The Battleship Race Won and the Strategy Lost

Btlshp USS Arizona NARA-5900075

USS Arizona Built in 1913 and was the second and last of the Pennsylvania Class “super-dreadnought” battleships and primarily served stateside during WWI. She was part of the escort of the USS George Washington that carried President Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference on December 13, 1918. 31,400 tons and required a crew of 1,385. She was sunk on December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese leading the United States into WWII. 1,177 lives were lost when the Arizona was destroyed.

In 1897 the US navy was ranked as the sixth most powerful after Great Britain, France Germany, Russia, and Japan. The naval appropriations of 1898 resulted in the US navy moving up to fourth position by 1902; and by 1908 it had only Great Britain ahead of it as the supreme maritime power. Between 1895 and 1910, in a span of 15 years, a new navy had been created in consonance with the Mahanian strategy of the battle between capital ships. Much of this drive to build bigger battleships was the result of international competition rather than an absolute need. The rapid arming of Japan and its conquest of Manchuria had pleased the American government as it was quite ambivalent on whether the main threat to the US in the Pacific came from-Russia or Japan. The defeat of the Russian main fleet at Tsushima by Admiral Togo alarmed the Americans into a clearer understanding of where danger lay. Much of the confusion in Washington arose as a result of intense lobbying from London, which pushed for American rearmament as an additional bulwark against the Kaiser’s building of a High Seas Fleet. During this phenomenal growth period, the same questions reappeared. Did a strategy drive the rearmament, or did the newly created force drive strategy? On record we have only two documents-Plan Black and Plan Orange-to work from to solve this conundrum. Plan Black can hardly be said to fall within the ambit of strategy. It would be difficult even to consider it to be relevant at the operational level. It was, at most, a tactical plan for a onetime operation, involving the interception of an alleged German intention to occupy Culebra with a seaborne invasion force and then attack the east coast. Considering the relative strength of the German and British fleets and the need to support the centre of gravity in central Europe, this was not a realistic course of action the Germans could possibly have thought up. Even if we discount the fact that in 1905 naval planners could not have forecast what the submarine would do to change naval warfare in the next decade, Plan Black could at best be described as an alibi for what had already been decided-the rebuilding of the US battle fleet.

Plan Orange, on the other hand, was acutely perspicacious. It described the plan to recapture the Philippines through a central Pacific thrust after its capture by the Japanese in the initial stages of a war-a scenario duplicated almost exactly 40 years later. The great dilemma was whether the fleet should be concentrated in the Pacific or the Atlantic, or split into two, each half being considerably weaker than either Japan’s or Germany’s navy. This dilemma was partly solved by the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, an achievement which took over a decade. The idea began with the US-inspired revolt of the people of Panama against Colombian rule in 1903, supported by the US navy. To dominate the Pacific from Washington by building the Panama Canal, enabling a concentration of force, is certainly grand strategy. But was it all part of a plan? Perhaps a person like Theodore Roosevelt was capable of thinking out grand strategy on that scale, but there is little evidence that the navy department was thinking along these lines. Underlying the frantic battleship race that preceded World War I were the varying rates of economic growth of the countries involved and their standing as world powers based on their economic might.

If the US was catching up with Great Britain in the number of battleships, it still had quite far to go to develop a comparable maritime strategy. In 1900 Great Britain already had a maritime strategy worldwide, to protect her far-flung empire as well as to ensure peace on her terms anywhere on the world’s oceans. To give Whitehall the ability to exercise command of the Royal Navy worldwide, Britain had established global undersea cable links, that were later backed by HF stations, permitting a ship in any part of the world to be within easy communication distance of a powerful radio station. This complicated communications tentacle, which really was the heart of Britain’s ability to react to any situation on any of the world’s oceans, had no comparable equivalent in the US. In fact, if force levels and communications are judged to go hand in hand, it was not until the late 1950s that the US had a comparable worldwide communications system for her navy.

After the Battle of Tsushima, when Britain signed an alliance with Japan, there was much heartburn in Washington. Under the terms of the alliance, Britain would remain neutral if Japan fought one power but would join Japan if the Japanese had to fight two powers simultaneously. Britain made some concessions to the US to placate Washington, but both sides kept a wary eye on each other’s battleship-building programmes. By 1905 Mahan was accepted by the navies of the US, UK, Germany, Russia, and Japan as the source of all maritime wisdom. France alone remained aloof from a total acceptance of Mahanian strategy. Since all of these nations viewed the big battle as the final arbiter of sea use, a battleship-building contest began which was limited only by the governments’ ability to pay for them. The blind adherence to the cult of the battleship was responsible for the US entering World War I without any credible idea on what the navy would do in such a war. In any case, until 1910 the US visualised that Japan would be the likely threat. The reason for this presumption is not clear other than that Japan was the nearest Asian power with a large number of battleships; there was no economic rivalry, no conflict of interests. An alleged Japanese attempt to occupy a port in Mexico on payment was resisted and the Japanese backed down. Perhaps with the hindsight of what we know about World War II, we may tend subconsciously to support the US naval view that Japan would be the next enemy, but it must be remembered that much of the Japanese desire to expand into South East Asia, and conquer the Philippines en route, lay three decades away. The Americans faced only one threat in World War I, and that was the German submarine, a weapon they had no idea would affect the course of the war to the extent that it did. If the miscalculation on the future role of the submarine was painful, the anticipation in Washington that the submarine would have to fight according to the existing laws of war was a downright blunder. This led to the Lusitania carrying almost 2,000 passengers along with 4 million rounds of small arms ammunition-a deadly combination. The responsibility for the destruction of the ship must lie squarely with US naval authorities who permitted a war-like act by a large and vulnerable passenger ship.

Many have questioned Britain’s maritime strategy in the Royal Navy’s approach to World War I. The strategy in part was indeed thorough and well thought out, particularly the blockade of Germany and the refinement of the co-operation between the navy and the ministry of economic warfare. The rest of the strategy-the role of the main force, the battleship fleet-is what has come under criticism. Judged against the yardstick of the criticisms levelled against British strategy, the US maritime strategy must surely take a beating. At the beginning of the war, before Admiral William S. Sims took up his post in London, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) is reported to have told him that as far as the US navy was concerned, they would just as soon be fighting the British as the Germans. 9 If we read more into this, the failure of the US navy to fashion a more serious strategy against the Germans than Plan Black is quite understandable, since the European enemy was indeterminate. But this understanding must then be validated by a US naval strategy for war against Great Britain. Such a plan, if it existed, had yet to be publicised although war-games played before 1914 reportedly had the Royal Navy in the role of the `enemy’.

An admission of the absence of a US maritime strategy against any European power comes from the 1916 Naval Appropriations Act put up to the Congress. The earlier request, made in 1915, for a massive battleship force to meet any possible combination arising from an alliance between two powers from among Britain, Germany, Austria and Japan had been hobbled by the politics of the presidential elections. Nevertheless, the Act when it was passed in 1916, laid down the foundations for a navy that was meant to challenge the supremacy of the British navy after World War I. For what purpose this supremacy was to be challenged is most unclear. No American commercial interests would have prospered by facing off the British navy in any part of the world-at least at the end of World War I. If there was a link between the political goals of the US and the strategy of its navy up to 1914, it has yet to emerge.

In the meantime, the only worthwhile American maritime strategy during the course of the war had to be implemented by cunning and subterfuge against the wishes of the CNO, Admiral William S. Benson, the officer who superseded 26 admirals to become CNO. This extraordinary event occurred when the senior admirals revolted against the overweening powers of the secretary of the navy, Joseph Daniels. The contribution of the US towards winning World War I was to supply both men and material in dozens of convoys safely through U-boat waters by escorts which had to be diverted from screening the battleships. Eventually the US built almost 400 escorts after pressure from Admiral Sims in London had convinced the navy department that the continental war in Europe was the main theatre and that an American contribution to it would require only anti-submarine escorts from the US navy. In all, 1,200,000 men of the American army and Marines were landed in France. Equally important, not one American battleship fired a shot in anger throughout the war. The five battleships of the US navy attached to Admiral David Beatty’s fleet arrived long after Jutland and replaced five older battleships decommissioned for the purpose of providing crews for ASW vessels.

When the war ended, a considerable amount of anti-British feeling existed among the American delegations that went to Paris. Much of this was caused by Britain’s firmness in imposing the blockade against Germany where many items produced in the US had been declared contraband. At the same time, the British had been reasonable in releasing those American items which were used for munitions if they were convinced that the Germans could have easily replaced the US product with an equivalent. Nevertheless, the Americans were convinced that the British intended that a regime should be enforced on the world’s oceans where trade would proceed only with the permission of the Royal Navy. The chief weapon of negotiations for the Americans was their unwillingness to concede the primary position to the Royal Navy in battleship tonnage. For the British it was their threat to scuttle President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations. The stalemate continued and no solution was found until 1922, when the existing ratios of battleship tonnage for Britain, US, Japan, France and Italy were finalised at 5:5:3:1.75:1.75.

After Okinawa 1945



Haruna at her moorings near Kure, Japan, under attack by U.S. Navy carrier aircraft, 28 July 1945



Wreck of Tone at Kure
The Heavy Cruiser Tone, sister of Chikuma survived many battles and was sunk at anchor in Kure harbor by US carrier aircraft on July 24th 1945. Her hulk was scrapped between 1947 and 1948.

After Okinawa had been taken and with the rolling up of the Japanese empire in Southeast Asia progressing satisfactorily, the Americans decided to bring the war home to the Japanese people by carrying out a mix of attacks – massive carrier raids on air bases around Tokyo and the naval facilities at Yokohama; the bombardment by surface warships of principally iron and steel works on the main island of Honshu- and in southern Hokkaido; and bombing sorties on shipping found in the Tsugaru Strait between these two northern islands. In a series of attacks that began on 10 July and spread over eight days featuring no less than fifteen carriers, eight battleships, fifteen cruisers and fifty-five destroyers belonging to Admiral Halsey’s TF 38 and supported by three carriers, a battleship, six cruisers and fifteen destroyers from the BPF for the latter part of the operation on 16-18 July, extensive damage was done. Forty-seven naval craft of various kinds were sunk, the battleship Nagato was made inoperable, while the two new carriers Amagi and Katsuragi, the battleship Haruna and forty-five other vessels were damaged. In addition, well over 5,000 rounds of 5-16 inch (127-406 mm) shells rained down on industrial targets on the home islands.

This operation was followed by one led by Vice-Admiral Jesse Oldendorf at the head of TF 95 in which the principal focus was on shipping in the East China Sea, the Yangtze River estuary and the Yellow Sea. It lasted nearly a month (16 July-12 August) and was one of Oldendorf’s least successful and more frustrating ventures. He lost a destroyer sunk, another two damaged (one of them grievously) and the battleship Pennsylvania torpedoed, for little positive gain. It was not often that Japanese submarine operations became anything other than a by-word for frustration, but in what turned out to be their last sortie with kaiten torpedoes they at last showed what they might have been able to have contributed to the war effort had they been used properly in the past: I-53 armed with two kaiten sunk the destroyer escort Underhill and I-58 damaged the destroyer Lowry on the night of 27-28 July. A couple of nights later I-58 struck again – this time with conventional torpedoes – hitting the US heavy cruiser Indianapolis twice and sinking her. Unbeknown to Lt-Cdr. Mochitsura Hashimoto, his victim had already brought parts of the atomic bomb from San Francisco to Tinian and was on her way back to Leyte when he found her running alone east of Luzon and sent a salvo of six torpedoes in her direction. Only 316 out of the total number of 1,199 officers and crew survived the sinking. I-58 continued to use her kaiten to attack convoys but further success narrowly eluded her on both 10 and 12 August.

Although most of the naval action in the Pacific had been concentrated in the central and southwest regions in 1945, American task groups – usually consisting of a cruiser division and a flotilla of destroyers – had continued to make their presence felt further north by indulging in a series of periodic visits to the Kuriles where they would spend usually a couple of days shelling enemy positions around Paramushiro and Matsuwa without attempting any amphibious operations. One suspects these sorties were designed to be a monthly reminder to the Japanese military that the Americans possessed the strategic and logistical reach necessary to tackle all parts of the empire and that the physical damage wrought by these raids was if anything rather secondary in importance to the psychological blows they were administering to the defenders. An invasion could wait, their turn would come. When it did come, however, it was to be far sooner (18 August) and from a completely different source (the Soviet Union) than might have been expected.

Allied action elsewhere in the Pacific before the first of the atomic bombs was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August took in action against islands, such as Truk and Wake, which had been robbed of their former prominence. By mid-1945 the Japanese defenders on both of these former bases were left as isolated pockets of resistance and ones that remained utterly bereft of making any impact on a war that had passed them by. The Allies resorted to a combination of carrier raids and offshore shelling of both of these islands for much the same reasons as those advanced against the Kuriles – it reminded the Japanese of how much their stock had fallen and who now held the ascendancy in this ocean.

An illustration of just how dominant the Americans had become in this vast theatre was vividly shown on 21-22 July when a US task group of fifteen tankers, five transports and four freighters carried out the replenishment of both TF 38 and units of the British TF 37 whilst they remained on station providing them with roughly 60,000 tons of oil, 6,369 tons of ammunition, 1,635 tons of supplies, ninety-nine aircraft and 412 reservists, in what became the largest supply operation of the entire war at sea. This impressive logistical exercise was arranged primarily to keep the two fleets operational and in a position to launch a further series of attacks on Japan in the next few days. On 24 July, for instance, their carrier aircraft conducted 1,747 sorties along the shoreline of the Inland Sea attacking major naval bases such as Kobe and Kure. In these raids a significant amount of damage was done to the infrastructure of the ports and the warships that were caught at anchor in these harbours. By the time that the last Allied planes had wheeled away and headed back towards their carriers, the bases were littered with the wrecks of the fleet carrier Amagi, the three battleships Haruna, Hyuga and Ise, the heavy cruiser Aoba, the light cruiser Oyodo, and the training cruiser Iwate, along with over 22,000 tons of merchant vessels and auxiliary ships which had either been sunk directly or had become so badly holed and waterlogged that they had ended up by slithering to the harbour floor. In addition, bombs had struck a trio of carriers (Hosho, Katsuragi and Ryuho), the escort carrier Kaiyo, the light cruiser Kitakami, a destroyer, three escort destroyers, two corvettes, a target ship and a landing craft. These raids demonstrated most graphically that there was no longer any hiding place for naval vessels in Japan. Further raids on 28 and 30 July reinforced that impression by finishing off the heavy cruiser Tone, the training cruiser Izumo, as well as the escort destroyer Nashi, the large, but uncompleted, submarine I-404 and eight other assorted ships, while badly damaging ten other warships including a submarine, a frigate and five corvettes. Apart from deploying carrier planes to assist their Allies in the bombing of Japanese naval targets, the British also sent their battleship King George V and three destroyers to join forces with Rear-Admiral John Shafroth’s task group (TG 34.8) for a night’s bombardment of aircraft and other military related factories situated close to Hamamatsu in the southern part of Honshu-(29-30 July).

At the same time they were also planning another surprise for the Japanese in Singaporean waters. Two midget submarines, XE 1 and XE 3, were towed by the submarines Spark and Stygian into position off the island. They then left their mother ships and entered Keppel Harbour alone on 30 July with the intention of destroying the two Japanese heavy cruisers Myoko and Takao stationed there with explosive charges. They achieved only 50% of their objective with Takao being holed and sunk, while Myoko escaped unharmed.

Dutch Navy


De Zeven Provinciën was a Dutch ship of the line, originally armed with 80 guns. The name of the ship was also written as De 7 Provinciën. The literal translation is “The Seven Provinces”, the name referring to the fact that the Dutch Republic in the 17th century was a confederation of seven autonomous provinces. The vessel was originally built in 1664-65 for the Admiralty of de Maeze in Rotterdam, by Master Shipbuilder Salomon Jansz van den Tempel.
The ship served as Admiral Michiel de Ruyter’s flagship during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, taking part in the hard fought Dutch victory in the Four Days Fight, the bitter defeat at the St. James’s Day Battle, and acting as a command post as well as blockading the Thames during the Raid on the Medway. The vessel gave a good account of itself throughout the war, although it was partially dismasted during the Four Day’s Fight.

De Ruyter used De Zeven Provinciën as his flagship during the Third Anglo-Dutch War of 1672-1673. The ship served in all four major battles against the combined English and French fleet, fighting in the Battle of Solebay, the first and second Battle of Schooneveld and, in possibly its greatest moment, at the Battle of the Texel.
In 1692, the ship, now armed with only 76 guns, fought at the Battles of Barfleur and La Hogue during the War of the Grand Alliance. The vessel was severely damaged during the fight and, in 1694, De Zeven Provinciën had to be broken up.
De Zeven Provinciën measured, in English Feet, approximately 151 ft long by about 40 ft (12 m) wide by a little over 15 ft (4.6 m) deep. It was originally armed with 12 36-pdrs and 16 24-pdrs on the lower deck (although this had been changed to an all 36-pdr battery by the time of the Third Anglo-Dutch War), 14 18-pdrs and 12 12-pdrs on the upper deck, and 26 6-pdrs on the forecastle, quarterdeck, and poop deck.

Emerging from success after success won by fleets of “Sea Beggars” during the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648), the Navy of the “Generality” of the United Provinces should have been one of the strongest in the world entering into this period. In fact, it had been badly neglected by the States General in the final years of war with Spain. In 1650 it was still primarily a fleet of armed merchantmen rather than purpose-built warships, though it was by far the largest such fleet in the world. The merchant marine of Holland alone employed nearly,000 seamen, without counting tens of thousands more experienced seamen of the vast Dutch fishing fleets. The Dutch fleet had a major structural flaw beyond simple neglect and non-purpose-built ships: there was no “Dutch Navy” per se. Instead, there were five provincial admiralty colleges operating out of Amsterdam, Holland (“North Quarter”), Friesland, the Maze (Rotterdam), and Zeeland. Each admiralty supported a discrete fleet maintained by its own naval establishment. Ships of these five establishments were supplemented, but only ad hoc, by powerful armed merchant fleets owned by the Dutch East India Company (VOC),West Indies Company, and smaller joint stock companies. Some Netherlands cities maintained small navies (directieschepen), used to escort only their own municipal ships in convoy. All this represented the overall radical constitutional decentralization of Dutch national life and politics. This was in striking contrast to the centralized and centralizing naval administrations of the main sea rivals of the Dutch: England, and later, France. Worse still for the Dutch, in the late 1640s the five admiralty colleges sold off many of their ships in response to the end of the long war with Spain. As tensions rose with England, in 1651 the States General reversed course and voted funds to build a navy of 226 warships, up from the extant number of just 76. However, this measure produced only three additional warships by the start of hostilities with England in 1652. Moreover, the largest of existing Dutch ships mounted no more than 50 guns. That meant England had 14 ships as big as or larger than even the most heavily armed Dutch man-of-war. English guns were also heavier, in addition to being more numerous, with longer ranges and greater power as ship-smashers.

One short-term result of the vote was the outbreak of the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654), even though the Navy was then divided by mutinous crews and political quarrels between the Orangist Admiral Maarten van Tromp and the republican Regents of Holland. The weakness showed at Kentish Knock, where nine Dutch ships deserted and Admiral Witte Coneliszoon de With was refused boarding by other ships after losing his flagship and taking to the sea in a ship’s boat. The Dutch Navy suffered from other physical disadvantages in addition to having smaller and undergunned ships. Its harbors did not lie windward of the enemy, as did English ports, and it was forced to disperse to multiple harbors by the lay of the Atlantic coast of the United Provinces and by a strategic need to protect more important Baltic routes. The poor quality of Dutch ships was quickly revealed in the first of three Anglo-Dutch wars, as Dutch ships were dismasted and holed in large numbers by heavier English guns and superior tactics of the English fighting instructions. The States General ordered the fleet rebuilt after the war, laying hulls for 60 men-of-war by early 1654. However, complaints of admirals about the smallness and poor design of even these new ships were ignored. The Regents of Holland thus continued to build numerous small, undergunned warships, with the largest still mounting just 54 guns. This probably reflected the much higher interest of merchants in seeing construction of fast convoy escorts and in coastal defense, over creation of a true battlefleet. Crucial reform was finally introduced following the war. The States General proclaimed that new ships belonged to the Generality of the United Provinces, not to the five independent admiralty colleges. The latter were thus denied the usual temptation to sell off warships for short-term profit upon the end of the most recent conflict. Slowly, though unsurely, a national Dutch Navy began to take shape.

The Dutch Navy was much better prepared to fight the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667). By then it had launched much larger ships, though the largest still had just 70 guns. The Dutch also put to sea with many more professional officers and had adopted improved tactics: the Dutch Navy first fought in line of battle at The Downs (June 1-4/11-14, 1666). But the English had been busy building battleships, too. Their new designs mounted more and heavier guns than the largest Dutch warships. In April 1665 the English had eight First-Rates of 70 guns or more, where the Dutch had just four, and the largest English battleships had 90 and 100 guns. Moreover, Dutch crews were rife with political tension, with some refusing to sail or fight under certain officers or certain colors (that is, the State’s flag vs. the dynastic banner of the Prince of Orange). The Dutch Navy subsequently fought many worthy battles and escorted numerous convoys to and from the Baltic and Mediterranean. It was fully engaged against the English for a third time during the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674). Thereafter, the Dutch were more concerned with fighting the French Navy during a series of minor and major wars: the War of Devolution (1667-1668), the Dutch War (1672-1678), the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697), and finally the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). The last two conflicts were fought in alliance with the old foe of Dutch commercial and naval power, the Royal Navy.

Roman Success at Sea in 260–257 BC


In the 3rd century BC, Rome was not a naval power, and had little or no experience in war at sea. Before the First Punic War, the Roman Republic had not campaigned outside the Italian Peninsula. The Republic’s military strength was on land, and her greatest assets were the discipline and courage of her soldiers. The boarding-bridge allowed her to use her marines against the superior Carthaginian naval skills. The Romans’ application of boarding tactics worked; they won several battles, most notably those of Mylae, Sulci, Tyndaris, and Ecnomus.

Despite its advantages, the boarding bridge had a serious drawback: it could not be used in rough seas since the stable connection of two working ships endangered each other’s structure. Operating in rough seas, the device became useless and was abandoned. According to Bonebaker, Professor of Naval Architecture at Delft, with the estimated weight of one ton for the boarding bridge, it is “most probable that the stability of a quinquereme with a displacement of about 250 m3 (330 cu yd) would not be seriously upset”.

Some other historians believe that its weight on the prow compromised the ship’s navigability and the Romans lost almost two entire fleets to storms in 255 and in 249 BC, largely due to the instability caused by the device. These losses were probably the main reason for the abandonment of the boarding-bridge in ship design by the end of the war. As Roman naval tactics improved and the Roman crews became more experienced, the boarding-bridge was no longer used in battle. It is not mentioned in period sources after the battle of Ecnomus and apparently the Battle of the Aegates Islands that decided the first Punic war was won without it.

The intensification of the Punic war at sea was demonstrated when the new Roman fleet first approached Sicily and the Carthaginians made an effort to stop it from securing a position on the Sicilian coast.

The consul Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio had given orders to the captains to sail towards the Straits when the fleet was ready, while he put to sea with seventeen ships and proceeded to Messana to prepare for the arrival of the main fleet. However, Scipio was then taken prisoner at the Lipari Islands. Polybius describes how an opportunity came up to capture Lipara by treachery, and so Scipio sailed there with his seventeen ships. The Carthaginians at Panormus learned about Scipio’s presence at Lipara. Hannibal dispatched Boödes, a member of the senate, with twenty ships and he blockaded the Romans in the harbour. Scipio surrendered to Boödes, who took him and the captured ships to Hannibal.

Much has been made of this failed enterprise. The Romans gave Scipio the nickname ‘Asina’, she-ass, but he was released later in an exchange of prisoners and continued his career. Scipio was right to try to take Lipara. It was one of the ports that the Carthaginians could use to protect traffic in the Straits and interfere in Roman transports. If the Romans had captured it, the crossing of their main fleet would have been safer. While they already controlled the ports of Messana and Syracuse and could rely on the support of their ally Hiero along the east coast of the island, the rest of the Sicilian seaboard was dominated by the Punic fleet and was hostile to them. So, for the Romans, Lipara was an important target and the capture of it could have been their first success in the campaign to conquer the Punic ports.

Next, the Roman and Carthaginian fleets clashed off the coast of Bruttium, near a place called the Cape of Italy. This could well have been the Taurianum promontory, known today as Cape Vaticano. Polybius states that Hannibal came upon the main Roman fleet sailing southwards in good order and trim. He does not give details about the battle but claims that Hannibal lost most of his fifty ships before escaping with the remainder. The reasons for Hannibal’s voyage are not clear. According to Polybius, he wanted to discover the strength and the general disposition of the enemy and perhaps he intended to combine this reconnaissance with a plundering raid. It is possible that his motive was more ambitious than this. Since the Carthaginians had recently captured seventeen new Roman ships and their commander, he may have felt confident enough to stop the main Roman fleet and take over more of their ships.

When the Roman fleet arrived in Sicily, Gaius Duilius, the consul leading the Roman land forces on the island, was called in to command it. He handed over his legions to the military tribunes before leaving to join the ships. The Romans began to get ready for a sea battle. Polybius states that, since their ships were badly-built and slow-moving, it was suggested that they should equip them with boarding-bridges.

There is no doubt about the historicity of the boarding-bridge or corvus. Polybius gives a description of its structure that Wallinga has corrected on some points. It worked as follows: at ramming distance, a gangway located on the bow was lowered onto the enemy deck and the soldiers ran across it in order to fight. The mechanism consisted of a pole with a pulley at the top. A rope ran through the pulley to a gangway that could be raised and lowered. Under the end of the gangway was a pointed pestle that, when the gangway was lowered, pierced the deck of the enemy ship and kept the two vessels locked together.

For anyone who follows Polybius’ view that the Romans were novices in maritime warfare and operated with poor-quality ships, the boarding-bridge has come to be seen as the key to their success, especially as, in his description of the battle at Mylae, he states that this device made combat at sea like a fight on land. However, it is doubtful whether the corvus had such a decisive impact. The Romans won their first battle on their way to Sicily without it, capturing many Punic ships, and the device is only mentioned twice in the sources: in the sea battles of 260 and 256 – thereafter there is no reference to it.

In my opinion, the corvus should not be seen in the context of the Romans’ inexperience in maritime warfare; there is a precedent in naval history that points to its real significance. Thucydides describes how the Athenians used grappling irons when they tried to break out from the harbour at Syracuse in 413. They boarded the enemy ships with soldiers and drove their opponents off the deck. According to Thucydides, the sea battle changed into a battle on land. The mass of troops on board made the Athenian ships heavy and hampered their manoeuvres. The Athenian innovation started a new era in naval tactics.

The boarding-bridge was a typical device in the Hellenistic period, when armies and navies were familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and experimented with new fighting methods in order to surprise them. Once the Carthaginians had recovered from their surprise, they must have come up with a defence against the corvus but the sources do not describe the measures they took. Some of the technical details concerning the operation of the corvus remain uncertain, such as the angle at which it could be revolved, and it is not clear why the Romans stopped using it.

As for the alleged slowness of Roman ships, knowledge about the comparative performance of Roman and Carthaginian vessels is based on the outcome of the battle at the Cape of Italy where the Romans captured around fifty Punic ships and the remainder fled. The excessive weight of the Roman ships may have been due to the fact that they were loaded with troops, equipment and supplies, rather than a consequence of poor shipbuilding. However, the Romans had been unable to take a few of the Punic ships. In this context perhaps the boarding-bridge should not be seen as a defensive tool but as a sign of the Roman determination to hunt down every enemy ship at every opportunity. By using the boarding-bridge, they could make sure that no Punic ships could escape.

We do not know how long the preparations for the battle took. Polybius states that the Carthaginians were ravaging the territory of Mylae and that Duilius sailed against them:

They all [the Carthaginians] sailed straight on the enemy, not even thinking it worthwhile to maintain order in the attack, but just as if they were falling on a prey that was obviously theirs … On approaching and seeing the ravens [corvi] nodding aloft on the prow of each ship, the Carthaginians were at first nonplussed, being surprised at the construction of the engines. However, as they entirely gave the enemy up for lost, the front ships attacked daringly. But when the ships that came into collision were in every case held fast by the machines, and the Roman crews boarded by means of the ravens and attacked them hand to hand on deck, some of the Carthaginians were cut down and others surrendered from dismay at what was happening, the battle having become just like a fight on land.

The first thirty ships were taken with their crews. Hannibal, who was commanding the fleet in the seven that had formerly belonged to Pyrrhus, managed to escape in the small boat. Trusting their swiftness, the Carthaginians sailed around the enemy in order to strike from the side or the stern but the Romans swung the boarding-bridges around so that they could grapple with ships that attacked them from any direction. Eventually the Carthaginians, shaken by this novel tactic, took flight. They lost fifty ships.

According to Polybius, Hannibal had 130 ships; according to Diodorus he had 200 ships involved in the battle. Diodorus says the Romans had 120 ships. Information about the type of ships that Scipio Asina lost at the Lipari Islands is not given in the sources but it seems probable that the Romans still had around 100 ships from their original fleet. Possibly they borrowed ships from their allies and made use of captured Carthaginian ships but no information is available. The brief description of the battle that has survived does not indicate whether the Romans arranged their ships in two lines or one. At first it seems the Carthaginians tried a diekplous attack. When that failed, they switched to a periplous attack but the Romans repulsed that too. If we accept Wallinga’s theory that the boarding-bridge could be revolved through 90 degrees, rather than freely in all directions as Polybius claims, then the Romans must have manoeuvred and regrouped their ships during the battle to defend themselves and to target the Punic ships as they approached. So, in practice, they continued to use the traditional tactics that were intended to sink enemy ships with rams and the deployment of the boarding-bridge did not make a significant difference to this aspect of the battle.

Duilius was given extraordinary honours by Rome. He was awarded the first naval triumph in the city’s history, ‘de Sicul(eis) et classe Poenica’, ‘over the Sicilians and the Punic fleet’. Two columns decorated with beaks were built, one in the Forum, probably close to the Rostra, and the other perhaps at the Circus Maximus, and a waxen torch was borne before him and a flautist made music whenever he returned from dining out. The Rostra and the Columna Rostrata C. Duilii were the two most important war monuments of Republican Rome.

Polybius sees the victory at Mylae as one of the important moments of the war; he states that the determination of the Romans to prosecute the war became twice as strong. This is plausible. The victory and the retreat of the Carthaginian navy opened the north coast of Sicily to the Romans, who used their fleet to take troops westwards when they raised the siege of Segesta and took Macella.

No figures are available for the size of the fleets of 259–257, when the Romans extended their operations to other islands and attacked important Punic harbours. The consul of 259, Gaius Aquillius Florus, operated in Sicily against Hamilcar and celebrated a triumph ‘de Poeneis’, ‘over the Carthaginians’. We do not know exactly what he accomplished. According to Polybius, Roman troops did nothing worthy of note in Sicily that year. Perhaps events on land were slow; as Lazenby puts it, it is most likely that Aquillius had two legions with him consisting of about 20,000 men. This was not a large enough force to take on Hamilcar’s army in which there might have been up to 50,000 men after the fall of Agrigentum. Diodorus, however, states that Hamilcar took Camarina and Enna and fortified Drepana on the north-west coast and that people were moved there from Eryx. Drepana was one of the most important Carthaginian harbours in Sicily. The Carthaginians reacted to the presence of the Roman navy and the threat it posed to them.

According to Polybius, the Romans – from the moment they concerned themselves with the sea – began to entertain designs on Sardinia. Sardinia and Corsica were strategically important and taking Sardinia would put a stop to Carthaginian attacks on the Italian coast from that direction. Moreover, the Romans had a long-standing interest in both islands, demonstrated by their attempts to found colonies on them.

The second consul of 259, Lucius Cornelius Scipio, brother to Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina, was awarded a triumph for his campaign against the Carthaginians on both Corsica and Sardinia. His opponent was Hanno. Scipio started on the east coast of Corsica, capturing Aleria and other ports that are not named in the sources. While sailing towards Sardinia, he spotted a Carthaginian fleet, which turned and fled. He went on to Olbia on the north-east coast of Sardinia. There a Carthaginian fleet put in an appearance but Scipio decided to sail home, judging that his infantry was insufficient to give battle. Scipio’s funerary inscription records his success in Corsica:

He took Corsica and the city of Aleria

He dedicated a temple to the Storms as a just return.

The reference to ‘Storms’ in the dedication presumably alludes to a particular storm that Scipio was fortunate to escape and probably it was Hannibal’s Carthaginian fleet that caused him to turn back. Polybius does not record previous events in Corsica and Sardinia but he continues the story of Hannibal, who had sailed to Carthage after the Battle of Mylae. He collected additional ships and recruited some of the most celebrated Carthaginian naval officers, then returned to Sardinia. There he was blockaded in one of the harbours by the Romans and, after having lost many ships in a battle, he was arrested by his men and crucified in Sulci, in the south-west corner of the island. The Roman consul who defeated Hannibal was probably Scipio’s successor, Gaius Sulpicius Paterculus. He was awarded a triumph ‘over the Carthaginians and Sardinia’. We have no further information about subsequent events in Sardinia until the great mutiny of the Carthaginian mercenaries in the aftermath of the war and the consequent Roman annexation of the island.

The other consul of 258, Aulus Atilius Caiatinus, operated in Sicily. He attacked the Carthaginian winter quarters in Panormus but withdrew his forces when the Carthaginians refused to give battle. The Romans took Hippana, Mytistratus, Camarina and Enna and besieged Lipara. Surviving inhabitants were sold into slavery. Lipara and Panormus were important Punic naval bases and the Roman attacks demonstrate the powerful position the Roman fleet had gained on the north coast of Sicily. Atilius celebrated a triumph ‘over Sicily and the Carthaginians’.

In 257 both consuls operated in Sicily. Information about Gnaeus Cornelius Blasio’s campaign has not come down to us; Gaius Atilius Regulus, however, was awarded a naval triumph ‘over the Carthaginians’. It is hard to say what he achieved; Polybius states that, in a sea battle off Tyndaris on the north coast of Sicily, the Romans took ten Carthaginian ships with their crews, sinking eight. Details of the battle have been lost but he describes the consul’s ship as well-manned and swift. The rest of the Punic fleet withdrew to the Lipari Islands. A surviving fragment in the works of Naevius mentions the ravaging of Malta. Orosius, Zonaras and Polyainos state that Atilius operated against the Lipari Islands and Malta. Certainly, operations against these two islands helped to make the route safe for the invasion of Africa that began in the following year.64 Atilius’ triumph was the seventh that had been celebrated during the war and the second for naval operations. Once again, naval paraphernalia must have been displayed in the triumphal procession; there is no record of a monument being built to commemorate the victory.

What made a naval triumph? All the Roman operations of this period depended on cooperation between the army and the fleet, in particular on the rapid transport of troops, which could only take place in areas where the navy had cleared the coast of the enemy fleet and made safe landing possible. Scipio’s operations in Corsica, which included the capture of important Punic harbours, had not earned him a naval triumph. As for Atilius, we do not know exactly what he achieved but we must assume that he inflicted a serious loss on the Punic navy that could be counted in terms of booty and a significant number of captured or sunken ships. Perhaps his success at the Battle of Tyndaris fulfilled the criteria for a triumph and in addition he may have fought the Carthaginians at the Lipari Islands or Malta, in sea battles of which we know nothing.


The submarine was a subversive force. Its ability to hide within the element on which the battlefleet held sway threatened the great ships, the theory and practice of their employment, above all the admirals who had risen in their service; during the 1920s and 1930s these held power and patronage, not simply in the Royal Navy where, for reasons of proud historic supremacy and incipient decline, it might have been expected, but also in those younger, thrusting navies of the United States, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan who looked to seize the trident. All these in the years leading to the Second World War cleaved to orthodoxy.

The articles of faith had been set down from 1890 by an American naval officer, Alfred Thayer Mahan, in a series of works extracting the principles of sea power from history – actually a period of history practically confined to the centuries of British naval ascendancy. Mahan placed the battlefleet at the core of naval strategy. By defeating the enemy battlefleet or bottling it up in port, the dominant fleet established ‘command’ of the oceans; and by blockading, that is throwing a cordon around the enemy’s coast, strangled his trade and brought him low. At the opposite pole to this strategy, and generally practised by the weaker naval power, was commerce-raiding, known after its French exponents as guerre de course. According to the doctrine this would never prevail over the superior battlefleet power.

The experience of the First World War appeared to confirm the theory. The British Grand Fleet had met the German High Seas Fleet off Jutland and driven it home, whence it had seldom ventured again, while the Royal Naval blockade had reduced the German population to near-starvation, anarchy and revolution. In the meantime, the German submarine or U-boat guerre de course had been contained.

Yet it had been a close-run thing. In April 1917 the British government had looked at defeat. That month, in which the United States entered the war against Germany, the Anglophile Admiral William Sims, despatched to liaise with the Admiralty in London, was horrified when shown the figures of merchant shipping losses: 536,000 tons sunk in February, 603,000 tons in March, 900,000 tons predicted for the current month. His dismay was heightened by a talk with the First Sea Lord, Sir John Jellicoe.

‘It is impossible for us to go on with the war if losses like this continue,’ Jellicoe told him.

‘It looks as though the Germans are winning the war,’ Sims replied.

‘They will win unless we can stop these losses – and stop them soon.’

When Sims questioned him about a solution, he said that at present they could see absolutely none.

Towards the end of the month Jellicoe, believing the government had not grasped the full gravity of the situation, wrote a memo to his civilian chief, the First Lord of the Admiralty, suggesting that it was necessary to bring home to the War Cabinet ‘the very serious nature of the naval position’:

We are carrying on the war … as if we had the absolute command of the sea, whereas we have not such command or anything approaching it. It is quite true that we are masters of the situation so far as surface ships are concerned, but it must be realised – and realised at once – that this will be quite useless if the enemy’s submarines paralyse, as they do now, our lines of communication.

He went on to suggest saving shipping space for the import of foodstuffs by withdrawing entirely from the Salonika campaign, and cutting down ruthlessly on all imports not essential to the life of the country,

but even with all this we shall be very hard put to it unless the United States help to the utmost of their ability … Without some such relief as I have indicated – and that given immediately – the Navy will fail in its responsibilities to the country and the country itself will suffer starvation.

This crisis in the naval war did not disprove the doctrine of battlefleet command since the Admiralty had brought it on itself by misunderstanding and thus disregarding the simplest, time-honoured response to guerre de course: convoying merchant ships instead of allowing them to sail independently while attempting to hunt the raiders. Mahan himself had written:

the result of the convoy system … warrants the inference that, when properly systematised and applied, it will have more success as a defensive measure than hunting for individual marauders – a process which, even when most thoroughly planned, still resembles looking for a needle in a haystack.

In desperation, and in response to more thoughtful officers in the fleet, at the eleventh hour the Admiralty introduced convoys for oceanic trade. Almost at once the shipping haemorrhage eased. It should have been a lesson: at the height of the campaign that April there were on average less than 50 of Germany’s 128 operational U-boats at sea at any time. It was this handful of comparatively inexpensive war machines which had come within an ace of sinking the most powerful naval and trading empire, aided not simply by her maritime allies, France, Italy, Japan and finally the United States, but also by the shipping and shipyards of neutrals. After the convoy system was instituted it was American yards building ships faster than the U-boats could sink them that allowed the Allies to transport sufficient materials and troops to win the Continental war.

In November 1918, as Germany’s acceptance of the armistice conditions became known, one of the U-boat COs, OLt. Karl Dönitz, who had been captured after his boat surfaced out of control while he was attacking a convoy, was held aboard a British cruiser off Gibraltar. He was watching scenes of jubilation in nearby ships with a bitter heart, when he found the cruiser’s captain approaching. Dönitz gestured at the ensigns flying from the armada of ships in the roads, British, American, French and Japanese, and asked the Britisher if he could take any pleasure from a victory attained with the whole world as allies.

‘Yes, it’s very curious,’ the Captain replied thoughtfully.’

A submarine was a thick-skinned steel cylinder tapering at both ends, designed to withstand enormous pressure at depth Buoyancy chambers termed main ballast tanks, fitted in most cases as lozenge-shaped bulges outside this pressure hull on either side, kept the cylinder just afloat. An outer steel ‘casing’ liberally pierced with openings to let the sea flood in and out provided a sharp bow, a faired stern and a narrow deck atop the cylinder; only a few feet above the sea, this was washed in any weather like a half-tide rock. About midway along its length rose a low structure enclosing another small pressure chamber called the conning tower, accessible from the pressure hull via a circular hatch and allowing access to the bridge above it by another small, pressure-tight hatch.

To submerge, the diesel engines which drove the craft on the surface, sucking air in through ducts from the tower structure, were shut down, and electric motors which took their power from massed batteries and consequently used no air were coupled to the propeller shafts. Buoyancy was destroyed by opening valves in the main ballast tanks, allowing the trapped air to be forced out by sea water rushing in; and horizontal fins, termed hydroplanes or just planes, projecting either side at bow and stern were angled against the water flow caused by the boat’s progress to impel the bows down. Approaching the required depth as shown on a gauge in the control room below the conning tower, the diving officer attempted to balance the boat in a state of neutral buoyancy, ‘catching a trim’ in which they neither descended further nor rose. He did this by adjusting the volume of water in auxiliary tanks at bow and stern, and either side at mid-length, flooding or pumping out, aiming to poise the submarine so perfectly that she swam on an even keel weighing precisely the same as the space of sea she occupied, completely at one with her element and floating firm and free as an airship in the air. It was an art attained by minute attention to the detail of prior consumption of stores and fuel, and by much experience. Sea water is seldom homogenous; a boat passing into a layer of different temperature or salinity, and hence density, becomes suddenly less or more buoyant, dropping fast or refusing to descend through the layer until more tank spaces have been flooded; when going deep the pressure hull would be so squeezed between the ribs by the weight above that it occupied less space and the boat had to be lightened by pumping out tanks to compensate. Most vigilance was required at the extremes: going very deep the boat might plunge below the point at which the hull could withstand the pressure; near the surface at periscope depth she might porpoise up to break surface in sight of the enemy.

Submerged, a submarine stole along at walking pace or less, either to conserve her batteries which could not be recharged by diesels until she surfaced again or, when hunted, to make as little engine and propeller noise as possible. With both sets of batteries ‘grouped up’ in parallel she might make twice a fast walking speed, 8 or 9 knots, but only for some two hours at most before the batteries ran dangerously low. This was her shortcoming: while she had great range and speed on the surface, once submerged she lost mobility by comparison even with the slowest tramp steamer. Against a battle squadron she could not hope to get within range for attack unless already lying in ambush very close to its track. For this reason the submarine was held to be ‘a weapon of position and surprise’.

Once her presence was detected and she became the hunted her submerged endurance was limited by the amount of air within the pressure hull, which of course was all the crew had to breathe; as they exhaled it became progressively degraded with carbon dioxide, after twenty-four hours or so reaching dangerous and finally fatal levels. Headaches and dizziness were common in operational submarines, but they were accepted among the other discomforts of an exacting life; remarkably little was known of the speed of deterioration of air. It was, for example, not appreciated that when the carbon dioxide content reaches 4 per cent thinking becomes difficult and decisions increasingly irrational; by 10 per cent extreme distress is felt, followed soon after by unconsciousness; at over 20 per cent the mixture is lethal.[7] No doubt this was not realized, and air purifiers were not installed – although in the German service individual carbon dioxide filter masks with neck-straps were provided – since before the advent of radar a submarine could usually surface at night to renew her air while remaining invisible. That indeed was the usual operational routine: to lurk submerged on the lookout for targets by day, coming up after nightfall to recharge the batteries, refresh the air and perhaps cruise to another position.

The submarine’s main armament was provided by torpedoes, each a miniature submarine in itself with a fuel tank and motor driving contrarotating propellers, a depth mechanism actuating hydroplanes to maintain a set depth, and a gyro compass linked to a rudder to maintain a set course. At the forward end a warhead of high explosive was detonated by a mechanism firing on contact or when disturbed by the magnetic field of the target ship. These auto-piloted cylinders, known as fish or in the German service as eels, were housed in tubes projecting forward from the fore end of the pressure hull and often aft from the after end as well. In some classes two or more tubes were housed externally beneath the casing, but unlike the internal tubes from the pressure hull whose reloads were stowed in the fore and after compartments, external tubes could not be reloaded until return to base.

While devastating when they hit the soft underpart of a ship or exploded beneath her, torpedoes were neither as accurate as shells from guns, nor for several reasons could they be ‘spotted’ on to the target. They were launched from their tubes – after these had been opened to the sea – set to steer a collision course to a point ahead of the target ship, ideally at or near a right angle to her track. Whether they hit depended largely on whether the relative motion problem had been solved correctly, which before radar meant how accurately the target’s course and speed had been estimated. The most certain data available was the target’s bearing read from a graduated ring around the periscope. Range was obtained by reading the angle between the waterline and the masthead or bridge of the target, either from simple graduations of minutes of arc or by a split-image rangefinder built into the periscope optics. Using the height of the mast or whatever feature had been taken, the angle was converted into range by a sliding scale. Since in most cases the masthead heights had to be estimated from the assumed size or class of the target ship, usually a difficult judgement to make from quick periscope observations, and since there was a tendency to overestimate size, ranges were often exaggerated. In addition the observer made an estimate of the angle between the target ship’s heading and his own line of sight, known as ‘the angle on the bow’; this too was often overestimated. Speed was deduced from a count of the propeller revolutions audible through the submarine’s listening apparatus, the distance of the second bow wave from the stem, or simply from the type of vessel and experience. With this data a plot was started incorporating both the target’s and the submarine’s own movements; updated by subsequent observations as the attack developed, the plot provided increasingly refined estimates which were fed into computing devices of greater or less mechanical ingenuity according to the nationality of the submarine. In British and Japanese navies the firing solution was expressed as an aim-off or director angle (DA) ahead of the target, in the US and German navies as a torpedo-course setting. Finally, a salvo of two or usually more torpedoes was fired with an interval of several seconds between each; this was to avoid upsetting the trim with such a sudden release of weight as would result from the simultaneous discharge of all tubes, and to allow for errors in the estimated data or the steering of the torpedoes themselves. In the British service, where it was assumed that at least three hits would be required to sink a modern capital ship, COs were trained to fire a ‘massed salvo’ of all torpedoes – usually six – at 5-second intervals, so spreading the salvo along the target and its track. In the American and German services particularly, where the torpedoes themselves could be set to run the desired course, ‘spread’ was often achieved by firing a ‘fan’ with a small angle between each torpedo.

Few attacks were as straightforward as this description might imply: the target was generally steering a zigzag pattern; surface and air escorts were often present to force the submarine into evasive alterations during the approach. The periscope could be used only sparingly, the more so the calmer the sea, lest the feather of its wake were spotted by lookouts; and between observations the submarine CO had to retain a mental picture of the developing situation, continuously updating calculations of time, speed and distance in his head as he attempted to manoeuvre into position to catch the DA at the optimum time when the torpedoes would run in on a broad angle to the enemy’s track. There were other situations when snap judgements had to be made on a single observation or while the submarine was turning with nothing but the CO’s experience and and eye to guide him. It was sometimes said that a successful CO needed a sportsman’s eye. Like most generalizations about submarine COs, this can be disproved by individual example: David Wanklyn, for instance, the highest-scoring British ace, did not shine at ball games.

Some British COs appear to have dispensed with overmuch calculation: John Stevens, the very successful CO of Unruffled in the Mediterranean, remarked, ‘I say if the target’s worth firing at, give him the lot [a full salvo] and, anyway, the DA is always ten degrees.’[8] It is not possible to compare the results of this cavalier approach statistically with those of American or German COs who relied on fire-control computers generating continuous solutions since the three services operated in very different conditions and, particularly with the Americans, the percentage of hits was depressed by torpedo failures. All that can be deduced from the figures is that all navies had a few COs who consistently outhit the average, and at the other end of the scale a few who seldom hit anything. The qualities the aces showed were aggression, determination, imperturbability in attack, and painstaking attention to training. To a greater extent than in any other type of warship, officers and crew were simple extensions of the CO’s will. When he attacked submerged, he alone saw the enemy – apart from some US submarines where the executive officer took the periscope – and it was the CO’s coolness, resolve and daring, or his timidity, exhaustion and nervous fatigue, that decided the course of the action.

The submarine, more than any other warship, was designed and operated as what would now be called a weapon system. Except in the US service, no concessions were made to the comfort or even the convenience of the crew. They were carried merely to serve the system, fitting in the spaces around the reload torpedoes and stores for the voyage, in most cases sharing bunks, ‘hot bunking’ with a shipmate from another watch and sleeping on unchanged sheets that became dirtier by the day. They were unable to bathe or shower, scarcely to wash hands and face, and frequently could not get dry after a wet spell on watch. There was often a queue for the fiendishly complex WC in the heads, and even that could not be used when submerged below about 70 feet because of the exterior pressure. Thereafter they were obliged to relieve themselves in buckets and empty bottles whose smell mixed with the confined, humid odour of diesel oil, past cooking, unwashed bodies, chlorine and stale bilges which permeated every area. They were forced to eat hashes of tinned food and dehydrated vegetables after the fresh provisions ran out, could not take proper exercise, could not even walk on the deck casing lest an enemy aircraft were sighted and the boat had to make an emergency dive; and when submerged for any length of time they were subject to nausea, splitting headaches and, if the mind were allowed to dwell on it, incipient claustrophobia. Paradoxically, the sheer frightfulness of conditions and the sense of vulnerability, and hence of mutual responsibility, engendered comradeship across barriers of rank which in turn ensured high morale, probably higher than in any other class of warship, irrespective of nationality. It depended, however, on a good CO; this meant above all an officer who, whatever his qualities or faults, the men felt they could trust.

It was a young man’s game. In the British service an officer was judged too old for operational command at 35. The US service began the war with COs for fleet submarines nearer 40 than 35 but many proved overcautious, which may have had more to do with unrealistic peacetime training than with age; they were soon replaced by younger officers whose aggression, helped by radar, was largely responsible for the devastating campaign which severed Japan from its external supplies. By the last year of the war most US submarine COs were in their early thirties, many not yet 30. In the German service a more dramatic decline in the age of COs was due to the loss of men in the Atlantic and the simultaneous expansion of the U-boat fleet; in the later years many German COs were under 25; youngest of all was Hans Hess, who was 21 when he took command of U995 in 1944.

Who in sound mind volunteered for the hazards of such an unnatural life? Before the war sufficient came forward in all navies, and it was only necessary to draft a few, mostly specialist ratings. Some would insist they joined for the extra allowance paid for service in submarines, or because they needed the extra money to get married. There were other powerful inducements: for officers, especially, responsibility and command came much earlier than in the surface fleet; for all hands there was the special camaraderie and informality of the close life aboard, and a different kind of discipline, maintained more by competence and self-respect than by mere rank. In a submarine more than in any other type of vessel each member of the crew was vital to the team; a mistake by any one person might lead to disaster. It was in every sense a close fraternity with all the certainties and reassurance of such, bonded by shared trials, miseries, unique hazards and proficiency in overcoming them. In every navy the submarine service was a club apart with a particular esprit de corps, attracting the bright and non-conformist seeking escape from the hierarchy and meaningless apple-polishing of a big-ship navy in peacetime. The future German aces, Prien, Schepke and Kretschmer, were of this type, as was the American submarine CO Ignatius Galantin, who wrote of his two years’ battleship service after graduating from the Naval Academy: ‘I became increasingly restive … I wanted to be free of the dull, repetitious, institutionalised life of the battleship navy, and to be part of a more personalised, more modern and flexible sea arm.’

As Galantin hints, the submarine was exciting as a new weapon at the forefront of naval technology and strategy. On the other hand it had retained from the first war the aura of clandestine, piratical operations by such COs as Martin Dunbar Nasmith, who had forced the nets, minefields and powerful currents of the Dardanelles to attack Turkish transports for Gallipoli in the Sea of Marmora; Max Horton, whose exploits in the Baltic had led the Germans to put a price on his head; and from the other camp Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, ‘ace of aces’, whose record of ships and tonnage sunk remains unbeaten, and Dönitz’s first CO, Walter Forstmann, who stands only a little below Arnauld in the record book.

One of the distinguished band of British submariners (now Vice-Admiral Sir) Ian McGeoch has listed his reasons for volunteering:

I was a dedicated small boat sailor, and navigator in offshore racing yachts; I was keen to get the early command which submarine service offered; I was engaged to be married, so that the extra six shillings per diem was an attraction; and I had read most of the accounts of the operations of British submarines in WW1.

In both Germany and Japan, where youthful idealism was harnessed to a martial ethic, the submarine arms were deliberately raised to élites, their image enhanced by propaganda; in Germany posters depicted dashing U-boat heroes sailing under streaming pennants towards the enemy. Despite this, during the war both Germany and Japan, while attempting to maintain the fiction of an all-volunteer service, resorted increasingly to drafting suitable young men from the surface fleet, as indeed happened in Great Britain and America. But even when drafted, by no means all measured up to the physical and temperamental demands of submarine life. In all navies the submarine branch remained an élite of fit, stable young men from which temperamental misfits and those not prepared to pull their weight were very quickly weeded, or weeded themselves.


The type of bow most people are familiar with is the “post Corinthian” bow. Previously, triremes had a ‘hollow’ bow. See Connolly’s reconstruction of this type, p.265 “Greece and Rome at War”, and the coin reverses on p.264 giving a good ‘before and after’ idea of the old and modified bows.

What Thucydides says can be translated thus: “They shortened the bows of their ships and strengthened them;they laid out stout ‘epotides’, and fixed stays from the ‘epotides’ to the ships sides both inside and out” (the ‘epotides’ lit: “ears” were the transverse beams across the hull supporting the ‘paraxereisia’ = outrigger that supported the upper bank of oars, sometimes in English called ‘catsheads’).

The Greek word for ‘fixed’ is the same derivative as the English term ‘hypotenuse’. The stays thus formed a “Y” support to each of the the “T” shapes formed by the ‘epotides’ running at 90 degrees to the ship’s sides. This strengthened ‘epotides’ meant that the opponent’s epotides and paraxereisia would be smashed in a near head-on collision, allowing the scraping off of the opponent’s oar-banks…….

Sparta Builds a Fleet

After the defeat of much of the Corinthian fleet by Phormio in 429, the Peloponnesians had essentially given up the idea of defeating the Athenians at sea, much in the same way as the latter avoided pitched battle with Spartan hoplites. In response, the Athenians were often given a free hand to patrol the empire. They would do so with near impunity for almost the next sixteen years; the Peloponnesians, in contrast, resembled more the smaller German navy of the two world wars, venturing out to terrorize merchants and neutrals only when the British fleet was elsewhere or asleep.

Then, suddenly, the unexpected Athenian catastrophe of 413 in Sicily—216 imperial triremes (perhaps at least 160 of them Athenian) and almost 45,000 men of the empire were lost or captured—gave new impetus to Sparta’s efforts to catch up and build a new Pan-Peloponnesian fleet fueled by Persian money. The vast armada of Athens had always been a fluke beyond what should have been the limited resources of any single city-state. Indeed, its creation in 482 was a result only of a rich strike in the silver mines of Laurium, and it was later sustained by the imperial tribute of hundreds of subject states. In contrast, without mines or tribute-paying subjects, Sparta’s old pipe dream at the beginning of the war of creating a vast armada of 500 ships could be realized only by an unholy alliance with the empire of Persia.

It was not just that Athens had lost two-thirds of its once magnificent imperial fleet or that the roughly 100 reserve triremes that remained in the Piraeus were in various states of unreadiness. Instead, the greater dilemma was that the human losses at Sicily, coupled with the thousands of dead from the plague, had wiped out an entire generation of experienced Athenian rowers, teachers, and students of the sea, all almost impossible to replace at once. In a similar example, after the defeat of Lepanto (1571), the Ottoman catastrophe was not just the loss of almost 30,000 seamen and 200 galleys—or the thousands more sailors who were unaccounted for. Rather, the destruction of thousands of trained bowmen, archers who made Turkish ships deadly but took years to train properly, ensured that even after the hasty reconstruction of their fleet by the next year, the Ottomans would rarely again venture into Italian-controlled waters.

A third to half of the thousands of imperial rowers who were lost at Sicily were probably Athenian citizens and resident aliens. The death or capture of the remaining 20,000 foreigners and allied seamen not only drained the empire of manpower but also created waves of resentment against Athens among bereaved subjects. Long gone was the memory of the festive spectacle of cheering and merriment, and expectations of easy loot and glory on the cheap, when the grand flotilla had sailed from the Piraeus in 415. Sailing with the Athenians could quite literally get you and your sons killed.

Something had also come over the Greeks after Sicily. Perhaps it was the length of the war; it was now almost twenty years since Sparta had invaded Athens, and both desperate sides were beginning to sense that the end could not be too far away. Or maybe the increasing savagery was attributable to the mounting losses and the barbarism unleashed at Scione, Torone, and Melos. In any case, in the Archidamian War one does not sense that Spartans and Athenians hated each other. But in the last phase of the conflict, there is a real feeling of growing fury on both sides, that trireme war in the eastern Aegean was perhaps more like the Japanese, rather than the European, theater of World War II, when most soldiers gave no quarter and harbored a deep visceral and racial dislike of their enemies.

If an islander were to row in the future, it might be wiser to enlist for higher pay in the new and larger Peloponnesian fleet, which was likely to patrol in greater numbers in the eastern Aegean, which was now increasingly empty of the old Athenian triremes. As the war heightened in the eastern Aegean and the limits of Greek manpower became clear after some two decades of steady combat losses, the final sea fights became as much a bidding war for mercenary oarsmen as a test of seamanship. In other words, the war would descend into a one-sided financial contest between the limitless gold of Persia and an impoverished Athens.

Athens started the war with 5,000 talents in reserve. But after Sicily it now had less than 500 in its treasury, scarcely enough to build 100 triremes and keep them at sea for even four months. The special emergency reserve of 1,000 talents to guarantee the safety of the Piraeus was suddenly not so sacrosanct. Thucydides concluded that besides the absence of men to make up the losses and the few triremes left in the ship sheds, there was also “no money in the treasury.” In addition, the two traditional sources of Athenian naval financing—silver from Laurium and tribute from the Aegean—were now imperiled by Spartan ravagers and ships. Most Greeks thought that after Sicily “the war was over.” Thus, should Sparta somehow find the capital to build a fleet and pay for its new crews, there was a good chance that by 413 its rowers would be no more inexperienced than most Athenian replacement oarsmen.

After a few years of valuable help to the Peloponnesian navy, the Persians decided to take a far more active role when the maverick Spartan admiral Lysander and the renegade teenaged Achaemenid prince Cyrus struck a partnership of convenience in 407, one that meant the Peloponnesians would have a nearly unlimited supply of capital to build ships and hire crews. With overwhelming numerical superiority, the Spartans could afford to keep challenging the Athenians at sea, backed up by the assurance that their losses would be made good as they wore down the Athenian fleet in a theater vital to the continuance of imported food and precious tribute.3 Even earlier, after the defeat at Cyzicus in spring 410, the Persian satrap Pharnabazus had encouraged the demoralized Spartans to remember that there was plenty of timber for ships in Persia, and lots of replacement arms, money, and clothing to reequip any sailors who survived the defeat.

In the immediate aftermath of the Athenian catastrophe at Sicily, when it came time to pony up for Peloponnesian triremes, the Boeotians, Corinthians, Locrians, Phocians, Megarians, and the states of the Argolid sent out no more than 75 ships. Along with the Spartans’ own paltry 25 triremes, that still made up a combined fleet of only about 100 ships. The Sicilian allies proved an equal disappointment. Despite having been saved by the timely arrival of a Peloponnesian fleet in the harbor at Syracuse, in recompense they added little more than 22 vessels to the Spartan cause—given their worries over a nearby aggressive Carthage. So there loomed the chance that in 412 the Peloponnesians might soon achieve numerical parity at sea, a situation in the short-term that meant Sparta could at least engage the green reconstituted Athenian fleet with an equal number of ships and crews no more inexperienced.

The inclusion of seasoned naval officers from Syracuse and Corinth who long had organized fleets might account for some sharing of nautical experience among the high command of the grand Peloponnesian fleet. At times, for example, there is special mention of skilled navigators like Ariston the Corinthian, who was “the best pilot of the Syracusan fleet.” He had devised a stratagem for feeding his seamen rapidly on shore and getting their triremes back in action as quickly as possible. The same innovator was most probably responsible for attaching shorter and lower rams to the Syracusan ships, to ensure that they struck below the waterline and with greater force.

Nevertheless, what has never been adequately explained is how a landlocked reactionary state like Sparta, one that not only had little experience with the sea but openly loathed the entire social cargo that accompanied naval power, in the space of less than a decade turned green crews and brand-new triremes into a formidable and seasoned opponent of the great fleet of Athens. The creation of an eastern Aegean Spartan flotilla, alongside the Roman armada during the Punic Wars and the Japanese imperial fleet at the beginning of the twentieth century, ranks as one of the great naval achievements in history.

Ancient observers remarked on the sheer audacity of Spartan naval power, usually through acknowledgment by Spartans themselves that they had no real idea of what they were doing. “Sending out men who had no experience with the sea” to replace “men who were just beginning to understand naval matters” summed up Spartan policy in the eastern Aegean—as if one Spartan hoplite on deck was as good as another. Contemplating Spartans out in the middle of the Aegean on rocking triremes, one might paraphrase Samuel Johnson and wonder not that it was done well, but that it was done at all.


Battle of Cynossema, 411 BCE. Athenian fleet in blue, Spartan navy in red.


Yet if the Aegean had been relatively quiet since 429, suddenly from 411 to 404 the Athenians met the Spartans and their allies in at least seven major engagements. Across time and space, rarely are rival fleets willing to engage each other repeatedly until one side is not merely defeated but annihilated. Such is the conservatism of admirals who so jealously protect their precious assets while on the high seas. Like the British systematic destruction of the Napoleonic armada or the American Seventh Fleet’s brutal death struggle with the Japanese, which finally ended with the utter annihilation of the most lethal carrier and battleship force of the pre–World War II world, both Athens and Sparta now no longer sought mere tactical advantage but were willing to risk their all to finish off the enemy.

To win, Sparta had to kill off, capture, or scatter a final cohort of at least another 50,000 or so Athenian and allied sailors and sink another 200 ships, which otherwise, over a decade, might replace the losses of Sicily. These last battles across the Aegean—they are often lumped together and called the Ionian War—were decided in the waters off western Asia Minor (Ionia) and in or near the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles). If Boeotia, home of nine major hoplite battlefields by the fourth century, was once dubbed by the Theban general Epaminondas “the dancing floor of war,” one could call the Hellespont and the adjoining Propontis (the Sea of Marmara) “the seas of death.” In those environs alone 50,000 men were probably killed, missing, or captured in just three battles at Cynossema, Cyzicus, and Aegospotami, all within a sixty-mile radius. In addition, between 412 and 404 thousands more Athenians, Persians, and Peloponnesians died in ambushes, seaborne attacks, and random killing up and down the Ionian seaboard.

With the establishment of a permanent garrison at Decelea, the new Peloponnesian fleet was confident that it now had muscle enough to block grain ships from arriving at Attica. Thus, this time under a year-round combined land and sea assault, the city, it was thought, would shortly go bankrupt if not starve: keep Attic farmers away from their land, destroy ships that imported food, deny access to grain-growing areas abroad, assure subjects that they can revolt in safety and withhold tribute, and all the while sink Athenian triremes. Decelea was the antithesis of Archidamus’ earlier failed strategy, which had offered no permanent presence and no ancillary naval strategy.

Not long after the defeat in the Great Harbor of Syracuse, an emboldened and reconstituted Spartan armada engaged what was left of the Athenian fleet in a series of inconclusive sea battles in the Aegean, at Spiraeum (412), Syme (411), Chios (411), and Eretria (411). Whereas losses at these rather obscure sea battles on both sides were minimal, the succession of collisions began to wear on a shaky Athens and had the practical effect of destroying another 30 or so Athenian triremes.

More importantly, perhaps 5,000 seamen were killed, scattered, or captured. Despite spending its final 1,000-talent critical reserve on rebuilding the fleet, strategically Athens could no longer control even the seas off its own coast. It was also on the verge of losing much of Ionia and, with it, a tribute-rich empire. After the defeat at Eretria in nearby Euboea—the Athenians lost 22 ships and most of the crews were killed in battle or captured—a panic descended upon the city that was greater than the near riot that had broken out after the news of the Sicilian disaster reached the Piraeus, two years earlier.

The final phases of the war next turned to the northern coast of the Hellespont. There, near the peninsula called the Thracian Chersonese, the Spartans now tightened the noose, hoping to cut off the sea-lanes between Propontis and Athens. In summer 411 at Cynossema, 76 Athenian ships, under the brilliant general Thrasybulus, beat back the larger Peloponnesian fleet of 86 triremes. Perhaps 32,000 seamen were involved. At least 36 ships were lost in fighting that spanned some eleven miles of the strait. The total casualties are unknown—though as many as 7,000 may have been killed, scattered, or wounded. The Athenians claimed victory on the basis that they had at least kept their last fleet intact. They had regained morale in their first major fight after the disaster in Sicily, defeated a fleet that included several hated Syracusan triremes last encountered in the disaster of the Great Harbor, and ensured that commerce with Athens remained open. As Thucydides rightly put it, “They stopped considering that their enemies were worth much in naval matters.”

Yet in such battles of attrition, the greater resources now were starting to tip toward the Peloponnesians. Their newfound pluck at sea would encourage more contributions from their allies and closely observant Persia. In contrast, to win the war on the seas the Athenians would have to inflict crushing losses on the Spartans while losing almost none of their now precious triremes. Thucydides, for example, said of the Athenian victory at Cynossema (fought not far from Gallipoli) that it came “at just the right time,” inasmuch as small losses to the Peloponnesians in the prior two years and the great catastrophe on Sicily had made them “afraid of the Peloponnesian fleet.”

To compound the Peloponnesian misery, not far away, at Abydos, a few weeks later the Spartans once again forced battle. There they were to lose another 30 ships, along with thousands of crewmen. Still, Alcibiades—in 411 he had returned to Athens in yet another incarnation, as chief Athenian admiral—summed up the Athenian dilemma best before the battle of Cyzicus. After explaining why his crews had “to fight at sea, fight on land, and fight against walled fortresses,” he finished with the admission of a bitter reality: “The reason is that there is no money among us, while the enemy has all they wish from the king of Persia.”

Sparta was not to be deterred by the loss at Abydos in its ambitious efforts to destroy what was left of the once grand Athenian fleet. In between battle and revolution, the Spartans offered Persian bonuses for oarsmen on the open market, rightly figuring that higher pay in the Peloponnesian navy would cause desertion from the Athenian fleet, which now depended on mercenary rowers.

About six months later, in March 410 and thirty-five miles distant from Cynossema, the Spartan fleet unabashedly forced battle again, near Cyzicus. In this third consecutive battle of the Ionian War, after Cynossema and Abydos, the Peloponnesians suffered yet another setback, despite their now accustomed numerical superiority. Inspired leadership by the veteran generals Thrasybulus and Alcibiades and remarkable seamanship by a new generation of Athenian oarsmen, who went to sea in a storm and performed flawlessly the difficult periplous, explain the remarkable victory. In fact, Cyzicus proved one of the greatest naval disasters for any Greek fleet during the entire war. Yet it was the beginning, not the end, of the bloodbath in the Aegean.

Another 60 ships, including 20 Syracusan triremes, were now lost, some of which their dejected crews burned after seeing the defeat of their allies. The casualties are not known, but they must have been high. Perhaps well over 10,000 seamen were captured, scattered, or killed, including the Spartan general Mindarus. The historian Xenophon, in one of the most famous passages in his Hellenic history, quotes a laconic letter sent back home to Sparta from the surviving vice admiral Hippocrates—intercepted by the victorious Athenians—that read: “The ships are gone. Mindarus is dead. The men are starving. We are at a loss what we should do.”

What to do? In less than a year, Sparta had suffered staggering losses. Somewhere between 130 and 160 triremes were gone—almost the entire contribution two years earlier of its Peloponnesian and Syracusan allies. How many were dead, wounded, or lost is not recorded. In theory, between 20,000 and 30,000 seamen were on those ships that went down; in reality, no doubt at least a few thousand probably escaped or were captured.

Suddenly the entire course of the war began to change. After Sicily, the Greeks had assumed that Athens was finished. Now they were not so sure. Athens’ food supply was still safe. Rebellion among the allies was less likely. Athenian naval prestige was once again unquestioned. And most importantly, generals like Thrasybulus, Theramenes, and Alcibiades had proved that they were far better tacticians than almost all the admirals that had accompanied the Spartans to the Aegean.

After Cyzicus, a dejected Sparta apparently remembered why it had not sought naval engagements against Athens some twenty years earlier. In frustration, Sparta quickly sent out peace feelers to Athens: “We want to have peace with you, men of Athens,” their ambassadors pleaded in offering a return to the prewar status quo. But the Athenian assembly, perhaps led by rabble-rousing demagogues like Cleophon, was now aroused, drunk on success and paranoid after the failed oligarchic coup of 411. For the first time in some three years, the Athenians had thoughts of reclaiming the entire Aegean. Maybe they really could destroy the Spartan fleet for good, and drive the Persians out of Greek affairs. Unsure how to follow up their spectacular successes, the Athenians unwisely played defense for nearly four years, between 410 and 407, while the Spartans rebuilt their forces and found themselves a true military genius in Lysander, albeit one who did not emerge in a major role until 407, near the end of the war.

Unfortunately for the Athenians, few of the city’s politicians saw the true complexion of this new Ionian War, and ignored the advice of the three brilliant generals, Alcibiades, Thrasybulus, and Theramenes, who had brought them such stunning victories. The truth was that the war had now changed dramatically and could no longer be seen in terms of the old simple Spartan land/Athenian sea dichotomy of decades past. The newfound Spartan ability to tap into the imperial treasuries of Persia, through the direct succor of its western satrapies, ensured the enemies of Athens an inexhaustible supply of mercenaries, new triremes, and money to hire crews who were experienced rowers, not rustic farmers from the Peloponnese.

To nullify the Spartan advantage in numbers and its determination to prompt battle repeatedly, Athens had to rely on superior seamanship and command in every major battle, without any margin of error. It could not fight on the defensive, since it was trying to maintain an empire, which involved more than just keeping out the Spartan fleet. And an unforeseen result of the Athenian victory at Cyzicus was a reexamination of the Spartan command, leading to the appointment of a new admiral, Lysander, who, even more so than Brasidas, would prove to be the unqualified military genius of the entire war on either side, the most ruthless, brilliant, and multidimensional battle leader Greece had produced since Themistocles. Most Spartan generals were fighters (with tough names like Thorax, “Breastplate,” and Leon, “Lion”), but rarely was one both heroic and full of strategic insight about how to defeat something as insidious as the Athenian empire. The presence of Lysander—a man cut from the same cloth as Brasidas and Gylippus (none of them were Spartan royalty and thus all were considered somewhat expendable)—along with a greater infusion of Persian capital was felt almost immediately as the Spartan maverick systematically hunted down grain ships, stormed Athenian strongholds, and enslaved captured peoples. In the next major battle, at Notium (spring 406)—the Spartans had used the three-year hiatus in naval confrontation to rebuild their fleet—Alcibiades temporarily left command to Antiochus, a minor captain, with strict orders to avoid an engagement in his absence.

Instead, the Athenians rashly fought Lysander off Ephesus, and right away lost 22 irreplaceable ships. By any measure this was small potatoes after the stunning string of victories at Cynossema, Abydos, and Cyzicus. On the other hand, every Athenian trireme was now precious. Despite the fact that when Alcibiades returned to Notium after the defeat of his subordinate the Athenians still had as many ships as Lysander, the loss caused outrage at a desperate Athens, raising the specter of Alcibiades’ past machinations and triangulations.

Once more Alcibiades was banished, and with that Athens lost its most capable and popular admiral. True, Athens had lost few ships, and its fleet of 108 remaining triremes was roughly the same size as the Peloponnesian armada. But Athens’ dilemma was not merely that it had to stop the Persian fleet but that it had an empire to protect in Ionia as well, a fact that in strategic terms meant that superiority, not parity, in ships was required.

A few months later at Mytilene, the Athenians under Conon lost another 30 ships to a Spartan fleet that once more had grown to somewhere between 140 and 170 ships. In response, the Athenians began a desperate search for even more manpower, putting old and young, slave and free, poor and wealthy on triremes in hopes of manning enough ships to thwart the Spartan juggernaut. By late spring of the same year, the death struggle continued as the fleets once more sailed to engage each other off the Ionian coast. In the previous five years, at the smaller battles of Spiraeum, Syme, Chios, Eretria, and Abydos and the three great fights at Cynossema, Cyzicus, and Notium, at least 84 Athenian triremes had been lost, along with perhaps as many as 16,000 seamen. Sparta, in turn, had suffered nearly double those casualties—160 ships sunk or captured and, with them, perhaps as many as 30,000 sailors.


As 1813 began, Britain was revitalized by Napoleon’s debacle in Russia. Sensing a historic turn in events, the British stripped their country of troops and reinforced Wellington’s army, with the intention of not only driving the French from Spain but also of crossing the Pyrenees to invade France. The Baltic ports were reopened to British trade just in time to prevent economic collapse. And Britain had new partners in the struggle against the French. Paid by British gold, Sweden joined the war on Britain’s side, and the Prussians, once again switching sides, allied themselves with the Russians. Revolt flared in Germany.

These developments were hardly good news for the Americans. The Yankees had banked on the bulk of the Royal Navy being tied up in European waters, but with Napoleon reeling, the British were able to reinforce their squadrons in North American waters. As a result, the frigates that had easily gotten to sea in the opening months of the struggle were bottled up in port on their return from their victorious cruises. Some did not get to sea again for the remainder of the war. Constellation, for example, was blockaded in Norfolk, and United States and the captured Macedonian were locked up in New London. Convoys also were established to protect merchantmen from the attacks of Yankee commerce-raiders. And the British soon got their chance to cheer a triumph at sea.

James Lawrence, as a reward for his victory over the British sloop Peacock, had been given command of Chesapeake, which was being fitted out in Boston. A few weeks before, John Rodgers had managed to evade a British blockading squadron with President and Congress and captured a dozen trading vessels, so Captain Philip Vere Broke, the British commander off Boston, resolved that Chesapeake would not be allowed to escape. He sent Lawrence a message saying he was sending away his supporting vessels and challenging him to an encounter between Chesapeake and his ship, the thirty-eight-gun Shannon, off Boston Light. Lawrence had put to sea on June 1, 1813, before he received this challenge, but he made no effort to elude Broke’s vessel.

Lawrence had considerable difficulty in manning Chesapeake because she was considered an unlucky ship, and many sailors had already succumbed to the lure of privateering. A large number of those who did sign on were foreigners and green hands, and she was hardly in fighting trim. An officer of Lawrence’s energy and experience would have improved the efficiency of his ship after a few weeks at sea, and rather than offering battle, he should have reined in his enthusiasm and slipped away to terrorize British commerce. In contrast, Broke was the Royal Navy’s most efficient and innovative gunnery enthusiast and had been in command of Shannon for seven years. Unlike many British officers, he drilled his men at the guns every day and had personally sighted in each piece. “Don’t try to dismast her,” Broke told his crew as they put to sea to deal with Chesapeake. “Kill the men and the ship is yours.”

Undoubtedly because his crew was inexperienced, Lawrence sailed Chesapeake to within fifty yards of Shannon without maneuvering for a raking position, and both ships unleashed broadsides at point-blank range. The intensive training that Broke had given his gun crews quickly paid off. The British fired far faster and more accurately than the Americans. British shot pounded Chesapeake’s hull and shrieked across her quarterdeck. Lawrence and several of his officers were mortally wounded. Taken below, he implored his remaining officers: “Don’t give up the ship!”

Badly damaged, her headsails shot away and her stern swinging in the wind, Chesapeake fouled her opponent, and the two vessels were lashed together. “Boarders away!” cried Broke as he led fifty men onto the deck of the American frigate. With most of their officers shot down, the ship’s polyglot crew fled below, and only her marine detachment made a stand. Gathered about the mainmast, they fought with bayonets and clubbed muskets until only a handful were still on their feet. “The enemy fought desperately, but in disorder,” related Broke, who suffered a serious head wound in the melee but recovered. Within fifteen minutes of the firing of the first broadside, Chesapeake was in British hands. The “butcher’s bill” was high—twenty-three British seamen killed and fifty-eight wounded, while forty-eight Americans were killed and ninety-nine wounded.

The sight of Chesapeake being shepherded into Halifax with the white ensign flying above the Stars and Stripes sent British spirits soaring, and the Royal Navy regained a portion of the luster lost in previous engagements with the Yankees. Broke was knighted, and his gunnery reforms were adopted by other officers.

Little more than two months later, the brig Argus, which had captured twenty British merchantmen in British waters, was brought to bay by the brig Pelican, off Cornwall. The night before, Argus had captured a wine-laden vessel out of Oporto. The ship was burned, but not before some of the American sailors got into the cargo, which probably influenced their performance in action. Although Argus could have shown her heels to the slower British vessel, Master Commandant William H. Allen chose to give battle. The two vessels were almost equal in force, but the British fire was brisk, and in short order Argus struck her flag. The action reflected little credit on Allen, who lost a leg and died of his wounds. Like James Lawrence, he displayed a romantic élan but showed no understanding of strategic reality. To have continued Argus’s successful career as a commerce raider would have been far more damaging to Britain than the capture of an insignificant brig—and even that was bungled.

In vivid contrast, early in 1813 David Porter took the stoutly built Essex around Cape Horn into the Pacific, on what became a classic raiding voyage. Porter’s objective was to destroy Britain’s Pacific whaling fleet off the Galapagos Islands, and at the same time to protect American vessels engaged in the trade. Within six months he captured a dozen whalers as well as several other ships with a total value of $2.5 million. Porter accomplished all this even though he had no base from which to operate and lived off captured supplies and gear. Prizes were so plentiful that twelve-year-old Midshipman David Glasgow Farragut, the captain’s ward, was assigned to one of them. When Essex required a refit, Porter sailed her three thousand miles across the Pacific to the Marquesas, where his crew had a taste of life in the South Seas while they overhauled their ship.

Early in 1814 Essex put into Valparaiso, Chile, where two British vessels, the frigate Phoebe and the sloop-of-war Cherub, which had been searching for the raider, caught up with her. Although Essex was rated at thirty-two guns, she actually mounted forty-six. Phoebe was similarly armed, and Cherub mounted twenty-six. Essex could have dealt with either of the enemy vessels singly, but together they were more than a match for her. Moreover, the American ship’s main battery consisted of short-range carronades, while Phoebe carried long eighteens, which meant she could stand off and demolish her opponent at long range without danger to herself. The ships lay in sight of each other for the better part of a month while waging a propaganda war. Essex hoisted a large white flag emblazoned “Free trade and sailors’ rights”; the British countered with “God and country, British sailors’ best rights.”

On March 28, 1814, the wind blew up and Essex slipped her cable and headed for the open sea. Escape seemed possible until a sudden squall struck her, sending the frigate’s main-topmast by the board. Phoebe and Cherub bore down on the disabled vessel as she lay in a small cove about three miles from Valparaiso. Porter made excellent use of his few long twelves and forced his opponents to draw off to make repairs. Taking up positions where Essex’s guns could not bear, they began systematically to shoot her to pieces. Midshipman Farragut later recalled that one gun was manned three times, one crew after another having been wiped out. As he helped work another gun, a single shot killed four of the gunners. Unable to close with the enemy, Porter tried to run Essex ashore and put the torch to her, but there was no escape. The spectacular Odyssey of the Salem frigate was over, and more than half her crew were either killed or wounded.

Increasingly, as the British blockade of the U.S. Navy’s warships tightened, the task of twisting the lion’s tail fell to the privateers that had fanned out across the sea lanes at the beginning of hostilities. It is estimated that at least 515 privateers were commissioned, mostly from Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland. They were credited with capturing 1,346 vessels, and probably took others that were not reported. Many of these vessels were bagged off the coast of Portugal and Spain, where the victims were engaged in carrying supplies to Wellington’s army. Navy ships captured another 165 prizes.

To meet the needs of the privateersman, as well as those of slavers and smugglers, ship designers had developed the swift-sailing Baltimore clipper, a topsail schooner with a slim hull crowned by two tall masts and an immense spread of canvas. Usually armed with one “Long Tom” and several smaller guns, they were among the most graceful ships ever built, leading even a landsman such as Henry Adams to rhapsodize:

Beautiful beyond anything then known in naval construcion … the schooner was a wonderful invention. Not her battles, but her escapes won for her the open-mouthed admiration of the British captains who saw their prize double like a hare and slip through their fingers at the moment when capture was sure. Under any ordinary conditions of wind and weather, with an open sea, the schooner, if only she could get to windward, laughed at a frigate.

Privateer skippers often matched their ships in dash and daring. Captain Thomas Boyle of Baltimore raised havoc in the waters around Britain, first in the Comet and then in Chasseur. The profits from one cruise alone were $400,000. Taking a leaf from the British, Boyle, in the summer of 1814, published a mock proclamation putting the British Isles under blockade. Within two months he captured eighteen ships, burning them after removing their cargoes, which were valued at $100,000. The Baltimore schooner Kemp snatched five of the seven vessels in a convoy from under the nose of the escort and returned to port—all within eight days. The prizes were sold for $500,000, making this probably the war’s shortest and most successful cruise.

Although privateers were not supposed to engage British men of war, Captain Samuel Chester Reid of the seven-gun brig General Armstrong successfully violated this rule. Having captured twenty-four enemy prizes, Reid had taken shelter in the neutral port of Fayal in the Azores, where on September 26, 1814, the harbor was sealed by a squadron of British warships. Captain Robert Lloyd sent four boats carrying a hundred men rowing towards the Armstrong. Reid opened fire with his nine-pounders and the British withdrew.

The next night Lloyd launched another attack, this time with twelve boats carrying four hundred men. The attackers were badly cut up but kept coming. When the British boats bumped against the side of their ship, the Yankee privateersmen heaved cannonballs down into the craft, punching holes in the bottoms of several. Undeterred, the British swarmed on board the Armstrong. Reid and his ninety men met them with cutlass, pistol, and pike and the battle surged back and forth along the vessel’s deck. The slaughter among the boarding party was appalling. In forty minutes, Reid estimated, nearly two-thirds of its members were casualties, and the survivors plunged into sea. Two Americans were killed, seven wounded.

Lloyd declared that he would have the privateer at all costs. At daybreak, he sent the 18-gun sloop-of-war Carnation to finish the Armstrong. Reid replied as best he could, but his ship was shot to pieces. He scuttled the vessel, and as she sank, the surviving Americans swam ashore and took refuge in a convent outside Fayal. Claiming that several of the privateer’s crew were deserters from the Royal Navy, Lloyd had them rounded up. But he could not prove his claim, and the Portuguese authorities ordered the Americans released.

Yet, for all the enthusiasm with which Americans embraced privateering, it was not an effective weapon of war. Privateers damaged British commerce and sometimes captured valuable cargoes, but they were no substitute for a navy. They did nothing to weaken the stranglehold that the British had on the American coast, and possibly half the prizes captured by the privateers ended back in British hands when they were caught trying to make port. Throttled by the blockade and British privateers, which cost the Yankees some fourteen hundred vessels, American trade sank to disastrous levels. Exports dropped to only $6.9 million in 1814. A Boston newspaper presented a gloomy picture of conditions: “Our harbors blockaded, our shipping destroyed or rotting at the docks; silence and stillness in our cities; the grass growing upon the public wharves.” The American merchant marine was paying a stiff price for the Jeffersonian theory that it was not necessary to have a seagoing navy to protect the nation’s shipping.

With the war at sea now going against the Americans, attention was increasingly focused on the Great Lakes. The defeat of General William Hull on the northern frontier in the opening months of hostilities convinced President Madison and his advisers that control of the lakes was essential to successful operations against Canada. Few roads existed in the wilderness, and the chain of lakes provided the only satisfactory means of moving large military forces. Captain Isaac Chauncey was given command of American naval forces on the lakes and the task of overcoming British naval supremacy there. He made his headquarters on Lake Ontario, where both sides’ strongest forces were deployed.

Chauncey proved to be a conservative and methodical officer. Except for a few indecisive skirmishes, he and his British opposite number, Captain Sir James Yeo, conducted “a warfare of Dockyards and Arsenals” in which one side and then the other won temporary supremacy on Lake Ontario. By the time the war ended, the British had completed a 102-gun ship of the line and the Americans had two three-deckers of 120 guns each on the stocks.

Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, who directed the American naval effort on Lake Erie, was more vigorous than Chauncey. The twenty-seven-year-old Perry had been in command of a gunboat flotilla at Newport and had sought more active service. When he realized the magnitude of the task given him, he may well have wondered at the wisdom of his request: his mission was nothing less than to build a fleet in the wilderness and use it to wrest control of the lake from a superior British force. Perry established his base at Presque Isle (now Erie, Pennsylvania), toward the northern end of the lake, early in 1813, and there, with the assistance of two remarkable craftsmen, Adam and Noah Brown, Perry set about building a fleet.

Originally the Browns were carpenters and house-builders rather than shipwrights, but they had opened a shipyard in New York a year before the war. With the outbreak of hostilities, they designed and built several privateers that were notable for their clean lines and speed. Using the green timber that grew beside the lake, Noah Brown, who was in charge of construction, built Perry two twenty-gun brigs—Lawrence and Niagara—and a flotilla of smaller craft. Iron, cordage, canvas, oakum, almost everything required for the building of the ships, as well as guns and munitions, had to be hauled overland from Pittsburgh or sailed from Buffalo. “The amount of work that Brown accomplished with about two hundred men, without power tools, and in a wilderness during the worst winter months, makes some of the modern wartime production feats something less than impressive,” notes Howard Chapelle, a historian of the sailing navy. “The man was tireless and ingenious.”

Although Perry had brought the nucleus of his crews with him from Newport, his ships were still shorthanded. Most seamen in the coastal ports avoided service on the lakes, even though a bonus of 25 percent was offered. There was little prospect of prize money in this frontier region, and Secretary of the Navy William Jones observed that such service was regarded as “one of peculiar privation, destitute of pecuniary stimulus.” Perry pleaded for men from Chauncey’s near-idle force, but Chauncey released only a handful. Relations between the two officers were so strained that Perry submitted his resignation, but the Navy Department refused it. To fill out his crews, Perry recruited untrained militiamen, Indians, and even one Russian who spoke no English. Fully one quarter of the men signed on and trained as sailors and marines were black.

While Perry was building his fleet, it was protected from British raids by a sandbar at the mouth of the harbor at Presque Isle. Now, he faced the problem of getting Lawrence and Niagara over the shoal in the face of a British blockade. Fortunately for the Americans, the British force, under the command of Commander Robert H. Barclay, a one-armed veteran of Trafalgar, left its station for a few days in August. Seizing the opportunity, Perry removed the guns from his heavier ships, and using “camels,” or pontoons, floated them over the bar. Unexpectedly faced with this powerful force, Barclay wished to avoid battle until he had strengthened his own flotilla, but he was short of provisions and could not afford to delay very long.

The two fleets met about twenty miles north of Put-in-Bay at the western end of the lake on September 10, 1813. Perry’s squadron consisted of nine vessels firing a total broadside of 896 pounds, to Barclay’s six vessels and broadside of 459 pounds. The Americans also had more long guns than the British, even though Lawrence and Niagara were armed primarily with carronades. Flying a blue banner emblazoned with James Lawrence’s dying words, “Don’t give up the ship,” in white letters, Perry led his fleet into battle in Lawrence. Niagara was commanded by Jesse D. Elliott, who had been senior officer on Lake Erie before Perry’s arrival. Four years older than Perry, he was junior to him on the Navy List and was not happy with his subordinate position.

Perry bore down on the British line in a single column, and Lawrence, which was in the van, absorbed the bulk of the enemy fire. Shortly before noon, the band on Detroit, Barclay’s flagship, struck up “Rule Britannia!” as her long twenty-fours pounded the slowly approaching Yankee flagship. Perry could not reply effectively because the range was too great for his guns. Shot thudded into Lawrence’s hull, and lines and blocks trailed from aloft. Large splinters flew about like straw in a wind. Perry closed with Detroit, and the ships engaged at pistol range. Almost all the British fire was soon trained on Lawrence. Some of Perry’s smaller ships and gunboats came to his aid, but Elliott, in Niagara, stood off, taking no part in the action.

The battle was fought at such close range that every shot struck home. Both Detroit and Lawrence suffered terribly. Barclay was badly wounded, as were many of his officers. Lawrence had gone into action with a crew of 103 men; all but 20 were killed or wounded. Many of the wounded were maimed again or killed while they were being treated, because the cockpit was above the waterline. Within two hours almost all her guns had been dismounted, and there were not enough unwounded men to fire those that were left. Perry summoned the surgeon’s assistants to lend a hand at the guns and, when no one else was left, called down into the cockpit: “Can any of the wounded pull a rope?” Several pitiful figures limped up to the deck to help him aim and fire the few remaining cannon.

Finally, at about 2:30 P.M., when Lawrence’s last gun had fallen silent, Perry decided to transfer to Niagara. Taking his twelve-year-old brother James, who was serving as a midshipman, four seamen, his broad pennant, and the flag bearing Lawrence’s words, he had himself rowed a half mile through a hail of shot to Elliott’s undamaged vessel. Lawrence, now an unmanageable wreck, surrendered, but the otherwise engaged British did not take possession of her.

Wasting no time in recriminations, Perry ordered Elliott to take the boat and bring up the remaining vessels of the squadron. Niagara’s sails caught a sudden breeze, and Perry, to the cheers of the rest of his ships, signaled close action and drove the brig, her guns pouring smoke and flames, into the enemy line. The British were in no condition to resist this fresh onslaught, and one after another, the battered ships struck their colors. Perry’s victory gave the Americans complete command of Lake Erie and allowed them to regain control of the Northwest. As soon as the surrendered ships had been secured, Perry penned on the back of an old letter a dispatch to General William Henry Harrison, the military commander in the Northwest:

We have met the enemy; and they are ours. Two ships, two Brigs, one schooner, and one Sloop.

From the heights of the Pyrenees, Wellington’s victorious Redcoats looked down on the fertile fields of France in the autumn of 1813. In the remote distance they could see the Bay of Biscay, where the warships of the Royal Navy were perpetually on the move, and the white sails of transports bearing the men and supplies that had made their triumphs possible. Had their eyes been able to penetrate the misty autumn horizon eastward to the Saxony plain, they would have seen the steely glint of marching armies. Scarcely a French family was not in mourning after the Russian debacle, but Napoleon had bled the nation for another half-million conscripts, many lads of only sixteen.

Near Leipzig in mid-October 1813, three hundred thousand Russians, Austrians, Swedes, and Prussians closed in on two-thirds as many Frenchmen. Some of the most savage fighting of the war followed, and the dead and wounded covered the surrounding fields. “The Battle of the Nations” ended with the utter rout of Napoleon’s army and casualties five times those at Austerlitz. Yet the war was not over. Though his sword was broken in his hand, the emperor rejected the offer of the allied rulers to cease hostilities if France would withdraw to her “natural frontiers” of the Rhine, the Alps, and the Pyrenees. His sense of reality apparently having departed, Napoleon rejected the offer and told Prince Metternich that he might lose his throne, but he would bury Europe in ruins.