Friday, 9 December 2016

HMS Pulteney and the Spanish Xebecs 1743

There have been many blogs on this site dealing with actions in the Age of Fighting Sail that involved only a few vessels, in many cases two only. In most cases, skilful manoeuvring and sail management, taking full advantage of wind and sea conditions, were key factors in positioning vessels to deliver their broadsides from the most advantageous position. There can only have been few cases in which the action took place in a calm and the movements of sailing warships were determined by the ability of their crews to propel them by sweeps or oars. Sweeps were long oars which could be extended out through gun ports and their use seems to have fallen away in the course of the 18th Century. In Britain’s National Maritime Museum in Greenwich there is only one model of a vessel with sweeps deployed, as shown in the photograph below


It was during the War of Austrian Succession in January 1743 that HMS Pulteney fought a battle in the Straits of Gibraltar in which her sweeps, and her enemies’, were to determine the course of action. The Pulteney, “a large brigantine” carrying 16 carriage guns (I can find no further detail) and commanded by a Captain James Purcell, had been cruising in the Straits to deter Spanish naval movements (as was the case in most in 18th Century wars, Spain was allied with France against Britain). She now however found herself becalmed off the British fortifications at Gibraltar and under observation from Spanish forces at Algeciras, directly across the bay from them.

Two Spanish xebecs now left Algeciras to intercept Pulteney. Xebecs were a type of craft common in the Mediterranean and were employed by the Spanish and French navies as well as by North African corsairs. Light and highly manoeuvrable, many were essentially galleys, with provisions as a matter of course for oar propulsion as well as by large lanteen sails. (Sentencing to galley service was a dreaded punishment for criminals). This contrasted with the use of sweeps, which were usually employed as a last resort, and operated by members of the crew. The two xebecs that came out to confront Purcell and the Pulteney were each crewed by 120 men and each carried 12 guns, apparently 9-pounders. Their rowers’ efforts were supplemented by the current through the Straits running in their favour. The Pulteney by contrast had only 42 men on board, three of whom had been wounded in an earlier action.

A superb painting of Xebecs in action five years before the Pulteney's encounter
"Antonio Barceló's Xebec Facing two Algerian Corsair Galiots, 1738"
Madrid's Navy Museum (catalog number: 522). 1902 oil painting by Ángel Cortellini y Sánchez (1858-1912).
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
The xebecs opened fire with individual guns as they approached but when within hailing distance called on Captain Purcell by name to strike so as to avoid unnecessary slaughter. He and the Spanish captains appear to have known each other – this being an era of gentlemanly warfare and courteous respect for the enemy. Purcell, as was probably expected, refused to yield and the engagement commenced, the Pulteney being at a disadvantage to her more manoeuvrable foes. Gunfire was exchanged for an hour and three quarters and the Spanish xebecs made three separate attempts to board. Given how small Purcell’s crew was it is improbable that all 16 of Pulteney’s guns could have been manned but they at last inflicted sufficient damage to the xebecs that they broke off the action to head for home. Even now, Pulteney attempted to chase them, with the Pulteney now propelled by her sweeps since there was still no wind.  The lighter xebecs managed however to make their escape.

 The Pulteney had suffered seriously, her sails and rigging completely destroyed and her hull and masts damaged. The action had occurred in full view of the Gibraltar garrison and boats went out to tow her back to safety.  Her crew had suffered one dead and five seriously wounded but it was reported afterwards that the clothes of every man on board had been rent by shot or fragments. A subscription was raised by Gibraltar’s governor, officers and merchants to present Purcell with a piece of plate while money was distributed to the crew. Purcell’s and Pulteney’s heroic stand was the type of incident that was to inspire so much naval fiction in later years.

 Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide by clicking the cover image below



To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment.


Britannia's Eventide is a snapshot of a critical moment in the later years of Admiral Sir Nicholas Dawlish and his wife, Lady Florence, whom you will have met earlier in their lives in the five books of the series so far. It is not available elsewhere at this time. It is a companion piece to the short-story Britannia's Eye, which is a bonus-addition to the novel Britannia's Amazon, and which gives a glimpse of Nicholas Dawlish's childhood.

I hope that you will enjoy the story, no less than the novels in the series. I always value feedback, so don't hesitate to get back to me. I'd especially like to know what you think of the idea of free short-stories that fill in gaps in Dawlish's career that may not justify full books. 

                                                                            Best Wishes: Antoine Vanner

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Loss of the Russian cruiser Pallada, October 1914

The illustration below is from a German WW1 part-work, published monthly, in this case in 1914/15. It is an artist’s impression of the destruction of the Bayan-class Russian armoured cruiser Pallada on 11th October 1914. There were no survivors from her 597-man crew when she blew up after being torpedoed by the German submarine U-26.  

This 7750 ton vessel, armed with a main armament of two 8-inch and eight 6-inch guns, plus smaller weapons, was already obsolete then she was commissioned in 1911. In overall configuration – single bow and stern chasers and her remaining heavy weapons in casemates – she had more in common with doomed British counterparts, such as Aboukir, Cressey, Hogue and Good Hope, built a decade earlier, than with the battle-cruisers that were already replacing armoured cruisers in the British and German navies. Pallada was however of only half the displacement of the old British cruisers and one wonders why money was ever invested in her and in her sisters Bayan and Makarov.

SMS Magdeburg
Though the Pallada was the first Russian warship to be lost in World War 1 she had already provided a service of inestimable value, even though it came about by pure chance. The tltra-modern German cruiser Magdeburg had run aground off the Estonian coast on 26th August and efforts by a destroyer to tow her free had proved unsuccessful. While the attempt continued the Pallada arrived on the scene with another cruiser, the Bogatyr, one of the few Russian ships to survive operations in the Far East during the Russo-Japanese War. Unable to run, and taken under fire by the Russians, the Magdeburg’s crew attempted to scuttle, blowing off the forepart of the ship but leaving the remainder largely intact. More important however was the fact that priority had not been given by the German captain to destruction of the code-books. These the Russians managed to recover from the wreck  – a fact that the Germans did not suspect. The need to change the codes was not appreciated and the Russians had won a treasure. The code-book was passed on to the British and was of vital importance in allowing the Royal Navy’s “Room 40” – the WW1 centre of code-breaking which was comparable to Bletchley Park in WW2 – to read German naval radio-traffic through much of the war.

Short the Pallada’s service life might have been, but it was to have a massive impact on Britain’s prosecution of the war at sea. The tragedy was that her crew died without knowing it.

Download a free story: Britannia’s Eventide


To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment. If you are already a subscriber, and have not received the e-mail, please check in your Junk folder in case it has been classed as Spam.


Britannia's Eventide is a snapshot of a critical moment in the later years of Admiral Sir Nicholas Dawlish and his wife, Lady Florence, whom you will have met earlier in their lives in the five books of the series so far. It is not available elsewhere at this time. It is a companion piece to the short-story Britannia's Eye, which is a bonus-addition to the novel Britannia's Amazon, and which gives a glimpse of Nicholas Dawlish's childhood.

I hope that you will enjoy the story, no less than the novels in the series. I always value feedback, so don't hesitate to get back to me. I'd especially like to know what you think of the idea of free short-stories that fill in gaps in Dawlish's career that may not justify full books.

                                                                          Best Wishes: Antoine Vanner

Friday, 2 December 2016

HMS Mediator at odds of Five to One, 1782

In a recent blog about Captain Henry Trollope and HMS Glatton, we saw a single Royal Navy warship engage eight enemy vessels successfully. Today’s blog deals with an equally desperate battle against the odds.

Captain James Luttrell
By 1782 the American War of Independence was winding down, but actions were still being fought at sea. In December of that year Captain James Luttrell (1751-1788) was in command of the 44-gun fifth-rate, HMS Mediator, off the north-west coast of Spain. Luttrell was as much a politician as a naval officer, having been elected to Parliament in 1775 (one would like to know more about he juggled his time commitments since he appears to have been respected in both roles). He opposed the war with the American colonists, believing that their cause was just, but as a serving officer he did not hesitate to fight them and their French and Spanish allies to the limit of his abilities.

At dawn on December 12th 1782 the Mediator sighted a convoy of five vessels and closed with them to investigate. Three of the ships proved to be French: the Ménagère, a 64-gun ship of the line that had had half of its armament removed to make room for carrying freight; the Aimable Eugénie, a 36-gun frigate; the Dauphin Royal, primarily a transport but carrying 28 guns. Two vessels were at least nominally American, the Alexander, a privateer, operating under a French-issued letter of marque, armed with 24 guns, as well as an un-named American brig.  They represented a formidable challenge for a single warship to take on. What was however in Luttrell’s favour was that the convoy was primarily a transport unit rather than a fighting force and was conveying supplies from France to the American rebels. It was part of a much larger logistics operation that had run during much of the war and was masterminded by Pierre Beaumarchais – remembered today as the dramatist who wrote The Marriage of Figaro, the “must-see” play of the period that was subsequently turned into an opera by Mozart.

The enemy convoy shortened sail and formed a line of battle, obviously prepared to fight off any attack. Luttrell’s tactic was to drive straight at it, taking advantage of the handiness of the Mediator, hoping to dislocate the enemy line, cause what damage he could, and run should the action not develop to his satisfaction. By 10 a.m. the range had closed sufficiently for the Ménagère – which Luttrell still believed to be a fully-armed ship of the line – to open fire. The broadside she released came from her upper deck only, demonstrating that she was only partially armed and thereby considerably less dangerous than she appeared. This encouraged Luttrell to drive through the enemy line (the tactic that Nelson would later make his trademark) and cut off the Alexander. A single broadside was enough for this privateer to strike her colours while the remaining French vessels and the American brig made their escape. Luttrell put a prize crew aboard the Alexander and took some 100 prisoners from her on board the Mediator. This must have taken considerable time, and it is an indication of Luttrell’s confidence in Mediator’s speed and sailing abilities – not to mention in her crew – that he believed that he could catch up with the retreating enemy.

HMS Mediator in action, December 12th 1782 (note enemy vessels escaping on the right)
Painting by Thomas Luny (1759-1837)

It took five hours to get in range of the Ménagère, which had been by then separated from the other ships. She might well be under-armed but she still carried heavy guns and Luttrell did not want to close the range further. He maintained instead distant but ineffective fire. The weather was now deteriorating and a sudden heavy squall caught Mediator and heeled her over so that water poured in through her lower-deck gun ports to “knee depth”.  This was when the professionalism of both officers and seamen showed to advantage. Despite this setback, Mediator was soon in a state to resume the chase. It was dark before she caught up with the Ménagère, which was by now within five-miles of the shelter offered by the Spanish naval base of Ferrol. He French captain’s nerve seems to have failed at this point and before Mediator could deliver a broadside he struck his colours. The same process was repeated as with the Alexander – a prize crew put on board and prisoners, some 200 in this case, taken on to the Mediator and both ships then bore away from the Spanish coast. At dawn the escaped French frigate and American brig were sighted – both had been damaged in the earlier fighting – but by now Luttrell’s crew was seriously depleted through provision of prize-crews. Mediator had taken only seven casualties but was now manned by only 190 men, compared with the more than 300 prisoners on board. Luttrell reluctantly decide not to engage these enemy vessels and set course for Plymouth with his prizes.

A new drama played out during this voyage back to Britain. The American captain of the captured Alexander, one Stephen Gregory, and some of his officers had been accommodated in the Mediator’s gun-room. They managed somehow to establish communication with the other prisoners on board and hatched a plan for a take-over of the ship. The signal for action to commence was that one of the eighteen-pounders in the gun room was to be discharged – one wonders how Gregory managed to acquire the necessary powder to prime it – and in the resulting confusion the prisoners were to burst out of the hatchways.

The gun was fired during darkness but Mediator’s marines had been well posted at all exits and the prisoners were unable to break out. Luttrell went to the gun-room and found it on fire and everything within it shattered. Gregory and a single accomplice were found there, miraculously unharmed. They were immediately clapped in irons but it is typical of the gentlemanly standards of the period that the French officers, who had taken no part in the plot, continued to dine, under parole, at Luttrell’s own table.

In this dramatic action, in which boldness and confidence had proved the decisive factor, a single 44-gun ship, with a crew already depleted by provision of manning for earlier prizes, took on a force deploying 132 guns and 634 men. Casualties amounted to seven wounded. The enemy casualties were low also – a total of ten dead and fifteen wounded on the two vessels captured, an indication in itself of the lack of will which might otherwise have secured a different result.

Considering Luttrell’s splendid victory, it is sad to record the he died young, at only thirty-seven and that his potential for high command was never realised.

Click here to download a free short-story: Britannia’s Eventide


To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment. If you are already a subscriber, and have not received the e-mail, please check in your Junk folder in case it has been classed as Spam.


Britannia's Eventide is a snapshot of a critical moment in the later years of Admiral Sir Nicholas Dawlish and his wife, Lady Florence, whom you will have met earlier in their lives in the five books of the series so far. It is not available elsewhere at this time. It is a companion piece to the short-story Britannia's Eye, which is a bonus-addition to the novel Britannia's Amazon, and which gives a glimpse of Nicholas Dawlish's childhood.

I hope that you will enjoy the story, no less than the novels in the series. I always value feedback, so don't hesitate to get back to me. I'd especially like to know what you think of the idea of free short-stories that fill in gaps in Dawlish's career that may not justify full books.

                                                                          Best Wishes: Antoine Vanner

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The humbling of “General Hyena” 1850

It’s always gratifying to see a bully and tyrant cut down to size and a particularly satisfying example of this occurred in London in 1850, even if the retribution meted out was disproportionately small compared with the crimes in question.

Haynau
1848 was “The Year of Revolutions” across Europe, and in Austria revolts led to the abdication of the feeble-minded Emperor Ferdinand, and his replacement by his 18-year old nephew, Franz Josef. The latter was, amazingly, still on the throne at the start of World War 1 and he was only to die in 1916. During 1848 and 1849 the Austrian-ruled possessions of Hungary and Northern Italy were also among the areas affected, with nationalist groups rising up to demand greater autonomy, or even independence. These insurrections were suppressed with savage efficiency by the Austrians – in the case of Hungary with significant support from Russian forces. The Italian campaign was notable for its prosecution by the 82-year old Marshal Radetzky (of “March” fame) and one of his ablest commanders was to be the 62-year old General Julius Haynau.

Austrian troops storming rebel positions at Brescia, April 1849
Haynau’s military career had begun in the Napoleonic wars and though a competent soldier he also demonstrated qualities of cruelty, arrogance and blind devotion to his superiors which a century later might have brought him to dizzy heights in the Nazi party. In Italy he was to earn the reputation of “Butcher of Brescia”, when he followed up his suppression of a revolt in that town in April 1849 by shootings, hangings and floggings. This was however mild compared with Haynau’s record in Hungary, where among those he hanged were thirteen surrendered Hungarian generals. His most notable achievement was however to gain a reputation for having women sympathetic to the rebels flogged. Austrian admirers were to label him “The Hapsburg Tiger.” In Britain however his savagery was to earn comparison with a less noble beast and he became commonly known as “General Hyena”.

A Hungarian woman being flogged by Austrian troops, 1849
Upon restoration of peace Haynau retired from the army and in 1850 undertook a tour of Western Europe. Given his nickname it was less than wise to include Britain on his itinerary.  While in London he decided to tour the Barclay and Perkins Brewery in Park Street, just off Southwark Bridge Road. This was considered a state-of-the-art industrial plant, a marvel of efficiency and innovation,  and it was to play host over the years to many eminent visitors, including British and foreign royalty.

Popular illustration of Haynau under attack at the brewery
Note inset pictures, left and right of hanging, and flogging
Haynau arrived at the brewery on September 4th with his nephew and an interpreter. His prominent (and wholly ridiculous) moustache seems to have revealed his identity to the workers as prints showing him flogging women had been in circulation prior to this. Word of his presence began to spread and as he was brought to see the stables of the delivery horses a group of draymen – delivery men – began to pelt him with hay and horse-droppings. Haynau and his companions now took to their heels, the workers pummelling him and tearing off part of his trademark moustache. Now in ignominious flight, and pursued by a mob which may have grown to 500, Haynau and those with him managed to dart in to the George Inn in Bankside. He seems to have tried to hide first in the coal cellar, and afterwards in a bedroom, but when discovered with pelted with more manure.

Some popular verses of the time record Haynau’s come-uppance. Though hardly great poetry, the following extract typifies the popular view of the incident:

One day he went to have a stare,
At where we English brew our beer,
And met a warm reception there,
From Barclay and Perkins’ draymen.
“Out, Out, the tyrant!” all did cry!
How you would laugh to see him fly,
To cut his lucky he did try,
But soon found out it was all my eye,
One collared him by his moustache, and one with mud his face did splash,
Another rolled him in the slush…

…One let down upon his head,
Straw enough to make his bed,
One pulled his nose till it was red,
Did Barclay and Perkins’ draymen.
Then out of the gate he did run,
And now there was some precious fun,
A rotten egg he got from one,
For all did try – yes every one,
To show how we loved a brute
Who women flogg’d and men did shoot,
For trying tyranny to uproot etc.etc.

Haynau trying to hide
The police arrived too late to spare the general these indignities but they did at least manage to get him away through a window at the back of the inn, and to bring him across the river to safety by boat. Thoroughly and deservedly humiliated, Haynau cut short his British holiday. The draymen responsible were instant heroes.  Congratulatory letters arrived from overseas as well as from Britain, a well-attended celebration rally was held at Farringdon Hall and the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi subsequently visited the brewery to thank the workers.

As so often, Queen Victoria was not amused however and she demanded that the government apologise to Austria for an outrage against what she called “one of the Emperor’s distinguished generals.” Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, was directed to write the necessary apology. He himself had told his colleagues that he was as delighted as any man in England about what had happened and his official despatch to the Austrians reflected this. He regretted the attack but added, pointedly, that it was ill-advised for Haynau to have come to Britain in the first place in view of the general indignation about his behaviour in Italy and Hungary. Palmerston added that it would be unwise for Austria to ask for prosecution of the brewery workers because, were they put on trial, their defence council would obviously use, and thereby publicise still further, evidence of Haynau’s own atrocities.

Haynau being rescued from further indignities by the police
Queen Victoria was indignant when she saw the despatch, but it had already been sent. She demanded that another, with an unqualified apology, be drafted. Palmerston told the Prime Minister that any such new despatch would have to be signed by a new Foreign Secretary. Unwilling to lose the most capable member of the government, Russell, the Prime Miniser did not force the issue. Palmerston had won, and himself became Prime Minister five years later. Victoria loathed him.

A commemorative plaque on the site of the (now demolished) brewery
Haynau died in 1853. It is ironic – and pleasing – that a cruel and arrogant tyrant should not be remembered for his undoubted military capabilities and achievements, but as the flogger of women who was himself to get the beating he richly deserved from London workmen.


The Dawlish Chronicles

This series now comprises five books so far, plus a long short-story as a bonus in the latest - Britannia's Amazon.

Click here to access Antoine Vanner's Author Page to get details of the series. All are available in e-book and paperback format. The latter are especially suitable as Christmas gifts for anybody who enjoys a rattling good tale of danger, courage and adventure.


Tuesday, 22 November 2016

"The Royal Family” at War 1747

In 1747, at the height of the War of Austrian Succession, when Britain was (once more) at war with France and Spain, the departure of a Spanish warship from the Americas was to trigger a series of brutal naval engagements reminiscent of the pursuit of the Bismarck, two centuries later. The 70-gun ship-of-the-line Glorioso was carrying four-million silver dollars and as such was a prize well worth the taking. She was to be engaged both by the Royal Navy and by British privateers and it is the performance of the flotilla of the latter, nicknamed “The Royal Family”, which was the most remarkable.

Pedro de la Cerda
The Glorioso's captain
The Glorioso’s first encounter with the enemy was off the Azores on July 25th when she encountered a British convoy of seven merchantmen, escorted by three Royal Navy vessels. The largest was the Warwick – a 60-gun ship comparable to the Glorioso, the Lark, a 40-gun frigate, and a 20-gun brig. The escort commander ordered the brig to stay with the merchant ships and the Lark to initiate the attack, with the slower Warwick following. By the time Warwick arrived the Glorioso had badly damaged the Lark but was herself so badly raked that she was partially dismasted. The Spaniard sailed on, with structural damage and some casualties, but the British ships broke off the action – one indeed which they might have been victorious in had they persisted.

Outcome Round One: Victory to Glorioso.

Nearing the Spanish coast, off Cape Finisterre, the Glorioso now encountered three further British ships, the same combination as before of a ship-of-the-line (Oxford, 50-guns), a frigate (Shoreham, 24 guns) and a brig (Falcon 20 guns.) In an engagement lasting three hours all the British ships were damaged and the Glorioso, though she had lost her bowsprit, escaped to the harbour of Corcubión, in North-West Spain. There she off-loaded her silver cargo.

Outcome Round Two: Victory to Glorioso .

Her repairs compete as much as Corcubión’s facilities would allow, the Glorioso headed for the well-equipped base of Ferrol, further north. Adverse winds, which damaged the rigging, made the Glorioso’s  Captain de la Cerda to head south instead towards Cadiz. Fully aware of the presence of British units, he decided to stay far off the Portuguese coast. In the event however this availed him nothing and on October 17th the Glorioso ran into a squadron of British privateers – not Royal Navy ships - close to Saint Vincent.

George Walker 1700-1777
At this point it’s appropriate to pause to look at the nature and composition of this privateering squadron. It was commanded by Captain George Walker but funded by private financial interests in London and Bristol.  Walker’s reputation as a privateer sailing under letters of marque was already high and on a previous voyage each ordinary seaman under him had received £850 as his share of prize money – a quite enormous sum at the time. Walker had therefore no trouble in recruiting hands for his next venture and in April 1746 he sailed from Britain with four ships named King George, Prince Fredrick, Duke and Princess Amelia, carrying between them 960 men and 120 guns. By the time this force entered Lisbon eight months later prizes worth some £220,000 had been taken without the loss of a single man. After adding two more vessels to his squadron – the Prince George and the Prince Edward – Walker sailed out from Lisbon in July 1747 to resume commerce raiding. His six-ship task force had by now become commonly known as “The Royal Family”.

The Prince Edward was lost soon afterwards in an unusual accident. She had crowded on so much canvas that pressure above pulled the heel of the mainmast out of its step, so that it plunged down to punch a hole in the ship’s bottom. Only three men survived the rapid sinking that followed. Despite this setback the Royal Family was to have a profitable cruise and in early October put in to Lagos Bay to take on water. From here, in the early morning of October 17th, a large ship was seen approaching – this was the Glorioso. Only two of Walker’s ships were ready to give chase, the King George, with thirty-two guns and 300 men, and the Prince Fredrick with twenty-six guns and 260 men.

Glorioso (left) in action with King George and Prince Fredrick

The chase continued until midday, when the King George came up to the Glorioso. At this point the wind fell to dead calm, leaving the Prince Fredrick too far back to render support to her consort. King George and Glorioso lay at a distance from each other, all but motionless, for some five hours, the latter with her lowest tier of guns run out. Only thereafter did a light breeze spring up and the Glorioso headed for Cadiz, with King George in close pursuit and the Prince Fredrick following at a distance. By 2000 hrs King George was close enough to pull alongside Glorioso and hail her – it appears that there might still have been some idea that the Spaniard was an armed merchantman which might decline to fight. Glorioso replied with a full broadside, knocking out two of King George’s guns and bringing down her maintopsail yard. The fire was returned and what was to be a three-hour battle commenced.

What saved the King George from outright destruction appears to be that the Glorioso’s gun-ports were so small and her sides so thick that her guns could only be trained or depressed at a very limited angle. The consequence was that hitting a small vessel such as the King George was difficult in the extreme. Despite this however, three hours pounding at close range (how did flesh and blood endure it?) meant that the King George had suffered serious damage to her masts and that most of her standing rigging had been shredded. Only after the Prince Fredrick, driven by a very light wind, arrived about 2230 hrs did the Glorioso break off the action and head for Cadiz.

Outcome Round Three: Victory to Glorioso, but only just.

Walker did not order immediate pursuit. In the morning however, realising that the King George’s injuries were not fatal and that his crew had sustained low casualties, and because the Duke and Prince George, and later the Princess Amelia, had now also joined him, he sent his other ships off after the Glorioso, following as best he could in King George.

A large ship was now seen approaching from the east and on recognising it as a British warship Walker sent a note by one of his boats to explain the situation. She was the 80-gun HMS Russell, homeward bound from the Mediterranean and her captain now joined the Royal Family in the chase.

Glorioso (left) in action against the Dartmouth

Glorioso was still ahead of her pursuers when yet another British warship, the 50-gun Dartmouth, which had been cruising to the west and had been attracted by the sound of gunfire, now met her on an interception course. A running fight developed, in the course of which a fire reached the Dartmouth’s magazines and she blew up. Out of a crew of 325, only fifteen were saved. One of these was a young lieutenant, John O’Brien, who was picked up off a floating gun-carriage. When taken on board the Duke it appeared that he had been blown through a gun port. Though his clothes were burnt and in tatters he excused himself to the Duke’s captain with the words “Sir, you must excuse the unfitness of my dress to come aboard a strange ship, but, really, I left my own with so much precipitation that I had not time to put on better.”

Outcome Round Four: Victory to Glorioso, and decisively so.

Glorioso engaging Russell in her last fight
In the background: remains of Dartmouth (left) and crippled King George (right)

The remaining pursuers, awed by the disaster to the Dartmouth held off attacking. At midnight however the Russell ran up beside Glorioso and began a five-hour long close engagement. After they had been through so much already one wonders how Glorioso’s crew were in a position to put up anything of a fight, yet they did so with great tenacity, despite 33 dead and 130 wounded. It was only at dawn that she finally struck her colours, dismasted and on the point of sinking.

Outcome Round Five: British victory through knockout.

Victory proved empty consolation however. It appears to have been only after surrender that it was learned that the Glorioso’s silver had already been landed. Had this been known it could have been unlikely that Walker would have risked the Royal Family – the privateering enterprise was aimed at profit, not Britain’s national interest. One of Walker’s backers afterwards gave him “a very uncouth welcome for venturing the ship against a man-of-war”. Walker responded elegantly:

“Had the treasure been aboard the Glorioso, as I expected, my dear sir, your compliment would have been far different. Or had we let her escape from us with the treasure aboard, what would you have said then?”

State of King George near the end of the last battle

 After surrender, the Glorioso’s Captain de la Cerda and his crew were brought to Britain as prisoners. De la Cerda was to be honoured as much by the British for his achievement as he was by Spain itself, which later rewarded him with promotion to commodore.

Glorioso as captured, too badly damaged to be taken into British service
 And Walker? He continued cruising until the end of the war, the Royal Family’s total prize money being reckoned as more than £400,000. His subsequent career was less glorious. He appears to have lost or squandered the money he had won with the Royal Family, got involved in a dispute with ship-owners about accounts, and was imprisoned for debt in the late 1750s and died in 1777. No matter what happened later however, nothing could take away the fact that he had been one of the few captains in naval history who ever ran a small and outgunned vessel against a 70-gun ship and engaged her yard-arm to yard-arm. 

Britannia's Amazon

Mystery, Vice and Scandal in Victorian London

Click here to read the opening chapters

Click here to buy on Amazon

Friday, 18 November 2016

Frigate Duel 1782: HMS Santa Margarita and L’Amazone

In reading about warfare in the Age of Fighting Sail one is invariably impressed by the aggression and sheer bloody-minded will to win that characterised the Royal Navy. These were the factors that regularly brought victory even when the odds seemed stacked against British ships and the enemy, usually French or Spanish, never seems to have had the same single-minded focus on prevailing. Only in the War of 1812, when Britain again confronted the United States, did the Royal Navy consistently encounter enemies with the same ruthless commitment to victory.

HMS Pomone - a typical frigate of the time
Color lithograph by T. G. Dutton after painting by G.F. St. John
These thoughts came to me this week when leafing again through the Victorian classic, “Deeds of Naval Daring” by Admiral Edward Giffard (1812-1867), and came on an action I had not previously known of. This was a duel between equally-matched British and French frigates, HMS Santa Margarita, an ex-Spanish prize, and the French L’Amazone. As an aside I might mention that Giffard gives the date as 29th July 1781, whereas a note on the National Maritime Museum’s website clearly identifies it as occurring exactly one year later, in 1782. It’s notable that Giffard also referred to the “Santa Margaretta” rather than “Santa Margarita”.  The difference in naming is not significant but that of the date is. Built for the Spanish navy in 1774, the Santa Margarita had been captured off Lisbon in November 1779. Take into British service, she was refitted in 1780/81 and sent in June 1781, under the command of Captain Elliot Salter, to join a squadron off the American coast

In September 1781, French success in the Battle of the Virginia Capes was to be the deciding factor in ending the American War of Independence as it cut odd supplies to British forces at Yorktown and necessitated their surrender. The final peace-treaty would not be signed for another year and a half but the war was effectively decided from that point. The outright British victory over a French fleet at the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782 was a hollow one that had no impact on the outcome.

Notwithstanding this, a French naval squadron was still operating off the American coast in July 1782 under Admiral de Vaudreuil (1724-1802), who had taken command of the remainder of the French fleet after the Saintes battle. It was this force that Salter in the Santa Margarita, on detached service, was to run into off Cape Henry, at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, on 29th July.  Salter had initially spotted a frigate only – apparently a 36-gun unit like his own vessel – and gave chase. As Santa Margarita neared her quarry eight French ships-of-the-line were seen bearing down on her. Salter turned to fly, caught as he was between the French squadron and a lee shore, and the frigate he had initially chased now turned and came on after him. With their superior speed both frigates outran the heavier units but Santa Margarita appears to have been the faster of the two. By mid-afternoon the French unit – which proved to be L’ Amazone – decided to give up the chase and return to the squadron. Given the very powerful French force in the area Salter might have been well-advised to continue on and to complete his escape. Instead he came about and followed L’Amazone. Once again Santa Margarita’s superior speed proved its value and within two hours both ships were within gunshot.

The opening broadside came from L’Amazone – one suspects that in accordance with French practice it may have been aimed at Santa Margarita’s masts and rigging. Salter held his fire however and manoeuvred so as to rake his opponent – a devastating action that sent fire down the enemy’s central axis – and followed up by taking his ship “within pistol shot.” What is shocking to the modern reader is that the close-range slugging match that followed lasted an hour and a quarter. One can only imagine the hell of noise and smoke, injury and death that followed. Fighting a sailing warship demanded more than a single team, but rather a team of teams, each one – especially the individual gun crews and the marines in the tops – each fighting its own battle and yet still an integral part of the larger team. Continuous exercising would have been one factor to guarantee this level of efficiency in action but one suspects that morale was even more important, and in this the British crews usually seem to have had the edge.

HMS Santa Margarita (l) in action with Pomone. She appears after passing under her stern to rake her
Painting by Robert Dodd (1748–1815) and / or Ralph Dodd (circa 1756-1822) with thanks to Wikimedia Commons


Badly shattered, with seventy killed, and slightly more wounded from a crew of three hundred, with both main and mizzen masts toppled overboard, with several guns dismounted and with four feet of water in the hold, L’Amazone struck her colours. Santa Margarita took her prize in tow. Salter’s crew worked through the night to repair L’Amazone’s damage sufficiently to sail her away. A start was made on transferring her surviving crew to Santa Margarita as prisoners – a process hindered by the boats of both ships having been destroyed or damaged in the fighting.  At dawn however the French squadron was seen approaching. There was no option but to abandon L’Amazone. Salter’s preference would have been to burn her but, with large numbers of French prisoners still on the crippled ship, common humanity prevented it. By now faced with overwhelming force Santa Margarita once again made use of her speed and escaped. Her casualties were five dead and seventeen wounded. As in so many of such actions one is stuck by the disparity in casualties – perhaps because Santa Margarita managed to rake her opponent.

A pleasing aspect of the account given by Giffard is that it includes extracts from Salter’s official report. He gave considerable credit to the French captain, who was killed early in the action, and even more to the second-in-command who took over, the Chevalier de Lepine. This gentleman “did everything that an experienced officer could possibly do, and did not surrender until he himself and all his officers but one, and about half the ship’s company were either killed or wounded.” After listing L’Amazone’s damage Salter characterised it as “a situation sufficiently bad to justify to his king and country the necessity of surrender.” One suspects that had the outcome been reversed, the French captain’s report would have been equally generous of spirit. 

I have been unable to find out any more about Elliot Salter, other than that he died in 1790, how, or at what age or rank, I do not know. Would any of this article’s readers be able to shed some light on the career of this intrepid officer?

Britannia's Amazon



This latest novel runs in parallel in time with the action of the earlier Britannia’s Spartan, and concentrates on the adventures of Nicholas Dawlish’s wife Florence while she is at home in Britain while he and his cruiser are in Korean waters. Dedicated to the welfare of seaman’s families, and especially to those of her husband’s crew, Florence intends to spend the months of separation caring for them. But a chance encounter is to plunge her into the maelstrom of vice, cruelty and espionage that is the corrupt underside of complacent Late-Victorian society. And if Florence is to survive - and to save innocent victims- she must face evil head-on, deal with conflicts of loyalty and employ guile as her most powerful weapon.


This volume also includes the long short-story Britannia’s Eye, which casts a new light on Nicholas Dawlish’s relationship with his uncle, an invalided naval officer who made him his heir. But Nicholas was never to know - or even guess - the truth about what his uncle had really been…

Britannia's Amazon - available in paperback and Kindle formats


US and rest of world: Click here to purchase on Amazon.com


UK: Click here to buy on Amazon.co.uk



Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Princess Alice Disaster 1878

This article, one of the earliest on my blog, was first published almost exactly three years ago. I find it fascinating in that the incident in question not only occurred in the period I write about in my faction but because it is remarkable that such a large-scale disaster on London's river should be all but forgotten today. 
 I hope you like the article now even if you did not see it originally

It is strange that some disasters, such as the loss of the Titanic in 1912, live on in the popular memory while others of comparable magnitude in terms of loss of life, such as the sinking of the liner Empress of Ireland after a collision in the St. Lawrence in May 1914, have been largely forgotten. The Empress of Ireland sinking did however claim 1012 lives as compared with 1514 in the Titanic disaster, almost exactly the same percentage, 68%, of those on board in both cases.

This line of thinking occurred to me when I recently visited the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and was struck by a contemporary model, as shown here, of the collision of the paddle steamer Princess Alice with the collier Bywell Castle in the Galleons Reach section of Thames Estuary on September 3rd 1878. Though the accident occurred close to shore the death toll was in excess of 650. I find it strange that such a huge disaster, which occurred practically in London, and which claimed the lives of so many of its citizens, would be totally absent from popular memory and that it has not figured, as far as I know, in any novel, movie or television production (especially taking into account the British fixation on costume dramas).
Contemporary model of the Princess Alice disaster in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
The Princess Alice was a 219-foot, 171-ton, paddle steamer built as the Bute in Greenock in 1865 for ferry service on the Scottish west coast. She came south two years later, where she was renamed for service as an excursion steamer on the Thames estuary, under a succession of owners. At this time excursions downriver from London were popular outings for a growing urban population that was enjoying increased if modest prosperity.
Profile view of the Princess Alice
On September 3, 1878, a Tuesday, the Princess Alice made a routine trip from the Swan Pier, near London Bridge, to Gravesend and Sheerness. For most passengers heading for Gravesend the attraction was the Rosherville Pleasure Gardens there – officially the “Kent Zoological and Botanical Gardens Institution” and in essence an early version of a theme park – which were a favourite destination for thousands of Londoners. The gardens had their own pier to allow docking of visiting steamers. 
The moment of collision
By 1940 hrs the Princess Alice was on her return journey, laden with over 700 passengers – an amazing number for such a small craft, on which there could have been little more than standing room. She was within sight of the North Woolwich Pier - where many passengers were to disembark - when she sighted the collier Bywell Castle coming downriver. At 904 tons this was a substantially larger ship than the paddle steamer and was unladen. Ignoring by the Princess Alice’s captain of the “Port to Port” rule for passing ships in the Thames Estuary brought the paddler directly in the path of the collier and though the later did reverse engines, this was not done rapidly enough, making collision inevitable.

The Princess Alice was struck amidships by the Bywell Castle and she split in two, sinking in under four minutes and before either of its two boats could be launched – inadequate though these would have been for the number of persons on board. Many passengers were trapped below, as would be attested later when the wreckage was recovered. An added horror was the fact that the collision occurred at the point where large volumes of sewage was discharged – according to a contemporary account: “At high water, twice in 24 hours, the flood gates of the outfalls are opened when there is projected into the river two continuous columns of decomposed fermenting sewage, hissing like soda water with baneful gases, so black that the water is stained for miles and discharging a corrupt charnel house odour”. It was thought that many who found themselves engulfed in this ghastly sludge died by asphyxiation.

Recovery of bodies after the disaster
The exact death toll that resulted is not known with exactitude since there were no detailed passenger list and many bodies may have been washed downriver or buried in the Thames mud. The Thames River Police estimated the death toll as 640 and only 69 persons were saved, mainly through the efforts of the Bywell Castle’s crew, this vessel being scarcely damaged. As the collier was not laden she was however high out of the water, making it difficult to take survivors from the water. The two sections of the Princess Alice were lifted and beached in the following week and unidentified bodies were buried in a mass grave in Woolwich Old Cemetery, where a granite cross still commemorates them. A distasteful aspect of the aftermath was that crowds of ghoulish sighthtseers came on trains from London to clamber over the wreckage. It appeared that “anything that could be chipped or wrenched off was carried off as curiosities by visitors”. The Princess Alice’s engines were salvaged. The Bywell Castle had its own appointment in Samarra and she was lost with all hands in the Bay of Biscay five years later.

Stern section of Princess Alice beached
The inevitable enquiry followed the disaster and the findings not unsurprisingly commented on the overloading, poor seamanship and lack of live-saving equipment on the Princess Alice. No doubt there were many statements at the time that “lessons must be learned”, as is always said in our own time after some dreadful incident, but just as today little practical action seems to have accompanied the hand-wringing. The Titanic disaster was a still 36 years in the future and application of general insights from the Princess Alice disaster could have lessened the death toll significantly.

I find that the loss of the Princess Alice has an almost unbearable poignancy about it. The victims were of all sexes and ages, and were probably in the main of modest wealth and income – I imagine Mr.Pooter and his wife Carrie of the Grossmiths’ “Diary of a Nobody” as being typical. They were returning from a day of innocent pleasure and had they survived they might well have remembered it as one of the happiest of their lives, spent with those they loved. From this humble pleasure they were plunged – literally – into a squalid maelstrom of filth in which their lives and happiness were torn from them and from the family members they left behind. 

And so the final question remains – why has the Princess Alice disaster, on London’s doorstep and with its massive loss of life, faded from popular memory?

Britannia's Amazon

Mystery, Vice and Scandal in Victorian London

Click here to read the opening chapters