Friday, 26 August 2016

The Wreck of the Rothsay Castle 1831

A number of articles on this blog site have dealt with 19th Century shipping disasters. There is a horrible fascination about them, since they illustrate how the management of civilian shipping was often so lackadaisical and how command, control and management techniques did not keep pace with newly introduced steam-technology. It is remarkable that through the century the Royal Navy, a strictly disciplined organisation which consisted at any one time of hundreds of ships, lost far fewer vessels on a proportional basis than the merchant and fishing fleets. Major disasters which took hundreds of lives were relatively commonplace – the death toll being too often increased by absence of the most basic safety provisions such as life boat provisions – and huge numbers of small trading or fishing craft were lost annually, often without trace.

Mona's Isle of 1830 - paddle steamer on Liverpool - Isle of Man packet service
Rothsay Castle would have looked generally similar and in August 1831
was to encounter weather like that shown here
A disaster in 1831, in the infancy of steam-propulsion at sea, illustrates many of these shortcomings. It evoked horror and outrage at the time, and yet the obvious lessons to be drawn from it were not learned and not implemented for decades to come. The paddle-steamer Rothsay Castle, built in 1816, was one of the earliest steamers to venture regularly into the open sea, though her initial service had been on the sheltered waters of Scotland’s River Clyde. Thereafter she was to operate out of Liverpool and along the coast of North Wales as an excursion vessel. She had an impressively unspectacular career for fifteen years and might indeed have been seen as proof of the suitability of steam power to open sea service. Ninety-three feet long, and of a mere seventy-five tons burthen, she seems nevertheless to have routinely carried well over a hundred passengers on such holiday excursions – which must have seemed the same type of novelty in the 1820s and early 1830s as mass air-travel did in the 1950s.

A Victorian account of the disaster that overcame the Rothsay Castle is full of fascinating incidental detail, and the following draws upon it. On 7th August, 1831 she left Liverpool in mid-morning with a crew of fifteen officers, seamen and musicians, the latter to provide a festive atmosphere. The fact that the number of passengers was uncertain – estimates varied from 110 to 120 – attests to the fact that no real control existed as to loading. Given the size of the vessel the conditions must have been cramped in the extreme. The Victorian author noted sombrely that the majority of the passengers consisted of holiday and family parties, en route to Beaumaris in North Wales and “chiefly from country places”. He noted with solemn exactitude that “in one of these companies, who came on a journey of pleasure from Bury, the hand of death committed a merciless devastation. It consisted of twenty-six persons; in the morning, joyous with health and hilarity, they set out upon the waves, and when the shades of that evening approached, every soul but two saw his last of suns go down.”

The horror and terror of shipwreck
as envisaged by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
Given the loading of the vessel it is surprising that she ever set sail. A severe storm had raged earlier, and a strong wind was still blowing from the north-west leaving the waters outside the harbour rough. By the time the steamer arrived off the “Floating-Light” buoy, some fifteen miles from Liverpool, many of the passengers were in a state of alarm – and one imagines that sea-sickness must have added to the misery, given that many of them were unlikely to have been at sea before.. One of the survivors stated he had confronted the captain, named Atkinson, who was eating his dinner and requested him to put back to port. Atkinson replied that “I think there is a great deal of fear on board, and very little danger. If we were to turn back with passengers, it would never do—we should have no profit.” To another passenger he said angrily that “I’m not one of those that turn back.” He remained in his cabin for the next two hours and refused further entreaties to turn back.

Atkinson’s behaviour before dinner appears to have been rational but it changed thereafter, possibly through drinking. He became violent in his manner, and abusive to his crew. When anxiously questioned by the passengers as to the vessel’s progress and the time at which she was likely to reach her destination, he returned dismissive and frequently contradictory answers. He had been previously confident of reaching Beaumaris by seven o’clock but it was midnight before reaching the mouth of the Menai Strait, about five miles from Beaumaris. The tide, which had been running out of the strait, and which had consequently been slowing the Rothsay Castle’s progress, was now turning. As she entered the strait the engine lost power – it appeared that the ship had been taking on water all day and that the bilge pumps were now choked and incapable of coping with the ingress. Water was now sloshing over the coal in the furnace and extinguishing the fires – an occurrence which the engine-room staff did not seem to have though necessary to inform the captain of initially. With power lost, the vessel was being carried by the tide and by the north-west wind towards a shoal known as the “Dutchman’s Bank”. Here the bows ran on to the sand and stuck fast.

Captain Atkinson attempted to use his sails – like all steamers of the time the Rothsay Castle carried  a sailing rig – to get free, though without effect. He then ordered the passengers and crew to run aft – so as to sink the stern slightly and so lift the bows, but this was equally unavailing. The terrified passengers urged Atkinson to hoist lights and distress signals but he vehemently refused to do There was no danger, he claimed, despite the fact that the ship was rapidly filling with water. The weather, “at this awful moment, was boisterous, but perfectly clear. The moon, though slightly overcast, threw considerable light on the surrounding objects. But a strong breeze blew from the north-west, the tide began to set in with great strength, and a heavy sea beat over the bank on which the steam packet was now firmly and immovably fixed.”

The Victorian chronicler left little to the imagination and milked the drama for all its pathos: “We cannot describe the scene which followed. Certain death seemed now to present itself to all on board, and the most affecting scenes were exhibited. The females, in particular, uttered the most piercing shrieks; some locked themselves in each others’ arms, while others, losing all self-command, tore off their caps and bonnets, in the wildness of despair. A Liverpool pilot, who happened to be in the packet, now raised his voice and exclaimed, “It is all over—we are all lost!” At these words there was a universal despairing shriek. The women and children collected in a knot together, and kept embracing each other, keeping up, all the time, the most dismal lamentations. When tired with crying they lay against each other, with their heads reclined, like inanimate bodies. The steward of the vessel and his wife, who was on board, lashed themselves to the mast, determined to spend their last moments in each other’s arms. Several husbands and wives also met their fate locked in each other’s arms; whilst parents clung to their beloved children—several mothers it is said, having perished with their dear little ones firmly clasped in their arms. A party of the passengers, about fifteen or twenty, lowered the boat and crowded into it. It was impossible for any open boat to live in such a sea, even though not overloaded, and she immediately swamped and went to the bottom, with all who had made this last hopeless effort for self-preservation.”

Artist's impression of the final break-up 
The Rothsay Castle was now disintegrating under the pounding of the waves.  “The decks were repeatedly swept by the boiling ocean, and each billow snatched its victims to a watery grave. The unfortunate captain and his mate were among the first that perished. About thirty or forty passengers were standing upon the poop clinging to each other in hopeless agony, and occasionally uttering the most piteous ejaculations. Whilst trembling thus upon the brink of destruction, and expecting every moment to share the fate which had already overtaken so many of their companions in misery, the poop was discovered to give way; another wave rolled on with impetuous fury, and the hinder part of the luckless vessel, with all who sought safety in its frail support, was burst away from its shattered counterpart, and about forty wretched beings hurried through the foaming flood into an eternal world.”

The final break-up occurred some ninety minutes after the ship had first grounded. Hanging on to pieces of wreckage – eight people clung on to the rudder when it was torn free – the survivors now had to cope with the full fury of the waves. The bodies of the victims were washed up on the nearby coast in the coming days. There were only twenty-three survivors plus a dog. That the disaster had been avoidable evoked sufficient outrage that a lifeboat station was set up the following year, followed by a lighthouse five years later. But valuable as these measures were, the root cause of the disaster – the incompetence and wilful carelessness of the captain, and the inadequacy of the operating procedures – seems to have been little addressed. Countless further tragedies, many with significant larger loss of life, were to occur in the decades that followed – and for the same reasons.

Britannia’s Reach by Antoine Vanner

"Britannia’s Reach is not just political or military alone. What higher interest can there be than consolidation of Britain’s commercial interests?” So says one of the key figures in this novel, which details a murderous war launched by a British-owned company  to reassert control of its cattle-raising investment in Paraguay, following a revolt by its workers.

This story of desperate riverine combat brings historic naval fiction into the age of Fighting Steam.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Capture of Fort Serapaquí — February 1848

A small and now-forgotten punitive expedition in 1848 showed just how effectively the Royal Navy could function as Britain’s 19th Century rapid-reaction force.

In the turmoil that followed ending of Spanish rule in Central America in the 1820s, what was later to emerge – in 1838 – as the independent Republic of Nicaragua was initially a province of the so-called Federal Republic of Central America. The young republic’s first decade, the 1840s, was to be marked by civil strife that bordered on near-anarchy. The country was however a backwater in these years – something which was to change after the discovery of gold in California in 1849. As the US Transcontinental Railroad had not been built, and would not be for another two decades, citizens in the eastern United States had only four options for joining the gold rush. The most obvious, and probably most hazardous, was to travel westwards overland. The alternatives were little more attractive – either passage by ship around Cape Horn or by taking ship to Panama, crossing the fever-ridden isthmus there (no railway or canal there yet) and taking further passage onward to San Francisco. The fourth alternative was to travel via Nicaragua, passing up the San Juan river from the east and into Lake Nicaragua, and making the short – 15 mile – overland journey to the Pacific from there and taking ship to San Francisco. Control of this route, and involvement of United States interests, most notably those of the shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, were to dominate Nicaraguan politics through the 1850s and to make the country the focus of attempts at outside control.

A later, promotional, view of the proposed Nicaragua canal (at left)
which would have linked Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific.
Note the San Juan River to the right and the Serapaqui entering it from the south
All this was still however in the future in 1848 and Nicaraguan conflicts were still dominated by internal strife. The situation changed however when two British traders, operating along the San Juan river, were subjected to “outrages and insults” by a local warlord, a Colonel Salas, of the Nicaraguan army. This was the age when any affront to British dignity was to be followed by swift retaliation, and so it was to be in this case. 

Francis Austen in 1796
The nearest British consul contacted the Commander-in-chief on the North America and West India station — Admiral Francis Austen (1774-1865), brother of the novelist Jane Austen – and requested appropriate support. Austen’s attention was already focussed on Central America as he was responsible for protecting British commercial interests during and after the Mexican–American War, which had broken out in 1846.

Austen accordingly despatched two vessels, the 6th-rate HMS Alarm and the steam paddle-sloop HMS Vixen, to the mouth of the San Juan in mid-February. Their quarry, Colonel Salas, was reported to be some thirty miles upriver at the settlement of Serapaquí, where he was ensconced with a considerable body of troops in a makeshift fort. This was located where the Serapaquí river joined the San Juan from the south and on a point projecting into the water and rising to the height of fifty feet. The approach upriver to the fort was a straight reach about a mile and a half long, with thick forest on either bank, ideal cover for concealing enemy defenders.  

Paddle-loop HMS Acheron - generally similar to HMS Vixen
The fort’s location was protected in the rear by dense forest, and in the front by an abattis, a form of defence that consisted of large trees felled so that their upper branches extended towards any attacking force. The defensive positions were formidable, composed of six angular stockaded-entrenchments formed of very tough timber, eight feet high and four feet thick, one side of each stockade looking across the river, and the other down the reach. The principal stockade commanded the only landing-place. Reaching this landing place necessitated passing the fort – while coping with a five-knot adverse current – and being subject in the meantime to fire from above.
Though Alarm and Vixen were heavily armed for their size, and probably well capable of destroying the fort if they could reach it, the shallowness and rapids of the San Juan river prevented their deployment. The only alternative was to send an attacking party of seamen and marines upriver in the ships’ boats and to storm the defences without any heavy covering fire. A force of some 260 men from both vessels, and accommodated in twelve boats, set out accordingly under the command of Captain Granville Loch of the Alarm.

A settlement on the San Juan
It took three days to cover the thirty miles upriver, the rapid current, shoals and rapids making progress difficult and exhausting in the extreme. By the morning of 12th February the fort was in sight and Captain Loch went on ahead of the main to communicate with Colonel Salas, and to negotiate a settlement. No sooner, however, was Loch seen from the fort than his craft was fired at by two guns, and directly afterwards by musketry from both sides of the river. As this act effectually prevented any peaceable arrangements, Loch immediately ordered his other boats to move upriver and land his force to storm the fort. Moving very slowly – under oars – against the fierce current, the boats and their occupants were subjected to musket fire from the forest on either side. The thickness of the vegetation made it impossible to see the enemy and to return fire.

During this slow crawl several men were wounded and two killed. The boats were also almost riddled with shot, and nearly half the oars were broken – it seems surprising, considering also their crowded state, with the mill-stream rate of the current, that a greater number of casualties did not occur. This can only have been a reflection on the competence and marksmanship of the Nicaraguan troops. This last stage of the approach lasted one hour and forty minutes and at times the boats were almost stationary against the current.

The Cutlass - the Royal Navy's fearsome close-range weapon
The landing point was at last reached and Captain Loch gave the order to land, leading the way himself. The boats’ crews followed and charged upwards. Their sheer determination seems to have intimidated the enemy – fighting was all but hand-to-hand and cutlasses and pistols proved devastating, as so often, in the hands of well-trained and well-disciplined men. The Nicaraguans withstood the assault for some ten minutes but they then broke and fled. Loch’s force pursued them into the forest for some thirty minutes before being recalled. Colonel Salas appears to have disappeared with his men. With a counter-attack unlikely, attention was now focussed on destroying the stockades. Their guns were spiked, their trunnions broken and thrown in the river with the Nicaraguan garrison’s abandoned muskets and ammunition. The force was next embarked, when the whole of the defences were set on fire. Whatever could be burned was set alight. Loch’s force then dropped back downriver.
British honour had been avenged, British power asserted.

Britannia’s Wolf is available as an audio book

                                     – listen to a sample

The first book in the Dawlish Chronicles series is now available as an audio book read by the distinguished American actor David Doersch. If you haven't previously ordered an audio-book from you can download it without cost as part of a 30-Day Free Trial. You can listen on your Smart Phone, Tablet or MP3 Player.

To listen to as sample go to the links below and click on the small arrow beneath the cover image there:

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

First Blood 1914: Amphion and Königin Luise

On 4th August 1914 Germany rejected the British ultimatum to withdraw from neutral Belgium, which had been invaded in the preceding days. From 2300 hrs that evening both countries were at war.  Britain’s Royal Navy was already on a war footing and sweeps of the North Sea were already underway. The Imperial German Navy was not idle either and action was immediately undertaken to sow mines in British waters. The success of mining in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War had demonstrated the effectiveness of such measures.
 Königin Luise - she was to have a very brief life in naval service
One is however surprised that dedicated minelayers had not already been constructed and commissioned by Germany. A hasty conversion was however undertaken of the 2000 ton, 20-knot Königin Luise of the Hamburg-Amerika company, an excursion vessel which had been in service for just one year carrying tourists between Hamburg and the island of Heligoland. Though plans were apparently in place to arm the Königin Luise with two 3.5-inch guns there was no time for this as she was impressed for service on 3rd August and rushed into service in her new role. By the time of declaration of war on 4th August, she was rushing towards the Thames estuary with 180 mines on board.
Königin Luise in pre-war excursion service
Unknown to the Königin Luise, her course was heading her towards a patrol of the Royal Navy’s newly created Harwich Force, entrusted with patrolling the Southern North Sea and protecting trade-routes between Britain and the Netherlands. The patrol consisted of four L-Class destroyers, led by the scout cruiser HMS Amphion. Commissioned in 1913, the 3340-ton Amphion was 405 feet long and her 18000 HP drove her at a maximum of 25 knots of four shafts. Designed primarily as a leader for destroyer flotillas, she carried negligible armour and her armament of ten singly-mounted  4-inch guns – supplemented by two submerged 18-inch (450 mm) torpedo tubes – must have made fire control difficult in the extreme.
HMS Amphion
At 0900 hrs on 5th August Amphion’s group encountered a trawler which reported seeing a suspicious steamer "throwing things overboard". The skipper described her position as nearly as he could and Amphion headed towards it, subsequently sighting what proved to be Königin Luise, still in buff, black and yellow peacetime commercial colours. The German vessel turned and ran for home and a 30-mile chase followed before one of the British destroyers, HMS Lance, could open fire at 4400 yards with her 4-inch guns. Her first shot was the first British shot of World War I and the responsible weapon from Lance is on now display at London’s Imperial War Museum. Amphion now entered the fray and her fire doomed the Königin Luise. With her stern badly damaged she began to sink, going down around noon. Every attempt was made by the British vessels to rescue 75 German survivors from the water out of a total crew of some 100.
A contemporary magazine's impression of the chase, as seen from the British destroyers
Amphion and her destroyers now continued on their assigned task to sweep the waters north of the Dutch Friesan Islands, reaching there at 2100 hrs – dusk in this area. No further German forces were encountered and Captain Cecil H. Fox of Amphion was now faced with the dilemma of what course to set for Harwich, having only minimal information as to the exact location in which Königin Luise had laid her mines. His decision to steer through an area some seven miles west of where he thought the mines were brought his force directly into the danger area. At 0635 hrs on 6th August Amphion struck a mine. Detonating beneath the bridge, the effect was catastrophic, breaking the cruiser’s back and setting her forward section on fire.
A German view of the sinking of HMS Amphion - with the Koenigin Luise escaping on the right.
In actuality the latter had been sunk some eighteen hours previously.
The destroyer HMS Linnet tried to take Amphion in tow but by now she was hogging so badly, and threatening to break in two, that there was no option but to abandon her. The forward magazine now exploded, rupturing the hull and throwing one entire 4-in gun mounting past the Linnet. A shell hurled by the explosion landed on the destroyer Lark, killing two of her crew and the single German prisoner whom they had earlier plucked from the water. Amphion sank soon after – with a loss of 132 of her crew and an unspecified number of German prisoners. One of the survivors was her first-lieutenant, John Tovey, who in World War 2 was to be Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet and the mastermind of the destruction of the Bismarck. His subsequent responsibility – a most appropriate one in view of his experience on Amphion – was for controlling the east coast convoys and organising minesweeping operations.

By midday on August 6th 1914, some forty-eight hours of declaration of war, bodies and wreckage strewed the North Sea and both Britain and Germany had drawn first blood in the murderous conflict that was to follow.

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.