Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Prize Money - Frigates, Treasure and Jane Austen

HMS Pomone - frigate,
archetypal prize taker 
In naval fiction set in the Age of Fighting Sail, prize money, accruing from the capture of enemy shipping which would subsequently be sold to third parties or bought by the Admiralty, is rightly shown as an important driver for Royal Navy officers and crew alike. For most on the lower deck it represented the only opportunity of their lives to earn a sum substantial enough to set themselves up in some comfort – typically by purchase of a tavern or other small business. For the officers it could mean the difference between an old age spent in respectable near-penury and acquisition of a fortune that would secure significant property for themselves and their families. The navy differed from the army in that an officer did not need to purchase his commission (a practice that continued up to the 1870s). Younger sons from wealthy families, who due to the law of primogeniture were likely to inherit little or nothing, or sons from poor but respectable backgrounds – such as Nelson – could however enter the navy at a young age and hope to rise through competence and luck.

Contemporary view of how
the prize money was often spent!
The allocation of prize money followed a fixed formula, and some who benefitted from it might not be directly involved in the capture of the enemy vessel. The total value of the prize was divided into eight parts which were assigned as follows:

One part to the admiral or commander-in-chief who signed the ship's written orders (but if the orders came directly from the Admiralty in London, then this went to the captain);

Two parts (i.e. one quarter) went to the captain or commander;

One part was divided among the lieutenants, sailing master, and captain of marines;

One part was divided among the wardroom warrant officers (surgeon, purser, and chaplain), standing warrant officers (carpenter, boatswain, and gunner), the lieutenant of marines, and the master's mates;

One part was divided among the junior warrant and petty officers, their mates, sergeants of marines, captain's clerk, surgeon's mates, and midshipmen;

Two parts (i.e. one quarter) were divided among the crew, with able and specialist seamen receiving larger shares than ordinary seamen, landsmen, and boys.

Frigate and sloop commands were much sought after for the opportunities they gave for capturing prizes but many crews were to find themselves dogged by bad luck for years. When fortune was favourable however, the rewards could be immense. In one such case, in 1799, the officers and crews of four British frigates were lucky enough to encounter two Spanish warships some 200 miles west of the northern Spanish coast. They were initially sighted on 15th October by HMS Naiad.  Her commander, Captain Pierrepoint, gave chase.  They subsequently proved to be the frigates Santa Brigida and Thetis, which were headed to Spain from Vera Cruz in Mexico.  

The fact that the two frigates, which outgunned Naiad by two to one, should decide to run from her rather than to fight was indicative that whatever they carried was of great value. Pierrepoint followed them doggedly through the night and early in the following morning, another ship was seen in the south-west. It proved to be the British frigate HMS Ethalion and soon afterwards two more frigates, HMS Alcmène and HMS Triton, also appeared. In the hope of escape the Spanish vessels parted company and steered away on different courses, each were pursued by two British frigates. The odds had turned decisively against the Spanish. Overhauled, they chose to strike their colours rather than fight it out.

The sailor's return after Anson's voyage. Note the
 wagons in the background carrying the prizes
The value of prizes was enormous since much of their cargoes proved to be specie – gold and silver coinage. The treasure was landed and Plymouth and loaded on sixty-three artillery waggons. Escorted by soldiers, armed seamen and marines, with bands playing and watched by a huge crowd, it began its journey to the vaults of the Bank of England in London. In the final distribution each British captain was awarded £40,000 (probably worth at least a million today, though such comparisons can only be very approximate). Each lieutenant received £5,000 pounds, each warrant officer more than £2000 pounds. The midshipmen – in many cases young boys the start of their careers, were each given £800. Those who received most of all, by the standards of their own expectations, were the seamen and marines, each being awarded £182 pounds. To put this into context it is worth noting that a domestic servant could be had for £10 per year while a private soldier in the army was paid a shilling a day, some £18 pounds a year, though deductions were to reduce this significantly in practice.

Paid-off seaman celebrating - cartoon by Cruikshank
It is likely that much of the prize money was dissipated in wine, women and brief high-living ashore. Cartoonists of the time depicted seamen squandering money with wild abandon. Many of the officers were more likely however to set themselves up as land-owning country gentry. Although these men were in the front line of the nation’s defence or more than two decades in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, those whom they protected were often not just grossly ungrateful but resentful of such success. The novelist Jane Austen had two brothers in naval service in this period – both rose in their later careers to be admirals – and she makes a Royal Navy captain her hero in her last published novel, Persuasion, as well as portraying other officers sympathetically. With brilliant irony she describes the mean-minded prejudice endured by such officers – as her brothers may have experienced – from stay-at-homes resentful of their hard-earned prize money. 

Here is a snobbish landowner speaking in Persuasion – this passage deserves to be repeated in full:


(Referring to the Navy) Sir Walter's remark was, soon afterwards-- "The profession has its utility, but I should be sorry to see any friend of mine belonging to it."

"Indeed!" was the reply, and with a look of surprise.

Admiral Baldwin's appearance shocks
Sir Walter and Sir Basil
"Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man. I have observed it all my life. A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to, and of becoming prematurely an object of disgust himself, than in any other line. One day last spring, in town, I was in company with two men, striking instances of what I am talking of; Lord St. Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat; I was to give place to Lord St. Ives, and a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage you can imagine; his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree; all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder at top. 'In the name of heaven, who is that old fellow?' said I to a friend of mine who was standing near, (Sir Basil Morley). 'Old fellow!' cried Sir Basil, 'it is Admiral Baldwin. What do you take his age to be?' 'Sixty,' said I, 'or perhaps sixty-two.' 'Forty,' replied Sir Basil, 'forty, and no more.' Picture to yourselves my amazement; I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin. I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can do; but to a degree, I know it is the same with them all: they are all knocked about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin's age."


So much for gratitude for deliverance from Bonaparte!

Britannia’s Spartan - and the Taku Forts, 1859 

The Anglo-French assault at the Taku Forts in Northern China – and the highly irregular but welcome intervention of the neutral United States Navy – was one of the most dramatic incidents of the mid-nineteenth century. It also led to the only defeat of the Royal Navy between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of World War 1.

A remark of the American commander at the height of the battle - "Blood is thicker than water" - has entered the English language.

The Taku Forts attack is described in detail in the opening of Britannia's Spartan.

Friday, 21 October 2016

The salvaging and afterlife of minelayer UC-5

A blog on Tuesday 3 November 2015 described the horrific sinking of the hospital ship Anglia close to English south-coast in 1915. She was a victim of a submarine-laid mine, a weapon that was to prove a deadly menace during World War 1. Such mines not only inflicted direct losses it but were also effective in restricting or closing harbour approaches and shipping lanes for long periods once their presence was detected. The German submarine responsible for the Anglia was the small UC-5, a craft specially designed for minelaying. Her operational career was a short one – from late July 1915 until April 1916, a mere none months – but in this time she was responsible for sinking a total of 29 ships, with a total gross tonnage of 36,288 tons. Few warships have ever been so cost-effective in terms of investment needed to sink a ton of shipping.

Artist's impression of Anglia's final plunge, November 17th 1915
The fifteen submarines of the UC I class displaced 168 tons on the surface and were a mere 111-feet long. Single-shafted, with a 90-hp diesel, and a 175-hp electric motor, they were slow – 6.5 knots on the surface and 5.5 knots submerged – and this was hardly a disadvantage since it enhanced the stealth with which their operations must be conducted. With a crew of 15, they carried no torpedoes and their purpose was to drop the twelve 39-inch diameter mines that they carried in six tubes inclined slightly off vertical. Their short range was not a disadvantage when they operated along the British coast from bases in Belgium.  

Contemporary cutaway drawing of UC-5. Note mines in inclined tubes ahead of the conning tower.
UC-5 was to be the first of these German vessels to pass safely through the British defences – including minefields – that protected the Dover Straits and to reach the wider waters of the English Channel beyond. It was here that UC-5’s mines were to claim the Anglia as well as many other victims. It was however further north, on the approaches to the British base at Harwich, from which light forces operated in the Southern North Sea, that the UC-5’s luck ran out. The attraction of the area was obvious – twelve mines laid in the approaches to Harwich would have had a high likelihood of claiming a warship victim. The complication was however shallow water offshore – the Shipwash Shoal lay some twelve miles to the north-east of Harwich and it was across this that the UC-5’s commander, Oberleutant Ulrich Mohrbutte intended to make his approach. It was in the course of doing so on April 27th 1916 that the UC-5 grounded as the tide dropped.

Unable to break free, and with a clear possibility of capture, Mohrbutter ordered charts and papers to be destroyed and for scuttling charges to be put in place. He sent a radio signal to the German base at Zeebrugge to give news of his plight and this was picked up by the British. The Royal Navy destroyer Firedrake was accordingly sent to investigate, arriving in early afternoon. As she approached the stranded submarine – her own draught was shallower – the German crew were seen to be standing on the deck and holding up their hands. When Firedrake drew still nearer, the Germans jumped into the water and were soon picked up by boats dropped by the destroyer.

It was thought that the entire German crew had been rescued when one last man was seen emerging from below, shouting and waving his hands frantically, and then jumping overboard. He was picked up and shortly afterwards several explosions racked the stranded submarine, and brown smoke poured from her conning-tower. The scuttling charges had been fired. The craft settled on the shoal beneath but the mines on board – all twelve – did not explode.

UC-5 in British hands, afloat after salvage and repair
Once satisfied that no further explosions were likely, Firedrake’s Torpedo-Lieutenant Quentin Paterson and two other officers went across. Even though damaged the UC-5 was a valuable prize, the first German U-boat to be captured virtually intact and one that was likely to reveal significant technical information. She was however sufficiently holed to make flotation at high tide and towing to Harwich impossible. Measures were accordingly put in hand to mobilise divers and salvage equipment to recover her. Before these arrived Paterson made a full examination that revealed that though ten of the mines were still secure in their tubes, two had been dropped – as part of the scuttling procedure – and now lay loose at the bottom of the tubes and resting on the sand beneath. The danger was that movement of the submarine’s hull could be enough to detonate them. All salvage efforts had therefore to be delayed until the mines were made safe.

Lieutenant Paterson himself, together with two others, one a diver, undertook this very hazardous work. The ten mines still in the tubes were disarmed by the removal of the acid detonation tubes from the contact horns but it was impossible to do this with the lower mines, which therefore remained active. It was found that the two projecting mines could not be drawn back into the tubes, nor could they be disarmed, so they were secured where they were with cables in such a way as to ensure that they could not drop further. The danger remained however of them being detonated by the hull bumping on the sand when it was time to move it.

UC-5 being transported in sections through Central Park, New York
Responsibility for the salvage was assigned to Commodore Sir Frederic William Young (1859-1927), a naval-reserve officer who in civilian life was the nation’s, and perhaps the world’s, best respected salvage expert. Working now in the open sea, in the middle of a war zone, and with the two unexploded mines a constant danger, the recovery of the UC-5 was to prove one of his greatest challenges. The UC-5 was by now sinking ever deeper into the sand as the tides washed around her. A lighter was brought alongside and the hull was lashed to it at four places with heavy cables – passing these under the hull by water-jetting must have been a terrifying ordeal for the divers who did so. The first attempt at lifting as the tide rose (and as the lighter was deballasted) ended in failure. The cables parted and the hull dropped back on the seabed, luckily without setting off the mines. The process had to start over, this time with yet heavier cables and a larger lighter to which the UC-5’s hull was secured at low water. The lighter's side tanks nearer the submarine were pumped dry and her outer tanks were filled with water so as to act as a counterweight. This time the UC-5 was raised safely. She was towed into Harwich and placed in a floating dock in which the two projecting mines were safely removed. The entire operation had taken 27 days.

UC-5 in Central Park in 1918 - a focus for sale of War Bonds
 The UC-5 was to have a strange afterlife. Examined meticulously to understand her working, she was subsequently patched up and taken to London where she was put on display – an amazing sight since submarines represented cutting-edge technology and the vast majority of the population had never seen one. When the United States entered the war a year later the submarine was cut into sections and sent to New York. She was reassembled in Central Park and there also she became an object of wonder, all the more so since it was outrage at German unrestricted submarine warfare that had drawn the United States into the conflict. 

And the heroes of this epic? Paterson was awarded the DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) and his diver the CSM (Conspicuous Gallantry Medal). They were hard earned.

Britannia’s Shark by Antoine Vanner

The dawn of the Submarine Age ...

1881 and the power of the British Empire seems unchallengeable.

But now a group of revolutionaries threaten the economic basis of that power. Their weapon is the invention of a naïve genius, their sense of grievance is implacable and their leader is already proven in the crucible of war. Protected by powerful political and business interests, conventional British military or naval power cannot touch them. A daring act of piracy draws the ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, and his wife into this deadly maelstrom. Amid the wealth and squalor of America’s Gilded Age, and on a fever-ridden island ruled by savage tyranny success – and survival –will demand making some very strange alliances...

Friday, 14 October 2016

Guest Blog by Richard Abbott: South-West England’s Gigs

I’m honoured today to welcome back the novelist Richard Abbott as a guest blogger. You can out more about him at the end of this article. When he last appeared here (on 1st March 2016) he brought us back to the period of the earliest civilisations but on this occasion he tells us about some beautiful traditional boats – many specimens of which are almost two centuries old – which are still in active use, and participating in in well-contested competitions, in the South West of England.
Over to Richard!
The Gig – an elegant and durable link to a past age
Antoine has kindly given me space today to talk about gigs and their use in south-west England, specifically the Scilly Isles and Cornwall. So far as I am aware these have never been used in war, but their history is no less exciting or varied for that.
Gig Lyonnesse on St Agnes
First, what is a gig in this context? Picture something that looks roughly like a clinker-built rowing eight. Keel to gunwale depth is around two feet, and once crewed, the waterline is almost exactly at the mid-point. At 32' long, just under 5' beam, but with elm planks only 1/4" thick, the boat is light enough that the crew can pick her up and carry her into the water. Many years of experience mean that a gig has been built robustly enough to take on the Atlantic swell, despite the apparent flimsiness.
Like an eight, each oarsman has a single oar, and they sit to row alternately port and starboard facing the cox'n. But curiously, they have only six rowers, reflecting part of their history. A mast and lugsail could be fitted if desired, though in commercial practice this was rarely done. They are fast, tough little boats, and at one stage played a crucial role in the economic livelihood of the islands. Today they have retired from commercial use, but have found a new lease of life in competitive sport. The annual world gig racing championship is held on Scilly every April/May. In 2016 it attracted more than 150 boats from many different countries.
Some of the 3000+ rowers in the 2016 races (ITV West Country)
We can trace the history of the gig back to 1666 at least, when vessels from St Mary's were involved in rescuing the crew of the Royal Oak, wrecked out at what is now the Bishop Rock lighthouse. We have no reason to suppose there were not earlier vessels of essentially the same pattern. All modern gigs are based on the lines of an early 19th century design by William Peters. They had two principal uses, the main one being to get local pilots out to incoming ships as quickly as possible. Whoever got there first got the contract, hence the need for speed. Scilly was one of the major landmarks for vessels inbound from the western trade routes, but the seas are treacherous here, with countless rocks and reefs. Even with modern navigation aids they are hazardous: how much more so in former days? So families or village groups would aim to spot new arrivals as early as possible, and get out to them as quickly as possible.
The St Agnes gig, Shah
The other use, more humanitarian than commercial, was as a kind of early lifeboat system. Gig crews over the years have saved a great many lives by going out - frequently in horrendous weather - to rescue crews and passengers suffering shipwreck. Cargo could also be brought back, and an 1887 rescue of 450 cattle from the Castleford involved lashing the animals' heads and horns to the sides of the gigs Gipsy and O&M, and towing them to a handy nearby island! Such rescues were fearfully dangerous acts, and the churches on Bryher, St Agnes and elsewhere remember many who never returned.
Now, gigs came to the attention of the revenue authorities, who suspected that they had a third use – for smuggling. Certainly they would have been capable of it, with their proven seagoing capability. Even the Cornish coast was within a day from the Scilly Isles for a good crew - the 40-odd mile trip to Penzance typically takes under 10 hours, and Newquay was within comfortable reach. Gigs could easily make the 250-mile round trip to France’s Breton coast by staying out at sea for a day or so, and were robust enough to cope. Bonnet (of which more later) rode out a thirty-hour storm on one such trip by keeping head to wind until conditions improved. A good crew can sustain speeds of around 7 knots, but speeds of nearly 10 knots have been recorded over a measured mile with racing crews rowing at 40 strokes per minute. But therein lay a problem – an eight-oared gig was faster than the customs cutters of the time. This was clearly unacceptable, so a law was passed in 1829 limiting the crew to no more than six oars per boat.
Time passed, and both piloting and rescue ceased to be the responsibility of the islanders. The last recorded pilotage was in December 1938, when the Bryher boat Gipsy went out from St Agnes. As for rescue, the last known one was of the Panamanian steamship Mando in 1955. For a time, it seemed possible that gigs in the traditional sense would die out. Some of the older craft were laid up in storage, others suffered the usual fate of wooden boats which are not constantly cared for.
Bonnet pulling ahead of Golden Eagle

Then competitive racing emerged, giving a new lease of life to the design. Informal races had been part of gig culture for a long time: now it has become organised. Inter-island men's, women's and mixed races take place weekly during the tourist season, quite apart from the challengers coming from further afield. And here, the robust nature of the vessels is once again proved. Bonnet still races today - she was built in 1830 and had a long and busy working life. She is heavier than her modern siblings, but if there's a bit of a sea this might not be a disadvantage. Back in August, I saw her beat a dozen other boats to win her race. The Cornish gig Newquay was built back in 1812, and is claimed to be the oldest ship afloat which is still being used for broadly the same purpose as when she was made. Appropriately, she is owned by the Newquay Rowing Club, who also look after Dove (1820) and Treffry (1838) - all still racing.
So, this brings us to Antoine's own protagonist, the naval officer Nicholas Dawlish, and the timeline set out for his life. Bonnet had been working for 15 years when Dawlish was born in December 1845, and for over fifty years at the time of Britannia's Spartan. There's a fair chance that Newquay was built before Dawlish’s father was born. On the assumption that Dawlish passed the Scillies at some stage during early career - and it would be wildly improbable if he had not had cause to see them at close quarters - he would have seen gigs in active commercial use. I wonder, with his eye for design, if he took the time to appreciate their blend of speed, strength and elegance?
Finally, for those who want to look at videos, this video has the 2016 men's final and lots of links to other clips:

About Richard Abbott

Richard lives in London, England. He writes historical fiction set in the ancient Middle East - Egypt, Canaan and Israel - and also science fiction about our solar system in the fairly near future. Research in progress for the next historical novel, which will explore the Late Bronze Age tin trade between the British Isles and the eastern Mediterranean. It is provisionally called A Storm of Wind, and is at an early stage.
His novel The Flame Before Us covers, in part, another bronze age group for whom the Mediterranean was important – The Sea Peoples, who settled in the coastline along from Gaza after a tumultuous approach disrupting cities from the Hittite realm down to the borders of Egypt.
When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District. He is the author of In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes From a Life, The Flame Before Us - and most recently Far from the Spaceports. He can be found at his website http://www.kephrath.com, his Amazon Page http://amzn.to/2ege45m or blog http://richardabbott.datascenesdev.com/blog/
Click here for more information on Richard's latest novel - just published: Timing

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Training Tragedies - the losses of HMS Eurydice and HMS Atalanta

At first glance the picture of a frigate such as HMS Eurydice, illustrated above on a cigarette card, immediately evokes visions of single-ship actions of the Napoleonic period. It is therefore all the more surprising that this ship was still in service in 1878 and that her destruction was witnessed by the young Winston Churchill who would live on to oversee development of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The Eurydice’s story, and that of her successor, HMS Atalanta, are some of the most tragic ever to occur in peacetime service in the Royal Navy.

This begs the question of “Why were such vessels still in service when steam was already established as the most reliable and efficient method of propulsion?”
Armoured-cruiser HMS Warspite of 1884 - her sailing rig was removed
early in her career and she served thereafter under steam power only
Not only the Royal Navy retained sailing rigs
Here is the American protected-cruiser USS Atlanta of 1884
The answer is that warships in all navies carried sail as well as steam power right up to the end of the 19th Century. Boilers were still inefficient, though improving, and their furnaces were ravenous for coal. For long distance cruising, away from easy coal supply, retention of sail made sense, even though the presence of masts and yards was likely to be a major point of vulnerability in combat. As innovations in boiler and engine design improved efficiency, and reduced coal demand, the need for sail decreased. In the 1880s sailing rigs were phased out for major vessels but even thereafter retention continued to make sense through the 1890s for smaller craft on remote stations. Typical examples were small, slow gunboats such as those of the Redbreast class, powerfully armed with six 4-inch breech-loaders and ideal for colonial service.
HMS Sparrow - a Redbreast class gunboat of 1889
Training of officers and men in managing sail as well as steam was therefore of the utmost importance. For many years  after steam had replaced sail for all operational purposes there was a  strong body of opinion remained that mastery of sail, and of “work aloft”, was essential for character-building, even when this meant training on masts set up on land.

This is the background to the retention of HMS Eurydice as a Royal Navy training ship. She had been built in 1843 as a very fast 26-gun frigate designed with a very shallow draught to operate in shallow waters. Wholly sail-dependent, her design and armament were little different to those of the frigates commanded by captains such as Pellew and Cochrane some four decades earlier. Over the next eighteen years she saw service worldwide, including an uneventful assignment to the White Sea during the Crimean War. She was converted to a stationary training ship in 1861 and remained in this role until re-commissioned as a sea-going vessel in 1877.
Contemporary illustration of HMS Eurydice capsizing
Eurydice departed on a three-month training cruise to the West Indies in the November of that year, carrying 319 crew and trainees. The cruise appears to have been uneventful. A fast, 18-day, voyage from Bermuda brought her back to the Isle of Wight by March 24th 1878 prior to entering Portsmouth. At this point she was engulfed in a heavy snow storm and capsized and sank. There were only two survivors as those not brought down in the ship itself died of exposure in the freezing water. Her captain, Captain Marcus Hare, went down with his ship after ordering every man to save himself and then clasping his hands in prayer.  The wreck was in shallow enough water for the masts to protrude and it was refloated later in the year.  It is not surprising however that this old wooden vessel was past repair and she was accordingly broken up. The subsequent enquiry held her officers and crew blameless and found that the disaster had been caused stress of weather.  There was however some concern expressed on the suitability of Eurydice as a training ship because of known concerns as to her stability.
The remains of the Eurydice, as Churchill remembered her over five decades later
Winston Churchill, who was four at the time, was at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight and he witnessed the tragedy. It obviously made a lasting impression on him, as he recounted fifty-two years later in his memoir “My Early Life”:

“One day when we were out on the cliffs near Ventnor, we saw a great splendid ship with all her sails set, passing the shore only a mile or two away… Then all of a sudden there were black clouds and wind and the first drops of a storm, and we just scrambled home without getting wet through. The next time I went out on those cliffs there was no splendid ship in full sail, but three black masts were pointed out to me, sticking up out of the water in a stark way... The divers went down to bring up the corpses. I was told and it made a scar on my mind that some of the divers had fainted with terror at seeing the fish eating the bodies... I seem to have seen some of these corpses towed very slowly by boats one sunny day. There were many people on the cliffs to watch, and we all took off our hats in sorrow.”
Contemporary illustration of salvage efforts.
Note diver (tiny dot) being lowered towards the quarterdeck
Salvage operations in progress
The poet Gerald Manley Hopkins was sufficiently moved by the tragedy to write very powerfully on “The Loss of the Eurydice”. Space precludes copying his poem in full here but the following verses are especially memorable:

They say who saw one sea-corpse cold     
He was all of lovely manly mould,
    Every inch a tar,                       
Of the best we boast our sailors are.          

Look, foot to forelock, how all things suit! he         
Is strung by duty, is strained to beauty,    
    And brown-as-dawning-skinned              
With brine and shine and whirling wind.           

O his nimble finger, his gnarled grip!          
Leagues, leagues of seamanship  
    Slumber in these forsaken          
Bones, this sinew, and will not waken.

It is normal – even today – to state solemnly after every disaster that “Lessons have been learned” though in practice this seldom seems to happen. This was especially the case in the aftermath of the Eurydice catastrophe. The Admiralty proceeded to replace her with HMS Juno, another 26-gun frigate of identical tonnage but slightly less radical hull-lines, built in 1844. She was renamed HMS Atalanta and she made two successful training cruises to the West Indies before disappearing at sea in 1880 with the loss of all 281 crew and trainees while en route from Bermuda to Britain. It was presumed that she sank in a powerful storm which crossed her route a couple of weeks after she sailed. A gunboat HMS Avon did however report that near the Azores “she noticed immense quantities of wreckage floating about... in fact the sea was strewn with spars etc."

HMS Atalanta
Investigation of the disaster was hampered by lack of evidence but a former crew member stated that “she rolled 32 degrees, and Captain Stirling is reported as having been heard to remark that had she rolled one degree more she must have gone over and foundered. The young sailors were either too timid to go aloft or were incapacitated by sea-sickness.” The witness added that many “hid themselves away,” in such circumstances and “could not be found when wanted by the boatswain's mate."

The most devastating verdict on the disaster was delivered by The Times. It denounced “the criminal folly of sending some 300 lads who have never been to sea before in a training ship without a sufficient number of trained an experienced seamen to take charge of her in exceptional circumstances. The ship's company of the Atalanta numbered only about 11 able seamen, and when we consider that young lads are often afraid to go aloft in a gale to take down sail... a special danger attaching to the Atalanta becomes apparent."

Both tragedies – claiming 600 lives in two years – shook public confidence in the Royal Navy. A new breed of professional was however emerging, men who understood the demands and opportunities of new technology. Chief among these officers was to be Sir John Fisher, later Lord Fisher, who would create the Dreadnought navy that Britain took into World War 1. It is therefore all the more ironic that one of the officers to lose his life on HMS Atalanta was his younger brother, Lieutenant Phillip Fisher.
HMS Eurydice under full sail

Britannia’s Spartan

Six-inch breech loading guns represented the cutting edge of naval technology in the early 1880s. In my novel Britannia’s Spartan they are seen in use on both British and Japanese ships. The splendid woodcut below shows Japanese crews managing just such a weapon in the war of 1895 against China. Click here to read the opening of the novel.

Friday, 7 October 2016

French liners in WW1 – slaughter in the Mediterranean

October 4th was the one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the SS Gallia, one of the worst maritime disasters of the First World War.  What made it even more terrible was that this was one of four similar tragedies, each involving troopships, each involving very heavy loss of life. It also underlines the fact that the closed waters of the Mediterranean became a happy hunting-ground for German and Austro-Hungarian U-boats in those years. Without effectively escorted convoys, and in the absence of effective submarine-detection technology, highly vulnerable Allied shipping was offered up likes lambs to the slaughter.

SS Gallia, seen here pre-war
The Salonika front, on which British, French and Serbian troops faced Bulgarian and German forces in Macedonia, is all but forgotten today. Though it absorbed large numbers of troops, who sustained serious losses through disease, it saw only intermittent though bitter and inconclusive fighting in 1916 and 1917. A major Allied offensive was to be unleashed successfully from it in the last months of the war. Established in October 1915, this front tied down a vast number of troops – by 1917 no less than 24 divisions were deployed there: six French, six Serbian, seven British, one Italian and three Greek, plus two Russian brigades. Supply had to be by sea, necessitating a heavy commitment of troop and hospital ships, plus innumerable cargo vessels, to maintain a long and vulnerable supply line that led primarily to France.

Large pre-war liners were ideal as troopships due to their large passenger capacity and the high speeds which were likely to make them difficult targets for U-boats. Four of these were to be sunk with heavy loss of life, three of them while supporting Salonika.

La Provence in her peacetime glory
Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière 
Built in 1905, the SS La Provence was a 13,700 ton, 625-foot liner employed on the North Atlantic route. Peacetime accommodation was for some 1500 passengers of all classes, making her ideal for conversion to trooping duties. Her best performance on the Havre to New York run was at a very respectable average speed of 21.63 knots. On 26thFebruary 1916, en route to Salonika with some 1700 troops on board, she was sighted off Cape Matapan in Southern Greece by the German U-boat U-35. This craft, which was to clock up a fearsome record of 224 Allied ships sunk, mainly by gunfire, was commanded at this period by Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière (1886-1941), the most successful submarine commander in history. He launched an immediate torpedo attack, as a result of which La Provence began to list immediately, so much indeed that half the lifeboats could not be launched. She sank quickly, the bows rising perpendicularly before the final plunge. Of the 1700 men on board – it is an indictment of the management of the trooping operation that exact numbers are unknown, and were initially estimated as higher – there were only some 700 survivors rescued by British and French vessels eighteen hours later.
 Next to go was the SS Gallia – the hundredth anniversary of whose sinking this article marks. This 1500-ton, 570-foot liner was new, having entered service on the Bordeaux to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires route in 1913 and being taken over by the government when war broke out in 1914. In the aftermath of the Le Provence sinking it appears amazing that she should have departed Toulon without an escort on 3rd October 1916, with some 2,350 on board, of whom 2000 were French and Serbian soldiers. The following day, between Sardinia and Tunisia, the Gallia was spotted by La Provence’s nemesis, von Arnauld de la Perière in the U-35. He fired a single torpedo which not only hit but also triggered a larger explosion of a cargo of munitions also being carried by the liner. Damage to the radio facility prevented issue of a distress call and the Gallia began to settle quickly. A degree of panic appears to have reigned and some boats capsized after launching as hundreds more men threw themselves into the water. The Gallia was gone n fifteen minutes but it was to be another day before up to 1,200 survivors were picked up by the cruiser Châteaurenault. Once again, due to what appears to have been chaotic record keeping, and uncertainly as to actual numbers on board, the total loss of life was estimated to have been be somewhere between 600 and 1800. The French Republic was indeed prodigal – and uncaring – with the lives of her soldiers.

Chateaurenault - note her lines, giving an impression from afar of being a liner
An irony was that the Châteaurenault had been built with a profile like a liner so as to make her seem less suspicious when employed in commerce-raiding. She herself was to be sunk by torpedo in December 1917, with limited loss of life. A further irony is that though the loss of life in the Le Provence and Gallia sinkings was vast, the U-35 commander, von Arnauld de la Perière, was well known for scrupulous adherence to prize rules, allowing crews of enemy merchant ships – as opposed to naval craft, which these liners definitely were – to board their lifeboats and giving them directions to the nearest port before sinking their ships.
U-boat sinking a troopship, as imagined by German artist Willy Stöwer (1864-1931)
The third Salonika-related trooping tragedy was to come just four months later. This time the victim was to be the SS Amiral Magon, a smaller (5600-ton, 390-foot) liner that had been in passenger service between France and Indo-China from 1905 until the outbreak of war. On 29th January 1917, in company with another troopship and with a destroyer as escort, and carrying some 935 soldiers, she was torpedoed by U-39 south of Greece. She sank in ten minutes, with loss of 203 men. An added horror of this disaster was that the Amiral Magon was also carrying horses. One’s mind recoils from imaging the terror in which these innocent and trusting beasts must have died below deck.
 A further French troopship tragedy involved a brand-new ship, completed after the outbreak of war, the 12,700-ton, 530-foot SS Athos. Only three weeks after the loss of the Amiral Magon, on 17th February 1917, the Athos was sunk east of Malta by U-65. Some 2000 in total were on board, including Chinese labourers (recruited for manual labour close to the front), Senegalese troops and civilians, including women and children. She also went down quickly – in less than a quarter of an hour – and she took with her 754 people with her. The survivors were picked up by two escorts.
 When confronted with such high losses, as in these cases, it’s very easy to see them as statistics. And yet each individual who died represented a separate tragedy, a life cut short, years and decades of sorrow – and often as not of financial hardship - for those left behind. And now, a century on, they are forgotten, few of their details known even to great-grandchildren.

 The Dawlish Chronicles website

If you are not already familiar with my website, www.dawlishchronicles.com, you may well find it worth a look. It provides background on my books and on myself – including test, audio and video interviews, as well as almost 200 articles in its “Conflict” section, which deal with naval warfare and other history in the period 1700 – 1930. Many of these articles are expansions of blogs items from the last three years and they are arranged chronologically in three sections – “The Age of Fighting Sail”, “The Victorian Era”, and “The Modern Period 1901-1930”. There’s also a short biography of Nicholas Dawlish – protagonist of the Dawlish Chronicles series, and this is added to as each new novel is published. The next, due very shortly, is Britannia’s Amazon. I’m always keen for feedback from readers and the website has a facility for queries.  Happy browsing!

                                                                                                  Antoine Vanner

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The bloody Plattsburg mutiny, 1816

Radio has been an integral feature of maritime operations, whether military or civil, for well over a century and it is difficult to imagine just how isolated all ships were prior to that once they were out sight of land. Large numbers of vessels disappeared annually, the vast majority as a result of storm damage, but there must have been occasions when “lost without trace” meant hijacking by a mutinous crew who thereafter found some way of abandoning or destroying the ship and disappearing with their booty. An instance in 1816, centred on the American schooner Plattsburg, shows just how close one gang of mutineers came to realising their dreams in a world where intercontinental telegraph communication was still a half-century in the future.

The topsail schooner Amy Stockdale off Dover - by William John Huggins (1781 – 1845)
One imagines the Plattsburg to have been generally similar
In the aftermath of the futile but destructive “War of 1812” between Britain and the United States, there was every reasonable expectation or maritime trade picking up. Among those anticipating a bonanza – the more so since so much merchant shipping had been destroyed in the war, and vessels were at a premium – was the Baltimore merchant and ship-owner Isaac McKim. In 1816,  a year after the war’s end, he commissioned a new trading schooner called the Plattsburg, her name commemorating the recent American victory on Lake Champlain. The vessel was built for speed and for transport of small-volume high-value cargoes, somewhat the same role as is filled by air-transport today. The maiden voyage was to carry just such freight – eleven thousand pounds of coffee and forty-two thousand dollars in coins, the latter apparently intended for purchase of opium at the Plattsburg’s destination, the Turkish port of Smyrna – now Izmir – in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Shipping coins – the term for which was specie – was always a hazardous enterprise unless a ship was under naval escort. McKim and the Plattsburg’s master, Captain William Hackett, were well aware of the risk from a mutinous crew and endeavoured to keep details of this part of the cargo secret – though without success. Eight men who shipped as crew appear to have been driven to do so by knowledge of the specie and by recognition of the opportunities that could arise for taking it once the ship was out of sight from land. With the entire North Atlantic and Mediterranean ahead of them, the opportunities for getting booty ashore would have seemed legion. The Plattsburg had a crew of over thirty – the number is indicative of the labour-intensiveness of manning even a small sailing merchantmen –  but eight determined men, with surprise on their side, were likely to have a good chance of pulling off the hijack.

Sail still dominated trade through much of the 19th Century
Here is "Ships at Le Havre" by Eugene Boudin 1887
The leader appears to have been an experienced seaman called Stromer who had some knowledge of navigation and a pronounced ability to sway others. Six others – Smith, Rog, Peterson, Williams, Stacey and Raineaux – appear to have been less clever thugs. The eighth man was a Francis Frederick whom Captain Hackett had refused to ship as crew before relenting on hearing Frederick describing seeing Smyrna as being an ambition of his life.

Stromer’s first move was to sow resentment against the ship’s officers among the members of the crew not yet in the plot. His instrument was to be the brutal thug, Smith. The opportunity came shortly after the Plattsburg left Baltimore on July 1st 1816. The wind was light, so that she merely glided down the Patapsco River and into Chesapeake Bay, where she anchored.  Here the first mate, named Yeiser, began working up the crew, setting them to tasks until the wind should strengthen enough to carry the Plattsburg get to sea. Smith, Stromer’s tool, was reluctant and surly. Yeiser called him to order but Smith’s manner was unchanged.  Authority had been challenged and Yeiser punched Smith on the jaw, precipitating a fistfight that he was quickly getting the worst of. He was saved only by Captain Hackett intervening with a hand spike. Smith was vanquished – and had he been on a man of war would have paid for this action with his life – but the authority of the officers had been challenged and had only been reasserted with difficulty. The atmosphere was now ideal for fostering mistrust and resentment.

The ship’s steward, a black man called Lamberson (who was probably free, as he was working at sea) was drawn into the conspiracy and with his help the officers were to be poisoned when the Plattsburg had reached the Azores.  Lamberson served contaminated coffee but, though it made those who drank it violently sick, nobody died. Stromer’s conspirators suspected Lamberson of losing his nerve and beat him savagely. Poison having failed, there must be recourse to outright violence.

On July 21st, as the Plattsburg was passing Santa Maria, the most southerly of the Azores, the weather began to deteriorate, with a strong wind, rain and low visibility. Darkness fell and Yeiser had the eight to midnight watch while the lookout forward was Williams, one of the conspirators. As the second mate, Stephen Onion, came on deck at midnight to relieve Yeiser, Williams called out “Sail ho!” The danger of a collision was obvious.

Onion, alarmed, ran to the bows to peer into the darkness and Yeiser, who had not yet gone below, followed him. As they searched for the non-existent sail three of the conspirators crept up behind them. Yeiser was knocked senseless and flung overboard. Onion managed to break free and fled aft, where he locked himself in the bread locker. The noise had drawn Captain Hackett on deck and as he stepped into the darkness he too was beaten down and thrown into the sea. 

The remainder of the crew do not seem to have participated actively but they offered no resistance to the mutineer’s take-over. The only opposition remaining was likely to come from the supercargo – the owner’s representative, responsible for sale of the cargo – and the second mate, Onion. The supercargo was known to have close relations with the shipowner, McKim, and was therefore likely to be a hostile witness should he survive. The mutineers invited him on deck under a guarantee of safety. He hesitated, but when he did emerge he too was thrown overboard. Now only Onion remained.

The brutal reality of life at sea that triggered so many mutinies in merchant ships in the 19th Century
An illustration from an early edition of Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast”
The mutineers’ leader, Stromer, felt confident of being able to navigate the ship in the open sea, but with an intention now formed of landing the cargo in Northern European waters – a decision that seems crazy in retrospect – he realised that he would need assistance from somebody with more detailed knowledge of coastal waters. This could only be Onion, who was familiar with the English Channel and the North Sea. It was however important to enforce Onion’s future silence by forcing him to accept a share of the plunder, thus making him complicit in the mutiny. Onion, with no option but death, agreed to this. By this time the core of eight mutineers had expanded to thirteen, all of whom were committed to bringing the vessel to Norway, with the remainder of the crew cooperating under fear of violence.

Under Onion’s pilotage the Plattsburg passed through the English Channel and sailed up the English and Scottish east coasts to the Orkney archipelago, and from there eastward to the small port of Christiansand, close to the southern tip of Norway. Its isolation made it an ideal location for smuggling ashore the eleven thousand pounds of coffee in the ship's hold. It was now however that the enterprise began to unravel. Stromer seems to have been able to impose discipline on the crew while they were at sea, but this failed once the men got ashore. They drank and caroused, challenged Stormer’s authority, talked without caution and ignored his warnings. They also insisted on having the specie split fourteen ways, each conspirator to have his own share.

Many now abandoned the Plattsburg and took passage in other vessels for the Danish capital. Copenhagen, little more than a day’s sail way. Among these were Onion and the steward Lamberson. They broke away from the group and contacted the American Consul, providing full details of the whole affair. The consul moved fast and action by the respective authorities followed in both Norway and Denmark.

"Entrance to Copenhagen" by J. C. Dahl, 1830
The Platttsburg was seized at Christiansand but Stromer, the brains behind the mutiny had disappeared, never to be found. Six mutineers were arrested in Copenhagen, one in Christiansand. The shares of these seven should have totalled twenty-one thousand dollars but when they were arrested they had only five thousand. It seems inconceivable that they had spent sixteen thousand dollars in two weeks ashore and one wonders if Stromer had not taken much of the remainder with him – if so, he would have had enough to set himself up in respectable affluence for the rest of his life. Two mutineers were captured in Europe – one in Prussia and one in France, but the authorities in both countries refused to deport them to the United States. In total some twenty-seven of the crew were rounded up in various places but most were let go after questioning. The remainder were shipped to America. Here, four – Williams, Rog, Peterson and Frederick – were convicted of murder and hanged at Boston Neck on February 18, 1819. It was noted at the time that "Their conduct in prison is said to have been exemplary and they met their fate with firmness.” Onion and Lamberson had acted as state witnesses and a seaman named White was cleared on the grounds that he had been forced into the mutiny.

The Plattsburg was to have a less than honourable future. She was brought home from Christiansand and McKim put her up for sale by public auction. Her speed fitted for carrying another high-value cargo – in this case human – and she was bought by slavers based in Cuba. Furnished with Spanish papers, she was captured in 1820 off the coast of West Africa by the United States sloop-of-war Cyane, which was tasked with slave-trade suppression.  The seizure of the Plattsburgh gave rise to a US Supreme Court case, with the court finding in favour of her seizure as a slaver, despite a number of subterfuges.

And Stromer? Nobody knows what became of him, but if he had indeed taken the money, he might well have died decades later, under some other name, as a revered pillar of society.

Britannia’s Shark by Antoine Vanner

1881 and the power of the British Empire seems unchallengeable.

But now a group of revolutionaries threaten the economic basis of that power. Their weapon is the invention of a naïve genius, their sense of grievance is implacable and their leader is already proven in the crucible of war. Protected by powerful political and business interests, conventional British military or naval power cannot touch them. A daring act of piracy draws the ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, and his wife into this deadly maelstrom. Amid the wealth and squalor of America’s Gilded Age, and on a fever-ridden island ruled by savage tyranny success – and survival –will demand making some very strange alliances...

 Britannia’s Shark brings historic naval fiction into the dawn of the Submarine Age.