Friday 29 April 2016

The Loss by Fire of the RMS Amazon 1852

Ships are still lost at sea in our own time, frequently as a result of regulations and standards being ignored rather than standards being established in the first place to ensure safe operation. When reading of seafaring in the 19th Century, and the vast numbers of maritime disasters, one is struck by the fact that not only had standards not been established, but that little thought went into recognising inevitable hazards and to identifying measures to mitigate or eliminate them. The most glaring example refers to provision of adequate numbers of lifeboats – a straightforward and obvious measure, the absence of which resulted in heavy loss of life for decades until the Titanic disaster in 1912 finally made action unavoidable. Similar shortcomings applied as regards protection against fire, an especially serious concern when steam-engines were installed in wooden ships. In addition, one is struck, when reading about Victorian-era, by what frequently amounted to an all but wilful blindness to signs of danger. This latter was to be a factor in one of the most horrific of passenger-trade tragedies, the loss by fire of the Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) Amazon, in 1852.

The horror of fire at sea, conveyed by the Victorian painter James Francis Danby (1816-1875)
Constructed in 1850-51, the Amazon, at 2256-tons and 300-feet long, and her four sisters were among the largest wooden-hulled steamers ever built, for by this time iron construction was becoming commonplace. Intended for the mail service between Britain and the West Indies, the 800-horsepower Amazon was paddle-driven and capable, under steam, of a maximum of fifteen knots, though her usual cruising speed would have been closer to eleven. As with almost all steamers of the time she also carried a sailing rig, in her case of three-masted barque configuration. Her crew of 112 reflected the need to operate under sail as well as to feed the furnaces and tend the engine. There was accommodation for 50 passengers.

Commanded by a Captain Symonds, the Amazon left Southampton on her maiden voyage to the West Indies on 2nd January 1852.  According to accounts by survivors of the subsequent tragedy, alarm was felt immediately by many passengers as regards risk of fire. The two engines installed appeared to be overheating and the captain and engineer stopped them several times to allow them to cool. A Mr. Neilson was too worried by this to go below decks and another, a Mr. Glennie, attested that may of the crew were no less concerned. Despite this, Captain Symonds was not prepared to return to Southampton.

The impressive-looking RMS Amazon, as seen before departure on her maiden voyage

Thirty-six hours into her voyage the Amazon ran into a heavy headwind in the Bay of Biscay and soon after midnight fire was seen erupting from just abaft the foremast. The watch-officer sent the quartermaster to rouse the captain, who was sleeping, and as he did alerted the passengers, apparently in a way that encouraged alarm. Even before the captain reached the bridge – which ran across between the paddle-boxes – the fourth engineer, a heroic man names Stone, attempted to go below to stop the engines but was driven back by heat and smoke. Efforts were in progress to drag a fire-hose forward when the blaze reached the oil and tallow store, worsening the inferno. Terrified passengers were now crowding on deck to be confronted with a wall of flame that spanned the deck and was as high as the paddle-boxes, isolating the officers, who were aft, with most of the crew, who were on the forecastle. The only way past the flames was to creep up the curved surface of eh paddle-boxes and slide down the other side, a manoeuvre so dangerous that few attempted it.

By this stage panic was already manifesting itself among passengers and crew alike. An account of the tragedy in an 1877 publication leaves little to the imagination: “It would be needless to tell here of the screams and shrieks of the terrified passenger, mixed with the cried of the animals on board; of the wild anguish with which they saw before them only the choice of deaths, and both almost equally dreadful – the raging flames or the raging sea; and of these fearful moments when all self-control, all presence of mind, appeared to be lost, and no authority was recognised, no command obeyed.”

Every effort was made to prevent the flames extending aft. The Amazon carried nine boats and, remarkably for this period, had in theory sufficient accommodation in them for passengers and crew, but they could not be safely lowered as the unreachable engines were still running and driving the vessel forward at some thirteen knots. The captain hoped that the ship’s movement would finally be arrested by exhaustion of the contents of the boilers but it transpired that when fire was first detected one of the engineers, fearing a boiler explosion, had opened the feed line from the water cistern to maintain a continuous feed. As the ship’s headlong charge continued Captain Symonds ordered all boats to be kept fast until he should order lowering. By the time he did, when the spread of the flames was clearly unstoppable, the forward life-boats were already on fire. According to the 1877 source: “When this was discovered, al order and discipline seemed to disappear immediately, and instead of fortitude and resolution, a selfish desire for preservation entered almost every breast.”

The Amazon ablaze - contemporary illustration. Note boat hanging from davit.

Unfamiliarity with the handling-equipment of the remaining boats now played its role – a sad indication of inadequate crew-training before departure. They were suspended from davits in the usual way but their keels were held in protruding cradles to prevent them swinging but the crew seemed unaware of this. Due to this at least three boats were flipped over as they were lifted and they dumped their occupants into the sea. The captain assisted in lowering the boats and when no more could be done went back to the wheel, took it from the steersman, and apparently perished at his post.  The remaining boats did get away, the first to do so carrying sixteen people, including the Mr. Neilson previously referred to. It rescued a further five from a dinghy that had also got away – it was almost swamped and the occupants were bailing with boots – but the now empty dinghy drove into the stern of the lifeboat and wrecker her rudder.

The gale continued another three hours and all that could be done in the lifeboat was to keep her head to the wind by her oars and save her from swamping. The blazing Amazon was visible in the distance, her masts toppling over in succession as the flames ate them away. A sailing vessel now appeared, heading out from the French coast, and passed within four hundred yards of the lifeboat, which hailed her. An answer was made by signal but she made no attempt to assist and continued on her course. Around dawn an explosion was seen to engulf the Amazon. The funnels toppled over and then she herself disappeared. The lifeboat pulled for the French coast and in mid-morning was picked up by a British brig, the Marsden, which landed the survivors in France.

Burning ship by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900) - it conveys how the Amazon must have looked

The Amazon’s pinnace had also got way although on launching its occupants had been tipped into the sea. A few managed to clamber back on to the ship though a lady clutching an eighteen-month old child, a Mrs. M’Lennan, managed to keep hold of the boat until it was righted. It finally got away with sixteen occupants, including the Mr. Glennie mentioned earlier. An ex-Royal Navy seaman called Berryman (“a fine fellow”) trailed a portion of a spar as a sea anchor to hold the over-loaded boat’s head to. the wind and later, when the sea had calmed, hoisted Mrs. M’Lennan’s shawl between two boat-hooks as a sail. Mr. Glennie noted as he saw the Amazon drew away that “a large hole was burnt out of her side immediately abaft the (port) paddlebox, part of which was also burnt. The hole was nearly down to the water’s edge and through it I could see the machinery.” The pinnace survived into the morning, a leak that threatened to swamp her being stopped by Stone, the heroic engineer, and it steered for the French coast. “the men plying their oars lustily, and Mrs. M’Lennan, as she lay in the sternsheets, cheering them to their work.” Later in the day another vessel was sighted and the lady’s shawl was again put to good use for signalling. It proved to be a galiot, a small Dutch trading vessel called the Gertruda, which picked up the pinnace’s occupants and set her course towards Brest to land them. On the way more survivors were picked up from another boat.

A Dutch galiot
The disaster had occurred on January 4th and it was not until the 15th of the month that it emerged that another thirteen persons had also been saved. They had been rescued by another Dutch vessel, the Hellechina, en route to Leghorn, which transferred them to a British revenue-cutter which took them to Plymouth. These survivors’ experiences were no less horrific than those of the others. The boat had been lowered safely from the Amazon, though a stewardess had fallen out and been drowned in in the process. Command was adopted by a Royal Navy officer, a Lieutenant Grylls, who had been a passenger on the Amazon and who had been active helping fight the fire previously. The boat was however leaking badly – “Fox, a stoker, stopped the hole by taking off his drawers and cramming them into it, keeping them in position for three or four hours by the pressure of his own body; and when seized by violent cramps was relieved by Durdney and Wall.”  Another ship passed between them and the burning Amazon, though without seeing them – though it must have seen the Amazon. One wonders if it was not the same vessel that had acknowledged the lifeboat’s signal but had carried on regardless. Gryll’s boat lacked oars and attempts were made to paddle her with the bottom boards. In the course of the morning it passed over the area where the Amazon had gone down, strewn as it was with wreckage, but with no sign of bodies. Later in the day rescue came in the shape of the Hellechina.

Of the 162 people on the Amazon only 58 survived. The loss was regarded as a national tragedy with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert heading an appeal for support of widows and orphans. A subsequent enquiry was inconclusive as regards the origin of the fire. Though blame was placed by some on the engine bearings running hot – and indeed insufficient testing had been done prior to committing to the maiden voyage – this seems to have been unlikely since the engines continued to operate without seizing until the ship consumed herself. A further consideration was that the crew was freshly raised, knew little of each other and had not exercised together.  The rapid spread of the fire was attributed to the use of much “Danzig Pine” in the construction, a timber known to be particularly inflammable. The single most significant contributory factor was most likely however to be the haste in which the ship had been rushed into service without adequate shakedown of crew and machinery.
The iron-hulled RMS Atrato by William Frederick Mitchell (1845-1918)
And one lesson was most certainly learned. The next Royal Mail ship commissioned, the Atrato, was constructed of iron.

Britannia’s Spartan

Six-inch breech loading guns represented the cutting edge of naval technology in the early 1880s. In my novel Britannia’s Spartan they are seen in use on both British and Japanese ships. The splendid woodcut below shows Japanese crews managing just such a weapon in the war of 1895 against China. Click here for further details – for UK and for US & Rest of World

Friday 22 April 2016

An Unequal Duel: Trader vs. Privateer 1744

The story of war against maritime trade in the Age of Fighting Sail is usually told, whether in fact or in fiction, from the viewpoint of the naval commerce-raider intent on prize-money. One finds few accounts which view these contests from the side of the victims. I was therefore fascinated by stumbling recently on an account of a furious battle between a civilian trader – armed, as was essential at the time – and a French privateer in 1744, during the War of Austrian Succession.
A trading brig by Joseph Walter,1838 - the Isabella may have looked generally similar.
The Wrightson and Isabella of Sunderland was a merchant ship engaged in trade across the North Sea and commanded by a Captain Richard Avery Hornsby (1699-1751). No details are available of this vessel but given the fact that she was manned by only five men and three boys, besides Hornsby, and that she mounted four carriage guns – which could only have been small ones – and two swivels, she cannot have been of large size, perhaps brig-rigged. On 13th June 1744 Hornsby arrived off the Dutch coast at Scheveningen, the coastal suburb of The Hague, in company with three smaller vessels with which he had sailed in convoy from Norfolk. The Isabella (it’s easier to refer to her as such) was laden with malt and barley. At this period there was no harbour at Scheveningen – one would not be constructed until 1904 – and trading vessels had to lie offshore and transfer cargoes ashore in smaller boats. Fishing boats were drawn up on to the beach (a subject for many painters, including Vincent van Gogh, for many years).

Fishing boats on the beach at Scheveningen, 1882 - by Vincent van Gogh
When the Isabella arrived a large number of fishing boats were lying offshore and among them a French privateer, the Marquis de Brancas, had concealed herself. Commanded by a Captain André, this appears to have been a larger vessel that carried ten carriage guns and eight swivels, plus a crew of 75. She made straight for the Isabella, the other British ships turning away and escaping.
View of Scheveningen 1871 by Johannes Joseph Destree
Note the vessels clustered offshore - among such a grouping the Brancas would have lurked
Given the disparities of armament and crew, resistance by the Isabella must have appeared suicidal.   Hornsby seems however to have had the agreement of his crew to fight it out and he accordingly refused to comply when André of the Brancas called on him to strike his colours. Like any privateer André was naturally focussed on capture of a valuable prize rather than on her destruction and his initial attack on the Isabella was with small-arms fire only. Hornsby ordered his men to shelter and by skilful manoeuvring avoided two French attempts to board on the port quarter. By this stage the Brancas was bringing her guns as well as her small-arms into action and Hornsby was replying with his two port weapons.

This part of the action lasted – amazingly – for upwards of an hour but at two in the afternoon the privateer ran her bowsprit into the main shrouds on Isabella’s port side and held there. Captain André again demanded that Hornsby strike, and was one again rejected. Some twenty French now crossed only to be driven back by a hail of blunderbusses fire. The Brancas now broke free and attacked the Isabella on her starboard side. A new boarding attempt was made – this must have been a nightmare conflict, conducted as it was with hatchets and pole-axes as well as small arms. The two ships were by now lashed together and Hornsby’s men, concentrated at the Isabella’s stern, were somehow holding back the attackers, fresh men crossing from the Brancas to replace dead and wounded boarders. These attackers had taken shelter behind (or rather ahead of) the mainmast when Hornsby fired on them again with his blunderbuss. He had not realised that in the heat of the moment it had been doubly loaded and, as he fired, the weapon burst, throwing him down bruised but still defiant. Boarding proving too costly, Captain André now pulled his men back on board the Brancas and broke away, apparently determined on destruction – and revenge – rather than on capture of a prize.
A Royal Navy brigantine of the18th Century - the Brancas might have looked generally similar
As the French vessel sheered off Captain Hornsby managed to fire his starboard guns into her stern – raking her – and a new yard-arm to yard-arm gunnery battle commenced, a miniature version of the single-ship frigate actions of later decades. Isabella – not surprisingly – had the worst of it, her hull damaged, her sails and rigging torn to shreds and every mast and yard damaged to some extent. The resolve of Hornsby and his crew must have been almost superhuman but it was rewarded by landing a lucky hit on the Brancas “between wind and water” – i.e. along the waterline. This forced the French captain to draw away to plug the leak, thereby giving the Isabella enough respite to haul her fallen ensign up again.

Boarding - the close-quarters horror of the Age of Fighting Sail
The contest was taking place close inshore and crowds had hurried to the beach on foot and by coach to view the spectacle. With her leak stopped the Brancas now returned to deliver the crippled Isabella what must be her coup-de-grace. She crossed under the Isabella’s stern subjecting her to a volley of small-arms fire, one musket ball hitting Hornsby on the temple. He bled profusely but was not otherwise seriously wounded. Brancas now poured three broadsides into the Isabella but was again driven away by another lucky water-line strike. A hasty repair was enough to bring her back into action – another five broadsides were smashed into the Isabella’s hull and André once more called on Hornsby to strike her colours. With his demand once more rejected he ordered his men to bring Brancas alongside to board one more and was answered with a refusal. They had had enough and there was nothing more to be done but for André to break off the fight.
A man-of-war exploding - by the Russian painter Ivan Aivazovsky
The Brancas's detonation would have been smaller, but no less deadly
What happened now was perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the encounter. As the Brancas drew away the Isabella fired on her for the last time. A shot passed through the French vessel’s already badly damaged stern and set off her magazine. The Brancas blew up in a spectacular explosion – so powerful in fact that only three survivors of her crew were picked up by Dutch fishing boats. Isabella herself, a floating wreck, had survived an engagement that had lasted for a seven hours. It would have been a creditable achievement for a warship but an unprecedented one for a civilian vessel.

The courage of Hornsby and his crew were deservedly recognised. Three months later, at Kensington Palace, King George II presented him with a gold medal and chain worth £100 while each of his crew members – who seem all to have survived – were awarded £5 each, though with only £2 for the boys. It is sad to note however that Hornsby lived only another seven years and died at sea “of a lingering illness”.

He and his men deserve to be remembered.

Britannia’s Reach by Antoine Vanner

"Britannia’s reach is not just political or military alone. What higher interest can there be than consolidation of Britain’s commercial interests?” So says one of the key figures in this novel , which centres on the efforts of a British-owned company to reassert control of its cattle-raising investment in Paraguay, following a revolt by its workers. The story of desperate riverine combat brings historic naval fiction into the age of Fighting Steam. Click on the image below for more details.

Tuesday 19 April 2016

The Iéna and Liberté Disasters, 1907 and 1911

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries all major navies, other than the German, lost large ships through magazine explosions of unstable ammunition. The first of such tragedies was in the US Navy, when the battleship USS Maine blew up in the harbour of Havana, Cuba, in January 1898. The explosion was initially blamed on sabotage by Spanish forces, and was a factor in precipitating the Spanish-American War of the same year (the recruiting slogan being “Remember the Maine!”) but it was only long afterwards when the cause was finally attributed to a magazine explosion.

 Iéna in service in happier times 
The French Navy was to be particularly unlucky in this respect in the years preceding World War 1, two pre-dreadnought battleships being lost while in the naval base at Toulon. The first disaster involved the 11500-ton, 401-feet long Iéna. In service since 1902, this vessel carried an armament – four 12”, eight 6” and many smaller – generally similar to those of her British contemporaries, such as the Formidable class, but on some 3000 tons less displacement.

Contemporary image - Iéna exploding
On 12th March 1907 Iéna was in dry-dock at Toulon for maintenance of her hull and inspection of her rudder shaft (which had provided embarrassing problems on the ship’s first commissioning). The full complement was not therefore on board when a series of explosions erupted in the port-side magazines of the 4” anti- torpedo boat armament. The normal procedure in such cases would have been to flood the magazines, but this was impossible due to the ship being in dry-dock. The quick-thinking captain of the battleship Patrie, which was moored nearby, ordered a shell to be fired into the dock-gates to flood the dock but the shell failed to have any effect. Why it was not attempted to repeat this is not obvious. While this was going on, the violence of the explosions on the Iéna was enough to cause the battleship Suffren, moored close by, to heel over so far as almost to capsize. (The Suffren was an unlucky ship ever since her launching – click here to read more about her). The dock was finally flooded, thanks to the heroism of a young officer, Ensign de Vaisseau Roux, who was killed by fragments soon thereafter. Though the Iéna was damaged beyond repair the death toll – 120 lives – was lower than if the explosions had occurred at sea with her full 700-man crew on board.
Iéna after the disaster 
Investigation traced the origin of the explosion to the instability of the ammunition’s nitrocellulose-based propellant. Known as “Poudre B”, this was known to become unstable with age and to self-ignite. It was estimated that 80% of the contents of the ship's magazines were the suspect at the time of the accident – which could have been far worse had the magazines of the main 12-inch weapons also detonated.  Scandals – known as affairs – were one of the great institutions of the French Third Republic that lasted from 1870 to 1940 and the Iéna disaster was to trigger a choice specimen, referred to as “l'Affaire des Poudres” which resulted in the resignation of the Navy Minister, Gaston Thomson (1848 -1932). Like so many French politicians of the time, involvement in a scandal does not seem to have affected his future career negatively.
Liberté at speed
Lessons from the loss of the Iéna should have been sufficient to avoid similar tragedies in the future but three similar accidents occurred on smaller vessels over the next three years, with no ship lost and a small death-toll. A greater disaster was however to occur, again in Toulon, for years later.  The Liberté, of 14630- tons and 430-feet length, was one of the four ships of the class to which she gave her name and which were the last pre-dreadnoughts to serve in the French Navy. Liberté was obsolete at time of her launch and she entered service in 1908, a year after Britain’s HMS Dreadnought had changed the battleship paradigm. Her four 12-inch cannon represented a puny armament when compared with the Dreadnought’s ten. Liberté did however also mount ten 7.6-inch weapons, six in single turrets and four in casemates.
Liberté exploding - contemporary artist's impression
Liberté was moored in the harbour in Toulon on 25th September 1911 when an explosion erupted in one of the forward magazines of the 7.6-inch guns. The situation was serious, but not yet fatal, and the commander, Captain Louis Jaurès, sent a party forward to flood the magazines to prevent an explosion in the main magazines. A major design fault was now manifested, for the flooding valves were located beneath the magazines. Two heroic attempts were made to reach the valves but were beaten back by fire and smoke. A third attempt was in progress when the main magazine exploded, tearing the ship apart. 
A 40-ton armour plate from the Liberté lodged in the side of the République
The violence of the detonation was sufficient for the pre-dreadnought République, moored over 200 yards away, to be damaged seriously when a 40-ton section of Liberté’s armoured plate was thrown against her side. The death-toll was some 250 and state funerals for these victims were attended by the president and a relief fund for the bereaved families received massive support across the nation.
The wreckage of the Liberté - hardly identifiable as a ship
France had learned the hard way, but other nations were to suffer similar disasters during World War 1. Britain was to lose the pre-dreadnought HMS Bulwark in 1914, the mine-layer HMS Princess Irene in 1915, the armoured-cruiser HMS Natal in 1915 (click here to read an earlier blog about it) and the dreadnought HMS Vanguard in 1917. The Italian Navy was to lose the pre-dreadnought Bendetto Brin in 1915 and the Imperial Russian Navy was to lose the massive new dreadnought Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya at Sevastopol in 1917. Japan’s first dreadnought, the Kawachi, blew up in 1918. In all cases the death toll was horrific.
Improvements in propellant stability ended this string of disasters after 1918 and internal explosions were not to punctuate World War 2, as they had the previous conflict.

Tuesday 12 April 2016

HMS Polyphemus – The original of H.G. Wells’ Thunder Child

Martian Fighting Machine in 1906 Edition
H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” first appeared in 1897 and described in terrifying detail how late-Victorian Britain was powerless to resist the devastation wreaked by huge Martian “walking machine” tripods armed with heat-rays (Lasers!) and “black smoke" poison gas. The most dramatic and memorable incident involves frantic efforts of refugees to escape in ships across the English Channel to France. The story is told from the viewpoint of the narrator’s brother, who is on one of the steamers. Just as this vessel draws away from the British coast three Martian tripods appear and begin to wade out after her. Let’s hear how Wells tells it:

“About a couple of miles out lay an ironclad, very low in the water, almost, to my brother's perception, like a waterlogged ship. This was the ram Thunder Child. It was the only warship in sight, but far away to the right over the smooth surface of the sea – for that day there was a dead calm –lay a serpent of black smoke to mark the next ironclads of the Channel Fleet, which hovered in an extended line, steam up and ready for action, across the Thames estuary during the course of the Martian conquest, vigilant and yet powerless to prevent it…”

The Thunder Child drives towards the Martians…

“…. Big iron upperworks rose out of this headlong structure, and from that twin funnels projected and spat a smoking blast shot with fire. It was the torpedo ram, Thunder Child, steaming headlong, coming to the rescue of the threatened shipping.

Keeping his footing on the heaving deck by clutching the bulwarks, my brother looked past this charging leviathan at the Martians again, and he saw the three of them now close together, and standing so far out to sea that their tripod supports were almost entirely submerged. Thus sunken, and seen in remote perspective, they appeared far less formidable than the huge iron bulk in whose wake the steamer was pitching so helplessly. It would seem they were regarding this new antagonist with astonishment. To their intelligence, it may be, the giant was even such another as themselves. The Thunder Child fired no gun, but simply drove full speed towards them. It was probably her not firing that enabled her to get so near the enemy as she did. They did not know what to make of her. One shell, and they would have sent her to the bottom forthwith with the Heat-Ray.

Suddenly the foremost Martian lowered his tube and discharged a canister of the black gas at the ironclad. It hit her larboard side and glanced off in an inky jet that rolled away to seaward, an unfolding torrent of Black Smoke, from which the ironclad drove clear. To the watchers from the steamer, low in the water and with the sun in their eyes, it seemed as though she were already among the Martians.

They saw the gaunt figures separating and rising out of the water as they retreated shoreward, and one of them raised the camera-like generator of the Heat-Ray. He held it pointing obliquely downward, and a bank of steam sprang from the water at its touch. It must have driven through the iron of the ship's side like a white-hot iron rod through paper.
Thunder Child's attack - by Henrique Alvim Corréa  in 1906 edition
A flicker of flame went up through the rising steam, and then the Martian reeled and staggered. In another moment he was cut down, and a great body of water and steam shot high in the air. The guns of the Thunder Child sounded through the reek, going off one after the other, and one shot splashed the water high close by the steamer … but no one heeded that very much. At the sight of the Martian's collapse the captain on the bridge yelled inarticulately, and all the crowding passengers on the steamer's stern shouted together. And then they yelled again. For, surging out beyond the white tumult, drove something long and black, the flames streaming from its middle parts, its ventilators and funnels spouting fire.

She was alive still; the steering gear, it seems, was intact and her engines working. She headed straight for a second Martian, and was within a hundred yards of him when the Heat-Ray came to bear. Then with a violent thud, a blinding flash, her decks, her funnels, leaped upward. The Martian staggered with the violence of her explosion, and in another moment the flaming wreckage, still driving forward with the impetus of its pace, had struck him and crumpled him up like a thing of cardboard. My brother shouted involuntarily. A boiling tumult of steam hid everything again…

… The steam hung upon the water for many minutes, hiding the third Martian and the coast altogether... and when at last the confusion cleared, the drifting bank of black vapour intervened, and nothing of the Thunder Child could be made out, nor could the third Martian be seen.”

HMS Polyphemus - illustrations at time of her launch 
Contemporary readers would have recognised the Thunder Child as being based on HMS Polyphemus, the only torpedo-ram ever built for the Royal Navy, a bizarre but impressive experiment that was never repeated. Commissioned in 1881, she was designed as a fast, low-profile vessel of shallow-draft, with torpedoes as its main offensive weapons, with her ram as a back-up. A “stealth ship” of her time, she was designed for attack by night and for penetrating enemy anchorages.

Polyphemus in drydock
The automotive “fish” torpedo was a new weapon in the 1870s and its ability to inflict damage to a ship’s hull below the waterline was clearly its main advantage. Opinions differed on how best it could be employed and through the 1870s various solutions were considered. One of these was the torpedo-ram concept and it was to find its embodiment in the Polyphemus, a partly armoured cigar-shaped vessel that would run almost awash and carry five submerged 14-inch torpedo tubes, one of them – quite surprisingly – running down the centre of the ram.  As completed in 1881 she was 240 feet long and of 2640 tons. Her twin-shaft steam engines gave her at maximum speed of 17.8 knots.  

She was innovative in several ways. Her armoured turtle-deck ran almost awash and her low superstructure – which included six cylindrical shields in each of which a 1-inch semi-automatic Nordenvelt gun was mounted – sat on top and was designed to float free in the event of sinking. The hull-shape had been optimised for minimum resistance – as can be seen from diagrams – and a retractable rudder was built into the bows to facilitate movement astern, and to decrease her  turning circle when going ahead. Polyphemus was also equipped with a separate 250-ton cast iron keel which could be dropped in an emergency The drill and the mechanism for doing so was tested every two weeks. She was the first Royal Navy ship to be fitted with an 80-volt direct current electrical system – this lower-voltage system reflecting experience of the dangers of the 800-volt system used on the navy’s first “electric ship” HMS Inflexible.  
HMS Polyphemus, seen here at Malta
The Polyphemus spent much of her career, until she was relegated to secondary duties in 1900, in the Mediterranean. Given the low hull profile, and the need to minimise deck openings, working conditions in the boiler and machinery spaces must have been uncomfortable in the extreme. It was soon recognised that the design concept was a dead-end, as the arrival of quick-firing weapons was likely to make her very vulnerable since, due to her size, she would never have the nimbleness and “survivability” of a much smaller torpedo-boat. Launching of her 14-inch torpedoes, which had a range of 600 yards only, demanded almost suicidal closing with an enemy ship.

Polyphemus (r of centre) ramming the boom at Berehaven 30th June 1885
Polyphemus was to have one brief moment of glory, not in combat with Martians, but when a war scare in 1885 raised the possibility of action against the Russian Navy. Penetration of the Russian base at Kronstadt was considered, with Polyphemus using her ram to smash through protective floating booms and open the way for other ships to follow. A trial was accordingly arranged at Berehaven, the Royal Navy anchorage in South-West Ireland. A boom, similar to one the Russians might employ was constructed, the floating obstacles linked by 5-inch steel cables and with nets attached to entangle propellers. Six small torpedo boats were assigned to patrolling the approaches. On 30th June the Polyphemus mounted her attack, building up speed on a two-mile run towards the boom and evading some ten practice-torpedoes launched by the opposing patrol boats. She smashed her way through the boom – unfortunately the only existing photograph, as shown above, was taken from a distance and the full drama is not conveyed by it – and she proved that in this one very special scenario she could prove her worth.
Contemporary artist's impression show the boom being breached
Thumbnail at top-left shows Polyphemus steaming away unharmed
Note cylindrical shields for Nordenveldts
And that was the end of her spell in the limelight. War with Russia was averted and she returned to routine – and probably very uncomfortable – service. When the Royal Navy finally attacked Kronstadt, in 1919, against Bolshevik forces, it was with light motor-torpedo boats with a turn of speed – some 40 knots – inconceivable when Polyphemus was designed. The only other scenario in which she might have proved of value was that described by H.G. Wells.

And that was fictional.

Britannia’s Shark by Antoine Vanner

 Historic naval fiction moves on into the age of Fighting Steam.

Click to read the opening chapters

Friday 8 April 2016

The Ram Triumphant: Lissa 1866

In 1864 the Austro-Hungarian Empire joined with the Kingdom of Prussia to inflict a crushing defeat on the small nation of Denmark. This was to be the first of three wars, escalating in scale, which the Prussian Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, used to advance German unification. In a recent blog (8th January 2016) we saw the Austro-Hungarian Navy in action against the Danish Navy off the island of Heligoland in 1864, an encounter that was a tactical victory for the Danes but which had no impact on the outcome of the war. A hero of the battle off Heligoland was the flamboyant Austro-Hungarian commander, Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff (1827-1871)
Cavalry action at Königgrätz - by Alexander von Bensa
In the second of Bismarck’s wars, in 1866, the Austro-Hungarian Empire found itself the focus of its previous ally Prussia’s aggression in a contest which would determine which power was to be dominant in Central Europe. The newly-emergent Kingdom of Italy allied itself to Prussia with the objective of winning the territory of Venetia, the last major area in Italy still under Austro-Hungarian rule. The war was to prove another short one, with Prussian professionalism mercilessly punishing Austro-Hungarian inefficiency. A rapid Prussian drive south into Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic) was made possible by superb mastery of logistics and at Königgrätz (modern Hradec Králové) on 3rd July 1866, in a clash that involved almost half-a-million men, the Austro-Hungarians suffered a massive defeat. This one battle was enough to decide the so-called “Seven Weeks War” which was ended by the “Peace of Prague” treaty the following month.
Affondatore (as later reconstructed)
Austro-Hungary was more successful against the Italians, who had invaded Venetia, defeating their numerically stronger army at Custoza in June 1866 and forcing them to retreat. The other theatre of action was at sea. Both nations had built substantial fleets with the objective of controlling the Adriatic. It is an indicator of the rapidity of technological change that only seven years after the French had launched the Gloire, the first sea-going ironclad’ the Austro-Hungarians could deploy seven such ships of varying power, and the Italians no less than twelve. Both sides also possessed wooden vessels – the Austro-Hungarians had seven steam frigates and corvettes plus another dozen smaller units, while the Italians had some sixteen. The advantage was with the Italians as regards firepower, on paper at least twice that of their enemy as regards total “weight of shot” – that fired by all guns. Great things were expected of the two Italian “Kings” – the Re d'Italia and Re di Portogallo ironclads, each armed with some 30 heavy rifled weapons – as well as the single-turret ram Affondatore, which had just arrived from its builders in Britain  and which mounted two 300-pounder, 10-inch rifles.
Re d'Italia
Given the disparity between the two navies it should have seemed easy for the Italian commander, Admiral Carlo Persano, to execute the order given him to "sweep the enemy from the Adriatic, and to attack and blockade them wherever found." In the event however inefficiency, delay and insufficient gun-drill characterised the Italian effort. Though war was declared 20th June – not unexpectedly, for a crisis had been brewing for some time – it was not until  25th June before he moved the bulk of his fleet from Taranto in the far south to Ancona on the northern Adriatic, some eighty miles south of the Austro-Hungarian naval base at Pola. On arrival at Ancona on 27th June Persano found thirteen enemy ships offshore, all cleared for action. He made no effort to fight them and according to some reports was so depressed by news of the Italian defeat Custoza that he hung back from confrontation. On July 8 he took his force to sea for three days’ practice manoeuvring and signalling – but no firing-drill, despite many of the guns being newly mounted and unfamiliar to their crews.

The Italian Minister of Marine forced Persano’s hand by ordering an attack, not on Pola, but on the Austro-Hungarian held island of Lissa (now Vis), off the Adriatic’s eastern coast. Possession of this island was regarded as essential for control of the Adriatic – and gaining it had been an Italian ambition for some time – but attacking it while there was still an undefeated enemy fleet at large could only be regarded as foolhardy. One reason for the decision may have been that, with negotiations imminent to end the war, possession of Lissa, even at high cost, might provide a valuable bargaining chip.

The decisive factor in the drama now unfolding was to be the aggressive Austro-Hungarian naval commander, Wilhelm von Tegetthoff, who had been blooded in action against the Danes. His crews were of both Slav and Italian stock from along the Adriatic coast, including some 600 from Venice, and they were unlikely to have been inherently superior to Persano’s men. The difference lay in the loyalty, fighting spirit and discipline which Tegettoff had instilled in them and their facing down of the Italian fleet at Ancona on 27th June had boosted their confidence.

Tegetthoff was initially suspicious that the Italian moves against Lissa were a diversion but telegrams from there convinced him that they represented a major Italian attempt to take the island. Accordingly, on 19th July, he headed there with his entire force.

The Italian offensive was meanwhile proceeding slowly. It opened with shore bombardment – a difficult undertaking as Lissa’s coastal batteries were sited on commanding heights and manned by determined marines and artillerymen. The operation was nevertheless largely successful, not least due to the arrival of the powerful Affondatore and by the end of the second day some two-thirds of the Austro-Hungarian guns had been silenced. Had the Italian ground-troops waiting offshore been landed the island could probably have been captured before Tegettoff arrived. Zeal to do so was lacking however and on the following day, 20th July, clearing mists revealed to the island’s defenders the Austro-Hungarian squadron driving from the north-east at full speed. Persano hurriedly gathered the Italian ships to the north of the island to meet them.

Tegettoff’s force advanced in three successive divisions, ironclads, wooden frigates, and finally the smaller vessels, each in a wedge-shaped formation (see diagram above), with the apex toward the enemy. The object was to drive through the Italian line, if possible near the van, and bring on a melee in which all ships could take part, ramming tactics could be employed, and the enemy would profit less by their superiority in armour and guns. Tegetthoff's tactic depended on aggression and confidence, matching them against a hesitant and passive enemy commander.

The Italians had been caught at a disadvantage. On the previous day the Formidabile, one of their better ships, had been put out of action by  shore batteries. Another, coming from the west end of the island, was too late to take part in the action. The commander of the Italian wooden ships, one Albini, was reluctant to risk them, despite Persano signalling desperately to them to come around the Austro-Hungarian rear. With his ironclads Persano formed three divisions, each of three ships and he swung across the enemy's bows in line ahead. At this critical juncture, and for no obvious reason, he shifted his flag from the Re d'Italia in the centre to the Affondatore, which was steaming alone on the starboard side of the line. The change was not noted by all his ships, and confusion of orders inevitably followed. The delay involved also left a wide gap between the Italian van and centre divisions and through this the Austrians drove, with Tegetthoff in his flagship Erzherzog Ferdinand Max leading the way.
Contemporary painting - the confused-melee nature of the action is obvious
From this point on, formations became almost meaningless, a confused fracas in which the two forces rammed or fired into each other in a fog of smoke and spray. The Austro-Hungarian left flank and rear held up the Italian van while their ironclads attacked the Italian centre. The wooden ships of the Austro-Hungarian middle division displayed none of the hesitation of their Italian counterparts. Led by the 92-gun Kaiser, essentially a traditional wooden ship of the line equipped with a steam engine, they smashed into the Italian rear. The Kaiser, an obsolete relic, was to endure the hardest fighting of the battle. She twice avoided the Affondatore's ram though she was struck by one of her 300-pound projectiles. The Re di Portogallo then bore down on her but her Captain Petz rang for full speed ahead and steered for the ironclad, striking a glancing blow and scraping past her, both ships blazing at each other as they passed. The Kaiser thereafter withdrew, her foremast and funnel down and a fire burning amidships. Altogether she fired 850 rounds in the action, or about one-fifth of the total fired by the Austrians, and she received 80 hits, about one-fifth of the total. Of the 38 Austrians killed and 138 wounded in the battle, Kaiser lost 24 and 75 respectively.
Kaiser charging the Re di Portogallo while the Affondator attacks on her port quarter
Painting by Eduard Nezbeda
Similarly fierce action was in progress elsewhere. The Italian gunboat Palestro was forced to withdraw to fight a fire that threatened her magazines. The ironclad Re d'Italia, which was at first supposed by the Austro-Hungarians to be Persano's flagship, became a focus of their attack and her steering gear was disabled. As she could go only straight ahead or astern, Tegettoff seized his chance. He rammed her squarely amidships at full speed with the Erzherzog Ferdinand Max, smashing through her armour and opening a huge gash. The Re d'Italia heeled over to starboard, lurched back again, then sank almost immediately, taking 381 of her crew with her.
Erzherzog Ferdinand Max ramming the Re d'Italia

The Re d'Italia rolling over and sinking - Erzharzog Ferdinand Max in background
Painting by Carl Frederich Sorensen
This dramatic sinking practically decided the battle. The fighting had lasted little more than an hour before the Italians withdrew westwards, allowing Tegettoff to bring his force into Lissa’s fortified harbour of San Giorgio. The fire on the Palestro reached her magazine as she retreated and she exploded with the loss of 231 of her crew. Other than this vessel and the Re d'Italia the Italians’ other losses were slight – 8 killed and 40 wounded. Their ships were badly battered however and soon afterwards the Affondatore sank in Ancona harbour, unable due to her battle damage to resist a squall.
Kaiser after the battle - foremast and funnel gone, bows badly damaged
Tegettoff’s victory had no impact on the outcome of the war, which had essentially been determined by the Prussian victory at Königgrätz. Despite defeat by land and sea at Custoza and Lissa, Italy was awarded Venetia in the peace negotiations. The most notable naval consequence of the Lissa battle was the exaggerated value many assigned to ramming as a tactic, thereby making a ram bow a feature of almost every warship, large or small, up to World War I. The more valuable lesson was that a passive and defensive policy, such as Persano had adopted, would always fail if confronted by a determined and aggressive enemy.. There have been few better examples than Lissa of the American Admiral Farragut's belief that “iron in the ships is less important than iron in the men".

It is surprising, in view of the facts, that Persano announced a victory when he returned to Italy, thereby triggering widespread celebrations which was dampened when the full story was made known. He was to suffer the humiliation of being arraigned before the Italian Senate and being dismissed from the navy on the basis of cowardice and incompetence.
The classic image of the defiant Tegetthoff on the Ferdinand Max's open bridge during the battle
Tegetthoff, still only 39 at the time of his victory, had one five years to live before he was struck down by pneumonia. Deservedly promoted and hailed  as a national hero, his most significant – and painful – duty in his later career was to sail to Mexico in the frigate Novara in 1867 to bring back the body of the so-called Emperor Ferdinand Maximilian who had been shot by the Mexican government of Benito Juárez.

But that’s another story!

Britannia’s Wolf

The first book in the Dawlish Chronicles Series features ironclad action in the Black Sea as the vicious Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 reaches its climax.

Russian forces are driving  deep into the corrupt Ottoman-Turkish Empire.  In the depths of a savage winter, as the Turks face defeat on all fronts, a British officer is enmeshed and finds himself confronting enemy ironclads, Cossack lances and merciless Kurdish irregulars. And in the midst of this chaos, while he himself is a pawn in the rivalry of the Sultan’s half-brothers for control of the collapsing empire, he is unwillingly and unexpectedly drawn to a woman whom he believes he should not love.

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