Thursday 26 December 2013

The Battle of Malaga 1704

I’m currently in southern Spain, between Malaga and Marbella, and looking southwards across a Mediterranean which is calm and blue today but which yesterday was grey and overcast, with large white breakers pounding on the beach. I needed no reminder of just how rough the Mediterranean can be – back in 1977 I went through a Force 12 gale in a 165ft. dynamically-positioned diving support vessel, the Kattenturm. I was on the enclosed upper bridge but the only access to it was external, so that the captain, first officer and I myself were essentially marooned there for hours on end as waves and spray pounded it.
Kattenturm 1977 - one of the first dynamically positioned diving support vessels

The Mediterranean is narrow at the point I now am and the mountains of the Moroccan shore are visible on a clear day. The Mediterranean is funnelling towards the Straits of Gibraltar, and I’m looking out towards the location of the Battle of Malaga on 24th August 1704, perhaps the largest sea battle fought up to that time. The proximity to Gibraltar is significant since it was the capture of “The Rock” at the beginning of that month by a combined British-Dutch naval force that led to the battle. A heavy naval bombardment preceded landing of marines at two points, one force launching an attack southwards from the isthmus and another northwards from Europa Point at Gibraltar’s southern tip. The Spanish defenders were heavily outnumbered and outgunned and the governor surrendered. Gaining possession of Gibraltar was to be not only one of the key events of the War of Spanish Succession (1701-14) but one which was to have major strategic significance for Britain in all subsequent wars and right up to our own day.

Dutch (left) and British (right) marines landing at Europa Point 1st August 1704

This strategic significance was immediately realised by the French and Spanish, and the need for immediate recapture of Gibraltar was decided on. A combined French and Spanish fleet sailed west towards Gibraltar from their base at Malaga – several ships being towed out to sea by some of the large galleys present. The total French-Spanish force consisted of over 60 sailing warships, including some 17 1st and 2nd Rate vessels, and no less than 24 rowed galleys. Nominal command was by the 28-year old Louis Alexandre, Comte de Toulouse, a legitimated son of Louis XIV by one of his mistresses. It is more likely however that actual command was by Toulouse’s deputy, Victor-Marie d'Estrées, a competent 44-year old sailor whose experience extended back to the Franco-Dutch War of the 1670s.

Alerted by intelligence that the French and Spanish had left Malaga, the combined British-Dutch fleet moved eastwards from Gibraltar to meet them. Overall command was under the 54-year old British Admiral George Rooke, whose experience was as long as that of d'Estrées. Apart from his capture of Gibraltar, Rooke had already scored a notable blow at the French-Spanish alliance by destroying a Spanish treasure fleet at Vigo Bay in 1702. Rooke’s combined British-Dutch force was roughly equal in numbers to the enemy – almost 60 ships – but had fewer 1st and 2nd rates and ammunition stocks had been depleted by the recent bombardment at Gibraltar.

The Battle of Malaga - as painted by Isaac Sailmaker (1633-1721)

The fleets were to meet in two continuous parallel lines – the preferred formation of the period – and favourable initial manoeuvring by the British-Dutch force gave it the advantage of an upwind position. The battle consisted of a long and bloody pounding match, ship against ship, and there were no attempts to break the enemy line, as was to be such a feature of Nelsonian tactics almost a century later. The casualties were to be high – over 2500 dead or wounded for the British-Dutch and 1600 for the French-Spanish. No ship was sunk or captured by either side though many were very seriously damaged and left barely seaworthy, one being a Dutch vessel which exploded the following day. Little part was played in the action by the galleys – the rowers of which must have endured hell, even if their vessels were not engaged – and they appear to have been concentrated at the rear of the French-Spanish line. Four galleys did however stage a concerted attack on a Dutch ship, the Gelderland, but were driven off by gunfire.

Exhausted and battered, the fleets disengaged, the French and Spanish returning to Toulon and Malaga and the British-Dutch to Gibraltar. In view of the heavier British-Dutch casualties the French were to claim a victory, but this could only be in the narrow tactical sense, for the action had prevented recapture of Gibraltar. The Rock was to remain in British and Dutch hands throughout the war, and in British hands thereafter. The analogy with the Battle of Jutland – also arguably a tactical defeat for the Royal Navy but an undoubted strategic victory – is very pronounced.

Notable as this battle was for its long-lasting strategic implications, and for the huge number of ships involved, and for the high casualty toll, and for the participation of galleys (perhaps the last time British ships faced them?), this battle seems to have faded from popular historic awareness. Looking out today on a calm sea I cannot but think sadly of the 4000-plus casualties and the misery they represented for so many thousands more and how different world history might have been in succeeding centuries had the outcome been otherwise.

HMS Ark Royal and some of her Swordfish in 1939 before outbreak of war
There’s one other striking link with British naval history as I look out from here. On 14th November 1941 the Royal Navy carrier Ark Royal sank following a torpedo attack by a U-Boat the previous day. She lies some 30 miles due east of Gibraltar. Luckily she had remained afloat long enough for her entire complement to be taken off. In the little over two years of wartime service the Ark Royal had an almost unrivalled record of intense action, including launching the Swordfish strike that crippled the Bismarck.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Not all paddlers were steamers - and some were at D-Day!

Though paddle-vessels are almost invariably referred to as “paddle steamers”, some had distinctly more modern forms of propulsion. I found this somewhat of a surprise recently when, in the process of researching 19th Century paddlers, I came across a layout drawing – as shown here – from the mid-1930s. This shows the world’s first diesel-electric propelled paddle vessel, the Talisman. She was designed for service on the Clyde and owned by the London and North Eastern Railway. She was commissioned in 1935 and served until 1966, being based at Craigendoran and sailing to Dunoon, Rothesay and the Kyles of Bute.

Talisman's most dramatic service was however during WW2 when she was impressed into the Royal Navy as HMS Aristocrat. She served not only as an anti-aircraft ship but as a headquarters command ship during the D-Day landings in 1944. It’s hard to imagine such a peaceful looking vessel acting in a warlike role!

Talisman’s details were:

Dimensions 215 ft X 27.5 ft (excluding paddleboxes)for 5.25 ft draught

Power: 4 Diesel engines, supplying 400 hp and driving a single electric motor with two armatures, driving the paddle wheels directly

There are several good photographs of her on but I have not included them as they appear to be copyrighted. If you are interested however they are well worth viewing.

A first-hand account of HMS Aristocrat’s service off the Normandy beaches can be found on:

Saturday 14 December 2013

When a line of enquiry meets a brick wall…

I read widely and, as befits my interest in the career of Admiral Sir Nichols Dawlish (1845-1918), I am particularly interested in naval affairs in the 1860-1918 period. A single reference to a person or event in a book or web-page can often spark my interest in learning more, often leading me down unexpected and fascinating paths. Given the wealth of resources on the Internet and my access to the storehouse of material in the wonderful London Library, I can usually follow the line of enquiry to a level of understanding and detail that satisfies my curiosity. “Usually” is the operative word however and on occasion I run into a “brick wall”, so that my curiosity remains aroused but unsatisfied.

A current example of such frustration is my curiosity about the life of Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Lyne, (1870- 1955) who was the first man in the Royal Navy to rise from the lower deck to flag rank. His story is a fascinating one, but for me at least, has major gaps.

Lyne joined the service as a boy seaman, presumably in the early 1880s, and by 1902 had advanced to the warrant rank of Gunner – a respected one but holding a “warrant” from the Admiralty rather than a commission from the monarch. As such, warrant officers messed together and not in the wardroom and there was a wide social gulf between commissioned officers and warrant officers. It appears however that command of a vessel, albeit a small one, could be entrusted to a warrant officer and in 1902 Lyne was in command of Torpedo Boat TB.060, based at the Cape of Good Hope.

HMS Lightning 1877 - torpedoes were dropped rather than launched from tubes
TB.060 was one of a batch of twenty torpedo boats, TBs,041-060, which were built by Thorneycraft Ltd. in 1885-6 during one of the “Russian War Scares” which were an almost regular feature of the period. Thorneycraft had essentially invented the fast steam torpedo-boat, starting with HMS Lightning on 1876 and progressing with a series of ever more capable craft.

The TBs,041-060 series were known as.125-Footers, specifications as follow:

Displacement: 60 tons

Dimensions: 125 ft X 12.5 ft X6 ft

Machinery: 750 hp, making 21.5 knots maximum

Armament: Four 14” torpedo tubes in two pairs, Two twin-barrelled Nordenvelt guns

Crew: 16 men.

To enhance manoeuvrability these vessels had two rudders, one positioned to each side of the single-propeller and this seems to have given a “tunnel effect” that maximised the power delivery.

TB. 057 - sister of TB 060, which would have looked very similar

 By 1902 these vessels were obsolescent, despite reboilering, but many were to remain in service as patrol vessels during the Great War, being scrapped only in 1919-20.

HMS Dreadnought (1875) leaving Malta and cleared for action

 Gunner Lyne, as he was 1902, may have owed his command of TB.060 to the fact to the admiration of Admiral Sir Arthur Moore, Commander-in-Chief, Cape of Good Hope and West Coast of Africa Station from 1901. In earlier years Lyne had served as coxswain to Moore when the latter was in command of HMS Dreadnought (1875) in the late-1880s.The 1901-02 period represented the latter stage of the Boer War, and one of the luminaries who visited it as an observer was Rudyard Kipling. Guerrilla activity by the Boers was disrupting rail travel at this time and in view of Kipling’s fame TB.060, under Lyne’s command, was used to carry him up South Africa’s east coast to minimise risk.(This information comes from an internet source but I’ve found no coverage of the incident in Andrew Lycett’s Kipling biography).

Shortly afterwards, in early 1902, TB.060’s propeller fell off when she was on “a most inhospitable coast”. I have not been able to determine where exactly this happened but in view of the vessel’s subsequent movements it appeared to have been on the west coast, north of Cape Town. Since TB.060 had only a single propeller she could no longer rely on steam power, and as wireless telegraphy was in its infancy, there was no way of sending a message for help. Loss must have appeared almost inevitable.

Undeterred however, Gunner Lyne managed to construct a jury rig, with which, under sail, he managed to get TB.060 and her crew back safely to the harbour at Saldhana Bay. The achievement was all the more remarkable since the length to breadth ratio of this fragile vessel was 10:1, which would have made handling under sail extremely difficult. I have not seen any photographs of the remarkable rig – if any exist – and am not sure what materials were employed.

Lyne’s achievement, and his indomitability, leadership and ingenuity were rightly regarded as outstanding. His reward was award of a commission and of promotion to the rank of Lieutenant. His career progressed in the following years and he was promoted to Captain in 1919, and advanced to Rear Admiral on retirement. He was knighted in 1935. As yet I have been unable to trace details of his assignments in these years. He does appear to have published a memoir called “Something about a sailor”, which I am now hoping to track down.

Admiral Lyne must have been an inspirational character but there are huge gaps in my knowledge about him. How and when did he join the navy? What was his career in the years prior to command of TB.060, for his progress in these years was as rapid as after his commissioning? Where did M.060 lose its propeller? What did the jury rig consist of? And what was his career path following his commissioning? Dis he experience discrimination due to his background and, if so, how did he cope with it?

I’m fascinated by this splendid man and I’ll keep investigating when I can. There is a very short Wikipedia entry on him but no photograph. The account I’ve given above is obviously incomplete. If any reader of this blog knows more about Admiral Lyne I’d be very glad to hear from them.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

London links with history

Yesterday, en route to my favourite research venue, the London Library in St. James’ Square, I took a short cut through a narrow passageway from Green Park through St. James’ Place. I had passed the entrance to the place countless times before but had never walked through it before.  This short thoroughfare is less than a hundred yards long, and yet in this short distance I found links to an amazing and unlikely combination of eminent previous occupants, made possible by the admirable London practice of mounting commemorative plaques.  It suddenly struck me that here, as on so many such London streets, one can be confronted with history that one has walked past so often without even noticing it.  

On this occasion I pulled out my mobile ‘phone and recorded the plaques I saw.

In the white house to the left Churchill lived for three years, starting as a boy of six. In this period his father, Lord Randolph, was building his career as a leading politician and his mother was a leading and scandalous socialite of the period.

In the darker house to the right, but two generations earlier, lived William Huskisson, a worthy if dull politician who is mainly remembered for being the first victim of a railway accident. During the opening ceremonies for the world’s first passenger railway, the Manchester and Liverpool, in 1830, Huskisson stepped into the path of George Stephenson’s locomotive, the Rocket, and was fatally injured.

A little further down the street I found the residence of Sir Francis Chichester, best remembered today for his solo global circumnavigation in 1966-67 but who long before that time had established a reputation as a pioneer aviator.

Chichester and Chopin houses to the right
Two houses further along I saw a most unlikely memorial, one to Frederic Chopin, who stayed there shortly before his death.

And finally, on St. James' Square, before I dropped in to the Library, I saw a familiar plaque commemorating Ada, Countess of Lovelace(please excuse the fuzzy image).  She is remembered today not as Lord Byron’s daughter, but as a noted mathematician who chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the “Analytical Engine”.  Her notes on the engine include what is now regarded as the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine. Because of this, she is often described as the world's first computer programmer.

Ada - a more beautiful and intelligent daughter than her wretched father deserved
Not an insignificant brush with history in the space of a few hundred yards! The man who is tired of London is indeed tired of life!

Friday 29 November 2013

Adventure, Scientific Endeavour and Cutting Edge Technology in Antarctica

Technology, old or new, fascinates me and indeed the cutting-edge technology of teh Victorian period is central to my writing in the Dawlish Chronicles (cover-design for the second of which is now in hand - the last step towards publication). Current developments are equally inspirational and a fortnight ago, when visiting the RAC Club in London, I was very impressed when I saw the Winston Wong Bio Inspired Vehicle (BIV) on display, as shown in the photographs. This unique vehicle, together with two wheeled ones, completed the first there-and-back vehicle crossing of Antarctica in late 2012. 

The 10-man team of the Moon Regan Transantarctic Expedition team left Union Glacier on 25 November and arrived, via the Geographic South Pole, on the Ross Ice Shelf on 9 December. They then retraced their tracks and completed the return journey on 17 December. In all they covered nearly 4,000 km and travelled for 20 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes and a variety of scientific investigations were undertaken on the way by a team from Imperial College, London.

A century after Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton, the spirit of adventure and scientific enquiry is still alive!

The vehicle, driven by a single person, is named for the Expedition’s science partner, Winston Wong, a leading Taiwanese businessman and alumnus and generous donor to Imperial College London.

Details of the vehicle appear to be as follow:

A bio-fuelled Rotax 914 engine driving a three-blade variable-pitch propeller for a top speed of 84mph;

The minimum possible number of moving parts;

Three skis with independent suspension and a spiked brake for efficient stopping;

Weight approximately 700kgs,  size is approximately 4.5 m long and 4.5 m wide;

Friday 22 November 2013

British Cavalry at Salamanca, July 22nd 1812

This week's blog entry is more on a military than a nautical theme but it reflects my continuing fascination with all aspects of 19th Century history.

During the week, while leafing through a late-Victorian book on battles of the 19th Century, I was struck by an article the Battle of Salamanca on July 22nd 1812 by a respected military commentator, Major Arthur Griffiths. By this time Wellington, having broken out of Portugal by his capture of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz earlier in the year, was thrusting deep into Spain. At Salamanca he was to confront – and thrash – the army of the French Marshal Marmont. This victory was to open the road for further advance towards France itself.

One is invariably impressed by the clarity and elegance of expression of writers and war correspondents of this period - I guess we'd all like to be able to write like this!  The following extract from the article proved especially impressive. It deals with the final stages of the battle and with the role played in it by British cavalry.
British heavy cavalry charging at Salamanca
“The complete overthrow of the French was now near at and it was accomplished by the masterly tactics of Wellington, who appeared as usual at the critical point at the critical time. Under his orders a great cavalry charge put the finishing touch to Maucune’s discomfiture. This charge, led by Le Marchant’s heavy and Anson’s light cavalry brigades, was one of the most brilliant feats performed by British cavalry. Napier gives the story in Homeric language, telling how “a whirling cloud of dust moved quickly forward, carrying within it the trampling sound of a charging multitude”; how the horsemen rode down the French infantry “with a terrible clamour and disturbance. Bewildered and blinded, they cast away their arms, and crowded through the intervals of the squadrons, stooping and crying out for quarter, while the dragoons, big men on big horses, rode onwards, smiting with their long, glittering swords in uncontrollable power.” Le Marchant was killed but there were others to lead his cavalry on. Packenham, with his infantry, followed close, and, after a bitter struggle, which laid many low, the French were completely defeated. Guns and standards were captured and 2,000 prisoners; “the divisions under Maucune no longer existed as a military body.” These were the memorable forty minutes which sufficed to conquer the French left…”

It should be noted that the most notable casualty of this action, Major-General John Le Marchant (1766 – 1812) was one of the finest British cavalry commanders of his generation. More important for posterity was however his role in establishing the first British military academy, initially at High Wycombe and Great Marlow, later combined in what was to become the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. The latter remains the world’s premier institution of its type and generations of officers  past and future owe a debt of gratitude to Le Marchant for his achievement.

(The Battle of Salamanca provides the background for Bernard Cornwell’s novel “Sharpe’s Sword”)

Friday 15 November 2013

The loss of SMS Grosser Kurfürst, 1878

In an earlier blog I wrote about the now-forgotten disaster on the Thames in September 1878 when the excursion paddle steamer Princess Alice was sunk in a collision with the loss of some 640 lives. This was however the second major maritime disaster in British waters that year, for some three months earlier the German ironclad Grosser Kurfürst was also sunk in collision in the English Channel, taking with her some 270 of her crew.
SMS Grosser Kurfürst under sail
In this period Germany’s navy was still one of the second rank, intentionally so since the “Iron Chancellor”, Bismarck, saw the newly established German Empire as primarily a land power, with no significant maritime ambitions. The intention to build on a scale to challenge the Royal Navy was still some two decades in the future and the emphasis was primarily on coastal defence. A small number of high-quality ironclads formed the backbone of the fleet and by the late 1870s there was increasing awareness of the potential of mines and torpedo craft to supplement them.

It should be noted that in this period naval theorists in Germany, as practically everywhere else, saw the ram as a viable offensive weapon. This stemmed from a fixation on the extensive ramming involved in the Battle of Lissa in 1866 when the Austro-Hungarian and Italian fleets were pitted against each other. Sinking in this manner of the one of the principal Italian ironclads represented the turning point of the battle. For the next four decades the majority of naval vessels, large and small, were built with ram bows. What was insufficiently recognised was that the circumstances which allowed close engagement at Lissa were unlikely to occur in the future, since the growth in power and accuracy of naval guns meant that combat would occur at ever increasing ranges. Despite this rams continued to be viewed by many as effective weapons and as late as 1896 Britain’s Arrogant class of protected cruisers were specifically designed to allow ramming, manoeuvrability being enhanced by provision of an extra rudder at the bows, which were themselves strengthened for impact.

König Wilhelm at anchor
In practice the ram proved to be more of a hazard to friends than to enemies, and there were numerous cases of serious damage being inflicted, sometimes fatally, in collisions. The best known of these was the loss in 1893of HMS Victoria when rammed by HMS Camperdown. Fifteen years before this however a comparable disaster was to occur in sight of the English shore, on this occasion involving the newly completed German ironclad Grosser Kurfürst.

The Grosser Kurfürst, a ship-rigged central-citadel ironclad, also powered by a 500 hp steam engine, was of 7596 tons and 316 ft length. She carried the four 10-inch guns of her main armament in two turrets amidships. She had been commissioned at Wilhelmshaven on May 6th 1878 and she set off thereafter on a summer training cruise, in company with her close sister and squadron flagship Preussen and the older central battery ironclad König Wilhelm. The latter was of 10591 tons and 368 ft length, her principal armament being 18 9.4-inch muzzleloaders located in a central battery. She had been built at the Thames Ironworks in London in the mid-1860s and had been upgraded since.

The moment of collision
On May 31st 1878 all three vessels were steaming westwards through the Straits of Dover, König Wilhelm and Preussen in line, with Grosser Kurfürst off to starboard and thus closer to the English coast.  Just off Folkestone the three ships encountered two sailing vessels in their path.  Poor manoeuvring to avoid these craft found König Wilhelm heading directly for Grosser Kurfürst, with insufficient time available to turn away. Impact was unavoidable and  König Wilhelm's ram smashed a large hole in the Grosser Kurfürst’s flank. Damage control was still an art of the future and inadequate sealing of Grosser Kurfürst’s  watertight bulkheads caused her to sink in eight minutes.  Out of a crew of 500 some 270 were lost.
SMS Grosser Kurfürst sinking
The composer  Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, witnessed the accident from a ferry he was sailing on, en route to Paris. He wrote: "I saw it all – saw the unfortunate vessel slowly go over and disappear under the water in clear, bright sunshine, and the water like a calm lake. It was too horrible – and then we saw all the boats moving about picking up the survivors, some so exhausted they had to be lifted on to the ships”.
Rescue of survivors by fishing craft, König Wilhelm in background
König Wilhelm was also badly damaged in the collision, suffering severe flooding forward. Her captain considered beaching her to prevent her sinking, but was assured that her pumps could hold the flooding to an acceptable level. The ship therefore made for Portsmouth, where temporary repairs could be effected to allow the ship to return to Germany.  
In the aftermath of the collision, the German navy held a court martial  for Rear Admiral Batsch, the squadron commander, and for Captains Monts and Kuehne, the commanders of the two ships, along with Lieutenant Clausa, the first officer aboard Grosser Kurfürst, to investigate the sinking. Extensive finger-pointing followed, aimed at sharing or dodging responsibility, and a series of three further court-martials followed, before the matter was laid to rest.
SMS König Wilhelm as a traing ship, early 1900s
König Wilhelm was to have a enjoy a long career thereafter, being rebuilt and rearmed as a heavy cruiser in 1895/6 and later serving as a training vessel, only finally being scrapped in 1921.
The loss of the Grosser Kurfürst was a tragedy in itself, but the other tragedy associated with her loss was that the lessons of the disaster were not learned and that many more ships were to be sunk, and many men were to die needlessly, before the folly of the ram bow was to be recognised.

Friday 8 November 2013

HMS Hero – the Player’s “Navy Cut” battleship

HMS Hero and her sister, HMS Conqueror, both commissioned in the late 1880s, were described by Dr.Oscar Parkes, the ultimate authority on British battleships, as  “two of the most useless turret sips ever built for the Navy”. Despite this damning evaluation, which was supported by many officers during her lifetime, HMS Hero was to achieve a bizarre degree of fame for over another century. The reason for this had little to do with the unfortunate vessel herself and depended on her being named on the cap-band of the seaman featured in the logo of Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes. In late Victorian uniform, the sailor’s head and torso were seen though a life-belt, with two poorly-defined ironclads in the background, that on the right possibly HMS Hero herself.
The cigarettes were launched by the tobacco company John Player Ltd. in the same period as the ship herself. These were years in which there public pride and interest in the Navy was growing – and would continue to do so up the Great War – as evidenced by the popularity of HMS Pinafore and of sailor suits for children. In the early years the sailor in the logo was apparently sometimes bearded, sometimes clean-shaven, but the bearded version seems to have been standardised in 1907 and has continued up to our own day. The name "Navy Cut" originated from a sailors’ practice of binding a mixture of tobacco leaves and leaving them to mature under pressure. A slice of this slab came to be known as a "cut". 
Player's Navy Cut dominates world markets in a late Victorian advestisment
Commercially successful and widely recognised as the cigarette brand was, the ship associated with it was to have a much less stellar career. Both Hero and her sister Conqueror were designed in a period of transition, when there were conflicting views on how line-battleships should be armed and armoured. Large calibre breech-loading rifles were coming into their own, breakthroughs in metallurgy were providing much more effective armour, and compound steam engines were promising greater power and fuel-efficacy. Smaller-calibre quick-firing guns, up to 6”, were proving their potential and there was intense debate as to whether the ram was still a viable weapon in action. Allied to this was the question of tactics – no fleet action had been fought with such ships and theories abounded as to how to employ them. The problem was not the availability of technology but rather how disparate available elements were to be integrated into a single concept which would function efficiently in line with an agreed tactical doctrine.
HMS Hero at sea - and taking on a lot of water
The controversies of the 1880s were to be resolved in the next decade with the appearance of the Royal Sovereign class which was to set the line of evolution that almost all battleships would thereafter follow, not only in Britain but elsewhere as well. Getting to this point however involved pursuing number of technical and tactical dead ends, the most notable being perhaps HMS Hero and HMS Conqueror. Their basic design premise was that they would combine large calibre guns (two 12”) in a singl rotating turret, strength enough for ramming, a substantial secondary armament (four 6” quick-firers), six above-water 14” torpedo tubes, a plethora of small-calibre weapons, heavy armour and, for good measure, a small torpedo-boat carried on deck which could be lowered to launch its own separate attacks.
HMS Conqueror soon after completion
These maritime camels (“horses designed by a committee”) tried to do everything and succeeded in nothing. With 6200 tons on a 270 ft. hull the freeboard was inevitably low (9.5 feet) and seakeeping was going to abysmally poor. Parkes writes “When HMS Benbow was rolling 5° in a moderate swell the Conqueror worked through 18° to 20°. In the 1890 manoeuvres she actually rolled 35° one way so that the cutter stored at bridge level was washed from its davits” Service on these ships in such conditions must have been terrifying and living conditions little better since “the bows were usually buried in a cataract of foam and the mess deck on the main deck forward became uninhabitable in anything of a seaway due to leaky forecastle fittings.” The offensive capability was equally inadequate. The 12” weapons in the turret could not be fired on a bearing of more than 45° to either side of the central axis due to blast damage to the superstructure. This was underlined in a report on the 1889 manoeuvres which stated that “What they would have become after the big guns had been fired over them a few times is at present left to the imagination.”
HMS Hero in an exercise to repel torpedo-boat attack
Happily this poor seakeeping capability was recognised by the navy and except for manoeuvres (always in sight of land) these expensive ships were relegated to duties that kept them in port. Conqueror became the tender to the gunnery training school Cambridge at Devonport in 1889, two years after launch, and was paid off in 1902. Hero led a similar existence at the gunnery school Excellent at Portsmouth, ending up as a target ship and sunk on the Kentish Knock in 1908. Despite their humdrum lives both ships looked magnificent in Victorian livery and Hero was to gain immortality of a sort on the Player’s Navy Cut logo.

 And an afterthought – given that all ships are female, should this misconceived vessel have been named HMS Heroine?

Monday 28 October 2013

The Bloody 1860s

Some musings on a historical period that fascinates me, the latter half of the 19th Century, "the day before yesterday" in historical terms

In the popular mind in Britain the Victorian era, indeed the entire period from Waterloo in 1815 to the opening of the Great War in 1914, is often seen as something of a golden age of peace. So too it was for Britain, interrupted only by small wars in distant places, and two medium ones in the Crimea and South Africa. From a British perspective this perception was largely correct, mainly because whatever fighting was involved was done by the top and bottom layers of society – the sons of the landed gentry and aristocracy on the one hand, and those of the underclass on the other. There was little impact on the middle classes and on what was recognised as “the respectable working class”.  
Retaking of Suzhou city from the Taiping Rebels by Imperial Manchu troops

If a global perspective is however adopted the picture changes significantly and the 1860s in particular may well have represented the bloodiest single decade in human history up to that time. Conflicts that raged at this time either during the decade or overlapping it, included:
  • The Tai-Ping Rebellion in Southern China, 1850 to 1864, in which upwards of 20 million people are estimated to have died.
  • The American Civil War 1861-65, which killed more Americans (roughly 625,000) than all that nation’s other wars combined and which saw the largest armies seen up to that time operating on a vast geographic scale.
  • The “Tripartite War” of 1864-1870 in which Paraguay fought the three allied nations of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay and in the process lost 390,000 of its combatants and approximately 1.2 million of its entire population, civilian and military. This equated to approximately 90% of the pre-war population and the conflict is regarded in relative terms as the most bloody in recorded history.
  • Prussia’s wars against Denmark in 1864 and Austria in 1866 were relatively bloodless, though the victory at Königgrätz in 1866 cost the Prussians 2000 casualties and the Austro-Hungarians 31,000. These two “medium wars” were the prelude to the murderous Franco-Prussian War which would break out in 1870.
  • As the decade opened the Second Italian War of Independence was still in progress, winding up a vicious campaign that had seen the French, Piedmontese and Austrians slaughtering each other at the Battles of Magenta and Solferino in 1859, the casualties at the latter being so terrible as to inspire Henri Dunant to establish the Red Cross.
  • The French intervention in Mexico lasted from 1862 to 1866 and escalated what would have been a sufficiently nasty civil war into something greater in scope through France’s efforts to establish the Hapsburg “Emperor” Maximilian as its puppet ruler.
  • Almost continuous Russian campaigns in Central Asia resulted in the conquest of Turkmenistan in the late 1860s, with further expansion in the decade that followed.
  • The Polish Rising against Russian rule was mercilessly put down between 1863 and 1865.
  • Civil Wars in Japan from 1864 onwards were a vital element in modernisers confronting traditionalists as the nation faced the challenge of opening up to the world outside.
  • In 1868 the vicious “Ten Years War” commenced in Cuba as insurgents sought independence from Spain. This conflict was indeed the precursor to three decades of almost continuous guerrilla campaigns that culminated in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
  • In Spain itself the revolution that toppled Queen Isabella II in 1868 was the precursor to several years of civil war, including the Third Carlist War that would rage from 1872-76.

The list above takes no account of lesser colonial conflicts, or now-forgotten wars which included the Colombian Civil War of 1860-62, the Colombian-Ecuadoran War of 1863, revolt against Ottoman rule in Crete and the Dominican Republic’s liberation from Spain between 1863 and 1865.

Forgotten many of these conflicts may now be, but each represented loss, tragedy and misery for all those they touched.
Tripartite War: Brazilian forces (in blue) engage the Paraguayan army (in red or shirtless) 
Russian troops advancing into the breach of a Central Asian fortress
 Farewell to Europe: defeated Poles being transported to Siberia in 1863
(The artist, Aleksander Sochaczewski is himself the figure to the right of the column)
Prussian Victory at Königgrätz in 1866

Friday 18 October 2013

Creasy’s 15 Decisive Battles of the World – and 10 suggested additions

In 1851 the English historian and jurist Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy published his “Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. A different outcome of each of these battles would have resulted in a significantly different course of world history, and as such they still influence the world we live in today. As such they represent major “points of departure” for alternative histories.

File:Steuben - Bataille de Poitiers.png
Tours (Poitiers) 732: Charles Martel repels the Muslim invaders of Northern Europe
Each chapter of Creasy’s book describes a different battle. The fifteen battles chosen are:
  1. The Battle of Marathon, 490 BC: Persian expansion into Europe halted
  2. Defeat of the Athenians at Syracuse, 413 BC: The end of Athenian power
  3. The Battle of Gaugamela, 331 BC: Opened Asia to Alexander’s armies
  4. The Battle of the Metaurus, 207 BC: Guaranteed Rome’s survival and triumph over Carthage
  5. Victory of Arminius over the Roman Legions under Varus, AD 9: Ends Roman expansion into Germany
  6. The Battle of Châlons, AD 451: Roman victory over the Huns saved Western Europe’s Future
  7. The Battle of Tours (Poitiers), AD 732: Stopped Muslim expansion into Northern Europe
  8. The Battle of Hastings, AD 1066: Essential First step towards Britain as a World Power
  9. Joan of Arc's Victory over the English at Orléans, AD 1429; The end of English power in France
  10. Defeat of the Spanish Armada, AD 1588: The beginning of the end for Spain as a World Power
  11. The Battle of Blenheim, AD 1704: Britain’s emergence as a Superpower
  12. The Battle of Pultowa, AD 1709: Russia’s first step to Superpower status
  13. The Battle of Saratoga, AD 1777: Secured the survival of the United States
  14. The Battle of Valmy, AD 1792: Ensures survival of French Revolutionary power and thinking
  15. The Battle of Waterloo, AD 1815: France never again achieved Superpower status

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Poltawa 1709: Russia's first step to superpower status
It is notable that due to Creasy’s focus on European (and North American) power, and because little was then known in the West about Far Eastern history, no battles were listed which refer to China’s consolidation and survival as an imperial power, the failed Mongol invasions of Japan or to Japan’s failed bid for conquest of Korea in the 15th and 16th centuries and the implications that had for subsequent Japanese history.  The Mameluk victory in 1260, over the Mongols at Ain Jalut, in Galilee, which was critical in stemming Mongol power, was also omitted. Taking these and other Asian battles into account Creasy’s list might rightly have been extended to 20 or even 25 at the time he wrote. There is also good reason that he should have included the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, which led in due course to United States acquisition of a vast areal percentage, and an economically vital one, of the modern nation.

 Since that time various writers have added to the list of post-1851 battles. Given the increasing pace and scale of conflicts since then it is not inappropriate to add at least 10. As a starting point for discussion and speculation, and with all due lack of modesty I’m suggesting the 10 post-1851 decisive battles as below:

1)       Gettysburg (and Vicksburg) 1863: though fought in separate theatres, but at almost exactly the same time, these battles made the defeat of the Southern Confederacy inevitable, not least by ending hopes of international recognition. A long attritional grind lay ahead but Union victory was now inevitable.

2)       Sedan1870: Not only did Bismarck’s Germany crush France decisively, and usher in the new German Empire, but it was absolute enough to ensure that the French would ultimately settle for a peace that ceded Alsace and Lorraine, thereby planting the seeds for WW1.

3)       Manila (and Santiago) 1898: Two naval victories half a world apart that announced the arrival of the United States as a global power and established its position in Asia that would be critical in WW2.

4)       Tsu Shima 1905: Japan’s victory over the huge Russian fleet was perhaps the most absolute in naval history. It marked the arrival of Japan as a major power and encouraged ambitions that would ultimately lead to WW2 in the Far East and the Pacific.

5)       The Marne 1914: Decisive in the sense that Germany could not achieve the quick victory in the west that it had built its strategy on. From this moment on Germany was on the back foot in the West. The Western Allies bought time that would ultimately lead to their defeat of Germany.

6)       Warsaw 1920: Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War was almost absolute when the Red Army was launched westwards to carry revolution into Central Europe. The new Polish state worked a miracle in defeating it. It saved Europe but at the cost of stoking Russian resentment that would exact a terrible revenge in later decades.

7)       The Atlantic 1939-45: Though the struggle to secure Britain’s supply lines climaxed in 1943, the fight went on from the first to the last day of WW2. Churchill described the U-Boat menace as the thing that frightened him most – and with good reason. Without victory in the Atlantic, no Allied victory in Western Europe.

8)       Stalingrad 1942-43. The name says it all. No need to say more.

9)       Saipan 1944: I’ve identified the conquest of Saipan rather than the Battle of Midway as being the decisive battle in the Pacific in WW2. My reasoning is that though Midway was critical in weakening the Japanese Navy, the United States would still have prevailed, though over a much longer time scale, if it had lost the battle.  Saipan was critical in identifying the type of war that had to be fought to beat Japan, leading in due course to the decision to drop nuclear weapons, At Saipan not only did the Japanese military fight to the death, but huge numbers of civilians, including women who killed their own children, were prepared not only to resist but to commit suicide rather than surrender. This was the first US encounter with a Japanese civilian population and it highlighted just how costly an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands would be. From this point on I believe that use of nuclear weapons was unavoidable.

10)   The Battle That Never Was 1983-90: The US commitment to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI – “Star Wars”), whether it was ever technically feasible or not at the time, was believed to be feasible by the Soviets.  Their military budgets were already an unsustainable percentage of their total economy and the pressure to compete with Star Wars was possibly the greatest single factor in bringing about the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. Not a shot was fired and the tyranny hundreds of millions had lived under for seven decades died not with a bang but a whimper.

The list above is obviously subjective and I’d be welcome to hear comments.     

Warsaw 1920: The Miracle of the Vistula
Poles advance past Marshal Pilsudski to achieve the impossible