Wednesday 18 September 2013

Coast Defence Ships - Big Bang in a Small Parcel

In “Britannia’s Wolf”, first book in my “Dawlish Chronicles” series, a key role is played by the heavily-armed Ottoman Turkish coast defence ship Mesrutiyet, which had been constructed in Britain and whose two sisters were taken into Royal Navy service in 1878 as HMS Belleisle and HMS Orion.  These were some of the last coast defence ships equipped with masts and yards, though in practice they do not appear to have operated under sail.
Mesrutiyet – designed for defence of the Turkish Straits and Black Sea coast

Coast defence ships represented major components – in some cases the backbone – of minor navies in the period 1870 to 1920, and in some cases beyond. Some few such ships could also be found in larger navies.  They were specifically designed for operations close to the home nation’s coast and were intended to act in cooperation with light forces and to make maximum use of the shelter of fortified harbours and coastal batteries. They carried a heavy armament for their size and were slow and usually – with the exception of Netherlands ships – with limited range capability. They were frequently designed with specific local conditions in mind – e.g. shallow draughts to permit inshore manoeuvring. Shipboard accommodation and storage requirements were limited as they could fall back on the resources of shore bases. They varied in size from around 1,500 tons to 8,000 tons.

Navies with coastal defence ships serving as their main capital ships tended to be those which by size or location were focussed on defence of its own territory rather than projection of force elsewhere. These included the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands (including its East Indian Empire) and Thailand. Germany also built such ships in the years prior to Kaiser Wilhelm II and Admiral Tirpitz embarking on construction of a navy to match that of Great Britain.

Larger navies did however also employ some such ships to meet satisfy specific local requirements.  Russia, for example, built several such ships for inshore operations in the Baltic. France did so to provide additional and flexible support to fortified naval bases such as Brest and Toulon.  British colonies in India and Australia built several such ships for defence of key harbours.

Some examples of coast defence ships from their birth in the1870s to their final demise in the WW2 period are provided below.

Great Britain

HMS Glatton (1871)

HMS Glatton in her Victorian glory - black hull, white superstructure 
The Glatton was designed for "the defence of our own harbours and roadsteads, and for attacking those of the enemy". In reality, her lack of freeboard would appear to have precluded any operations whatsoever except those in calm weather and smooth water. She carried her main armament of two 12” muzzle-loaders in a single turret and there was in theory be no point on the horizon to which at least one gun could not point, whatever the ship’s orientation. To achieve this the superstructure was very narrow, so that at least one of the guns in the turret could fire on targets to the after aspect of the ship. Blast effects on the superstructure from firing abaft the beam were not taken into account – or probably even understood at the time. The Glatton was the best protected ship of her day, with some 35% of her 4900 tons displacement devoted to armour.

Generally similar low freeboard ships, though with two turrets, were built for harbour protection in India (HMS Abyssinia and HMS Magdala) and for Australia (HMS Cerebus). Thereafter the coast-defence ship fell out of favour in the Royal Navy, as its raison d’etre was not just local protection of British possessions but its ability to operate on a global scale. Cost defence vessels were not to figure again in the Royal Navy until World War 1. The jump in capability since the 1870s was a large one.

HMS Glatton and HMS Gorgon (1918)

HMS Glatton in 1918

Britain’s need to deliver heavy naval fire on German positions on the Belgian Coast during World War 1 led not only to development of the modern monitor but to a search for vessels from elsewhere which were suited to shallow-water operations. Two apparently ideal coast defence ships had been under construction in Britain for the Norwegian Navy and they were acquired in 1914, although they did not enter service until 1918 due to the need for modifications in the light of war experience. Now called Glatton and Gorgon, and of 5746 tons, these ships carried two 9.4” and four 6” guns, plus smaller weapons. They were slow (12 knots maximum) but heavily armoured and “bulged”, as shown below, to provide protection against torpedo attack.

HMS Glatton in drydock, 1918. Note the anti-torpedo bulges.

In practice neither ship lived up to its promise, Glatton being destroyed by an accidental internal explosion in Dover Harbour in 1918 and Gorgon saw only limited action before the war ended, She was later expended as a target ship.


Tonnerre (1877)

Tonnerre at sea – her turning circle was smaller than that of any other in the French Navy
With the success of British blockades of French naval bases in previous wars in mind, France in the 1870s and 1880s made significant investment in slow, heavily armoured and well-armed coast defence ships which  capable of deterring or breaking future blockades. The Tonnerre, laid down in 1873 but not completed until 1879, represented a model for a number of such vessels. With her displacement of 5765 tons and armament of two 10.8” turret-mounted guns the similarity to the HMS Glatton of the same period is striking.
Jemappes Class(1890)
Even larger coast-defence ships were built by France in the 1890s, typical of these being the Jemappes and Valmy of 1890.
The Jemmapes: Note the 13.4” weapons fore and aft and the curiously curves bow and stern profiles so typical of French cost-defence ships of the period
These were large ships – 6476 tons and their main armament of two 13.4” guns would have made them very dangerous opponents in the waters close to the well-defended French bases.


Admiral Ushakov Class (1893) 

Admiral Seniavin of the Ushakov class
Though it became fashionable in the Soviet period to ridicule the voyage of the Russian Baltic Fleet to the Far East in 1904-05, and its subsequent massacre at the Battle of Tsu-Shima, the achievement of getting such a large fleet half-way across the world, without possessing naval bases on the way, was a very impressive one. This was especially so in the case of the three Ushakov coast defence ships – Admirals Ushakov, Seniavin and Apraksin – which had been designed for short-range Baltic operations, primarily for operations against the Swedes should the circumstances demand. These three vessels were essentially “pocket battleships” long before the term was invented. On 4971 tons these vessels carried four (Aprakzin carried three) 10” and four 4.7” guns. Seniavin and Apraksin surrendered to the Japanese after Tsu-Shima, though they were returned to Russia when both countries became uneasy allies in WW1 but Ushakov was sunk in the action.

The Netherlands

The Royal Netherlands Navy employed their "armoured ships" to defend their overseas empire, especially the country's vast  colonial possessions in the East Indies (modern Indonesia). Though essentially cost-defence vessels they had to be capable of long-range cruising in view of the enormous distances involved when operating offshore of what is now Indonesia, of provision of artillery support during amphibious operations, and with capacity for carrying the troops and equipment needed in such operations. They also had to be armed and armoured well enough to face contemporary armoured cruisers of the Japanese Navy (the Netherlands' most likely enemy in the Pacific). As such they were expected to act as mini-battleships rather than strictly as coastal defence vessels. Meeting this combination of requirements was an almost impossible one.

Jacob van Heemskerck(1906)

Some nine such ships were built in the 1890s and early 1900s and the last of these, the Jacob van Heemskerck reflected the lessons learned from earlier ships.

Jacob van Heemskerk with what may be the coast defence ship Piet Hein (1894) moored astern
Though constructed at the same time as HMS Dreadnought, and with the Japanese navy about to build its own dreadnoughts, the Heemskerk, with her main armament of two 9.2” weapons on 4920 tons displacement, and her maximum speed of 16.5 knots, looked like a throwback to an earlier age.  It is difficult to envisage  circumstances in which she could have offered any meaningful opposition to the Japanese and she seems at this remove to be a sad example of money badly spent. She ended her days as a German floating anti-aircraft battery in WW2.


Äran Class (1902)

Coast defence ships represented the core of the Swedish Navy up to 1947. Between 1890 and 1905 some 11 vessels of considerable sophistication, and of careful reflection of local needs, joined the fleet. It was such vessels that Russia’s Admiral Ushakov class were designed to combat in Swedish coastal waters. The Swedish ships were relatively small, with limited speed, shallow draft, and very heavy guns relative to the displacement. They were designed for close in-shore work along the shores of Sweden and, if necessary, Finland. The aim was to outgun any ocean-going warship of the same draft by a significant margin, making it a very dangerous opponent for a cruiser, and deadly to anything smaller. The limitations in speed and seaworthiness were a trade-off for the heavy armament carried. Vessels similar to the Swedish ships were also built and operated by Denmark and Norway, which had comparable requirements.

Äran (1902) – photographer unknown, source 
A typical Swedish coast defence vessel of 1902 was the Äran, one of a class of four vessels. As initially constructed these 3592-ton vessels carried two 8.3” and six 6” weapons as well as two 18” torpedo tubes. Three of this class, including Äran, were extensively upgraded and saw service until 1947.

Sverige Class (1912 – 1922)

Sverige during WW2 - Source photograph No. Fo200277 from Swedish National Maritime Museum
The three ships of this class can be argued to be the most effective coast defence vessels ever built. Though designed before WW1, their completion was delayed, even though Sweden was neutral, and at 7775 tons they were the largest ships taken into Swedish service. Capable of some 23 knots and turbine powered, these vessels packed a very potent punch of four 11.1” and eight 6” guns, plus, later, numerous anti-aircraft armament. All three vessels were extensively modernised in the 1930s and helped preserve Sweden’s neutrality in WW2. Though well-armed they would have been too small, too cramped, too slow and without enough range to engage enemy heavy ships in open water but if handled properly in defence in their home shores  they would probably have presented a major challenge for any aggressor.


Eidsvold Class (1900)

Launched in 1900 the two vessels of Norway’s Eidsvold-class were very similar to Sweden’s Äran class. The most remarkable aspect of the Eidsvold’s and Norge’s careers was that they met their ends together when the Germans invaded Norway in April 1940. German destroyers trapped both ships in the fjord at Narvik on April 9th and demanded surrender from the senior officer present, Captain Odd Isaachsen Willoch of the Eidsvold. A German officer boarded and tried to talk Willoch into surrender, but was turned down. As he left the deck of Eidsvold, the German fired a red flare, indicating that the Norwegians wished to fight. The battle-ready German destroyers torpedoed Eidsvold before she could fire her guns. Eidsvold was blown in two and sunk in seconds, propellers still turning. Only six of the crew were rescued, while 175 died in the freezing water. It was hardly a victory that the German Navy could be proud of.

Norge in happier times
Meanwhile, deeper inside the fjord, Norge’s crew heard explosions but nothing could be seen until two German destroyers suddenly appeared out of the darkness. Norge’s captain, Per Askim, gave orders to open fire at a range of about 800 yards. Due to the difficult weather condition, it was hard to use the optical sights for the guns, which resulted in the first salvo falling short of the target and the others going over. The German destroyers returned fire and launched three salvoes of two torpedoes each. The first two salvoes missed, but the last struck Norge amidships, and she sank in less than one minute, her propellers still turning. 90 of the crew were rescued from the freezing water, but 101 perished in the battle which had lasted less than 20 minutes.


Väinämöinen Class (1931)

Other than Thailand, Finland was the last country to build new coast defence ships. The design of the Väinämöinen and the Ilmarinen was optimised for operations in the Baltic archipelagos and their open sea performance was de-emphasized in order to give the vessels shallow draft and super-compact design. On 3900 tons these 300 ft. long, diesel-electric powered ships carried an armament of four 10” and eight 42 guns, plus lighter anti-aircraft weapons. Draught was just under 15ft. 

Väinämöinen in 1938
During the “Winter War” of 1939-40 against the Soviet Union the ships’ freedom of action was hampered by ice. Moored at the port of Turku, their anti-aircraft artillery aided defence. During the “Continuation War” when Finland allied itself with Germany after the latter’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, both ships shelled Soviet land targets and cooperated with German surface forces to lure out Soviet ships to battle. Ilmarinen was sunk by a mine on September 13th and went down in just seven minutes. From the crew of 403 on board only 132 survived. Thereafter the Väinämöinen saw little action and was handed over to the Soviet Baltic Fleet in 1947 as a war reparation. The Soviets named her Vyborg and kept her in service for a further 6 years.


Sri Ayudhya Class (1938)

The last coast defence ships to be built, the Sri Ayudhya and her sister Thonburi were considerably smaller, at 2350 tons, than the Finnish ships. On this displacement the 250 ft. long vessels managed to carry four 8” and four 3” guns, plus anti-aircraft armament.

Thonburi and other Thai ships were engaged by Vichy French naval forces in the Battle of Ko Chang on January 17th 1941 and suffered damage. She was beached to avoid sinking. Her sister did not arrive in time to participate.
Drawing of Thonburi by Dr. Dan Saranga
Downloaded with thanks from
Sri Ayudhya met her end during a military coup in 1951 when a group of junior naval officers took the Thai Prime Minister aboard at gunpoint. Though the ship attempted to escape from Bangkok a critical opening-bridge was kept closed against her. Shelling from land disabled her and she lay dead in the water in front of the Wichaiprasit Fort, from where she was bombarded by artillery. AT-6 (Texan) training aircraft also bombed her. Now burning, “Abandon Ship” was ordered and the Prime Minister had to swim ashore along with the crew, but was uninjured. The fires continued throughout the night and into the next day, leading to the heavily damaged Sri Ayudhya finally sinking on the night of July 1st 1951.

Sri Ayudhya’s loss brought the 80-year era of the coast defence ship to an end.


  1. Fascinating. The events at Narvik were horrendous for all concerned. The Eidsvold is mostly gone but her attacker the Wilhelm Heidkamp sits in relatively shallow water and can be dived with the relevant permission from the authorities.

    1. Narvik Fjord must rank with Iron Bottom Sound off Guadalcanal as one of the densest warship-wreck areas anywhere. The Germans may have taken out the Norwegian coast-defence ships and inflicted losses on the Royal Navy in the First Battle of Narvik but the Brits had their revenge in the Second Battle. HMS Warspite blocked exit from the fjord and massacred the German destroyer force within while her floatplane took out a U-Boat.

    2. Considering the massacre of ships in the confined waters of Narvik Fjord in the First and Second battles there it must rival Ironbottom Sound off Guadalcanal as having the greatest density of wrecked warships anywhere.

  2. These coastal protection ships seem to be a good idea, but tragic how quickly they went down when hit, and the huge loss of life even though they weren't far from shore. The Norge's bad end seemed particularly compelling; maybe it was the poor visibility and frigid waters. Thanks for bringing this era of naval history to a wider audience. Every ship has her particular story.

    1. The practical aspects of damage-control seem only to have been learned the hard way!

  3. Almost seems like these coast defence ships were a growing pain era for a lot of navies.

    1. A hard lesson that "cheap and cheerful" may in the end represent a very bad bargain.

  4. I'd love to see some of these massive ships and crawl around inside them. Well, walk. Unsteadily.

    1. They were part of a whole world that passed away.

  5. Very informative post. I never knew, that Finland allied itself with Germany to fight the Russians. My great-aunt told me, that my great-grandfather was in the navy during WW1 and that he met the Kaiser, who made a comment about my great-grandfather's mustache.Since my great-grandfather was a Pole from Galicia,I assume he was in the Austrian navy.I wonder what sort of ship he served on.

    1. Hello Denise: I think Finland was the only country to ally itself with Nazi Germany with honourable reasons. Finland had been invaded by the Russians in the "Winter War 2" of 1939-40 and had fought them off heroically. Evan after the peace treaty the threat of Soviet invasion remained and Finland fought what they called "The continuation War" after Germany invaded the USSR in 1941 so as to stabilise Finland's borders. It's a complicated story but the Finns, as a democratic country, emerged with honour intact.

      This is a great story about your great-grandfather. My wife's father also came from Galicia (Lvov)and it's sad that these territories have been lost to Poland. I drove to Southern Poland a few years back and was impressed by how the Poles have emerged with such dignity and confidence from the shadows and tyranny of the Cold War years. Great People!

      Regards: Antoine

  6. Very informative post. I never knew, that Finland allied itself with Germany to fight the Russians. My great-aunt told me, that my great-grandfather was in the navy during WW1 and that he met the Kaiser, who made a comment about my great-grandfather's mustache.Since my great-grandfather was a Pole from Galicia,I assume he was in the Austrian navy.I wonder what sort of ship he served on.

  7. So interesting to read something different - and to learn several things! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Helen! I find the story of the Thai mutiny fascinating!

  8. An interesting excursion into a whole new era of ships which I am not familiar with. Great informative post.

  9. Very interesting. Never realized how many derelict vessels were out there and how long they lasted and travelled.