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.


Hostilities came too soon for the Imperial Russian Navy, which had a target of 1917 to achieve a fully operational state. The nine years that followed the end of the disastrous war with Japan had been a long haul for the Baltic Fleet. Dispatched as reinforcements to the Far East, its most modern ships had been sunk or captured at Tsushima. While it did not experience violence on the scale of the mutiny in the battleship Potemkin and other Black Sea units in 1905, the rump of the Baltic Fleet was wracked by the popular upheavals of the day. Rebuilding was slow. Many of the units interned in Far Eastern ports during the war made their way back to the Baltic by 1906, but Russia’s financial situation and the disruption following the aborted revolution of 1905 practically paralyzed the shipyards for years. The battleship Slava, completed too late in 1905 to deploy, was the only modern capital ship in the Baltic until the return of Tsesarevich the following year and the completion of Imperator Pavel and Andrei Pervozvanny at the end of 1910. These ships had been modified in the light of war experience, but their pre-dreadnought design meant that they were no match for the first line of the High Sea Fleet. The cruiser force was in similar shape. Although completed in France and Russia between 1908 and 1911, Admiral Makarov and her two sisters were obsolete by the time of their commissioning. The only really useful heavy unit was the powerful armored cruiser Rurik, commissioned in Britain in 1908, but she was outclassed by the German battle cruisers, which possessed not only much more powerful broadsides, but also several knots’ speed advantage.

There was a building program under way, but its shape and size had taken years to settle. Even when funds became available as the economy expanded rapidly after 1906, the naval effort was divided between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, since Russia had to consider both theaters. Indeed, the Turkish threat became progressively more serious after 1910 as the Turks embarked on their own effort to acquire dreadnoughts. The first four battleships, which were to be the core of the future Baltic Fleet, were not laid down until 1909. Two, Sevastopol and Poltava, were complete but not yet fully operational. The second pair was not far behind, but all would require several months’ work before they were ready for combat. Four battle cruisers were at a less advanced stage of construction and the first could not be available until at least 1915. She would never be completed.

Russia’s limited ability to produce modern warships had been recognized by the order of two light cruisers from German yards, but these were now lost to the Imperial Russian Navy and would soon enter German service. None of the four light cruisers under construction in the Russian Baltic shipyards would be finished before the end of the war. The submarine force consisted of only eight obsolescent and unreliable boats in the frontline brigade and three even more elderly craft as training units. The Bars class were building, but their completion would be delayed because much of their machinery had been ordered from Germany.1 In fact, the only product of the new fleet plan already in service was the fast destroyer Novik, forerunner of what was intended to be a large class of the fastest and most heavily armed destroyers in the world.

The deficiencies reflected the difficulties of reforming the navy. Despite the starkness with which the service’s inadequacies had been demonstrated during the Russo-Japanese War, its reorganization was protracted and too dependent on individual personalities. While many, particularly in the junior ranks, were determined not to repeat the mistakes of 1904–5, there remained highly conservative vested interests, both within the navy and in the civil bureaucracy and a system dominated by committees whose accountability was, at best, ambiguous. Soon after the end of the Russo-Japanese conflict, the younger officers set up “study groups” to agitate for reform, paralleling a similar Young Turks movement in the army. They gained an important ally in the tsar himself. Nicholas II had received some naval training, including a period at sea, and his understanding of naval matters was more sophisticated than many of his advisers. The antique office of General-Admiral, usually occupied by a member of the royal family, was replaced by a minister of the navy shortly after the battle of Tsushima. With the tsar’s approval, a Naval General Staff was formed in 1906 to conduct long-range planning. The Naval General Staff’s numbers rapidly expanded from fifteen to forty. Its activities eventually subsumed much of the efforts of the study groups, probably because it involved the same officers.

At the same time, political developments following the establishment of the Russian parliament, the Duma, in 1906 put a spotlight on naval and military reform. From 1907 liberal elements within the Duma became increasingly vocal, but it was not until 1911 as a result of their pressure that the energetic Vice Admiral Ivan Grigorovich took over the navy portfolio and momentum developed for real reform elsewhere in the naval administration. In that year the Naval General Staff was placed under the minister, which meant that the navy’s planning and administrative elements were under one authority. Similarly, although he was a key figure within the Baltic Fleet as a junior flag officer from 1906 onward, it took the accession of Vice Admiral Nikolai von Essen to the post of commander in the Baltic in 1908 to bring about really substantial improvements within the fleet itself. One of the relatively few senior officers to distinguish himself in the war with Japan, von Essen’s dynamism put new life into his people and ships.

There were other factors. Apart from the tsar’s continuing strong personal support, the Duma found the navy’s officials much more cooperative than those of the War Ministry and was thus more inclined to provide them money. Grigorovich himself proved particularly adept at working with the Duma’s financial committees. By 1911 the navy was receiving more funding for new ships than was the army for its reequipment. The funding was not only official: in this more hopeful environment, popular support also grew. A National Committee was formed that raised enough subscriptions to pay for a substantial number of extra destroyers and submarines.

The Russian navy and its design elements were not unsophisticated. It is arguable that the technical and innovative capacities of its expert personnel were considerably greater than the ability of Russian industry to support their intent. This forced the Russians to purchase much of their equipment overseas, which allowed them to acquire emergent technology, such as the new fire control systems being developed in Britain, and combine it with their own devices, but left them hostage to situations in which a supplier such as Germany became an enemy. The effect in 1914 on the shipbuilding program would be devastating. It was also awkward for torpedoes, since substantial Russian purchases were made from the Whitehead factory at Fiume (modern Rijeka) in Austria-Hungary, and much of the Russian local effort to that point had been the licensed assembly of components. Nevertheless, Russian torpedo and gunnery standards were not behind those of their adversaries and some of their thinking, such as automatic torpedo salvo firing and triple torpedo tubes, the provision of higher gun elevation to extend the range, triple turrets, and the quality of weapon design were in the forefront of development. The Russians were also acutely aware of their industrial vulnerability and had made substantial efforts to establish local armament works, including a cooperative venture with the British firm of Vickers, as well as improving their shipyards. This work had consumed almost as much money as the shipbuilding programs themselves.

The Baltic Fleet had its own difficulties. There were formidable challenges for training in the eastern part of the sea. The key challenge was environmental. As the Baltic iced up from December—and sometimes earlier—navigation became impossible and remained so until at least April. This meant that the ships had to remain at their bases, with limited opportunities for practical training, a situation exacerbated by the cold and hours of darkness. Admiral von Essen did his best to train all year round, operating in ice-free waters to the west for as long into winter as he could, but it was no easy matter. The problem was partly solved, particularly for basic training, by the dispatch of squadrons to cruise in southern European waters over the winter months, but this alternative was not available to the torpedo craft and submarines, which were lucky to experience a seven-month window of operations annually. Even the long daylight hours of summer caused problems, since they limited the ability of the torpedo forces and the offensive minelayers to practice in tactically realistic settings. Climate had another effect, since the more temperate Black Sea was a better location for experiments. This meant, among other things, that the bulk of the early aviation effort was not available to the Baltic Fleet, although an aviation element was formally established in the Baltic in 1912.

Many of the ratings had limited education and this, combined with the lack of modern equipment in the fleet, created difficulties in developing collective expertise. There were too many conscripts and the annual turnover of ratings represented another challenge for the maintenance of unit efficiency. Efforts to encourage junior sailors to reengage and to recruit boy seamen as future long-service petty officers helped, but were not enough. There also remained great gulfs between officers and sailors, and there is evidence that the gap widened in the decade after the 1905 disturbances, perhaps because of mutual uncertainty and suspicion. The events of 1905 had highlighted the potential of the navy as a seedbed of dissidence to the revolutionary forces in Russia and there was constant concern as to the possibility of internal subversion. Although many of the younger officers possessed a much more professional outlook than their predecessors and their training curriculum had greatly improved since 1905, the system of discipline remained harsh and the disparity between the living conditions of the wardroom and the lower deck was extreme—the sailors appearing to exist on “bowls of soup and black bread.” Just as in the other navies, relationships in the small ship and submarine forces were much closer than in the battleships and cruisers, but a British submarine officer in 1914 was horrified to see “the [Russian] officer of the watch spit in a rating’s face when he was brought up as a defaulter.”

The key Russian advantage was in mine warfare. Russian mines caused the majority of Japanese losses in 1904–5. Von Essen had been appointed to command the Baltic mine and torpedo craft force in 1906 and continued to oversee its improvement after he assumed leadership of the whole Baltic Fleet. Systematic development of new and increasingly effective mine types continued until the outbreak of war, together with regular purchases of additional war stocks—5,000 in 1912 and 4,200 in 1914, of which 1,800 were intended for the Baltic. By the outbreak of war, there were some 7,000 mines available in theater. Von Essen was not satisfied with a purely defensive role and agitated for years for minelaying raids into the southern part of the sea to be an integral component of the fleet’s operational concept. This had yet to be formally incorporated into the war plans, but high hopes were held for the offensive capabilities of the new large destroyers, such as Novik, that combined the capacity to lay mines with a formidable gun and torpedo armament, as well as the new submarines.

There was another strength. The Russians had already developed relatively sophisticated techniques in signals intelligence, with ships’ radio personnel being trained in interception and simple analysis. Basic direction finding and interception had been practiced during the prewar maneuvers. Realizing its vulnerability, the Russians, like the British but unlike the Germans, were relatively circumspect in their own employment of wireless. Organizational capacity for higher-level work came in the form of the Observation and Communications Service established by Captain A. I. Nepenin, who was to be one of the key figures in the Baltic conflict. This was intended as a control and observation system to link the coastal defenses at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland with the seagoing units, particularly the minesweepers, but it also included a signals intelligence element to support the higher command. This would prove extremely useful when the major German code books passed into Russian hands after the grounding and capture of the light cruiser Magdeburg.

Much would depend for the Russians on the success of their land campaigns. The defensive mindset of the Russian high command in the theater could be overcome only if there was reasonable confidence as to the security of Saint Petersburg. This had yet to be achieved and the absence of that security would restrict fleet operations for months to come.

The Home Fleet Before the Bismarck Breakout I

ON BOARD THE BATTLESHIP HMS PRINCE OF WALES. APRIL 1941. (A 3891) C in C Home Fleet, Vice Admiral J C Tovey, CB, DSO, and the Captain, Captain J C Leach, MVO, RN, on the quarterdeck of HMS PRINCE OF WALES. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205138241


The Orkney Islands lie off the north of the British mainland, separated from the rest of Scotland by the dangerous tide-ripped waters of the Pentland Firth. The largest of this archipelago of islands is simply called the Mainland, where the main town of Kirkwall is situated, a place of charming streets dominated by a beautiful Viking-age cathedral. The Mainland lies in the middle of the archipelago, dividing the North Isles on one side and the South Isles on the other. The South Isles form a sort of natural circle, enclosing a large natural anchorage about 10 miles across and 8 wide. This virtually land-locked body of water is known as Scapa Flow. With only two navigable entrances to the west and south, it forms a large and readily defensible anchorage. Elsewhere, the low brown-and-green islands enclose it, like a protective mantle.

Shortly before World War I, Scapa Flow was chosen by Admiral ‘Jackie’ Fisher as the wartime base for the British Grand Fleet. It was ideally placed to coordinate the distant blockade of the German coast, and as a base from which the fleet could sortie if its German counterpart put to sea. It was from Scapa that Admiral Jellicoe’s dreadnoughts steamed off to fight the Battle of Jutland, and it was there in 1919 that the vanquished German High Seas Fleet was brought, and interned. While peace ended this major naval presence, a small naval base was retained there during the inter-war years. Then, in 1939, as the clouds of war were gathering, the British Admiralty ordered the Home Fleet to Scapa, as the naval strategy employed in the last war was considered just as effective in a new one. So, once again, Scapa Flow became a major wartime anchorage, and a home to hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men.

Some of them loved the place – the tranquillity, the natural beauty and the mellow landscape are easy to fall in love with. Others found Scapa a living hell. To them, it was the end of the earth, a bleak and cold spot where the wind always blew, and winters were often cold, wet and stormy. Jellicoe’s successor, Admiral Beatty, called Scapa ‘the most damnable place on earth’, vastly preferring the gaiety of a big city and a lively social scene. Most of the sailors who served on ships based in Scapa during the two world wars probably agreed with him. The shore facilities there were limited – the navy supplied a theatre, a cinema, a few bars or canteens and sports fields, but it was nothing compared to Portsmouth, Plymouth or Chatham. There were few women, and most of them were wearing uniforms. There was little else to do but stay cooped up on your ship and wait for something to happen. In May 1941, that wish was granted.

When the war began, this battle fleet swinging at anchor in Scapa Flow had been christened the Home Fleet in 1932, and was the direct successor of the Grand Fleet of World War I. The defences of Scapa Flow were woefully inadequate – a point driven home early on 14 October 1939 when the U-boat U-47 penetrated its makeshift defences and sank the old battleship Royal Oak – an attack that claimed the lives of 834 of her crew, many of whom were boy seamen. The fleet decamped to the West Coast of Scotland until March 1940, by which time Scapa’s defences had been put in order. At first, this meant protecting the navigable entrances using torpedo nets and underwater listening equipment, and the smaller ones with new blockships. Next came coastal batteries, radar stations, flak defences, airfields and fighter aircraft. By early March, Churchill could tell the War Cabinet that Scapa was ‘80% secure’.

With its base thus reasonably secure, the Home Fleet was free to set about maintaining its distant blockade of Germany, by obstructing German egress from the North Sea. Then, in April 1940, the whole situation changed. The German conquest of Norway rendered the blockading line between Shetland and the Norwegian coast untenable. Instead, the Home Fleet had to maintain its patrol line between Greenland, Iceland, the Faeroe Islands and Shetland. In the Cold War, this would be known as the GIUK gap – the route by which Soviet submarines could reach the Atlantic. In 1940, it was merely the redeployment of the distant blockade. This time, though, the rough seas and harsh conditions meant that cruisers formed the mainstay of the patrol line, rather than smaller warships.

The German occupation of Norway also placed Scapa within easy range of German bombers. Intermittent air attacks first started in October 1939, but by April 1940 the ‘Orkney barrage’ was in place, a wall of flak designed to protect the anchorage, using land-based anti-aircraft batteries and the air defence firepower of the Home Fleet. It was first to be put to the test on 2 April, when it proved a resounding success. By June, all of Scapa’s defences were complete. As a result, the anchorage remained immune from German attacks of any kind for the rest of the war. This went some way to neutralising the advantage handed to the Germans by their conquest of Norway. So, from that summer, and for the rest of the war, British reconnaissance aircraft and submarines routinely patrolled the Norwegian coast, looking for German warships.

In theory, the proximity to German-occupied Norway could have been a major problem. However, by the summer of 1940 the ‘Orkney Barrage’ had been tried and tested. The wall of flak thrown up during the barrage meant that no German aircraft could penetrate it. With no land to the east, radar stations could pick up approaching German bombers as they crossed the North Sea, and the fleet and its shore-based defenders would be ready for them. In addition, there were four airfields on Orkney – two run by the Fleet Air Arm and two by the Royal Air Force. They were all well provided with fighters, and these, together with nearby airfields in Caithness, meant that any large-scale Luftwaffe attack would be repulsed with potentially heavy losses. In fact, once the effectiveness of all this was demonstrated, German air attacks ceased completely. Instead, fighter-bombers based in Orkney and Caithness conducted regular sorties against German coastal shipping in Norwegian waters.

The other advantage of this secure anchorage was its location. While the homesick crews might complain about being stationed far from the fleshpots of London, or even Portsmouth or Plymouth, in strategic terms Scapa Flow was the perfect place for the Home Fleet. Orkney was far from the Luftwaffe airfields in France and the Low Countries, whereas the naval bases on Britain’s south coast were just a few minutes’ flying time away. To reach Scapa Flow, any German sortie from the Skagerrak would have to traverse the North Sea and reach the Atlantic by way of the Norwegian Sea and the Greenland–Iceland–Faeroes–Shetland gap. Scapa Flow was much closer to the Skagerrak than these southern bases, and virtually on the doorstep of these northern sea entrances into the Atlantic. In terms of ‘sea control’ it was perfect – the fleet there acted as the stopper to a bottle. Any German sortie would have to run the gauntlet of the fleet before it could threaten the Allied convoy routes. So, regardless of the grumbling of the seamen, Scapa Flow remained the wartime base of the fleet.


When in Scapa Flow, the fleet flagship swung at its mooring just off the island of Flotta, where an underwater cable ran out from the island to the mooring buoy.6 This carried a secure telephone line, which ended in a green telephone sitting on the desk of the fleet’s commander-in-chief and provided a direct line that ran straight to the Admiralty in Whitehall, allowing the admiral to talk to both the War Cabinet and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This meant that any intelligence reports reaching the Admiralty could be conveyed to the Home Fleet within a few minutes. If the flagship were at sea, then both the admiral and the fleet commander had to use the much less secure medium of encoded radio signals, which were, of course, vulnerable to interception by the enemy. In the events that unfolded in May 1940, these lines of communication played a vital part in the drama.

The stated aim of the Home Fleet was the defence of British home waters, and the vital maritime supply routes leading to British ports. However, as the war played out, various areas were devolved into separate commands. The coastal waters of the English Channel and the English east coast were administered separately, as the lighter forces stationed there fought their own private war, protecting coastal convoys and harassing enemy ones. The Western Approaches to the British Isles – those sea lanes to British ports – were controlled from Plymouth, and later from Liverpool. That, then, left the Home Fleet free to concentrate on its main job: the containment of the German Kriegsmarine within the North Sea, and the destruction of enemy warships attempting to break out into the Atlantic.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain maintained a close blockade of French-held ports on the European mainland, whereby any French sortie from Brest, Toulon or the Baltic would be met by a British fleet. Clearly, however, this strategy was less effective in an age of submarines, radio transmissions and long-range guns. So, the notion of a distant blockade was devised, involving a blockade being established further from enemy-held ports, but within range of friendly naval bases. The result was the same. In World War I, the naval blockade of Germany was the single most effective tool in the Allied arsenal. Imperial Germany relied heavily on maritime imports for its raw materials and foodstuffs. In November 1914 the British declared the North Sea a ‘War Zone’, and ships suspected of heading to enemy ports or even of carrying cargo bound for Germany were seized. Even neutral ships were stopped and inspected, despite a slew of complaints.

Blocking off the English Channel was easy enough – a job given to the Dover Patrol. Sealing off the top of the North Sea was a little more difficult. The Northern Patrol operated between the Norwegian coast and Orkney, and proved highly effective at stopping virtually all foodstuffs and war materials reaching Germany. By 1916, this had resulted in growing food shortages in Germany, and by the end of the war the German people faced starvation, a major factor in the cessation of the conflict. In 1939, the situation was very similar, and the same blockade tactics were employed. Hundreds of small patrol craft, such as requisitioned trawlers, were pressed into service, but this time, rather than a full naval blockade, this was called ‘British Contraband Control’. Once again, Orkney became the base for the northern part of this blockade, and within weeks hundreds of tons of war materials were confiscated from German-registered or neutral ships.

Nazi Germany responded by imposing its own economic blockade, using mines to disrupt British coastal convoys, and U-boats to harry convoys in the Western Approaches. Soon, both sides were feeling the effects of shortages. Then, in the spring of 1940, the capture of Norway and the Fall of France changed everything. Now, the Northern Patrol had no firm anchor on the Norwegian coast. Now, German U-boats could use French Atlantic ports, and reach their patrol areas in half the time. So, a new strategy was needed. This involved the stepping up of convoy efforts, helped by the increasing unofficial support of the USA. It also meant abandoning the existing patrol line and moving it back, out of easy reach of Norwegian airfields.

This required the re-establishment of a patrol line running between Denmark and Iceland, Iceland and the Faeroes, and the Faeroe Islands and Shetland, Orkney and the Scottish mainland. Of these, the Pentland Firth south of Orkney and the gap between Orkney and Shetland were easily covered by small patrol craft, destroyers and aerial patrols. The three more distant gaps were more of a problem, one that was addressed with the use of all-weather small ships such as ocean-going trawlers, corvettes and destroyers, supported by heavy and light cruisers. The distant blockade was just as effective – although the distances involved were greater and more ships were needed to do the job.

This business was actually made a little easier in April 1940 when the Germans invaded Denmark. At the time, Iceland was a sovereign nation but was united to Denmark under the rule of the Danish crown. In consequence, Iceland was considered neutral. However, following the German invasion of Denmark the British sent troops to occupy Iceland, after the Icelanders refused to join the Western Allies. So, from May 1940, Iceland was controlled by Britain, until July 1941, when it was transferred to American control. Although officially Iceland remained neutral throughout the war, its government actively cooperated with the Allies, and in 1944 it declared its independence from Denmark. As a result of this, the Allies gained vital air and naval bases on the island, which rendered the distant blockade of Germany far more effective. Now, British warships could put in there to refuel or shelter from storms, and search aircraft could range far out into the Arctic Sea.

While smaller craft maintained the distant blockade from Greenland to Orkney, larger warships – mainly cruisers – also patrolled the same waters, ready to intercept any German warships attempting to break out into the North Atlantic. While a cruiser armed with 6in. or 8in. guns lacked the firepower to stop a Scharnhorst, Gneisenau or Bismarck, they could use their radar to shadow them and thereby help larger British ships intercept the enemy. That was where naval intelligence came in. The Admiralty relied on a whole range of sources – from signal intercepts, Enigma decryptions, spies, resistance cells, patrolling submarines and search aircraft – to let them know when a German breakout was imminent, whereupon the commander-in-chief of the Home Fleet would send a powerful force to intercept the enemy.

This of course demanded the timely acquisition of suitable intelligence, and a certain amount of forewarning. It took roughly 30 hours for a battleship to cover the 800 miles from Scapa Flow to the Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. It took half that to reach the Iceland–Faeroes gap. So, not only did the fleet need advance warning, but its commander also had to predict which of these routes the German warships would take. That meant that the green telephone was crucially important, as were the search and photo reconnaissance planes that might spot the enemy on their way towards the Atlantic. Meanwhile, the Home Fleet’s capital ships – the battleships, battlecruisers and aircraft carriers – swung at anchor in Scapa Flow, or conducted training exercises, while their crews waited for that all-important signal that would galvanise them into action.

Anglo – Japanese Naval Cooperation 1914 – 1918

Admiral Sato Kozo (seated, center) Commanded a Flotilla of
14 Destroyers Based in Malta

by Timothy D. Saxon

The captain of the attacking submarine achieved complete surprise with his bold midday maneuver near Crete. Stealing to within two hundred meters of an unwary convoy escort, he fired at point-blank range. His torpedo ran true, striking the destroyer between its forward stacks and severing the vessel’s bow. Its unlucky crew, packed into the crowded mess for the noonday meal, suffered horrific losses. The explosion and consequent inferno claimed sixty-seven members of the ship’s company and its commander. Despite heavy damage, however, the battered warship survived and later reached port in Piraeus, Greece.1

At first glance, the 11 June 1917 attack by the U-27 on an allied destroyer operating off the Greek coast appears unremarkable among the countless similar engagements of the First World War at sea. Nonetheless, the identities of these two combatants still startle observers more than eighty years later. First, it was an Austro-Hungarian submarine that torpedoed the allied destroyer; theAustro-Hungarian Navy challenged allied naval supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea throughout the First World War. The identity of the destroyer is even more astonishing—the U-27’s victim was the Sakaki, a warship of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Japan rendered vital, worldwide naval support to Great Britain during the First World War, culminating in the service of Japan’s first and only Mediterranean squadron. This long-forgotten Japanese flotilla fought alongside allied warships throughout the most critical period of the struggle against German and Austro-Hungarian U-boats in 1917 and 1918.

Japanese cooperation is all the more surprising given that both British and American historians have characterized Japan’s role in the First World War as that of a “jackal state,” one that took a lion’s share of the kill after only minimally assisting the cause.2 The record tells a different story. Japan in fact stretched its naval resources to the limit during the First World War. Japanese naval assistance in the Mediterranean Sea in 1917 boosted the strength of allied naval escorts during the darkest days of the war. Beyond the Mediterranean, an argument can be made that without Japanese assistance Great Britain would have lost control of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. That would have isolated the British Empire’s two dominions in the Far East, Australia and New Zealand, from the campaigns in Europe and the Middle East. Other British colonies, from Aden and India to Singapore and Hong Kong, would have been exposed. Despite this help, Japan, at best a mistrusted and suspect ally of Great Britain in 1914, emerged from the conflict feared and despised by its “friends.”

A more balanced view of Japan’s role does not overlook the gains garnered by Japan for its exertions. It argues, though, that Japanese gains were commensurate with its efforts and in keeping with the diplomatic understandings that had existed at the beginning of the war. Japan did not participate in the First World War for altruistic reasons—but then neither did Great Britain, France, Italy, or Russia. The concessions Japan received in China and the broadening of its Pacific empire were no more than comparable to the gains made by Great Britain, France, Italy, and Britain’s Pacific dominions. Japan participated in the war as an ally of Great Britain while simultaneously pursuing an expansionist policy designed to maximize its territorial gains in China and the Pacific islands. In the event, Japan’s acquisitions were unquestionably in line with the sacrifices it made and the assistance it rendered to its allies during the conflict.

At the end of the war, Japanese wartime diplomacy did not take on the Wilsonian, idealistic modes that Western leaders by then espoused.3 The Japanese discovered that the new idealism did not apply when it came to affirming (in the Treaty of Versailles) racial equality or equal opportunities for expansion. The British and Americans resisted Japanese expansion before, during, and after the First World War, out of fear of competition in the Pacific and racial hatred of the proud, at times arrogant, Japanese.

How did the Imperial Japanese Navy cooperate with the Royal Navy during the First World War? Although the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902 did not require it, Japan declared it would support Britain in the war against Germany and sent an ultimatum to Berlin demanding withdrawal of German warships from Japanese and Chinese waters. Japan helped establish control of the Pacific and Indian Oceans early in the war by seizing the German fortress and naval base of Tsingtao and Germany’s colonies in the Pacific (the Carolines, Marshalls, and most of the Mariana islands); Japanese naval forces also aided Great Britain in driving German warships from the Pacific. At the outbreak of the war, Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee commanded six cruisers of the German Far Eastern Squadron at Ponape in the Carolines; the Japanese declaration of war compelled him to lead most of his force east to South America and the battles of Coronel and the Falklands. The Japanese navy maintained allied control of Far Eastern and Indian waters throughout the war, assuming responsibility for patrolling them when demands on British naval forces exceeded resources, and in 1917 freeing American naval forces for service in Europe. Japanese forces provided escorts for convoying troops and war materials to the European theater of operations from the British dominions in the Far East. Japan built warships for allied nations and sold merchant shipping to the allies during the war when their shipyards, already working at maximum effort, could not meet such needs. Finally, Japan rendered direct naval assistance in the Mediterranean Sea in 1917 and 1918 when the allied navies faced the prospect of abandoning that sea in the face of the Central Powers’ increasingly successful submarine operations.

The Origins of British Naval Dependence on Japan

The Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902 resulted from the threat that Russia presented to both states by its moves toward India, Korea, and Manchuria.4 As the alliance matured, Winston Churchill (from 1911), like his predecessors as First Lord of the Admiralty, pursued a naval policy envisioning that the outbreak of a general war in Europe would require Japanese assistance in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. As tensions between Great Britain and Germany increased with the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, British naval strength underwent a reorganization that saw the Channel, Atlantic, and Mediterranean forces’ battleship strength increased at the expense of those in the Pacific Ocean. What had been an anti-Russian disposition of British naval forces tilted decisively toward an anti-German alignment after the Russo-Japanese conflict.5

Churchill, almost from the day he took the helm as First Lord in October 1911, accelerated the withdrawal of battleships from the Mediterranean and China seas and their redeployment against the growing naval power of Wilhelmine Germany in the North Sea.6 By March 1914, British naval strength in the Far East had decreased from five battleships and an armored cruiser in March 1904 to two battleships, a battle cruiser, and two cruisers.7

In March 1914, Churchill, arguing for his policy in the House of Commons, acknowledged that defeat of the main British naval force in European waters would leave a small force of Pacific-based dreadnoughts vulnerable. Any British naval force in Far Eastern waters must inevitably be inferior to the main fleet of a European rival. On the other hand, Churchill pointed out, “two or three ‘Dreadnoughts’” in Australian waters “would be useless the day after the defeat of the British Navy in Home waters.”8

This policy produced a growing naval dependence on Britain’s allies. France took up the slack in the Mediterranean, and Japan assumed a correspondingly larger role in the defense of the China Seas.9 With France, this policy worked well, as the British attempted to settle outstanding colonial problems with that nation and afterwards participated in the creation of the Entente Cordiale.

No such reservoir of good will existed between Japan and Great Britain; preexisting tension concerning Japan’s imperial ambitions tested relations throughout the First World War. The strains ultimately contributed to the collapse of the Anglo-Japanese alliance. Japanese expansion beyond Manchuria during 1913 and 1914 increased the deep suspicion of Japanese intentions on the part of the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey.

Grey opposed any Japanese participation in the war, fearing that Japan would see an opportunity to expand beyond reasonable bounds.10 In the teeth of Admiralty objections, therefore, he worked to prevent Japan’s entry into a European conflict as the situation worsened throughout the summer of 1914. On 1 August, Grey notified his counterpart in Tokyo, Kato Takaaki*, that Great Britain would require Japanese assistance only if Germany attacked its Far Eastern colonies or fighting spread into the Far East. Grey worried not only about Japanese expansion into the German colonies in China and the Pacific Ocean but also that Australia, New Zealand, and the United States would strongly oppose apparent British support of that expansion. In the end, German steps to mobilize reserves at the key port of Tsingtao and to disperse warships into the Pacific, along with the aggressive First Lord’s insistence on expanding the war against German naval forces worldwide, forced Grey’s hand.11

On 11 August 1914, Churchill, worried by what he considered Grey’s clumsy attempts to prevent Japanese entry into the war, or limit Japanese action once in it, warned the foreign secretary:

I think you are chilling indeed to these people. I can’t see any half way house between having them in and keeping them out. If they are to come in, they may as well be welcomed as comrades. This last telegram [to Japan] is almost hostile. I am afraid I do not understand what is in yr mind on this aspect—tho’ I followed it so clearly till today.

. . . This telegram gives me a shiver. We are all in this together & I only wish to give the fullest effect & support to your main policy. But I am altogether perplexed by the line opened up by these Japanese interchanges.

You may easily give mortal offence—wh will not be forgotten—we are not safe yet—by a long chalk. The storm has yet to burst.12

Churchill’s remonstrance helped to alter Grey’s opposition to Japan’s full participation in the war.

The Japanese government of Prince Yamagata Aritomo delivered an ultimatum on 15 August 1914 requiring the dismantling of German power in Pacific. The demarche demanded that German naval vessels either leave or surrender at Kiaochow and that Germany allow the destruction of fortifications there and surrender to Japan the Shantung Peninsula. Japanese demands also included that the German islands scattered throughout the Pacific be turned over to Japan. The Germans made no response, and Japan formally declared war on 23 August 1914.13

Strong evidence existed that justified Grey’s fears of Japanese ambitions. One was the substantial size of Japan’s navy see (Table 1). The Japanese clearly entered the war in large part to increase their prestige among the great powers and to expand their holdings in China and the Pacific. Moreover, Japanese officials had chafed under several unequal treaties imposed after the Western opening of the country in the 1850s.14 Still, such motives for participation in the war were no better or worse than those secretly advanced at the start of World War I by other belligerents. What truly upset Japan’s Western allies was their inability to act in a paternalistic fashion toward what they considered an inferior. Hostile views of Japan prevailed at the beginning of the war, and they did not diminish during the struggle despite Japan’s help for its allies. In fact, such antipathy increased as Japan dared to act as any Western state would have done. This racial animosity is a reason why the institutional memory of the extensive assistance that Japan rendered to the allied cause during the war was so short-lived. Such memories were inconvenient for the account of the war that anti-Japanese groups in Great Britain and the United States wished to perpetuate.

The Joint Expedition against Tsingtao

Wartime Anglo-Japanese cooperation in the Far East opened on a sour note. Immediately upon entry into the war, Japan moved to secure the Kiaochow or Shantung Peninsula, known as the “German Gibraltar of the East” (Map 1). The peninsula,

where lay the German naval base at Tsingtao (modern Qingdao, on Kiaochow Bay), served as the peacetime station for the German Far Eastern squadron. Preparing for its capture, Kato informed his British allies that Japan would return Tsingtao to China after conquest, but only at a price. He also intimated that Japan did not require British support for the operation, but Grey ignored that and sent the South Wales Borderers and a detachment of Sikh troops under Brigadier General N. W. Barnardiston to join the assault. A small British squadron participated in the blockade of Kiaochow Bay, which began on 27 August.15

The Anglo-Japanese expedition arrived off Tsingtao on the 26th. Major and modern units of the German fleet had evacuated Tsingtao in the days preceding the Japanese declaration of war, leaving only the antiquated Austro-Hungarian armored cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth, five gunboats, and two destroyers.16 The weakness of the German vessels allowed the Japanese navy to use older ships; the Japanese blockaded Tsingtao harbor with three obsolete, ex-Russian battleships, two ex-Russian coastal-defense ships, seven cruisers, sixteen destroyers, and fourteen support ships. The battleship Triumph, a destroyer, and a hospital ship formed the British contribution to the blockading fleet.17

Vice Admiral Baron Kamimura Hikonojo’s Second Fleet transported Japanese and British troops to China to conduct the siege. The initial Japanese landing occurred at Lungkow (modern Long Kou) on 2 September. A naval landing force captured Lau Shau Bay, northeast of Tsingtao, on 18 September, for use as a forward base for further operations against Tsingtao. British troops entered China via other routes on 24 September.18

The Anglo-Japanese naval force maintained a tight blockade of the Tsingtao harbor while clearing mines and providing to allied ground forces vital intelligence collected by the Japanese tender Wakamiya’s seaplanes. The Wakamiya’s aircraft are also credited with conducting at this time “the first successful carrier air raid in history,” sinking a German minelayer at Tsingtao. Throughout the siege, troops ashore called upon naval gunfire support and Japanese seaplanes to bombard enemy positions.19

The Japanese navy suffered a serious loss and embarrassment on 18 October, when the old German torpedo boat S-90 evaded destroyers guarding the harbor and sank the antiquated cruiser Takachiyo with two torpedoes. The S-90 had escaped the notice of patrolling destroyers by waiting for them to reach the far end of the harbor entrance, then running out at high speed and surprising the second line of ships, a destroyer leader and older Japanese cruisers. The Imperial Japanese Navy also lost the destroyer Shirotae, a torpedo boat, and three minesweeping vessels in the process of capturing Tsingtao, with a total of 317 personnel killed and seventy-six wounded, the majority in the sinking of the Takachiyo.20

The German garrison of 3,500 regulars and 2,500 reservists, joined by the entire crew of the Kaiserin Elisabeth, mounted a vigorous defense of Tsingtao. Nonetheless, the Japanese kept British ground forces from playing an active role in the campaign.21 The combined German and Austro-Hungarian force surrendered on 7 November 1914, when the Japanese fought their way into Tsingtao. The British contingent, deliberately excluded from Japanese plans, learned of the assault only after the fact.22 German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners taken in Tsingtao spent the remainder of the war in Japan. The Japanese army reported losses of 414 killed and 1,441 wounded in taking the German citadel.23

The Japanese retained control of Tsingtao and steadily expanded their grip over the Shantung Peninsula, occupying the German railroad running through the region. Thus the effective result of the first Anglo-Japanese operation of the war was the establishment of Japanese control over large areas of Manchuria; mistrust between the two states sharply increased.24

Japanese Patrols and Escorts

While Admiral Kamimura’s Second Fleet was aiding in the conquest of Tsingtao, ships of the First Fleet joined with British, French, and Australian ships in driving von Spee’s roving cruiser squadron from the Pacific. Immediately upon the outbreak of war, Vice Admiral Tamin Yamaya sent the battleship Kongo toward Midway to patrol sea lines of communication and ordered the cruiser Izumo, then off the coast of Mexico, to defend allied shipping there. On 26 August he detached the battle cruiser Ibuki and cruiser Chikuma to Singapore to help allied forces in that region.25 The Chikuma unsuccessfully searched the Dutch East Indies and the Bay of Bengal as far as Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for the German cruiser Emden.26 Admiral Matsumura Tatsuo, with the battleship Satsuma and cruisers Yahagi and Hirado, patrolled sea routes to Australia searching for German raiders.27

More pressing duties soon diverted the Ibuki from Singapore. Responding to the attacks by the German cruiser Emden on allied Indian Ocean shipping, the Ibuki dashed across the South Pacific to Wellington, New Zealand. On 16 October it conducted the first of what would be many voyages wherein Japanese warships escorted Australian–New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) troops to the Middle East.28 The Ibuki and other Japanese warships were to accompany ANZAC troops as far west as Aden on the Red Sea throughout the war.29 Other Japanese units escorted French troopships sailing from the Far East to reinforce units fighting on the western front.30 (Although the Australian and New Zealand troop convoy did not encounter the Emden, a radio report from the Cocos Islands led to the detachment of the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney from the escort. Near those isolated isles, the Sydney surprised the Emden and destroyed the raider by gunfire after forcing it onto the reefs.)31

Also during October, Japanese naval forces under the command of Vice Admiral Tochinai Sojiro reinforced British units searching the Indian Ocean for German raiders. Tochinai ultimately employed the cruisers Tokiwa, Yakumo, Ibuki, Nisshin, Chikuma, Hirado, Yahagi, and Ikoma, plus part of the British fleet, in hunting down the raiders.32 On 1 November 1914, the Japanese navy agreed to a British request to assume all patrols in the Indian Ocean east of ninety degrees east longitude. Much of Admiral Tochinai’s force, and other warships withdrawn from Tsingtao, guarded this area for the remainder of the month.33 In addition, after the German warship Geier’s appearance at the neutral port of Honolulu on 15 October 1914, the battleship Hizen and cruiser Asama took up positions off that port until the American government interned the Geier on 7 November. The Hizen and Asama then joined the Izumo off the coast of South America and swept those waters for German warships.34

The employment of Japanese ships provoked a mixed response from the governments of Australia and New Zealand. They fully endorsed using Japanese ships as escorts for troop convoys but sharply disapproved when in late 1914 the Japanese First Fleet seized the German colonies of the Marshall, Mariana, and Caroline Islands (Map 2).35 Tamin’s forces took Jaluit

in the Marshall Islands on 4 October, sailing from there to seize the superb harbor at Truk in the Carolines on 12 October. A second force under Rear Admiral Tatsuo Matsumura captured the German port of Rabaul, on New Britain, on 1 October. It continued on 7 October to Yap, where it encountered the German vessel Planet. The crew of the Planet scuttled the vessel rather than have it fall into Japanese hands, and the Japanese captured Yap without further incident. The Japanese navy stationed four warships at Suva in the Fiji Islands and six at Truk for patrol operations in late 1914.36

The British and Japanese governments reached a tentative arrangement in late 1914 concerning the captured German possessions in the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese now held the Marianas, Carolines, and the Marshalls, as well as Yap. Australian forces had taken New Guinea and nearby territories. Troops from New Zealand, just beating Japanese forces to Samoa, now held a firm grip on the strategic island. Rather than risk an incident that might lead to a confrontation, the British agreed that thenceforth forces of the Empire would seize no German territories north of the equator.37

In 1914 the Royal Navy could ill afford to offend its strongest ally in the Pacific. Faced with worldwide responsibilities defending British trade and possessions, it sought direct Japanese involvement in the European theater of operations from the beginning of the war. Sir Edward Grey issued the first formal appeal for Japanese naval assistance on 6 August 1914. It resulted in the previously mentioned deployment of Japanese naval units to Singapore. On two further occasions in 1914, British appeals for deployments of Japanese naval forces to the Mediterranean and the Baltic met with rejection.38

Internal politics throughout the Meiji period gave the Army greater political power in government councils than the Navy ever enjoyed. Although the Navy’s position had strengthened somewhat in the Yammato cabinet, which left office in April 1914, the balance of power in the succeeding Okuma cabinet allowed the Army to veto the deployment of naval units to the European theater of operations in November 1914. Conflict between Great Britain and Germany, which had trained, respectively, the Navy and Army, led to a difference of opinion between the two services. The Prussian-trained Army sympathized with the German-led Central Powers, while the Navy, trained by and modeled after the Royal Navy, supported Britain and the Entente.39 This conflict of loyalties dogged the Japanese government throughout the war in its attempts to aid Great Britain.40

Japanese warships rendered a new form of assistance to Great Britain in February 1915, when they helped to suppress a revolt by Indian soldiers stationed in Singapore. Admiral Tsuchiya Mitsukane’s warships, the old cruisers Tsushima and Otowa, landed marines, who joined with British, French, and Russian forces in quelling the rising.41 Also in 1915, the Imperial Japanese Navy committed many units to help hunt down the German cruiser Dresden and for such other tasks as guarding against the escape of German shipping that had taken refuge in the port of Manila. Japanese warships operating from Singapore guarded the South China Sea, Sulu Sea, and Dutch East Indies throughout the year.42

Sir Edward Grey again requested Japanese aid in February 1916. In that month, the destruction of shipping by mines secretly laid by German auxiliary cruisers led to an increase in the number of ships deployed for antiraider patrols. This time the Japanese government dispatched a destroyer flotilla to Singapore to guard the vital Malacca Straits and a cruiser division to the Indian Ocean for patrol duties.43 Ships of the Japanese Third Fleet began patrol operations in the Indian Ocean and in the Philippine Islands near Luzon. The cruisers Yahagi, Suma, Niitaka, and Tsushima, accompanied by a squadron of destroyers, initiated patrols in the South China Sea, Sulu Sea, Dutch East Indies, and Indian Ocean. Several units maintained a presence off Mauritius and South Africa, and the Chikuma and Hirato journeyed to Australia and New Zealand to escort vessels transiting the area.44

“Japan Is Not Taking a Full Share”

Despite such widespread deployment of Japanese units to protect allied shipping, at the end of 1916 Admiral John Jellicoe, commanding the Grand Fleet, expressed the British skepticism about Japanese intentions in a revealing missive to Admiral David Beatty, who commanded Jellicoe’s battle cruiser squadron. He described Japan’s conduct in the war thus far as not “entirely satisfactory.” While allowing for the idea that mutual antipathy between Japan and the United States had prevented more help from the Japanese, he voiced the suspicion that the Japanese harbored the idea of creating a “greater Japan which will probably comprise parts of China and the Gateway to the East, the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, and the Malay States.” He faulted the Japanese government for operating under the mistaken belief that the “German military machine was invincible”; recent German losses at the Somme and Verdun, he felt, would correct this impression. His statement that “apart from the selling of guns and ammunition to the Russians and ourselves, Japan is not taking a full share of the war,” accurately depicted the growing resentment in Great Britain of Japan’s unwillingness to join operations in the European theater.45 His thinking paralleled that of other key British naval officers who spoke of the Japanese as “not to be trusted very far,” even while requesting their assistance in the critical Mediterranean theater.46

Seen through Japanese eyes, Japan’s role in the First World War takes on a quite different appearance. Not only were the Japanese armed forces divided about which side to support, early in the conflict the average Japanese citizen hardly knew that Japan was at war at all. Lacking any sense of immediate danger to Japan emanating from Germany, most Japanese who were aware of the war found it unfathomable. While officially supporting the Entente, the Japanese government kept the war out of the limelight at home.47

The wartime experience of a British officer in Japan illustrates this low-key approach to the conflict. In November 1917, a time when the Imperial Japanese Navy was engaged in operations in two oceans and the Mediterranean Sea, Malcolm Kennedy (a British army officer participating in an exchange program with the Japanese military) toured the Japanese countryside and discovered that the war was having no direct impact on the life of the average Japanese peasant. Stopping twice to speak with peasants, Kennedy was amazed to encounter complete disbelief when he told them that Japan was at war.

They were frankly incredulous when I assured them, that not only was there a war, but that Japan was taking part in it. Their incredulity was based on the fact that the young men of the village had not been called up for service. If Japan was really at war, they argued, surely all the male youth of the country would be summoned to the colors.48

That finally changed in 1918, when Japan experienced serious social dislocation as a result of the conflict. Wages had failed to keep pace with the inflation that had developed with the wartime prosperity. In August 1918, resentment of the new class of narikin—Japanese who prospered during the war—exploded in rice riots in Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya.49

Also complicating Japanese participation in the war was a slight to Japanese pride created by severe restrictions placed on Japanese physicians in Singapore. Also, the inferior status accorded Japan in trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand made full cooperation with the British and dominions difficult.50

British requests for naval assistance in the European theater and the South Atlantic grew more insistent in late 1916 and early 1917 as the naval situation deteriorated in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.51 German raiders continued to operate effectively in the Indian Ocean, as documented by the successful voyage of the raider Wolf, which sank some 120,000 tons of allied shipping between 1916 and 1918 while tying down “a host of British, French, and Japanese naval craft . . . in the fruitless hunt—21 cruisers, 14 destroyers, 9 sloops, etc.”52 The Japanese government responded by pressuring the British cabinet, which had dragged its feet in acknowledging Japanese claims to the Shantung Peninsula and the Pacific islands taken from the Germans, for recognition of these gains. Japanese officials argued to their British counterparts that in their desire to retain their conquests they were asking no more than the Russians, whom the allies were permitting to occupy Constantinople. The War Cabinet wrestled with the problem through January and February of 1917, worrying about the potential response of the dominions and of the Americans, who were edging closer to participation in the conflict.53

The Japanese agreed in February 1917 to expand the patrols already protecting commerce in the Dutch East Indies, Sulu Sea, South China Sea, and Indian Ocean as far south as the Cape of Good Hope. The Japanese navy also increased its involvement in safeguarding commercial shipping off Australia’s east coast and New Zealand. In this effort the cruisers Izumo, Nisshin, Tone, Niitaka, Akashi, Yakumo, Kasuga, Chikuma, Tsushima, Suma, Yodo, three squadrons of destroyers, and a “special duty flotilla” participated. 54

Japan also extended considerable help to the allied cause by supplying arms and shipping to its European friends. In 1914, the Japanese navy returned to Russia three cruisers captured in the Russo-Japanese War. The vessels subsequently rejoined the Russian Baltic Fleet.55 Also, Japanese factories supplied arms and munitions to Russia and Great Britain.56 In 1917, Japanese shipyards hastily constructed (in five months) twelve destroyers identical to the Japanese Kaba class for France; Japanese sailors delivered the ships to French forces in the Mediterranean.57 In December 1916, the British chancellor of the exchequer sought and gained the War Cabinet’s approval for the purchase of six Japanese merchant ships, totaling 77,500 tons.58 The British further requested in May 1917 that the Japanese supply shipping for Chinese workers recruited to work in Europe; Japanese warships helped to escort the convoys to France.59 Later in the war, Japan and the United States agreed that Japanese shipyards would produce 371,000 tons of shipping for the U.S. Shipping Board. Although the war ended before the merchant vessels were complete, Japan willingly helped in this effort, according to an American account.60 Moreover, the Japanese government agreed to charter an ever-growing portion of Japan’s merchant fleet for allied use.61

In contrast to this lucrative charter and construction work, persistent British attempts to purchase Japanese warships as replacements for Royal Navy losses irritated the Japanese government and stung Japanese pride. Fearing further raids on the English coast by swift units of the German navy, Admiral Jellicoe proposed in mid-1917 that Great Britain purchase two battle cruisers from the Japanese. He doubted that the Japanese could be persuaded simply to deploy ships to join the Grand Fleet—adding, in a revealing slight, “Even if they did, it is doubtful whether they would be a match for German battle-cruisers when fully manned by Japanese.”62 The government in Tokyo rejected either selling the warships or sending them to serve with the Grand Fleet.63 However, the service later rendered by the Japanese flotilla in the Mediterranean may have caused Jellicoe to reappraise his low estimate of Japanese capabilities.

Japanese Assistance to the United States

A major (and in light of later events, particularly ironic) upshot of the Japanese wartime naval relationship with Great Britain was a similar, if much smaller, relationship with the United States. In effect, the Imperial Japanese Navy now extended further, if roundabout, aid to the Royal Navy by making it possible for the U.S. Navy to assist the British directly. The Royal Navy’s most pressing lack at this point was escort ships; it importuned the Americans to help make good that shortage. Doing so meant shifting U.S. naval forces to the Atlantic from the Pacific, which produced for the Americans a shortfall of their own in the latter theater. To fill it, they, like the British in 1914, approached their new Pacific ally, Japan.

American intervention in the war required a complete rethinking of American naval strategy and construction policies, which before 1917 had assumed an allied defeat followed by an attack by German and Japanese forces against the United States. Shortly after the American entry into the war, a British mission headed by Arthur Balfour sought to alter the American naval construction program, which then called for a massive buildup of capital warships (in part to remain capable of fighting a German-Japanese combination).64 In April and May 1917, Balfour entered into secret discussions with American officials, including Woodrow Wilson’s personal emissary, Colonel Edward M. House. The British proposed that the Americans construct large numbers of desperately needed escort ships in return for a promise of British help in case of a Japanese-American conflict. The two parties ultimately deferred such an agreement for fear of offending Japan, which remained an important ally of Great Britain even at this late stage of the war.65 Nonetheless, that these negotiations occurred shows the depth of Anglo-American antipathy and mistrust toward Japan in 1917.

American leaders viewed their relations with Japan through a prism of concern about China and racial bigotry. James Reed writes that before the First World War, “Pacific coast politicians; labor union leaders; Hearst chain journalists (whose idea of news embraced lovely white maidens found dead in the flea-bag hotels of debauched Japanese); and, perhaps not least of all, the Navy officer corps, whose War Plan Orange was really a war plan yellow,” were sources of anti-Japanese feeling in the United States. Such feelings joined with the American “Open Door” policy concerning China to turn American opinion against Japan. American leaders viewed Japan as seeking unfair territorial and political advantage in China, a state known to most Americans only through the eyes of the many missionaries serving there.66

American entry into the First World War dictated a renewed attempt to resolve the impasse in American-Japanese relations. Like Great Britain at the beginning of the war, the United States now found itself dependent on Japanese good will and assistance in the Pacific. A Japanese mission to Washington led by Ishii Kikujiro concluded an agreement that permitted American warships to redeploy to the Atlantic and support the British fleet.67 Under that secret agreement, Japanese warships patrolled the waters of the Hawaiian Islands for the remainder of the conflict. The cruiser Tokiwa replaced the last major American warship in the Pacific, the armored cruiser USS Saratoga, at Honolulu in October 1917, allowing the ship to join the U.S. naval forces in the Atlantic. The cruiser Asama replaced the Tokiwa in August 1918 and protected commerce in Hawaiian waters until it returned to Japan in February 1919.68

Despite the cooperative manner in which the Japanese extended their wartime responsibilities, American resentment of dependence upon the Japanese throughout the war and of Japanese gains in Micronesia closely paralleled that seen in British quarters.69 The Japanese returned this antagonism after 1917, when the view took root among naval officers that differences between the two powers were irreconcilable short of war. Japanese expansion into Siberia in 1918, seen by some Japanese as preempting American containment on all sides, was to add to the antipathy between the two nations. By 1917, even while acting as an ally, the Japanese navy had officially designated the United States its “most likely enemy” in any future conflict.70

Operations in the Mediterranean

In early 1917, Japan finally deployed forces to the European theater of operations. The lead Japanese warships departed Singapore under the command of Admiral Sato Kozo for the Mediterranean on 11 March. Sato sailed for Malta with the cruiser Akashi and destroyers Ume, Kusunoki, Kaede, Katsura, Kashiwa, Matsu, Sugi, and Sakaki, which collectively constituted the Tenth and Eleventh Destroyer Flotillas. The task force hunted German raiders while crossing the Indian Ocean, arriving at Aden on 4 April. On 10 April Sato agreed to an urgent British request to escort the Saxon, an English troop transport; it sailed from Port Said to Malta guarded by Ume and Kusunoki. The remainder of the Japanese squadron quickly followed and commenced operations against German and Austrian submarines threatening allied shipping in the Mediterranean.71

The Tenth and Eleventh Flotillas reached Malta at the nadir of allied fortunes in the Mediterranean.72 Of the approximately twelve million British registered tons (BRT) of shipping lost during the war, 3,096,109 tons fell prey to mines and submarines in the Mediterranean. From February until December of 1917, allied shipping losses worldwide amounted to 2,566 ships, or 5,753,751 BRT, 48 percent of wartime losses.73 Allied losses in the Mediterranean in April 1917 totaled 218,000 tons, 7 percent of the total sinkings there during the entire war.74 Desperately short of escorts, the allies seriously considered the ideas of reducing the number of ships transiting the Mediterranean by sending them on the safer passage around the Cape of Good Hope, and of evacuating the British contingent at Salonika.75

The arrival of Sato’s cruiser and eight destroyers did not by itself tip the scales toward the allies in the Mediterranean. Nonetheless, the task given the Japanese squadron was an important one—protecting troop transports shifting vital reinforcements to France after the bloody offensives at Arras, Chemin des Dames, and in the Champagne.76 The appearance of Japanese escorts at Malta permitted the allied command to speed the passage of transports. Japanese vessels escorted the transports directly from Egypt to France without stopping at Malta except when convoys formed at that port.77

The destroyers Sakaki and Matsu and other Japanese warships participated in the dramatic rescue of troops from the torpedoed transport Transylvania on 4 May 1917. Some 413 men died in this tragedy off the French coast, but Japanese, French, and Italian naval forces saved most of the three thousand troops despite the danger of further torpedo attack. The Times History of the War reported that “the Admiralty sent a telegram of thanks and congratulation to the Japanese admiral in the Mediterranean for the splendid work of rescue performed by the Japanese on this occasion.”78

The Japanese navy relieved the Akashi in June 1917 with the armored cruiser Izumo and reinforced the Malta squadron with the destroyers Kashi, Hinoki, Momo, and Yanagi. As the tempo of antisubmarine operations in the Mediterranean accelerated, Japanese sailors temporarily manned two British gunboats, which they designated the Tokyo and Saikyo, and two British destroyers, renamed the Kanran and Sendan. At peak strength in 1917, the Japanese Mediterranean flotilla numbered seventeen warships.79

By late summer of 1917, British doubts about the competence and value of the Japanese warships, doubts initially expressed by such officers as Captain George P. W. Hope, director of the Operations Division of the Admiralty War Staff, had vanished. On 21 August Admiral George A. Ballard, Senior Naval Officer-in-Charge at Malta, reported to the Admiralty that the Japanese had rendered invaluable service in escorting troop transports since their arrival at Malta. He reminded the Admiralty that until the Imperial Japanese Navy destroyers had arrived the allies had been short of escorts for this vital duty. Ballard praised the operational capacity of the Japanese:

French standards of efficiency are certainly lower than British, however, and Italian standards are lower still. With the Japanese it is otherwise. Admiral Sato’s destroyers are kept in a highly serviceable condition and spend at least as large a proportion of their time at sea as our own, which is far from being the case with the French and Italian vessels of any class. The Japanese moreover are very independent in all matters of administration and supply whereas the French will never do anything for themselves if they can get it done for them.80

Japanese efficiency meant many more days spent at sea than the warships of other British allies, multiplying the impact of the Japanese contribution to the Mediterranean war effort.

The importance of Japanese escorts dramatically increased when in 1918 the Germans launched their spring offensive on the western front. The British responded with further large movements of troops from the Middle East to Marseilles. Japanese units escorted more than a hundred thousand British troops directly across the Mediterranean during the critical months of April and May. After the crisis ended, Japanese warships convoyed troops from Egypt to Salonika in support of the allied fall 1918 offensive. By the end of the war the squadron had accompanied 788 allied ships across the Mediterranean, including transports conveying seven hundred thousand troops to the fighting fronts. In thirty-four engagements with German and Austrian submarines the Japanese suffered damage to two destroyers, Matsu and, as we have seen, Sakaki.81

Japanese naval forces remained in European waters until May 1919. After the armistice, units of Admiral Sato’s Second Special Mission Squadron helped supervise the Central Powers’ surrendered fleets. The cruiser Izumo and destroyers Hinoki and Yanagi sailed from Malta to Scapa Flow to help guard the German fleet and prepare for the return to Japan of seven surrendered German submarines.

Sato dispatched the destroyers Katsura, Matsu, Sakaki, and Kaede to Brindisi to aid in supervising German and Austro-Hungarian ships surrendering in the Mediterranean. He then rode the cruiser Nisshin, with the eight remaining destroyers, to Constantinople in December 1918. Detaching the destroyers Kashiwa, Kanran, and Sendan (the latter two would be returned to the Royal Navy in 1919) to superintend enemy warships at Constantinople, the balance of the squadron returned to Malta, where it received new orders from Japan to escort German submarines from England back home as part of Japan’s war spoils. Sending the Ume and Kusunoki to the Adriatic for patrol duty, Sato left for England, gathering the remaining Japanese escorts on the way.

The Japanese squadron made Portland, England, on 5 January 1919. The Izumo, Hinoki, Yanagi, and the seven German U-boats joined Sato’s fleet, which then returned at the end of March to Malta, where it was rejoined by the Ume and Kusunoki. The tender Kwanto serviced the U-boats at Malta then joined the cruiser Nisshin and two destroyer flotillas in escorting the submarines to Japan. All reached Yokosuka without incident on 18 June 1919. The Izumo and the last destroyer detachment left Malta on April 10 for various ports, including Naples, Genoa, and Marseilles, and a final trip to Malta on May 5. The warships left ten days later for the voyage to Japan, reaching Yokosuka on 2 July 1919.82

“God Grant Our Alliance . . . May Long Endure”

British leaders had nothing but praise for the Japanese Mediterranean squadron before it sailed for home. Winston Churchill voiced the general high opinion when he said he “did not think that the Japanese [squadron] had ever done a foolish thing.” The governor of Malta, Lord Methuen, who reviewed Japanese warships there in March 1919, also lauded the Japanese navy for “its splendid work in European waters” and expressed the hope, “God grant our alliance, cemented in blood, may long endure.”83

The Japanese warships’ performance in the Mediterranean certainly merited high praise. Japanese destroyers’ ratio of time at sea to time in port was the highest of any allied warships during the war: Japanese warships were under way 72 percent of the time. The British record was 60 percent, the Greek and French only 45 percent. British officers credited the Japanese warships with excellent performance—at least, they added, when all went according to plan. Postwar British criticisms that the Japanese “acted inferior to our men when unforeseen situations cropped up” reflect British prejudices expressed during the war, prejudices not supported by the actual record. That record clearly demonstrates instead how seriously Japanese naval officers took their duty. The commanders of several Japanese warships are reported to have committed Hari-Kari when ships they were convoying were lost.84

Still, why did the British so quickly forget Japan’s assistance to the allied cause, not only in the Mediterranean Sea but in the Pacific and Indian Oceans? See (Table 2) Why did the British permit the Anglo-Japanese alliance to lapse in 1921? The most obvious reason was that the end of the war simplified the situation in the Pacific. The lack of a common foe removed the main justification for the alliance. With the German threat to Britain’s Far East possessions eliminated and the nascent Soviet Union no longer threatening India, the crown jewel of the Empire, Great Britain did not require Japan’s naval cooperation. American pressure pushed the British into an adversarial relationship with the Japanese, whose new island possessions sat astride American communications with the Philippines and Guam. Prewar racial and diplomatic animosity between Japan and the United States, set aside in 1917 and 1918, quickly reemerged despite wartime Japanese assistance to the United States in the Pacific. Japan’s valuable role as an ally never appeared in Western histories of the war.

At home, some Japanese politicians reacted badly to Western treatment of Japan during the war and at Versailles. As early as April 1917, and understanding that the allied public knew little or nothing of Japan’s contributions, Japanese diplomats had offered the British a memorandum for publication in allied newspapers.85 Many resented how at Versailles the “three Great Powers acted as judges” in a confrontation with Chinese delegates over the Japanese occupation of Shantung. The apparent hostility toward Japan after the war, despite its service, led an increasing number of Japanese military officers to believe in an American and British conspiracy against Japan, founded on racial animosity.86

The severing of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, in fact, steered Japan toward cooperation with Germany. The arrival of the seized German submarines began a new, long-term relationship between the Japanese and German navies. German influence and technology quickly supplanted those of the British. The two services began to exchange personnel. Numerous Japanese officers received training in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, facilitating the Imperial Japanese Navy’s ultimate break with its British mentors.87

The British had their empire, and the Americans felt no shame in professing their “Manifest Destiny,” but both attacked Japanese imperial ambitions as excessive. After 1918, neither nation proved willing to maintain the close naval cooperation with Japan that had benefited all parties during the First World War. So it was that despite the strong record of Japanese assistance to Great Britain during that conflict, the true legacy of that cooperation proved to be alienation. Thus began the breach between East and West that led to the Japanese attack upon British (and American) possessions in the Far East as part of a true two-ocean conflict, just twenty-three years after Japan, Great Britain, and the United States had been allies in the “war to end all wars.”


 1. Japanese naval attache to Sir Oswyn Murray, 6 May 1918, Admiralty [hereafter ADM]137/1576 (H.S. 1576. Mediterranean. Central and General Areas II, IV, V, XI. Various Subjects 1918 II); Paul G. Halpern, The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1914–1918 (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1987), p. 344; U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, July 1917, p. 1616; and Hans Hugo Sokol, Oesterreich-Hungarns Seekrieg 1914–1918, 2 vols., 2d ed. (Graz, Austria: Akademische Druck-u. Verlags Anstalt, 1973), vol. 2, p. 523.

 2. See Arthur J. Marder, Old Enemies, New Friends: The Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1981), p. 5. Marder asserts, “The Royal Navy had little reason to be grateful to the Japanese in the First World War. Japan refused to send any ships to fight Germany until 1917, when a destroyer flotilla was sent to the Mediterranean, and made hay in the Far East while the British were committed in Europe, as through the seizure of German-occupied Tsingtao and German islands in the Pacific—the Marshalls, Marianas, Carolines, and Palau.” For a similar American view see Robert Lansing, War Memoirs of Robert Lansing (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970), p. 281. Lansing characterizes Japan’s entry into the war and its subsequent gains as based on a “pretext” that the Anglo-Japanese alliance required its participation.

 3. Akira Iriye, Across the Pacific: An Inner History of American–East Asian Relations (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967), pp. 135–7.

 4. Ian H. Nish, The Anglo-Japanese Alliance: The Diplomacy of Two Island Empires, 1884–1907, 2d ed. (London: Athlone Press, 1985), pp. 17–9, 111–6, 230.

 5. Ruddock F. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1973), p. 328; and Nish, Anglo-Japanese Alliance, p. 353.

 6. Peter Lowe, Great Britain and Japan, 1911–15 (London: Macmillan, 1969), pp. 178–9; and Peter Padfield, The Great Naval Race (New York: David McKay, 1974), p. 293.

 7. Churchill’s response (1 May 1914) to Mr. Middlemore’s questions in the Parliamentary Debates, Commons, 5th. Ser., vol. 61 (1914).

 8. Churchill’s Statement (Navy Estimates) (17 March 1914) in Parliamentary Debates, Commons, 5th. Ser., vol. 59 (1914).

 9. Padfield, p. 293.

10. Lowe, pp. 177–8.

11. Edward S. Miller, War Plan Orange (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1991), pp. 109–10; and Michael Montgomery, Imperialist Japan: The Yen to Dominate (London: Christopher Helm, 1987), pp. 233–4; and Lowe,p. 181.

12. For Grey’s plans vis-à-vis Japan, see Sir Edward Grey to Greene, 36531, 4 August 1914; 37691, 10 August 1914; 37900, 11 August 1914, Confidential Print, Japan (1914) Foreign Office [hereafter FO] 410/63, Public Records Office [hereafter PRO], London, England; and Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill, vol. 3, 1914–1916 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), p. 43.

13. Greene to Grey, 39546, 15 August 1914; a Mr. Inouyé to Grey, 42297, 23 August 1914, FO 410/63; “Memorandum For Colonel Graham,” 16 September 1921, Office of Naval Intelligence [hereafter ONI], Record Group [hereafter RG] 38, Naval Attache Reports, U-4-B, 11083, National Archives, Washington, D.C., p. 1; and A. Morgan Young, Japan in Recent Times, 1912–1926 (New York: William Morrow, 1929; repr. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973), pp. 71–2 (page citations are to the reprint edition).

14. Ian H. Nish, Japanese Foreign Policy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), pp. 93, 95; and Masamichi Royama, Foreign Policy of Japan: 1914–1939 (1941; repr. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973), pp. 3, 7, 17–8.

15. Montgomery, p. 237; and Greene to Grey, 28 August 1914, 43927, FO 410/63.

16. ONI, “Japanese Naval Activities during European War,” 11 December 1918, RG 38, Naval Attache Reports, U-4-B, 11083, pp. 2–3, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

17. “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activities during the War,” 11 December 1918, translation of official statement issued by Japanese Navy Department on 8 December 1918, ONI, RG 38, Naval Attache Reports, U-4-B, 11083, p. 2, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

18. Randal Gray, ed., Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906–1921 (London: Conway’s Maritime Press, 1985), p. 222; Montgomery, p. 237; and ONI, “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activities,” p. 3.

19. ONI, “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activities,” p. 3; and Gray, ed., p. 240.

20. ONI,“Japanese Naval Activities during European War,” pp. 3–7, and “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activities,” p. 4; and Gray, ed., p. 222.

21. Lowe, pp. 196–7.

22. Montgomery,p. 237.

23. ONI, “A Brief Account of Japan’s Part in the World War,” 16 September 1921, RG 38, Naval Attache Reports, U-4-B, 11083, National Archives, Washington, D.C., p. 2.; Gray,ed., p. 222; and Anthony E. Sokol, The Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1968), pp. 89–90.

24. Montgomery, p. 238.

25. ONI, “Operations—Japanese Navy in the Indian and Pacific Oceans during War—1914–1918,” RG 45, Subject File 1911–1927, WA-5 Japan, box 703, folder 10, NND 913005, p. 98, and “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activities,” p. 5; and Stephen Howarth, The Fighting Ships of the Rising Sun (New York: Atheneum, 1983), p. 128.

26. ONI, “Japanese Naval Activities during European War,” p. 11.

27. ONI, “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activities,” p. 7.

28. ONI, “Operations—Japanese Navy,” pp. 55–8, and “Japanese Naval Activities during European War,” p. 13; M. P. Lissington, New Zealand and Japan, 1900–1941 (Wellington, New Zealand: A. R. Shearer, 1972), p. 27; and Howarth, p. 128.

29. ONI, “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activities,” p. 6.

30. ONI, “Operations—Japanese Navy,” p. 38.

31. Ibid., p. 64; and H. S. Gullett, “Australia in the World War (I) Military,” in The Cambridge History of the British Empire (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1933), vol. 7, part 1, pp. 547–8.

32. ONI, “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activities,” p. 6.

33. ONI, “Operations—Japanese Navy,” p. 38, and “Japanese Naval Activities during European War,” p. 13.

34. ONI, “Operations—Japanese Navy,” pp. 98, 115–7, “Japanese Naval Activities during European War,” pp. 11–2, and “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activities,” p. 9.

35. Mr. Haracourt to the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, enclosure 3 in no. 389, 74500, 23 November 1914, FO 410/63; Governor Lord Liverpool to Haracourt, enclosure in no. 260, 13 May 1915, Confidential Print, Japan (1915) FO 410/64; Gray, ed., p. 222; and Lissington, p. 26.

36. ONI, “Japanese Naval Activities during European War,” p. 9, and “Operations—Japanese Navy,” pp. 121–3, 126–8, 130–2, 141–2.

37. ONI, “Japanese Naval Activities during European War,” p. 13.

38. Grey to Greene, 6 August 1914, 36648, FO 410/63; Gilbert, p. 202; and Howarth, pp. 7, 128.

39. Leslie Conners, The Emperor’s Advisor: Saionji Kinmochi and Pre-War Japanese Politics (London: Croon Helm, 1987), p. 55; Kiyoshi Ikeda, “The Douglas Mission and the British Influence on the Japanese Navy,” in Themes and Theories in Modern Japanese History, ed. Sue Henny and Jean-Pierre Lehmann (London: Athlone, 1988), pp. 171–84; Lowe, p. 182; and Marder, Old Enemies, New Friends, p. 3.

40. Howarth, p. 128.

41. ONI “Operations—Japanese Navy,” p. 21; ONI “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activities,” p. 5; and Gray, ed., p. 222.

42. ONI “Operations—Japanese Navy,” pp. 70–1.

43. See the exchange in: W. F. Nicholson (Admiralty) to Foreign Office, 20396, 1 February 1916; Grey to Greene, 26545, 4 February 1916; W. F. Nicholson (Admiralty) to Foreign Office, 24943, 8 February 1916; Grey to Greene, 27477, 9 February 1916; Greene to Grey, 30818, 16 February 1916; Admiralty to Foreign Office, 34976, 22 February 1916, Confidential Print, Japan (1916) FO 410/65, PRO, London, England; ONI “Operations—Japanese Navy,” p. 22; and Howarth, p. 128.

44. Greene to Grey, 65807, 6 April 1916, FO 410/65; ONI “Operations—Japanese Navy,” pp. 22, 73–5; ONI “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activities,” p. 5.

45. Admiral John Jellicoe to Admiral David Beatty, 30 December 1916, A. Temple Patterson, ed. The Jellicoe Papers, vol. 2, 1916–1935, Publications of the Naval Records Society, vol. 111 (London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne, 1968), vol. 2, p. 135.

46. Admiral Sir Henry Jackson to Rear Admiral John de Robeck, 9 February 1916, in Paul G. Halpern, ed., The Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, 1915–1918, Publications of the Naval Records Society, vol. 126 (London: Temple Smith, 1987), p. 99. See also the fears of Admiral Sir Henry Oliver, Chief of the Admiralty War Staff, who worried that Japan might use British requests for naval assistance in the Mediterranean to “get a permanent footing there.” Quoted in John Fisher, “‘Backing the Wrong Horse’: Japan in British Middle Eastern Policy, 1914–1918,” The Journal of Strategic Studies, June 1998, p. 63.

47. Early in November 1917, the British ambassador to Japan reported, “I notice indications in the press and elsewhere of a desire to awaken Japanese public from apathy and indifference with which they have hitherto regarded the war, and which has found encouragement in high places. Some of the papers even warn their readers that Japan should be prepared for a possible appeal for military aid from the Allies.” Greene to Balfour, 214763, 8 November 1917, Confidential Print, Japan (1917) FO 410/66.

48. Malcolm D. Kennedy, The Estrangement of Great Britain and Japan, 1917–1935 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1969), p. 13.

49. Greene to Balfour, 180776, enclosure 1 in no. 6, Memorandum, Japan’s After-War Labour Problem, 19 September 1918, Confidential Print, Japan (1918) FO 410/67; and Young,pp. 114–8.

50. G. V. Fiddes (Colonial Office) to Foreign Office, 21 March 1916, 54458, Confidential Print, Japan (1916), FO 410/65; and Lissington, p. 31.

51. Admiralty to Foreign Office, 256472, 18 December 1916, FO 410/65; Balfour to Greene, 256472, 9 January 1917; and Greene to Balfour, 22137, 27 January 1917, FO 410/66.

52. Arthur J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, vol. 4, 1917: Year of Crisis (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), p. 100.

53. War Cabinet Papers, 29 January 1917, CAB 23/1/47; 1 February 1917, CAB 23/1/51; 12 February 1917, CAB 23/1/63; and 14 February 1917, CAB 23/1/65.

54. Balfour to Greene, 27203, 5 February 1917, FO 410/66; and ONI, “Operations—Japanese Navy,” p. 77, and  “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activities,” pp. 6–7.

55. “Memorandum for Colonel Graham,” p. 2.

56. W. Long to the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia and the Governor of New Zealand, enclosure in no. 9, Colonial Office to Foreign Office, 29366, 5 February 1917, FO 410/66.

57. ONI, “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activities,” p. 1; Gray, ed., p. 205; and Hansgeorg Jentschura, Dieter Jung, and Peter Mickel, Warships of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1869–1945, trans. Antony Preston and J. D. Brown (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1977), p. 135.

58. War Cabinet Papers, 15 December 1916, CAB 23/1/8.

59. War Cabinet Papers, 30 May 1917, CAB 23/2/150; and ONI, “Operations—Japanese Navy,” p. 77.

60. “Memorandum For Colonel Graham,” p. 2.

61. ONI, “Japanese Naval Activity and Other Contributions to the European War,” 16 October 1918, RG 38, U-4-B, 11083, National Archives, Washington, D.C., p. 2.

62. Jellicoe to the First Lord, Sir Eric Geddes, 21 July 1917, The Jellicoe Papers, vol. 2, p. 185.

63. Marder, Year of Crisis, pp. 43–4.

64. David F. Trask, Captains & Cabinets: Anglo-American Naval Relations, 1917–1918 (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1972), pp. 102–4.

65. Sir C. Spring-Rice to Lord Robert Cecil, 14 May 1917, War Cabinet Papers, 22 May 1917, CAB 23/2/142; and Trask, pp. 104–11.

66. Rice to Grey, 77210, 30 November 1914, FO 410/63; and James Reed, The Missionary Mind and American East Asia Policy, 1911–1915 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 96, 99.

67. ONI, “Japanese Naval Activity and Other Contributions to the European War,” p. 1, and “Official Report of Japanese Naval Activity,” p. 8; and Ian Nish, “Japan in Britain’s View of the International System, 1919–37,” in Anglo-Japanese Alienation, 1919–1952, ed. Ian Nish (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982), p. 29.

68. Greene to Balfour, 214266, 7 November 1917, FO 410/66; William Reynolds Braisted, The United States Navy in the Pacific, 1909–1922 (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1971), p. 335; and ONI, “Operations—Japanese Navy,” pp. 99, 172.

69. Miller, pp. 110–1.

70. Iriye, pp. 131, 135.

71. ONI, “Operations—Japanese Navy,” pp. 10–1; and Paul G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1994), p. 393.

72. Halpern, Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, p. 209.

73. Sokol, Oesterreich-Hungarns Seekrieg, vol. 2, p. 518.

74. Sokol, The Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Navy, p. 121.

75. Halpern, Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, pp. 70, 209.

76. Ibid., p. 213.

77. ONI, “Operations—Japanese Navy,” p. 12.

78. “Naval Transport and Convoy,” The Times History and Encyclopedia of the War, 22 vols., 11 June 1918, vol. 16, p. 173; “The Navy’s Work in 1917,” ibid., 18 December 1917, vol. 14, p. 164; and Henry Newbolt, History of the Great War (Based on Official Documents) Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: Longmans, Green, 1928), vol. 4, p. 295.

79. ONI, “Operations—Japanese Navy,” p. 11.

80. See Hope’s Minutes, 23 February 1917; Ballard (Senior Naval Officer Malta) to Admiralty, 21 August 1917, ADM 137/1412 (H.S. 1412. Mediterranean. Central & General Areas II, IV, V, and XI); Various Subjects 1917  I, pp. 384–5; and Ballard to Admiralty, 21 August 1917 in Halpern, Royal Navy in the Mediterranean,  pp. 236, 279, 282.

81. ONI, “Operations—Japanese Navy,” pp. 12–3.

82. Ibid., pp. 13–5.

83. Howarth, Fighting Ships of the Rising Sun, p. 130.

84. Arthur J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, vol. 5, Victory and Aftermath (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 36–7; and “Memorandum For Colonel Graham,” p. 1. This American postwar analysis of Japanese operations notes that “Japan sent one or more squadrons of destroyers to assist in the protection of troop and supply ships in the North Sea and the Mediterranean. The service of these squadrons was highly creditable to Japan.”

85. I have no evidence from contemporary publications, but a Mr. N. Kato had an article (based on a paper given to the Central Asiatic Society) printed in The New Europe: A Weekly Review of Foreign Politics, vol. 2, 18 January–12 April 1917 (London: Constable 1917), pp. 136–42. It seems the Japanese were running a public relations campaign about this time. For the Japanese memorandum, Lord Robert Cecil to Greene, 86671, enclosure in no. 21, Memorandum, 25 April 1917, FO 410/66.

86. See Viscount Kato’s remarks as reported to the British government in Mr. Alston to Earl Curzon, 105971, 20 June 1919, FO 410/67. Kato not only reacted “very strongly” to the embarrassing situation that Japan encountered during the peace talks but addressed the “race problem,” stating that for Japanese subjects abroad, it “was settled to this extent that it had practically been abandoned long ago as being impossible of adjustment.”

87. Hosoya Chihiro, “Britain and the United States in Japan’s View of the International System, 1919–1937,” in Anglo-Japanese Alienation, 1919–1952, ed. Ian Nish (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 8–9.



At Actium Antony’s fleet held out for a long time against Octavian. Only after it had been badly damaged by the high sea which rose against it did it reluctantly, and at the tenth hour, gave up the struggle. There were no more than 5,000 dead, but 300 ships were captured.

Plutarch describes the last phase of the naval Battle of Actium which brought the Republic to an end in 31 BC.

Unlike the Roman army, whose origins lay at the beginnings of Rome’s history, the navy came into existence in piecemeal and haphazard fashion. But it was still on hand to play a decisive part in Roman and even world history. Fleets featured in many campaigns, acting as transports for men, animals and equipment, and sometimes even as the fighting platforms on which fleet troops fought their opponents.


The Roman navy was created during the First and Second Punic Wars, though like the army at that time and throughout the Republic it was not a permanent institution. Since the Carthaginians were expert sailors and masters of the Mediterranean, war at sea was essential and unavoidable if they were to be challenged. The Romans had to learn and learn fast; yet until the First Punic War it had never occurred to them that they might need to become a naval power. ‘Not only did they have no decked ships, but also they had no warships at all’, explained Polybius. To begin with they borrowed ships to carry their troops over to Sicily, but when they captured a Carthaginian vessel they realized they had acquired a template whose specifications they could copy. Armed with a fleet of 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes designed in imitation of their prize, the Romans were able to set about training crews. They also developed the remarkable ‘raven’, which used a pole, ropes and a pulley to drop a gangplank with an iron spike from the Roman ship onto the deck of an enemy vessel. Roman troops could then dash across and fight the enemy crews and troops. It is an extraordinary fact that some rams from the front of Roman ships used in the First Punic War have been recovered from the sea off Sicily.

Astonishingly, the Romans won their first naval battle against the incredulous Carthaginians, at Mylae off the north-east coast of Sicily in 260 BC. Further victories followed at Sulci (259 BC) and Cape Ecnomus (256 BC). Although problems were to come, it was the naval Battle of the Aegates Islands in 241 BC that finished off the Carthaginians and forced them to sue for peace. Rome was now not only a naval power but also pre-eminent in the Mediterranean. Like the army though, during the Republic fleets had to be formed on an as-need basis.

In the aftermath of Cannae in 216 BC during the Second Punic War naval forces were organized to protect Rome: 1,500 naval troops were sent from Ostia to the capital, and a naval legion was sent to Teano, a town in Campania. When Scipio invaded North Africa in 205 BC his fleet included 50 men-of-war and 400 transports to carry not only the men and their equipment, but also over six weeks’ supply of cattle, food and water. This single instance gives an idea of how complex a Roman waterborne military operation could be. Their soldiers were brave and effective, but the relatively cumbersome nature of their ships continued to be a potential liability.

The final destruction of Carthage in 146 BC in the Third Punic War removed the seaborne threat to the burgeoning Roman Empire until the emergence of Cilician pirates in the first century BC. The pirates’ activities seriously compromised trade, and their strength grew with backing from Mithridates VI of Pontus between 76 and 63 BC because he knew the pirates were a useful means of damaging Roman interests in the Mediterranean. The pirates were also able to take advantage of Rome’s civil wars, which enabled them not only to attack maritime trade but also to raid islands and coastal cities, plundering and taking away prisoners for ransom. Their numbers increased during the Mithridatic Wars because dispossessed people in Asia turned to piracy as the only option open to them, and support came from allies of Mithridates such as Crete. The profession was developing into a glamorous and ostentatious career with a network of support installations where the pirate crews could put in for supplies and to re-equip. ‘It was’, said Plutarch, ‘a disgrace to Roman supremacy.’ Eventually, crisis point was reached: trade on the Mediterranean had become crippled.

In 67 BC a law was passed that gave Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey Magnus, ‘the Great’, as he was later known) a three-year command to clear the seas. By requisitioning existing ships from Greek cities, Pompey was able to put together a fleet of 500 ships and a force of 120,000 men. Within an astonishing three months he had destroyed the pirate problem by dividing the Mediterranean into 13 zones and distributing the fleet among them.8 Naval power was an important factor in the civil wars that followed, Pompey’s son Sextus becoming a major threat to the triumvirs Antony and Octavian until he was defeated in 36 BC at the Strait of Sicily (Fretum Siculum) off Cape Naulochus by Agrippa with Legio X. The legion’s achievements that day meant it was awarded the permanent title Fretensis in commemoration.

Fleets were often built on the spot to meet an immediate need. In 56 BC Caesar was fighting the Veneti in Gaul. The tribe lived in predominantly coastal locations and their strongholds were virtually impossible to attack by land. A naval assault was the only possibility, so Caesar built a fleet. But the tides made any attack by sea extremely challenging; the situation looked hopeless until Decimus Brutus arrived with a flotilla of vessels from the Mediterranean designed for speed, and much lighter and smaller than the ships of the Veneti. Even so, it was not till the wind died down and the heavy Gaulish ships were left unable to move that Brutus was able to attack them with great success.

Fleet achievements were celebrated, though they were generally peripheral to the army’s success. In the four triumphs he held in Rome after his war in Africa, Caesar celebrated the navy’s contribution. As well as displaying the booty which he later distributed to the soldiers and the citizenry, the various military displays included a naval battle with 1,000 soldiers on each side, and 4,000 oarsmen propelling the vessels.10 Over a century later Vespasian produced coins honouring naval victories, the only emperor ever to do so. Struck in his name and that of his son Titus, they bore the legend VICTORIA NAVALIS, and apparently commemorated a Roman victory in the Sea of Galilee during the Jewish War (see below).


The final showdown between the forces of Antony and Cleopatra and those of Octavian at Actium off the north-west coast of Greece in 31 BC was primarily a naval battle. In fact it was the most decisive naval engagement in Roman history: the victory of Octavian’s fleet, under the command of his general Agrippa, marked the end of the Republic. Plutarch likened the battle, though, to one fought on land. Neither side rammed the other’s ships. Antony’s ships were too heavy and could not build up the speed necessary to allow their bronze prows to pierce Octavian’s ships. He had already deliberately destroyed the weaker ships in the Egyptian fleet and kept only the strongest, distributing 20,000 men and 2,000 archers among them. Antony’s legions included Legio XVII Classica, whose name was derived from the Latin word for a fleet, classis; it must have been formed specifically to provide troops trained to travel and fight on ships.

The conduct of the battle depended on the ability of the crews to row. Antony had chosen ships that had from three to ten banks of oars. Rowing was the only reliable way to control movement in battle; wind was far too unpredictable. The Roman soldiers, accustomed to fighting on land, were singularly unconvinced. A centurion was said to have protested to Antony, ‘General, why do you distrust these wounds and this sword and (instead) put your trust in miserable logs of wood? Let the Egyptians and Phoenicians do their fighting at sea, but give us land on which we are used to standing and either conquer our enemies or die.’ His ships’ captains wanted to leave their sails behind, but Antony optimistically told them they must carry them so that no fugitive from Octavian’s fleet could get away.

Octavian did not want to ram his ships’ prows into those of Antony’s vessels, while a sideways assault would have seen his rams broken off because of the huge heavy timbers used in Antony’s vessels. Instead groups of three to four of Octavian’s ships each attacked one of Antony’s, the soldiers using spears, poles and missiles, while Antony’s defenders fired catapults from towers. Then, when Agrippa on Octavian’s left moved to encircle Antony’s fleet, 60 of Cleopatra’s ships took advantage of a favourable wind and made their escape. When Antony saw Cleopatra leaving, he followed her in a galley and abandoned the battle. Despite that, his fleet – largely unaware that their commander had left – held out for another ten hours, losing only 5,000 men before they gave up and handed over 300 ships to Octavian, followed soon after by Antony’s land army.

Just how dangerous it could be to rely on ships was highlighted that winter when Octavian faced a mutiny among troops he had sent to Brindisi in Italy while he wintered in Samos. Forced to sail back as a matter of urgency, on the voyage his fleet was struck by storms; some of the ships were sunk and his own vessel lost part of its rigging and had its rudder broken. Luckily he survived to suppress the rebellion; only then could he sail to Egypt to chase down Antony and Cleopatra. Octavian had already survived a shipwreck as a young man, and lost two fleets to storms in the Sicilian war against Sextus Pompey before managing to defeat him in the end. Had his ship been sunk this time, the entire course of western European history would have been altered.

Octavian later erected a monument at Actia Nicopolis (‘the city of victory at Actium’), overlooking the maritime setting of Actium where he had camped before the battle. It was constructed as a sanctuary dedicated to Neptune, Mars and Apollo, and embellished with at least 23 prows (possibly originally as many as 35) of captured galleys fitted to sockets on the front of the wall of the monument. Since as Augustus he later claimed to have seized 300 ships, a number which probably omitted smaller vessels, each prow may represent ten of the seized vessels. Above the prows a monumental inscription with his titles for 29 BC declared that:

Imperator (‘the General’) Caesar, son of the deified Julius, after the victory which he waged on behalf of the Republic in this region, when consul for the fifth time and declared imperator for the seventh, after peace had been secured at land and sea, consecrated to Neptune and Mars the camp from which he set forth to attack the enemy, now decorated with naval spoils.


Under Octavian – now Augustus – and the later emperors, the Roman navy consisted of a number of fleets berthed at key locations around the imperial coastline. A rough estimate of the numbers of men involved in the late second century AD is 30,000, the equivalent of about six legions. The two most important fleets were the Classis Misenensis and the Classis Ravennatis, based respectively at Misenum and Ravenna in Italy. Others dotted around the Roman world were probably both smaller and perhaps only made up to full strength when needed. They included those based in Britain (Classis Britannica) with a main fort at Dover, on the Rhine and the North Sea coast (Classis Germanica) and in Egypt (Classis Augusta Alexandrina). A number of others, such as the Classis Pontica in the Black Sea, are also known to have existed.

Each fleet was commanded by an equestrian prefect under the emperors. Marcus Mindius Marcellus is one of the earliest known and was a praefectus classis under Octavian some time between c. 36 and 27 BC, recorded on an inscription found at Velitrae, a few miles southeast of Rome Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder), in command of the Classis Misenensis in 79, took ships across the Bay of Naples to rescue people escaping the devastating effects of the eruption of Vesuvius. Famously, he lost his life to the toxic fumes on a beach while investigating the effects of the disaster. Lucius Aufidius Pantera was prefect of the Classis Britannica in the late 130s. Appropriately enough he erected an altar to Neptune at another fort used by the fleet, Lympne in Kent. An unnamed fleet prefect rescued Caracalla after he was shipwrecked en route from Thrace to Asia and had to climb into a skiff. The fleet concerned is unknown but the prefect was said to have been on board a trireme, presumably his flagship. Tiberius Claudius Albinus was a nauarchus, ‘captain of the squadron’, in the fleet, and second in the chain of seniority after a prefect. An individual ship (trireme or quinquereme) was commanded by a trierarchos, who presided over a crew that included a proreta in charge of the oarsmen, a gubernator (helmsman; our word ‘governor’ comes from the Latin) and a medicus, as well as centurions, the oarsmen themselves and marines.

One of the most memorable fleet prefects was Quintus Marcius Hermogenes, commander of the Classis Augusta Alexandrina in the year 134 during the reign of Hadrian. He had time to head up the river Nile to explore the celebrated sights, as Hadrian himself had done four years earlier. Hermogenes crossed the Nile at Thebes (Luxor) and headed towards the famous Colossi of Memnon, which stood in front of what had once been the mud-brick mortuary temple of the Egyptian Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III (c. 1388–1349 BC). One of the statues had a natural fault in the stone. As the rising sun warmed the monolith each morning, it emitted a groaning noise. Visiting the statues and hearing the sound was considered to be a prime tourist attraction in antiquity. Hermogenes was lucky. ‘At half past the first hour Quintus Marcius Hermogenes heard the Memnon’, he proudly recorded in a third-person Latin graffito which he inscribed on the statue’s lower leg, adding to a wealth of other Latin and Greek inscriptions still visible today. He was in the nick of time. Within a few years an earthquake had toppled the statue. The enterprising Romans re-erected it, but the necessary repairs to the statue meant it never made the sound again.

The prefecture of a fleet could be one of the highest posts attainable in an equestrian’s military career. Gaius Vibius Quartus started out as an ordinary soldier in Legio V Macedonica. From there he progressed to the rank of decurion in the Ala Scubulorum, prefect of the Cohors Cyrenaica, tribune of Legio II Augusta (in Britain) and prefect of Ala Gallorum, before becoming prefect of the Classis Augusta Alexandrina. He appears to have had no experience whatsoever of naval affairs prior to his appointment to the fleet. Just as in the army, professional expertise does not seem to have been an essential component of a fleet officer’s skill set. Tiberius Julius Xanthus, who lived to the remarkable age of ninety before dying in Rome, had two claims to fame. One was that he was the subpraefectus, possibly a deputy to the prefect, of the Classis Alexandrina at some time during his career. His tombstone, set up by his wife Atellia Prisca, also proudly recorded his role as a tractatorus of the emperors Tiberius and Claudius. The principal meaning of tractatorus at the time was ‘masseur’, but the word also came to have other meanings such as ‘inspector’ or ‘accountant of finances’, because the root word tractatio meant the handling or management of almost anything. None of Xanthus’ roles have an obvious nautical connection; the subprefecture seems to have been the only such position he ever held.

Misenum’s strategic value was clear, and when Augustus reorganized the armed forces of Rome, he chose the spot and its bay to build an excellent harbor.

Misenum was the largest base, Portus Julius, of the Roman navy, since it was the base of the Classis Misenensis, the most important Roman fleet. It was first established as a naval base in 27 BC by Marcus Agrippa, the right-hand man of the emperor Augustus.


Fleet bases are not well known: either coastal erosion has destroyed them or their utility as harbours means they are now buried under modern ports. The Classis Britannica in Britain had a fort at Dover, fragments of which lie under the present-day port town. Built under Hadrian, Dover covered 2.5 acres (1 ha) and seems to have been broadly similar to an auxiliary cohort’s fort, but with accommodation for as many as 600–700 men. The fort had easy access to the harbour and evidently operated in association with a pair of lighthouses (one of which still stands), guiding ships into dock. Excavations on the site suggested several periods of occupation, punctuated by years of disuse, presumably reflecting times when the fleet was stationed elsewhere.

Across the Channel the fleet’s main base was at Boulogne. Given the importance of London as a port, the presence of the governor and his garrison, it seems highly likely that the Classis Britannica had moorings there. It may even have been responsible for building some of the huge timber wharfs that have been found. The Classis Germanica was based at Alteburg, 2 miles (3 km) south of Cologne on the Rhine, in a much larger fort (17 acres, 7 ha). In the third century the Classis Britannica probably used the new coastal forts of the Saxon Shore in Britain and Gaul, such as Reculver, Richborough and Portchester which were built to help in the campaign to fend off coastal raiders from northern Europe. The usurper Carausius (286–93), who used his command of the Classis Britannica to seize power in Britain and northern Gaul, may have played a role in commissioning additions to the series of forts. Their remains are the most prominent relics of fleet bases anywhere in the Empire.


“Roman quinqueremes and Lembos biremes, 3rd to 2nd Century BC”

“Roman Triremes and Quadriremes, 2nd Century BC”



The fleets and their soldiers fought in wars, transported troops and goods, provided manpower for building military installations, and operated mines. The Roman Empire had spread so far by the mid-first century AD that seaborne military power was extremely important, especially for protecting the grain supply to Rome, the frontiers on the Rhine and Danube, and the coasts of Britain and Gaul. In 52 Claudius decided that the crews should be entitled to the same legal privileges as other veterans, and he issued a decree accordingly Fleet troops had however to serve longer than other soldiers at 26 years, rising to 28 under Septimius Severus, and were probably paid less too. Whether the marines were treated the same as the crews, or were on equal terms with auxiliaries, remains a mystery.

The Classis Germanica is the only fleet for which any data about its size is known. During the Civil War in 69 it had 24 ships and all of them joined the revolt of the Batavian tribal leader Civilis. That makes it likely many of the crewmen had been recruited in the region, probably because of their knowledge of local waterways. Few of the Classis Britannica’s naval activities are known, unlike its land-based duties. In 70 it was poised to support Legio XIIII Gemina in the war against Civilis by raiding the Batavian homelands. In the event it was badly damaged by the Cannenfates, allies of Civilis, who destroyed most of it. An inscription from Hadrian’s Wall records the fleet’s construction of a granary at the fort of Benwell between 122 and 126, during the period in which the first forts were being built along the new frontier. The fleet detachment was being used to perform a routine military construction task, reflecting the way fleet troops were so often used as any other detachment of the army might have been.

An incomplete inscription concerning the Classis Britannica at the Beauport Park fleet bath-house in Sussex records a man called Bassianus who may have been an architectus; a small trace of the word possibly survives. The iron-smelting activities of the Classis Britannica are almost entirely attested from the discovery of stamped tiles at installations found in southern England close to sources of iron ore. The Beauport Park bath-house, which operated between c. 120 and 250, was buried by the collapse of a slag heap created by the smelting, which used vast quantities of charcoal obtained from the forests in the region. When the building was excavated, remains of almost the entire roof were found in and around the ruins. Although many tiles were smashed, a considerable number were not. This made it possible to calculate that the baths, covering 1,227 sq ft (114 sq m), had required a minimum of 5.7 tons (5,170 kg) of roof tiles, in addition to 7.1 tons (6,440 kg) of tiles of other sorts or indeterminate fragments.35 The survival on a large floor tile of the impression of a tile comb, used to create a key for plaster on flue tiles, and bearing the CLBR mark of the fleet, shows that the tiles were made at a dedicated fleet works depot probably nearby

The fleet’s involvement is easy to explain. Although today the Roman iron-working sites of south-east Britain are landlocked, in antiquity much of the area concerned could be reached by navigable inlets that stretched inland. The fleet ships were therefore able to transport out the iron pigs so that they could be carried to military sites in Britain and on the Continent where they were needed.

Other fleet vexillations turn up in a variety of places. A detachment of Saxons serving with the Classis Germanica worked in the quarries at Bröhl near Bonn, where the men set up a dedication to Jupiter Optimus Maximus and Hercules under Rufrus Calenus, the trierarchos. This is particularly interesting because the context appears so incongruous for a sea captain, who might well have been surprised to find himself overseeing his men’s efforts in a quarry rather than sailing on the Rhine.

Men from the Classis Misenensis were put to work on the awnings which covered the audience at the Colosseum. The reason was probably their expertise in handling ropes and sails. A number of tombstones found in Rome of fleet soldiers probably belonged to those allocated to these and other official duties in the city. Titus Amydus Severus was one of them. He came from the Black Sea region, and served in the Misenum fleet on the roster of the trireme Concordia. He died at Rome aged twenty-five some time between the late first century and the end of the second.

Detachments were also stationed at various locations on the Italian coast, such as Ostia and Puteoli. This information comes from a strangely amusing story in Suetonius’ life of Vespasian. Suetonius calls the naval troops classiarii (‘men of the fleet’), a word normally translated now as marines, though on their tombstones and other inscriptions they are usually called milites, ‘soldiers’. The classiarii were annoyed at the cost of boots so the detachments at Ostia and Puteoli, the main ports serving Rome, went to Rome to see Vespasian and ask for a special allowance. They had not reckoned with Vespasian’s legendary meanness and wit. He told them to march barefoot in future, and so they did. The anecdote also suggests that the marines spent most of their lives with their feet firmly on dry land.

The ordinary soldiers of the fleet were allocated to centuries as legionaries and auxiliary infantry were but in their case centuria meant a ship’s company. Like other auxiliaries, they shared the privilege that on retirement any existing children were enfranchised at the same time as their fathers. The records of the ordinary classiarii of the fleet show that they could come from far and wide. Some of the tombstones found in Rome of Misenum fleet men show that they came from places as far apart as Cappadocia, Syria, Dalmatia, and Greece. Egypt was another major source of fleet recruits, like Apion (Antonius Maximus), the enthusiastic recruit of the Classis Misenensis and Apollinarius. Fleet names were geographic descriptors of where they were stationed and not ‘ethnic’ labels in the manner of auxiliary units. Aemilius, son of Saenius, for example, was a Briton from the Exeter area, but he served as a soldier in the Classis Germanica under a captain called Euhodus (a Greek name) and died at Cologne. Another Briton called Veluotigernus, son of Magiotigernus, was honourably discharged as a veteran from the Classis Germanica, then under the command of the prefect Marcus Ulpius Ulpianus, on 19 November 150, along with veterans from auxiliary cavalry and infantry units in Germania Inferior. His discharge diploma was found in Britain near the northern fort of Lanchester in County Durham, where he had perhaps retired and which might have been where he came from. He had enlisted in 124, around the time Britain’s nearby northern frontier was being dramatically modified with the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. He and his father’s native British names both end ‘-tigernus’, which means ‘king’ or ‘master’. Magiotigernus meant something like ‘great master’, but the meaning of the Veluo-component of the veteran’s name is unknown. On discharge Veluotigernus would have been Latinized into Titus Aelius Velvuotigernus (sic), taking the emperor Antoninus Pius’ forenames as he became a Roman citizen.

Surviving inscriptions record members of the fleets who, unlike other Roman troops, were sometimes inclined to mention both their Roman and their original names, with the formula qui et (‘and who [were also named]’). Gaius Julius Victor was a soldier with the Classis Misenensis. He died at Misenum aged thirty, having served ten years but his tombstone adds that he was also known as ‘Sola, son of Dinus’. Lucius Antonius Leo, a Cilician who served with the same fleet, having signed up at nineteen and dying at twenty-seven, had been known as ‘Neon, son of Zoilus’.

The division between the fleets and the regular army units is not clear, if indeed it really existed. Sometimes fleet troops were withdrawn from the navy and used to create a new legion. Soldiers from the Classis Misenensis were used by Nero to create Legio I Adiutrix (‘the Rescuer’). Members of the Classis Ravennatis were used to form Legio II Adiutrix as part of the campaign to end the Revolt of Civilis. Within a year or two II Adiutrix had been moved to Britain, it remained there until 87, when it was sent permanently back to the Continent, ending up at Budapest. The tombstone of Valerius Pudens, a soldier of the legion who died only six years later in Britain, had a trident and a pair of dolphins carved into it to symbolize the new legion’s origins.

Where appropriate, a legion might include men with sailing skills, apparently independent of the fleets, only serving further to show how blurred the Roman military world was. Minucius Audens was a gubernator, a legionary helmsman, though he is the only such man known. He made an offering to the mother goddesses of Italy, Africa and Gaul at York during his service with Legio VI Victrix, when he perhaps helped deal with the massive influx of men and materials during the Severan campaigns of 208–11. He may have served with a fleet before joining the legion, but on a religious dedication he would not have bothered to mention that. His role is a reminder that the army’s colossal logistical requirements meant transportation of men and materials was an ongoing and essential part of its duties.

Fleet personnel were sometimes involved in major historical events. Anicetus, prefect of the Misenum fleet in 59, was one of Nero’s freedmen and loyal stooges. He agreed to murder Nero’s mother Agrippina the Younger by means of a specially designed collapsing boat in the Bay of Naples near the fleet base. Indeed, the scheme was his idea. But it went disastrously wrong. Agrippina survived and had shortly afterwards to be murdered on land by Anicetus and a soldier from the fleet.

It seems the navy was no less likely to be used for the emperor’s personal purposes than the Praetorian Guard. In 69, during the Civil War, a dishonest centurion called Claudius Faventinus had a grievance. Having been cashiered by Galba, who had been toppled and murdered, Faventinus decided to do what he could to damage Vitellius, who was challenging Galba’s successor Otho. He forged a letter, purportedly from Vespasian, offering the men of the Classis Misenensis a reward if they went over to him and abandoned Vitellius. The prefect of the fleet, Claudius Apollinaris, was not a man of reliable loyalty so he was easily bought. The upshot was that the cities of Puteoli and Capua decided to take sides too. Puteoli went over to Vespasian. Capua supported Vitellius and appointed Claudius Julianus, a former prefect of the Classis Misenensis, to lead some city troops and gladiators on their behalf. Julianus promptly changed sides and joined Vespasian. Faventinus’ scheme had worked, and the fleet’s actions helped hasten Vitellius’ downfall.


Ships of the fleets during imperial times are virtually unknown, either from sources or physical remains. There are however various references to quinqueremes, triremes, transports and even rafts. Some individual vessels are named. As we know, the Egyptian recruit Apion (Antonius Maximus) apparently joined the ship’s company of the Athenonica at Misenum. Titus Memmius Montanus, a soldier of the Classis Ravennatis, served on the quinquereme Augustus in the year 150. Tombstones of fleet soldiers in Rome give a variety of ship names drawn from the names of deities and also the personifications of virtues such as Hercules, Apollinus, Minerva, Fortuna, Pollux and Fides. One was called Isis, an appropriate echo of the Egyptian homeland of many of the recruits, served in by a Cilician called Gaius Mucius Valens. A small bronze model found in London of a warship’s prow with the inscription AMMILLA AVG FELIX probably names one of the Classis Britannica vessels, Ammilla Augusta. A coin of the usurper Carausius, known from only one example, depicts a galley and the legend PACATRIX AV(G) (‘Peacemaker? of the Emperor’), perhaps his flagship.

It would be a mistake to imagine that fleets consisted exclusively of warships with multiple banks of oars and battering rams. The liburna was a light warship, designed for speed. Some of the Misenum fleet soldiers who died in Rome came from their crews. Marcus Ulpius Maximus was a Thracian who served on the liburna Armata (‘The Armoured’). He died at forty-seven, after 28 years’ service.

The fleets also included transports. The Classis Misenensis might have possessed a raft (ratis) called the Minerva, though this relies on an uncertain reading of the tombstone, found in Sardinia, of the infant son of Valerius Frontus who was a soldier with the fleet; Minerva might be the name of a vessel, but it is an odd item to include on a child’s memorial. ‘Heavily manned’ rafts were used with great success by Vespasian in a small naval engagement on Lake Gennesaret during the Jewish War and indeed seem to have been the main vessels used to defeat the enemy boats and, apparently, kill the entire Jewish force. In the winter of 214–15 Caracalla was preparing for war against Armenia and Parthia. He ordered the construction of ‘two large engines’ (siege or artillery machinery) to be used in the fighting. They were specifically designed to be taken to pieces so that they could be more easily carried to Syria by his naval transports.

If a fleet was ever short of real ships there was always the possibility of pretending there were more. In the early second century BC Cato the Elder arrived with his fleet at Ambracia, a city at the time a member of the Aetolian League which was at war with Rome. Since his fleet had been blockaded by the Aetolians, Cato had arrived with only the ship he was sailing in. He resorted to making audible and visual signals as if the rest of the fleet was nearby and was now being summoned to follow him, and that his troops were on hand too. The Aetolians were fooled and called off the blockade out of fear that the Roman fleet was on the point of annihilating them.


In AD 15 Germanicus, during his campaign in Germany, ordered the II and XIIII legions to make a journey by land so that the fleet ships would be less heavily loaded and better able to negotiate the shallows. All went well until a storm flooded the land where the legionaries were, the water carrying off baggage animals and the soldiers’ packs and causing havoc with the marching formations. Eventually the surviving men caught up with the fleet and were taken on board.

No doubt this prompted Germanicus to avoid a repeat performance the following year. But instead of keeping his men safe, a spectacular storm hit Germanicus’ huge fleet when he set out at the end of his campaign. With the intention of returning the majority of the legions to their winter quarters by ship, the fleet sailed out to the North Sea down the river Ems. But soon hail wiped out any visibility and was accompanied by a dangerous swell that prevented the steersmen from maintaining course. This terrified the legionaries on the ships; as ordinary soldiers, most of them had no idea what was going on or how to react. They obstructed the sailors by panicking or made inappropriate attempts to help. As if that was not bad enough, a severe gale blew the ships in all directions.

The crews were left desperately trying to avoid being washed up onto rocks, but all their efforts came to nothing when the tide turned and joined in with the wind. Desperate conditions meant desperate measures, so the men started throwing cavalry horses, pack animals, equipment and weapons overboard. Their efforts were futile. Some of the ships sank when the sea overcame them. Others were blown onto the shores of islands around the North Sea, where the soldiers starved unless they were lucky enough to find the rotting bodies of their horses washed up there too. Though the crew of Germanicus’ trireme managed to bring the ship safely to shore on the German coast, his sense of devastation and disaster was so great that he contemplated suicide.

When the storm finally subsided the surviving ships managed to regroup, some of their crews having to use their clothing as sails. The ships were patched up and sent out again to find as many of the lost soldiers as possible. The coastal German Agrivarii tribe only gave up marooned soldiers when a ransom was paid, although tribal chieftains in Britain handed over any men who had been washed up there. Yet the terrible storm paid a form of dividend. The men who lived and were found came back with extraordinary tales to tell in the grand tradition of mariners of all ages. No doubt inspired by the adventures of Odysseus, Aeneas and the Argonauts that they had read or been told about as boys, they insisted they had seen whirlwinds, unknown varieties of birds, monsters from the deep, and fantastic beasts who might have been men or animals or both.

It was not the first time Roman forces told tales of terrible creatures. In 256 BC Atilius Regulus had won the naval battle at Cape Ecnomus in the First Punic War before invading Africa. The following year his army was confronted at the mouth of the river Bagrada by a giant snake 120 ft (36 m) long. The animal seized soldiers with its mouth and crushed others with its tail. Spears proved useless. Only bombardment by catapults and with stones finally killed it. The snake’s skin was removed and sent to Rome, while the reek from the decaying body was so repulsive the Roman army camp had to be moved.

The role of naval ships at Actium made that occasion one of the most important and game-changing sea battles of all time. More often the Roman army turned the tide of history on dry land, and frequently in unedifying ways. With their shifting loyalties and willingness to be bought, Roman soldiers were often ready to join mutinies and rebellions that changed the course of history – especially once they discovered that an emperor was only as good as his word, while they were as good as their swords.

Navis lusoria

Alfred the Great’s Navy

The treaty with Guthrum gave Alfred the breathing space he needed to fortify and revitalize Wessex. As the last outpost of independent England, it was essential for Wessex to have an efficient military.

Alfred the Great reorganized Wessex’s army, keeping half of the men on duty at any given time. And although Alfred is famous as the father of the English Navy, kings before Alfred had used war ships. Nonetheless, recognizing that swift ships were just one more advantage the Vikings held over the English, Alfred brought over from Frisia (modern-day Holland) skilled shipwrights to build his new navy.

Guthrum gave Alfred seven years to rebuild his kingdom, but then the double-dealing Viking broke the treaty and invaded Wessex in 885 and laid siege to Rochester. But Alfred’s new military defensive measures worked. Mobilizing his standing army, his burh garrisons, and his navy, he broke the Danish siege easily, then sent his fleet up the River Thames to capture London.

In 886, after seventeen years of occupation under the Vikings, London was in English hands again. Alfred pressed his advantage by requiring, in a new treaty with Guthrum, that English Christians under Viking rule in the Danelaw enjoy the same legal protections as the settlers from Scandinavia; beaten and humiliated, Guthrum agreed. Four years later, Guthrum, apparently without giving Alfred any more trouble, died in Hadleigh.

The Invasions Continue

In spite of Guthrum’s defeat and death, the Vikings continued to mount sporadic raids on Alfred’s territory. But a serious invasion with eighty ships was mounted from France in 892, led by a Viking chief named Hastein who had been terrorizing the inhabitants of the Loire Valley. He ordered part of his force to disembark in Kent, then beached his ships at Benfleet in Essex. Danes from East Anglia and York joined Hastein’s army, but once again Alfred’s military proved its worth. The infantry harried the Vikings, while Alfred’s navy destroyed many of Hastein’s long ships in a battle off the coast of Devon in 893. After several more reverses on land, Hastein and most of his army retreated up the old Roman road, Wading Street, to Chester.

Bad luck pursued Hastein’s army for another three years. The Vikings abandoned Chester in 894 and invaded northern Wales, but the ferocious resistance of the Welshmen and the lack of supplies forced the Vikings to retreat. The next year they attempted to establish a base on the River Lea north of London, no doubt positioning themselves to take the city back from Alfred, but the English hit them so hard that the Vikings had to retreat for safety into the Danelaw, leaving their dragon ships behind. In 896, the Vikings were encamped along the Severn when Alfred attacked again. The Vikings scattered: Some went north to York, and others sailed back to France in hope of easier plunder.

Building a Navy

The decades of struggle between the Danish raiders and the people of Wessex, waxed and waned. Often defeated, sometimes victorious, it is recorded that Alfred remained resolute and positive and carried his army with him. They trusted him to lead them and followed his commands absolutely. He was a good strategist and it was during his reign that the building of ships to defeat the Danes before they made land, began.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us that Alfred ordered the ships to be built to oppose the ‘esks’, the Danish vessels. It appears that Alfred himself designed the ships, he wanted a ship that would be more efficient than the Danes. Longer, steadier, higher and swifter. Some had sixty oars or more.

It is worth reading the Anglo Saxon Chronicle at this point, as it explains quite clearly the events that led to the construction of King Alfred’s Navy

A.D. 897. In the summer of this year went the army, some into East-Anglia, and some into Northumbria; and those that were penniless got themselves ships, and went south over sea to the Seine. The enemy had not, thank God. entirely destroyed the English nation; but they were much more weakened in these three years by the disease of cattle, and most of all of men; so that many of the mightiest of the king’s thanes. that were in the land, died within the three years. Of these. one was Swithulf Bishop of Rochester, Ceolmund alderman in Kent, Bertulf alderman in Essex, Wulfred alderman in Hampshire, Elhard Bishop of Dorchester, Eadulf a king’s thane in Sussex, Bernuff governor of Winchester, and Egulf the king’s horse-thane; and many also with them; though I have named only the men of the highest rank. This same year the plunderers in East-Anglia and Northumbria greatly harassed the land of the West-Saxons by piracies on the southern coast, but most of all by the esks which they built many years before.

Then King Alfred gave orders for building long ships against the esks, which were full-nigh twice as long as the others. Some had sixty oars, some more; and they were both swifter and steadier, and also higher than the others.

They were not shaped either after the Frisian or the Danish model, but so as he himself thought that they might be most serviceable. Then, at a certain turn of this same year, came six of their ships to the Isle of Wight; and going into Devonshire, they did much mischief both there and everywhere on the seacoast. Then commanded the king his men to go out against them with nine of the new ships, and prevent their escape by the mouth of the river to the outer sea. Then came they out against them with three ships, and three others were standing upwards above the mouth on dry land: for the men were gone off upon shore. Of the first three ships they took two at the mouth outwards, and slew the men; the third veered off, but all the men were slain except five; and they too were severely wounded. Then came onward those who manned the other ships, which were also very uneasily situated. Three were stationed on that side of the deep where the Danish ships were aground, whilst the others were all on the opposite side; so that none of them could join the rest; for the water had ebbed many furlongs from them. Then went the Danes from their three ships to those other three that were on their side, be-ebbed; and there they then fought.

There were slain Lucomon, the king’s reve, and Wulfheard, a Frieslander; Ebb, a Frieslander, and Ethelere, a Frieslander; and Ethelferth, the king’s neat-herd; and of all the men, Frieslanders and English, sixty-two; of the Danes a hundred and twenty. The tide, however, reached the Danish ships ere the Christians could shove theirs out; whereupon they rowed them out; but they were so crippled, that they could not row them beyond the coast of Sussex: there two of them the sea drove ashore; and the crew were led to Winchester to the king, who ordered them to be hanged. The men who escaped in the single ship came to East-Anglia, severely wounded. This same year were lost no less than twenty ships, and the men withal, on the southern coast. Wulfric, the king’s horse-thane, who was also viceroy of Wales, died the same year.

It is thought that the boat yards would therefore have had to have been sufficiently close to Alfred’s household at Winchester, so that he could oversee the building of his ships. One of his yards was quite probably on the Itchen at Southampton, where succeeding monarchs also built ships.

The great forests of Hampshire would have yielded plenty of wood for the construction of the ships and the mouth of the Itchen an excellent launching site.

In AD897 King Alfred’s Navy was put to the test, when a fleet of Danish boats sailed up the Solent. Alfred’s ships sailed out to confront them and a major battle ensued with great losses on both sides. The Danes were eventually defeated and those captured taken to Winchester where Alfred had them hung as pirates.

The Seventeenth Century Iberian Navies

A Van de Velde drawing of a Spanish two-decker of 1664.


Although the ‘Decline of Spain’ in the seventeenth century has been exaggerated by many historians, the Spanish armada that served Kings Philip IV and Carlos II was plainly no longer the formidable instrument that had served their predecessors, and it suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Dutch in the Downs in 1639. Spain’s severe financial problems meant that it sometimes struggled to get an effective fleet to sea: in 1644 it planned for a fleet of thirty ships, costing over 1,150,000 ducats, and ended up with none, while in the 1660s it usually budgeted for only about twenty to forty ships in service every year. Spain had four permanent galley squadrons in the Mediterranean, one based at various ports on the Iberian Peninsula itself and the others at Naples, Sicily and Genoa. These declined in strength during the seventeenth century, and each contained about half a dozen vessels by the 1650s and 1660s. Spain also maintained a separate ‘Armada of Flanders’ in the North Sea. This was forced to move to Spain in the 1640s when its base at Dunkirk was lost, but the subsequent recapture of that port led to a revival both of the Armada and of the Dunkirk privateers that had wreaked havoc earlier in the century. These ships made serious depredations against English coastal shipping in the mid-1650s, when perhaps 500 merchant ships were captured, but the final loss of Dunkirk in 1658 effectively ended the careers of both the privateers and the ‘Armada of Flanders’. The latter survived in name alone, based at Ostend, but by the late 1660s it consisted of just one ship. Responsibility for naval administration was divided between several departments of state. The Council of War had responsibility for the Iberian Peninsula itself, and this had a sub-committee, the Junta de Armadas, which ran the Atlantic fleet, and another, the Junta de Galeras, which ran the galleys. The Junta de Guerra de Indias had responsibility for the Indies fleet.

During the first half of the seventeenth century Spanish naval administrators and shipbuilders engaged in a long debate about the relative merits of beam and bulk on the one hand, fine lines and speed on the other. By the 1650s this had effectively been resolved (as it was in Britain) into a preference for larger, beamier ships that would be more effective gun platforms. The vast Nuestra Señora de la Concepción of 1,500 tons was launched at Pasajes in 1656, and several ships of 700–1,000 tons were launched in the 1660s, most of them built by Miguel de Oquendo at Usúrbil. Other ships were built in Spanish overseas possessions, notably at Havana, where the shipbuilders could exploit local hardwoods. Because they were intended to operate on the high seas, the largest Spanish ships were more heavily built but also more lightly armed than their British equivalents. They also seem to have retained ‘catwalks’ for quarter-galleries long after the fashion died out in other European navies.

Lower naval administration, and victualling in particular, was undertaken by an elaborate hierarchy of officials known as veedors, proveedors, contadors and pagadors. The process of victualling was particularly problematic in Spain, where transport from the interior to the ports was often long and difficult, and which experienced many years of dearth during the seventeenth century. Recruitment, too, was a recurring problem. Unlike their British counterparts, Spanish seamen were almost all pressed, which ensured that desertion was endemic. Consequently, ships were rarely docked or repaired, to minimise the opportunities for desertion, but this inevitably had an adverse effect on their seaworthiness and lifespan. There were many exemptions, and independently minded provinces resisted the press ferociously. Shortfalls were common, though these were made up to some extent by the recruitment of foreigners from France, Genoa and especially Ragusa. Commissioned officers were drawn largely from the ranks of the nobility, and many were soldiers; indeed, the Spanish navy had a parallel hierarchy of officers for soldiers and seamen, and it was usually soldiers who were appointed capitán de maryguerra, the captain of the ship. The highest office of all, that of captain-general of the Armada del Mar Océano, invariably went to aristocrats, such as Francisco de la Cueva, eighth Duke of Albuquerque, a former cavalry general and colonial viceroy who commanded the armada in 1662–4. Nevertheless, a few career seamen still made it to high command.

Britain was at war with Spain from 1654 until 1660. The Restoration brought a de facto cessation of hostilities in European waters, if not in the West Indies, where intermittent fighting continued until at least 1663. British support for Portugal in its war of independence, which lasted until 1668, kept relations strained, but they improved in the 1670s and 1680s, when Cadiz and Gibraltar were often used as bases for ships operating against the Barbary corsairs. But tensions occasionally resurfaced, and there were a number of tetchy disputes over the exchange of salutes between British ships and Spanish fleets or ports. Admiral Arthur Herbert had a number of clashes with the authorities at Cadiz, and in the early 1680s Captains Matthew Aylmer and Cloudesley Shovell were both forced to salute Spanish fleets.


Portugal nominally regained her independence from Spain in 1640, when a national revolt led to the proclamation of the Duke of Braganza as King John IV. A war of independence continued until 1668, but Portugal had already re-established itself as a major naval power. In 1650 its navy consisted of thirty-three warships of some 26,000 tons, a force comparable in size to those of Sweden, Denmark and even France. Thereafter it declined in size, until by 1690 it had only 11,000 tons of shipping; a major building programme in the decades that followed rectified the situation. The administration of the navy was controlled closely by the crown, and the service operated both warships for service in the Atlantic and large transport vessels for voyages to the East Indies. Portugal’s extensive overseas commitments (Brazil was recovered from Spain in 1654) meant that its naval resources were severely stretched, though in 1662 two colonies, Tangier and Bombay, were transferred to England in return for ongoing military assistance against the Spanish. Lisbon was often used by British warships for refitting, cleaning and replenishing stores and as a port of call for ships in transit to or from the Mediterranean. At least one Englishman commanded a Portuguese warship in this period: Jacob Reynolds, a Londoner, who was captain of the St Luis in 1661.