Submarine Rescue

The US Navy’s Mystic docked to a Los Angeles class attack submarine.

Rescue operations and escapes from sunken submarines have made up an important part of this history of underwater disaster, and rightly so. For it is man’s steadfast fortitude in the face of impossible odds that gives purpose to what would otherwise be no more than a macabre catalogue of material and human destruction.

Until 1939 the United States had, in general, adopted escape routines similar to those employed by the Royal Navy with the emphasis on individual survival. But the success of the Squalus rescue turned thoughts towards multiple escapes with the aid of externally controlled diving bells. And this aspect of underwater survival was given additional impetus in the post-war period with the advent of nuclear-powered vessels and the greater depths at which they are designed to operate. Development, however, was slow. And it was only after a major disaster that the necessary funds were made available.

Within days of the Thresher tragedy a Deep Submergence Systems Review Group was set up to assess the situation and it was given a generous five-year period in which to come up with the answer. Its brief was to ‘develop a deep-submergence rescue vehicle (DSRV) which could operate below the collapse depth of our fleet submarines and which could search for and rescue surviving personnel.’

The value of the bathyscaphe Trieste had already been recognized a number of years before the Thresher went down and the US Navy had purchased the vessel from Professor Auguste Piccard in 1957. Its potential was vividly illustrated in 1960 when it reached a depth of 35,800 feet in the Challenger Deep in the Marianas and it was clear that the new DSRV must be based on a combination of the bathyscaphe and the McCann rescue-bell. By 1966 the Review Group’s plans had matured sufficiently for orders to be placed with Lockheed for the first two Deep Submergence Rescue Vessels. DSRV-1 was laid down on 24 January, 1970.

On delivery in August, 1971, it was found that DSRV-1 had cost a staggering $41,000,000 to develop and it was small consolation that DSRV-2, completed the following year, had halved this prodigious expenditure to a mere $23,000,000. Both vessels carry a crew of three and are capable of lifting twenty-four survivors on each ascent. Like the McCann bell the DSRV seats itself onto a special escape hatch on the submarine’s hull and, thanks to improvements in technology, a watertight coupling can be obtained with the sunken boat listing up to 45° from the horizontal.

The two prototype DSRVs weigh 35 tons, have an overall length of 49.2 feet, and diameter of 8 feet. Their conventional cigar-shaped appearance is misleading, for the onlooker sees only the outer shell. Inside this fibreglass casing are three interconnected spheres made from HY-140 steel which contain the operating crew, the rescue chamber and airlock, and the passenger space. Using a combinatior of propellers and thrusters the vessels can made a 5-knot maximum on their special electric motors and have a diving endurance of 12 hours at 3 knots. Their depth limit is stated to be 5,000 feet.

Unlike the McCann rescue diving-bell, which has itself been updated and can now accommodate eight survivors from a maximum depth of 800 feet, the DSRV is launched from a submerged mother submarine and survivors are transshipped to the parent vessel under water instead of being returned directly to the surface. Both launching and recovery take place at approximately 500 feet but the technical thinking behind this rather unusual system of operation is not known.

It was planned to put six DSRVs into service and they were to be supported by three mother-ships – the submarines Halibut, Finback, and Hawkbill. Two DSRVs were to be based at each of San Diego, Charleston and New London and, in the event of a Subsunk emergency, one vessel would be flown to the mothership nearest to the disaster in a giant Lockheed C-5 jet cargo aircraft backed by a specialized road transport unit.

But despite the grandiose programme set out by the Deep Submergence Systems Review Group only two of the original DSRVs, now named Mystic and Avalon, were built and nothing more has been heard of the other projected units. One reason for this failure to construct any further DSRVs was officially attributed to a cost over-run of 1,500%. Sceptics, however, questioned the value of the DSRV on other grounds, pointing out that as they were intended to operate below the crushing depth of the crippled submarine there were unlikely to be any survivors still alive to be rescued. However, within the limits of safe submergence, that is to say where the hull of the submarine remains intact, there is little doubt that the DSRV will prove to be a useful rescue vehicle, especially at depths below 800 feet, the maximum safe diving limit of the latest McCann-type rescue bell.

As it happens there have been no disasters in recent years to test the practical viability of the DSRV under operational conditions, but in September, 1986, Mystic took part in an exercise off Stavanger during which she evacuated a substantial number of ‘survivors’ from an American submarine as it lay ‘disabled’ on the floor of the Norwegian Sea. The exercise, which included a piggyback ride to the rescue zone by the Mystic clamped to the outer casing of the submarine Billfish, proved a complete success. As similar exercises now take place on a regular basis and include both American and NATO naval forces the prognosis for survival in the event of a major underwater accident is decidedly better than it was even a decade ago.

Until the recent establishment of the UK Submarine Rescue Service the Royal Navy continued to put its trust in the free-escape system and the collapsible twill trunk which, it will be recalled, Ruck-Keene had wanted to scrap nearly fifty years ago. As this history of underwater disasters has demonstrated it is a system that has had both successes and failures. But instruction in free escape procedures still remains an important and integral part of the submarine training programme at Fort Blockhouse where every prospective submariner is required to make a free ascent in the escape tank that forms such a prominent feature of the Gosport landscape. Training is for real and, although all possible safety precautions are taken, the occasional tragic accident still occurs. And even as these words are being written British newspapers are carrying reports of a fatality during a routine underwater escape simulation in the Fort Blockhouse training tank.*

Immersion suits have been updated in design and remain standard issue, and it is interesting to note that Britain’s first nuclear submarine, Dreadnought, was designed to incorporate one-man escape chambers similar in concept to those suggested by the Ruck-Keene Committee back in 1946. Clearly, even at that time, individual escape was still the Admiralty’s preferred policy in the event of an underwater accident.

Until recently the only significant change in the Royal Navy’s approach to submarine survival was the switch to BIBS – Built-in Breathing System – similar in principle to Momsen’s pre-war central oxygen manifold pioneered by the US Navy. This obviates the necessity for individual breathing apparatus and is intended for use during the dangerous flooding-up period. A mixture composed of 60% oxygen and 40% nitrogen is fed into the central manifold from pressurised cylinders and survivors can draw their requirements through flexible rubber mouthpieces. A demand valve ensures that the mixture is not wasted and there is also provision to tap into the manifold for the inflation of life-jackets.

But despite the elaborate equipment and the rigorous training that goes with it, the free-escape method is of doubtful utility at depths approaching 300 feet. And it needs hardly be added that most nuclear submarines habitually operate a depths far below 300 feet.

The Royal Navy, however, is now following in the footsteps of its American cousin and since 1983 has retained on permenant contract a manned submersible, LR5, owned by a commercial company, Cable & Wireless Marine, with technological backing from another private concern, Rumic Ltd. LR5 is 9.8 metres in length and has a beam of 3 metres. Its pressure hull is constructed from glass-reinforced plastic and it is powered by a 10 HP 120-volt DC motor with an endurance range of six to ten hours and a maximum speed of two knots. The vessel’s four-man crew are all civilian specialists.

LR5 is intended to form an integral part of the NATO submarine rescue organization and may find itself working alongside the Italian mini-submersible MSM1 or one of the American DSRVs. In addition to this manned submersible the Royal Navy also owns and operates Scorpio 45, a remotely controlled unmanned underwater vehicle whose primary function is to carry out television and video surveys of a sunken submarine and to transfer life-support stores and equipment to survivors via the boat’s escape hatch. Such stores would include oxygen candles and carbon-dioxide absorbant to keep the air inside the submarine breathable for the duration of the rescue operation.

The Royal Navy’s Submarine Escape and Rescue Project only came into being in 1992 and at this early stage it is not possible to provide a detailed account of its work. Its stated purpose is to support the Flag Officer Submarines and the Submarine Escape Training Tank at Fort Blockhouse (HMS Dolphin); to provide rescue facilities and develop escape and rescue equipment; and to act as the focal point for all operational and material aspects of submarine rescue. Suffice it to say that the establishment of such a service by the Ministry of Defence Support Command demonstrates that the authorities now recognize the need for instant response and the application of advanced technology in the pursuit of submarine safety. And so far as the Royal Navy and NATO are concerned it augers well for the future.

Before closing this review of the latest developments it must be added that several other navies are now organizing search and rescue systems on the lines of those being pioneered by Britain and the United States. Italy, as befits the nation that first created the mini-submarine and the human torpedo, has its own submersible MSM1; Russia and Japan are both building their own DSRVs; while Korea is procuring an LR5K from Britain. Australia, Libya, Finland, Pakistan and Taiwan are all in the process of acquiring some form of underwater rescue vehicle in the near future.


Despite the end of the Cold War there are still some 30,000 men living and working beneath the surface of the sea every hour of the day and night as the submarines of the world’s navies ply their lawful occasions. At this precise moment submarines are cruising beneath the icecaps of the North Pole seeking each other out in a monstrous game of hide-and-seek. Others are stalking the depths of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans ready to release their megaton missiles on receipt of a coded signal from Washington, Moscow, London, Paris and, in all probability, Beijing. Still more are nosing the warm waters of the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, patrolling the coastlines of Latin America, guarding the shipping routes of southern Africa, moving stealthily through the China Sea and carefully quartering the vast wastes of the Indian Ocean.

All, regardless of nationality, run the same risks of death and disaster. For the submariner of 1995 shares the self-same dangers as the submariner of 1905. And like his predecessors in history he carries out his duties with the same dedicated vigilance remembering always that ‘a trifling mistake can be a possible cause of serious danger’.

In the words of the old naval prayer: Deliver us, O Lord, from the perils of the sea and the violence of the enemy. As we recall the disasters of the past let us all say a fervent amen to that.


380/45 Model 1935 gun

The Richelieu was a French battleship launched in 1939; this one and her twin Jean Bart were built as a response to the Italian Littorio class and conceived …

The 380/45 Model 1935 gun was the most powerful ever mounted in a French battleship. It was a built-up gun similar in construction to the 330/52 fitted in Dunkerque and Strasbourg. Published drawings show an A tube and loose liner inside a double row of overlapping hoops at the breech end.6 Later guns had fewer components (see schematic drawing and caption). The configuration and operation of the Welin interrupted screw breech block were essentially unchanged from the 330/52.

The 380mm Mle 1936 APC7 shell weighed 884kg and had an initial velocity of 830m/s. The ballistic cap housed a dye bag which served to colour the shell splashes in order to facilitate spotting when operating in company with other ships; a small burster and nose fuze ensured dispersion.8 The shells supplied to Richelieu contained a yellow dye; Jean Bart was assigned orange.

The quadruple turret was designed by Saint Chamond and was a development of the earlier 330mm model, the principal difference being that conical rollers were used in place of ball bearings for training. Like the 330mm turret, it was divided into two separate gunhouses by a central bulkhead, which in the Richelieu class was increased to 45mm thickness. The guns were in pairs, and although each gun was in a separate cradle the relative movement of the guns in each pair was again limited. The guns could be loaded at any angle, and the maximum angle of elevation was 35 degrees, at which the 380mm Mle 1935 had a theoretical range of 41,500 metres. Training and elevation were powered by Léonard circuit electric motors with hydraulic drive, each pair of guns having a single elevating motor with individual drive gear. RPC was to have been fitted for both training and elevation; however, the failure of the Sautter-Harlé-Blondel system fitted in Dunkerque and Strasbourg (see p.40) resulted in a loss of confidence in the application of this technology to heavy armoured turrets, and it was never fitted.

The magazine layout and the loading/replenishment arrangements were modelled on those of the 330mm turrets (see drawings). A total of 832 AP shells were provided – slightly fewer than in Dunkerque and Strasbourg (896 rounds). As with the 330/52 gun, the propellant charges were in quarters, which for a gun of this calibre made them unusually heavy. The overall replenishment cycle proved slower than anticipated, and during gunnery trials in spring 1940 the big guns achieved a rate of fire of only 1.3 rounds per minute.

French gun construction

The construction of the French 330/52 and 380/45 guns was a mixture of modern and traditional methods. The guns were of built-up construction, with complicated assembly and many more component parts than contemporary British and US major-calibre guns. They were built by the Fonderies de Ruelle, the establishment near Angoulême responsible for the design and construction of all French naval guns and shells.

Early French naval guns dating from before the Great War were built up using large numbers of ringshaped hoops for strength to compensate for the inferior steels available – the special (HLE) steels had elasticity values of only 35-45 per cent, well below those available to the other major navies, which meant that the gun could withstand a maximum internal pressure of only 2700kg/cm2. It was a French engineer, Malaval, who in 1912 proposed auto-fretting as a means of increasing the strength of the barrel while reducing the number of component parts. During the assembly process the hoops were heated to high temperatures, slipped over the gun tube and allowed to cool. As they cooled they contracted, until at the end of the process they were squeezing the gun tube inside with a pressure of many thousands of kilos per square centimetre. By using this ‘pre-stressing’ technique it was possible to make a gun barrel more resistant to internal pressure. An experimental 100mm gun built using these techniques was found to be able to sustain an internal pressure of 5000kg/cm2.

All French naval guns built from 1922 were autofretted, and improvements in the quality of French high-tensile steels (to 60-70 per cent elasticity) made possible further reductions in the number of components.

A document recently discovered at the Archives de l’Armement at Châtellerault makes it clear that there were two variants of the 380/45 gun:

– a Mle 1935 C/35 with 31 components: an A tube, a breech bush, twenty hoops, a breech ring, four tubes to the muzzle ending in the muzzle bush, and a locking ring. The ‘stepped’ loose liner with the rifling was held in place by a ring screwed into the breech end of the A tube.

– a Mle 1936 C/35 with only 20 components: the number of hoops was reduced from twenty to ten and the number of tubes to the muzzle from four to three.

The Welin ‘interrupted screw’ breech block opened upwards automatically when the gun ran out. It was hydro-pneumatically powered and was balanced by counterweights. Opening and closing times are given as 3.5 seconds. An automatic lock with a magazine for ten electric tubes was fitted.

The propellant charges were in quarters, and both the dredger hoist cages and the upper cage hoists had three compartments, each of the upper two housing a pair of charges with the Mle 1936 shell in the lower compartment. The guide rails for the upper cage hoists had a distinctive curved profile to enable loading to take place at any angle of elevation, the electric chain rammers being carried on an extension from each of the gun cradles. (In practice, the guns were generally reloaded at 15 degrees elevation to avoid the shell becoming jammed in the breech when the other guns were fired.) Maximum elevation for the gun was 35 degrees. A spanning tray to protect the screw threads of the breech cavity ran in and out automatically, and the complete ramming time was 13.5 seconds.

The magazines and shells rooms for each pair of guns were on the same deck at opposite sides of the barbette, with those for the left-sided pair on the reinforced (30mm) inner bottom and for the right-sided pair on the deck directly above. Ammunition was fed by a shell and cartridge ring to a dredger hoist, one for each pair of guns. The hoist serving the lower level had two extra cages to compensate for the longer transit time.

When the dredger hoist cage arrived at the working chamber the shells and charges were transferred laterally to waiting positions directly beneath the guns, and were then transferred using rammers to the corresponding gun loading cage of the upper hoists, of which there was one serving each gun.

United States Civil War (1861-1865) – Naval Warfare II

USS Kearsarge

On 19 June 1864, one of the most famous nineteenth-century naval battles occurred, but on the other side of the Atlantic. By the spring of 1864 the Alabama had traveled an incredible 75,000 miles over nearly two years and was in need of repair. On 11 June the Alabama arrived at Cherbourg, France. Her captain, Raphael Semmes, hoped he might be able to use French government repair facilities for an overhaul. While Semmes waited for official word, the Union screw steam sloop Kearsarge under Captain John A. Winslow arrived. The two ships were nearly equally matched, and Semmes decided to do battle. In the ensuing fight the Alabama succumbed to superior Union gunnery. In October the Florida was also taken, in violation of Brazilian neutrality.

The Union navy, meanwhile, was capturing the remaining Confederate seaboard ports. Early on the morning of 5 August 1864, Rear Admiral Farragut led 18 ships against the heavy Confederate defenses guarding Mobile Bay, Alabama, in the process securing the surrender of the powerful CSS Tennessee. For all practical purposes, this battle ended blockade-running in the gulf.

Along the South Atlantic coast the Confederate ironclad ram Albemarle for months dominated the North Carolina sounds. In April 1864 she sank one Union gunboat, and in May she dispersed a squadron of seven Union gunboats. The ram was a considerable threat to Union coastal operations, but in a daring boat expedition up the Roanoke River in October, young Lieutenant William B. Cushing sank the ram with a spar torpedo.

Wilmington, North Carolina, was now the last remaining principal Confederate port for blockade-runners and a main overseas supply link for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. With the Albemarle disposed of, aggressive Vice Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the largest number of ships in U. S. Navy history to this point, moved against Wilmington in conjunction with a sea lift of troops. One attack at the end of December failed, but a second in mid-January was successful.

On land new Union general in chief Grant accompanied his field army as it drove south toward Richmond in 1864. Lee parried Grant’s blows and inflicted casualties equivalent to the size of his own force, but his forces never recovered from the relentless Union attacks. Grant sought to get in behind Lee at Petersburg south of Richmond, but Lee was too quick for him and the two sides settled down to a long siege.

As Grant attempted to take Richmond and destroy Lee, Major General William T. Sherman took Atlanta and then drove east to the sea, cutting a swath of destruction through Georgia to Savannah. He then turned north through the Carolinas to join Grant. Lee then broke out of Petersburg and attempted to escape west. Cornered at Appomattox Court House, he surrendered on 9 April 1865. Some Confederate ground units held out for weeks, and the Confederate raider Shenandoah continued her depredations against the Union whaling fleet until the end of June, but the war was over and America soon disarmed. The U. S. Army went from 1,000,000 men under arms at Appomattox to only 25,000 by the end of 1866. In January 1865 U. S. Navy blockading squadrons had 471 ships mounting 2,455 guns; by December they numbered 29 ships carrying 210 guns.

Albemarle (Confederate Navy, Ironclad, 1864)
Confederate ironclad ram during the 1861-1865 U. S. Civil War, one of a number of powerful Confederate ironclad casemated vessels. The Albemarle was the first of a two-ship class constructed by Gilbert Elliot at Edward’s Ferry on the Roanoke River, the other being the Neuse. Laid down in April 1863, the Albemarle was launched in July and commissioned in April 1864. She was some 376 tons, 139′ between perpendiculars (152′ overall length) x 34′ x 9′, was driven by two screws from two steam engines with 400 horsepower, and could make in excess of 4 knots. She had a crew complement of 150 men. Armed with only 2 x 6.4-inch rifled guns, she had 6-inch armor. Damaged at launch, she was taken to Halifax, North Carolina, for repairs and completion.

The Albemarle was finished in time to participate in a Confederate Army assault led by General Robert F. Hoke on the Union blockading base at Plymouth, North Carolina. Early on the morning of 19 April 1864, the Albemarle attacked and sank one Union gunboat, the Southfield, and drove off another. She now controlled the water approaches to Plymouth and could provide valuable assistance to Confederate Army moves ashore. In the afternoon of 5 May, accompanied by the gunboats Bombshell and Cotton Plant, she engaged a squadron of seven Union gunboats off the mouth of the Roanoke River. The Bombshell was captured early in the action and the Cotton Plant withdrew up the Roanoke. The Albemarle continued the action alone, disabling the USS Sassacus. Fighting continued for some three hours until darkness halted the action.

The Albemarle posed a great threat to Union coastal operations because her shallow draft enabled her to escape the larger Union ocean-going ships, and she easily outgunned smaller Union coastal craft. For months she dominated the North Carolina sounds. On the night of 27 October 1864, 21-year-old Lieutenant William B. Cushing sank the Albemarle at her berth, using a spar torpedo mounted on a steam launch. Destruction of the Albemarle enabled Union forces to capture Plymouth and gain control of the entire Roanoke River area. It also released Union ships stationed there for other blockade duties.

Very low freeboard, mastless, turreted coastal ironclads developed in the U. S. Navy during the 1861- 1865 U. S. Civil War. Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson’s monitors were utterly unlike any previous U. S. warship. Captain Cowper Coles of the British navy, however, had designed and had built two mastless, coastal ironclads that actually preceded the Monitor. Further, Coles’s ship design and turret technology were superior to those of Ericsson. Ericsson’s turret rotated on a spindle and was thus liable to jam, but Coles’s rested on rollers below the waterline and rotated freely. Further, the first Monitor and its initial follow-on class had a unique “raft” upper body that worked water through the joint with the underwater hull, a fault that doomed the original Monitor during a moderate gale. Finally, U. S. armorclads were protected by laminated 2-inch thick plates; U. S. mills could roll nothing thicker. By contrast, British mills at the time could manufacture plates of up to 6 inches.

The Monitor’s ability to hold her own against CSS Virginia in the first ironclad-to-ironclad clash in history, the 9 March 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads, caused the U. S. Navy to contract quickly for some 55 ironclads along her lines. The first, the Passaic-class, numbered no less than ten units and were the first ironclads anywhere to have more than two built from one set of plans. They were awkwardly armed with one 11-inch and one 15-inch Dahlgren smoothbores (SBs). The Passaics were followed by nine Canonicus-class monitors, distinguishable by the removal of the objectionable upper-deck overhang and an armament of two matching 15-inch smoothbores.

Roanoke (2 x 15-inch SB; 2 x 11-inch SB; 2 x 150-pounder Parrot rifles), a cut-down wooden sloop, mounted no fewer than three turrets. But this top weight was too much for the wooden hull, and Roanoke was limited to harbor defense duties at New York. Large, iron-hulled, twin-turreted Onondaga mounted one 15-inch smoothbore and one 150-pounder Parrott rifle in each turret and served as a powerful deterrent to Confederate ironclads on the James River. None of the later large Union monitors, iron-built Dictator and timber-constructed Monadnock, Agamenticus, Miantonomah, and Tonawanda, saw battle.

Eminent engineer James Eads designed four whale-back, double-turreted monitors of the Milwaukee-class, a hybrid design featuring one turret on Ericsson’s system and the other on Eads’s unique design (4 x 11-inch SBs), in which the guns’ recoil would actually drop the entire turret floor below the waterline, where the ordnance could be safely reloaded, then elevated and run out by steam power.

Two single-turret monitors designed by Eads for work on Western rivers, Osage and Neosho (2 x 11-inch SBs), were unique as the world’s only paddle-wheel monitors. A slightly different version, Ozark (2 x 15-inch SBs), was screw propelled.

The Union Civil War ironclad program ended on a note of farce with the 20 light-draft Casco Monitor class. Ericsson drew the original plans, but they were greatly modified by Inspector of Ironclads Alban Stimers. All drew far more water than designed and proved useless.

Timberclad (U. S. Navy, Ships, 1861)
Early Civil War warships, part of the river navy created by the U. S. government to fight on the inland waters in the West. Commander John Rodgers was sent to the western theater with instructions to secure such a force. By 8 June 1861 he had negotiated contracts to buy and convert three wooden side-wheel freight-and-passenger Ohio River steamers into gunboats. These were the Tyler (four years old and weighing 420 tons), the Lexington (one year old and weighing 362 tons), and the Conestoga (two years old and weighing 572 tons). Their conversion was carried out at Louisville, Kentucky, by the Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company of Cincinnati.

The three were paid for and under the control of the War Department. Commanded by navy officers, they were later controlled by the navy. The steamers were reinforced to enable them to carry heavy guns, and 5-inch-thick oak was installed to provide protection against rifle fire. This resulted in their being known as “timberclads.”

The three gunboats arrived at their base at Cairo, Illinois, in mid-August 1861, and were soon in service. On commissioning, the Conestoga mounted 4 x 32-pounders; the Lexington had 2 x 32-pounders and 4 x 64-pounders (8-inch shells); and the Tyler had 1 x 32-pounders in the stern and 6 x 64-pounders (8-inch shells) in broadside.

USS Tyler Gunboat

The three gunboats were an effective stopgap measure until new ironclads could be brought into service. They saw useful service in battles and operations along the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi Rivers. The Conestoga was lost in a collision in March 1864; the other two survived the war and were sold in August 1865.

USS Pittsburgh (1862-1865) stern wheeler, ironclad gunboat.

A steam-powered vessel driven by a stern-mounted paddle wheel and developed primarily for inland waterway systems. Until eclipsed by the railroad, the stern-wheeler, along with the side-wheeler, represented a near revolution in inland transportation. Inland river systems have numerous hazards to navigation, including shallow depth, swift currents and rapids, sandbars, underwater snags, seasonal changes in water depth, rocks, and twisting channels. The stern-wheeled riverboat with a shallow draft, flat bottom, and narrow beam, driven by a high-pressure steam engine, made river shipping and travel not only regular but relatively swift.

Stern-wheelers had four key advantages over side-wheeled vessels: They drew much less water, had less beam for superior maneuverability on smaller waterways, and were quicker and cheaper to build. Although often associated with the trans-Appalachian American West and rivers such as the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Columbia, stern-wheelers were reliable vessels for both freight and passenger service throughout much of the world. In the United States the 1850s were the “Golden Age” of the stern-wheelers in terms of speed, quality, and grandeur.

As naval vessels during the American Civil War, stern-wheelers and side-wheelers played a key role in the Union successes of the western campaigns. Besides serving as gunboats, the river fleets served as troop transports and munitions carriers. They ferried wounded and prisoners of war in addition to carrying food and forage for the field armies.

Mediterranean Lords and Merchants 13-14th Centuries

By the end of the thirteenth century Catalan ships had a good reputation for safety and reliability; if a merchant was in search of a ship in, say, Palermo on which to load his goods, he knew he would do well to choose a Catalan vessel, such as the substantial Sanctus Franciscus, owned by Mateu Oliverdar, which was there during 1298.28 Whereas the Genoese liked to divide up the ownership of their boats, the Catalans often owned a large ship outright. They rented out space to Tuscan wheat merchants or slave dealers, and sought out rich merchants who might be willing to lease all or part of the ship. The shipowners and merchants of Barcelona and Majorca inveigled themselves into the places where the Italians had long been dominant. In the 1270s, the middle-class widow Maria de Malla, from Barcelona, was trading with Constantinople and the Aegean, sending out her sons to bring back mastic (much valued as chewing-gum); she exported fine cloths to the East, including linens from Châlons in northern France. The great speciality of the de Malla family was the trade in furs, including those of wolves and foxes.30 The Catalans were granted the right to establish fonduks governed by their own consuls in Tunis, Bougie and other North African towns. There were big profits to be made from the overseas consulates. James I was outraged when he discovered in 1259 how low was the rent paid to him by the Catalan consul in Tunis. He promptly tripled it. Another focus of Catalan penetration was Alexandria; in the 1290s the de Mallas were seeking linseed and pepper there. In the fourteenth century, King James II of Aragon tried to persuade the sultan of Egypt to grant him protective authority over some of the Christian holy places in Palestine, and the sultan promised him relics of Christ’s Passion if he would send ‘large ships containing plenty of goods’. The papacy, with the outward support of the king of Aragon, attempted to ban the lively trade of the Catalans and Italians in Egypt; those who traded with the Muslim enemy were to be excommunicated. But the king ensured that two Catalan abbots were to hand who could absolve merchants trading with Egypt, subject to payment of a swingeing fine. These fines developed into a tax on trade, and produced handsome revenues: in 1302 fines on trade with Alexandria accounted for nearly half the king’s recorded revenues from Catalonia.

Far from suppressing the trade, the Aragonese kings became complicit in it.

Naturally the Catalans wanted to challenge the Italian monopoly over the spice trade to the East. Yet their real strength lay in the network they created in the western Mediterranean. Catalans, Pisans and Genoese jostled in the streets of the spacious foreign quarter of Tunis, a concessionary area full of fonduks, taverns and churches. Access to the ports of North Africa meant access to the gold-bearing routes across the Sahara; into these lands, the Catalans brought linen and woollen cloths from Flanders and northern France and, as their own textile industry expanded after 1300, fine cloths from Barcelona and Lleida. They brought salt too, which was plentiful in Catalan Ibiza, and in southern Sardinia and western Sicily, but was in short supply in the deserts to the south, and was sometimes used there as a currency in its own right. As thirteenth-century Barcelona began to boom, they ensured that there were sufficient food supplies for a growing city. Sicily early became the focus of their trade in wheat, carried in big, round, bulky ships, and they were so successful that as early as the 1260s they began to supply other parts of the Mediterranean with Sicilian wheat: Tunis, which had never recovered from the devastation of the North African countryside by Arab tribes in the eleventh century; Genoa and Pisa, which might have been expected to look after their own supplies; the towns of Provence. A business contract of the late 1280s simply demanded that the ship Bonaventura, recently in the port of Palermo, should sail to Agrigento where it was to be filled up with ‘as great a quantity of wheat as the said ship can take and carry’.

The Catalans specialized in another important cargo: slaves. These were variously described as ‘black’, ‘olive’ or ‘white’, and were generally Muslim captives from North Africa. They were put on sale in Majorca, Palermo and Valencia, and sent to perform domestic work in the households of their Catalan and Italian owners. In 1287 the king of Aragon decided that the Minorcans were guilty of treachery, declared the surrender treaty of 1231 void and invaded the island, enslaving the entire population, which was dispersed across the Mediterranean – for a time there was a glut in the slave market. The luckier and better-connected slaves would be ransomed by co-religionists – Muslims, Jews and Christians all set aside funds for the ransoming of their brethren, and the two religious orders of the Trinitarians and Mercedarians, well represented in Catalonia and Provence, specialized in ransoming Christians who had fallen into Muslim hands. The image of the young woman plucked off the shores of southern France by Saracen raiders was a stock theme in medieval romance, but the Catalans were perfectly ready to respond in kind; they muscled into the Mediterranean trade networks through piracy as well as honest business.

Meanwhile, Majorcan ships kept up a constant flow of traffic towards North Africa and Spain. A remarkable series of licences issued to sailors intending to leave Majorca in 1284 reveals that ships set off from the island almost every day of the year, even in the depths of January, and there was no close season, even if business was livelier in warmer months. Some of these ships were small vessels called barques, crewed by fewer than a dozen men, able to slip quickly across to mainland Spain time and again. More typical was the larger leny, literally ‘wood’; lenys were well suited to the slightly longer run across open water towards North Africa. The Majorcans were pioneers, too. In 1281 two Genoese ships and one Majorcan vessel reached the port of London, where the Majorcan ship loaded 267 sacks of fine English wool, and the Majorcans continued to trade regularly with England well into the fourteenth century. The Phoenicians had never had much difficulty in escaping through the Straits of Gibraltar, bound for Tartessos, but medieval ships battled with the incoming flow from the Atlantic and the fogs and contrary winds between Gibraltar and Ceuta. They also battled, literally, with the rulers of the facing shores – Marinid Berbers in Morocco, the Nasrid rulers of Granada in southern Spain. These were not hospitable waters, and the opening of the sea route out of the Mediterranean was as much a diplomatic as a technical triumph. Raw wool and Flemish textiles could now be brought directly and relatively cheaply from the north straight into the Mediterranean, bound for the workshops of Florence, Barcelona and other cities where the wool was processed and the textiles were finished. Alum, the fixative most easily obtained from Phokaia on the coast of Asia Minor, could be ferried to cloth workshops in Bruges, Ghent and Ypres, avoiding the costly and tedious trek by road and river through eastern France or Germany. The navigation of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic began slowly to be tied together, even if there were constant crises, and Catalan war fleets often patrolled the Straits. By the early fourteenth century, Mediterranean shipbuilders were imitating the broad, round shape of the northern cogs, big cargo vessels that tramped the Baltic and the North Sea – they even adopted the name, cocka. Down the coast of Morocco, too, Catalan and Genoese ships found markets full of the grain they craved, where the inhabitants were keen to acquire Italian and Catalan textiles; by the 1340s these boats had penetrated as far as the Canary Islands, which the Majorcans tried (and failed) to conquer.

Predictably, the Majorcan merchants, subject to their own king after 1276, decided they wanted their own consuls and fonduks. This was one of many sources of tension between the two brothers, Peter of Aragon and James of Majorca, who divided up James I’s realms. Sailors and merchants were not slow to exploit these tensions. In 1299 a scoundrel named Pere de Grau, who owned a ship, was accused of stealing a tool box from a Genoese carpenter in the western Sicilian port of Trapani. Tit-for-tat, Pere insisted that in fact the carpenter had stolen his longboat. The matter was brought before the Catalan consul, but Pere scathingly stated: ‘this consul does not have any jurisdiction over citizens of Majorca, only over those who are under the dominion of the king of Aragon’. As fast as the Catalans extended their trading network across the Mediterranean, it threatened to fragment into pieces.

The fall of Acre in 1291 shocked western Europe, which had in fact done little to protect the city in its last decades. Plans to launch new expeditions abounded, and among the greatest enthusiasts was Charles II of Naples, after his release from his Catalan gaol. But this was all talk; he was far too preoccupied with trying to defeat the Aragonese to be able to launch a crusade, nor did he have the resources to do so. The Italian merchants diversified their interests to cope with the loss of access to eastern silks and spices through Acre. Venice gradually took the lead in Egypt, while the Genoese concentrated more on bulky goods from the Aegean and the Black Sea, following the establishment of a Genoese colony in Constantinople in 1261. But the Byzantine emperors were wary of the Genoese. They favoured the Venetians as well, though to a lesser degree, so that the Genoese would not assume they could do whatever they wished. Michael VIII and his son Andronikos II confined the Genoese to the high ground north of the Golden Horn, the area known as Pera, or Galata, where a massive Genoese tower still dominates the skyline of northern Istanbul, but they also granted them the right to self-government, and the Genoese colony grew so rapidly that it soon had to be extended. By the mid-fourteenth century the trade revenues of Genoese Pera dwarfed those of Greek Constantinople, by a ratio of about seven to one. These emperors effectively handed control of the Aegean and the Black Sea to the Genoese, and Michael’s navy, consisting of about eighty ships, was dismantled by his son. It was assumed that God would protect Constantinople as a reward for the rejection of all attempts at a union of the holy Orthodox Church with the unholy Catholic one.

The Genoese generally tolerated a Venetian presence, for war damaged trade and ate up valuable resources. Occasionally, as in 1298, pirate attacks by one side caused a crisis, and the cities did go to war. The battle of Curzola (Korčula) that year pitted about eighty Genoese galleys against more than ninety Venetian ones. The Venetians were on home territory, deep within the Adriatic. But Genoese persistence won the day, and hundreds of Venetians were captured, including (it is said) Marco Polo, who dictated his extraordinary tales of China and the East to a Pisan troubadour with whom he shared a cell in Genoa. The real story of the Polos was not simply one of intrepid, or foolhardy, Venetian jewel merchants who set out via Acre for the Far East, accompanied by the young Marco. The rise of the Mongol empire in the thirteenth century led to a reconfiguration of the trans-Asiatic trade routes, and opened a route bringing eastern silks to the shores of the Black Sea, although the sea-lanes through the Indian Ocean and Red Sea continued to bring spices to Alexandria and the Mediterranean from the East Indies. Once they had gained access to the Black Sea in the 1260s, the Genoese and Venetians attempted to tap into this exotic trans-Asia trade. True to form, the Venetians were more interested in the expensive luxury items, while the Genoese concentrated on slaves, grain and dried fruits, local products of the shores of the Black Sea. Good-quality wax was also in high demand, to illuminate churches and palaces across western Europe. The Genoese set up a successful trading base at Caffa in Crimea, while the Venetians operated from Tana, in the Sea of Azov. In Caffa the Genoese collected thousands of slaves, mostly Circassians and Tartars; they sold them for domestic service in Italian cities or to the Mamluks in Egypt, who recruited them into the sultan’s guard. The spectacle of the Genoese supplying the Muslim enemy with its crack troops not surprisingly caused alarm and displeasure at the papal court.

The Genoese despatched Pontic grain far beyond Constantinople, reviving the Black Sea grain traffic that had helped feed ancient Athens. As the Italian cities grew in size, they drew their grain from further and further afield: Morocco, the shores of Bulgaria and Romania, the Crimea, Ukraine. Production costs there were far lower than in northern Italy, so that, even after taking into account the cost of transport, grain from these lands could be put on sale back home at prices no higher than Sicilian or Sardinian imports. Of those too there was still a great need. The Genoese distributed grain from all these sources around the Mediterranean: they and the Catalans supplied Tunis; they ferried grain from Sicily to northern Italy. One city where demand was constant was Florence, only now emerging as an economic powerhouse, a centre of cloth-finishing and cloth-production. Although it lies well inland, Florence depended heavily on the Mediterranean for its wool supplies and for its food; it controlled a small territory that could produce enough grain to feed the city for only five months out of twelve. The soil of Tuscany was generally poor, and local grain could not match the quality of the hard wheats that were imported from abroad. One solution was regular loans to their ally the Angevin king of Naples, which gave access to the seemingly limitless grain of Apulia.

These developments reflected massive changes in the society and economy of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean. By 1280 or 1300, population was rising and grain prices were rising in parallel. Local famines became more frequent and towns had to search ever further afield for the food they needed. The commercial revolution in Europe led to a spurt in urban growth, as employment prospects within towns drew workers in from the countryside. Cities began to dominate the economy of Mediterranean western Europe as never before in history: Valencia, Majorca, Barcelona, Perpignan, Narbonne, Montpellier, Aigues-Mortes, Marseilles, Savona, Genoa, Pisa and Florence, with its widely used and imitated gold florins, to name the major centres in the great arc stretching from the Catalan lands to Tuscany. Aigues-Mortes, rich in salt, whose appearance has changed little since the early fourteenth century, was founded in the 1240s as a commercial gateway to the Mediterranean for the kingdom of France, which had only recently acquired direct control over Languedoc. King Louis IX eyed with concern the flourishing city of Montpellier, a centre of trade, banking and manufacture that lay, as part of a complex feudal arrangement, under the lordship of the king of Aragon. He hoped to divert business to his new port in the salt lagoons, which he also used as a departure point for his disastrous crusade in 1248. In the event, Aigues-Mortes soon became an outport for Montpellier, which avoided French royal control for another century. The Venetians had their own distinctive answer to the problem of how to feed the 100,000 inhabitants of their city. They attempted to channel all grain that came into the Upper Adriatic towards the city; the Venetians would have first choice, and then what remained would be redistributed to hungry neighbours such as Ravenna, Ferrara and Rimini. They sought to transform the Adriatic Sea into what came to be called the ‘Venetian Gulf’. The Venetians negotiated hard with Charles of Anjou and his successors to secure access to Apulian wheat, and were even prepared to offer support to Charles I’s campaign against Constantinople, which was supposed to depart in 1282, the year of the Sicilian Vespers.

As well as food, the big round ships of the Genoese and Venetians ferried alum from Asia Minor to the West; the Genoese established enclaves on the edge of the alum-producing lands, first, and briefly, on the coast of Asia Minor, where the Genoese adventurer Benedetto Zaccaria tried to create a ‘kingdom of Asia’ in 1297, and then close by on Chios, which was recaptured by a consortium of Genoese merchant families in 1346 (and was held till 1566). Chios not merely gave access to the alum of Phokaia; it also produced dried fruits and mastic. More important than Chios was Famagusta in Cyprus, which filled the gap left by the fall of Acre. Cyprus lay under the rule of the Lusignan family, of French origin, though the majority of its inhabitants were Byzantine Greeks. Its rulers were often embroiled in faction-fighting, but the dynasty managed to survive for two more centuries, supported by the prosperity Cyprus derived from its intensive trade with neighbouring lands. Massive communities of foreign merchants visited and settled: Famagusta was the base for merchants from Venice, Genoa, Barcelona, Ancona, Narbonne, Messina, Montpellier, Marseilles and elsewhere; its ruined Gothic churches still testify to the wealth its merchants accumulated.

From Cyprus, trade routes extended to another Christian kingdom, Cilician Armenia, on the south-east coast of modern Turkey. Western merchants supplied wheat to Armenia by way of Cyprus, and they used Armenia as a gateway to exotic and arduous trade routes that took them away from the Mediterranean, to the silk markets of Persian Tabriz and beyond. Cyprus enjoyed close links to Beirut, where Syrian Christian merchants acted as agents of businessmen from Ancona and Venice, furnishing them with massive quantities of raw cotton for processing into cloth in Italy and even in Germany, a clear sign that a single economic system was emerging in the Mediterranean, crossing the boundaries between Christendom and Islam. Some of the cotton cloth would eventually be conveyed back to the East to be sold in Egypt and Syria. Trade and politics were fatefully intertwined in the minds of the Lusignan kings. When King Peter I of Cyprus launched an ambitious crusade against Alexandria in 1365, his grand plan included the establishment of Christian hegemony over the ports of southern Anatolia (of which he had already captured a couple) and Syria, but a sustained campaign in Egypt was far beyond his resources; the expedition turned into the unwholesome sack of Alexandria, confirming that what had been proclaimed as a holy war was motivated by material considerations. Soon after his return to Cyprus, King Peter, who knew how to make enemies, was assassinated.


British Naval Superiority In The Indian Ocean

East Indiaman (Ship Type) Small, broad, roomy ships developed in the 1590s by the Dutch for trade with their colonies in the East Indies. Developed from the galleon and Dutch Fluyt, East Indiamen were rigged as frigates (square-rigged) and powerfully armed, to the point of equaling a man-of-war in fire power. They featured two galleries, a single forecastle deck, a quarterdeck, and a half-deck. Typical of the class was the Den Ary, which carried 54 guns and whose hull was clinker-laid up to the sides of both the half-deck and the quarterdeck.

Shortly after the Dutch, the British entered the East India trade, forming “The Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies,” also known as the Honourable East India Company [EIC]. Chartered in 1600, its ships, as were those of the Dutch, were well-armed and heavily manned. Similar, too, were the ships’ full underbodies, flat floors, sharp turns of the bilges, and quick rises. British East Indiamen were more apt to carry studding sails than were their Dutch counterparts and were frequently commanded by former Royal Navy officers. Quarters were often luxurious, and many vessels were adorned with gilding and ornamental carving.

British naval superiority in the Indian Ocean, arguably dates to Great Britain’s defeat of France during the Seven Years War (1756–63), but it was not cemented until their decisive victory over Napoleon. At the end of the eighteenth century, with the defeat of the Netherlands by France in 1795, Great Britain seized upon this enforced alliance between its main European and Indian Ocean rivals to take Cape Town, Ceylon (today Sri Lanka), and Java and Melaka from the Dutch, and the Mascarene Islands of Bourbon (now La Réunion) and Ile de France (now Mauritius) from the French. Twenty years later, by 1815, the British controlled the Cape, Ceylon, Melaka, and Mauritius, while Bourbon was returned to France by the Treaty of Paris. Just a few years later, the unauthorized occupation of Singapore by Stamford Raffles in 1819 and its formal possession by the British in 1823 almost immediately reduced the economic signifcance of both Melaka and Dutch Jakarta.

European maritime superiority did not go unchallenged in the early modern period. Along the coast of western India two rival indigenous navies clashed with each other and with the EIC to control coastal shipping. The most successful were the Sidis of Janjira Island, about forty miles south of Mumbai, who had ruled this fortifed island since 1618. Descendants of enslaved Africans known as habshis, a broad name denoting origins in northeast Africa, the Janjira Sidis traced their Indian roots to military service in the Deccan of southern India.

From the great fortress they constructed at Janjira, the Sidis became an important factor in coastal shipping north of Goa up to Bombay, whether serving the Mughals or their own interests. Sidi naval power was challenged by the powerful and ambitious Maratha ruler Shivaji Bhosale, whose army was seizing large chunks of western India from the Mughals. Shivaji commanded a series of small forts along the Konkan coast, as well as a fleet of perhaps several hundred ships. Although Shivaji is remembered as a militant Hindu ruler, in the typical Indian Ocean division of labor his ships were captained by Muslims. His several attempts to assert a naval presence on the coast proved to be disruptive to both the English and Portuguese, who were simultaneously contending with Maratha continental expansion. In the process of beating back the Maratha challenge, the Sidis momentarily shifted their alliance from the Mughals to the EIC, but they remained an independent if steadily less powerful coastal naval force deep into the nineteenth century.

The Yaarubi rulers of Oman drew most of their revenue from customs duties levied at their ports, but they also began to expand the date plantations along the Batinah coast of northeastern Oman. The demand for labor created by this agricultural plantation expansion, as well as the maintenance of a standing army by the Imam, were harbingers of increased slave trading to the Gulf from East Africa. Maritime raiding was apparently another source of revenue for Oman, such that Masqat gained a reputation as a pirate’s den. In 1705 an Omani attack on an EIC vessel caused one offcial to write that “Muskat . . . is become a Terror to all the trading people of India,” while a company pilot’s guide published in 1728 cautioned that “the danger of this port is as much from the Treachery of the Arabs as from the Storms and Rocks of the Coasts; for they are not only Pirates and Thieves, but Cheats in every thing wherein you can deal with them.”

By this time, however, internal dissension over election to the Imamate gave rise to civil strife in Oman. In 1749 a new dynasty, the Busaidi, came to power. Under the vigorous leadership of Ahmad b. Said, Oman’s place as a mercantile maritime power in the western Indian Ocean steadily grew. One immediate consequence of this political transition was that the Omani Mazrui governor of Mombasa rejected the new Busaidi claimant to authority. According to the anonymous nineteenth-century Swahili History of Mombasa, which only exists in Arabic renditions, “When the governor learnt that the Imam Ahmad bin Said had come to power, and that he was not of the family of the Imams, he declared himself ruler of Mombasa and refused to recognize the country as a possession of the Imam, and said: Formerly this Imam was my equal: he has now seized Oman, so I have seized Mombasa.” Mombasa’s independence would eventually be ended by Oman’s imperial expansion into East Africa in the long nineteenth century. From the middle of the eighteenth century, however, it was Great Britain that came to dominate the maritime space of the Indian Ocean as it built an empire based around India that eventually extended from South Africa, through the Gulf, across the Bay of Bengal and Malaya all the way to Hong Kong.

The Persian Fleet – Salamis

“Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnasuss, sinks a rival Calyndian ship within the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis, off the coast of Greece, 480 BC”

Battle of Salamis

No one who reads Herodotus’ narrative can underestimate the importance of the naval factor in the two Persian invasions. The Persians were an inland power and possessed no fleet of their own. It says all the more for the organizing ability of the Great Kings – Xerxes in particular – that they were able to muster such vast armadas. It also suggests that their knowledge of Greek seamanship and fighting power was such that they by no means despised the enemy with whom they had to deal.

The largest contingent of the Persian fleet consisted of Phoenician vessels, manned by Phoenician crews. Rather surprisingly, the Persians relied also upon ships and crews from the Greek Ionian cities which they had subjugated. Inevitably, they must have felt some doubts about the loyalty of the Greek contingents of their own fleet. On several occasions during the campaigns, the Ionian effort seems to have been half-hearted, and at the battle of Mycale the Ionian Greeks at last deserted their Persian overlords to aid their compatriots.

Artemisia, the Greek princess who ruled Halicarnassus (subject to Persian goodwill), was present herself on shipboard at the battle of Salamis, fighting on the Persian side. However, she seems to have joined either fleet as circumstances dictated at any particular moment, for when pursued by an Athenian vessel she deliberately rammed and sank another galley of her own contingent. The Athenians, thinking that she had changed sides, abandoned the pursuit and Artemisia made good her escape without further impediment.

The truth is possibly that Xerxes found it less risky to take the Ionian fleet with him than to leave it in his rear. On every ship there was a force of soldiers, either Persians, Medes or others whose loyalty was to be trusted. Persian commanders often took the place of local captains and Xerxes probably kept the leaders of the subject communities under his personal surveillance. Their position closely resembled that of hostages to the Persians.

Apart from the Phoenician and Greek naval contingents, there was in Xerxes’ fleet an Egyptian squadron which was to distinguish itself in the course of the fighting. We hear also of ships from Cyprus and Cilicia. Cyprus contained both Greek and Phoenician cities and the people of Cilicia were largely of Greek extraction. Whether the Cilicians felt any bond of sympathy with the Greeks of the mainland is another question, but only the links of empire united them with the Persians. The proportion of the total naval strength to that of the land army is recorded: the land forces, when counted by Xerxes at Doriscus in Thrace, were, according to Herodotus, 1,700,000 strong: the strength of the fleet is given with some precision as 1,207 vessels, not including transports.

The Structure of Ancient Ships

At this point something must be said of the construction of ancient ships in general and of ancient warships in particular. Mercantile and transport vessels were comparatively broad-beamed and correspondingly capacious. They had to depend on sails rather than oars if room was to be left for the cargo. The Greeks sometimes referred to them as “round ships”. By contrast, it may be remembered that the Latin for a warship was navis longa – a long ship. Throughout the ancient period which we are considering, warships were comparatively long and streamlined. They were built for speed and relied upon oars rather than sails. The Persians, in their two invasions, naturally needed both transports and warships.

The characteristic warship which developed about the time of the Persian Wars, and which was used in the battles with which we are concerned, was the trireme. This word is formed from the Latin; the Greek is trieres. The meaning is literally three-oared or triply furnished, but the reference is apparently to three banks of oars, which were ranged one above the other. At an earlier date, biremes, vessels of two oar-banks, were built. More common was the penteconter, a 50-oared galley with oars in a single bank. There were also triaconters, of 30 oars. Homeric ships had as few as 20.

Ancient ships, whether warships or transports, normally made use of single, square-rigged sails, and efficient performance required a following wind. Transports sometimes mounted two or, more rarely, three masts with a single yard and sail on each. Warships lowered their mast and sail before going into action. Steering was by means of two large paddles, one on either quarter. Battle tactics depended to a great extent on ramming the enemy, but boarding operations by heavily armed troops were also carried out and in this way prizes could be taken. Missiles were also used, although this method of fighting recommended itself more to the Persians than to the Greeks.

Persian Naval Strategy

It is interesting that Xerxes reverted to his father’s original plan and decided to invade Greece from the north. He must have considered that his channel through the Athos peninsula eliminated the main hazard of this route. Clearly, he could deploy a much larger army in Greece if his land forces could make their own way along the coast. At the same time, the fleet keeping pace on the army’s flank contained transports which considerably eased his supply problem. The land forces carried a good deal of their own baggage and equipment with the help of camels and other beasts of burden. These did not include horses. It was not customary in the ancient world to use horses for such purposes and it is noteworthy that Xerxes transported his horses by sea on special ships. Horseshoes were unknown in the ancient centres of civilization, and it is possible that the Persian cavalry might have reached Greece with lame mounts if their horses had been obliged to make the whole journey by land.

Warships were, of course, necessary to protect both the transports and the land forces. Without naval defence, the Persian army would have been exposed to the danger of Greek amphibious attacks on its flank and its rear. Moreover, it was Xerxes’ hope that he would crush any Greek naval units immediately, wherever he met them.

He met them first at Artemisium, on the northern promontory of Euboea. Several actions were fought there, with varying outcome. The Greek position was well chosen. In the narrow channel between the Euboean coast and the mainland, the Greeks could not be enveloped by superior numbers. At the same time, they guarded the flank of Leonidas’ forces at Thermopylae. If the Persians sailed round Euboea to attack them in the rear, then the Persian land forces would be separated from their seaborne support. What took the Greeks by surprise was the enormous size of Xerxes’ force, which despite all reports far exceeded their most pessimistic estimates. It was possible for Xerxes to send one section of his fleet round the south of Euboea while he engaged the Greeks at Artemisium with the remainder. Such a manoeuvre entailed no loss of numerical superiority on either front. But summer storms gathered over Thessaly and aided the Greeks. The very size of Xerxes’ fleet meant that there were not sufficient safe harbours to accommodate all the ships; a considerable part of it had to lie well out to sea in rough weather. In this way many ships were wrecked. When a squadron was dispatched to round Euboea and sail up the Ruripus strait, which divides the long island from the mainland, this contingent also fell victim to storms and treacherous currents. The task assigned to it was never carried out.

Quite apart from the figures given by Herodotus, events themselves testify to the huge size of the Persian armada. Despite the heavy losses suffered at Artemisium, Xerxes’ fleet still enjoyed the advantage of dauntingly superior numbers when, late in the same season, the battle of Salamis was fought. Even after Salamis, the number of surviving ships and crews was such that the Greek fleet at Mycale hesitated long before attacking them.

Imperial Lessons

Alexandria, July 11, 1882. The British fleet under the command of Admiral Seymour bombarded the city. Featured warships “Sultan” and “Alexandra”.

The first successful attack by self-propelled torpedoes. The Turkish ship Intibah is destroyed by torpedo boats from Velikiy Knyaz Konstantin torpedo boat tender. A painting by Lev Lagorio.

During 1877–8 the Russians had been providing some torpedo action data during their struggle with the Turks around the Black Sea. The Turkish fleet dominated that sea simply by lying at anchor, as the Russians had no sea-going ironclads and no chance of getting any in while Turkish forts and ships’ guns dominated the narrows to Constantinople; so the Russians had no alternative to using torpedo boats for offensive operations, and they carried out a number of raids by night with specially constructed 15-knot boats some 50 or 60 feet long, carried by mother ships, usually fast merchantmen. However the earlier attacks were made with spar and towing torpedoes, and to get close enough without alerting the enemy with sparks from the funnels and considerable engine noise, they had to drop their speed to walking pace and creep in. Even so they did not escape detection, and were only successful on one occasion when they found the coastal monitor Siefé unprotected by the usual torpedo boat obstructions placed around the Turkish ships. Despite detection by the sentry, they pressed in under her turret guns as they misfired three times and touched a spar torpedo off close by the sternpost; the Siefé sank in a short time. As for the ‘Whitehead’, this was also tried and on one occasion on the night of 25–6 January 1878, the Russians claimed to have sunk a Turkish guard-ship anchored at the entrance to Batum harbour from 80 yards range; although the Turks denied any loss it is possible that this was the first Whitehead success in action. Despite the poor condition of the Turkish fleet and the great resolution of the Russian officers, these were the only effective torpedo attacks of the war. They were modest successes, and it was evident that torpedoes would be little use against an efficient fleet at anchor and guarded as recommended by the British 1875 Torpedo Committee, by nets, lights, Gatling guns and guard boats.

More important than any matériel lessons from the Russo-Turkish war were the strategic issues. Historically Britain’s policy in the eastern Mediterranean had been to support Turkey as a barrier against Russian expansion towards Britain’s Indian Empire and the overland links with that Empire through Mesopotamia or across the sands of Egypt. This policy had been stiffened since 1869 by the opening of the Suez Canal, which seemed to offer French and Russian ships, acting on interior lines from Toulon and the Black Sea, the chance to enter the Indian Ocean and play havoc with all British routes to the East, besides blocking Britain’s own short cut. This was the view of the military departments.

Parallel with this was the strong commercial view: the canal had cut several thousand miles off the routes around the Cape to India and the Far East, and had naturally gathered to itself an increasing volume of steam shipping; by 1875, when Disraeli made his celebrated purchase of Suez Canal shares, over two million tons of British ships were using the waterway every year, 75 per cent of the total traffic. Then, as a symptom of both commercial and military views—or simply as an expression of British expansionist vitality-there was the maritime chauvinist view which by its very nature exaggerated the position; thus The Times could write: ‘The Canal is in fact the sea’; everyone knew who was mistress of the sea! And the Bristol Times and Daily News could go so far as to say, ‘holding that [canal] we hold Turkey and Egypt in the hollow of our hands, and the Mediterranean is an English lake, and the Suez Canal is only another name for the Thames and Mersey.’ In fact the Canal was a part of the Turkish Empire.

When Russia declared war on that Empire in April 1877, Britain was immediately involved, both because there was strong support in the country for the Turks and against the traditional threat to their eastern Empire, and because the Canal, which by now carried three million tons of British shipping a year, might become the scene of warlike operations which would stop commercial traffic. Britain sent a note to Russia, asking her not to ‘blockade or otherwise interfere with the Canal or its approaches’, and moved her Mediterranean ironclad squadron to Port Said.

We don’t want to fight, but by Jingo if we do,

We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.

Russia, with her armies fully occupied in a movement around the Black Sea, shortly renounced her belligerent rights against the Canal as an ‘international work’, and agreed to exclude Egypt from her sphere of operations; the following day, as if by reflex, the British squadron weighed and steamed out of Port Said.

The next year, with victorious Russian armies approaching Constantinople Disraeli’s cabinet ordered an even more explicit demonstration: the British ironclad squadron was to steam up the Dardanelles and anchor off the city itself. This was called off temporarily at the request of the Turks who sought an armistice, but was carried out three weeks later while peace terms were being negotiated. It had no effect: Turkey was forced to give up her Balkan Empire to Russian influence, and allow Russia access to the Mediterranean, a defeat for British policy and prestige which threatened war, and a conference was called at Berlin to try and avert it. While preliminary discussions were being held, Disraeli couldn’t resist another naval show: he summoned 8,000 troops from India through the Suez Canal, covered by three ironclads at Port Said, to concentrate at Malta. This was the first time the Indian Army had been used for grand Imperial designs, and while the numbers were not impressive, the manner of their smooth and rapid transfer by water, and the potential of the vast continent they represented, were significant. The Times noted: ‘they revealed England’s capacity for the first time in her history to fight a great Continental war without an ally.’

The actual effect of Disraeli’s demonstration cannot be determined—all parties at Berlin wanted peace—but the upshot was a compromise: Russia gave back to Turkey a great slice of Bulgaria she had acquired at the peace conference, and Disraeli, in a separate convention, took Cyprus from Turkey; he returned to London satisfied that he had brought ‘peace with honour’. Historians have seen in this peace the beginning of an end to the British policy of maintaining the Turkish Empire against Russia at all costs, and—more important for the history of the battleship—the beginning of a new Russian interest in sea power. Four years later they brought out their first systematic naval plan, for 15 battleships, 10 cruisers, later raised to 20 battleships, 24 cruisers, and various smaller craft. The threat of these squadrons in alliance with France provided the main stimulus to British building for the rest of the century.

The same year, 1882, also saw the logical result of Britain’s strategic and commercial interest in the Suez Canal combined with her new-found ‘by jingo’ expansionism; she established military and political control over Egypt. That this happened under a Liberal prime minister, Gladstone, anti-imperial, anti-military, champion of self-determination for all peoples, violent opponent of all that Disraeli had so extravagantly stood for, is an indication of just how inevitable this move was.

It was provoked by a nationalist revolt, itself largely a response to the increasing Europeanization of Egypt since the Canal. When Britain and France sent warships to Alexandria and the Canal to protect their nationals and property and overthrow the nationalist leader, Colonel Arabi, the Egyptian army started throwing up fortifications and mounting guns opposite the ships as they lay at anchor. At which point the French government fell and the new administration, alarmed that the Egyptian crisis might be a sinister German plot to lure French troops from their own borders, recalled their squadrons. Britain was left on her own. Now, while Gladstone was opposed to unilateral action, and tried to seek a solution imposed by the European ‘concert of nations’, he was defeated by his service departments, who took a more practical view after anti-Christian riots and a massacre of 50 foreigners at Alexandria. It became imperative to restore European prestige, and Gladstone sanctioned a naval bombardment of the forts at Alexandria as the quickest and most economical way.

So it was that the first British armoured ships ever to fire their guns in earnest cleared for action on the morning of 11 July 1882, and steamed in to position opposite the forts. They were a diverse collection. Largest and most modern was the Inflexible, commanded by Captain ‘Jackie’ Fisher, a dynamic man already marked for the highest positions; next came the flagship of the Mediterranean station, the Alexandra, the ultimate in British belt-and-battery ships, then the similar Sultan and Superb, and one of the scaled-down versions, the Invincible, to which the commander-in-chief had transferred his flag because of her shallower draft; then there was the Temeraire with her unique arrangement of central battery and disappearing guns at either end above, and finally of the big ships, Reed’s double-turret, fully-rigged, Monarch. There were in addition one smaller ironclad and a number of gunboats. In all, the fleet mounted 43 heavy rifled muzzle-loaders on any one broadside, ranging from the Inflexible’s four 80-ton pieces down to 9-tonners.

Against them the forts mounted only 41 rifled muzzle-loaders, besides 211 obsolete smooth-bores which were little use against armoured ships. Nevertheless, if these batteries had been manned by skilled guns’ crews they would have had all the theoretical advantages: they had steady platforms not deranged by other guns firing alongside, their guns could be set accurately for distance, their shot could be ‘spotted’ on to target by the high splashes it made in the water, and they had the whole of a ship to aim at and damage while a ship had to make a direct hit on a gun or its embrasure to put it out of action.

The theoretical odds didn’t worry the British; it was a bright, clear morning, the sea barely rippled by an offshore breeze, and the guns’ crews, stripped to the waist as in the old days, were eager to give what they considered an Arab rabble a taste of British powder. As the Invincible made the signal for general action a rumble like thunder spread through the separate detachments opposite the forts, and great clouds of thick, white smoke burst from the black hulls of the ships, rising and hanging about the taut rigging, only dispersing slowly. Below, the loading numbers went through their heavy precision drill, now spiced with the urgency of real action.

Again and again, from the smaller calibres first, came ‘the full-toned bellow of an old-fashioned muzzle-loader’, then more dense smoke as the pieces slid back. In the tops officers peered through it to watch the shells rising and growing smaller towards the dun shore some 1,500 yards away, then reported where they landed to the officers of the quarters. Punctuating the continuous thud and chatter came the great concussion of the Inflexible’s turret guns followed by a rumbling sound as the great shells ‘wobbled in the air with a noise like that of a distant train’.

So it went through the glistening day in almost target practice conditions; at one stage when the splashes from the Egyptian shells moved too close it became necessary for some ships to shift themselves with springs from the anchor cables, and for others to weigh and steam to and fro, but the Egyptian reply was not enough to divert the guns’ crews. And gradually the sheer volume of ships’ fire, the exploding shells, the noise and the occasional direct hit which wiped out a gun and its crew, wore the defenders down. Having suffered some 550 killed and wounded, against only 53 British casualties, they evacuated the forts after dark and the sailors and marines walked in on the thirteenth.

They found only 15 of the rifles and nine of the smooth bores disabled by hits from the 1,750 heavy shells, 1,730 lighter shells and 16,000 Nordenfelt bullets fired, and only about 5 per cent of the fire had actually hit the target area, the parapets of the forts. The best shooting appeared to have been made by the two ships with hydraulic laying and training gear, the Inflexible and Temeraire; however, most of the guns of the fleet had mechanical elevating gear and this had proved too slow and clumsy for the smooth water conditions at Alexandria. Had there been any swell the gunlayers could have set the elevation and waited until the ship rolled the sights on target; lacking such customary help one ship at least had bodies of men moving from one side of the deck to the other to produce an artificial roll. The report from the captain of the Monarch illustrates some of the difficulties:

After the captain of the turret had ascertained and communicated the heel to the numbers laying the gun, the time necessarily taken to work the elevating gear, lay the guns by means of the crude wooden scales and make ready is so great that probably another gun or turret will have fired in the interim, and consequently the heel of the ship will be so affected that a relay of the gun is necessary unless a bad or chance shot is purposely delivered.

In addition, there were no more aids to fire control than there had been at the beginning of the century, when effective range had been 300 yards or less; there were no rangefinders, no telegraphs to pass orders or range corrections from the officers stationed aloft to watch the fall of shot, and messages passed by voicepipe were frequently inaudible in the din of battle. The giant products of the ordnance revolution had outgrown the methods of controlling them; had the bombardment of Alexandria failed it is just possible that this lesson might have been heeded, but as the firing had been infinitely better than the Egyptians’, and the victory had been clear-cut and most economical, the reports were filed and there is no evidence that any improvements followed.

The evacuation of the forts took the fighting and destruction into Alexandria itself, hardened the Egyptians behind Arabi and boosted the military and colonial departments in England, whose Cabinet representatives virtually took over from Gladstone and forced him to alter the emphasis of the campaign from a limited punitive demonstration by the Navy to a full-scale invasion by the Army. When the French again refused to co-operate unless the security of the Canal were threatened the British cabinet called in Indian troops; meantime a British admiral who had won a VC in the Crimean War for refusing orders to retreat, ignored instructions to wait for the troops, seized and held Suez with his own squadron, and unilaterally closed the canal. Next month the British army annihilated Arabi’s forces at Tel-el-Kebir, and Britain became sole master of Egypt. The Canal had become at last (almost) as British as the Thames and the Mersey.

These events in the eastern Mediterranean from 1877–82 illustrate the importance Britain attached to command in that sea and over Egypt, a vital link of Empire. This feeling, practical or paranoic depending upon viewpoint, was a major factor behind ironclad, or as they came to be known battleship, building programmes to the end of the century. The scale of these programmes was determined by Russian and French building which, at least in the former case, stemmed directly from the arrogant displays of British naval supremacy. It was well enough for British first lords and naval historians after this to complain that Russia was a ‘land power’ with scarcely any sea trade and therefore no need for a navy, but it was a remarkably one-sided view which expected any great power to take humiliations lying down. On the other hand British interests in the area seemed to practical men in England to demand protection: besides the four million tons of merchant shipping passing through Suez annually by 1882—over 80 per cent of total traffic—and the British investment in the area, there was the awful possibility of such a vital hinge of maritime strategy falling to France or Russia. In this sense the acquisition of real power in Egypt was a natural development of the policy or instinct which had given Britain chains of island and mainland bases from which to protect her shipping throughout the world. The flag had to follow trade.

Whether the Egyptian move was an essential consequence of maritime strategy, or a high-handed demonstration of naval power, or both of these and a bit of the bond-holder’s dilemma, whether it was part reaction to France’s pretensions to a North African empire or was itself powerful stimulus to European powers to carve up bits of the undeveloped world for themselves—as they did with increased frenzy during the following decades—for the purposes of this story it was provocation for a naval race. It not only upset the balance at the meeting point of East and West and extended Britain’s naval commitments, it provided France and Russia with sufficient envy and resentment to begin building programmes which might—at least in alliance—prevent future unilateral action by the ‘mistress of the seas’.