South African Military History Society


Throughout military history, no inventions have changed warfare at sea as radically as submarines and torpedoes. The curtain raiser at the society meeting on 12th August, entitled Some Early Submarines and Torpedoes, and given by committee member Colin Dean, dealt with two of the earliest examples of these deadly weapons. Both stories were set on the coast of what is now the USA.

In 1785, during the American War of Independence, an inventor named David Bushnell presented Thomas Jefferson with plans for a one-man submersible with which he hoped to attack the British men-o-war blockading New York harbour. He called it the Turtle because it resembled two turtle shells joined together vertically. It contained a wooden seat for the pilot, and a set of pedals driving a propeller at the rear. It was steered on a compass course by a tiller held in the pilot' s right hand, while his left hand worked a pump to adjust the trim of the craft to keep it just beneath the surface. Vision was through three, round, glass windows in a dome on top of the craft, while air was delivered through snorkel tubes. Turtle was launched on 6th September 1776, and with much effort was manoeuvred under HMS Eagle, the 64-gun, British flagship. However, the drill screw designed to attach the explosive charge failed to penetrate. Subsequent attempts were abandoned when dawn intervened, and although spotted by a British guard-boat, the pilot was able to get away with the help of the tide and the explosive charge, which he detonated in the path of his pursuers.

The concept of exploding a charge against the hull of a naval vessel was carried a long step further during the American Civil War when the Confederacy used mines, or torpedoes, against Union ships blockading its ports. The torpedo was named after a fish known to deliver an electric shock when touched, and originally took the form of charges hung below the surface of the water or floated against the sides of the Union ships. The main impact of these early, static torpedoes was psychological. The blockaders avoided moving after dark. This was helpful to the Confederates, but did not meet the need to attack the enemy ships and drive them off. The answer was a vessel equipped with an exploding ram that could approach its target without being seen.

Enter the submarine armed with a torpedo. After two years of trying, the Confederates succeeded in building several suitable craft, the first of which, known as Davids, and nicknamed cigar boats, were constructed from wooden planking with bows reinforced with boiler plating to minimise damage to themselves. They were 50ft long, carried a 100lb charge at the end of a 14ft, folding shaft on their bow, were powered by steam, and designed to submerge, partially, only when in sight of their target. The crew comprised an officer and three ratings.

The target selected was the heavily armoured, 3 486-ton USS New Ironsides, the pride of the Union Navy, which was blockading Charleston harbour. The attack was launched on the night of 5th October 1863, and although spotted from the ship, the explosive was delivered successfully and considerable damage done. The David itself was flooded by the resulting wave, but, after abandoning ship, two of her crew scrambled back aboard and were able to restart her engine. During the four years of the Civil War the Confederates, using their submarines and torpedoes, sank 29 Union ships and damaged a further 14, including the New Ironsides.

The main lecture of the evening was given by Dr Jane Carruthers, a senior lecturer in the Department of History at UNISA, on the subject of Anglo-Boer War artist Melton Prior. Between the arrival of the popular print media, and the development of modern photography, the war artist played an important role in informing the public of what was happening on the battlefield and its environments, and to the various people and institutions involved. Among these many talented people, Melton Prior was outstanding in the ability of his work to catch the poignancy and significance of the moment.

Prior was born in 1845, the son of an artist. He never regarded himself as a great artist, but he did possess in good measure the versatility, speed, accuracy, and good health required of one whose profession took him wherever in the world war was being waged. He was rough and ready, popular with other media people, and respected in military circles and by his widespread, and often distinguished, public. Prior's Anglo-Boer War work was commissioned by the London Illustrated News, on whose expense account he lived in lavish style. During the Anglo-Zulu War it was said he travelled more comfortably than Lord Chelmsford himself. But he was worth every penny paid him by the magazine, which was able, through him, to satisfy the appetite of the mainly middle-class British public for graphic information about a war that had captured widespread interest.

The profession of war artist was not an easy one, however. He had to be well up with the troops, within easy sight of the battlefield. He might have to work deep into the night to finish his sketches in time for despatch. He often helped with the wounded. And there was always the problems involved in making the scoop and delivering it to his publishers on time.

Owing to the impact war artistry could have on public opinion, its exponents held a position of some considerable political importance, and thus were obliged to exercise considerable responsibility in the way they approached their work. It was not possible to be neutral, and what they did had to be tailored to suit their audience. This was one reason why General Sir Garnet Wolseley, C-in-C of the British Army, called them those newly invested curses to armies and why highly regarded artists such as Prior tended to stress the more heroic and patriotic aspects of war rather than its bloody chaos and contradictions.

Believing the war to be over, Prior left South Africa after the fall of Pretoria. So we don't know what he would have made of the subsequent guerilla phase. However, his work survives as a graphic account of the early stages of the war, and especially when Ladysmith was under siege and General Buller desperate to relieve it.


9 Sept
CR Marjorie Dean The Campaign for Atlanta - 1854
ML Prof A Grundlingh The Anglo-Boer War in the Afrikaner National Consciousness in the 20th Century
14 Oct
CR Heinrich Janzen The Battle of Elandslaagte
ML Dr Felix Machanik The Lancers in the Anglo-Boer War
9 Sept
Ken Gillings & Panel The Origins and Causes of the Anglo-Boer War from Both Sides Cape Town
9 Sept
Peter Humphries The Anglo-Boer War at Sea

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

* NOTE* Fast mirror and backup site      BOOKMARK FOR REFERENCE     Main site * NOTE*

South African Military History Society /