Friday 28 February 2014

Naval Brigades of the Victorian Royal Navy

A reader of Britannia’s Wolf approached me with a question that is equally relevant to Britannia’s Reach.  The question reads “Dawlish seems to be pretty comfortable fighting on shore, but he was an officer in the Royal Navy. How come he seems to be able to fight so well on land?”

The answer is that from his entry into the Navy in 1859 Dawlish, like other officers and ratings of the time, was trained to fight on land as well as sea. His skill as a horseman, learned in boyhood, proved an extra advantage.

Throughout the nineteenth century the Royal Navy had a strong tradition of landing “Naval Brigades” in trouble spots – invariably succeeding brilliantly.  Trouble often flared up in remote locations, to which sending Army units would be slow and difficult. The Navy was in a position to land ad-hoc forces made up of marines and bluejackets and to facilitate this most ships carried light field-guns, typically 9 or 12-pounders. These were designed to be broken down into their components – barrel, wheels etc. – for easy transport and easily reassembled for action. Such Field-Gun Competitions are still held in the Royal Navy, with teams competing for the Brickwood Trophy, and can be witnessed at public displays. Gatling, Gardner or Nordenvelt semi-automatic weapons were also employed and, later, the fully automatic Maxim.
Field-gun drill, circa 1895
In addition to such light weapons considerably larger ordnance was sometimes also landed, most notably the two 4.7” guns from HMS Powerful and HMS Terrible which were mounted in improvised carriages and which played a key role in the relief of Ladysmith in 1899 during the Second Boer war. Seamen, no less than marines, were trained in musketry and their skill with the cutlass – a fearsome close-quarters weapon – was legendary. Seaman’s familiarity with blocks and tackles made them especially valuable when transporting equipment across obstacles and ships’ carpenters were capable of taking on any challenge from constructing gun carriages to building bridges.
Naval Brigade restoring order in Alexandria 1882
Though there were too many such Naval Brigade operations to be listed here the most spectacular were those which served in The Crimea (1854-56), the Indian Mutiny (1857-58), the Ashanti War (1873-74), Alexandria (1882 - see illustration above), the Gordon Relief Expedition (1885) and the Boxer Rising (1900). During the Abyssinian campaign of 1868 the only body of men in the whole army which arrived at Magdala, after a toilsome march of 400 miles across the mountains, without a single man falling out for any cause, was the Naval Brigade. There were literally dozens of smaller actions. Particularly notable was the Benin Expedition of 1897 which was almost an entirely naval “show” without Regular Army participation.
Naval Brigade formed by HMS Doris and HMS Rambler, 2nd Boer War, South Africa 1899
In the 1890s a large Royal Navy vessel – such as an “R-Class” battleship such as HMS Royal Sovereign – was capable of landing a “Battalion” of four “Companies”, with sixty men in each. Two 9-pounders and two Maxim machine guns, all on field carriages, were available to land with them. When fully accoutered the men carried rifles, ammunition pouches, water bottle, haversack, blanket and entrenching spade. They were trained to carry out regimental attack and defence manoeuvres – as the dramatic photograph below illustrates “forming square” to repulse cavalry.
The vulnerability of a square to artillery, but not to cavalry, is obvious
Equally important was proficiency in rifle shooting, practice at sea being made possible by use of the “Morris Tube” calibre-adapter which allowed miniature rounds to be used in the standard rifle of the time, the .303 Lee-Metford. A photograph below shows such practice on the quarterdeck of HMS Royal Sovereign (1891).

Rifle practice, using Morris tubes, on HMS Royal Sovereign circa 1895
Note the men lying down and the three small targets near the ensign-staff.
The cutlass, the weapon most closely associated with the British bluejacket, was still considered a useful weapon. A photograph below, taken on the restored HMS Warrior at Portsmouth, shows them stowed on a deckhead. They are surprisingly short weapons by comparison with a sword - probably from having been initially designed for use below deck in boarding operations.

The “stamp, thrust and hack” associated with its use must have been terrifying at close quarters and regular exercising was a normal part of every ship’s routine.
Cutlass drill ashore, circa 1895
Cutlass drill on the quarterdeck of HMS Royal Sovereign circa 1895

Friday 21 February 2014

Britannia's Reach - the Second Dawlish Chronicle

Dawlish looked at him in amazement. "But this is a private matter," he said. "No British interest..."
"Ah, but there you're wrong Commander," Topcliffe cut him short. "Britannia's reach is not just political or military alone. What higher interest can there be than consolidation of Britain's commercial interests?"
The first book of the Dawlish Chronicles, Britannia’s Wolf told how Nicholas Dawlish, an ambitious young British naval officer, was seconded unofficially to the Ottoman Navy as the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 approached its vicious climax. In the process he not only fought Russians by land and by sea but also found himself embroiled in a maelstrom of intrigue and barbarism, as well as sacrifice and heroism, on the Turkish side. He also fell in love, though he shrunk a long while from admitting it.
Antoine Vanner on a cold, windy day on the British coast!
The second book in the series, Britannia’s Reach, has just been published. Now back in Britain, Dawlish is established in a prestigious position involving torpedo development. Life is comfortable until on one rainy November night in 1879 a cab draws up at his front door. The visitor is somebody Dawlish has worked for before and has a proposition which is very hard to refuse – especially as Dawlish aspires to further advancement in rank…

…three months later, on a broad river deep in the heart of South America, a flotilla of paddle steamers thrashes slowly upstream. It is laden with troops, horses and artillery, its objectives conquest and revenge. 

Ahead lies a commercial empire that was wrested from a British consortium in a bloody revolution. Now the investors are determined to recoup their losses and are funding a vicious war to do so.

In this expedition Dawlish is playing a leading role.  But as brutal land and river battles mark its progress upriver, and as both sides inflict and endure ever greater suffering, stalemate threatens.

And Dawlish finds himself forced to make a terrible ethical choice if he is to return to Britain with some shreds of integrity remaining…

What others have said about Britannia’s Reach: 
extracts from  Amazon reviews

Linda Collison, Novelist;
As I read I couldn't help but see parallels with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness… the author's knowledge of the period and the events is apparent, yet the details never get in the way of a good, if violent, story. The ethics of the engagement are questionable and the author does nothing to glamorize the conflict; this is no recount of the Glorious First of June, this is no pastiche of the battle of Trafalgar. Instead, Britannia's Reach is a dark, brutal, complex story, told in a compelling style.
Instead of trying to validate Dawlish's actions as a hero's deeds, Vanner shows us his motives and his actions. Nicholas Dawlish – an honorable man, a likeable man – is forced to make a terrible choice. It is this dilemma that elevates the story above most historical action-adventure books.
C.E.Ramsay, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran:
Britannia's Reach by Antoine Vanner is the second in a series of first-rate naval yarns by the best historical author I have read in years… Dawlish is recruited by a British corporation to suppress a revolution bankrupting its assets. But what begins as routine gunboat operations in the South American country of Paraguay quickly turns into nightmare river battles. His riverboat forces initially mauled in a cunning surprise attack, Dawlish finds himself matching wits with a Spartacus-style military genius in league with an equally innovative yet vengeful naval officer. Meanwhile leaders of the mercenary army Dawlish finds himself assigned to reveal themselves to be nothing more than hired-guns of a brutal industrial slave-empire. Their conduct makes it obvious the rebels have some just cause, so Dawlish in his humanity risks all to provide alternatives. But when villains and heroes on both sides refuse to bend, the remorseless war goes on – and only Dawlish wants to prevent the outcome from growing into an apocalyptic nightmare.
For this exciting and thought-provoking tale I give Antoine Vanner a Marine Corps "Oohrah!" and look forward to the next instalment.
Seymour Hamilton, Novelist
Britannia’s Reach is not a book for the faint-hearted. Blood and destruction spatter the pages with historic accuracy that recalled for me the exploits of Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe, possibly because much of this Dawlish adventure takes place ashore. This is a riverine war, in which seamanship is challenged by the task of getting unwieldy ships up a strongly defended river. This suits Dawlish, because he is something of an inventor and military technician, who can focus on refinements of gunnery and ignore the human suffering it inflicts -- at least until after the engagements are over…
Vanner has mastered the art of pacing a story. The engagements kept me turning pages, intent on the unfolding events. I'm a reader in the bathtub, where I stayed until the water was so cold I had to get out, towel while shivering, and repair to bed where I continued to read far into the night.


Britannia’s Reach is available in either paperback or Kindle format.
As an introductory offer the Kindle version is offered at $1.26 in the United States and Canada and at £0.77 in the United Kingdom and Europe. Click below the cover image for details.
If you have not previously read the first Dawlish novel, Britannia’s Wolf, this is now your opportunity to meet Nicholas Dawlish on his first published adventure. Both Paperback and Kindle versions are available. Click below the cover image for details.

Click here for purchase details

Click here for purchase details

If you want to know more about Antoine Vanner, Nicholas Dawlish and The Dawlish Chronicles, plus a lot about the Victorian era, then try website

Antoine Vanner's grandchildren, John and Nicolette, celebrating publication!
Themselves novelists in the future perhaps!

Tuesday 11 February 2014

HMS Thunderer – and the end of muzzle-loaders in the Royal Navy

Three ships of the Royal Navy in the 1870s, HMS Devastation, her close sister HMS Thunderer and her slightly larger sister HMS Dreadnought, can be fairly regarded as the models for subsequent mainstream battleship layout and development. 
HMS Devastation, the Thunderer's close sister, firing a salute
These ships were the first mastless battleships, armed with four 12-inch guns in rotating turrets and with a central superstructure layout. Armoured with 12” of iron from end to end, they were of 6000 tons on a length of  285 feet. Their hydraulic turret machinery and twin screw propulsion put them in the forefront of mechanical design and their coal bunkerage provided a range sufficient – in theory at least – to cross the Atlantic. 
HMS Thunderer's layout - turrets fore and aft, superstructure amidships
These vessels had however two fatal weaknesses. One was irredeemable – that low freeboard ensured that even in relatively calm seas the foredeck was awash, thereby limiting fighting ability. 
HMS Thunderer, her decks awash in a heavy sea in her late career
The second weakness – the retention of muzzle-loading main armament – was one that could be recovered from, but not before a ghastly accident emphasised the need for change. During the 1860s the Royal Navy had made trials of breech-loading guns, but after a number of failures – mainly resulting from metallurgical problems – there was a reversion to muzzle-loaders, which had none of the complications of machining sealing and easily operating breech closures. Armstrongs, the great British gun-maker, did however persist with development and by the late 1870s much more reliable designs were to become available. In the meantime the Royal Navy relied on ever-larger muzzle loaders, culminating in the 80-ton, 16” calibre weapons mounted in HMS Inflexible (completed 1881).  This was made possible by the use of hydraulic power for handling, loading and ramming these guns with their enormously heavy powder charges and shot. These weapons had remarkable strength, as shown in  experiments with a 9-inch gun In 1869, the central tube splitting only when the 1,008th round was fired. The metal yielded gradually, and the strength of the outer jacket was thoroughly proved by firing a further 41 forty-one rounds after the barrel had split, and still the exterior remained perfectly sound.

In the case of HMS Thunderer and her sisters, the guns were of 12” calibre and 38 tons weight. Mounted in turrets fore and aft they were run out for firing but were thereafter run back in again, and the muzzles depressed so that fresh projectiles could be loaded – the illustration below shows the process.
Thunderer's 12" muzzle-loaders depressed for relaoding
Thunderer’s career was to be marked by two serious accidents. The first was not gunnery-related and involved a boiler explosion in July 1876 as she proceeded from Portsmouth Harbour to Stokes Bay to carry out a full power trial. This killed 15 people instantly, including her captain who was in the boiler room at the time, and injured around 70 others, of whom 30 later died. The reason for the explosion was that the pressure gauge was broken and the safety valves had seized through corrosion. The boiler explosion signalled the end of box boilers in favour of the Scotch cylindrical type, and it led directly to the writing of the first official RN Steam Manual in 1879. One also imagines that there was increased attention thereafter to the inspection and testing of safety valves!
Thunderer enveloped in smoke and steam as a boiler explodes, July 1876 
The second accident happened when the Thunderer, attached to the Mediterranean Fleet, was exercising in the Sea of Marmara on January 2nd, 1879. One of the 38-ton 12” guns mounted in the forward turret burst, killing two officers and eight men, besides wounding several others.
12" gun explodes in Thunderer's forward turret, January 1879
In view of the implications of the accident – the possibility that a class of weapon that armed the navy’s most powerful ships was fatally defective – the Admiralty appointed a commission of officers and scientific experts by to investigate its causes. This commission decided that the accident had been the result of a deplorable error in loading discipline, made worse by the inherent nature of the loading process and that on the day the gun had been fired when loaded with two complete rounds of powder and projectile.
The aftermath of the explosion - damage inside the turret
During the firing exercise it was intended to fire the two guns simultaneously, both being loaded with a battering charge of 110 lb. of powder and a Palliser projectile 800 lb. in weight. One gun, however, missed fire, although nobody was apparently aware of the fact –  the concussion and the smoke made by the discharge of one gun was so great that it was considered difficult for anyone was on the look-out to tell that they were not due to both guns. The crews were drilled to run their guns in directly they fired, so as to be in readiness for reloading and, not observing that one of the guns had not gone off, they proceeded to run in. Both guns were reloaded through the muzzle, by the hydraulic system with the result that the weapon with the double charge burst when the next round was fired.
Surviving 12" in test cell at Woolwich Arsenal
When the Admiralty received the report of the commission they determined, “in order that no question should arise in the future as to the correctness of the conclusions which the committee had arrived at”, to have the surviving gun brought back to Britain and subjected to trials, with a view of ascertaining under what other conditions it would burst. These tests were conducted at Woolwich Arsenal, the gun being enclosed in a protective bunker or “cell” to avoid further risk to life.  After a series of experiments however, when every suggestion had been tried without injuring the gun, it was double loaded, just as the commission reported that in their opinion the burst gun had been. When the smoke cleared away from the ceIl it was found that the gun had burst like its former companion, and that the fractures in the two guns were nearly identical.
Italy's Caio Dulio - in her time one of the most heavily armed ships afloat
Another accident, which, however, fortunately was not attended by loss of life, occurred to one of the massive Armstrong 100-ton rifled muzzle-loading 17.7” guns mounted on the Italian battleship Duilio. This followed close on the Thunderer disaster, in March, 1880, when the gun was being tested for acceptance. In this case the barrel was fractured, the rear portion being forced to the rear, and carrying with it the covering jackets, none of the superimposed coils, however, being injured.

These accidents undoubtedly strengthened the feeling in favour of a return to breech-Ioaders which had been growing in the mind of the Navy for some time, since it was quite certain that no such mistake as double-loading could be made with a breech-loading gun, as it was impossible to force the projectile home beyond a certain distance, and consequently there would not be room for a second charge. By this stage advances n metallurgy had made breech-loading of even large weapons a practical option and over the coming years new breech-loaders were substituted for muzzle loaders still in service. Among the ships to be so upgraded were the Thunderer and her sisters, receiving 10” weapons, as per the diagram below.
Thunderer turret regunned with 10" breech-loader.
This final acceptance of the superiority of the breech-loader brought to an end an era that had begun in the days of Drake and which encompassed all the great naval actions of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Britannia’s Reach by Antoine Vanner

"Britannia’s reach is not just political or military alone. What higher interest can there be than consolidation of Britain’s commercial interests?” So says one of the key figures in this novel, which centres on the efforts of a British-owned company  to reassert control of its cattle-raising investment in Paraguay, following a revolt by its workers.

This story of desperate riverine combat brings historic naval fiction into the Age of Fighting Steam.

Click here to read the opening chapters

Saturday 1 February 2014

The strange career of the Dutch Protected Cruiser Gelderland

My wife’s grandmother, a splendid lady who died at almost 100 in the 1980s, gave me a very graphic eye-witness account of actually seeing the ex-president of the Transvaal, Paul Kruger. He was then being applauded by a crowd while taking a carriage ride in Amsterdam around 1902. Kruger had been offered asylum in the Netherlands as his government collapsed in the Boer War and he was never to return to Africa. The manner in which this intransigent Boer leader was brought to Europe is of considerable interest and the ship that carried him, the Gelderland,  was itself to have a remarkable career.

The Utrecht, a sister of the Gelderland, showing how the latter would have looked in 1900
Kruger was born in 1825 on a farm in the east of what was then the British-ruled Cape Colony. At the age of 11 he accompanied his family on the “Great Trek”, in which thousands of Boer families, dissatisfied with British rule, struck eastwards and north-eastwards into the territories that would later to become the independent Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.  Kruger was to play a significant military and political role in the development of the Transvaal Republic. He became president for the first time in 1880, at the time of First Boer War with Britain. Boer forces were to prove victorious in the only major battle – Majuba Hill – and the conflict was settled  by an agreement that secured recognition of  Transvaal independence under nominal, and face-saving, British suzerainty. Kruger was to win successive presidential elections thereafter and gained considerable prestige during an official tour of Europe in 1884.
Paul Kruger - a contemporary cartoon that encapsulates his image
His Bible and pipe were his constant companions
The independence of the two Boer republics might have continued indefinitely had not the discovery of gold and diamonds attracted large numbers of non-Boers, the so-called Uitlanders, essentially foreigners. Their presence represented a significant challenge to Boer culture and society and was widely resented. Denial of civil rights to Uitlanders were a major cause of the Second Boer War (1899 to 1902) which again pitted the Boer Republics against Britain. The conflict can be roughly divided into two phases, the first of relatively conventional warfare and lasting about a year, during which Boer forces were initially very successful, but which were thereafter crushed by superior British forces. The second, and most bitter, phase was to be a guerrilla war in which small, mobile and brilliantly led Boer columns proved difficult to hunt down and destroy.
A Boer Commando - at the time perhaps the best irregular troops in the world
There was widespread sympathy for the Boer cause in Europe, not least in the Netherlands, since the majority of the Boer population were of Dutch descent. Both France and Germany were probably less Pro-Boer than Anti-British, as France was still smarting over its climb-down in the Fashoda confrontation with Britain, while Germany’s irrational Kaiser Wilhelm II was increasingly resentful of British power and prestige. 

Pretoria, the Transvaal capital, fell to British forces in June 1900, thereby effectively ending the first phase of the war. Kruger had left the city shortly before this but age and infirmity – he was no longer able to ride a horse – precluded him taking part in the guerrilla campaign now starting. He lay low for almost four months before crossing the border into Portuguese-ruled Mozambique, heading for Lourenco Marques, now Maputo. Wilhelmina (1880-1962), the young queen of the Netherlands was moved by his plight. She resolved to assist Kruger, regardless of the problems this might imply for British-Dutch relations, and in so doing showed the same mettle that was to characterise her leadership of the nation four decades later when Germany invade in 1940.
The young Queen Wilhelmina
She reigned under her mother's regency from 1890
and alone after coming of age in 1898
The new Dutch protected cruiser Gelderland was accordingly sent to Lourenco Marques to carry Kruger to exile in Europe. This unusual assignment was to be the first in what was to be a remarkable career extending over almost five decades.

Roughly equivalent to the Royal Navy’s Apollo Class of Second Class Cruisers, the Gelderland was one of the six-ship Holland Class which were primarily designed for service on overseas stations in the Dutch East Indies and Dutch Antilles. Details were as follow:

Displacement:   4,100 tons     Length: 310 ft
Propulsion: Two 3-cycle triple expansion engines, total 10,500 HP
Speed:  19.5 knots (1914)
Armament: 2× 6” (bow and stern chasers) 6× 4.7” (on the beam)
20 lighter weapons

The Royal Navy had been operating a blockade to prevent supplies reaching the Boer forces, mainly through Mozambique, but no attempt was made to intercept the Gelderland or prevent Kruger’s embarkation in November 1900. His removal from the scene was indeed probably seen by the British as desirable in view of his iconic status. He was carried to Marseilles and travelling on to the Netherlands, where he stayed as an honoured guest in rented homes in Hilversum and Utrecht. Ill health seems to have prompted him to move to Switzerland, and thereafter to Menton on the Riviera, where he died in 1904, an incongruous end for a man so closely identified with Boer life and culture.
A contemporary magazine illustration showing the Gelderland carrying Kruger to Europe
Kruger was a highly popular figure in the Netherlands, as attested by several streets and squares being named after him in various towns. In Amsterdam the  Transvaalbuurt (Transvaal Neighbourhood), constructed as a city extension for 1910 onwards had many of its streets named after Boer politicians and generals while in The Hague a generally similar Transvaalkwartier (Transvaal Quarter) had its streets named after Boer victories in the first year of the war.

In the following years the Gelderland was to serve in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, surviving a grounding occasioned by incomplete charts.
The Gelderland leaving for the Dutch Antilles
The Gelderland was to be involved in two further international incidents. In 1908 a dispute broke out between the Netherlands and Venezuela regarding harbouring of dissident Venezuelan refugees in the Dutch-governed island of CuraƧao. Venezuela expelled the Dutch ambassador, prompting a Dutch dispatch of three warships, one of them the Gelderland, with orders to intercept ships sailing under the Venezuelan flag. In  a bloodless incident, on December 12th 1908, the Gelderland captured a Venezuelan coast guard vessel and thereafter, with the other Dutch ships, enforced a blockade on Venezuela's ports. Angered by this, and blaming it on the Venezuelan president, his  internal opponents overthrew his regime and the standoff with the Netherlands was ended.

Four years later the Gelderland was again involved in an international incident, this time when she was sent to Istanbul to join ships sent by other European powers to protect the lives and properties of foreigners as the First Balkan war neared its climax and the Bulgarian army threatened the city. The Gelderland contributed a 100-man landing party to an international force of up to 3000 men. This force was subsequently withdrawn without action being required.

The Gelderland’s later years in Dutch service were as a training vessel, and she was out of use by the outbreak of WW2.  The hull appears however to have been in reasonable condition and in 1941 the Netherlands’ Nazi occupiers saw potential for employing her. She was therefore converted into an ant-aircraft ship at Elbing, in what is now Poland, and renamed the Niobe.  So named, she entered service in March 1944, and unlike other German anti-aircraft battery ships had her own engines and could steam under power. In this new guise the Gelderland/Niobe carried a very powerful anti-aircraft armament:

8× 10.5 cm Flak L/45 C/32
4× 40 mm Bofors L/60
4× 20 mm (4×4) Vierlinge C/38 – Four Barrel Pom-Poms

The Niobe operated off the Finnish city of Kotka during the Russian Vyborg–Petrozavodsk Offensive. In July 1944 she was subjected to massive air attack – by some 130 enemy aircraft according to one source – and she was sunk in the harbour,  70 of the crew being  killed and five of the attackers shot down.
The wrecked Niobe off Kotla
This was still not the end for the tough old cruiser – which indeed had possibly been the last of this type of vessel ever to see service in any guise – and she was raised by the Russians and not finally scrapped until 1953.
HMS Hereward in the 1930s. Note the twin mounting in B position
And one final twist – just as Queen Wilhelmina had rescued a fleeing head of state, so too was she to be rescued by a foreign warship in May 1940 when the Netherlands was overrun by Nazi Germany. The Queen was evacuated from Hoek van Holland by the British destroyer HMS Hereward and was thereafter the inspirational focus of Dutch resistance overseas to the Nazi invaders. She returned to a liberated Netherlands in March 1945 and reigned until her abdication in 1948. This indomitable woman died in 1962.
Queen Wilhelmina broadcasting from London to the Nazi--occupied Netherlands
Her belief in the ultimate liberation of her nation never faltered