Monday 28 December 2015

13 Favourites from a Year of Blogging: 2015

I got somewhat of a surprise when I checked today how many articles I had published on this blog in 2015. The total came to 97, not counting this one, and considering that each article averages 1200 words I had published 116,000 words, the equivalent of an average book. As in previous years the majority of the articles were on historical themes, mainly but not exclusively nautical in orientation and covering the period 1700 to 1930. A few articles were prompted by personal experience and I was also lucky enough to several splendid guest-bloggers contribute articles. Within these boundaries the range of topics has been vast, and the choice has often been surprising to my readers. I though therefore that it might be of interest to pick out twelve articles, one per month and to provide links to them. Making the choices has been far from easy and I’ve had to make hard choices between some personal favourites.  If you have not previously seen them then I hope they’ll give you pleasure and if you have read them before then you might enjoy a second acquaintance.

January:  The Battle of Solferino and the foundation of the Red Cross, 1859

This article was prompted by my driving past a girl’s school some six-miles from my home in South-East England. This is the unlikely last resting place of the French Emperor Napoleon III, his Spanish-born Empress Eugenie and his son, Napoleon Eugene, the Prince Imperial, who was to die, incongruously for a Bonaparte, in British uniform during the Zulu War. I was reminded of hoe Napoleon III’s policies led to one of the most brutal battles of the nineteenth century and how its horrors prompted a Swiss business man to found what became the International Red Cross. Click here to read the blog article.

February: The Anglo-German Blockade of Venezuela 1902-03

I lived for several years in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second city, which today was a population of 1.3 million. It lies at the western side of the short waterway that leads from Lake Maracaibo – the largest lake in South America – to the Caribbean Sea. It was to be the scene of one of the few actions fought by the Imperial German Navy before World War I when an old Spanish fort that guarded the approaches was attacked by Imperial German naval forces in 1903. This was part of a much larger international confrontation that led to a restatement of American foreign policy, with implications that last until our own days. Click here to read the blog article.

March: Bellona and Courageux action 1761

Stories of close action in the Age of Fighting Sail have a fascination of their own and a battle in 1761 between two well-matched “74s”, the British Bellona and the French Courageux, was no exception. Devotees of naval history and fiction will know that the “74”, the so-called Third- Rate ships of the line, were the backbone of the fleets of the major European powers in the years 1756-1815. The Bellona’s own career was to span almost this entire period. Click here to read the blog article.

April: The SS Arctic Disaster 1854

For almost a century insufficient provision of lifeboats a major factor in marine tragedies. Only the Titanic loss in 1912 was to evoke a sufficient measure of outrage for the problem to be finally addressed, even if the rules are not always enforced today. The spectacular loss of the SS Arctic in 1854, some 60 years before the Titanic was one of the maritime disasters that should have led to much earlier reform – and to the saving of countless lives. But it didn’t. Click here to read the blog article.

May: Discipline, heroism and survival: HMS Alceste, 1817

The value of professionalism and discipline has seldom been so dramatically illustrated as when the frigate HMS Alceste was wrecked off Java in 1817. She was returning from a diplomatic mission to China – which also included some lively action against hostile Chinese junks as well as surveying and charting-work off the Korean coast. Alceste’s survivors found themselves castaways, and under attack from Malay pirates, but superb leadership was to lead not only to rescue, but to the fact that not a single life was lost in the process. Click here to read the blog article.

June: One Submarine, Two Flags and Two Heroes, 1914

Early in World War I an intrepid French submarine commander navigated his vessel deep into the heart of the Austro-Hungarian naval base at Pola.  Though it ended in tragedy, the attack demanded courage and professionalism  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 were cast as enemies but who, in other circumstances, might well have valued each other as friends. Click here to read the blog article.

July: Adam Worth: the real-life “Napoleon of Crime”

Adam Worth, alias Henry Judson Raymond, plays a key role in my novel Britannia’s Shark. Important though this involvement in the affairs of Empire proved to be however, it was only one episode – unknown to the general public until now – in the career of a real-life professional criminal who was to be described by a senior Scotland Yard official as “The Napoleon of the Criminal World.”  This historical figure was as remarkable for the global span of his activities as for the ease with which he found acceptance at the highest levels of British society, despite very humble beginnings. He was also to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’ adversary Professor James Moriarity. Click here to read the blog article.

August:  Penang – the German naval connection

In August my travels brought me to Penang, an island off Peninsular Malaysia’s west coast. While there I was fascinated by a one-sided battle that had taken place there in 1914 when the German light-cruiser Emden sank the Russian cruiser Zhemchug after daringly penetrating the anchorage. Russian unpreparedness was punished by German professionalism but the sinking was to be only one in a series of successes scored by the Emden before she was run down by Allied forces later that year. That was not however to be the end of German naval links with Penang, for in World War II U-boats were to be based there and sinking Allied shipping as far south as off Fremantle in Australia. Click here to read the blog article.

September: Miss Betty Mouat and the Colombine 1886

My blog posts often deal with blood and thunder, conflict and battle, but this article dealt with a middle-aged lady of poor background, who demonstrated a very high degree of heroism in peacetime without having any prior warning of what was needed. When a resident of Scotland’s Shetland Islands, the 59-year old Miss Betty Mouat, set out on what she thought was a short coastal passage she little suspected what lay ahead.  Alone on a small, crippled sailing vessel, sustained only by a bottle of milk, two biscuits, prayer and iron self-discipline, her survival was to be an epic of courage in adversity. Click here to read the blog article.

October: Nelson and Hardy – the forging of a partnership

The name of Admiral Thomas Masterman Hardy is forever inseparable from that of Britain’s greatest naval hero, Lord Horatio Nelson, whom Hardy was to comfort with news of success as he lay dying during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The relationship between the two men, one of mutually reciprocated respect and affection, had been forged nine years before when Nelson was prepared to risk accepting unequal battle rather than abandon the younger officer.  Click here to read the blog article.

November: Bermuda’s Floating Dry Dock 1869

As an engineer myself I have always found one of the more attractive aspects of the Victorian Age to be willingness to take on large and often unprecedented engineering challenges. One such was not only the construction of an enormous floating dock for repair of warships, but getting it from the location where it was built in Britain to the Royal Navy base at Bermuda.  The 4000 nautical-miles tow of the vast structure was the most ambitious towing attempt up to that time and it demanded organisation and seamanship of the highest order. Click here to read the blog article.

December: HMS Dart & Désirée 1800

During December I wrote three articles about inshore operations by Royal Naval forces during the Napoleonic Wars. Each one involved deeds of almost insane daring – the sort that inspire much of naval fiction. A British attack on the French naval base at Dunkirk in 1800 was one of the actions I wrote about and it was to be one of the last – if not the last – deployment of fireships by the Royal Navy. Fought in darkness, this was to be one of the most dramatic actions of the Age of Fighting Sail.  Click here to read the blog article.

And I want to include one more item – my saddest blog of the year, posted in May 2015:

Palmyra: A World-Legacy under threat

I sat down on May 15th to write my usual Friday-evening blog and my chosen subject was another incident of the Napoleonic period.  In the event however an item on the evening news so outraged me that I find it impossible to write about anything else. This 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. I had visited Palmyra twice before, most recently in 2009, and regarded the site as one of the most beautiful and inspiring places I have ever seen.  My article was a cry of mingled anger and sorrow, but I little suspected just how barbaric the aftermath of the ISIS capture was to prove. I make no apology for referring to it again. Click here to read the blog article.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Christmas to New Year at Sea - 1915

It is remarkable in the course of this year how little attention has been paid in the media, in popular memory or in large-scale centenary- commemorations to the events of 1915, the first full year of World War 1.  This is in marked contrast to the wave of interest shown last year when the conflict’s opening was remembered in every way possible. And yet, throughout 1915, a brutal attrition of human life occurred on all fronts and this was not least at sea, where the mine and the submarine were proving themselves more deadly than anticipated. For all that it should have been a season of goodwill, the Christmas to New Year period of 1915, from December 24th to 31st, saw horrific losses that are today largely forgotten except by descendants of the victims.

SS Persia - a victim oblivious of her approaching fate
At least 27 merchant and naval ships were lost to torpedoes and mines during these eight-days. A small but vicious naval conflict, the Battle of  Durazzo matched British, French and Italian naval forces against units of the Austro-Hungarian fleet off Albania with losses on both sides. Nor was enemy action alone a danger – in this era, when large numbers of sailing craft were still in use, bad weather represented a major threat. Approximately a dozen of such craft were wrecked in this short time and some brief summaries of their fates could have used wording identical to that for similar losses at any time in the previous two centuries. One such example was the three-masted Danish schooner Dana, “ driven ashore at Craster, Northumberland, United Kingdom, and wrecked.”

The most spectacular losses involved two British units, one naval, one civilian which were lost within hours of each other on December 30th. Together, these two tragedies accounted for some 760 deaths.
HMS Natal seen - ironically - on a Christmas card (perhaps pre-war, judging by the aircraft)_
HMS Natal was among the last British armoured cruisers to be built before the type was superseded by the new (and equally ill-starred) battlecruiser concept. Launched in 1905, she was one of a four-ship Warrior class, three of which were to be lost in World War 1.  These ships vessels were as large as many contemporary battleships, displacing 13,550-tons and 505-feet long.  With 23,000-hp installed power they were capable of a top speed of 23 knots. Their armament was heavy for the type – six 9.2-inch and four 7.5-inch guns, plus many smaller weapons, as well as three 18-inch torpedo tubes. Their major advantage over almost all previous armoured cruisers was that all ten main weapons were carried in turrets rather than in casemates, allowing operation in rough sea conditions. Given the size of thee ships it is not surprising that each carried a crew of up to 790.
Individual gun-turrets on Natal's starboard flank
During 1915 the Natal was attached to the Royal Navy’s “Grand Fleet”, which was based at  Scapa Flow, the vast semi-protected anchorage in the Orkney Islands, north-east of the Scottish mainland. The patrols she undertook in the North Sea were uneventful and, like the other vessels of the Grand Fleet, Natal would have spent much of her time at her moorings, waiting for news of the German fleet venturing out from its own bases. In December 1915 however she moved south to the base in the Cromarty Firth, on the Scottish east coast, and at Christmas approximately a quarter of her crew were allowed ashore on leave. On December 30th, as a gesture of goodwill, the Natal’s captain, Erik Black, invited civilians aboard for a film-show – then still a novelty. These invitees included family members of the crew as well as personnel from a hospital ship moored nearby, HMHS Drina. In the event – and luckily – many of them could not attend and only eight civilians came on board, seven of them women and three of them children. The party had no sooner started than a succession of explosions commenced which were to rip the vessel apart within minutes. 
Natal's wreckage remained visible for many years

Boats rushed to the scene from nearby ships and some 170 survivors were dragged from the freezing water. Deaths, including the captain’s, were announced officially soon afterwards as 390, though the number has been estimated as being as high as 421, the increase perhaps due to later deaths occasioned by exposure. The immediate fear was that the anchorage had bene penetrated by a German U-boat which had either fired a torpedo or dropped a mine, but evidence soon indicated spontaneous combustion of unstable cordite propellent charges stored in the after magazines. Such instability caused losses in several of the navies of the period, and the Royal Navy was to lose the pre-dreadnought HMS Bulwark to this in 1914 (750 dead) as well as the modern dreadnought HMS Vanguard in 1916 (804 dead).
SS Persia, as seen on a peace-time postcard
"The Spirit of Ecstacy"
While Natal’s tragedy was unfolding another, almost as dreadful, was taking place in the Eastern Mediterranean. SS Persia was an 8000-ton passenger liner which had been built in 1900. Still in civilian service, on December 30th she was e-route to India and carrying not only passengers but a large amount of gold and jewels belonging to the Jagatjit Singh, maharaja of the of the princely state of Kapurthala, in the Punjab, who had left the ship at Marseilles. At midday, just south of Crete, the Persia was struck by a torpedo fired by the German submarine U-38, which has sunk another ship, the freighter Clan Macfarlane, some hours earlier at a cost of 52 lives. U-38 was commanded by Kapitänleutnant Max Valentiner (1883 –1949), who was to prove himself one of the most outstanding – and ruthless – U-boat commanders of the war. The Persia sank in less than ten minutes, taking 343 of the 519 people on board with her. Among the survivors was the British motoring pioneer Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, though his secretary and mistress, Eleanor Thornton, drowned. This lady was allegedly the model for the "Spirit of Ecstasy" mascot that is still featured above the radiators of Rolls-Royce cars.
Persia's sinking - contemporary view
The Persia’s sinking caused outrage since it was without warning and violated the so-called “Arabic Pledge” that Germany had given in August 1915 and which instructed U-boat commanders not to torpedo passenger ships without notice and without allowing passengers and crew to enter “a place of safety.  Kapitänleutnant Valentiner of the U-38 was to be accused of a total of fifteen generally similar incidents involving civilian shipping (out of a total of 34 ships sunk) and after the war the Allies demanded his extradition as a war-criminal. He got around this by temporarily changing his name and hiding, though he later followed a business career in his own name. He was to serve again in the Second World War, in support of the U-boat campaign, though not going to sea. He died in 1949.

There is a sad addendum to the loss of HMS Natal. The Drina, the hospital ship moored close to her, was reconverted to freighter service in 1916. The following year, as she returned from a voyage to South America with vital supplies, she was sunk off the south-west coast of Wales by a U-boat. Fifteen lives were lost. 

Just published: Britannia’s Spartan

Author Antoine Vanner talks about his latest novel, Britannia’s Spartan, in a short video.Click here to watch it.

 In April 1882 Captain Nicholas Dawlish RN has just taken command of the Royal Navy’s newest cruiser, HMS Leonidas. Her voyage to the Far East is to be a peaceful venture, a test of this innovative vessel’s engines and boilers. Dawlish has no forewarning of the nightmare of riot, treachery, massacre and battle he and his crew will encounter.

A new balance of power is emerging in the Far East. Imperial China, weak and corrupt, is challenged by a rapidly modernising Japan, while Russia threatens from the north. All need to control Korea, a kingdom frozen in time and reluctant to emerge from centuries of isolation.

Dawlish finds himself a critical player in a complex political powder keg. He must take account of a weak Korean king and his shrewd queen, of murderous palace intrigue, of a power-broker who seems more American than Chinese and a Japanese naval captain whom he will come to despise and admire in equal measure. And he will have no one to turn to for guidance…

Click below for more details:

For UK: Click here                      For US: Click here     

And a sample 5-start review on Amazon by “Westsail” on December 22, 2015

 “Iron men steaming into danger. Superb characterization and historical details. A truly wonderful book.

Antoine Vanner is a rare find - an author who knows his subject matter inside out and who possesses the ability to communicate that knowledge in a gripping and highly entertaining style. His creation, Nicholas Dawlish, is so completely rendered that the reader rejects the possibility that he is a fictional character rather than a piece out of the Victorian era. Vanner knows the details of the engineering innovations in whose creation and trials Dawlish often is involved. The ships in Vanner's novels are characters as well drawn as the people who sail them. The political sides of these books are well put together as well, from London to Seoul. All of the Dawlish novels are delights in themselves. I believe, however, that Vanner continues to improve. In my opinion, Britannia's Spartan is his best to date. One waits with bated breath for each additional gem!”

Friday 18 December 2015

The Human Price: Mrs. Phelan on HMS Swallow

Some recent articles on this blog have dealt with inshore-operations of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Characterised by aggressive daring, they were critical in hampering – and often paralysing – the coastal traffic of every maritime nation controlled or occupied by the French. As such they are the inspiration of so much naval fiction. It is however easy to forget the price paid in human misery and this article deals with one of the most pathetic of such instances and a humble heroine who deserves to be remembered with honour.

HMS Swallow entered service in 1805, yet another of the Cruizer-class vessels that feature so prominently in so many inshore-operations. Of 386 tons, and 100-feet long, she was armed with massive firepower for her size – sixteen 32-pounder carronades and two 6-pounder long guns. Her crew was officially 121 but, as told later in this article, she was carrying at least two other people. In July 1812 she was to be involved in a vicious encounter with a French brig-corvette Reynard off Frejus, on the Mediterranean coast. Under the command of Commander  Edward Reynolds Sibley (Circa 1775 – 1842), Swallow was part of a small British squadron consisting in addition of the “74” ship-of-the-line” HMS America and the Frigate HMS Curacoa, and together they had driven a French convoy from Genoa to seek shelter in shallow waters and under shore batteries – a scenario that must have been monotonously familiar during the period. The larger British ships drew too much to go inshore, leaving the Swallow to reconnoitre.

HMS Swallow  (at centre) raking Reynard from astern (engraving by Chabannes)
On 16 July two French vessels came out to engage the Swallow – the Renard, armed with fourteen 24-pounder carronades and two long 6-pounders, and the schooner Goéland, with twelve long-guns, probably 6-pounders. The brief reference in Wikipedia describes the action that followed “sanguine but inconclusive” and so too it must have been considered in various official accounts also, just another small and all-but-forgotten engagement in a larger conflict. A more detailed account however in a book by the 19th-century Admiral Edward Giffard brings the savagery of the encounter to life and tells of the human cost in poignant detail.

In smooth water and low wind, Commander Sibley “waited with confidence” for the French vessels to approach the Swallow on either side before unleashing both broadsides at 50-yards range. The French closed and made four separate attempts at boarding, all of them repulsed, while Sibley attempted to manoeuvre Swallow between his attackers and the French coast. With head-braces shot away Swallow’s manoeuvrability was badly impaired and after forty-five minutes of furious action Sibley broke off the engagement and the French retreated to the cover of their shore-batteries. Sibley’s conduct was admired so highly by Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet – and himself no stranger to furious close-action – that he was promoted to coveted “post rank”.

A Purser - as seen by Rowlandson
Ryan of the Swallow did not conform
to the  rank's stereotype, often one of dishonesty
Admiral Giffard’s book refers to “A private letter of the day” – presumably from one of the officers –that indicates that one of the heroes of the action was Swallow’s purser, a Mr. Ryan.  Early in the battle “his hat was shot off and he fell, apparently mortally wounded. His servant, an old marine, took him up in his arms and was carrying him below, but before he got on the ladder Mr. Ryan, who had suffered no real injury, recovered sufficiently to ask whither he was taking him; on hearing it was to the cockpit, he desired his weeping servant to take him back up again, as he was unhurt, and the blood with which he was covered was not his own.”

Purser of not, Ryan now took charge of some of the carronades – the officer responsible having had his leg taken off by a shot – and got the crew to load with double charges of canister – 64 pounds per gun of small projectiles. The crews were “mad to fire” but Ryan said “he would not fire a gun until he rubbed their muzzles against her (Reynard’s) sides.” He then ordered a bag of musket balls – another 32 pounds – to be rammed home into each gun, bringing the total to 96 pounds (43.5 kilograms!) in each. The result, when Ryan finally gave the order to fire, was not surprising: “the volley proved so effective that not a Frenchman was to be seen on deck, and the Reynard made every effort to escape from the deadly combat.”

Another stereotype - women on board, especially in port, are usually depicted as prostitutes
In actuality many went to sea with their husbands and performed valuable - and heroic - service
The most surprising aspect of the action is however that at least one woman was on board the Swallow. This was a Mrs. Phelan, the wife of one of the seamen. (As Ryan and Phelan are common names in Ireland’s County Tipperary, one wonders if there was some link between the two men.) Giffard’s account does not make any wonder of her presence, and indeed seems to accept it as normal, remarking that “she was stationed (as is usual when women are on board in time of battle) to assist the surgeon in the care of the wounded.” This splendid lady was not content to say below however – “the wounded, as may be expected, were brought below very fast; amongst the rest a messmate of her husband’s (consequently of her own) who had received a musket ball through his side. Her exertions were being used  to console the poor fellow, who was in great agonies and nearly breathing his last, when by some chance her husband was wounded on deck.; her anxiety and already overpowered feelings could not one moment be restrained; she rushed instantly upon deck and received the wounded tar in her arms; he faintly raised his head to kiss her; she burst into a flood of tears, and told him to take courage as ‘all would yet be well’; but has scarcely pronounced the last syllable when a shot took her head off.” Her husband was already badly injured and “the poor fellow, who was closely wrapt in her arms, opened his eyes once more, then closed them forever.”

This was not the end of the tragedy. “What rendered the circumstance more affecting was that the poor woman had only three weeks before given birth to a fine boy, who was thus in a moment deprived of both father and mother.” After the battle there was much concern that the baby – named Tommy – would not survive. “All agreed that he should have a hundred fathers, but what was the substitute for a (wet) nurse and a mother? However, the mind of Humanity soon discovered that there was a Maltese goat on board, the property of the officers, which gave an abundance of milk, and, as there was no better expedient, she was resorted to for the purpose of suckling the child who, singular to say, is thriving and getting one of the finest little fellows in the world; and so tractable is his nurse that she lies down when little Tommy is brought to be suckled by her.”

One aches to know what became of little Tommy – Giffard says nothing about him – and one hopes that he had a long and happy life. Of his parents’ end there is however no doubt: “Phelan and his wife were sewed up in one hammock, and it is needless to say were buried in one grave.”

We don’t even know what Mrs. Phelan’s name was. By all means let us remember and honour the Nelsons and Cochranes and Pellews, but let’s remember Mrs. Phelan too. Her courage puts her in their company.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

HMS Flora 1780: the Carronade's arrival

In sea battles from the 1780s to the end of the Napoleonic Wars a decisive factor was often the use of the carronade. Few of these guns were carried on any one ship, and they were not counted in a ship’s rated number of guns so that, in practice, the actual number of weapons carried might be significantly higher than the rating by which a ship was classed, such as a “74” or a “50”.

Carronade on slide mounting
The word “carronade” was an early, perhaps earliest, example of a trade-name becoming the accepted term for an entire class of products, in this case a short smoothbore cast iron cannon. It took its name from the original manufacturer, the Carron Company, which had an ironworks in Falkirk, in Scotland. The short barrel indicated that it was a short-range weapon, powerful against ships but even more so against personnel in close actions. A carronade weighed a quarter as much and used a quarter to a third of the gunpowder-charge for a long gun firing the same size of roundshot. The lower recoil forces meant that slider mountings, rather trucks, could be employed. The light weight of the carronade made it especially attractive for mounting at higher levels – and important factor when an enemy’s deck should be cleared by grapeshot before boarding. They could also provide a very powerful punch for a small vessel such as a gunboat or sloop. Though the basic concept remained unchanged, carronades were manufactured for a huge range, from 6 to 42-pounders, and 68-pounder weapons not unknown.

Antoine Vanner with 24-pdr Carronade
When introduced into the Royal Navy for trial in 1779, many captains had reported most unfavourably upon it, owing to its short range and tendency to overheat when fired rapidly. The comment on short range was justified for, devastating as a carronade could be in action, its weakness was its short range. The analogy may be a sub-machine gun which, if used at close quarters, can be murderous, but is useless against an enemy armed with a sniper rifle who prefers to stay out of its range and count on his accuracy. Only by luring the sniper closer can the man armed with the sub-machine gun make use of its ability to unleash a devastating volume of fire. In the case of sailing warships encountering each other at sea the presence of carronades might not be immediately obvious and in many cases were to provide a very unpleasant surprise as the ships closed. The first occasion on which carronades were used in action, when the Royal Navy’s 36-gun frigate Flora encountered the French 36-gun frigate Nymphe, was a good example.

Peere Williams by George Romilly
In August 1780 the Flora was under the command of Captain William Peere Williams (1742 – 1832). He was to be one of the officers whose entire life spanned the classic Age of Fighting Sail and who lived on to see the dawn of steam-power. As a junior officer he had served at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759 during the Seven Years' War. By the time of the American War of Independence he had achieved command, first the frigate HMS Venus, in American waters and subsequently as the first captain of HMS Flora with the Channel Fleet. She was a new ship, commissioned in 1780 and her performance in action later that year indicates that Peere Williams was relentless in training his crew to a high standard of gunnery.

The Flora’s rating as “36 guns” was deceptive though she did indeed carry that number of long guns – twenty-six long 18-pounders, and ten long 9-pounders – she also carried six of the new 18-pounder carronades, giving her a 333-pound broadside weight. On the afternoon of 10 August 1780 she was patrolling off Brest, a monotonous but war-winning duty that was familiar to the crews of hundreds of Royal Navy vessels for seven decades from the 1750s. The weather was hazy but two vessels were sighted some four miles distant. The smaller vessel made off but the larger stood her ground, obviously willing to accept battle. She was the French frigate Nymphe, of the French Royal Navy, her Captain the Chevalier de Runrain.  She nominally superior to the Flora in everything but armament. She was the bigger ship by about 70 tons (868 to 737, important as regards enduring damage), sailed faster, and had the larger crew. She carried twenty-six long 12-pounders, and six long 6 – pounders, giving a broadside weight of only 174 pounds, just over half of the Flora’s.

The HMS Flora - Nymphe action by Dominic Serres
Flora's log summarised very clearly what happened in the resulting action:

"At 4.30 P.M. saw a ship and a cutter in the S.W. quarter, standing to the northward under easy sail. Made sail and stood for them, at which they tacked and stood towards the shore for some minutes, and then brought to, having French colours flying. We made the private signal to them, which we found they did not understand by the ship hoisting a blue flag at the ensign staff. We cleared for action, hauled down the signals of recognisance and hoisted our St George's ensign, hauled up the fore-sail, bunted the main-sail and top-gallant-sai1, still running down on her to windward.

"At 5.15, being then about two cables, length distant from her, received her larboard broadside. We ran within one cable's length of her and then began the action, which continued very hot on both sides till 6.15, when we had our wheel and tiller-rope shot away and fell alongside of her with our spare anchor hooking her fore-shrouds. They then attempted to board us, but were repulsed with great loss, we still keeping up a warm fire of great guns and musketry. At 6.80 boarded her, cleared her decks, and burnt their colours for them."

The action was a punishing, straightforward fight to a finish, with little attempt on either side at finesse or manoeuvre. The total French loss was 60 killed and 71 severely wounded. Many of these casualties resulted from the ineffectual attempt to board and the havoc unleashed on them by six 18-pounder carronades mounted on the poop and quarter-deck of the Flora. In the heat of the action one of these weapons was manned only the boatswain and a single boy. The French captain was killed by a musket ball just before the two ships touched, the second-in-command fell on the deck of the Flora at the head of his boarders and the first lieutenant fell between the two hulls and was crushed to death. Almost every other French officer was wounded. The report by the Nymphe's dangerously wounded second lieutenant, the Sieur de Taillard – written in Falmouth, to where the captured frigate was taken – stated that "I do not think it possible to speak too highly of the cool and collected courage shown by all the officers. We were twice on fire, and there was an explosion of cartridges”. The Flora lost fewer dead – nine in total – but sustained the same number of wounded as the Nymphe and her total casualties amounted to approximately one third of her crew.

HMS Flora’s later career was useful rather than spectacular. While still commanded by Peere Williams she participated in the second naval relief of the Siege of Gibraltar in 1781 and thereafter  her most notable contribution was support of Britain’s Egyptian campaign in 1801. She was wrecked in 1809. The Nymphe’s career in the Royal Navy – she retained her name after the change of ownership – was to be much more spectacular and we shall meet her again in another war and in a later blog.

Just published: Britannia’s Spartan

In April 1882 Captain Nicholas Dawlish RN has just taken command of the Royal Navy’s newest cruiser, HMS Leonidas. Her voyage to the Far East is to be a peaceful venture, a test of this innovative vessel’s engines and boilers. Dawlish has no forewarning of the nightmare of riot, treachery, massacre and battle he and his crew will encounter.

A new balance of power is emerging in the Far East. Imperial China, weak and corrupt, is challenged by a rapidly modernising Japan, while Russia threatens from the north. They all need to control Korea, a kingdom frozen in time and reluctant to emerge from centuries of isolation.

Dawlish finds himself a critical player in a complex political powder keg. He must take account of a weak Korean king and his shrewd queen, of murderous palace intrigue, of a powerbroker who seems more American than Chinese and a Japanese naval captain whom he will come to despise and admire in equal measure. And he will have no one to turn to for guidance…

Click below for more details:

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Friday 11 December 2015

“Bring me out the enemy’s ship if you can…” 1796

Close blockade of the coasts of French-occupied countries in the Napoleonic era was the most important weapon in Britain’s armoury. It may indeed also have been the single most important factor in securing Napoleon’s ultimate defeat. He all but acknowledged this by his remark during his exile of St. Helena: "If it had not been for the English I should have been emperor of the East, but wherever there is water to float a ship we are sure to find them in our way." 
The cartoonist James Gillray's view of Britain's Jack Tar as Napoleon's Nemesis 
Recent articles in this blog have focussed on the confident aggression that was such a characteristic of Royal Navy personnel involved in such operations. In this article we look at an example of what was perhaps the most difficult – and all but suicidal – action of the period, the capture of an enemy vessel anchored under the protection of powerful shore batteries.

In July 1796 The great French naval base of Toulon, in Southern France, was under close blockade by forces under the command of Sir John Jervis  (1735 –1823) – not yet Earl St. Vincent – who was then flying his flag in HMS Victory.  On July 9th a French corvette, which later proved to be l’Utile, armed with twenty-four 6-pounders, was detected creeping along the coast into the bay of Hyères, separated from Toulon by a jutting peninsula. Lying to the east of the latter’s tip were three islands, that of  Porquerolles and the dual Illes d’Hyères. l’Utile anchored there, very close inshore, behind the islands and overlooked by powerful French shore-batteries. Her officers might well have regarded her position as invulnerable.

For Jervis l’Utile represented a challenge. He signalled for Captain McNamara (1768 –1826) of HMS Southampton to come on board Victory. McNamara  an officer of known daring who was to establish an enviable reputation as a frigate-captain. Southampton, his present command, was a “sixth-rate” of 670 tons, 124-feet long and carrying twenty-six 12-pounders and six 6-pounders. She had a crew of some 210.  Jervis was well aware of the hazards of attempting l’Utile’s capture but he had obviously decided that if any man could manage it then it would be McNamara. He was not prepared however to give a direct order in writing and was prepared to allow McNamara a high degree of discretion.  He pointed towards l’Utile and said “Bring out the enemy’s ship if you can, but take care of the King’s ship under command.”  The implication was clearly that if McNamara found it too dangerous to persist then no shame would be associated with breaking off the attempt.
1794: Capture of the French Castor by HMS Carysfort - a 6th rate similar to Southampton
 McNamara took Southampton inshore in the hours of darkness and navigated through the ”Grand Pass”, the four-mile wide channel between Porquerolls and the Illes d’Hyères. L’Utile lay directly ahead, under the guns of Fort de Brégançon on the coast. In his report the next day to Jervis McNamara stated “I had got within pistol-shot of the enemy’s ship before I was discovered.” In splendid terminology of the day he “cautioned the (French) captain , through a trumpet, not to make a fruitless resistance; when he immediately snapped his pistol and fired his broadside.” McNamara laid Southampton alongside l’Utile and launched a boarding party under the command of his First Lieutenant, Charles Lydiard (circa 1770 – 1809). Of him McNamara was to write that “his intrepidity no word can describe” and that Lydiard “entered and carried her in about ten minutes, although he met with a spirited resistance from the captain (who fell) and a hundred men at arms.”

Charles Lydiard
Presumably to get his prize away as quickly as possible – Fort de Brégançon had now opened fire –  McNamara had the two vessels lashed together, Southampton having sails set and the time needed to set them on l’Utile too great a luxury in the circumstances. It was quickly realised however that l’Util was going nowhere. In the darkness it had not been seen that in addition to her anchor-cable  – which can be presumed to have been cut free by now – she was also secured to the shore by a hawser. Lydiard found it and severed it by repeated blows of his sword.  By one-thirty in the morning of July 10th both ships had emerged from the treacherous waters of the Grand Pass and had joined the blockading squadron.

Lydiard was promoted to command of the prize and later, as captain of HMS Anson, was to distinguish himself in, in company with HMS Arethusa, in capture at Havana of the Spanish frigate Pomona which was guarded by twelve gunboats and, like l’Utile, by a shore battery. He was to win further praise by his participation in the capture of the Dutch base of Curacao. Anson returned to Britain thereafter and was assigned to blockade duty off the French Atlantic coast. This was to bring Lydiard’s promising career to a tragic end. During a gale in December 1807 she was driven towards the Cornish coast. Attempts to anchor failed and Lydiard attempted to beach her to save his crew. Many were able to get to shore along the fallen mainmast but Lydiard was among the 60 dead, remaining on board to get as many away as possible and at last being washed off and drowned when he tried to leave.
The loss of HMS Anson 1807
McNamara’s career was to be longer. He seems to have been a Jack Aubrey type, and his colourful record included killing an army colonel in a duel. The origin of the quarrel was a petty one – one’s dog attacked the other’s while they were walking in Hyde Park. The owners took sides and unacceptable language appears to have been used – in his subsequent trail for manslaughter McNamara claimed that he had no option but to fight if he was to maintain his dignity as a naval officer. Senior naval officers, including Nelson, Hood, Troubridge – and, it is pleasant to record, Lydiard – testified that he was the “reverse of quarrelsome”. He was acquitted and was to have an active career that culminated in promotion to rear-admiral. 

Britannia's Wolf: Audiobook available as part of a 30-Day Free Trial

Britannia's Wolf, the first in the Dawlish Chronicles series of naval adventure novels set in the Victorian period, is now available as an audio-book. It's been read by the distinguished American actor David Doersch. If you haven't previously ordered an audio-book from you can download it without cost as part of a 30-Day Free Trial. You can listen on your Smart Phone, Tablet or MP3 Player.

If you have already read it you may like to hear a world of battle by land and sea, palace intrigue and refugee flight during a savage winter brought to life. And if you haven't yet read, it this may be your introduction to a resolute but often self-doubting Royal Navy Captain and the woman he hesitates to recognise as the love of his life.

Tuesday 8 December 2015

HMS Dart & Désirée 1800

Fireships were for many centuries to be some of the most dramatic and devastating of all naval weapons, albeit that they were difficult to deploy and dangerous to their crews. The most effective and history-changing use ever of such ships was when they were used to attack the Spanish Armada at anchor off Gravelines in 1588. The effect was out of all proportion to the damage they did – or could do – as they panicked the Spanish captains into cutting their cables and running out into the North Sea. Adverse weather made a return impossible, ending hopes of landing a Spanish army on British soil and driving the majority of the ships to destruction on the Scottish and Irish coasts. Creasey, the historian, was to number this defeat among what he termed “The 15 Decisive Battles of the World”.

"The Spanish Armada under fireship attack" by Philip James de Loutherbourg (1740 - 1812)
One of the last – if not the last – deployment of fireships by the Royal Navy was to take place in July 1800. Close inshore action against French shipping by aggressive British naval officers was to be a constant feature of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and this attack, on the heavily defended French base at Dunkirk, was to be one of the most daring. The inspiration for the raid came from the noted frigate captain, Henry Inman (1762 – 1809), then in command of the 32-gun Andromeda, and the objective was destruction of four French frigates anchored in the Dunkirk roads – Poursuivante, Incorruptible, Carmagnole and Désirée. They lay under the protection of powerful coastal gun-batteries, the anchorage was patrolled by rowed gunboats and treacherous shoals and shallows made approach treacherous. Fireships were to be a key feature of the operation and four obsolete brigs were prepared for such duty –Wasp, Falcon, Comet and Rosario.  

Under Inman’s overall command, the squadron – what would now be termed a task-force – consisted of the frigates Andromeda and Nemesis, the brigs Boxer and Biter, the four fireships, two hired cutters, Kent and Ann and a hired lugger, Vigilant. There was in addition a most unusual vessel, HMS Dart, classed as a sloop since nobody knew what else to call her.

Samuel Bentham
HMS Dart, and her sister HMS Arrow, were experimental vessels, never indeed to be repeated. They were the brain-child of Sir Samuel Bentham (1757 – 1831) – brother of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. At this stage in his remarkable career as an engineer and naval architect, in Britain, Russia and China, Bentham held the position of Inspector General of Naval Works. Designed to operate in coastal waters these two vessels were virtually double-ended and featured a large breadth-to-length ratio, structural bulkheads, and sliding keels. Of 150 tons and a mere 80 feet long overall, they packed an enormous punch for their size, all guns being carronades, twenty-four 32-pounders on the upper deck, two 32 pounders on the forecastle and another two on the quarterdeck. Dart’s command had been assumed in 1799 by Commander Patrick Campbell (1773 –1841), who would later rise to flag rank and in this year, and the next, she would see active and successful service in Dutch coastal waters.  

Bad weather delayed the start of the operation but it was finally launched on the night of 7th July, the vessels in line-ahead with Campbell and the Dart – and her massive fire-power leading. His objective was to attack the innermost French frigate while the fireships were to grapple the other three and so destroy them. Dart drew ahead of the other British vessels and, as the night was dark, managed to come close enough by midnight for the nearest French vessel to challenge her. Campbell answered that his ship was French, from Bordeaux, and this appears to have been accepted. Dart, unsuspected, moved on unhindered past the first two frigates until another French challenge asked what convoy was coming in her wake. The answer “Je ne sais pas” – “I don’t know” – was, quite amazingly, accepted. Suspicions were however aroused on the third French ship, which now opened fire. As she ran past her, Dart unleashed a smashing broadside. Her carronades had been double-shotted with round and grapeshot – almost 900 pounds of metal per broadside – and the effect was devastating. 
Dart (r) crashes into Desiree - note that she is virtually double-ended
Engraving after a painting by Thomas Whitcombe (1763-1824)
Dart drove on to crash into her target, the fourth and innermost frigate, the Désirée. Her bowsprit ran into the foremast’s shrouds. Led by Dart’s first-lieutenant, James M'Dermeit, fifty men swarmed across. The inevitable man-to-man fighting ensued and M'Dermeit, wounded, called for  reinforcement. Campbell managed to drag the Dart fully alongside so as to allow a second boarding party to get across. This decided the issue and the French were subdued, and struck. Captain Inman had been following in the lugger Vigilant, crewed by thirty volunteers from Andromeda, and under intense fire, came alongside Désirée, boarded, cut her cable and took her out to sea. The struggle had been vicious but one-sided – of Désirée’s 330-man crew over 100 were killed or wounded, with only a single midshipman surviving from her officers. Dart, by comparison, suffered one man killed and eleven wounded – surprise had paid off

The fireships had meanwhile launched their attack. Packed with combustible material and gunpowder, set ablaze by their volunteer crews, they were steered towards the remaining three French frigates while the Dart and the two brigs, Boxer and Biter, provided covering fire. Pulling boats accompanied them to take off the crews – the officers commanding the fireships remained on board until they were all but enveloped by flames. The French reacted as the Spanish had done over two centuries previously – they cut their cables and sailed under fire past Dart, Boxer and Biter into shoal-waters familiar to them where the British could not follow. Unmanned now, the fireships drifted until they exploded without doing any damage to the enemy. Rowed gunboats came out from Dunkirk to join in the fray but were repulsed by the hired cutters.

Incorruptible, sister of the Desiree, of the same Romaine-class
She was one of the three French frigates to escape capture at Dunkirk
Recognising that the three surviving French frigates were now unreachable, Inman ordered withdrawal.  With no room for prisoners and with large numbers of French wounded, he sent his captives back into Dunkirk. Success had been partial, and the moral effect of the attack must have been considerable. Campbell of the Dart was deservedly promoted to post captain and given command of the sixth-rate Ariadne. The Désirée was commissioned in the Royal Navy as HMS Desiree under Inman’s command. She was to see much active service thereafter, including participation in the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Inman’s own subsequent career was also active but poor health led to his early death in India in 1809. It is notable that prize money was paid for Désirée’s capture but head money, an award made for enemy servicemen killed, wounded or captured, was not paid, probably due to the return of the prisoners.

And what became of the innovative HMS Dart and her sister Arrow? Both were to have further active careers and deserve separate blogs in the future. Watch out for them!

Britannia's Wolf: Audiobook available as part of a 30-Day Free Trial

Britannia's Wolf, the first in the Dawlish Chronicles series of naval adventure novels set in the Victorian period, is now available as an audio-book. It's been read by the distinguished American actor David Doersch. If you haven't previously ordered an audio-book from you can download it without cost as part of a 30-Day Free Trial. You can listen on your Smart Phone, Tablet or MP3 Player.

Click here for details.

If you have already read it you may like to hear a world of battle by land and sea, palace intrigue and refugee flight during a savage winter brought to life. And if you haven't yet read, it this may be your introduction to a resolute but often self-doubting Royal Navy Captain and the woman he hesitates to recognise as the love of his life.

Friday 4 December 2015

The Two Tragedies of the SS Orteric

The 9th of December will be the 100th anniversary of the torpedoing in the Eastern Mediterranean  of the SS Orteric. This 6,535-ton, 460-feet cargo and passenger liner was a relatively new ship, built in Scotland and entering service in 1911.  At the time of her loss to a torpedo fired by the German submarine U-39 she was carrying a cargo of sodium nitrate from Chile to Egypt. Two seamen lost their lives – a tragedy for their direct families, but small in scale compared with that occasioned by so many other sinkings in the period. It also played by comparison with a much more dreadful tragedy – if not to say scandal – in which the Orteric had been involved shortly after entering service four years previously.
SS Orteric in peacetime
An earlier blog on this site dealt with the conditions in which steerage-class passengers were carried on board ship in the last decades of the 19th Century (click here for link). It is however somewhat of a shock to read of conditions as bad, or worse, prevailing on a newly-built, modern ship, just before the outbreak of World War 1.  Managed for ship-owner Andrew Weir of Glasgow, whose interests included the Bank Line and the Inver Transport & Trading Company, the Orteric was set to work to carry Spanish and Portuguese families to Hawaii to work as contract labour in the sugar-cane fields there. 
Departure of Italian emigrants in the same period - the scenes at Lisbon and Gibraltar must have been similar
The Orteric  left Europe in February 1911, carrying an incredible 1525 emigrants, of which 960 were Spanish and 565 Portuguese. The Portuguese boarded at Lisbon and the Spanish – apparently Andalusians – boarded at Gibraltar (scene of another emigrant shiptragedy – click here for blog link).  As this was a year before the Titanic disaster was to expose the scandal of even luxurious passenger liners carrying insufficient numbers of life boats, one can only question how many of these 1525 people could have been saved in the event of collision, fire or wrecking. It is hard to imagine what the accommodation provisions must have been – one presumes temporary bunks in the cargo spaces – and one wonders also how the catering and sanitation needs could have been met. The conditions these emigrants were fleeing from in their homelands must have been dreadful if a voyage of this nature was accepted by so many as the price of deliverance.  Portuguese immigration to Hawaii had been underway since 1878, mostly coming from Madeira and the Azores, but it was only from 1907 that Spaniards were recruited to work on the plantations and given free passage. In this case “free” almost certainly implied that accommodation and provisioning costs would be the lowest possible.

Sugar-cane cutters on Madeira - the same labour they emigrated to Hawaii to do
The Spanish and Portuguese did not appear have got on well together on the Orteric  – later newspaper reports indicated that they fought with each other during the long voyage, "so much so that they had to be separated. The women . . . went as far as hair pulling." Given that most of these people had probably never previously been more than a few miles from their home villages, distrust of strangers was probably unavoidable.

The voyage to Hawaii lasted 48 days and rough conditions in the Atlantic, and rougher ones still when rounding Cape Horn at the tip of South America, made it an uncomfortable one. This might have been tolerable – just – had it not been for an outbreak of measles. This resulted in 58 deaths, the majority of them of children. The overcrowding, and the necessarily poor ventilation during stormy conditions, must have made rapid cross-infection unavoidable. The fact also that many of these people were from rural communities meant that they had little chance of having built up immunity to common childhood diseases. In this respect the child growing up in an urban slum might have been better protected than one from a remote rural village. The mind recoils from imaging the nightmare of illness, death and bereavement  endured by the families on the Orteric and yet it is hard to find much evidence that this largely preventable tragedy evoked any great public outrage in Britain. It would be interesting to know how – or if at all – the directors and shareholders of the company owning that Orteric reacted to the news.

Spanish immigrants on arrival at Hawaii in 1907
By 1915 the Orteric was in service as a cargo vessel and supporting Britain’s war effort. On the 9th of the month she had the misfortune to encounter U-39, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Walter Forstmann (1883 –1973), south of the Greek island of Crete. Forstmann was to be one of the most successful U-boat commanders of the war, scoring the highest tonnage loss – 384,304 tons – and sinking 146 ships. On sighting the U-boat on the surface the Orteric tried to escape but when this proved impossible the decision was taken to surrender. The ship was torpedoed anyway but the occupants, other than two seamen, got away in three boats. They were picked up by a British hospital ship three hours later.

Forstmann with Blue Max
Forstmann’s career continued – his most spectacular coup being to sink five steamers – together carrying over 31,500 tons of coal – in the Straits of Gibraltar in only two days in 1916. It was to win him the coveted Pour le Mérite – the so-called Blue Max. Surviving the war, he was to qualify as a lawyer thereafter and to work – most appropriately – for the Thyssen coal company. He was an active member of the conservative-liberal German People's Party until its dissolution after the Nazis came to power in 1933. He returned to the navy during World War 2 and assigned to administrative positions. His subsequent peacetime career was concerned with housing management and in 1956 was involved with the design of Pestalozzi villages, a charity set up after the war for accommodation and education of children from all sides in the conflict. It is still active, sponsoring study by students from developing countries. It is strange to think of such admirable work having remote links to the tragedies involving the SS Orteric and that a man who had been responsible for so much destruction should have played a such a role in reconciliation.

And the owners of the Orteric? One presumes that they were compensated for their loss. And, even if it was paid, no compensation could ever have made up for the deaths of the 58 peacetime deaths in her holds.

Britannia's Wolf: Audiobook available as part of a 30-Day Free Trial

Britannia's Wolf, the first in the Dawlish Chronicles series of naval adventure novels set in the Victorian period, is now available as an audio-book. It's been read by the distinguished American actor David Doersch. If you haven't previously ordered an audio-book from you can download it without cost as part of a 30-Day Free Trial. You can listen on your Smart Phone, Tablet or MP3 Player. 
If you have already read it you may like to hear a world of battle by land and sea, palace intrigue and refugee flight during a savage winter brought to life. And if you haven't yet read, it this may be your introduction to a resolute but often self-doubting Royal Navy Captain and the woman he hesitates to recognise as the love of his life.