Conflict – 20th Century
The articles below relate to naval and other history in the 20th century. They are arranged in chronological order and will be added to regularly. Suggestions for other articles will be welcome – see the “Contact” bar above.
Coast Defence Ships – Big Bangs in Small Packets 1870-1951
For some eighty years from 1870 small, slow, powerfully armed and heavily armoured “Coast Defence” ships represented the backbone of many small navies, and even found limited use in much larger ones.
The Worship of Naval Power – 1900
The two decades before the outbreak of the First World War saw naval power being perceived as an essential feature of any self-respecting nation’s power and prestige and had widespread and enthusiastic public support. An American naval theorist was to have a massive impact on world history and a popular publication of 1900, a virtual paean to naval power, typified the almost religious reverence many felt for things naval.
The Wit and Wisdom of Admiral “Jacky” Fisher
Few men can have had a greater influence on naval warfare than Admiral John Fisher (1841 – 1920). This human whirlwind was responsible for building HMS Dreadnought, thereby “making every other battleship afloat obsolete overnight” and for reorganising the Royal Navy in the years before World War 1. Fisher’s “Memories” is a book that resembles no other. It’s vastly entertaining and can be best described as an eccentric “brain-dump”, with reminiscences, statements of opinion, proverbs, trivialities, aphorisms, obsessions and much else all mixed up in no particular order.
The Imperial German Navy – sketches of shipboard life 1902
Some time ago I stumbled on German publication of 1902 entitled “Germany’s Honour on the World’s Oceans” (Deutschlands Ehr im Weltenmeer) by a Vice-Admiral von Werner. The sub-title is “The development of the German Navy and sketches of life on board.” The illustrations, not less than the text, are fascinating …
The Anglo-German blockade of Venezuela 1902-03
What links unpaid international debts, a Latin-American despot described by the US Secretary of State as “a crazy brute”, the newly created Imperial German Navy’s lust for glory and a 17th Century Spanish fortification? The true story, largely forgotten today, is an unlikely one but it was to have a serious impact on US foreign policy up to our own time.
Collision of HMS Hannibal and HMS Prince George 1903
For some five decades from 1866 naval architects were to be fixated on designing ram bows into warships of all sizes. The ram, as a design feature, was to prove more dangerous to friends than to enemies and occasioned several major disasters. There was however one serious ramming in which disaster did not follow, as a result of prompt and efficient damage control. This instance, which involved two British Pre-Dreadnoughts, offers interesting insights into the efficiency of the Royal Navy at the start of the 20th Century.
Kaiser Wilhelm II at Gibraltar 1904
The dramatic climax of a one-sided love affair – Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, in the uniform of an Admiral of the Royal Navy, hoists his flag on a British battleship at Gibraltar in 1904 and is spectacularly feted.
The Varyag at Chemulpo – a “last stand” in 1904 and a surprising afterlife
A Russian cruiser that made a heroic “last stand” against the Japanese in 1904 was to survive into a quite amazing afterlife and to end up, after service in three navies, on the Scottish coast.
The French Navy’s Farfadet Submarine Disaster 1905
Courage of the highest order was demanded of the officers and men of the navies that first employed submarines in the early twentieth centuries. Designs were still experimental and operating experience limited, so that every dive was an adventure. Accidents were frequent – and usually fatal when they did occur – and progress was achieved by learning very hard lessons. One of the most dramatic – and horrific – of these early disasters befell the French submarine Farfadet in 1905.
Built to be unlucky? The French battleship Suffren
The splendidly-expressive Yiddish word “schlemiel” describes a person who is invariably unlucky and whose endeavours are doomed to failure – “so inept even inanimate objects pick on them”. In reading naval history one is often struck by the fact that certain ships also have exactly the same characteristic. One such was the French pre-dreadnought battleship Suffren…
The Iéna and Liberté Disasters, 1907 and 1911
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries all major navies, other than the German, lost many large ships not by enemy action but through magazine explosions of unstable ammunition. The French navy was especially unlucky – with two of its largest losses occurring in peacetime at the naval base of Toulon. Scandals – known as “affairs” – were one of the great institutions of the French Third Republic that lasted from 1870 to 1940 and the disasters at Toulon were to trigger a choice specimen, known to as “l’Affaire des Poudres”.
A British cruiser 2000 miles up the Amazon: HMS Pelorus 1909
The greed and excesses of the “Fitzcarraldo” rubber-boom era on the Amazon, slavery and exploitation of helpless indigenous people, and Rudyard Kipling, Britain’s laureate of Empire – all linked by a Royal Navy cruiser some 2000 miles from the sea.
China’s Zhongshan Gunboat – a splendid restoration
Initially called the Yongfen, the Zhongshan was one of two gunboats ordered from the Mitsubishi yard at Nagasaki by the Chinese Imperial Government in 1910. She was to serve on China’s coasts and rivers through a period of considerable political turmoil, and she was to be closely identified with the founder of the Chinese Republic, Sun Yat Sen, in honour of whom she was later renamed. She was sunk by Japanese aircraft in 1937 and lay at the bottom of the Yangtze River until raised in 1997, and beautifully restored thereafter,
A sea battle you’ve probably never heard of: Elli 1912
… and it was in a war that’s been largely forgotten. But the clash of the Greek and Ottoman Turkish navies at the Battle of Elli in 1912, and the savagery of the two Balkan Wars of 1912-13, were to give a foretaste of what was going to happen on a much larger scale a year later. A notable aspect of the battle is that it mixed outdated relics of the ironclad age with ultra-modern vessels, some of which were to go on to play active roles in both World Wars.
August 1914: Germany’s doomed naval nomads
As World War 1 commenced a disaster was looming for the Imperial German Navy which had all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. This was made unavoidable by deployment of vessels outside German waters without adequate logistic and maintenance support. These ships and their crews were to face a very bleak future…
First Blood 1914: HMS Amphion and SMS Königin Luise
Within 48 hours of Britain and Germany going to war on 4th August 1914, one British ship and one German ship had been destroyed by each other. The high casualties involved brought home to both nations the stark reality of how murderous war at sea would prove in the conflict now embarked upon.
SMS Geier: a Vulture’s Odyssey Under Two Flags, 1914 – 1918
In the two decades prior to World War 1 the most active service seen by the Imperial German Navy was by small ships in far-flung corners of the globe where Germany, a latecomer to the scramble for colonies, was constructing an overseas empire. One such ship was SMS Geier – the German word for vulture – and her fate was to be one unguessed of at the start of her career.
1914: Belgium’s Dogs of War
This article may seem an unusual one to find on a mainly-nautical oriented website but as a life-long dog lover I find it appropriate to honour Man’s Best Friends for rising heroically to a challenge a century ago. This article was written in August 2014, on the 100th anniversary of the opening of World War 1.
The Battle of Antivari – a heroic last stand 1914
On 16 August 1914, at the opening of World War 1, the French Navy, with British support, advanced up the Adriatic in force, hoping to provoke a pitched battle with the Austro-Hungarian Navy. They were confronted by a single obsolete cruiser, the captain of which was prepared to go down fighting against impossible odds…
A liner turned hunter: Prinz Eitel Friedrich 1914-15
A hastily-converted German liner was to prove an efficient commerce raider which evaded capture with skill and determination for seven months in World War 1. She was to inflict significant loss on enemy shipping at little cost and was to have a valuable afterlife in the naval and civilian service of her erstwhile enemies.
The loss of the armoured cruisers HMS Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue 1914
The offensive potential of submarines was seriously underestimated by the Royal Navy at the start of World War 1. It took the loss of five cruisers in the North Sea in the first two and a half months of the war – three of them within two hours – to ram home just how deadly this threat was.A sigle German submarine, U-9, sank four out of the five.
The Battle of Coronel, November 1st 1914
The battle fought between British and German squadrons in stormy seas and fading light off the coast of Chile in November 1914 was to be the Royal Navy’s first defeat at sea for a century. It resulted in the loss of over 1600 men and the circumstances that brought it about were dramatic in the extreme.
The loss of the Russian cruiser Pallada, October 1914
The armoured cruiser Pallada was torpedoed on 11th October 1914, thereby becoming the first Russian warship to be lost in the First World War. Her short service life was however to have a massive impact on Britain’s prosecution of the war at sea.
Penang and the German Navy in Two World Wars
The port of Penang, off Malaya’s west coast, was to be the unlikely scene of a very one-sided battle in 1914 in which the light cruiser SMS Emden of the Imperial German Navy was to take on a Russian counterpart. But that was not the end of Germany’s involvement with this South-East Asian Port, for three decades later its navy was to back in force – this time in alliance with the Japanese.
The Raids of HMS Doris, December 1914
Soon after hostilities commenced between Britain and her Allies and the Ottoman Turkish Empire, a small, obsolescent, Royal Navy cruiser, HMS Doris, raided Turkish communications with impunity along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. The climax came at the port of Iskenderun, known to the British as Alexandretta, where operations took on a surreal “Gilbert and Sullivan” aura. This article tells this bizarre story.
Christmas Day 1914: The Cuxhaven Raid
The Royal Navy was already experimenting with aircraft carriers – albeit not in the configuration they are known in today – in the first months of World War 1. On Christmas Day 1914 three carriers were to launch aircraft against Zeppelin sheds at the German base of Cuxhaven. This was to be the first occasion in history of sea-borne aircraft attacking a land target.
1914: A cavalry warfare on the Eastern Front
I came across 1914/15 copies of a German illustrated magazine, detailing the progress of the war. They were published in parts soon after the events themselves. A notable aspect is the prominence given to cavalry operations and it is striking that in the illustrations (Many shown in the blog) the antiquated uniforms still in use many could easily be taken as referring to the Napoleonic or 1870 period …
One Submarine, Two Flags and Two Heroes 1914-18
In December 1914, in one of the most daring exploits of the war, a dashing French Lieutenant with the unlikely name of Gabriel O’Byrne took his submarine, the Curie, into the heart of the Austro-Hungarian naval base at Pola. What was to follow was not only dramatic – and tragic – but was to be the prelude to a new career for the Curie under new management. She was to be commanded by one of the war’s most notable U-Boat aces who to have an even more unlikely career still ahead of him.
The Loss of HMS Viknor 13th January 1915
Few naval ships in the modern era have disappeared without trace with all hands. One such was however to be HMS Viknor, a converted passenger line used as an auxiliary cruiser. She was lost on or about January 13th 1915, at the cost of 291 lives.
The Sinking of HMS Goliath 13th May 1915
The world’s battleships were made obsolete overnight in 1905 when the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought entered service. Henceforth these dinosaurs were to be known as “pre-dreadnoughts” and many of them were allocated to the ill-starred Gallipoli operation in 1915. There, they, and their crews, were to pay a high price. One such was HMS Goliath…
The Painting Cannot Lie? The Sinking of the Linda Blanche, 30th January 1915
January 30th 2015 marked the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the humble 530 ton coaster Linda Blanche in the Irish Sea. Among the hundreds of merchant ships sunk by U-boat in the course of World War 1, there would seem to be nothing remarkable about this humble coastal trader but German propaganda was to transform the incident to show it on a heroic scale. Why the lie?
Trawlers at War in the North Sea, May-June 1915
Accounts of the U-Boat war in 1914-18 tend often concentrate on the largest, and most spectacular, victims. The Imperial German Navy’s U-boat arm also had a much humbler target in focus, Britain’s North Sea fishing fleet. It was to suffer very heavy losses – as many as eleven trawlers in one day in May 1915. But the trawlers were not to go quietly and they were to fight back…
Massacre at Sea: the Royal Edward and the UB-14, 1915
In both World Wars the greatest danger that many troops faced, especially if they were in support or non-frontline roles, may well have been that of sinking of their transports. One such disaster occurred in August 1915 when the liner Royal Edward encountered a German U-boat in the Aegean . The vessel responsible, UB-14, was small, underpowered and slightly armed but these were not disadvantages on this occasion, when she was she to wreak destruction wholly disproportionate to her size…
The Loss of Hospital Ship HMHS Anglia, November 1915
All shipwrecks are terrible but an extra degree of horror is involved when the vessel in question is a hospital ship. The 100th anniversary of the sinking of one such ship, the HMHS Anglia, fell on 17th November 2015. Its loss is an inspiring story of tragedy and heroism by nurses and other medical staff, wounded men and ship’s crews. The article includes some dramatic photographs taken at the scene and the story has a bizarre postscript.
The Loss of HMS Argyll and the Bell Rock Lighthouse, 1915
What links a medieval legend, a 19th Century poem, an epic of offshore engineering & the wreck of a British armoured cruiser in 1915?
The Two Tragedies of the SS Orteric 1911 & 1915
In December 1915 of the 6,535-ton cargo and passenger liner SS Orteric was torpedoed in the Eastern Mediterranean. Two seamen lost their lives – a tragedy for their direct families, but small by comparison with a much more dreadful and avoidable peacetime tragedy – if not to say scandal – in which the Orteric had been involved shortly after entering service four years previously. The victims were mainly children of poverty-stricken Portuguese and Spanish emigrants to Hawaii and the story still has the power to outrage.
Tragedies of the Christmas to New Year period at sea – 1915
For all that it should have been a season of goodwill, the Christmas to New Year period of 1915, from December 24th to 31st, saw horrific losses at sea that are today largely forgotten except by descendants of the victims. An armoured cruiser, HMS Natal, and a liner, SS Persia, were the most notable – and largest – victims.
The Fate of Zeppelin L-19, February 1916
In February 1916 a German Zeppelin, L-19, ran into difficulties when returning from a raid on Britain and came down in the North Sea. What followed was tragic – and ethically controversial.
The Convergence of the Twain: English Channel, June 1916
I have always admired – and been somewhat disturbed by – Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Convergence of the Twain” in which he meditated on how the Titanic and the iceberg that was to sink her were brought separately into existence and how they met for one decisive moment only. I came to remember it very forcibly when I read of the collision in 1916 of a huge liner and a tiny destroyer, one designed for luxury, the other with crew accommodation so Spartan that they were compensated for it. This is the story of the SS France and the destroyer HMS Eden.
War at Sea 1917: An Ominous New Year’s Day
1917 was to mark a turning point not just in World War 1, but in world history, for it saw not only the outbreak of the Russian Revolution and the birth of the Soviet state, but the entry of the United States into the conflict and its emergence as a global power. An omen of what was to come was the sinking on New Year’s Day of a converted 13,800-ton liner carrying some 2400 British troops…. An that was only one of twenty vessels, one even larger, that the 300-ton UB-47 was to sink in twelve months of operations…
World War 1 in the North Sea: Sailing Craft versus the U-Boats
Though the “Age of Fighting Sail” ended around 1840 as regards major warships, small sailing craft were to play a very important role in World War 1 in Britain’s battle against Germany’s U-Boats. And some of the sailing craft were very small indeed and operating them demanded courage of the highest order…
French liners in WW1 – slaughter in the Mediterranean 1916
October 4th 2016 was the one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the SS Gallia, one of the worst maritime disasters of the First World War. What made it even more terrible was that this was one of four similar tragedies, each involving troopships, each involving appallingly heavy loss of life. It also underlines the fact that the closed waters of the Mediterranean became a happy hunting-ground for German and Austro-Hungarian U-boats in those years.
The Salvage of UC-5, an epic of WW1
A German minelayer submarine that had a remarkable record of success against Allied shipping was stranded on a North-Sea sandbank in 1916. What was to follow was a 27-day British triumph of open-water salvage in a war zone, one which was made all the more nerve-racking by unexploded mines unreachable beneath the hull. And this was only the beginning of the strange odyssey that brought UC-5 to New York’s Central Park.
July 1917: A month of carnage at sea
In July 1917, Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare campaign was entering its sixth month. In 31 days some 300 vessels of all sizes were to be sunk. In separate events the Royal Navy was to lose two large warships, together with almost 900 lives. The reality of war at sea was merciless and brutal, and the conflict still had sixteen months to run…
Shore Bombardment and U-Boat action off Gaza – November 1917
November 1917 saw the key battles that allowed British and Australian forces to break through from the Sinai Peninsula and into Palestine. Turkish and German defences extended from the Mediterranean, at Gaza, to Beersheba, some 35 miles inland in the desert. Earlier efforts, in March and April 1917, had proved incapable of breaching defence lines that were to become even stronger thereafter. In late 1917 however, a powerful Anglo-French naval bombardment force was to provide massive support for the Allies’ land attack. But the German Navy was to strike back – and that was not to be the end of the story either…
Disaster by Mine: HMS Tornado, Torrent and Surprise, December 1917
Next week, on December 23rd, will see the anniversary of a tragedy that occurred off the Dutch Coast 1917. Though largely forgotten today, the loss of 250 lives and of three destroyers was a stark reminder of the power of the naval mine. But there’s more to this story, a linkage to unrest in the neutral Netherlands that bore a chilling similarity to the revolution erupting in Russia in the same period.
Hospital Ships in U-Boat Sights 1917-18
The vulnerability of hospital ships in wartime was recognised in The Hague Convention of 1907, which specified that they should be immune to attack. During WW1 a number of British hospital ships were however lost due to enemy action and some of these sinkings may indeed have been accidents. One sinking at least did however represent deliberate, cold-blooded murder and was one of the most appalling atrocities of WW1 at sea. This blog article tells of four tragic cases which occurred after Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917.
The sinking of the hospital ship HMHS Rewa, 1918
January 4th 2018 was the 100th anniversary of yet another hospital-ship sinking by a U-boat. It was a chilling illustration of the savagery of the war at sea as World War 1 entered its final year, with the odds better in Germany’s favour than at any time since 1914.
The SS Sant Anna sinking, May 1918
May 11th 2018 was the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the French trooper Sant Anna, with heavy loss of lives, a disaster largely forgotten today. She was the victim of the German submarine UC-54. But a more bizarre end would shortly befall one of the craft that plucked survivors from the water…
HMS Britannia and HMS Ascot, the Royal Navy’s last losses of WW1
The Royal Navy suffered its last losses of WW1, HMS Britannia and HMS Ascot, in the two days before an armistice ended the war on November 11th 1918. The human cost of both these tragedies was very high, and all the more so due to cessation of hostilities being imminent.
The Mutiny on De Zeven Provincien – and its dramatic ending 1933
This event it is little known of outside the Netherlands and because its significance goes far beyond its immediate circumstances. The mutiny was to be terminated in a most unexpected way, by the aggressive deployment of air power at sea for the first time since the Great War.
The Dawn of Naval Aviation – HMS Ark Royal and HMS Argus
Britain’s Fleet Arm Museum at Yeovilton, Somerset, has a splendid collection not only of naval aircraft but of models of aircraft carriers from the earliest days. Two from the World War I period, HMS Ark Royal and HMS Argus, represent extreme ends of the spectrum of development that occurred in such a short time. Both proved of value in evolution of equipment, operations procedures and tactics, and went on to give valuable service in World War II. This article describes them and is illustrated with photographs taken in the museum.
The Matchstick Fleet
The Nothe Fort in Weymouth, Dorset is one of a whole series of forts built along the southern English coast in the 1860s to guard against a French invasion that never came. It has been splendidly restored as a museum and one of its gems is “The Matchstick Fleet”, a collection of more than 8000 model warships, many of which are on display. They are built to a uniform scale of 1:300 and the materials used are (a) matchsticks and (b) the thin wood from which matchboxes were manufactured in Britain until two decades or so ago. The quality is superb. The master-craftsman responsible is a Mr. Phil Warren who constructed his first model in 1945 and who is still producing beautiful model ships – the latest being the USS Zumwalt – seventy-three years later. This article is illustrated with photographs of these beauties.
A Circle of Hell – the Alzhir Gulag camp for women
For two decades thousands of innocent women & children were brutalised in a women’s camp of the Soviet Gulag at Alzhir in Kazakhstan. Visiting the site is a chilling yet inspirational experience. This article tells a story that is simultaneously chilling and inspirational.
Vintage Paddle Steamers on Germany’s River Elbe – Today!
Holidays in Germany were very popular in Nicholas Dawlish’s lifetime and paddle steamers such as he might have travelled on still ply the beautiful River Elbe. Click below to see photographs of these ships and of a very surprising encounter on one by a Victorian officer only slightly Dawlish’s senior…