Snorkel?! Part I

Histories of the Battle of the Atlantic universally fail to appreciate the impact that the introduction of the snorkel had on the evolutionary shift in U-boat operations at the end of the war.

German U-boat histories of the Second World War are dominated by the period 1940–43 and written by, or about, veterans that never saw a single operational patrol in a snorkel-equipped U-boat. Out of the top twenty-five U-boat aces of the war, only one – Heinrich Lehmann-Willenbrock – commanded an operational snorkel-equipped U-boat. However, he did not take part in the inshore campaign during this cruise. Well-known U-boat commanders including Kretschmer, Lüth, Topp, Merten, Prien, Schepke, Witt and Lemp never experienced a patrol on a snorkel-equipped U-boat nor had any understanding of its potential.

Lothar-Günther Buchheim, author of the popular anti-war book Das Boot, never sailed on a snorkel-equipped U-boat. Yet he disparaged the device in his follow-on 1976 book Der U-Boot Krieg, even though he admitted ‘it was a life saver’. The U-boat force was given an ‘orthopedic contraption’, Buchheim stated colourfully, by leadership that called it an ‘epochmaking invention’. While Dönitz gave the snorkel device due credit in his post-war memoir, he also had no practical experience with the snorkel and spent only about twenty pages covering the period of the U-boat war from 1944–45. He longed only for the day his ‘wolves’ could return to the heyday of convoy warfare.

The problem in German U-boat veteran historiography is that no one grasped how the snorkel fundamentally altered the nature of submarine warfare. The potential resumption of anti-convoy operations remained paramount in the minds of Dönitz and his U-boat men because it recalled the heyday of success and brought meaning to the force’s sacrifices. However, there was never going to be a resumption of such operations because the challenge of submerged communications was never overcome during the war. Not even the introduction of the Type XXI ‘wonder weapon’ was going to change that fact. There was never a post-war survey by German naval historians of the impact of the snorkel within the U-boat fleet, leaving the broader understanding of the Battle of the Atlantic overwhelmingly distorted towards the earlier period of convoy battles.

Most British and American authors remain content to view the Battle of the Atlantic through the narrow optic of convoy warfare, and within that limited view argue that the U-boat as a weapon system was defeated in May 1943. Many opine that continued resistance by the U-boat force after May 1943 was folly, despite any wartime technical developments.

As an example, Ed Offley’s 2011 work, Turning the Tide: How a Small Band of Allied Sailors Defeated the U-Boats and Won the Battle of the Atlantic, argues the well-worn thesis that the U-boat was defeated in May 1943 and forced to withdraw from the Atlantic. His view of the U-boat’s continued deployment during the following two years was that they served little purpose beyond ‘cannon fodder’. While he briefly discusses Dönitz’s actions to restore the U-boat force, he cites only the future development of the high-speed Electro-boats and Walter turbines, never once mentioning the snorkel. Offley, like many authors, is content to interpret the remaining years of the Battle of the Atlantic through the balance sheet of tonnage sunk versus U-boats destroyed.4 It is a victor’s perspective that offers little historical value.

Arguably, one of the most audacious attempts at solidifying the victor’s perspective of the Battle of the Atlantic came from former Second World War US Submarine veteran Clay Blair, who took a direct attack in his assessment of both the U-boat and its technology. He was determined to counter what he believed was a growing U-boat ‘mythos’ in the late 1980s and early ’90s, fuelled in popular literature by scores of U-boat veteran memoirs and movies such as Das Boot that found eager audiences in Great Britain and the United States. Blair published his two-volume history Hitler’s U-Boat War starting with Volume 1 in 1996 and continuing with Volume 2 in 1998. His scope was the U-boat itself and not just the convoy battles of the mid-Atlantic. In the foreword of his first volume he set a contrary tone regarding wartime technological advances in the U-boat force by dismissing any evolutionary value of the Type XXI offhandedly, despite the known benefits of its hull form and internal mechanics widely copied after the war by all major navies. He specifically dissected its snorkel apparatus into ‘imperfect’, ‘hazardous’ and ‘nightmarish’. In his second volume he addressed the introduction of the snorkel across the U-boat diesel force in counterfactual terms. He stated that the snorkel was ‘technically primitive’; only employed for one to four hours a day; a snorkelling U-boat was completely ‘deaf’ and could not use its radio receivers or hydrophones; a U-boat that snorkelled could not use its periscope; snorkels were prone to emit exhaust smoke; snorkels leaked carbon monoxide into the pressure hull; a snorkelling U-boat had no way to get rid of its waste; and arguably the most erroneous statement that ‘almost without exception, U-boat crews distrusted snorts and hated to use them’. All of Blair’s statements are gross exaggerations or counterfactual when compared against period primary documents. In Blair’s desire to diminish the evolutionary contribution to modern submarine development made by German wartime engineers, he asserted that the US Navy advanced into the nuclear-powered submarine age with such sophistication as to leave behind all ‘hopelessly archaic’ German technical innovations, like the snorkel. His amateurish historical assertions are contradicted by official US Navy technical assessments.

In the earliest published work on the last year of the Battle of the Atlantic, British naval historian V E Tarrant, writing in his 1994 book The Last Year of the Kriegsmarine, May 1944–May 1945, stated that the snorkel ‘was never welcomed by the majority of the U-boat crews’. His work on this critical, transformative period of the Battle of the Atlantic only focused on the building programmes related to the new Electro-boats and ignored the evolution of tactics and operations brought on by the snorkel. While American authors might be excused from understanding the snorkel’s impact, as snorkel-equipped U-boats only made an appearance off the US East Coast in the waning months of the war, the British, and to a lesser extent the Canadians, dealt with them for an entire year during the inshore campaign.

The point of view that the diesel U-boat was defeated in May 1943 as a weapon system and that the snorkel, unwelcome by U-boat crews, had little or no impact during the war is not corroborated by wartime or post-war primary documents. The diesel U-boat as a weapon system was not defeated in May 1943, only the surface-based Wolfpack tactics it employed against mid-Atlantic convoys. The U-boat survived, and even thrived with the introduction of the snorkel, as the Western Allies struggled to overcome the resurgent menace it had once thought defeated. While it is true that defeating the Wolfpack alleviated the single greatest threat to Great Britain’s survival and thus the Allied war effort, the introduction of the snorkel and shallow-water tactics diminished Ultra’s impact and continued to strain Allied resources. The idea of snorkel-equipped Type XXIs returning to the mid-Atlantic to reignite convoy warfare certainly was a threat that the Allies remained concerned about until the end of the war, but the reality was that BdU planned to send them individually to the coasts of North America and the United Kingdom to operate continually submerged close to Allied ports and within narrow channels and waterways. Surface-based Wolfpack tactics were gone forever.

Canadian maritime historian and former Wilfrid Laurier University professor Roger Sarty is one of the very few historians of the period who viewed the last twelve months of the Battle of the Atlantic through the filter of the snorkel’s impact. He wrote in his 1997 article ‘The Limits of Ultra: The Schnorchel U-boat Offensive Against North America, November 1944–January 1945’ that the:

Schnorchel caused profound difficulties for the Allied anti-submarine forces because of the change in U-boat tactics that the new equipment made possible. Submarines that neither signalled nor surfaced were safe from the radar-equipped aircraft that had long been the basis of the successful, economical defence of coastal waters … It soon became clear that protection of shipping against a single schnorchel boat well-situated in coastal waters required fully as many warships and even more aircraft than an active defence of a large convoy at mid-ocean against dozen of submarines.

Sarty was closer to historical reality than most authors writing of this period.

Wartime View

No Allied power endured the struggle against the German U-boat in the mid-Atlantic and along their coast more than Great Britain. In November 1944 Royal Navy Captain Clarence Howard-Johnson, who served as the Royal Navy’s Director of the Anti-U-boat Division, declared during the resurgent U-boat’s inshore campaign that:

The snorkel has had such far-reaching results that the whole character of the U-boat war has been altered in the enemy’s favour. Frequently he has managed to penetrate to and remain on our convoy routes in focal areas with impunity in spite of intensive air and surface patrols. With more experience in training and with the confidence engendered by his present immunity from air, and often from surface attack, he is likely, in the future, to do us more real harm than he has up to the present.

This was a sentiment echoed by Royal Navy Admiral Submarines Sir George Creasy, who directed British submarines to adopt the snorkel during the war on a limited trial basis in order to understand this innovation and how to counter the emerging threat. He soon recognised that there was no longer a future for the surface-bound submersible as the age of the true submarine was within technological sight.

The performance of the snorkel in the latter half of 1944 was so successful that the Ministry of Propaganda decided to capitalise on the technical innovation. The following radio broadcast aired on 22 March 1945 in conjunction with the release of Die Deutsche Wochenschau, which showed newsreel footage of the new snorkel-equipped U-boats. The snorkel was considered a ‘secret’ development for nearly a year and was now unveiled to the German public for the first time. It is a surprisingly accurate account of the Battle of the Atlantic:

The German public has learned about the new technical development of U-boat warfare for the first time from the report concerning the air mast of the U-boat, which appeared in the High Command communiqué. The facts now published were apparent already in the news of the past few weeks. When a number of U-boat commanders were decorated with the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross it was emphasised that they had won it in particularly difficult areas and on their first operational trip. Furthermore, on recommendation of Grand Admiral Dönitz, the Führer awarded the Knight’s Cross with Swords to Prof. Hellmuth Walter for his special merits in the technical development of the German U-boats. Lastly, the monthly declarations of Roosevelt and Churchill on the U-boat campaign as well as the speeches of Canadian and North American ministers of which we have given reports in our service, showed the enemy’s considerable anxiety about this steady increase of German U-boat successes …

It has been emphasised in the German reports that the latest successes were achieved not by an entirely new type of U-boat, but by boats of the type which have proved efficient during the period of 1941–1943, and which were fitted with the air mast to enable them to proceed continuously submerged …

Now also the U-boat crews, in spite of being severely strained physically by long months of submerged travelling, are effectively using their new technical equipment, above all in the most dangerous areas close to the enemy ports. In the shallow waters a U-boat, once discovered by the enemy, finds himself in a most difficult situation. But the men of the U-boats take upon themselves these dangers and losses because of the better chances of successes as at this stage every sinking of an enemy ship is particularly important. It is by no means intended to speak now prematurely of a ‘new large-scale U-boat offensive’. The reports on the air mast show, however, that important technical inventions have been made, with which we again overtake the enemy’s U-boat defence.

Compare the above propaganda broadcast to the actual Top Secret intelligence assessment by OP-20-G released just one month later on 20 April 1945 that stated plainly: ‘The last 46 days has seen a marked increase of U-boat pressure against allied shipping, despite the desperate situation in the Homeland and in the Baltic …’ This intelligence assessment issued just weeks before the end of the war in Europe is a clear testament to the fact that the U-boat was not a defeated weapon system. It had survived the ‘Black May’ of 1943 and remained a tactical, if not strategic, concern for the Allies.

Enigma ciphers were ordered changed as concern grew in BdU of their possible compromise. While some Enigma ciphers required days to break, significantly diminishing their value, others still had to be broken. Kurier – the new flash transmission system that could not be read by Allied cryptologists – was being increasingly employed.

Operational U-boat deployments increased to the highest level in more than a year. Allied ship sinkings were up and there was continued concern about the potential deployment of the Type XXIs. The largest concentration of U-boats in nearly three years arrived off the North American coast despite the knowledge of their movement through Ultra and the deployment of the single greatest anti-submarine screen employed by the US Navy in its history. What hampered the U-boat’s success continued to be the ability, though reduced, of Allied cryptologists to ascertain U-boat deployments and re-route convoys.

The final situation update of the U-boat force was written by OP-20-G’s Navy Reserve Lieutenant W V Quine on 2 May, just days before the end of the war. He noted that there were 192 U-boats in the Atlantic and Arctic, with 118 at sea and seventy-four in port. This was an increase of seven over the previous week. He assessed that:

As yet there is no sign of any serious break-up in the German naval organisation in the Baltic. The situation is still quite confused because of the continual transferring of [U-boats] out of the enemy’s reach in the rush to get [U-boats] finished for frontline operations. Orders, however, seem to be carried out effectively and the loss of [U-boats] appears to be relatively small.

Quine’s final assessment contained one of the last Ultra intercepts of the war that noted the singular importance of the snorkel. On 24 April a wireless message was intercepted that read ‘complete repairs, including installation of snorkel, in Rostock on 6 Type XXIII and in Wismar on 3 Type XXIII was assured’. With the Soviet Army surrounding Berlin, the US Army on the Elbe River and the British advancing on the main U-boat production facilities in north-west Germany, the U-boat force remained potent and organised. The installation of the snorkel remained one of the highest priorities for BdU, even in the last days of the war.

What a snorkel-equipped U-boat demonstrated during the war, too often lost on period historians, was that a submarine that didn’t surface and didn’t transmit by radio was almost impossible to track, find and destroy. It was a situation that foreshadowed the future of ‘Total Undersea Warfare’ in the atomic and nuclear age.

Snorkel

Technologies – The Schnorchel

Snorkel?! Part II

The German snorkel device revolutionised undersea warfare. The once surface-bound submersible was turned into a ‘true’ submarine capable of remaining submerged almost indefinitely. This late-war innovation frustrated Allied intelligence and anti-submarine search technology, well into the age of nuclear power. After World War II the snorkel was introduced by all navies around the world, most notably in the ever-expanding Soviet submarine force. In this photograph, Engineer Emil Hymowitz, Chief of the US Navy’s Search Radar Unit, pilots a captured German snorkel mounted on a sub-simulator around the Chesapeake Bay, in 1956. The German snorkel was used to test out new radar search systems designed to locate a snorkeling submarine during the Cold War.

The Legacy

In the post-war period the United States, Great Britain and Soviet Union exploited the significant lead in technology enjoyed by wartime Germany. Not all technology was exploited universally, as it depended greatly on the country’s strategic priority. Among the most sought-after technology was German designs for rockets, avionics and U-boats. It is a known fact that the final drive against north-west Germany by General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group was designed to prevent the Soviet Union from reaching Denmark and German ports in that area. The objective was to halt the Soviet advance at Wismar on the Baltic coast, which had the benefit of limiting their access to advanced German U-boat technology, specifically the Walter turbine.

Among the Western Allies it was the United Kingdom that took the lead in the exploitation of U-boats. Under the terms of Operation Eclipse, British forces occupied northern Germany to include all the U-boat production facilities and ports. They quickly gained access to engineers, captains and crewmen. Most of all surrendering U-boats fell into the hands of the Royal Navy, who initiated an immediate post-war testing programme. Among the main technological innovations studied and exploited was the snorkel. Their results were passed on to the United States Navy’s Bureau of Ships, who also evaluated the wartime German innovation with great interest.

The US Navy’s post-war assessment of the snorkel was clear. It had to be adopted, even though the Navy’s two-cycle diesel engines could not be retrofitted with the device outright, and that improvements had to be made based on German wartime experiences:

Engine must be designed for snorkelling upfront. Do not implement exhaust drive superchargers. Extensible mast as designed was technically not viable. Folding mast was better. Designs should be made to prevent periscope vibration at high snorkelling speeds. Power-operated head valve for the induction system was required. Design should minimise resistance in the raised and housed position of the snorkel mast. Apply anti-radar coverings to the snorkel head. Remove the maximum amount of moisture from the air intake. Automatic depth control was not necessary but useful to avoid crew strain during long underwater patrols.

It was the snorkel that was the prerequisite for the modern submarine, as former defence analyst and submarine historian Dr Norman Friedman wrote in his book US Submarines since 1945.

The first US submarine that tested the snorkel was the Irex (SS-482). Within eighteen months of the end of the war the US Navy had completed designs for the modern telescoping snorkel. The Irex was ordered to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for a retrofit in December 1946, followed by operational testing of the device. The Irex conducted snorkel testing from July 1947 until February 1948. After a successful evaluation, the Irex joined Submarine Squadron 8 at New London as the US Navy’s first operational snorkel submarine.

The US Navy did in fact adopt a telescoping snorkel despite its own recommendation to pursue a folding mast design. Initially the US Navy installed two separate masts, one for induction and one for exhaust. The induction mast led into a moisture separator and then into the main engine induction valve via a 22in pipe. Each diesel engine exhaust led directly into an uptake, exiting the submarine either through a car-type muffler or the snorkel exhaust trunk. Later, the US Navy reverted to the original German snorkel design and combined induction and exhaust pipes into a single mast when they began to retrofit their own submarine fleet through the ‘Greater Underwater Propulsion Program’, otherwise known as the ‘GUPPY’. The GUPPY was the first US submarine that operated with a snorkel.

The US Navy’s 1961 edition of its submarine technical training manual known as NAVPERS 16160-B The Submarine, issued to all crew members of the new GUPPY modified submarines, offered unusually high praise to their former German enemy nearly twenty years after the end of the war with the following commentary on the snorkel. The Introduction to Chapter 15’s ‘The Snorkel System’ reads:

The theory of the snorkel had been known for several years; but, it was not until 1943 that the German Navy converted such theory into practical operation … the German Navy perfected snorkel designs and incorporated the device in their submarines. This move increased the efficiency and success of German underseas craft immeasurably.’

Contrary to almost all post-war histories of the German U-boat force and the Battle of the Atlantic, the US Navy understood the snorkel’s impact during the war and its evolutionary role in submarine warfare. The US Navy ensured their own submariners knew this as well.

The snorkel began to transform US Navy submarine operations in the Cold War era. Intelligence gathering became a new, if not critical, component to its mission. In 1949 the snorkel-retrofitted Fleet Submarines Cochino (SS-345) and Tusk (SS-426) entered the Barents Sea. Cochino was also equipped with a version of the GHG Balkon passive sonar. Its goal was to conduct the first intelligence-gathering mission close to the coast of Russia; a task that could only be accomplished by a snorkel-equipped submarine. Unfortunately, Cochino experienced a snorkel defect like some of its German U-boat counterparts did during the war. In rough seas the submarine was unable to maintain trim while snorkelling and the snorkel valve failed to close when it was submerged. Water rushed in and a series of unfortunate events unfolded that resulted in a build-up of toxic gas and a battery explosion. While the crew was rescued after a fourteen-hour fight to save the sub, the Cochino was lost. It sunk on 26 August 1949, some five years after the first German snorkel-equipped U-boat entered the English Channel.

The snorkel remained a key component of post-war submarine design even into the nuclear age (despite the counterfactual claims of Blair). The first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus, also included a snorkel as a back-up to get the submarine home without surfacing in the case the nuclear reactor failed. In the modern submarine age surfacing meant the loss of the submarine’s most critical asset – invisibility. Once a submarine breached the surface it lost the element of surprise, but a snorkel provided the ability to remain submerged even in a crisis onboard the boat. The future of submarine warfare meant never operating on the surface. This was the embodiment of Walter’s Ortungskampf (battle of location concept) he championed during the war.

The Royal Navy adopted the snorkel during the end of the war, as they saw its potential to alter the course of the U-boat campaign. They needed to understand it, and how it functioned, both technically and tactically. Before the end of the war the Admiralty ordered that one U, S, T, and A Class submarine be equipped with a snorkel. Experiments continued by the Royal Navy well into the post-war period.

The Admiralty already had an eye towards the potential Soviet threat, and they were quick to exploit German naval technology and scientists. The Royal Navy had two main exploitation priorities regarding U-boats. Like the US Navy, they were the snorkel and Type XXI design. Unlike the US Navy, which already had an eye towards nuclear power, the Royal Navy’s third priority was Walter’s hydrogen peroxide closed propulsion system.

The Royal Navy’s secret intelligence unit, the 30 Assault Group, entered Kiel and immediately located Dr Walter at his home next to his factory and design offices. Along with Walter came some 50,000 pages of microfilm recordings in six boxes that he had buried in a secret location on the north coast. The original documents had been burned. These documents covered the entire technical development of German U-boats through the war. Along with the British came US Navy Captain Albert Mumma, originally of the Alsos Mission (looking for German nuclear, chemical and biological weapons research), and in the last days of the war part of the US Navy’s Technical Mission Europe. He was one of the seventy-five-man task force that captured Kiel.

Walter was interrogated extensively after the war. He informed his interrogators that he saw no future for a submarine that operated on the surface and that all design functions must be subordinated to that purpose. It was a vision he himself set on this course with the introduction of the snorkel, the Type XXI and the Walter Prototype. The Royal Navy adopted Walter’s design.

The Admiralty moved quickly to locate and raise the U-1407 hydrogen peroxide-equipped Type XVII to keep it from the Soviets. Testing was carried out in Kiel between August and September 1945 of the Walter turbine U-boats by Walter and his staff of engineers under the watchful eyes of the Royal and U.S Naval officers. After the successful trial in Kiel harbour the British offered Walter and a small group of his trusted engineers’ contracts to go and work for them in England. U-1406 was provided to the US Navy, but they did not operate that U-boat after quickly deciding to pursue nuclear propulsion instead of the Walter turbine. The U-1407 was refitted by Vickers under the guidance of Walter himself in 1947. In 1948, U-1407 was commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Meteorite and went through extensive operational testing off the coast of Scotland.

The Royal Navy concluded that while the Meteorite was unstable on the surface, it was ‘outstanding’ underwater and that its high speed, which came at a high cost in fuel, was best employed in escape underwater as originally envisioned by Walter during the war. The Royal Navy went on to commission HMS Explorer and HMS Excalibur to conduct underwater speed trials based on the principles of the Type XXVI. These hydrogen peroxide submarines achieved the underwater speeds of 25 knots that Walter had theorised was possible during the war. The Royal Navy concluded on their own that the diesel submarine fleet had reached its limits of endurance and speed. Walter’s ideas had been vindicated by the very Royal Navy his designs had hoped to defeat. Admiral Creasy stated of Walter’s design that ‘we stand on the threshold of very considerable technical development …’

Despite the efforts of the British to keep the most advanced U-boat technology out of Soviet hands, they failed. The Red Army had seized two unfinished Type XXIs, U-3528 and U-3542, at Schichau on the Baltic coast, Walter’s central design office for the Type XVIIB and XXVI at Blankenburg, and the Bruchner-Kanis factory that produced the Walter turbines in Dresden and at Weinrieb in Chemnitz. It was assessed by the Western Allies that one turbine of 2,500 shaft horsepower and one of 7,500shp were acquired by the Soviets. Beyond the new U-boat designs, the Soviets captured plans for advanced German torpedoes, internal electronics, the GHG passive sonar array and German technical experts themselves. This was cause for alarm at the highest levels in the US Navy.

Under the code name Medusa, two Soviet research institutes, Andreev and Krylov, adopted the German U-boat research and begin to pursue it at an accelerated rate in 1947–48. The Soviets soon adopted the advanced German designs and specifically the snorkel apparatus in their ocean-going Whiskey and coastal Malyutka-class submarines. The Whiskey class had already been designed before the end of the war as an improvement to the existing ‘S’ class, but German U-boat technology was quickly retrofitted. The Whiskey class was produced in more numbers than any other submarine in history, surpassing even the German Type VIIC.

The Soviets went on to develop the S 99 (Project 617) in 1951, known in NATO circles as Whale, which was a near exact copy of the German U-boat Type XXVI. With the help of captured German engineers, the Leningrad-Shuvalovo shipyard developed the first 7,500hp hydrogen peroxide engine for the Soviet Navy. The first operational tests began in June 1952. It was later commissioned into the Soviet Navy in 1956 and achieved an underwater speed of 20 knots, making it the fastest submarine in the Soviet fleet at that time. An explosion on the high-pressure line ended its brief career and it was decommissioned as the Soviet Navy shifted from hydrogen peroxide to nuclear power. However, the hull form and underwater principles it derived from building Walter’s Type XXVI were all carried forward into the next generation of Soviet submarines.

The Soviet Navy took an immediate interest in adopting Alberich and furthering the concepts of acoustic camouflage. While the US and, specifically the Royal Navy, were keen to understand Alberich from the perspective of countering its capability, the technical problems of adhesive turned both western naval powers off from further pursuit. The Soviets applied their version of a rubberised coating to both their Whiskey and smaller Malyutka-class submarines. The coatings were initially applied to the exterior hull, however, the Soviets began to pursue the German innovation of applying it on internal surfaces, to include their double hull, in order to reduce the transmission of sound.

Starting with the first Soviet nuclear submarines of the Project 627/November Class, almost all Soviet combat submarines were coated with what modern naval architects call anechoic tiles. Shock absorbers were also installed to reduce engine vibrations. While acoustic dampening was not a priority, creating an atmosphere capable of supporting a crew for fifty days without surfacing was. It was an endurance objective that mirrored the submerged U-boat operations in the last year of the war achieved through the snorkel.

Soviet investment in submarine technology continued at an extraordinary rate through the 1980s. A 1988 Naval Proceedings article argued that, based on developmental trends, the Soviets would all but overtake the US in advanced designs by 2000. The fact that the Soviets had mastered the process of acoustic camouflage introduced by the Germans became evident in the recovery operations of the downed Kursk (K-141) in 2000.

On 12 August 2000 the Russian Navy’s Oscar-II class nuclear-powered cruise-missile submarine suffered a catastrophic explosion from a hydrogen peroxide-fuelled Type 65 practice torpedo. Hydrogen peroxide, it should be noted, was the key component of Walter’s closed-circuit turbine engines. Its cost and highly volatile nature when exposed to an accelerant such as oxygen were among the main reasons that both the US and Royal Navies abandoned it after 1950. The explosion collapsed the first three compartments of the submarine, sending it to the bottom in 108m of water in the Barents Sea.

British and Norwegian undersea salvage experts led the search team looking for the stricken Kursk. They were given its precise co-ordinates by the Russian Navy. At 4.26am on Sunday, 20 August an ROV was lowered down from the Seaway Eagle to 300ft, just 75ft off the seabed, and its active sonar turned on. As the ROV’s sonar began to sweep for the stricken Russian submarine the British operators could not find the Kursk. It wasn’t there. According to the ROV operator ‘the sonar received absolutely no signal. The Kursk had apparently vanished.’ Confusion reigned onboard the search vessel. Numerous search passes were made over the location of the Kursk until finally a faint ‘ping’ was returned. The seven-bladed massive twin bronze propellers, standing high off the seabed, were the only physical component of the submarine that gave away the Kursk’s location. According to the ROV operator, ‘confusion turned to amazement as the men realised that the acoustic tiles on the outer hull of the Kursk were so effective that they had been absorbing the ROV’s active sonar signals’.

The Soviet Navy enjoyed a thirty-year lead in the operational employment of Alberich, known today as ‘anechoic tiles’. The US and Royal Navies did not start applying such tiles until the 1980s. The first US submarine coated was the USS Batfish in 1980, but the US Navy did not systematically adopt the technology until 1988. Even today the US Navy faces ongoing struggles with adhesive properties, as evinced in the recent reports about the Virginia Class ‘mould-in-place’ urethane coating.

Walter’s concepts continued in the post-war Federal German Navy. The introduction of the German Type 212 class submarine in 2003 ushered in the most advanced non-nuclear submarine in operation today. This highly advanced design developed by Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft AG (HDW) features both diesel propulsion and an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system using Siemens proton exchange membrane (PEM) compressed hydrogen fuel cells. The Type 212A can operate at high speed on diesel power or switch to the AIP system for silent slow cruising, staying submerged for up to three weeks without surfacing or using its snorkel. According to Doug Thomes, writing in the Canadian Naval Review:

The second of class U-32 set a record in April 2006 when it conducted an uninterrupted dived transit from the Baltic to Rota Spain, a distance of 1,500 nautical miles in two weeks. These vessels are very stealthy by virtue of their lack of a need to snorkel and are much more habitable than their predecessors: the accommodation improvements have enabled the abandonment of the German practice of hot bunking for the first time and there are now dining and working spaces separated from the sleeping quarters.

The Type 212A hull design and composite material make it one of their quietest and hardest to detect submarines in the world. The X-shape stern design allows it to operate in coastal water as shallow as 17m. A direct line can be drawn to the Type 212 and subsequent 214 and 216s from the effective wartime performance of the Type XXIIIs in shallow water.

It remains a testament to German wartime innovation and engineering that almost all modern submarines, whether diesel or nuclear powered, are equipped with a version of the snorkel, and some with anechoic tiles. All strive to remain unseen and undetected in Walter’s vision of ‘Total Undersea War’ ushered in after the introduction of the snorkel into the U-boat fleet at the end of 1943.

Chatham Royal Dockyard and Infrastructure I

Farington, Joseph; Chatham Dockyard; National Maritime Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/chatham-dockyard-174538

Looking from right to left (i.e. south to north) along the river bank can be seen: the two Anchor Wharf Storehouses (with the Rope House and associated buildings behind); two shipbuilding slips (between which can be seen the Commissioner’s House with its large garden, beyond which is the Sail and Colour Loft); two dry docks (with Clock Tower Storehouse behind them, and the Officers’ Terrace beyond); the old Smithery (later demolished); two more dry docks (beyond which can be seen the Masthouses and Mouldloft); further building slips (with the two Mast Ponds beyond them); and some Boat Houses (later demolished). In the distance (far left) St Mary’s Island can be seen, and ships at anchor on Gillingham Reach. In the centre of the painting, beyond the walls of the Dockyard, is the town of Brompton and, to the right, Chatham Barracks

While Chatham had four dry docks, all of them dating back to the seventeenth century, the building slips were considerably more recent in age. Admittedly the oldest had its origins in the previous century, but a second building slip of the same period had been replaced in 1738. To this original pair, a further two dry docks were added shortly after the Seven Years War, with a final pair built between 1772 and 1774. The fact of Chatham having only two building slips at the time of Victory being laid down is a further factor in explaining why she was built in dry dock rather than on a building slip, there being at that time neither a sufficient number of slips nor one of a size sufficient to take the new vessel. With the construction of four new slipways in a relatively short period of time, it ensured that dry docks would now have to be used even more infrequently for the construction of new vessels.

Much more expensive than building new slipways, or adding the occasional work shop or timber drying shed, was the massive expenditure that would eventually be needed to renew much else that existed in the dockyard. Apart from the ageing dry docks, considerable attention would have to be given to the ropery, an area of manufacture within the dockyard that had also seen 150 years of service by the time of the American War. In 1785, with that particular war now concluded, an Admiralty visitation to the dockyard made a number of points relative to its renewal. Several buildings were condemned and a number of others viewed as in urgent need of repair. The plank house, armourers’ shop, treenail house, main storehouse and Rope House were recommended for demolition while the mast houses, rigging house, hemp house and wharves were in need of repair. Regarding the house carpenters and joiners’ shop, Commissioner Charles Proby was instructed by the Navy Board that:

These buildings being much too confined and very inadequate to the service of the yard, you are to consider and report to the [Navy] Board your opinion how they can be enlarged and whether extending the former into the Deal yard and lengthening the lot towards the present storehouse.

Not surprisingly, as each year passed, increasingly large sums of money were required for the simple upkeep and repair of buildings that should either have been demolished or totally renovated. In 1784 alone, £20,000 was allowed for repair work at Chatham. At that time improvements were being carried out to the Anchor Wharf, with a new storehouse being built upon the wharf at a cost of £3,500.

By 1786 plans were well in hand for a renewal of many of those buildings that had been highlighted as in need of demolition. At the beginning of that year work had started upon the Anchor Wharf Storehouse and designed to replace one that the 1785 visitation had considered ‘too confined for the purpose intended’. In 1786, also, there was a further visitation to the dockyard, the main purpose of which was the finalisation of plans for a new ropery. A strict order of work was laid down, in which the old Rope House was to be completely replaced by a new double Rope House built to the same design as one already constructed at Portsmouth:

We propose to begin with the hatchelling, tarring and white and black yarn houses and to employ the rope makers in the present laying house. Then, to take down the old spinning house, hatchelling, tarring and black yarn house connected with it, and build the double Rope House, and afterwards to take down the old laying house and rigging house and build a new rigging house and in the meantime a temporary rigging house may be immediately prepared for employing the riggers whilst necessary.

Reconstruction of the ropery was the most extensive of the new work to be undertaken. Originally established during the seventeenth century, the ropeyard had witnessed few alterations since the beginning of the eighteenth century. A particularly significant feature was that of the earlier ropery having separate spinning and laying houses, these respectively of 1,120ft and 1,160ft in length, resulting from the need of these buildings to be as long as the longest piece of rope manufactured. It was in the spinning house that hemp was continuously spun into yarn while in the laying house the yarn was first twisted into strands and then worked into rope. Prior to the yarn being transferred from the spinning house to the laying house it was initially stored in the white yarn house prior to being tarred. Serving as a preservative, the tarring of the yarn was carried out in the tarring house, with the tarred yarn, once dry, being stored in the black yarn house.

Apart from the Rope House and its various spinning and laying floors, other buildings associated with the rope-making process were the hatchelling, hemp and rigging houses. The purpose of each of these buildings was fairly straightforward, with the hemp houses, of which there were several at Chatham, being stores in which bales of hemp were first secured upon arrival in the dockyard during the autumn. As for the hatchelling house, this was where the hatchelling boards, used for the combing of the tangled hemp prior to it being spun into yarn, were located. Finally, the rigging house was where the finished rope was taken for cutting, splicing and dressing.

For a ropery there were two alternative layouts. Either there could be a separate spinning house or laying floor, as existed at Chatham, or the two could be combined under one roof. A double Rope House (the name given to a ropery that combined the spinning and laying floors), as now planned for Chatham, did allow for savings to be made in building costs but it would reduce output. Of late, two dockyards had received new Rope Houses, those yards being Plymouth and Portsmouth, with the former seeing construction of separate laying and spinning houses, and Portsmouth a double Rope House. It was the comparison of these that had led the Navy Board to adopt a double Rope House at Chatham: the two separate houses at Plymouth being capable of producing so much rope that it was constantly under-utilised.

In April 1787, detailed plans for the new Rope House at Chatham were finalised:

Money being granted for the erection of a new double Rope House, tarring and white and black yarn houses and a hatchelling house connected with the Rope House in your yard, we acquaint you that drawings of such of them are due to be carried on by the artificers of the yard will be sent to you by the Brompton coach, in a day or two, and direct and require you to carry on the said buildings agreeable thereto.

The latter also went on to inform the Commissioner as to exactly how the work was to proceed:

… as it is intended soon to contract for the carrying on about one fourth part of the Double Rope House in this year … you are to begin with the south end, and to take down the present spinning house immediately, as far as is necessary for carrying on the same, and to proceed therein accordingly, taking care to preserve the old materials as much as possible and make use of as many as may be applicable to the new building.

Although the new Rope House was to be built on the site of the old spinning house, the fact of it being of a greater length, the spinning house being 17ft shorter meant that it extended into ground belonging to the Commissioner’s garden:

And it being necessary in carrying this part of the building to take down and reinstate the Commissioner’s garden, also a part of the south wall of said garden in order to extend the present range with the projecting part of the said wall westward of the ropeyard.

A significant feature of the new building was that it was to be constructed of brick, whereas the spinning and laying houses that it was to replace were of timber construction. This made a good deal of sense as the ropeyard area was always at high risk of fire, this through the combination of highly combustible hemp and the open fire that was needed to heat the tarring kettles. At Portsmouth, where the new double Rope House constructed at that dockyard had also replaced an earlier timber Rope House, fires had struck on three occasions. The first two of these, breaking out in July 1760 and July 1770, were almost certainly accidental and aided by the heat of summer. However, the third fire, this occurring in June 1776, was certainly not an accident, deliberately started by James Aitkin, a sympathiser for the American cause. It was this latter fire that had led to the rebuilding of the Portsmouth ropery, the fire having destroyed much of the original building. The yard at Chatham had also narrowly escaped a similar fate, James Aitkin having visited Chatham for the purpose of starting a similar fire appears to have had problems in gaining access to the yard, turning his attention to Portsmouth. Eventually, Aitkin was arrested in Bristol where he was in the process of setting fire to a number of storehouses.

Obviously this extensive rebuilding work would seriously interfere with normal dockyard routine. Yet, despite the immense upheaval that occurred within the ropeyard, it did not prevent the continued manufacture of rope. For one thing, a temporary rigging house was constructed close to the Commissioner’s garden, while the laying house was not demolished until completion of the new Rope House. This meant that the laying house, for the next few years, could double as a spinning house. If additional rope was still required then this could either be transferred from one of the other dockyards, or manufactured under contract. For the actual building programme, few additional workers were employed, considerable use being made of the yard’s existing force of labourers, house carpenters and plumbers. In April 1787, however, reference is made to the employment of two additional bricklayers who would be employed upon the yarn, tarring and hatchelling houses. They were to be dismissed once this work was completed.

The double Rope House was substantially completed by December 1790. It was approximately 1,250ft in total length, with the interior divided into 100 bays and two separate sections for the accommodation of the laying and spinning floors. Of brick construction, it was given a lead roof, with much of the lead being taken from the old spinning house. Windows were originally unglazed, this to help in the extraction of dust from the working area of each floor. The entire building was of three storeys, each of which had a separate laying and spinning floor, while a cellar provided a storage space for tar. Attached to the north end of the Rope House were separate hemp and hatchelling houses.

Earlier, in 1786, the main storehouse was completed. Just over 600ft in length, it was of brick construction and stood to the south of the Rope House, being sited on the Anchor Wharf. To the west of the Rope House the new yarn and tarring houses were constructed. All were of similar design, being of brick and two storeys in height. The white yarn house was connected to the Rope House spinning floor by a wooden bridge, allowing the hauls of yarn to be taken direct from the spinning house floor. Each of these buildings was completed by 1789, with the tarring house put into use by May. A separate hemp house, two storeys in height and constructed of brick, was also erected and stood to the east of the Rope House.

Apart from that carried out on the ropery, only a limited amount of rebuilding work was undertaken, although a large number of the older buildings were either more extensively repaired or completely renovated. Such was the case with the older mast houses dating to the reign of William III. Between 1785 and 1787 both the plank house and treenail house were pulled down and re-sited, while the house carpenters and joiners’ shops were enlarged and extended. In 1787, £1,440 was set aside for building two new storehouses over the south-west mast pond and £1,500 for two new mast houses sited next to this same mast pond. It is also recorded that in July 1787 work was in hand upon the renovation of the Commissioner’s House.

All this renewal work meant that the dockyard, as a whole, was in a much better position to undertake demands that were to be placed upon it by the war with Revolutionary France that was to break out in February 1793. Certainly the docks and slipways were in a much better state of repair, with only repairs on the first dock required, but this was not undertaken until 1801 when the first period of a long, drawn-out war with France was within months of being temporarily concluded. With the dockyard entering the new century, a further series of buildings and other structures began to be added. Directly related to ship construction was the addition of three new building slips, these constructed in 1804, 1811 and 1813. In addition, two mould lofts were also added, these dating to 1804 and 1811. On the clerical side, and resulting from a set of offices constructed in 1750 having now been declared structurally unsafe, a new office building was constructed in the centre of the yard and subsequently known as the Admiral’s Offices, this completed in 1808. To meet the spiritual needs of those employed at the yard, a chapel was added in 1808, this replacing earlier dependence on the parish church of St Mary’s. Finally, but of considerable significance, was construction of a steam-powered saw mill, this built to a revolutionary design that transformed the means by which timber was both transported around the yard and cut to shape.

Reference has already been made to both Samuel Bentham and Edward Holl, individuals who were closely connected with civil construction works undertaken during the opening decades of the nineteenth century. Admittedly, as far as Samuel Bentham was concerned, he had already ceased holding office by the time that work began on the saw mill, but it was his foresight in recognising that steam power could be applied to the cutting of timber that directly led to its construction at Chatham. Of more significance, perhaps, was that Bentham, in attempting to apply the power of steam to dockyard manufacturing processes, acquired the services of Marc Brunel, an asylum seeker from France, whose genius in this area of engineering was unsurpassed. Successfully working on an Admiralty project at Portsmouth, Brunel went on to submit to the Navy Board a detailed paper that outlined the total savings that could be made from the construction of a mill at Chatham.

At that time Chatham employed about 150 sawyers, each normally paid at the rate of 4s 2d per 100ft sawn. Given that, on average, a pair of sawyers working in a sawpit could saw about 220ft, this meant they had a joint weekly wage of 55s with the dockyard’s annual expenditure on this item approaching £11,000. Brunel, in his estimates, reckoned that the saw mill he advocated for Chatham could not only produce considerably more timber but would require, through a considerable reduction in the number of sawyers employed, only £2,000 for wages and maintenance of machinery.

The saw mill that Brunel designed for Chatham consisted of eight saw frames that each carried an average of thirty-six saws, so producing 1,260ft of sawing per minute. While it would be impossible to maintain such a rate throughout the day, the potential was so great that this one unit could meet the needs of all the nation’s dockyards. Potential savings on sawing alone were enormous. In addition, though, Brunel planned further savings by giving attention not only to wood sawing but the means by which timber was conveyed across the yard. Prior to the erection of the saw mill, all log timber arriving at Chatham was landed at the dockyard wharf before being dragged to a convenient place for stacking. According to Brunel, in any one year:

There is required at least 6,000 goings and comings of teams of horses, merely to lay the timber for survey – 6,000 times to and from the stacks – at least as many more times one hundred yards in aiding the lifting on the stacks.

From the timber stacks, the logs, once surveyed, would have to be removed to the point of cutting and then, once sawn, to a new stacking area. All this movement of timber, when the cost of wages and the employment of horses were included, amounted to a further expenditure of £14,000.

Instead of continuing such an uneconomic system within the dockyard at Chatham, Brunel proposed to extend the use of the steam engine to be installed in the mill, so it could also assist in the transporting of timber across the yard. The process would begin with construction of an underground canal that interlinked with the river and connected to a stacking and timber-surveying area sited close to the mill. Along this canal, the newly arrived timber would be floated. Apart from savings in the cost of moving the newly arrived timber, there was an added advantage of using the canal; the timber was freed from the sand and gravel that collected during the dragging and which impeded the operation of the saw. Once the timber reached the end of the canal it entered a reservoir from which a mechanical lift, also powered by the saw mill steam engine, removed each log. As soon as it reached the surface, the arm of a moveable crane on rails grabbed it. Having seized the log, the crane then descended a gradual incline before gently depositing its burden on the drying beds where it would be surveyed. In the meantime the crane would be drawn back to its original position by a chain once again operated by the saw mill steam engine. The same crane was also employed in conveying the dried timber to the saw mill where, once converted, the scantlings, or sawn timber was conveyed to any part of the yard by single horse trucks.

Chatham Royal Dockyard and Infrastructure II

Chatham Dockyard in 1790 (by Nicholas Pocock) HMS Royal George on the right fitting out in the River Medway off what is now Sun Pier, with HMS Queen Charlotte under construction in the centre background. This is a view from Chatham Ness, today the southernmost point of the Medway City Estate

The mill, which was completed in June 1814, immediately brought about considerable financial savings that resulted from the sharp reduction in the number of sawyers employed in the cutting of planks and horse teams used in the movement of timber in both its sawn and unsawn state. In addition, because of its innovative design, it became a notable attraction, with a number of foreign dignitaries brought to the yard for the purpose of viewing its various component parts. One who was particularly impressed was William Wildash when writing a history of the area that was published in 1817:

These saw mills, as the name imports, are employed in converting the fir timber used in the service of the yard into planks or boards; and are erected on an eminence about 35 feet above the level of the lowest part of the yard. To the ground on the north side of the mill; which is appropriated to the stowage of timber, balks are floated from the river by means of a canal which runs open about 250 feet; this canal on entering the rising ground becomes a tunnel in length about 300 feet, and empties itself into an elliptical basin the length of which is 90 feet, the breadth 72 feet, and the depth 44 feet. The operation of raising the timber from this basis is worthy of observation; and the steady, though quick motion with which it ascends is truly astonishing. We have witnessed a balk of 60 feet long, and 16 inches square, raised to the top of the standard 60 feet in the space of 60 seconds! The saw mill is constructed on a very extensive scale; and the mechanism of it may be reduced to three principle things; the first, that is the saw drawn up and down as long as is necessary, by a motion communicated to the wheel by steam; the second, that the timber to be cut into boards is advanced by a uniform motion to receive the strokes of the saw; for here the wood is to meet the saw, and not the saw to follow the wood, therefore the motion of the wood and that of the saw immediately depends the one on the other; the third, that where the saw has cut through the whole length of the piece, the whole machine stops of itself, and remains immovable; lest having no obstacle to surmount, the moving power should turn the wheel with too great velocity, and break some part of the machine.

Edward Holl’s association with the saw mill was that of overseeing the construction and approving the plans submitted by Brunel. As a civil architect, rather than an engineer, his interest was in the structure of the building rather than that of the machinery that it housed. With regard to the other major construction works that were undertaken at this time, the chapel and the office building were based entirely on plans produced by Holl. Both are still features of the dockyard; substantial and pleasant in design, they clearly reflect the undoubted talents of this particular architect. The chapel, which stands immediately north of the Main Gate and on land previously used for the storage of timber, is a rectangular building of yellow stock brick with details of Purbeck marble. It has a light and spacious interior with cast-iron columns supporting a tiered gallery. The offices, designed initially for use by the Commissioner and the principal officers of the yard, were located in a central position, which was close to the dry docks and building slips. Of brick construction and two storeys in height, it has an east-facing main entrance that leads directly to a corridor that interlinks with all of the separate internal offices. This, in itself, was something of an innovation, earlier offices at Chatham being grouped in separate parts of a building and provided with separate entrances. Administratively, this reinforced the independent authority possessed by the principal officers and helped create barriers in the smooth day-to-day operations carried out within the yard.

Prior to the construction of the dockyard chapel, only limited attention had been given to the spiritual needs of the workforce. Although the yard had long possessed a chaplain, services were normally performed on board one of the many ageing hulks that were moored in the Medway. In 1773 it was reported that Revenge ‘has divine service performed in it by the chaplain of the yard regularly every Sunday.’ The growth of Methodism in the Medway area, a denomination that was attracting into its ranks some of the artisans and labourers of the yard, resulted in more attention being given to the construction of chapels funded by government money.

As a means of countering Methodism, the new chapel was hardly likely to attract into the ranks of the established church those it had lost to the particular tenets of that movement. Methodism had a certain openness that tended towards democracy, something far removed from the thinking that clearly underpinned the seating arrangement established for the new dockyard chapel upon its completion in 1808. Every member of the congregation was accorded a seat in the building based on rank, with the Commissioner and his family provided with a high-sided box pew at the very front. Around him were positioned the principal officers, also in high-sided box pews. Artificers not of officer rank were seated much further back, with a final row of pews reserved for the officers’ apprentices. The gallery was similarly reserved, seating given over to those of the Ordinary and officers of the Royal Marines. This strict recognition of rank was hardly likely to counter the growth of Methodism, a sect that attracted those who saw all as equal in the eyes of the Almighty.

Departing from the architectural contributions made by Edward Holl, it is useful to direct further attention to Samuel Bentham. This is because of an additional contribution that he made to the yard and one so important that, without it, there was every certainty that the yard at Chatham would have been closed and replaced by an entirely new dockyard. Bentham’s achievement was that of overcoming the problem of shoaling and the consequent difficulty of getting ships to the dockyard. First explored as an issue at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it had gained, as already noted, increasing severity throughout the following century and by the year 1800 there was a definite fear that larger ships would be completely unable to reach the yard.

In deciding to construct a considerably enlarged dockyard at Chatham during the early years of the seventeenth century it had been assumed that the river might actually have been gaining in depth. This, of course, had proved itself to be a completely false assumption, with the Navy having to now live up to the consequences of this error. One of the first pieces of evidence to reveal that serious problems lay on the horizon was produced in 1724 by the yard Commissioner, Thomas Kempthorne. He complained that larger ships were unable to move up river other than on a tide that was between half flood and half ebb. As a result of Kempthorne’s concern, a careful survey was undertaken, with numerous soundings taken at various points of the river. In West Gillingham Reach, where a number of larger ships were moored, it was discovered that on a spring tide, the greatest depth of water was 27ft but this fell to 17ft during a neap tide. Even less favourable was the deepest point of East Gillingham Reach where there was only 19ft on a spring tide, this falling to 16ft. As a point of reference, it should be noted that the larger warships of this period generally required a depth of between 21ft and 24ft.

By the 1770s the situation had become even more serious. Instead of ships being able to move up river when between half flood and half ebb, such was now possible only on a spring tide. In other words, ships that were once able to navigate the Medway on tidal conditions occurring twice in every 24 hours, were now restricted to a particular tide that only took place once every lunar month. Furthermore, mobility of shipping on the Medway continued to decline, a survey of 1763 showing that since 1724 the depth of water on a spring tide in Cockham Wood Reach had been reduced by 2ft, while the area between Chatham Quay and Upnor Castle had seen a reduction in depth of 4ft.

As well as presenting a problem for navigational purposes, the increasing shallowness of the Medway also undermined its value as a naval harbour. To allow larger ships to continue using the river for this purpose they had either to be deliberately lightened, to reduce the draft that each required, or ran the risk that the keel or lower hull timbers would suffer damage by scraping the bottom of the river. Neither alternative was acceptable, as a deliberately lightened ship would have timbers that were normally submerged in seawater now constantly exposed to the sun. As a result, the consequent drying process would lead to this part of the ship becoming subject to dry rot.

The problem of mooring ships in the Medway was highlighted in 1771 following an Admiralty inspection of the dockyard and harbour that found:

On enquiry that the depth of water in this port is scarcely adequate for the draughts of the capital ships built according to the present estimates, as few of them can have the proper quantity of ballast on board, and remain constantly on float. The consequence of which is very apparent … [and] which weakens them greatly and makes them sooner unfit for service.

Two years later, during a visitation to Chatham, the Earl of Sandwich, in his capacity as First Lord, added:

It must be allowed that this port is not so useful as formerly from the increased size of our ships, so that there are few above five places where a ship of the line can lay afloat properly ballasted.

The problem was effectively put on hold until the early years of the following century when John Rennie was requested to view a whole range of problems associated with the further development of the royal dockyards, including that of warships finding it difficult to both navigate the Medway and use these waters for long-term harbouring. Working closely with John Whidby, the Master Attendant at Woolwich, and William Jessop, a consulting engineer, he began to unravel the problem as to why the Medway was subject to such an alarming degree of shoaling. Noting it to be a problem that was not simply restricted to the Medway, they settled upon the notion that it was a result of recent industrial and agrarian developments. Further up river, and beyond where the dockyard was sited, towns and villages were expanding. As they did so, they caused deposits of mud to enter the rivers and feed into the navigable channels and dockyard harbours. Additional deposits also found their way into these same rivers from agricultural improvements and land drainage. Specifically, for the Medway, much of the blame was placed on Rochester Bridge, a point Rennie included in his report:

If Rochester Bridge had been pulled down some years since, and a new one built in the line of the streets through Strood and Rochester, with piers of suitable dimensions, instead of repairing the old one, the large starlings of which act as a dam, and prevent the tide from flowing up to the extent it otherwise would do, the depth of water in front of Chatham, Rochester, and in Cockham Wood Reach, would have been greatly improved. The trustees unfortunately determined on repairing the old bridge. This nuisance still remains and no advantage whatever has been gained. Unless, therefore, something is done to preserve at least, if not to improve the navigation of the Medway, the soundings will go on diminishing in depth and the dockyard will become less useful. In its present state, vessels of large draught of water must have all their guns and stores taken out before they can come up the dockyard and be dismasted before they can be taken into the dock.

At that time, Rennie could see no real solution to the problem and favoured construction of an alternative yard at Northfleet, this to replace not just Chatham but also the yards of Woolwich and Deptford. The only drawback, however, was that of the likely cost of such a project, with Rennie suggesting a sum of £6 million. Others disputed this figure, with the Admiralty suggesting that this sum might well double upon construction work getting underway. The project got as far as having outline plans drawn up and the appropriate land purchased. Indeed, the entire Northfleet complex might have been constructed, and Chatham dockyard closed, if it had not been for Samuel Bentham developing a super-efficient dredger through the adoption of steam power. A dramatic improvement on the hand dredgers previously used and operated by dockyard scavelmen, its use resulted in the rapid clearing of many of the problematic shoals. Those hand dredgers had been hopelessly inefficient, removing from the bed of the river no more than a few tons of mud each day. In contrast, a steam-powered dredger based on Bentham’s original design was removing, by 1823, as much as 175 tons of mud per day.

Inevitably, it was Bentham’s development of the steam dredger that saved Chatham from an ignominious closure during the early decades of the nineteenth century. Instead this valuable military complex was not only to continue in its important shipbuilding and repair role but was to enter into a new period of supremacy. Within forty years of those closure threats, Chatham had been earmarked for a programme of expansion that was so massive in scale that it actually quadrupled the land area of the existing yard. Furthermore, it took on its very own specialism through the building of ironclads. Not only was Chatham the first royal dockyard to build an ironclad, but it also became the lead yard when any new class of ironclad battleship was laid down. Although his name is rarely spoken in Chatham, Samuel Bentham was the man who saved Chatham Dockyard – that is, until Margaret Thatcher arrived on the scene some 140 years later.

BUILDING THE SHIPS THAT FOUGHT AT TRAFALGAR

Victory flying the Blue Ensign (with the pre-1801 Union Jack), from The Fleet Offshore, 1780–90, an anonymous piece of folk art now at Compton Verney Art Gallery in Warwickshire.

In total, the Royal Navy at Trafalgar assembled a winning fleet of twenty-seven ships of the line. Many of their names, including Victory, Temeraire and Bellerophon, have firmly entered into the annals of history and been accounted as among the most famous ships to sail the oceans of the world. Of significance, also, is that six of the battleships that fought at Trafalgar, including the aforementioned three, were all built on the river Medway. Of these, Victory (100), Temeraire (98), Leviathan (74) and Revenge (74) were all launched at Chatham, while Bellerophon (74), the ‘Billy Ruffian’ to her crew, was a product of Frindsbury, and Polyphemus (74) a Sheerness-built warship. In its own right, Chatham can rightly claim to have built more battleships of the Trafalgar fleet than any other royal dockyard while the Medway in general constructed more vessels of that same fleet than any other area of the country.

None of this was simple coincidence. Chatham was an industrial-military complex that had few rivals, with the dockyard having acquired a particular specialism in building those mighty wooden walls that were the nation’s first line of defence. Although not the role that had originally been envisaged for the dockyard at Chatham, strategic needs had forced upon it this new arrangement. Situated on the east side of the country, and some sixteen miles up river, the yard at Chatham had proved itself increasingly unsuitable as a naval base – especially when the enemy was France or Spain. Much more convenient, and sheltered by the Isle of Wight, was the fleet anchorage and harbour linked to the dockyard at Portsmouth. With the Royal Navy beginning to range more frequently into the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic, it was this yard that had now acquired supremacy, supported in its efforts by the rapidly expanding and more recent yard that had been established at Plymouth.

While both Portsmouth and Plymouth had the facilities to build ships, this was not the major given task of these two yards. Instead, work undertaken was directed to that of supporting the fleet in operation. They were the yards that prepared new fleets when war was declared or carried out short- or medium-term repairs on ships that needed to be quickly got back to sea. When the nation was at peace, these two yards had harbours filled with ships in Ordinary, the workforce carrying out regular inspections and ensuring that these vessels were ready for a future conflict. It was also during such periods that Portsmouth and Plymouth were best placed to build new ships, these two yards then having the spare capacity to undertake such work.

At Chatham things were very different. It was no longer a first line operational fleet base. Apart from anything else, there were increasing problems with the Medway, this resulting from the continued silting of the river. Sometimes it might take two weeks or more for a large warship to successfully navigate the river from its mouth to the dockyard. Eating up much of this time was the need to await a suitable combination of wind and tides that would permit navigation of the various shoals and bends that permeated the river. According to one particular Admiralty observation made in 1774, ‘there is only six points of the compass for a wind with which ships of the line can sail down, and ten to sail up and that only for a few days in the spring tides.’ In an examination of the problem that was undertaken in September 1790, it was found that numerous vessels had taken fourteen days to transit this stretch of the Medway, while others had taken in excess of a month. Lenox (70), a third rate drawing 21ft of water, had, during the year 1756, been detained in Chatham Reach for a total of six weeks, the tides too shallow for an earlier departure.

At the very least, an operational naval base, in undertaking repair and maintenance work on urgently needed warships, should be in a position to provide a fast turnaround time. These extensive delays in navigating the Medway ensured that Chatham could not be relied upon to meet this basic requirement. Instead, the dockyard at Chatham had to be directed towards the equally essential role of both constructing new ships and undertaking more extensive repair work on a ship that was likely to be dry-docked for several months. A vessel that merely required careening and therefore needed only to be in dry dock for a few days, if sent to Chatham, might ultimately be out of service for several months, with much of this time taken by the lengthy delays in waiting for a suitable tide and wind.

The Earl of Sandwich, while First Lord, clearly recognised that Chatham was of great value to the Navy, but only if it was used for tasks to which it was best suited. In 1773 he wrote:

I am now more and more convinced that if [Chatham] is kept singly to its proper use as a building yard, possibly more service may be obtained from it than from any other dockyard in His Majesty’s dominions; the great extent of the yard that faces the river and the great length of the harbour which has the room to moor half the fleet of England of a moderate draught of water, are conveniences that are not to be found elsewhere; and it will appear by the repairs that have been carried on during the visitations I have lately made, that more business in the way of building and repairs has been done here than in any other one, possibly more than in any two of the other yards.

These observations, as made by Sandwich, doubtless formed the basis of a paragraph which appeared in a general account of all the yards that was presented to George III in 1774. Once again they relate to the value of Chatham as a building yard rather than that of being an operational naval base:

Although from the alteration of affairs of Europe [Chatham] cannot now be called the great naval arsenal of the kingdom … yet it is of no less importance than it was in every respect except that for speedy equipment of great ships, the uses of it being in every other respect improved, such as for building and repairing even large ships, from where they may occasionally be moved to Portsmouth and Plymouth, and is the properest station for laying up and equipping the greatest number of smaller ships, of the line, frigates and as in cases of sudden and great armaments, the greater the number of ports the fleet is divided to the better for expeditious equipment and getting them round to the general rendezvous.

As indicated, the most important of these various designated roles was that of warship construction. By 1772, Chatham had six building slips, a number only equalled by Deptford. The result was that during the final three decades of the eighteenth century, Chatham launched a total of thirty-five vessels; this far exceeded that of all other naval building yards in the country, in both number and total tonnage. Furthermore, due to this dedicated specialism, other shipbuilding yards were also attracted into the area, knowing that government contracts were easier to acquire if they were sited close to an existing naval dockyard. Apart from anything else, a naval warship that was constructed outside of a royal dockyard had to be regularly inspected by an assistant Master Shipwright employed in one of the yards. In addition, the vessel, once launched, would automatically be moved to a government yard for completion and final commissioning. For this reason, a number of private yards gravitated to the Rochester and Frindsbury area, these including Greaves and Nicholson, the yard that built Bellerophon. In being situated at Frindsbury, Greaves and Nicholson were immediately across the river from the naval dockyard at Chatham, a distance of less than 500 yards. Once constructed, Bellerophon had been taken across the river to the Chatham yard and immediately dry-docked for the purpose of tarring the hull prior to transfer to the dockyard Ordinary for fitting out.

With Chatham having become a significant building yard, as opposed to an operational naval base, there was a considerable financial downside. Government expenditure on the improvement of shore-based facilities was invariably directed to Portsmouth and Plymouth, with both these yards the recipient of major improvement programmes that were undertaken during the mid-eighteenth century. At Chatham, the workforce had to make do and mend, with only relatively minute sums being directed to their yard. Instead, older buildings that might have been replaced if found at one of the two strategic yards, were retained through the undertaking of frequent repair work. Although it was recognised that something eventually would have to be done, with the already cited report that was presented to George III in 1774 making the following point:

Those [buildings] now there have been very good when first built but as this was the yard that had any considerable building in it such as remain of those that were the first built are in a very decay’d state and must by degree as money can be spared from other services, be pulled down and rebuilt.

Little, however, was to be done at that time, Chatham having first to weather the War of American Independence (1775–83), with new building work only being undertaken on two new building slips and a number of timber drying sheds.

However, the inadequacies of Chatham were clearly demonstrated at this time. In September 1770, when a controversy arose over the frequently contested Falkland Islands, war with Spain was viewed as a distinct possibility. Orders were given for the fleet to be mobilised, with Chatham receiving instructions to prepare nine ships for Channel service. Despite the urgency, Chatham was quite unable to respond, with three of the dry docks already occupied while the fourth was out of use due to a long-term repair need to its own timberwork. Matters were further compounded by the absence of a masting hulk, a large vessel fitted with lifting gear and used to step into position the masts of warships being prepared for service. At that time, and serving as additional proof that facilities at Chatham needed considerable updating, the ageing Chatham mast hulk was itself occupying one of the dry docks, being also in considerable need of repair.

The ill-preparedness of Chatham at the time of the Falklands crisis was duplicated at the outset of the American War in 1775. Even before the actual declaration of hostilities, complaints were voiced that the dockyard was behind with work that had been allocated to it, a situation made worse by a shipwrights’ strike earlier in the year over the imposition of task work. With the situation in America rapidly deteriorating, the workload at Chatham increased. By the end of October warrants had been received from the Navy Board for the fitting out of eleven ships ‘for foreign service’, with three of the four dry docks allocated to this work. All seemed to be going reasonably well until the following summer. Upon examining the Old Single Dock in June 1776, a structure that had now seen 150 years of usage, extensive areas of wood rot were revealed. This had caused ‘the apron’, the ledge upon which the entrance gates rested, to start breaking up so that ‘the whole must be taken up, and piles drove to secure the groundways’. It was determined that this work must be immediately undertaken, with all available house carpenters transferred to the task and so delaying work due to have been undertaken on the thirty-two-gun Montreal.

With regard to Chatham’s important shipbuilding role, it was much easier to plan ahead, a sudden emergency less likely to impact upon plans that had often been agreed several years in advance. Indeed, those employed in building a particular vessel, in the event of a sudden fleet mobilisation could be moved from the construction of a new vessel to that of helping prepare a vessel that had been newly taken from the Ordinary. Most new construction work was undertaken on a building slip, this ensuring that all dry docks were available for the repairing and maintenance of ships as and when required. However, there were exceptions, with the larger first- and second-rate three-decked warships often being built in dry dock. Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, the 100-gun Victory, was one such example. She had been built in the Old Single Dock, having her keel first laid down in 1759 and eventually floated out in 1765. That she remained in dry dock for such a lengthy period underlines the problem of using the dry dock for new construction work, as it blocked use of this facility for the entire period of construction, including six months that was usually set aside for the vessel to season in frame. However, Victory’s long-term occupancy of the Old Single Dock was an exception, her period of seasoning having been extended by a change in the international situation. At the time she was laid down, the subsequently named Seven Years War (1756–63) was creating a considerable demand for such vessels and her construction was regarded as urgent. Following a series of stunning victories that took place in the same year as she was laid down, it was no longer felt necessary to complete her for immediate wartime service and for this reason she remained in dry dock for six years. In commemoration of those victories, the year 1759 became known as the Year of Victories, with the new first-rate under construction at Chatham taking her name from that particularly momentous year.

Three important documents relating to the construction of Victory are held at the National Maritime Museum and recently highlighted by the Chatham Historic Dockyard Society in their newsletter Chips. One relates to the naming of the ship and the other two to her successful launch. On 30 October 1760 the Navy Board informed the officers at Chatham dockyard:

The Right honourable the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty having directed us to cause the ships and sloops mentioned on the other side to be registered on the list of the Royal Navy by the names against each expressed; We direct you to cause them to be entered on your Books, and called by those names accordingly.

On the other side of the document were listed three ships that were then under construction at Chatham, these of 100, ninety and seventy-four guns and to be named respectively, Victory, London and Ramillies. As to the launch of Victory, the officers at Chatham received a further letter, this dated 30 April 1765:

The Master Shipwright having acquainted us that His Majesty’s Ship Victory building in the Old Single Dock will be ready to launch the ensuing Spring Tides. These are to direct and require you to cause her to be launched at that time accordingly if she is in all respects ready for it.

Confirming that this was carried out according to those instructions, Commissioner Hanway wrote to both the Navy Board and Admiralty informing them that Victory had been floated out of the Old Single Dock on 7 May, with this reply received from Philip Stephens, Secretary to the Board of Admiralty:

I have communicated to My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty your letter of the 6 & 7 inst. the former giving an Account of the Augusta being put out of the Dock, the latter of the Victory being safely launched yesterday.

Following her launch (or floating out), Victory spent the next thirteen years in the Ordinary, there being no particular need for a ship of her size during the years of peace that had followed the ending of the Seven Years War and the immediate opening years of the American War of Independence. It was not, therefore, until 1778 that she left the Medway, going on to serve in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. Following a further period in the Chatham Ordinary, she was called upon to serve in 1793 upon the outbreak of war with Revolutionary France. A further return to Chatham saw Victory entering dry dock in 1800 for what was termed a ‘middling’ repair. On inspection it was found that far more work would have to be carried out than had initially been anticipated. The ‘middling’ repair subsequently became a rebuild, at a cost of £70,933, with much of the hull and stern replaced, rigging and masts renewed and modifications made to the bulwark. Undocked on 11 April 1803, she was immediately ordered to Spithead where she was to wear the flag of Admiral Nelson. Still flying his flag, she went on to gain immortal fame in October 1805 when she, with Temeraire immediately to her stern, led the British fleet at Trafalgar.

The Battle of Trafalgar, 1836 oil on canvas by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield. Stanfield shows the damaged Redoutable caught between Victory (foreground) and Temeraire (seen bow on). Fougueux, coming up on Temeraire‘s starboard side, has just received a broadside.

While Chatham had four dry docks, all of them dating back to the seventeenth century, the building slips were considerably more recent in age. Admittedly the oldest had its origins in the previous century, but a second building slip of the same period had been replaced in 1738. To this original pair, a further two dry docks were added shortly after the Seven Years War, with a final pair built between 1772 and 1774. The fact of Chatham having only two building slips at the time of Victory being laid down is a further factor in explaining why she was built in dry dock rather than on a building slip, there being at that time neither a sufficient number of slips nor one of a size sufficient to take the new vessel. With the construction of four new slipways in a relatively short period of time, it ensured that dry docks would now have to be used even more infrequently for the construction of new vessels.

The Old Scots Navy I

If the three pillars of the medieval state comprised God, Pope and King, the Renaissance prince was a subtly different character from his forebears. Cunning and ruthlessness were expected, inspiration coming more from Machiavelli than Malory. James IV (1488–1513) was, in some ways, the mirror of the Renaissance ruler. He was cultured and learned, his interests eclectic: building and the arts, medicine and science (he was known to practise dentistry upon his courtiers). At the same time, he was romantically attached to the cult of chivalry. The founding of a Scots Royal Navy became one of his grandest passions. He was married to Henry VII of England’s daughter Margaret, thus Henry VIII became his brother-in-law. Both men had a yearning to strut upon the European stage, and tension escalated in 1513 when Henry was contemplating an expedition against France in support of the Holy See and the Emperor Maximilian.

James was placed in the invidious position of having to choose an ally, to continue sitting on the fence was politically unsustainable. The King of Scots chose to support the traditional friendship with France, and a series of ultimata delivered to Henry earned nothing but derision. This created the strategic backdrop to the Scots campaign in North Northumberland, one which was succeeding admirably in its key objective of diverting English forces from the Continent, till James took the fatal decision to fight at Flodden. This battle, fought on 9 September, was an unparalleled disaster. The Scottish army was outfought and suffered grievous loss, the cull falling heaviest on magnates and gentry. Slashed and hacked by bills, an arrow shot through his jaw, one hand virtually severed, James IV lay unnoticed among the piles of corpses.

A REVOLUTION IN SHIPBUILDING

In the course of the sixteenth century, warship design and construction underwent a significant revolution. Northern round ships or carracks, with a length twice the beam, were being built up to a weight of 1,000 tons. The fact that these ships were constructed as floating gun platforms brought out the final transition from converted merchantman to purpose-built man-of-war. They were multi-masted, multi-sailed and had sufficient weight to carry soaring timber castles, bearing an increased weight of ordnance. Both James IV and Henry VIII competed in a naval arms race in the early years of the sixteenth century. The ship which was to become most closely identified with Tudor navies was the race-built galleon. Sleeker and swifter than the carrack, two or two and a half times as long as it was broad, the height of the superstructures was reduced to produce a faster and more seaworthy vessel.

A passionate debate as to the best suited of these types for naval use raged throughout most of the century. More conservative-minded captains favoured the solid bulk of the grand-carrack. In close combat these enjoyed significant advantages. The castles provided excellent and lofty gun platforms, light pivot guns, hand guns and bows could shoot directly down onto the enemy deck and shooters enjoyed good protection. Even if she were boarded, the carrack’s defenders could maintain their position in the castles, making life distinctly uncomfortable for attackers. The crucial advantage enjoyed by the galleon was her superior sailing qualities. She could stand off and use her guns to batter the heavy carrack at a distance. The Spanish, whose ships were effectively floating forts, favoured the carrack, a castle on the waves.

By the end of the century, Revenge was regarded as a fine example of the race-built galleon. Her gun deck was around 100 feet, with a total length of about 120 feet. She was 32 foot across the beam, and her main ordnance was a score of truck-mounted culverins. Fixed firing platforms had now given way to a two-wheeled timber frame carrying guns with a barrel length of some 12 feet. As yet there was still no standardisation of calibres but the gun threw an 18-pound ball. The ships were all twin-deckers, and these heavier pieces were carried on the lower level while, on the upper, was mounted a further battery of smaller guns firing 10-pound shot. Ships of this period were crammed with ordnance, and the vessel could also house a dozen or more small muzzle-loaders (‘murderers’) throwing a 2-pound ball, earlier breech-loaders having now been phased out.

This general lack of standardisation was the curse of naval gunnery. Several times, during intense bouts of fighting in the course of the Armada battles in 1588, the English were rendered impotent for want of shot. Bruising and effective as the galleons’ fire proved against cumbersome carracks, the capital ships survived, though not without loss and considerable damage. Galleons, in order to keep the weight as low as possible, were built with the lower gun deck stepped down at rear to create a mezzanine type effect. This housed the two hindmost guns, which could be swung around as stern-chasers should circumstances dictate. Officers enjoyed elevated quarters, while the mariners were accommodated on the gun deck. Ships were also fitted with an ‘orlop’ deck: a further mezzanine, a couple of yards or so above the planking, which formed the quarters for the specialists on board, carpenter, surgeon and purser. In all, the vessel would require a crew of around 150, of whom 70 might be marines with 30-odd gunners.

Though Sir Richard Grenville’s epic stand on the shot-torn decks of Revenge is not a Scottish fight, Sir Walter Raleigh, in his subsequent report, gives a vivid impression of the conditions which obtained in sea-battles of this era:

All the powder of the ‘Revenge’ to the last barrel was now spent, all her pikes broken, forty of her best men slain, and the most part of the rest hurt. In the beginning of the fight she had but one hundred free from sickness, and fourscore and ten sick, laid in hold upon the ballast. A small troop to man such a ship, and a weak garrison to resist so mighty an Army. By those hundred all was sustained, the volleys, boardings, and enterings of fifteen ships of war, besides those which beat her at large. On the contrary the Spanish were always supplied with soldiers brought from every squadron: all manner of arms and powder at will. To ours there remained no comfort at all, no hope, no supply either of ships, men or weapons; the masts all beaten overboard, all her tackle cut asunder, her upper work altogether razed, and in effect she was evened with the water, only the very foundation or bottom of a ship, nothing being left over head either for flight of defence.

RESTLESS NATIVES

When James IV finally embarked upon the abolition of the Lordship in 1493, he doubtless contemplated the move as enabling him to cement royal power in the west. In this he was mistaken. The fall of Clan Donald ushered in an age, not of centralised authority but of murderous, internecine strife, the Lin na Creach (‘Age of Forays’). In the same year he kicked away the last supports of the tottering Macdonald hegemony in the west, James’s Parliament enacted that all coastal burghs should provide a well-founded vessel of not less than 20 tons with able-bodied mariners for her crew. To reinforce awareness that the ending of Clan Donald’s sway was but the beginning of a new extension of the business of the state, James led a fleet to the Isles in August, accompanied by Chancellor Angus and a fine train of magnates. At Dunstaffnage, where he stayed a mere 11 days, he may have accepted the surrender of some chiefs, reaffirming their holdings by royal charter. The Macdonalds were not completely over-reached; both Alexander of Lochalsh and John of Islay received knighthoods.

In 1495, accompanied by Andrew Wood and commanding Yellow Carvel and Flower, James cruised down the Firth of Lorn, through the Sound of Mull to MacIan of Ardnamurchan’s seat, Mingary Castle, where a quartet of powerful magnates bent their collective knee. These included such noted seafarers and pirates as MacNeil of Barra and Maclean of Duart. While James was diverted by his flirtation with the posturing Perkin Warbeck, this policy of treating with the chiefs was undone, largely by the avarice of Argyll, who preferred force to reason. Inevitably, this merely served to alienate the Islesmen, whose galleys conferred both force and mobility. In 1496, Bute had been taken up and disorders reached a level where the king felt obliged, once again, to assert his authority by launching a naval expedition. Indeed this was the only means whereby the chiefs could effectively be brought into line. A land-based expedition would accomplish nothing; Islesmen counted wealth and power in the number of their keels.

The king’s expedition of 1498 proceeded by way of Arran to his royal castles of Kilkerran, where he spent two months, and Tarbert. James, though he wished to impress his authority on the west, did not necessarily have much enthusiasm for the chore. For the royal writ to run in the west and to fill the gap in authority left by the collapse of the Lordship, power needed to be exercised by loyal and respected subordinates. Argyll had succeeded in alienating a number of the chiefs, including his own brother-in-law, Torquil MacLeod of Lewis, who was to become a fierce opponent. MacLeod had secured, by uncertain means, the keeping of the boy, Donald Dubh, would-be claimant to the defunct Lordship. Argyll was no more loved by Huntly, his successor as Lieutenant in the north-west and one who proved equally hungry for personal gain.

James was briefly diverted in 1501 by the near-fiasco of his Danish adventure and did not turn his gaze westwards again until the following year. That Torquil MacLeod should control the person of Donald Dubh was fraught with risk. MacLeod was summoned to appear, failed to do so and was outlawed as a consequence. Huntly was commissioned to take up Torquil’s confiscated estates, doubtless to Argyll’s fury, he being sidelined for failing to keep a grip on his own kinsman. Both Mackintosh and Mackenzie managed to escape from confinement, though the first was soon recaptured and the second killed. By 1503, disturbances had become widespread, and Huntly was engaged in wholesale dispossession of those who refused to submit. With Donald Dubh lending legitimacy to their cause (old John of the Isles died in January 1504), the rebels under Torquil struck back. Bute was again extensively despoiled.

Parliament, sitting in March 1504, commissioned Huntly to retrieve Eilean Donan and Strome castles, while a naval command, assembled under the ever vigilant eye of Sir Andrew Wood, was entrusted to Arran. The fleet was to reduce the rebels’ stronghold of Cairn na Burgh, west of Mull in the Isles of Treshnish. The capital ships, with a full complement of ordnance, soon proved their worth; naval gunnery swiftly reduced Cairn na Burgh. Few details of the siege have survived, but the operation would clearly have been a difficult one. The ships would come in as close as the waters permitted and deliver regular broadsides, essentially floating batteries. What weight of shot the rebels possessed is unclear; most likely it was not very great. Several rebel chiefs – Maclean of Lochbuie, MacQuarrie of Ulva and MacNeil of Barra – presently found themselves in irons. Gradually the power and authority of the crown was restored. These captured chiefs saw little prospect in continued defiance. Argyll was fully abetted by MacIan of Ardnamurchan, a ruthlessly effective pairing.

Argyll, now restored to his Lieutenancy, was prepared to be more diplomatic and, from 1506, there was a return to a more conciliatory policy, rewarding those chiefs prepared to submit, even some of those who’d been implicated or involved in the recent disturbances. MacIan too did well enough, though he had few friends in the Isles and his own advancement had to be checked to avoid the greater alienation of others, especially the Macleans. Torquil Macleod kept the rebel flame firmly alight, and his example helped to inspire dissidents. The Parliament summoned for early 1506 convicted him of treason. An expedition sent against him was to be led by Huntly and involved the hire of captains such as John Smollett and William Brownhill, with ordnance supplied from the royal train. The king and his advisors had planned on a campaign of two months’ duration to wrest Lewis from Macleod. In September, the king paid a sum of £30 to Thomas Hathowy as a fee for the hire of Raven, which had been engaged for service in the campaign. By September, it also seems likely that Huntly had succeeded in reducing Stornoway Castle and capturing Donald Dubh, though the wily MacLeod slipped the net and remained a fugitive until his death in 1511.

By now James IV was losing interest in the Isles. Control was best exercised through local magnates like Argyll, even if the Campbells, for all their avarice, were not possessed of an effective fleet of galleys. This deficiency was partly corrected by the cordial relations the earl enjoyed with the Macleans, anxious to see the ruin of Clan Donald fully accomplished in order that they might assume the mantle of a naval power among the clans. James had by now set his heart upon, and his mind towards, the creation of a Scottish national navy. In August 1506, he’d written to the King of France intimating that this naval project was a key objective. Scotland was a small kingdom, disturbed by the fissiparous tendencies of the Islesmen and magnatial factions. It was also a poor nation, lacking the resources of England. Nonetheless, during his reign, James bought, built or acquired as prizes taken by his buccaneering captains, nearly two score of capital ships, a very considerable total for the day.

TOWARDS A SCOTTISH NAVY

This proposed Scottish Navy was not a complete innovation. The king’s predecessors had been possessed of ships; as early as 1457 Bishop Kennedy of St Andrews owned the impressive Salvator – at 500 tons a very large vessel. Developments in naval architecture, influenced by advances in the science of gunnery, had necessitated the final differentiation between ships of war and merchantmen. The crown could no longer count upon assembling an effective fleet by hiring in merchant vessels and converting them to temporary service as men-of-war. Nations that sought to strut upon the wider stage required a navy as a tool of aggressive policy and a statement of intent. The fifteenth century had not witnessed any serious English interference before 1481–1482, and the prime consideration, in terms of sea power, was to protect Scottish ships against the unwelcome attention of privateers, for the most part English, who infested the North Sea like hungry sharks.

Richard of Gloucester’s campaigns showed how exposed the Firth of Forth and indeed the whole of the east coast were to a planned attack from the sea. Here, in the east, the problem was wholly different from that of the west. No Hebridean galleys disturbed the peace, but the Forth and Edinburgh were horribly exposed to English hostility. While Henry VII proved less inclined to attack Scotland than his despised predecessor and actually ran down the navy he’d acquired, the Perkin Warbeck crisis of 1497 highlighted the continuing exposure. Even when a more cordial atmosphere prevailed, the activities of privateers continued regardless; Andrew Wood and the Bartons persisted in their piratical activities as did their English opposites.

In 1491, the Scots Parliament empowered John Dundas to erect a fort on the strategically sited rock of Inchgarvie. Wood had already thrown up a defensive work at Largo. Conversely, the legislature had previously ordered the slighting of Dunbar Castle, the English occupation being the requisite spur (later, after 1497, the ubiquitous Wood was to oversee its rebuilding). Such defensive measures and the encouragement of privateers like Sir Andrew and the Bartons were entirely sound but, of themselves, insufficient to undertake coastal defence and the wider protection of the sea lanes. For this greater task, only a fleet would suffice. With James the creation of a navy rapidly rose to become a near-obsession; policy was overlaid with prestige. For the first ten years of his quarter-century reign, James spent under £1,500 Scots in total on his ships, a very modest outlay. This climbed to something in the order of £5,000 per annum after 1505, and by the end of the reign he was spending over £8,000 per annum on his new navy. To give a comparison, during the years he was on the throne, the king’s income roughly trebled but his expenditure on the navy increased sixty fold!

A switch of emphasis from west to east characterised James’s policy towards ships and shipbuilding. Dumbarton remained both as a base and a shipyard, but he considerably improved the facilities of Leith’s existing dockyards, constructed a new yard at the New Haven (Newhaven) and, latterly, another at the Pool of Airth. Not only did Scotland lack adequate facilities for the construction of larger men-o’-war, but she lacked the requisite craftsmen and these had to be imported, primarily from France. In November 1502, the Treasurer’s accounts reveal the hire of a French shipwright, John Lorans, working at Leith under the direction of Robert Barton. This first importation was soon complemented by others. Jennen Diew and then Jacques Terrell were engaged and, due to a shortage of hardwood, obliged to source timber for their new keels abroad. In June 1506, the great ship Margaret (named after the king’s Tudor consort) slid into the placid waters of the Forth. This vessel was a source of great pride to the king – as indeed she might be, the cost of her construction had gobbled up a quarter of a whole year’s royal revenue. She was four-masted, weighed some 600 or 700 tons and bristled with ordnance. James’s chivalric obsession with the panoply of war found a natural outlet in the building of his great ships. He appointed himself Grand Admiral of the Fleet and dined aboard the Margaret, wearing the gold chain and whistle of his new office.

The fiasco of the Danish expedition in 1502 acted as a further spur towards creating a purpose-built navy. This botched intermeddling represented an attempt by James, at least in part, to establish himself and his realm as a player on the wider European stage. The result was scarcely encouraging and, despite the ‘spin’ placed upon the outcome, the affair proved something of a debacle. In 1501–1502, King Hans of Denmark found he was confronted by rebellious subjects in his client territories of Norway and Sweden and had lost control of a swathe of key bastions, including the strategically significant hold of Askerhus near Oslo. James was bound to the Danes by earlier treaty, and the situation raised possibilities for a decisive intervention by the Scots. The king hurried to make preparations for an expedition: Eagle and Towaich were made ready, together with Douglas and Christopher. The total cost of the fleet and accompanying troops was a whopping £12,000, and the burden fell on the Scottish taxpayers. From the start there were difficulties. Lord George Seton had been paid to make ready his vessel Eagle, but his part ended in acrimonious litigation and impounding of the ship, which does not ever appear to have weighed anchor. Raising the requisite number of infantry, ready to serve in the proposed campaign, proved arduous; far from the number of 10,000 postulated, it seems unlikely that the force amounted to more than a fifth of that total.

When the truncated fleet finally sailed towards the latter part of May, 1502 it comprised Douglas, Towaich, Christopher, together (possibly) with Jacat and Trinity, under the flag of Alexander, Lord Hume, wily borderer and chamberlain. In the two months of campaigning, little was in reality, achieved. The Scots likely suffered loss in an abortive escalade of Askerhus. Others sat down before Bahus and Elvsborg. A significant number simply deserted. For James, who’d had equal difficulties in securing payment of the taxes due to fund the business, there was nothing but frustration, tinged with humiliation. This was not at all what he’d envisaged.

Construction of Margaret was followed by the commissioning of Treasurer, built by Martin le Nault of Le Conquet at a further cost of £1,085 Scots. More vessels were purchased including Robert Barton’s Colomb, which was quickly engaged in the west, cruising from Dumbarton under the capable John Merchamestone to recover Brodick Castle, seat of the Earl of Arran, seized by Walter Stewart. When King James wrote to Hans of Denmark in August 1505, he had to concede that he had no capital ships available, such were the demands of home service, making good storm damage, wear and tear, with other vessels detached on convoy duty. In part, this deficiency could and had to be made up by hire or joint venture agreements with merchants/privateers such as the Bartons, but it was clear more capital ships were needed. By 1507, work on the construction of the New Haven was already far advanced and the king was considering the possibilities of Pool of Airth, well to the west of the fort at Invergarvie and thus far more sheltered from attack. By the autumn of 1511, three new docks had been built under the direction of Robert Callendar, Constable of Stirling Castle, who had received £240 Scots to meet the costs involved.

Impressive as the construction of the great ship Margaret had been and as much as she represented the best in contemporary warship design, she was insufficient to satisfy James’s obsession with capital ships. As early as 1506, the king had engaged James Wilson of Dieppe, a Scottish shipwright working in France, to begin sourcing suitable timbers for a yet larger project. This new vessel, Michael, was to define the Scots Navy of James IV. A later chronicler estimates its cost as not less than £30,000 Scots, a truly vast outlay. Finding adequate supplies of timber to build her hull and furnish the planking gobbled up much of Scotland’s natural resource with much else imported besides. She would have weighed at least 1,000 tons with a length of 150–180 feet. Her main armament probably totalled 27 great guns with a host of smaller pieces, swivels and handguns. Henry VIII, not to be outdone in what was developing into a naval arms race, commissioned Great Harry, which went into the water a year later. For James this was imitation as flattery; the fact that Michael was afloat, moved Scotland into the first rank of maritime powers. A Scots Navy had now fully ‘arrived’. The new ship took to the water for the first time on 12 October 1511. She had been nearly five years in the making and carried a full complement of around 300 of whom 120 were required to serve the great guns.

James took an enormous pride in his flagship. At that moment, she was likely the most powerful and advanced warship that had ever sailed. Her very existence heralded Scotland as a European power. His nascent navy now comprised in addition to Michael and Margaret, the capital ships Treasurer and James with smaller but still potent men-of-war in Christopher and Colomb, plus a couple of substantial row-barges and lesser craft. This royal squadron could be further up-gunned by the private vessels of the Bartons and seafarers such as Brownhill, Chalmers, Falconer and, of course, Sir Andrew Wood. Not only had the king created a navy, but the sea was his passion to a far greater extent than appears to have been the case with any of his forebears. It was thus the crowning irony of his reign that this fine instrument of war was never really tested in battle. For James, the great trial came on land, in the rain, at the end of a wet summer in September 1513, not on some great field of European destiny but the habitual graveyard of North Northumberland. The catastrophe of Flodden cast a perpetual dark shadow over the king’s memory, his creation of a Scottish navy a mere footnote by comparison. In the final, dolorous act, the regency council sold Michael to their French allies for something less than half of what she’d cost to construct. It was an ignominious and inglorious ending to so great an enterprise.

What then did James achieve, if anything? For a brief and untried moment he projected the image of Scotland as a power of the first rank, or very close, a status she had not enjoyed before and would not resume. The cost in treasure to the nation had been very considerable, though the yards provided much employment and created a more sophisticated shipbuilding industry. It is true that, during his reign, no successful attacks were launched against the Forth. Lack of a naval presence would bear bitter fruit during the harrying of the Rough Wooing in the 1540s. To that extent, James’s policy of aggressive defence was a success, and his victories over the dissident clans and Islesmen in the west should not be overlooked. In spite of these very real achievements, it is impossible to escape the fact that this fledgling navy did not survive his violent death. The construction of the fleet had been due in no small part to the French alliance and the king’s ability to source skilled men and sound materials from French ports and forests. Had the disaster at Flodden not occurred, the naval history of Scotland might have followed a different course. In those few hours of frenzied, doomed carnage James and his realm lost all he had created.

Muslims in the Indian Ocean I

The Dhow is not an Arab ship, it is a veritable family of vessels sharing common characteristics, such as the hull, large (about 4 to 1), with straight cut lines, with three masterpieces whose bow, long and the keel, and the stern, less inclined, and one or two masts carrying sails Latin-setie.

The smallest ones are only eight meters for 50 tons. The larger ones, like the Baghala, up to 500 tons and more. Their construction has not varied since their appearance, presumably in the late Middle Ages. Dams were rarely decked to maximize load carrying. It was a coaster, which could be stranded on the shore, and resume the sea with the tide every day, like the cargo ships of antiquity.

Indian Sailing Boats. New mount. Produced by Thomas Daniell (artist).

The rise of Islam in the Hijaz in the early seventh century affected the Indian Ocean in several important ways. Describing these changes will be the main concern of this chapter, which uses material from the period up to the end of the fifteenth century. In this period there was both continuity and change. It would certainly be incorrect to write of an Islamic period or ocean. Many others traded and travelled, and coastal routes remained relatively unchanged. However, over a few centuries most of the population of the coasts of the Indian Ocean became Muslims, so that a large share of both coastal and oceanic trade was handled by the adherents of this new religion. It was much more centralised than was either Hinduism or Buddhism. This was especially manifested in the requirement, one of the most basic tenets of the faith, that if at all possible Muslims should perform the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in a lifetime. A Muslim community developed around the shores of the Indian Ocean, linked by religion, whose commonality, while this must not be exaggerated, was created and reinforced by travelling scholars. Yet Islam’s success was to a large extent a result of its tolerance of local traditions, so that scholars distinguish between prayers and other religious activities in the mosque, and those performed outside it. Rather than the coastal populations converting to Islam, they accepted it.

What was the attitude of the new religion to sea matters and to merchants? As to the latter, the normative position was well set out by the great fourteenth century social scientist Ibn Khaldun. He claimed countrymen were morally superior to townsmen, with merchants lower again: ‘traders must buy and sell and seek profits. This necessitates flattery and evasiveness, litigation and disputation, all of which are characteristic of this profession. And these qualities lead to a decrease and weakening in virtue and manliness.’ Some claim that normative Islam had a similarly negative attitude to sea travel. The Arabs as men of the desert used to be the prevalent western stereotype: they rode camels, not ships. Today we realise that Muslims had an early and very successful interest in sea trade. The first Arab sea migration was to Abyssinia, in the time of the prophet. On several occasions in the previous chapter we described Arabs engaging in extensive sea voyages. This continued when Arabs became Muslims.

Authentic Islamic sources display a positive attitude to the sea. The Quran itself has several passages which speak approvingly of sea trade and maritime matters. As the Holy Book says, ‘And of His signs is this: He sendeth herald winds to make you taste His mercy, and that the ships may sail at His command, and that ye may seek His favour, and that haply ye may be thankful.’ And again: ‘your Lord is He who driveth for you the ship upon the sea that ye may seek of His bounty’ or ‘Allah it is Who hath made the sea of service unto you that the ships may run thereon by His command, and that ye may seek of His bounty.’ And again: ‘It is He who subjected to you the sea, that you may eat of it fresh flesh, and being forth out of it ornaments for you to wear, and thou may best see the ships cleaving through it, and that you may seek of His bounty, and so haply you will be thankful.’ Similarly, the Caliph Umar II was quoted as saying ‘Dry land and sea belong alike to God; He hath subdued them to His servants to seek of his bounty for themselves in both of them.’

We have seen that the Indian Ocean was already a place of movement, circulation, contacts and travel over great distances. It could be that Islam fits well into this sort of environment. Later Malay literature powerfully links notions of the sea, God, man and the transitory nature of the world. The sea is a trope for Islam. ‘O Seeker, this world is like a wave. God’s condition is like the sea. Even though the wave is different from the sea, it is in reality nothing but the sea.’

We now have much more detail on the ships venturing out over our ocean. At the most humble level, even today one sees coastal fishers, some merely astride a log, rising and falling, vanishing and appearing, in the swell. Coastal craft, used by fisherfolk, and as lighters to take people and goods to larger ships standing off shore where no harbour or estuary was available, were described in the previous chapter. These accounts related mostly to the east coast of India, where the lack of good harbours necessitated lighters. Over much of the rest of the littoral there were estuaries or harbours, and it was here that the famous dhows were found. These larger ships however had many of the characteristics of the coastal craft we have previously described.

The term ‘dhow’ is used by westerners for a variety of craft, large and small, which dominated most trade and navigation in the western Indian Ocean for centuries. There are many different types, depending on size and location, yet they did share enough common characteristics for us to use a generic term for them. The actual word is not Arabic. It probably comes from the Persian word dawh. They have attracted much attention from a truly international array of scholars. These ‘traditional’ dhows were found all over the western Indian Ocean, that is from east Africa around to south India, and at times much further east. This type of ship long-predates the arrival of Islam. It presumably has Gulf or Red Sea origins, but we know little about ships before Islam.

Marco Polo, writing about Hurmuz, left a detailed, accurate, and rather negative account:

Their ships are wretched affairs, and many of them get lost; for they have no iron fastenings, and are only stitched together with twine made from the husk of the Indian nut [coconut]. They beat this husk until it becomes like horse-hair, and from that they spin twine, and with this stitch the planks of the ship together. It keeps well, and is not corroded by the sea-water, but it will not stand well in a storm. The ships are not pitched, but are rubbed with fish oil. They have one mast, one sail, and one rudder, and have no deck, but only a cover spread over the cargo when loaded. This cover consists of hides, and on the top of these hides they put the horses which they take to India for sale. They have no iron to make nails of, and for this reason they use only wooden trenails in their shipbuilding, and then stitch the planks with twine as I have told you. Hence ’tis a perilous business to go a voyage in one of those ships, and many of them are lost, for in that Sea of India the storms are often terrible.

A Muslim pilgrim in the Red Sea in the late twelfth century left a rather similar account. Ibn Jubayr wrote:

The jilab that ply on this Pharaonic sea [that is, the Red Sea from Aydhab to Jiddah] are sewn together, no nails at all being used on them. They are sewn with cord made from… the fibre of the coconut and which the makers thrash until it takes the form of thread, which then they twist into a cord with which they sew the ships. These they then caulk with shavings of the wood of palm-trees. When they have finished making a jilabah in this fashion, they smear it with grease, or castor oil, or the oil of the shark, which is best. This shark is a huge fish which swallows drowning men. Their purpose in greasing the boat is to soften and supple it against the many reefs that are met with in that sea, and because of which nailed ships do not sail through it. The wood for these parts is brought from India and the Yemen, as is the coconut fibre. A singular feature of these jilab is that their sails are woven from the leaves of the muql tree [a kind of gum-tree], and their parts are conformably weak and unsound in structure. Glory to God who contrives them in this fashion and who entrusts men to them. There is no God but He.’

What then are the main characteristics of these craft? As these contemporaries pointed out, teak from Malabar in southwest India was used almost universally, for this was highly resistant to decay, and provided it was treated properly, along the lines suggested by Ibn Jubayr, it would not split, crack or shrink in salt water. This wood was used to make a hull using the carvel method: that is, the wooden planks of the hull were laid edge to edge, not overlapping as in western ships. They were held together by coir fibre stitching which passed through holes in the planks. There was no iron or bolts, and no ribbing or framework. However, wooden dowels were used, at least on the bigger boats, for strength. The hull was made watertight by inserting resin or other materials between the planks. This has to be differentiated from the European practice of caulking, which was done after the ship was assembled. They had no keels, but instead used either sandbags, or heavy parts of the cargo, as ballast in the bottom of the hold. These dhows had stern post rudders, with ropes attached, not a tiller. One pulled on ropes to steer the vessel. Most had only one mast, and a sail made of matting, though late in our period cloth was also beginning to be used.

The hulls were double ended rather than having square, transom, sterns. On the largest dhows there may have been a raised poop deck, with cabins underneath, but most often the holds were open and there was no deck. As Correia observed in Cannanor around 1500:

in lieu of decks, the hold was built up with huts and compartments for merchandise, covered with plaited palm-leaf thatch, acting as a roof; the water would flow down to their sides, then along the hull and gather at the bottom of the hold where it could be bailed out, thus not wetting the merchandise which was kept well packed into these compartments. On top of these thatched roofs, they would dispose strong cane lattice-work, on which one could walk without damaging the huts below…. People have their lodgings on top, for nobody stays below, where the merchandise is found.

Remarkably heavy cargo, camels, horses, even elephants, could be carried.

The lack of metal in the construction excited much comment, most of it negative, from European observers, such as Marco Polo who we quoted above. The fabulist Sir John Mandeville claimed they did not use nails as there were magnetic islands which would draw to them any ship which contained metal. At first glance the lack of metal condemns dhows as primitive craft indeed, yet their method of construction was well suited to conditions in the Indian Ocean. As Ibn Battuta wrote, ‘The Indian and Yemenite ships are sewn together with them, for that sea is full of reefs, and if a ship is nailed with iron nails it breaks up on striking the rocks, whereas if it is sewn together with cords, it is given a certain resilience and does not fall to pieces.’ In Cambay he wrote of the Gulf that ‘it is navigable for ships and its waters ebb and flow. I myself saw the ships lying on the mud at ebb-tide and floating on the water at high tide.’ Their flexibility, thanks to the coir, meant that they were well adapted to the sandy shores of large parts of the Indian Ocean littoral. They could be driven ashore by storms, or deliberately to unload cargo or undergo repairs or careening, and even in the breakers off the Coromandel coast their flexibility enabled them to ‘give’ and survive, where a more rigidly built ship would have shattered.

A considerable quantity of coir thread or rope was needed: Tim Severin built a quite small replica dhow, yet it used up about 400 miles of rope! The coir had to be kept in salt water to prevent deterioration, as Bowrey noted:

The Cables, Strapps, &c. are made of Cayre, vizt. the Rhine of Coco nuts very fine Spun, the best Sort of which is brought from the Maldiva Isles. They are as Stronge as any hempen Cables whatever, and much more durable in these hott climates, with this provisor, that if they chance to be wet with fresh water, either by raine or rideinge in a fresh River, they doe not let them drye before they wett them well in Salt water, which doth much preserve them, and the Other as much rott them.

The coconut tree was a great provider of useful products. Indeed, in the Maldive and Laccadive islands ships were built entirely from this tree: the hull, masts, stitches, ropes, and sails. As noted, most other areas used teak for the hulls, but the sails were usually woven from the leaves of palm or coconut trees; cotton sailcloth apparently came in later, though possibly before 1500.

These sails were the famous triangular lateen sails so evident even today in the Indian Ocean. The name is a misnomer, as it comes from the time of the Crusades, when western Europeans first saw them, and called them the Latin sail, from the French une voile latine. They had been used by the Arabs for some centuries before the Common Era, and were the first sails which allowed a ship to beat into the wind. As compared with European square sails, a lateen rigged ship can sail well with the wind abeam, that is 90° against the direction of travel, and even reasonably well with the wind forward of the beam, at 50° or even 60° off the bow. Some authorities say dhows tack straight across the wind as a modern yacht does, but in fact they changed course by wearing around, stern to wind, instead of tacking.

Lateen sails are often described as a ‘gift of the Arabs’ to western sailors. However, Campbell claims that they developed independently in several places. Their origin may be from Persia, rather than pre-Islamic Arabia, and it could be that they reached the Mediterranean via Persia. They were found in the Mediterranean from the beginning of the Common Era, and he suggests that Arabs then learnt to use them from earlier users in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Very similarly shaped sails evolved independently in eastern Indonesia and were used in the great voyages in the Pacific by Austronesian peoples which we mentioned in the previous chapter (page 60). Campbell claims that they are not particularly effective sails anyway, though this obviously raises the question of why they were used for so many centuries.

To make the dhow watertight was only one reason for treating the wood. Equally important was to deter the accumulation of barnacles and other growths on the hull. Of these, the most dangerous was teredo, or shipworm, a ravenous mollusc which wreaked havoc in tropical waters. Severin described their rapid penetration. He found that if it was not treated, the timber in his replica dhow was nearly destroyed after two months. Even after this short time wormholes as big as knitting needles appeared, and one could snap with bare hands panels 2½ inches thick.

The traditional solution was to smear the hull every two months or so with a combination of boiled animal or fish fat and crushed lime. In the absence of dry docks this required running the vessel aground, but thanks to the flexibility of the construction this could be done easily and safely. There were two processes involved. The carvel method of construction meant that resin was used to fill gaps between the planks while the boat was being built, but then the process of greasing and smearing was done routinely during the life of the vessel.

The navigator of the dhow in our period, such as the famous fifteenth century sailor Ibn Majid, was the mu’allim, who sailed the ship and was responsible for what happened on board. He checked the fitting out, stores, gear, and loading. He was in charge of the crew and passengers, looked after their safety and health and solved their quarrels. All this was laid down in the contract drawn up before the ship left. It was required to take a set number of passengers, and a set quantity of their effects. There were also bills of lading governing the cargo. His duty of care ended when he got the ship back to its home port. Ibn Majid also advised the captain to

Be quick to make a decision…. It is necessary when you sail to be clean…. Forbid all those who sail from making fun of others on the sea; it will only result in evil, hatred and enmity and he who does this continually will not be spared from grudge or hatred or contempt…. Consult other people and improve your own opinion.

Dhows of one sort or another were the dominant form all over the western Indian Ocean. Their sizes covered a wide range, from less than 50 tons up to perhaps 500. Different sizes had different names. A major variation was the ships built in Gujarat, which in the period before Europeans were the largest in this region, being up to 800 tons, and on average 300 to 600 tons. By contrast, when Magellan set off to sail around the world he had five ships, the largest of which was only 120 tons and 31 metres long. In 1577 Drake sailed out of Plymouth with three ships. One was a bit over 100 tons, the other two only 80 and 30 tons. The early Portuguese found these Gujarati ships to be formidable indeed: ‘these ships are so powerful and well armed and have so many men that they dare to sail this route [from Melaka to the Red Sea] without fear of our ships.’ While these large Gujarati ships still usually had no deck, their construction was different, as a process called rabetting, rather like tongue and groove, was used to join the planks together. An English traveller around 1750 praised these ships highly:

Surat ships last much longer than Europe ships, even a century, because they are so solidly built, the planks in their bottom and sides being let into one another in the nature of rabbet work. The knees are natural shape not warped, or forced by fire. Teak is as good as oak, and bottoms rubbed with wood oil keep planks from decay.

The ‘True Frigate’ 1748-1778 Part I

The 1745 Establishment was largely about battleships. The Admiralty’s main concern in appointing the Norris committee was to improve the ships of the battlefleet, and in particular to have the much-maligned three-decker 80-gun ships superseded by what they called ‘two and a half decked ships’ – French and Spanish style 74s. A less overt agenda was to force the retirement of the aged and autocratic Surveyor, Sir Jacob Acworth, who was virtually omnipotent in matters of design. In both they failed: the committee refused to give up the 80s, and the best that could be achieved with Acworth was to appoint a professional rival, Joseph Allin, as joint Surveyor in 1747. The Admiralty lost confidence in the 1745 ships before any had entered the water, and took steps to circumvent the provisions of the new establishment before it even came into force.

The most influential critic of current ship design was Anson, who balanced his Admiralty duties with command of the new Western Squadron, which was evolving a more aggressive strategy that involved a main fleet being kept down-Channel (effectively, to windward with the prevailing westerlies) where it could protect the incoming trade and be ready to swoop on any French squadron venturing out from Brest. This required stronger and more seaworthy ships, as it was planned to keep the fleet at sea for longer and to operate in almost any weather; equally, its success depended on good intelligence of French movements, so there was a renewed emphasis on the reconnaissance role of frigates. No existing British Fifth or Sixth Rate was up to the task, and Anson’s judgement was scathing – ‘all our frigates sail wretchedly’ – but he had a radical proposal: copy a captured French ship.

The notion of British ships built to the lines of French prizes was to become very familiar, so it is difficult to appreciate that at the time it was completely unprecedented. It was indeed a revolutionary idea, but Anson wanted a revolutionary ship, and he knew he would never get one through official channels. However, his initiative was carefully considered, the combined product of extensive private correspondence with some of the more forward-thinking shipwrights and his personal experience of the performance of captured French cruisers in his fleet. These were longer, lower and more lightly built than anything in the Royal Navy and British naval officers were greatly impressed by their speed and weatherliness.

Although its significance only became evident in retrospect, French designers had achieved an important advance by a subtle alteration in the layout of ‘two-decked’ cruisers. British 24s had a heavily framed full-height lower deck, necessary to fight the guns and to allow rowing with standing oarsmen; the position of the deck itself was determined by the need for a safe freeboard to the ports. By contrast, in the latest French ships the lower deck was little more than a light platform, with much reduced headroom, and the deck itself, at its lowest point, positioned just below the waterline. This compressed the height of the topside, while the forecastle and quarterdeck were unarmed and had virtually no barricades or rails to catch the wind; combined with fine lines and light framing, this made for fast and weatherly ships. Credit for this innovation goes to Blaise Ollivier, the constructor at Brest, and was first applied in 1741 to the Medée of twenty-six 8pdrs. This formula was eventually adopted by all the major navies, and was dubbed the ‘true frigate’ form, in retrospect, by naval historians.

Four of the first eight such ships were captured during the war, and the largest of them, the 746-ton Ambuscade, soon established a fine reputation with Anson’s fleet. However, the ship Anson proposed to copy was not a national frigate, but a privateer called the Tygre, at 576 tons closer to the 24-gun ships he wanted to replace. Acting on the advice of Benjamin Slade, the Master Shipwright at Plymouth, he chose this ship because ‘she has a great character [ie reputation] for sailing’ and although the Admiralty decided against purchasing the Tygre herself, they instructed Slade to take off the lines ‘in the most exact manner’ and ‘have a perfect draught drawn thereof, and to take an exact account of all the scantlings, dimensions, form and manner of framing, scarphs, fastenings and every particular relating to her hull, masts and yards’. Then on 29 April 1747 two new 24-gun ships were ordered to be built ‘without the least deviation’ from this draught, one at Deptford and one by Slade himself at Plymouth, such being the priority that they were to be ‘carried on in preference to all other new works’.

Both launched in December 1748, they became Unicorn (Plymouth) and Lyme (Deptford). Carrying only twenty-four 9pdrs on the upper deck, they were the first British ships of this new frigate form.

The First 12-pounder Frigates

The Unicorn and Lyme set a number of important administrative precedents: first, that the Admiralty could depart from the Establishment if it felt the need; second, that it could determine the design (by insisting that a particular model be copied); and third, by extrapolation, that in future there would always be more than one source of design. Henceforth, there were always to be at least two Surveyors during wartime, and when there was only a single incumbent, he was supported by a highly regarded Assistant Surveyor who was clearly seen as a full Surveyor-in-waiting. In this case, the comparative principle was honoured by allowing Acworth and Allin, the two Surveyors in post, to design their own alternatives to the French-derived pair, equally untrammelled by Establishment restrictions. Both the resulting Seahorse from Acworth and Allin’s Mermaid were a conceptual halfway house between the old 24s and the new frigate form – they had no gunports on the lower deck but, having much the same headroom between decks, the height of side was not significantly reduced, and being shorter than the Unicorns, they did not perform so well. When the time came to build more Sixth Rates in 1755, there was no debate about which model to chose, and two slightly modified Unicorns were ordered. Now rated 28s, this type became the standard light cruiser for over two decades

In the interim a parallel argument was developing about the Navy’s heavy cruiser, the two-decker 44-gun ship. As early as 1747 the Navy Board was fending off suggestions that a frigate-form ship would be preferable, arguing – as they had in defence of the three-decker 80 – that multiple decks made them better fighting ships: there was more room on the gundecks to work the guns, and the crews were better protected than those on the long exposed quarterdecks and forecastles of frigates. They were prepared to admit that, being taller and more heavily built, British 44s were not such good sailers, but they denied that they could not open the lower deck ports in any sort of seaway – their lower tier could be opened in ‘any fighting weather’ and their battery of twenty 18pdrs was superior to the thirty 12pdrs proposed. Furthermore, as these two-deckers were often convoy escorts as well as cruisers their defensible qualities were as important as speed under sail.

As so often, France took the lead by building the Hermione, the first 12pdr frigate, in 1748, and thereafter no more French two-decker 40s were ordered. However, there was clearly a degree of uncertainty about the ideal size, armament, and even design features, of the new type. The first ship, measuring 811 tons by British calculation, had an unusually deep hull, with six ports on the lower deck when captured in 1758 (although none was armed; the ship may have been built with oar ports on this deck) and a main battery of twenty-six 12pdrs. The next ship was rather smaller with only twenty-four guns, while the two after that were far larger and carried thirty 12pdrs. There was never to be a remotely standard French 12pdr frigate, although a typical ship would measure about 900 tons and carry twenty-six 12pdrs and six 6pdrs on the quarterdeck.

By contrast the Royal Navy knew exactly what it wanted from its first 12pdr frigates, the specification being ships of about 650 tons and a battery of twenty-six 12pdrs; the dimensions did not vary by more than about 10 per cent during the three decades such ships were built. The disparity in size was partly the product of the typical British policy of building the smallest viable unit (so the maximum number could be built for any given budget), but in any case the true comparison is not with the handful of 12pdr ships France built before 1764 but the substantial numbers of large but 8pdr-armed frigates that formed the core of the French frigate force during the Seven Years War.

By 1755 both Acworth and Allin were dead and had been replaced by joint Surveyors of a far younger generation in Thomas Slade and William Bately. Following the new comparative policy, each was set to produce a draught to the same general specification for a 32-gun ship of about 125ft on the gundeck. Bately, a competent but unoriginal thinker, produced a slightly longer, narrower and shallower hull form based on a long-established fast-sailing tradition preserved in the yacht Royal Caroline but ultimately derived from Lord Danby’s work at the beginning of the century. His Richmond was a modest success, despite not being as fast as expected, and six ships were built to this draught during the war; astonishingly, the design was revived in 1804 for a further eight ships when it was decidedly obsolescent, although it has to be said that at the time a small, cheap design was politically expedient.

Slade, who by both contemporary and historical judgement was to become the best British ship designer of the century, did not excel with his first frigate class. Apparently a genuinely ab initio design based on no existing model, the Southampton class were strong, good sea-boats and performed well in heavy weather, but lacked speed. However, Slade’s most notable characteristic as a designer was a constant search for improvement, a self-critical faculty manifest in the many alterations to be found on his draughts. Often the advance was incremental – as seen in the many variants on his standard 74-gun ship classes – but in this case he took an entirely different starting point, developing the lines from the Tygre-derived 28s for the next class. As alternatives, he had offered the Admiralty an improved Southampton or a hull based on the extreme French form of the Amazon, the 20-gun Panthère captured in 1746, but as he was called to the Admiralty to discuss the options, it is highly likely that the final decision was largely based on his own preference. It was a good choice: the resulting Niger design provided the best British 12pdr class and, in terms of fitness for purpose, probably the best frigates of the Seven Years War. They were fast, weatherly, very handy and strongly built; more of them (eleven) were ordered than any other design, and it is entirely appropriate that when Lord Sandwich commissioned a spectacular structural model he chose one of these to be the subject. The Winchelsea model [SLR0339], complete on the starboard side but with the port side unplanked to reveal how such ships were built, was presented to George III in 1774 as part of Sandwich’s campaign to interest the King in his navy.

All the demands that were to be placed on heavier frigates during the war were met, and with total satisfaction, by the 12pdr 32; but before this became clear there were a couple of trials with more powerful ships. In July 1756 three enlarged Southamptons were ordered as the Pallas class and rated as 36-gun ships. At around 720 tons, they were about 11 per cent larger (and because costs were calculated on a £ per ton basis, more expensive pro rata) yet they offered only four extra 6pdrs by way of firepower benefit over the standard 32. No more 12pdr 36s were ever ordered.

More radical was an attempt to find out if Slade could make an acceptable cruiser out of the two-decker 44, the single example being launched as the Phoenix in 1759. Longer and narrower than its 1745 Establishment predecessors, this ship was the only 44 built during the Seven Years War, so even the advantage of an 18pdr main battery was not considered valuable at this time.

By 1757 Slade enjoyed the complete confidence of the Admiralty and was allowed considerable autonomy over ship design, totally eclipsing Bately in the process. He was permitted to build a frigate on extreme French principles – ‘stretching’ the Tygre hull form by 10ft and using very lightweight framing – and the resulting 32-gun Tweed showed all the advantages and disadvantages of the French philosophy: she was fast, very wet, tender (lacking stability) and short-lived. It was almost as though Slade was providing his masters at the Admiralty with an object lesson in how to prioritise their requirements.

Slade’s final contributions to frigate design had a curious provenance. In 1757 the Navy had captured a very large 950-ton ‘frigate’ constructed in Quebec. Everything about this ship was strange – including her name, L’Abenakise, which the English tried to render as Bon Acquis or Bien Acquis, although she actually celebrated the Abenaki tribe, one of the principal Indian allies of French Canada. The ship herself, though new-built, was a demi-batterie ship, like the purpose-designed commerce-raiders of half a century earlier, with eight 18pdrs on the lower deck and twenty-eight 12s above. Despite the anachronistic layout, Slade inspected the ship and, ‘approving very much of the form of her body’, suggested that she would provide the model for an improved frigate design. Slade’s enthusiasm was so infectious that the Admiralty ordered draughts prepared for five new classes, from a 74 to a sloop. This required a further lesson for Their Lordships on the difficulty of simply scaling a set of lines up or down, but the resulting designs utilised the principles of the French form and were described as ‘nearly similar to the Aurora’, as the prize had been renamed.

Both new frigate designs, the 28-gun Mermaid and the 32-gun Lowestoffe were slightly larger than existing ships but not the radical improvement Slade had hoped for.