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?