Imperial Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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H.M.S. RODNEY PART I

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16-Gun Sloop of War

While has been six Rodneys, officially only four British warships have borne the name, the first ‘official’ being a ship of the line commissioned in 1810, here are the first three (3). Bearing in mind the Admiralty’s reluctance to recognise the cutter, it is strange the earliest battle honour attributed to Rodney comes from that vessel, which, a decade after Captain Rodney’s governorship of Newfoundland, garnered the tribute ‘Quebec 1759’. The Rodney cutter supported General Wolfe’s brilliant assault on Quebec and while she carried a mere four guns, they were adequate enough for the job of carrying despatches to and from the scene of battle. However, while the cutter earned the battle honour she was not believed to have been present when Wolfe scaled the Heights of Abraham to confront Montcalm, the British general losing his life in the process of achieving a great victory, ending French hopes of establishing control over much of Canada.

During the Quebec campaign Rodney was commanded by Lieutenant the Honourable Philip Tufton Perceval, an aristocrat of Irish descent. His father was John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont, at one time tipped to be a future Prime Minister of Britain but who, instead, became First Lord of the Admiralty, in 1763 and 1766.

The Rodney’s commander was born on 10 March 1741, his mother being Catherine Cecil, a daughter of the Earl of Salisbury. Lieutenant Tufton Perceval was therefore not even nineteen when he took charge of Rodney; he was made a Master and Commander on 5 September 1759, receiving his promotion, and captaincy of Rodney, eight days before the climactic battle for Quebec. After his time in command of the cutter, Tufton Perceval no doubt moved on to larger ships, but does not seem to have distinguished himself greatly in his subsequent naval career, dying at the age of 54, on 21 April 1795. His half brother, Spencer, found greater success, as a politician, but in 1812, while serving as Prime Minister, was assassinated in the House of Commons.

In the same year the Rodney cutter sailed the St Lawrence, the man she was named after received promotion to Rear Admiral of the Blue and an appointment to command a naval force charged with containing a French invasion force in Le Havre. By this time Rodney’s reputation was mixed, to say the least. In 1762 he had ignored Army claims that Martinique could not be taken from the French and landed troops with Royal Navy guns and gunners to take the island’s chief stronghold, Fort Royal. The British soon subdued the fortress; a notable triumph achieved against the odds.

Following the end of the Seven Years War, in August 1764 Rodney was made a baronet and, aside from serving as Governor of Greenwich Hospital for five years, entered politics. It was not his first such venture, for Rodney had been elected MP for Saltash in 1751, a borough just up the River Tamar from Plymouth Dock, today known as Devonport and future home port of the Second World War-era battleship Rodney. Rodney the man was by 1761 MP for Penryn, another Cornish constituency.

Rodney’s campaign to be elected MP for Northampton in 1768, while successful in that it gained him the seat, was ruinously expensive and, taken together with his addiction to gambling, plunged him into dire financial straits. An appointment to command in Jamaica did not solve his money problems and, when he retired from the Caribbean in 1775, Rodney sought refuge in France to avoid the indignity of a spell in a debtors’ prison. The admiral lived in Paris until May 1778 when, with hostilities about to break out between Britain and France over the latter’s support for rebels in North American colonies, Rodney went home, able to pay off his debts thanks to a very generous loan from a French general. Ironic then, that Rodney’s return would eventually lead to a defeat that brought ruin upon France’s designs to enrich herself by taking British colonies. Rodney was appointed to command in the Leeward Islands in 1779, mainly because, although not universally admired, he was the best available at a time when talent was thin on the ground, partly because the Keppel-Palliser affair had prompted many senior naval officers to refuse service at sea. On the way to his new posting, Rodney was tasked with relieving the siege of Gibraltar, the resulting victory in the ‘moonlight battle’ of January 1780 raising his reputation to a new high. Once he arrived in the West Indies, Admiral Rodney was hopefully preoccupied with saving Jamaica from Franco-Spanish invasion. With lingering financial problems that a share in lucrative captures might solve, he was particularly keen on ships under his command taking prizes. This motive cast further disrepute on Rodney’s name, for it is reckoned money-seeking prompted him to organize an operation to seize the island of St Eustasius from the Dutch. Although this venture yielded a lot of treasure, various legal issues meant Rodney personally benefited little. Most serious was the fact that it diverted him from providing a proper defence for Martinique, which was taken back by the French.

A combination of disgrace, over his putting lucre before securing British possessions, and ill health forced Rodney to resign in 1781 and return home, but, as is the way with such things, he was accorded the honorary rank of Vice Admiral of Great Britain in early November. Such was the poverty of talent among Britain’s available sea-going admirals, Rodney was soon sailing again for the West Indies, returning to the post of Commander-in-Chief in mid-January 1782.

The next HMS Rodney was a 16-gun brig-sloop, with a ship’s company of fifty-one, in 1781 commanded by John Douglas Brisbane, who had been promoted to Lieutenant on 1 April 1779. This Rodney, the second and final ‘unofficial’, had been purchased in the Caribbean that year and may previously have been an American customs vessel, or even a locally commissioned ship, like so many of the Royal Navy’s smaller craft. She was no doubt named in honour of the commander-in-chief, in order to give physical form to Admiral Rodney’s status (and seek advantage in his favours).

The master and commander of the Rodney sloop-brig was the son of Captain John Brisbane, who had distinguished himself in action during the on-going American War of Independence. No doubt it was Captain Brisbane’s influence that won his son command of Rodney. Possibly the elder Brisbane was held in high esteem by Admiral Rodney but Lieutenant Brisbane was not blessed with good fortune, for Rodney would be captured on 3 February 1782 by the French, during a vain defence of Demerara in what is today Guyana. The area was originally settled by the Dutch West India Company, which reclaimed stretches of the coast to develop sugar and cotton plantations, using slaves to harvest the crops. In the 1590s Sir Walter Raleigh had searched in vain for El Dorado, the fabled city of gold, in the region’s vast jungles and, in 1781, the British – probably acting under orders from the money-hungry Admiral Rodney – regarded Demerara as such rich territory they seized it. The main aim was to prevent the Dutch from shipping Demerera’s highly desirable goods to rebel American colonies and instead divert it into British hands.

The new rulers constructed a fort at the mouth of the river, Fort St George, and began laying out a settlement around it, the beginnings of Georgetown, the modern-day capital of Guyana. In early 1782, Rodney, the 20-gun frigate Oronoque, sloops Barbuda, 16-guns, Sylph, 18-guns and Stormont, 16-guns, together with the schooner Henry, 6-guns, failed to deter a French expeditionary force composed of five warships led by the 32-gun frigate Iphigenie. The Oronoque would appear not to have had a full complement, perhaps due to disease, and of the nominal guns available across the force only 75 were actually capable of being manned. French firepower amounted to 140 guns, out-gunning the British by 65 weapons. In terms of available manpower, there were 380 British sailors and marines while the French mustered 1,500 soldiers and matelots.

The story of this obscure moment in British naval history can be found in the ‘Lieutenant’s Log’ of Tudor Tucker, at forty-years old a rather elderly Lieutenant, from the loyalist side of a family whose rebel scions included the first Treasurer of the USA, also named Tudor Tucker. Lt Tudor Tucker RN joined Rodney at the end of July 1781. By mid-August, Rodney was alongside in Antigua, where she went into refit and then sailed for Barbados, which she soon left. On Friday, 19 October, Rodney dropped anchor in the lower reaches of the Demerara river, which flows north for 230 miles from its source in the rain forests. She stayed there through the early autumn and into winter, as war clouds loomed ever more ominously on the horizon.

Wednesday, 30 January 1782 dawned fair, but a storm approached in the form of the French naval force. The Rodney was hailed by the Oronoque’s Commanding Officer, who told Lieutenant Brisbane of the enemy ships, which ‘he supposed intended to attack the river at some time.’

Brisbane called Lt Tucker over and ‘ordered by him to go on shore and take charge of the fort . . .’

Not long after, it was decided it should be abandoned, with Tucker instructed to spike the guns, but before he could complete the task, he was hailed from Rodney and told to return to ship. An attempt to break out into the open sea was planned. The Sylph and Henry had earlier sailed out from the river to see if there was any chance of the British naval force making it, but the French were too well positioned. Sylph and Henry retreated and brought back gloomy news. There was probably a council of war where it was decided the best course of action was to surrender. On 31 January, Lieutenant Tucker’s log noted that at 1 am Rodney

. . . weighed and made sail up the river in company with the Oronoke [sic], Barbuda, Sylph, Stormont and Henry . . . at 5 anchored . . . at 11 am a Flag of truce flew off from the Oronoke [sic] . . .

On 2 February Lt Tucker was ordered to come on board Oronoque and, in the early hours, tasked with taking an offer of surrender to the French commander. Sent off in a boat under a Flag of Truce, at 8 am going on board Iphigenie, Tucker delivered the letter, two hours later receiving a verbal reply, then setting off back up the river. But, when he went aboard the Oronoque, Lt Tucker found two French officers already there, having arrived an hour before him. Subsequently, Oronoque’s captain and the governor of Demerara went down the river to agree final terms. Sunday, 3 February dawned fair but it was a black day for the Royal Navy as, at 10 am, Tucker was told by Brisbane that capitulation of British naval forces had been agreed, with Rodney’s guns to be discharged and secured.

Admiral Rodney gained revenge for the taking of Demerara by defeating a Franco-Spanish fleet at the battle of The Saintes, on 12 April 1782, so ending the enemy’s dreams of conquering further British colonies in the Caribbean. Rodney deployed the tactic of cutting the enemy line that would reach its apex when used by Nelson at Trafalgar more than two decades later. But, what of Rodney’s Brisbane and Tucker? Their lives were but footnotes of British naval history, forgotten in the shadows of great victories like The Saintes. Neither man was destined to reach a ripe old age.

Released from captivity, Lieutenant Brisbane was put aboard one of the French warships taken as prizes at The Saintes, the captured vessels sailing for Britain in company with a large convoy of merchant ships in July 1782. By mid-September, they were off the Newfoundland Banks, hit by severe gales for three days during which the Ville de Paris, French flagship at The Saintes, sank with the loss of all but one sailor and Glorieux went down with all hands. The Rodney’s Lieutenant Brisbane was among those drowned. Following his release from captivity Lieutenant Tucker returned to his unspectacular career in the Navy, getting married in December 1784 and not receiving promotion to Commander until February 1796. He died four years later.

The third Rodney of this story – the first ‘official’ vessel of the name – was a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line built by the private shipyard of William Barnard, on the River Thames, close to Deptford Royal Dockyard.

During an active warship construction life of some thirty-nine years, Barnard’s Deptford Green Yard, established in 1780, built twenty-six warships and a dozen East Indiamen. The Rodney was one of eight 74-gun ships constructed by Barnard, a type for which it had a good reputation.

Among them was the legendary HMS Orion, which saw action in the battles of the Glorious First of June (1794) Cape St Vincent (1797) and Trafalgar (1805).

The 1,754 tons third-rate Rodney was ordered by the Admiralty Board on 28 May 1808, for, despite the victory at Trafalgar nearly three years earlier, the French naval threat remained acute, particularly as the potential building capacity of shipyards under the sway of Napoleon remained even greater than Britain’s. To retain dominance of the oceans the Royal Navy needed supremely useful 74-gunners and so private yards like Barnard did well. The amount of wood devoted to constructing a ship like the 74-gun Rodney would make a modern-day conservationist weep, for 3,000 full-grown oak trees were used in the hull alone. Despite a heavy workload, Barnard completed Rodney in the remarkable time span of just 20 months. The new Rodney was launched on 8 December 1809, more than 17 years after Rodney the man had passed away.

The progression from humble cutter to a line-of-battle-ship, reflected the rise of the Admiral’s renown, for good or ill. It was no doubt hoped the name Rodney would indicate a good fighting spirit, rather than reflect the more controversial aspects of Rodney’s personality and reputation. After his success at The Saintes, Admiral Rodney was called home from the West Indies and dismissed from his post by a new government keen to show the country it meant to make up for the disastrous conduct of the war to retain America. When the success of The Saintes became widely known, and acclaimed throughout Britain, Rodney was given the freedom of many towns and cities, awarded the thanks of both the Commons and Lords, was made Baron Rodney of Stoke-Rodney and received the considerable pension of £2,000 a year. However, his financial difficulties pursued him into his retirement and he died on 24 May 1792, with debtors snapping at his heels.

As Rodney was being fitted out, rigged and also equipped with her weapons, and while her press gangs were scouring ports looking for sailors, many hundreds of miles to the south, British involvement in the Iberian Peninsula was hotting up.

Napoleon was attempting to use the Continental Blockade to shut European ports to British trade, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. However, the British Army was not large enough to contest Napoleon’s might on land across several theatres. It had become clear, despite the disastrous retreat from Corunna in January 1809, which saw the Royal Navy lift thousands of troops off the beaches – a forerunner of Dunkirk 130 years later – that Spain and Portugal still offered the best means of sapping the strength of the French Army and destroying the myth of Napoleon’s invincibility.

The warships that saw service in support of Wellington’s army in Spain were true practitioners of what today is referred to as littoral warfare. By dominating waters just off the shore they were able to keep land forces supplied and leapfrog enemy obstacles by taking troops up and down the coast. British warships also influenced events on land directly through bombarding enemy forts, cutting sea lines of communication to Napoleon’s troops, and supporting isolated pockets of friendly forces. Transport of troops by sea, and their re-supply, was so much swifter, less dangerous and wearing, than using the often atrocious roads of the Iberian interior. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy denied the French every advantage offered by the sea and forced them into an ineradicably hostile terrain where Spanish guerillas picked at their entrails like voracious vultures.

The Rodney was by the early summer of 1810 at Plymouth, with orders to join the Mediterranean Fleet and, in preparation for her first voyage into a war zone, was receiving stores and also taking aboard impressed men to bring her complement up to its full strength of 700.

Among those delivered to her was eighteen-year old Joseph Bates, a young American who had already seen many adventures since first going to sea as a cabin boy in 1807. From the moment he stepped aboard, Bates found his card was marked by Rodney’s First Lieutenant, who had received reports of his several escape attempts. The officer glared at him and growled: ‘Scoundrel.’

H.M.S. RODNEY PART II

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A Vengeur-class ship of the line

The Commanding Officer of the Rodney, Captain Bolton, warned his boat’s crews they would be flogged if they allowed Bates anywhere near their craft, in case he tried to escape again. The new batch of pressed men went down to dinner but a few hours later many of them, including Bates, were ascending Rodney’s rigging to unfurl sails. On sailing from Plymouth, Rodney set course down the Channel, to join the Mediterranean Fleet on its blockade station in the Gulf of Lyons, off Toulon. Rodney first stopped at besieged Cadiz, joining eight other British warships supporting the Spanish fleet with the objective of assisting the host nation’s vessels to set sail for Gibraltar where they were to be refitted, having been virtually confined to port since Trafalgar. Bates was sent to one of the Spanish ships, the Apollo, with 49 other sailors from the Rodney. After her refit at Gibraltar, Apollo set sail for Port Mahon, on the island of Minorca, which was once more being used by the Royal Navy as its main support base for the blockade of Toulon. Bates made another unsuccessful bid to escape, giving up and returning to the ship after finding he could not get off the island. He escaped flogging because officers in the Apollo were impressed that he returned voluntarily, but Bates soon rejoined Rodney, at Gibraltar.

In October 1810, an Anglo-Spanish force tried to take the fort at Fuengirola, which was held by Polish troops fighting for Napoleon. It was hoped this would entice the French garrison at Malaga to sally forth, enabling an attempt to recover that important port, but it all went horribly wrong, with the Poles refusing to surrender. Lord Blayney, commander of the landing force, was overjoyed to see a magnificent 74-gun British warship cresting over the horizon.

At this moment His Majesty’s ship Rodney, with a Spanish line of battle ship, appeared off the coast, and I learnt that they had on board the 82d regiment, one thousand strong, which had been sent from Gibraltar to reinforce me; my anxiety to receive them was of course very great, and boats were immediately sent off to assist in landing them.

Blayney went aboard Rodney, to dine with her captain and discuss plans for taking the fortress. The following day Rodney and other warships were moored broadside on to the shoreline, so their cannons could bear on the enemy positions. Polish cannon balls were soon whistling through Rodney’s rigging and there was some hesitancy among her topmen, who did not go up to furl the sails quickly enough for the officers’ liking. Because of such tardiness, all seamen were ‘ordered aloft, and there remained exposed to the enemy’s shot until the sails were furled.’

While in this condition, a single well-directed shot might have killed a score, but fortunately none were shot . . .

The Rodney’s 32-pounder guns spoke, belching flame and smoke, but the ebb and flow of battle placed British and Spanish troops in the line of fire, so she stopped her cannonade. The British lost the initiative altogether and were hurled back, with the hapless Blayney taken prisoner. When this happened Spanish and British troops fled down to the shore. Boats brought the dead and injured out to Rodney, the slaughter having lasted from 2 pm to sunset; Bates and his shipmates were tasked with washing the blood out of the boats and hurling corpses over the side. Meanwhile, Blayney suffered the indignity of watching Rodney and the other vessels vainly bombarding the fortress in which he was now held prisoner.

I went on the rampart, from whence I had a full view of the shipping. The fort was still firing at the Rodney, and at the boats with the troops, which approached close to the shore. A few minutes would have brought them to my assistance, and they would certainly have changed the fortune of the day in my favour; but fate ordered it otherwise. While thus absorbed in my own melancholy reflections, I could not help exclaiming, as I looked on the Rodney and Topaze, there is the ship where a few days since I dined in social friendship, and there the frigate which brought me to this shore, rejoicing in the sanguine hope of serving my country; all on board then, are free, while I am doomed to pass an indefinite period in captivity, deprived of the society of all those who are dear to me in the world!

Rodney and the other warships withdrew and headed east, but a storm blew up, one vessel ‘. . . dashed to pieces on the rocks of the Island of Sardinia, and nearly every one of the crew perished.’ With the gale abating, Rodney joined the fleet off Toulon.

For a time Rodney was in Port Mahon, as flagship of Rear Admiral Thomas Fremantle, one of Nelson’s legendary ‘Band of Brothers’ who fought alongside England’s greatest naval hero at both Copenhagen, in 1801, and Trafalgar, in 1805. Fremantle had been made Rear Admiral in 1810 and yearned for action, having been ashore for some years. He joined the Mediterranean Fleet under the command of Admiral Sir Charles Cotton, who regarded his subordinate as a dangerous talent to be kept in check. In early 1811 Fremantle expressed fears that Minorca was weakly garrisoned by the Spanish and could easily be taken, leaving the fleet off Toulon without proper support. Cotton decided that, as his subordinate was so concerned, he may as well have command of Port Mahon, and that is how Fremantle came to transfer his flag into Rodney from the 110-gun Ville de Paris. Fremantle was happy to receive an independent command and especially grateful to be away from his boss, writing home from Rodney to his wife:

Cotton is incapable of governing this fleet.

Fremantle, as was the custom, took a select group of supporters into Rodney, including all the officers of the Ville de Paris, a band, plus sailors to man small boats, in all sixty people. Orders soon began to fly out from Rodney, providing the jump-start needed to get the island’s dockyard working at a higher pitch, so it could begin refitting some of the fleet’s weatherworn ships.

Essential supplies were dispatched to ships on station off Toulon and when Spanish naval stores from Cadiz and Cartagena arrived, to ensure they did not fall into the hands of the encroaching French, Fremantle hammered out a deal to buy them. Of major concern was the fact that 300 of the 600-strong Minorcan garrison were French prisoners persuaded to serve in Spain’s Walloon Guards. In Rodney Fremantle brooded on the matter and wrote to Cotton that the Walloons ‘seem daily to be more disinclined to the English and I cannot too strongly impress upon you the importance of this place which can be carried by a Coup de Main.’ But the danger passed and Fremantle left Rodney in August 1811, sailing in the new 74-gun HMS Milford to become Britain’s chief naval representative at the Neapolitan court in Sicily. Ultimately, he commanded British warships during a successful campaign in the Adriatic, after a period in home waters returning to the Mediterranean as Commander-in-Chief, but dying at Naples in 1819, aged fifty-four.

William Henry Smyth, grandfather of the founder of the Scouting movement, Lord Baden-Powell, joined Rodney in the summer of 1811. Prior to this Smyth achieved renown when he transferred from Milford to command a Spanish gunboat in defence of Cadiz. It was probably for this excellent work that on 14 December 1811 Smyth was promoted to Master’s Mate. This remarkable twenty-three year old sailor, who was destined to be a noted hydrographer and an admiral, possibly used his time in Rodney, as she cruised off Spain throughout 1812, to collect data for charts still used by mariners as recently as 1961.

At least three of Rodney’s sailors had fought in HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. They joined Rodney at the beginning of August 1811, like Smyth drafted from Milford before the latter sailed for Sicily carrying Fremantle. It is likely they were switched for men the admiral wanted to take with him. Rodney’s Trafalgar trio were: Gunner’s Mate John Brown, from Ireland, in his thirties; Thomas Sedgwick, from Sunderland, County Durham, in the north of England, a Quartermaster’s Mate in his forties; Charles Thomas, in his mid-thirties, from Boston, America, who became a member of the Rodney’s Carpenter’s Crew. Fellow American Joseph Bates was, meanwhile, getting into trouble again, this time for hanging trousers up to dry behind Rodney’s maintop sail after his daily laundry. The ordinary sailors were required to present themselves in pristine smocks and trousers, but, with only three changes of clothes a week, and not enough time each day to wash and dry clothes before inspection, it was a tall order to avoid punishment for appearing in soiled garments. Therefore, Bates had the bright idea of hanging his clothes out in the breeze where they would dry in double quick time. However, the sail was furled sooner than expected, the enraged First Lieutenant demanding:

. . . whose trowsers [sic] are these found hanging in the maintop?

Not wanting to see his shipmates punished, Bates owned up. Receiving a savage telling off, he narrowly avoided a beating but was put on the so-called ‘black list’ for six months, which involved shining brass and iron work, plus carrying out other demeaning chores on top of daily routine. It all had to be fitted into time usually spent resting off watch or sleeping.

There was no punishment more dreaded and disgraceful.

Two years on from leaving London, Rodney’s officers decided it was time to refresh her reserve water supply, as down in the deepest part of the hold were casks filled from the Thames, not yet touched.

Young Joseph Bates was there when the bungs were removed, seeing his shipmates set light to the foul air that came out with a candle and recalling, ‘it would blaze up a foot high, like the burning of strong brandy.’

According to Bates the water was perfectly clear, the sediment having settled a long time ago. Some of it was drawn off and poured into glass tumblers for Rodney’s officers to taste. One of them held his tumbler up to a lantern and pronounced it ‘the purest and best of water’. Bates thought it tasted good, but he couldn’t help wishing he was drinking from the pure springs of Vermont or New Hampshire.

When it came to refreshing the minds of Rodney’s men, those that could read availed themselves of books from the ship’s portable libraries, which averaged two volumes for every ten men. Reading was allowed on every day except Sunday, which was reserved for a church service starting at 11 am. Bates, a born and bred Presbyterian, saw the prayers of Rodney’s sailors and marines as pure hypocrisy:

. . . how little their hearts were inclined to keep the holy law of God, when almost every other hour of the week, their tongues were employed in blaspheming his holy name; and at the same time learning and practicing the way and manner of shooting, slaying and sinking to the bottom of the ocean, all that refused to surrender . . .

The most notable encounter at sea for this Rodney came in the middle of a gale on 15 January 1812, when a ship was spotted off Cape Sicie, in the Gulf of Lyon, and the battleship set off in pursuit. Meanwhile, two British frigates – Apollo and Alcmene – were using subterfuge to patrol close to the coast, flying French colours. Mistaking these two men ‘o’ war for friendly vessels, the fleeing ship sought their protective custody, only to be boarded. All this commotion alerted the French to something untoward and they ordered out a dozen of their line-of-battle ships from Toulon. With Apollo and Alcmene in the process of snaring their prize, Rodney stoutly hove to and barred the path of on-coming French warships, which, seeing a British battleship standing in their way, decided the situation was not worth a fight and returned to port.

With extra manpower available, and carrying the senior officer, it was Rodney that put a crew aboard the prize, which was sailed to Port Mahon.

Later that year a severe storm battered Rodney badly while on station with the fleet in the Gulf of Lyons, Bates and his shipmates fearing the worst.

For a while it was doubted whether any of us would ever see the rising of another sun. These huge ships would rise like mountains on the top of the coming sea, and suddenly tumble again into the trough of the same with such a dreadful crash that it seemed almost impossible they could ever rise again.

Ten ships of the fleet were badly damaged, including Rodney, her captain instructed to take her back to Britain for repairs.

Her men were overjoyed – going home meant they would finally receive their pay and be allowed twenty-four hours leave ashore, many dreaming of roistering and whoring in the taverns of Plymouth. Bates, on the other hand, fantasized about finally escaping servitude in the Royal Navy. However, as the Rodney prepared to sail for Britain from Port Mahon, fifty of her sailors, including Bates, were called forward and told to get their things together, as they were transferring into the 74-gun HMS Swiftsure. She had just arrived and would in all likelihood serve three years on the Mediterranean station. Bates was plunged into utter despair:

I was doomed to drag out a miserable existence in the British navy.

Bates remained in Swiftsure until the war between Britain and America, provoked in large part by the former’s habit of pressing the latter’s citizens into service in the Royal Navy, broke out. He became a Prisoner of War in 1812 and, after incarceration in a prison ship, then Dartmoor, eventually arrived home in the USA, on 15 June 1815. A career as a merchant service captain followed, before Joseph Bates devoted himself to carrying out God’s work, taking part in the anti-slavery movement and helping to found the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He died in 1872 at the age of eighty.

By 1814 Rodney was flagship for Vice Admiral Sir George Martin, Commander-in-Chief Lisbon. Her commanding officer was Captain Edward Durnford King, who had distinguished himself while in command of the frigate HMS Endymion, encountering the Franco-Spanish Combined Fleet off Cadiz in 1805 prior to Trafalgar, but escaping destruction by pretending to signal a Royal Navy force astern of him. In November 1814 Captain King was appointed to the 74-gun Cornwallis, but ill health forced him to resign his command and return home. Rodney returned to Britain with other ships of the fleet following the abdication of Napoleon in April 1814. Thirteen years later she was renamed Greenwich, so her previous name could christen a new vessel. The Napoleonic-era Rodney (now Greenwich) was decommissioned and sold off in 1836, ending a career in which she experienced no pitched battles at sea, but had played her part in maintaining pressure in the Iberian Peninsula, so helping to bring the little French Emperor down.

German WWII Destroyer – Z 10 Hans Lody

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Origin of the Name

On the outbreak of the First World War, Oberleutnant zur See (Reserve) Hans Lody, who had been declared medically unfit for military service, immediately volunteered for espionage duty. He arrived in England posing as an American, but he was soon arrested: the network of German secret agents in Britain had already been betrayed and eliminated. Lody was executed by firing squad for espionage at the Tower of London on 6 November 1914. Until 1945 a plaque in his honour was to be found at the gate of Lübeck fortress.

Career

Z 10 was a Type 1934A ship commissioned on 17 March 1938 by her commander,  Korvettenkapitän Karl Jesko von Puttkamer. She ran her speed trials over the measured mile off Neukrug between 30 November and 3 December 1938, achieving 37.8 knots from an output of 65,000shp at 370rpm per shaft.

Attached to 8. Zerstörerdivision, she joined the Fleet after working up and formed part of the escort and homecoming celebrations for the Condor Legion (Spanish Civil War) veterans on 30 May 1939. In August 1939, Korvettenkapitän Puttkamer was appointed Hitler’s Naval ADC and replaced by Korvettenkapitän Freiherr Hubert von Wangenheim.

After three day’s blockade duty off Danzig at the outbreak of war, Z 10 transferred into the North Sea to help lay the Westwall defensive minefield. While she was loading, a mine exploded, killing two and wounding six of her crew. During October, in company with Z 15 Erich Steinbrinck and 6. Torpedobootflottille, Z 10 inspected neutral commerce in the Skagerrak and Kattegat, often in severe weather. In the operation of 27–29 October she suffered storm damage and lost one man overboard with three injured.

Hans Lody sailed on two offensive minelaying operations against the British coast, on 18 November to the Thames estuary and on 6 December off Cromer, where, with Z 12 Erich Giese,she fought a torpedo action against two British destroyers, one of these, Jersey, being hit and damaged. On 9 December Z 10 sailed to Wesermünde for a refit and did not emerge until 22 May 1940. Once operational she returned to Trondheim, and on 3 June was attached to the Fleet for ‘Juno’. During the sortie she torpedoed and sank the troop transport Orama (19,840grt), the largest ship to be sunk by a German destroyer. With Admiral Hipper, she returned to Trondheim on 8 June with survivors from the British vessels sunk.

On 13 June 1940 Lody was damaged in an air raid aimed at Scharnhorst and returned to Kiel for repair, but she was back on the 20th in time to join Z 7, Z 15 and the torpedo boats Greifand Kondor, escorting Scharnhorst to Deutsche Werke. After a call at Wilhelmshaven, she returned to Trondheim in company with Z 5 Paul Jacobi to escort home, on 25 July, the damaged battleship Gneisenau. During a course change in the Kattegat on the 27th there was a minor collision between Gneisenau and Z 10. After completion of the escort, Z 10 transferred to Wilhelmshaven, from where, on 9 September she steamed to the western end of the English Channel with Z 6, Z 14, Z 16 and Z 20 preparatory to Operation ‘Seelöwe’.

Z10 took part in the minelaying operation off Falmouth on 28 September 1940, and on 10 October, during an air raid at Brest, she received shrapnel damage and lost two crew dead and seven wounded to strafing. On 17 October she sortied into the Bristol Channel and received two shell hits from the enemy cruiser and destroyer force. Korvettenkapitãn Werner Pfeiffer was appointed Lody’s third commander in November 1940.

In the skirmish with five British destroyers off Plymouth on 29 November, Z 10 suffered splinter damage and was raked by anti-aircraft fire. On 5 December she left Brest in company with Z 20 Karl Galster for a refit at Wesermünde.

After leaving the yards in April 1941, Lody joined the Bismarck escort in the Great Belt on 19 May and was released into Trondheim on the 22nd, returning from there to Wesermünde. Between 11 and 14 June she helped to escort the torpedoed heavy cruiser Liit-zow from Egersund to the repair yard. On 1 July she sailed with 6. Z-Flottille to Kirkenes and carried out various escort duties, reconnaissance sorties and anti-shipping operations with the her sister ships before returning to Wesermünde at the end of September with boiler damage.

On 15 May 1942, together with Z 4, Z 27 and Z 29, Hans Lody escorted Lützow to Trondheim in Operation ‘Walzertraum’, arriving on the 20th and transferring with her northward to Altafjord on 2 July. While anchoring in Gimsöystraumen with Theodor Riedel and Karl Galster she grounded in uncharted shallows, as a result of which her double bottom was ripped open, the port shaft seized and both propellers received damage. After refloating, the two destroyers returned to Trondheim for survey and emergency repair, and on the 27th both were towed to Deutsche Werke, Kiel. The damage to Z 10 was so extensive that her decommissioning was seriously considered. Korvettenkapitän Karl Adolf Zenker was appointed commander in August 1942.

A boiler room fire broke out during engine trials on 15 February 1943, and not until 22 April was Lody sufficiently battleworthy to return to operations in Norway. Meanwhile Kapitän zur See Hans Marks had been appointed her fifth commander.

Lody was part of the force which dispossessed the Soviets of Spitzbergen between 6 and 9 September. While leaving Altafjord on 21 November, she collided with Erich Steinbrinck.Korvettenkapitän Kurt Haun was appointed commander in November 1943.

The period until April 1944 was spent on escort and minelaying missions out of southern Norwegian ports, and on 3 May that year Z 10 was laid up at Germania Werft, Kiel, for a refit that lasted until 18 February 1945. While working up in the Baltic afterwards she was attached temporarily to Admiral K-Verbände, the command organisation for the various one- or two-man midget submarines. Once more or less operational again on 5 April, Lody ran escort duties from Copenhagen to the Skagerrak, and on 5 May she sailed from Copenhagen to the Hela peninsula to embark refugees, returning in the huge convoy of 7 May with about 1,500 aboard. On the 9th, in company with Z 6, she was removed to Kiel, where she decommissioned the following day.

On 10 May 1945, under Royal Navy command but with German engine-room personnel, Hans Lody proceeded to Wilhelmshaven. On 6 January 1946 she arrived at Portsmouth as experimental vessel R 38, German engine room staff being requested of the Naval Officer Commanding, Wilhelmshaven, on the 19th, presumably to help operate the complicated machinery. The ship was scrapped at Sunderland three years later.

The Sloop Of War

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The growth in the size of sloops (drawings to the same scale). Many of the Merlin class sloops of 1745 were converted to ship rig in the 1750s, although this was under consideration in the 1740s.

The year 1727 saw the death of George I and the coronation of his son who, like his father, would preside over a generally peaceful period, at least until 1739 when war would erupt again, this time with Spain in the Caribbean. This war later widened into the War of the Austrian Succession, which brought France into the conflict on the side of the Spanish. In the meantime the areas of tension affecting British possessions and trade overseas remained centred on the Caribbean and the Western Mediterranean. It was protection of these areas, particularly the Caribbean and the transatlantic trade, that was to result in the ever-increasing demand for sloops and small Sixth Rates.

The pivotal point in the history of the sloop of war was undoubtedly 1732, for it was in that year that the Admiralty and the Navy Board recognised a need to establish standard requirements in terms of measurement, burthen, armament and crew for general-purpose sloops. From this time onwards the size and number of cruising and bomb sloops in the Royal Navy was set to increase massively. Why this was so, during a period of comparative peace, is the central question: the answer, putting it broadly, was that the time was ripe. British naval capabilities and responsibilities were expanding, the transatlantic trade with the Caribbean was growing, the colonies themselves were becoming better established and the Mediterranean continued to be a region of potential instability. This all added up to an environment where a small, fast and handy vessel would be of great use, one that would work under the umbrella of British naval superiority and whose employment was economical but adequate for the job in hand. In broad terms the size was to remain close to 200 tons throughout the 1730s rising to 250 tons in the 1740s when there was an increase in gun calibre from 4pdrs with the introduction of the short 6pdr. This weapon was to remain the preferred armament for the sloop until the coming of the carronade in the late eighteenth century. From the late 1740s onwards ship rig would be increasingly common, either by conversion or through new-building, and burthen would eventually rise to 350 tons.

These increases in number and size reflect the nature of the wars that were about to engulf Europe and its overseas possessions. These started with the ‘War of Jenkins’ Ear’ in 1739 between Britain and Spain. The unusual name for this war points up the root cause of the problem. Jenkins was the captain of a merchant ship which in 1731 was apprehended by the infamous Spanish Guarda Costa for dubious reasons relating to trade. In the ensuing fracas Jenkins had his ear cut off. Eight years later this incident was to become a retrospective ‘last straw’ in the British determination to harry and assault Spanish possessions and trade in the greater Caribbean.

It was essentially a war about trade and the licence that allowed Britain to provide slaves to the Spanish colonies of Central America. The conflict lasted until 1748, being subsumed in 1740 into the greater War of the Austrian Succession. Although France and Britain were engaged against each other on land from the outset, France did not declare war until 1744, following this with an attempted invasion that failed whilst still at sea. In 1740, the Royal Navy under Vernon was initially successful, capturing the small poorly defended Spanish port of Porto Bello in what is now Panama. But thereafter almost all the amphibious operations against Spanish possessions failed, not least due to the sickness and disease that invariably accompanied a long operation in the tropics, but also due to the difficulty of establishing harmonious inter-service relationships. Much of this was on the personal level.

The war in the Americas continued with the failure of British amphibious operations, largely through the afore-mentioned disease but also due to the well-defended nature of the Spanish ports. The element of surprise had been lost and the targets selected by Britain’s admiral in the region proved to be too hard a nut to crack. At sea privateers on all sides, French, Spanish and British, attacked each other’s trade, but only the British regularly used naval ships to provide escort to commercial shipping. Once again the sloop of war had the opportunity to engage her arch-enemy, the privateer.

In the Mediterranean 1744 saw a combined Franco-Spanish fleet sail from Toulon. There followed an indecisive engagement with the British fleet, based at Mahon but with orders to blockade Toulon and prevent the Spanish, with French assistance, from reinforcing their forces on the Italian peninsular. Britain, although only minimally involved in the plethora of land battles that punctuated this war, was an ally of Austria and its Hapsburg rulers and therefore as part of that alliance was committed to using its power at sea to support the Austrian cause in Italy. The Spanish interest in Italy lay in their desire to repossess the inheritance of their last Hapsburg king. The question arose over the right of a woman, Maria Theresa, to succeed to the Hapsburg Austrian Empire, an outcome unacceptable to many and providing Spain with an opportunity to grab parts of Italy.

At home, a Channel fleet under old Admiral Norris kept an eye on French moves for an invasion across the Channel or through a Jacobite rebellion in the North. In the event the invasion failed at sea and the rebellion, initially successful with Prince Charles Edward’s forces reaching Derby, turned into a rout at Culloden near Inverness.

The few naval successes in this period, apart from Porto Bello, came towards the end with the foundation of a new strategy that kept the British fleet at sea in the Western approaches when at war with France. From this position Britain could guard the Channel, since the seaborne element of any French invasion force must make use of Brest. It also allowed the British to attack French squadrons and convoys from an up-wind position; it also guarded any approach to Ireland and the Irish Sea, often a vulnerable point in the past. The difficulty was to sustain squadrons in waters that were habitually rough and gale-blown. However, Torbay, on the South Devon coast, offered a reasonable refuge in all winds except from east to south. The last major engagements of the war were fought off Finisterre, on the west coast of France, against French convoys, and both were successful. At the second Battle of Finisterre the British squadron was commanded by a young rear admiral named Edward Hawke. He destroyed the escort but the convoy escaped towards the West Indies, so immediately following the engagement he sent the fastsailing sloop Weazle III to Jamaica to warn of the arrival of an unescorted French convoy. The necessary action was taken to ‘welcome’ them.

The series of engagements of this war – at home, in the Americas, the East Indies and in the Mediterranean – can be seen as providing the British Navy and Army with experience that they would put to good use in the Seven Years War of the following decade. They also supplied the incentives to establish defensible bases capable of sustaining a large naval force and a victualling and logistic system to keep those bases and their ships in a condition to dominate their region.

At times the Royal Navy had been severely overstretched but by the conclusion of this war some hard lessons had been learned, and it had just about re-affirmed its position as the most powerful in the World. This was to be challenged in the next conflict, the Seven Years War (1757–1763), by a revitalised French Navy. Spain elected to remain neutral for most of the war, but very unwisely decided to enter it in 1761 on the side of France, which allowed a British Navy, at the height of its success and confidence, to seize both Havana and Manila. In this war Britain was to secure a dominant position in the Indian subcontinent, in North America and Canada and in the greater Caribbean. It left Britain with a global empire to protect but it provided her navy with bases from which she could dominate the seas.

Late-Nineteenth Century Naval Gunnery

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Chen Yuen model by Andreas Martin 

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HMS Dreadnought [Battleship) (1907)

The Dreyer Fire Control Table was the Royal Navy’s highest-level Fire Control instrument during World War I.

The capital ships of this era fought in three fleet actions: the Battle of the Yalu (17 September 1894), the Battle of Santiago (3 July 1898), and the Battle of Tsushima (27 May 1905). In the first two clashes, the combatants were considerably unequal, and only one side deployed battleships. Oddly, in the Battle of the Yalu, the losing side had the battleships; in the Battle of Santiago they were with the winner.

The Yalu clash showed that the remarkable resisting powers of armor plate, demonstrated during the U. S. Civil War and in subsequent clashes, had not diminished. The better-trained and -led Japanese squadron of modern and well-protected cruisers could do no real damage to two newer German-built Chinese battleships (Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen), although five unarmored Chinese ships were sunk soon enough. The Japanese commander, with the Chinese battleships intact, had to leave the scene in some disgust, although the Japanese did retain control over local waters. Regardless of their imperviousness, the Chinese battleships, with their slow-firing guns, could not affect the course of the war and remained blockaded in Port Arthur, where one was subsequently sunk and the other captured by the persistent Japanese.

The Battle of Santiago during the Spanish-American War was even more one-sided: The five U. S. Navy battleships and one ar- mored cruiser, products of the U. S. naval revival during the late 1800s, sank or ran aground the four modern Spanish armored cruisers that were present. Only one American had died during the battle. Closer investigation showed that U. S. gunnery had been poor; yet the Spaniards’ had been even worse. It was small comfort that during that same year, Royal Navy battleships had fired 200 rounds at a stationary target 200 yards distant and scored just two hits! Obviously the victors at Yalu and Santiago owed their successes more to superior leadership and training than to their gun laying.

Gunnery itself had finally begun to emerge from its prevailing primitive inaccuracy. As late as 1900, RN warships had difficulty in hitting a target a little over a mile distant. At Tsushima five years later, the Japanese could engage their enemy at 2.5 miles range— and were proud of it. Generally, although the big naval guns were capable of hitting a target at 6,000 yards, they rarely hit one at 1,500 yards, even in practice. By Jutland, hits were scored at 5 miles or more, but nonetheless, hits on both sides averaged an unimpressive 0.33 percent to 4 percent.

Greater improvement was essential if the big guns of the new dreadnoughts were to have any meaning, and it came about due to the efforts first of Admiral Sir Percy Scott in the Royal Navy, and then of Captain (later Admiral) Bradley Fiske and Admiral William S. Sims in the U. S. Navy. More accurate rangefinders, telescopic sights, continuous aiming, salvo firing, analog computer aiming systems, trigometric slide rule, range clocks, and director firing all contributed to this vast naval gunnery transformation. Director firing, the work of Scott in 1905, concentrated control in one man, high on the foremast, who provided firing data for the individual turrets. Nonetheless, the British Admiralty resisted this innovation until 1912, when a director-equipped dreadnought, HMS Thunderer, achieved a hit ratio six times better than that of HMS Orion, the latter using the old individual gun-laying technique. Even then, on the eve of World War I, only eight (or one-third) of the Royal Navy’s dreadnoughts were equipped with director firing. The Germans, by contrast, had fitted their own, albeit inferior, director system on all of their High Seas Fleet dreadnoughts. Widening ranges also called for higher elevations, and Royal Navy battleships’ big-gun elevation increased gradually from 13.5 degrees in the first decade of the twentieth century to 30 degrees by World War I.

The Royal Navy could pride itself on vastly increasing its dreadnought firing range and accuracy, from 3,000–4,000 yards in 1904 to no less than 16,000 yards plus if called for. British firing should have been the world’s best. But the effective fire control table in the transmitting station developed by the civilian Arthur H. Pollen was plagiarized and bastardized by a naval officer who was a close associate of both Admiral John Fisher and the RN fleet commander, John Jellicoe. The result was a distinctly inferior mechanism. But the firing information did come from a single master sight in a revolving director tower high on the foremast (which was by then a tripod for greater stability and was also pioneered by Dreadnought), which followed the target and sent bearings to the fire control table, which, in turn, fed the information to the turrets. The exact moment of fire was determined by the director in the foretop, who waited for the roll of the ship to bring the heavy guns to the correct bearing, then fired all of the guns himself.

There is a myth, carefully reinforced by the Germans, that the British Barr & Stroud range-finding optics were inferior to those of the German Navy. Although the German Zeiss rangefinders could more easily range than their British counterparts, they required more specialized operators, were more affected by temperature and vibration, and their range findings deteriorated in combat.

The naval powers finally began to envision more rational operations of their battleships, and this new sense of reality led, in turn, to new designs. The growing awareness of the torpedo forced commanders to space their battleships farther apart, reviving the traditional line-ahead formation for capital ships—thus reviving the broadside. Increased range also led to a demand for more powerful guns, and so the big-gun broadside also returned.

Yet for all of this technical progress, the world’s navies were still decidedly on a leisurely peacetime routine; smartness in appearance and drill was more valued than gunnery excellence. In fact, the new battleships were decorated more flamboyantly than their predecessors. The Black Battle Fleet of the Royal Navy’s Ironclad Era gave place to the yellow funnels, white upperworks, and black hulls of the early battleships. The U. S. Navy went from the obscure lilac- gray or black of its Civil War monitors to the most attractive white hulls and buff upperworks of the turn-of-the-century “new U. S. Navy.” All naval services greatly increased their gold-leaf gilt work around the hulls and put increased emphasis upon polishing the metal work, even below decks. All of that would change, however, in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Bellerophon In Northern Waters

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Scene in Plymouth Sound in August 1815, an 1817 painting by John James Chalon. Bellerophon is at the centre of the picture, surrounded by crowds of people in small boats who have come to see Napoleon.

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Hango 1902

Early in the year 1809 the Bellerophon returned to Yarmouth for repairs and revictualling preparatory to going to the Baltic to join the fleet of Sir James Saumarez—which she proceeded to do on the 27th March.

The political situation at that time existing in the Baltic was very dangerous and it requires some explanation.

In September 1808 the Tsar had met Napoleon at Erfurt and both Emperors had reaffirmed their previous declarations at Tilsit. France promised not to make a peace until Russia had obtained Finland from Sweden, and Moldavia and Wallachia from Turkey. The Tsar had already declared war on Sweden the previous February on the pretext of her refusing to shut her ports to British trade and refusing to join with Russia and Denmark and close the Baltic to British ships. Denmark and Prussia followed suit with a declaration of war on Sweden, and the Swedes sent an appeal to Britain for help. The Government sent a force of sixty-two sail to the Baltic under the command of Sir James Saumarez. This was followed by an an army of 10,000 men under Sir John Moore, this army was never in action as Moore and the mad king of Sweden, Gustavus IV, could not agree on the way it should be used. Moore was arrested by the king, but made his escape disguised as a peasant and returned to the British ships. The army was then sent back to Britain and from there on to the Peninsula.

Britain’s interest in the Baltic stemmed mainly from the fact that it was the source of most of her naval supplies. Once that route was cut off, she would undergo serious difficulties in refitting her fleets. The year 1809 opened with the Russians already in possession of Finland and preparing to invade Sweden. It was decided by the government of Sweden that the safest course lay in forcing the abdication of their king Gustavus IV on account of his insanity, and then trying to steer a course of neutrality. It was realized in London that the Swedes needed Britain as much as Britain needed the Swedes, and that if by any chance the Swedes were forced into a declaration of war it would behove the British Government to treat them with great leniency.

Eventually the Swedes were forced into a declaration of war and instructions were sent from London to Sir James Saumarez that the rights of Sweden were to be scrupulously respected. The contrast was often noticed in Sweden that the country suffered worse treatment from its Russian and Danish allies than it suffered from its enemy Britain. It was mainly due to the tact and judgment of Sir James Saumarez that when the break between Napoleon and the Tsar finally came, both Sweden and Russia ended up on the same side as Britain against Napoleon.

This was the position when Captain Warren arrived with the Bellerophon in the spring of 1809. Rear-Admiral Gardner had not accompanied the ship to the Baltic and had transferred his flag to the Blake (74), commanded by Sir Edward Codrington, a Trafalgar veteran. In this ship he was to see service during the disastrous Walcheren Expedition of that year. Just after the arrival of the Bellerophon, the British seized the island of Anholt from the Danes, which had been used by Danish privateers, and forthwith used it for their own ends.

The first action for the Bellerophon came in June 1809 when she was cruising off the coast of Russian-occupied Finland accompanied by the Minotaur (74). The Bellerophon was detached off Hango, and at sunset on the 19th discovered an armed lugger and two other vessels at anchor in the coastal waters of the numerous islands. There appeared no sign of life on the vessels or on shore and it was decided to send the ship’s boats with a party of volunteers to cut them out. This was done and the three vessels were soon taken possession of, when it was noticed that they were completely dominated by four Russian batteries. Next a number of Russian gunboats were spotted, which had not been visible from the Bellerophon. Lieutenant Pilch, who was in charge of the cutting-out operation, realized that it would be impossible to bring away the three captured vessels under fire of the batteries and gunboats, and it was decided to set them on fire. This done, the order was given to row to the island and to storm the battery which would most harass their retreat—not an easy task, for the battery was manned by 103 men armed with muskets and bayonets. Under a fierce but inaccurate fire the Bellerophon’s men scrambled ashore and rushed on the battery, and after a short hand-to-hand combat forced the Russians to quit. The Russians were then driven into their own boats, the guns of the battery spiked, and the magazine blown up. Under fire from batteries on other islands the British then re-embarked in their own boats and returned to their ship, which had been unable to manoeuvre to give them covering fire because of the shallowness of the water. The operation had been completed very efficiently and at the small cost of only five wounded, and it gained the ship a mention in the dispatches of Sir James Saumarez to the Admiralty.

On the 7th July the ship was in action again when a British squadron composed of the Implacable (74), Captain Thomas Byam-Martin; Bellerophon (74); Melpomene (38), Captain Peter Parker; and Prometheus (18), Captain Thomas Forrest; was once again cruising off the coast of Finland. A Russian flotilla of gunboats and merchant vessels was spotted at anchor under Porcola Point. Martin thought that such a display was insulting to British sea power and determined to try and cut them out or destroy them. The Russians were very strongly placed with their flanks covered by rocks, which narrowed the field of approach to them and enabled the Russians to concentrate their fire. Nevertheless it was decided to make the attempt that night, and for the leader of the enterprise Martin chose Lieutenant Joseph Hawkey of the Implacable. He was to have a force of 270 officers and men manning seventeen boats, and the operation was to start at 9 p.m.

At the appointed hour the men filed down into the boats and began the long approach to the moored vessels. They were soon spotted and the boats were subject to a heavy fire; no reply was made by the British until they were alongside the Russian ships, when they swarmed aboard with a great cheer. The first of the gun-boats was soon carried and the British pushed on to the second, when Lieutenant Hawkey was hit and collapsed dying. Lieutenant Charles Allen of the Bellerophon took charge of the operation and the British continued to fight their way down the line of Russian gunboats. In the end six of the boats were taken, one sunk and one managed to get away, and all the the twelve vessels composing the merchant convoy were also taken. They were found to be carrying ammunition and other materials for the Russian army in Finland. The ships were brought out to the British squadron, and another smart piece of work by the Royal Navy was completed. Casualties had once again been amazingly light, for the losses were only seventeen killed and thirty-four wounded.

The Bellerophon was to remain with the Baltic fleet for another three months before she once again sailed for Britain. The ship anchored in Yarmouth Roads on the 22nd November, and was immediately taken in hand for repairs, which included replacing the running rigging. The whole job was a lengthy process, for the log does not continue with the narration of each day’s events until 23rd August of the following year, when the ship is reported at anchor in the Downs.