Santísima Trinidad (1769)

Epitome of the first-rate ‘ship of the line’, Santísima Trinidad was designed to lead a fleet into battle and to withstand a heavy cannonade. The concept of staying-power in the face of gunfire was becoming increasingly important.

These eighteenth-century scale drawings are guides to the installation of the supports for a canvas roofing to cover the entire upper deck. They were made before the vessel’s conversion to a four-decker.

The largest warship of the eighteenth century, with four decks of guns, the Spanish flagship was engaged in two of history’s great naval battles, at Cape St Vincent and Trafalgar. It was known as the ‘Escorial (royal palace) of the Seas’.

The Royal Shipyards at Havana, Cuba (then a Spanish possession) were a major building site for warships. Costs were less than in Spain and there were large timber resources, especially of hardwoods not available in Spain, like the American cedarwood used in Santísima Trinidad. It was the seventh Spanish warship of the name, confirmed by a royal order on 12 March 1768. Its designer was the King’s naval architect Matthew or Mateo Mullan, an Irishman, and building was supervised by his son Ignacio.

It was launched as a three-decker of unusually large dimensions. Spanish shipbuilding was of high quality, perhaps the best of any nation. The ships were strongly built and generally of larger size for their gun-rating than British vessels, which made them both more stable as gun-platforms and better able to withstand attack.

A Spanish 70-gun ship was about 1540 tonnes (1700 tons) compared to the 1134 tonnes (1250 tons) of a comparable British ship. This tradition of size and strength gave the builders of 1769 confidence to construct the largest warship of the time. Ships of this size were rarities: between 1750 and 1790 the British Navy had only six ships of 100 guns. The French also built a few very large ships. In 1788 the French Commerce de Marseille exceeded Santísima Trinidad in size, being 63.5m (208ft 4in) long, with a beam of 16.6m (54ft 9in), but carried fewer guns, 118 on three decks (captured by the British in 1793, it was broken up in 1802), and Océan and Orient, of 1790 and 1791, carried 120 guns.

Years of action

In its first years the ship was probably not in commission but held in readiness. With the declaration of war by Spain on Great Britain in July 1779, it entered service as flagship of the Spanish fleet, under Admiral Luis de Cordoba y Cordoba, operating with allied French ships in the English Channel and the western approaches. In August 1780 it led an action which resulted in the capture of 55 British merchant vessels from a convoy. In 1782 it participated in the second siege of Gibraltar, as flagship of a combined fleet 48-strong of Spanish and French ships, but failed to intercept a British relief convoy.

Increased firepower

In 1795, in a bold enhancement of its gun-power, a fourth deck was installed, joining the forecastle to the quarter-deck and raising the number of cannon carried from 112 to 136. This made Santísima Trinidad by some way the most heavily-armed ship of its time. Back in service in 1797, it was the Spanish flagship at the Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14 February, and suffered major damage, partially dismasted and with over half the crew killed or wounded. Santísima Trinidad struck her colours to HMS Orion, but before the British could take possession, they were signalled away, and the ship was rescued by Pelayo and Principe de Asturias, and limped back to Cadiz for repair.

Particularly after the construction of the fourth deck, giving the ship a very high freeboard exposed to sidewinds, Santísima Trinidad did not have good sailing qualities and gained the nickname ‘El Ponderoso’. Unlike contemporary French and British naval ships, its hull was not copper-sheathed. A further disadvantage, according to French observers, was a poorly-trained crew and the poor quality of many of the guns. With the greater part of the Spanish fleet, the ship’s home base was Cadiz.

In the course of its 38-year plus career, the Santísima Trinidad was careened or refitted three times, and spent almost 20 of those years out of service. This last was typical of ships in other navies: if there was no war on, crews were discharged and the ship held ‘in ordinary’. Ships in reserve had their guns removed, to reduce strain on the innumerable joints and brackets of the hull and gun-decks.

Surrender at Trafalgar

At Trafalgar, captained by Francisco Javier Uriarte and carrying the pendant of Rear Admiral Baltasar de Cisneros, it was flagship of the Spanish squadron, painted dark red with white stripes. In line just ahead of Admiral Villeneuve’s Bucentaure, it was in the thick of the central battle, heavily raked by broadsides from HMS Neptune.

After four hours, by 2:12pm, all three masts were gone; an eyewitness wrote: ‘This tremendous fabric gave a deep roll, with a swell to leeward, then back to windward, and on her return every mast went by the board, leaving it an unmanageable hulk on the water.’ The ship was compelled to surrender (as painted below in the Surrender of the Santísima Trinidad to Neptune, The Battle of Trafalgar, 3 PM, 21st October 1805 by Lieutenant Robert Strickland Thomas).

After the battle it was taken in tow by HMS Prince, but in the storm which followed, the tow could not be held, and Santísima Trinidad was scuttled on 22 October.

Specification (1768)

Dimensions Length 60.1m (200ft), Beam 19.2m (62ft 9in), Draught 8.02m (26ft 4in)

Displacement c4309 tonnes (c4750 tons)

Rig 3 masts, square-rigged

Armament (1768) 30 36-pounder, 32 24-pounder, 32 12-pounder, 18 8-pounder guns

Complement 950


Bucentaure (1803)

This painting by Auguste Mayer (1805–90) was long thought to show the dismasted Redoutable but has been shown in fact to represent Bucentaure. The British ship’s stern bears the name ‘Sandwich’ but HMS Sandwich was not at Trafalgar.

Bucentaure’s name commemorated the French capture of Venice in May 1797: it was taken from the name of the Doge’s state barge, Bucintoro.

A new, handsome, well-proportioned 80-gun ship of the line, it was the flagship of Admiral Villeneuve, commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Bucentaure was the first of a class of 80-gun ships for the Imperial French Navy. Sixteen were launched between 1803 and 1815, with a further five up to 1824. The designer was Jacques-Noel Sané. Sané was an advocate of uniformity in ship design, and beginning with Tonnant in 1789, was responsible for a series of excellent ships. Armed with 84 guns, they were classified as second-rates, but outgunned the typical British 74-gun ship and were easier to handle than the massive 100-gun first-rates.

Longer than their British counterparts, more solidly constructed and heavier, they were well-rigged and can fairly be claimed to be the best ships of the time. Some commentators consider there to be a single class from Tonnant to the final example, Vesuvio, not launched until 1824 and sold to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

The great problem for the French captains was not the quality of their ships but that of their crews. The British Navy had worked harder to train its officers and crews, helped in this respect by having far more ships at sea, and for longer periods. The British crews were healthier, with the shipboard scourge of scurvy largely prevented. The French captains considered their crews to be a rabble. There is a phrase attributed to Nelson: ‘The best navy in the world would be made of French ships and English crews.’ But English crews also contained their full share of pressed men, freed prisoners and army deserters.

Launch and service

Laid down at Toulon in November 1802, Bucentaure was launched on 13 July 1803 and commissioned in January 1804. From first service it was a flagship, at first of Vice Admiral Latouche-Tréville, who died on board, to be succeeded by Vice Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve from 6 November 1804. In September 1805, the Combined Fleet was at Cadiz, when an order from Napoleon instructed Villeneuve to embark troops and set sail for an invasion of Naples. Cadiz was already closely watched by the British, and there was little chance of leaving it without a battle. But Villeneuve learned that he was to be replaced by Admiral Rosily, and despite having decided in September that the Combined Fleet was not capable of action, he resolved to take his ships to sea and vindicate his post in the eyes of Emperor Napoleon.

They left Cadiz on 21 October. On paper, Villeneuve had a superior force, with 33 ships of the line (18 of them French) and seven frigates, and with 2856 cannon at his disposal, while Nelson had 2314, on 27 ships of the line and six frigates. But the British admiral had seven three-deckers while Villeneuve had only four.

Into battle

Bucentaure was commanded by Captain Jean-Jacques Magendie, and in the line it took a central place. As the British, in their two divisions, advanced, Villeneuve’s last signal was similar to Nelson’s: ‘Every ship which is not in action is not at its post, and must take station to bring itself as speedily as possible under fire.’ Victory fired a broadside that ripped into the transom of Bucentaure at a range of only 9m (30ft), sweeping the decks with shattering effect. In a few minutes Victory, Bucentaure, L’Indomptable and HMS Temeraire were all abreast of or inboard each other, rolling together, spars crashing, gunshots blasting off. At 13:40, shots from HMS Conqueror brought down the main and mizzen masts.

‘A mass of wreckage’

At 13:45, now drifting helplessly in the midst of the battle, with the bowsprit and all three masts fallen, and half the crew killed or wounded, Bucentaure was described as ‘a mass of wreckage’ by the Captain. Villeneuve tried to have his barge launched, to transfer his flag to a ship still able to fight, but the boat was crushed beneath fallen spars. With no alternative but to surrender Bucentaure struck its colours to Conqueror. Villeneuve and Magendie were taken prisoner. A British prize crew was put on board, with the surviving French crew held on board as prisoners, and the ship was attached by a towline to Conqueror, but the line parted. The Frenchmen managed to break out and retake the ship, but in the storm which arose on the 23rd, it was unmanageable. The ship struck a reef off Cadiz Bay, and foundered, with a handful of survivors.


Dimensions Length 59.3m (194ft 6in), Beam 15.3m (50ft 3in), Draught 7.8m (25ft 6in)

Displacement 1455 tonnes (1604 tons)

Rig 3 masts, full ship rig

Armament 30 36-pounders, 32 24-pounders, 18 12-pounder cannon; 6 36-pounder howitzers

Complement 866 sailors and marines

Spanish 60-gun Heavy Escorts

SLR0436; Warship (1730-40); Spanish; 60 guns, stern view

While the Royal Navy stagnated in the age of the establishments, the French and Spanish were building bigger and better ships. In style this model of a Spanish ship has much in common with British practice, and British shipwrights were employed in the Spanish dockyards, especially Irish Roman Catholics who were forbidden employment under the British crown. The decoration however is rather different, with a horse as figurehead and a heavy carving on each quarter of the stern. This model cannot be positively identified but it bears an eagle and snake on the stern, from the coat of arms of Mexico. It may be the Spanish 60-gun ship Nueva Espana, built in Havana in 1740. It has oar ports between the lower deck gunports, a feature only found on much smaller British ships, but one which might have proved useful in the lighter winds of the Mediterranean, where it might still be necessary to fight galleys in calm weather.

The increase of European corsair attacks on the Spanish West Indies and Main (north coast of South America) from the 1520s required improved defensive measures, but especially from the 1540s when American shipping peaked during the richest discoveries of silver in Peru. These attacks, in peacetime and war, transcended international law just as the religious struggles of the Mediterranean did, especially as Spain in the late 1530s forbade foreign entry into American waters. The Spanish crown thus had to accept, reluctantly, the realization that local militias, inadequate fortifications and private armed patrols in the Caribbean were no substitute for regular, systematic transatlantic convoys, escorted by regular navy galleons and protected at the points of departure and arrival by permanent coastal patrols of galleys and small sailing warships. Such a system took several decades to evolve and in the face of perhaps 100 enemy corsairs operating yearly-70 off Spain and 30 in the Caribbean. Between 1535 and 1546, most of the attacks occurred off the Atlantic coast of Spain, and the colonists in America generally had to fend for themselves. But the arrival of many corsairs on plundering as well as smuggling ventures in the Caribbean during the 1550s caused the crown to experiment with countermeasures that became permanent after 1560. These came in the form of direct government regulation of Spanish America’s maritime defenses, embodied in an annual escorted convoy sporadically from 1553 and permanently from the 1560s. The major tool became the escort for this convoy, the Armada Real, two to twelve galleons, created in 1568 and commanded by Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Two plate (silver) convoys sailed annually, the spring voyage to the Antilles and Vera Cruz, the late summer expedition to Cartagena on the Spanish Main and Nombre de Dios at the Isthmus of Panama. Both wintered in the Caribbean, then rendezvoused at Havana the following March for the return voyage to Seville.

Expensive though the Armada Real was, it achieved for Philip II the desired effect of acting as a deterrent to corsair attacks on the plate fleets. To be sure, the Real could not stop corsair depredations of coastal settlements, especially as they intensified along the Spanish Main from the late 1560s. French, English and Dutch even began to cooperate in common cause against the Spanish imperial monopoly, sometimes in small squadrons of twelve ships or more off the Spanish coast and in the Caribbean. Such dangers could only be thwarted by largely ineffective galley patrols in both places, or by more successful Spanish and (from 1552) Portuguese galleons between the Iberian coast and the forward island base in the Azores. The Ottoman naval offensive of the 1560s also brought Turkish and Barbary corsairs in squadrons of six galliots or more into the Atlantic to join in the assault. Indeed, a Turkish corsair squadron entered the anchorage of Cadiz during the late summer of 1568 and burned three of Menendez de Aviles’ original twelve galleons preparing for the first sortie of the Armada Real. But the Moslem danger diminished as the Ottomans pulled back to their Central Mediterranean defense perimeter during the 1570s, and the Armada Real assumed its permanent escort role. Even following Menendez’ departure to lead an expedition against Holland in 1574 (when he died), the system continued with unqualified success for over two centuries. Stragglers from the convoy occasionally fell prey to corsairs, but the Armada Real was rarely intercepted by any formidable enemy force over the ensuing decades, the first time not coming until 1628.

Looking for something else, I recently found the following in ‘Trafalgar and the Spanish Navy’ by John D. Harbron (it documents the Spanish SOL from early 18th Century) about the armament of early Spanish SOLs:

4th Rate and fast sailer, 60 Gun Ship (Service Year 1717)–24 x 18#, 26 x 12#, 10 x 6#

Harbron indicates that the these 60’s were not designed to fight in a line of battle against the capital ships of their time but were heavy escorts, intended to defeat British and French privateers and pirates in the Caribbean and elsewhere. They were used to escort the Gold and Silver convoys from the Caribbean across the Atlantic to Spain. One voyage was also made during the early 1730s around the Cape of Horn to the Pacific to escort in the great Manila galleons.  This was only on their last leg of sailing into Panama.

Manila Galleons: what a target for your large well organised Pirate! Alas somewhat out of the league your average pirate, as would be the Spanish convoys escorted by those special anti-pirate 60-gunners.

Nostra Senora de Covandonga 50-guns 1731-1743

Nostra Senora del Pilar de Zaragoza 50-guns 1732-1750

This is from an article published in Warship 1991 ‘The Last Manila Galleon’ In the article they describe the last Spanish Galleon’s that sailed between Manila in the Philippines across the Pacific to Acapulco on the west coast of Mexico.

One of the last Manila Galleon’s were the Covandonga captured by Anson in 1743, the Pilar which broke up on the voyage to Acapulco in 1750 and the ships built to replace Covandonga and Pilar at Manila the

Nuestra Senora del Rosario y los Santos Reyes 60-guns 1746-1762

Santisima Trinidad y Nuestra Senora del Buen Fin 70-guns 1750-1762

These were enormous ships; Rosario was 188 ft overall with 156 ft keel, 56 ft beam, and a 26 ft depth in hold and was pierced for 60 guns the Santisima Trinidad was even larger. For comparison the Spanish navy at that time had designed a 60 gun 4th rate as the best ship for their needs, these commonly measured 143 ft in length and 39 ft in breadth.

The Rosario and Santisima Trinidad were terrible sailers; they had enormous upper works and could only sail in a following wind. In 1756 Santisima Trinidad took over 7 months to make the voyage from Manila to Mexico, 82 passengers died on the voyage including the former governor of the Philippines returning to Spain.

Sixth Rate of 1719-45

In the naval architectural sense, the only specialist cruiser design in the first half of the eighteenth century was the Sixth Rate of 20 guns (24 guns from 1733), a two-decked ship with no guns on the lower deck. This model is not only one of the most detailed of the type, but also the most accurate representation of their earliest appearance.

This impressively detailed model with its finely rendered rigging has most of the features of a 1741 ship, except that the oar ports have been moved to the upper deck, which was one of the changes contemplated by the 1745 Establishment. The 24-gun ships of the new dimensions were based on the Garland, a lengthened version of the 1741 design being built at Sheerness Dockyard while the Norris committee deliberated about the new establishment. The construction of Garland was strung out across four years, over time the ship gradually adopting the features that came to mark out the 1745 ships – a longer quarterdeck, the fore and main channels moved above the upper deck ports, and the oar ports transferred to the upper deck. This last was a matter of debate and indecision, as there are draughts relating to the 1745 Establishment showing the oar ports on either deck, and in many cases on both. None of the draughts shows the exact configuration of this model, but nevertheless it reflects that uncertainty: note there are no oar scuttles above the fore and main channels – sweeps here would have been difficult to employ without fouling the shrouds – so an uninterrupted array of oar ports would have to wait until the channels were raised.

The final manifestation of the Establishment Sixth Rate, a model of a 1745 ship with a large and eye-catching stern gallery.

1719 Establishment modified in 1733 and 1741

Hitherto cruiser design had been forged in war, but the 1719 ships were shaped by peace. That is not to say there was no action at sea during their careers – far from it – but the Anglo-French alliance that lasted from 1716 to 1731 kept the two great maritime rivals from all-out war. The battlefleet was typically employed in a deterrent role or to exert political pressure. Substantial forces were committed to the Baltic in the years between 1715 and 1721, initially to protect Britain’s vital trade (particularly in naval stores) during the Great Northern War, but later to dissuade the Russians from pressing their advantage against Sweden in an effort to restrain Peter the Great’s expansionist policies. Many of the operations took place in shallow waters, where the main protagonists employed specialist inshore flotillas of oared craft, and it is very likely that this was the motivation behind the renewed interest in rowing exhibited in 1716-17 when the old Fifth Rates were rebuilt. Elsewhere there was ongoing tension with Spain, which came to blows in 1718 (at Cape Passaro, in the greatest Royal Navy victory nobody has ever heard of) and in 1727 when Gibraltar was besieged. However, in none of these conflicts, hot or cold, was there a major campaign against commerce.

The Sixth Rates saw a lot of service in the 1720s and ’30s, but it tended to be on detached and often distant operations. They were regularly assigned as ‘station ships’ in the Caribbean and North America, helping to stamp out the piracy that was endemic in those parts, combating smuggling, or in carrying out surveys. All of these roles tended to mean long commissions. This influenced the development of the 20-gun ships in two ways: firstly, it placed greater emphasis on the habitability of the ships than their fighting (and sometimes even their sailing) qualities; and secondly, it meant that most of them required a major rebuilding at least once in their careers. This should be kept in mind when considering the many models representing ships of this type, which display a great variety in their details.

The first obvious deviation from the 1719 Establishment specification was the extension of the very short quarterdeck, which originally did not even reach the mizzen mast. This was almost certainly driven by the need to move the steering wheel to a position which would give the helmsman better allround vision. Originally the wheel was squeezed in between the mizzen and the cabin bulkhead under the overhang of the quarterdeck, where the man at the wheel had a very restricted view of the set of the sails and none at all of sea conditions. Models with the extended quarterdeck usually show a wheel moved up to that deck, although it may be ahead of or abaft the mizzen. Both the wheel and the helmsman were very exposed in that position and there must have been a temptation to provide some protection against the elements in the form of rails and weather cloths, and eventually more permanent bulwarks. By 1728 the Navy Board was instructing the yards to remove all unofficial additions, like heavy awning frames ‘and other unnecessary encumbrances’ from sloops, and this surely applied to Sixth Rates as well.

The other feature rapidly discarded was the lightweight quarter badge, which was soon replaced by a more commodious gallery, giving the captain more room and flattering his sense of importance by making his command look more a rated warship and less like a sloop. The open rails in the waist did not last long either: they were berthed-up solid to the planksheer rail. This was undoubtedly to keep as much water as possible off the decks – although the crew berthed below, breaking waves in the waist inevitably meant wet and uncomfortable conditions below, and on long deployments the health, if not the comfort, of the crew mattered. Nevertheless, it represented a little more weight and windage aloft.

Despite these minor accretions, the 20-gun ship remained basically unchanged for a decade, but in 1730 two ships were ordered to be built with the beam increased by over 2ft from the established dimension. There is a model with the increased beam [SLR0437] that otherwise conforms to the main features of the 1719 ships, which may have been the original intention for the new pair, Sheerness and Dolphin, but there is evidence that they did not look like this in service [see SLR0226]. This broadening was one of the first signs of dissatisfaction with the 1719 Establishment that would eventually lead to the proposed revisions of 1733. These universally added breadth to all rates, perhaps suggesting a concern with the stability of British ships; but there was a more influential factor at work, and that was the desire for a substantial increase in firepower; heavier guns, of course, would require a broader beam. In parallel with the Navy Board’s deliberations about dimensions, the Board of Ordnance was working out a revised establishment of guns, which if adopted would mean a substantial increase in the broadsides of most rates but at the expense of greater weight of metal on most decks. For Sixth Rates the increase was to be huge: twenty 6pdrs of 18cwt (totalling 360cwt or 18 tons) were to be replaced by twenty-two 9pdrs of 24cwt and two 7cwt 3pdrs, aggregating 542cwt, or 27.1 tons – an increase of 50 per cent.

Neither the ship nor the gun establishments of 1733-34 were officially adopted, but they formed the guidelines for future construction. For Sixth Rates this meant a major transformation. Although they had enough ports for all the 9pdrs, the aftermost was in the captain’s cabin and usually contained nothing more warlike than a casement window, so in a return to the practice of the 1690s one pair of guns was allocated to the lower deck. A gunport for this purpose was added abaft the mainmast but, curiously, there was a second right aft in the gunroom; the smaller ballast port was retained amidships along with the standard eighteen sweep ports. The function of the second gunport was a mystery even to the shipwrights in charge of construction, so the Surveyor, Sir Jacob Acworth, was forced to explain that only the foremost port was designed for a gun; the other was ‘to be used occasionally – it being extremely improper to carry a gun there, not only on account of the tiller but it being far aft and in the wake of the cabins’. By the time Acworth wrote this in 1742, the issue was a dead-letter: a new and more radical revision was introduced in 1741, when the pair of gunports on the lower deck were moved close together so either could be used for a gun.

The impetus to revise the establishment came from the final flaring of open war with Spain in 1739 following decades of low-intensity conflict between British traders and Spanish guarda-costas in the Caribbean. Much of this activity was outside the rule of law – smuggling and illicit trade on one side, dubiously sanctioned revenue protection on the other – and all characterised by the arbitrary use of force. The guarda-costas were effectively privateers, sometimes licensed but rarely restrained, and when one of them cut off the ear of Captain Robert Jenkins, an ‘innocent’ British trader, it was only one of many minor atrocities regularly perpetrated. Although this severed appendage did not cause the war, it became a potent symbol for its advocates, so it is appropriate that the conflict was called, then and since, the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

Its supporters, harkening back to the days of Drake and Hawkins, envisaged a trade war against a decadent but rich Hispanic empire, ending in massive commercial concessions on the part of the defeated Spaniards. There was a trade war – but in its first two years the ratio of merchant ships captured was three-to-two in favour of the Spanish. This of course led to a reconsideration of convoys and cruisers, and the design of the ships that performed these roles. In truth, after a generation without all-out war, the Navy’s whole order of battle needed rethinking, and the proposed establishment of 1741 certainly increased the sizes of most rates.

In wartime one might expect enhanced sailing qualities to be a priority for cruisers, but although the 1741 ships were significantly increased in size (from 106ft to 112ft on the gundeck, 430 to 498 tons), the main developments added to their upperworks. The quarterdeck was now a fighting deck with carriage guns and swivel stocks mounted on it, protected by more substantial rails (no doubt unofficially berthed-up when action was in prospect); the forecastle went the same way, while the flat beakhead bulkhead could be an impediment in a head sea. None of these features would have improved their speed or weatherliness, but Spanish ships were not renowned for their sailing, so perhaps it was not an issue. However, this was to change dramatically when the French entered the war in 1744.

Spanish Armoured Frigate, Numancia

In South America in March 1866, the French-built Spanish ironclad Numancia bombarded Valparaiso, Chile, in the presence of the warships of several nations including the U. S. “seagoing” monitor Monadnock. Numancia then went on to bombard the Peruvian port of Callao on 2 May 1866.

Spanish armoured frigate, built 1861-64. Numancia was one of the last survivors of the ironclad frigates that were built in considerable numbers for most navies in the 1860s. The French had built the first, Gloire, in the late 1850s and Numancia was built by the French shipyard of La Seyne. She was laid down in 1861, launched in 1863 and completed in November 1864, and was an iron hulled, fully-rigged three-masted broadside ironclad frigate. She had a ram bow, a single slightly raked funnel, and a raised forecastle and quarterdeck. Her original armament of 34 68-pdr guns was carried on the main deck broadside. She had a complete waterline belt which extended up over the main deck battery. It was 130 mm (5.1 in) thick over the guns and 120 mm (4.7 in) over the machinery, but tapered to 100 mm (3.9 in) at the ends. Her French-built compound reciprocating engine drove a single six-bladed screw, and she made 12.94 knots with 3708 ihp on trials.

She was rated as a line of battle ship by the Spanish, and immediately after delivery was sent to join the Spanish Squadron in the Pacific, which had been sent out to harass the coast of Peru. In company with the unarmoured wooden steam frigate Reina Blanca she fought an inconclusive action with the joint Chilean-Peruvian squadron off Tubilda near Huite on March 1, 1866, and she also took part in the bombardments of Valparaiso and Callao later in the same year, after which the squadron returned to Spain.

Juan Bautista Antequera: He distinguished himself in the the rebellions Alicante and Cartagena (Murcia), for which he was granted the Cross of San Fernando. In command of the brig Galiano in Havana he fought against pirates. During the war of Africa, in 1859, took part in the battles of River Martin, Larache and Arcila, being granted promotion to Colonel of Marine Infantry. During the Spanish-South American War of 1865, he took command of the armored frigate Numancia under the orders of Admiral Casto Méndez Núñez present at the bombing of Valparaíso and the battle of Callao. He later made the circumnavigation trip around the world back to Spain with Numancia.

By the 1870s her original armament had been replaced by a smaller number of 254- mm (10-in) and 203-mm (8-in) Armstrong RML (rifled muzzle-loading) guns. In 1873-74 she was seized at Cartagena, Colombia by the Intransigentes during the three-sided civil war, and in 1873 she rammed the Spanish corvette Fernando el Catolico, which sank.

After this she saw little service for the next 20 years, but the thick iron hull remained in good condition, and she was completely rebuilt at La Seyne between 1896-98. Her rig was reduced to two pole masts with fighting tops, she was reboilered, and was rearmed with four 200-mm (7.9-in), three 150-mm (5.9- in), ten 140-mm (5.5-in) QF, 12 47-mm (1.85- in) four 70-mm (2.76-in) and two 37-mm (1.46-in) guns and two 36-cm (14-in) torpedo tubes. Fortunately for the United States, perhaps, she was not ready in time to take part in the Spanish-American war, and in the early years of the twentieth century she became a gunnery training ship. She was reduced to harbour duties, and then scrapped in about 1920.


In the 1860s relations between Spain and its former colonies Peru and Chile deteriorated into open warfare after the Spanish seized Peru’s guano-rich Chincha Islands. Admiral Casto Mendez Nuñez steamed from Spain on board the newly built ironclad Numancia to take command of a Spanish squadron off the coast of Chile. He bombarded the port of Valparaiso in February 1866, then moved north to Peru, choosing the fortified naval base at Callao as his target.

The fighting Peruvians brought up two home-built ironclads, the Virginia-style casemated Loa and Victoria, which was purportedly a monitor-type ironclad powered by a locomotive engine. However, it is doubtful that the Peruvians, ingenious as they were, could manufacture a revolving-turret ironclad with their resources. More effective were the Peruvian turret shore batteries, whose return fire killed 43 Spaniards, compared to 200 Peruvian dead. The Spanish fleet had 245 guns on board, arranged in broadside. The Peruvian armament totaled around 90 guns, including some very heavy shore guns in armored emplacements. On the morning of May 2, the Spanish ships advanced within range and a ferocious gun duel began; it lasted six hours. The Spanish vessels received many hits, especially Numancia, deliberately positioned by Mendez Nuñez in the place of greatest danger. More than 40 Spanish officers and men were killed and a further 160 were wounded, including the admiral. But the Spanish had the better of the duel, silencing almost all the shore guns with their more skilful shooting. There were some 600 Peruvian casualties, including the minister of war Juan Galvez, killed in the destruction of an armored strongpoint. The Spanish squadron subsequently left for the Philippines, leaving the bombardment without consequence. Returning home to Spain, Numancia became the first ironclad to circumnavigate the globe.In Spain, during the Cartagena Revolt (July 1873), revolting Cantonists seized the naval base, taking control of globe-circling ironclad frigate Numancia, as well as Vitoria, Tetuan, and the ironclad corvette Mendez Nunez. The Spanish government, now bereft of most of its navy, hit upon the idea of declaring the insurgents pirates. Thus when the Cantonists threatened to bombard Almiera if a ransom were not paid, the German turret ironclad Friedrich Karl and the British box battery ironclad Swiftsure seized two insurgent unarmored warships and returned Vitoria to the Madrid government. Vitoria then clashed with the insurgent-held Tetuan. Badly damaged in the encounter, Tetuan was blown up in Cartagena harbor by the rebels to avoid capture. That October, the entire rebel ironclad fleet put to sea to engage the government squadron, which now included its one remaining ironclad, Vitoria. That single government ironclad apparently was enough to beat off the rebel fleet in an ironclad naval battle almost lost to history. After some coastal bombardments by government ironclads and unarmored warships, the civil war finally ended in May 1876.

Name: Numancia
Namesake: Numantia
Builder: Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée, La Seyne,
Laid down: 22 April 1862
Launched: 19 November 1863
Completed: 17 December 1864
Commissioned: 1865
Refit: 1897–98
Struck: 1912
Fate: Sank while under tow, 17 December 1916
General characteristics (as built)
Type: Broadside ironclad
Displacement: 7,305 metric tons (7,190 long tons)
Length: 95.6 m (313 ft 8 in)
Beam: 17.3 m (56 ft 9 in)
Draft: 7.7 m (25 ft)
Installed power: 3,770 ihp (2,810 kW)
Propulsion: 1 shaft, 1 Horizontal return connecting rod compound steam engine 8 boilers
Sail plan: Ship rig
Speed: about 13 knots (24 km/h; 15 mph)
Range: 3,000 nautical miles (5,600 km; 3,500 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
Complement: 561
Armament: 40 × 68-pounder smoothbore guns
Armor: Belt: 100–130 mm (3.9–5.1 in) Battery: 120 mm (4.7 in)

Russian Ship Types and Classifications – Age of Sail

Russian squadron visits Spithead August 1827

The Russian sailing navy at the height of its power and efficiency: during a state visit to Britain the Russian squadron at Spithead mans the yards in honour of the Duchess of Clarence, 8 August 1827. Drawn with meticulous attention to detail by Henry Moses, all the Russian ships are identified. From left to right, they are: Sisoi Velikii (74); Iezekiil’ (74); Tsar’ Konstantin (74); Merkurii (44); Kniaz Vladimir (74); Gangut (84), then the British royal yacht Royal Sovereign under sail; Aleksandr Nevskii (74); Azov (74); Sviatoi Andrei (74). Elements of this squadron were to fight with distinction a couple of months later at Navarino.

The sterns of four Russian ships of the line built between 1700 and 1763 show in detail the elaborate style of decorative wood carving still in vogue in Russia during the first half of the eighteenth century at a time when the sterns and quarter galleries of other European capital ships were becoming simpler and more utilitarian in the interest of economy and efficiency in battle. As warship design became more functional and less concerned with vulgar (and expensive) display under Catherine II, this level of decoration declined in the Russian navy as it had done so earlier in other European navies: top left, Goto Predestinatsiya 1700; top right, Ingermanland 1715; below left, Slava Rossii 1733; below right, Sviatoi Evstafii Plakida 1763.

This includes major seagoing warships present. Shallow-draught vessels intended solely for inshore and amphibious warfare and naval auxiliaries are not included. Coverage of the larger oared and rowing frigates has been included here on account of their size and firepower and their seagoing capabilities. The same reasoning applies to bomb vessels which were designed to accompany the battle fleets at sea. The categories covered below are all types familiar to the most casual students of sailing warships and our remarks are largely confined to elements of their construction and utilization unique to Russian conditions and in some degree of variance with normal practice elsewhere.

Line of battle ships

During the formative years of naval development, Russians followed British usage and formally divided their capital ships into four, and later three, Rates.

Unlike the British, no attempt was made to assign rates to cruising ships. The following official Rates were in effect prior to the reign of Catherine II:

Inventory of 1727

First Rate 90–100 guns

Second Rate 80–88

Third Rate 66

Fourth Rate 54

Establishment of 1732

First Rate 70–100

Second Rate 66

Third Rate 54

Establishment of 1750

First Rate 80–100

Second Rate 66

Third Rate 54

It should be noted that these ratings were formal categories and never achieved general circulation in the Russian naval circles of the period. Formal establishments of ships after 1750 describe capital ships solely in terms of the number of guns that they were rated as carrying. The sole exception to this practice was that ships carrying 100 guns or more were always referred to colloquially as First Rates within the fleet. Note also that `ships of the line’ will also be found referenced variously throughout the text as `line of battle ships`, `line ships` and `capital ships` solely in the interests of avoiding rhetorical tedium. Ships of the line shared certain basic features with several lesser warship types such as frigates, ship sloops and corvettes. These types were all collectively referred to as `ships` or `ship-rigged vessels` and had three square-rigged masts and from one to three continuous gun decks. The feature that distinguishes ships of the line from frigates and the like was their having been designed to `stand in the line` and withstand the firepower of any and all enemy warships. Some ships of the line were effectively rendered obsolete as ships being built in Russia and elsewhere became larger and more powerfully armed. In the British Royal Navy, these ships, such as 50s and 64s, were usually relegated to colonial service where they could be usefully employed as flagships and prestige ships. Russia lacked significant colonies throughout most of this period and dealt with their older ships of the line by converting them to floating batteries for stationary defence or employing them as troop transports or hospital ships. Many ships designated as frigates were in fact more powerful than some smaller ships of the line, but they were never intended to operate as `line ships`. No detailed discussion of capital ship evolution is possible at this point, but the following production table for all Russian purpose-built line of battle ships completed between 1700 and 1860 reflects the overall production of the Russian Navy as well as highlighting the differences in emphasis between the Baltic and Black Sea fleets, with the Black Sea fleet leaning more heavily on larger capital ships, and the Baltic possessing a more balanced mix of types:

*This total includes Sea of Azov ships for all categories and treats them as components of the Black Sea fleet.


Russian frigates were more functionally specialized than those found in Western navies. Readers accustomed to thinking in terms of Fifth Rates and Sixth Rates or 9pdr frigates, 12pdr frigates, 18pdr frigates and the like will need to familiarize themselves here with terms appearing in the body of the text, such as `battle frigates’, `heavy frigates’, `training frigates’, `small frigates’, `rowing frigates’, and even `newly invented frigates` (Novoizobretennye Fregaty). While it is true that standard 12- and 18pdr frigates of the type built in Western European navies were also built in moderate numbers throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Russia, they were steadily eclipsed after 1785 by much heavier 24pdr ships of a type not found elsewhere in significant numbers until the post-Napoleonic period.’

Part of the explanation for the Russian predilection for specialized frigate categories lies in the very different and variable operating environments experienced by their regional navies in both the Baltic and the Black Sea. Not only were there differences between the operational demands and expectations placed on cruising vessels in inland sea environments in general, with fewer opportunities for engaging in the traditional scouting, raiding and commerce protection functions of frigates operating in oceanic environments, and greater opportunity for inshore operations of an amphibious nature, there were also significant differences between the requirements imposed by the very different Baltic and the Black Sea environments, both natural and political.

It should be borne in mind that the categories presented below do not necessarily represent formally established categories. They do, however, reflect clearly defined lines of development in the Russian navy, and are being described here for the sake of clarity of communication in the pages that follow. Numerical totals for the frigate category are subject to considerable interpretation and the figures given below should be treated as informed approximations, especially with respect to the smaller and older categories. Many ships classed as frigates by Russia were too small to merit this classification by Royal Navy standards, but most of the ships included here were designed for cruising and scouting purposes, regardless of their size or armament. A total of 274 ships fall within the frigate category, 190 in the Baltic, 78 in the Black Sea, and 6 in the Caspian.

Battle frigates

A term briefly in vogue in the Black Sea to describe ships falling below the level of line of battle ships, but intended to participate in the line of battle against similar Turkish ships. In practice, this term quickly gave way to the following term:

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 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.

Standard frigates

These were similar to frigates found elsewhere in terms of size and capabilities. The same distinction between the older cruising vessels having two fully or partially armed gun decks and the later `true’ or `classic’ frigates of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War periods, with unarmed lower decks and improved speed and handling characteristics, was found in the Russian Navy as elsewhere. The difference for Russia was that the design transformation that occurred in the 1750s for the navies of France, Spain and Great Britain apparently did not make its way to Russia until the Vos’moi class of 12pdr frigates entered service in the late 1770s in the then Sea of Azov flotilla and the Briachislav class of 18pdr frigates in the mid-1780s for the Baltic. The inspiration for the first Russian 18pdr frigates of the Briachislav class in 1784 probably came from ideas absorbed by Russian students returning from Great Britain in the early 1780s, quite possibly with the plans for the British Arethusa class frigates in hand – their armament and dimensions were suspiciously similar. As indicated above, these `true frigates’ were built in smaller numbers proportionally than in other navies where there was an ongoing requirement for large numbers of cruising vessels in scouting and commerce protection (and commerce destruction of course). Russian frigates had smaller areas to patrol in their confined inner seas and very little in the way of merchant ships requiring escort in the navy of a country lacking any significant investment in overseas trade, and so they were never required in the numbers found in the Atlantic navies.

Between 1773 and 1860, only 36 standard or `classic’ frigates armed with 18pdr guns and ranging between 121 ft and 150 ft in length were completed for both the Baltic and Black Sea fleets, less than half the number of 24pdr heavy frigates completed for the two regional fleets during the same general period. In the interests of completeness, it should also be noted that a total of 60 earlier cruising ships, all bearing the multifunctional name of `frigate’ were also completed for service in the Baltic between 1705 and 1785, including 18 obsolescent 12pdr ships of the Pavel type constructed between 1773 and 1785, just prior to the introduction of true frigate types.

Small frigates

A descriptive term rather than a formal category, these ships were intermediate in size and power between standard frigate types and corvettes and sloops. In the British Royal Navy, the vessels constructed after 1770 would probably have been rated as ship sloops. Between 1702 and 1761, 17 small ships classed as frigates and ranging between 65 ft and 94 ft in length were completed in the Baltic. Between 1762 and 1845, an additional 38 small frigates of the more classic type with a single gun deck, but ranging between 90 ft and 130 ft were completed, 19 in the Baltic, 13 in the Black Sea and 6 in the Caspian. Armament varied widely in this category, with small frigates carrying between 8 and 32 guns of as little as 6pdr calibre to as much as 30pdr (when rebuilt as `newly invented frigates’; see below).

Training frigates These purpose-built ships were limited to the Baltic fleet. They would normally have been rated as sloops or corvettes in most Western navies and are included in the totals given above for the larger `small frigate’ category. These ships were not intended to act as naval combatants, but rather as fully equipped peacetime training ships for young naval recruits. Fourteen ships were formally designated as training frigates during the age of sail.

`Newly invented frigates` (Novoizobretennye Fregaty) The phrase `newly invented’ does not transfer well from Russian to English and might more readily be rendered as `rebuilt` or `redesigned’. The frigate designation is probably not entirely appropriate for this small collection of short-lived Black Sea ships, five of which originally fell within the category of purpose built shallow draught frigates, while the others were comprised of a hotch-potch of converted pinks, cutters and merchantmen that were rebuilt as `frigates’. The purpose-built frigates chosen for the conversion programme were originally shallow-draught ships built in shipyards along the Don River and armed with 12pdrs and generally resembled conventional deep-water frigates. These highly specialized warships were found to be incapable of dealing with more heavily gunned Turkish ships in the opening phases of the Russo-Turkish War of 1788-90 in the Liman. In order to derive some value from their construction when their deficiencies became apparent, they were rebuilt in 1788 with reinforced hulls and enormously powerful (for their size) 30pdr batteries bored out hurriedly from available guns of lesser calibre. The concept of adding very heavy guns to shallow draught vessels in order to use their enhanced combination of firepower and manoeuverability to compensate for the Russian lack of line of battle ships in the Liman was the result of the fruitful and co-operative relationship that grew up between Samuel Bentham, a British mechanical engineer and later Inspector General of the Royal Navy, and the formidably talented Prince Potemkin. The resulting vessels resembled later nineteenth-century ships armed with gunnades and they proved an effective short-term solution for the Black Sea fleet, although they sacrificed a good deal of their scouting and cruising capabilities in their search for greater short-range firepower, becoming de facto coastal defence ships. A total of twelve `newly invented frigates’ of all types were converted in 1788 to meet the demands of the Russo-Turkish War. They were all disposed of in the early 1790s as newer, more carefully thought-out heavy frigate types began entering service in the Black Sea; but they set the tone for future generations of heavily armed Black Sea frigates with their deliberate substitution of heavy ordnance for more conventional cruiser qualities.

Oared or rowing frigates The shallow coastal waters of the northern Baltic mandated the construction by both Swedes and Russians of large fleets of small rowing vessels similar in function to Western gunboats. These small craft could not operate in deepwater environments, but they could do serious damage to larger sailing ships becalmed in the shallow-water environments of the northern Baltic and made helpless by the vagaries of the Baltic winds. Rowing frigates provided something of a link between the traditional deep-water sailing navy and the gunboat squadrons. They were as large and well armed as true frigates, but were at the same time shallow-draft vessels unsuitable for deep-water use and with sweeps capable of facilitating movement during calms and of manoeuvring successfully against smaller and more agile gunboats. Twenty-six of these handsome and unusual ships were completed between 1773 and 1823, ranging between 130 ft and 144 ft in length. The early ships carried 24pdrs and the final rowing frigates carried 36pdrs, an unprecedented armament for a frigate.

Corvettes and ship sloops

To English-speaking readers, corvette is simply the name used by the French for the British ship sloop and both designations refer (in this time period at least) to three-masted ships similar in layout to frigates but smaller and with fewer and lighter cannon. Both terms were in use in the Russian sailing navy, but they had separate and distinct meanings, although both types were alike in being three-masted ships of generally similar size and armaments.

Corvettes were purely combat ships with sharper lines than corresponding sloops. They were operationally attached to battle groups and employed as scouts, avisos and cruising ships. Corvettes were more popular in the Black Sea where they took on many of the functions reserved to frigates in the Baltic in the absence of adequate numbers of standard frigate types. A total of 15 corvettes entered service in the Black Sea after 1800 as opposed to only 3 for the Baltic and 4 for the Caspian.

Russian ship sloops were broader of beam and better suited for carrying cargo and supplies than corvettes. They retained the capability for assuming scouting and cruising functions if called upon, but were generally employed as armed store ships. After the Napoleonic Wars ended, ship sloops came into their own when they were found to be ideally suited for hydrographic survey work, foreign exploration and global circumnavigation. No sloops are found in the Russian Baltic or Black Sea fleets in the eighteenth century (unless one includes the `small frigates’), although three were built in Kamchatka. Between 1804 and 1818, 21 ship sloops were built for the Baltic and one lone sloop joined the Black Sea fleet in 1823. Ship sloops were not built in quantity in the Black Sea fleet because the closing of the Bosporus to Russian warships negated their potential for long-range service.

Snows and brigs

Snows and brigs were close cousins. Both had two large square-rigged masts; but the snow in its final incarnation in the second half of the eighteenth century also carried a small, short third mast called a trysail mast immediately abaft the main mast carrying a spanker that could be operated independently of the main mast’s sails. The trysail mast was not readily apparent to the uninformed observer due to its close proximity to the main mast and snows were sometimes referred to as `two- and-a-half mast’ ships. Russian snows built in the first quarter of the eighteenth century were originally based upon Dutch designs and were equipped with sweeps for inshore operations. Illustrations indicate that the rig of at least three early snows, two Lizets and the similar Munker (My Heart), all designed by Peter I and named after his daughter Elizabeth, carried traditional three-masted ship rig with a fully developed mizzen mast in place of the trysail. Other contemporary snows, such as Adler of 1705, are shown with more traditional snow rig. This may indicate Peter’s personal preference for three-masted ships, whatever their size, or it may reflect a variability in the rigging of early snows that would indicate that the designation may have had more to do, at this time, with hull design, size and intended employment than with a particular rig. Russian snows were popular in both the Baltic and Sea of Azov during the first quarter of the eighteenth century, but are not found thereafter. Their decline in popularity in later years mirrors a similar phenomenon in the Royal Navy during the same period and one wonders if there was a connection here, as in other areas, with the Russian employment of large numbers of British shipwrights and officers. A total of 22 snows were completed between 1700 and 1711, 16 in the Baltic and 6 in the Sea of Azov. One final snow was completed for the Baltic in 1723, almost as an afterthought.

Brigs did not begin to appear in the Russian navy until the very close of the eighteenth century, but they became extremely popular during the first half of the nineteenth, gradually edging out the slightly larger corvettes and ship sloops in both the Baltic and Black Sea. The development of the brig as the primary low-end ship best suited for inshore patrol, routine escort and scouting activities parallels a similar process in the British Royal Navy from about 1780 on. To quote Robert Gardiner from Warships of the Napoleonic Era, three-masted sloops were `more seaworthy, more habitable, longer ranged and better armed than the old two-masted type, and the ship rig must have conferred some advantages in battle – three masts would have made them less vulnerable to damage aloft than two. But the one quality the new-style sloops did not possess was speed.’ Besides having an important edge in speed, brigs required smaller crews as a result of having only two masts to the ship sloop’s three. The downside of the two-mast arrangement was a greater vulnerability in battle since the loss of a single mast was of more importance in a two-masted vessel than it was in a ship with three masts.

The nineteenth century saw a flowering of the type, with 37 being built for the Baltic, 26 for the Black Sea, 19 for the Caspian and six for Okhotsk. With few exceptions, brigs were between 90 ft and 105 ft in length and armed with all carronade batteries.

Cutters and schooners

Both cutters and schooners are small ships with largely fore- and-aft rigs, one or two masts, and a very light armament sufficient only for overwhelming the smallest of opponents. The two types developed in the later part of the eighteenth century as highly manoeuverable ships capable of patrolling close inshore and interdicting smugglers and pirates and the like. As a largely self-sufficient nation without much in the way of trade or foreign commerce, Russia in the eighteenth century had relatively little use for vessels of this type. After 1800, and particularly after 1820 as Russian naval horizons expanded, particularly in the areas of coastal surveying and exploration, cutters and schooners found an increasing role in naval affairs. Both types came within the same general size range, although schooners were probably a bit larger on the average. Between 1790 and 1860, the Baltic fleet acquired 27 two-masted schooners ranging between 35 ft and 105 ft, while the Black Sea fleet acquired 24 between 1772 and 1849 ranging between 75 ft and 119 ft. For reasons not immediately apparent, one- masted cutters were decidedly more popular in the Baltic, where there were a total of 42 vessels acquired between 1786 and 1826 as against only four for the Black Sea fleet and two for Okhotsk. Cutters in Russian service were as heterogeneous a group as schooners, with lengths varying between 51 ft and 99 ft and armament between 12 and 32 guns. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Russians stopped building cutters with the accession of Nicholas I, apparently preferring the slightly larger two-masted schooner.

Luggers and tenders

Luggers and tenders were classified as light warships by the Russians and are included in this section for this reason.

Bomb vessels

Russian naval operations were frequently conducted in support of amphibious objectives and bomb ships, both purpose-built and improvised, were built in some numbers for both major fleets and for the Caspian flotilla. Although designed for shore bombardment, these ships were deep draught vessels, designed to accompany and work with battle fleets at sea, and not for the close-in, shallow water work of prams and gunboats. In appearance, they were clumsy-looking vessels, with heavily reinforced decks to bear the weight of their heavy ordnance.

Seven bombs were built in the closing years of the seventeenth century for the Sea of Azov. The Baltic fleet acquired a total of 18 purpose-built bombs, two converted ships and two ships purchased abroad for a total of 22. The Black Sea built nine, converted eleven and purchased five abroad. Bombs were quite reasonably also found in the Caspian flotilla, where amphibious operations were common, and four ships were launched in 1808.


Chinese fire-rafts as illustrated in the Wujing Zongyao, a military treatise written in 1044 during the Song Dynasty. This demonstrates the antiquity of such devices.

An illustration of a fireship from a book written about 1553 by the Chinese imperial official Li Chao-Hsiang, superintendent of the Dragon River Shipyard near Nanking. The Chinese devoted a great deal of ingenuity into making fireships look like ordinary warships. The main trick was to conceal the boat in which the crew would make their escape. In the `mother-and-child’ boat the escape-boat was completely concealed within the after part of the hull, and appeared only when the victim had been rammed and set on fire. To make the principle clearer, the escape-boat in the picture is more visible than it would have been in reality. At the bow we see the `wolf’s-teeth nails’ which secured the fireship to its victim.

The Chinese fireship represented here also derives from Li Chao-Hsiang’s book about the Dragon River Shipyard. We can see it is a kind of combination-vessel, with the fastenings amidships working on the hook-and-eye principle. At the bow the `wolf’steeth nails’ were rammed into the opponent’s hull, the rockets and fire-missiles which are to be seen in the forward part of the hull were ignited, and the crew made their escape from aft. In this arrangement, too, the escape-boat for the fireship crew was invisible.

Fireships were becoming increasingly popular in Europe by the beginning of the seventeenth century. But these destructive inventions were not limited to the West. Fireships were also used by the Imperial Chinese Navy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and their deployment and the deception of the enemy that went with them formed a well-understood part of the general Art of War.

In China, naval skirmishes occurred for the most part in rivers or in the mouths of estuaries, rather than on the open sea, for in these relatively calm waters it was possible to make use of favourable tides and currents, which were ideal for fireships. There are even descriptions of successful fireship attacks from Chinese antiquity, one example being the battle of the Red Cliffs, fought on the Yangtze-Kiang in 208 AD. One side set alight a large number of boats laden with brushwood and oil, and these `fireships’ caused such panic among the enemy ships that they were run aground on the banks, with huge loss of life.

About 1553 there appeared a book written by Li Chao-Hsiang (Li ZhaoXiang), the superintendent of a large and important installation near Nanking called the Dragon River Shipyard. In this book, which is illustrated with woodcuts, he discusses historic vessels and events, from which it is clear that in China, just as in Europe, there were a number of specialised types of ship, and men of seemingly limitless inventiveness. As regards fireships, for the Chinese the most obvious problem was that of getting the ship within striking distance of an enemy without raising his suspicions. This was not regarded as purely a function of technology, but also a matter of psychology: how to exploit the enemy’s wishes and expectations. For example, in the fourteenth century (by the Western calendar), there was an incident in which one of the warring parties managed to convince the other that some of its ships intended to defect, and as a result they were allowed to come near – too near, as it transpired, when it became clear that they were fireships and there was no way to avoid them.

In his book, Li Chao-Hsiang discusses several technical tricks from the Chinese Art of War that could be used to disguise a fireship. Prominent among these were various methods developed by the shipbuilders of constructing the hull in two parts, either in tandem or side by side. The original function of these `two-part’ junks was to divide on reaching shallow water, since each half drew less water than the whole ensemble. The fireship variation of the principle was built so that one part of the vessel – the inflammable `business end’, so to speak – could be made fast to the enemy, while the crew used the other section to make their escape. The combination-vessel looked harmless enough as it approached, because one sure sign of a fireship was missing: a boat in tow, ready for the crew to make their escape. Li Chao-Hsiang described it as follows:

A vessel of this type is about fourteen metres long, and from a distance looks just like an ordinary ship. But in reality, there are two parts to it, with the forward section making up about one third, and the after part two thirds of the length. These are bound together with hooks and rings, the forward part being loaded with explosives, smoke-bombs, stones and other missiles, besides fire emitting toxic smoke. At the bow are dozens of barbed nails with their sharp tips pointing forward; above this are several blunderbusses, while the after part carries the crew and is equipped with oars. Should wind and current be favourable when they meet an enemy vessel, they set a collision course, ram the bow as hard as possible into the enemy’s bulwarks, and at the same moment let go the fastenings between the two sections, and the after part heads back to its base.

A variant of this vessel was the `mother-and-child boat’, a perfectly camouflaged fireship about twelve metres in length. The forward part was seven metres long and was built like a warship, while the after section, 5.25m long, consisted of a framework with what appeared from a distance to be the sides of the vessel separated only by a scaffolding, which supported the big balanced rudder and concealed the oar-propelled escape-boat. On either side of the bow there were `wolf’s-teeth nails’ and sharp iron spikes to prevent boarding. The attack was made by ramming the enemy ship, which was then held fast with grapnels, and at the same time distracting the victim with a hail of arrows, stones and other missiles. The vessel was loaded with reeds, firewood and flax saturated with inflammable material and bound together with big black-powder fuzes. Once it had been ignited and the enemy was on fire, the daughter-boat was cut loose and the crew made their escape.

Europeans would encounter such weapons when their desire for commercial expansion brought them into conflict with the Chinese. The Portuguese first came to China about 1516, and by the following year an ambassador had visited the Chinese capital and obtained permission for merchants to establish themselves and transact business in the trading centre of Canton. For a long time the Portuguese were the only foreigners with this privilege, which they later tried to turn into a total monopoly of the export trade in the waters of southern China on the basis of their military strength. They expected to repeat the success they had enjoyed in India, but in 1521 and 1522 the Chinese decisively defeated them at sea, and when trade was resumed it was on Chinese and not Portuguese terms. The merchants switched to smuggling, and when the authorities found they could not stamp this out completely, in 1587 they permitted the Portuguese to set up a trading post on the island of Macao, at the mouth of the Pearl river. This was the foundation for the Portuguese monopoly of trade between China and Japan.

For decades the Portuguese suffered no competition from other Europeans and made huge profits, but at the beginning of the seventeenth century the first Dutch fleets began to poach upon the preserves of their colonial empire. The sea power of the Dutch slowly increased after the foundation of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1602; Molucca came under their sway, and the town of Batavia was established on Java, on the Sunda Strait. Apart from some minor setbacks, Dutch merchants enjoyed great success in Asia, but they could not get a toehold in China. They failed to establish a permanent trading post on the mainland, never winning the trust of Chinese high officials. In the Middle Kingdom the `red barbarians’ were considered cunning and greedy. The only notable thing about them was their powerful ships, with their double-planking and `rigging like a spider’s web’.

In the year 1622 the Governor of the VOC in Batavia gathered enough courage to take his fleet on an offensive against the Portuguese in Macao, in an attempt to take over the China trade by force. However, the attack was repulsed and the Dutch proceeded to the Pescadore Islands in the Formosa Strait, where they began work on a fortified strong-point. At the same time they tried to set up a permanent trading base in Amoy (Xiamen), but just as before, their negotiations with the mandarins went nowhere, and they failed.

The Dutch now decided to use a trade war and a blockade to force the Chinese government to trade with them. Thus in January 1623 a VOC fleet raided the coasts of Fukien and Kwantung in south China, destroying the huts of the farmers and reducing the trading junks in the little coastal ports to ashes. This was a poverty-stricken part of the country, and the Chinese military were powerless to stop them ashore. At sea, the navy could not stand up to the heavily armed vessels of the Dutch, but there was one thing it could do: attack with fireships. The fireship was the one Chinese weapon that inspired fear in the Europeans.

As previously mentioned, Chinese fireships were normally deployed in rivers and estuary mouths, for the most part disguised as fishing boats, so the apparently innocent craft could drift down on the anchored Indiamen at all hours. However, the Dutch learned to moor their ships with two anchors, athwart the stream, so that if need be they could slip one, allowing the ship to swing round and avoid the attacker. The crews were kept on the alert, with the slow-match always burning and guns at the ready, so they could engage quickly; any suspicious vessel would be immediately brought under fire and sunk. Standing orders were nailed to the mainmast by the commandant of the fleet, with stiff penalties for disobedience: anyone absent from his post, or sleeping on watch, would be hauled up to the main yardarm and dropped into the water three times for the first offence; a second offence attracted fifty lashes; and if he further misbehaved, the ship’s council might decide it was a capital matter, and he would be hanged.

The VOC’s war on the Chinese state did not have the desired effect and, apart from gaining a seasonal trading permit which they had to renew every year, the Dutch again failed to establish themselves on the mainland. The strongpoint in the Pescadores had to be abandoned, and only in 1624, after building a fort and trading post on Formosa, did they gain indirect access to the lucrative China trade.

It was not just the Dutch who had to face the Chinese fireships. Among others who had to deal with them on the Pearl river were three English East Indiamen under the command of Captain John Weddell. The English ships were observed with hostility and suspicion by their competitors, the Portuguese, as they sailed up the river, trying to get as close as possible to Canton, the trading entrepot of the area. On board one of them was a remarkable man, Peter Mundy, a traveller who had roamed all over Europe and Asia recording his adventures and observations, and it is from his journal that we know what happened on the Pearl river on the dark night of 10 September 1637.

The three ships, the Anne, the Catherine and the Dragon, lay at anchor astern of one another, and at two in the morning the water was flowing quickly, with the ebb-tide reinforcing the normal current. They were expecting goods to arrive from Canton and did not think too much about it when they saw some junks sailing towards them. The Anne, the smallest of the three, lay furthest upstream, and at first it looked as if the junks were just going to sail past, but then they altered course to bring themselves athwart the hawse of the bigger Catherine. The alarm was raised and the junk was fired on, alerting the other ships. The shot appeared to act as a signal to the junks, which all at once burst into flames – they were fireships!

Immediately the English realised what was going on. The first two fireships were connected by chains, and then three more appeared, all steering for the English ships. However, they had no more time to observe, for they had to work flat out if they were to save their lives. Luckily it was almost the end of the ebb, and the current slackened somewhat, which gave them time to cut or slip their cables and make sail. Even more fortunately, just at that moment a light breeze sprang up, and having had the foresight to keep their boats in the water, they were quickly able to take the ships in tow. `The fire was vehement. Balls of wild fire, rockets and fire arrows flew thick as they passed us, But God be praised, not one of us all was touched.’

The night was lit up by blinding flames, which illuminated the hills above the river bank. And the noise as the fireships drifted by was unnerving, the cries of the Chinese crews aboard them blending with the crackling of burning bamboo and the whistling and hissing of rocket and fireworks canisters. In the light of the flames, the English watched as the men on the burning junks jumped into the water and swam for the shore. One of the junks ran aground at the level of the Indiamen, while two more drifted out of sight downstream, and one junk seemed to have been set on fire prematurely and burned out harmlessly, before she reached the English ships. Now they awaited a second attack while it was still dark, but after two hours the fireworks were finally over.

When day broke the English looked on the river banks for Chinese sailors who had abandoned the burning junks, but they found just one swimmer, who attempted to evade them by diving. Finally he was hooked with a pike and hauled aboard halfdead. Then behind an island they found the biggest of the fire-junks, which was still intact, having run aground before being set on fire. Peter Mundy learned about the appearance of this vessel from the crew of the boat:

This being full off dry wood, sticks, heath, hay, etc, thick interlaid with long small bags of gunpowder and other combustible stuff, also cases and chests of fire-arrows dispersed here and there in abundance, being so laid that might strike into ships’ hulls, masts, sails, etc, and to hang on shrouds, tackling, etc, having fastened to them small pieces of crooked wire to hitch and hang on any thing that should meet withal. Moreover, sundry booms on each side with 2 or 3 grapnels at each with iron chains; other also that hung down in the water to catch hold of cables, ground tackle, etc so that if they had but come to touch a ship, it were almost impossible but they catch and hold fast.

The English salvaged the grapnels and chains from the junk and then set it alight. `It burnt awhile so furiously that it consumed the grass on the side of the hill as far as a man could fling a stone; so that had they come within as they came without us, they had endangered us and at least driven us out.’

The Chinese sailor in the boat was patched up by the ship’s surgeon and survived, and was put in irons. The English learned from him that the fireship attack had been instigated by the Portuguese at Macao, and that the intention had been to catch the ships just at change of tide, when they would swing broadside to the stream and present a bigger target. Captain Weddell and his men had been very lucky.

The Sinking of the Musashi

The sinking of the superbattleship Musashi by US carrier aircraft in the battle of the Sibuyan Sea (24 October 1944) gives an idea of Japanese anti-aircraft capability and may be compared to the sinking of Prince of Wales about three years earlier. Musashi was considerably larger than the British battleship, and she absorbed much more damage. The sixteen bombs which hit her did not contribute directly to her sinking, but they did help reduce her anti-aircraft effectiveness and thus indirectly contributed to the success of the torpedo bombers which sank her. The Japanese initially reported that she was struck by twenty-one torpedoes, including two duds, but the US Navy concluded from interrogation of survivors and other Japanese naval personnel that only ten hits and four possible but not probable hits could be identified. Analysis suggested that ten hits equally divided between both sides in the forward three-quarters of the ship would have been enough to sink her. Analysis was complicated because the Japanese did not produce war damage reports comparable to those produced by the US Navy or the Royal Navy, nor were commanding officers required to submit war damage reports. However, both the executive officer and the engineering officer of Musashi kept detailed notebooks, which survived the war.

When she was attacked, Musashi was part of a large Japanese surface action group, Admiral Kurita’s Center Force. It included both superbattleships and three older battleships (Nagato, Haruna and Kongo), plus numerous cruisers and fifteen destroyers. The ship’s CO, Rear Admiral Inoguchi, was a gunnery officer who reportedly placed great faith in the special shrapnel/incendiary shells her main battery could fire. Like Admiral Phillips off Malaya three years earlier, Admiral Kurita asked for fighter cover, which would have been provided by the large naval air force ashore in the Philippines. It was later claimed that ten fighters had been kept aloft over his force, but US attackers saw only four of them, which they quickly shot down. All the losses to the attackers were due to anti-aircraft fire. Musashi had been upgraded considerably since completion, and her numerous 25mm mounts were all controlled by directors comparable to those on board Prince of Wales in 1941. Probably the most significant difference in the two actions was that Musashi was not unfortunate enough to suffer early hits which put her electrical power out of action.

As in the earlier case, prior to the attack the ship was shadowed by a search plane, in this case from the carrier Intrepid. The ship tried unsuccessfully to jam the aircraft’s radio. About two hours later, the first strike (estimated by the Japanese as thirty aircraft, which would be equivalent to Intrepid’s combined torpedo and dive bombing force) arrived. Some aircraft came from the light carrier Cabot. The attack began with eight SB2C dive bombers, which caused minor damage. They were followed by three Avengers, one of which hit the ship amidships, slightly abaft the bridge. The shock of this hit jammed the main battery director, so the ship was unable to fire her 46cm Type 3 shells. Two of the three Avengers were shot down. During this attack the ship fired forty-eight 155mm (low-angle) and sixty 127mm shells. After this attack the ship switched to her after main battery director; changeover of this type was awkward in Japanese ships due to synchro and switchboard design.

About half an hour later the ship’s air-search radar detected a second raid 81km out. A few minutes later the aircraft were sighted, and another eight Helldivers from Intrepid attacked, this time scoring two bomb hits and five near-misses. A bomb fragment which penetrated the muzzle of one gun in No. 1 turret detonated a Type 3 shell which had just been loaded, disabling the turret. Nine Avengers delivered a hammer-and-anvil torpedo attack, eight of them dropping torpedoes. Three hit the port side amidships, flooding one engine room. The director changeover made it possible to fire fifty-four 46cm Type 3 shells. In addition, the ship fired seventeen 155mm and 200 127mm. Bomb damage to an engine room slowed the ship, and she was left down by the bow. The attacking US pilots had never encountered Type 3 shells before, and they were impressed that the Japanese would fire against them at ranges of 25,000 to 30,000 yds, at which the relatively slow train and elevation rates of large-calibre turrets would not be a problem. ‘The fire was surprisingly accurate and somewhat distracting, though no damage was sustained by the planes so attacked.’ US pilots thought the shells were loaded with phosphorus.

About an hour and a half later twenty-nine aircraft from Essex and Lexington attacked, including two strafing Hellcats. Four Helldivers made two hits near starboard amidships and abeam the after 46cm turret, causing casualties among the 25mm crews. Other Helldivers made four bomb hits on the port side. Another hammer and anvil attack, this time by six Avengers, made four more torpedo hits, two on each side. The ship fired another thirty-six 46cm Type 3 shells, plus seventy-nine 155mm and over 500 25mm. The ship was now further down by the bow, reduced to 20kts and thus lagging behind Kurita’s 22kt force.

About two hours later eight Hellcats and twelve Helldivers from Essex attacked two of the other four battleships, Yamato and Nagato. The bomb damage they inflicted had no real effect. At this point the CO of the accompanying cruiser Tone suggested that the ships of the force provide anti-aircraft support for Musashi.

A fifth attack carried out by sixty-nine aircraft from Enterprise and Franklin made four hits with 1000lb AP bombs, three in the bow area, and three torpedo hits. The pilots reported that the ship was dead in the water, heavily down by the bow and smoking. After they left she managed to increase speed to 16kts (soon reduced to 13kts) and she corrected her starboard list.

The sixth and final attack on Kurita’s force was mounted by seventy-five aircraft from Intrepid (thirty-four), Franklin (thirty) and Cabot (one); thirty-seven of them attacked Musashi. They made a total of ten bomb hits, some of which wiped out 25mm guns. It is not clear how many torpedo hits were made, since totals given by different sources vary. A battle narrative gives a total of nineteen torpedo hits (ten to port, nine to starboard), seventeen bomb hits and eighteen near-misses. However, most current Japanese accounts give eleven torpedo hits, ten bomb hits and six near-misses.

A total of 259 US carrier sorties was flown, and eighteen US aircraft were shot down during the attacks, for a loss rate of 6.9 per cent, better than that inflicted by Prince of Wales and Repulse during their final battle. US pilots were unimpressed by the Type 3 shells, and fire by 127mm guns seems to have been limited. The main defence was 25mm guns, for which US pilots had respect. Dive bombing attacks could not sink the ship, but they certainly could destroy the light anti-aircraft guns which were beating off the torpedo bombers. At the least they could help saturate the ship’s anti-aircraft fire control channels. Note that virtually all attacks were combinations of dive bombers and torpedo bombers. It is also obvious that the Japanese had not adopted US-style circular formations with their interlocking fields of anti-aircraft fire. Only at the end did Musashi receive support from other ships (at the end she was attended by the cruiser Tone and the destroyers Shimakaze and Kiyoshimo, neither of them an anti-aircraft destroyer).

This was the first major US air strike against a Japanese capital ship since 1942. In retrospect it seems surprising that attacks were not spread effectively over the rest of Kurita’s force. One answer lies in the way the attacks were carried out, in succession by different Task Groups. No pilots from any one such attack knew what his predecessors had hit, and it was easy to concentrate on one spectacular target. Moreover, pilots in successive waves seem to have thought they were hitting different ships.

Musashi absorbed enormous punishment and in so doing seems also to have absorbed the air striking power available to Task Force 38. Kurita cannot have intended it that way, but because the pilots concentrated on her, they were unable to inflict significant damage on the rest of Kurita’s large surface force. Task force commander Admiral Halsey later commented that the attack showed just how difficult it still was for aircraft to sink a large surface combatant. In effect that was a post-battle justification for his unwillingness to form a battle line (Task Force 34) when he went north to engage the Japanese decoy carrier force. The attack also showed how misleading pilots’ reports could be. They exaggerated the damage they had inflicted on the other battleships (two bombs each on Yamato and Nagato, five near-misses on Haruna). Given their claims, they were too ready to report that they had turned Kurita back. They interpreted ships milling around to support damaged units as ships stopped and ready to retire. Kurita did retire temporarily, calling for strikes by land-based aircraft (which could not materialise) to precede him. On the night after the battle, he turned back towards Leyte Gulf, which had been denuded of capital ship protection on the basis of the exaggerated strike reports.

The most interesting lesson is that battle-damage assessment is the most difficult part of an attack. Issued in March 1945, the Cominch compilation of ‘Battle Experience’ for Leyte Gulf reflects after-action reports. It seems clear that the pilots reported that they had crippled Kurita’s force. TG 38.2, which made more than half the attacks (146 sorties), dropped 23 tons of bombs and twenty-three torpedoes. Its pilots reported that they had hit Yamato with three torpedoes and hit a sister ship (possibly the same ship) with one torpedo and two bombs; that they had hit the battleship Nagato with a torpedo and a bomb; that one Kongo class battleship had been hit by two torpedoes and six bombs; a Mogami class cruiser had possibly been sunk by a torpedo; the cruiser Nachi had been hit by one torpedo. Task Group 38.3 reported one bat-tleship badly hit, two others damaged, and four heavy and two light cruisers damaged. Task Group 38.4 reported one battleship (Musashi?) hit by a torpedo, on fire, down at the bow and probably sunk, one Yamato class battleship hit by one to three torpedoes and two bombs; a Kongo class battleship hit once by a bomb, one light cruiser sunk, one destroyer sunk, one destroyer probably sunk and four destroyers damaged. Although some of this information was not immediately relayed to Admiral Halsey, the impression that great damage had been done was unmistakeable. Halsey was convinced; in his after-action report he wrote that the enemy had turned back to attack off Samar out of blind obedience to an Imperial command to do or die.

It was soon obvious that the pilots had exaggerated about as badly as the Japanese had when they reported sinking the US fleet several times over after attacking the Task Force off Formosa just before Leyte Gulf. In March 1945 Cominch credited the pilots with having damaged Musashi and sunk the heavy cruiser Haguro. In fact the cruiser was quite intact, having steamed south, but Musashi had been sunk. Unlike the Japanese, who orbited the crippled British capital ships to make sure they were sunk, the US carriers did not maintain anyone over the battle scene to be sure of what happened. That was partly due to range (the battle was at extreme strike range for the Task Force) and probably also because the need for such assessment had not been driven home.

The Cominch combat analysis emphasised the problems pilots faced in evaluating their results. In a secret letter, CinCPAC Admiral Nimitz pointed out the problem, and Cominch clearly felt it had to be repeated. Nimitz quoted a report after an air strike early in the war: one 15,000-ton transport (AP) on fire and beached; one transport (AP) sunk and burning; one transport or cargo ship beached and probably sunk; one transport or cargo ship sunk, bottomed in shallow water, and listing; one Mogami class cruiser blown up and sunk; one Kinugasa class cruiser afire and headed for the beach, believed sunk; one light cruiser headed for the beach, believed sunk; one seaplane tender (Kamoi class) damaged and stopped; one destroyer listing, afire, and sinking fast; two other destroyers probably sun; one gunboat set afire and severely damaged; one minesweeper stopped and burning fiercely, probably sunk. Confirmed sinkings were actually three cargo ships of 4000 to 6000 tons. No warships were sunk.

Nimitz did not want to ruin his pilots’ enthusiasm, but he did want them to know that there could be a gap between good-faith reports and reality. The worst problem was that it was generally unwise to remain in an area to assess results, as long as any ships and their AA crews survived to keep firing. With so many aircraft involved, reports would necessarily be duplicated, and they might be difficult to disentangle. Pilots tended to be over-optimistic about the effects of their attacks: there could be tremendous explosions topside, yet a ship might still get underway and get home. Pilots could also be over-optimistic about near-misses: if near enough, they could certainly do tremendous damage, but then again they might not. Similarly, there was over-optimism as to fire and smoke: a small and possibly harmless fire could produce a great deal of smoke. Even ships afire from stem to stern could survive. There was over-valuation of ships ‘beached and sunk’. A damaged ship might well beach herself lightly until the attack was over – but she would survive. Finally, Nimitz cited the ‘lack of familiarity with ships on the part of many pilots, which handicaps them in distinguishing types and tonnages and in estimating the seriousness of the damage or the probability of a ship sinking’. This last point applies to nearly all the examples of air-sea combat already quoted.

The attack on the battleship Yamato in April 1945 contrasts with that against Musashi. The US Navy seems to have realised that the ship’s sheer capacity to absorb aerial punishment ensured that strike aircraft would keep coming back to attack her rather than distribute their fire among the ships in the Japanese surface strike force. This time the strikes were very differently organised. Each of the groups launched by a Carrier Task Group had a coordinator. The effect of coordination shows in that considerable numbers of torpedoes were devoted to the other ships in the force. It probably helped that Yamato was the only large ship in her task force, the others being the light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers. Concentrating on the one large ship did not have the unfortunate effects of the concentration on Musashi which left the other ships of the surface strike group effectively undamaged to fight the battle off Samar the next day.

Task Force 58 was alerted on the night of 6–7 April by two US submarines (Threadfin and Hackleback) patrolling the Bungo Suido Channel (reportedly the Japanese intercepted the uncoded sighting reports). At dawn the Task Groups launched a total of forty aircraft, all fighters, in groups of four, to search to a depth of 325nm. At 08.22 an Essex search aircraft reported one battleship, probably Yamato class, two cruisers, and eight destroyers making 12kts. The fighter could not contact the carrier directly via her VHF line-of-sight radio, but linking aircraft had been launched. She radioed via them (100 and 200nm away). The next step was to shadow the enemy group, so that a strike group could be vectored to them. At 09.56 a tracking and covering force of sixteen fighters was launched, followed at 10.00 by strikes from Task Groups 58.1 and 58.3 and 45 minutes later by a strike from Task Group 58.4.

All three Task Groups were to have launched together, but the Hancock strike (12 torpedo bombers, 15 dive bombers, and 24 fighters) was 15 minutes late on take-off and failed to join up (and hence to find the targets). This was an immense force, totalling 386 aircraft: 113 from TG 58.1 (52 fighters, 21 dive bombers, 40 torpedo bombers), 167 from TG 58.3 (80 fighters, 29 dive bombers, and 58 torpedo bombers), and 106 from TG 58.4 (48 fighters, 25 dive bombers, 33 torpedo bombers). All the torpedo bombers carried torpedoes. The dive bombers (Helldivers) carried 1000lb SAP and underwing 250lb GP bombs. Each fighter had a 500lb GP bomb and a long-range drop tank. This huge strike left enough fighters with Task Force 58 to deal with enemy attacks (a Kamikaze crashed into the carrier Hancock while the strike was away). The launch position was about 250nm from the estimated position of the Japanese force (i.e., aircraft would have to fly about 240nm). All of the searching was needed: the enemy force unexpectedly turned north, to be found again by a land-based search aircraft from Okinawa. It shadowed the enemy force for the rest of the day, but shadowing reports failed to get through to the Task Force Commander. It turned out that it did not matter very much because the strike leaders were soon in touch with the shadower. Final homing was by APS-4 radar on Helldivers, which picked up the enemy force at 32nm from 6000ft.

When first sighted, the Japanese force was 70nm from the first sighting position. A combination of poor weather and the sheer size of the attacking force made the attack difficult to coordinate. Anti-aircraft fire was heavy but ineffective, and the three Task Groups attacked roughly in sequence, TG 58.1 and 58.3 first and then TG 58.4.

The attack developed in three phases, of which the first consisted of two almost simultaneous attacks. The first two strike groups hit not only Yamato but also the cruiser and three destroyers. The attacks began with strafing to suppress her light anti-aircraft battery. This time the torpedo bombers concentrated on one side of the ship. The first two bomb hits around around No 2 turret. wrecked a 12.7cm anti-aircraft mount and many light anti-aircraft guns. Another two, inflicted a few minutes later, wrecked the after secondary battery director and exploded above the protective deck, starting a fire which was never extinguished. The after 15.5cm mount was gutted. At least the first two hits seem to have been by 500lb GP bombs rather than AP bombs. A second wave of attacks began 40 to 45 minutes later, inflicting three or four torpedo hits on the port side and one on the starboard side. There were no bomb hits. About thirty minutes later a third and last attack began. The ship took two more torpedoes to port and one more to starboard (some Japanese officers thought there were additional hits, but the post-war US analysis discounted that). Altogether Yamato seems to have taken at least nine torpedo hits (plus three possible, but improbable), of which seven were on her port side and two on her starboard side. The ship also took at least four hits from dive bombers.

Yamato capsized to port 20 to 30 minutes after the last three torpedo hits, her magazines exploding as she rolled over. Both the Assistant Gunnery Officer and the Chief of Staff told US officers after the war that they believed that the fire aft ignited the magazines of the after 15.5cm mount, passing to them as the ship rolled over. A study of main battery shell fuses militated against the alternative explanation, given by the ship’s Executive Officer, that as the ship rolled over her HE and incendiary AA shells fell out of their racks in all three 46cm magazines, hit their noses on the deck, and exploded.

US losses amounted to ten aircraft (four dive bombers, three torpedo bombers, and three fighters) and twelve aircrew (four pilots and eight crew).

Assessed results were Yamato and a light cruiser (Yahagi) sunk, as well as four destroyers, plus one badly damaged (Akizuki class) and one left burning. In fact the light cruiser was sunk (she took, among other damage, six torpedoes) and the initial wave sank the destroyer Isokaze and damaged two others so badly that they had to leave the area (one of them, Hamakaze, later sank). Later waves sank the destroyer Asashimo and damaged Kasumi so badly that she sank. Three destroyers rescued survivors and returned to Japan. Thus the assessment in the after-action report was far more accurate than it had been in the October 1944 action, perhaps as a result of Nimitz’ comments at the time. A search and a fighter sweep (thirty-two fighters armed with bombs) the next day failed to find the surviving Japanese ships.