by Major D.D. Hall
The opening months of the Boer War of 1899-1902 brought many disasters to the British Army. While the army’s reputation suffered, the navy’s reputation soared. Jack Tar, the nation's handyman, could do no wrong.
Everyone knew that the army had found it necessary to call urgently for the navy’s assistance when its guns were discovered to be outclassed by those of the Boers. This account tells the story of ‘the guns which saved Ladysmith.’
It is not the intention to tell the story of the individual battles in which the naval guns were engaged. This account will be confined to the story of how the guns were provided for the army and in particular, the part played by Captain Percy Scott, RN.(1)
Captain (later Admiral Sir) Percy Scott, RN
At the outbreak of war, the most effective guns available to the Royal Field Artillery were 15-pr BL guns. It would be several weeks before the siege train with its 5 in guns and 6 in howitzers could arrive. At this stage no thought had been given to dismantling the coast defence guns in the Cape for field use.
The Boers, on the other hand, in the years since the Jameson Raid, had acquired four 155 mm Creusots (Long Toms), six 75 mm Creusots and eight 75 mm Krupp QF guns. All of these were more modern than the British guns, and their performance was much better than the 15-prs.
Perhaps the greatest shock came from the Long Toms. These were intended for the defence of Pretoria, but instead were sent to the battle front. This was not the first time that such guns of position had been moved about a battlefield - the Franco-Prussian War presented examples - but this use was, nevertheless, unusual.
The energy and imagination of the Boers in moving these 5-ton guns over difficult terrain was to gain them much admiration. Firing a 94 lb (42,6 kg) shell about 11 000 yds (10 154 m) they provided the British army with a difficult problem.
Fortunately for the British Empire, the cruiser HMS Terrible, commanded by Captain Percy Scott, RN, the navy’s foremost gunnery expert, sailed into Simonstown on 14 October, 1899. Scott had revolutionized training methods in the Mediterranean Fleet with remarkable results. He was an energetic and brilliant officer who frequently clashed with his superiors - but he was just the man that Britain needed in South Africa at this time.
The Boers had no navy, and Captain Scott realized that it was not possible for any other power to send a fleet to attack the Royal Navy at the Cape. Traditionally the navy had always helped the army with its big guns. Captain Scott was therefore surprised to find that no provision had been made for supplying heavy naval guns to help cope with the Boer artillery.
Since the 1860s, the navy had provided its landing parties(2) with either 9-prs or 12-prs. In 1899, the standard gun was the 12-pr 8-cwt QF, but it was no better than the guns with which the army was equipped.
Without further ado, Scott decided to provide a gun with a greater range than that available to the army and which could deal with the Boer guns. Possibilities were guns held in the various depots ashore and guns mounted in the ships of the Cape Squadron - none of which was normally considered for use ashore.
Scott’s first choice was the 12-pr 12-cwt QF. This gun was specially designed for use against torpedo boats. With a range of 8 000 yds (7 385 m) for common shell and 4 500 yds (4 154 m) for shrapnel, it would be able to hold its own against Boer field artillery.
Scott bought a pair of Cape wagon wheels, and an axletree. The carpenter, shipwrights and blacksmiths worked around the clock and in 24 hours the first gun was ready. Although the result looked amateurish, it worked, and some trial rounds were fired to ensure that all was well. In the face of some official obstruction, Scott produced four guns by 25 October. Longer in the barrel (and in range) than the army’s 12-prs, these guns were soon to be known as ‘Long 12s’.
Later Scott said that had he been asked, fifty of these guns could have been prepared for field service in a week. Hitched to the tail of Cape wagons which could serve as ammunition limbers, they would be able to go anywhere. Events were to prove this claim right.
Meanwhile the fighting had started. The first clash occurred at Dundee, on 20 October. RFA guns had to move forward under fire before they were within shrapnel range. The same thing happened the next day at Elandslaagte. The puny 2,5 in RMLs of the Natal Field Artillery were valueless, and the 15-prs of 21 and 42 Batteries, RFA, had to move forward under fire to reach effective range.
At this time the commander of the Cape Squadron was Rear Admiral Sir Robert Harris who flew his flag in the cruiser HMS Doris. There is some difference of opinion concerning the messages which were sent requesting naval guns, and the reactions to these messages. In this account, Captain Scott’s version will be followed.
On 25 October, Scott read in a Cape newspaper that the lights of Kimberley could be seen from a distance. He therefore designed a mounting for a searchlight on a railway truck which could be used to communicate with the town. He asked if he could show his design to Admiral Harris after dinner that evening. When he arrived at 21h00, he was told that Sir George White, in Ladysmith, had sent the following message to the Governor of Natal:
‘In view of heavy guns being brought by General Joubert from the north, I would suggest that the navy be consulted with the view to sending here detachments of bluejackets with guns firing heavy projectiles at long ranges.’
Admiral Harris had been told by his experts that it was impossible to get mountings for the 4,7s, and the Admiral had decided just to send the four 12-prs which Scott had prepared. Scott said that he saw no reason why 4,7s could not also be provided with suitable mountings. In fact, this would be an easier problem to solve than that presented by the 12-prs. He said that he would have two guns ready by 17h00 the next day.
4,7 in QF on platform mounting. Two guns on mountings of this type helped to defend Ladysmith during the Siege
Scott decided that the mounting must answer three requirements. First, the gun must be able to fire in any direction. This was met by arranging timber beams in the shape of a cross giving equal stability all round. Second, the platform must be sufficiently stable not to require bolting down. The answer, beams 3,7 m in length, and, for safety’s sake, sixteen old 12 in 600 lb shot would be sent with chains to anchor down the ends of the timbers. Third, it must be possible to move the gun quickly from place to place. The answer was te place the platform with nuts on top so they could be quickly unscrewed.
At 17h00 on 26 October HMS Powerful sailed for Durban with two 4,7 in guns and four 12-prs for Sir George White. Scott had suggested that five thousand rounds be sent with the 4,7s. Admiral Harris only allowed 500 to be taken. Scott later pointed out that at 10 rounds per minute, the two guns could have fired off this number in 25 minutes.
Immediately on arrival in Durban the guns were entrained for Ladysmith and they arrived on 30 October while the Battle of Ladysmith was in progress. The battle was not going well. The ‘Long 12s’ went straight into action and their long-range fire did much to aid the infantry as they fell back towards Ladysmith. One gun was overturned by a shell burst and some of its detachment wounded, but the Boer Long Tom concerned was silenced.
Captain Scott had given instructions for the mounting of the 4,7s to Lt Egerton, HMS Powerful’s Gunnery Lieutenant. Unfortunately he was killed, and the job went to someone else.
Admiral Harris, in his cable announcing the despatch of these guns from Simonstown, had said that ‘efficient solid-platform accommodation should be ready for them’. Bearing in mind these instructions the 4,7s were concreted in, thus effectively destroying their mobility. Admiral Harris then approved an additional 500 rounds of 4,7 ammunition, but it was too late to get this to Ladysmith. The original 500 rounds had to be carefully rationed to last the siege.
As soon as HMS Powerful had sailed from Simonstown, Captain Scott got on with the job of designing a mobile carriage for the 4,7s. He found some 4 in square bar iron in a blacksmith’s shop, drew the design on the door, and in a minute work was under way. Some circular plate, 1,22 m in diameter was found for the wheels. Angle iron round the circumference was fashioned to carry a broad tyre, and there was the wheel. A wooden trail was made, and the completed gun was ready in 48 hours.
Captain Scott was then appointed Military Commandant of Durban and sailed for the port on 3 November. Durban was the main base for operations in Natal and its safety was vital. Scott was authorised to make use of the men of Terrible, and any other ships in Durban. He arrived on 6th, immediately toured the defences, and made his plans.
On the morning of 8th, Scott’s little army of 450 men and 30 guns formed up, and, to ‘A life on the ocean wave’, marched out to take over the defences. The guns were two 4,7s, sixteen ‘Long 12s’, two 12-prs 8-cwt, one 9-pr, two 3-prs, two Nordenfelts and four Maxims. Scott said - ‘The townspeople rose to a man and gave every assistance. All the local rifle associations turned out and a corps of mounted local gentlemen undertook all the scouting. It was a great pleasure to work in loyal Natal.’
A 4,7 in QF gun on Captain Scott's original travelling carriage, photographed in Durban
By 16h00 on 8th, all approaches to Durban by rail or road were covered - an armoured train was in readiness - and Scott wired the Governor and the Admiral to report that Durban was safe. After the war, Botha told Scott that had it not been for the Naval guns, the Vierkleur would have flown over Durban’s Town Hall. On 28 November it was adjudged that the threat to Durban was over and permission was given to withdraw the guns for use elsewhere, as required.
Meanwhile Scott continued work on the 4,7s and the training of the men. On one occasion he sent a cable to a certain Commander Limpus: ‘Take a 4,7 gun without oxen to Umgeni (10,4 km), fire a round, report time of leaving and time of return.’ Five minutes later came the reply: ‘Have left.’ Four hours afterwards, Scott rode out to meet the men returning. It was November, and hot, but the hundred men were marching magnificently. When they saw him, they broke into double time. ‘I have never seen a finer sight’, said Scott.
General Buller had just arrived in Natal. On being told of the gun’s capabilities, and the preparedness of the men, he immediately ordered two 4,7s and four ‘Long 12s’ to be sent to the front. A special train was ordered for 17h00, and by the next morning the guns were with Buller’s army.
As in the case of Kimberley, communications were a problem and Ladysmith’s carrier pigeons were soon used up. Once again Scott produced a searchlight with a flasher which worked on the principle of the Venetian blind. A dynamo was removed from a dredger and by noon the following day, off went the searchlight to Frere. Communications with Ladysmith were soon re-established.
Buller found the long-range guns to be very valuable and, at the time of the Battle of Colenso, he had two 4,7s and sixteen ‘Long 12s’ with his army.
Throughout this story, the reader will have noted the urgency and efficiency with which Captain Scott and the Royal Navy approached the task of supplying guns and equipment for the army. There is more to come.
Scott next designed a carriage for a 6 in gun. General Buller was asked if he would like some of these. He replied that Admiral Harris had asked him not to denude the ships of their guns so he did not like to ask for them. Scott afterwards maintained that had Buller had six 6 in guns on the Tugela, Ladysmith would have been relieved three months earlier than it was.
On l6 January 1900, when Buller was away at Spioen Kop, Scott was asked by General Barton if he could provide a 4,7 mounted on a railway truck. Barton wanted to shell a new enemy position. A truck was provided, strengthened with timber. On it went a gun on a platform mounting similar to those provided for Ladysmith’s guns. The cross members were cut short for movement through railway tunnels. The whole was secured to the truck by chains. Lady Randolph Churchill fired the first round and the gun was named after her.
A 4,7 on a railway truck mounting. Note the shortened wooden cross members
Because of the amount of energy absorbed by the gun’s hydraulic cylinders, very little recoil energy was transmitted to the truck. Consequently the gun was stable enough to be fired at right angles to the railway line. Extra stability had to be given to the gun if it was used off the railway truck. This was done by supplying a movable beam which could be bolted on the mounting.
Three more guns of this description were made and used against the Boers at Pieter’s Hill. Buller preferred these to the wheeled version as the gun’s recoil system absorbed the firing stresses, and being rigidly mounted, the gun mounting did not move on firing. This allowed a rapid rate of fire.
At 16h00 on Thursday 8 February, Buller signalled urgently for a 6 in gun on a wheeled carriage. He needed this by Monday 12th for his final attack on Pieter’s Hill. The gun was brought ashore from HMS Terrible. Some unwanted 4,7 in wheels were delivered from Pietermaritzburg, and wide tyres were made for them to stand the greater weight. The gun was ready by midnight on Saturday. On Sunday it was test-fired on Durban beach. It then left for the front, arriving at Chieveley at daylight on 12 February.
After the Relief of Ladysmith, Buller asked if he could have 4,7s on lighter and more mobile carriages. The wooden carriages were removed and steel used instead of wood. A single wheel was placed in the trail to facilitate movement. To achieve maximum elevation of 37 degrees, this wheel was removed. Four guns were produced on these steel carriages and handed over to the Royal Garrison Artillery after test-firing on Durban beach. No limbers were made for any of these guns. Instead Cape wagons were used to carry the ammunition.
After the Relief of Ladysmith the sailors were slowly returned to their ships, but many of the guns remained with the army and these were handed over to the Royal Garrison Artillery.
This account has concentrated on Natal, but it should not be forgotten that naval guns were also in use on the Western front. ‘Long 12s’ were at Belmont, Graspan and Modder River. A 4,7 in gun (‘Joe Chamberlain’) was at Magersfontein. Two 6 in guns were put on rail mountings by Capt Paul and Mr Beattie at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Simonstown. These guns fired a 100 lb (45,4 kg) shell about 10 800 yds (9969 m). They could not be fired at an angle of more than 16 degrees from the railway line. They were in action in April and May 1900 in the Transvaal.
The naval 12-pr 12-cwt also appeared in another form as the gun of the Elswick Battery. Six of these guns were destined for a Japanese battleship under construction in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. They were converted to field pieces and were issued to a volunteer battery whose men worked at the engineering works. The guns saw service in South Africa. *
The naval guns continued in service throughout the war. No longer concentrated as in the earlier battles, they were split into ones and twos to accompany various mobile columns as they hunted the Boer commandos. Some were allocated to fortified posts in the occupied Transvaal and Orange Free State. One such gun was captured from its Royal Garrison Artillery detachment at Helvetia on 29 December 1900.(3)
Some of the naval guns which had seen service in South Africa left for China in 1900 where they were used equally successfully in the Boxer Rebellion.
There is no doubt that the navy’s long-range guns played a most important part in the defence of Ladysmith, and in the field operations of Buller’s army, and that of Methuen and later Roberts in the western theatre.
Jack Tar (and Captain Scott) could be proud of a job well done!
1 Captain Percy Scott, RN
Admiral Sir Percy Scott was born in 1853, and died in 1924. A remarkable man, from the 1890s until World War I, he had been the Royal Navy’s top gunnery expert. His part in the Boer War has already been described. This is an outline of his career before and after that war.
He qualified on the long gunnery course at HMS Excellent where he later served as an instructor. During his tour there as Commander in 1890, the establishment was moved ashore to Whale Island, in Portsmouth harbour, where it is to this day. Scott could analyse problems and devise practical solutions. He had a clear mind, and had a list of inventions to his credit. He saw that much could be done to improve the navy’s gunnery.
His first command, in 1898, was HMS Scylla. She soon became the most efficient gunnery ship in the fleet. Where the normal percentage of hits to rounds fired was 30 per cent, Scylla achieved an amazing 80 per cent.
Scott’s next command was HMS Terrible. After South Africa, Terrible joined the China Fleet. Soon she had broken all records with her 6 in and 4,7 in guns. Scott’s enthusiasm infected the whole fleet. The fact that Terrible later dropped to fourth position with her 6 in guns illustrates the remarkable improvement in the other ships.
There was now intense competition in gunnery in the whole of the Royal Navy. This competition extended beyond the men directly involved and their ships - to the whole nation. Results were published in the newspapers - and promotions were affected by these results.
In spite of these successes, Scott’s career was a stormy one. Short in stature, his manner was abrasive and thrusting. He made enemies as well as friends. In 1905, he became Inspector of Target Practice and in 1907 assumed command of a cruiser squadron in the Channel Fleet. Throughout this time he continued to work on improving gun control systems.
But he was a man of vision, too. In a letter to The Times in 1913, he wrote: ‘Submarines and aeroplanes have entirely revolutionized naval warfare. No fleet can hide itself from the aeroplane’s eye and the submarine can deliver a deadly attack even in broad daylight.’ His views were treated with scorn.
World War I was soon to break out and in spite of Scott’s efforts the Royal Navy had fallen behind the Germans. Scott had brought out his director system in 1911 by which all guns were trained, laid and fired by a master sight in the ship’s foretop, well above the smoke. Gunlayers had merely to follow the electrically repeated bearing and elevation of the master sight. Scott’s ideas met with opposition from diehards, and by August 1914, only eight battleships in the Grand Fleet had heen fitted for director firing.
The Germans were well abreast with these developments and their corresponding system was fitted throughout the High Seas Fleet. They were also ahead with their stereoscopic rangefinders and their ammunition, torpedoes and mines. Their superiority was demonstrated at Jutland.
In September 1915, Scott was placed in charge of London’s anti-aircraft defences - following the shock of Zeppelin raids on the capital and the Press agitation which followed. While realizing the need for more guns, he also asked for aeroplanes - appreciating that they were needed to fight other aeroplanes, or Zeppelins.
In Scott’s opinion, World War I had proved the uselessness of sufface battleships. In 1920 he renewed his campaign to make the British public aware of this fact. ‘We are on the eve of declaring a new naval programme. Let us not forget that the submarine and the aeroplane have revolutionized naval warfare; that the battleships on the ocean are in great danger; that when not on the ocean they must be in hermetically sealed harbours; that you cannot hide from the eye of an aeroplane.’
In his autobiography he wrote: ‘The future is with the aeroplane which is going to develop rapidly in the next few years. Probably we shall also have submersible battleships of 10 000 tons. What chance will the surface battleship, presenting a huge target, have against such a vessel?’
Percy Scott died in 1924, but, less than twenty years later, his prophesies were proved to be correct. A German U-boat sank the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow; British midget submarines damaged the Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord; Fleet Air Arm aircraft crippled the Italian fleet in Taranto; and the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbour was devastating. And now there are no longer any battleships in commission anywhere in the world, whereas submarines with nuclear missiles have more firepower than all the navies of the past combined.
2 Naval landing parties
Between the Crimean War and 1899, there was no single campaign, other than the Afghan and Indian Frontier Wars, in which the Royal Navy did not take part, both in its proper element, at sea, and in the operations on shore.
In Natal in 1899, the navy’s assistance was largely confined to providing the long range guns which were needed to counter the Boers’ Krupps and Creusots. Detachments were supplied by the following ships: HMS Doris Light Cruiser Flagship - Cape of Good Hope Station
HMS Terrible 1st Class Cruiser
HMS Powerful 1st Class Cruiser
HMS Philomel Light Cruiser
HMS Forte Light Cruiser
HMS Tartar Torpedo Cruiser (later HMS Monarch)
In the western theatre, a ‘Naval Brigade’ was provided for Lord Methuen. This consisted of sailors in the infantry role, while 4,7s and ‘Long 12s’ were also deployed.
It was a balanced force of this type which, over the years, the navy had become accustomed to putting ashore. The Zulu War of 1879 provides a good example of the usefulness of these ‘Naval Brigades’.
It is of interest to note the organization of a battleship’s landing party in 1897. Four 60 man companies armed with rifles were formed from the forecastle, foretop, maintop and quarterdeck men. These were known as A, B, C and D Companies. Supplied for use with this force were two 9-prs RML and two Maxim machine guns. One gun was attached to each of the companies.
Each company had signallers, armourers, pioneers and stretchermen. At battalion headquarters were, among others, a telegraph; searchlight, hospital (with doctors), and commissariat parties, and even a band.
When drawn up on shore, they formed a small but complete fighting force in every particular, with artillery and machine guns attached, and all the appliances for marching and taking the field for any lengthy period.
3 The story of ‘Lady Roberts’
After the Relief of Ladysmith, General Buller asked for four 4,7 in QF guns on lighter carriages than those until then provided by the Royal Navy. These guns were mounted on steel carriages and issued to 6th Company, Western Division, Royal Garrison Artillery. One of these four was nicknamed ‘Lady Roberts’.
The gun was used with the others in the Battle of Bergendal in the Eastern Transvaal on 27 August, 1900. Later, when a defended position was established at the farm Helvetia, 11 km north of Machadodorp, ‘Lady Roberts’ was allocated to it. This position was one of several in the area. The aim was to restrict Boer movement there. Their guns were to be used against Boer forces and the posts were close enough to enable the guns of one position to be used in support of the next. The Helvetia garrison consisted of four weak companies of the 1st Liverpools, twenty-five men of the 19th Hussars and a Captain and twenty men of ‘6th Western’, with ‘Lady Roberts’. The latter were placed on a hill called Gun Hill.
At 03h30 on the morning of 29 December, 1900, Helvetia was attacked by a force under the command of General Ben Viljoen. The Gun Hill position, on the opposite side of the feature from Helvetia farm, was attacked by a party under General Muller. The attack was successful and the gun was captured intact. The ‘Times History’ states that no sentries had been posted. Viljoen, in his account, says that the Captain in charge was distracted by the noise of the Helvetia attack, and was therefore looking the wrong way. He only had time to fire a few pistol shots before being wounded.
Gun Hill then came under fire from two British guns at Zwartkoppies, another position nearby. Nevertheless, the 4,7 was got away, but the cart carrying the ammunition had to be abandoned in the mud. The attack had been a complete success for the Johannesburg and Boksburg Commandos and the Police. Unfortunately for Viljoen, he was unable to fire his captured 4,7. He had captured propellant charges, but no shells. An attempt was made to make a shell from an empty Long Tom shell. It was shaved down, as its 155 mm calibre (about 6 in) was too great. It was filled with four Pom-pom rounds, made tight with copper wire and soldered together. When fired, it burst just outside the muzzle. The experiment was not repeated. The gun was then stowed away in the Tautesberg area, 48 km west of Lydenburg, in the hope that ammunition would be captured later - but this was not to be.
In April 1901, forces under Generals Plumer and Sir Bindon Blood swept through the area, hoping to capture Viljoen’s commandos. Viljoen evaded capture but was forced to destroy ‘Lady Roberts’ which fell into British hands. This was the biggest gun lost by the British in the war. Its remains now stand outside the National Cultural History and Open Air Museum in Pretoria.
|Comparison of Gun Details|
|Weight of shell||Range|
12-pr 6-cwt BL
|12,5 lb||3700 yds||5400 yds|
|(5,7 kg)||(3415 m)||(4985 m)|
|15-pr 7-cwt BL||14,1 lb||4100 yds||5600 yds|
|(6,4 kg)||(3785 m)||(5169 m)|
|5 in howitzer BL||50 lb||4900 yds|
|(22,7 kg)||(4523 m)|
12-pr 8-cwt QF
|12 lb approx||?||5l00yds|
|(5,4 kg)||(4708 m)|
|12-pr 12-cwt QF||12,5 lb||12,5 lb||4500 yds||8000 yds|
|(‘Long 12’)||(5,7 kg)||(5,7 kg)||(4154 m)||(7385 m)|
|4.7 in QF||45 lb||45 lb||6500 yds||10 000 yds|
|(20,4 kg)||(20,4 kg)||(6000 m)||(9231 m)|
|6 in QF||l00 lb||l0 800yds|
|(45,4 kg)||(9969 m)|
75 mm Krupp QF
|11 lb||13,5 lb||?||4400 yds|
|(5 kg)||(6,1 kg)||(4062 m)|
|75 mm Creusot QF||14 lb||11,5 lb||6800 yds||6800 yds|
|(6,4 kg)||(5,2 kg)||(6277 m)||(6277 m)|
|120 mm Krupp howitzer||35 lb||35 lb||?||6300 yds|
|BL||(15,9 kg)||(15,9 kg)||(5815 m)|
|155 mm Creusot BL||94 lb||94 lb||?||11000 yds|
|(‘Long Tom’)||(42,6 kg)||(42,6 kg)||(10 154 m)|
(i) This information is taken from ‘The Times History of the War in South Africa’ (Serials 1 and 3), and ‘The Report of the Royal Commission on the War in South Africa’ (Serial 2). Other sources give different details.
(ii) For example, Breytenbach (quoting Nierstrasz) gives these details:
75 mm Krupp QF - Shrapnel 3300 yds (3000 m); Percussion 6240 yds (5700 m)
75 mm Creusot QF - Shrapnel 8500 yds (7850 m); Percussion 8750 yds (8000 m)
(iii) Naval guns were often fired beyond the graduated elevation scales. Burne mentions 4,7 in QFs firing at 12 000 yds (11075 m) and ‘Long 12s’ at 9000 yds (8308 m).
Burne, C.R.N. With the Naval Brigade in Natal, 1899-1900. London, Armeld 1902.
Garbert, H. Naval Gunnery. London, Bell, 1897 (re-print S.R. Publishers, Wakefield, England, 1971).
History of the First World War. London, Purnell, 1970.
Purfield, Peter Guns at Sea. London, Hugh Evelyn, 1973.
Scott, Percy Fifty Years in the Royal Navy.
Scott, Percy Lecture delivered in Hong Kong, 1900.
The Times History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902. ed by Amery, L.S., London, Sampson Law, 1905.
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