Monday, 31 March 2014

My Writing Process - a step in a Blog Hop

I’ve been invited to participate in this blog hop by Matt Willis, who produces the splendid http://navalairhistory.com/ website, which deals with all aspects of naval aviation. In the process Matt has developed what is close to an online encyclopedia on this subject. Even if you haven’t previously had any curiosity about this subject I urge you to take a look – you’ll find it fascinating and it has had a major bearing on the type of world we live in today. In addition Matt has an excellent blog entitled Air and Sea stories http://airandseastories.com

I’ve been asked to answer four questions about my writing process and at the end I’ll hand over the baton to two other bloggers who’ll be filing answers to the same questions on their own blogs on Monday 7th April.

Question 1: What are you working on?

I’m currently on the home straight – the last 20% - of the first draft of the fifth Dawlish Chronicles novel. Volumes one and two – Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Reach – have already been published and the third will come out around the end of this year. I’ll say more about my writing process – and why my writing is ahead of my publishing – in response to Question 4 below. In my own mind I have a clear overview of the whole life of the series’ protagonist, Nicholas Dawlish (1845-1918) and indeed a sketch of it is provided on my website www.dawlishchronicles.com. Each of the books I write is set in a specific period and they deal with Dawlish’s participation either in actual historic events or in situations closely based on them and consistent with contemporary circumstances. 

In the first book in the series, Britannia’s Wolf, the reader meets Dawlish at the age of 32 and well established in his profession as a naval officer. This book, and its sequel, Britannia’s Reach, cover Dawlish’s life in the 1877 to 1880 period and involve service in the Ottoman Empire and in South America. By the fifth in the series, now being written, the calendar has advanced to 1882 and Dawlish has gained in experience and advanced in seniority – not that it makes life any easier for him, given the situations he must deal with! Though the main action in these yet-unpublished books is set in the period of Dawlish’s late 30’s, there are sections dealing with earlier events in his life, some hints of what might be involved having been given, but left opaque, in earlier books. I hope to be able in due course to cover the major incidents in Dawlish's life, regardless of age. A challenge for me as a writer – as it is for any creator of a series – is to ensure that the character matures with experience, personal as well as professional. This also applies to other characters carried across from one book into the next.

Question 2: How does your work differ from others of its genre?

The Dawlish Chronicles fall under the general heading of “naval fiction”. This is dominated by novels – usually in series – set in the Age of Fighting Sail, mainly in the Napoleonic Wars. The two acknowledged masters of the genre, C.S.Forester in the Hornblower novels, and Patrick O’Brian in the Aubrey-Maturin series, concentrate on this period. Though I have read widely about naval warfare in this era my major historical interest – political and cultural as well as naval – has been concentrated more on 1860-1945. Of particular interest was the half-century between the American Civil War and the run-up to World War 1 which is fascinating not only in power-politics terms but because of the rapid progress of technology which changed naval warfare as well as much else. Little naval fiction is however set in this period – “The Age of Steam” – despite the fact that complex and shifting great-power relationships provide a rich setting for it. In addition, the era’s cutting-edge technology was in itself a factor in upsetting established balances and relationships. 

Bringing together these two elements – the political and the technological – represented the starting point for a series. I then needed a protagonist, ideally one who lived through the entire period, and who needed to cope with rapid change – and to master it – if he wanted to advance his career. Enter therefore Nicholas Dawlish, born in 1845 and in 1859 entering a Royal Navy which was still commanded by veterans of the Nelson era. Like real-life contemporaries such as Admiral Sir John Fisher, later Lord Fisher, who was to serve on into the early years of World War 1, Dawlish must be just as familiar with steam power, steel construction, torpedoes and ever-bigger guns as Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey were with sails, rigging, carronades and broadsides.

It’s notable that several agents warned me that “Age of Steam” novels would never sell – one indeed recommended rewriting my novels for a Napoleonic setting – but the response of readers to Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Reach has been uniformly enthusiastic. Perhaps I have indeed identified a gap in the market!

Question 3: Why do you write what you do?

The short answer is that “I have to” and I guess that this applies to most writers. I’ve got stories in mind and I need to get them out. I’m fascinated by the great-power rivalries and alignment shifts in the six decades up to World War 1 – France remained a major potential enemy to Britain for most of this period and relations with Russia were fraught since massive Russian expansion in Central Asia was seen as a threat to India. Maintenance of the crumbling Ottoman Empire was seen as essential for protecting British interests against Russian ambitions. The Austro-Hungarian Empire (which had an effective navy) was in decline, but that decline was in itself dangerous – as events in 1914 were to prove – and doubts existed whether the new and powerful German Empire should be regarded as a potential British ally or as a growing threat. The Chinese Empire was in the throes of decline and internal conflict while Japan – modernising with almost incredible speed – was positioning itself to establish dominance in the Far East. If we add to this mix the “Scramble for Africa”, in which European powers were competing to secure territory, massive British commercial investment in Latin America and the almost unnoticed advance of the United States to world-power status, then the  global complexities can be seen as great as those of our own time.

In this period the “British Empire” was seen as at its apogee. In effect however there were several empires, all different in the nature of their relationship to Britain itself, in the type of accommodation to and with local power groups and as regards presence – or not – of British settlers. In addition to this “Formal Empire” there was an equally important informal one, based on investment and commercial penetration, and in some cases economic dominance, in independent nations, as in China and South America. Such investment provides the background to “Britannia’s Reach”.

I want to set stories in this era – believable stories anchored in real events and which are true to contemporary outlooks and values. Much historical fiction consists of “21st Century Characters in Period Costume”, and this I’ve tried to avoid. My protagonist, Nicholas Dawlish, views the world from a standpoint of Victorian values of duty, earnestness, patriotism, honour and class consciousness that borders on snobbery. He’s decent and conscientious, and he’s immensely proud to be an Englishman, but the values he espouses can cause him major personal anguish when he’s confronted with situations in which they may not comfortably support him. In Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Reach his values are tested to the limit when he finds himself allied to forces which have no regard for such ethical concerns. The extent to which he should – or must – compromise his principles is a theme in both books and he will not find it easy in as-yet unpublished work either.

Question 4: How does your writing process work?

Each of my books is placed within an overall understanding of my protagonist’s life from birth to death. One plot flows from the other but each is firmly linked to actual events of the period e.g. the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.  Extensive reading about the actual year or years raises possibilities for a plot. How would certain developments have been viewed by the British government? What larger strategic concerns were involved, and what more immediate ones? How did the situation – often a crisis – play out? How could Nicholas Dawlish play a role in the process?


Developing a plot from these elements is linked in a circular process to more detailed research. The plot demands supportive insights if it’s to work, and that demands research, and that in turn opens up further plotting possibilities. There will be several reiterations of this and the process can’t be hurried. I make extensive use of “mind mapping” techniques and I develop an overall contents plan – how many chapters, what happens in each etc. I do this in parallel with the actual writing of another book so that the plot is “simmering on the back burner” for considerable time. I might add that I’m lucky enough to be a member of the London Library – the largest private library in the world, founded in the 1840s by Thomas Carlyle and other luminaries. This gives me access to a vast range of contemporary material, including journals and newspapers.

Once the plot is finalised (and it never is, 100%, as during writing more opportunities for refinement present themselves) it’s necessary to get down to producing the first draft. I aim at writing every day and usually manage about 1000 new words as well as revising the previous day’s work. Trollope’s dictum of Nulla dies sine linea – Not a day without a line – is worth aiming at but not always possible when one has other obligations, as I do. I write in the morning – usually 1000 to 1300 hrs – but if I walk with the dog in the afternoon I tend to be working mentally on refinement of what I’ve written and on what’s coming in the next days. I may put in another hour or two several times a week and I estimate that I’m hitting the keys for sixteen to twenty hours per  week in total. In my parallel life I’m retired from full-time employment but I do some academic work and am an elected representative in local government, as well as a school governor, so my days are very full.

The London Library in the corner of St.James's Square
Once I have the first draft completed I do a quick revision and then set it aside while I start detailed revision of the next book to be published. (This is why I’m currently writing the fifth Dawlish novel while numbers three and four are still at the first draft stage). Leaving the first draft for several months is essential. It stays on my subconscious “back burner” and when I return to it I will be more critical, better able to spot weaknesses and opportunities, and ready to revise more thoroughly.

“Writing is rewriting” and the first draft, when I return to it, is ruthlessly edited. Entire sections may be cut out and paragraphs or chapters added. Internal consistency and continuity is essential and in the case of a series, must be linked back to other books as well. I’m assisted by one of my daughters, a devotee of military and naval fiction, who reviews as regards such aspects, as well as being ruthless in relation to plotting weaknesses. I may go through three or four further revisions and the last concentrates on proofreading – a nightmare for the independent author.

So that’s it. The process is relatively straightforward but the critical success factor is perseverance. Hanging in there – even sitting in front of a blank screen for several hours when you’re despairing – will get you there in the end! I’ve shared my secrets and I hope you find them of interest, whether you’re a reader or a writer. 

And I’m now passing the baton to two wonderful writers who’ll be posting next on this blog hop.

Patricia Bracewell will post in on Monday April 7th

Patricia Bracewell is the author of Shadow on the Crown, a historical novel about the 11th century queen, Emma of Normandy. Patricia lives in California. Her explanation about how she came to write about Emma is “I came across an English queen whose name was completely unfamiliar to me. Intrigued, I began to research – more journeys to England and to France — and then I began to write the novel that would become Shadow on the Crown. It is the first book in a trilogy, and currently I am hard at work on the next one. It seems I’ve come full circle – my mind in England somewhere, wandering an ancient, green, Anglo-Saxon landscape while I sit here in California with my nose planted firmly in a book.”

To read Patricia’s blog click on www.patriciabracewell.com/blog/

Madame Catherine Gilflurt will post on Monday April 7th

This formidable lady’s blog is entitled “A Covent Garden Gilflurt Guide to Life”, a breathless romp through the long 18th century. From the comfort of her Gin Lane salon in the heart of Georgian Covent Garden she introduces her followers to emperors, poets and those who swung on the Tyburn tree, tells you how to stand your ground on the battlefields of Europe or helps you share the last hours of an iconic queen. Madame Gilflurt assures her readers that any scandalous gossip they have heard about her and members of certain illustrious households is utterly untrue.

Madame shares her home with a rakish colonial, a hound, a feline and several rodents of exquisite character. When not setting quill to paper for the Guide Madame Gilflurt can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering Henrietta Street abode.

Click on http://www.madamegilflurt.com to read Madame’s blog.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Disaster off Punta Arenas 1881

Chile’s Punta Arenas, on the Brunswick Peninsula, to the northern side of the Strait of Magellan, is probably the most southerly city in the world. It was originally established as a penal colony by the Chilean government in 1848 to assert sovereignty over the Strait – at the expense of Argentina, which had similar ambitions. The Chilean claim was finally accepted in a treaty between the two countries in 1881. Through the nineteenth century, and up to the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, this waterway was of the highest importance as it allowed passage from the South Atlantic to the Pacific while bypassing Cape Horn. Developments on the Pacific coasts of both North America and South America led to very high levels of traffic through the strait and as such the area assumed greater geopolitical importance than it possesses today.
Punta Arenas today (courtesy of Wikipedia)
It was at Punta Arenas that one of the Royal Navy’s most significant peace-time disasters occurred in 1881 when the steam sloop, HMS Dotterel, was destroyed there by internal explosion. The significance of this event was that it was possibly the first in a long series of internal explosions that were to destroy warships in many navies in the next forty years.  Many of the ships involved were very large units. France was to lose two battleships – Iena and Liberté – in the years before World War 1 and during this conflict Britain was to lose several major units – including a modern battleship, HMS Vanguard. Japan was also to lose two capital ships to explosions during the war, as did Italy, which lost the modern battleship Leonardo di Vinci. One explosion – that which destroyed the USS Maine in Havana harbour in 1898 – was to have a major influence on world history. Wrongly blamed on a mine laid by the Spanish authorities, this accident was a trigger for the Spanish-American War, which was decisive in setting the United States on the path to global superpower status.
HMS Doterel, as completed
Though the exact causes of the explosions remained uncertain in many cases – not least because the massive loss of life usually incurred meant there were few surviving witnesses – the majority were due a low perception of the risks involved in handling and storing modern ammunition. The victims were almost invariably moored in harbour when the accident happened and in many cases ammunition loading and stowage was in progress. Unstable explosives were not the only cause –a dust explosion during coal loading was a possibility in at least one case. Careless handling of flammable substances also led to accidents. Many of these explosions were regarded as mysteries for many years – in the case of the Maine for decades. In its immediate aftermath the loss of HMS Doterel was also seen as unexplained.

HMS Doterel was one of fourteen sloops of the Osprey/Doterel-class sloops launched by the Royal Navy from 1876 to 1880. They were of “composite construction”, which meant wooden planking over an iron frame. Cheap, slow and reasonably well-armed for their size, they were not intended for fleet employment but rather for support and power projection, often on a single ship basis, on distant stations. Of 1130 tons and 170 ft length they carried a barque rig to supplement their 1100 hp single-screw engines. Under power they struggled to make much over 11 knots but the provision of sails reduced their dependency on coal supplies – a major concern on remote stations – as well as increasing their operational range. They were heavily armed for their size – two 7 in on pivoting mounts and four 64-pounders, all muzzle loaders. Though obsolescent, these weapons were simple to operate and more than adequate for the type of shore bombardment needed for dealing with local emergencies or petty uprisings.
HMS Miranda, a sister of HMS Doterel
HMS Doterel was a new ship, launched the previous year, when she was sent in early 1881 to join the Pacific Station, which included the western coasts of North and South America as well as China and Japan. Under her captain, Commander Richard Evans, she arrived at Punta Arenas at 09:00 on 26 April 1881. Less than an hour later an explosion occurred in her forward magazine. Eyewitnesses described wreckage being thrown into the air, followed by a huge column of smoke. Broken into two sections, the ship sank instantly. Boats from several vessels in the immediate vicinity, and from shore, rushed to find survivors but out of a crew of 155 only twelve were found, one of them Commander Evans. The force of the explosion had stripped all his clothing away and was indeed so violent that only three complete bodies were subsequently recovered, as well as some body parts. The horror of the situation is illustrated by the fact that these remains were loaded into boxes and buried at sea in the same afternoon. An Anglican missionary working in the area, a Reverend Thomas Bridges, subsequently presided over the mass memorial service.
Funeral service held above the site of Doterel's wreck
In the immediate aftermath several theories were advanced as causes. A boiler explosion, triggering a magazine detonation,  was perhaps the most obvious possibility. Another involved sabotage by Fenians – Irish Republicans – an idea not as bizarre as it might sound since a successful mission had been mounted five years previously to rescue six Fenian prisoners from a penal colony in Western Australia. The key role in this rescue was played by a chartered American whaler, the Catalpa. Another theory considered that the explosion had been caused by a Whitehead torpedo lost by HMS Shah when she has been in the area three years before.
Salvage operations - note the diver being lowered from the boat on the right

Two Royal Navy cruisers, HMS Garnet and HMS Turquoise, were sent to Punta Arenas to conduct salvage and investigation operations. Extensive use was made of divers and this received much coverage in illustrated papers since the “Standard Diving Dress” then represented cutting edge technology. The possibility of a boiler explosion was definitively proven to be false when the boilers were found in perfect condition. The investigations showed that Doterel’s hull had been blown apart, leaving two separate sections, fore and aft. The ship's guns, screw and other valuable fittings were salvaged. Insights gained provided evidence for formal enquiry at Portsmouth by a scientific committee. This decided in September 1881 that the disaster had been caused by detonation of coal gas in Doterel’s bunkers, and that no crew members were at fault.
Another view of salvage operations
 Shortly afterwards, in November 1881, another explosion occurred on a Royal Navy warship, once again in Chilean waters. This was on board HMS Triumph, a broadside ironclad en route to the Pacific Station, as had been the Doterel. Though three men were killed and seven were wounded the ship herself survived. It was determined that the explosion had been caused by a volatile substance called xerotine siccative which was mixed in paint to accelerate drying.

It was not until 1883 that the cause of the Doterel explosion was settled. A surviving crew member, upon later smelling xerotine siccative while on another ship, stated that he had smelled it before the 1881 explosion. He explained that a jar of the liquid had cracked while being moved below deck. Two men were ordered to throw the jar overboard. While cleaning the leaking explosive liquid from beneath the forward magazine, the men may have broken the rule of not having an open flame below decks. The xerotine siccative exploded first, letting off the huge explosion in the forward magazine.

A lesson had been learned the hard way. The Admiralty ordered the compound withdrawn from use and demanded better ventilation below decks. One source of disaster had been eliminated, but more remained and numerous other ship losses lay in the future. But that’s another story…

Though the Doterel's career was a short one, a sister of hers, HMS Gannet, is still in existence. She has been restored beautifully and is now on view at Chatham Historic Dockyard in England. She is well worth a visit and provides as splendid insight to life in the Victorian Royal Navy.

The photograph on the left shows Gannet in 2005 and is reproduced with all thanks to Paul Englefield and Wikipedia.

Friday, 21 March 2014

HMS Shah vs Huascar – an indecisive but significant duel

In an earlier blog I told of what was possibly the most ferocious single ship action fought in the age of sail – the engagement between the frigates HMS Quebec and the French Surveillante. I’m now writing about another such action, almost a hundred years later, which, though it was inconclusive, was of enormous significance for future naval warfare. Quite amazingly one of the ships involved can still be seen today.
The Shah vs. Husacar action 29th May 1877
In early 1877 a failed revolution in Peru resulted in the leader of the defeated party, one Nicholas de Pierola, being lucky enough to suffer nothing more than being banished from the country. Though he lacked further support on shore in Peru he did have adherents in the Peruvian navy. Two officers of the small iron-clad the ship Huascar - brothers named Carrasco – seized her as she lay in the port of Callao and secured the support of her crew.
The Huascar in Peruvian service
Though small, the Huascar was most formidable vessel in the Peruvian navy. Built at Birkenhead by Laird Brothers in 1865 on a displacement of 1130 tons, she could make at maximum some 10 knots, and she carried two 10-in. Armstrong rifled muzzle loading cannon (RMLs) in a closed turret amidships, these throwing a 300-lb. projectile. She also had two 40-pounderrifled pieces mounted one on each side of the quarter-deck, plus a 12-pounder under the poop.

Huascar’s armouring was also impressive – her turret wall was 5.5-inch thick, with a 14 - in. teak backing. The maximum thickness of her side plating was 4.5-inch, tapering to 2.5-inch at the bow and stern, backed like the turret with teak. She was brig-rigged with a tripod foremast, and had a freeboard of 4.5 ft. Her bows were designed for ramming.

As such Huascar was represented an example of what was to be a very profitable export for British French and Italian shipyards in the coming decades – the sale of modern warships to South American countries that could not afford them and had little if any need for them.

After seizing the Huascar the insurgents sailed to a Bolivian port (Bolivia still had a small coast at the time) where Pierola himself boarded. She then steamed up and down the Peruvian coast, bombarding such towns as refused to pay ransom, The rest of the Peruvian navy – another small iron-clad, a corvette, and a gunboat – put to sea and fought her for an hour and a half. The encounter resulted in no great harm being done on either side.
HMS Shah
The British Commander-in-Chief on the Pacific Station, Rear Admiral Algernon de Horsey, received an urgent summons one day from Britain’s chargé d’affairs at Lima, who informed him that the Huascar had stopped two British mail-steamers and had forcibly taken coal and stores from them. The offence to the British flag and prestige was intolerable. A formal complaint was made to the Peruvian Government, but it disclaimed all responsibility. It did however the Huascar to be a pirate and offered a reward for her capture.

de Horsey now put to sea in his flag-ship, the Shah, with the small wooden corvette Amethyst in company, he now started the search for the Huascar.

HMS Shah was an unarmoured ship of 6250 tons, with a speed of some 15 knots maximum. She was very unhandy, and had a huge turning circle. Her armament consisted of two 12-ton guns, throwing a 250-lb. projectile, with a nominal penetration of 8.4-in of wrought iron at 2000 yards; sixteen 6.5 ton guns, with eight on each broadside, throwing a 112-1b. shot, theoretically capable of penetrating 5.5- in. of iron at, 2000 yards; and eight 64-pounders. Her company numbered 602 officers and men, and she was ship-rigged with heavy masts and spars. The Amethyst carried nothing bigger than a 64-pounder, and had little or no fighting value. She was to play no significant part in what was to follow, which was essentially to be a duel between Shah and Huascar.

The Huascar was discovered lying off the small town of Ylo, in the afternoon of the 29th May. The admiral immediately sent a boat with a message to Pierola that if his flag was not hauled down within the hour the Shah would open fire. The boat returned without an answer. The Shah then fired a blank charge and getting no response, followed with a shot across the Huascar's bows. The Huascar replied with a shell from her turret, and got under way, steaming slowly to and fro before the town, thus considerably disadvantaging the Shah's gunners, who had repeatedly to cease firing to avoid the risk of hitting civilian buildings on shore.
Huascar in the foreground, HMS Shah beyond
Ylo Bay is cramped, with numerous rocks and shoals, and the Shah, with her greater draught – 21 feet, to the other ship's 19 – had to be handled with the utmost care, and could not get within 1500 yards of her opponent. Most of the firing took place at a range of about 2000 yards –a range at which the Shah's heavy and numerous artillery ought theoretically to have riddled the little turret-ship through and through. Through the afternoon however the Huascar steamed back and forth while the Shah tried to conform to her movements, firing steadily as she did. The Peruvian gunners proved quite inept: several of her 300-lb. projectiles splashed water over the Shah’s deck, and went over her on the ricochet, but her hull was untouched. An eyewitness on the Shah described the chief incident of the battle as follows:

“About five o'cIock, the Huascar being then clear of the shoals, we seized the opportunity to close. The enemy likewise closed, with evident signs of ramming, firing shells from her 40-pounder. Our Gatling gun began firing from the foretop, causing the men on her upper-deck to desert their guns. Our port guns immediately commenced independent firing.”

Shah's Gatling-gunners in action from a fighting top
The Huascar drove on towards the Shah but at 400 yards separation her captain's nerve failed and he turned tail. As she went about the Shah fired a Whitehead self-propelled torpedo at her from one of her deck-mounted tubes, but as the torpedo's speed was only nine  knots, and the Huascar was teaming at least ten in the same direction, no hit was scored. The event was however of great historic significance as  is interesting, however, as it was the  first time that that a self-propelled torpedo was  fired in anger. The track of bubbles gave evidence that the shot was a straight one, and had the Huascar been stationary her fate should certainly have been sealed.
Whitehead torpedo of the 1870s - the domed warhead had not yet appeared
The Huascar now had had enough of it, and steamed close in under the town as darkness fell.  The Shah ceased fire and steamed out of range. She had one last card to play. Several hours later she sent in her steam pinnace, armed with a spar torpedo in her bows and towing a whaler which had a Whitehead torpedo alongside.  This attack might well have proved successful but Pierola and the Huascar had slipped away into the darkness. Two days afterwards he surrendered the ship to the Peruvian Government.
Another view: Amethyst to the left, Huascar in cdentre. Shah to the right
The action was not particularly creditable to the Royal Navy’s gunnery. The Huascar had been struck by only one shell from the Shah's 12-ton guns. It had hit the ship's armour plating on the starboard side about 50 feet from the stern, penetrating the iron and bursting in the backing, but damaging nothing material. Two 112-Ib. projectiles had dented the side armour but failed to penetrate, though theoretically they should have done so; and one had hit the turret a direct blow but remained sticking in the armour. These four hits were the only ones recognisable as having being made by the Shah's heavy guns. The Huascar's boats, funnel, bridge, and upper works had been hit by numerous projectiles from the 64-pounders of the Shah and Amethyst, but the little ship was in every degree as sea- and battle-worthy at the end of the fight, which lasted nearly three hours, as at the beginning. She one man killed and two or three wounded. The Shah would have been doomed if Huascar been able to hit back effectively with her big turret guns.

In extenuation of the Shah's performance it may be said that the small Huascar was not an easy target. The dark background of the sloping shore behind her made it difficult to estimate the range correctly. Nevertheless, given her that she carried so much heavy metal, the Shah might have been expected to do better, especially since it was obvious after the first half hour of the engagement that there was nothing to fear from the enemy gunners. It does not appear, however, that any one was much struck with the poor results produced by the Shah's heavy guns or that any officer was censured.

The Huascar’s career was far from over. She fought Chilean forces in the War of the Pacific (1879-84) and was captured by them. Se thereafter played a role in the 1891 Chilean War and was later preserved as a national treasure. Today the Huascar is berthed at Talcahuano, Chile. Though the Naval Base and Shipyards there were damaged by the 2010 Chile earthquake and the resulting tsunami the Huascar survived unscathed. They certainly built them tough at Lairds in Birkenhead in the 1860s!
The Huascar - now Chilean as she is preserved today


Britannia’s Shark by Antoine Vanner 



1881 and the power of the British Empire seems unchallengeable.

But now a group of revolutionaries threaten the economic basis of that power. Their weapon is the invention of a naïve genius, their sense of grievance is implacable and their leader is already proven in the crucible of war. Protected by powerful political and business interests, conventional British military or naval power cannot touch them. A daring act of piracy draws the ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, and his wife into this deadly maelstrom. Amid the wealth and squalor of America’s Gilded Age, and on a fever-ridden island ruled by savage tyranny success – and survival –will demand making some very strange alliances...
  
Britannia’s Shark brings historic naval fiction into the dawn of the Submarine Age. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Another insightful review of Britannia's Reach

I was much flattered by reading the most recent 5-Star review of Britannia's Reach on amazon.co.uk. It was filed by M.J. Willis and, by pure coincidence, reflects on the theme of my blog posting yesterday on the Mephistophelean bargain at the core of the story. Mr. Willis's review reads as follows:

"Antoine Vanner once again spins an enthralling yarn based around the fascinating and relatively
little known ironclad era. Commander Nicholas Dawlish returns, this time in charge of a ragtag
collection of gunboats and monitors making for a breakaway state up a remote South American river. Just as in his previous mission, Dawlish has to contend with determined enemies on the water and dubious allies ashore, and the moral high ground has been left back in England. This is no straightforward tale of derring do - Vanner's hard-edged, driven character skirts dangerously close to being out of his depth, and it's not at all clear that Dawlish has picked the right side. Moreover, this is a tale that has lots to say to a modern audience about Western adventurism and the effect of cold material interests on the least privileged. This is both heart-pounding adventure and a nuanced exploration of the nature of power and money."

Another recent review, by J.Harvey, reads:

"An enjoyable and entertaining read. Well written and obviously a lot of research has gone into this book. Can't wait until the next episode of the Dawlish Chronicles. Please, please, just this once, can 'Old Nick' come out on top?"

And Dawlish will be appearing in is next adventure around the end of this year. He won't be finding it easy to fulfill Sir Richard Topcliffe's Machievellian orders but on this occasion he'll have the lovely and resourceful Florence by his side to sustain him!

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Britannia’s Reach – and the Mephistophelean bargain at its core

I’ve been heartened so far by comments I’ve received from readers of Britannia’s Reach, not only in reviews of Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk but also in direct one-to-one communications. Several have commented on the moral ambiguity at the core of the story and the fact that even the central character, Nicholas Dawlish, though basically a decent man, is besmirched by association with the commercial entity he has agreed to serve. He realises this himself and the realisation is all the more painful in that he has accepted the assignment because of his continuing ambition for personal advancement. 

The fact that those whom he has contracted to oppose are also willing to squander lives ruthlessly, in their case in pursuit of a messianic ideal, in no way makes his dilemma any easier.

And that’s the core of Dawlish’s problem. He is a professional, a capable naval officer, and with a feel for the potential of the technological innovation of his time, and at a personal level he’s repelled by cruelty and the abuse of power. But ambition leads him to accept a Mephistophelean proposal by his patron, Admiral Richard Topcliffe:

“You'll have the chance to expand your experience, in a way given to few officers, by fighting your own private war – a squalid little war, admittedly – but your own nonetheless.”
By accepting the offer, Dawlish, brought up since boyhood in the ethos of the Royal Navy, pledges his word and his honour to the completion of the task. As he, and the armed flotilla with him, advance into the heart of Paraguay, the challenge seems initially to be professional one only, to engage and beat a resourcefully enemy. He has not reckoned with the consequences of such victory being so morally repugnant but as the expedition thrusts ever-further upriver he is left in no doubt of it. But what alternatives are open to him if he’s to salve his conscience while still sticking to his word – can there indeed be any? And how bad must the situation get before he can – or will – revolt against it?

I’ve always been fascinated by the fearsome choices facing good men in the service of bad causes. In many cases a prior oath or commitment, a pledge of word, a conviction that personal honour demands loyalty, has demanded identification with that cause. Robert E. Lee and Claus von Stauffenberg are powerful examples that come to mind, so too Joseph Conrad in his service to King Leopold II, and each had to find his own solution.

Whether Dawlish also finds a solution – and whether he has the moral courage to implement it – is at the heart of Britannia’s Reach. And many readers have found the outcome surprising…

Friday, 14 March 2014

How do you make a monster gun disappear?

In the second half of the 19th Century advances in metallurgy allowed an unprecedented increase in the size and weight of artillery pieces for applications in which mobility by land was not a concern. This applied to weapons mounted either in fixed fortifications, or on ships. The speed of development was amazing. In the early 1860s the heaviest weapon afloat was the 68-pounder muzzle-loading cannon, an oversize version of the guns carried by Nelson’s Victory six decades earlier. It weighed some four tons, and was standard armament even on ships which were revolutionary in themselves, such as HMS Warrior. By 1867 however 11-inch and 12-inch weapons of 25 tons were coming into service, firing 600-pound projectiles and yet larger weapons were to follow in the coming years.

68-pounder replicas on HMS Warrior (1860)
- scaled-up versions of Nelson's weapons at Trafalgar
These guns had a slow rate of fire and protecting them against enemy fire during their laborious loading sequences was a vital concern. One obvious solution was to place them behind protective barriers – earth or masonry fortifications on land, armour at sea. An additional protection was however to expose them to enemy view for the shortest possible time so that they would be visible only in the brief interval of firing, returning to cover immediately thereafter.

The solution to this was “the disappearing mount”. The gun-barrel was mounted on hinged arms which, when in the lowered position, supported it in a horizontal position behind a protective barrier, invisible to an observer outside it. In this position it could be loaded in safety, the short range capabilities of the period precluding plunging fire, and when ready the hinged arms would carry the barrel up above the barrier. It would remain exposed only until fired. Its recoil would sweep the weapon back down to the loading position again, braked by a counterweight which in due course would be used to hoist the gun for the next firing. In later years hydraulic systems were used to supplement, or replace, the counterweight.

The system saw only limited use at sea – as discussed later – but it reached its highest level of sophistication in land fortifications, some such weapons remaining in use up to WW2. The principle is best illustrated by reference to a land-based weapon, shown in the photographs below. Taken around 1905, these show a French “Canet” weapon of 9.4-inch calibre under test, before being disassembled and hereafter reassembled in a coast-defence fortress. The large circular disc is an armoured shield which will lie flush with the top of a concrete pit and has a rectangular opening in the top through which the gun-barrel will emerge. The first photograph shows the weapon in its lowered position, ready for loading, while in the second the gun has been raised to the firing position. The entire assembly, including the top shield, could be rotated through for aiming.

Canet 9.4-inch weapon in lowered position (1905)
The unit will later be located in a  circular concrete pit
The circular armoured roof will lie flush with the surrounding ground

Details of the hinging system varied from one design to another, and hydraulics were increasingly used not just to manage the forces involved, but to allow accurate adjustments in azimuth and elevation and to facilitate loading. The illustration below shows an American 12-inch mounting of mid-1890s vintage. Similar mounting were used for 14-inch guns in American coastal fortification from the early 1900s and two 16-inch weapons which were employed to defend the Panama Canal until at the end of WW2.


Use at sea of disappearing mountings was of much shorter duration. The mechanisms involved were complex and operation was not helped by ship’s rolling and pitching. The Royal Navy only employed such mountings on a single capital ship, HMS Temeraire, launched in 1876. Four 11-inch 25-ton guns weapons were carried on Moncrieff mountings (so called after their inventor), two forward, two aft, in pear-shaped armoured redoubts. The layout can be seen below and it will also be noted that Temeraire also had 10-inch weapons mounted amidships inside an armoured  central battery. The experiment of using disappearing mounts was not repeated in any Royal Naval capital ship due to the weight and space demands – the latter being obvious from the drawing.

HMS Temeraire, hull plan and elevation
Note the pear shaped armoured protection fore and aft
HMS Temeraire at sea, the forward mounting just visible
She was the largest brig ever built and, not surprisingly, slow under sail
An unusual use of a ship-mounted disappearing mount for heavy guns was in the bizarre, circular, Russian Popovka-type coast defence ships. Readers of my novel “Britannia’sWolf” will already have made an acquaintance with these monsters and a dual 12-inch mounting can be seen below on a Popovka inside its encircling armoured wall.

12-inch guns on disappearing mountings on a Russian Popovka 
The other main application of disappearing mounts was in “Flatiron” gunboats, also called Rendels after their inventor. These were small shallow-draught vessels, very manoeuvrable, and carrying a single enormous gun, usually in the 8-inch to 12-inch range. This was fixed to fire forward along the craft’s axis and was aimed by aiming the entire vessel. In their heyday, from about 1867 to 1880, more than 40 were built for the Royal Navy, including Australian units, and large numbers by most other navies, including minor ones. They were seen primarily as coast and estuary-defence vessels and were expected to operate in groups. As such their role was superseded by the arrival of the fast torpedo boat and they were quickly relegated to other duties. Several Rendel designs, including the 20-unit Ant class for the Royal Navy, employed disappearing mountings.
HMS Toad and her disappearing gun - heroine of Britannia's Reach
A Rendel unit with a sophisticated hydraulically-operated disappearing mount  - the fictional HMS Toad,  originally ordered from a British yard by the Greek Navy, but taken over by the Royal Navy when Greece could not pay for her – plays a central role in my novel “Britannia’s Reach”. As such the Toad is almost a character in her own right.

Chinese Rendel Gunboat Delta
Note 12.5-inch 38-ton Armstrong muzzle-loader forward
The Imperial Chinese navy also made extensive use of Rendels, some participating in the Sino-French War of 1884 (2 lost) and in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 (12 sunk or captured). Almost all were constructed in Britain and carried sailing rig – as in the illustrations below – during the delivery voyage but are likely to have dispensed with it in normal service.

Delta with sea-going rig for delivery voyage

Friday, 7 March 2014

The most ferocious frigate action ever?

Single ship actions, usually between frigates, are remembered as some of the most dramatic actions of the age of fighting sail. They captured the imagination of the public in their own time, making heroes of captains like Pellew and Cochrane, who gained the sort of adulation reserved for pop-stars today and they figure as central elements in the naval fiction of Forrester, Pope, O’Brian and others. I am at present engaged in writing about single-ship action of a much later period in the novel I currently have in hand and for background and inspiration I've been looking at some of these actions in detail. As always, the London Library is a fruitful source of information on half-forgotten aspects of history. Perhaps the most dramatic of all single-frigate action was fought not during the revolutionary or Napoleonic Wars, but when France was locked in conflict with Britain during the American war of Independence. I was sufficiently impressed by the ferocity of the action fought by the British Frigate of the Quebec against her French counterpart Surveillante that I have made a précis of information on this now largely forgotten epic.

The drama of the Quebec vs. Surveillante action inspired many contemporary artists
- this is by the French artist Rossel de Cercy
Surveillante's' white ensign is that of the Royal French Navy - not a sign of surrender!
In the early summer of 1779 the Quebec, a small 32-gun frigate of 685 tons, armed with 12-pounders, was sent to Guernsey, as a guard for the Channel Islands, with orders to glean all the intelligence possible of French movements in and around Brest. Her captain, George Farmer, was well thought of in the service. Nelson under him served as midshipman in the frigate Seahorse, and Farmer thought well enough of him to Nelson to allowing him the duty of a watch-keeping lieutenant.

From Guernsey, Farmer sent a report on the 18th June that the French fleet had sailed from Brest, and in early July he intercepted and broke up a convoy of forty-nine French coasters, taking some and driving many of the rest ashore. In the process however the Quebec ran on to a rock and Farmer only got her off by throwing all his guns overboard. This necessitated a return to port, and the Quebec was lucky to reach Portsmouth in safety. On arrival however no 12-pounders were to be had and farmer had no option but to accept 9-pounders – a critical factor in the action to come – to repair damage and to get to sea again as quickly as possible. By October 6th he was off Ushant, in company with an armed cutter, the Rambler, Lieutenant James George, keeping a watch on Brest.

At daybreak Quebec and Rambler sighted a large French frigate and an armed cutter, and in another half hour the frigate opened fire and hastened to investigate.  The French frigate proved to be the Surveillante, commanded by the able Lieutenant Du Couëdic. She was a considerably larger and  more powerful vessel than the under-gunned Quebec,  carrying  34 guns, apparently a mix of 12 and 18-pounders. Due to the substitution of Quebec’s of 9-pounders for her previous 12-ppounders the French ship was by at least thirty percent the more powerful fighting machine of the two, She had a crew of 255 men as against the Quebec's 195.

The action opened in mid-morning and was fought in a heavy swell, though little wind. Du Couëdic kept his ship close-hauled on the port tack, while Farmer, sailing free on the same tack, edged down towards him. At ten o'clock, or a few minutes after, the Quebec hoisted her colours, hauled her wind, and began to return the enemy's fire at short range . In the cannonading that followed, lasting a full hour, neither side had the best of it. Then the Surveillante drew ahead and Farmer, quickly backing his topsails, put his helm up and tried to go under her stern and rake her. Du Couëdic bore up simultaneously to frustrate the manoeuvre and both ships were before the wind, masts tottering and sails in tatters.

Both vessels were taking heavy losses. Some of the Quebec's guns-crews were reduced from seven men to three. Farmer had sustained a broken collarbone and a smashed finger but he remained on deck to encourage his dwindling crew. The first lieutenant had his arm shot away but when the surgeon had done with him he returned to the quarter-deck. Twice the fire of the Surveillante ceased, and the Quebec's crew cheered, thinking they had her beaten – but each time, after a brief interval, the French reopened fire with increased vigour.

The gunnery duel continued until about one o'cIock when the Surveillante's masts went overboard together. They fell in the most fortunate manner for her, on the disengaged port side, and her fire remained unimpeded. Five minutes, before Farmer could take advantage of his enemy’s plight, the Quebec’s masts followed suit, the fore and mainmast falling inboard, blocking the gangways, and putting the guns on the forecastle and quarter-deck out of action. Worst of all the mizzen-mast fell outward on the engaged side, and the mizzen-topsail completely covered over the port-holes of several of the broadside weapons forward the stern.

Neither vessel was now under control and they locked together, Surveillante's bowsprit becoming entangled in the wreckage of masts and sails which encumbered the Quebec’s decks amidships. Du Couëdic called for boarders, but when preparing to launch an assault was struck down by a musket ball –the third wound he had received during the action. His officers, though momentarily shaken by his injury, were rallying the boarding-party, when the issue was taken out of their hands.
The Quebec’s mizzen-topsail, which had been masking the stern guns on the port-side, since the mast had fallen, now caught fire. The guns crews continued to blaze away through the tattered canvas hanging a few feet from the muzzles. The flames ran up the sail, took fierce hold on the wreckage on the quarter-deck, and in an instant were roaring over the after part of the ship. The French, abandoning all thoughts of boarding, used every effort to get clear, fending the Quebec off with spars and booms. They were only just in time, for the stump of their bowsprit was a mass of flame, quenched with difficulty ere the two ships were disentangled.

The engagement was over, and the Quebec was doomed. du Couëdic, wounded, gave orders that when the flames in his own ship had been extinguished firing should cease and the Quebec’s crew rescued - many had already jumped overboard to escape the flames.  All  Surveillante’s boats were too damaged to float however and nothing could be done but to throw ropes to any survivors who could swim alongside.

In the Quebec Captain Farmer gave orders to flood the magazine, and took what measures he could to fight the fire. This proved hopeless but Farmer refused to leave his ship. In mid-afternoon the magazine exploded. The hull burnt fiercely for a considerable time before it sank. Though accounts of the exact manner of Farmer's death differ there is no doubt that he went down with the ship, her flag still flying.

Painting by British painter Richard Dodd shows the Surveillante keeping as
far away as possible from the doomed Quebec - explosion imminent
While the two frigates were locked in combat a separate action was underway between the Rambler and the French cutter Expedition, which had been in company with the Surveillante. These smaller vessels were fairly matched for each other and until the Quebec caught fire neither had much advantage. The sight of the Quebec in flames, and of the Surveillante  locked to her of her, induced the Expedition to make off to the help of her frigate. The Rambler’s commander, Lieutenant George not unnaturally claimed that the Expedition made off because she was getting the worst of it. In his late report he stated that owing to the damaged state of his rigging he was unable to pursue; then, "seeing both the frigates dismasted and the Quebec on fire I endeavoured to get as near the Quebec as possible in hopes of saving some of her men, but there being but little wind and a large swell, found I could assist her in no other way but by hoisting out our boat, which I effected, and sent the master and five men armed in her, who picked up one master’s mate, two young midshipmen, and fourteen more of the Quebec's people, the enemy’s frigate at the same time firing at the boat.”

A French view of the action - almost photographic in detail
The Surveillante saved some of the Quebec's crew, the Rambler a few more and 13 were picked off afterwards a mass of floating wreckage by a Russian ship that was in the vicinity, and landed at Salcombe, in Devon. Another 14 were spotted on other flotsam but as the Russian altered course to pick them up a heavy squall came on, and when it lifted they were gone. Out of Quebec’s company of 195 only 68 were saved.

The Surveillante lost 115 killed and wounded out of 211 – a 50% casualty rate and she was towed to Brest harbour by the Expedition in a sinking condition. du Couëdic, was immediately promoted but died a few months late as a result of his wounds.

The French behaved with the notable chivalry to the Quebec's survivors picked up the Surveillante. They were sent back free to England on the grounds that the  Minister of Marine "did not think it right to consider as prisoners of war unfortunate men who had escaped the fight, the fire which blew up their ship, and the watery gulf into which they had been hurled." It was particularly touching that Du Couëdic, of the Surveillant, despite  his own ultimately wounds, took pains to see that they were made as comfortable as possible.

The surviving officers of the Quebec were tried by court-martial at Sheerness, and the court found that everything possible was done to save the ship, and that Captain Farmer, her officers and men, behaved in the most spirited and gallant manner, and are of opinion that if the accident of fire had not happened they would have taken the French man-of-war."

Those folk who ought to have been court-martialled for the loss of the Quebec, but were not, were the officials responsible for the lack of spare l2-pounders in Portsmouth dockyard. It is quite evident if Farmer could fight what was virtually a drawn battle without his proper armament, that victory might well have been his if he had had the guns for which his ship was designed. The extra weight of metal could well have won him the battle.

Farmer's eldest son was made a baronet, a pension of £200 per annum was granted to his widow and pensions of £25 each to nine his children, including one yet unborn. A Board-of-Admiralty Minute records that these honours were paid in order "to excite an emulation in other officers to distinguish themselves in the same manner, and render Captain Farmer's fate rather to be envied than pitied, as it would give them reason to hope that if they should lose their lives with the same degree of stubborn gallantry, it would appear to posterity that their services had met with the approbation of their Sovereign."

The accounts I have seen of this action make no reference to the compensation or pensions paid to other members of Quebec’s crew. Nothing could have been too much for the men who endured the hours of hell this ferocious battle lasted and one only hope that the widows, orphans and dependents received some recompense, however small.

Britannia's Reach - Revenge and Reconquest in the Heart of South America


"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 to read the opening.




Tuesday, 4 March 2014

A reader's verdict - "The Best Naval Yarn I have read in years"

The second of the Dawlish Chronicles series, Britannia's Reach, has proved popular and I've been gratified by comments and questions received from readers (Keep them coming! They really help the writer - not just morale-wise, but in improving later books).
The Mesrutiyet - the ironclad  that Dawlish must fight to get command of

As I track the sales I am struck by the number of readers who have at the same time bought the first book in the series, Britannia's Wolf. The two books can be read independently but the when read together they convey more about the flow of Nicholas Dawlish's life and personal development. Britannia's Wolf meets him at the age of 32, an ambitious Royal Navy officer who embraces eagerly teh opportunity of secondment to the Ottoman Turkish navy as the contemporary Russo-Turkish War heads for a vicious climax. Dawlish expects to fight the Russians at sea - and he does, in hard and unforgiving combat - but he had not counted on the complications of palace intrigue, ethnic strife, marauding Cossacks and Bashi Bazooks, two heroic Englishwomen and an army collapsing in the depths of winter...

I was particularly gratified by a review posted on Amazon.com last month by an American reader, C.E.Ramsey of St.Louis. His review reads as below:

Britannia's Wolf by Antoine Vanner is the best naval yarn I have read in years. In 1877 Nicholas Dawlish turns down a safe but unpromising instructor position in the British Navy for a covert assignment in the Navy of the Ottoman Empire. This involves combat training of sailors, Marines, and eventually soldiers whom he must lead in battle against the invading Russian Empire, but first he must capture a powerful warship from his own side! And that's just the beginning of Dawlish's task to turn chaos into order while winning a series of lop-sided battles against enemies on both sides of the war. When final victory seems within his grasp on the war's eastern Black Sea front he and his now faithful men are switched to the war's Balkan theatre for the most treacherous and lop-sided confrontation of all and in which life of the courageous woman he loves is at risk. How Dawlish handles this predicament, can best be summed up in the words he gives to his lady, the fascinating Florence, during the heat of action,"Well done, Miss Morton."
And "Well done" to Antoine Vanner, whose second exciting book of the Dawlish epic, Britannia's Reach, arrived in the mail as I finished this review. I'm sure when I finish I'll say of it also, "Well Done Dawlish and well done again Antoine Vanner."

Two empires lock in a death-embrace: Turkish and Russian cavalry clash