Friday, 17 February 2017

Protected Cruisers in the Pre-Dreadnought Era

It is always gratifying to an author to received feedback from readers, particularly when detailed research to support a story is recognised and appreciated. I was therefore delighted to be contacted recently by an American reader, Douglas R. Smith, who was intrigued by the central role played in my novel Britannia’s Spartan by HMS Leonidas, a fictional member of the innovative and real-life Leander class of “protected cruiser” which entered service with the Royal Navy in the 1880s. I’m proud therefore to welcome Douglas as a guest blogger today. I’ve no doubt you’ll enjoy his article.

by Douglas R. Smith

The British Empire was vast and overextended in the late 1800s, and dependent upon vulnerable sea lanes. To compensate it had a Navy equal to the next two contenders combined. British bankers and businessmen built a network of intercontinental telegraph lines, reaching all of the way to New Zealand by 1876, with London at the center. The role of protected cruisers was for protecting commerce, and raiding that of the enemy, often operating distantly and independently around the globe.
1891 Telegraph Map 

Telegraph Connections (Telegraphen Verbindungen), 1891 Stielers Hand-Atlas, Plate No. 5, Weltkarte in Mercators Projection. Uploaded to en:Wikipedia on 03:53, 16 February 2006 by w:User:Flux.books == Licensing == {{PD-
"Britainia's Spartan" by Antoine Vanner is the story of the shakedown cruise of the fictional HMS Leonidas, first of her class. Captain Nicholas Dawlish has earned the honor of being her first commander. We have followed his meteoric career in earlier books, and like all career people, he must struggle to find a balance, and determine if that balance is worth the personal cost. In a similar way a warship must find a balance between speed, firepower, and protection, and do so at an acceptable cost in lives and resources. This is an outline of naval dynamics with respect to protected cruisers in the dawn of the Pre-Dreadnought Era, when hydraulics, electricity, and triple reciprocating steam engines were enhancing the capabilities of warships, but before submarines, destroyers, and airplanes, much less carriers and tenders for them, changed the nature of naval warfare. 
HMS Leonidas - Nicholas Dawlish's command in Britannia's Spartan

HMS Leander, analog to the Leonidas
Armed with ten 6" breechloaders, and carried two 2nd class torpedo boats. 
She became a destroyer depot ship in 1904.
Source : "The Navy and Army Illustrated" Scanned by Steve Johnson.
Downloaded from Steve Johnson's cyber-heritage website :
Armored cruisers ( the Russian Navy favored them ) relied on a steel belt for protection, much the same as the battleships. Often a belt included a ram in the bow, a relic of ironclad steamships fighting against wooden ships.  But since weight was the enemy of speed, armored cruisers were little better than battleships at commerce raiding. Not too cost effective. Protected cruisers relied on clever use of curved steel to deflect shells away from, and coal bunkers to protect, the machinery and magazines below water level. It worked well provided you didn't collide with armored ships. The weight savings resulted in greater speed and the range to defend a far-flung empire.

It's always nice to have superior range in a main weapon. That's been true ever since the trebuchet. You can hit the enemy, but they can't hit back. HMS Leonidas had a main battery of all 6" breech loading rifles. A bigger gun could do more damage, but a contemporary  7", 8", 9", or even 10" breach loader wouldn't necessarily have more velocity, accuracy, or effective range ( about 10,000 yards). It would require separate powder charges and shells in the magazine, complicate handling,  adding weight and reducing speed, particularly as a bow chaser, where it would be most advantageous. The alternative solution would have been to develop lighter shells for long range situations, but the trade-off would be reduced impact.
Japanese protected cruiser Izumi left elevation plan
The British-built protected cruiser Chilean Esmeralda 1884  (aka IJN Izumi after 1894 ).
A bow ram, 10" chasers, a 6" broadside, and 3 sizes of other guns, 
but no torpedo launchers until the sale and refit. 
Source: Janes Fighting Ships, 1904 edition Sampson, Low, Marston and Co, London
In Nelson's era, sailing ships of the line tended to have lighter weapons as the decks got higher, ranging from 32-pounders to swivel guns. It didn't much matter at "pistol shot range" in the days of sail when rate of fire was the key.  As the range opened up in the Pre-Dreadnought Era, it became difficult to correct the aim because they couldn't differentiate the splashes. The continuous smoke from the rapid-fire weapons never cleared, so they couldn't see well enough to aim anything properly. The innovative “all big gun” design of the HMS Dreadnought solved these issues.

Adding extra "tools" to the armament to anticipate a multitude of situations, such as several small rapid-fire breach loaders of various sizes to defend against torpedo boats, is a design temptation for an independent command. This "Swiss Army knife approach" requires more crew and training, complicates ammunition storage and handling, and versatility comes at the expense of role specialization and refinement.

Torpedoes as we know them were in the early stages, with an effective range limit of only 800 yards, less for a moving target. Lethal, but more of a coup d' grace than a stand-off weapon. HMS Leonidas carried two launchers on each broadside. Pairs of torpedoes are much harder to avoid than solo ones, but crippled ships aren't so nimble. Perhaps it wasn't a very practical addition to the armament.

An alternative arrangement would be for the cruiser to carry a pair of torpedo boats, (like HMS Leander, and the fictional Kiroshima in Britannia’s Spartan) which could be launched for coordinated night attacks. More skill, but more effect. In terms of costs in cash and lives, it takes a lot of torpedo boats to equal a battleship, so they were the emerging threat at the time. France embraced them as part of her “Jeune Ecole” doctrine.  The Americans were developing flywheel powered torpedoes, which had no telltale bubble trails. A pair of torpedo boats carried aft would lift the bow and improve the ship's trim, offer an option against a battleship (when a gun fight was out of the question) , and would enhance blockading a hostile port or protecting a friendly one (more so with the addition of a few sea mines) . They might also come in handy for patrolling, carrying messages, search and rescue, or on convoy duty. They add weight, but would replace some boats and torpedo launchers. 
HMS Vulcan, a torpedo boat depot ship launched in 1889 carried six 16' torpedo boats,
two counter-mining launches, and eight 4.7" guns.
From 'The Royal Navy : a history from the earliest times to the present' Vol 7 by William Laird Clowes, 
published 1903 by Samson.Low, Marston and Co. London.
Available at, 
Public Domain, File:HMS Vulcan 1889.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Gatling being fired from a fighting top
Ships retained masts, yards, and sails as backup propulsion and to stretch the coal supply on long voyages, but the sailing rigs had less area and the ships more weight than their predecessors, and weren't practical. In combat, these rigs often became a liability that would obstruct a battery, create splinters, or act as a sea anchor when hit. Radios hadn't been invented yet, so they didn't need an antennae mast. They did still need signal halyard and lookout platforms, and they were good places to mount Gatling guns and search lights to defend against night torpedo boat attacks. An observer or gunner couldn't see much from a mainmast close to the smoke stacks. A foremast and it's supports interfered with the bow chaser and the view from the bridge. It took years for naval architects to sort things out.

The first designated torpedo boat destroyer went into service in 1895. Navies would adopt submarines at the turn of the century, radio 1905, HMS Dreadnought in 1906, and floatplanes circa 1910. In 1912 the effective range of the torpedo was as much as 6,000 yards. By then the value and versatility of the destroyer was proven, and they were replacing torpedo boats. Naval warfare would become "modern". But in the early 1880s, other cruisers, battleships, and torpedo boats were the recognized perils, and how to optimize the new cruisers to fulfil the role of commerce raiders or protectors was the question.

Douglas R. Smith was born in Pennsylvania in 1959, where he developed an interest in history and reading historical fiction. This included Pre-Dreadnought navies, because they established both Japan and the USA as world powers. He worked in agriculture, sales, and insurance. Now he and his wife Karen are in Wisconsin, enjoying their retirement, dining, Disney, and travel.

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. 

Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide 

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.

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Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Jean Bart – Sea Raider

The French Navy’s record through the centuries never achieved the string of memorable victories won by Britain’s Royal Navy – though one French victory, that of the Virginia Capes in 1781, was decisive in assuring American Independence. One French naval hero was however to achieve a status in his countrymen’s eyes comparable to Nelson in British ones. This was Jean Bart (1650 – 1702), a man whose career was so dramatic, and whose character was so outlandish, that only the most daring of authors would dare create a similar figure in fiction.

The name Dunkirk evokes today images of the almost miraculous evacuation of British and French forces in 1940 from the harbour and nearby beaches of this port on the French side of the English Channel. It played an equally important role in the late seventeenth century, when Britain, France and the Netherlands were locked in a series of wars, as it represented the most northerly French naval base. As such it provided a fortified refuge and source of supply not only for formal naval forces but also for privateers. Its possession was vital for supporting French efforts to control the Channel and the North Sea.

The boyhood of Jean Bart - French chocolate label!
It was here that Jean Bart was born in 1650 to a seafaring family. It may not have been French – there is some evidence that his original name was Jan Baert, indicating a Flemish origin, and that he spoke both languages. (Even today the French/Flemish linguistic boundary lies around a dozen miles north-east of Dunkirk). Details appear scarce but he seems to have first gone to sea in Dutch service, under the illustrious Admiral Michiel de Ruyter in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1664-67), from which the Dutch emerged victorious.

The price of Louis XIV's glory - French atrocities during invasion of the Netherlands
In 1672 France invaded the Dutch Republic, the so-called United Provinces. The Dutch fought back ferociously, so initiating six-years of warfare in which, surprisingly in view of later history, Britain was to be France’s ally for the first two years. Jean Bart now entered French service, not as a naval officer – a rank not open to those of humble birth – but as a privateer operating out of Dunkirk. Such privateers were privately-owned ships sailing under a “letter of marque”, with government backing, and were frequently funded by syndicates of investors. Bart’s raids on Dutch commerce during the first years of the war were so fruitful that in 1675, at his own expense, he could afford to equip a sloop carrying two guns and 36 men. With this he at once captured a Dutch warship mounting eighteen guns and crewed by 65 men. He continued to take prizes and could now afford to fit out a 10-gun ship, promptly capturing a Dutch 12-gun vessel. He then was given command of five frigates, and on 4th March 1676, captured an 18-gun Dutchman. Shortly afterwards he met eight British merchant ships, escorted by three warships. He promptly captured one of the escorts, drove the others off, and took the merchantmen into Dunkirk. In September of the same year he captured the Neptune, 36-gun frigate, and her entire convoy. During the six years the war lasted he took 49 vessels in total.

French ship under attack by Barbary corsairs, mid-17th Century
With peace restored Bart, irrespective of his birth, was awarded a lieutenant’s commission – a first step in the Royal French Navy that was ultimately to carry him to the rank of admiral. He was now given command of a 14-gun ship and sent to cruise off North Africa against the Barbary corsairs who were to be a scourge of European – and later American – shipping for another century and a half. This resulted in capture of a large armed-xebec which was brought back to Toulon as a prize.

In 1683 France was at war again, this time with Spain. It lasted less than a year but it gave Jean Bart the opportunity to take a Spanish vessel carrying 350 troops, which he sent in to Brest. He followed this up by capturing two warships off Cadiz, receiving a severe thigh-wound in the process.

King Louis XIV’s territorial ambitions were to trigger war again in 1688, a nine-year conflict which was to pitch France against the so-called “Grand Alliance” of the Dutch, British, Holy Roman Empire and several lesser principalities. For Jean Bart this was the start of the most spectacular part of his career. He now commanded a 24-gun frigate, and immediately took a Dutch privateer, but his luck ran out when he ran into met two 50-gun British ships. Taken prisoner, he was brought to Plymouth but was to make a daring escape, stealing a boat and rowing in two and-a-half days across the Channel to near St. Malo on the coast of Brittany. 

The long row home - Jean Bart escaping from Plymouth to St. Malo
Now a national hero, he was promoted to captain and given command of the frigate Alcyon. In her he was to fight under the Count de Tourville on 10th July 1690 at the Battle of Beachy Head in the English Channel – known by the French as the Battle of Béveziers –   a French tactical victory which resulted in British and Dutch losses of eleven ships for no French loss. This gave the French temporary control of the English Channel but de Tourville did not follow up the victory. The battle is unique in that both commanders, British and French, were to lose their commands for their performances.

The Battle of Beachy Head, July 1690, by Nicholas Ozanne
 Jean Bart’s next assignment was escorting merchant shipping from Hamburg to Dunkirk, an activity he combined with successful commerce-raiding in the North Sea. By 1691 however enemy forces had blockaded Dunkirk. Bart escaped with several small vessels, slipped out at night and opened fire on the blockading squadron as he passed. The following evening he captured two British ships, of 40 and of 50 tons respectively, together with merchant ships he took in to neutral Bergen, in Norway. He then now directed his attention to savaging a large Dutch fishing fleet, burning most of them, seizing their escorts and  landing their crews on the English coast, then going on to plunder and burn villages on the Scottish coast.  Again blockaded in Dunkirk, , he once more broke out successfully in October 1693 and at once hurled himself on British shipping, sustaining his record of captures and raiding the English coast near Newcastle, returning with enormous spoils. Sallying out again from Dunkirk with three frigates, he captured more merchant vessels before engaging a convoy escorted by three men-of-war. Two of these he captured but the third, a 54-gun vessel, fought off three attempts to board her. She made her escape, abandoning the convoy to Bart.

The Battle of Texel, June 1694, by Eugene Isabey
The battle that was to earn Jean Bart his title of nobility was fought off the Dutch island of Texel on 29th June 1694 when, with a flotilla of seven ships, he recaptured a French convoy which had earlier that month been taken by the Dutch. He also took three warships of the eight-strong escort.  Greeted with rapture on his return to Dunkirk, he found himself invited to Versailles to receive the personal congratulations of Louis XIV.

Bart’s last triumph in the North Sea was at the Battle of the Dogger Bank on 17th June 1696. It was initiated by his locating a Dutch convoy of 112 merchantmen, escorted by five warships. Speed was essential for a large British squadron under Admiral John Benbow was searching for Bart’s force of seven ships. Bart threw his own ship nevertheless at the Dutch flagship, the Raadhuis van Haarlem, capturing it only after a three-hour battle. Four more Dutch warships surrendered. Bart then burned  
25 merchant ships, making away to the east only as Benbow's squadron hove into sight. A year later the Treaty of Rijswijk brought the war to an end, and with it Bart’s fighting career. He died five years later, still a relatively young man, yet one who had packed more into a single life than the vast majority of men ever dream of.

A lesson in courage - Jean Bart's son tied to the mast during a battle
Jean Bart was to achieve mythic status in death, the embodiment of an “up and at them” tactical commander rather than a strategist. Records indicate that he captured a total of 386 ships, besides sinking or burning many more. Some of the stories told of him may or may not be true, but even the fanciful ones hint at the nature of his character. One tale has him causing outrage among courtiers at Versailles by smoking his pipe in the ante-room while waiting for an audience with Louis XIV. On the king asking him how he broke the blockade at Dunkirk, he is said to have arranged the courtiers present in a line, then attacking them with his fists, knocking them down, as a practical demonstration. In 1697, towards the end of the war, he was tasked with carrying the Prince de Conti (François-Louis de Bourbon), the French candidate for the Polish crown, to Danzig. This demanded slipping six frigates through a tight enemy blockade. When clear of danger, the prince asked Bart if he had not been afraid that the enemy might have captured them. Much to the Prince's horror, Bart informed him that not the slightest danger of such a contingency had existed, as his son had been stationed with a match in the magazine to blow up the ship upon receiving a pre-arranged signal. Another story has him tying his own son to a mast during an action to cure him of fear of death and gunfire.

Jean Bart under attack by aircraft from the USS Ranger, Casablanca, November 1942
Jean Bart’s name has lived on in the French Navy, some 27 ships being named for him since his death. The most famous was France’s last completed battleship, which in November 1942, when only partly completed, was to fire on American warships during the Casablanca landings until silenced by dive bombers from the carrier USS Ranger and five 16-inch hits by the USS Massachusetts. Finally completed after WW2, she was to remain in French service until 1961. The current vessel is an anti-aircraft frigate launched in 1988.

The name of Jean Bart lives on.


Britannia’s Reach is the second of the Dawlish Chronicles. So what’s it about?

Click image for details
 It’s 1880. On a broad river deep in the heart of South America, a flotilla of paddle steamers thrashes slowly upstream. Laden with troops, horses and artillery, intent on conquest and revenge. 

Ahead lies a commercial empire that was wrested from a British consortium in a bloody revolution. Now the investors are determined to recoup their losses and are funding a vicious war to do so.

Nicholas Dawlish, an ambitious British naval officer, is playing a leading role in the expedition.  But as brutal land and river battles mark its progress upriver, and as both sides inflict and endure ever greater suffering, stalemate threatens.

And Dawlish finds himself forced to make a terrible ethical choice if he is to return to Britain with some shreds of integrity remaining…

Friday, 10 February 2017

Privateer Action in the English Channel, 1793

Probably like many others I have always thought of privateers in the Age of Fighting Sail as preying on enemy merchant shipping on commercial routes in open ocean, far from land. My perception has however been changed by an 1889 book, “Betwixt the Forelands”, by the Victorian maritime author W. Clark Russell, in which he deals with the naval history of the English Channel from the Middle Ages onwards. At its narrowest, this strait between the English and French coasts is only some twenty miles wide, and domination of it was always a key objective of British naval policy. It was – and is – one of the busiest commercial waterways in the world, offering access to Northern Europe from the Central Atlantic. Clark Russell’s book highlights the fact that, though Britannia might rule the waves and dominate the Channel, the prize of rich commercial pickings was always an inducement for French privateers in light craft to dart out, seize their prizes and retire quickly to the cover of their well-defended home ports. The story of one such foray tells just how savage these encounters could be.
Close action action in the Narrow Seas
“British brig attacking a French lugger” by Thomas Buttersworth (1768-1842)

Tensions between Britain and Revolutionary France had escalated through 1792. Following the execution of the French King Louis XVI on 21st January 1793 Britain expelled the French ambassador and on 1 February France responded by declaring war on Great Britain. The period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, which were to last until 1815, with a break of only a few months, had begun. Within days of the declaration the crew of a British merchant ship, the Glory, was to be one of the first victims of the war at sea, and indeed at its most cruel.  Under a Captain Benson she had just cleared the South Foreland and its White Cliffs, just north-east of Dover, when a French privateer bore down upon her. An attempt to flee failed and the French vessel sent a boat across with fifteen armed men. What followed was atrocious. According to Clark Russell Benson was “seized, bound hand and foot, and lashed down upon a chest. His crew was clapt in irons, plundered of every article, and insulted by every injurious terms the Johnnies could lay their tongues to” (It is notable that in this period the French were referred to as ”Johnnies”).

Sir Samuel Hood
The French were now preparing to run their prize back home – Calais was twenty miles away, the great base at Dunkirk just twice that – but now retribution arrived in the form of the 32-gun frigate HMS Juno, en-route to the Mediterranean and commanded by the future Vice-Admiral Samuel Hood (1762 – 1814), a cousin of the more renowned admiral of the same name. There could be no contest, no hope of escape, and the French surrendered without further ado.

It is what followed which was perhaps most interesting, and I quote below from the statement made by the Glory’s Captain Benson, as repeated by Clark Russell:

After his ship had been boarded and his crew put in irons Benson claimed that the Frenchmen “led me down to my cabin, where they placed me on my back, and lashed me to my chest by my neck, arms and legs, with my head hanging over. I was in the most excruciating pain for four hours and a half. In this helpless condition the cowardly miscreants (they disgrace even the name of Frenchmen) snapped a pistol at my head, and another made a thrust at me with a cutlass, which fortunately went off at an oblique direction through my coat and jacket.” Worse was to follow. “They cut off my dog’s head, they said, for the purpose of representing the fate of the whole crew when we got to France.”

As the Juno drew near the French released their prisoners – it would have been unwise for the French to be found with their captives so cruelly trussed up. Benson was however little inclined to forgive and forget and, as he remarked, “It is difficult at all times to keep the passions within a due state of subordination.” He accordingly snatched a cutlass from the hand of the French seaman who untied him and “I almost at one stroke severed his left hand from his body; when, fearing for the further effects of my frenzy, he jumped out of the cabin window and was drowned. Another followed his example. And jumped off the taffrail, and the (French) captain, dreading the just vengeance which was awaiting him, took a pistol and shot himself through the head.”
Thomas Buttersworth - a Royal Navy brig chasing a privateer
Benson’s “frenzy” was still unsatisfied: “I was not yet reduced to reason and, before the Juno’s crew could overpower me, had cut and lacerated three more of the Frenchmen so dreadfully that they were now entirely covered with blood, and now lie in the hospital without any hope of recovery.”

It is possible that today Benson would be hauled before a court to answer for violation of the Human Rights of his persecutors.  His era was however a more robust one and he ends his statement: “Those only who suffer can feel, and, though the more moderate part of mankind my blame me for rashness, my own heart acquits me of any deliberate or unprovoked act of cruelty.” 

This small, vicious, action was one of the first of the new conflict. Hundreds more lay ahead in a then-unimaginable twenty-two years of war.

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. 

Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide 

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.

If you have not already subscribed to the mailing list, you can do so by clicking here or on the banner image above.  You will then receive a copy of the story by e-mail.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

France and Prussia clash off Cuba: The Battle of Havana 1870

Single-ship actions, in which a lone ship from one navy is matched against a lone ship of the enemy’s, represent some of the most dramatic battles in naval history. The captains and crews cannot depend on support or rescue through the intervention of a larger force and the battle represents the moment in which training, skill and discipline all come together to determine victory or defeat. In other articles on this blog I’ve described some of the most dramatic of such actions – Quebec vs Surveillante (1779), Indefatigable vs. Droits de l’Homme (1797) and Shah vs. Huascar (1877) – and the Naval War of 1812 consisted largely of similar encounters. Each of these actions took place in the context of larger tactical or strategic objectives.

German pride; The Battle of Havana, November 9th 1870
A card issued by a margarine manufacturer - SMS Meteor on left
A more obscure action, fought off the coast of Cuba in 1870, was one which was radically different in that it could have had no bearing, however remote, on the outcome of a greater conflict. It was indeed triggered by almost medieval concepts of pride and honour.

In 1870 the French Second Empire under Napoleon III entered unwisely into war with Prussia, the pre-eminent power in Germany. Within weeks of the start of hostilities French land forces had been defeated in battle after battle. Napoleon III himself had been surrounded and forced to surrender with an entire army and Prussian forces, supported by other German allies, had invaded Northern France and had brought Paris itself under siege. France had a large navy, Prussia a few ships only, and those small, but the French found themselves incapable of using their powerful modern ironclads to gain any strategic advantage.

After French defeat at Sedan, Germany's chancellor, Bismarck (on right)
comforts the defeated Emperor Napoleon III
By November 1870, as winter came, siege conditions inside Paris were beginning to bite. Food was running short (even elephants in the zoo were eventually eaten), political upheaval had resulted in proclamation of a republic, but without agreement by various hostiles factions as to what this meant, attempts at breakout by the defenders and of relief by other French forces were unsuccessful and communication with the outside world was by balloon only. Elsewhere in France efforts were being made to regroup whatever forces had so far escaped defeat – futile efforts which in turn were to lead to yet further defeats.

While Metropolitan France was enduring this agony a wooden-hulled French sloop of the three-ship Guichen class, the Bouvet, was serving in the more idyllic surroundings of the French West Indies. Launched five years earlier, of 750 tons and 182 feet long, she carried auxiliary sails to complement the 575 hp steam engine that gave her, at best, 10.7 knots. Like many similar vessels in other navies she was intended for “colonial service” only, with shore bombardment of unsophisticated enemies her most likely hostile duty. This said, she was heavily armed for her size – one 6.4” and four 4.7” guns.

SMS Meteor
Also in the area was the Prussian gunboat Meteor of the eight-ship Chamaeleon class. She too was wooden hulled, of 415 tons and 142 feet long. She carried sail as well as steam – a 320 hp engine which urged her to just over 9 knots maximum. She was more weakly armed than the French Bouvet, carrying only one 24 pounder and two 12 pounders.

On November 7th the Meteor steamed into Havana, then the capital of what was still the Spanish-ruled colony of Cuba. The Bouvet arrived from Martinique a few hours later. Both ships moored and it is easy to imagine the suspicion with which their crews viewed each other. They were however in a neutral port and no offensive action could be undertaken. Also in the harbour was a French mail steamer, the Nouveau Monde.

On the following day the Nouveau Monde left Havana, en route for Veracruz. Fearing however that the Prussian Meteor might emerge, overtake and capture her, the mail steamer’s captain appeared to lose his nerve and he returned to Havana. The Meteor’s potential as a commerce raider had been recognised – but to realise it she had to get away from Havana, and that meant neutralising the Bouvet.

Events now took a turn that seemed to belong more to the days of chivalry than to those of total war in which Prussia and France were already locked. The Meteor's captain issued a formal challenge to the captain of the Bouvet to fight a battle – not indeed a wise move since the Meteor was heavily outgunned and as both ships were evenly matched as regards speed, making flight unlikely if defeat threatened. The Bouvet duly accepted the challenge and she left Havana to wait for the Meteor. Neutrality laws did however demand that the Prussian warship had to wait another day before she could leave harbour since Spain was not a party to the conflict.

The Bouvet (right) pounds the Meteor
Meteor- 1911 image
The Meteor duly steamed out from Havana on November 9th and towards the Bouvet, which was waiting 10 miles offshore, just outside the Spanish/Cuban territorial waters. The French opened fire immediately and the German vessel returned it. The action, at very close range, lasted upwards of an hour and the Meteor, not surprisingly, got the worst of it, losing both main and mizzen masts.

The Bouvet now moved in to finish the job by boarding but at the critical moment a steam pipe was damaged, leaving her dead in the water. Had the Meteor been more heavily armed this might have been her opportunity to destroy the Bouvet. The French did however succeed in getting their ship into neutral Spanish territorial waters under sail and the struggle could no longer be continued. (This is perhaps the only instance of sail power proving of utility under battle conditions to a steam-powered warship).

SMS Meteor - dismasted and damaged, but still full of fight
Though both ships survived the encounter, the Bouvet was to come to an equally dramatic end some ten months later when she was wrecked near Haiti. Inconclusive as it was, and without any potential to influence the outcome of the main conflict, this was the only naval encounter of the Franco-Prussian War. It was however of great symbolic significance to the Prussians – who within three months, and with the support of their other German allies, were to proclaim the establishment of the new German Empire – the Second Reich. Humiliatingly for the French, the proclamation was to take place in Louis XIV’s huge palace of Versailles.

A fledgling navy had stood up to a larger and longer established one and it had held its own. The courage of the Meteor’s crew had served notice to the world that however small its naval power might still be, Germany had the determination and skills to make her a force to be reckoned with at sea in the future. And the rest is history…

Britannia's Reach

It's November 1879 and on a broad river deep in the heart of South America, a flotilla of paddle steamers thrashes slowly upstream. It is laden with troops, horses and artillery, and intent on conquest and revenge. Ahead lies a commercial empire that was wrested from a British consortium in a bloody revolution. Now the investors are determined to recoup their losses and are funding a vicious war to do so. A British naval officer,  Nicholas Dawlish, is playing a leading role in the expedition. But as brutal land and river battles mark its progress upriver, and as both sides inflict and endure ever greater suffering, stalemate threatens. And Dawlish finds himself forced to make a terrible ethical choice if he is to return to Britain with some shreds of integrity remaining…

Click here or on cover image to read the opening chapters

Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide 

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.

If you have not already subscribed to the mailing list, you can do so by clicking here or on the banner image above.  You will then receive a copy of the story by e-mail.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Day’s Submarine 1774

Sir Murray Fraser Sueter (1872 – 1960) was one of the most colourful personalities of the Royal Navy prior to and through the First World War.  He is best remembered today as a pioneer of aviation – of airships as well as fixed-wing craft – and he was essentially the creator of the RNAS, the Royal Navy Air Service. One of his most notable achievements was development of the torpedo-carrying aircraft, and his was also involved with innovative employment of armoured cars. A forceful personality, he ran foul of senior levels in the Admiralty late in the war, and he retired – or was perhaps induced to do so – at the age of only 48 as a Rear Admiral, entering politics thereafter.

Prior however to his association with aviation, Sueter had been involved with introduction of submarines into the Royal Navy, a role that his specialism in torpedoes during his early career fitted him for. In 1907 he published a massive volume entitled “The Evolution of the Submarine Boat, Mine and Torpedo”, with a subtitle of “From the sixteenth century to the present time.” This massive tome, well-illustrated by old prints and later by photographs, is a goldmine of information for anybody interested in naval warfare.  I have been lucky to have access to a copy and the following account, of an early experiment I had never previously heard of, draws upon it.

John Day (? – 1774) was a ship’s carpenter. When living in Norfolk in the 1770s he became fascinated with the idea of submarines. He does not seem to have paid attention to propulsion underwater and concentrated on the ability to submerge a human safely. He experimented initially with models and later modified a small boat in which he conducted test dives to 30-feet near Yarmouth, ascending safely afterwards.  Following this success, he gained support of a gambler called Christopher Blake, and others, who put 340 Pounds Sterling at Day’s disposal to build a "diving chamber". A 50-ton sloop was purchased for conversion and was fitted out for more ambitious tests.

 The illustration above, taken from Sueter’s book, shows cross-sections of the vessel. A sealed wooden air-chamber was constructed amidships with access through a manhole in its roof. Large stones were suspended beneath as ballast and could be slipped free from within to allow fast ascent. One successful submergence was made in Plymouth Sound and this prompted a second in a deeper and more exposed part of the anchorage. This attempt took place on June 20th 1774 and the craft was initially found too buoyant to sink. Day accordingly ordered further stones to be added after he had entered and sealed the airchamber. With the extra ballast, the craft plunged down to the seabed 22 fathoms (132 feet) below the surface.

Day had bet with Blake that he could remain safely underwater for 12 hours. The time passed and there was no sign of the craft itself, nor of the coloured floats which Day had intended to release for signalling. Given the depth and the water pressure – some 57 pounds per square inch – it is probable that the slab-sided wooden compartment had collapsed. Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty (professional head of the navy) was in Plymouth at the time and he ordered the Frigate HMS Orpheus to undertake a rescue attempt. These proved fruitless and hope was abandoned.

There was a macabre postscript. A London physician – a Doctor Falcke – heard of the incident and rushed to Plymouth. He was convinced that if Day was still in the air-filled chamber the cold of the water might have kept “his blood in a good condition” and that animation might be suspended. If the body could be recovered before decomposition set in then Falcke believed that he could reanimate the body. With this in mind he privately initiated sweeping operations. These located the wreckage some 300 yards from shore but attempts to lift it failed when weather deteriorated. It seems that Day’s body was never recovered. 

Day’s death was to be the first in a submarine. It was not to be the last and fatal accidents were to mark to development of these craft long before they ever saw service in war.

And to read about another early submarine ...

... you may be interested in Britannia's Shark, in which a real-life submarine prototype developed by John Phillip Holland ("Father of the Submarine")  plays a significant role/ Click on the image below for more details.

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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Wreck of the RMS Atlantic 1873

I continue to be amazed by the sheer number – and scale – of shipping disasters in the 19th Century and many have been described previously in this blog. It’s notable that in so many cases the “accidents” were avoidable and attention to even the most basic precautions would have averted them. Unwillingness to provide adequate lifeboats was to be a common feature up to the Titanic sinking in 1912, but many other tragedies resulted from sheer bad seamanship. It’s also probable that the custom of recruiting crews for short periods – often only a single voyage – mitigated against formation of efficient teams that worked together over long periods.  Working and accommodated in often-atrocious conditions, and poorly paid, the merchant-seamen of the period must have had very little identification with their ships. It’s notable that in the same era there were relatively few losses in the Royal Navy.  On many occasions indeed, naval ships survived conditions that would have doomed civilian vessels, the cohesion, discipline and esprit de corps of the naval crews being worth diamonds in extreme situations.
RMS Atlantic
(Like other black and white illustrations in this article, this is public-domain ex-Wikipedia)
These musings were prompted by reading a Victorian-era account of the wreck of the 3700-ton RMS Atlantic, a liner belonging to the famed White Star Line which would later own the Titanic. When she came into service in 1871 this ship was one of the fastest and most luxurious afloat. 420-feet long, and driven at a maximum of 14.5 knots by her single-shaft 600-hp engine, she carried auxiliary sails on four masts – the back-up to steam that was still essential in this period. With the “RMS” identifying her as authorised to carry Royal Mail, the Atlantic was employed on the prestigious Liverpool-New York route “with wonderful regularity”, and with capacity for 1166 passengers in addition to her crew.

In March 1873 the Atlantic set out on her nineteenth voyage to the United States with 835 passengers – many of them emigrants – and 117 crew on board. Stormy weather was encountered from the start and this caused such heavy consumption of coal that the Atlantic’s Captain Williams decided to head for Halifax, Nova Scotia, to replenish his bunkers before pressing on to New York. On the evening of March 31st, the Atlantic was within some dozen miles of Halifax and stormy conditions were continuing. Williams decided to put off entering harbour until daylight and in the meantime the ship was set on a southerly course. retired to his. At midnight he retired to rest in the chart-room, leaving instructions for the officer of the watch to call him at three o’clock. The first officer had apparently also retired, leaving the vessel in charge of the second and third officers. Despite proximity to a dangerous coast, they did not take soundings, or post a masthead lookout, or reduce speed. They failed to spot the Sambro Lighthouse to the south of Halifax’s harbour entrance.

The watch changed at three o’clock but the captain was apparently not woken. Minutes later an alarm of “Breakers ahead” was called from deck, too late to allow evasive action. The Atlantic had driven herself on to rocks and was stranded there immovably. Pounded by the waves, she heeled over on her starboard side, rendering it impossible for the boats there to be launched, while those on the port side, exposed to the storm’s full fury, were ripped away. Bewildered passengers crowded up on deck and were told by the officers to lash themselves to the rigging to prevent being washed away. It appears that significant numbers of passengers never made it on deck and drowned in the steerage. The Victorian account almost relishes the horror of the moment: “they slept, ignorant of the danger, until the cold waves dashed in upon them, and rose to their lips. Then, one wild startled cry, and all was hushed!”

The Wreck of the Atlantic - a  contemporary Currier and Ives print
(Found on and gratefully acknowledged)
The Atlantic was aground some fifty yards from a large rock, itself lying about a hundred and fifty yards from an island behind. The third officer, named Brady, and two seamen braved the waters and managed to get five lines across to the nearer rock. A single rope was then passed from this rock to the island behind. The courage of the men who managed this must have been superhuman. A photograph of one of these heroes survives, Quartermaster John Speakman.

One of the heroes: John Speakman
An appalling choice now confronted the survivors on deck – stay on the doomed ship or risk passage through the raging surf along the ropes to the rock and island. “Of those who made their way to the deck, or clambered into the rigging, tens and scores were washed away by the inrush of waters. The fore-boom broke loose and, swinging to and fro, crushed the unfortunates who chanced to be within its range. Then, again, there were not a few who, in a sudden frenzy, threw themselves headlong into the sea, and were carried out of sight in a moment.” About two hundred people managed to gain the rock along the ropes and fifty of them reached the coast beyond.

At dawn a boat from a nearby island reached the wreck but was too small to take off survivors. The indomitable Third Officer Brady made use of tis skiff however to assist freeing of Atlantic’s boats trapped on her starboard side and with them managed to get more survivors ashore. Captain Williams was apparently still on board “issuing his orders with admirable composure, and doing his best to direct, tranquilise and encourage, until his hands and feet were frozen, when he was rescued by one of the boats.

The Second Officer, named Frith, was still on board with thirty-two passengers, one of them a lady, and they had climbed up into the rigging of the mizzen mast. Some were rescued by boat, others were washed away, until at last only Frith remained with the lady and a boy. The storm had worsened and the boats could no longer approach closely. Washed away by the waves, the boy managed to reach a boat but the lady was held tight by Frith – one can imagine that with the female clothing of the period survival in the water would have been impossible. A local clergyman, named Mr. Ancient (a wonderful name!), had arrived in a small boat with four volunteers and they now made one last attempt to rescue Frith and the lady. By the time the boat reached the ship this unfortunate woman had succumbed to cold and it proved impossible to reach the mizzen mast where Frith was stranded. Ancient did manage however to get a footing in the rigging of the main mast and threw a rope across to Frith, who was dragged back by it and then brought to shore by boat.
Burial service for victims of Atlantic shipwreck, April 1873, Lower ProspectHalifax County, N.S.
(Could the clergyman be the heroic Mr. Ancient?)
There were 371 survivors. All 156 women and 189 children on board died, the only surviving child being the twelve-year-old boy whom Frith had stood by. Ten crew members were lost, while 131 survived (there appears to be some uncertainty as to numbers). The courage of the islanders – not least Mr. Ancient – who came to the rescue and who cared for the survivors afterwards was beyond praise.  There can be little doubt that neglect of proper precautions when so close to a dangerous coast led to the disaster. A subsequent court of enquiry resulted in Captain Williams being “severely censured” but in view of is courage and his efforts to save lives, his captain’s certificate (“ticket”) was suspended for only two years. One wonders what became of him afterwards. Did he perhaps become like Conrad’s Lord Jim, haunted by his failure and striving to make amends?

 Perhaps some of the readers of this article may know.

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