In November 2013, a book will be published. It is my first book. Well to be honest I am one of the co-editors with two friends, Stuart Mitchell and Michael LoCicero though I do contribute a chapter on the transformation of land based air support for amphibious operation between 1942 and 1944. The book examines the process of transformation that occurred within the British military from 1792 to 1945.
Tag Archives: Royal Navy
On 26 October, the day after the USS United States had captured HMS Macedonian, the USS Constitution left Boston along with the USS Hornet, captained by Master Commandant James Lawrence. The USS Essex, then in the Delaware River, was ordered to rendezvous with the two ships. The squadron would then raid British commerce off South America.
The squadron was commanded by Captain William Bainbridge, formerly captain of the USS Constellation, who had just taken over the Constitution from Captain Isaac Hull. who had commanded her when she captured HMS Guerriere.
The Essex‘s captain, David Porter, believed his ship to be ‘the worst frigate’ in the USN. He disliked her armament of 40 32 pound carronades and only six long 12 pounders, which left her very vulnerable to any ship that could stay out of the short range of her carronades. She was also a poor sailor, which meant that she failed to make a series of rendezvous with Bainbridge.
Bainbridge’s two ships reached San Salvador in Brazil on 13 December, where they encountered the British sloop HMS Bonne Citoyenne, which was carrying a £500,000 worth of specie. Bonne Citoyenne was originally a French ship; the British captured her in 1796 and retained her name.
Bonne Citoyenne and the Hornet both carried 18 32 pound carronades; the British ship also had two 9 pounders and the US vessel two 12 pounders. Both had crews of 150 men. They were thus evenly matched, although Theodore Roosevelt argues that US shot was about 7 per cent less than its nominal value. However, the Constitution heavily outgunned Bonne Citoyenne.
Lawrence challenged Captain Pitt Burnaby Greene of Bonne Citoyenne to a single combat, with Bainbridge promising that the Constitution would stay out of the fight. Greene declined, claiming that he was confident of beating the Hornet, but could not then expect Bainbridge to allow an enemy warship to escape unmolested. By not fighting he also tied up at least one American ship whilst protecting his cargo.
Bainbridge left the Hornet to blockade Bonne Citoyenne, and sailed the Constitution south. At 9am on 29 December she sighted two ships. They were the British frigate HMS Java, commanded by Captain Henry Lambert, and the William, an American ship that she had captured. Java, like Bonne Citoyenne, had been captured from the French, but she had been re-named; her French name was Renommée.
Lambert ordered the William to head for port, and turned Java towards the Constitution. Bainbridge initially sailed away in order to exit Portuguese territorial waters: Portugal was allied to Britain against France, but neutral in the Anglo-American conflict.
Java, a fast ship, quickly closed the range. At 1:30pm Bainbridge, confident that he was in international waters, turned towards his enemy. The two ships were half a mile apart when the Constitution opened fire at 2:10pm.
There then followed a series of manoeuvres, compared by Alfred Mahan to the feints of a fencing or boxing bout. The Constitution’s steering wheel was destroyed at 2:30pm; her rudder was intact, so she could still manoeuvre by means of tackles, but with difficulty.
By 3pm Java had lost much of her rigging, and Lambert realised that his only chance was to board the Constitution. However, Java’s foremast fell five minutes later, making her helpless. She continued to resist until 4:05pm according to the Americans, 4:35pm by British accounts. By this time Lambert had been mortally wounded and his ship had lost all her masts.
Fire then ceased, although Java continued to fly her colours. The Constitution moved away in order to repair damage. She returned at 5:25pm (5:50pm according to the British), whereupon Java hauled her colours down.
Andrew Lambert points out that the US victory was based on the same tactics as had been employed in the USN’s previous triumphs in 1812. The Americans first used their superior firepower to wreck the British ship’s masts and sails. This gave them an advantage in manoeuvrability, which they exploited to close the range and fire on the main decks, killing men and destroying guns.
As with the earlier naval actions in this war, the more powerful ship won. Lambert says that the Constitution carried 54 guns, with a total broadside of 754 tons, compared with 46 guns and 535 tons for Java.
The British ship had an inexperienced crew, but managed to damage to all three of her opponent’s masts. However, they remained standing because of their strong construction, whilst the weaker British masts were brought down by the US gunfire.
Theodore Roosevelt gives the broadsides as being 654 tons for the American ship and 576 tons for her opponent. He argues that US shot was lighter than its official weight, but the discrepancy between his figures and Lambert’s is greater than his usual discount of 7%. Roosevelt claimed that the Constitution’s broadside was 684 tons in her earlier victory over HMS Guerriere, so 654 may be a typo.
The Constitution carried 475 men. Java’s official crew was 377, but Roosevelt points out that she was taking a number of passengers to Bombay; Lieutenant-General Thomas Hislop, the new Governor-General, his staff and replacements for other RN ships. She had sailed with 446 men, of whom 20 had been transferred to the William, leaving 426 on board.
There is some doubt about the total number of casualties. Lambert gives 24 dead and 100 wounded on Java and 14 dead and 44 wounded on the Constitution. Roosevelt says that the Americans took 378 prisoners. Since there were 426 men on board Java at the start of the action, 48 must have been killed. He give the number of British wounded as 102, Captain Lambert was amongst the dead, and his First Lieutenant, Henry Chads, was badly wounded. 
Java was too badly damaged to be taken as a prize, so Bainbridge had her burnt on 31 December. He put his prisoners onshore at San Salvador. They soon returned to sea. Chads was promoted, became the RN’s leading gunnery expert and ended his career as Admiral Sir Henry Chads.
The Hornet continued to blockade Bonne Citoyenne until 24 January, when the 74 gun ship of the line HMS Montagu arrived. Greene could have come out and fought at even odds after the Constitution departed for Boston on 6 January, which she reached on 27 February, but put the safety of his cargo first.
 Quoted in A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. ii, p. 1.
 T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, p. 145
 Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 2
 A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition, locations 1912-13 out of 12037.
 Ibid. Kindle edition, location 1897 of 12307.
 Roosevelt, Naval War, p. 155.
 These figures come from an e-book edition, so it could be that a number scanned incorrectly from the print edition.
 Roosevelt, Naval War, pp. 156-57.
 Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle edition, location 1902 of 12307; Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. i, p. 158.
On 8 October 1812 Commodore John Rodgers’s squadron of the frigates USS President, United States and Congress and the brig USS Argus set sail from Boston. Four days later the United States and the Argus separated from the other ships.
The USS President and Congress returned to Boston on 31 December, having captured nine British merchantmen. They encountered the frigates HMS Nymphe on 10 October and HMS Galatea on 31 October, but were unable to bring either to action. The USS Argus stayed at sea until 3 January 1813, capturing six British merchantmen.
USS United States: 16 long 24 pounders and 12 42 pound carronades for a total broadside of 888 pounds, reduced to 826 pounds if Theodore Roosevelt’s argument that US shot was 7 per cent lighter than its nominal weight is accepted. Roosevelt claims that the United States had a broadside of 11, not 12, 42 pound carronades, reducing her weight of fire to a nominal 846 pounds and an actual 787 pounds).
HMS Macedonian: 14 long 18 pounders, one long 12 pounders, one long 9 pounders and 32 pound carronades. She also had a single moveable 18 pound carronade, giving a total broadside of 547 pounds, assuming that this gun could bear on the target.
Carden decided not to close the range quickly, although larger guns of the American ship meant that her advantage was greater at longer ranges. Macedonian suffered heavy damage as she cautiously approached her opponent.
Realising that his plan was not working, Carden then tried to close the range more quickly. By the time that the ships were within close range Macedonian had lost much of her rigging and most of her carronades. At 11:15, 90 minutes after the action had begun, she was forced to strike her colours.
British casualties were 41 killed and 63 wounded; six men were killed and five wounded on the American ship. Macedonian’s crew included eight Americans, three of whom were killed. The five survivors joined the USN.
The relative strengths of the two ships meant that the United States ought to have won, but she might have suffered heavier casualties in doing so under a less skilful captain than Decatur.
Alfred Mahan describes Decatur’s performances during the battle as being ‘thoroughly skilful.’ Decatur’s duty was to defeat his opponent whilst suffering as little damage as possible to his own ship. Roosevelt is critical of Carden, saying that he ‘was first too timid, and then too rash, and showed bad judgement at all times.’
Carden was court-martialled after his return to Britain, a normal procedure for RN captains who had lost their ship. He was acquitted, but was criticised for his handling of his ship. He was never given another command, although the RN’s system of promotion by seniority above the rank of Captain meant that he eventually became an Admiral on the retired list.
The two ships returned to the USA after Macedonian had been repaired at sea. On 4 December the United States out into New London and Macedonian into Newport. Both subsequently moved to New York. The USS Macedonian was commissioned into the USN after being repaired and remained in US service until 1828.
Mahan notes that it is rather surprising that the two ships were not spotted by the British, who had sent a large number of reinforcements to North America. However, he points out that Admiral Sir John Warren, the British C-in-C, preferred to use his ships to patrol the trade routes rather than stopping US ships from putting to sea.
The RN had three stations in North America and the Caribbean; Halifax, the Leeward Islands and Jamaica. Each had its own commander, meaning that the British naval effort against the USA was unco-ordinated until Warren was appointed to overall command on 3 August 1812. He arrived at Halifax on 26 September.
Mahan notes that the USA had reported 190 prizes and probably taken over 200 before Warren arrived. The British took only 70 prizes in first three months of war. Mahan suggests that this was due to the effect of Rodgers’s first cruise, a lack of British warships on station and the fact that the USA declared war.
One of Warren’s first actions was to propose peace on 30 September. Britain had by then repealed the Orders-in-Council that were one of the causes of the war. On 27 October US Secretary of State James Monroe replied, saying that the USA wanted peace, but that the British must first stop pressing [conscripting] US sailors into the RN. Warren had no powers to negotiate this issue.
The capture of HMS Macedonian by the USS United States followed the taking of HMS Guerrière by the USS Constitution on 19 August 1812 and would be followed by the capture of HMS Java by the Constitution on 29 December 1812.
In each case the US ship was superior to the British one. Roosevelt accepts this but disagrees with British historians who said ‘that this superiority was so great as to preclude any hopes of a successful resistance.’
N. A. M. Rodger notes that the best tactic for the weaker ship was to fire high and from long range, hoping to slow the enemy ship by damaging her enemy’s rigging. This was not the tactic normally adopted by the British, who preferred to close the range and then fire at the enemy’s hull. This normally worked against opponents other than the USN.
Roosevelt argues that British frigates had won actions against European opponents that were as superior to them as were the American frigates to their opponents. He gives a number of examples taken from the French historian Onésime-Joachim Troude’s four-volume Batailles navales de la France .
On 1 March 1799, the 38 gun HMS Sybille captured the larger French frigate Forte. The French ship’s main guns were 24 pounders; the British ones were 18 pounders. On 10 August 1805 HMS Phoenix took the French frigate Didon. On 8 March 1808 HMS San Florenzo captured the Piedmontaise.
Phoenix and San Florenzo were rated at 36 guns, but Roosevelt says that they had actual broadsides of 13 18 pounders, two nine pounders and six 32 pound carronades, a total of 21 guns with a broadside of 444 Ib.
The Didon and Piedmontaise were rated at 40 guns, but had actual broadsides of 14 18 pounders, two 8 pounders and seven 36 pound carronades, a total of 23 guns with a broadside of 522 pounds. Roosevelt believes that French shot was heavier than its nominal value, giving the two French frigates an actual broadside of around 600 pound. The armaments given for these ships are from Roosevelt; some of the linked websites differ.
Roosevelt argues that the Didon and Piedmontaise’s superiority to HMS Phoenix and San Florenzo was greater than that of the USS Constitution to HMS Guerrière or HMS Java. He also claims that against European opponents during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the British lost only five out of around 200 actions between two ‘ships of approximately equal force (that is, where the difference was less than one half).’
This seems to be a rather wide definition of ‘approximately equal force’, but the point is that British were used to defeating more powerful European opponents at sea. Anglo-American sea actions were normally won by the more powerful ship. The RN had a long tradition of victory, but the USN was a young force.
Thus, victories by the USN over the RN had a much greater impact on morale in both countries than was apparently justified by a dispassionate analysis of the relative strengths of the ships involved.
 T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i. pp. 82-88
 A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i, p. 421.
 Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. i, p. 139.
 Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. i, pp. 422-23.
 Ibid. vol. i, pp. 391-92.
 Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. i, p. 120.
 N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2004), p. 568.
 Roosevelt, Naval War, pp. 120-21.
 Ibid., pp. 122-23.
This post follows on from this one on the US loss of Detroit and the capture of HMS Guerriere by the USS Constitution.
The sloop USS Wasp, captained by Master Commandant Jacob Jones, set sail from the Delaware River on 13 October 1812. Three days later Wasp lost two men and suffered damage to her rigging in a heavy storm. The next evening she observed half a dozen large ships and pursued them, although two of them appeared to be large warships.
The followng morning, 18 October, she caught the convoy, consisting of six merchantmen escorted by the brig HMS Frolic, which had also been damaged in the storm. Frolic’s captain, Thomas Whinyates, ordered his charges to sail east under all sail, whilst Frolic dropped back. Whinyates raised Spanish colours in the hope that Jones would think that his convoy was a Spanish one that Whinyates had seen a few days before, but Jones was not fooled.
Both ships carried 16 32 pound carronades, giving them a very strong close range armament for their size. Carronades were shorter and lighter than the standard naval long gun. A ship could therefore carry more or larger calibre carronades than long guns, but the range of a carronade was only a third to a half of that of a long gun. They were first produced by the Carron Ironworks in Scotland, hence their name
The Wasp had little long-range firepower, since the rest of her armament consisted of only two 12 pounders. Alfred Mahan writes that Jones claimed that Frolic carried six 12 pounders, but that the British naval historian James said that Frolic had only two 6 pounders in addition to her carronades. Theodore Roosevelt gives Frolic two 6 pounders and a moveable 12 pounder carronade in addition to her 16 32 pound carronades. J. J. Colledge’s Ships of the Royal Navy states that she had 18 guns, but does not give the types. It is likely that the two ships had similar firepower.
Both ships had an armament biased towards close range combat, so they quickly closed the range and did not start firing until they were 60 yards apart.
Whinyates claimed that his ship produced ‘superior fire’, by which he meant that Frolic fired more quickly than the Wasp. The Americans thought that the British fired three broadsides to their two, but the American fire was more accurate.
The Wasp soon lost most of her rigging, but suffered only five men killed and five wounded. Fifteen of Frolic’s crew were killed and 43 wounded. The British ship was left unable to manoeuvre after her masts fell, and the Wasp, which had some control left, boarded. The British, with half the crew, including all the officers, dead or wounded, surrendered.
They were not to remain prisoners for long. The 74 gun third-rate ship of the line HMS Poictiers appeared. The Wasp and Frolic were both too badly damaged to flee and had no chance against Poictiers, so Jones had to surrender.
Whinyates returned to command of Frolic. Wasp was taken into British service, initially as HMS Loup Cervier and then as HMS Peacock. She was lost with all hands in 1814. Jones and his crew were soon exchanged and he was promoted to command the 38 gun frigate USS Macedonian. She had been captured by the USS United States later in October 1812; a forthcoming post on this blog will describe this action.
 J. J. Colledge, Ships of the Royal Navy: The Complete Record of All Fighting Ships of the Royal Navy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present (London: Greenhill, 1987), p. 143; A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i, pp. 414-15; T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, p. 128
 Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. i, p. 412.
This post follows on from this one on the origins of the War of 1812 between the USA and Britain.
In mid August 1812 the USA suffered a defeat on land and gained a victory at sea in its war with Britain. On 16 August the US garrison of Detroit surrendered to the British. Three days later the USS Constitution captured HMS Guerriere.
The US commanders in these two actions were closely related. Constitution’s captain Isaac Hull’s father died when he was a child. He was then adopted by his uncle William Hull, the man who surrendered Detroit. William was a veteran of the American War of Independence, but had been a civilian ever since. He was appointed a Brigadier-General and given command of the US Northwestern Army because he was governor of Michigan Territory.
The Americans planned to invade Canada early in the war. Major General Isaac Brock, the British commander in Upper Canada and acting administrator in absence of Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore, did not want to give up territory. He strengthened the militia and looked for Native American support, which he saw as vital. He immediately attacked Fort Mackinac in northern Michigan and took it on 17 July.
General Hull invaded Canada on 12 July at western end of Lake Erie with a force of only 2,500 men, who were untrained. He advanced on Fort Amherstburg on Lake Erie, which had a garrison of only 300 and lacked civilian support. Hull, whose supplies were threatened by Native Americans, hesitated. Captured papers gave the British had intelligence of his plans and strength.
Four skirmishes between 16 and 26 July decided nothing. Colonel Henry Procter rallied the garrison of Amherstburg and, with the help of the Native American leader Tecumseh, obtained the support of the Wyandot tribe. Hull’s supply line was cut at Brownston on 5 August and at Maguaga 4 days later. He retreated to Detroit. The small US garrison of Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) tried to do the same, accompanied by some civilians, but were attacked and massacred by the Potawatomis.
Hull believed that he faced a large force of Native Americans, so surrendered on 16 August to Brock in order to avoid a massacre. Brock actually had 300 regulars, 400 militia and 600 Natives. Jeremy Black quotes Shadrach Byfield of the British 41st Foot as saying that when asked for a 3 day ceasefire ‘our general replied that if they did not yield in three hours, he would blow up every one of them.’
Hull was court-martialled in August 1814 and sentenced to death for neglect of duty and cowardice, but the court’s recommendation of mercy accepted. Brock was knighted just before being killed at the battle of Queenston Heights on 13 October.
The British did not exploit their success at Detroit. Fort Wayne was besieged by 500 Native Americans in late August, but it was relieved on 12 September. Captain Zachary Taylor, the future US President, beat off an attack on Fort Harrison by Tecumseh on 4 September.
The British captures of Detroit and Fort Mackinac impressed the Native Americans and maintained geographical links with them. They were important to the defence of Canada’s western flank. However, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, governor-in-chief of British North America and C-in-C of all British forces in North America, moved Brock and many of his troops from Detroit to defend in Niagara.
Black argues that Prevost wanted a ceasefire now that the repeal of the British Orders-in-Council had removed one of the causes of the war. This damaged relations with the Native Americans, as Tecumseh realised that a negotiated peace would be bad for them.
Three days later Hull’s nephew Isaac restored the pride of both his country and his family when his frigate the USS Constitution defeated the British frigate HMS Guerriere.
Captain Hull had been ordered to join Commodore John Rodger’s squadron off New York on the first day of war. Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton wanted Rodgers to act cautiously and defend US merchant shipping, but Rodgers saw a chance to act aggressively before British reinforcements arrived. He set sail before Hamilton’s orders arrived, intending to attack a West India convoy.
Rodgers’s squadron consisted of the 44 gun frigate USS President and the 18 gun sloop USS Hornet. He also commanded Commodore Stephen Decatur’s squadron of the 44 gun frigate USS United States, the 38 gun frigate USS Congress and the 16 gun brig USS Argus.
On 23 July Rodgers’s five ships met the 36 gun frigate HMS Belvidera, captained by Richard Byron. He did not know war had been declared, but realised that the US ships were hostile. Belvidera escaped after a brief engagement in which Rodgers was wounded when a gun on the USS President exploded.
Rear Admiral Herbert Sawyer, commanding RN forces at Halifax Nova Scotia, was advised by Augustus Foster, British Minister in Washington, and Andrew Allen, British Consul in Boston, to act cautiously, attacking only US warships, foreign trade and privateers. They hoped for negotiations. US supplies were vital to the British army in Spain. Sawyer in any case had too weak a force to enforce a full blockade.
Captain Philip Broke left Halifax on 5 July. He was captain of the 38 gun frigate HMS Shannon, and also had the elderly 64 gun 3rd rate HMS Africa and the 32 gun frigate HMS Aeolus under his command. He intended to meet HMS Belvidera and Guerriere and then engage and defeat Rodgers’s squadron. On 15 July Shannon captured the 14 gun brig USS Nautilus, which became HMS Emulous.
Broke met the USS Constitution on 17 July. The wind was initially light, and four days of manoeuvring ensued, before Hull’s ship escaped thanks to what Andrew Lambert describes as ‘a brilliant display of seamanship, skill and resolve.’
Broke joined a convoy of 60 merchantmen escorted by HMS Thetis, an old 38 gun frigate, on 29 July. He expected Rodgers to attack it, but he was pursuing another convoy, 1,000 miles to the east. Broke escorted the convoy to safety before returning to the American coast, sending Guerriere back to Halifax to repair her masts, which had been damaged by lightning.
Guerriere had been captured from the French in 1806 and was in a poor state of repair. In this period captured ships were often pressed into service by their captors, usually retaining their names unless the captor already had a ship by the original name or found it offensive.
Hull headed for Boston. In the absence of orders he then sailed for the Gulf of St Lawrence to raid British shipping. He planned a long cruise, knowing that he was about to be replaced by William Bainbridge, and bought charts of the Caribbean, Brazil, West Africa and the River Plate.
On 19 August his 44 gun frigate encountered HMS Guerriere, a 38 gun frigate. The number of guns given is an indication of the size of the ship rather than the actual armament carried. The Constitution had 56 guns and the Guerriere 51. The US ship’s main armament comprised 24 pounders, compared with 18 pounders on her British opponent.
Both ships also carried carronades. These were short barrelled guns of great power but short range, so-called because they were first produced by the Carron Ironworks in Scotland. Some US 44 gun frigates carried 42 pound carronades, but both these ships had 32 pound carronades.
According to Alfred Mahan, the USS Constitution’s broadside was 736 pounds versus 570 pounds for HMS Guerriere. Theodore Roosevelt claimed that US shot was shown to be 5-9 per cent lighter than its nominal value .He took the midpoint of 7 per cent and reduced the Constitution’s broadside to 684 pounds, compared to 556 pounds for Guerriere. He stated that the American ship had a crew of 456 against 272 on the British vessel, excluding 10 Americans who took no part in the fighting. Andrew Lambert describes the Constitution as being 50 per cent more powerful than Guerriere. [p. 79]
The official reports of both Hull and Captain James Dacres, commanding Guerriere, are available online. The two ships sighted each other at 2 pm on 19 August. Dacres realised that the other ship was a warship at 3 pm and beat to quarters, the sailing age equivalent of the modern sounding of action stations/general quarters. Hull recognised Guerriere to be what he called ‘a large frigate’ at 3:30.
At 4:30 Hull shortened sail, making his ship slower but easier to manoeuver and a steadier gun platform. Dacres claimed that he opened fire at 4:10 with his starboard batteries. He then manoeuvred to bring his port batteries into action; port was then referred to as larboard. He times the USS Constitution’s reply at 4:20. Hull says that the first British broadside came at 5:05. Roosevelt puts the first broadside at 5 pm, citing HMS Guerriere’s log, so it is likely there is an error in Dacres’s report. Times quoted hereafter are from Hull’s report.
Until 6 pm HMS Guerriere manoeuvred so as to bring both her batteries into action, but caused little damage. Hull took great care to ensure that his ship was not raked, which means firing down the length of a ship from its bows or stern. The target is smaller than if the side is fired on, so is harder to hit, but hits will pass through more of the ship, thus causing more damage. A stern rake is more damaging than a bow one, because the bow is curved and stronger, so deflects some of the shots.
At 6:05 Hull commenced a heavy fire with all his guns from pistol shot range. This caused heavy damage, whilst the British reply did little damage. Some British shots reputedly bounced off the Constitution’s wooden sides, giving her the nickname of “Old Ironsides”.
A TV documentary called Master and Commander: The True Story attributed this to the quality and thickness of the wood used in her construction. It came partly from southern live oak. a type of tree found only in the Americas, which is much stronger than the white oak used in British ships. The programme was shown in the UK by Channel 5 on 12 April 2012, but was made by the Discovery Channel.
Within 15 minutes Guerriere’s mizzen mast, the rear of her three masts, fell to starboard. It dragged in the water, slowing her and acting like a rudder to turn her to starboard. Hull then manouevred the Constitution to rake Guerriere. The rigging of the two ships became entangled and both prepared boarding parties. A number of men, including Dacres, were wounded by musket fire, but the sea was too heavy for either side to board the other.
Guerriere’s fore and main masts than fell, leaving her helpless. Hull decided to back off and repair the damage to his ship. Half an hour later he returned to the Guerriere. It was too dark to see if she was still flying her colours, so Hull sent Lieutenant Reed in a boat to see if Guerriere had surrendered. Reed returned with Dacres, who had surrendered as his ship was immobile.
The British prisoners were taken on board the Constitution the next day. The Guerriere was too badly damaged to take to port so at 3 pm, so Hull had her set on fire and destroyed at 3 pm. US casualties were seven killed and seven wounded. British ones were 23 killed and 56 wounded. The Constitution ought to have won, given her greater strength, but a less skilful captain than Hull could have lost more men in doing so.
Hull returned to Boston on 30 August as a hero, his ship full of prisoners and wounded. This was the first good news for the USA in the war. The British were not used to defeat at sea and took the news badly, ignoring the fact that Guerriere had been beaten by a stronger ship. According to Andrew Lambert:
Hull had handled his ship very well, exploiting his advantages to the full. Amid the euphoria, and without the prize to prove otherwise, most chose to celebrate Hull’s victory as a fair and equal contest…Instead of pausing for reflection, an unthinking British press blindly accepted the idea of humiliating defeat; the Times blustered that the Navy’s ‘spell of victory’ had been shattered.’
The Americans needed a victory and defeats for the RN were rare in this period. Focus on the fact than the Constitution versus Guerriere was not a contest of equals obscures the major impact of the US victory on American morale.
Dacres was court-martialled, a normal procedure for RN captains who had lost their ships. He was acquitted and given another command in 1814 and later promoted. Lambert points out that his only way of saving his ship was to run away, in which case he would have been ‘cashiered or shot.’ He adds that the Admiralty, short of sailors, were more worried about the loss of men than the loss of an old and worn out ship.’
Rodgers returned to Boston the day after Hull, having captured only 7 merchantmen. His cruise was curtailed by scurvy. Most US frigates were in Boston by early September. The exceptions were the USS Constellation, which was under repair at Washington DC, and the USS Essex.
The Essex, captained by David Porter, carried out a successful cruise, capturing 10 prizes. Porter valued them at $300,000, a figure that Lambert suspects is too high, while accepting that the cruise was very successful. Porter encountered HMS Shannon and a prize that he misidentified as another warship on 4 September. He evaded them and, unable to get into Boston or New York, made for the Delaware River.
 Force sizes are from J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), pp. 61-64.
 Quoted in Ibid., p. 64.
 Ibid., pp. 65-66.
 A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012), p. 72.
 A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i. p. 334.
 T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, pp. 82-88.
 Lambert, The Challenge, p. 79.
 Ibid., p. 78.
 Ibid., p. 79.
 Ibid., p. 81.
On 18 June 1812 US President James Madison signed a declaration of war on Britain. Madison had made a speech to Congress on 1 June, listing a series of American objections to British policy. This was followed by votes for war of 79 to 49 in the House of Representatives and 19 to 13 in the Senate.
The Americans had grievances against Britain because of the impact of Britain’s economic warfare against France on American commerce and because the Royal Navy impressed [often shortened to press] US sailors into service. Under British law, the RN was entitle to impress , or conscript, British merchant sailors. These included men who it considered to be British, but who were US citizens in American eyes.
According to N. A. M. Rodger, the problem was that most countries then defined nationality by birth, but the USA allowed it to be earned by residence. He notes that Albert Gallatin, the US Treasury Secretary, estimated that half of the 18,000 seamen serving on the deep sea US merchant fleet were British subjects. The US government did not issue official documents of citizenship. US Consuls issued unofficial ones, but they had to depend on a man’s word that he was a US citizens, and there was scope for corruption. This gave the British, short of seamen, an excuse to ignore these documents. Rodger says that recent research shows that about 6,500 US citizens were pressed into the RN, with around 3,800 of them being released. Older sources give higher numbers.
France had introduced the Continental System in November 1806, banning its allies and conquests from trading with Britain. The flaw in this strategy was that Britain controlled the seas, so British goods could be smuggled onto the Continent. Britain responded with Orders in Council in 1807, which imposed a blockade on France. Click here for copies of the documents that established these two systems.
Ironically, the British government under Lord Liverpool abolished the Orders in Council on 23 June 1812. Because of the slow speed of communication, it did not know that the USA had declared war on Britain five days earlier. Liverpool had become Prime Minister after the assassination of Spencer Perceval a month previously.
Charles Esdaile says that US exports declined by 40% between 1808 and 1812. This reduced the prices of cotton, tobacco and land. The USA had fought the undeclared Quasi-War at sea with France in 1798-1800 over the actions of French privateers. Problems returned under Napoleon’s rule, but British control of the seas meant that the British Orders in Council had far more impact on the USA than the French Continental System.
In 1807, the Americans attempted to retaliate with a trade embargo on Britain. This was replaced in 1809 with a Non-Intercourse Act that effectively allowed trade with Britain and France via third parties. Thomas Jefferson, Madison’s predecessor as President, had hoped to force British concessions by economic means. The failure of this policy led to the election of many proponents of war to Congress in 1811.
As well as the US grievances with Britain, many wanted to expand into Canada, Florida, which was controlled by Britain’s ally Spain and the Indian territories to the West. Tecumseh, the American Indian leader, was allied to Britain.
The US Army had fallen to 3,000 men in 1807, but 13 new regiments were authorised in January 1812, along with 12 ships of the line and 24 frigates for the USN. In February, State militias of 50,000 men were authorised; the number was increased to 100,000 in April. However, the US Army still had, according to Esdaile, only 7,000 men at the outbreak of war. 
Britain was now at war with France and the USA, but the two wars were separate conflicts. The only impact of each on the other was that British soldiers and ships could be in only one place at a time.
Russell Weigley points out that there were just 7,000 British and Canadian regulars guarding a 900 mile frontier. Reinforcements could not be sent because the Peninsular War with Napoleon was more important to Britain. The USN had only 16 ships, excluding gunboats. US defence against seaborne invasion depended on harbour fortifications and gunboats. The RN had over 600 warships, including 120 ships of the line and 100 frigates, in 1812. Around 100 were in the western Atlantic, but only one ship of the line and seven frigates were in US .
 N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2004), pp. 565-66 and note 9 on p. 743.
 C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), pp. 480-85.
 R. F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 46-49.
BBC2 recently broadcast a documentary titled The Fall of Singapore – The Great Betrayal. The synopsis from the BBC’s website says that:
Pearl Harbor and the Fall of Singapore: 70 years ago these huge military disasters shook both Britain and America, but they conceal a secret so shocking it has remained hidden ever since. This landmark film by Paul Elston tells the incredible story of how it was the British who gave the Japanese the knowhow to take out Pearl Harbor and capture Singapore. For 19 years before the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, British officers were spying for Japan. Worse still, the Japanese had infiltrated the very heart of the British establishment – through a mole who was a peer of the realm known to Churchill himself.
The main contributors to the programme were Prof. Richard Aldrich of Warwick University, a leading historian of the British intelligence services, and Dr Antony Best of the LSE, an expert on Anglo-Japanese relations. Many of the assertions made were justified by reference to primary documents in the UK National Archives.
At the end of the First World War, the Royal Navy led the world in naval aviation. Japan, which was then allied to Britain, attempted to obtain details of Britain’s new aircraft carriers. Ten requests for information were rejected, but Japan was allowed to recruit a civilian mission.
It was composed of former members of the Royal Naval Air Service, which had merged with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force in April 1918. The mission was led by an experienced naval aviator, William Forbes-Sempill, the Master of Sempill and the son of a Scottish peer. It was in Japan during 1921-23.
The programme argued that the British mission allowed Japan to develop the naval aviation that enabled it to attack Pearl Harbor and to sink Force Z, composed of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, off Malaya in December 1941. This is perhaps going too far; Stephen Roskill contended in his history of the RN between the wars that the Japanese would have caught up with the RN and USN eventually, but that the Sempill mission speeded up the process.
The programme suggested that the Japanese needed British help in order to develop naval aviation. They were behind Britain and the USA, but not by as much as the programme suggested. The first deck landing on an aircraft carrier was on HMS Furious on 3 August 1917, which then had a short flight deck forward of her superstructure.
The first carrier with a full length deck was HMS Argus, which was converted from an incomplete liner and completed in September 1918. Britain began construction of the HMS Hermes, the world’s first purpose built carrier, on 15 January 1918. She was launched on 11 September 1919 but not completed until February 1924.
Japan, meanwhile, laid down its first carrier, IMS Hosho, on 16 December 1919. She was launched on 13 November 1921 and completed on 27 December 1922. The first take off from and landing on her deck took place on 22 February 1923. The first landing on a carrier that was underway was on the USS Langley in November 1922. Conversion of the Langley, the USN’s first carrier, from a collier had been completed on 20 March 1922.
The claim made by the programme that the Japanese needed British help to build a carrier would seem to be an exaggeration, since the Hosho was under construction before the Sempill Mission arrived in Japan, but the mission clearly helped the Japanese to develop carrier aviation quicker than they could have managed if starting from scratch.
The second in command of the base from which the mission operated was Yamamoto Isoruku, in 1941 commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet and mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1941 the IJN was well ahead of the RN and at least equal to the USN in carrier aviation, so the Japanese had taken the initial lessons taught to them by the Sempill Mission and built on them by their own efforts. One of Britain’s problems was that most of its naval aviators transferred to the RAF in 1918, so it had few senior officers with air experience in 1939.
Another former RNAS pilot, Frederick Rutland, was recruited by the Mitsubishi company and taught the Japanese deck landing techniques. He was the son of a labourer and was promoted from the ranks. He was known as Rutland of Jutland because he carried out a reconnaissance mission at the Battle of Jutland.
MI5 became suspicious of Sempill’s links with Japan and tapped his phone and intercepted his mail. This provided evidence that he was supplying Japan with secret information. Britain had broken some Japanese codes and intercepted Japanese diplomatic cables relaying some of these from London to Tokyo.
A meeting chaired by Sir Austen Chamberlain, the Foreign Secretary, decided not to prosecute Sempill. His position in society would make this embarrassing, but there was also the perennial problem with espionage cases that it would be hard to convict without revealing secrets, including the fact that Britain had broken Japanese codes. The relevant files are now publicly available in the National Archives, but were kept secret for many years.
There are no MI5 files on Sempill from the 1930s in the National Archives. One from the 1940s states that he was a paid consultant for Mitsubishi in 1931. He needed the money as he was overdrawn by £13,000; nearly £750,00o in 2012 terms.
Whether or not Sempill was involved, Japanese espionage against Britain continued during the 1930s. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. This raised fears of an Angl0-Japanese war, and Britain re-started work on a large naval base at Singapore. The programme suggested that construction began in 1931; in fact, building started in 1923 but was suspended more than once during the 1920s due to changes in government and budgetary constraints.
During the 1930s Japanese businessmen bought up large amounts of property in Malaya. The programme argued that many of them were spies. Japan bought the plans for the Singapore base from a British serviceman called Roberts.
The Singapore base was heavily defended against attack from the sea. The British thought that it would be impossible to invade Malaya and then attack Singapore by land. In 1937 Joe Vinden (spelling?), a British Army intelligence officer, reconnoitred the Malayan coast and concluded that an invasion of Malaya followed by a land attack on Singapore was feasible.
Vinden correctly forecast that the Japanese would land at Kota Bharu in north-east Malaya during the November-February monsoon season; others thought that an amphibious landing at that time of year was impossible. His recommendation that funds allocated to coastal artillery be instead spent on aircraft was ignored.
Japan also had spies in Hawaii, one of whom was Rutland. He later told interrogators that he was ordered to report on the attitude of the population to the possibility of war and on the dispositions of the US fleet. The FBI soon became suspicious of his activities.
Sempill was brought back to the Admiralty when Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the cabinet minister responsible for the navy, on the outbreak of war in 1939. Sempill gave an assurance that he would not discuss service matters with the Japanese. However, in August 1941 he intervened to secure the release of Satoru Makahara, manager of Mitsubishi’s London office, who had been arrested on suspicion of espionage.
At the same time Churchill and US President Roosevelt held secret talks at Placentia Bay. Shortly afterwards the British code breakers at Bletchley Park intercepted and decoded a signal from the Japanese Embassy in London to Tokyo that gave precise details of the talks. A report that was sent to Churchill about the intercept remained secret for 60 years; he noted that the Japanese version was ‘pretty accurate stuff.’ It had to have come from somebody close to him.
Richard Aldrich said that the most important Japanese source with access to Churchill was Sempill. A few days later MI5 told Churchill that the Japanese had information about his inner circle. He demanded proof and a month long surveillance operation produced the names of Sempill and Commander McGrath, who had been with Sempill in Japan.
Churchill stated that Sempill could not remain at the Admiralty. When Sempill was asked to resign his commission, however, Churchill said that he only wanted Sempill to leave his current job, not the RN. Antony Best pointed Sempill was a Conservative peer who would have had friends in the Conservative Party. Richard Aldrich argued that interning Sempill would look very bad for the government, which had employed him even though he had been under MI5 surveillance since 1925.
Rutland was deported to Britain by the Americans and interned. He was released near the end of the war and later committed suicide. Sempill was given a choice of either resigning his commission or taking up a post in northern Scotland; the programme did not make it clear that which he chose. He died in 1965.
It was argued that Sempill was not charged under the Official Secrets Act or interned under Defence Regulation 18B because he was a well connected aristocrat and his arrest would embarrass the government. Other members of the upper classes were interned, including Sir Oswald Moseley, founder of the British Union of Fascists and his wife Diana, one of the Mitford sisters, Admiral Sir Barry Domvile and Archibald Maule Ramsay, the Conservative MP who founded The Right Club.
However, none of them had held any government position during the war, whilst Sempill was close to the Prime Minister. This would suggest that embarrassment to the government in general and Churchill in particular for appointing a man previously suspected of supplying secrets to Japan to a sensitive post was a stronger reason for not taking action against him than his social position.
Another reason might be that a trial could have revealed that the British had broken Japanese codes. The programme mentioned this when discussing why he was not charged in 1925, but did not repeat the point when discussing his lack of punishment in 1941.
This was a very interesting programme. It should be noted that it was not as new a revelation as the BBC claimed. The relevant documents were released to public view at the National Archives in 1998, and The Independent newspaper reported on them, quoting Richard Aldrich. Nevertheless, the programme was well made, justified its claims with reference to primary documents and brought the story to a wider audience.
 Stephen Roskill, Naval Policy Between the Wars, vol. i (London: Collin, 1968), p. 529.
On 15 May 1917 three Austro-Hungarian light cruisers attacked a force of drifters that were patrolling the Straits of Otranto in order to prevent Austro-Hungarian and German U-boats breaking out from their bases in the Adriatic into the Mediterranean.
The drifter Gowan Lea, with a crew of eight men and a dog and armed with only a 6 pounder gun and depth charges, attacked the Austro-Hungarian cruiser Novara, which had a crew of 318, nine 3.9 inch and one 47mm guns and four 17.7 torpedo tubes. Gowan Lea’s skipper, Joseph Watt was awarded the VC. He was born in Gardenstown, Banffshire and in peacetime skippered a Fraserburgh drifter. His vessel survived; its only casualty was the dog, who suffered shock and died three days later. Watt’s VC, Italian Al Valore Militare and French Croix de Guerre were sold by the auctioneer Spink for £204,000 on 19 April 2012; see the BBC website. I think that the purchaser will have paid £170,000 with a 20% fee to the auctioneer added on. The previous day’s Scotsman reported that the citation for Watt’s VC read:
Skipper Joseph Watt, Royal Naval Reserve.
For most conspicuous gallantry when the Allied Drifter line in the Straits of Otranto was attacked by Austrian light cruisers on the morning of 15 May, 1917. When hailed by an Austrian cruiser at about 100 yards range and ordered to stop and abandon his drifter the “Gowan Lea” Skipper Watt ordered full speed ahead and called upon his crew to give three cheers and fight to the finish. The cruiser was then engaged, but after one round had been fired, a shot from the enemy disabled the breech of the drifter’s gun. The gun’s crew, however, stuck to the gun, endeavouring to make it work, being under heavy fire all the time. After the cruiser had passed on Skipper Watt took the “Gowan Lea” alongside the badly damaged freighter “Floandi” and assisted to remove the dead and wounded.
According to this website on the VC, one Victoria Cross; two Distinguished Service Orders; six Distinguished Service Crosses; five Conspicuous Gallantry Medals; eighteen Distinguished Service Medals; and 31 Mentioned-in-Despatches were awarded for the action; see the London Gazette for the list of recipients. Thanks to poster Michaeldr of the Great War Forum for the link to the London Gazette.
Most of these awards were made to the drifter crews, but some went to the crews of the cruisers HMS Dartmouth and HMS Bristol, which participated in the later stages of the Battle of the Otranto Straits. Deckhand Frederick Lamb of the Gowan Lea received the CGM for continuing to fire her gun despite being wounded. Watt’s entry in Wikipedia, says that three other members of the Gowan Lea’s crew received the CGM or the DSM. Since the London Gazette gives the citations for awards of the CGM but just lists recipients of the DSM, this is presumably Lamb’s CGM and two awards of the DSM.
The Otranto Barrage consisted of a line of drifters, mostly British, which were intended to trap enemy submarines that could then be attacked with depth charges. There were not enough drifters to have a continuous line and submarines could evade the line; in 1916 most passed it on the surface at night. In July 1916 there were supposed to be 50 drifters at sea, but a French officer reported that there were only 37, of which only 10 had their nets out. Strong currents meant that the drifters would move apart. Rear Admiral Mark Kerr, commander-in-chief of the British Adriatic Squadron, thought that 300 drifters were needed.
Only one submarine, the Austro-Hungarian U6 on 13 May 1916 was definitely destroyed by the Otranto Barrage. Two others were lost to unknown causes and may have fallen victim to it; the German UB44 in August 1916 and the Austro-Hungarian U30 in April 1917.
The Austro-Hungarians made several attacks on the Barrage; the one on 14-15 May 1917 was the largest. It was led by Captain Miklos Horthy of the Novara, which was accompanied by her sister ships the Helgoland and the Saida. They were modified to make them look like British destroyers from a distance. Two Tatra class destroyers, the Csepel and Balaton, would carry out a diversionary attack. Two Austro-Hungarian submarines, the U4 and U27, and a German minelaying submarine, the UC25, also took part.
The two Austro-Hungarian destroyers attacked a convoy, sinking the Italian destroyer Borea and a munitions ship, and damaging the other two ships in the convoy, one of which was set on fire. For some reason, they did not finish off the damaged ships, which both made port. The drifters were being screened by the Italian flotilla leader Mirabello and the French destroyers Commandant Riviere, Bisson and Cimeterre. The destroyer Boutefeu had returned to port with condenser problems.
Horthy’s cruisers evaded this force and two Allied submarines and attacked the drifters. They used their sirens to warn the almost defenceless drifters of their presence, giving their crews an opportunity to abandon ship, which the Gowan Lea did not take. Other drifters also resisted.
According to the British official history, Floandi, described as a freighter in Watt’s VC citation, was a drifter which fired on the Novara. Skipper D. J. Nicholls and one of her enginemen were wounded, with the other engineman being killed. The crew of the Admirable, next to the Gowan Lea in the line,abandoned ship, but one man returned to her. He tried to man the gun but was killed before he could fire.
The Austro-Hungarians sank 14 drifters out of 47 and damaged four, three seriously. They rescued 72 of the drifters’ crews before heading back to their base at Cattaro, but they were 40 miles further from it than from the Allied base at Brindisi.
The attack on the convoy began at 3:24 am and that on drifters at 3:30 am. At 4:35 am Rear Admiral Alfredo Acton, commander of the Italian Scouting Division, ordered the Mirabello destroyer force to intercept the Austrians. It took some time until other Allied ships were ready to sail, but the British light cruisers Dartmouth, flying Acton’s flag, and Bristol, the Italian flotilla leader Aquila and the Italian destroyers Mosto, Pilo, Schiaffino and Acerbi set sail at 6:45 am. Acton did not order the Italian light cruiser Marsala and four more destroyers to sea until 8:25 am, an hour after they were ready.
The Mirabello group contacted the Horthy’s cruisers at 7:00 am, but the French destroyers struggled to keep up. Acton’s force intercepted the Austro-Hungarian destroyers at 07:45. The Austro-Hungarians escaped after disabling the Aquila.
Acton was now between Horthy and Cattaro and the two forces spotted each other at 9:00 am. Dartmouth (eight 6 inch guns) and Bristol (two 6 inch and 10 4 inch guns) outgunned the three Austro-Hungarian cruisers (nine 3.9 inch guns each), but Acton’s force was being whittled down. Pilo and Schiaffino remained with Aquila, Mirabello had problems with her fuel supply and Commandant Riviere broke down at 11:45; Bisson and Cimeterre stayed to escort her. Bristol’s bottom was fouled, and she dropped behind the other cruisers.
Horthy’s cruisers were able to concentrate on Dartmouth, so Acton slowed her to allow Bristol to catch up. Between 10:30 and 11:00 am Dartmouth damaged Novara, but Acton decided to concentrate on Saida, which was lagging the other two Austrian cruisers, which had drawn ahead of the British ships. Marsala and her destroyers had now arrived.
Saida was not badly hit, but Novara had now stopped. However, Austro-Hungarian reinforcements, including a heavy cruiser had now appeared, so at noon Acton headed back to Brindisi. On the way there, UC25 torpedoed Dartmouth and the Boutefeu, which had come out to assist her, struck one of the mines laid by UC25 and sank.
Aircraft from both sides were present. The Austrians got the better of the Italians, and their aircraft were able to spot for their destroyers. The Austrians bombed and strafed the British cruisers but did not damage them.
The action was clearly a success for the Austrians. The multi-national Allied force had suffered from signalling problems. It was clear that the drifters could not be protected at night unless more destroyers were available, which they were not. consequently, the barrage was maintained only during the day.
As Paul Halpern points out, the action made little strategic difference. The major Austro-Hungarian warships were still confined to port, and the threat to Allied shipping in the Mediterranean continued to come from submarines. Horthy had risked three of the best Austro-Hungarian warships in order to attack an ineffective blockade.
The big gainer from the Battle of the Otranto Straits was Horthy himself. He was promoted to Rear Admiral and made commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in March 1918. He was Regent of Hungary from 1920-44.
Skipper Joseph Watts returned to the fishing fleet after the war. The Scotsman quoted a spokeswomen for Spink, the auctioneers who sold his medals, as saying that:
“His Victoria Cross, so bravely earned, was kept in a small drawer on his boat, amidst the accumulated junk of a sailor’s life. Joseph Watt died at home in Fraserburgh from cancer of the gullet on 13 February, 1955, and was buried alongside his wife in Kirktown Cemetery. His loss was felt all over the North-east fishing communities with deep regret.”
Here is the latest abstract from our forthcoming book.
In 1900, most steamships were powered by coal, but the initial steps towards the use of oil had been taken. The first crossing of the Atlantic by an oil fired merchant ship took place in 1894. Several navies, including the Italian, Dutch, Russian and German ones, were using oil in some surface ships by 1900.
I’ve recently completed a PhD at Glasgow University on ‘British Strategy and Oil, 1914-1923.’
This thesis analyses the significance of oil to British strategy during 1914-1923. It shows that by 1923 Britain had a coherent oil policy, which affected naval strategy, diplomatic relations, policy towards the oil industry and post-war aims in the Middle East. Previous works have looked at only part of the picture and have not appreciated the extent to which oil affected all these areas. This work brings all these different facets together into a single study. The most important British user of oil was the Royal Navy, which was replacing coal with oil as its principal fuel even before the First World War, which saw great growth in the use of oil. Aircraft and land vehicles powered by oil fuelled internal combustion engines transformed both warfare and civilian life, but their overall usage of oil was much less than that of the RN. British industry was slower than the RN to adopt oil because coal was cheaper; the RN put the technical advantages of oil ahead of cost. Britain’s power and prestige was based on its naval supremacy; British dominance of naval fuel bunkering was a key factor in this. Britain had substantial reserves of coal, including Welsh steam coal, the best in the world for naval use, but little oil. Britain’s oil strategy in 1914 was to build up reserves cheaply in peacetime and to buy on the market in wartime. An oil crisis in 1917 showed that this was flawed and that secure, British controlled supplies were needed. The war created an opportunity for Britain to secure substantial oil reserves in the Middle East. Attempts to obtain control of these affected the peace treaties and Britain’s post-war relations with its Allies. The USA was then the world’s largest producer and was the main supplier to the Allies during the war. It believed, wrongly, that its output would decline in the 1920s and feared that Britain was trying to exclude it from the rest of the world. France also realised that it needed access to safe and reliable supplies of oil. The largest available potential oilfield was in the Mosul vilayet, part of the Ottoman Empire in 1914, and now part of Iraq. The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement allocated about half of Mosul to France, which in 1918 agreed to include all of it in the British mandate territory of Iraq in return for a share of the oil and British support elsewhere. Other disagreements delayed an Anglo-French oil agreement, but one was finally signed at San Remo in 1920. It was followed by the Treaty of Sèvres with the Ottoman Empire, which appeared to give Britain all that it wanted in the Middle East. The resurgence of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal meant that it had to be re-negotiated at Lausanne in 1923. Sèvres angered the USA, since it appeared to exclude US oil companies from Iraq. For a period Britain focused on the need to have a large, British controlled oil company, but it was eventually realised that control of oil bearing territory was more important than the nationality of companies. This allowed US oil companies to be given a stake in Iraqi oil, improving Anglo-American relations. Britain’s need for oil meant that it had to ensure that the Treaty of Lausanne left Mosul as part of the British mandate territory of Iraq. Turkey objected, but the League of Nations ruled in Britain’s favour. Britain had other interests in the region, but most of them did not require control over Mosul. Mosul’s oil gave Britain secure supplies and revenue that made Iraq viable without British subsidies. By 1923 Britain had devised a coherent strategy of ensuring secure supplies of oil by controlling oil bearing territory.
The full thesis is available as a PDF from the university’s website: