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.

HMS Inflexible (1876)

Inflexible, 1876, as completed with sails for training. Note the torpedo launching chute over the stem.

The design concept of Inflexible was of a raft, the citadel, which would float if the ends were destroyed or flooded. The ends were closely subdivided and protected by a thick deck. A light, unprotected structure above provided accommodation.

In 1885 Inflexible’s sailing rig was replaced by two military masts.

In a letter to The Times of 1 January 1877, Edward Reed described the Inflexible as `… a huge engine of war, animated and put into activity in every part by steam and steam alone. The main propelling engines are worked by steam, a separate steam engine starts and stops them; steam ventilates the monster, steam weighs the anchors, steam steers her, steam pumps her out if she leaks, steam loads the gun, steam trains it, steam elevates or depresses it. The Ship is a steam being .’

The 1873 Estimates envisaged the building of a single, improved ‘Fury’ (in fact, this meant Fury, not yet renamed, with the modifications which made her Dreadnought). The problem facing Barnaby was stark; the 12.5in, 38-ton gun fitted in recent ships could fire an 820lb projectile through 15.7in of iron armour at 1000yds. Fury’s 14in belt (amidships) was already inadequate and, furthermore, both Woolwich and Elswick claimed that 50-ton guns were within existing capabilities with even larger guns in the near future.

The early studies retained the main features of Dreadnought with the two twin 38-ton turrets augmented by a number of smaller guns en barbette amidships. In one such study a single 50-ton gun in a turret was squeezed in amidships. The 14in belt was retained amidships but the thinner belt at the ends was omitted and a thick transverse bulkhead fitted at each end of the belt. Thus the much admired end-to-end belt of Devastation was already abandoned for what must have been a very small saving in weight.

By this time Woolwich was speaking with confidence of a 60-ton gun and Barnaby was driven to a more radical solution. The main requirements seem to have been set by Barnaby himself, though presumably after discussion with Board members and others. The armament was to consist of two twin turrets with 60-ton guns capable, if possible of being changed to 80-ton guns when available. White described the problem: ‘At first it was contemplated to have 60-ton guns and the ship was laid down on this basis. Finally, in 1874 it was decided to adopt 80-ton guns, which involved an increased weight aloft of 200 tons, and considerably modified the design, the draft and displacement having to be increased. There had been some previous instances of ships getting ahead of the settlement of their gun designs but never so serious one as this. Unfortunately, it was only the first of a long series of similar difficulties … .’ The armour was to be concentrated over a short citadel with a maximum thickness of 24in. She was to be fast – 14kts – and capable of using the Suez Canal at light draught (24ft 4in). Barnaby’s ideas were generally welcomed and the design was progressed incorporating some detail improvements mainly suggested by the DNO, Captain Hood, but with some later ideas from Barnaby. The following paragraphs describe the design as it finally evolved.

The design concept was of a very heavily armoured raft containing the machinery and magazines on which the two turrets were carried. The ends were protected by a strong armoured deck below the waterline, by close subdivision and by buoyant material whilst a light superstructure provided living space. Even if both ends were flooded, the armoured box was intended to have sufficient buoyancy and stability to float upright. This stability requirement led to a wide beam which, in turn, meant that the turrets could fire close to the axis past the narrow superstructure, limited by blast damage to the superstructure. She was fitted with anti-rolling water tanks to reduce the severity of rolling but these were ineffective.

The earliest studies of this configuration showed 60-ton guns though provision was made to mount 100-ton guns when they became available. Woolwich built an experimental 80-ton MLR which completed in September 1875 with a 14.5in bore. After tests, it was bored out to 15in and after further tests in March 1876 it was finally enlarged to 16in bore with an 18in chamber, accepting a 370lb charge. This gun fired a total of 140 rounds-215,855lbs of iron from 42,203lbs of powder – mostly against what was known as ‘Target 41’ which had four 8in plates separated by 5in teak. The standard system of grooving used with studded shell proved troublesome and in final form it had thirty-nine shallow grooves (‘polygroove’) with a lead gas check at the base of the shell.

The production guns-80-ton, Mark I-were mounted in twin turrets each weighing 750 tons and 33ft 10in external diameter. These turrets had an outer layer of compound armour with 18in teak backing and an inner layer of 7in wrought iron. The projectile weighed 16841b and when fired with the full charge of 450lbs brown prism powder had a muzzle velocity of 1590ft/sec and in tests could penetrate 23in of wrought iron in either a single thickness or two plates spaced. The interval between rounds was said to be between 2½ and 4 minutes. To load, the guns were run out and depressed against ports in the deck through which hydraulic rams loaded the guns. Two of these monstrous guns survive on the train ferry pier at Dover, though the turret design is rather different and an early studded shell is in the Naval Armament Museum, Gosport.

Inflexible’s citadel was protected at the waterline by a strake of 12in plate, 4ft deep, backed by 11 in teak containing vertical frames. Behind this was another 12in plate backed by 6in horizontal frames, filled with teak followed by the shell of two thicknesses of ⅝in plate. The total thickness of this waterline belt was 4lin, weighing 1100lbs/sq ft and this thickness was preserved in the protection above and below, the thickness of teak increasing as that of the iron was reduced. Above the waterline strake there was a 12in outer plate and an 8in inner plate whilst below the thicknesses were 12in and 4in.

It is not clear why the armour was in two thicknesses as a 22in plate was made by 1877 and it was already recognised that two plates are inferior to a single plate of the same total thickness. A test in 1877 showed that a single plate 17-17½in thick was equivalent to three plates of 6½in. The waterline belt of 24in in total was the thickest belt ever carried on a battleship but it was only 4ft high and would have been of limited value. It does not seem that this protection was tried in final form. It was claimed that this protection was invulnerable to guns similar to those she carried and even to the 17.7in, 100-ton Elswick guns mounted in Italian ships but it was clearly the end of the road for wrought iron as the weight was already at the very limit of what could be carried.

The protection for the ends was a very sophisticated combination of measures. The first line of defence was a 3in wrought iron deck, normally 6-8ft below the waterline. The space between this deck and the middle deck, just above water, was closely subdivided and used for coal and stores which would limit the amount of water which could enter from holes in the side. In addition, narrow tanks 4ft wide and filled with cork were arranged at the sides between these decks and extending 4ft above the middle deck. Inside these cork-filled spaces there was a 2ft coffer dam filled with canvas packed with oakum. All these fillings were treated with calcium chloride to reduce their flammability although tests showed this was not very effective. This scheme has much in common with that which Reed proposed to the 1871 Committee.

In 1877, Reed wrote to Barnaby and later to The Times claiming that calculations which he and Elgar had made showed that the stability provided by the citadel was inadequate if both ends were flooded. Despite a comprehensive rebuttal by Barnaby, an enquiry was set up chaired by Admiral Hope and consisting of three distinguished engineers, Wooley, Rendel and W Froude. Their investigation was extremely thorough, entering into aspects of naval architecture never previously studied.

Their report concluded that it was most unlikely that both ends would be completely flooded but that if this did happen, the Inflexible would a retain a small but just adequate margin of stability in terms of the GZ curve. Their comments on the difficulty of actually hitting the enemy ship are of interest – remember the Glatton turret and Hotspurs initial miss! They listed the problems as the relative movements of the two ships, the smoke generated (470lbs of powder per round), the rolling and pitching of the firing ship, the lack of any way of determining range and the deflection due to wind. In particular, they noted that it was customary to fire the guns from a rolling ship when the deck appeared horizontal at which position the angular velocity was greatest. (Note also that Froude had showed that human balance organs are very bad at determining true vertical in a rolling ship.) All in all, hits anywhere on the ship would be few and those in a position to flood the ends few indeed.

A shell exploding within the cork would destroy it locally but tests showed that a shell hitting light structure would explode about  of a second later during which it would travel 6-10ft, clear of the cork. The canvas and oakum filling of the coffer dam was quite effective at reducing the size of the hole made by a projectile passing through. Both the cork and the coffer dam were tested full scale with the gunboat Nettle firing a 64pdr shell into replicas. The Committee also pointed out that shells were unlikely to enter the space between the waterline and armoured deck except at long range when hits were even less likely.

Though the Committee thought it was unlikely that the ends would be riddled (filled with water) and even less likely that they would be gutted (all stores, coal, cork etc, blown out with water filling the entire space), they examined these conditions with extreme care. Stability curves were prepared and Froude carried out rolling trials on a 1-ton model both in his experiment tank at Torquay and in waves at sea. The movement of floodwater within the ship acted to oppose rolling in waves, as in an anti-rolling tank. The effect of speed on the trim of the flooded model was also examined. Their conclusion was that the ship should survive this extreme condition but would be incapable of anything other than returning for repair.

This investigation was far more thorough than any previous study of the effects of damage and owed much to White’s calculations and Froude’s experiments. It was the first time that GZ curves of stability had been drawn for a damaged ship and the importance of armoured freeboard was brought out and it must be a matter for regret that similar work was not carried out for later ships. With the invaluable gift of hindsight, one may suggest two aspects not fully brought out. The first was the vulnerability of the citadel armour itself, particularly bearing in mind the shallow 24in layer, in two thicknesses, and the increasing power of guns. The second point was the assumption that the watertight integrity of the citadel would endure even when multiple hits had riddled the ends. The Victoria collision was to show that doors, ventilation and valves do not remain tight after damage and Inflexible would probably have foundered from slow flooding into this citadel. Barnaby claimed that she was designed to withstand a torpedo hit with the centreline bulkhead giving only a small heel – but he did not envisage flooding extending beyond one transverse compartment.

However, it is difficult to see a better solution to the design requirement and the concept received some vindication from the battle of the Yalu Sea on 17 September 1894 when two Chinese ironclads, Ting Yuen and Chen Yuan, to Inflexible’s configuration, but smaller, received a very large number of hits and survived. To some extent, the 1913 trial firings against the Edinburgh may be seen as justifying the concept. Opponents of the Inflexible mainly favoured protected cruisers whose only protection was similar to that at the ends of the Inflexible which they derided. White gives her cost as £812,000 though other, much lower, figures have been quoted. There were two diminutives which call for no mention.

‘The Ship is a Steam Being’

Reed’s letter, quoted at the beginning of the chapter, referred to the increasing use of auxiliary machinery. Some early examples include; a capstan in Hercules (1866), hydraulic steering gear, fitted to Warrior in 1870, and a steam steering engine for Northumberland as well as the turrets in Thunderer and later ships. The number increased rapidly and Inflexible was truly a ‘steam being’. Her auxiliaries comprised:

1 steering engine

2 reversing engines

2 vertical direct fire engines

2 pairs steam/hydraulic engines to work the 750-ton turrets

1 capstan engine

4 ash hoists

1 vertical direct turning engine

2 40hp pumping engines, total capacity 4800 tons/hr 2 donkey engines for bilge pumping

2 steam shot hoists

4 auxiliary feed, similar to donkey engines.

2 Brotherhood 3 cylinder for boat hoisting

4 Brotherhood 3-cylinder fan engines

4 Friedman ejectors

2 horizontal direct acting centrifugal circulating pump

The list above does not mention ventilation fans but it is virtually certain that these were fitted. It was some time before satisfactory ventilation systems were developed. An electric searchlight was tried in Comet in 1874 and the first permanent fitting was in Minotaur in 1876. Inflexible had 800-volt d.c. generators by the US Brush company. These powered arc lights in the machinery space and Swan ‘Glow’ lamps elsewhere. The Swan lamps were connected in series and it was a year before the 800-volt system killed its first victim. She was even launched by electricity; when Princess Louise touched a button, a wire fused and the bottle of wine fell and weights crashed onto the dog shores.

Nelson and Rodney I

Because the latest U. S. and Japanese battleships already mounted 16-inch guns, the Washington Treaty permitted the British to construct two capital ships, Nelson and Rodney, the only battleships in any navy designed and completed during the 1920s, and the only Royal Navy battleships ever to mount 16-inch guns. These were strange-looking warships, mounting all main guns forward to consolidate armor and thus keep under the treaty’s tonnage limits. (The British referred to them facetiously as “cherry trees . . . cut down by Washington”).

Thursday 17 December 1925 dawned cold and damp, one of those grey mornings when even the most robust and sturdy shipyard worker seemed dejected and miserable. But there was a good reason for high spirits because it was a very special day for the Birkenhead shipyard and a huge crowd had wrapped themselves up in their warmest clothing and gathered in and around the yard to await the arrival of HRH Princess Mary and her husband Viscount Lascelles to perform the naming ceremony of one of the most powerful battleships ever constructed in a British yard. Indeed, the people of Liverpool and the little town of Birkenhead, and Messrs Cammell Laird Shipbuilding and Engineering Works were justly proud of the occasion. Not only had they brought a new concept in warship design to the launching stage, but they were witnessing the construction of one of the few British battleships to be laid down during the inter-war years. The very existence of such a vessel during the depression was something of a miracle; she was being built under the shadow of severe naval restrictions which governed displacements and gun sizes. The general public saw the ship as something of a compromise and hardly knew what to expect because of the continuous agitation in the Press during the last few years since the Washington Naval Treaty of 1921, whereby Britain had agreed to reduce the size of her fleet, abandoning the `two power standard’ and aligning herself numerically with the USA. In 1921 Britain had laid down four giant 48,000-ton battlecruisers of which this ship should have been one, but lengthy negotiations had reduced their size by more than 15,000 tons, and only two instead if four were allowed to compensate for the latest battleships building in Japan and the USA at that time.

At approximately 10.15 a. m. on that December morning HRH Princess Mary and her husband entered the shipyard to be met by The Right Hon Earl of Derby, KG, GCB, GCVO, and a very vociferous crowd. The Royal party were introduced to Mr W. L. Hichens (Chairman) and Mr R. S. Johnson (Managing Director) before making their way to the firm’s main offices.

At precisely 10.40 a. m. Her Royal Highness left the offices and made her way to the launching platform where the religious ceremony was then held. At exactly 11.15 a. m., in a moment of hush, a quiet voice called, `I name this ship Rodney, and God bless all who sail in her’, and the lever was pulled to release the christening fluid over the bows of the great ship. Thus the mighty Rodney slid calmly and majestically down the slipway for about fifty feet before entering the cold water of the River Mersey.

In the coming months, she and her sister (Nelson, which had been launched a few months earlier in September) would be fitting out and taking shape, and the media would get their first look at what had been one of the most controversial designs of the inter-war years. Indeed, they were to wonder whether the two ships would be worth £7,000,000 each, when the latest, and larger, Hood had only set them back a little over £6,000,000. With hindsight, however, it can be said that Nelson and Rodney proved to be two of the most powerful 16in-gunned battleships ever built, and the sterling work they were about to do during the coming war (1939-45) would more than justify their building; in fact, at the outbreak of war, they were the latest battleships that the Royal Navy possessed.


During the period 1919 to 1921, a considerable number of alternative capital ship designs, embodying 1914-18 experience, especially the lessons of Jutland and the recommendations of the Post-War Questions Committee, were prepared and considered by the Admiralty, and in 1921, when the large programme in hand in the USA and Japan necessitated a resumption of British capital ship construction, a battlecruiser type of 47,540 tons was chosen. The latest ship to complement the Royal Navy’s fleet at that time (1920) was the large battlecruiser Hood, and although she had been constructed without regard to the many lessons learnt at Jutland, her general design and layout was naturally followed (`K’, `K2′ and `K3′).

Following these sketch designs, there was a serious investigation into the construction of one of the largest and most powerful battleships built to date (`13′), but although it reached sketch stage and gained some Board approval, the Constructor’s department saw it as far too large and radical at that time. In 1920, however, the NID informed their Lordships that both Japan and the USA would probably construct vessels of about 48,000 tons armed with 18in guns in the near future, and it was reluctantly agreed that the Royal Navy would have to follow suit to meet any threat. It was realized, however, that ships of such a size would introduce severe problems not only for designers, but in docking accommodation as well.

During the next few months various designs were prepared for both battleships and battlecruisers, but unfortunately most of the information (ship’s covers) concerning the battleships has been mislaid, only the battlecruiser layouts being available (variations of `K’, `L’, `M’ and `N’ Designs were shown). In December 1920 it was decided that the sketches `G3′ and `H3′ (battlecruisers) should be investigated further, but with modifications on `G3′ so as to include extra armour protection to the deck area. After viewing the modified `G3′ layout, the Board accepted it in principle and in February 1921 asked for confirmation and further preparation on four ships of such a calibre. The DNC (d’Eyncourt) particularly approved of the modified G3 and wrote to the First Sea Lord on 23 March 1921 pointing out the salient features:

The main armament consists of nine 16in guns in three turrets with 40 degrees elevation. Two pairs forward and one amidships. The latter cannot fire right astern.

War experience, and our recently acquired knowledge of German and United States turrets have been carefully considered in connection with the main armament; the protection and flashtightness is very complete.

Secondary armament consists of sixteen 6in in eight turrets, arranged so that supply from magazines and shell rooms is very direct, but is provided with breaks and other safeguards to prevent flash passing down into magazines. AA consists of six 4.7in high-angle guns, and mountings embody the latest highangle ideas as recommenced by Naval High Angle Gunnery Committee.

Armament controls are a special feature. An erection forward supports the main director control tower, two secondary directors and the high-angle directors, and calculating positions are free from any smoke interference. Aeroplane hangars may be considered as a permanent feature but a decision is pending.

Main armament has been concentrated in the centre of the ship in order that the heavy horizontal and vertical armour required to protect it may be a minimum, and also that the magazines may be placed in the widest part of the ship, and the underwater protection be the best that can be afforded. Over this central citadel a 14in belt is arranged, and resting on the belt is a deck of 8in on the flat and 9in on the slopes. These thicknesses and angles have been carefully calculated after consideration to oblique attack results with the latest type of shell. Abaft the central citadel a sloping 12in belt and 4in deck are provided over machinery spaces.

The belt extends over the aft 6in magazine, and here the deck is increased to 7in. Abaft the citadel a thick deck of 5in is provided over the steering gear.

Barbettes are 14in and turrets and 17in on the face with 8in roofs.

Underwater experience is based on Chatham Float tests and embodies the principle of the bulge as fitted to the Hood. The side underwater protection is designed to withstand a charge of 750lb of explosive.

Protection against mines is afforded by a double-bottom of 7ft deep.

By sloping the main belt outwards, not only is the virtual thickness increased, but protection is provided against attack by distant-controlled boats containing large explosives. In order that the stability of the vessel may be adequate, the triangular space between side and armour will be filled with light tubes. Calculations show that the whole of this structure would have to be completely blown away before the ship would lose stability.

Although never wanting ships with such mastodon proportions, on accepting the `G3′ design and the battleship version `N3′, the Royal Navy had accomplished what it set out to do, and that was completely to outclass any foreign opposition for at least five years ahead. The design was far ahead of its time and showed features which even matched the Japanese giants of the Yamato class constructed in 1941. Indeed, it may be that the `G3′ plans were carefully considered by the Japanese when their two ships were under construction because they certainly reflected many qualities of the early 1921 British design.

With all major maritime powers building along the same lines it was only too obvious that it would be but a matter of time before the design was overshadowed by a vessel grossly out of proportion to requirements, with everyone else being forced to follow. The political implications were too complex to be discussed here, but the result ended in a Naval treaty called for by the USA and it would include Great Britain, Japan, Italy and France. An agreement was reached whereby there would be a battleship holiday for the next ten years. New ships could only be constructed after existing ships had reached the age of 20 years, and new construction was limited to 35,000 tons and calibres reduced to 16in guns rather than the 18in being prepared at that time. Dozens of older (in Britain’s case not so old) battleships went to the scrapyard.

Contracts for the British `G3′ class (four) had been under way for some time and when in February 1922 letters had to be sent out to the four yards involved, stating that the ships were cancelled, it came as a bitter blow to an already flagging industry during the depression.

To offset the retention of the West Virginia and Nagato classes by the United States and Japan respectively, which had been too far advanced to scrap, Great Britain authorized under the Treaty two new designs to comply with the severe limitations that had been imposed on construction.

As early as November 1921, when it became probable that the four `G3′ group vessels were to be scrapped, the Constructor’s Department was asked to prepare fresh layouts within the limits of the treaty, but was asked to include any of the G3’s features where possible. The first three sketches (`F1′, `F2′, `F3′) featured 15in guns because the department thought that no suitable 16in-gunned design could be acquired on such a limited displacement, but it would appear that the designs received little consideration because both the USA and Japan now had 16in-gunned battleships (see tables). In January 1922 further proposals were forwarded showing a reduced edition of the `G3′ but retaining many of its qualities (`O3′, `P3′ and `Q3′) with a speed of 23 knots.

The Controller asked for the designs to be fully worked out, and it was proposed to Constructor E. L. Attwood that dimensions be 710ft by 102ft (waterline) by 30ft, and that SHP sufficient to reach 23/24 knots would be needed. The main armament would be the same as in the `G3’s (16in), but armour plating would be severely thinned down from that design. In order that the legend weight, as defined by the Washington Treaty, should come within the 35,000 tons limit, the utmost economy was called for, and no Board margin was possible for any weights added during construction. In September 1922 the final design was accepted (modified `03′) and it embodied all the essential features demanded:

1. High freeboard and good seakeeping qualities, these being regarded as essential.

2. Armament as in the cancelled battlecruisers (`G3′).

3. Armouring generally similar to that of the battlecruisers, and concentrated over magazines, machinery and gun positions on the `all or nothing’ principle.

4. Speed equal to or higher than contemporary foreign battleships.

Although having the same main armament and turret arrangement as the cancelled battlecruisers (whose guns and mounts were utilized to a certain extent) and resembling them in certain outward characteristics, Nelson and Rodney were in no sense merely a reduced edition of those ships, but constituted an entirely distinct `battleship’ type, representing the nearest approach that could be obtained, within the limits, to the 48,000- ton plan previously proposed. The battlecruiser design was stated to have constituted a reply to Naval Staff Requirements for an `ideal battlecruiser’; Nelson and Rodney, on the other hand, represented the best that could be done, within treaty limitations, towards meeting the demand for an `ideal battleship’.

The influence of the Treaty restrictions on the new ships was considerable, as it was necessary, for the first time, to work to an absolute displacement limit which could not be exceeded, but which had to be approached as closely as possible in order to secure maximum value. The history of these two ships, then, is a complex one, but when laid out in tabular form it seems straightforward:

1. At the conclusion of the 1914-18 war, investigations were conducted into capital ship design to incorporate the lessons learnt at Jutland in particular.

2. Battlecruiser design with legend displacement of 48,000 tons was approved by the Board of Admiralty on 12 August 1921.

3. Orders were placed for four ships on 26 October 1921, but cancelled on 13 February 1922 under Washington Naval Treaty’s directive not to exceed 35,000 tons. 4. Investigations into designs for a 35,000-ton battleship resulted in sketch `03′ (modified) being accepted by the Board, and became Nelson and Rodney. 5. The Washington Treaty’s 35,000-ton limit led to development of better quality steel.

6. No further capital ships to be built from 12 November 1921 except Nelson and Rodney.

7. General armour and protection affected (reduction from `G3′) to save weight.

8. The armour citadel was 384ft by 14in abreast 16in magazines, sloped at 70° and was so arranged inside the hull that the slope produced downwards did not meet protection bulkheads. Each belt of armour was keyed, and individual plates were made as large as possible with heavy bars fitted behind the butts. Chock castings housing the lower edge of armour also directed fragments of bursting shells away from the belt.

9: No new construction to be commenced until: United States 1931; Great Britain 1931; France 1927; Japan 1931; Italy 1927[a1] .


With the exception of the 16.25in gun mounted in the Benbow and Sans Pareil classes, completed 1888 and 1891 respectively, Nelson and Rodney were the first and only British battleships to have 16in BL guns in triple-mounted turrets, which made them the most powerfully armed battleships afloat. An experimental mounting had been produced by Messrs Armstrong and Co. and fitted and satisfactorily tested in the monitor Lord Clive in February 1921 in anticipation of their being fitted in the `G3′ group. When the `G3’s were cancelled some £500,000 had been spent on them and it was only natural that the money and results of the tests should be used in the new ships of the Nelson class. Concentration of the entire main armament forward was unique at the time of their building, and allowed a minimum length of armoured citadel with maximum protection to gun positions and magazines, while the close grouping of the turrets incidentally facilitated fire control. These advantages were considered to outweigh the loss of tactical efficiency caused by the absence of direct astern fire which at first was a much criticized feature; the design, in this respect, subordinating tactical principles to severe pressures in constructional requirements and weight saving. The arrangement was not repeated after the Nelson pair, although it was later adopted by the French Navy in the Dunkerque and Richelieu classes (laid down 1932-7 respectively). Although no direct astern fire was provided, the superstructure was cut away and so arranged as to allow `A’ and `B’ turrets rather large nominal arcs of fire, bearing respectively to within 31° and 15° of the axial line astern.

The 16in gun was a high-velocity/lighter shell weapon, but tests after completion showed that it was much inferior to the low-velocity/heavy shell 15in gun which had proved itself an excellent piece during the Great War. Nevertheless, the heavier weight of broadside did have its compensations (6,790lb heavier than in Queen Elizabeth) and was not equalled until 1941 when the US North Carolina entered service with a similar armament.

Magazines and shell rooms were grouped together around the revolving hoists, and the boilers were located abaft instead of before the engine rooms so that the uptakes and funnel arrangement could be placed further aft, with a view to minimizing smoke interference to the control positions on top of the bridge structure. She was an improvement over previous designs, but, as completed, the funnel proved to be too short, being appreciably lower than the massive tower and its controls, especially steaming head to wind when the tower produced considerable backdraught and the funnel gases caused severe discomfort.

On trials, and during gunnery tests, it was found that when the guns were fired at considerable angles abaft the beam, the structure and personnel were affected by blast. In particular, `C’ turret, when fired abaft the beam at full elevation was to cause severe problems, and special measures would be needed when firing at these angles (see Captain’s report, elsewhere). Many officers thought that the blast was too severe, and that the design was a bad one, but when tests were carried out by HMS Excellent during the early gun trials, there was a divergence of opinion.

Gun pressures on the bridge windows were recorded and showed figures of 8½psi when bearing 120 degrees green or red, and it was suggested that bridge personnel might possibly be moved to the conning tower when the guns were firing at these angles. Constructor H. S. Pengelly was aboard Rodney on 16 September 1927 and had this to say when making his report for their Lordships:

During the firing of `X’ and `B’ abaft the beam, I remained on the middle line at the after end of the Admiral’s platform. The firing from `B’ was not uncomfortable, but there was considerable shock when `X’ fired at 130 degrees or slightly less, but at 40 degrees of elevation. The shock was aggravated by one not knowing when to expect fire, but apart from this point, it is understood that the blast recorded at the slots on the Admiral’s platform were about 9lb psi and on the Captain’s platform about 11lb psi. It was noted that 10 degrees more bearing aft made all the difference to the effect experienced on the bridge.

The bridge structure was, in itself, entirely satisfactory, and I was informed by the officers occupying the main DCT forward, that this position was extremely satisfactory, and they would have been ready, throughout the whole of the firing, to fire again in 8 to 10

The only damage was on the signal platform – 1 x 18in projector at the fore end – glass smashed, and shutter of another broken.

On the Captain’s bridge, four windows broken, a few voice pipes loose. On Admiral’s bridge, four windows broken. Number of electric lights put out of action. General damage was little, and the extra stiffening inboard after Nelson’s gun trials appear to have functioned well.

They were the first British battleships to carry anti-torpedo guns in turrets, which afforded, in addition to the better protective area for gun crews, substantially wider horizontal and vertical arcs of fire than the battery system of the preceding classes. On the protection side, however, the secondary armament failed miserably because of the restricted weights allowed in the ships, and the whole of the secondary armament – turrets and barbettes – were practically unarmoured, with nothing more than 1in high-tensile steel all over as a form of splinter shield.

The turrets were arranged in two compact groups, governed by the same considerations of concentration to allow magazine grouping, as had been the case with the main armament. There was some criticism of the close grouping because a single hit might put the entire battery out of action on any one side. They were located as far aft as practicable so as to minimize blast effect from the after 16in guns when firing abaft the beam. Their higher command (about 23ft against 19ft) meant that the fighting efficiency of these guns in moderate or rough weather was materially better than that of the Queen Elizabeth and Royal Sovereign classes, an advantage that was demonstrated during fleet manoeuvres in March 1934 when units of all three classes operated together in some of the worst weather ever experienced during practical battle tests (the secondary guns of the QE and RS classes were seen to be completely waterlogged and were of no use whatsoever).

The 24.5in torpedo armament was introduced in this class (21in was the largest previously carried) even though there was a body of opinion that expressed a wish to discontinue torpedo tubes in capital ships. The tubes were not trained abeam, but angled forward to within about 10 degrees of the axial line. To eliminate risk of serious flooding, the torpedo compartments were located in a separate flat rather than a single flat as in preceding classes, which was seen a serious fault in those early classes. The torpedo control positions were located on the superstructure close before the funnel.

Given that the design had been restricted in displacement, the armament in general was more than adequate, but the triple mounting of the 16in guns was not viewed favourably in the Constructor’s Department, which preferred twin mountings as in preceding classes – a well-tried and proven set of equipment. The trouble seems to have been the extreme weight of the entire triple mounting (1,500 tons approx.) which bore down too heavily on the flanges of the roller path when the turret was being trained. As a result of this and other small teething problems the guns or turrets never achieved the reputation of the twin mounted 15in gun which, in hindsight, has been considered the best combination that ever went to sea in a battleship. After new vertical rollers had been fitted, and much experimentation on the 16in mountings, things did improve, but they were never troublefree during prolonged firing.

Nelson and Rodney II


The arrangement of armouring in the `G3’s and Nelson and Rodney embodied the `all or nothing’ principle, introduced for the first time in the Dreadnought era in the US ships Nevada and Oklahoma (laid down 1912).

Protection was concentrated over gun positions, magazines, machinery and boiler spaces, with the entire hull before and after this being completely unarmoured. To allow minimum length of the citadel, and maximum armour thickness, main armament was located forward, the after turret being located exactly amidships. The adoption of this method of application was a radical departure from British practice, but had been grudgingly accepted in order to secure the great freeboard required, good seakeeping qualities, extremely heavy armament and above-average speed on the 35,000-ton Washington Treaty displacement limit while at the same time meeting strict Admiralty requirements for a very thick belt (14in) to protect the main armament forward.

Extremely valuable information about armour protection was gleaned when the ex-German battleship Baden was used as a target for heavy shells on 29 September 1921. Rounds 3, 8 and 14 were of particular interest as they showed what modern AP shells could do, and the vulnerability of turrets protected by only medium armour thickness. The 7in side armour protecting the secondary armament, and that for the main belt lower edge (6_in) proved, in fact, almost valueless. These rounds also showed what AP shells could do against medium armour struck at large or oblique angles and proved how relatively ineffectual the armour was. It had long been recognized that armour plate was of the greatest value when worked in large thick masses. Distribution of medium thicknesses over large areas gave a general impression of protection, but this was, in fact, illusory. This was impressively illustrated by rounds 3, 8 and 14 when fired at the 7in plates of Baden, which were all pierced by 15in shells of armour-piercing quality, at a velocity of 1,380 fps. Not only was the 7in battery armour pierced, but the 7? in armour on the barbettes below the upper deck level was nearly perforated. This would have been accomplished had the range been greater and the shell diving at a steeper angle. The same shells attacking 14in armour under the same conditions would have broken up after considerable damage to the plate, but that thickness would have kept the blast outside.

The policy of the day was to protect any new ship with maximum concentration around vitals and at the maximum thickness that displacement would allow. Horizontal protection requirements were indicated by rounds 2, 4 and 10 which were fired at the unarmoured ends of Baden and resulted in explosions between the decks. In round 10 (CPC) the upper deck was lifted 4ft 6in and 43 feet of it was torn away from the side of the ship. The shell then pierced the main deck and produced a hole 16ft wide by 4ft 6in long and blew that deck 7ft downwards. It was considered that such severe damage in a strength deck would jeopardize the longitudinal strength of a vessel, especially if the vessel received more than one hit in the same area.

Round 6 was fired to test the tongue-type joints adopted by the Germans for their barbettes. The velocity and angle of attack was so arranged that the attacking shell would just fail to perforate and put maximum pressure on the joint. The result was that the strap behind the armoured joint gave way and the joint split; this was exacerbated by the number of bolt holes in the area.

To complete the tests against modern armour, further firing was conducted against the old battleship Superb (Bellerophon class, 1907) on 2 May 1922. Plates were taken from Baden and positioned in Superb to take the blast. A number of 15in shells were then fired at the decks (290lb plates) and side armour (560lb plates) from HMS Terror from a distance of 500 yards. The results were:

1. The armour quality of the plates from Baden stood up to the tests very well.

2. Any electric welding incorporated in the structure broke away.

3. Heavy deck thicknesses of this nature could be supported if necessary.

4. The angle of the 560lb armour was enough to cause the shell to break up on impact, but it was seen that the belt would have to be `keyed’ in properly so as to avoid any damage to the hull proper, or displacement of the armour strakes in question.

The general scheme of armouring in Nelson and Rodney also embodied all the lessons learned during the Great War, especially at Jutland. New improved `D’ type steel with a tensile strength of 37 to 43psi was used for the first time, in place of normal high-tensile steel, on decks and anti-torpedo bulkheads. The main belt was fitted internally for the first time in a British battleship – to secure maximum support to the armour against being driven in bodily by a direct hit, as had occurred in Derfflinger and Lion at Jutland, and it was fitted at an angle of 72 degrees, running away from the waterline at its bottom edge to increase effectiveness against plunging shell fire. The belt was not deep enough, however, and caused great concern among the construction staff. The upper edge of the main strake was supported by a thick armoured deck, but the lower edge rested on an inclined shelf with individual plates `keyed in’ and heavy bars placed behind this. These chock castings which housed the lower edge would also help to direct fragments of a bursting shell upwards and take them away from the lower parts of the ship. The arrangement of internal armouring reduced the armoured water plane, but sufficient resources of buoyancy were available to ensure that the ship would be safe even if the outer hull were opened up by gunfire. The horizontal protection against plunging fire and bombing aircraft was developed to a very high degree, and was considered at the time to be adequate against anything that could be used against the new ships.

The sloping armoured deck behind the main belt, which had been a feature in all British battleships since the Majestic class (1893), was abandoned in Nelson in favour of a flat heavy deck across the top of the main strake and covering the magazines, boiler spaces and machinery. An extension aft, at a slightly lower level, ran across to protect the steering gear. The horizontal armouring was concentrated entirely in these two levels, and they were the thickest individual armoured decks ever fitted in a battleship to that date. Their design also received special attention in view of probable developments in aircraft attack.

All openings for ventilation were reduced to a minimum while special hatches, with operating gear under protection below, were fitted to provide a ready means of escape. Protection to the main armament and magazines was very thorough, special attention having been given to this in view of the high percentage of hits on and around turrets during the war, and the usually disastrous effects of these. Maximum armour thicknesses on barbettes and turrets were respectively 5in and 3in more than in the Queen Elizabeth and Royal Sovereign classes. The turrets were a new, low design with a flat crown to deflect projectiles falling at a steep angle, and reportedly they afforded a high degree of protection. Anti-flash protection to magazines was materially improved as a result of postwar experiments. They were the first British battleships to carry the anti-torpedo armament in closed turrets, these providing, in addition to other advantages, more complete protection to the gun crews than the battery system. They were the last British battleships to have a separate heavily armoured conning tower, this being abandoned in the succeeding King George IV class and Vanguard in which only a light splinter-proof navigating position high up in the face of the bridge tower was provided. Queen Elizabeth, Valiant and Warspite were similarly modified during their final reconstructions. Underwater protection was very complete particularly in the machinery and boiler spaces, where it reached a degree not previously attained in any other British capital ship. The usual external bulges were replaced by an alternative and very efficient system of internal sub-division developed after a long series of experiments and it is reported that this was designed to be capable of withstanding the simultaneous explosion of four torpedoes. A longitudinal bulkhead was fitted throughout the machinery and boiler spaces.

The DNC (Sir William Berry) had favoured inward sloping sides with external bulges as in Hood, but this was found to be impracticable because of: 1. Inability of existing docking accommodation to take the increased beam caused by the considerably wider bulges required to resist modern torpedoes. 2. Necessity for maximum armoured beam at waterline to ensure stability in event of heavy flooding.

Pumping and flooding arrangements were very extensive and were designed to deal rapidly with the correction of heel and/or trim resulting from damage. Eleven electrically driven pumps with individual outputs of 350 tons per hour were provided for compartments outside the machinery and boiler spaces.

The main armour protection was as follows:

Main Belt: was 14in thick amidships and ran for 384 feet. Angled at 72°, it was fitted internally and extended from the outer face of the forward 16in barbette (about 100 feet from the bow) to the inner face of the after 6in barbette (about 70 feet from the stern) and sloped inwards to the waterline. The 14in plates reduced to 13in abreast machinery and after magazines. Bulkheads were 12in and 8in forward closing forward extremities of belt armour between middle and lower decks, 10in and 4in aft closing after extremities of belt.

Decks: 6¼in armour plates plus 1½in plating laid over the top (6_in) laid flat over the length of the 14in belt armour on middle deck level. Lower deck 4¼in armour plates plus ½in plating laid over the top (4_in) flat, from after extremity of 14in belt to within about 25 feet of the stern.

Barbettes: 15in carried down to middle deck (see plan for various thicknesses).

Turrets: 16in faces, 7¼in crowns and rear.

Secondary barbettes: 1in. Conning tower: 14in sides, 12in front, 10in back and 6½in roof.

Tube: 6in.

Conning tower hood: 5in-3in. Funnel uptakes: 8in-7in.

Anti-torpedo bulkheads: 1½in, longitudinal port and starboard, set well inboard, extending completely between forward and after magazines from keel to middle deck and sloping inwards from top to bottom.

On completion they were probably the best armoured battleships afloat although the shallow 14in belt led to much criticism after completion. During firing experiments in 1931 on Marlborough and Emperor of India one shell (hit no. 4) burst under the armoured belt, apparently just where it was in contact with skin plating, and caused considerable damage. This hit emphasized the desirability of a deep belt and it was proposed that Nelson and Rodney be improved in this respect when they came in hand for refitting, but the extension of side armour was never effected and their armour protection remained the same throughout their lives. The only addition was to Nelson, which was fitted with 100lb and 120lb NC armour on the lower deck forward between 80 and 84 stations, `160lb armour bulkhead at 80 station from hold to platform deck. Rodney was not completely fitted with additional armour forward, but it is understood that she did receive something along these lines although the official records are not clear. Later proposals to modernize the armour protection (1938) were finally abandoned.

General Notes

Both ships proved to be excellent steamers in service and it is said that while chasing Bismarck in May 1941 Rodney attained a speed in excess of what had been thought possible in view of previous machinery and boiler breakdowns and the long time that had elapsed since her last refit. In relation to displacement Nelson and Rodney were, on completion, probably the most economical steamers in the Royal Navy.

A complete breakaway from the normal bridgework and heavy tripod foremast, which was replaced by a high tower structure, was considered to be the only satisfactory means of obtaining adequate support and clear vision for the extensive modern fire control equipment, as well as providing the necessary accommodation for the navigating and signalling positions and extra cabins, etc. The controls for the main and secondary armament were located at the top of the tower, and the Admiral’s bridge, navigating and lookout platforms were arranged around the upper sides and face of the tower, with signalling searchlights in ports inside and lower down. The sea cabins, plotting offices, etc., were positioned at the base of the tower. All flag signalling was carried out from the foremast.

The massive tower bridgework, introduced in this class, was retained in the succeeding King George V and Vanguard classes, and (in modified form) in the reconstructed Warspite, Valiant, Queen Elizabeth and Renown.

The heavy boats were all stowed abaft the funnel, and handled by the main derrick which was worked from the mainmast base.

Accommodation greatly embodied the recommendations of the Accommodation Committee, which had been appointed by the Admiralty in 1923, and in these two ships it was especially good both for officers and ratings – the space available being much greater than usual as a consequence of the high freeboard over the whole length of the ship, which also offered ample headroom between the decks. Natural light was provided in most living spaces, and ventilation was greatly improved over preceding classes. The ships were also provided with such items as reading and recreation rooms, drying rooms for wet clothing, bakery, oil-fired galley, laundry and electric ovens for the first time.

Ventilation received special attention and proved to be generally satisfactory in service. In the crew’s galley, however, exhaust fumes were stated to be intolerable during the war when the skylights were often closed to darken ship.

The pair were known affectionately as `The Queen’s Mansions’ (because of the massive tower) and by 1930 had become part of the British constitution – the general public loved them and they were always crowded out on `Navy Days’, but a more relevant opinion came from Captain T. H. Binney of Nelson when finishing his term of service in her:

Before relinquishing command of HMS Nelson, I have the honour to submit the following remarks or points of interest relating to this class of ship. I have been fortunate in that I have joined the ship at that moment when she may be said to have got over her initial troubles, and my period of command has included the last twelve months of the first command with a well-trained ship’s company, and the first five months of the second command with a new ship’s company.

Manoeuvring powers.

In the early stages of the ship’s first commission, there was a general misconception in the service that the Nelson class were unhandy and difficult to manoeuvre. This was probably due to the unaccustomed position of the bridge and the initial inexperience of the personnel of what the ship might do under various conditions. Both my predecessor and myself, however, very soon discovered that this opinion was entirely fallacious. In calm weather, the ship’s manoeuvring capabilities are in no way inferior, and in many ways superior to those of Queen Elizabeth or Revenge. The astern power is much better than that of Queen Elizabeth, they steer much better with the engines stopped, and at rest they turn very easily by working the engines. Owing to the high superstructure aft, however, they carry a good deal of weather helm, and for the same reason, their turning circle when turning away from the wind is greatly increased, while when turning into the wind, it is correspondingly decreased.

As an example of the effect of the wind, on one occasion when getting under way with a wind of about 5-6kts on the starboard beam, the ship swung 4 points to starboard against full starboard helm, and it was not until the ship was moving through the water at 9kts that she started to answer her helm.

On another occasion, when anchored with the fleet, with a wind of about 5 knots on the port beam, the ship’s head could not be kept steady with full port helm, and swung to port in spite of starboard screws being reversed. On entering a harbour through a long narrow channel such as Gibraltar a strong head wind is the cause of some anxiety; but the effect seems to be greatly reduced if the wind is a few points abaft the beam or on the bow.

When pointing the ship using the engines, the wind has little effect, except to stop the swing at once.

Generally, the superstructure has the effect of a mizzen sail continuously set, and if this is kept in mind, no real difficulties should be encountered in any circumstances.


I hold the opinion that the low-angle gun equipment as a whole, and particularly the 16in main armament, is a very marked advance on any previous capital ship, and should result in improved rate of hitting at all ranges.

On account of various improvements (rangefinders, control apparatus, etc.) as well as the increased size of splashes, long-range firing from Nelson should be more effective in the 25/28,000 yds long-range firing than in Queen Elizabeth at 21/25,000 yds.

In the case of secondary armament, although the rate of fire is rather low, the increased range at which fire can be opened, and the absence of loss of output due to fatigue, combined with excellent ammunition supply arrangements, will be a very prominent factor in war.

In view of the modem tendency of construction for `all or nothing’ armour protection leaving controls and secondary batteries unprotected, the possibility for using the secondary battery for `harassing fire’ at the main armoured target when the range has been found assumes greater importance, and in Nelson the secondary armament can do this efficiently without loss of anti-torpedo boat efficiency.

16in mountings

The 16in triple mounting has been subjected to considerable criticism from time to time, and there is little doubt, that in some quarters the view is held that a triple mounting for heavy guns is not a good investment. The great advantage of the triple mounting system from construction point of view (which is that the armament can be concentrated in a much smaller space, and will require less area of armoured protection) has not, perhaps been sufficiently emphasized. The main disadvantage of Nelson’s triple mounting is loss of output on account of the fact that the three guns cannot be fired together owing to ballistic difficulties, whereas they must be loaded together. This, however, is not in itself a reason for condemning the triple mounting in general. The mounting may be said to have proved itself, when in October 1929, one turret crew with two years’ experience, loaded and fired 33 rounds without mishap. The main defects appear to be the roller paths and the rollers.

Fire control

The main armament fire control is very satisfactory, and a marked advance on that of earlier battleships. The efficiency of the rangefinder installation and the Admiralty fire control table are of a high order, and it has been found a comparatively simple matter to train the personnel in their use. In secondary armament apparatus no great advance can be recorded as the installation is essentially the same as in older ships though more automatic in action. The installation, however, fulfils the required condition of simplicity.

Summary: Nelson and Rodney were the only two battleships designed and completed in the 1920s.

Construction: Nelson: Armstrong (1922-1927); Rodney: Cammel Laird (1922-1927)

Displacement: 33,950 tons

Dimensions: 660′ x 106′ x 30′

Armament: 9 x 16″ in main battery guns in 3 x 3-gun turrets

Armor: 14″ belt; 9″-16″ turrets

Machinery: 2 x shaft Brown-Curtis geared turbines = 45,000 hp = 23 knots

Complement: 1,314

Fate: Nelson: used as bombing target before being broken up, 1948. Rodney: sold out of service, 1948

War Junks

There are many types of sea-going Chinese Junks. They usually have a high stern and overhanging bow, square on deck but fine at the waterline. They have no keels but a deep rudder lowered in a trunk, and from two to five masts and lug sails stiffened with battens which can be quickly reefed. The hold is divided into water right compartments and let out to merchants. The inland river trade of China is also carried by junks of many varieties. In 1851 the Great exhibition was visited by the Keying, a junk of 400 tons sailing from Canton to Landon via New York.

Asia and the Indian Ocean, had their own traditions of naval warfare. Most of this took place in coastal or inland waters and was a direct adjunct to land warfare. By the time a permanent Chinese navy was founded by the Song dynasty in 1132, China had an array of diverse vessels including paddlewheel ships, galleys, and sailing ships. Exploiting the resources of a prosperous and populous state, China became the world’s greatest naval power, although Europeans knew little or nothing about it. In the early 15th century the Ming dynasty embarked on naval power-projection on a vast scale with the voyages of Admiral Zheng He, who took a fleet of massive war junks around southeast Asia and across the Indian Ocean as far as east Africa. The decision of the Ming to withdraw from such maritime adventures after the 1430s was one of the turning points of world history.

The Pagoda, Whampoa, China. Whampoa is located to the south of Canton. The Treaty of Whampoa between France and China, one of the treaties forced on China at the end of the First Opium war (1839-1842) conceded Treaty Ports to European powers, including Canton. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The Chinese developed a range of warship types with different tactical roles. These included large multi-deck war junks and “tower ships” with portholes through which crossbows could be fired and lances thrust, and often carrying varieties of catapult. Smaller vessels included “covered swoopers,” fast assault ships covered with thick hides to protect against missiles and incendiary devices, which were designed for aggressive “swoops” on the enemy. “Flying barques” were fast moving galleys with more oarsmen than usual and a smaller-complement of soldiers-comparable to the Greek trireme in concept. Paddle-wheel craft, initially introduced in the 8th century, became of paramount importance under the Song dynasty. The wheels were driven by treadmills inside the hull typically operated by the leg-power of crews of 28 to 42 men. Large vessels might have 23 wheels-11 on each side and one at the stern-and measure up to 360 feet (110 m) in length. One type, known as a “seahawk” ship, had a low bow and a high stern, a ram at the prow and iron plates for armored protection. Used on rivers and lakes, the paddlewheel craft were extremely maneuverable, capable of traveling forward or backward with equal ease. On-board weaponry ranged from crossbows and lances to catapults and, later, primitive cannon. Gunpowder became a common element in missile warfare in the Song period. It could be wrapped in small packages around arrowheads to make fire-arrows, or used to fuel a fire-lance-a kind of protoflamethrower-or made into explosive grenades or bombs. Many Chinese naval battles were decided by ships being set on fire.

A Chinese War Junk exploding under fire from the East India Company British iron steam warship HEIC Nemesis in Anson-‘s Bay-, near Canton-, 8 January 1841. Steamers with shell-firing guns enabled the British to take their power close inshore-, opening rivers and harbours to the full weight of naval firepower. In this war the object was to increase trade.

As early as the 8th and 9th centuries CE, China was using massive multi-deck ships for river and canal trade. With hundreds of crewmen (and women), who often were born, lived, and died on board these massive vessels, these ships plied the inland waters of the empire. Other, foreign ships would travel as far as Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) from their ports in south China. Soon, the Chinese themselves began using similar large ships to ferry grain from south to north China, and by the 9th century the Chinese began building their own huge ocean-going ships, designed to extend the reach of the empire’s commercial and military power. Great battles soon followed, between rival Chinese factions and other Asian powers; in 1161, for instance, the Sung Dynasty defeated the Jin Empire in a massive naval battle off the Shandong Peninsula, gaining control of the East China Sea. The Sung themselves fell to the Mongols under Kubilai Khan in 1279, in a campaign where Mongol sea power played a large role.

The Mongol warships of the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries had four masts, more than sixty individual cabins, and crews of over 300 men. These ships were trading, transport, and war vessels rolled into one. The Ming Dynasty which came into power in the later 14th century continued this maritime tradition at first. Around 1405, Admiral Zheng He led an expedition of some 37,000 men into the Indian Ocean, with a huge fleet of Chinese warships. The largest of these vessels were 500 feet long, up to five times the size of comparable Western ships of the era, and had watertight compartments, not introduced in West until four centuries later. This mighty fleet sailed unopposed throughout the Indian Ocean and southwestern Asian waters until 1433, a tribute to the might of China. Though the Chinese navy would thereafter begin to decline, at it apex its fleet of “Flying Tigers,” large warships that carried the spirit of the empire in their fore-and-aft rigged sails and large crews, was a force to be reckoned with.

Chinese battleships, those ocean-going junks of immense size and power, carried troops, traders, and diplomats, and sported cannon and soldiers for attack and defense. Powerful in battle, they were also most useful as spearheads of diplomatic forays or military invasions. Able to defend themselves, attack other fleets, and deposit troops onto unfriendly shores, the Flying Tiger Warships were a versatile and powerful addition to the Empire’s military system. Cresting the horizon in distant seas, a force of dozens or even hundreds of these vessels no doubt created fear and confusion in China’s enemies, and impressed China’s friends.

In Qi’s [16th century] system a war junk had 55 troops divided into five units. Two units used arquebuses, two used cannon, flame-throwers and rockets, and one unit used other types of gunpowder weapons. Naval combat required firearms by this point, a marked change in warfare.

Old China developed over the centuries a rich naval history with an entirely different technology from that used by the European West. Whole cities, whose citizens lived afloat on moored boats, were founded in the ocean. Most coastal warlords raised navies. Fleets of buccaneers banned from all ports roved the China seas. These dreaded raiders, knowing they would receive no mercy if taken, fought with a fanatic skill and courage. As the colonial period opened in the Far East, intrepid captains from the Western powers came to China’s exotic ports, lured by fabulous trade opportunities. In their wake came the adventurers, warships, and more pirates. China’s coast soon swarmed with all manner of shipping, and East met West with occasional violence. The struggle for dominance eventually climaxed in the “Opium War”.

Chinese Ships

The most obvious difference between Chinese and Western ships is that of size. Even ocean-going war junks were small compared to European ships of the line. Chinese captains insisted that their craft be able to operate in the many rivers, canals, and shallow bays that lined China’s coast. After all, some of the most important water trade took place a thousand miles from the ocean, up the broad Yangtze to the port of Ichang. Ships needed to be small and have shallow draft to navigate these waterways, especially during the winter drought.

Chinese ships evolved with unique means of propulsion. The Chinese shipwrights used square lugsails battened with bamboo and hung from a yardarm roughly two-thirds of the way up the ship’s mast. The bamboo battens held the sails rigid and flat even in high winds, which allowed the ships to tack at angles that amazed European sailors. These battened sails continued to function even when perforated and torn. Sailors climbed the battens without the use of ratlines found on Western ships. And Chinese sails could be raised and lowered rapidly because they simply folded, rather like huge Venetian blinds. Most ships could also be poled in shallow water or driven with sculling oars.

A lorca had the body of a Western frigate, brig, or corvette, but with a reinforced hull and Chinese sails. The Kiangsu and Pechilli traders were common merchant ships and also were in common use by Chinese pirates. River junks carried no sails and, despite their label, were often used on the ocean near the coast. The crooked junk was scarcely bigger than a gunboat and was limited to oared movement; its stern was designed to allow for the use of an oar sweep in rapids. Opium clippers are Western-built ships specially designed to smuggle the drug past Chinese government warships. They combined the best of both worlds, being able to out-sail most European vessels and outgun most Chinese in the South China Sea.

The Chinese never developed naval artillery, weaponry, or tactics to any great extent. Most of their combat took place in rivers, where the enemy would lie straight ahead or behind where a “broadside” could not reach. Most Chinese ships that carried cannon had only a few, and these were typically haphazardly placed on the main deck. Instead of cannons, the Orientals developed their own weapons, mostly intended to aid in the boarding actions that usually decided the fight. Stink bombs, fireships and torches, anti-boarding spikes, and mines were common. These devices, which are described in detail below, can be used by any Chinese ship.

Stink Bombs: Chinese sailors made small bombs by packing clay pots with gunpowder, nails, sulfur dust, and any malodorous substance they had available. These were to be thrown onto the decks of enemy ships. Sailors in a boarding action hurled their bombs by hand, making stink bombs.

Mines: These were small gunpowder charges designed to be floated downstream with time fuses.

Fireships: The Chinese devised a special form of fireship. Two small boats were tethered to one another by a long length of chain. When an enemy ship struck the chain, the fireships swung in to lay along her hull.

Spikes: Some Oriental ships mounted sharp stakes along the hull to discourage ramming and boarding. The Koreans refined this practice and continued it even after they developed ironclads.

The Opium War

The most dramatic encounters between European and Chinese wooden warships happened during the Opium War of 1839-1842. European naval technology had advanced in the interim, but the Royal Navy was slow to adopt these changes, and even then did not dispatch its newest ships to China. The primary British squadron in Chinese water during the war consisted of Alligator (26-gun frigate), Blenheim (74-gun common SQL), Blonde (42-gun frigate), Conway (26-gun frigate), Druid (44-gun frigate), Hellas (an opium clipper chartered by the Royal Navy), Volage (26-gun frigate), and Wellesley (74-gun SOL).

In defense of the right of British smugglers to operate, these ships blockaded the Chinese coast and also made forays upriver. The blockade intensified in June 1840 when Captain Smith outlawed all native Chinese navigation and ordered his fleet to seize all Chinese vessels. In reaction, the Chinese government offered bounties on Englishmen. One could claim the equivalent of $100 for a captured sailor ($20 for just his head), $5,000 for an imprisoned ship captain, and up to $10,000 for burning a European ship. Despite this incentive, the English almost always overwhelmed their opponents. Most of the action was confined to desperate, single-ship fighting. The only true battle occurred when Hellas was sweeping the mouth of the Yangtze. Chinese locals had cleverly placed underwater stakes to prevent her from turning. Eight Pechilli [trade] junks sallied from the river to attack her with stink bombs and boarding actions. They were driven off, but Hellas also withdrew to replenish her crew.

For more technical information on Chinese vessels, consult The Junks and Sampans of the Yangtze by G.R.G. Wocester (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1971). For information on the Opium War, I suggest The Chinese Opium War by Jack Beeching (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).