Friday, 24 March 2017

The Farfadet Submarine Disaster 1905

Courage of the highest order was demanded of the officers and men of the navies that first employed submarines in the early twentieth centuries. Designs were still experimental and operating experience limited, so that every dive was an adventure. Accidents were frequent – and usually fatal when they did occur – and progress was achieved by learning very hard lessons.

The French navy was one of the first to commit to large-scale submarine construction. It looked to the new weapon, as it had looked to torpedo boats two decades before, as a cheap method of compensating for relative weakness in battleship numbers by comparison with potential rivals. At this stage submarines were primarily seen as suited to coastal and port-defence and the second –and so-far largest – design class, the four Farfadet units, launched between 1901 and 1903 were intended for this purpose.
The Farfadet in service
135-ft. long and of 185/ 202 tons (surface/submerged), the Farfadets craft were propelled by a single electric motor driving a variable-pitch propeller. The latter was an innovative item that dispensed with the need to provide reversing capability for the motor.  Range, determined by the batteries that had to be charged at the operating base, was limited to 115 miles surfaced and 28 submerged, and the maximum speeds attainable were 6.1 knots on the surface and 4.3 knots when submerged. Small as they were, these units packed a potentially powerful punch – four 18-inch torpedoes carried on external drop collars. The potency was proved when one unit of the class, the Korrigan, succeeded in hitting the monitor Tempete, serving as a harbour guard, with a practice torpedo while remaining unobserved. This was possibly the first time a target had been hit by a torpedo launched by a submarine. This considerable feat demanded the Korrigan and her sixteen-man crew remaining submerged for some twelve hours, somewhat of a record.  

A contemporary artist's impression of salvage operations
Shallowness of water is exaggerated
Both Korrigan and Farfadet were towed from La Rochelle, on the French Atlantic coast to the naval base at Bizerte, in Tunisia, in 1904 to provide port-defence. It was here that disaster was to overcome the Farfadet on July 6th of the following year when the vessel was undertaking diving exercises some 500 yards from the arsenal. Commander Cyprien Ratier ordered water to be admitted to the ballast tanks and the craft began to settle very quickly – too quickly, for the hatch was not closed properly. (It will be seen from the photographs that the hatches were a point of vulnerability as they were very close to the waterline when surfaced and there was no tower as such). Ratier, his mate and the quartermaster struggled unsuccessfully to close the hatch. Large volumes of water where now cascading into the boat’s interior and Ratier and his two assistants were blasted out through the hatch by the escaping air. The Farfadet sank, head-foremost, and buried her bows in the mud. Ten men had gone down with her.

Immense public interest
in the salvage
The stricken craft was lying in approximately thirty feet of water and some salvage equipment was immediately available at the base. There were obviously still men alive inside, for they were hammering on the hull. By the following morning divers had managed to get four steel hawsers passed around the hull and a floating crane managed to lift it in the early afternoon so as to lash it to a pontoon.  Sufficient of the hull had been exposed for air-valves to be accessed and air passed in to the survivors. It was now attempted to move the craft into shallow water, so as to ground her. The process was a slow one and in the early hours of the following morning the hawsers parted and the Farfadet dropped again. Further efforts failed to lift her before the victims trapped inside died. No further sounds were heard after July 8th, two days after the disaster. (One notices dreadful similarities to the HMS Thetis disaster in Liverpool Bay in 1939, when the stern of the sunken submarine had been raised above the surface).

Salvage efforts continued, a floating dock being used to lift the Farfadet – once again, the role of divers would have been crucial in passing hawsers under, and around, the hull. On July 9th, the Minister of Marine, Gaston Thomson, arrived from Paris to observe operations. On July 15th, the floating dock and the submarine suspended underneath were towed into a dry dock. The floating dock lowered the Farfadet, was then removed, and the dry dock was pumped out to expose the vessel.
The Farfadet - recovered and lying on her side in the dry dock.
Repatriation of the bodies
The distressing duty of retrieving the bodies was allocated to the crew of the sister submarine Korrigan. Four bodies were discovered in the bow compartment, and two in the centre, all probably killed during the initial inrush of water. Eight men had however managed to seal themselves in the compartment aft. These men – who had been beating for hours on the hull plating – had died dreadfully as seawater had reached the sulphuric acid of the batteries, thereby releasing poisonous chlorine gas. It appeared that the last of the crew had died after being trapped for 32 hours.

The long-drawn out agony of the Farfadet had kept France in horror-stricken fascination, the more so since submarines were a new concept, poorly understood by the general public. There was a massive outpouring of national grief and an imposing funeral service was held in Bizerte and the coffins returned to France thereafter for final burial. The salvaged submarine was towed across the Mediterranean to the naval base at Toulon, was reconditioned, and taken back into service. Cyprien Ratier continued as her commander for another two years.
The Lutin - Farfadet's sister and doomed to follow her in a year
The Farfadet was not the only one of her class to meet disaster. Her sister, the Lutin, was to sink, also near Bizerte, in October 1906. On this occasion structural failure of the hull occurred under external pressure. An expensive lesson was learned about design and an entire crew was lost. She too was salvaged. Already outmoded by the time of these disasters, and having served their purpose in introducing naval personnel to the science of submarine operation, all members of the Farfadet class were taken from service in the following years, to be replaced by more sophisticated and more reliable designs.

The Farfadet was not to be the last peacetime submarine disaster. They have continued up to our own time.

Britannia's Shark

The third of the Dawlish Chronicles series centres on the development - and role - of a prototype submarine. Based on actual events and personalities, Britannia's Shark paints a vivid picture of the skills and courage - bordering on madness - which was needed to operate such craft. Click on the image below to learn more and o read the opening chapters.

Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide 

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Tuesday, 21 March 2017

HMS Guardian 1789 – an epic battle for survival

In earlier posts I mentioned discovering the wonderful 1895 “Story of the Sea”, edited by “Q” (Sir Arthus Quiller Couch, with contributions from several luminaries of the era and with splendid illustrations. It dates from the period in which the British general public’s fascination with things nautical in general and with the Royal Navy in particular was at its zenith. One of the most impressive stories I found in it, and which I had not previously aware of, was of the survival, in appalling conditions, by HMS Guardian, en route to Australia in 1789. This epic of courage and seamanship is well worth sharing more widely.
The First Fleet entering Port Jackson, 26th January 1788, by E. le Bihan
British settlement of Australia commenced in 1788 when the “First Fleet”, consisting of two naval escorts, six convict transports and three stores ships, arrived from Britain at Port Jackson – Sydney Harbour. This was a vast and ambitious project, all the more impressive in that the ships had to voyage half the way around the world yet arrived safely within two days of each other after a passage lasting some 250 days. There is almost a “science-fiction” air about the project, aimed as it was at establishing a large-scale settlement from the start, albeit one relying on convict labour for its development. The First Fleet landed 1373 people, of whom 754 were convicts (including some 189 women and 22 children, some born at sea). Officials and marines, the latter to preserve order and discipline, amounted to 259 and the remainder were seamen, many of whom were to leave again with the ships.

Further support for the infant colony was provided the following year, 1789, with the despatch of HMS Guardian, a frigate converted to carry stores.  These consisted of seeds, plants, agricultural implements and livestock. She had a crew of 123, under the command of who proved to be the very capable Lieutenant Edward Riou, as well as a further 25 convicts. Her voyage from Britain to Cape Town, where she put in briefly, was uneventful, but twelve days after departure from there, on December 23rd, about 1400 miles south east of the Cape, a large iceberg was sighted.

At this stage Lieutenant Riou was concerned about lack of water for the animals on board – one gets the impression that these needs had been underestimated, the more so since one would have expected water supplies to have been replenished at Cape Town. Hoping to replenish his water by taking on ice from the berg, Riou advanced cautiously towards it. Boats were swung out and the Guardian lay to for the ice to be brought on board.

Guardian aground - Victorian era illustration
The fact that the iceberg extended a large distance under water does not seem to have been suspected, since as the Guardian attempted to stand away her bows struck. She swung around and the bows, though damaged, came free, but the stern now smashed on to the ice. The rudder was sheared away and a serious breach was made in the hull. The ice mountain towering above was estimated as “twice was high as the mainmast of a first-rater” and there were fears of sections of it crashing down. Riou remained calm in all this and managed, by use of his sails, to get the vessel free.

The situation was desperate, with six feet of water already in the hold. It was now a question of “all hands to the pumps” while an attempt was made to patch the hole at the stern by a sail. The labour went on through the night and all through the entire next day, during which the weather deteriorated. Despite this efforts were in progress to lighten the ship, during which Riou’s hand was crushed by a falling cask. Some ground had however been gained against the leak when the starboard pump broke down around midnight on the 24th. By Christmas morning not only was the water depth in the hold increasing once more but the night’s tempest had blown the fore- and top-mainsails to shreds, leaving the vessel at the mercy of the sea.

Some of the crew, exhausted and despairing, left the pumps and hid themselves and it was only by threatening to cast them overboard that they were brought back to work. By now the water had reached the orlop deck and was gaining two feet an hour. Some of the more self-reliant men came to the officers and asked for boats to be made ready. Riou agreed to this and those who wished to leave could do so. Masts, sails, compasses and water casks were placed in each boat.
Contemporary view of the boats leaving the stricken Guardian

Knowing that there was insufficient space in the boats, Riou determined to stay behind. 61 others remained with him. These included the officers and 21 of the convicts – it is unlikely that the latter had any say in the matter.  The five boats launched carried 259 – the overcrowding is almost unimaginable. Clements, the ship’s master, took charge of the launch, the largest boat. Riou handed him a letter which should be forwarded, in the event of Clements’ survival, to the Secretary of the Admiralty. It embodies all that is best of the Royal Navy of the period and is worth quoting in full as an example of calm dignity, honour and resolution in the face of almost certain death:

HMS Guardian, December 25th, 1789

Sir – If any part of the officers or crew of the Guardian should ever survive to get home, I have only to say their conduct after the fatal stroke against an island of ice was admirable and wonderful in everything that related to their duties considered either as private men or on his Majesty's Service.
As there seems no possibility of my remaining many hours in this world, I beg leave to recommend to the consideration of the Admiralty a sister who if my conduct or service should be found deserving any memory their favour might be shown to her together with a widowed mother.

I am Sir remaining with great respect, your ever Obedt & humble servt,
                                                                                                                                         E. Riou

A contemporary depiction of the overcrowding in the boats
(With acknowledgement to the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia)

With the boats gone, Riou’s efforts to save the ship continued undiminished. Though the Guardian was wholly unmanageable it appeared that she had sunk as far as she would go. This appears to have been due to empty casks in the hold pressing up against the lower deck, the hatchways of which had been firmly secured. In addition, as well as the damage at the stern, there was also a hole in the bows and through this iron and shingle ballast seems to have washed out. The vessel was however wholly unmanageable, and was drifting at the mercy of wind and wave. It was at this time that Riou’s leadership was most impressive. At one stage he had to face down a near mutiny when some of the men constructed a raft of the booms and were readying to leave the ship on it. Quite providentially a favourable breeze sprung up as they were launching it and Riou convinced them to stay with the Guardian.

The ship was to drift for almost two months, until February 22nd 1790, when the flat top of Table Mountain was spotted on the horizon, for by a miracle the Guardian had drifted steadily towards Cape Town. A British ship sighted her and sent boats to tow her into the anchorage. Though Riou had brought his people (including one woman) to safety, his hopes of repairing the Guardian and getting her back to Britain were frustrated and she had to be abandoned.

In the meantime the Guardian’s launch – the only one of the five ship’s boats to survive – had been picked up by a French ship after twelve days at sea. There were only fifteen survivors on board, including Clements, the master, wo could now forward Riou’s letter to the Admiralty.

On arrival in Cape Town Riou now wrote another letter:
Table Bay, February 22nd. 1790

Sir, - I hope this letter will reach you before any account arrives of the loss of His Majesty’s ship Guardian. If it should, I have to beg of your lordships that, on the 23rd of December, the ship struck on an island of ice; and that on the 25th all hope of her survival having vanished, I consented that as many of the officers and people should take the boats as thought proper. But it pleased Almighty God to assist my endeavours, with the remaining part of the crew, to arrive with His Majesty’s ship in this bay yesterday. A Dutch packet is now under sail for Europe, which prevents me from giving any further particulars, especially as at this instant I find it more necessary than ever to exert myself to prevent the ship from sinking at her anchors.

I am, sir, most respectfully

Your ever obedient servant, E. Riou

This letter arrived at the Admiralty on April 28th, five days after Riou’s first letter and in this period Riou and his men had been mourned as dead. News was sent immediately to King George III, “who on reading it, expressed uncommon satisfaction.”

It is pleasing to know that though the 21 surviving convicts were sent on to Australia, 14 of them were pardoned as a result of Riou's report of their good conduct on the Guardian.

Thomas Pitt, 2nd Lord Camelford
- he seems to radiate pugnacity
Among the others who remained with Riou on the Guardian was a young midshipman named Thomas Pitt (1775-1804), son of Lord Camelford, brother of the ex-Prime Minister William Pitt. Undeterred by this experience Pitt, now 16, volunteered for the major exploration expedition due to leave under the command of Captain George Vancouver. With no positions left for officers, Pitt signed on as an able-seaman, a remarkable step for one of his background. His undisciplined behaviour on the voyage resulted however in his being flogged three times (once for consorting with native women on Tahiti, an activity regarded with great suspicion since the Bounty mutiny). While at sea Pitt’s father had died, making him Lord Camelford himself and also – perhaps – the only member of the House of Lords ever to be flogged as a common seaman. Back in Britain, and now commissioned as a lieutenant, Pitt (or Camelford as he now was) initiated a vendetta against Vancouver, going so far as to assault him in the street. His life continued to be violent to an extent to which insanity was suspected – when posted to the West Indies he shot dead a subordinate officer who hesitated to obey orders.  His end was to come after he left the navy when, in a dispute over a mistress, he challenged an ex-friend, a Captain Best, to a duel. Camelford was to die of wounds sustained in the encounter, though, to his credit, his will directed that Best not be prosecuted in the event of his death.
"The Caning in Conduit Street"
James Gilray's cartoon of Camelford attacking Vancouver
And the splendid Edward Riou, the hero of the Guardian, what became of him? 

It is sad to record that he was to die at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. As captain of HMS Amazon, Riou was entrusted with command of the frigate squadron, which he brought in close to the Danish forts.  Undeterred by a splinter-inflicted head wound, and surrounded by dead and dying, he was still encouraging his men when he was killed by a roundshot while– a death he himself might have wished for. Nelson, on learning of Riou's death, called the loss 'irreparable'.

 Had Riou survived there is little doubt that he would have advanced to the highest levels of command and would be better remembered today. He was a magnificent man.

Britannia's Amazon

Mystery, Vice and Scandal in Victorian London

In Britannia's Spartan Captain Nichols Dawlish headed to unexpected dangers in the Far East in the cruiser HMS Leonidas. He left behind in Britain his indomitable wife Florence, who was determined to fill the months of separation with welfare efforts to support seamen's families. She expected it to be dull - if worthy - work but a chance encounter was to bring her into brutal contact with the squalid underside of complacent Victorian society. On home ground she faces hazards and betrayals every bit as deadly as her husband does in Korea and the powerful enemies she threatens are prepared to stop at nothing to frustrate her. Britannia's Amazon - strongly linked to actual events - tells her story.

Click here or on the image above to read the opening chapters

Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide 

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Friday, 17 March 2017

The loss of HMS Vanguard 1875

The name HMS Vanguard is associated today with the Royal Navy’s last battleship, scrapped in 1960. An earlier Vanguard was however to meet an even more unpleasant fate, and arguably a wholly avoidable one.

HMS Vanguard
The HMS Vanguard launched in 1870 was one of a class of four ironclads, her sisters being Audacious, Invincible and Iron Duke. The concept of a sea-going ironclad capital ship was only ten years old. HMS Warrior, the first of the type, and which was as revolutionary in her time as HMS Dreadnought four decades later, had become the starting point for a new type of warship. The Vanguard and her sisters represented a second generation of such ships. Their most notable departure from the Warrior configuration was that although Warrior carried her many guns in broadside mountings, as warships had done for centuries, the Vanguard’s armament of much heavier weapons was concentrated in a two-storey armoured box amidships. 

HMS Warrior - obsolescent in 1875 but today restored to her former glory at Portsmouth
Vanguard and her sisters (see table) were rated as “second-class”, of moderate dimensions that were well suited for deployment on foreign stations, most likely singly. Iron Duke was to serve as flagship of the China Station for four years form 1871 and was one of the largest ships to transit the Suez Canal up to that time. Her sailing rig made her particularly suitable for operations in areas, such as the Pacific Ocean, where coaling opportunities were limited. All four vessels of the class were described as “good and steady seaboats but slow under sail”.

By 1875 Iron Duke had returned to home waters and was assigned, with her three sisters, with the ironclads Hector, Defence, Penelope and Achilles, and the by-then obsolescent Warrior, to the First Reserve Squadron.  In late August the squadron was based at Kingstown (now Dun Laoighaire) the large artificial harbour on the southern side of Dublin Bay. On the morning of September 1st the Squadron left Kingstown in line, the majority of the vessels headed for Queenstown (now Cobh) further south on the Irish Coast. This enormous force, splendid with their black hulls and buff funnels and masts,  must have been a magnificent sight as they passed, one by one, through the narrow-gap between Kingstown’s two projecting mile-long piers.

HMS Vanguard at sea under sail and steam power
Six miles out, off the Kish Bank  lightship, the Achilles broke away to head for Liverpool and the remaining ships turned south. The sea was moderate, but a fog came on, its density increasing. The ships had been proceeding at some twelve knots, but speed was reduced to half this as the fog persisted.  By a half-hour after noon the lookouts on Vanguard could not see more than fifty yards ahead, and the officers on her bridge could not see the bowsprit.  It is unlikely that the situation was any better on the other ships.

Contemporary illustration - Vanguard sinking and Iron Duke's damaged bows (l)
The Vanguard’s watch suddenly reported a sail ahead, and the helm was put over to prevent running it down. The Iron Duke was then following close in the wake of the Vanguard, whose action brought the two vessels closer, presenting Vanguard’s port broadside-on to Iron Duke’s bow. Unaware of any change, and blinded by the fog, the Iron Duke ploughed on. Only at the last moment did her commander, Captain Hickley, who was on the bridge, see Vanguard emerging from the mist. He ordered reversing of his engines, but it was already too late. The Iron Duke’s ram struck the Vanguard below the armour-plates, on the port side, abreast of the engine-room. The rent made was very large—amounting, as the divers afterwards found, to four feet length —and the water poured into the hold in torrents. It was immediately obvious that Vanguard was doomed for this was still an age when compartalisation and damage-control of iron vessels were in their infancy.

Boats from both ships rescuing Vanguard's crew
There was nothing more to be done but to save lives. The Vanguard’s Captain Dawkins ordered abandonment and officers and men behaved calmly. At the risk of his life one of the mechanics returned to the engine-room to blow down the boilers, so preventing an explosion,. The water rose quickly in the after-part, and rushed into the engine and boiler rooms, eventually finding its way into the provision-room flat, through imperfectly fastened “water-tight” doors – which proved anything but. Discipline was superb, the crew standing on deck as if at an inspection and not moving until ordered. Boats were lowered by both Vanguard and Iron Duke and in the process of transfer the only casualty of the disaster was sustained – a finger crushed between a boat’s gunwale and a ships’ hull. The actual transfer to Iron Duke of Vanguard’s entire crew was achieved in twenty minutes and Captain Dawkins was the last man to leave her.

Vanguard heeled gradually over until the whole of her enormous flank and bottom, down to her keel, was above water. Then she sank gradually, righting herself as she went down, stern first, the water being blown from hawse-holes in huge spouts by the force of the air rushing up from below. She disappeared some ninety minutes after the collision.

The court-martial
The inevitable court-martial was to prove remarkable for the statement by the then First Lord of the Admiralty – the minister responsible for the Navy – that “we ought to be rather satisfied than otherwise with the occurrence”.  Edward Reed, the designer of both ships, and by 1875 a Liberal Member of Parliament, stated that ironclads were in more danger in times of peace than in times of war. In peacetime, he said, they were residences for several hundred men, and many of the water-tight doors could not be kept closed without inconvenience. In wartime however they were fortresses, and the doors would be closed for safety.  Even more remarkably, close station-keeping in a fog was not considered as contributing to the disaster. The Court commented negatively on the conduct of the Iron Duke’s officers and indirectly blamed the admiral in command of the squadron. The Admiralty could find nothing wrong in either case and visited their wrath on the unfortunate lieutenant on deck at the time.

Vanguard still lies, largely intact, in some 150 feet of water off Ireland’s Wicklow coast. She is reachable by experienced air-divers – and reaching her must be a magnificent experience.

And Vanguard’s Captain Dawkins? It's sad to report that, well as he behaved after the collision, his career was at an end.

If you want to read about adventure in the age of transition from sail to steam,  then try The Dawlish Chronicles, which so far stretch to five volumes. Start the adventure with "Britannia's Wolf" which features ironclads in combat, desperate land action in the depths of a savage winter, and murderous political intrigue. You can get it in Kindle or paperback format. Click on the image below for details.

Download a free copy of 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 have not already subscribed to the mailing list, you can do so by clicking here or on the banner image above

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

More Privateer Action: HMS Wolverine, 1799

 My blog of February 10th of this year – accessible through the bar to the right – dealt with privateering action in the English Channel in 1793, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. It demonstrated that even at this very early stage the naval warfare in the “Narrow Seas” between Britain and the European coastline was to be of a quite savage nature, not unlike the battles that were to be fought by British and German coastal forces in the same waters in World War 2. The pace of action was not to let up in the years that followed as French privateers, often of very small size, darted out to prey on British coastal traffic and retired quickly to well-defended bases such as Calais. The war against them was to be waged not by the mighty battle-fleets or their supporting frigates but by small handy craft such as brigs and cutters, heavily armed for their size. The following account, drawing largely on information in the same W. Clark Russell book of 1889 as my previous blog, relates to another small-scale but epic battle that was typical of this aspect of the larger conflict.

HMS Wolverine 1798 - her rounded civilian bows
betray her civilian origin
HMS Wolverine was a civilian-owned collier before being purchased by the Royal Navy in 1798 for conversion to an armed brig. Her armament was powerful – only two of her guns were long 18-pounders and her others were all carronades, six of them 24-pounders and six 12-pounders. The carronades were murderously efficient weapons at short range and gave a craft such as the Wolverine a “punch” out of all proportion to their size. She was to see service immediately after commissioning by Commander Lewis Mortlock when she supported a “Dieppe 1942” type raid on the port of Ostend. On January 3rd 1799 she was cruising off the French port of Boulogne, some twenty miles from the English coast. Weather conditions were poor but two large French armed luggers were spotted. These were later identified as the fourteen-gun Le Furet and the eight-gun Rusé, all weapons being four-pounders. Their combined crews were roughly four times the 70 men carried by Wolverine – a potentially decisive factor should it come to boarding. These were typical privateers of the English Channel and such craft usually fled from confrontation with naval units – their objective was capture of rich commercial prizes rather than combat – and Mortlock realised that to bring them to action it would be necessary to play the role of a merchantman, a ruse that Wolverine’s civilian lines would assist. He accordingly hoisted Danish colours and, as expected, the luggers bore down on him and hailed. Asked for his identity, Mortlock answered that he was en-route from Plymouth to Copenhagen.  All his guns were manned, their crews out of sight and to all appearances Wolverine looked like an unarmed and attractive commercial prize.

An armed French lugger of the period
Le Furet and Rusé possibly looked similar
Mortlock’s deception paid off. As the unsuspecting Le Furet drew close, British colours were run up in place of the Danish and a full broadside unleashed. Given the disparity in firepower the only French hope now lay in boarding. Le Furet accordingly ploughed on towards Wolverine’s starboard quarter and crashed her bowsprit between the mizzen-shrouds and the mast while small-arms fire were poured on to her decks from the British tops. Close on Le Furet’s heels the Rusé came in on Wolverine’s port bow. From both luggers French boarders now poured across and Wolverine’s gunners had to abandon their weapons to join in the close combat on deck. The four-to one disparity in crew numbers was firmly in favour of the French and the fighting was now of a close, hand to hand, nature. According to Russell’s account, one Frenchman in particular “was observed to be cheering his men and beating them forward with the flat of his sword. The plucky rascal sprung to the top of the round house, where he stood hysterically yelling to his people and flourishing his weapon. Mortlock, supposing him to be the captain of the privateer, rushed at him. The Frenchman snapped a pistol in his face; it missed fire; he drew out another pistol but before he could level it Mortlock had plunged his half-pike into his body and he went overboard.” The resistance seems to have been so resolute that the French did not press their advantage with any great enthusiasm. A diversion was created by men from Le Furet throwing bags full of incendiary material through Wolverine’s stern windows and starting a fire. This drew the British crew away to fight the conflagration and in the confusion the French boarders withdrew, cut the lashings that bound their luggers to the Wolverine, and made off. Wolverine, scarred but triumphant, retired to Portsmouth.

Lewis Mortlock - young, handsome and doomed
Reading of such close actions one is often struck by how light the casualties could be. Wolverine lost two men, one of them Commander Mortlock, who had been badly wounded. He died in his mother’s arms a week later and his funeral was attended by every captain then in Portsmouth. A touching footnote is that his Newfoundland dog, who had been on board Wolverine throughout the action, survived unscathed.  French losses were heavier – a total of nineteen killed or dying of wounds shortly afterwards, plus many wounded who survived. Among the dead were Le Furet’s captain – possibly the “plucky rascal” whom Mortlock had slain – and three officers from the Rusé. The disproportion in losses may be partly explained by the surprise Wolverine unleashed on her unsuspecting attackers and another factor is almost certainly that the British crew’s stricter discipline and better training made them more effective than the privateersmen.

Commander Lewis Mortlock’s name is a forgotten one today, yet he was one of the thousands of brave, promising, splendid men whose professionalism was to save Britain and Europe from French domination. We owe him, and those like him, a debt.

Britannia's Reach

Click here or on the image below to plunge yourself into a world of danger, betrayal and merciless conflict in which neither side has clean hands and one man battles to maintain his integrity. One click gives you access to the opening chapters...

Download a free copy of 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.

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Friday, 10 March 2017

Dynamite Guns: Brilliant Technical Dead-Ends!

A major role is played in the Dawlish Chronicles novel Britannia’s Shark, set in 1881, by an experimental “pneumatic projector” – essentially a gun from which the projectile is launched by compressed air. Such weapons were considered very promising in the 1880s and 1890s and indeed the inventor John Phillip Holland, who also features in “Britannia’s Shark”, built a 9-inch projector into his 1882 Fenian Ram, arguably the first successful submarine.

15-inch  Dynamite Gun at Fort Winfield Scott, San Francisco
Though forgotten today, the concept was very attractive in its own day and the spur to its development was the recent invention of dynamite, an explosive of considerably greater power than any other previously available. Filling conventional artillery shells with dynamite would obviously increase their potency but the concern was that dynamite was sufficiently unstable as to be incapable of resisting the rapid acceleration involved in discharge from a conventional gun. A method of propulsion which would give slower acceleration, but comparable range, was what was required. The answer was to eject the shell from a giant blow-pipe by means of compressed air.

There were other advantages. Lighter gauge metal could be used for the discharge tube than would be needed for a conventional gun-barrel and larger-calibre weapons could be carried for the same weight. Also the lack of flame and smoke when the projectile was discharged would reduce visibility, and chance of location, particularly at night. The greatest  potential was as an anti-shipping weapon. A direct hit would not be necessary if a large enough projectile could be dropped into the water close to the ship. Exploding underwater, the shock waves would rupture the hull. Recognition of the effectiveness of below-waterline attack had already led to the development of the self-propelled torpedo. At a time however when torpedo speeds, ranges and sizes were still low a pneumatic projector offered the opportunity of landing a larger charge close to a moving ship more quickly and accurately, and at greater ranges.
8-inch Zalinski gun on trial - note barrel built up of flanged tubes
Credit for proving the concept went to a Mr.D.M.Melford of Toledo, Ohio, who demonstrated a 2-inch prototype to the US Military in 1884, firing a 5-pound solid shot over half-a-mile and driving it through a 26-inch thick concrete target. Mefford seems to have faded from the scene thereafter but one of the observers at the trial, an artillery lieutenant called Edmund Zalinski picked up the idea and formed the “pneumatic Dynamite gun Company”. By 1885 Zalinski had an operational prototype with an 8-inch bore which could fire a projectile with a 100 pound dynamite charge over two miles. The projector was at least as accurate as conventional cannon of the same calibre and, though the range was less, could carry a much larger explosive charge,

The US Navy was now interested – not least because such weapons could be mounted in smaller, lighter ships. A test in 1887 completely destroyed a target ship and the publicity this got led to the decision to build a "dynamite cruiser" armed with three such weapons. Zalinski, by now US Naval attaché to Russia, returned to supervise development of these projectors as well as the construction of similar ones for mounting in coastal-defence fortifications.
USS Vesuvius on contemporary postcard. Note the three black projector barrels on foredeck
The Vesuvius – an unarmoured  246 ft, 930 ton vessel, with two 2200 hp engines giving her a top speed of 21 knots – was fitted with three fixed 15-inch bore projectors. To aim them the entire ship needed to be aimed at the target –this was to prove the main operational drawback – and range was varied by adjusting air pressure. They offered the capability of hurling quarter-ton dynamite charges up to a mile, while with a reduced charge of 200 lbs the respectable range of two and a half miles was achievable. In one test fifteen projectiles were fired by the Vesuvius in just over sixteen minutes.  The projectiles themselves looked like huge darts, with sheet meal tails carried on an extensions behind the charge proper, the fins being angled to as to impart a spin – and stability – in flight. Once the projectile had dropped into the water, and had begun to sink, salt-covered fuses were exposed which, when fully exposed to sea-water, completed an electric circuit and detonated the charge.

15-inch Zalinski projectile - note the twisted fins

USS Vesuvius - the projector barrels could only be aimed
by aligning teh ship's bows on the target
Despite extensive trials, which revealed many operational problems,  the Vesuvius did not enter active service until the Spanish-American War in 1898. She was to bombard a Spanish fortification at Santiago, Cuba, but the results, though visually spectacular, seem to have been meagre, doing little more than plough up the fort’s glacis. She was converted to a torpedo-trials vessel thereafter (an ironic fate, in that the Zalinski guns once had once promised to replace the torpedo) and, with her pneumatic projectors removed, she lasted to 1922.

One other Zalinski gun was mounted on a warship. This was a single 15-inch unit mounted on a Brazilian auxiliary cruiser, the Nictheroy, a 7080-ton (displacement) Brazilian auxiliary cruiser. She was originally a coastal passenger and cargo operated under the name El Cid by the Morgan Lines company. Faced with a large-scale naval mutiny in 1894, the Brazilian government looked frantically for ships overseas, bought El Cid, and had a Zalinski weapons similar to those of the Vesuvius installed. Though she reached Brazil the mutiny was suppressed without the Nictheroy needing to open fire. She was purchased back by the US Navy at the time of the Spanish-American War and had a worthy career thereafter in various support roles as the USS Buffalo. She was sold in 1927.

"Battery Dynamite" at Fort Winfield Scott, San Francisco
15-inch Zalinski guns were also evaluated by the US Army’s coastal artillery, offering enough promise for two such weapons, and a small 8-inch gun, to be mounted Fort Hancock, New Jersey, in 1894. These were regarded as sufficiently successful for three more 15-inch guns to be located at San Francisco in 1898 to protect the Golden Gate, followed by individual weapons at  Hilton Head, South Carolina and Fishers Island, New York.  in 1901. By then they were being made obsolete by the development of more stable explosives – such as cordite – which were stable enough to be fired from conventional guns over much greater ranges. All US Army batteries were scrapped well before WW1.

USS Holland - note inclined Zalinski guns
with torpedo tube below that at the bow
The concept still had sufficient promised for John Phillip Holland, built two 8.4-inch Zalinski guns into the first commissioned US submarine USS Holland (SS-1), no doubt remembering his first attempt to do so in the early 1880s. They were however removed afterwards.
USS Holland - note projector tube.
The cover is missing, so weapon presumably no longer in use
One other pneumatic gun was to enter service. This was the bizarre Sims-Dudley gun for use as mobile field artillery. This duty precluded use of steam-driven compressors, as installed on ships or at fixed shore batteries. Instead, a separate cylinder was placed below the projector tube and a smokeless-powder charge was detonated in it to send compressed air – presumably on the other side of a piston, to the launching tube. This seems to have been an example of having the worst of both worlds in design terms, and the age-old principle of Occams’s Razor, as valid in technology as in philosophy, must have been unknown to the inventors. Despite this the US Army bought sixteen of these guns, firing 2.5 inch calibre, 10-pound projectiles with 5-pound bursting charges. The projectiles seem to have been smaller versions of the Zalinski missiles, as shown in teh illustration below.
Sims-Dudley gun - note projectile and smokeless-powder charge on sheet
Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders used a Sims-Dudley gun during the siege of Santiago. Its greatest advantage appears to have been its lack of a loud report and the fact that its smokeless-power charges did not reveal the weapon’s location to the enemy. It seems however to have been mechanically unreliable. The Sims-Dudley faded from history afterwards – probably deservedly so!

Though considerable ingenuity was expended in making pneumatic guns work, and though the American Government was prepared to invest large sums in their development, they ultimately represented one of history’s technological dead-ends. The advent of more stable explosives, and of longer-ranged and faster torpedoes, quickly sidelined them. Pneumatic guns do not however deserve to be forgotten, and for me, in Britannia’s Shark, it has been a delight to write about the period when they still held such promise.

Britannia's Shark

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Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Bellona and Courageux action 1761

Devotees of naval history and fiction will know that the “74”, the so-called Third- Rate ships of the line, were the backbone of the fleets of the major European powers in the period 1756-1815. Though the type is primarily thought of as British, the original concept, dating from the 1740s, was French.

Battle of Cape Finisterre 3 May 1747 by Samuel Scott
The Royal Navy captured 4 French ships-of-the-line (including 74s), 2 frigates and 7 merchantmen 

The Royal Navy captured a number of the early French 74-gun ships during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and was greatly impressed by them compared to their own smallish 70-gun ships. Britain thereafter began to construct its own 74s. The balance of fire-power, sailing qualities, habitability, ability to absorb punishment, plus the endurance that a large store-capacity brought with size, suited the 74 not just to service in the battle line but also for blockade duty and for independent missions on distant stations. As such they were of particular value to the British and French navies, and to a somewhat lesser extent to the Spanish, in view of the global reach of their ambitions. The Russian, Dutch and Danish navies were also to build 74s and the type was to figure in every major action of the period.

The most notable characteristic of the 74 was that it carried its guns on two decks, compared with the three decks of First and Second Rate ships, of which there were far fewer, and which usually served as Admiral’s flagships. HMS Bellona, launched in 1760, was essentially the prototype of the Royal Navy’s 74s and her vital statistics were not significantly departed from in more than 40 generally similar ships which followed. These were:

Two 74s slugging it out off Brest 21st April 1798
The French Hercule (l) and the British Mars. The Hercule was captured.

When Bellona commissioned the Seven Years War – which can be fairly described as “The First World War” since it was fought on a global scale – was already in progress for four years. Her first duty was one that was to become monotonously familiar to herself and to her sisters in the next five and a half decades – blockade of the French coast. Her first blooding – most appropriately since she was carried the name of the Roman Goddess of War – was however to occur off the western coast of Portugal and Spain in 1761. There, off the port of Vigo, Northern Spain, on August 13th, and in company with the 36-gun frigate HMS Brilliant, she was to encounter a close counterpart, the French 74 Courageux. The latter was in company with two frigates, Malicieuse and Ermine. The latter were 36-gun vessels, very similar to Brilliant.

French frigate of the Magicienne class - generally similar to what Brilliant took on two of
In view of the French having the numerical advantage it is surprising that the greater aggression was shown by the British. Captain Loggie of the Brilliant concentrated on drawing off the two enemy frigates so that Captain Faulkner, of Bellona, could concentrate on the Courageux alone. Throughout the following engagement Brilliant withstood the united attacks of both French frigates, until they at last sheered off, both seriously damaged.

Bellona and Courageux were meanwhile involved in a classic single-ship action. They had closed very quickly and the Courageux fired her first broadside when she reached musket-shot range. Faulkner, on Bellona, kept his nerve – and his fire – however, ordering his gun-crews not to fire till they saw the whites of the Frenchmen’s eyes, adding, “Take my word for it, they will never stand the singeing of their whiskers!”

Whether or not the speech recorded in an admiring Victorian history was ever actually delivered by Faulkner it was however an excellent summary of what he intended to do – and did:

“I propose to lead you close on the enemy’s larboard quarter, when we will discharge two broadsides, and then back astern, and range upon the other quarter, and so tell your guns as you pass. I recommend you at all times to point chiefly at the quarters, with your guns slanting fore and aft; this is the principal part of a ship. If you kill the officers, break the rudder, and snap the braces, she is yours, of course; but, for this reason, I desire you may only fire one round of shot and grape above, and two rounds, shot only, below. Take care and send them home with exactness. This is a rich ship; they will render you, in return, their weight in gold.”
 The plan was carried out to the letter and almost every shot took effect. The French returned a very brisk fire, and within nine minutes of the action commencing Bellona’s shrouds and rigging were almost all cut to pieces and the mizzen-mast had fallen over the stern. Faulkner managed nonetheless to wear his ship round; the officers and men flew to their respective opposite guns, and carried on, from the larboard side, a fire even more effective than they had hitherto kept up from the starboard guns. The French colours were hauled down little over ten minutes later.

Courageux (l) and Bellona (r) in close action. Brilliant's separate frigate action to the right
19th Century illustration by H.Fletcher
Faulkner ordered the Bellona to cease firing as soon as the Courageux struck. Many of her crew had come on deck, congratulating each other on their victory – and, no doubt, on their prize money – when gunfire erupted, perhaps accidently, from the Courageux’s lower gun-deck. Fury now overtook the Bellona’s crew and, without waiting for orders, they rushed back to their guns. Two full broadsides were poured into the French vessel before quarter was called for. By the time firing ceased the Courageux was virtually a wreck. Only her foremast and bowsprit still stood, several of gun-ports had been knocked into one, and she had suffered 240 killed and 110 wounded. The Bellona, by contrast, had only six dead and twenty-eight wounded.  The Brilliant which, while outnumbered, had put two similar frigates to flight, had five men killed and 16 wounded.

Victorian-era illustration of Bellona's gunners in action
The Courageux was brought to Lisbon (the Portuguese were Britain’s allies) and after repair was taken into the Royal Navy as HMS Courageux.  She was to serve for three decades until she was wrecked off Gibraltar in 1791. Her French captain, Dugue L'Ambert, had been wounded in the neck at the start of the action. He died, at Lisbon and it is pleasing to record that his funeral was attended by the Bellona's officers and the surviving officers of the Courageux.

The Bellona was to serve until 1814, and to play honourable roles in numerous actions, including the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. It was however the Courageux action for which she is most remembered. By it she had established a British reputation for almost unvarying victory in single-ship actions which was to last until the encounters with the United States Navy from 1812 onwards. But that’s a another story!

Britannia's Reach

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