Tuesday 30 June 2015

Blood in the Streets, Amsterdam 1886

From 1833 to 1940 the Kingdom of the Netherlands experienced one of the longest periods in which any Western European nation did not go to war. A separate army was maintained in the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia) but the home army saw no service against a foreign enemy for over a century. There was however one incident in this period in which serious bloodshed occurred in the streets of Amsterdam, leaving many dead, as the army was called in to subdue rioting. The trigger for these tragic events was a ludicrous one.

The Netherlands in the late nineteenth century was generally prosperous, but as with so many other countries in Europe serious pockets of poverty and deprivation remained in large cities and towns. Though a democracy by the standards of the time, the Netherlands’ political structures did not yet reflect the concerns – and resentments – of a major part of the population. One outlet – a safety valve in fact – for such tensions consisted of customs and celebrations during which the impoverished felt liberated, even if only for a day. Crude, and often descending into drunkenness and violence as they often did, any attempt by the authorities to restrict such celebrations aroused bitter anger. 
"Kermis on the Haarlemer Plein, Amsterdam " by George Hendrik Breitner (1857-1923)
With acknowledgement to the Amsterdam Museum
One such occasion was in 1876 when the Burgermeester – Mayor – of Amsterdam announced that the annual September Carnival “Kermis”) would be forbidden. Reasoning that more wealthy citizens could afford a carnival all year round, and they only for one day a year, large numbers of poor took to the streets. The violent rioting that followed lasted four days and was only put down when army units were brought in to support the police. In what was seen to be an over-reaction by the authorities, which stoked rather than supressed the violence, it is surprising that only one person was killed, though dozens were injured.

Palingtrekken, as illustrated in a French magazine
The need for a measured response, rather than over-reaction, seems to have been lost on the authorities however and far more serious civil unrest occurred a decade later in 1886. Large public gathering were always viewed with suspicion but on this occasion – quite ironically – a humane impulse also played a role in banning a popular event. Comparable to bear-baiting or dog-fighting elsewhere “palingtrekken” – “eel pulling” – was a cruel but much-enjoyed sport among the poor. A rope was stretched across a canal and a live ell was suspended from the centre. Contestants passed underneath in an open boat and attempted to drag the wretched creature free.  Slippery, and thrashing blindly, the eel was difficult to pull down and the contestant often fell in the water, much to the merriment of the onlookers. By 1886 many regarded this sport as cruel and inhumane and in July 1886 an annual contest of this sort, due to take place at Amsterdam’s Lindengracht (a “gracht” is a canal in town), was banned by the authorities.

Street fighting in the Jordaan 26th July 1886
(note stones and  shutters thrown from above)
The organisers were determined to go on regardless and on 25th July 1886, a Sunday, a large crowd gathered to watch. The police moved in to disperse it and were immediately resisted. By evening, after a full-scale riot, order appeared to have been restored. Violence erupted again the following day however, and now the residents of the poverty-stricken Jordaan quarter joined in, ripping up paving stones and building barricades. The police moved in and were met with heavy objects thrown down from the roofs above. The violence now escalated to a level at which it was regarded essential to bring in the army.  Permission was given to use live ammunition and the barricades were cleared one by one.

The fighting lasted only a single day, but during it 26 people were killed and many more wounded. In the aftermath some saw the events as part of a Socialist plot but the public prosecutor, after investigation, rejected this. The events had been spontaneous and reflected a deep social malaise. The Eel Riot left bitter memories, particularly in the Jordaan. A half-century later, in 1934, rioting by unemployed was to trigger further chaos there, on this occasion with five dead and 56 seriously wounded. 

Largely forgotten today, the Eel Riot had been triggered by a noble impulse. Only a sense of proportion was lacking.
The Lindengracht, seen here before being filled-in in 1896

Friday 26 June 2015

One Submarine, Two Flags and Two Heroes

Two spectacular cases of submarines penetrating enemy anchorages are well known to naval-history enthusiasts. The first was when the Royal Navy’s E14, commanded by  Lieutenant Commander Edward Boyle VC, surfaced in the Golden Horn, in the heart of Istanbul, in May 1915. This followed penetration of the heavily-mined Dardanelles, and was part of a successful campaign against Turkish shipping. The second instance was when Germany’s U-47, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Gunter Prien, found her way through the defences of the Royal Navy’s protected anchorage at Scapa Flow in 1939 and sank the battleship Royal Oak at anchor there.

Boyle's E14
A third equally daring action is this type deserves to be better known and though it ended in tragedy it involved courage and skill of a very high order. It was also to be the prelude to an amazing – and unlikely – second career for the submarine involved. The story also links two decent and heroic men who, in other circumstances, might well have valued each other as friends.

The submarine was a combat-unproven weapon at the outbreak of war in 1914, but several major navies, including that of France as well of those of Britain, Germany and the United States, had invested heavily in such vessels in the previous decade. Extensive testing and evaluation of operational procedures had been undertaken and a number of second-rank navies were rapidly following suit. Alternative design approaches were still being investigated and French development followed a somewhat different track than other navies. This was epitomised by the large number – 34 in total – of generally similar Brumaire-class and Pluviôse-class boats designed by Maxime Laubeuf.  Though all had electrical underwater-propulsion, several of the earlier-constructed units were powered on the surface by steam – which slowed diving and proved impractical operationally. (The French experience was not taken to heart by the Royal Navy, which later committed heavily to its own disastrous K-class). Later Brumaire/ Pluviôse boats had diesel power for surface running.

The steam-driven Vendemiaire of the Pluivose class
These craft were 167 to 171 feet long and had a surface displacement of 398 tons and in their time were innovative as being of double hull construction. This involved a generally cylindrical inner hull, strong enough to resist external pressure, but with an outer, boat-shaped hull to improve surface seakeeping. Innovative when new, these features became standard thereafter in most other navies . To modern eyes however the Brumaire and Pluviôse classes had a strange appearance, unlike those of other navies of the time, whose vessels looked generally similar to those we see today. The Laubeuf boats had no coning tower (or in modern parlance “sail”) as such, only a small, low open bridge for steering on the surface.  Extending fore and aft of this platform was a walkway supported on stanchions. In the open space below this were four “Drzewiecki” drop-collars which each carried an 18-inch torpedo at the start of a cruise, with two reloads carried in cradles beneath the walkway. These six torpedoes were therefore carried externally and these, plus the walkway, can only have added significantly to parasitic drag. There was in addition a single 18” torpedo tube in the bow, into which a reload could be inserted from within without the need to surface – as was impossible with the drop-collars. Carrying eight torpedoes, these boats has a very powerful offensive capability

Montgolfier, Brumaire-Class submarine, sister of Curie, seen at anchor on the Seine in Paris (!!)
The Curie, launched in 1912, belonged to the Brumaire-class, with diesel power for surface running.  In August 1914, when France and Britain went to war with the Central Powers – Germany and Austro-Hungary – Curie was assigned to supporting the French Navy’s attempt to close off the Otranto Straits between Southern Italy and Greece. By so doing they would bottle-up the efficient and locally powerful Austro-Hungarian navy within the Adriatic. (Click here for a separate article about this).  Blockade was however a slow process and more daring spirits considered the possibility of infiltrating a submarine into the main Austro-Hungarian naval base at Pola, close to the head of the Adriatic, so as to sink major units moored there.

Some of Curie's crew - note the tiny steering plafform

Gabriel O'Byrne
Curie was chosen for the mission, probably not least because of the competence and obvious flair of her commander, who had apparently conceived the idea of such an attack. Born in 1882, Lieutenant 1stClass  Gabriel O’Byrne was, despite his name, French, a descendent of one of the Irish “Wild Geese” who entered French service during the 18th Century when Penal Laws in Ireland barred Catholics from any significant Civil or Military service. Entering the Navy in 1896, O’Byrne was to see service in China during the Boxer Rising in 1900 and was later to specialise in submarines, taking command of the Curie shortly after her commissioning.

On December 17th 1914 the Curie was towed half-way up the Adriatic by the armoured cruiser Jules-Michelet. It should be noted that at this time Italy was still neutral and operation from an Italian base nearer to Pola was not an option.  The Curie, with a complement of 29 and her mascot dog (possibly called, most appropriately, “Radium”), was cast off 150 miles from Pola. She spent the following day approaching the Austro-Hungarian base, making most of the passage on the surface. She submerged closer to shore, passing unwittingly but safely through a defensive minefield. December 19th was sent probing the harbour’s approaches and defences – which were complex, as can be seen from the contemporary illustration below. Still undetected, O’Byrne resolved to make his entrance, submerged, on December 20th.

Curie's penetration of the Pola base
Maintaining a depth of some 60 feet, Curie reached the harbour’s outer boom around midday. Scraping of short duration was heard as she passed what appeared to the mooring cables of the outer boom. O’Byrne now took her up to periscope depth and saw, too late, the buoys of a second boom directly ahead. The Curie was almost instantly caught in steel netting. Ballast tanks were vented in desperate attempted to sink free and the crew were set to race back and forth to alter trim while the motors raced to drag the craft clear. It was to no avail. The propellers themselves became entangled and soon the over-heated electric motors were threatened to burn out. These efforts continued for four hours and the air became increasingly so foul that the dog died of asphyxiation and the crew were in little better shape. The last attempt to break free pitched the craft 30 degrees bow-down. This caused sea-water to reach the battery terminals, thereby releasing  poisonous chlorine gas.

Curie under fire - French contemporary postcard. The flag is probably an artist's invention!
The situation was now hopeless. O’Byrne destroyed his secret documents and ordered surfacing, knowing from the sounds of nearby propellers that there were enemy vessel almost directly overhead. As the Curie broke surface these vessels opened fire on her, as did a nearby shore battery. One shell penetrated the steering position, another the pressure hull. O’Byrne now ordered “Abandon ship!” and opened all vents to scuttle the craft. He himself was wounded – in the lungs – and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Pierre Chailley, had been killed outright. The coxswain had been wounded badly enough to die in hospital shortly after. O’Byrne had to be dissuaded from going down with his command.  He found himself in the icy water with his men for the next hour until they were rescued by boats from one of the Curie’s intended targets, the dreadnought Viribus Unitis. All the prisoners were treated with dignity – indeed admiration – and in view of the gravity of his injuries O’Byrne was sent to a hospital in Graz in Austria. Here, in June 1915, the Austro-Hungarian authorities allowed his wife to come from France to care for him. Here we’ll leave O’Byrne for now, but we’ll return to him later.

Under new management: Curie reborn as U-14. Note the heightened surface steering platform.
George von Trapp
Austro-Hungarians efforts to raise the Curie began immediately and she broke surface in early February 1915. It was ascertained that she could be made serviceable. She was given what amounted to a raised coning tower – essential for long-term surface seakeeping – as well as more powerful electric motors, a new battery and an 88mm gun for surface attacks. She was given extra fuel-tanks, which increased her radius of operation on the surface significantly and in June 1915 she was commissioned as U-14 of the Austro-Hungarian Navy. She was to see no success under her first commander, who fell ill, but in October her new captain was to be Linienschiffsleutnant Georg Ritter von Trapp. This officer had already scored signal successes with his previous boat, U-5, and he was to prove himself the most successful Austro-Hungarian submarine ace of the war. His later career saw him as the patriarch of the von Trapp family singers – as per “The Sound of Music” and he was to be played in the movie version by Christopher Plummer.  By the end of the war von Trapp had completed nineteen war patrols, sinking over 45,000 tons of merchant shipping, plus the French armoured cruiser Leon Gambetta and the French submarine Nereide. Among his victims was the Italian bulk-carrier SS Milazzo of 11500 tons and at the time the largest merchant ship afloat. This officer’s very varied career will be the subject of a later blog. At the end of the war the U-14 was recovered by France and served in the French Navy until scrapped in 1929.

And what of O’Byrne? Though well treated in Austria, his health did not improve and he was repatriated to France, via Switzerland and the Red Cross, in 1917, dying shortly afterwards. He left his wife and two children. Rightly recognised as a hero, he was decorated as a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur and received the Croix de Guerre.  A recognition that he might have valued even more was that the lead-vessel of a three-boat class of submarine was to be named after him. Launched in 1919, the O’Byrne was to serve in the French Navy until 1935. A similar honour was deservedly accorded to the Curie’s second in command, Pierre Chailley, killed during the Pola attack, the second boat of the class being named after him and serving until 1936.

Henry Foournier, third boat of the O'Byrne class, 1921
Chivalrous by nature, and lacking employment when the breakup of the Empire cost both Austria and Hungary their coastlines, and with them their need for a navy, von Trapp fell on hard times in the aftermath of the Great War. His private life and a new career thereafter was to prove not-unwelcome surprises however. A decent man, and unwilling to compromise his principles, he was forced to flee his native country after the Nazi take-over and was to die in the United States in 1947.

As I pieced together this story I was struck by the pronounced similarity of both O’Byrne and von Trapp. Brave, resourceful and dedicated, and from very similar social and religious backgrounds, they both remained men of integrity. It’s easy to imagine them as friends in different circumstances. I found myself reminded of Thomas Hardy’s lines in his poem “The Man He Killed”:

Had he and I but met,
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

                   And later:

 Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown

Readers of my novel Britannia’s Shark may remember Commander Nicholas Dawlish RN having a brief encounter with von Trapp’s father August, also a naval officer, in April 1881. “The tight-lipped Fregattenkapitän” had led an enquiry on behalf of the Austro-Hungarian Navy into an incident in which Dawlish had little pride.  If you’d like to know more then click on the image to the left - you can "look inside" to read the opening!

Friday 19 June 2015

Guest Blog by Tom Williams: Waterloo + 200

Thursday June 18th 2015 was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and to mark it I asked my friend and fellow-novelist Tom Williams to write a guest blog about it. In it he puts the Waterloo Campaign into a perspective not often emphasised – that it was not a seamless continuation of the Peninsular War but the climax of  a surprise-crisis that caught Britain unawares and demanded rapid ad-hoc measures to cope with it. These Tom explains well and he also draws some very disturbing lessons for us today as we see Britain – and Europe – sliding towards virtual demilitarisation, despite external threats.

Tom Williams
Tom Williams’s military fiction had a rather remarkable origin – enthusiasm for Tango dancing has taken him on several trips to Buenos Aires, which has left him with a love of Argentina. His book about the British invasion of 1806 and the role of the real-life spy, James Burke, was based on his own experiences exploring Buenos Aires, riding with gauchos on the pampas and trying (and failing) to cross the snow-covered Andes on a horse. “Burke in the Land of Silver” was followed by books about Burke's fictional adventures in Egypt (“Burke and the Bedouin”) and in Belgium (“Burke at Waterloo”). Tom also writes rather more serious stories about Victorian colonialism – a visit to Borneo spawned a book about James Brooke (“The White Rajah”). There's a book set in India too (“Cawnpore”), although that's the only one of his settings that Tom hasn't visited. “Never mind”, he says,” there's always next year”

So over to Tom himself:
Waterloo 200 years on – and its lessons for today

 This month marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Do the events of 1815 have any lessons for us today? Quite possibly, they do.

Although, with the benefit of hindsight, we all know that Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo, the generals and politicians of the time had celebrated his fall with the capture of Paris in 1814. The Corsican Corporal's exile to Elba marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars as clearly as the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Cold War. 

Off to Elba, 1814 - classic contemporary cartoon by Gillray
As with the end of the Cold War, the British were quick to cash in the peace dividend. The country had been at war more or less continuously for 21 years since France declared what would become known as the War of the First Coalition on 1 February 1793. At the height of the Napoleonic wars the British had over 200,000 British men under arms (supplemented with a further 50,000 foreign and colonial troops). The cost of the war had been horrific. The direct economic cost to Great Britain is usually put at £831 million (a figure quoted by no less a body than the Royal Statistical Society in 1915). In 21st-century value terms the sum would, of course, be massively greater. The cost led to an increase in the national debt to £679 million, more than double the country's GDP. Such an enormous amount of money meant significant disruption to the economy of the whole country. The number of young men taken away from the land in order to fight impacted on agricultural production and the significantly increased taxation also hit the economy. In 1814, the British Treasury issued perpetual bonds (now known as consols) to consolidate some of the outstanding debt. Some of these bonds have still not been paid off and form part of 2015's National Debt.

Little wonder that, as soon as Napoleon was apparently safely ensconced on Elba, the government took immediate steps to reduce military expenditure. Most obviously, troops were demobilised. Other economies included such things as abandoning the line of semaphore towers that connected London to the Channel ports.

The folly of these economies was obvious as soon as Napoleon returned to France and the semaphore towers were rushed back into service. More critically, Wellington desperately needed troops, but there were few troops to be had. Many of those that were available were new recruits with no experience of battle. More experienced men had either been discharged or sent to America to reinforce troops fighting a completely separate war over there (the war in which the British famously burned down the White House).

Closing the gates at Hougoumont by Robert Gibb
(with acknowledgement to the National Gallery of Scotland)
Just as nowadays we are assured that in times of war the Regular Army can be efficiently and effectively supplemented with troops from the Territorial Army, so, in 1815, there was a militia that could be called up to serve "in time of war or insurrection". But though Bonaparte was back in Paris, was Britain at war? Legally, it was not, and so the government dithered, refusing to call up the militia until the last moment. When militia troops did arrive, it was so late that many of them went into battle wearing their militia uniforms rather than those of the regiments with which they were now serving. Although paintings made after the event all show Hougoumont defended by Guardsmen in their scarlet, many of the defenders had not yet been issued with Guards tunics.

Wellington asked that he should have 40,000 British infantry and 15,000 cavalry to be sent to Belgium. All he got was around 30,000 British soldiers of all arms, only 7,000 of them veterans.

Wellington was particularly angry that his Staff officers had been dispersed and he was unable to rely on the coterie of veterans who had surrounded him during the Peninsular War. Wellington was a great believer in what would nowadays be called cronyism. He ran the army with a group of men he had grown up with and felt comfortable alongside. Now they were scattered – dead, serving in North America, or otherwise unavailable for active service. Instead, Wellington found himself surrounded with increasing numbers of well-connected young men who sought service on his Staff as a good career move. He wrote, "I am overloaded with people I have never seen before; and it appears to be purposely intended to keep those out of my way whom I wish to have." He ordered back to his side any of the men that he thought that he could trust, even those he had some personal antipathy to. Men who thought they had seen the last of military life found themselves once again under the Colours. The irascible Picton was recalled so unexpectedly that he famously arrived with no uniform at all and rode into battle (and to his death) in civilian clothes.

Unsurprisingly, Wellington was unimpressed with the force available to him: "I have got an infamous army, very weak and ill-equipped, and a very inexperienced staff."

The meeting of Wellington and the Prussian Commander, Bluecher by Daniel Maclise
National Army Museum and Parliamentary copyright with all rights reserved)
In the end, of course, Wellington won. But it was hardly the great British victory it is painted as. Forty per cent of the troops in the army Wellington commanded were German-speaking and, of course, it was the arrival of Blucher's Prussians that finally saved the day. Earlier in the afternoon there had been panic in Brussels, as the civilian population was convinced that the Allies had lost. It was, indeed, as Wellington is regularly misquoted as saying, "A damn close run thing". A British army, ill-prepared and outgunned, pulled through because, in the end, but fighting men stood their ground, dying by the thousand, sacrificed to what we would now call defence cuts and Whitehall bungling.

The lesson of Waterloo is that you never know where and when you might have to fight. The militia was mobilised too late and, though they appear to have fought bravely, Wellington was always concerned that their lack of experience could all too easily have resulted in them breaking under fire. Two hundred years later we do not have the stomach to see British soldiers die in those numbers but we do not appear to be taking the steps that are needed to ensure that we do not put an “infamous army” into the field again.


And here’s some information on Tom’s novel “Burke at Waterloo". Click here for more:

Napoleon is in exile on Elba, but Bonapartists in Paris are plotting for his return. James Burke, British spy, is sent to infiltrate their ranks. He foils attempts to assassinate the Duke of Wellington and the French king, but the Bonapartist mastermind escapes. Burke pursues him from the cafes of Paris to the ballrooms of Brussels, a chase that ends in a final showdown on the field of Waterloo. Burke at Waterloo is a spy thriller set against a carefully researched historical background with Wellington's famous victory seen from an unusual perspective.

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Kaiser Wilhelm II at Gibraltar 1904

Wilhelm - looking ludicrous
As eldest grandson of Queen Victoria – at whose death he was present – and as nephew of Britain’s King Edward VIII, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany displayed had a half-respectful, half-resentful, attitude to Britain. He gloried in being an honorary admiral of the Royal Navy (and in wearing the appropriate uniform), he raced his yacht Meteor regularly in the Cowes Regatta and enjoyed private visits during which he dressed as an English country-gentleman. His suspicion and dislike of Britain, which later amounted to a near-mania, only intensified after the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale in April 1904, prior to which there had been some possibility of an Anglo-German Alliance.

Beresford as politician
The Entente was still a month in the future, when Wilhelm visited Gibraltar in March 1904. It was to be seen in retrospect as the climax of the Kaiser’s somewhat one-sided love-affair with Britain. I was reminded of this recently when I read an account of it by Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, then in command of the Royal Navy’s Channel fleet. The name of this fleet was somewhat of a misnomer as its area of operations was essentially the North Atlantic. Beresford had transferred his flag from HMS Majestic to her sister pre-dreadnought HMS Caesar, on February 2nd 1904 and the Kaiser was to arrive in Gibraltar the following month.

Beresford, whose very public feud with Admiral John Fisher was to cause controversy in subsequent years, was the ideal man to manage an occasion of this sort. He had at one stage been a crony of the then Prince of Wales – later Edward VII – before a falling out with him over a shared mistress and he had conducted an active political career as a member of parliament in parallel with his career as a naval officer.

SS Koenig Albert - destined to end her days as Italian war-booty

SMS Friedrich Karl
The Kaiser arrived in Gibraltar in March 1904 on board the 10483-ton German liner, Koenig Albert, escorted by the armoured cruiser SMS Friedrich Karl.  As a mark of respect for his honorary rank of a British Admiral his flag was hoisted on HMS Caesar

HMS Caesar - destined to fly the Kaisers flag as an honorary Royal Navy Admiral
The account of what happened thereafter is best told in Beresford’s own words:

“On the 20th, his Majesty honouring me with his presence at dinner in the Caesar, the boats of the Fleet were lined on either side of-the passage between the Koenig Albert and the Caesar; and when the Emperor proceeded between the lines, every boat burned a blue light, all oars were tossed, blades fore and aft, in perfect silence, the midshipmen conveying their orders by signs.”

An earlier "arch of fire" -
during Edward VII's visit in 1903
After dinner Beresford proposed the Kaiser’s health and when “I stood up, glass in hand, as I said the words “Emperor of Germany," a rocket went up from the deck above, and at the signal every ship in the Fleet fired a Royal Salute. As the Emperor was leaving that night, the German flag and the Union Jack were hoisted on the Rock, half the searchlights of the Fleet being turned on the one flag, and half on the other. Precisely as the Koenig Albert passed between the ends of the breakwaters, two stands of a thousand rockets, each stand placed upon the end of a breakwater, were ignited, and rushing upwards, met in a triumphal arch of fire high over the mastheads of the Emperor's ship.”

Wilhelm did not realise it, but this marked the end of the affair. The following month Britain linked its destiny – fatefully – with France in the Entente Cordiale and the slide commenced towards war a decade later. He was to visit Gibraltar one time, only a year later, but on this occasion there was to be no rockets, no searchlights, no triumphal arch of fire.

It followed from Wilhelm’s visit to Tangier, Morocco, in March 1905 when declared he had come to support the sovereignty of the Sultan —a statement which amounted to a provocative challenge to French influence in Morocco. The result was a serious international crisis that nearly led to war between Germany on the one side, Britain and France on the other. It was finally resolved peacefully, but it set the scene for further confrontations.

En route home from Morocco Wilhelm stopped at Gibraltar. He met a very frosty reception which he summed up in his memoirs: “The first I learned about the consequences of my Tangier visit was when I got to Gibraltar and was formally and frigidly received by the English, in marked contrast to my cordial reception the year before.”

1914 was nine years away, and the clock had started clicking.

Friday 12 June 2015

The Bombardment of Odessa 1854

The Crimean War (1854-56) in which Britain, France, Turkey and Piedmont took on Russia is generally thought of in terms of the operations in the Crimea itself. Most notable of these were the Siege of Sevastopol and battles in its immediate support such as Balaclava, Inkermann and the stormings of the Malakoff Redoubt and the Redan. Operations did however take place in other theatres, most notably the Baltic, Eastern Anatolia and the Russian Pacific Coast (See Blog of  March 27th 2015). Prior to the landing of the large Allied invasion force in the Crimea in September 1854 there was however an earlier – and significant – naval action. This was the bombardment of the Russian Black Sea port of Odessa in April 1854. It was carried out by a combined British-French force and though it initially had a superficial quality of “an affair of honour” it was to have powerful strategic implications.

HMS Furious
Though hostilities between Russia and Ottoman Turkey had commenced in 1853 it was not until March 28th 1854 that Britain and France declared war on Russia and that planning for offensive operations, including landings in Russian territory, commenced. Normal protocol called for safe repatriation of diplomatic and consular staff from all combatant nations. As part of this process the Royal Navy paddle-frigate HMS Furious arrived at Odessa to bring off the British consul. She anchored outside the harbour with a flag of truce at her mast-head and sent in a boat, also with a flag of truce flying. As the boat left with the consul, both it and Furious were fired upon by a Russian shore-battery, happily without inflicting damage.

HMS Furious - and her boat - under Russian fire despite white flag of truce
Outrage was predictable, felt not least by Admiral Sir James Dundas (1785 –1862), Royal Navy Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean since 1852 and a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. He ensured that a combined Anglo-French squadron was hastily assembled and he addressed a note to Odessa’s Russian governor, General Osten-Sacken, demanding “that all the British, French, and Russian vessels now at anchor near the citadel or the batteries of Odessa be forthwith delivered up to the combined squadron; and that if at sunset no answer or a negative be received, they will be compelled by force to avenge the insult offered, though, for humanity’s sake, they adopt the alternative with regret, and cast the responsibility of the act upon those to whom it belongs.” No satisfactory reply was received and action was now inevitable.

French illustration of bombardment - note main squadron not engaged and in line-ahead offshore
Bombarding force shown directly north of town. "Imperial Mole" jutting out to north.
The British-French squadron arrived off Odessa on April 22nd and its composition was a clear indication that the Age of Fighting Sail was well past.  The numerically largest component was a total of eighteen wooden line-of battle ships, of which twelve were British (including the embarrassingly-named HMS Trafalgar). These were however kept offshore out of shore-battery range – the Russian destruction of the Ottoman Turkish felt at Sinope the previous year had shown just how vulnerable wooden ships were to modern shell-fire. The responsibility for bombardment of Odessa was therefore allocated to smaller, and more maneuverable, vessels, all of which, other than a single British sailing frigate, HMS Arethusa, had steam power as either their primary means of propulsion.  The French contributed four steam paddle-frigates, the Descartes, Caton, Mogador and Vauban, and the British five generally similar vessels, Furious, Retribution, Sampson, Terrible and Tiger. The later may be regarded as representative of these vessels – of 1300 tons and 206 feet long she carried fourteen 32-pounder guns along her flanks, plus two 10-inch on deck-mounted pivots. 400-hp engine power drove her twin paddlewheels and these, by their size and location, represented her greatest vulnerability. It is notable that the bombardment force also included six ship's boats armed with 24-pounder rockets, a 19th-century version of modern missile-craft.  Also present was the 21-gun screw-frigate Highflyer, and the 70-gun steam ship Sans Pareil.

The Sans Pareil represented a “last gasp” of the wooden ship-of-the line. She had been laid down in 1845 as an 80-gun “second rate”, a sailing vessel generally similar to the first  HMS Sans Pareil, which had been captured from the French a half-century previously. While still on the stocks she was recognised as an anachronism and work on her in this form was suspended in 1848. She was modified thereafter to employ steam propulsion – a 622-hp engine driving a single screw and giving a speed of 7 knots. The steam plant resulted in a reduction of the number of guns to 70, all 32-pounders and her sailing rig was maintained. Of 3,800 tons and 200 feet long, only the presence of her smoke-stack made her look any different to a vessel of the Nelsonic era.

Contemporary depiction of the bombardment - note close range involved.
Note also boat in foreground with launching tube for 24" rocket in the bows
The bombardment commenced at dawn on April 22nd with Descartes, Sampson, Tiger and Vauban opening fire on the Russian positions at a range of 2,000 yards. In an echo of an earlier age Vauban was hit by heated shot which started a fire aboard and caused her to drop out of line. Furious, Retribution, Terrible and Mogador then joined the attack, while Arethusa, Highflyer and Sans Pareil stood in reserve further out. Terrible scored the most notable triumph of the bombardment, a hit on a magazine on the Imperial Mole which caused a spectacular explosion. The action continued for ten hours, during which some 24 Russian ships in the port were set on fire and several interned British and French merchantmen took advantage of the confusion to escape. The rocket boats were meanwhile dedicated to initiating conflagrations in the dockyard storehouses. During the afternoon the Arethusa also came inshore to engage shore batteries. By the time the action was broken off at 1730 hrs much of the town and port facilities were on fire. Odessa had been essentially eliminated as an operational Russian base and was to remain so for the rest of the war.

The explosion of the magazine on the Imperial Mole
Some bitter satisfaction – albeit a minor one – was however to be accorded to the Russians. An Allied naval presence was maintained off the port and on May 12th, during a thick fog, HMS Tiger ran on to rocks five miles south-west of Odessa. Her guns were dropped overboard to lighten her and her boats dropped anchors to allow her to warp herself off, though to no avail. She then came under fire from Russian field artillery that had arrived on the cliffs above. Burning, and with her captain and others severely wounded, there was no option but to strike her colours. Her engines were later recovered by the Russians and installed in the imperial yacht, appropriately names “Tigr.” HMS Tiger’s Captain Giffard, who had lost a leg, died of gangrene three weeks later and was buried at Odessa with full military honours. Four others also died of wounds.

Admiral Dundas
The attack on Odessa is one of the few occasions when a naval bombardment of shore defences proved successful in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – indeed Nelson himself had warned that “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort”. Boldness alone did not account for the success, and due account must be taken of maneuverability of steam-propelled craft and the protection this gave when they came under fire from shore. Credit is also due to Dundas for his decision to keep his larger – and more vulnerable – ships out of the fray. Otherwise undistinguished as a senior commander, his neutralisation of Odessa was to be critical in allowing the subsequent invasion of the Crimea and the uninterrupted supply of the forces landed there.

If you’re interested in naval adventure in the late 19th Century you may enjoy Britannia’s Shark. Click on the image below to learn more, and to read the opening by the “Look Inside” feature.

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Massacre at Sea: Royal Edward and UB-14, 1915

In both World Wars the greatest danger many troops faced, especially if they were in support or non-frontline roles, may well have been that of sinking of their transports. It is a tribute to the efficacy of convoy and escort provisions that in practice only few of the millions of men who were transported by ocean did experience such nightmares. When the worst did happen however the chances of escape from below decks on an overcrowded troopship could well be low and the casualty numbers correspondingly high. The hundredth anniversary of one such disaster, largely forgotten today, is due in August of this year.

1915 can be fairly regarded as the year in which the submarine first demonstrated its full potential far from home bases. The sinking by German U-boats of the Lusitania, the attacks of naval vessels off the beaches of Gallipoli and the campaign against Britain’s fishing fleet have all been mentioned in earlier blogs. In the second half of the year U-boats operating out of Austro-Hungarian bases on the Adriatic found new hunting grounds the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean. The Dardanelles expedition was stalled, but manpower-intensive, the Turkish threat to the Suez Canal remained and Mesopotamia – modern Iraq – sucked in more and more troops as British advances there met increased opposition. Together, these demands necessitated major Allied shipping movements, including troop transportation.  

Contemporary postcard: Royal Edward in civilian service, rre-WW1
The Royal Edward was a large, modern and virtually new liner when, like her identical sister Royal George, she was requisitioned for service as a British troopship in 1914. Of 11,117 tons and 523 feet long, and originally named Cairo and Heliopolis, these vessels had been built for fast mail-service between Marseilles and Alexandria. Steam turbines and three shafts gave them a top speed of 19 knots and they had accommodation for 1114 passengers, 344 of them in first class. In 1909 both ships were sold on to the “Royal Line”, a subsidiary company of the Canadian Northern Railway, to establish a service between Britain and Canada. They were renamed Royal Edward and Royal George. Under these names they were to become troopships, a role for which their size and speed made them ideal.

Royal Edward as a troopship, 1914
In July-August 1915 the Royal George transported troops from Britain who were intended to reinforce the British 29th Division at Gallipoli. A brief stop was made at Alexandria before heading north-west up into the Aegean towards the main British staging base at Mudros. Sources vary as to the exact total of men carried but it appears to have been around 1600, of whom some 200 represented crew. By this stage German – and to a lesser extent Austro-Hungarian – submarine presence had been making itself felt in the area. Among these craft was the tiny coastal submarine UB-21.

UB-14 and her crew - tiny but very, very dangerous
Constructed at Bremen in North Germany and a mere 92 feet long and of only 125 tons surface displacement, the UB-14 was a new vessel. She had been transported overland, in sections, by rail from Germany before being reassembled at the Austro-Hungarian base at Pola. Her armament was limited – two 17-inch torpedo tubes and a single machine gun. She had a crew of fourteen and diesel and electric power on a single shaft only. Despite her small size and puny armament she was destined to inflict higher losses on the enemy than many larger and more potent vessels.

UB-14's sister, UB-13, being transported by rail - in sections - from Germany
UB-14's debut was spectacular. Under her first commander, Oberleutnant Heino von Heimburg (1889-1945), she sank the 9800-ton Italian armoured cruiser Amalfi off Venice in July 7th 1915. This was von Heimburg’s second victory, for while previously commanding UB-15 he had sunk the Italian submarine Medusa on June 10th.  Following the Amalfi sinking UB-14 received orders to proceed to Turkey – a passage achieved only with difficulty, and partially under tow by a Austro-Hungarian destroyer, due to her limited range.

UB-14's first victim - the 9800-ton Italian armoured cruiser Amalfi
On August 13th UB-14 sighted two ships, unescorted, some 60 miles north of Crete. The first proved to be a hospital ship, the Soudan, and, marked as such, von Heimburg allowed her to pass safely. The second was the Royal Edward. It seems that an evacuation drill had taken place on board her only shortly before and a major part of the troops carried were now below and re-stowing their kit, a fact that was to have tragic consequences. At one-mile range UB-14 launched a single torpedo. It struck the troopship close to the stern and she began to settle quickly. Though the radio-operator had time to transmit a distress signal the huge ship went down in six minutes. Many of the troops, trapped below, went down with her but many also found themselves in the water.

Alerted by the radio message, the Soudan came about and spent the next six hours recovering some 440 men. Two French destroyers and some trawlers also arrived and rescued another 221. Despite this the final death toll was still high – some 935 according to some accounts. UB-14 had already departed from the scene and the lack of an escort had almost certainly contributed to her success.

von Heimburg with Blue Max - 1917
UB-14’s career was only beginning. Three weeks later, on September 2nd 1915, still in the Aegean, she torpedoed the 11,900 ton transport Southland, then carrying Australian troops. Though 40 of the 1400 men on board died the remainder got away in lifeboats. The Southland herself was saved from sinking by being beached on a nearby island. Though repaired, her luck was not to last and she was to be torpedoed and sunk in 1917 off the north-west coast of Ireland.

In late 1915 the UB-14 made the dangerous passage up the Dardanelles but was forced to put in to port for repairs. Her next victim was not to be by torpedo, but due to a personal exploit by Oberleutnant von Heimburg. On September 4th a Royal Navy submarine, the E7 had also made the passage but had become entangled in nets below the surface. Turkish craft had dropped several mines around her, but without result. von Heimburg took matters into his own hands. He rowed out to the site with the UB-14’s cook and used a plumb weight to locate the E7. On finding metal and knowing he was directly over the trapped submarine he dropped a further charge. Deciding that the game was up, the E7 surfaced and came under fire from Turkish shore batteries. Her commander ordered “abandon ship” and set scuttling charges, thereby sinking his vessel. von Heimburg somehow survived this maelstrom and was subsequently – and deservedly – awarded the Pour le Mérite, the coveted Blue Max.

HMS E7, similar to E20, also sunk by von Heimburg
UB-14 was to operate thereafter in the Black Sea, where she was to sink two Allied vessels in October 1915, and in the Sea of Marmara, where she sank the British submarine E20 in November. von Heimburg was replaced as commander early in 1916 but the UB-14’s Black Sea career was to continue to the end of the war. She ended by being scuttled off Sevastopol in early 1919 following Germany’s surrender.

And von Heimburg’s later career? He was to retire from the German Navy as an admiral in 1943, following which – one regrets to record – he became a judge on a Nazi “People’s Court”. He was captured by the Soviets in 1945, taken to Russia, and died in captivity there. It was an ignominious end, in both moral and personal terms, for an undoubtedly brave man.


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

Friday 5 June 2015

Romans: River Trade and Warfare

It is my pleasure this week to introduce a guest blog by my friend and fellow-novelist Alison Morton. She is known for her innovative - and highly credible - alternate-universe thrillers, in which a remnant of Roman power has survived onto the 20th Century and beyond. She has just published her fourth, Aurelia,and you'll find out more about her and her books, at the end of this article. 

I asked Alison to suggest a topic for her guest blog that would be nautically - or water-borne - related, and she came up with the following, fascinating, article. Over to Alison!

Romans and Rivers

Nowhere more than with flowing water do Roman preoccupations with religion, ceremony, power, cultural identity and commerce come together. 

Roman ideas about rivers go well beyond simple military technicalities of attack and defence; living and working by rivers, the religious symbolism of springs and water and the role of rivers as boundaries were integral to the Roman psyche. Rivers often marked not only private property, but settlements, regions, provinces and even the extent of Roman rule – the edge of empire.  The Danube (Danubius fluvius) is a perfect example of the latter. And of course, rivers served as communication for commercial as well as military use; the Rhone (Rhodanus fluvius) was the trade conduit into Gaul, Britannia and all points north.

Reconstruction of Trajan's Bridge across the lower Danube by the engineer E. Duperrex in 1907

Springs (hot and cold), streams, flowing water and mighty rivers were thought to possess a divine or semi-divine status, often with strong local traditions. Crossing a river meant negotiating with or placating the local deity. Trajan ordered religious ceremonies on the banks of the Danube before building the bridge east of the Iron Gates, (near the present-day cities of Drobeta-Turnu Severin in Romania and Kladovo in Serbia) before he took his army across. For a hard-headed and practical people, the Romans were very superstitious and it was a rash commander who ignored the required observances. The larger the river was, the more important the mental and spiritual boundary. Connected with this anxiety about water, many Romans looked down on the naval branch of their armed forces; despite its competence, it was considered a second-rate posting for a career soldier.

The Romans didn’t develop a purposeful, Empire-wide strategy in respect of rivers as a form of control, but exploited the river environment as they did any other natural part of the landscape. Often it was the fastest and safest way of moving goods and people and supplying troops, especially in a hostile environment on land, and the most efficient way of monitoring and controlling the local population by means of bridges and fording points. One use of naming rivers helped identify and imprint on the popular consciousness the extent and local of imperial conquests and the superiority of Roman forces and generals, e.g. crossing the Tigris, conquering the tribes across the Rhine (or not!).

And the Tiber, the great artery of Rome… According to legend, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BC on the banks of the Tiber about 25 kilometres from the sea at Ostia. The island in the middle of the river, Isola Tiberina, was the site of an important ancient ford, later bridged. The river marked the boundary between the Etruscans to the west, the Sabines to the east and the Latins to the south. 

Pons Fabricius Built AD 62 on the east side of the Isola Tiberina

The Tiber was critically important to Roman trade and commerce, navigable as far as 100 kilometres upriver; some scholars think the river was used to ship grain from the Val Teverina as early as the 5th century BC.

During the Punic Wars of the 3rd century BC, the harbour at Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber became a key naval base and later, Rome's most important port, where wheat, olive oil, and wine amongst other essential commodities were imported from Rome's colonies around the Mediterranean. (See earlier blog about this)Wharves were also built along the riverside in Rome itself, lining the riverbanks around the Campus Martius area.

Sometimes the river was uncompliant and flooded the port, farmland, channels, drainage ditches and the roads leading to Rome, and causing mudslides and the destruction of houses and commercial buildings as Pliny the Younger wrote to Macrinus in the first century AD.

The heavy sedimentation of the river made it difficult to maintain Ostia, prompting the emperors Claudius and Trajan to establish a new port on the Fiumicino in the 1st century AD. They built a new road, the via Portuensis, to connect Rome with Fiumicino, leaving the city by Porta Portese ('the port gate'). Both ports were eventually abandoned due to silting.

The Roman Navy on the frontier rivers

During the early Imperial period, the Mediterranean became largely a peaceful ‘Roman lake’ (mare nostrum) and the navy was reduced mostly to patrol, anti-piracy and transport duties, especially escorting the grain shipments to Rome. It also manned and maintained craft on major frontier rivers such as the Rhine and the Danube. But it wasn’t all plain sailing(!). In AD 15 and 16, Germanicus carried out fleet operations along the rivers Rhine and Ems, without permanent results due to grim Germanic resistance and a disastrous storm.

The Danube Basin

Under the ‘Five Good Emperors’ (AD 96 – AD 180) the navy played an important role during Trajan's conquest of Dacia, and operated, albeit temporarily, a fleet for the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. During Marcus Aurelius’s wars against the Marcomanni confederation, naval actions took place on the Danube and the Tisza.

Lighter ships, small-oared vessels, such as the navis actuaria, with 30 oars (15 on each bank) were ideal for transport in coastal and fluvial operations, for which its shallow draught and flat keel were ideal. In Late Antiquity, it was succeeded by the navis lusoria, used extensively used for patrols and raids by the legionary flotillas in the Rhine and Danube frontiers.

Reconstruction of a late period navis lusoriain Mainz museum. Photo by Martin Bahmann

The Classis Germanica was established in 12 BC by Drusus at Castra Vetera. It controlled the Rhine river, and was mainly a fluvial fleet, although it also operated in the North Sea. On one unfortunate occasion, the Romans' initial lack of experience with the tides of the ocean left Drusus' fleet stranded on the Zuyder Zee. After AD 30, the fleet moved its main base to the castrum of Alteburg, some 4 km south of Colonia Agrippinensis (modern Cologne).

The Classis Pannonica, was a fluvial fleet controlling the Upper Danube from Castra Regina in Raetia (modern Regensburg) to Singidunum in Moesia (modern Belgrade). Some writers trace its establishment to Augustus's campaigns in Pannonia in ca. 35 BC, but it was certainly in existence by AD 45. Its main base was probably Taurunum (modern Zemum) at the confluence of the river Sava with the Danube.

As an afterword, it’s worth noting that the (imaginary) 21st century state of Roma Nova – the setting for my books – was founded on cliff above a river in the last days of Empire. (Click here for more background).  Today, there are flourishing commercial docks in Roma Nova (mentioned in INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS) and the base for a small fleet of well-armed patrol boats of the Imperial Fleet ready to deter any modern waterborne barbarians. Readers of the Roma Nova thrillers could see some resemblance to large towns built on the rivers Drava and Sava which flow into the Danube…

More about Roma Nova and Alison

Even before she pulled on her first set of combats, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. Everybody in her family had done time in uniform and in theatre – regular and reserve Army, RAF, WRNS, WRAF – all over the globe.

So busy in her day job, Alison joined the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now…

But something else fuels her writing… Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women…

Now, she lives in France and writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with tough heroines:

INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series
– shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– finalist in 2014 Writing Magazine Self-Published Book of the Year

PERFIDITAS, second in series
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– finalist in 2014 Writing Magazine Self-Published Book of the Year

SUCCESSIO, third in series
– Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2014
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– Editor’s choice, The Bookseller’s inaugural Indie Preview, December 2014

Alison’s latest thriller, AURELIA, goes back to the late 1960s and starts the adventures of a new heroine, Aurelia Mitela. Here’s a little more about it:

Late 1960s Roma Nova, the last Roman colony that has survived into the 20th century. Aurelia Mitela is alone – her partner gone, her child sickly and her mother dead – and forced to give up her beloved career as a Praetorian officer.

But her country needs her unique skills. Somebody is smuggling silver – Roma Nova’s lifeblood – on an industrial scale. Sent to Berlin to investigate, she encounters the mysterious and attractive Miklós, a known smuggler who knows too much and Caius Tellus, a Roma Novan she has despised and feared since childhood.

Barely escaping a trap set by a gang boss intent on terminating her, she discovers that her old enemy is at the heart of all her troubles and pursues him back home to Roma Nova...

AURELIA book trailer: https://youtu.be/K5_hXzg0JWA
(Warning: there is exciting music!)
Aurelia is available in paperback and as ebook from a variety of retailers:

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova blog: http://alison-morton.com/blog/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/alison_morton @alison-morton