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Many of history’s most important battles were fought at sea

Posted in Boats, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Sea, Ships, War on Thursday, 30 May 2013

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This edited article about warships originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 273 published on 8 April 1967.

Salamis, picture, image, illustration

The Battle of Salamis by Andrew Howat

Man, being man, developed ships and then found a means of fighting with them. He went on to improve both. Some of the most important battles in the history of the world have been fought at sea, from Salamis and Actium onwards to the Spanish Armada and the Glorious First of June, the Nile and Trafalgar, and onwards again to Tsushima and Jutland, and the great battles of the United States Navy with its fleets of aircraft carriers against the Japanese in the Pacific during the Second World War.

In the days of long ago until today, to move armies meant fleets of ships. Such ships are vulnerable. To move them in safety means command of the sea. That means war.

First, galleys slugged it out. Battles whose outcome affected the whole course of history were fought at Salamis in Greece 480 years before the birth of Christ, when the last stand of the Greek galleys under Themistocles crushed and destroyed the fleets of the Persian King Xerxes and put a stop to his plan for taking over the Mediterranean; again at Actium, in 31 B.C., when the arrogant and unprincipled Cleopatra fled from the scene of battle, she made possible the rise of the Roman Empire.

Over 1,600 years later in the year 1571, fleets of galleys again decided history at the battle of Lepanto, where the Christian fleets finally and decisively defeated the Moslem Moors and Turks. At Actium, fleets of very large galleys equipped with war machines for hurling anything hot and hurlable and armies of crossbow men and spear-throwers opposed smaller, swifter galleys, which darted in and out among them and finally – when a treacherous Cleopatra pulled her fleet out – defeated them. At Lepanto, galleys had bow-cannon which they aimed by aiming themselves, steering at their targets, their rowers working furiously. Christians had arquebuses, Turks arrows and scimitars. Both had boundless courage. Both were equally determined to win.

Defeat at Lepanto was the end of the Moslem hope of domination. It was the end of great battles by galleys, too, though they survived for another three centuries in the Mediterranean and – oddly enough – in the Baltic. Pirates loved them. Algerine rovers played havoc with them. They could sneak up on ships in calms.

There had been great and small sailing warships long before the battle of Lepanto. Such ships had two handicaps. Calm stopped them – and there was a lot of summer calm in both the Mediterranean and the Baltic. They fired their guns by broadside, for the bulk of their armament had to fire directly outboard, through gun-ports cut in the hull. Though they could achieve a little aim by tackles, levers, and wedges on the primitive guns, they, too had to aim by pointing the ship so that its guns, sticking out horizontally, found their targets. Galleys could row rings around them.

But calm could be a temporary state. When the sea rose, oars were vulnerable. The sailing ship could keep the sea and manoeuvre infinitely better than a galley could.

Long before Lepanto, there were enormous sailing warships in Northern Europe. France, England, Sweden and Spain all had them. England’s Henri Grace a Dieu had four masts, six towering decks and half-decks and nearly 400 guns. Each of her upper decks was a fortress covering the waist, the only point where the great ship could be boarded. Murderous cross-fire from fore and aft would quickly repel any boarders left alive, for the great ‘houses’ bristled with swivel-guns. Sailors called them ‘murdering-guns’.

Sweden has records of an outsize fighting ship called the Elefant, a name which probably suited her all too well. Scotland had another named the Great Michael, 240 feet long. All we know of France’s Grand Francois of 1527 is that she had five masts, and that men working aloft on them looked ‘no bigger than chickens’ even when seen from her own main deck.

We can deduce one other thing. The Grand Francois must have been impossibly big. She was wrecked in port before she ever got to sea.

Big ships were prestige ships. “Who ever heard of a ship killing or wounding a man by herself?” as a leader of Actium asked, when his men were fearful of Antony and Cleopatra’s towering galleys. Drake and the other Englishmen thought the same thing when they saw the Spanish Armada lumbering up the English Channel less than 20 years after Lepanto. What use were great ships without skilled men to handle them? Galleys were for soldiers, very temporarily at sea. Sailing ships were for seamen. The hard weather and rough seas round the British coasts and the North Sea bred real seamen, and fostered strong ships. They might be small, but that was no disadvantage. So the English sailors watched the great Armada sail by, from Plymouth Hoe, and then quietly set after them.

The Spanish gentlemen sailing their ‘huge sea-castles heaving on the weather bow’ did not, apparently, have much faith in sea-borne cannon. The first ship ever sunk by means of cannon-fire from another ship sank only in 1513, and fighting sea gentlemen of many nations, apparently, took a dim view of these newfangled, ‘unfair’ tactics. The Armada included small ships, too. But the fleet was led by a nobleman with courage, but with neither ability nor liking for his job. All he had to do was to grasp command of the narrow Channel seas for a few days, during which a great army ready in the Netherlands could cross and fall on England.

It was not the Armada’s fault that the army was not ready. It was not the leader’s fault that, instead of fighting in straight-out soldierly battle, the English ships picked stragglers off one or two at a time, and sent in fire-ships among the Spanish fleet at anchor off Gravelines to sting them like a flight of ghastly bumble-bees among a mob of big, fat bulls. The Spaniards cut their cables and fled.

It was not their fault, either, that when they had sped up-Channel and into the North Sea, the gales got behind them and sped them farther on their way, to be wrecked by the dozen on the granite coasts of Scotland and wicked rocks of Western Ireland where they had no local knowledge at all. Those huge hulls, castellated, high out of the sea, caught all the wind there was, but could not claw to wind’ard, could not extricate themselves from a lee shore in a gale.

After the Armada and Lepanto, fighting ships ranged far. Superiority of Portuguese sea-power gave them first entrance and then dominance in Eastern Seas, but so small a nation could not maintain this for long. Dutch, French, English followed them, took over larger and larger sections, each trying to dominate the lot. The English pilot Will Adams from Gillingham, working for the Dutch, sailed to Japan. The great East India Company sent its armed ships throughout the East. English fought Dutch, Dutch fought Spanish. French in turn fought the rest, all clutching for the trade and a monopoly of it, if possible. Sailing merchantmen and sailing warships became stronger, larger, more able to keep the seas on lengthy voyages. The struggle for the Indian Ocean was long and costly, but the rewards were great.

In the end it all worked out in a sort of rough compromise, with the British dominating India, Burma, Malaya, and established in the China and Japan trades, while Holland had rich Indonesia and many of the spice islands, Spain the Philippines, France and Portugal enclaves along the Indian coast, bases in the Indian Ocean and on the China Coast – Macao for Portugal, all the vast lands known as Indo-China for France. With time, much of this has passed away, first as men learned to be a little less pig-headed in matters of trade and later, as they learned more tolerance towards exploited races.

This, indeed, took a very long time.

In the process, all sailing warships and almost all sailing-ships, were swept from the sea. But not before such ships had made all the great voyages of discovery, and fought by far the greater part of the important sea battles of the world.

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