South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 19 January 2017 was fellow-member Mr Marius van der Merwe, whose topic was "The Clash of the Ironclads - Development of the use of Armour in Naval Ships during the Second Half of the 19th Century".

Mr van der Merwe started his talk by highlighting the salient points of warship development from ancient times to the present. Initially sailing ships were used but, from early on, galleys with a single row of oars were used. Archers were used to pin down the enemy sailors and their ship was then boarded. Swords, axes and spears were then used until one or other surrendered. Rams were developed and these were used to ram the enemy ships in order to sink them. Ramming was the chief method of destroying enemy vessels from 800BC to 900AD when shipboard armament made ramming redundant.

Naval ships developed from galleys - not seaworthy enough to withstand Atlantic weather - to armed versions of sailing merchantmen. From these, warships developed into sleeker and faster ships. This was accompanied, from the 14th century onwards, by the development of cannon and the use of multiple masts and sails. The number of guns carried increased and, from the 17th century to the mid-19th century, the line of battle ship, with its 2 or 3 rows of heavy guns firing heavy broadsides, built of thick oak planks, became the main means of destroying enemy fleets. These were accompanied by lighter and faster ships with one row of guns for scouting and other duties.

During the Korean-Japanese Imjin War of 1592-1598, the Koreans used so-called "Turtle" ships, with a curious round shape, powered by sails and oars and carrying cannon, covered by a sort of armour made of timber and leather with iron spikes protruding from the "roof" to repel boarders. They looked similar to large earthenware pots with lids on them but they proved to be quite effective.

The wooden fighting ships lasted until the mid-19th century. The first use of iron-smelting methods happened in East Niger, Africa in 1500BC but developments in this field were very slow. The first industrial revolution came in the early years of the 19th century but it was only in 1855 that the second industrial revolution started, with the first production of cheap steel, using the Bessemer converter in Sheffield.

With the introduction of cheap steel and the further development and improvement of cannon the scope of naval warfare was changed forever and ironclad warships began to appear from the mid-1800s. An ironclad had to have steam propulsion (with or without sail), guns capable of firing explosive shells and a metal skin hull cladded to wood or an iron frame for protection against explosive shells.

Steam propulsion for boats was first introduced in France in 1783.The use of explosive shells was pioneered by Henri Paixhans in 1832. At the Battle of Sinope, during the Crimean War in 1853, a Russian fleet completely destroyed a Turkish force with explosive shells with minimal loss to itself. The world's navies woke up and realised that the age of the sailing ship was over and new measures had to be taken to deal with the new developments in armament and armour. Most navies of the time then started to move towards proper iron cladding on the hulls of their warships.

The first purposely-designed and proper ironclad warship was the French Gloire with 36 6.4 inch guns, built in 1859. She was followed by the even larger British HMS Warrior in 1860. She carried 26 68-pounder muzzle loaders and 10 110-pounder breech loaders, which had problems with the sealing mechanism of the breech. Neither saw combat but Warrior has been restored and can be visited in the Portsmouth Dockyard and compared with HMS Victory. After these two many ironclads of various designs were built in countries round the world.

The American Civil war of 1861 - 1865 saw the first use of ironclads in combat with each other. On 9th March 1862, the Confederate CSS Virginia (ex USS Merrimac) clashed with the USS Monitor during a four-hour long engagement at the Battle of Hampton Roads. The result was a draw, as both ships were too heavily armoured for their guns to sink each other. The Monitor did prevent the Virginia from destroying a Union naval blockading force in the bay. This comprised conventional wooden ships and two of them had been sunk by Virginia on 8th March, one of these by ramming. This clash was watched by large crowds who had never witnessed an event like this before and were not used to the sight of armoured ships without sails clashing. But history was made on that day.

The Virginia was actually constructed on the lower hull of a sunken wooden frigate, the USS Merrimac, which was raised and rebuilt. The Monitor was of revolutionary design, designed by the brilliant but eccentric Swedish engineer, John Eriksson, regarded today as one of the most brilliant mechanical engineers in history. Whereas all previous ironclads were actually wooden line ships covered with heavy armour, Monitor was constructed of iron.

Monitor was to all intents and purposes a floating tank with most of the hull under water (she had a freeboard of some 18 - 20 inches) and armed with a single rotating turret with two heavy guns. She eventually foundered in high seas but was copied by the Union Navy, which used these ships in narrow coastal waters and on the large rivers. Virginia saw the first use of sloped armour in naval ships, which proved to be very effective in deflecting the shells of enemy ships.

Numerous other ironclads were built and used by both sides during the Civil War, especially on the main rivers and in shallow waters along the southern coastline of the USA. Most ironclads were in fact designed for this purpose. The American Civil War also saw the first use of armoured trains (the Civil War has been described as the first railway war) and submarines in warfare and was a test bed for the new development of armoured warfare.

Our speaker noted an action which took place in October 1864 in which the ironclad CSS Albemarle, which had caused havoc along the Union's eastern river lines, was "rammed" and sunk by a Lt William B Cushing of the US Navy. He used a steam launch carrying a 14 foot spar mounting a torpedo. This was rammed against Albemarle and blew a hole "big enough for a wagon" in its side and sank her.

The US Civil naval war actually spread right across the globe as far as the South China seas. One should not forget the CSS Alabama, which had a connection to Cape Town and environs, and was eventually sunk in the English Channel off the port of Cherbourg, on the coast of France.

Our speaker then highlighted some other battles involving ironclads, such as the Battle of Lisa on 20th July 1866, when the Italian Navy was defeated by the outnumbered Austrian Navy. Some Italian ships were sunk by being rammed by the Austrian ironclads. At this stage, there was a brief dogma among the world's naval designers that ramming was the only option left to navies to sink their opponents, as the armoured cladding on ships hulls prevented their destruction, even by huge naval guns.

This dogma did not last long and was changed by the effective development of the torpedo, which became dominant from the 1880s onwards. The 1890s also saw the construction of warships changing from iron cladding to iron and later steel hulls. This introduced the first pre-dreadnoughts as both frame and hull were produced in unison, with iron cladding being removed as a terminology. By 1912 the first "Dreadnought", with a main armament of heavy guns only, appeared. This was the British ship by that name which led to a ship-building frenzy amongst the major seafaring nations, with larger and larger ships, with heavier and heavier armament, joining the various fleets. The age of the Dreadnought lasted until World War 2, when the aircraft carrier took over.

Our speaker then showed us a video about the Battle of Hampton Roads, which was very interesting and supplemented our speaker's talk.

Our speaker concluded his presentation by summarising the brief but important era of the ironclads, which saw the change from wooden sailing ships with two or three gun decks and carrying up to 100 guns to the modern dreadnoughts or battle ships of the 20th century, with heavy armour - sometimes sloped - and fewer, but more effective long-range, breech-loading and rifled guns in revolving turrets. From this technology came the use of sloping armour on tanks and armoured vehicles and the use of sloping hulls and superstructures on ships to make them less visible on radar.

Our chairman thanked Mr van der Merwe for an interesting talk on an unusual subject and presented him with the customary gift.




With a lifetime of experience in the SA Navy, and in particular, with the Submarine Branch, fellow-member Capt Lamont is well-qualified to explain and discuss the operating principles and technical details of submarines. Capt Lamont indicated that he would like to deviate from the normal practice of having a standard audio-visual presentation with questions from the audience only being addressed afterwards. He would prefer to have an inter-active presentation whereby the audience are welcome to intercede at any stage in the form of a question-and-answer interaction with the speaker.

09 MARCH 2017: The Subject and Speaker will be announced closer to the date.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /