Austro-Hungarian army crumbled in the face of the final Allied offensive on the Italian front, Charles ordered Horthy to turn over the navy to the Yugoslav national council, whose members by that time included some of the leading Slovenian and Croatian officers serving under him. The transfer ceremonies occurred at Pola the following day. The Allies ultimately did not allow postwar Yugoslavia, an amalgamation of Serbia with the former South Slav lands of Austria-Hungary, to keep the ships, which first were distributed among the victorious Allies as reparations, then, in most cases, scrapped. During the interwar years, Italy, in possession of Trieste, Fiume, and Pola, finally enjoyed the hegemony over the Adriatic that had been denied to it by the Habsburg empire’s effective development of local naval power.
While the demise of Austria-Hungary brought the dismantling of the naval industrial complex that had enabled it to build a great-power navy on domestic resources, the introduction of new international borders, tariffs, and currencies disrupted the trade networks that had linked the central European interior to Trieste and Fiume. Fatefully, a region already economically dependent on Germany in the days of the Dual Monarchy became even more so after being subdivided into a collection of smaller, weaker states. Most historians consider the demise of Austria-Hungary to have been inevitable; indeed, a number of contemporary observers felt the same way. But lost in the debate over the measures that could have been taken to prolong its history or remedy its problems is the question of whether measures that were taken, such as the development of maritime interests and naval power, actually enabled Austria-Hungary to last longer than it otherwise would have. It would not be unreasonable to conclude that if the Habsburg empire had not turned to the sea in the 19th century, it would not have survived into the 20th.
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The American navy played no part in the campaigns. The war created the navy, but it could not call into being a force of great power. The financial resources for a strong navy simply did not exist; nor for that matter did the conviction that a navy equal to Britain’s was needed.
The war at sea commenced before there was an American navy, with the first actions occurring within a few weeks of the battles at Lexington and Concord. Perhaps the earliest—in June—involved the citizens of Machias, a small port in Maine some 300 miles northeast of Boston. These Maine patriots captured his majesty’s schooner Margaretta, commanded by a young midshipman who had threatened to fire on the town if its liberty pole was not cut down. The midshipman reconsidered this threat shortly after making it, but too late to persuade the people of Machias not to respond. In an armed attack a group captured the Margaretta and two sloops which had accompanied her. The midshipman died in the defense of his command.
Most of the actions of sea-going patriots in the first year of the war were not against vessels of the Royal Navy. Almost all of his majesty’s ships were too heavily armed and too well sailed for the Americans to attack. The skippers of privateers from small Massachusetts ports preferred to engage transports and merchantmen carrying munitions and supplies to the British army in Boston. They did so to good effect—in all they brought in fifty-five prizes in the first year of the war.
George Washington commissioned many of the privateers making these captures. Washington’s awareness of the importance of the sea to the land campaigns in America probably surpassed that of any of the British commanders he faced in the war. But for much of the war his strategic ideas about the use of the sea could not really affect operations, for he had no fleet. Until the French entered the war, there was no possibility that he would ever obtain one.
He could use what was available, however. There was an abundance of inlets and ports along the American coast and there was a large supply of small vessels—brigs, sloops, and schooners—as well as of shipwrights and sailors. On the eve of the Revolution, American shipyards built at least a third of the merchant ships sailing under the Union Jack. American forests yielded oak for hulls and decks and pine for masts. Sails and rope were also made in America.
The most immediate way to use the sea was to strike at British merchant ships, not only to disrupt the supply of the army under siege in Boston but also to add to the meager supply of American weapons and munitions. The first ship Washington sent into Continental service, the Hannah, a seventy-eight-ton schooner, failed in both missions. Nicholson Broughton, a Marblehead shipper, took command of the Hannah when she entered the service in August 1775. Broughton soon displayed a propensity for capturing ships owned by Americans and calling them the enemy’s. This inclination led him to make a voyage to Nova Scotia with Captain John Selman, a man of similar tendencies. These two seadogs plundered Charlottetown, a small village, and kidnapped several leading citizens whom they proudly brought to Washington’s headquarters in Cambridge. Washington, embarrassed by this behavior, released the prisoners and quietly let his sea captains’ commissions expire at the end of December
Broughton and Selman were not alone in seizing the main chance. Many American skippers used any pretext to take the ships of friendly merchants. They also captured British ships which were privately employed and not engaged in supplying the army in Boston.
More captains acted in the Continental interest. One, John Manley of the Lee, made a capture in late November which delighted Washington and the Americans besieging Boston. Manley ran down the Nancy, an ordnance brig of 250 tons, bound for Boston with 2000 muskets fitted with bayonets, scabbards, ramrods, thirty-one tons of musket shot, plus bags of flints, cartridge boxes, artillery stores, a thirteen-inch brass mortar and 300 shells. Not long afterward, Washington appointed Manley a commodore and gave him command of schooners charged with the responsibility of patrolling Massachusetts waters.
Disposing of prizes and cargoes before independence provided Washington and the privateersmen with a delicate problem. Since throughout 1775 and in early 1776 the possibility existed that the dispute with Britain might be settled short of independence, the question of how to sell the captures had to be faced. They could not be sold in the old vice admiralty courts. Could Americans in fact sell what they had seized without formal admiralty proceedings? Not that they expected the British to be understanding and sympathetic if the old rules were observed. They were going to take British property and hold prisoners for a time whether the two sides eventually reconciled or not. But who had jurisdiction over the captures? Was there a Continental responsibility or should they rely on provincial admiralty courts? Eventually the Massachusetts Provincial Congress came to their aid and established admiralty courts where systematic procedures for disposal of ships and cargoes were worked out.
Massachusetts acted in part because the Continental Congress, groping toward a naval policy just as it groped toward independence, had failed to respond swiftly. During the year that followed the opening of the war, Congress first seemed to suggest that the naval war should be the business of the states. And several states approved plans for fitting out armed vessels which were to attack British transports. By autumn 1775 a small-scale building program existed in several states; and Washington had six armed craft nosing about the waters off Boston. Congress itself in November ordered that four ships should be put into its service and began to frame a policy for the disposal of captures. At the end of the year it directed that thirteen frigates should be built for an American navy.
As far as Congress was concerned its vessels and those of the states should strike only those British vessels which had attacked American commerce or which were supplying the British army. Congress was not inclined to pass its own prohibitory act until it received news of Parliament’s. As it began the move toward declaring independence in 1776, it also moved toward a full-scale naval war.
Congress always appeared to believe that in a committee it possessed the most useful instrument for making war. Thus in November 1775 when it first ordered that merchant ships should be fitted out as armed cruisers, it assigned the task to a naval committee. As Congress’s ambitions and its building program expanded so also did its administrative committees. The naval committee sank in administrative waters early the next year, only to be replaced by a marine committee. Much of the actual work of establishing a fleet was done between 1777 and 1781 by a Navy Board of the Eastern Department. This board of three, from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, did the rough work of getting ships and men together. Located in Boston, the board tried to stay out of Congress’s way while carrying out its orders. To a remarkable degree it succeeded in both operations. But Congress was not satisfied with regional efforts and certainly not with regional control; late in 1779 it created the Board of Admiralty to give overall direction to the navy.
Modeled on the British Admiralty Board, the American creation included non-congressional members as well as delegates from Congress. Throughout its short life two men, Francis Lewis, a merchant and former member of Congress from New York, and William Ellery, a delegate from Rhode Island, did most of its work. These two tried to add to the number of frigates which Congress had authorized and to persuade Congress to support the navy. Congress, however, had lost interest in the navy and found uses for public money elsewhere.
The navy shrank steadily. In the summer of 1780 Congress transferred control of what remained, a handful of frigates, to General Washington, intending that their actual control would be vested in Admiral Ternay, the French officer who had brought General Rochambeau and his army across the Atlantic to Newport earlier in the year. The next year the administration of these American vessels was removed completely from the admiralty board and vested with the superintendent of finance, Robert Morris. With this transfer any possibility that the navy might gain a powerful fleet vanished. Morris had more important problems to contend with, and he like most others saw little need for a navy in 1781.
This organizational history of the early navy explains the failure of American naval power in the Revolution. Aside from the achievements of the “cruising war,” Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s term for strikes of privateers, the American efforts on the ocean were paltry. The privateering, however, did make a difference by making the problem of supplying their army more difficult for the British and by capturing arms and stores which Washington’s army put to good use.
A part of the Continental navy—the regular navy—also raided commerce, and one commander did more—struck fear into the British in the home islands that their coastal towns and cities would be destroyed. The commander was John Paul Jones, a Scot with remarkable courage and daring.66
Jones was born John Paul at Arbigland in Kirkbean, a parish of the Lordship of Galloway—he added Jones after he came to America. Born in 1747, he left his birthplace when he was thirteen years old. In 1761 he was apprenticed to a merchant-shipowner of Whitehaven, an English port across the Solway. There he began his great career on the sea—as a ship’s boy on the Friendship, which over the next three years made her way back and forth between England and Virginia, usually with a stop in the West Indies, where rum and sugar were taken aboard, carried to Virginia, where tobacco and occasionally lumber and pig iron were picked up for the return to Whitehaven.
John Paul’s merchant-master went broke in 1764 and released his apprentice from service. Paul spent most of the next three years on slave ships. The slave trade was a brutal business, and Paul apparently left it with relief, obtaining his discharge in Kingston, Jamaica, and sailing for home in 1768 on a Scottish ship. On this voyage both master and mate died. No one on board, except John Paul, could navigate. He took over and brought her safely home.
Pleased by this demonstration of seamanship and command, the owner put Paul aboard another ship as master. He was only twenty-one years old, but he had none of the softness of youth. Outward bound in 1769, he had the ship’s carpenter, Mungo Maxwell, whipped with the cat-o’-ninetails. Maxwell left the ship after she arrived at Tobago and lodged a complaint against Paul. When the case was dismissed, the disappointed Maxwell, apparently in good health, sailed for home; but he took sick and died. When Paul returned home the sheriff arrested him on Maxwell’s father’s charge of murder. Paul did not completely clear himself until he returned to Tobago and was able to obtain a statement from the judge that the lash had not contributed to Mungo Maxwell’s death.
An incident in 1773 proved even more serious. Paul, in command of a merchant ship, arrived at Tobago only to be faced with a mutiny. He ran the ringleader through with his sword and then fled the ship and the island and headed for the North American mainland. By summer 1775 he was in Philadelphia, a city in rebellion but a place he found to be a good deal more hospitable than Tobago.
Joseph Hewes, a delegate to the Continental Congress from North Carolina, eased John Paul Jones’s way in Philadelphia. Jones, the name he added to conceal his identity, had met Hewes while on the run from Tobago. A sailor in search of a billet, preferably a command in the Continental navy, could choose no better friend than Joseph Hewes, chairman of the Marine Committee, which selected the officers for the Continental navy.
Jones wanted a command. He wanted to fight in the cause of the united colonies. He began to espouse the principles of liberty in these months—and he never really stopped. Early in December 1775 he received a commission as first lieutenant in the Continental navy assigned to the Alfred.
The Alfred saw considerable action in the next few months, and Jones performed well. In May 1776 he was given the sloop Providence to command, with a temporary rank of captain. He drove the Providence hard, took many prizes, fought the ship well when opportunity showed itself, and gradually began to impress Congress with his ability.
Congress proved its regard in June 1777, giving Jones command of the sloop of war Ranger and ordering him to France where he was expected to pick up another ship and to raid enemy commerce around the British Isles. Jones sailed later in the summer and anchored at Paimboeuf, the deep-water port of Nantes. It soon became clear that John Paul Jones did not fancy himself to be just another raider of British merchantmen. He aimed for bigger targets: He would raid British ports and tie up the Royal Navy. By April of the next year, with the Ranger refitted and now at Brest, he was ready. Sailing into the Irish Sea, he decided to strike Whitehaven, familiar ground to him and surrounded by familiar waters. Early on April 23 he entered the port and found it crowded with ships. He put ashore a small landing party and set afire a collier. The blaze failed to spread, and the town was soon aroused and excited. There was no way to deal effectively with the crowds that gathered and apparently little chance of doing more physical damage even though there was no armed opposition present.
Jones next took the Ranger across Solway Firth to St. Mary’s Isle—it was now mid-morning—with the intention of abducting the Earl of Selkirk. As things turned out, he was not at home, and the landing party carried off nothing more valuable than the family silver. But the next day the Ranger did capture something of importance—the sloop of war Drake, a well-armed vessel encountered off Belfast Lough. The Drake fought effectively for two hours—her captain died with a bullet in his brain, and her executive officer was seriously wounded—but the Ranger fought more effectively.
By May 8, Jones had the Ranger safely back at Brest. Her voyage, though it did no great damage either to British ports or commerce, had been a sensational success. The psychological damage—the blow she struck to British pride and spirit—was extensive, though there is no evidence that her raid produced a change in the deployment of royal warships. British newspapers gave the raid a great play with shouts of outrage—at Paul Jones—and grunts of scorn—at the navy’s inability to run him down.
The shouts soon after in Paris were in a lighter tone. The Ranger’s voyage had made Jones the lion of French society, the delight of the French government, and the ecstasy of French ladies. Jones got a larger ship, the Duras, to command, which he renamed the Bonhomme Richard in honor of Benjamin Franklin.
John Paul Jones could be patient, and he could be crafty, but he preferred to exercise other qualities. He was always an ambitious man. John Adams, who saw something of him at this time, said that he was “the most ambitious and intriguing officer in the American navy. Jones has Art, and Secrecy, and aspires very high.” Adams expected the unexpected from him. “Excentricities and Irregularities are to be expected from him—they are in his Character, they are visible in his Eyes. His Voice is soft and still and small, his Eye has keenness, and Wildness and Softness in it.” Adams saw, and heard, Jones in polite society—never aboard a ship in battle, which accounts for his impression that Jones spoke in a “soft and still and small” voice. But he was right about the eyes. They were sharp and could blaze with wildness, as the bust by Houdon and the portrait by Charles Willson Peale suggest. The eyes stared out from a strong face with a firm, prominent nose and a well-proportioned jaw. The eyes were important to a commander of rough and sometimes rebellious men, for Jones was not large, probably no taller than five feet, five inches, but he was lean and hard. The look of ferocity that he could throw out cowed weaker men.
This tough and resourceful commander sailed with seven vessels on August 14, 1779, from Groix Roadstead, intending to create as much havoc as possible in the British Isles. His ship, the Bonhomme Richard, was the largest ship—probably around 900 tons—he had commanded. She was getting old, and with all of her sails piled on, was still slow, but after he armed her she could throw out heavy fire in battle. She mounted 6 eighteen-pounders, 28 twelve-pounders (16 of them new models), and 6 nine-pounders. Of the remaining ships of his command, two were frigates, one was a corvette, one a cutter, and two were privateers. These last two took off on their own shortly after the squadron hit the open sea. Jones was not surprised; he had guessed that they would resist his orders in favor of free-lancing. Nor could he really depend on all the others for instant obedience to his orders. Their skippers were French and, perhaps, were a little jealous of their American commander. One, Pierre Landais, captain of the frigate Alliance, hated Jones. Landais has been described as being half-mad; on this voyage he was destined to behave as a full-fledged lunatic or as a traitor.
The squadron made its way at a leisurely pace to the southwest Irish coast and then turned north. On August 24, Landais came aboard the Richard and told Jones he intended to operate just as he pleased. Within the next few days the cutter Cerf disappeared. Jones had sent her off to find several small boats he had dispatched to reconnoiter the coast. The Cerf got lost and eventually made her way back to France.
Not everything went sour: the squadron captured prizes as it proceeded up the coast, and on September 3, just north of the Orkney Islands turned to the south. Off the Firth of Forth, on the east coast of Scotland, Jones decided to put a landing party ashore at Leith, Edinburgh’s seaport. His purpose was to threaten Leith with fire and collect a large ransom. The city fathers were terrified by the appearance of his ships, but a gale, which forced Jones’s ships out of the firth, saved them from having to buy him off. If nothing more had occurred, the cruise would have been reckoned a success. It had yielded prizes, it had produced fear in the home islands, and it had forced the British Admiralty to send ships of the Royal Navy in fruitless pursuit of John Paul Jones.
What happened next made everything else seem unimportant. On September 23, off Flamborough Head on the Yorkshire coast, the Bonhomme Richard fought one of the great battles in American naval history. At mid-afternoon of that day, the squadron sighted a large convoy escorted by the frigate Serapis (rated at 44 guns but carrying 50) and sloop of war Countess of Scarborough (20 guns). The Serapis, a new copper-bottomed frigate was commanded by Captain Richard Pearson, RN, a brave and competent officer.
Jones soon realized that he would have to defeat these escorts before he could attack the merchantmen. The wind was light, and it was sunset before he closed to firing range. The Alliance ignored Jones’s signal to “form line of battle,” as did the corvette Vengeance, a small lightly armed vessel. Frigate Pallas threatened to follow their example, sailing away rather than toward the enemy, but then put about and engaged the Countess of Scarborough. The Richard faced the Serapis, a more heavily armed ship, alone.
The battle opened with both ships on the same course, the Serapis off the Richard’s starboard bow. Early in the fight two of the Richard’s old eighteen-pounders burst with terrible effect on the crew serving them and on the entire heavy battery. This event convinced Jones that in order to win the battle, he would have to grapple with the Serapis and board her. The Bonhomme Richard was outgunned even before her eighteen-pounders exploded and, since it was unsafe to use the four that remained, could not win by trading salvos with her enemy. Had she been nimbler, Jones, a resourceful seaman, might have used her quickness to escape a heavy battering while punching the Serapis with the 28 twelve-pounders. But the Richard was anything but quick, and a heavy slugging match could only send her to the bottom. Captain Pearson, in contrast, attempted to maneuver in such a way as to bring his superior firepower to bear while keeping the Richard away.
Just after the eighteen-pounders burst, Jones tried to board Serapis on her starboard quarter. By skillful ship-handling he brought the Richard close, but the boarders were driven off by the English sailors. Pearson then tried to bring Serapis across the bow of the Richard, only to have Jones put his vessel’s bowsprit into the stern of the Serapis. It was apparently at this moment that Pearson called to Jones asking if he wanted to surrender, and received Jones’s magnificent reply, “I have not yet begun to fight.”
More intricate sailing followed by both ships with topsails backed and filled, vessels falling back, darting ahead (in the case of the Serapis), or lumbering in either direction (in the case of the Richard). At a crucial juncture, the Serapis ran her bowsprit into the Richard’s rigging and a fluke of her starboard anchor caught on the Richard’s starboard quarter. The two vessels were now locked together, starboard to starboard, with their guns pounding away. Below decks the advantage belonged to the Serapis; her batteries did terrible damage to the Richard. But on the open deck and in the topsails the Richard clearly had the upper hand. Jones’s French marines used their muskets to deadly effect, and the American sailors hanging above them poured fire and grenades down onto the Serapis. Before long only her dead remained above deck, and her crew serving the batteries below gradually gave way to the bullets and grenades that came from overhead, as the Americans worked their way onto the English topsails.
Several times, both ships caught fire and the shooting fell off as their crews attempted to put them out. Serapis took a frightful blow when William Hamilton, one of the bravest of the Richard’s sailors, dropped a grenade through one of her hatches into loose powder cartridges. The explosion that followed killed at least twenty men and wounded many others. This blast may have shattered Captain Pearson’s resolve; if it did not, the prospect of losing his mainmast shook him to the point of yielding. Jones had directed the fire of his nine-pounders against the mainmast—and had helped serve one of the guns himself.
It was now 10:30 P.M. The Richard was filling with water; her crew had suffered heavy losses; but her captain would not strike his flag, though several of his men begged him to give up. On the Serapis the condition of the crew was no better though the ship was in no danger of sinking. Pearson’s courage, however, trickled away with the blood of his men, and he himself tore down his ensign.
John Paul Jones had carried the fight to his enemy and had won through courage, spirit, and luck. Grappling with the Serapis had, in fact, been accidental though of course he had badly wanted to close with her. On the other hand, luck had also served the Serapis, for Captain Pierre Landais of the Alliance had decided to enter the fight early in the evening—against his own commander. The result was the delivery of three broadsides at close range into the Bonhomme Richard. Somehow Jones shook off these blows and everything that the Serapis could hit him with.
The casualties were dreadful on both sides—150 killed and wounded out of a crew of 322 on the Richard, and about 100 killed and 68 wounded out of 325 on the Serapis. Two days after the battle Jones abandoned the Richard. She was a gallant old vessel, but she could not be saved. Jones transferred his flag to the Serapis, and joined by the Pallas, which had taken the Countess of Scarborough, sailed for friendly waters.
Nothing in Jones’s career ever equaled his magnificent performance of September 23. He left Europe in December of the following year, leaving behind an admiring France and coming home to countrymen who acclaimed him. They needed heroes, and they found a great one in John Paul Jones.
Scale of Royal and other State Navies (displacement tonnage 000s)
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.
There would not be another Revenge until the Newbury was renamed in 1660.
Like the stunned silence that follows the finale of a dramatic piece of music, or the last act of a great play, a pregnant pause hangs over the last act of the great Revenge tragedy and, as on those occasions when no one wants to be the first to break the silence, no order was given over the next fifty-nine years for a replacement to be constructed.
Perhaps what was also awaited was not only the time but the man, and the man who was to confer the famous name on another ship could overmatch Sir Richard Grenville in élan, dash and in lineage. He was, after all, the nephew of King Charles I.
Prince Rupert of the Rhine, son of Frederick V, elector of Palatine and King of Bohemia, and of Elizabeth Stuart, is probably best remembered for his inspirational leadership of Royalist cavalry during the English Civil War, his precipitous charge at the Battle of Edgehill becoming a trademark for brilliance bordering on recklessness, his gleeful pursuit of the enemy leaving the Royalist centre dangerously exposed. After defeats at both Marston Moor and Naseby, the favourite was dismissed by his patron, Charles I, and, after the Royalist surrender, banished from England. The erstwhile cavalry commander now took on a different variety of steed and, as Admiral and General-at-Sea, he took command of the Royalist fleet in 1648.
After occasional skirmishes with the Commonwealth fleet round the British Isles, Rupert set sail across the Bay of Biscay to Lisbon, where he was welcomed by the newly crowned King John IV, who, while maintaining cordial relations with the English Commonwealth, was predisposed to support the English Royalist cause.
Rupert and the Royalist fleet proceeded to play a game of cat and mouse with the Commonwealth fleet under Bacon, sent to blockade Rupert. The Portuguese played a delicate game of attempting to aid Rupert without antagonizing the Commonwealth. After various brushes between the two fleets, and several unsuccessful attempts to get away, Rupert finally made his escape on 12 October 1650, much to the relief of the Portuguese.
After setting off into the Atlantic, Rupert sailed down the south coast of Spain, hunting English ships in ports such as Málaga and Motríl. Rupert in the Constant Reformation and his brother, Maurice, in the Swallow were not, however, to be found. At this point they were in pursuit of a merchantman, the Marmaduke, which was attempting to escape south towards the coast of Africa. This merchantman was, at 400 tons, well armed and full of fight. Rupert and Maurice caught up with her by nightfall and fierce hostilities flared in the morning. The battle raged until about midday when the Marmaduke finally surrendered due to the death of her captain.
The Marmaduke, now a prize, then accompanied Rupert and Maurice to Formentera. Not finding the other Royalist ships at the agreed rendezvous, the two princes and their prize sailed on towards Cagliari in Sardinia, whereupon the Constant Reformation became separated from the other ships in a storm. Maurice sailed to Toulon with the prize where he was eventually joined by Rupert, who had pulled in to Messina in Sicily to repair storm damage.
At Toulon, Rupert set about repairing and refitting the prize ship, which was renamed the Revenge of Whitehall. With this and four other ships, Rupert sailed on 7 May, deceiving the lurking Commonwealth fleet under the command of Penn by first sailing east and then doubling back close to the coast of Africa, before heading into the Atlantic.
Although there was some dispute among the captains as to their destination, they finally arrived at the Azores, an appropriate location for the second Revenge.
Rupert’s squadron landed at Sâo Miguel and he made this the base of his operations. Soon afterwards, however, one of his ships, the St Michael the Archangel, deserted and sailed off for England.
On 26 January, the squadron sailed for the Cape Verde islands, Prince Maurice having moved into the Revenge. After this, they sailed down to the Gambia where the Portuguese pilots managed to run both the Swallow and the Revenge aground. At this stage Marshall moved across to the Revenge.
At Mayo, in the Cape Verde islands, two English ships anchored near the Revenge, which promptly captured them and took their crews prisoner. This was to prove the undoing of the Revenge, for William Coxon, the mate of the Supply, one of the captured ships, organized the prisoners to take over the ship. Once this had been achieved, they sailed for England.
Thus ended the exploits of the second Revenge in the Azores, having revisited, like a ghost, the hunting ground of her illustrious namesake.
For Rupert, too, the time was approaching when he should return to northern waters. After a visit to the West Indies, Rupert’s squadron approached the Azores, only to be fired upon by the Portuguese authorities who had decided in favour of the English Commonwealth.
Rupert’s sally into the Mediterranean and the Atlantic was effectively a sideshow, with such little strategic interest as to be barely worth more than a few lines in a general history of the period. The interest it does have is mainly due to the sheer force of personality of Rupert and the passing presence of the ship named Revenge.
Rupert sailed to France and joined the court of the English King-in-waiting, Charles II. The captured Revenge was bought by the Admiralty in 1652 and renamed the Marmaduke. There would not be another Revenge until the Newbury was renamed in 1660.
While the Royalist fleet had been engaged on its somewhat fruitless diversions, significant developments were underway in the Commonwealth Navy, largely due to the skills and experience of two Generals-at-Sea, Robert Blake and George Monck.
Blake had led the hunt for Rupert in the Mediterranean and Rupert was fortunate to have escaped him, for Blake’s exceptional talents were to turn the English Navy into an elite fighting force and in the forthcoming First Dutch War he won three out of four engagements with the distinguished Admiral Tromp, between May 1652 and June 1653. George Monck, who had fought for Charles I and who was to be a lead player in the Restoration of his son, although primarily an expert on land warfare, employed his organizational and tactical skills to develop a formula for naval engagements, to be known as the ‘Fighting Instructions’.
A set of fighting instructions had been issued by Edward Cecil, Viscount Wimbledon (1572–1638) in 1625 for the expedition against Cadiz, and these contained one of the first references to fleet line ahead, though as has been noted above, a form of line ahead had been performed by Howard’s ships in their attack on the San Martín of the Spanish Armada. The realization of this tactical idea was to come in the first Dutch War, not only under the influence of Blake and Monck but of William Penn (1621–1670), whose formulation of fighting instructions was to be the basis of James Duke of York’s ‘Instruction for the better Ordering His Majesties Fleet in Sayling of 1673’.
To begin with, however, despite the previous attempts to formulate fighting instructions, the first engagements with the Dutch at sea, concerning disputes over the honour to the flag (as stipulated in the Navigation Act of 1651) were haphazard.
Ptolemy’s fleet, the appropriated Phoenician navy, made the Egyptian dynast a powerful force in the Aegean.
The strategic location of Rhodes and Cyprus, as we have said, made control of both of them desirable. Cyprus was also rich in grain, copper, and especially timber, which Ptolemy needed for his fleet, and he and the other Ptolemies always worked to maintain some sort of influence over the island. Likewise, Rhodes was an important commercial center for Egyptian grain, and a transit point for all goods shipped to Egypt throughout the Hellenistic period. The large number of Rhodian amphorae found in Alexandria testifies to the commercial contacts between the two places, and the Rhodians probably furnished Ptolemy with warships and let him use their island as a port for his fleet. 60 Both islands had been allies of Alexander and had close ties to Ptolemy, but then again, the Rhodians had made alliances with practically every Successor at some point. Cyprus especially had been a bone of contention between Ptolemy and Antigonus for years, so if Demetrius were to take both islands he would strike a blow at Egypt’s economy and security, as well as assuring Antigonid control of the eastern Mediterranean.
In the spring of 306, Demetrius set out to Cyprus with 15,000 infantry, 400 cavalry, and at least 163 warships. En route he tried to win over the Rhodians, but they refused his diplomatic advances, preferring to maintain their amity (and trading prerogatives) with Ptolemy. Both Antigonus and Demetrius viewed the Rhodian reaction as a causus belli, and decided to deal with the island later. Demetrius sailed on to Cyprus, landing near Salamis with his infantry and cavalry. Close to that city he did battle with Menelaus, Ptolemy’s brother, who had 12,000 infantry and 800 cavalry, and defeated him. Menelaus escaped into Salamis and managed to send urgent word to his brother Ptolemy before Demetrius laid siege to the city. His enormous siege engines, taller than the ramparts of the city, included the fearsome, multistoried armored helepolis, designed by Epimachus of Athens; at over 100 feet high, with a 40-foot base, it could launch missiles weighing over 175 pounds a staggering 650 feet.
Ptolemy sailed at once to relieve his brother with at least 140 warships and 200 transport vessels carrying 10,000 troops. Landing at Paphos, he received reinforcements from some of the Cypriot cities and made plans to join up with Menelaus’ own fleet of sixty warships. But Demetrius moved quickly to barricade Menelaus in the harbor of Salamis, and then as Ptolemy arrived (probably unaware of Menelaus’ fate), Demetrius attacked him. Both fleets included huge quadriremes and quinquiremes, so their enormity of size, numbers, and the other armaments must have made the entire scene breathtaking in scale. The epic naval battle, characterized by daredevil prow on prow ramming of the warships and Demetrius’ use of catapults mounted on ships (reminiscent of Alexander’s use of siege towers and battering rams on boats at Tyre), provided “an excellent case study for how best to attack or defend a coastal city with the aid of a fleet,” and became a “textbook example” for the next century. Demetrius’ left wing successfully drove back Ptolemy’s right wing, enabling Demetrius to maneuver into the space and attack Ptolemy’s center, which also was pushed back (precisely what Ptolemy had intended to do to his opponent’s line). Ptolemy had no choice, given Demetrius’ relentless assault, but to retreat to Citium in utter defeat.
Ptolemy’s losses are not properly known, but at least forty warships and one hundred supply ships were captured and eighty damaged, with 8,000 men taken as prisoners of war, to Demetrius’ twenty ships damaged. Menelaus’ only option now was to surrender Cyprus to Demetrius, and Ptolemy to return to Egypt with his tail between his legs, although “not at all humbled in spirit by the defeat.” Thus Demetrius had his revenge for his defeat six years earlier at Gaza, and the Antigonids now became the dominant naval power. Among the captives at Salamis were Menelaus and Leontiscus (Ptolemy’s son by Thais), whom Demetrius allowed to leave unharmed and without a ransom. Another captive was the courtesan (hetaira) Lamia, who had accompanied Ptolemy to Cyprus, perhaps as his mistress, but had been left behind by him there. Although older than Demetrius and “past her prime,” she seduced him and became one of his numerous mistresses in Athens for many years.
Ptolemy would not regain his ascendancy in the Aegean until 294. He still had Egypt and Cyrene, and some cities in the Peloponnese, but these were far from the possessions he had painstakingly accumulated over the past sixteen years. Worse was to come later that year when, Antigonus and Demetrius decided to invade Egypt to topple him from power once and for all.
Soon after news of his son’s crushing victory at Salamis in 306 reached him, Antigonus, at the grand old age of 79, began to wear a diadem and took the title of king, the first of the Successors to do so. He then sent a diadem to his son in Cyprus and allowed him to be called king as well. Lysimachus, Seleucus, Cassander, and Ptolemy quickly proclaimed themselves kings so that they would not be considered inferior, as satraps, to Antigonus and Demetrius as kings.
Antigonus’ move formally ended the mirage of satrapal status. Although Justin claims the Successors had refused the title of king “as long as sons of the king [Alexander the Great] had been able to survive. such was the respect they felt for Alexander that, even when they enjoyed the royal power, they were content to forego the title `king’ as long as Alexander had a legitimate heir,” Alexander IV, the “legitimate heir,” had been put to death four years previously. That it took that long for the Successors to call themselves kings of their territories was perhaps because they had brought down the dynasty to which they had sworn allegiance and had lived under all their lives. The world of 306 was very different from that of 310, and appearance could now give way to the reality of kingship. Suddenly this new world went from no king to a multitude of them. Ptolemy’s army apparently acclaimed him king. Exactly when this occurred is unknown, and scholars are split into two camps over a date in 306 or 304.
The ancient sources seem to suggest that Ptolemy (and the others) became kings in the same year as Antigonus so as to match his authority. Since Ptolemy was an ambitious ruler, we would not expect him to have been content in a subordinate position once the others were calling themselves kings. In fact, Ptolemy even backdated his kingship to include his years as satrap after Alexander’s death in 323. But would Ptolemy have assumed the kingship in 306, when Demetrius had so recently and decisively defeated him off Salamis? This question has given rise to the belief that Ptolemy became king only in 304, after Demetrius’ lengthy siege of Rhodes had ended, during which Ptolemy had given the defenders valuable assistance and had also warded off an Antigonid invasion of Egypt. Thus he was again enjoying the sorts of victories that people would expect of a king. Moreover, the year 305/304 fits in with the chronology of Egyptian documents, which dated his kingship to that year, as the Egyptian year ran from November 7 to November 6, and the siege of Rhodes was over by the spring of 304. He may have become king on the first day of the Egyptian New Year in 305 (November 7), but did not celebrate his accession until the anniversary of Alexander’s death, which fell in the following year; this in turn became the anniversary of his accession.
When Alexander left Egypt in 331 BC, he appointed two Egyptians, Doloaspis and Petisis, as governors – the second soon resigned – while Cleomenes of Naucratis, a local Greek, was in charge of collecting the tribute and governing Arabia. Four thousand of Alexander’s soldiers were stationed in garrisons at Memphis and Pelusium, with Pantaleon of Pydna and Megacles of Pella as garrison commanders (phrourarchoi), respectively, while the generals (strategoi) of the army were the Macedonian Peucestas and Balacros, according to Arrian (Anabasis 3.5.5), or Peucestas and the Rhodian Aeschylus, according to Curtius (4.8.4-5). In addition, Polemon was the admiral (nauarchos) of a fleet of thirty triremes, and the Aetolian Lycidas was in charge of the mercenaries (xenoi). The troops were probably Macedonians and Greek mercenaries, since their commanders were drawn from both groups. From the death of Alexander in 323 BC to the end of the fourth century BC, Diodorus is our most comprehensive source. According to him, Ptolemy went to Egypt without an army but with friends who were experienced officers. He also hired mercenaries with 8,000 talents he took from the Egyptian treasury (Diodorus 18.14.1). Two lucky events gave Ptolemy, still satrap, an opportunity to increase the number of his soldiers. First, his conquest of Cyrenaica in 322/1 BC with land and naval forces allowed him to hire Cyrenean soldiers (Diodorus 18.21.7-9). Ptolemy probably expanded his fleet by seizing ships abandoned by Thibron, the Macedonian commander vanquished in Cyrene, and by building new ones thanks to treaties with dynasts in Cyprus (320 BC). He also had access to building material as a consequence of his brief occupation of Coele-Syria (319/18-314 BC). Second, in 320 BC a large number of invading troops led by Perdiccas joined the Ptolemaic army, either expecting a better deal from Ptolemy or because they were left with no employer at Perdiccas’ death (Diodorus 18.21.7-9, 18.33-6). In addition, Ptolemy probably took over a few elephants with their mahouts.
A few years later, in 315 BC, Ptolemy was able to send 13,000 mercenaries and 100 ships to Cyprus and later to Caria, while keeping an army in Palestine (Diodorus 19.62.3-4). These mercenaries must have fought with Ptolemy at the Battle of Gaza (312 BC) along with newly hired mercenaries and armed Egyptians, for a total of 22,000 men including 18,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry (Diodorus 19.80.4). This victory gave Ptolemy forty-three elephants and 8,000 prisoners, mainly mercenary infantry, whom he settled in the Egyptian nomes (Diodorus 19.84.1-4, 85.3; Plutarch, Demetrius 5; Justin, Epitome 15.1). Even if Ptolemy acquired some of Antigonus’ soldiers in the years that followed, Demetrius’ defeat on land of Ptolemy’s brother in Cyprus, where Ptolemy had 12,000 infantry and about 800 cavalry in garrison, led to the loss of a third of them (Diodorus 20.47.3). Even worse was Ptolemy’s naval defeat in 306 BC at Salamis of Cyprus, where Demetrius captured 8,000 infantry on supply ships, along with forty warships, while eighty of Ptolemy’s warships were disabled.
On the strength of the naval forces and the discrepancies between the ancient authors and within Diodorus’ account (20.46.5-47.4; 47.7-52), see Hauben (1976): Ptolemy’s fleet consisted of 200-210 warships (no larger than quinqueremes) and 200 transport vessels carrying at least 10,000 men; Demetrius’ fleet consisted of 180-190 warships, but was qualitatively better with the heptereis and hexereis that Ptolemy II lacked, which had large decks with arrow- and stone-shooting catapults.
Ptolemy had to abandon Cyprus and Coele-Syria to Antigonus and lost a total of 16,000 infantry and 600 cavalry (Diodorus 53.1), plausibly half his army. Despite this defeat, his soldiers proclaimed Ptolemy king in response to Antigonus’ assumption of that title (Plutarch, Demetrius 18.1; Appian, Syrian Wars 54; Justin, Epitome 15.2.11), and in 305 BC he was able to defend the Egyptian border by using small nilotic ships maneuverable in the Delta, but also by attracting some of Antigonus’ soldiers with money (Diodorus 20.75.1-3, 76.7; Plutarch, Demetrius 19.1-3; Pausanias 1.6.6).
These episodes show that money was central to the survival of what was about to become the Ptolemaic dynasty and to the organization of its army. The events of 305 BC were probably the last opportunity to hire large numbers of Macedonians or Thracian soldiers. In the third century the foreigners joining the Ptolemaic army were voluntary, independent immigrants, groups of soldiers hired for or during specific events, and the descendants of these original soldiers. An army of 30,000-40,000 soldiers and 100 warships, all ethnic groups included, for the entire realm at that time, is a plausible estimate on the basis of the numbers noted above and the description of the Battle of Raphia in 217 BC. Intense international warfare remained the norm in the decades that followed and during the second generation of Successors. Ptolemy I’s main rivals were Antigonus and Demetrius; theirsuccessors, the Antigonids, remained Ptolemy II’s principal opponents onsea. Ptolemy I took oversome cities in Lycia and Caria but was stopped in Halicarnassus by Demetrius and had difficulty maintaining his garrisons in Greece: by 303 BC he had lost Corinth, Sicyon and Megara (Diodorus 20.37.1-2; Diogenes Laertius 2.115). But Ptolemy had become Rhodes’ devoted ally during the siege of the city by Demetrius in 305/4 BC, by providing at least 2,000 soldiers and food supplies (Diodorus 20.88.9, 94, 96.1, 98.1). During the Fourth War of the Successors (303-301 BC), he secured Coele-Syria but did not fight with the other Successors at the final battle against Demetrius at Ipsus. Seleucus did not formally renounce the rights he enjoyed to this region thanks to his military participation at Ipsus but neither, because Ptolemy was a friend and ally, did he ask him to leave it (Diodorus 21.1.5). This ambiguous status was the cause of the numerous Syrian Wars between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids in the third and second centuries BC. The region was essential to Egypt as a buffer zone, a platform for trade and a prosperous region to tax. Ptolemy returned to Egypt with Jews whom he garrisoned in Egypt, although the figure of 30,000 soldiers given by literary sources is an overestimation. In the 290s BC, while the other kings were attacking Demetrius’ positions, Ptolemy was able to take back Cyprus and to add Lycia and perhaps already Pamphylia, as well as Sidon and Tyre to his external possessions (295/4 BC). Since his defeat at Salamis he had built up his fleet again to at least 150 warships, which he sent the same year to defend Athens – unsuccessfully – against Demetrius (Plutarch, Demetrius 33-4). In 287 BC Ptolemy supported a rebellion against his rival with 1,000 soldiers dispatched from his bases in Andros and led by the Athenian Callias but ultimately opted for a peace treaty with Demetrius. Without winning any major naval battles, Ptolemy I had established a network of fortified bases in the Aegean and provided solid ground for a Ptolemaic thalassocracy. It is likely that he acquired Demetrius’ warships in Ephesus, but Lysimachus, who probably seized Demetrius’ fleet at Pella, was still a serious rival at sea.
Ptolemy II (285-246 BC): the challenge of a thalassocracy
After the death of Demetrius and that of Lysimachus in 281 BC, Ptolemy II had the most powerful fleet in the Mediterranean. It is in this context that he founded the League of the Islanders and became its first president, as has recently been argued by Andrew Meadow, who rejects the idea that the League was an Antigonid foundation of the late fourth century BC. Modern historians refer to the three decades that follow as the Ptolemaic thalassocracy. Ptolemy’s garrisons and fleet dominated the Aegean, but the low level of military engagement of the fleet and the quasi-absence of naval victories over Ptolemy’s main rival, the new king of Macedonia, Antigonus II Gonatas (283-239 BC), remained partly an obstacle to total control of the Eastern Mediterranean and the consolidation of an empire. Ptolemy’s expansion at the beginning of his reign against his rivals in Anatolia, during and after the Syrian War of Succession (280/79 BC), is visible in the epigraphic sources, and its precise development continues to be refined by new material. This success was valuable for consolidating Ptolemy II’s influence early on. He took the opportunity to display his power and wealth publicly by organizing a Greek festival, the Ptolemaia, in honour of his deified father. The delegates of the League of the Islanders met on Samos, a new Ptolemaic possession, to “[vote] that the contest should be equal in rank with the Olympic Games” and to send sacred envoys. The Ptolemaia took place every four years and attracted many visitors between 279/8 BC and at least 233/2 BC. A description of the Grand Procession is preserved in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists (5.197c-203e) drawing on Callixeinus of Rhodes’ account, perhaps written a century after the fact. Which occurrence of the Ptolemaia this description represents is unclear. The most widely accepted dates are 279/8 BC, the first Ptolemaia, immediately after the Syrian War of Succession, or 275/4 BC, when Ptolemy II was preparing his troops for the First Syrian War (274-271 BC) after the failed attempt by Magas king of Cyrene to march on Alexandria. But it is unnecessary to connect this description with a military expedition, and the Cyrenean episode was not particularly remarkable: Magas had to cut his assault short because the Libyan tribes rebelled, and Ptolemy did not pursue the Cyrenean army because he had to suppress a revolt by his 4,000 Celtic mercenaries. In any case, Callixeinus reports 57,600 infantry and 23,200 cavalry in the procession, and other units were not present.
Rice, in her study of the Grand Procession, accepts these numbers as representing some percentage of the total army, because Callixeinus had access to official records for his account. In addition, she regards Appian’s very high numbers of troops as referring to men from the garrisons in Alexandria and the Delta and from nearby cleruchies: 200,000 infantry, 40,000 cavalry, 300 war elephants, 2,000 armed chariots, and arms in reserve for 300,000 more soldiers (Praef. 10). Thompson is far more cautious, suggesting that the entire army perhaps consisted of about 100,000 soldiers. Even before her, many scholars had questioned the numbers given by Appian and Callixeinus because the size of the army reported in 305 BC and in 217 BC at Raphia does not correlate with these accounts. Appian supposedly relied on the Royal Records (Basilikai Anagraphai) and Callixeinus on official records, but numbers are often dubious in ancient historians’ accounts. In both cases, for example, the figures for the cavalry are unrealistically high for Hellenistic armies, which usually had a cavalry/infantry ratio of one to ten. If Callixeinus’ total approximates the number of soldiers in the entire army, it probably exaggerates the number of cavalry as well as the number of men present at the Grand Procession. Even with lower numbers, the propagandistic effect of thousands of soldiers on parade remains fundamental, and the event was a clear demonstration of strength, which the ancient writers augmented.
Both Callixeinus and Appian also describe Ptolemy II’s naval forces, emphasizing that he had the most powerful navy in the Mediterranean, whether at the beginning of his reign (Callixeinus) or the end (Appian).They are more specific than Theocritus’ praise of Ptolemy II (Idyll 17, esp. 86-94). Appian’s enumeration follows his description of the land army and precedes his report of the size of the state treasury, 740,000 Egyptian talents, which is a significant juxtaposition: 2,000 transports (kontota) and other smaller ships, 1,500 galleys (triereis), galley furniture for 3,000, and 800 vessels (thalamega). These numbers are certainly exaggerated, as also for the land army.
By contrast, Callixeinus’ description of the Grand Procession includes 112 warships, 224ships, and 4,000ships for controlling the islands (numbers calculated on the basis of Athenaeus 5.203d). In total, there were 336 warships, one third of these being quinqueremes or larger ships, whose decks allowed for more catapults and marines. The bulk of the fleet still consisted of triremes. This description, however, indicates maximal capacity rather than actual numbers.
Military naval activity was concentrated in the Mediterranean, but the Ptolemaic navy was also active on the Nile and in the Red Sea toward the Indian Ocean. In the latter two regions it served as a police force whose mission was to protect trade, notably commerce in gold and ivory, and to facilitate the transport of elephants captured in the south for military purposes from 270 BC until the late third century BC. Troops were also transported on the Nile, as during the Nubian expedition organized around 275 BC, when Ptolemy II secured the Dodekaschoinos (the approximately 75-mile stretch south of the First Cataract) and perhaps even a larger share of the Kushite kingdom. Ptolemy II’s achievements in Nubia and along the Red Sea were remarkable. But his goals in these regions were in large part driven by his military needs in the Mediterranean. A survey of military engagements there allows us to assess the degree of Ptolemaic supremacy during the thalassocracy. The First Syrian War (274-271 BC) began with an attack on Seleucid Syria by the Ptolemaic army but turned into a threat of invasion of Egypt by sea and land by Antiochus I (Theocritus, Idyll 17.98-101), whose army included twenty Bactrian elephants. Ptolemy II and his sister-wife Arsinoe II went to the border to organize their troops (Pithom Stele, ll. 15-16), but Antiochus soon renounced the attack because of troubles in Babylonia. In fact, the outcome of the war – no details of the engagements are preserved – was a continuation of the status quo but was celebrated as a victory at the Ptolemaia of 271/0 BC, as is clear from Theocritus’ Idyll 17, composed for the occasion.
Ptolemy II turned to his other rival, Antigonus II, and tried to erode his naval power in the Aegean by making an alliance with Athens and Sparta in the name of Panhellenic freedom. In response, Antigonus attacked Attica in 267 BC, starting a war known as the Chremonidean War (267-261 BC) after the Athenian Chremonides, whose decree before the Athenian assembly sealed the alliance with Ptolemy and Sparta. Ptolemy sent a fleet led by his Macedonian admiral Patroclus with Egyptians on board who, according to Pausanias, were supposed to attack Macedonian soldiers on land from the rear only once the Spartans started the assault (Pausanias 3.6.4-6). But King Areus of Sparta found the situation too risky and returned home. Ultimately Athens had to capitulate and Macedonian garrisons were established in the Piraeus and on the hill of the Museion. Why the instigator of the war, Ptolemy II, apparently contributed so little to it has accordingly been debated at length. Archaeological evidence shows that Patroclus’ troops set foot in Attica and on the nearby islands of Keos and Methana and were thus more actively engaged than Pausanias claims. Above all, Patroclus’ fleet established a network of Ptolemaic garrisons in the Aegean, notably in Hydrea, Thera and Itanos in Crete. From the Ptolemaic point of view, the war was rather successful, whereas Patroclus’ expedition is often used as an example of the lower quality of Egyptian soldiers in contrast to Greeks and Macedonians. But Pausanias’ description makes it clear that the troops were not hoplites but marines or infantry on ships (nautai), who were not supposed to fight against a Macedonian phalanx on land. This suggests that Ptolemy did not intend a major military engagement on land at this stage and was hoping for a minimum of actual fighting, as was probably the case in the establishment of his garrisons. Either Ptolemy II was generally uninterested in military involvement and his only concern was to protect Egypt – one explanation put forward in this debate – or he was instead a fine strategist: he decided to let the others fight, so as to weaken his main rival first while securing proper bases from which to launch further attacks if opportunity presented itself.
Around the same time an army led by Ptolemy “the son” was consolidating Ptolemaic influence in Asia Minor, Miletus, Ephesus and perhaps Lesbos, events that no doubt triggered the Second Syrian War against Antiochus (260-253 BC). In this context Antigonus, who supported Antiochus, defeated the Ptolemaic fleet commanded by Patroclus at Cos (Plutarch, Moralia 182, 545b; Athenaeus 5.209e; 8.334a), either in 262 BC or around 255 BC; in 255 BC or perhaps 258 BC, the Rhodians won the Battle of Ephesus against the Ptolemaic fleet, this time led by Chremonides. But according to Walbank there is no clear evidence that Ptolemy lost control of the sea after the Battle of Cos. Delos, however, was now Antigonid – as Andros too would be by the end of the 250s (Plutarch, Aratus 12.2). Ptolemy was no longer leading the League of the Islanders, which soon dissolved, and he lost important cities in Asia Minor such as Miletus, Samos and Ephesus to Antiochus. Ptolemy II also lost territory in Cilicia and Pamphylia but proved a skilled diplomat, by sealing the peace treaty with the marriage of his daughter Berenice to Antiochus II. Ptolemy II was also able to consolidate his presence in the Black Sea by supporting Byzantium against the Seleucids and their allies in 254 BC. His influence expanded as far as Crimea, where a fresco with a galley, probably a five (penteres), with the word ISIS engraved on it was found in Nymphaeum. After the war Ptolemy II also settled a large number of soldiers in Egypt by granting them cleruchic land in exchange for military service, which suggests that it was becoming Ptolemaic strategy to demobilize and decrease the cost of the land army. Ptolemy II’s visit to Memphis can be connected with the distribution of land in the Fayyum. Around 250 BC, the Ptolemaic fleet was finally able to defeat Antigonus, according to Aristeas Judaeus (180-1) and Josephus (Antiquitates Judaicae [AJ] 12.93). We have no idea where the battle took place, assuming that it really happened. Finally, during the last years of his reign, Ptolemy began to support the Achaean League financially and was able to maintain some influence in the Cyclades, notably through the garrison on Thera, which was still in place under Ptolemy VI.
If by “Ptolemaic thalassocracy” one means a strong network of garrisons in the Aegean with a large fleet freely navigating between them, its peak can be situated in the 270s and its decline in the 250s, as is traditionally assumed, or even later. If the term also implies the ability to defeat rival fleets in naval battle, it is misleading. Even if the fleet was not as large as Appian claims, but rather of the size given by Callixeinus, one wonders why Ptolemy’s admirals were unable to defeat Antigonus at Cos. As nothing is known about the battle, we can only hypothesize about causes. But such a major defeat and the material loss it implies easily explain why the fleet was unable to stand against another enemy, the Rhodians, especially if the two battles took place in the same year. At least four criteria can be put forward to evaluate Ptolemaic naval capacity: (1) the material quality of the fleet, including the number and type of warships; (2) the crews and marines; (3) the skills and experience of the captains and admirals; and (4) luck. The only encounter for which we have a description of the Ptolemaic fleet is the Battle of Salamis in 306 BC, where Ptolemy I’s fleet was numerically inferior. In addition, he lacked the heptereis and hexereis that made Demetrius’ fleet qualitatively better; but by Ptolemy II’s time these issues were resolved, notably because Phoenicia, the source of the heptereis, was part of Ptolemaic territory. An anecdote reported three times by Plutarch about Antigonus indicates that the fleet of Ptolemy II or Ptolemy III outnumbered the Antigonid ships at the Battle of Cos (Plutarch, Moralia 545b) or Andros (Pelopidas 2.2), or at both (Moralia 182). In addition, innovations in naval tactics were readily available from engineers in Alexandria, as the Compendium of Mechanics of Philo attests. The experience of the crew, from oarsmen and marines to the helmsman and captain of a ship, was essential, and in times of international competition it was also costly. But Ptolemy II was certainly not inferior to Antigonus in terms of economic power. Both used ships with local crews, meaning that the Ptolemies employed Greeks, Phoenicians and Egyptians, whose functions were not limited to serving as oarsmen. The skills and loyalty of the marines and the captain were also essential. The only evidence for the ethnicity of the fighting troops on Ptolemaic ships concerns Patroclus’ fleet during the Chremonidean War and suggests that they were Egyptian. Van ‘t Dack and Hauben have proposed that the Ptolemies imitated the Persian model by adding a small number of nonEgyptian marines to each ship (Herodotus 7.96 and 184). They also suggest that the Ptolemaic fleet failed in naval battle because a large share of its crews and marines were of Egyptian origin. But the contribution of Egyptian soldiers to the establishment of garrisons during the Chremonidean War does not suggest that Egyptian marines were unskilled. The only evidence to assess the quality of Ptolemaic marines and sailors goes back to the capture of Ptolemy I’s forty warships at Salamis (Diodorus 20.52.6), where they surrendered without a long fight. Either the ships were so damaged that they could not escape, or they were defeated quickly. In any case, they were probably in an unfavorable position, because Demetrius’ larger ships carried more marines, making it easier to board ships that carried fewer. The third plausible reason for failure was the quality of the high command and the skills of many captains and helmsmen. Ptolemy II employed a Macedonian, Patroclus, as admiral of the fleet, and thereafter an Athenian, Chremonides, whereas Ptolemy I was commanding in person – still with no success. But as communication between ships was a general weakness of ancient naval warfare, the outcome depended in the end on the tactical and navigational skills of captains and helmsmen. In terms of ethnicity, these positions were mostly given to Greeks. The lack of detailed sources prevents us from asserting that Ptolemy’s commanders were on average less skilled than their opponents, but this might have been a factor in his failure. Finally, luck can be important, when an external factor such as a storm destroys part of a fleet before battle, although no such event is reported concerning the Ptolemaic fleet.
In conclusion, even if the reason for Ptolemy II’s failure in naval battle cannot be precisely determined, it was not caused by the use of Egyptians in his fleet. It appears that Ptolemy II’s successful strategy of establishing naval forces would have allowed him to truly dominate the Aegean, had he been able to defeat his main opponents at sea. His overall strategy – in continuity with his father’s policy – leaves open the possibility that Ptolemy II hoped to expand his empire further. This might be confirmed by Ptolemy III’s military undertakings at the beginning of his reign.