Dutch Navy


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

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

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

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

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

Russia’s Nuclear-Powered Icebreaker Lider

By TASS Russian news agency

The icebreaker has to become operational in 2027 when the economic crisis is likely to end and the competition of the global players for Polar resources and the shortest Northern Sea Route from the Pacific to the Atlantic would resume.

Historically, Russia enjoys a priority in the Arctic development, but other countries may ignore it if there is nothing to back the claim. The Russian Defense Ministry copes with the task and is rebuilding military infrastructure in the Arctic. Another argument is a powerful icebreaker fleet to ensure full-scale activities in the Arctic in conditions of global warming.

An unequalled group of icebreakers has ensured Russian economic interests in Arctic latitudes until recently. The United States and China announced the construction of icebreakers and ice-class vessels, including warships for Arctic operations.

Iceberg Design Bureau produced the project of a new Russian nuclear icebreaker. It will be powered by RITM-400 reactor created by OKBM Africantov bureau in Nizhny Novgorod. It is a leading enterprise of Rosatom nuclear corporation.

Project 10510 icebreaker will lead big-displacement vessels with a deadweight of over 100000 tons and a width of over 50 meters along the Northern Sea Route year-round. The propulsion is provided by four four-blade fixed-pitch propellers. The Leader can break 4.3-meter thick ice at the minimal stable speed of 1.5-2 knots. The speed in 2-meter thick ice is 12 knots. The food stocks allow the icebreaker to sail for eight months. The crew comprises 127 men. The life cycle is 40 years, the displacement is close to 71380 tons.

The Leader is the first icebreaker in the world capable of operating in the Northern Sea Route year-round. Rosatom plans to build three icebreakers by 2033. The Industry and Trade Ministry estimated the first Leader to cost 127.5 billion rubles. The construction of two other icebreakers is to be jointly financed by the federal budget and Rosatom. Concession is another option, as all Arctic developers, including private enterprise, are interested in the protection of their Arctic interests, expert Vasily Dandykin said.

The lead nuclear icebreaker “Arktika”, project 22220 (LK-60Ya), built at Baltic Shipyard JSC (part of United Shipbuilding Corporation JSC) for Atomflot FSUE, is entering the first stage of sea trials. St. Petersburg, 12.12.2019 (c) JSC United Shipbuilding Corporation

The Leader is to be the most powerful vessel of the class in the world. Besides, three icebreakers of project 22220 are being built in St. Petersburg and the lead one is undergoing trials. They belong to the third generation. The fourth-generation Leader does not fear 4-meter thick ice along the whole Northern Sea Route which will be in demand after the crisis. It is the shortest and cheapest way from Asia to Europe.

“It is clear that the Leader and other icebreakers will lead not only tankers and container carriers along the Northern Sea Route. The year-round navigation gives the Defense Ministry an opportunity to redeploy forces from the west to the east and back in a period of threat. It is important on the background of growing military ambitions of the United States and NATO. The Leader icebreaker is thus a major argument for Arctic claims,” Dandykin said.

Much depends on the shipbuilding industry which lost a lot after the Soviet collapse and is experiencing hard times. However, the revival trend has shaped out. The Arktika icebreaker has to begin operations shortly followed by the Sibir and the Ural icebreakers which have been floated. The Yamal and the 50 Years of Victory icebreakers operate in Arctic latitudes. The Ilya Muromets diesel-electric icebreaker of project 21180 and the Ivan Papanin ice-class escort ship of project 23550 were built for the Navy.

The construction of the Leader icebreaker by Zvezda Shipyard means the enterprise is capable of building supertankers and aircraft carriers, the Zvezda said.

Class overview
Builders:Zvezda shipyard (planned)
Operators:FSUE Atomflot (planned)
Preceded by:Project 22220
Cost:RUB 125.57 billion
Built:2020– (planned)
In service:2027– (planned)
General characteristics
Displacement:69,700 tonnes (68,600 long tons)
Length:209 m (686 ft)
Beam:47.7 m (156 ft)
Draft:13 m (43 ft)
Depth:20.3 m (67 ft)
Installed power:Two RITM-400 nuclear reactors (2 × 315 MWt) Four turbogenerators (4 × 37 MWe)
Propulsion:Nuclear-turbo-electric Four shafts (4 × 30 MW)
Speed:24 knots (44 km/h; 28 mph)
Endurance:8 months


Russian Heavy Frigates

Capturing of Swedish 44-gun frigate Venus by Russian 22-gun cutter Merkuriy of June 1, 1789.

Captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus.

The spring of 1789 was marked by two single-ship actions on the part of a young Irish-born Lieutenant, Commander Roman Crown, that were to have long-term consequences for Russian naval history. As commander of the 22-gun two-masted cutter Merkurii, Brown captured a 12-gun Swedish tender, ironically named Snapupp, on 29 April (10 May), a useful but unremarkable feat. He then performed the remarkable feat of surprising, engaging and capturing the much more powerful Swedish heavy frigate, the 40-gun Venus, on 21 May (1 June) of the same year. Crown would rise to become a Russian admiral in the coming years, with a record of proven valour and high accomplishment that extended into the 1820s. The captured Venus would be taken into the Russian navy under the command of the heroic young officer who had captured her. In Russian service under Crown’s command, she would accomplish great deeds against her nation of origin, fighting at Revel’ in 1789 and Vyborg in 1790 and then assisting in the capture of the Swedish 64-gun Rättvisan in the immediate aftermath of the battle. Her stout construction and excellent design characteristics would be incorporated into the designs of nearly two score Russian heavy frigates built during the nineteenth century. As for Lieutenant Commander Crown’s first command, the Merkurii, she lent her name to a 20-gun brig built in 1820 and destined for even greater fame than her name-ship by single-handedly engaging a Turkish 120 and a 74 in a four-hour battle in 1829 and emerging heavily damaged but intact.

Although the Greek Ionian Islands had been granted formal independence after the withdrawal of Russia from the war with France, they remained de facto Russian colonies. A small squadron of Russian warships made up of two ships of the line, a single battle frigate, three corvettes and two brigs remained stationed at Corfu after Ushakov’s departure. The heavy ships were veterans of Ushakov’s campaign and the small craft were all captured or converted vessels picked up in and about the Adriatic. In order to reinforce this squadron in the face of growing problems with the French, a moderately sized squadron was dispatched from the Baltic in 1804 under the command of Commodore Aleksei Greig, son of Samuel Greig. Greig’s squadron was comprised of a single Russian-built 74 and three elderly Swedish veterans of the 1788–92 war, the 62-gun Retvizan, the 44-gun Venus and the 24-gun rowing frigate Avtroil. It is unclear whether these Swedish veterans were sent because of their excellent and sturdy construction or because they were simply odd numbers in the Russian Baltic fleet. Regardless of their advancing age, they all served with distinction through the coming campaigns, with Venus acquiring the highest honours and suffering the most unusual fate.

Venus 44/50 Karlskrona

Constructor         F. Chapman

Laid down             31.3.1783 Launched 19.7.1783 Captured 21.5.1789

Dimensions          156 ft x 40 ft x 17 ft 6 in (Swedish measurement)

151 ft 6 in x 38 ft 10 in x 15 ft 9 in (Russian measurement)

Armament            Captured 26/30 x 24pdrs, 14 x 6pdrs (Veselago)

Swedish heavy frigate captured on 21.5.1789 by Russian cutter Merkurii. Attached to Vice-Adm. Kozlyaninov’s squadron at Copenhagen in 1789. Fought at Revel’ on 2.5.1790 with 1 killed and 2 wounded and 737 rounds fired. Fought at Vyborg on 22.6.1790, capturing 2 Swedish galleys. On 3.5.1790, assisted by Iziaslav (66), she captured the Swedish Rättvisan (64). Cruised in the Baltic in 1791, 1793–4, 1795–7 and 1798. To England in 1799–00. Cruised in the Baltic with naval cadets in 1801. Repaired in 1804. To the Mediterranean as flag to Commodore Greig (Adm. Greig’s son) in 1804. Involved in the capture of Tenedos in 1807. Engaged in the pursuit of Turkish squadron on 9.5.1807, leading the Russian attack and engaging a Turkish line of battle ship. Dispatched by Adm. Seniavin on 9.11.1807 in search of Commodore Baratynskiy’s division. Damaged, repaired at Palermo, blockaded by the British, and placed in Neapolitan custody to avoid bloodshed. Crew evacuated to Trieste.

Heavy frigates

A term applied to large and heavily armed 24-, 30- and 36pdr frigates found in significant numbers in both the Baltic and the Black Sea fleets. These larger ships were more numerous in both theatres than the smaller standard 18pdr frigates; but their respective popularity in the Baltic and the Black Seas arose from rather different tactical requirements and emphases. In the Black Sea, where the type was first introduced, heavy frigates were not regarded as traditional cruisers suited for scouting and raiding, but were rather the direct descendants of the previously described battle frigates and were intended to supplement the line of battle against similar Turkish ships. In the Baltic, on the other hand, heavy frigates were quite ironically the direct design descendants of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus, specifically designed by Fredrik Henrik af Chapman to take its place in the line of battle, and captured by the Russians during the Russo-Swedish War of 1788–91. Russian heavy frigates built along the lines of the Venus were utilized in traditional frigate roles and not as battle line adjuncts as was the case with the Black Sea heavies.

During the period between 1770 and 1860, a total of 85 heavy and battle frigates joined the two Russian fleets, almost all of them armed with 24pdr cannon and ranging between 141 ft and 174 ft in length.

Arkhangel Mikhail class (3 ships)

Arkhangel Mikhail 44 Arkhangel’sk

Constructor         M. D. Portnov

Laid down             14.7.1790 Launched 24.5.1791

Dimensions          151 ft 6 in × 38 ft 10 in × 15 ft 9 in

Armament            LD 28 × 24pdrs (short frigate guns)

FC & QD 16 × 6pdrs + carrs

398 men

Arkhangel Mikhail class. Based on the design of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus. Departed Arkhangel’sk on 8.7.1792. Damaged and forced to winter at Bergen. Joined Adm. Kruz’s squadron in the summer of 1793 and cruised in the North Sea. Arrived at Kronshtadt on 15.9.1793. To England in 1795–6. Wrecked while returning home on 25.10.1796 off Porkkala-udd on the coast of Finland. No casualties.

Arkhangel Rafail 44 Arkhangel’sk

Constructor         M. D. Portnov

Laid down             14.7.1790 Launched 24.5.1791

Dimensions          151 ft 6 in × 38 ft 10 in × 15 ft 9 in

Armament            LD 28 × 24pdrs (short frigate guns)

FC & QD 16 × 6pdrs + carrs

398 men

Arkhangel Mikhail class. Based on the design of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus. Sailed to Kronshtadt in 1794. To England in 1795–6. Operated off Holstein in 1797. Repaired in 1798. To Holland with troops with Rear-Adm. Chichagov’s squadron in 1799. Returned to Kronshtadt on 26.9.1800. Carried cargo between Baltic ports in 1802–3. Broken up in 1804.

Schastlivyi 44 Arkhangel’sk

Constructor         G. Ignatyev

Laid down             19.12.1796 Launched 19.5.1798

Dimensions          151 ft 6 in × 38 ft 10 in × 15 ft 9 in

Armament            LD 28 × 24pdrs (short frigate guns)

FC & QD 16 × 6pdrs + carrs

256/398 men

Arkhangel Mikhail class. Based on the design of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus. To England with Vice-Adm. Thate’s 2nd Division on 3.7.1798, arriving at the Nore on 8.8.1798. Operated in the North Sea 1798–1800. Returned to Kronshtadt on 21.7.1800. Cruised in the Baltic with naval cadets in 1801–3. Cruised to Dogger Bank with Rear-Adm. Lomen’s squadron in 1804. Participated in Vice-Adm. Thate’s landing of over 20,000 troops on the German coast in 1805. Training duties in Kronshtadt Roads in 1806. Cruised with Adm. Khanykov’s squadron in 1808 and returned to Kronshtadt in 10.1808. Stationed in Kronshtadt Roads as a guard ship in 1809. Blockship in Kronshtadt Roads in 1810–12.

Feodosii Totemskii class (2 ships)

Feodosii Totemskii 44 Arkhangel’sk

Constructor         G. Ignatyev

Laid down             9.8.1798 Launched 24.9.1798

Dimensions          150 ft × 39 ft × 16 ft

Armament            LD 28 × 24pdrs (short frigate guns)

FC & QD 16 × 6pdrs + carrs

Feodosii Totemskii class. Based on an amended design of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus. Departed Arkhangel’sk for England with Vice-Adm. Baratynskiy’s squadron in 9.1799. Returned to Revel’ in 9.1800. Cruised in the Baltic in 1803–4. Landed troops on the German coast with Adm. Thate’s squadron in 1805. Cruised in the Baltic with Adm. Khanykov’s squadron in 1808 and returned to Kronshtadt in 10.1808. Floating battery in Kronshtadt Roads in 1809–11. Broken up in 1819.

Tikhvinskaya Bogoroditsa 44 Arkhangel’sk

Constructor         G. Ignatyev

Laid down             19.8.1798 Launched 22.7.1799

Dimensions          150 ft × 39 ft × 16 ft

Armament            LD 28 × 24pdrs (short frigate guns)

FC & QD 16 × 6pdrs + carrs

Feodosii Totemskii class. Based on an amended design of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus. Departed Arkhangel’sk for England with Vice-Adm. Baratynskiy’s squadron in 9.1799. Returned to Kronshtadt in 9.1800. Cruised in the Baltic with naval cadets in 1801–3. Cruised to Dogger Bank in 1804. Landed troops on the German coast with Adm. Thate’s squadron in 1805. Fire watch ship at Revel’ in 1807. Cruised with Adm. Khanykov’s squadron in 1808. Returned to Kronshtadt in 10.1808. Stationed in Kronshtadt Roads in 1809. Fire watch ship at Riga in 1812. Broken up in 1819.

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.


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.


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.