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'EstrĂ©es, 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'EstrĂ©es. 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!