Friday 28 November 2014

The Dawlish Chronicles “Conflict Archive”

 When I set up my “Dawlish Chronicles” website,,  some two years ago I included a section called “Steam, Steel and Strife”, which can be accessed via the “Conflict” button on the home-page.  In this section I intended to post articles related to naval history which were directly germane to the Dawlish Chronicles novels themselves. As time went on however, and as my researches continued, I found it regrettable that not all that I came across could be directly or indirectly used in my novels. It seemed a pity to let this information go to waste, the more so since it was likely to be of interest to a large number of naval and history enthusiasts.

From this was born the blog you are now reading, on which I have been publishing articles on a weekly basis, or sometimes more often. These cover a very wide range of events, personalities and technology related to naval history in the mid-18 th to early-20th  Century period. The majority of these articles have been transferred to my website’s “Conflict” section. At present there are over 50 such articles and more are added on a regular basis. The listing did however leave something to be desired, making it difficult to access articles as they were not classified by era, or in chronological order of occurrence. A “clean up” of the listing was obviously required.

I have now accordingly reorganised the listing. The “Conflict” page (click here to access) now represents a portal to listings of articles in three historical periods and sequence. These are:
The Age of Fighting Sail

The articles under this heading relate to naval and other history between 1700 and the early 1830s.  In this period sailing warships reached their zenith of perfection and the professionalism of naval officers and men was to be a determining factor in the fate of empires. Articles include accounts of battles, of shipwrecks and survivals and of unusual aspects of naval-related life.

The Victorian Era
This is the largest section. The period covered is from 1837 to 1901 and it was characterised by great political change, scientific discovery and technological innovation. As it started steam was still a novelty at sea and the Royal Navy was commanded by veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. When it ended, steam propulsion, steel construction, electricity, and the deployment of  armour, torpedoes and huge guns had resulted in ships which in many cases would live on to fight in World War 1. Articles cover topics as diverse as battles, biographies of leading figures, maritime disasters, weaponry, Arctic exploration and much else. It is the world in which Nicholas Dawlish makes his career.

The 20th Century

These articles are mainly related to the early decades of the 20th Century. Topics include the rise of the Imperial German Navy, conflict between Russia and Japan, the Balkan Wars and World War 1 itself, when naval warfare was to develop in ways not previously envisaged or possible. There was still a surprising role for sailing craft (in destroying U-Boats!) but aircraft had also arrived on the scene, playing an unexpected role following a mutiny on a Dutch warship.


The range of topic is huge and varied and out of over 50 articles I chosen some examples at random – I hope they’ll encourage you to explore further!

The Most Ferocious Frigate Action Ever? HMS Quebec  vs  Surveillante, 1779

Single ship actions, usually between frigates, are remembered as some of the most dramatic actions of the age of fighting sail and they figure as central elements in the naval fiction of Forrester, Pope, O’Brian and others. Perhaps the most dramatic of all single-frigate action was fought not during the Revolutionary or Napoleonic Wars, but when French was locked in conflict with Britain during the American War of Independence. ..

Lonely Lives and Deaths – French Napoleonic Prisoners of War in Britain 1793-1815

The plight of prisoners of war during the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars was particularly poignant. Over 100,000 of them were brought to Britain during the wars with France that raged from 1793 to 1815, with only a one-year break in 1802/03.The article tells how many ended up in a small Hampshire town and about the legacy they left behind

HMS Indefatigable vs. Droits de l’Homme 1797

The Royal Navy of the Victorian era was dominated by memories of what had been achieved in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and indeed up to the mid-19th Century the navy was still commanded by officers who had seen service in their youths under commanders such as Nelson. This article describes one of the most ferocious actions of those years.

The End of Fighting Sail – Sidon, Beirut and Acre 1840

Though steam propulsion was first applied to warships, on a small scale, in the late 1830s, it was to take another half-century before sail was finally abandoned by the world’s navies. 1840 was however to see the last major action by the Royal Navy in which a sailing wooden line-of-battle ship, of a type almost identical to those which fought under Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805, was to play the leading role.

Britain and France confront Argentina: The Battle of Obligdo 1845

Today, when one thinks of naval combat between British and Argentinian forces the Falklands War of 1982 is the case most likely to come to mind. An equally fierce engagement did however occur 137 years earlier and, though it is largely forgotten in Britain today, is commemorated annually in Argentina by a national holiday on each 20th November.

Mallet's Monster Mortar and the Birth of Seismology 1854/56

The need for massive weapons for breaching fixed land defences was dramatically illustrated during the Crimean War's Siege of Sevastopol in 1854/56. One response, by a forgotten Victorian genius, was the creation of the largest weapon constructed up to that time. Two examples remain and visiting one of them impelled me to write this piece. But there was more to the story than weapony alone, for the engineer responsible was to found the science of Seismology and to prefigure weapons used with devastating effect in WW2.

Coast Defence Ships - Big Bangs in Small Packets 1870-1951

For some eighty years from 1870 small, slow, powerfully armed and heavily armoured "Coast Defence" ships represented the backbone of many small navies, and even found limited use in much larger ones. This long article describes  this now largely-forgotten type of warship and the dramatic fates of some of them.

HMS Shah vs Huascar 1877 - an indecisive but significant single-ship action

An obscure single ship action off the coast of South America, though inconclusive, was of enormous significance for future naval warfare. It involved a British cruiser, HMS Shah, and the Huascar, a rebel Peruvian ironclad which still exists today, though in another navy.

The ramming of SMS Grosser Kurfürst 1878

For more than four decades from the mid-1860s almost all warships were built with bows designed for use of ramming as an offensive tactic. 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. One such incident occurred in sight of the English shore in 1878, resulting in sinking of the newly completed German ironclad Grosser Kurfürst with the loss of some 270 lives.

The wreck of HMS Wasp in 1884

Though it is likely that many in her crew disliked the task assigned them it is fair to say that the mission on which HMS Wasp was engaged at the time of her loss was one of the most inglorious ever undertaken by the Royal Navy.

Pride, Folly and Superb Seamanship - HMS Calliope at Apia 1889

The unlikely location of Samoa saw a confrontation between American and German naval forces in 1889, with a Royal Navy warship as neutral observer. This stand-off had the potential to launch a shooting war which would have had immense impact on subsequent world history. But then a hitherto unexpected player, Mother Nature herself, dealt the deciding hand...

The varied career of the Dutch protected cruiser Gelderland 1898-1944

In 1900 a young queen sent a cruiser to rescue a fugitive South African president. The vessel involved, the Gelderland, was to have a very varied career thereafter, culminating in a battle off Finland against the Soviets in 1944. It's quite an amazing story...

A sea battle you've never heard of: Elli 1912

... and it was in a war that's been largely forgotten. But the clash of the Greek and Ottoman Turkish navies at the Battle of Elli in 1912, and the savagery of the two Balkan Wars of 1912-13, were to give a foretaste of what was going to happen on a much larger scale a year later. A notable aspect of the battle is that it mixed outdated relics of the ironclad age with ultra-modern vessels, some of which were to go on to play active roles in both World Wars.

World War 1 in the North Sea: Sailing Craft versus the U-Boats

Though the “Age of Fighting Sail” ended around 1840 as regards major warships, small sailing craft were to play a very important role in World War 1 in Britain’s battle against Germany’s U-Boats. And some of the sailing craft were very small indeed and operating them demanded courage of the highest order.

The Mutiny on De Zeven Provincien - and its dramatic ending 1933

This event merits coverage since it is little known of outside the Netherlands and because its significance goes far beyond its immediate circumstances. The mutiny was to be terminated in a most unexpected way, by the aggressive deployment of air power at sea for the first time since the Great War.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Readying for launch: “Britannia’s Shark”

“Britannia’s Shark” is the third of the Dawlish Chronicles novels and is due for publication in paperback and Kindle formats in early December.

It’s 1881 and a daring act of piracy draws the ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, into a deadly maelstrom of intrigue and revolution.  Drawn in too is his wife Florence, for whom the glimpse of a half-forgotten face evokes memories of earlier tragedy. For both a nightmare lies ahead, amid the wealth and squalor of America’s Gilded Age and on a fever-ridden island ruled by savage tyranny. Manipulated ruthlessly from London by the shadowy Admiral Topcliffe, Nicholas and Florence Dawlish must make some very strange alliances if they are to survive – and prevail.

You may also recall that last month I invited readers to guess what the “X” would be in the title “Britannia’s X”. 

The only clues I offered were (a) that the action covers the period April – September1881, (b) that the adventure (and nightmare!) starts in the Northern Adriatic but shifts continents thereafter and (c) that Nicholas Dawlish’s intrepid wife, Florence, plays a key role.

Given this scant information, fans of the Dawlish Chronicles series responded with some splendid guesses, none of them actually “Shark” however. Here are the best:

Steve Cook:             “Britannia’s Secret”, hinting perhaps at what Florence might be wearing under her voluminous outer garments. As a gentleman however I could not possibly speculate about such a delicate subject, much less write about it. Dawlish would probably horsewhip me.

Robert Field:           “Britannia’s Argosy”, resulting from a really ingenious piece of reasoning. Robert identified Ragusa as an Adriatic port and “Argosy” as a Ragusan word. A splendid effort but, unfortunately, incorrect.

Ian Synge:                “Britannia’s Pig”, from another thread of ingenious reasoning. Again starting from the Adriatic setting, and knowing that there were tensions in this period between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia on commercial trade in pigs, resulting in a tariff confrontation entitled the “Pig War”, Ian had suspicions that Dawlish might have been sent to represent British economic interests in this imbroglio. Great idea, but incorrect. Perhaps Lady Agatha’s diplomat brother Oswald would be better suited to sorting this one out.

Carl Ramsay:           “Britannia’s Victory” – a great title and one to be stored for possible future use.

Shaun White:          “Britannia’s Blockade” – another splendid title that invites a story to support it.

And most outrageous of all:

Gary Early deserves to be quoted verbatim, in an answer capable of inspiring Gilbert and Sullivan to create HMS Pinafore, had they not already done so:

“It is the Northern Adriatic (for no obvious reason, but possibly for tax purposes). Nicholas Dawlish is in line to take command of Her Majesty's latest and greatest warship. So, too, are several other contenders. There is nothing to separate these men in terms of maritime competence and martial skill. Thus, in its wisdom, the Admiralty declares that command will be given to the officer with the best singing voice!

The book is, of course, "Brittannia's Got Talent."

I’ll be announcing soon Britannia’s Shark exact publication date in early December.

I hope that readers who’ve already met the Dawlish couple will be glad to make their acquaintance again and join them in a desperate adventure. In Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Reach daring and initiative have earned Dawlish the advancement in the Royal Navy which he hungers for.  But is the price too high, for himself, for his principles and for the woman he loves?

Britannia’s Shark is being published through the Old Salt Press, an association of independent writers dedicated to publishing the finest in nautical fiction and non-fiction. I’ve been honoured by being asked to join founder authors Joan Druett, Rick Spilman, Alaric Bond and V.E. Ulett and hope that my continuing work will live up to the high standards they have already set.

Friday 7 November 2014

China’s Zhongshan Gunboat – a splendid restoration

I was in Singapore last week and on my way from the airport to the hotel I saw a large banner-like announcement for an exhibition entitled “The Zhongshan Warship” and its treasures. I had not previously heard of this vessel but I was very keen to learn more. I found it of great interest and in this blog I’d like to share something of it.

The exhibition – which continues in Singapore until April 2015 – is organised by the Zhongshan Warship Museum of  Wuhan, China, and is held in the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. This is housed in what was the residence of one of Singapore’s most successful merchants and philanthropists in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Should you be visiting Singapore it is well worth visiting this splendid museum even should the Zhongshan exhibition be finished.  The museum covers not only the life of Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925), the revolutionary who brought about the fall of the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty in 1911 and who created the Chinese Republic that followed, but it also tells the story of the rise of the great Chinese business empires centred on Singapore. Sun’s story is dramatic in the extreme and I was not previously aware just what a large role was played in the revolution by the Overseas Chinese communities as regards funding and provision of support for political exiles and activists. The museum is splendidly housed and the organisation and range of exhibits make it a model of its kind.

The presence of the Zhongshan exhibition at the museum is explained by the fact that the vessel, named after Sun Yat Sen (his name in Mandarin being Sun Zhongshan), was strongly associated with him, as well as with a number of other significant events in the years 1911-1937.

The splendid Sun Yat Sen Nanyang memorial Hall, Singapore

 Initially called the Yongfen, the Zhongshan was one of two gunboats ordered by the Qing Imperial Government in 1910. They were built at the Mitsubishi yard at Nagasaki and their specifications were as follow:

Displacement:  830 Tons
Dimensions:     205 ft. long, 29.5 ft. beam and 15.3 ft. draught
Crew:               108-140
Armament:      1 X 105 mm at bow, 4 X 47 mm along sides, 1X 40 mm aft
                        2 X 39 mm Anti-Aircraft weapons added in 1920s/30s
Machinery:      1350 hp triple expansion, twin screws, max speed 13.5 knots.

Zhongshan, as seen in the 1920s or 30s

The design was well suited to operation either in coastal waters, or on China’s vast inland river system. By the time the Yongfen and her sister Yonhsiang were delivered the Imperial Government had fallen. The new republic was to face many challenges, not least an attempt by in 1915-16 by the first president, Yuan Shih Kai (1859-1916) to proclaim himself emperor. Sun Yat Sen was a major force in frustrating this attempt. In the “Warlord Period” which followed, in which central authority was challenged by local strongmen who controlled vast areas with their private armies, naval units allied themselves with the “Constitution Protection Movement” which was pledged to defend the republic. 
Sun Yat Sen and his wife, with crew, in 1922, when the Yongfen was his refuge

In 1922 during further internal strife, Sun Yat Sen, who was still actively attempting to unify the country, escaped danger by taking refuge on the Yongfen for a period of 55 days. This included running past the forts on the Pearl River, close to Guangdong (Canton), which were controlled by the warlord Chen Jiong Ming (1878-1933) with both Sun, and his protégée Chaiang Kai Shek on board. It was to commemorate this that the vessel was renamed Zhongshan.

Under its new name the gunboat continued to have an active career, which included coastal operations against pirates. In 1937 however, when Japan invaded China (in what was essentially the opening of WW2, though few in the west wanted to recognise this at the time) she was deployed in the Yangtze River to oppose the Japanese advance westwards from Shanghai.  On October 24th , near Wuhan, she was attacked and sunk by six Japanese aircraft, the captain and 20 of the crew being killed.

Hull seen on surface for first tine in almost 60 years

Zhongshan refloated in 1997 - and in remarkably good condition
The wreck was to lie undisturbed until 1996 when it was resolved to raise and refurbish her as  a memorial to Sun. The hull appears to have been in remarkably good condition and after an eight-man diving team removed some 1500 tons of silt from her it was possible to raise her, between two barges, in February 1997. The hull was was winched on to a slipway for work to proceed on her and transported thereafter by means of a floating drydock to the custom-built viewing hall built for her near Wuhan. Final fitting out was done there, where she is now on permanent display.The photographs below give and idea of the very comprehensive work involved. 

Work in progress on slipway

Completely restored hull en-route to the display hall near Wuhan
Zhongshan being moved into display hall
As Zhongshan is currently displayed

The exhibition covers all aspects of the vessel’s history and operation. There is a splendid 1:50 model and a large display of artefacts recovered in good condition from the silt, which probably acted as a preservative. Seen together they present a poignant view of what life would have been on board the Zhongshan as she patrolled the Chinese coast and penetrated deep into the interior on the country’s massive rivers.

1:50 model on display at exhibition

 For me the exhibition proved an unexpected joy. Due to the lighting however, and the fact that I had only a mobile ‘phone with me, and not  a proper camera. The photographs I took of the model are therefore hazy. I have also taken the liberty of scanning photographs from the splendid exhibition guide and hope that by doing so I have not infringed copyright.  I trust that my thanks to the Zhongshan Warship Museum and to the staff in Singapore, as well as  my desire to share the pleasures of the exhibition with readers who cannot visit  it in reality, may compensate for this.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Coronel: The Sense of Loss

Less than a week ago, on October 31st. I posted a blog (see below) on the Battle of Coronel, the hundredth anniversary of which fell on November 1st.  In the five days since then it has proved the most-viewed blog-post I’ve ever written, with 1206 views so far and still counting.

I’ve been trying to analyse why this is so and I’ve come to the conclusion that, even after a century, the sense of bereavement is still powerful. I got this sense from many of the communications I received afterwards, many by Twitter. These came from the United States and from Germany, as well as from Britain, and most were from readers whose families had not been affected directly, but who were still moved by the tragedy and who shared in the feeling of loss. In the blog I referred to the 1600 British casualties – the entire crews of two cruisers, HMS Good Hope and HMS Monmouth. The exact figure was indeed higher, 1654 in total, and I feel somewhat ashamed that I was not more exact, for each of those extra 54 men had his own tragedy, a family, ambitions, hopes for a future that never came.

This was brought home very poignantly by one response-tweet in particular. In it a correspondent forwarded a photograph of a grandfather who died on Good Hope, a young man in uniform radiating pride and confidence, a man one could imagine having have liked and respected had one encountered him years later. He would have been about the age of my own grandfather at the time - he could have lived on into the 1970s, could have seen the moon landing on television, could have gloried in his grandchildren. I was moved by awareness of the brutal cutting off of a life that could have been productive and happy but even more than this the photograph made the misery of the family left behind almost palpable. One could visualise the shock of the initial news, the mourning parents, the bereaved wife and the uncomprehending children, all bewildered not just by loss but by the future’s uncertainty. In this single case the tragedy seems immense, multiplied by hundreds it seems almost infinite.

At times one despairs about the future of humanity, about the greed and cruelty that so often dominate the flow of history. But what stands in the way of this, what gives us hope, is that so many of us still feel for each other, whether we know them directly or not, that  we feel the loss of lives a century ago as much as we feel them today. We don’t get it right much of the time – maybe even most of the time – but as long as we hold on to that high valuation we place on life we’ll still win through.