Tuesday 31 March 2015

Diplomacy at Sea: USS Miantonomoh 1866/67

Two recent blogs described the loss of low-freeboard monitors in the open sea, the Dutch Adder in 1882 and the Russian Rusalka in 1893. In both cases the inadvisability of taking vessels designed for protected coastal waters into open-sea conditions was a major contributory factor to the disasters.

USS Miantonomoh by Francois G. Roux (1811-82)

A much earlier monitor did however make a very spectacular ocean passage in 1866/7. This was the twin-turret USS Miantonomoh, the lead ship of a class of four wooden-hulled but ironclad vessels authorised in 1862, soon after the original USS Monitor had made her spectacular debut. Details are provided in the table.

Commissioned in late 1865, too late to play a role in the Civil War, the Miantonomoh was selected to make an extended cruise to European waters. The most important objective was to maintain good relations with Russia, which had proved itself supportive of the Union cause during the war, and had demonstrated this by a squadron visiting New York at the height of the conflict.  Purchase of Alaska by the United States was now also on the cards and there was every reason to ensure a cordial atmosphere for negotiation. The ostensible reason for the trip was to present Czar Alexander II with a  copy of a Joint Resolution of Congress which congratulated him on his survival of a recent assassination attempt (probably all the more heartfelt in view of President Lincoln’s death in a similar incident the previous year). The responsibility for this diplomatic task was assigned to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Gustavus Fox, who was also instructed to gather information of European naval strengths. Pride in showing off American technological progress, and in the nation’s emergence as a major power after the Civil War, probably also played a role. 

USS Miantonomoh as completed
USS Augusta - seasoned veteran of Union blockade dury
 The Miantonomoh left in May 1866 in company with two paddle steamers, the double-ended Mohongo-class gunboat USS Ashuelot and the USS Augusta, originally a civilian vessel, which had seen very extensive blockading service off Confederate ports during the Civil War. 

The long-serving (1863-1903) USS Monocacy, sister of USS Ashuelot
The small flotilla touched in briefly at St. John’s, Newfoundland.  Here, a witness quoted in a Victorian-era book, and who appears to have been a Royal Navy officer, was stubbornly determined not to be impressed:

“Notwithstanding a certain eagerness to behold a specimen of their floating batteries, curiosity was not destined to be gratified until nearly two years after the close of the American War, when the United States Government determined on sending a representative—the Miantonoma (sic)—to make a tour of the world. The object of this resolution was to prove that the American invention was not a mere floating battery, but was destined to revolutionise the system of armour-plated ships. The Miantonoma was accompanied when she made her appearance in the harbour of St. John’s, Newfoundland, by two tenders …   The Miantonoma was a twin-turreted monitor, carrying two of Parrot’s 480 pounder smooth-bore. Her spar-deck, which was flush fore and aft, was about two and a half to three feet above the surface of the water in harbour. What we would call the gun-deck was below the water-line some eight feet, and here at sea during any sort of rough weather, the men were compelled to live. Air was supplied (faugh! what an atmosphere it was, even in harbour!) by means of pipes which ran up to a scaffolding—I can find no better name for the structure—elevated above the spardeck by fifteen feet. Here were the wheel-house and a place for the look-out. But as it was apprehended that the first respectable gale would take charge of the flimsy structure and sweep it all away, a ‘preventer’ steering apparatus worked below, and knowledge was gained of what was going on in the upper world by means of reflectors. Two things struck the eye of an observant stranger on gaining the side. The first was the formidable appearance of the turrets—the latter, mirabile dictu, the number of spittoons!”

 The Miantonomoh then embarked on the North Atlantic crossing to Queenstown (now Cobh) in the south of Ireland.  She was towed by the Augusta, "as a matter of convenience and precaution rather than necessity." She appears to have carried only a minimal crew, so that one imagines that all hatches and openings were closed off securely. The crossing was fast – eleven days.

Contemporary illustration: USS Miantonomoh passing a Royal Navy Ironclad, possibly at Portsmouth
Now apparently under her own steam, the Miantonomoh sailed via Portsmouth to the French naval base at Cherbourg,  arriving in late June, following had talks with Napoleon III. She returned to Britain thereafter and was visited by royalty, government officials, and members of the press, all of whom viewed her with wonderment and amazement. Her innovative design was widely commented on, the Times stating with some alarm: "The wolf is in our fold; the whole flock at its mercy."

Russian Monitor Veschun of the Uragan class
The Miantonomoh left Britain in mid-July, en route to the Russian capital. She stopped off at Copenhagen – where she was inspected by King Christian IX and the royal family – and then steamed on to be met near Helsingfors (now Helsinki) by eleven ships of the Russian Navy, including four monitors of the Uragan class (built as copies of the US Navy’s Passaic class), and escorted to the main Russian base of Kronstadt, just outside St. Petersburg. Here she was to be the centre of attention form the czar himself as well as leading Russian naval officers. She stayed a month and her commander, Captain Alexander Murray, was later to write: "We were the victims of a hospitality which I did not believe had an existence out of America, and...of a generosity which does not often fall to the lot of navy officers anywhere;...."

The triumphant progress continues, from Russia to Stockholm, the Swedish capital, in mid-September and then on to Kiel in Northern Germany, and then on to Hamburg, where she was apparently inundated with admiring visitors. The Miantonomoh then sailed south, visiting French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian ports during the next six months, showing the flag where it might never have been shown before. She finally left European waters, from Gibraltar, in mid-May 1867 and reached Philadelphia two months later via the Canary and Cape Verde Islands and the Bahamas. Once again she appears to have been towed, and presumably battened down,  over these ocean stretches. The total cruise was of some 17,700 miles.  Except for a short commission in 1869 she was to see little more service.

The "Repaired" USS Miantonomoh - she was to serve in the Spanish-American War 
Wooden-hulled, despite her armour-cladding, the Miantonomoh’s days were numbered.  In 1874, by a legal fiction that avoided allocation of funds for new naval construction, funds were allocated by Congress for "completing the repairs" of the Miantonomoh and three other monitors. The "repairs" consisted of the constructing of new vessels under the guise of repairing the old ones. She was broken up in 1875 and but few of her materials were used in the building of the larger, more heavily armoured, iron-hulled “New Navy” monitor which became the second Miantonomoh.

But her career is another story.

Friday 27 March 2015

The Crimean War’s North Pacific Theatre: Petropavlovsk August 1854

The most common image of the Crimean War (1854 – 56) is of Britain’s Light Brigade charging to death and glory against Russian guns at Balaclava. Almost equally well known are the epics of the ”Thin Red Line” and of the Storming of the Redan, both in the Crimea itself. The more nautically- minded may think of the enormous and costly expedition to the Baltic that earned such scanty returns. Few have however heard of the most remote operation of the war, the Anglo-French assault on Petropavlovsk, Russia’s Northern Pacific port on the Kamchatka peninsula.

Petropavlovsk - where is it? Many thanks to Google Earth for help finding it!

Even for Russians the word “Kamchatka” signified the back of beyond, difficult to near impossibility to reach by land from European Russia. The Trans-Siberian railway had not yet been thought of and would not to be completed for another five decades and the only realistic way of supplying the settlements there was by sea. Kamchatka is a vast peninsula – almost 100,000 square miles – and contains some 160 volcanoes, 29 of them active today – and it is all but cut off from the rest of Siberia by the Sea of Okhotsk.  In 1854 Russian presence there was scarcely a century old and the town of Petropavlovsk, founded by the navigator Vitus Bering (of “Strait” fame) in 1740, was important not only as an ice-free port but as a transit point for contact with Russian Alaska. Russia’s interest in Alaska was however never more than lukewarm and its potential was never recognised. It was to be sold to the United States at a knock-down price some thirteen years later.

Petropavlovsk is situated on what a Victorian writer described as “one of the noblest bays in the whole world—glorious Avatcha Bay”. By 1854 the city possessed an almost landlocked harbour, with a sand-spit protecting it from all fear of gales or sudden squalls. The shelter it offered, and its freedom form winter ice, made it an ideal maritime base, and in more recent times has been used as such by the Soviet and Russian Federation Pacific Fleets.

Petropavlovsk in 1856 - at the war's end. 

When Britain, France and Piedmont went to war with Russia in 1854 the main theatres of war were to be the Crimea and the Baltic, both offering access by sea. Destruction of the Crimean naval base at Sevastopol and of the Russian fortifications in the Aland Islands, were seen as strategically significant and desirable. It is however impossible to understand how an expedition against Petropavlovsk could ever have been imagined to have any significant impact on the war. Even if held, the occupying force had nowhere else to go and the only Russians inconvenienced would be the two or three thousand engaged in trading in Alaska. Despite this it was decided that a not-inconsiderable Anglo-French force should be sent against Petropavlovsk. This consisted of six  vessels, the Royal Navy’s HMS President(Frigate, 38 guns), HMS Virago (paddle sloop, 6 guns), and HMS Pique (frigate, 36 guns), plus the French La Fort (frigate, 60 guns), Eurydice (corvette, 32-guns), and Obligado (sloop, 32 guns). As only Virago was steam driven the force was in effect little different from one that might have set to sea in the Napoleonic Wars four decades only. The British commander, the 64-year old Rear-Admiral David Price was himself a veteran of that latter period, having been just promoted after 39 years as a post captain.  The French force was under a Rear-Admiral Auguste Febvrier-Despointes and, as always in allied operations, the potential for miscommunication and confusion was significant. On paper the Allied force carried some 200 guns, though as almost entirely consisting of broadside ships only half this number could be brought to bear at any one time.  

HMS Virago - the only steam ship in the Allied force
(with acknowledgement to the Australian War Memorial)

The Anglo-French force entered Avatcha Bay on August 28th 1854 (by the Western calendar) and the less wind-dependent Virago was sent to reconnoitre. The town – little more than a village – was protected from the outer bay by a long narrow peninsula on the west, and a sand bank on the east. Vessels passing between these entered the inner harbour and the passage could be closed by a chain. Protective batteries had been located as shown by superimpositions on the contemporary Russian map below – a 5 gun battery at the tip of the peninsula (Battery No.1), an 11 gun battery on the sand bank opposite (Battery No.2) and a 3 gun battery further back  along the peninsula (Battery  No.3). The total Russian force present amounted to 920 men, seamen as well as soldiers, plus two ships of the Russian Pacific Fleet (indeed almost the entire fleet!), the 44-gun frigate Aurora and the transport Dvina.  These were moored inside of the sandpit and effectively protected by Battery No.2, which they supplemented with their own landed guns.

Contemporary Russian Map, with annotations to identify batteries etc.

Virago’s reconnaissance complete, the allied force advanced to bombard the town on August 31st. Proceedings were opened by Rear-Admiral Price going below and shooting himself – whether deliberately or by accident, is unknown – leaving British command to devolve to Captain Nicholson of HMS Pique.  The bombardment was suspended but on September 4th the force returned, Virago in the lead, followed by La Fort, President and Pique which were to concentrate fire on Battery No.1 while  Eurydice and Obligado took on Battery No.3.

HMS Pique - one of the last sailing frigates, obsolescent when built in 1836

The bombardment proved successful and both batteries were silenced (an unusual occurrence when ships were pitted against shore batteries – indeed Nelson himself had warned that “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort”). Engaging Battery No2 on the sand spit closing off the inner harbour was however a more difficult proposition since insufficient room was available to being all the Allied ships’ guns to bear on it. Taking the town therefore meant landing men. It was however shut in by high hills on almost all sides and the only vulnerable point was in the south, outside the harbour,  where a small valley opened out on land bordering the bay (see old Russian map above).

Petropavlovsk under bombardment - a contemporary impression

 A landing party of some 680 British and French seamen and marines was hurriedly assembled and sent on shore in boats.  The landing was unopposed and the Anglo-French force thrust inland in a straggling, ill-coordinated manner. The ground ahead, rising towards a ridge, was littered with scattered bushes and trees, behind which Cossack sharpshooters had been positioned.  They opened a withering fire and picked off nearly every Allied officer. The men, not seeing their enemy and having lost their leaders, fell back in panic-stricken disorder. Many had lost their orientation in the brush and a series of small, vicious combats followed, some of the landed force being most likely shot accidently by their own side. A number fled up a hill at the rear of the town and were hunted down mercilessly by the Cossacks while others died by falling over the steep cliff on one side of the hill. The guns of La Fort, Virago and Obligado covered the main retreat to the boats, but it was clearly a major defeat. The butcher’s bill was 107 British and 101 French dead or wounded out of the 680 landed. The Russians lost half these numbers and held the field. Allied defeat was total.

There was nothing to be done by the Allies but to withdraw, smarting. The winter made the prospect of further action unattractive but a return in force was soon being planned for the following year. Unknown to allies they Russians had decided – wisely – that Petropavlovsk was of little value to themselves, and a potential liability for the Allies, should they take it. Accordingly, in early 1855, the Russian garrison was evacuated.

The Allies were meanwhile assembling a more massive force, with ships assigned to it from the China station. The new commander, Rear Admiral Bruce, organised supplies in Hawaii and a huge supply depot and hospital was organised at Esquimalt, near Vancouver to provide further support. On May 30th 1855 the combined Anglo-French flotilla arrived back at Petropavlovsk in thick fog and took up positions in anticipation of an attack. When they fog cleared two days later reconnaissance revealed the town as deserted. Bruce’s force occupied it without a shot being fired. It was to hold the city until the war came to an end in 1856.

Russian cannon of Battery No.3 looking out over the Bay of Avatcha today

The repulse of the Allies at Petropavlovsk was the only Russian success on any front in the Crimean War and as such is remembered better there than in the West. At a tactical level the operation had more in common with the Napoleonic period – sailing vessels, broadside muzzle-loading artillery, improvised landings – than with the era then dawning. The ironclad would arrive within a decade and, fast in its wake, breech-loaders, torpedoes, efficient steam power and ever-improving armour. At a strategic level the operation, whether a tactical success or failure, could only represent a dead-end squandering of lives and resources.

For Britain and France Petropavlovsk was an embarrassment. And that is, perhaps, why we have heard so little of it since.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

The wreck of the Rusalka 1893

In my blog last week I recounted the story of the loss of the Dutch monitor Adder in 1882. The lesson of this tragedy was that it was folly to send low-freeboard vessels suited to use in sheltered coastal waters out into the open sea. The lesson was however not widely learned and in 1893 the Imperial Russian Navy was to lose a generally similar vessel, of the same vintage, in generally similar circumstances. As in the case of the Adder, the tragedy was wholly preventable.

Russian Monitor Charodeika, sister of the Rusalka

In 1864, apparently impressed by the performance of the then revolutionary Monitor-type vessels in the US Navy, the Russian Admiralty Board ordered construction of two large and thickly-armoured  Charodeika-class units suitable for service in the Baltic. By the standards of the time these were heavily-armed vessels, carrying their armament in two turrets, their most powerful weapons being 15” muzzle-loaders of the American “Rodman” type, which had proved their worth in US service. The vessels were constructed at St. Petersburg and were to spend their careers in the Baltic Fleet. The size of the crews – some 184 men normally – seems enormous for a vessel of this size and the accommodation must have been cramped in the extreme! The second unit of the class was named Rusalka (Mermaid). She was launched in 1867 and entered service in 1869. Her characteristics were as below:

Though apparently designed with open-sea service in mind these ships’ decks were often awash in any sort of moderate sea since they had a freeboard of only two feet. They also rolled heavily and manoeuvred badly, often not responding to the ship's wheel until 20 degrees of rudder was applied. They were restricted to training roles and, apart from hitting an uncharted rock without damage in 1869, the Rusalka had an uneventful career for over two decades. Given that she was obsolescent when commissioned it is surprising that she was re-boilered in 1878 and 1891 and that her armament was upgraded. She was reclassified as a coast-defence ironclad in 1892.

On the morning of September 7th 1893 the Rusalka departed from Reval (now Tallinn) in Estonia to sail due north across the Gulf of Finland to Helsingfors (now Helsinki) in Finland. It should be noted that both Estonia and Finland were then ruled by Russia. The distance across open sea was some 55 miles and the Rusalka was escorted by a Rendell-type gunboat Tucha. In reasonable weather conditions the passage should have been a fast and easy one of six or eight hours.

The weather did however deteriorate, and the ships lost contact in gale-force winds and rain. The Tucha arrived safely at Helsingfors in mid-afternoon but the Rusalka did not follow. A search was initiated immediately and two days later wreckage was washed ashore on the Finnish coast, including a lifeboat with one dead seaman. The vessel had 177 men on board but this was the only body recovered. Fifteen ships were engaged, fruitlessly, in the search for the Rusalka, continuing for over a month and only being suspended in Mid-October due to the first winter storms. The search was resumed in the middle of the following year, including observation from a balloon towed by one of the ships involved – and all again without success.

Before the disaster: Rusalka in drydock 1890

The inevitable enquiry followed, concluding that either the Rusalka’s steering gear had failed – and it appears to have been problematic at the best of times – or shipping of water had caused engine failure. In either case the vessel could have been unable to maintain a head-on bearing into the waves. Once parallel to them flooding would be likely and her small reserve of buoyancy would be overwhelmed. The similarities with the loss of the Netherlands’ Navy’s Adder eleven years before are very obvious – a low-freeboard vessel setting out for open waters in sea conditions which represented a clear risk to her survivability.

The Rusalka was to remain undiscovered until 2003 when an expedition mounted by the Estonian Maritime Museum located her in 243 feet of water sixteen miles south of her destination, now known as Helsinki.  The wreck is in a near-vertical position. The Rusalka appears to have plunged, bow first, directly downward into the muddy seabed. The stern of the vessel rises 108 feet (almost half her length) above the mud. It appears that she is draped with snagged fishing nets. The after turret seems to have torn free. The hull now stands, like a gravestone, over the last resting place of some 170 men.

HMS Victoria - sunk 3 months before Rusalka, her wreck also still standing vertical

What is probably the only other large wreck which stands vertically is of a ship which was lost only three months before the Rusalka. This was the Royal Navy’s HMS Victoria, which was sunk when rammed by HMS Camperdown off Lebanese Tripoli on June 22nd 1893. But that’s another story!


Friday 20 March 2015

The Spar Torpedo – a weapon for heroes and madmen

The Spar Torpedo – which plays a vital role in my novel Britannia’s Wolf, the account of Nicholas Dawlish’s service in the Ottoman Navy 1877-78 – was a crude weapon, born of necessity and desperation in the American Civil War. Its use demanded a near-kamikaze commitment from its users, for it was potentially as dangerous to them as to its intended targets. Its lifetime was short – some 20 years – and it was rendered obsolete by the vastly more effective self-propelled “fish torpedo” that remains in service today. Yet for all its drawbacks the spar torpedo remained the only effective way available for a small craft to sink a larger one – and warships were getting significantly larger, and better protected above the waterline, throughout its period of use. The most remarkable aspect of its history is not just that it did indeed score several notable successes, but that in almost every case the crews who deployed it managed to beat the odds and come off relatively unscathed.

The idea was a simple one – to ram a large explosive charge against an enemy vessel’s hull as deeply as possible below the waterline and to explode it, in the early models by a contact detonator, later by an electric current. Given that high-speed small craft did not yet exist, and that a small steam-driven launch could make at best some six or eight knots, attacks on ships under way in the open sea were ruled out. Moored ships were more appropriate targets but given the slow approach speeds involved the attackers would have to rely on stealth to avoid detection by lookouts or by small craft patrolling the anchorage.

Spar Torpedo test, 1870s - the danger to the attacker is obvious!
Yet despite the crudity of the weapon the spar torpedo worked well on several occasions, and the crews survived, not least due to lack of vigilance by their victims. Notable successes included:

CSS David: On October 5th 1863 this small, iron, steam-driven cylindrical vessel, which floated practically awash, got within 50 yards of the Union Navy’s New Ironsides on blockade duty outside Charleston harbour before the lookouts detected her. Pressing her attack home the David exploded her charge, badly damaged her target, survived the explosion and limped away to safety.

CSS Hunley: Another Confederate near-submarine, but this time propelled by a hand-cranked screw rather than by steam, attacked the Union blockading force outside Charleston on February 17th 1864. In the process the Hunley sank the 1,240-ton screw sloop USS Housatonic but disappeared afterwards, probably swamped by the explosion of her own weapon.

Contemporary illustration of Picket Boat No.1's attack
Picket Boat No.1: A major concern for the Union Navy was the destruction of the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle, which had already held her own against a Union flotilla attacking up the Roanoke River towards Plymouth, North Carolina, in May 1864. The Union Navy had by now woken up to the potential of the spar torpedo and the task of destroying the Albemarle was entrusted to two steam-propelled 30-foot picket boats commanded by the intrepid Lieutenant William Cushing. Under cover of darkness on 27th October 1864 his two craft managed to get close to the moored ironclad before being detected but, as rifle-fire erupted, Cushing found that it was surrounded by a boom of floating logs. Charging it, and with the spar deployed, he managed to get Picket Boat No.1 slithering across, then plunged the warhead under the ironclad and jerked the firing lanyard. The resulting explosion sank No.1 and blew Cushing and his men into the water but “a hole big enough to drive a wagon through” had been blown in the Albemarle’s side, sinking her into the mud and removing her from the war. Cushing and one other crew-member swam to safety, the others being killed or captured.

Russian forces crossing the Danube 1877
The need to eliminate Turkish vessels dominating this broad river was obvious
(Painting by Nikolai Dimitieve Orenburgsky 1883)
Russian Spar torpedo launches on the Danube 1877

Russian Use 1877: Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire in April 1877 and commenced operations by sending a large force across the Danube to strike south into Bulgaria. Recognising in advance that the presence of Ottoman monitors on the river would pose a major threat to their lines of communication the Russians transported ten small steam-sloops overland and launched them on the river. Wooden, a mere 20-feet long, their boilers protected by what appear from contemporary drawings to be sandbags, these craft carried out a total of nine attacks with spar torpedoes. In one raid, on the night of May 25th-26th 1877 two Russian craft, the Czarevitch and the Xenia, sank the Ottoman monitor Seifi and two other enemy craft. The Russian casualties amounted to two dead and 10 wounded, and though the tactical victory was impressive the strategic implications were immense. Although Ottoman naval forces continued to operate off the Danube mouth they never again menaced the Russian crossing points upriver.

Russian Spar Torpedo launch - note the rings around the warheads - possibly contact detonators

French attack at Shipu Feb 14th 1885
Battle of Shipu: France went to war with the Chinese Empire in 1884 over who should control what is now northern Vietnam. On paper at least the Chinese possessed a modern navy, its ships purchased overseas and with several foreign ‘advisers’, including Germans and Americans, in its service. Despite the latters’ efforts however the Chinese Navy was in practice riddled with corruption and ineptitude and was ill-placed to confront a major European navy. In the aftermath of a failed Chinese attempt to break the French blockade of Taiwan, and an indecisive fleet encounter, the forces of French Admiral Amédée Courbet trapped two Chinese steam frigates, the Yuyuan and Chengqing, which had taken refuge under the guns of Chinese shore batteries in Shipu Bay, about two hundred kilometres south of Shanghai. On the night of  February 14th 1885 two French spar-torpedo launches, painted black for camouflage, left their parent ships and manoeuvred their way unseen past junks and sampans moored close to the Chinese warships.  They had all but reached their targets before the Yuyuan spotted them, and they came under fire as they pressed their attack home on her.  The French exploded their charges and the Yuyuan began to sink. Confused and panicking, Chinese shore batteries blindly opened fire, hitting the other Chinese ship, the Chengquing. The French retreated with only one man killed but both Chinese ships were lost.

One of New Zealand's "Defender" class vessels
Note that the spar is retracted and the explosive warhead is not attached
The sinking of the Yuyuan appears to have been the last time the spar torpedo was used in anger, though there are references on the web, but no details, to an attack on the Chilean central-battery ship Cochrane during Chile’s Civil War of 1891. By then the Whitehead ‘fish’ or ‘locomotive’ torpedo was in general use in most navies and development of high speed craft to launch them was well advanced. In the aftermath of the American Civil War a number of navies had experimented with slim, high-speed craft for delivering spar-torpedo attacks, the most notable being the two Acheron class vessels constructed by Thorneycroft for the New South Wales Naval Service in 1879. Displacing 16 tons, 78 feet long but only 10 feet in the beam, they managed 15 knots and were later modified to carry Whitehead torpedoes. Four roughly similar craft were constructed for the prosaically-named New Zealand Armed Constabulary, in response to fears of raids by Russian cruisers during one of the war scares that characterised the 1870s and 1880s. Obsolete when completed in 1885, they too were armed in due course with Whitehead torpedoes.

The Spar Torpedo had had its day. Nobody can have been more relieved than the crews who had been expected to use them!

And it you want to read about spar torpedoes being used in action during the Russo-Turkish War then dip into "Britannia's Wolf", available in Paperback or Kindle formats. Click on the image below for further details.

Friday 13 March 2015

Naval Artists of the 18th Century – Part 3

Thomas Luny (1759–1837)

Two sorts of courage move me. The first is the sort of bravery that is called upon for a finite period, for minutes, hours, days or even on occasion months, and which demands a disregard for personal safety and a willingness to risk life and limb of the sake of others.  The second is “fortitude”, the determination to endure suffering, privation or personal misfortune over an indefinite period, and still not be defeated. The latter is expressed, unforgettably, by the crippled poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903):

In the fell clutch of circumstance 
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeonings of chance             
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

These words come to mind – for reasons that will emerge later in this article – when looking at the career of the marine artist, Thomas Luny (1759–1837). His work is familiar to many of us, even if we don’t know his name, if we have seen illustration of the Age of Fighting Sail. At a time before photography Luny was one of the artists who had defined our perception of how that age looked and felt.

The Bombardment of Algiers, August 1816, by Thomas Luny
Self-portrait in youth
Luny was born in Cornwall – most appropriately in the famed “Year of Victories” when British forces were triumphant on land and sea In Europe and North America. He came to London at the age of eleven and was apprenticed to the marine painter Francis Holman (1729–1784), who was himself son of a master mariner. This apprenticeship proved significant in determining the course of Luny’s career since Holman’s younger brother, Captain John Holman (1733–1816), maintained the family shipping business. The relationship between the brothers appears to have been a close one.  Francis would therefore have been in close contact with the maritime world and this showed in the wealth of detail and accuracy in his later work. Talented as Holman was however, it is partly because of his mentorship of the more illustrious Luny that he is now most remembered.

"A small shipyard on the Thames" by Francis Holman, Luny's mentor
(National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, PD-ART-LIFE-70
By 1780 Thomas Luny had shown sufficient talent that he was exhibiting marine paintings in the Royal Academy, and indeed he continued to do so up to 1802.  From 1783 Luny lived in London’s Leadenhall Street, and here became acquainted with a dealer and framer of paintings called Merle who subsequently promoted Luny's work very successfully. 

The 18-year old Luny hits his stride: "Shipping off Dover" - 1777
A ship signalling for a pilot off Dover: By Thomas Luny 1793
Leadenhall Street was also significant in that it was where the British East India Company had its headquarters. It was from “John Company” that Luny was to receive many commissions for paintings and portraits. This relationship had non-monetary benefits also for, on occasions, Luny seems to have been invited as a guest on Company ships on special occasions and voyages. This probably accounts for the great detail and realistic look of many of his sketches of locations such as Naples, Gibraltar, and Charleston, South Carolina.

George Tobin: "Napoleon Bonaparte in Torbay, at anchor, HMS Bellerophon, July 14, 1815"
National Naval Museum Greenwich, London PAF7978
Between 1793 and 1800 Luny appears to have gone to sea with a purser’s warrant and served with Captain, afterwards Admiral, George Tobin (1768–1838). One suspects that the purser’s duties may have been nominal – a legal device for getting Luny to sea. One has the distinct impression that the relationship between Luny and Tobin was very similar to the fictional one between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, two men of very different characters and aptitudes who nevertheless valued their friendship dearly. One would like to think so. Tobin was himself an artist and the watercolours  he made when he sailed with Captain Bligh to Van Diemen's Land in 1790-1792 are in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. In this once again one sees the Aubrey-Maturin similarity, since in both cases the dissimilar personalities have one shared passion and talent, in the once case for music and in the other for art.

George Tobin:  Aboriginal hut on Bruny Island, Tasmania, 1792 (Mitchell Library)
Whether Luny was present at the battle of the " Glorious First of June” is uncertain, but he painted, among many other marine subjects, several of the incidents of this battle and the bringing home of the prizes. It is equally uncertain whether he was on hand for the Battle of the Nile 1798, which he also illustrated dramatically.

Engraving of Luny's "The Glorious First of June"
Up to 1800 Luny’s life had not only been dramatic and adventurous, but also triumphant in professional terms. It was now however that great misfortune fell upon him when he was attacked by rheumatoid of arthritis. It deprived him initially of the use of his feet, and later, cruelly for an artist, it closed his hands so firmly that he could not move his fingers. In this state he moved in 1807 to Teignmouth in Devon, apparently to be his friend Captain Tobin, who had also retired there.

Thomas Luny: "Boarding the ferry at Teignmouth" - painted 1821
(With acknowledgements to Wikigallery)
It was now that Luny’s fortitude and greatness of spirit asserted itself. Despite all his disabilities he continued to paint, receiving numerous commissions from ex-mariners and others, with the same success as before. He was to continue working up to 1835, chair-bound and only able to clutch his brush between hands which could not hold it in his fingers. For delicate manipulation he is said to have held the brush in his mouth. This had no obvious impact on the quality or pace of his artistic work. In fact, of his lifetime oeuvre of over 3,000 works, over 2,200 were produced between 1807 and his death. His style is unmistakable.

Thomas Luny: "A frigate of the Royal Navy leaving Cork Harbour 1830"
Specimens of Luny’s work are exhibited at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, London, in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, and at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. If you read this, and if you’re lucky enough to see any of Luny’s work, pay a silent tribute to the memory not only of a great artist, but of a great spirit.

The Battle of the Nile, August 1st 1798, at 10 p.m.
Painted by Luny in 1835, over three decades since he had been afflicted

For the first two parts of this occasional series on Naval Artists of the 18th Century see the following earlier blogs, accessible from the Blog Archive in the sidebar:

                                Part 1: 19th December 2014
                                Part 2: 9th January 2015

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Captain Philip Browne – a real-life Jack Aubrey

Though I write about naval adventure the latter part of the 19th Century I remain fascinated by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars era – the Great Age of Fighting Sail. Like so many, my interest was first aroused by reading Hornblower when I was a boy and several fine authors, including Patrick O’Brian, have followed splendidly the precedent originally set by C.S. Forester. On occasion however one does wonder if heroes of series fiction have a succession of exploits that are just a little too unlikely, given just how much action they see in their careers. But the truth, when investigated, is often more extraordinary than the fiction.
Captain Edward Pelham Brenton (20 July 1774 – 13 April 1839)
Author of The Naval History of Great Britain from the Year 1783 to 1822 (1823)
Here’s a record of what a single Royal Navy officer could achieve in the course of his career. This extract from Brenton’s “Naval History of Great Britain” deals with the career of Captain Philip Browne in the Napoleonic period. Jack Aubrey’s pale by comparison and indeed Patrick O’Brian might have made is hero less successful that his real-life counterparts!

“The history of the exertions of this officer in the cause of his country, from the first moment of his entering the naval service, would fill a volume. His watchfulness and activity were never surpassed: his promotion to the rank of post-captain he owes to himself. During the time that he commanded the Swan, hired cutter, the Vixen, gun brig, the Plover, sloop of war and the Hermes, 20-gun ship, he captured:

French Privateers


Detained Danish vessels


Re-captured English and others


French and Dutch merchant vessels






Total of Vessels taken or detained                   

In the performance of these duties, Browne produced a clear profit to the revenue of £47,215. He had taken 886 French prisoners and sent 217 able seamen to the fleet. If we add to these the number of vessels recaptured, and the number save from capture by the destruction of the enemy’s privateers, we shall find that his officer proved himself a very valuable servant of the crown.”

The above does not however mention the fact that Browne appears to have been court-martialled in 1814 for seven charges “abusive and fraudulent conduct” brought against him by his Lieutenant on the Hermes. Browne was dismissed from the service.

Note that:

HMS Vixen was a 14-gun gun-brig launched in 1801 and sold in 1815.

HMS Plover was a 18-gun sloop launched in 1796 and sold in 1819

HMS Hermes was a 20-gun sixth-rate launched in 1811 and burned in 1814 during a highly unsuccessful attack on Fort Bowyer at Mobile Point, Alabama

Illustration below shows an American 18 Gun Sloop-of-War, 1814. HMS Vixen may have looked generally similar.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Versatile Bloggers!

My writing-friend Alison Morton has successfully combined the genres of hard-boiled thriller and alternative-history. She has created a convincing and internally consistent parallel universe in which a fragment of the Roman Empire, Roma Nova, has survived into modern times, not only remaining faithful to Roman values but also adapting to scientific and technological progress. If you haven’t yet read any of Alison’s fiction (I’ll provide a link at the end) then you’ve got a treat in store.

Alison has now nominated me as a “versatile blogger” – a way for practitioners to introduce their readers to new blogs. There are some wonderful ones out there, and about the most amazing subject”

So, what was I asked to do?

1. Display the logo
2. Write a post and link back to the blogger who nominated me
3. Post seven interesting things about myself (am I that interesting?)
4. Nominate up to fifteen other bloggers (and why I’ve nominated them)
5. Inform them of their nomination

So here are seven things about me:

I got addicted to reading as soon as I could read.  I loved Dickens and Thackery and Robert Louis Stevenson from a very early age (BBC TV dramatisations whetted my appetite), devoured Captain Marryat’s novels, adored Jules Verne and read just about all of Louis de Wohl’s historicals in my summer holidays when I was 13.  Later I was delighted by Hardy, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pasternak and Hardy. Thanks to my father I became a H. Rider Haggard and Hornblower junkie when I was 11 or 12 and I saw the same happen to my daughters when I introduced them in due course.

 I’m bilingual in English and Dutch. I’m told that I come across as lighter-humoured in Dutch – why, I don’t know. I’ve got reasonable Spanish and rusty (read “awful”) German.

 I’ve lived and worked long-term (two years plus) in nine countries and did shorter assignments in at least as many again. I’ve visited over 50 nations and every continent except Antarctica (maybe some day…)

 I spent almost eleven years in Sub-Saharan Africa, mostly in Nigeria, a country I love.  I’m still involved with a village development project in Tanzania and I spent time there eighteen months ago. I’m rather proud of having been warned by some beefy associates of a certain African dictator (who recently celebrated his 91st birthday) that “the boss didn’t like what you said” at a conference where he was a guest of honour. My love of Africa is to be attributed to my father – who never set foot there – and to his recommendation of Rider Haggard!

 I’ve been on the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico – and without a diving suit! You must work that one out for yourself!

  I’ve been fascinated by history and military history all my life. My major period of interest is from 1700 onwards, with special interest in the nineteenth century, but reading widely in other eras as well. Technological development – including that at sea – and its influence on broader historical trends entrances me.

 Since boyhood I’ve loved epic narrative history – Prescott, Parkman, Motley. Churchill’s Marlborough is a delight to return to again and again and Shelby Foote’s “Civil War” must count as one of the finest, and most inspirational, books of the twentieth century.


And some versatile blogs I admire ...

In my turn, I nominate a versatile selection of bloggers for you! click on the italicised titles to link directly, or so so on the sidebar to the right, where you’ll find links to  other  excellent ones as well, 

1.  “A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life” comes from the fashionable salon of the Georgian hostess  Madame Gilflurt, a.k.a. Catherine Curzon. It deals with every aspect of 18th Century life. As she publishes several times a week, one marvels how this lady (and, let’s face it, gadabout) can find the time between dishes of tea and whispers behind fans to produce her unfailingly delightful missives.

2.       The "Old Salt" blog by Rick Spilman deals with every aspect of nautical activity both past and modern. His articles are frequently very topical and up-to-the minute and particularly interesting are his postings on the last decades of merchant sail.

3.       Linda Collison and her “Sea of Words” blog. Linda is herself a novelist (among umpteen other activities and careers) and her blog and always entertaining. At times you’ll also pick up parts of Linda’s own story – which is an epic in itself.

4.       The historian and novelist Joan Druett is responsible for “The World of the Written Word” blog. Like all the best blogs, you’re never sure what’s going to turn up next as it covers aspects of nautical history and the craft of writing, as well as broader musings.

5.       The “Ersatz Expat” blog is completely different  to any of the foregoing. It deals, often with considerable humour, with the challenges of an expatriate lifestyle, including having and rearing children while moving from one country to another and accommodating to new cultures and customs. Even if you intend never to live in locations as exotic as Borneo or Kazakhstan you’ll find it entertaining.

6.       “EnglishHistorical Fiction Authors” is one of the most impressive blogs of all, delivering an article on some – always unexpected - aspect of history, day in, day out. There are huge numbers of contributors and the subject matter reflects this. Not to be missed!

7.       “Forceswith History” by Robert W. Mackay, deals with aspects of Canadian military and naval history. These are topics not well covered in the British or American blogosphere and Mr. Mackay’s blog is all the more valuable for that reason.

8.       “The CujoCat Chronicles” consists of the musings of a very intelligent (and handsome) cat who is often critical and often bemused, by the antics of the two-leggers in the pride of which he is unchallenged master. Well worth dropping in on now and again.

9.       Since I’m fascinated by all things Ottoman I welcome Kathryn Gauci’s blog. It deals with Turkish and Greek themes. It’s a relative newcomer and I look forward to it thriving.

10.   “Adventures in Historyland" lives up to its name with articles, often long, on interesting aspets of major events. It’s like an on-line history magazine and one of the best of all historical blogs.

And lastly, let me not forget Alison Morton’s own splendid “Roma Nova” blog, which focusses largely, though not exclusively on Roman history. It’s as much a delight as Alison’s own novels (Click here to learn more). And thanks to Alison for alerting me to this particular blog hop! It’s been fun participating.