Friday 29 May 2015

The Shortest War in History: Zanzibar 1896

The island of Zanzibar, off the coast of modern Tanzania, was to be the scene in 1896 of what has been described as “The Shortest War in History”. It lasted a mere 38 minutes but in this short period it proved to be very bloody indeed.

African slaves at Zanzibar - photograph - by A.G. Gomes and Co. - undated but probably 1880s

Primarily an Arab settlement, with strong links to Oman, Zanzibar’s wealth had been based on the slave-trade, with expeditions reaching far into East and Central Africa to capture prisoners who would be shipped to the slave markets of Arabia. In 1858 the Zanzibar’s ruler, the Sultan, threw off allegiance to Oman and declared independence. This was accepted by Britain – though formal recognition had to wait to 1886 – and in the coming decades the island, and the similarly named capital, provided a base for the Royal Navy’s anti-slave trade operations along the East African coast. There was a definite paradox here – many Zanzibar Arabs were heavily involved in the slave-trade and the institution remained legal on the island.

Arab slave merchants inspecting African slaves at Zanzibar

By the 1890s the newly-forged German Empire, hungry for colonies, was establishing itself in Tanganyika, the mainland directly west of Zanzibar, while British interests were similarly engaged in setting up a colony in Kenya, further north. German efforts to suppress slaving were resented by Arabs traders, resulting in armed clashes, and leading also to significant Anti-German resentment on Zanzibar itself. Britain and Germany were now vying for supremacy in East Africa and Zanzibar, in view of its position, assumed strategic significance. 

Helgoland in the 1890s, after Germany took it over - contemporary postcard
All the potential for a Gibraltar or Malta in the Noth Sea - and thrown away by Britain!

Germany was to do well out of its opposition to British control of Zanzibar for in a treaty signed in 1890 it pledged to give up its interest in there in exchange for Britain handing back to Germany the island of Helgoland in the North Sea. Occupied by Britain since 1814, this small island was ideally placed to protect the approaches to both the new German naval base of Wilhelmshaven and the western entrance of the Kiel Canal. Had Britain retained Helgoland and fortified it heavily, as the Germans were thereafter to do, the course of both world wars might have been significantly different.

Lloyd Mathews (1850-1901)
The power behind the throne
Britain had recognised the sovereignty of Zanzibar and its Sultan in 1886, and the Zanzibar-Helgoland Treaty strengthened its position. A new Sultan, Ali bin Said, came to power in the same year as the treaty.  Zanzibar was declared a British protectorate, the slave trade was banned, though  ownership of slaves remained legal, and a British nominee, Lloyd Mathews, was appointed to lead the Sultan’s cabinet. A further measure of Britain’s power was that it was accepted as having a veto over the appointment of future sultans. Lloyd Mathews had been seconded by Britain as long before as 1877 to create a small, modern, Zanzibari army which was to number in due course over 6000 men. He carried the rank of Brigadier-General and in due course was to become the real power behind the throne.

Sultan Ali died in 1893 and was succeeded by Hamad bin Thuwaini, who was acceptable to Britain. Zanzibari opinion was now however growing hostile to British presence – the slave-trade ban was starting to bite – and the Sultan was authorised to recruit a 1000-man “bodyguard” to maintain order. This proved to be a double-edged sword and British residents were soon complaining about the bodyguard’s behaviour.

Khalid bin Bargash
Sultan Hamad lasted three years, dying suddenly on August 25th1896. His nephew, Khalid bin Bargash, who was suspected by some as having been involved in his uncle’s death, immediately ensconced himself in the palace complex at Zanzibar Town, with the obvious intention of taking over as sultan. Britain preferred another candidate however, Hamid bin Mohammed, and intended to use its veto. Khalid was warned accordingly but he proceeded anyway, massing forces loyal to himself at the palace complex. This was a residential wooden structure, modern in construction, provided even with electricity. By evening Khalid had almost 3000 supporters under arms, about a quarter of them defectors from the army, the bulk of which remained loyal to their British commander. Khalid’s force also had several machine guns, two modern 12-pounders and a 17th-century bronze cannon. Also declaring for Khalid was the crew of the royal yacht, the HHS Glasgow.

The Sultan's armed yacht, HHS Glasgow

Mathews was having none of it. The force immediately available to him to oppose Khalid was small numerically – some 900 Zanzibari soldiers, many of them ex-slaves, and commanded by a Lieutenant Raikes who was seconded from Britain’s Wiltshire Regiment. They were supplemented by up to 180  marines and seamen landed from a small Royal Navy cruiser, HMS Philomel and two gunboats, HMS Thrush and HMS Sparrow, which were conveniently in the harbour. These vessels’ firepower was considerable – Philomel mounted eight 4.7-inch guns and eight 3-pounders, while the sisters Thrush and Sparrow each carried six 4-inch and two 3-pounders. The three ships also carried numerous machine guns. Fully exposed at the palace complex, which extended along the water-front, Khalid’s supporters would have been well advised to disperse – which they did not.

HMS Thrush - a classic Mitchell print

The late sultan was buried before nightfall, in line with Muslim custom, and Khalid, despite further warnings from Mathews, proclaimed himself as his successor. Zanzibar was linked to the outside world by telegraph and authorisation was asked from the British Government in London for the naval vessels to open fire should circumstances demand – there was still hope for a peaceful settlement.

HMS St. George - classic Victorian livery and massive firepower

The stand-off continued, with Khalid showing no intention to back down. Yet more Royal Navy might  arrived, another small cruiser, HMS Racoon – six 6-inch and eight 3-pounders – and the flagship of the Cape and East Africa Station, HMS St. George. Any one of the other ships, even the gunboats, would have been sufficient for the job in hand, but the St. George was an absolute sledgehammer. An Edgar Class protected cruiser of 7350 tons, she carried no less than ten 6-in guns and twelve 6-pounders. Her greatest power lay however in the two massive 9.2-inch ship-killers carried as bow and stern-chasers. Also arriving was authorisation from the British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury to “adopt whatever measures you may consider necessary.”

The palace before the bombardment

 The last round of negotiations failed. It is difficult at this remove to understand how Khalid could have believed he had any hope of withstanding the forces against him.  The British naval commander, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, made it plain that if Khalid had not submitted by 9000 hrs the following day, fire would be opened. Through the afternoon all commercial shipping left the harbour and British residents were taken on board the St. George and a British merchant ship. Fear and foreboding must now have reigned in the city – a British official wrote later that "The silence which hung over Zanzibar was appalling. Usually drums were beating or babies cried but that night there was absolutely not a sound."

Contemporary illustration:
HMS St. George in action
On the following morning, August 7th, while the British ships were readying for action, final warnings were issued to Khalid. He refused yet again to stand down. At 0900, at the exact moment the ultimatum ran out, Racoon, Thrush and Sparrow opened fire simultaneously on the palace. The wooden structure, never designed for defence, and now barricaded with crates and bales, offered no protection to Khalid’s 3000 supporters from the hail of high-explosive shells delivered at point-blank range. Some later reports indicated that Khalid fled for safety at the first shot, though others credited him with staying longer.

As the bombardment commenced the Zanzibari yacht Glasgow opened fired upon the St.  George with her seven 9-pounder guns, an unwise step in view of both ships’ relative gunpower. Fire was returned by the St. George and the Glasgow was sunk, her crew then being rescued by Royal Navy launches.

The shelling of the palace continued for 38 minutes. The palace was now on fire and Khalid’s flag had been cut down. Around 500 Zanzibaris, women as well as men, had been killed or wounded and it remains unclear how many were combatants.  Opportunistic looting during the chaos also led to some 20 deaths in the Indian quarter. Though Raikes' Zanzibari troops had come under fire as they approached the palace, none were wounded, and the sole British casualty was a Petty Officer wounded, though not fatally, on the Thrush.

The palace in ruins after the bombardment and fire

By the afternoon the town was under British control and seamen had been landed to combat, successfully, the fires spreading from the palace to threaten customs sheds containing explosives. The acceptable candidate, Hamid bin Mohammed, had been installed as sultan. He was to be no more than a puppet and he was required shortly afterwards to abolish slavery. The process was to prove a slow and bureaucratic one, just over 17000 slaves being emancipated in the next decade, out of a slave population that had been estimated at 60000 in 1891.

German cruiser SMS Seeadler - Khalid's means of escape
(Seen at New York in 1893)

And what of ex-Sultan Kahlid following his two-day reign? He found asylum, with some followers in the German consulate, where he was guarded by German sailors and marines. British forces remained outside to arrest him should he come out.  The consulate bordered on the harbour and on October 2nd a boat from the German cruiser SMS Seeadler pulled alongside. Khalid stepped on board and was taken to the cruiser, and then on to Tanganyika, without setting foot on Zanzibari soil. He remained there until captured by British forces during World War 1. He was exiled in the Seychelles and St. Helena before being finally return to East Africa. He died in Mombasa in 1927.

The British players were highly regarded for their actions during the crisis. Somewhat ridiculous Zanzibari decorations (including the “Order of the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar”) were distributed freely and Rear Admiral Rawson was knighted. Rawson’s career had still a long way to run and his most famous exploit was to come in the following year.

We’ll be looking at that in a future blog.


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Tuesday 26 May 2015

Trawlers at War in the North Sea, May-June 1915

A hundred years this month the sinking by German U-boats of three large ships, one civilian, two naval, alerted the world to the fact that the submarine was now a serious menace. A mere decade before the first puny craft to enter service in half-a-dozen navies were regarded as little more than an expensive and puny novelty. Now they represented a serious threat both to trade and to conventional naval forces. Their impact went far beyond the tactical however. On May 7th the liner Lusitania had been sunk off the south coast of Ireland with massive loss of life, some of it American, triggering outrage in the United States and almost bringing it into the war. On May 25th and 27th respectively the British pre-dreadnought battleships Triumph and Majestic were sunk of Gallipoli by a German submarine, forcing withdrawal of all heavy naval units from providing fire-support to British and Empire forces. It was the first step in the road to recognition that the campaign to force the Dardanelles could never succeed, and to final evacuation early in 1916.

HMS Audacious, 23,400-tons, ten 13.5" guns, sunk by a single mine, 27 October 1914
The focus on these three spectacular U-boat actions has however drawn attention for a much lower profile, but equally serious, U-boat offensive against a humbler target, Britain’s fishing fleet. Hundreds of trawlers and drifters had been active in the North Sea before the war and fish represented an important component of the British national diet. One surprise of the early months of World War 1 was just how serious a hazard mines represented – indeed the brand new super-dreadnought HMS Audacious had been sunk by one within two months of the start of the war. It is indeed surprising that the mine should have been so underestimated by the Royal Navy, since they had proved their worth ten years before in the Russo-Japanese War. Fixated as it was on powerful battleships, fast battlecruisers and swarms of light cruisers and destroyers for supporting heavier units in fleet actions, the Royal Navy had made no provision for mine-sweeping craft. The response – a creditably fast one – was to commandeer large numbers of small civilian vessels for hasty conversion for this role. Trawlers, already equipped with net-handling winches, were especially suited to such work and indeed a flotilla of them, still manned by civilian crews, had attempted, unsuccessfully, to sweep the Dardanelles of Turkish mines at the start of the Gallipoli campaign. The trawlers’ sea-keeping ability also made them suitable for anti-submarine patrolling, and a number were hastily equipped with light naval guns.

Typical armed trawler, HMT John Edmund. Note White Ensign and 12-pounder at bow
(with acknowledgement to
The sudden conscription of large numbers of fishing craft placed an extra burden on those which remained in fishing service. Britain, a major food importer, and with her supply lines threatened by U-boats, was now more dependent than ever before on fish catches and the North Sea, now a battleground, was the usual source. This then was the background to the German U-boat offensive against Britain’s fishing fleet. The losses were very heavy. In May 1915 – the month of the Lusitania, Triumph and Majestic sinkings – four U-boats, U-9, U-30, U-39 and U-41 – sunk a total of 23 trawlers in the North Sea. Six of these became victims on May 2nd and no less than eleven on May 3rd.

Typical requisitioned trawler, HMT Quail, armed with 2 3-pounders only
(with acknowledgement to
Serious though the losses were in material terms the crews remained relatively unscathed. At this stage of the war, before maritime aircraft and semi-rigid airships were available for systematic reconnaissance, the U-boats could surface with little risk of detection by any but their targets. Only the largest civilian vessels carried radios, and none of the trawlers. These latter were judged by the Germans as too small to merit expenditure of a torpedo. The most common U-boat tactic was to surface, order their targets’ crews to abandon ship in their boats, and then sink them by gunfire. In the case of larger craft, German boarders placed explosive charges to blow out the bottoms. Mines represented a more deadly hazard for the fishermen. Six trawlers were victims in May 1915, a typical case being the Uxbridge, which on the 3rd. of the month caught a mine in her nets, which then exploded and sank her.

Given the scale of the losses to the fishing fleet it is gratifying to learn of a U-boat receiving its come-uppance at the hands of a trawler, albeit one taken into Royal Navy service as a patrol vessel.  The German submarine U-14 had come on station east of the Scottish coast at the beginning of June. On the 2nd and 3rd of the month she sank two neutral ships, the 1670-ton Danish Cyrus and the 2240-ton Swedish Lappland respectively. The campaign against the fishing boats was still in full swing, with seven sunk by other U-boats on June 3rd and five on June 5th. The U-14’s newly commanding captain, Oberleutenant Max Hammerl, would have had every expectation of joining in the massacre. His luck was however to run out two days later, on June 5th, off Peterhead, when he encountered what appeared to be a fishing trawler. The Oceanic II was indeed a trawler, but one that had now been armed.

Hammerl, unsuspecting, ordered the gun crew of his surfaced U-14 to fire two warning shots across the Oceanic II’s bows. Joined now by a second trawler, the Hawk, the Oceanic II returned fire at a range of one mile. Hammerl responded by ordering diving – a manoeuvre that would almost certainly saved his craft had there not been a problem with the vents of the forward diving tanks. The U-14’s stern sank but the bows remained above water, a target into which the the Oceanic II’s gunners poured fire while the Hawk steamed in to ram. This ended the contest. Hammerl ordered “abandon ship” and all six officers and twenty-one enlisted men managed to escape and be taken prisoner. Hammerl himself went down with his submarine.

Both trawlers had done well in the action. Humble they might have been but they had scored a significant success, one that was to be repeated by many other equally humble craft in the coming years of the war.


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Friday 22 May 2015

Discipline, heroism and survival: HMS Alceste, 1817

The aftermath of the wreck of the French frigate Medusa in 1816 is widely regarded as one of the most horrible events in maritime history. Abandoned on an overloaded raft by officers and crew who took to the boats when the vessel grounded off the coast of modern Mauritania, only fifteen persons survived out of a total of 147. In the thirteen days the raft drifted, 132 died through thirst and starvation, fighting and suicide. Cannibalism also occurred. Though the ship’s boats had reached safety no systematic search was made for the raft and it was only discovered, accidentally, by the British ship Argus. A major scandal at the time, the raft became the subject of an unforgettable painting by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824).

"The Raft of the Medusa" - today in the Louvre, Paris

The breakdown in responsibility and discipline that led to this appalling disaster can be contrasted with the happy outcome of what could have been a similar tragedy when a Royal Navy frigate, HMS Alceste, was wrecked the following year. The value of professionalism and discipline has seldom been so dramatically illustrated.

HMS Alceste was built in 1804, as the Minerve, for the French Navy – generally similar in fact to the Medusa. Two years later she was captured by the Royal Navy and taken into service as HMS Alceste, under command of Captain (afterwards Sir) Murray Maxwell, (1775 –1831). He was to be her captain for much of her Royal Navy career until her final loss.  In 1811, in company with HMS Active, Maxwell and the Alceste captured the French frigate Pomome. Maxwell was to be congratulated on this in strange and unforeseeable circumstances six years later. The Alceste provided sterling service through the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars and in the War of 1812. 

The capture of  the French frigate Pomone by HMS Alceste and HMS Active
Painting by Pierre Julien Gilbert (1783-1860)
In 1816 Alceste was assigned to carrying William Pitt Amherst, the first Lord Amherst, on a diplomatic mission to China, the objective being to establish formal relations between Britain and the Chinese Empire. Amherst was landed at Canton (Guangzhou) and travelled overland to Pekin (Beijing). In his absence Captain Maxwell and the Alceste undertook extensive survey work in uncharted waters off the coasts of China, Korea, and Okinawa. This work is so well thought of, even today, that Maxwell has been honoured by a South Korean postage stamp.

Sir Murray Maxwell - the only Royal Navy officer honoured by a Korean stamp?
On her return to China Alceste required repairs to ready her for the long voyage home. This necessitated mooring in calm water in the Pearl River, close to Canton. A request to do so was refused by the Chinese authorities, who threatened to have the gun-batteries guarding the river open on the  Alceste should she proceed.  Captain Maxwell responded in the robust manner to be expected of the Royal Navy of his day – he bombarded and subdued the shore defences and some seventeen war-junks supporting them. He then moored, commenced his repairs and awaited Amherst’s return.

HMS Alceste attacking the Chinese batteries and junks. Note Chinese rockets
As depicted by Alceste's surgeon, John MacLeod, in his account of her final voyage
In the event Amherst’s mission proved to be a total failure, doomed as it was by mutual incomprehension. Self-sufficient for millennia, China officials had little or no understanding of the outside world and regarded all other nations as inferior. Amherst was informed that he could only be admitted to the Emperor's presence if he were to kowtow – which meant kneeling and bowing so low as to touch the forehead on the ground. As representative of a proud nation that had opposed the might of France and her allies for over twenty years, and which had the previous year seen off the Emperor Napoleon, Amherst had no intention of abasing himself or his country. Faced with an impasse, he had no option to head home. He rejoined the Alceste and she set out for England, he and his entourage, plus the frigates crew, adding up to 257 on board.

Disaster struck in the Java Sea – an area largely uncharted at the time. Despite continuous soundings the Alceste ran on to a hidden reef on 18 February 1817, the damage so severe that the flooding was too much for the pumps to handle. Abandonment was now essential, the nearest island, Pulau Liat, being close enough for crew and passengers to be transferred safely to shore. In an uncanny resemblance to the Medusa wreck, a raft was used in the evacuation in addition to the ship’s boats. On this occasion however order and discipline prevailed. Provisions and fresh water were at a premium however and it was decided that the boats would head for Batavia (now Djakarta), the Dutch administrative centre in Java, 200 miles to the south, to organise a rescue. Amheurst joined them.

Boats setting out from the island to salvage what remains on the burning hulk
Engraving from one of Surgeon Macleod's illustrations
Captain Maxwell had remained on the island and now organised a return to the wreck to recover whatever supplies remained as there were still some 200 mouths to feed. The attempt was interrupted by the arrival of Malay pirates and the salvage party, which had been unarmed, had to beat a hasty retreat. The pirates looted the wreck and burned it thereafter. Fearing further pirate attack, Maxwell supervised construction of a stockade – called appropriately “Camp Maxwell” – and readied it for defence. Another salvage party managed to recover some flour and wine from the Alceste’s burned-out hulk but the supplies-situation remained critical.

The anticipated pirate attack came on 26 February. A sortie led by Alceste’s second lieutenant led to an initial repulse – with several pirates killed – but further pirate reinforcements arrived thereafter. They made no attempt to land, contenting themselves with firing swivel guns towards the stockade. Yet more pirates arrived and on 1 March an assault, which promised to be overwhelming, seemed imminent. It was at this critical juncture that a ship was seen approaching. Her appearance, and a brief attack by Alceste's marines, broke the pirates’ resolve and they fled. The vessel turned out to be an East-Indiaman, the Ternate, which Amherst had encountered in Batavia. It was to here she returned the castaways – not a single life had been lost – and Amheurst chartered another ship, the Caesar, to take them back to Britain.

Camp Maxwell - the passengers and crew of HMS Alceste cheer their rescuers
An engraving from one of Surgeon MacLeod's illustrations
The Caesar put in to St. Helena on her voyage home and both Amherst and Maxwell had an audience with the ex-Emperor Napoleon, now in his second year of exile there. Napoleon complimented Maxwell on his achievement and hoped that he would be exonerated (as he was to be) in the inevitable court martial for her loss. He also referred admiringly – and sportingly – to Maxwell’s capture of the French Pomone in 1811. It was to Amherst, when discussing his failed mission, that Napoleon made his celebrated remark “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep. For when she wakes, she will shake the world" – a prophesy which was to come to pass in our own day.

Maxwell was rightly hailed as a hero, was knighted in 1818. He was however seriously injured by a paving stone thrown from a mob opposing him when he stood for Parliament that same year. He returned to naval service and held a number of responsible positions but he never recovered from the paving-stone injury. He died at 56 – too young.  Amherst was to serve as Governor-General of India from 1823 to 1828.

And now, when we admire  Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” we should remember the Alceste also. She and her gallant crew deserve it.

Tuesday 19 May 2015

The Bayonnaise and HMS Ambuscade action, 1798

In this blog, and later on my website, I have dealt several times with single-ship actions during the Age of Fighting Sail (see links at the end of this article), the protagonists being mainly British and French, though the Americans do figure in 1812-15. In most cases British victory over the French seems to have been all but pre-ordained, for the Royal Navy had reached a peak of professionalism in this period and the French officer corps had suffered badly in the revolution, a setback from which it never fully recovered. It is therefore somewhat of a surprise to learn not only of a French vessel capturing a British one in a single-ship action, but also that she was significantly smaller and less powerful.

The climax of the action. Bayonnaise (R) rams Ambuscade and the latter's mizzen falls
Painting by Jean Francois Hue, 1751-1823
The Bayonnaise was a French 24-gun corvette, launched in 1793. Ship-rigged (i.e. with three masts), of 580 tons and 125-ft. length, she was armed with 24 eight-pounders and four light “obusier”. The latter were short-barrelled, close-range weapons, the French answer to the British carronade, and of use only when ships were lying close together, ideally hull-to-hull. Her normal crew was about 220. Designed originally as a privateer, she was taken on the French Navy while still on the stocks. Her light armament fitted her well for a privateering, commerce-raiding role, but was likely to put her at a severe disadvantage if she encountered any larger vessel.

HMS Ambuscade was, by contrast, much more powerful, a 32-gun fifth-rate frigate which had seen successful service against the French in the American Revolutionary War. Though her dimensions were generally similar to the Bayonnaise , and though she carried a similarly sized crew, her armament was considerably heavier – 26 twelve-pounders,  a total of eight six-pounder bow and stern chasers, four eighteen-pounder carronades on the quarterdeck and two on the forecastle. In any ship-to-ship action between the two vessels the Bayonnaise might have been expected to have no chance of survival.

From August 1798, at a time when the Royal Navy’s blockade of the French coast was becoming ever more effective, Ambuscade, commanded by Captain Henry Jenkins, was ordered to patrol off the French Atlantic coast.  At dawn on 14th December, when she was cruising off the Gironde estuary, and expecting to meet HMS Stag, she sighted a sail. Assuming this to be the Stag, she steered closer. The newcomer was in fact the Bayonnaise which, significantly as it later proved, was carrying a 40-man army detachment in addition to her own crew. The French ship, recognising that she was outsized and out-gunned, went about and fled. A stern-chase ensured and it was not until noon that the range closed sufficiently for the first shots to be fired.

Bayonnaise was to take ferocious punishment in the next hour, with serious damage to hull, masts and rigging. The action might have ended when Ambuscade crossed Bayonnaise’s stern. This was the most vulnerable part of any sailing man-of-war, as shot crashing through the stern could run longitudinally along the entire inner decks, destroying all in their path. The manoeuvre, if successfully executed, was the deciding factor  in  many naval battles. It was at this moment of greatest risk that Bayonnaise’s luck kicked in. One of the Ambuscade’s ‍  12-pounders burst, killing thirteen around it and destroying the vessel’s boats. In the ensuing confusion Bayonnaise headed south and a new stern chase developed. Ambuscade, recovered from her set-back, drew level in mid-afternoon –when on this winter’s day only a few hours of daylight still remained.  

The moment of ramming - note damage to sails
As represented by naval artist Antoine Roux (1765-1835)
Ambuscade was now sailing parallel to Bayonnaise and well placed to batter her to fragments. Desperate measures were called for if the latter was to survive.  Richter, her captain, ordered  sail to be backed and swung the helm hard over to port, smashing into Ambuscade’s starboard flank close to the stern. Bayonnaise’s bowsprit crashed into the British frigate’s mizzen mast. It fell, and the tangle of cordage and wrecked spars locked both vessels together.

The extra men Bayonnaise carried – soldiers, accustomed to handling muskets – now proved decisive. A withering fire was directed on Ambuscade’s deck, so many of her officers being wounded that only a single lieutenant was left in command. Bayonnaise too was taking casualties – Captain Richter had an arm shot off –but the advantage now lay with her.  French seamen and soldiers clambered across the bowsprit on to Ambuscade and a savage melee developed. Bayonnaise’s new-found luck continued, for a powder charge exploded on Ambuscade’s quarterdeck, inflicting yet more casualties. The fighting continued for another half-hour, but numbers told. When Ambuscade’s colours were struck it was by her purser, the last Royal Navy officer still in action.

The most dramatic - and magnificent - representation of all
The French boarders can be seen storming across the bowsprit to the Ambuscade
This painting by Louis-Philippe Crepin (1772-1851) is in the  Musee National de la Marine in Paris
The butcher’s bill for this action was 15 killed and 39 wounded on Ambuscade while Bayonnaise had 25 killed and 30 wounded. The captains of both vessels were among the wounded, and many other officers beside. It should be borne in mind that “wounded” often implied the necessity of amputation of limbs and that death by gangrene was a serious possibility thereafter.  As was normal when a captain lost his ship, Captain Jenkins was later court-martialled, though he was exonerated, despite what many considered poor leadership and tactical manoeuvring.

Both vessels were to have active careers thereafter. Ambuscade was taken into French service as Embuscade  – wooden ships were almost infinitely repairable if they had not exploded or been sunk. She was however recaptured in 1803 by no less a prestigious ship than HMS Victory, and she resumed her old name. She had an active and successful career thereafter until she was broken up in 1810. Bayonnaise’s luck ran out in 1803, the same year in which Ambuscade/Embuscade’s turned for the better. Run down by HMS Ardent off Cape Finnisterre, her crew burned her rather than surrender.

French pride in the Bayonnaise/Ambuscade action was unbounded – probably because such victories were rare – and eminent artists of the time produced dramatic paintings of it. They convey much of the excitement and drama and some have been used to illustrate this article.

Links to some other single ship actions:

Friday 15 May 2015

Palmyra: a world-legacy under threat

For me Friday evening is the time of the week when I write my main blog, usually on a historical topic from the 18th or 19th Centuries, often, but not invariably, naval in focus. I usually pick my subject earlier in the week, check out various facts and select illustrations so that I’m ready to start hitting the keyboard directly after dinner. This Friday evening was to be no exception and I had selected a subject – one relating to a dramatic naval incident in the Napoleonic period – and I had assembled my material. In the event however an item on today’s news has so outraged me that I find it impossible to write about anything else. This item related to the advance of ISIS forces on the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria, bringing with them the threat of the same type of epic vandalism that they have already wreaked on the remains of the Assyrian city of Nimrud.

My blog has therefore no nautical dimension but it does relate to history in its most basic form. It raises issues as to how we regard and value the past and how we should hope to hand on to future generations, with reverence and understanding, the lessons it has taught us and the achievements of human art and intellect which it has given us.

Palmyra - the Temple of Bel
Some sixteen months ago I wrote a blog (click here to read it) in which I mourned “the tragedy of the end of normal things” in Syria. The situation that so depressed me then, when the word ISIS was associated only with an Egyptian goddess, or with the Thames at Oxford, seems now, in comparison, to have been immeasurably less terrible than today's. Since then we have seen barbarism on a massive scale, targeting not just today’s humanity but the very past itself. Not only have we seen huge numbers of people murdered with incomprehensible savagery, driven from their homes and persecuted for their beliefs, but we have seen war declared on the memory itself, devastating archaeological sites and aiming to wipe away all trace of past civilisations.

Palmyra - never to be forgotten
I visited Syria twice. On the first occasion, some fifteen years ago, I had gone there on business, but I was able to take some brief time off to see something of the country’s amazing heritage. The most impressive site of all was Palmyra, the ancient city that lies roughly half-way between Damascus and the Euphrates. It thrived in the Greco-Roman period – though its history was much longer – and its name will always be associated with its most famous ruler, Queen Zenobia.

Even today the beauty and extent of the ruins convey just how prosperous this city was
Palmyra was a vital stop on the long trade route that led from the Mediterranean to as far away as China and its wealth was based on trade rather than military power. Though surrounded by desert on all sides, it was centred on a palm oasis so that agriculture could flourish about it and sustain its life. The site is vast, roughly a fifth of a square mile, and though most of the building have been tumbled by earthquakes over the centuries one is still overcome by its grandeur. I myself was overcome by what I saw and I resolved that I would return at some stage to enjoy the site – and many other splendid ones in Syria – at my leisure.

I returned to Syria in 2009 – quite providentially, as it was the last year before civil war erupted there – and I did so as a tourist. The dates of some of the sites visited ranged from the very dawn of human civilisation, through the Greco-Roman, Byzantine and Crusader eras, right up to the last days of Ottoman rule. My earlier blog tells something about this trip. The most memorable experience of all was however my return visit to Palmyra and the opportunity to walk through its paved streets, to marvel at the scale and beauty of those buildings still standing, to sit in a well-preserved theeatre where audicnes had once enjoyed the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, to imagine peoples of a dozen nationalities and languages interacting in this hub of trade. One of the best memories of my life is having ridden on a camel through the city at dawn, the air still cool, the sun just coming up and casting long shadows. The photographs below, which I took during my visit, may give some idea of this magical place.

Palmyra's theatre - with perhaps the best backdrop in the world
Part of the Temple of Bel complex
Survivors of centuries of earthquakes - and now at risk from Man?
And now it’s all at risk. Blind ignorance and intolerance threaten an inheritance that belongs not only to Syria, but to the entire world. Grace and beauty that has survived earthquakes and military conquests of the past may at last succumb to the bulldozers, axes and explosives of modern barbarians. In passing I may voice my disgust for the term “militant” that the BBC has chosen to apply to such people. In the past this term always had something about it of the student radical or the combative trade union, people and organisations prepared to make vigorous protests but who accepted that there would be boundaries, straying beyond which would invalidate the dignity and justice of their cause. To apply the same term to those who have declared war on the civilisations of the past, no less than on innocents of the present, is inappropriate in the extreme. It’s time to call a spade a spade.

The one glimmer of hope is that Palmyra has not fallen yet to ISIS, that it may yet be saved for the delight and inspiration of countless generations to come.

Let us hope and pray that it will be so.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

The attack on the "General Armstrong" 1814

“Cutting out” operations were the SEAL or SBS-type operations of the Napoleonic era. Small boats carrying large numbers of armed seamen attempted to capture enemy ships which had gained the shelter of a harbour of guarded anchorage and they became somewhat of a Royal Navy speciality. Such exploits often feature in naval fiction but the reality was often more daring, and more unlikely, than any novelist might dream up. One spectacular example of such an action occurred during the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. What made it unusual was that it happened in a neutral port.

Until the practice was outlawed by the internationally accepted Paris Declaration on Maritime Law of 1856, “privateering” represented a valuable adjunct to official naval forces. It allowed governments during wartime to licence private persons or syndicates by ”letters of marque” to commission vessels to attack foreign shipping. Privateers not only supplemented government naval forces but they did so “on the cheap” since they operated on a “payment by results” basis through winning of prizes. Though often operating in a shadowy area between strict privateering and informal piracy, the crews involved had the benefit of being treated as prisoners of war if captured. The system was of especial value to the United States during the War of 1812 since the official navy, though potent on an individual ship basis, was vastly outnumbered by the Britain’s Royal Navy.

Samuel Chester Reid 1783-61
During this conflict one of the most formidable American privateers was the large brig General Armstrong, armed with eight nine-pounders. Crewed by some 90 men under Captain Samuel Chester Reid (1783-1861), she was to operate successfully and capture prizes in the North Atlantic and off the coast of South America for two years. On September 26th 1814 however, at Fayal, in the Portuguese-held Azores, her luck was to run out. This was a neutral harbour and thus offered protection against British attack to any American ship anchored there. The American consul had come aboard the Armstrong in late afternoon and he assured Captain Reid that no British vessels had been seen in the area recently.  As he did, a large British brig, the 18-gun Carnation, rounded the northern point of the anchorage. She moored within pistol-shot of the General Armstrong.

The Carnation was very powerful for her size. She was of the Cruizer-class, brig-sloops which carried the fearsome armament of sixteen 32-pounder carronades and two 6-pounder bow chasers. Though the carronades were short-range weapons (see blog of 16.07.2014 - click here) their presence gave these two-masted brigs a broadside heavier than a standard 36-gun, 18-pounder frigate, yet doing so with a crew only a third the size of that of the larger vessel. The General Armstrong would therefore be massively outgunned should it come to a ship-to-ship duel.

Though Captain Reid considered cutting his cable and making a run for it he was assured by the American consul that Portuguese neutrality would guarantee his ship’s safety. His apprehension must however have increased yet further when two more Royal Navy ships arrived, the 74-gun third-rate Plantagenet and the fifth-rate frigate Rota. Outgunned already, the General Armstrong was now faced with enough firepower to blast her to extinction with a single combined broadside. Boats were seen moving from the other British ships to the Plantagenet – a conference was obviously intended – and Reid assumed that capture of his vessel was being planned. His escape to the open sea blocked, he got out his sweeps to pull the General Armstrong further inshore. HMS Carnation immediately got under way and followed but due to light winds was unable to catch up with the privateer.

British and American accounts were to differ as to what happened next. Reid claimed that at around 8 p.m. he perceived four boats approaching, laden with armed men. He dropped his anchor with a spring on the cable, and swung his broadside towards the boats, warning them when they came within hailing distance not to come closer. When this was ignored the General Armstrong opened fire with cannon and small arms. The British boats retaliated with the small guns they carried but they got the worst of it. Badly mauled, and with casualties, they turned away. One American had been killed and Reid’s first officer had been wounded. Reid was convinced that he had not seen the last of the British and so he brought his vessel even closer inshore, so that it was all but touching the base of the Portuguese fortifications.

The Portuguese Governor now sent a letter to Captain Robert Lloyd, the British commander, begging him to respect the neutrality of the port and abstain from further attack. The reply was that the Americans had broken the neutrality of the port by firing into a British boat without the least provocation. The original British intention had been to respect the port’s neutrality, Lloyd said, but it had now been decided to seize the privateer. It was hoped, furthermore, that the Governor would direct his shore batteries to assist, a request which was rejected.

At 9.00 p.m. – and when it was dark – eleven boats, drawn from all three Royal Navy warships, were seen converging on the General Armstrong. Between them they carried upwards of 200 men. An adverse tide prevented them coming closer until midnight and the Americans had ample time to prepare to receive them. The boats were allowed to come into pistol range before the Armstrong opened fire with roundshot and grapeshot. The British responded with the smaller guns mounted in their pulling boats but they took casualties as they rushed forward to board the General Armstrong at several locations. The privateer was moored so close inshore that the attacking boats had not room to board on the inside.

Contemporary view of the boarding of the General Armstrong
In reality the attack took place during darkness
The fighting was now desperate and bloody. The British seamen clambered up the privateer’s side despite her crew’s fierce resistance. The Americans, armed with pistol, pike, or cutlass, met them at arm's length with such ferocity that the boats were soon filled up with the wounded and dying men who had been hurled back. Repulsed at other points, the British at last gained a foothold on the forecastle, where the two American officers in charge were killed or disabled. Captain Reid had already repulsed the attack at the stern and he now led his men in a charge forward, driving the British over the bows and back into their boats. The attack was not renewed. The fighting was said to have lasted forty minutes—an almost unconceivable time for close combat within such a small space.  The Americans captured two of the Rota’s boats. Seventeen men survived from the forty or fifty they had carried. One of the Plantagenet's boats was found under the privateer's stern, with only four living men left in it. A British eyewitness stated that "The Americans fought with great firmness, but more like bloodthirsty savages than anything else. They rushed into the boats sword in hand, and put every soul to death as far as came within their power." For the British the butcher’s bill was 36 killed and 93 wounded. The Americans had two dead and two wounded.

At daybreak the Carnation stood in to destroy the General Armstrong with her carronades. Recognising that further resistance was futile, Reid abandoned his vessel, leaving her to be consumed by fire. He and his men were afforded protection by the Portuguese.

Recriminations followed, based on accusations of who fired first and whether it was justified. The ultimate loser was to be Captain Lloyd of HMS Plantagenet, who had been in overall command. The Lords of the Admiralty expressed very strong disapproval of his actions, pointing out that sending a boat after dark was sure to lead to some such incident; that, if the Americans broke the neutrality of the port, his first business was to make representation to the Governor, and not take the law into his own hands. The honour of the flag and the prestige of the British Navy, as represented by a 74-gun ship, a frigate, and a sloop, were not likely to be endangered by the presence of one small privateer.

One cannot but agree with their lordships. Good and brave men had been lost in an ill-conceived and badly-executed fiasco.

And Reid? His later claim to fame was to design the Stars and Stripes flag of the United States. But that’s a different story.

The 1818 version of the flag of the United States, as designed by C\ptainReid.
The pattern of the stars was later changed to four rows of five.

Friday 8 May 2015

Twilight of the Pre-Dreadnoughts and the Sinking of HMS Goliath, May 13th 1915

At the start of World War I the major navies had significant numbers of pre-dreadnought battleships which, though in many cases only eight or ten years old, had been rendered wholly obsolete by the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought in 1905. This, the first turbine-driven, all-big gun, battleship, mounted ten 12” guns, compared with the almost universal armament of four 12-inch guns for the average pre-dreadnought, and set the model for all subsequent capital ships. By the outbreak of war in 1914 large numbers of “dreadnoughts” – the name had already come to symbolise a type – were in service in the larger navies. Putting obsolete pre-dreadnoughts into a battle-line which would have to face much more powerfully-armed dreadnoughts  was likely to be little short of suicidal.  

HMS Canopus - typical pre-dreadnought, sister of HMS Goliath
In 1914 the Royal Navy still has 39 pre-dreadnoughts while the French Navy had 26 (including several more heavily-armed “semi-dreadnoughts”). It was recognised that though they were unsuited to battle-fleet service they might still prove of value in secondary duties such as shore bombardment. In such cases low speed would be less of a concern and each ship would be capable of bringing four 12” weapons into play, plus large numbers of lower-calibre weapons.

It was the availability of large numbers of such pre-dreadnoughts that contributed to the decision to attempt forcing a passage through the Turkish-held Dardanelles Strait in 1915. Success in establishing a sea-route to the Russian Black Sea coast would allow supply of weapons and munitions to often-underequipped Russian land forces. Some have indeed  argued that had this been achieved Russia might not have collapsed as it did in 1916/17 and that the Bolshevik Revolution might not have occurred. There also appears to have been some thinking that, in view of the large number of obsolete pre-dreadnoughts available, significant losses could be tolerated to achieve success. This argument ignored the fact that these ships carried large crews, and that the sinking of any one would mean a devastatingly high – and unacceptable – death-toll.

The Bouvet in peacetime livery, black hull, light grey upperworks
The purely naval attempt to force the Dardanelles on 18th March 1915 saw no less than sixteen British and French pre-dreadnoughts, plus the new 15” dreadnought Queen Elizabeth and the lightly armoured battle-cruiser Inflexible, advance up a strait that narrowed from four miles to one in some ten miles. The result was a disaster. Under fire from Turkish shore-batteries, and heading into upswept minefields, two British pre-dreadnoughts (Ocean and Irresistible) and one French one (Bouvet) were lost in little more than an hour.  The Inflexible – which should not have been there, as speed rather than armour was intended as her protection – survived after hitting a mine. The loss of the Bouvet was particularly spectacular, blowing up and sinking in less than two minutes and taking 660 men with her. The impracticability of the scheme was finally realised and the massive naval force was withdrawn. The decision was now taken to land troops to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula that flanked the Dardanelles and poorly-planned and inadequately-supplied landings were made at several points on April 25th 1916. None of the forces landed reached their first-day objectives. The Turks managed to hold, to flood in reinforcements and to establish a trench-deadlock no less intractable than that on the Western Front. The eight-month agony of the Gallipoli campaign had begun, ending only with full evacuation of Allied forces in early 1916.

Shore bombardment by HMS Cornwallis
(Australian War Museum Photograph AWM H10388)
The role of the pre-dreadnoughts after the failure of March 18th was to be shore-bombardment in support of the landings, and thereafter of the forces onshore.  Over-optimistic assumptions were made about the ability of naval guns to take-out pin-point targets – which was what the troops onshore needed – and the results were wholly incommensurate with the risks run by the ships involved. Three further British pre-dreadnoughts were to be lost before the decision was taken to withdraw them from the beaches. The ability of the enemy to strike back with either surface or submarine forces was wholly under-estimated, and indeed the arrival of a German U-Boat, the U-21, came as a very unpleasant surprise.  HMS Triumph and HMS Majestic were to fall victims to her torpedoes on May 25th and May 27th respectively. (See blog of 20.01.15 about U21).

The first of the losses off the Gallipoli beaches was however due to surface attack. Ever since the automotive torpedo had come into service in the late 1870s the possibility of torpedo-craft penetrating anchorages under cover of night was recognised as a major threat. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 had indeed begun with exactly such an attack by the Japanese even before war was declared. It is therefore surprising that lack of alertness – perhaps even complacency – may have characterised the sinking of the pre-dreadnought HMS Goliath in the early hours of May 13th 1915.

HMS Goliath
Of the Canopus class, the Goliath was a typical pre-dreadnought. Completed in 1900, of 13,000 tons and 430-feet long, she carried four 12-inch guns, twelve 6-inch and a large number of smaller weapons.  She had served off the East African coast earlier in the war but was recalled to participate in the attempt on the Dardanelles. Her crew was over 700. She had provided fire-support for the landings on April 25th and continued to do so thereafter, sustaining light damage from Turkish shore batteries.  On the night of 12th-13th May she was anchored in Morto Bay, close to Cape Helles, the southern tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula, in company with a similar vessel, HMS Cornwallis. Five destroyers had been assigned to protect them and visibility was low due to fog.

Muavenet-i Milliye on Turkish postcard
Following a period of stagnation, under-investment and a lack-lustre performance in the Balkan Wars 1912-13 (see blog of 04.04.14 re The Battle of Elli) the Turkish Navy was in the process of re-equipping in 1914. Britain’s refusal to deliver two dreadnoughts constructed in British yards and already paid for (and taken into British service as HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin) was a contributing factor in Turkey entering WW1 on the German side. Delivery had been taken of other new vessels however, most notably four modern torpedo-boats built by Germany’s Schichau-Werft company . These had originally been ordered for the Imperial German Navy but in 1910 they were sold, before completion, to Turkey. They were impressive vessels, designed only for one purpose, that of attack.  Of 765 tons and 243-feet long, their two turbines delivering 17,700 HP, and 26 knots, they carried three 18-inch torpedo tubes as well as two 3-inch and two 2.25-inch guns. It was one of these vessels, the Muâvenet-i Millîye (National Support) that was to be the Goliath’s nemesis.

Ohlay (Right) & Firle (left) 
Though the Muâvenet-i Millîye was commanded by Senior Lieutenant Ahmet Saffet Ohkay , a German officer, Lieutenant Rudolph Firle, one of many seconded to the Turkish Navy, was assigned to the vessel to give specialist advice on torpedo attack.  Taking advantage of darkness and fog patches the torpedo boat passed through the Turkish minefields in early evening and then anchored under cover of the Turkish-held Gallipoli shore about seven miles north-east of the anchored pre-dreadnoughts. She remained there until shortly after midnight and in the meantime, around 23.30, the searchlights sweeping the anchorage from the British ships were switched off. (Why this was done is one of the mysteries of the entire operation).

The Muâvenet-i-Millîye now crept down along the shore and the Allied destroyers failed to detect her. Only at 0100 hrs were two of these destroyers, HMS Beagle and HMS Bulldog, sighted – but astern – and Goliath was spotted directly ahead.  The Turkish vessel’s advance was now noticed and Goliath signalled a request for the night’s password. It was too late. The Muâvenet-i-Millîye was in torpedo-range and she launched three torpedoes.  They proved to be equally spaced along the pre-dreadnought’s length – one hit below the bridge, a second below the funnels and the third near the stern. The Goliath capsized and sank almost immediately, so quickly in fact that 570 of her crew of more than 700 were lost, including the captain. The darkness and the fast current running – up to three knots – hampered rescue efforts significantly.

Turkish painting of the attack by Diyarbakirli Tahsin 
(Turkish Naval Museum, Istanbul)
In the confusion following the attack the Muâvenet-i-Millîye escaped back safely up the Dardanelles. She returned to a hero’s welcome in Istanbul, with illuminations along the Bosporus in honour of her and her crew, and with the award of medals and decorations. Perhaps the best tribute paid to her and her crew came from General Sir Ian Hamilton, the British Army commander at Gallipoli, who wrote in his diary – “The Turks deserve a medal."

Triumphant torpedo-crew: Firle is second from right in front of tube
The Goliath’s loss was to have serious consequences within the British Government, leading in turn to the immediate resignation of the First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher (who had conceived the Dreadnought and presided over the Royal Navy’s modernisation) and, shortly later, that of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Two more pre-dreadnoughts, Triumph and Majestic, were to be sunk by the U-21 in the next fortnight, triggering the decision to withdraw all heavy units. The long, painful journey to final defeat and evacuation was now well advanced.

And the Muavenet-i -Milliye? She was to have an inglorious post-war career as an accommodation hulk until she was scrapped in 1953.

But in her one night of glory she had changed history.


If you want to read about service in the Turkish Navy in an earlier war, click on image below for more details and to read the opening: