Friday 30 December 2016

Retrospective 2016: a Baker’s Dozen from a year of blogging

The year now slipping away was an active one for me as regards blogging, the publication of the 5th Dawlish Chronicles novel, Britannia’s Amazon,  the completion of the 6th novel – due out early next year. Other highlights were running a workshop on plotting at the Weymouth Leviathan Literary Festival in March and helping organise the Historical Novel Society’s conference in Oxford in September.

I published 74 blogs during the year, including eight from guests who included Helen Hollick (twice), Richard Abbott (twice), Chris Sams, Tom Williams, Nykle Dijkstra, Catherine Curzon and Geri Walton. As usual, my logs fall into three categories: the Age of Fighting Sail, the Victorian Era and the Early 20th Century. For the 2016 retrospective I’ve picked out one blog for each month of the year and I’ve added a thirteenth for good measure. I hope you’ll enjoy them.

January: War in the North Sea, 1864 - The Battle of Heligoland

In 1864 the small nation of Denmark was attacked by the combined forces of Prussia and Austria-Hungary. The Danish resistance was to be heroic, and never more so than when naval forces clashed off the island of Heligoland in a battle now largely forgotten outside Denmark. Click here to read about this action.

February: HMS Hector 1782 – an epic of leadership

The survival of 200 men from a battle-damaged and hurricane-battered ship of the line in 1782 was due to the outstanding leadership and professional competence of a 20-year old officer, Lieutenant Henry Inman (1762 –1809), who was later to be a noted frigate commander. Clickhere to read about this drama.

March: A British cruiser 2000 miles up the Amazon: HMS Pelorus 1909

The greed and excesses of the Fitzcarraldo rubber-boom era on the Amazon, slavery and exploitation of helpless indigenous people, and Britain’s laureate of Empire – all linked by a Royal Navy cruiser some 2000 miles from the sea. Click here for this remarkable story.

April: The Ram Triumphant: Lissa 1866

The clash between the Austro-Hungarian and Italian navies off the Dalmatian island of Lissa in 1866 was to be the only large-scale battle fought by first-generation ironclads. It was remarkable not only for the success of ramming tactics but for the aggressive and capable leadership of the Austro-Hungarian commander, Wilhelm von Tegettoff. An earlier blog saw him in action against the Danes two years earlier but his day of greatest glory was to be at Lissa. Click here to read about thebattle.

May: An epic stand against French oared-galleys in British Waters – 1707

When one thinks of battles involving oared galleys one thinks automatically of actions in the Mediterranean. The galley’s day as a fighting vessel – a long one, stretching back two thousand years – ended in the early eighteenth century and as such they do not figure in most accounts of sea warfare of that era, as “Fighting Sail” reached its apogee of efficiency. I was therefore all the more surprised to come on an account of an epic last-stand by a single British frigate against French galleys in the Thames estuary in 1707.  Click here to read about it.

June: The Dutch East Indies Ulcer – the Aceh Wars begin 1873-74

The history of the Netherlands in the 19th Century is a closed book for most non-Dutch, not least because of the incorrect perception that “little happened” and as the country was at peace in Europe from 1831 to 1940. The Netherlands were however involved in a series of colonial campaigns in the vast territory of the Dutch East Indies, which constituted most of what is the present-day nation of Indonesia. The greatest – and most sustained – of these conflicts was the series of difficult campaigns from 1873 to 1914 which became known as the Aceh War. Click hereto read how it started.

July: Naval Hero Sir James Lucas Yeo 

Handsome and courageous, obviously a born leader, Sir James Lucas Yeo (1782 – 1818) seems like a figure who steps from the pages of naval fiction. He is best remembered today for his command of British forces on the Great Lakes in the War of 1812 but this naval officer’s rapid ascent to such a significant command started with a spectacular attack on coastal fortifications in 1805. This was the first of three articles dealing with Yeo’s career. Click here to read it.

August: First Blood 1914: Amphion and Königin Luise

Within 48 hours of Britain and Germany going to war on 4th August 1914, one British ship and one German ship had been destroyed by each other. The high casualties involved brought home to both nations the stark reality of how murderous war at sea would prove in the conflict now embarked upon. Click here to read of these events.

September: The Capture of Curaçao 1807

In just a few hours on New Year’s Day 1807 the Royal Navy captured the Dutch base at Curaçao in the Caribbean with almost ludicrous ease despite its powerful defences. Failure to recover in time from hangovers resulting from the previous night’s festivities may have played a role… Click here to read about it.

October: The bloody Plattsburg mutiny, 1816

A fast-sailing American trading schooner carrying eleven thousand pounds of coffee and forty-two thousand dollars in coins was hijacked by her mutinous crew in 1816. But the voyage that followed brought them to a very unlikely destination and was to end in a mystery that is still unsolved. Click here to read of this savage affair.

November: Frigate Duel 1782: HMS Santa Margarita and L’Amazone

Two evenly-matched frigates, one British, one French encountered each other off the entrance to Chesapeake Bay in 1782. A French squadron of eight ships of the line were drawing close however and flight rather than flight seemed the more reasonable option for the British ship. That was not however as it worked out…  Click here to read about it.

December: HMS Mediator at odds of Five to One, 1782

In the closing months of the American War of Independence an out-gunned British warship engaged an enemy force at odds of five to one. It proved to be one of the most remarkable actions of the period – and had a unlikely link to Mozart’s opera, The Marriage of Figaro! Click here to read about it.

And my own choice as 13th:

Guest Blog by Nykle Dijkstra: A Treasure Trove of Naval Art 

I was lucky to be approached by Nykle Dijkstra, a Dutch reader of my blog who is interested, among much else of a nautical nature, in the art of the great Age of Fighting Sail. A student of maritime history, Nykle told me something of what he was undertaking add I invited him to prepare a blog. It turned out to be a superb one, as you’ll see, and it reflects some detective work on his part. It all starts, as good detective stories so often do, with the discovery of an old sketch and a few written pages. What followed led to him striking gold – the world of Hornblower and Jack Aubrey brought to life. I hope you enjoy his article as much as I did. Click here forit.

And a little about my 2016 book: Britannia’s Amazon, the fifth in the Dawlish Chronicles series. 

Click here or on the imagebelow for more information.

Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide by clicking the cover image below

To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment.

Tuesday 27 December 2016

The Vega Expedition and the North-East Passage 1878-79

I recently enjoyed one of the two best books I’ve read this year: “In the Kingdom of the Ice –The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette” by Hampton Sides. It deals with the disastrous American expedition of 1878/81 – an attempt to reach the North Pole by sea after entering the Arctic via the Bering Strait. It was all but doomed from the start as the plan was based on a false premise. This was that the ice on the edge of the Arctic Ocean was only a narrow barrier, with open water beyond, and the premise was based on scant – and misinterpreted – evidence and wild supposition. The officers and crew of the USS Jeanette were to endure appalling hardships, and to display limitless courage in rescuing themselves - which not all were successful in doing. 
Contemporary illustration: USS Jeannette's crew hauling boats and sledges across the ice
The Jeannette's is an inspiring story of valour and resourcefulness, but also one of greed and callousness on the side of the ruthless press-baron who financed the undertaking as a publicity stunt. I had previously touched briefly on this epic in my blog of 26th September 2014 (it can be located via the side-bar to the right) but until I read Hampton Sides’ brilliant book I had not appreciated the full extent of the tragedy and the heroism.  Touched on is the fact that as the Jeannette was setting out, it was known that a Swedish vessel, the Vega, was attempting the North-East Passage, and if she were to be successful might be emerging from the Bering Strait at around the same time that the Vega would be entering it. With my interest piqued I decided to find out more about the Vega’s voyage and what follows is a very brief summary of her achievement.

Finding the North-West Passage, across the north of Canada, that would allow the Orient to be reached from Europe by a shorter route than around the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn, was to be the focus of exploration – and tragedy – for some three centuries. The search was to involve spectacular hardship, failure and loss of life and it was only in the years 1903 to 1906 that Roald Amundsen, in a tiny fishing boat called the Gjøa, navigated the entire route for the first time. Though an epic achievement – which included getting locked in the ice for two years – it also demonstrated that the route was not practical for regular traffic.

Dezhnev Expedition as imagined by
a 19th Century illustrator
The North-West Passage’s counterpart was the North-East Passage, the route across the north of Europe and Asia, from Norway’s North Cape to the Bering Strait. From the sixteenth-century onwards British and Dutch ships had been trading with the White Sea in Northern Russia and had ventured as far east as the island of Nova Zembla – an amazing achievement considering the hazards involved. Further progress east was subsequently made eastwards, along the coast by Russian vessels, but winter ice always proved a block to a single continuous passage to the Bering Strait. The Russian achievement was however spectacular. The 17th Century saw the penetration of Russian explorers and settlers into Siberia, not only across the landmass, but along the northern coast bordering the Arctic Ocean and reaching the estuaries of the vast rivers Ob, Yenesei and Lena. These efforts were facilitated by the use of “Koch” vessels – small sailing craft with reinforced skin-planking that were equipped to deal with ice. The greatest achievement of these years came in 1648 when a Russian explorer named Semyon Dezhnev descended the Kolyma river in north-eastern Siberia, reached the Arctic Ocean and travelled eastwards to emerge into the Northern Pacific through the Bering Strait. Of seven boats involved only two made it the whole way. (This expedition is largely forgotten outside Russia. (If any of my Russian blog-followers – of whom there are many – would like to contribute a guest blog on this I would be delighted to host it).

With Dezhnev’s heroic achievement left in obscurity, the credit for achieving the first North-East Passage has usually been attributed to Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskjold (1832 – 1901). First or not, Nordenskjold’s voyage was an epic in its own right, and a triumph of systematic planning and sound leadership. Born in Finland – which was at that time ruled by Russia – and from an aristocratic Swedish/Finnish family, Nordenskjold qualified as a geologist at the university of Helsinki and after graduation in 1853 undertook a mineralogical study in the Urals. Russian rule was resented by the Finns and Nordenskjold, outspoken on the subject, drew such unwelcome attention from the authorities that he moved to Sweden in 1857, establishing himself as curator of mineralogy at the Swedish Museum of Natural History. By now interested in the Arctic, he participated in an unsuccessful 1861 expedition which attempted to reach the North Pole by means of dog-sledges from the north coast of Spitzbergen. He returned to the Arctic several times in the following years and in 1868 reached the highest northern latitude yet attained in the eastern hemisphere. This was followed by  an expedition to Greenland in 1870 and a return thereafter to Spitzbergen. In a series of voyages, he once more achieved a “furthest north” record and in 1875 he pushed as far eastwards as the mouth of the Yenisei, one of the three great rivers that flow north from Siberia into the Arctic Ocean. These expeditions established him as the most experienced Arctic explorer of his day and he was now convinced that – with correct timing to take account of summer ice-melting – it would be possible to complete the North-East Passage. He gained a powerful patron for this scheme, King Oscar II of Sweden.

Nordenskjold - meticulous planner
Systematic in all he undertook, Nordenskjold, set out his plans and schedule in detail: "It is my intention to leave Sweden in July 1878 in a steamer specially built for navigation among ice, which will be provisioned for two years at most. The course will be shaped for Nova Zembla, where a favourable opportunity will be awaited for the passage of the Kara Sea. The voyage will be continued to the mouth of the Yenisei, which I hope to reach in the first half of August. As soon as circumstances permit, the expedition will continue its voyage along the coast to Cape Chelyuskin, where the expedition will reach the only part of the proposed route which has not been traversed by some small vessel, and is rightly considered as that which it will be most difficult for a vessel to double during the whole North-East Passage; but our vessel, equipped with all modern appliances, ought not to find insuperable difficulties in doubling this point, and if that can be accomplished, we will probably have pretty open water towards Behring's Straits, which ought to be reached before the end of September. From the Bering Strait the course will be shaped for some Asiatic port and then onwards round Asia to Suez."

With Oscar II’s support, a subscription was raised to fund the expedition. A ship was purchased, the Vega, of 300 tons, formerly used in walrus-hunting in northern waters, and she was further strengthened to withstand ice. She left Sweden in early July 1878, carrying supplies for thirty people for two years. An especially impressive achievement was that fresh bread was to be baked during the whole expedition that followed.

Having rounded the North Cape and entered the Arctic Ocean, the Vega made good time through ice-free waters, passing into the Kara Sea east of Nova Zembla at the beginning of August, then anchoring briefly at mouth of Dickson Island, north of the Yenisei mouth.  The Vega pushed on in fog and on 19th August reached Cape Chelyuskin, the most northerly point of the Asian landmass. It was appropriate that as the fog lifted there a polar bear was sighted. Nordenskjold was to write later that "here we reached the great goal, which for centuries had been the object of unsuccessful struggles. For the first time a vessel lay at anchor off the northernmost cape of the Old World. With colours flying on every mast and saluting the venerable north point of the Old World with the Swedish salute of five guns, we came to anchor."

The Vega at Cape Chelyuskin, observed by a polar bear
Painting by Jacob Hägg (Source Wikipedia)
Cape Chelyuskin had been e after one of the leaders of a Russian expedition that had reached it by a land journey in 1742 which had entailed terrible hardships and suffering. The Vega left a cairn there over a box that contained a message describing the status of the expedition at this point and headed eastwards on August 20th.

Nordenskjold & Vega in the ice
Painting by Georg von Rosa, 1886
Progress now became steadily more difficult as the Vega pushed on. Thick fog made navigation through increasing numbers of ice-floes both difficult and dangerous. Notwithstanding this, the Vega reached the mouth of the Lena 27th August. From this point conditions improved and fast progress was made through an ice-free sea and hopes began to rise of completing the passage before the full onset of winter. This soon proved over-optimistic. Snow fell from September 1st and fog again descended. Ice was pushing down from the north and progress was only possible by hugging a narrow ice-free channel near the coast. Contact was however made with Chukchi, an indigenous people of North-Eastern Siberia. These were the first people the Vega’s crew has seen for six weeks and they were dressed in reindeer skins with tight-fitting trousers of seal-skin, shoes of reindeer-skin with seal-skin boots and walrus-skin soles. In very cold weather they wore hoods of wolf fur with the head of the wolf at the back. Nordenskjold, wrote later that "Although it was only five o'clock in the morning, we all jumped out of our berths and hurried on deck to see these people of whom so little was known. The boats were of skin, fully laden with laughing and chattering natives, men, women, and children, who indicated by cries and gesticulations that they wished to come on board. The engine was stopped, the boats lay to, and a large number of skin-clad, bare-headed beings climbed up over the gunwale and a lively talk began. Great gladness prevailed when tobacco and Dutch clay pipes were distributed among them. None of them could speak a word of Russian; they had come in closer contact with American whalers than with Russian traders."  

The mention of “American whalers” was significant since it indicated that some vessels at least had reached that point from the east, and that open water must exist for some part at least of the year. Nordenskjold therefore pressed on through snow and ice and fog in the hope of getting through to the Pacific before the sea was completely frozen over. But the ice was beginning to close. Large blocks were constantly hurled against the Vega, threatening her destruction.
Vega's voyage and key dates
On 28th September, the struggle eastwards ended and the Vega was frozen inextricably into the ice. Nordenskjold estimated that this was only 120 miles distant from the Bering Strait, a fact all the more galling as 2400 miles had already been covered since leaving Sweden. Nordenskjold’s meticulous planning stood the Vega and her crew in good stead for the coming winter months and food was not going to be a problem. Locked as she was in the ice, the vessel was close to a settlement of Chukchi. These hospitable people helped the crew to enliven the winter with short expeditions in land on dog-sledges when weather permitted. The trapped ship was enshrouded by snow and it was reported to penetrate every nook and cranny where the wind could find an opening. Morale remained high however and Christmas was celebrated in the traditional Swedish manner.

The first hopes of release came in the following April (of 1879) when large flocks of geese, eider-ducks, gulls, and little song-birds began to arrive, some perching on the Vega’s rigging. This proved a false dawn however and the ship remained locked in the ice during May and June. It was not until 18th July 1879 that, as Nordenskjold wrote, "the hour of deliverance came at last, and we cast loose from our faithful ice-block, which for two hundred and ninety-four days had protected us so well against the pressure of the ice and stood westwards in the open channel, now about a mile wide. On the shore stood our old (Chukchi)friends, probably on the point of crying, which they had often told us they would do when the ship left them." The Vega pressed on between closely packed ice with occasional glimpses through the fog of the coastline until she could at last swing southwards to encounter the heave swell of the Pacific Ocean at what was the Bering Strait. On 14th August, less than a month after breaking free, the Vega anchored at the Russian settlement on Bering Island to be greeted by a voice calling out in Swedish, "Is it Nordenskiöld?"
Vega's welcome as she arrives back in Stockholm, 24th April 1880.
What followed was almost an anti-climax compared with what had gone before, a triumphal progress home that included Nordenskjold’s reception by the Emperor of Japan – who presented him with a medal. On 24th April 1880 the weather-beaten Vega, accompanied by flag-decked flotillas of admirers, sailed into Stockholm and an ecstatic welcome, led by Oscar II, who ennobled Nordenskjold as a baron.

Nordenskjold was to make one more Arctic expedition, in 1882-83, this time to Greenland, and again in the Vega. Thereafter his career was academic and in 1901 he was nominated to receive the first Nobel Prize for Physics though he died before the award. Relatively little-remembered today, he must count as one of the greatest of all Polar explorers, the meticulous nature of his planning and his strict scientific approach ensuring success.

He deserves to be remembered.

Have you received a Kindle or Tablet as a gift?

Then plunge into a world of adventure with Nicholas Dawlish of the Royal Navy and his indomitable wife Florence. They face danger and intrigue by land and by sea in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire, in the squalor and opulence of the United States' Gilded Age, during savage guerrilla warfare in Cuba, and in Paraguay during bloody revolution and repression. In Korea, ruled by a weak king and a clever queen, Nicholas is caught between ruthless Chinese and Japanese efforts to dominate while back in Britain Florence faces enemies no less vicious as she uncovers scandal and exploitation behind the complacent facade of Victorian respectability.

Click here or on the image below for an overview of the series and links to each book.

Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide by clicking the cover image below

To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment.

Friday 16 December 2016

1916 Illustrated – a German Perspective

Note equal prominence given to the
German (L) and Austro-Hungarian (R) eagles
As we come to the end of the year that is the 100th Anniversary of the battles of Verdun, the Somme and Jutland, of the siege of Kut, of the Brusilov Offensive and of the smashing of Rumania, I found it interesting to see how it was viewed from a German perspective. This was through an illustrated part-work that was published regularly through the conflict, and re-issues in bound copies. (See also my blog “WW1, a German View – the Last Years of Cavalry” posted on January 2nd 2015). There are many drawings, and not a few photographs, but they are printed in the text and the quality is poor.

What is most striking from these illustrations is how alien, how remote that world seems. It is admittedly a hundred years ago, but WW2 is three quarters of that time away and yet the feeling of remoteness is nothing like so strong. The “feel” of WW2 has some familiarity for us –  a world of radar and radio, of aircraft carriers, of armoured forces, of strategic bombing, of air transport, of the arrival of the jet engine, of penicillin, of the Manhattan Project, all developments that have their lineal descendants today.  But the WW1 era feels so radically different – to a large extent more a hangover of the 19th Century than the start of the 20th – that it’s hard to believe that a mere 25 years separated 1914 with its horsed cavalry, its strutting rulers and generals in operetta-style uniforms, its horse-drawn transport, its infantry tactics that were essentially Napoleonic, its infantry walking over vast distances, its wood and linen aircraft, from a later war in which technology would be the deciding factor.  Some of the illustrations below provide examples:

Austro-Hungarian forces advancing in the Balkans -
a scene reminiscent of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow

Constructing a dug-out - a scene drawn from imagination rather than reality.
The overall "feel" is 19th Century however - it could be an illustration for Zola's Germinal
A Turkish ambulance - it would not be out of place at Gettysburg 50 years earlier

Austro-Hungarian troops advancing against Italy in the Dolomites
Russian infantry
Russian Cavalry - in what's virtually Napoleonic uniform

Rumanian cavalry trooper - note his lance. His son may be trapped and facing tanks,
and praying for air-supply, a quarter-century later in the mechanized hell of Stalingrad

Death in 1916 of A-H Emperor Franz-Josef - reigning since 1848!

An over-optimistic view of what Zeppelins were achieving against enemy naval forces
But the real air war was getting serious. Aces here of 1916 -
and those marked with a cross were already dead by year's end 

The British attack at the Somme presented - generously - in heroic terms

French grenade thrower - uncertain whether it's a crossbow or some even more
complicated contraption. Note shopping-basket for transporting grenades.

And a view of the German and British maneuvers at the Battle of Jutland

 Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide by clicking the cover image below

To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment.

Friday 9 December 2016

HMS Pulteney and the Spanish Xebecs 1743

There have been many blogs on this site dealing with actions in the Age of Fighting Sail that involved only a few vessels, in many cases two only. In most cases, skilful manoeuvring and sail management, taking full advantage of wind and sea conditions, were key factors in positioning vessels to deliver their broadsides from the most advantageous position. There can only have been few cases in which the action took place in a calm and the movements of sailing warships were determined by the ability of their crews to propel them by sweeps or oars. Sweeps were long oars which could be extended out through gun ports and their use seems to have fallen away in the course of the 18th Century. In Britain’s National Maritime Museum in Greenwich there is only one model of a vessel with sweeps deployed, as shown in the photograph below

It was during the War of Austrian Succession in January 1743 that HMS Pulteney fought a battle in the Straits of Gibraltar in which her sweeps, and her enemies’, were to determine the course of action. The Pulteney, “a large brigantine” carrying 16 carriage guns (I can find no further detail) and commanded by a Captain James Purcell, had been cruising in the Straits to deter Spanish naval movements (as was the case in most in 18th Century wars, Spain was allied with France against Britain). She now however found herself becalmed off the British fortifications at Gibraltar and under observation from Spanish forces at Algeciras, directly across the bay from them.

Two Spanish xebecs now left Algeciras to intercept Pulteney. Xebecs were a type of craft common in the Mediterranean and were employed by the Spanish and French navies as well as by North African corsairs. Light and highly manoeuvrable, many were essentially galleys, with provisions as a matter of course for oar propulsion as well as by large lanteen sails. (Sentencing to galley service was a dreaded punishment for criminals). This contrasted with the use of sweeps, which were usually employed as a last resort, and operated by members of the crew. The two xebecs that came out to confront Purcell and the Pulteney were each crewed by 120 men and each carried 12 guns, apparently 9-pounders. Their rowers’ efforts were supplemented by the current through the Straits running in their favour. The Pulteney by contrast had only 42 men on board, three of whom had been wounded in an earlier action.

A superb painting of Xebecs in action five years before the Pulteney's encounter
"Antonio Barceló's Xebec Facing two Algerian Corsair Galiots, 1738"
Madrid's Navy Museum (catalog number: 522). 1902 oil painting by Ángel Cortellini y Sánchez (1858-1912).
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
The xebecs opened fire with individual guns as they approached but when within hailing distance called on Captain Purcell by name to strike so as to avoid unnecessary slaughter. He and the Spanish captains appear to have known each other – this being an era of gentlemanly warfare and courteous respect for the enemy. Purcell, as was probably expected, refused to yield and the engagement commenced, the Pulteney being at a disadvantage to her more manoeuvrable foes. Gunfire was exchanged for an hour and three quarters and the Spanish xebecs made three separate attempts to board. Given how small Purcell’s crew was it is improbable that all 16 of Pulteney’s guns could have been manned but they at last inflicted sufficient damage to the xebecs that they broke off the action to head for home. Even now, Pulteney attempted to chase them, with the Pulteney now propelled by her sweeps since there was still no wind.  The lighter xebecs managed however to make their escape.

 The Pulteney had suffered seriously, her sails and rigging completely destroyed and her hull and masts damaged. The action had occurred in full view of the Gibraltar garrison and boats went out to tow her back to safety.  Her crew had suffered one dead and five seriously wounded but it was reported afterwards that the clothes of every man on board had been rent by shot or fragments. A subscription was raised by Gibraltar’s governor, officers and merchants to present Purcell with a piece of plate while money was distributed to the crew. Purcell’s and Pulteney’s heroic stand was the type of incident that was to inspire so much naval fiction in later years.

 Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide by clicking the cover image below

To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment.

Britannia's Eventide is a snapshot of a critical moment in the later years of Admiral Sir Nicholas Dawlish and his wife, Lady Florence, whom you will have met earlier in their lives in the five books of the series so far. It is not available elsewhere at this time. It is a companion piece to the short-story Britannia's Eye, which is a bonus-addition to the novel Britannia's Amazon, and which gives a glimpse of Nicholas Dawlish's childhood.

I hope that you will enjoy the story, no less than the novels in the series. I always value feedback, so don't hesitate to get back to me. I'd especially like to know what you think of the idea of free short-stories that fill in gaps in Dawlish's career that may not justify full books. 

                                                                            Best Wishes: Antoine Vanner

Tuesday 6 December 2016

The Loss of the Russian cruiser Pallada, October 1914

The illustration below is from a German WW1 part-work, published monthly, in this case in 1914/15. It is an artist’s impression of the destruction of the Bayan-class Russian armoured cruiser Pallada on 11th October 1914. There were no survivors from her 597-man crew when she blew up after being torpedoed by the German submarine U-26.  

This 7750 ton vessel, armed with a main armament of two 8-inch and eight 6-inch guns, plus smaller weapons, was already obsolete then she was commissioned in 1911. In overall configuration – single bow and stern chasers and her remaining heavy weapons in casemates – she had more in common with doomed British counterparts, such as Aboukir, Cressey, Hogue and Good Hope, built a decade earlier, than with the battle-cruisers that were already replacing armoured cruisers in the British and German navies. Pallada was however of only half the displacement of the old British cruisers and one wonders why money was ever invested in her and in her sisters Bayan and Makarov.

SMS Magdeburg
Though the Pallada was the first Russian warship to be lost in World War 1 she had already provided a service of inestimable value, even though it came about by pure chance. The tltra-modern German cruiser Magdeburg had run aground off the Estonian coast on 26th August and efforts by a destroyer to tow her free had proved unsuccessful. While the attempt continued the Pallada arrived on the scene with another cruiser, the Bogatyr, one of the few Russian ships to survive operations in the Far East during the Russo-Japanese War. Unable to run, and taken under fire by the Russians, the Magdeburg’s crew attempted to scuttle, blowing off the forepart of the ship but leaving the remainder largely intact. More important however was the fact that priority had not been given by the German captain to destruction of the code-books. These the Russians managed to recover from the wreck  – a fact that the Germans did not suspect. The need to change the codes was not appreciated and the Russians had won a treasure. The code-book was passed on to the British and was of vital importance in allowing the Royal Navy’s “Room 40” – the WW1 centre of code-breaking which was comparable to Bletchley Park in WW2 – to read German naval radio-traffic through much of the war.

Short the Pallada’s service life might have been, but it was to have a massive impact on Britain’s prosecution of the war at sea. The tragedy was that her crew died without knowing it.

Friday 2 December 2016

HMS Mediator at odds of Five to One, 1782

In a recent blog about Captain Henry Trollope and HMS Glatton, we saw a single Royal Navy warship engage eight enemy vessels successfully. Today’s blog deals with an equally desperate battle against the odds.

Captain James Luttrell
By 1782 the American War of Independence was winding down, but actions were still being fought at sea. In December of that year Captain James Luttrell (1751-1788) was in command of the 44-gun fifth-rate, HMS Mediator, off the north-west coast of Spain. Luttrell was as much a politician as a naval officer, having been elected to Parliament in 1775 (one would like to know more about he juggled his time commitments since he appears to have been respected in both roles). He opposed the war with the American colonists, believing that their cause was just, but as a serving officer he did not hesitate to fight them and their French and Spanish allies to the limit of his abilities.

At dawn on December 12th 1782 the Mediator sighted a convoy of five vessels and closed with them to investigate. Three of the ships proved to be French: the Ménagère, a 64-gun ship of the line that had had half of its armament removed to make room for carrying freight; the Aimable Eugénie, a 36-gun frigate; the Dauphin Royal, primarily a transport but carrying 28 guns. Two vessels were at least nominally American, the Alexander, a privateer, operating under a French-issued letter of marque, armed with 24 guns, as well as an un-named American brig.  They represented a formidable challenge for a single warship to take on. What was however in Luttrell’s favour was that the convoy was primarily a transport unit rather than a fighting force and was conveying supplies from France to the American rebels. It was part of a much larger logistics operation that had run during much of the war and was masterminded by Pierre Beaumarchais – remembered today as the dramatist who wrote The Marriage of Figaro, the “must-see” play of the period that was subsequently turned into an opera by Mozart.

The enemy convoy shortened sail and formed a line of battle, obviously prepared to fight off any attack. Luttrell’s tactic was to drive straight at it, taking advantage of the handiness of the Mediator, hoping to dislocate the enemy line, cause what damage he could, and run should the action not develop to his satisfaction. By 10 a.m. the range had closed sufficiently for the Ménagère – which Luttrell still believed to be a fully-armed ship of the line – to open fire. The broadside she released came from her upper deck only, demonstrating that she was only partially armed and thereby considerably less dangerous than she appeared. This encouraged Luttrell to drive through the enemy line (the tactic that Nelson would later make his trademark) and cut off the Alexander. A single broadside was enough for this privateer to strike her colours while the remaining French vessels and the American brig made their escape. Luttrell put a prize crew aboard the Alexander and took some 100 prisoners from her on board the Mediator. This must have taken considerable time, and it is an indication of Luttrell’s confidence in Mediator’s speed and sailing abilities – not to mention in her crew – that he believed that he could catch up with the retreating enemy.

HMS Mediator in action, December 12th 1782 (note enemy vessels escaping on the right)
Painting by Thomas Luny (1759-1837)

It took five hours to get in range of the Ménagère, which had been by then separated from the other ships. She might well be under-armed but she still carried heavy guns and Luttrell did not want to close the range further. He maintained instead distant but ineffective fire. The weather was now deteriorating and a sudden heavy squall caught Mediator and heeled her over so that water poured in through her lower-deck gun ports to “knee depth”.  This was when the professionalism of both officers and seamen showed to advantage. Despite this setback, Mediator was soon in a state to resume the chase. It was dark before she caught up with the Ménagère, which was by now within five-miles of the shelter offered by the Spanish naval base of Ferrol. He French captain’s nerve seems to have failed at this point and before Mediator could deliver a broadside he struck his colours. The same process was repeated as with the Alexander – a prize crew put on board and prisoners, some 200 in this case, taken on to the Mediator and both ships then bore away from the Spanish coast. At dawn the escaped French frigate and American brig were sighted – both had been damaged in the earlier fighting – but by now Luttrell’s crew was seriously depleted through provision of prize-crews. Mediator had taken only seven casualties but was now manned by only 190 men, compared with the more than 300 prisoners on board. Luttrell reluctantly decide not to engage these enemy vessels and set course for Plymouth with his prizes.

A new drama played out during this voyage back to Britain. The American captain of the captured Alexander, one Stephen Gregory, and some of his officers had been accommodated in the Mediator’s gun-room. They managed somehow to establish communication with the other prisoners on board and hatched a plan for a take-over of the ship. The signal for action to commence was that one of the eighteen-pounders in the gun room was to be discharged – one wonders how Gregory managed to acquire the necessary powder to prime it – and in the resulting confusion the prisoners were to burst out of the hatchways.

The gun was fired during darkness but Mediator’s marines had been well posted at all exits and the prisoners were unable to break out. Luttrell went to the gun-room and found it on fire and everything within it shattered. Gregory and a single accomplice were found there, miraculously unharmed. They were immediately clapped in irons but it is typical of the gentlemanly standards of the period that the French officers, who had taken no part in the plot, continued to dine, under parole, at Luttrell’s own table.

In this dramatic action, in which boldness and confidence had proved the decisive factor, a single 44-gun ship, with a crew already depleted by provision of manning for earlier prizes, took on a force deploying 132 guns and 634 men. Casualties amounted to seven wounded. The enemy casualties were low also – a total of ten dead and fifteen wounded on the two vessels captured, an indication in itself of the lack of will which might otherwise have secured a different result.

Considering Luttrell’s splendid victory, it is sad to record the he died young, at only thirty-seven and that his potential for high command was never realised.

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Britannia's Eventide is a snapshot of a critical moment in the later years of Admiral Sir Nicholas Dawlish and his wife, Lady Florence, whom you will have met earlier in their lives in the five books of the series so far. It is not available elsewhere at this time. It is a companion piece to the short-story Britannia's Eye, which is a bonus-addition to the novel Britannia's Amazon, and which gives a glimpse of Nicholas Dawlish's childhood.

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