Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Dreadnought – From the Armada to the Cold War - Part Two

Let us resume the journey through British naval history through the admittedly somewhat haphazard means of focusing on ships by the name of Dreadnought. We find ourselves now in the first year of the Seven Years War. Even as one Dreadnought was gently rotting away another was already in service. Launched in 1742 this 60 gun incarnation would spend much of its time in the West Indies. In 1757 with hostilities resumed with France, Dreadnought found herself under the command of Captain Maurice Suckling, uncle of Horatio Nelson. On 21st October 1757 Dreadnought was cruising off of Cap-Francois in the French colony of St Domingue on present day Haiti in company with two other ships of the line; the 64 gun Edinburgh and the 60 gun Augusta, flag ship of Commodore Arthur Forrest. The English ships were hunting a French convoy which they duly encountered, escorted by four ships of the line and three frigates.

Battle of Cap-Francois
Outnumbered though they were, the British commanders nevertheless elected to engage the French. With the Dreadnought in the lead, they sailed into battle. The battle lasted for two and a half hours with the English battering the French ships mercilessly whilst taking fierce punishment themselves. The French commander Kersaint aboard the 70 gun Intrepide, finally decided that his ship could take no more punishment. He signalled for one of the frigates to tow the Intrepide out of the line. In the resulting confusion two of the other French ships of the line became entangled with Intrepide and were left helpless as the British ships pounded them into submission. Finally the French broke off the action and fled. The British ships were too badly damaged for pursuit. Dreadnought had lost her main and mizzen top masts and the other ships were similarly battered. The butcher's bill aboard Dreadnought was nine killed and thirty wounded. Aboard the three British ships 23 men were killed and 90 wounded in the action. French casualties are estimated at over 500 killed and wounded.

The British returned to Jamaica to a heroes' welcome for a fight well fought. After repairs the French convoy set out once more only for two of the ships of the line and one of the frigates to be wrecked in a storm. Dreadnought reached the end of her useful service in 1766 and like her predecessor ended her days as a prison hulk.

The death of Churraca at Trafalgar - somewhat romanticised
The next Dreadnought was a second rater of 98 guns launched in 1801. She fought at Trafalgar under Collingwood, whose flag ship she had been until shortly before the battle. The admiral had drilled her gun crews to perfection and they were reputed to be the fastest in the fleet, able to fire three broadsides in 210 seconds. With Collingwood’s departure to the Royal Sovereign, Dreadnought was left to the command of her captain John Conn. Dreadnought was involved in one of the bloodiest struggles of the day when she engaged the French 74 gun Indomitable and the Spanish 74 gun San Juan Nepomuceno.  Supported by HMS Achille and HMS Polyphemus, Dreadnought pounded the San Juan for thirty five minutes. The San Juan’s commander, Don Cosme de Churruca, had ordered the colours nailed to the mast and urged his officers not to surrender whilst he still breathed. As six British ships surrounded the San Juan however and poured murderous broadsides into her, the carnage aboard the ship mounted. Churraca’s leg was torn off by a cannon ball and he bled to death on his quarter deck, shouting for the ship to continue fighting. One by one his officers fell to cannon and musket fire until just one remained and at last he ordered the colours struck. The San Juan had taken almost 300 casualties in the battle. Dreadnought next engaged the flagship of Spanish Admiral Gravina, the 112 gun Principe de Asturias and drove her out of the battle with furious gun fire. Remarkably for all of the carnage she inflicted, Dreadnought lost just seven men killed and twenty six wounded.

The grand old lady was put into semi-retirement as a hospital ship at Greenwich in 1827, in which capacity she served for another thirty years.

1801 Dreadnought at Greenwich
The next incarnation of Dreadnought was a very different beast to the mighty ships of the line that had borne the name previously. This sleek ironclad, steam-powered battleship with its four twelve inch guns was launched in 1875 and served in the Mediterranean in the era of gunboat diplomacy. She ended her days as a coastguard ship and was scrapped in 1908.

HMS Dreadnought 1875
Now we come to the eponymous Dreadnought; the ship by whose name all subsequent ships of the same design were known. The brainchild of First Lord of the Admiralty Sir John Fisher, Dreadnought was intended as the ideal battleship; a concept crystalised by the outcome of the recent 1905 Battle of Tsushima between the Japanese and Russian navies. Naval strategists had noted the role of big guns and superior top speed in the decisive Japanese victory and Dreadnought therefore boasted an armament of ten twelve inch guns, eleven inches of belt armour and a top speed of 21 knots delivered by its innovative steam turbine engines. Built in a year, Dreadnought at its launch in 1906 redefined the modern battleship and sparked the international arms race with which its name is synonymous.

Ironically, the ship that started it all was absent from the great clash of the dreadnoughts at Jutland and in fact saw little action during the First World War. She did however lay claim to one more piece of history when on 18th March 1915 she rammed and sank the U-boat U29 in Pentland Firth. Having made an unsuccessful torpedo attack upon HMS Neptune, U29 had the misfortune to surface in the path of HMS Dreadnought which steamed towards it with all speed, striking the U-boat amidships, tearing it in half and sending it to the bottom with all hands. In so doing Dreadnought gained the distinction of being the only battleship to sink a submarine. She was scrapped in 1923; the once revolutionary ship now made obsolete by the onward march of technology.
HMS Dreadnought 1906

The last Royal Navy vessel to go by the name of Dreadnought, in keeping with the association of the name with the innovative and new, was Britain’s first nuclear powered submarine. Constructed as a collaboration between Britain and the US, with an American reactor installed in British-built hull. The hunter-killer designated S101 was launched at Barrow in 1960. Dreadnought followed the latest in submarine design as pioneered by the USS Skipjack. With nuclear submarines designed to spend most of their time submerged, Dreadnought sported a rounded bow as opposed to the more ship-like prow of earlier submarines which spent more time on the surface. The teardrop-shaped hull and tapered coning tower were designed to improve the vessel’s performance beneath the waves.

She proved her capabilities in 1971 when she sailed 1,500 miles submerged beneath the polar ice to become the first British submarine to surface at the North Pole. She retired in 1981 and is still in one piece. It is hoped that one day she may be open to the public.

S101 HMS Dreadnought
Tech spec video for 1906 Dreadnought

S101 Dreadnought facts

S101 Dreadnought video of trip to Pole – with great synth soundtrack!
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Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Dreadnought – From the Armada to the Cold War - Part One

Has a ship ever been given a more evocative name than Dreadnought? Like no other the name conjures up the image of a hulking iron-clad monster; brutishly powerful, lethally effective. It is little surprise therefore that this choice of name occurs again and again throughout the history of the English navy. A while back as I was looking for interesting bits to post relating to the Battle of Jutland I was surprised to find out just how many warships named Dreadnought there have been. In the process of perusing the various ships which bore this famous name, although finding frustratingly little detail about some of the ships themselves, I have nevertheless enjoyed a fascinating journey through British naval history. Supposedly first used in the reign of Edward VI for a forty gun bruiser launched in 1553, the name Dreadnought has subsequently graced seven other ships and one submarine.
The Spanish Armada
In 1573 the second ship by the name of Dreadnought to serve in the forces of the English crown was launched. The vessel was highly innovative, being the second of the new race-built galleons to roll off the slipway. This new design of fighting ship, shorn of the built up ‘castles’ fore and aft which made ships unwieldy in manoeuver if formidable in close quarters fighting, would literally run rings around their less nimble opponents. Under the command of Thomas Fenner, the forty one gun Dreadnought sailed with Drake on his raid against Cadiz in 1587, there to engage in the joyful destruction of 36 Spanish vessels and the seizing of vast quantities of supplies and war materiel, including to the delight of the raiders:  A ship of two hundred and fifty tons laden with wines on the king’s account, which ship we carried with us to sea, when we took out the wines for our own use, and then set her on fire!
The singeing of the King of Spain’s beard was thus celebrated by Drake’s raiders with the king’s own wine.
A year later, Dreadnought, under the command of George Beeston, took part in the harrying of the Spanish Armada as it made its unsuccessful bid to mount an invasion of England. In the engagement off Portland, Dreadnought joined in an attack led by Lord Howard’s Ark Royal to cannonade the Spanish ships at close quarters.
Dreadnought enjoyed a long career, perhaps too long, participating in the abortive Cadiz raid of 1625 in which a hotchpotch English fleet commanded by Edward Cecil sailed into the port but allowed the Spanish ships gathered therein to flee to safety. Having captured a small fort and landed his troops with the intention of capturing the town, Cecil then allowed his men to become roaring drunk only to fall victim to a relieving Spanish army which slaughtered them with impunity. It was a far cry from Dreadnought’s glory days under Drake and Howard. She was finally broken up in 1648.

Battle of Lowestoft Royal Charles vs Eendracht

In 1660 following the restoration of Charles II, a third rater named Torrington after a Parliamentarian victory of the Civil War was renamed HMS Dreadnought. The 62 gun warship would see action in the second and third Anglo-Dutch wars as the two powers contested the command of the seas and the dominance of international  trade that  came went with it. When the English and Dutch fleets clashed off Lowestoft in 1665 Dreadnought fought in the rear guard under the Earl of Sandwich, joining in the pivotal breaking of the Dutch line late in the battle, resulting in the fragmentation of the Dutch fleet, part of which became surrounded. When the Dutch flagship Eendracht blew up in the midst of a duel with the English flagship Royal Charles, aboard which the future King James II narrowly missed being decapitated by chain shot, the Dutch fleet broke up in confusion and ultimately fled. The Dutch lost seventeen ships to just one English ship taken as a prize early in the battle.

In the following year Dreadnought saw action again under the command of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, coming late to the epic Four Days Battle fought off Dunkirk. Rupert’s squadron arrived on the third day of the battle to find the English hard pressed and joined in the action of the final day but was forced to withdraw en masse after  Rupert's flagship the Royal James was dismasted and had to be towed to safety. Captain of the Dreadnought on that day was former buccaneer Edward Spragge, who was knighted for his courage in the battle. Spragge was disgraced just a year later however for his failure to adequately defend Sheerness Fort and prevent the brazen Dutch raid on the Medway which saw the Royal James burned and the Royal Charles towed away as a prize, causing Samuel Pepys to lament in his diary.
All our hearts do now ake; for the newes is true, that the Dutch have broke the chaine and burned our ships, and particularly the Royal Charles, other particulars I know not, but most sad to be sure. And, the truth is, I do fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone… 
Shortly after the debacle of Medway  the Second Anglo -Dutch War came to an end as a shaken Charles II sought peace. Dreadnought however was still on hand when hostilities resumed in 1672 with England now allied with France against the Dutch. Dreadnought fought in the Prince of Wales’ squadron at the hard-fought Battle of Solebay and thereafter served under her former commander Spragge at the battles of Schooneveld and Texel in the summer of 1673. Spragge, (pictured above) now Admiral commanding the English rear, had developed a bitter personal rivalry with the Dutch commander Cornelis Tromp; son of that Marten Tromp who had been such a fierce rival of Robert Blake.
Rear Admiral Spragge, who felt himself to have been twice humiliated by Tromp in the Four Days’ Battle and on the Medway had vowed to King Charles that he would capture or kill Tromp when next they met. At Schooneveld the Anglo-French fleet under the command of Prince Rupert attempted to force the Dutch from their anchorage and into a decisive battle as a prelude to an invasion but were frustrated in their efforts. The fiercest fighting took place between the squadrons of Tromp and Spragge as the two sought each other out and pounded away at each other until nightfall.
At the Battle of Texel later that year Spragge and Tromp resumed their rivalry. So fierce was the fight between the two of them that both admirals had to switch their flag to another ship on two occasions in order to continue. During his second transfer, the sloop carrying Spragge was hit by cannon fire and  the admiral was drowned. The Dutch won the battle, ending hopes for an invasion and a year later hostilities were ended by the Treaty of Westminster, whose most significant provision saw the city of New Amsterdam become New York.
As for Dreadnought, she survived the hardest fighting of the Anglo-Dutch Wars and remained in naval service, undertaking a voyage to Tangier, before finally foundering off North Foreland in 1690.

Spragge and Tromp do battle at Texel
A year later a third rater of 64 guns named Dreadnought was launched at Blackwall. This new Dreadnought found herself fighting under changed political circumstances. With William of Orange on the English throne and Louis XIV seeking to supplant him by restoring the deposed James II, this Dreadnought would fight in a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet against the French at the Battle of Barfleur in May 1692. Dreadnought fought in the rear division under Rear Admiral Richard Carter aboard HMS Duke. Late in the battle Carter’s squadron broke through the French line in heavy fog and gathering darkness, sowing chaos and confusion as the battered French fleet broke up and fled in disarray. In the fiercest fighting of the day Carter fell mortally wounded, his last orders to his Post Captain being ‘Fight the ship as long as she will swim!
Dreadnought enjoyed a long career with service in the West Indies and Mediterranean. In 1717 she fought under Admiral George Byng at the Battle of Cape Passaro. Falling upon a Spanish fleet cruising off the Sicilian coast, unaware of the outbreak of hostilities in the War of the Quadruple Alliance, the English fleet utterly vanquished the Spaniards, capturing or burning 13 of their ships for no loss of their own. It was the Dreadnought’s finest hour. She ended her days in 1747 as a prison hulk.

Battle of Barfleur
Part Two includes Nelson's uncle's finest hour, a bloody struggle against a Spanish hero at Trafalgar and a voyage to the North Pole!

The Cadiz Raid and other adventures

Anglo Dutch Wars

Treaty of Westminster

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Monday, 1 July 2013

Enemies at the Gate Part Two - Basil I and the siege of Syracuse

In the last post on matters Byzantine I told of how the emperor Michael III raised up his drinking companion Basil to share the rule of the empire alongside him only to be slain by his friend in an act of monstrous ingratitude. Posterity however has largely forgiven Basil this crime with the justification that his reign both represented a return to good governance after the misrule of Michael ‘The Sot’ and that he served as the founding father of the greatest of Byzantine ruling dynasties; the Macedonian. Such at least is the favourable viewpoint left to us by his descendants! Things however were, as usual, more complicated than that. Basil’s second son and eventual successor Leo VI is strongly believed in reality to have been the son of his predecessor Michael, whose mistress Basil had married whilst Michael still lived.

So much then for the emperor’s domestic arrangements. On the international stage matters were scarcely more edifying.
A campaign was mounted against the resurgent Paulicians which, following some serious setbacks, once more saw the heretics slaughtered in their thousands and driven from their capital Tephrike. This led to a resumption of desultory hostilities with the forces of the Caliphate in which the emperor himself periodically participated in an unsuccessful attempt to drive the Muslims from Cilicia.

In the west Basil accomplished a fleeting rapprochement with the Papacy with a view to recovering Byzantine territory in Dalmatia, Sicily and southern Italy from the Saracens, who threatened Rome itself. Relations were patched up at the expense of Patriarch Photius, who, despite having conjured a miracle against the Rus, found himself deposed although he would be reinstated seven years later.

The Saracen invaders were successfully driven from the Dalmatian coast, with the relief of the city of Ragusa in 867 by the capable admiral Nicetas Oryphas being a notable success. An alliance with the Western Emperor Louis II, great-grandson of Charlemagne, came to little and ended in acrimonious dispute as Basil, the Thracian peasant turned murderous usurper, refused to acknowledge Louis’ claim to the imperial title! Louis’ capture of the former Byzantine enclave of Bari from the Arabs in 871 with Byzantine naval support from Oryphas was the only fruit of the alliance. In 874 Oryphas pulled off a celebrated feat by transporting his fleet overland across the Isthmus of Corinth to fall upon and destroy an unsuspecting Saracen corsair fleet that was plundering the Adriatic coast.

Louis II at Bari

In Sicily meanwhile the Aghlabid invaders from Muslim-held North Africa had been steadily increasing their hold over the island until only the stronghold of Syracuse remained. Holding on to this last bastion represented the Byzantines’ best and only chance of recovering the island. A first-hand account of the Arab siege of the city from 877 to 878 is related by Theodosius the Monk, who found himself a prisoner of the Arabs at the siege’s end. In his letter to his friend the arch-deacon Leo, Theodosius relates the grim tidings that at last, after a long struggle, Syracuse has been taken in a brutal assault.

Such was the slaughter that on the same day every weapon with which defence had been made was broken to pieces, bows, quivers, arms, swords, and all weapons; the strong were made weak, and the violence of the foe drove to surrender those defenders, those brave men whom I may well call giants, who laboured with all their might, who hesitated not before that day to suffer hunger and all labours, and to be pierced with numberless wounds for the love of Christ, and who were all put to the sword after the city was taken. At length we are fallen into the hands of the enemy, though for a long time we defended ourselves from the walls, and though many times there was fighting on the sea, which indeed was a horrible sight, filling with consternation the eyes of those that looked, for the vision is indeed dismayed by the atrocity of those things which are often brought before it.

With dramatic eloquence Theodosius tells us of the horrors of the siege. He describes the ludicrous rising prices and the eventual desperate shortages of food in the city as the people were driven to eating shoe leather and bread made from the ground up bones of long-since devoured animals. He tells of the terrible outbreak of disease which inevitably occurred in the overcrowded city and of the sufferings of those who expired from starvation.

He describes the relentless bombardment of the Arab siege engines, the terror of the inhabitants and the courage of the defenders. Ultimately the city falls. A battered tower, crumbling beneath the onslaught of the siege engines is eventually taken by storm, the defenders are overwhelmed and the Arabs break into the city, slaughtering all in their path. Theodosius describes the terrible deaths of those taken captive. One man who had unwisely shouted obscenities against the Prophet from the walls was allegedly flayed alive and his heart was cut out. Finally Theodosius describes the dank and vermin infested Palermo prison to which he has been consigned awaiting ransom.

 At length we were thrown into the common prison; and this is a den having its pavement fourteen steps below ground, and it has only a little door instead of a window; here the darkness is complete, and can be felt, the only light being from a lamp, or some reflection by day, and it is impossible ever to see the light of dawn in this dungeon, nor the rays of the moon. Our bodies were distressed by the heat, for it was summer, and we were scorched by the breath of our fellow-prisoners; and besides, the vermin and the lice, and hosts of fleas and other little insects, make a man miserable by their bites; promiscuously with us there were confined in the same prison, to trade (as it were) with these miseries, Ethiopians, Tarsians, Jews, Lombards, and some of our own Christians, from different parts, among whom was also the most holy Bishop of Malta, chained with double shackles. Then the two bishops embraced one another, and kissed one another with the holy kiss, and wept together awhile over the things that had happened to them; but presently the gave thanks to God for it all, and combated their grief with arguments drawn from our philosophy.

The Fall of Syracuse
And where were the emperor’s relief forces whilst this brave but ultimately doomed defence of Syracuse was going on? For two months the fleet sat idle in the Peloponnese, whilst soldiers were employed in the construction of a church on the emperor’s orders and ships were employed in the transportation of marble for the same. It was a shameful misappropriation of imperial resources and the subsequent and inevitable fall of Syracuse dismayed all Christendom.
Sicily was entirely lost to the empire. Under the able commander Nicephorus Phocas however, who arrived in Italy in 880, some notable gains were ultimately made on the Italian mainland as the Arabs were driven from Calabria and many of the cities of the south recognised the suzerainty of the emperor, leading to the establishment of the Theme of Longobardia.

In the east the war against Saracens ultimately went badly with a crushing defeat being inflicted on the Byzantine forces as they laid siege to Tarsus in 883. The island of Cyprus which had been recovered by the empire was lost again after just seven years.

Following the death of his eldest son and heir Constantine in 879 Basil himself was  left a broken man. Constantine’s parentage was not in dispute, being as he was the product of the emperor’s first marriage. His second son Leo, on the other hand, he despised and suspected of plotting against him. When Leo was found with a concealed knife in his boot during a hunt with his father he found himself imprisoned as a traitor. Basil ultimately relented and released and reinstated Leo, bowing to public pressure. In his last years we are told Basil was plagued by despair at the death of his son and guilt over his bloody path to power and he sought constant reassurance from the church that his dead son’s soul had been received well by the almighty. For his own he can have held out little hope. He died in suspicious circumstances on another hunting trip in the summer of 886. Leo duly succeeded him.

Basil gets a reasonably good press from the chroniclers which seems surprising given his bloody seizure of power and less than awe-inspiring military record. As the founding father of the dynasty under whose auspices his story was being written however, he was guaranteed a fairly decent write up. His admirers can point to his recodification of the laws, his programme of church construction and the strident missionary effort which was carried on amongst the peoples of the Balkans under his reign.
None of that would have been of much consolation to poor Theodosius however, as he suffered in his prison and cursed the emperor who had abandoned Syracuse to its fate.

 Leo's concealed weapon is revealed!
Theodosius' account in full

 The reign of Basil I