To the 1st century BC

From canoe to warship

Any tribe in possession of Primitive boats is likely to use its craft in war. Canoes provide a good way of arriving suddenly to surprise the enemy.

But naval warfare hardly deserves that name until boats are large enough and sturdy enough to become fighting machines in their own right. In modern times, since the development of Artillery, warships have largely been floating gun emplacements - designed to damage or sink each other at a distance. In earlier stages of naval warfare they are more often platforms for hand-to-hand combat. But the first warships also have one special characteristic. They are designed to sink an enemy vessel by ramming it. This development is associated with a great seafaring people, the Phoenicians.

Phoenician design: from 1100 BC

The Phoenician fleet contains two markedly different designs of ship. A squat and tubby sailing vessel, rounded at both ends, is used for carrying goods and passengers. A longer boat, also rounded at the stern but with a sharp battering ram for a bow, is for war; this warship is a galley, propelled by oars, making possible bursts of speed and rapid manoeuvres.

Ramming an enemy ship is the main tactic of naval warfare throughout the Phoenician, Greek and Roman periods. A thousand years after the first Phoenician example, Roman warships have a bronze beak beneath the prow, below water level. They are themselves protected from this form of attack by belts of metal around the vessel.

The only way of increasing the all-important speed of a Phoenician warship is by adding more oarsmen. To some extent this can be achieved in a longer ship, but there comes a point at which extra length brings structural weakness. The solution is to have banks of oarsmen. By 700 BC the Phoenicians are using two banks, one above the other, in the type of vessel known as the bireme. Within the next two centuries a third bank is added, probably by the Greeks, to provide the trireme.

The trireme is the vessel used in the first war to be decided largely by naval power - the conflict in the 5th century BC between the Greeks and the persians. By the time of the Punic wars, galleys are even larger.

The Athenian navy: 5th century BC

The decision of the Athenians to invest heavily in a Fleet of triremes, in 483 BC, is a turning point in the Greco-persian war and in the development of Greek Democracy - since the poorer citizens can now for the first time take part in warfare, as oarsmen in the triremes.

It is not known exactly where the third bank of oarsmen is seated (whether directly above the second, or further into the boat on the same level), but the oars vary from about 7'6' (2.3m) for the lowest bank to almost double that length at the top. Amazingly two more banks of oarsmen are soon fitted in - again no one quite knows how. It is with larger ships of this kind that a new naval power emerges, fully fledged, in the 3rd century BC.

The first Roman navy: 260-255 BC

During the opening skirmishes of the first Punic War the Romans capture a Carthaginian warship which has run aground. It is of a kind only recently introduced in Mediterranean navies. As a quinquereme, with five banks of oars (rowed by 300 oarsmen), it is larger and heavier than the Triremes which have been the standard ship of Greek warfare. Since victory at sea involves ramming other ships, the extra size is important.

Rome's new navy is to consist largely of quinqueremes, copied from the captured Carthaginian example. The senate orders 100, together with 20 Triremes, and sets the astonishing delivery time of two months. Even more astonishing - the order is apparently met.

A few skilled oarsmen are available, from Rome's allies around the coasts of Italy, but more than 30,000 men will be needed to row these vessels. They are rapidly trained on land, in ship frames constructed for the purpose. Even so, the skills of hand-to-hand fighting at sea, to be carried out by 120 marines on each warship, cannot be quickly learnt.

Instead the Romans pin their hopes on a device which has already featured briefly in Greek naval warfare, but not to much effect. It is designed to give Roman soldiers, trained in the legions, a more stable platform from which to attack.

This device is a hinged drawbridge which can be released to crash down when an enemy ship is alongside. On its underside is a metal point, which will pierce the deck of the vessel and hold it fast while the Roman troops storm aboard. The lethal peck from this sharp beak gives the device its familiar name among the crews. It is a 'raven'. And it wins them battles.

The first such victory comes as a major shock to the Carthaginians. They have an advantage of thirty ships over the inexperienced Romans when the fleets meet in 260 BC off Mylae (now Milazzo), a few miles to the west of Messina. But the ravens enable the Romans to destroy fifty Carthaginian ships before the rest flee in panic.

The new Roman confidence at sea prompts the building of a massive fleet to invade Carthage herself. It sails in 256 BC. About 250 quinqueremes, with some 30,000 marines on board, accompany eighty or more transport ships, carrying 500 cavalrymen and their horses together with food for the entire army. This force defeats another Carthaginian fleet before landing safely in Africa. On land there are early successes too, but eventually Carthaginian elephants and cavalry inflict a heavy defeat in 255 on the Romans. Only 2000 Romans escape.

Another vast fleet of 350 ships is sent out. It wins a victory at sea against the Carthaginians, but on the return journey a gale dashes the Roman ships against the rocky south Sicilian coast. Only eighty limp home to safety.

The Battle of Actium: 31 BC

Roman warships abandon the raven soon after its first successes against the Carthaginians. The reason is probably their heavy losses in storm conditions. The raven in its upright position may have proved top-heavy.

A more sophisticated method of holding and boarding an enemy vessel is used by both sides in the civil war engagement at Actium. This is a catapult which fires a multiple hook on a line, to grapple an enemy ship and to drag it close for hand-to-hand combat.

To the 15th century AD

Rowing into battle: for 2000 years

The main ingredients of naval warfare remain essentially the same throughout the classical and medieval centuries. Long, narrow ships, powered by banks of oarsmen, circle each other attempting either to ram the enemy or to grapple a ship so that marines can board it and slaughter the crew. Such encounters continue until 1571, when the battle of Lepanto is the last great engagement between warships propelled by oars.

The only refinement in these centuries is a famous Byzantine invention. It proves so devastating that it has retained, even today, the status of a terrifying mystery. It is Greek fire, first used in the 7th century.

Greek fire: AD 674

In 674 a Muslim fleet enters the Bosphorus to attack Constantinople. It is greeted, and greatly deterred, by a new weapon which can be seen as the precursor of the modern flamethrower. It has never been discovered precisely how the Byzantine chemists achieve the jet of flame for their 'Greek fire'. The secret of such a lethal advantage is jealously guarded.

Contemporary accounts imply that the inflammable substance is petroleum-based, floats on water, and is almost impossible to extinguish. It can be lobbed in a canister. But in its most devastating form it is projected, as a stream of liquid fire, from a tube mounted in the prow of a ship. Sprayed among a wooden fleet, its destructive potential is obvious.

Sterncastle and forecastle: 11th - 16th century AD

The Norman longships, invading England in 1066, are shown in the Bayeux tapestry with fortified platforms for archers at each end. They resemble small castles, and the notion of a castle from which to fight on shipboard becomes enshrined in naval terminology. Raised areas at the stern and bow are known as the sterncastle and the forecastle (often reduced to fo'c'sle).

From the 14th century these castles begin to be occupied by fighting men of a different kind. The earliest reference to Artillery on a ship is on a vessel attacking Antwerp in 1336.

Any gun on board ship at this period is relatively small. But as cannon increase in size, during the 15th century, a raised position in the sterncastle or forecastle tends to destabilize the vessel.

The solution, pioneered in France in about 1500, is for cannon to be ranged on decks in the belly of the ship. Their muzzles, when in action, project through square holes in the side of the hull (the gunports), which are closed and made relatively watertight at other times by a hinged flap.

The cannon are mounted on wheeled guncarriages to allow for the recoil. The heaviest guns, on the deck nearest to the waterline, require the longest recoil and therefore the greatest amount of deck. Lighter guns, on successive decks above, need less space.

Thus there evolves the characteristic shape of the man-of-war, with the hull curving inwards from the waterline to a top deck which is narrower than those below. The raised forecastle is no longer required (and is proved by Hawkins to be a hindrance to good sailing). The sterncastle develops into spacious quarters for the captain, becoming known as the poop - from the Latin puppis, meaning 'stern'.

16th - 18th century

Carracks galleons and galleys: 16th century AD

The largest European sailing ship of the 15th century is the Spanish carrack, easily outdoing the caravel in tonnage (more than 1000 tons compared to an average of 250 for the caravel). The carrack becomes the standard vessel of Atlantic trade and adventure in the mid-16th century, until an important modification is made to its design.

The carrack has unusually high Castles in bow and stern, but the English trader of Slaves John Hawkins discovers in the 1560s that the forecastle seriously hampers sailing. The great bulk of it, catching the wind ahead of the mast, has the effect of pushing the bow to leeward - making it very difficult to sail close to the wind.

From 1570 Hawkins experiments with a design in which the high forecastle is eliminated. He proves that a ship with high stern and relatively low bow is faster and more manoeuvrable. With an official post on the Navy Board, he is able to improve the English fleet dramatically before the encounter with the Spanish Armada in 1588 - when the agility of the English vessels wins the day.

Hawkins' 'low-charged' design, which acquires the general name of galleon, becomes the standard form for all large ships, whether merchant vessels or men-of-war, and remains so until the late 18th century.

The development of the galleon, the warship of the future, overlaps with the final chapter in the story of the galley - a vessel with some 2500 years of service in naval engagements.

In 1571, while Hawkins is improving the design of the carrack, a fleet of Christian Galleys engages with the Turks at Lepanto in the coastal waters of Greece. Using the ancient tactics of ramming and boarding, the Christians rout the Turks - sinking some 50 Galleys and capturing another 117. It is the last and the largest encounter in which ships are rowed into battle. Some 15,000 enslaved Christians, rowing the Turkish Galleys, win their freedom as a result of the victory.

Spanish Armada: AD 1588

The encounter between the Spanish Armada and the English fleet in the Channel in August 1588 is the first of a new kind of naval battle, and one in which the English tactics suggest the way forward.

The Spanish have been accustomed to fighting at sea with galleys, as at Lepanto only seventeen years previously. A galley imposes a certain pattern on a battle. Guns can only point forward from the bow, where the main weapon, the ram, is also located. Assault consists in rowing straight at the enemy. Once at close quarters the ideal is to sink the enemy ship, with the ram. Next best is to grapple it and swarm aboard for hand-to-hand combat - in a technique going back to the Roman navy and the 'Raven'.

The Armada (or in full Flota Armada Invencible, Armed Invincible Fleet) is the first Spanish war fleet to consist of sailing vessels, but its composition implies the use of galley tactics. The Spanish galleons are heavy; their guns fire large cannon balls, devastating at close quarters but of limited range; and the sailors on board the warships are more than twice outnumbered by soldiers, valueless in a sea battle unless ships come alongside.

The English fleet, consisting of smaller and swifter vessels, is armed with cannon which fire a lighter ball over a greater range. And the ships are almost entirely manned by trained seamen, with only a handful of soldiers.

The English crews, with commanders such as Hawkins and Drake among them, have learnt their trade in piracy against fat Spanish vessels. Now as they manoeuvre around the Armada, bombarding it from a distance, they demonstrate that the armed man-of-war is no longer just a vessel carrying combatants. It is itself the unit with which sea battles are fought.

During the next two centuries ships become bigger, cannon power more equal, and tactics more rigid in the development of the 'line'. But the basic pattern of warfare at sea is now established until the introduction of metal-plated and steam-powered warships in the mid-19th century.

Compared to later grand battles at sea, the fight with the Armada is strung-out and scrappy. The English, under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham, attack off Plymouth on July 31, off Portland Bill on August 2 and off the isle of Wight on August 4. Their light cannon reach the Spanish ships but do little damage. The fleet safely reaches Calais, where the plan is to pick up an army from the Netherlands and to ferry it across the Channel against England. But the army has not arrived.

During the night of August 7 the English send fire ships in among the anchored fleet, causing the Spanish to cut their cables in disarray. The next day the only real engagement takes place, off Gravelines.

The Spanish run out of cannon shot first, whereupon the English sail in close enough to do serious damage. At least three ships are sunk and a great many more severely battered before the English too run out of shot. The Armada escapes into the North Sea. The Spanish commander, the duke of Medina Sidonia, cannot now return through the Channel. He attempts to take his shattered fleet round the north of Scotland and into the Atlantic.

Ships founder or are wrecked on Scottish and Irish coasts. Of the 130 vessels which sailed from Corunna in June, only 67 limp back to Spain. The English, with a very much easier return voyage to their home ports, lose not a single ship.

Ships of the line: 17th - 18th century AD

For nearly a century after the Armada, a naval battle consists of a general melee with ships from each side engaging in individual combat. But during the Anglo-dutch wars discipline begins to be imposed on fleets, with the emergence of the line of battle.

Since a man-of-war can only fire its cannon in broadsides, at right angles to the direction in which it is sailing, it makes tactical sense for the fleet to form up in line ahead and to move past the enemy with all guns blazing. To maintain this formation an effective system of signalling is required.

The first attempt to achieve such a system appears in Instructions for the better ordering of the fleet in fighting, produced by the English admiral Robert Blake and others in 1653. It lists a limited range of messages which can be sent, depending on which of five flags is flying at which position on the masts.

Signalling by flags at sea will become much more sophisticated during the 18th century. Meanwhile the procedure for maintaining a line at sea is published in England in 1672 under the title Sailing and Fighting Instructions. It is first applied in the Anglo-dutch war of 1672-4.

The line becomes the basis of all warfare between fleets, and the ships themselves are soon classified in relation to it - depending on their size and the number of guns they carry. From the 1750s the British navy lists its ships according to six 'rates', the first rate carrying more than 100 guns and the sixth rate less than thirty-two.

Only the first three rates are ships of the line, considered of a size to take their place in a full-scale battle. Victory in such a battle goes to the side whose ships are well enough sailed and trimmed to deliver a lethal blast of shot as rival ships slide past each other at a range of 100 yards or less.

The positioning of the line, in relation to the wind, is an important tactical decision for the admiral of the fleet in the run-up to a battle. The problem then is to hold the line. Control is facilitated from the 17th century by the division of the fleet into three squadrons flying different coloured flags. The flag of the admiral's squadron is red, the vice admiral's is white and the rear admiral's blue.

As fleets get larger, in the 18th century, command is subdivided between nine admirals, three in each squadron. The admiral of the White, for example, has a vice admiral of the White and a rear admiral of the White as his second and third in command.

Sections are as yet missing at this point.

19th century

Monitor and Merrimack: AD 1861 -1862

During the winter of 1861-2 newspapers in both Union and Confederate states are full of the race to construct an ironclad. The Confederacy has decided in 1861 that it needs ships of this armoured kind, recently introduced in the navies of France and Britain, to break the Blockade of its ports ordered by President Lincoln. The Union, not to be outdone, sets about equipping its navy with similar vessels.

But if the race is exciting, the first encounter in history between two metal warships proves even more dramatic.

The Confederate navy decides to adapt an existing hulk rather than start afresh. They use the remains of a steam-and-sail frigate, the Merrimack, scuttled by Union forces abandoning the Norfolk naval base in Virginia in April 1861.

The Confederates raise her in May and discover that only her upper decks have been severely damaged. The steam engine is in place and can be restored. Deciding that she can become the first Confederate ironclad, they rename her the Virginia (though she remains better known in history as the Merrimack, particularly in relation to her encounter with the Monitor).

The Confederate engineers cut the Virginia down close to the waterline. On top of her wooden hull they place a low but massive superstructure, shaped like a metal tent with its sides projecting two feet below the waterline. The sides of this tent consist of three layers: on the inside are 20 inches of solid pine; then 4 inches of oak; and on top of that 2 inches of iron plate. As in any previous man-of-war, cannon peep through these mighty walls.

To complete the armoury of what seems the ultimate naval fighting machine, the Confederates borrow a detail from ancient Roman warships. From the bows of the Virginia a vicious metal ram projects below the water line.

On her first outing, on 8 March 1862, the Virginia more than fulfils the wildest hopes of her designers. She steams calmly towards two Union sailing ships anchored in the mouth of the James river to enforce the Blockade. While their cannon balls bounce harmlessly off her massive carapace, the Virginia blasts one of them with her guns and slides past to ram the other. Both are destroyed. The news is received with jubilation on the Confederate side. Clearly the Blockade is smashed. Similar damage to other Union ships is planned for the following day.

But during this same day the Union's answer has been completing her journey from New York. Pulled by a tug, the Monitor arrives on the scene during the night of March 8.

The Monitor, designed from the start as an armoured gunship, is much smaller than the Victoria but looks equally odd. Where the Victoria has a metal tent on a low flat hull, the Monitor has what looks like a cake tin. It is a revolving turret with two 11 inch guns.

On March 9 the shores are lined with people, and every available pleasure boat puts to sea, to watch the Virginia in action again. Those who know of the arrival of the Monitor expect also a mighty clash between the Union's little David and the Confederate Goliath.

The two ironclads tussle all morning, as if in slow motion (they take much time turning and reloading), but the result is stalemate. Their armour is too strong for the guns they are carrying. But their encounter enters naval history as the first clash of ironclads, a foretaste of the days of battleships and dreadnoughts.

The Virginia is destroyed by the Confederates when they abandon Norfolk in May 1862. But the Monitor proves to be the first in a long line of similar small gunships. Her swivelling turret becomes a standard feature of naval warfare.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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