Saturday 27 December 2014

Christmas Day 1914: The Cuxhaven Raid

My blog this week is not only short but a bit late also due to Christmas travel and festivities but it would be pity to let the 100th Anniversary of the first-ever successful naval air strike on a land target to go unremarked.

On Christmas Day 1914 three Royal Navy seaplane carriers, Engadine, Riviera and Empress launched a total of seven floatplanes to attack the German Zeppelin base at Cuxhaven, some 25 km north of Bremerhaven. The force had been escorted to striking distance by vessels of “Harwich Force” of light cruisers and destroyers which was responsible for active – and indeed aggressive – patrolling of the Southern North Sea throughout WW1. 
One of the Short Folders used in the Christmas day raid
The aircraft were all of the Short  “Folder” Type though with engines of different power in the 100 – 200 hp range. As the name indicated the 67 ft span wings folded for ease of transport in the large hangars built on the after-ends of their carriers. 
HMS Engadine at anchor - note Short Folder at stern, ready for dropping
The seaplane carriers were converted Cross-Channel passenger ferries, chosen because their top speeds (in the 20 knot range) allowed them to keep up with the Harwich force’s cruisers. The aircraft could not be launched directly from the ships, but rather were lowered  by crane into the water once their wings had been extended, taking off thereafter on their floats. Recovery followed the same procedure, but in reverse, and it is obvious that for the ships at least the period of greatest vulnerability was during recovery, when it was essential to be stationary.
Contemporary postcard showing the Royal Navy surface force
Noe the famous light cruiser HMS Arethusa as flagship
The seven aircraft of the strike-force (engine problems held back two more) each carried a pilot and observer/navigator as well as three 20 lb. bombs. Though puny, the latter had the potential to destroy an airship filled with highly flammable hydrogen – indeed Zeppelin LZ37 was to be destroyed by  Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Warneford VC with such a weapon on May 15th 1915. 
A Short Folder with starboard wings still folded.
The Christmas Day attack was to be bedevilled by low cloud but the Folders nevertheless found the Cuxhaven base, though the sheds in which the Zeppelins were housed were obscured by mist. The aircraft dropped their bombs, though without causing any significant direct damage. The morale effect was however marked – notice being served that German homeland targets could be taken under attack and that resources would have to be diverted from elsewhere to protect them.

A fanciful artist's impression of the raid!
Alerted by the attack, German aircraft and Zeppelins set out to find the British surface force involved. Two Friedrichshafen seaplanes, and Zeppelin L7, detected the carrier HMS Empress, which due to boiler problems was lagging astern of the formation, dropping small bombs that failed to hit. German U-Boats stationed in the area were equally unsuccessful. All British vessels returned safely to base.

The British aircraft had been airborne for over three hours and all crews were to survive. Three aircraft managed to return to their carrier and three landed in the sea off the German island of Norderney. The crews of the latter were picked up by the British Submarine E11, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Martin Nasmith. (In the following year this commander, and submarine, were to have spectacular success operating against the Turks in the Sea of Marmara, action which earned Nasmith a Victoria Cross). The seventh aircraft was posted as “missing” but the pilot had indeed been picked up by a Dutch trawler and he managed to return to Britain a month later.

Robert Erskine Childers 1920
An interesting aspect of the Cuxhaven raid was that a key figure in the planning and navigation required, and who was  the observer on the lead aircraft, was a 44-year old Volunteer-Reserve Lieutenant, Robert Erskine Childers, better known as the author of the classic thriller “The Riddle of the Sands”. Published in 1903, this novel centres on German efforts to stage an invasion of Britain and it drew heavily on Childers’ experience as a yachtsman off the German North-Sea Coast – the scent of the Cuxhaven Raid. An Irish nationalist, Childers had run guns into Howth, North of Dublin, earlier in 1914, for arming volunteer forces supportive of Home Rule for Ireland, using his yacht Asgard for the purpose. He did however see it as ethically essential to support Britain in its death-struggle with Germany in WW1. Childers continued to serve in the British forces  until the end of the war, but thereafter devoted himself to the Republican cause in the 1919-21 Irish War of Independence. During the 1922-23 Civil War that followed signature of the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty, Childers supported the Republican faction against the newly-established Free-State government. Captured, and tried on which at was essentially a trumped-up charge, he was to be executed by a Free-State firing squad in November 1922. He characteristically insisted on shaking the hand of each member of the firing party. He also instructed his son, who would later be President of Ireland 1973-74 to seek out and shake hands in reconciliation with each man who had  signed his death warrant.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

The Old Salt Press: A growing presence in nautical publishing

Sharp-sighted followers of the Dawlish Chronicles will have noticed that the third novel in the series, Britannia’s Shark, has been published under the aegis of the Old SaltPress. This is an independent press, set up by an association of writers working together to produce the very best of nautical and maritime fiction and non-fiction. I was honoured by the invitation to be a member, joining four other authors who love ships and the sea, but who, individually, are focussed on different areas of interest.  Though we are very widely separately geographically we are united by a shared passion which results in work that spans a very wide range .

Below is an introduction to each of the authors and their work.

Rick Spilman is the founder and host of the superb  Old Salt Blog (see link in column to right) and has worked as a naval architect for several major shipping lines. Living alongside the Hudson River, he had extensive sailing experience as volunteer crew on the replica square-riggers HMS Rose and HMS Bounty. He has also sailed on both modern and period vessels along the New England coast, the west coast of Florida, the Caribbean, the Great Lakes and the southwest coast of Ireland. Rick’s fiction – such as Hell Around the Horn – is focussed on the great age of mercantile sail when large wind-powered vessels were in long retreat before the advances of steam power.

V.E. Ulett is based in California and her Captain Blackwell series novels are set in the classic period of naval fiction, that of the Napoleonic Wars. Her work is however fresh, and unusual , in that it reflects, but is not dominated by, a strong feminine viewpoint. It is indeed unflinching in dealing with just how uncomfortable it was to be a woman in this era. Her plotlines and settings are also out of the ordinary, making for very absorbing reads. Her series starts with Captain Blackwell’s Prize and the second, Blackwell’s Paradise, is already available while the third, Blackwell’s Homecoming has just been published.

Alaric Bond, British based, also writes novels set in the era of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, but his “Fighting Sail” series differs from most written in the genre in that they do not follow a single individual exclusively, but rather a wide range of characters. Alaric’s work reflects deep knowledge of the events, personalities of the period, as well as of the complexities of ship handling, as demonstrated in the sixth book in the series, The Torrid Zone, was published in 2014. Though not part of the series, Alaric’s Turn a Blind Eye, unusually featuring the Revenue Service than the Royal Navy, is similarly enthralling.

Joan Druett, who lives in New Zealand, covers the widest range of any of the Old Salt Press authors. She is also the most prolific, and is widely honoured and respected for her non-fiction work based on detailed historical research. By reference to hitherto untapped resources she has brought to life not only the extraordinarily active roles – now largely forgotten –  played by women at sea in the Age of Sail, but also other neglected aspects of 19th Century nautical activity such as sealing. Joan’s most notable fictional work is the Wiki Coffin series of period detective stories , built around the adventures  of a  half-Maori , half-American interpreter who accompanies the United States Exploring Expedition which was launched in 1838. I was particularly enthralled by the factual The Elephant Voyage – an amazing story of privation, of survival and of the legal imbroglio that followed, and by the Wiki Coffin mystery The Beckoning Ice. Joan’s latest book, the non-fiction Eleanor's Odyssey, is built around the journal of the wife of an East Indiaman’s captain from 1799 to 1801. Like Joan’s excellent World of the Written Word blog (see bar on right), this offers fresh insights to life at sea in the period.

And the fifth Old Salt Press author? That’s Antoine Vanner and you’re already familiar with him if you’re reading this blog!

Best Wishes to all my readers for Christmas 2014 and for a Happy and Successful 2015!
                                                                                     Antoine Vanner

Friday 19 December 2014

Naval Artists of the 18th Century – Part 1

Earlier this week I posted a short blog about the cutting-out of the French corvette Chevrette in 1801. I had come on this incident through finding in an 1894 publication a most dramatic engraving depicting it. It was based on a painting by somebody referred to simply as “de Loutherbourg”. Given that the name was an unusual one for an apparently British artist I decided to find out more. Not only did I discover a quite fascinating and unexpected story, but the quest introduced me to a number of other artists of the 18th and early 19th Centuries who specialised in maritime subjects. Several of these had stories – and backgrounds – as unusual as de Loutherbourg’s and I’ll return to them in later blogs. It is through the eyes of these men that we have come to form our mental pictures of the Age of Fighting Sail. It came as a surprise to me to learn that many of these painters, far from being studio-bound, had direct experience of life at sea, and even of combat, as I’ll tell of in future posts.
de Loutherbourg's "The Glorious First of June"
Lord Howe's victory 1794
It was during the 18th Century that Britain gained the global-power status which was to be confirmed during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Through much of the period the performance of British land forces was patchy, and occasionally disastrous.  Where at all possible Britain avoided land campaigns and instead used the wealth accruing from her maritime trade to subsidise European powers – such as Prussia – to do the fighting on her behalf.  In establishing commercial as well as naval supremacy it was the Royal Navy which was to prove the decisive weapon, one unrivalled not only as regards power and size but as regards professionalism and bloody-minded dedication to victory.  This fact was widely recognised throughout British society and, even if there was reluctance to provide adequate remuneration and acceptable terms of service, the Navy and its personnel were held in high esteem. Songs such as Rule Britannia (1740) and Heart of Oak (1760), both still loved and heard, bore witness to this. It was therefore no great surprise that painters specialising in naval subjects should find a ready market for their paintings with the more affluent, and for engravings of them for the less prosperous. It is in this context that de Loutherbourg and other artists like him should be seen.

de Loutherbourg in laterlife
Of Polish extraction, Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg was born in Strasbourg in 1740 and at the age of 15 was apprenticed in Paris to the eminent and fashionable artist Charles-AndrĂ© van Loo. His talent was quickly recognised  and in 1767 he was elected to the French Academy, even though below the age normally set for this. His range of subjects was wide and already included sea storms and battles as well as landscapes. At an early stage however he was fascinated by the opportunities offered by stage productions and he experimented with a model theatre to produce effects such as running water, achieving this with clear sheets of metal and gauze.

de Loutherbourg’s increasing fascination with the theatre led him to accept an offer by David Garrick, the greatest actor of the day (who wrote Heart of Oak ) to move to London. Here, at the Drury Lane Theatre, de Loutherbourg designed scenery, costumes and, most significantly, stage effects of ever-greater sophistication. The latter depended heavily on coloured lantern-slides and lighting effects. de Loutherbourg was to spend the rest of his life in Britain, anglicising his name to Philip James. It is likely that, like many Frenchmen of his background, he would have found his country a most uncongenial place during and after the revolution.
de Loutherbourg's "The Battle of Camperdown 1797"
British victory over the Dutch fleet
In the midst of his theatre activities de Loutherbourg continued painting, encouraged by the friendship of Britain’s premier artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Though his range continued to be wide it was de Loutherbourg’s  naval paintings which were to be most prestigious. Several were commissioned to commemorate great naval victories such as the Glorious First of June (1794) and are now in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Not surprisingly, given his links to the theatre, these paintings are intensely dramatic. He made no attempt the fact that a degree of licence was taken for the sake of effect  and in the prospectus for the engraving of is painting of the Battle of Camperdown (1797) it was frankly stated that:

“Mr. Loutherbourg has availed himself of the privilege allowed to painters, as well as epic and dramatic poets, of assembling in one point of view such incidents as were not very distant from each other in regard to time. These incidents have been associated as fully as the limits of the distinct picture would admit; and although many principal events, in which particular ships distinguished themselves, may not have been brought forward, yet the artist is satisfied that the officers of the navy will be indulgent for whatever it was not practicable to introduce; especially as it has been Mr. Loutherbourg’s plan to compose his pictures with an adherence to the principles of the art not usually consulted in marine painting.”
"The cutting-out of the Chevrette, 1801"
It is notable that in the case of the picture that first roused my interest in de Loutherbourg, “The Capture of the Chevrette”, the drama may seem extreme, yet the work was based on sketches made by officers who were actually present, and many of the faces are portraits of them.  Given that his career had taken off under the Ancien Regime in France it is interesting to note that he was to live on to be fascinated by the very different world of the industrial revolution and to find it a challenging subject.

de Loutherbourg’s 1801 “Coalbrookdale by Night”: iron foundries in action.
de Loutherbourg continued to be interested in the technology of spectacle and one could well image that had he been born a century and a half later he would have flourished as a movie-director in the Abel Gance mould. His most notable achievement in this area was his invention of the “Eidophusikon”(Image of Nature), a small mechanical theatre that used lighting, stained glass, mirrors and pulleys to achieve spectacular effects. Shows were given to audiences as large as 130 and the subject matter was – as could be expected – spectacular in the extreme. The most spectacular appears to have been the scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Satan marshals his followers on the shored of a lake of fire and the rising of the Palace of Pandemonium. Impressive and popular as it was, the venture could not justify its costs and it had to close, leaving de Loutherbourg to return to more conventional work. One can well imagine how, today, he would have gloried in the possibilities offered by CGI.
de Loutherbourg's “Eidophusikon"
de Loutherbourg died in 1812 and though his career had been a very unusual one it was not the only one in which great maritime art was to emerge in this period from an unlikely backgrounds. I’ll return in later blogs with some very surprising instances.