The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging


by Captain Ivor C. Little

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 10 August 2006

The idea for this lecture first came to me when I acquired a set of five books from the estate of a recently deceased friend, The set was titled "The British Navy" and had been written in 1882 by Sir Thomas Brassey KCB, MP, MA. He gave a complete overview of every aspect of the Royal Navy at that time, comparing it to every foreign navy and drawing conclusions as he went along. I found this fascinating. Looking back 134 years to the naval ideas of his time seems quaint, and only one of his many predictions came true and that is the use of the torpedo. Brassey took more than a thousand pages to cover what the Chairman has graciously allowed me to do in 20 minutes so this review is, of necessity, going to be very shallow.

At the time Brassey brought out his review, the naval world was in complete turmoil. Developments were coming so thick and fast and ships took so long to build, in many cases up to five years, that they were already obsolete when they were completed.

In the 19th Century, ships were in the forefront of technology and the merits of the latest ships were a subject of public debate, particularly in Britain where pride in the Navy ran very high. Navies competed to build bigger and better ships and what amounted to an arms race developed.

Trafalgar, where Nelson beat Villeneuve, had established the "Wooden Walls of England" as a national symbol, but within 19 years the great ships of Nelson's time would be obsolete. Nelson was certainly aware of the steam paddler "Comet" which was already operating on the Clyde during his lifetime and in 1824, nineteen years after his death, the East India Company had deployed the steamer "Diana" under the command of Captain Frederick Marryat, to Burma on a punitive expedition. This was the first instance of a steam warship. Three years later, in 1827, an Englishman name Lord Cochrane employed armed steamers in forays around the Greek Islands, in the Greek War of Liberation.

On Trafalgar Day, 20 October, in 1827, in that same war of liberation, a combined French, English and Prussian squadron, under the Comte de Rigny, Captain Edward Codrington and Count Heiden, defeated a combined Turkish and Egyptian fleet, under the command of Ibraham Pasha at the Bottle of Navarino. This was the last battle fought by ships wholly under sail. Steamers were also used in operations during the Crimean War in 1854. This led to wooden warships being fitted with auxiliary steam engines. Paddle wheels were, however, extremely vulnerable to shot and only with the invention of the screw propeller was it really practicable to use steam. A scarcity of coaling stations away from Europe and small storage capacity meant that ships still had to be masted and carry sails as their main means of propulsion.

So we have now reached the stage where, at the very least, every self-respecting navy had to have its capital ships fitted with space for an engine, coal bunkers, a collapsible funnel and a removable screw - i.e. "up funnel, down screw" when going into action. A further complication now arises. In 1819 a French general by the name of Paixhaus invented the exploding shell and the gun to fire it. These were introduced into naval service and at the Battle of Sinope on 20th November 1853 a Russian fleet armed with this new device defeated a far larger Turkish fleet, armed with 24-pounder smooth bore guns. The wooden ships were destroyed and made their phasing out inevitable.

A solution to this was that if you had a wooden ship you had to cover or "clad" the hull in iron against shellf ire, hence the term "iron-clad". You now had to have a wooden ship sheathed in iron and driven by both steam and sail. This was not a new idea.

Way back in 1782 a certain Chevalier D'Argon had used ten floating batteries for an attack on Gibraltar. These were large wooden hulls protected with bars of iron and a covering of cork. During the Russo-Turkish war in the 1780s, Catherine the Great's Admiral Suvarov used the same principle at Kinburn on the Black Sea at the Battle of the Liman.

This principle of covering a wooden hull with iron "Armour" was taken a step further by the French who, in 1858, laid down the first proper ironclad ship. She carried 4-1/2" armour, which was considered to be sufficient to keep out a projectile from a 68 pdr. gun. The designer, Dupoy de Lome, took a two-decked 91-gun ship, the "Napoleon", the finest vessel in the French Navy in 1857 and converted her by removing the two upper decks, lengthened her by 23 feet and armoured her from stem to stern. She was then renamed "Gloire". Up until then the British had considered the construction of armoured ships as a useless expense, but the building of the "Gloire" caused a re-think. In 1859 HMS "Warrior" was laid down. She was bigger and faster than the "Gloire" but difficult to handle. Neither she nor the "Gloire" had rams as these were not yet in favour and the "Warrior's" stem and stern were unprotected in the first case for speed and in the second because of the well to house the removable propeller. The armour was 4-1/2" thick with 18" wooden backing. After a short competition between Britain and France, Britain came out ahead with 30 of these ironclads by 1865.

In 1866, in a war between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy, their two fleets encountered each other at the Second Battle of Lissa, this one on 2Oth July 1866. Lissa is an island in the Adriatic off the Yugoslav coast which had been the scene of a previous battle during the Napoleonic Wars. In this case, the battle ended in victory for the Austro-Hungarians under Admiral Tegetthoff. It was a wild melee with ironclads rushing around trying to ram each other. The Italian fleet under Admiral Persano lacked dash and initiative and the Italian ironclad frigate "Re' de Italia" was rammed and sunk by the Austro-Hungarian ironclad "Erzherzog Ferdinand Max", under the command of Captain Max von Stannic. Even the Austro-Hungarian wooden three-decker "Kaiser" got in on the act and somehow managed to ram the Italian ironclad "Re' de Portogallo", losing her foremast and bowsprit in the process.

This battle had a profound effect on future ship design and until well into the 20th Century warships, were built with rams. The old idea of ships steaming in two lines or firing impotently at each other at close quarters was now abandoned in favour of tactics involving mad rushes to ram each other. This involved the need for speed and manoeuvrability for offence and armour below the waterline for protection and a proper ram. The ram was thus introduced in 1862 and was fitted to all subsequent ironclads. At the same time, the idea that a ship built completely of iron could actually float had taken hold and the next obvious step was to put the steam machinery in an iron ship. The first time that this idea was tried in a warship was during the U S Civil War in the 1860s, with the advent of the "Monitor" and "Merrimac".

The Confederate warship "Merrimac" was a movable version of the Kinburn batteries. The frigate USS "Merrimack", with a "k", was trapped in the US Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, when the Confederates seized the yard, soon after the outbreak of the war. In the fighting she was set on fire but the Confederates salvaged her and renamed her "Virginia". She was burnt down to the water line but her engines were intact, so the Confederates placed a great iron shed on the hull and armed her with a battery of guns. They also gave her a large 1500-pound cast-iron beak, or ram. The shed, or casemate, consisted of a double layer of 2" iron plates bolted on an oak and pine backing two feet thick. She was armed with a broadside of six 9" Dahlgren guns, with a 7" rifled gun facing forward and another facing aft. She had a crew of 300 and looked like a floating barn.

On 8th March 1862, she set off down the Elizabeth River to Hampton Roads, at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, where she met a small Union fleet. Belching smoke, the "Virginia" attacked this fleet, ramming and sinking the 30-gun sloop "USS Cumberland", destroying the 50-gun frigate "USS Congress" by gunfire and badly damaging the "USS Minnesota". After anchoring for the night, she up-anchored and set off to finish off the "Minnesota". However, when approaching her, the "Virginia" was astounded to see "a pillbox on a raft" emerge from behind her prey. This was the "USS Monitor", the first purpose-built completely iron warship.

The brainchild of a designer by the name of John Ericsson, she was radically different from anything else afloat and consisted of a rotating turret mounted on a low-lying deck that covered and projected beyond a submerged hull containing the engines and crew quarters. Her turret was 9 feet high and 20 feet wide and was constructed of eight one-inch layers of iron plates. Her armament consisted of two 11" Dahlgrens. The two ships closed until they were 50 to 100 feet apart, sometimes so close that they almost scraped each other. The "Monitor" was more manoeuvrable but could get only one shot off every seven minutes. The "Virginia" fired faster but was so clumsy that her gunners kept missing their more agile opponent. Both vessels were hit repeatedly but neither suffered damage and after about 4 hours, having fought to a draw, the combat was broken off. Strangely enough, the "Virginia" has gone down in history under her original name of "Merrimac" but without the "k".

Their subsequent careers are of no interest to us. The fight had, however, influenced the future design of warships. The US built a vast fleet of "Monitors", mainly for riverine warfare as they were useless sea boats and one of these is the key to our next advance.

On 12th becember 1862, during the Vicksburg campaign on the Mississippi, the Monitor "USS Cairo" nosed her way into the Yazoo River in support of a land operation. Suddenly she was torn by an explosion and sank within ten minutes, the victim of a "torpedo", as sea mines were then called. She was the first ship ever to be torpedoed. The officer who set the mine, a whisky demijohn filled with powder and fired by a trip wire, said the "he felt much as a schoolboy might whose practical joke has taken a more serious shape than expected"! The Confederates learned from this and, although Admiral Farragut, on being warned of mines sown in Mobile Bay, still pushed forward with the battle cry "Damn the torpedoes"! a total of 40 Union ships were lost due to this cause during the Civil War.

The watching world made note of three things - the design of the "Monitor"; the ramming of the "Cumberland" and the impact of the mine.

There were two other important maritime innovations in the US Civil War which we have to consider. The first was the submarine. This invention was considered a useless dead end and played no part in ship design until the Holland boats were developed in the closing years of the 19th Century. The second innovation was the torpedo.

During the American War of Independence, Captain David Bushnell of Connecticut invented the submarine, for the purpose of placing an explosive charge under an enemy ship's bottom. In 1776 and 1777 Royal Navy ships were attacked by two of Bushnell's devices linked together and allowed to drift down on their target, before being set off by clockwork. Twenty years later, Robert Fulton carried out the same experiments on the Seine in France and in 1801 two unsuccessful attacks on the British Channel Fleet led to Fulton going across to the USA to sell his devices there. Unsuccessfully, we might add.

His ideas were followed up by Samuel Colt and in 1842 he successfully detonated a case of powder underwater in New York harbour. We have already heard of the incident on the Yazoo River and the next step forward came in 1864 when, on 27th October, William Cushing, a young lieutenant in the US Navy, led a crew of 15 volunteers up the Roanoke River in a fast launch fitted with a large pole or "spar" sticking out ahead and onto which was affixed one of Colt's detonating mines. He successfully rammed and sank the Confederate ironclad "Albermarle". Thus was born the torpedo boat and "spar torpedo". The torpedo boat gave rise to the torpedo boat destroyer designed to counter this menace and, ultimately, to the modern "destroyer" itself.

Cushing and most of his crew survived but I am sure that you will agree with me that launching yourself at a ship firing at you and then being fifteen feet away for an almighty explosion requires a crew of Kamikaze pilots.

To give the crew a longer life expectancy, Captain John Harvey and Commander Frederick Harvey of the Royal Navy developed the Harvey Torpedo. This was towed at six knots at the end of long wires and was swung against the enemy ship by the action of turning the launch. Although marginally safe it still required great courage, a high degree of skill and a lot of luck.

In 1864, Captain Lipuis of the Austro-Hungarian Navy devised the most destructive weapon at sea, until the advent of nuclear power. He came up with a self-propelled torpedo driven by clockwork, or steam power, with a small powder charge in the front which was set off by a pistol, which went of when triggered by a blow. It was directed to its target by a series of guidelines and ropes. When he offered it to his government, he was told to go away and come back when he had sorted out the steering and propulsion.

Lupuis took his idea to an engineering firm in Fiume. The manager there was a real scallywag by the name of Robert Whitehead, an expatriate Lancashire man with a chequered history. He told Lupuis that his idea would never work and then set about, for the next two years, refining it himself in secret. He perfected it in 1867 and by 1879 the Whitehead torpedo was in service with most navies in the world. By 1879 we have arrived where it was obvious that ships had to be built of iron, later steel, and had to be fitted with a ram, armoured against ram and torpedo attack, and be fast enough to carry out such an attack. They had to carry enough small arms and secondary armament to beat off torpedo boat attacks and had to be fitted with the new-fangled electric light, in the form of searchlights to see the attackers.

The next problem was that, with the advent of armour on an iron hull, more powerful guns were developed. To counter this threat, thicker armour was introduced. Eventually, we arrived at armour two feet thick. This had the effect of making the ships heavier and sitting too low in the water. To overcome this, they made ships shorter but broader, thus distributing the weight across the plane of displacement. This culminated in the ridiculous circular ships of the Russian "Popov" class, named after their designer.

The reason for this heavy armour was the dramatic increase in the power and size of guns. Eventually they arrived at 16" guns weighing 80 tons. These guns could fire a distance of two miles but had their greatest penetration at 1 000 yards. By the 1880s the modern Armstrong type breech-loading gun was introduced; a 6" gun throwing an explosive shell for 4 miles. This introduced the conundrum - stand off and fight at 4 miles or charge into a thousand yards for maximum gun effect and a chance to ram. If you wanted the latter you had to have guns firing ahead. To do this you had to get rid of your masts and sails for a clear view and to ensure that the falling rigging did not entangle your screw in battle. You also needed a ram and an armoured conning position and steering gear. You also needed speed.

If you were going to "stand off" then you could reduce the weight of armour, place your guns broadside in the old-fashioned way, distribute the armour to guard against plunging fire and you would not require such high speeds. Which to use? The answer was supplied by Captain Cowper-Coles of the Royal Navy. He persistently badgered the Admiralty for the construction of a trial ship where the guns were in turrets. Because these guns could swing to either side it would be possible to use them in conjunction with masts and sails. Eventually the Admiralty gave in and built HMS "Captain" in 1869. She made one or two successful cruises and was then assigned to the Channel Fleet. Unfortunately, Cowper-Coles was a better lobbyist than designer. He played a major part in the design, whereby the ship's stability, because of the weight of her top hamper, was seriously flawed and she capsized in the Bay of Biscay while under both steam and sail.

However, the principle of the turret was proved and in 1879 HMS "Devastation", a mastless turret ship, was introduced. Looking rather like a modern steam iron, she set the tone for the next decade. However, there was still one problem. A steam reciprocating engine can only go so fast before it flies apart or the firemen collapse trying to keep up. In 1897 Charles Parsons gatecrashed Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee naval review in his little turbine-driven launch "Turbinia".

At 30 knots, nothing could catch her and this was the answer to the propulsion problem. Lighter and more compact than steam reciprocating engines, the turbine was to propel warships and liners at high speeds until the advent of the marine diesel engine. Ships were now broad, fast, fitted with turret guns and rams and armoured on the decks and along the waterline to protect against plunging shells and torpedoes. Suddenly - in one swoop - it was all gone. British First Sea Lord, Jackie Fisher, a brilliant man, introduced HMS "Dreadnought" in 1903. A modern ship, as we know it, fast, reasonably armoured with turret guns all of the same calibre. Her name was immediately adopted as a descriptive one; all major warships for a while became dreadnoughts and everything before them as "pre-dreadnoughts". The ram was abandoned as a weapon, not having been used in battle since Lissa. Guns could now fire over the horizon and became bigger than ever.

At the battle of Jutland in 1916, it was the gun and torpedo which claimed the most victims. With the use of the submarine, the torpedo started gaining ascendancy, reaching its zenith when it became air-borne and delivered from aircraft, thus sounding the death knell of the big ship, by a means which nobody over the period we have reviewed could ever have foreseen, even in their wildest dreams.

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