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The Battle of Lake Champlain 11 September 1814

The American victory at the Battle of Lake Champlain, sometimes called the Battle of Plattsburg, on 11 September 1814 was the most decisive naval victory of the War of 1812.

In September 1814 11,000 British and Canadian troops under Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost invaded New York State. Prevost’s men were a mixture of veteran units recently arrived from the Peninsular War, British soldiers already in Canada and Canadians. His intention was to march along the western bank of Lake Champlain. The lakeside town of Plattsburg was defended by fewer than 2,000 effectives under Brigadier-General Alexander Macomb.[1]

The British plan required naval control of Lake Champlain. Both sides strengthened their squadrons in August, with the brig USS Eagle being launched on 16 August and the frigate HMS Confiance nine days later.

The following table shows that the British had two ships more than the Americans, with a greater total tonnage and more sailors, although the British ships may have carried fewer men than their official complements. The total broadsides fired by the two squadrons were very similar, but the British had a significant advantage at long range. Confiance was much bigger than any other vessel on either side, so the advantage would swing towards the Americans if they could put her out of action.

Displacement Broadside, tons
Name Tons Crew Total Long Short
USS Saratoga 734 240 414 96 318
USS Eagle 500 150 264 72 192
USS Ticonderoga 350 112 180 94 96
USS Preble 80 30 36 36 0
6 American gunboats totalling 420 246 252 144 108
4 American gunboats totalling 160 104 48 48
14 American vessels totalling 2244 882 1194 490 714
HMS Confiance 1200 325 480 384 96
HMS Linnet 350 125 96 96 0
HMS Chubb 112 50 96 6 90
HMS Finch 110 50 84 12 72
5 British gunboats totalling 350 205 254 108 146
7 British gunboats totalling 280 182 182 54 128
16 British ships totalling 2402 937 1192 660 532
Source: T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812. 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2), vol. Ii, pp. 117-20. The original gives the broadside of the 5 larger British gunboats as being 12 tons from long guns and 72 from short guns. This is presumably a typo, being both improbably low and the same as HMS Finch in the row above. The correct figure has been calculated from Roosevelt’s totals.

Lake Champlain is long and narrow with the wind normally blowing either north or south and a northward current.

Master Commandant [equivalent to a modern Commander] Thomas Macdonough, the American naval commander, anchored his ships in a line in Plattsburg Bay, which meant that the British would have to engage at short range, negating their advantage at long range. The northern end of his line was so close to Cumberland Head that the British could not turn it. A shoal prevented the British from attacking his southern flank.

The order of the American line from the north was the USS Eagle, flanked by two gunboats on each side, Macdonough’s flagship the USS Saratoga, three gunboats, the USS Ticonderoga, three gunboats and finally the USS Preble. The anchors of the four largest American ships had springs attached to them, enabling them to swing in wide arcs whilst remaining anchored. The USS Saratoga, had kedge anchors off her bows, which would allow her to turn round. The positioning of the gunboats prevented the British from attacking the American line from both side, as Lord Nelson had done to the French at the Nile.

Captain George Downie’s British squadron sailed at daybreak and sailed down the lake with the wind almost aft. HMS Chubb and Linnet engaged the Eagle, Downie’s flagship HMS Confiance the USS Saratoga and HMS Finch and the gunboats the rear of the American line.

Downie held HMS Confiance’s fire until everything was ready, with the result that her first broadside was devastating. Half of the USS Saratoga’s crew were thrown off their feet, although many of them were not seriously hurt. However, the American ship replied and Downie was soon killed. Both ships had many guns put out of action, some by enemy fire, others because their inexperienced crews overloaded them.

HMS Chubb was badly damaged by the USS Eagle and the leading American gunboats, drifted away and was captured. HMS Linnet concentrated on the USS Eagle, which was also receiving some of HMS Confiance’s fire. Damage to one of the USS Eagle’s springs meant that she could no longer fire on HMS Linnet, so she cut her other cable, sailed south and anchored in a position where she could fire on HMS Confiance. HMS Linnet then fired on the American gunboats and drove them off, before raking the USS Saratoga’s bows.

Theodore Roosevelt notes that the American would now have lost the battle ‘had not Macdonough’s foresight provided the means of retrieving it.’[2] He ordered the anchor astern of the USS Saratoga to be let go and had her hauled round far enough to allow her undamaged port batteries to come into action.

HMS Confiance had been anchored by springs on her unengaged starboard side. These could not be shot away as had those of the USS Eagle, but did not allow her to turn in order to bring her unengaged batteries into action. With over half her crew casualties, most of the guns on her engaged side out of action and her masts and sails badly damaged, she was forced to strike her colours about two hours after she opened fire.

HMS Linnet could not withdraw because of the damage to her masts and sails, but kept on fighting in the hope that the British gunboats would come to her aid. They did not, and she was forced strike her colours about two and a half hours after the battle began. HMS Finch had already been crippled by the USS Ticonderoga and forced aground. The British gunboats withdrew, possibly taking a shot accidentally fired from HMS Confiance by the Americans after her capture, as a signal to do so.

Roosevelt estimates that over 300 British and about 200 Americans were killed and wounded in the battle. Macdonough reported 52 killed and 58 wounded, but this excludes about 90 lightly wounded who did not have to go to hospital. The Americans took 180 dead and wounded from HMS Confiance, 50 from HMS Linnet and 40 from4 HMS Chubb and Finch. There were 55 shot holes in the USS Saratoga and 105 in HMS Confiance. Macdonough allowed the captured British officers to keep their swords because of the gallant fight that they had put up.[3]

Lake Champlain was the United States Navy’s greatest victory of the War of 1812. The frigate actions were all won by the stronger side. Macdonough was faced by a squadron that was much stronger than his at long range and roughly equal at short range. He placed his squadron in such a way as to force the British to fight at short range and to give him an advantage. Roosevelt describes him as ‘the greatest figure in [US} naval history’ before the American Civil War.’[4]

Alfred Mahan blames Prevost for the British defeat, arguing that he should have taken Plattsburg before the naval action.[5] The American shore batteries of the fortress could not fire on the British squadron without risking hitting the American one. However, if there had been British guns on the shore Macdonough’s position would have been untenable. He would have had to have moved his squadron further out into the lake, where the British superiority in long range gunnery ought to have proved decisive.

Prevost, however, thought that a joint attack on land and water  had to be made. His orders to Downie, according to Mahan, ‘used language indefensible to itself, tending to goad a sensitive man into action contrary to his better judgement.’[6] The land attack was called off once it became clear that the British had lost the naval action.

The result of the Battle of Lake Champlain was that the British invasion of the USA was halted. because it was impossible to advance on land without control of the lake. Peace negotiations had started in Ghent the month before, and the British would have been able to obtain better terms had they held a significant amount of US territory.

[1] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, pp. 113-14.

[2] Ibid., pp. 137-38.

[3] Ibid., pp. 140-41. and footnote 2,

[4] Ibid., p. 143.

[5] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. ii, p. 201.

[6] Ibid., p. 201.

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The Capture of the USS Essex 28 March 1814.

The USS Essex, Captain David Porter, sailed from the Delaware on 28 October 1812 with orders to rendezvous with the USS Constitution and Hornet under Commodore Bainbridge.

Porter believed his ship to be ‘the worst frigate’ in the United States Navy.[1] He disliked her armament, which consisted largely of carronades, very powerful but short range guns.

The Essex missed a number of rendezvous with Bainbridge before capturing the Post Office Packet Nocton on 12 December. Porter removed £15,000 worth of specie and sent her back to the USA as a prize, but she was recaptured on the way. On 29 December he took another British merchant ship.

Before the war Porter had proposed that the USN send an expedition to explore and colonise the Pacific. No action was taken, but his planning for it meant that he was well informed about the Pacific.

The Spanish colonies on the Pacific coast of South America had revolted, so might be friendly to a US warship. The Royal Navy had no warships in the region, making the British whaling industry and Britain’s substantial trade in the region, which included shipments of specie and bullion to the UK, vulnerable. He therefore decided to use a section of his orders that gave him discretion to act ‘for the good of the service’ to move to the Pacific.[2]

The RN’s Brazil Station, responsible for protecting British maritime trade from the Caribbean to Chile, was commanded by Rear Admiral Manley Dixon. His most important task was to ensure that the bullion and specie needed to finance the war in Europe was transported safely home from South America. By July 1813 he had one 74 gun ship of the line, eight frigates, three sloops and two cutters to protect a vast area from Bainbridge, Porter and a number of privateers.

Dixon’s force was even weaker than the numbers suggest, since one of his frigates was old and three were sixth rates, too small to fight the larger US frigates. He therefore relied on what Andrew Lambert calls ‘widely deployed, effective British intelligence-gathering assets: with consuls, merchants, ship masters and warships in several key locations the information flow was relatively rapid.'[3]

The Essex took 13 prizes in 1813 and inflicted heavy damage on the British whaling fleet. There were no US bases in the Pacific, so for 17 months she was forced to supply herself entirely from prizes . Anything bought had to be paid for by money obtained from the prizes. Theodore Roosevelt describes this feat as being ‘unprecedented.'[4]

Porter valued his captures at $5,000,000: the exchange rate was then £1=$4.40.[5] However, the only one of them that got back to the USA was the Atlantic, which Porter renamed the Essex Junior and armed with 10 long six pounders and 10 18 pound carronades. This made her a useful commerce raider, but she would be helpless against a British frigate.

On 12 January the Essex and the Essex Junior anchored at Valparaiso. On 8 February the 38 gun frigate HMS Phoebe, Captain James Hillyar, and the 18 gun sloop HMS Cherub, Captain Thomas Tudor Tucker, arrived at Valparaiso.

Roosevelt suggests that the British hoped to take the Americans by surprise, but failed to do so because the Essex was ready for action by the time that Phoebe came alongside her.[6] Lambert argues that they hoped to provoke the Americans into firing first in what was a neutral port.[7]

There then followed a stand-off. Both sides raised provocative banners. The Americans claimed to be fighting for free trade, although their seaman were more likely to be fighting for their ship and shipmates. A British banner referring to traitors would only make the British born members of the US crew fight harder.

Hillyar and Porter had met before when both were serving in the Mediterranean. They had a meeting onshore, at which they agreed to release prisoners, with the proviso that the men involved would not serve in the forthcoming action.

After resupplying his ships Hillyar took them to sea on 14 February. He may have been concerned that the local authorities would prevent the British from sailing for 24 hours if the Americans left the neutral port first.

On 27 February Phoebe fired a gun accidentally. The US officers, including Porter’s 12 year old foster son Midshipman David Farragut, the future Civil War Admiral, thought that this was a challenge. The two US ships set sail, but the British withdrew, refusing to fight a close action.

By the end of March Porter had learnt that two more British frigates were on the way. On the night of 27-28 March the Essex left Valparaiso. An attempt to distract the British by sending out a boat to fire rockets and burn lights failed. The Essex was then hit by a heavy squall, which swept away its main topmast. This cost two of her seamen their lives and made it impossible for her to outrun her pursuers.

At 4 pm the Essex anchored just off the coast.[8] Hillyar argued that she was not in neutral waters because she was out of range of Chilean shore batteries.

Phoebe had a crew of 320 men and a broadside of 13 long 18 pounders, one long 12 pounder, one long 9 pounder, seven 32 pound carronades and one 18 pound carronade, a weight of 255 pounds at long range and 497 pounds at short range.[9]

Cherub had a crew of 180 and a broadside of two long 9 pounders, two 18 pound carronades and nine 32 pound carronades, a weight of 18 pounds at long range and 342 pounds at long range. This made the total weight of the British broadside 273 pounds at long range and 839 pounds at short range.

The Essex had a crew of 255 and a broadside of six long 12 pounders and 17 32 pound carronades, a weight of 66 pounds at long range and 570 pounds at short range if Theodore Roosevelt’s belief that US shot was 7 per cent lighter than its stated size is accepted.[10]

The Essex was outgunned even inside carronade range, even if Roosevelt’s theory about the weight of US shot is rejected, and hopelessly so at longer range. The British also had the tactical advantage of having two ships against one, enabling them to manoeuvre for a better position and keep one ship out of the Essex’s arc of fire.

Hillyar closed to 250 yards before opening fire at 4:20 pm. He initially placed Cherub on the Essex’s starboard bow and Phoebe under her stern, meaning that the US ship could not fire on Phoebe. Three attempts were made to put springs on the Essex cables in order to move her into a position where she could fire, but the springs were shot away. Cherub came under fire from the US bow guns, so moved close to Phoebe. Tucker was wounded but remained at his post.

In the first five minutes of the action the Americans suffered heavy casualties without being able to damage Phoebe, but then moved three 12 pounders to fire from the Essex’s stern, with the intention of crippling Phoebe’s rigging.

At 4:40 pm Hillyar ceased fire and withdrew. After repairing the damage to Phoebe’s rigging the British resumed the attack at 5:35 pm. Hillyar positioned his ship on the Essex’s starboard quarter, where the US broadside and stern guns could not bear. He stayed about half a mile away from his opponent, close enough for the British 18 long pounders to inflict significant damage, but too long a range for the American carronades to be effective.

Porter cut his ship’s cables at 5:50 pm and set all her remaining sails, his intention being to board Phoebe. This was a desperate move because the damage to the Essex’s rigging made her far less manoeuvrable than Phoebe. What little chance it had of success was ended when the wind died away.

Porter, with no hope of victory, now tried to run his ship aground and blow her up, but he was again thwarted by a change in the wind. With many of his crew badly wounded he now had no choice to surrender, but first encouraged the able bodied to abandon ship and head for the shore. The Essex’s flag was lowered at 6:20 pm by Hillyar’s account.

Total US casualties were 58 killed on board, 31 drowned whilst trying to reach the shore, 66 wounded and 76 captured unwounded, with 24 of the 255 crew making it to the shore. Phoebe lost four killed and seven wounded and Cherub one killed and three wounded. Porter offered Hillyar his sword, as was the custom of the day, but Hillyar allowed him to keep it.

Essex Junior, which had played no part in the battle, was also captured by the British. She was disarmed and sent to New York with exchanged US prisoners, including Porter. The Essex was taken into the RN, but was used mostly as a prison ship.

Hillyar reached the rank of Admiral and commanded fleets at sea in peacetime: the RN had far more officers than peacetime jobs for them, so this showed that he was well regarded.

Porter was treated as a hero on his return to the US. He was later court-martialled for exceeding his orders whilst suppressing piracy in the West Indies, commanded the Mexican Navy and became US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire

As with almost all naval actions of the War of 1812 the Battle of Valparaiso was won by the more powerful force. Hillyar acted cautiously, but his duty was to take the Essex with the minimum casualties and damage to his ships, which he achieved.

 

[1] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol ii. p. 1.

[2] Quoted in A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition, locations 5365-68.

[3] Ibid. Kindle locations 5401-6.

[4] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2), p. 201.

[5] Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle locations 5483-87.

[6] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii p. 10.

[7] Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle locations 5536-40.

[8] Times quoted are from the British account. The Americans clock was 25 minutes earlier.Ibid. Kindle location 5630-71.

[9] Crews and armaments are from Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii, p. 30

[10] Ibid. vol. i, pp. 82-83.

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The Silent War Part 2 BBC

On 12 December 2013 the BBC broadcast the second episode of a two-part series called The Silent War, which dealt with a secret underwater espionage war that the UK and USA fought against the USSR during the Cold War. Click here for my post on the first episode. The BBC website describes the second episode, titled The Russians are Coming! as follows:

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the front line of the Cold War was hidden beneath the ocean. Submariners from three navies – American, Soviet and British – played a deadly game of cat and mouse in a secret war of espionage and intimidation. The nuclear balance between East and West was constantly shifting. This was a constant struggle to gain technological advantage, and the Soviets developed submarines that were ever more sophisticated – bigger, faster and more luxurious – than any developed by the West.

For over 40 years the details of this tense stand-off have been a closely guarded secret. Now submariners from all three navies are able to talk more openly than ever before. They reveal how the underwater arms race took ballistic missiles beneath the Arctic ice, and they remember how it nearly ended in nuclear disaster at sea.

In 1973 the hunter killer submarine USS Flying Fish was sent to Barents Sea to detect and obtain intelligence on the new Soviet Delta class of ballistic missile submarines, which were thought to carry new long-range missiles capable of hitting the USA without leaving the USSR’s waters. The existing Yankee class, as NATO codenamed the Soviet Project 667A submarines, had to go to the mid Atlantic in order to be in range of the USA, making them vulnerable to American and British hunter killer submarines.

The Flying Fish was  detected and became the target of a major anti-submarine exercise. She went closer in instead of withdrawing and watched the whole exercise. This provided vital intelligence about Soviet anti-submarine tactics.

The advent of the Deltas meant that American and British hunter killer submarines now  had to enter the Barents Sea in order to detect and shadow Soviet missiles submarines. There are two methods by which a submarine can detect another whilst both are submerged. Active sonar is more accurate, but reveals the presence of the searcher by pinging the enemy. It is usually used to get an exact fix before firing. Passive sonar entails silent listening, which hides the searcher, but makes it harder to detect the enemy. American and British submarines were quieter than the Soviet ones, but the Soviets were working hard to close gap.

The Flying Fish was the first submarine to use a passive towed array sonar. This consisted of ultra sensitive hydrophones towed up to mile behind the submarine. They could hear more than the human ear and the distance from the towing submarine reduced interference from its noise.

By 1977  the Soviets had more ballistic missile submarines than the UK and  USA combined. The Soviets were also developing cruise missiles to attack US aircraft carriers. Spying on Soviet weapons testing became more important than ever so that NATO could develop counter measures.

In 1982 the USS Grayling reported that the Delta that it was tracking was heading north, and was ordered to follow, although she lacked the necessary charts. The Delta disappeared below the ice, which was  normal for the Soviets, who had surveyed the Arctic sea bed and possessed accurate charts of it. their submarines could hide under the ice, which is noisy, cancelling out the American and British advantage.advantage. The Delta had a hovering system that allowed it to go completely still then break through ice. A missile fired from the North Pole would reach the USA in 20 minutes, allowing little time for  retaliation. The Deltas each carried 16 missiles with multiple warheads each.

The Soviets then introduced the Typhoon class, the world’s biggest ever submarines, which were designed to break through ice. They could  stay submerged for six months: American and British submarines never patrolled for more than two months. A nuclear submarine’s endurance is limited only by its food supply and the morale of its crew. The Typhoons had better living conditions, including a  sauna, swimming pool and  gym. The crew slept in proper cabins, with even ordinary sailors having four berth ones. A Typhoon carried 20 missiles which each had 10 self guided warheads, allowing it to attack double the number of targets as a Delta.

In the early 1980s the Soviets introduced the Victor III hunter killer submarines, which were intended to destroy all American and British ballistic missile submarines in the event of war. They were approaching technical parity with the American and British hunter killers, and the West was alarmed and puzzled by the speed of Soviet technological advance.

After taking office in 1981 President Ronald Reagan reversed US military budget cuts and dismissed the policy of arms control as being a one way street. He approved the most aggressive naval exercises conducted since WWII in the North Cape region. John Lehman, his Navy Secretary, said that the  purpose was to scare the Soviets. The USN’s war plan was now to attack Soviet Navy in Barents Sea, forcing them to keep their hunter killers at home to defend their ballistic missile submarines.

The level of tension was now the greatest that it had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1985, however, Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the USSR. He restructured economy and reopened arms talks.

Also in 1985, the Americans uncovered a spy ring led by John Walker, an ex USN submariner & communications expert. He had recruited other spies, including his son, a US sailor serving on an aircraft carrier, and sold the Soviets secrets that enabled them to close the technological gap on the USN. He was betrayed by his estranged wife.

In 1987 the Soviets launched Operation Atrina. Five Victor IIIs were found by SOSUS, the US submarine detection system, as they moved into Atlantic. NATO wondered why the Soviets would send their best team out in strength? Four were quickly detected as they headed south. The fifth was quieter,: one of the ex-RN officers interviewed suggested that she was better maintained and managed.

Admiral Vladimir Chernavin, a submariner who was then Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy, explained that the second stage was to see if a submarine detected by enemy could become invisible and escape. He allowed he first use of a system of hydro-acoustic resistance. Special torpedo that emitted the same sounds as the  submarine were launched, with the submarine then going a different way to the torpedo

The Victors escaped, and the Americans first searched for them at the entrance to the Mediterranean, but they were headed for the Sargasso Sea. Soviet submarines were not built for such hot waters, making conditions on board very uncomfortable. Their objectives were to confirm their belief that US ballistic missile submarines hid there, and to see if could have carried out a strike on the USA from such a position. They were spotted after eight days but had accomplished their mission in five days.

By 1987 some Soviet submarines were  very sophisticated, but most were older, for example the K219. It suffered an explosion due to sea water leaking into its missile tubes and mixing with the missiles’ liquid fuel. Two sailors were killed in the explosion and another gas poisoning.

All compartments were quickly sealed, preventing the whole boat from flooding, but 25 men were trapped in the damaged section. The captain decided to risk opening the section in order to save them. There was then a 14 hour battle to save the submarine. The nuclear reactor had to be shut down, but the automatic system to do so failed. Sergei Preminin, a conscript seaman, volunteered to enter the reactor room and shut it down manually. He succeeded in doing so, but a change in the pressure meant that he could not open the hatch to escape the reactor room and was killed. The rest of the crew was rescued just before the submarine sank, along with 16 missiles and 48 nuclear warheads.

This was a human tragedy and a symbol of the unreliable condition of the Soviet Navy and economy.  The USSR was broken by its huge investment in armaments. The Soviet sailors interviewed argued that they suffered a political rather than a military defeat in the Cold War.

There are profiles of  some of the submariners interviewed on the BBC website. For UK viewers it is available on the I-Player until 19 December and is repeated on BBC2 at 23:20 on BBC2 on 18 December (23:45 in Scotland) and at 3:00 on 29 December: the latter showing may have signing for the deaf, as repeats of BBC programmes in the early hours of the morning often do.

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The Battle of Lake Erie 10 September 1813

The American plan for the Niagara Front in 1813 was to recapture Detroit and invade Canada. In order to do so they had to control Lake Erie, which in turn depended on conquering Ontario. The British were forced onto the defensive by lack of resources. The Americans captured Fort George on 27 May. They were reluctant to advance further after being defeated at Beaver’s Dam on 24 June, whilst the British were too weak to try to retake Fort George.

I have written British throughout this post because the ships were sailing under the British flag, but the majority of their crews were Canadians.

Source: Map of Lake Frontier to Illustrate Campaigns of 1812-1814  From Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812 (Vol. I, p. 371) by A.T. Mahan (Boston: Little, Brown, 1905).

Source: Map of Lake Frontier to Illustrate Campaigns of 1812-1814
From Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812 (Vol. I, p. 371) by A.T. Mahan (Boston: Little, Brown, 1905).

The two naval commanders on Lake Ontario, Commodore James Lucas Yeo of the Royal Navy and Commodore Isaac Chauncey of the United States Navy, were cautious men, who spent much of July, August and September manoeuvring without coming to a decisive battle

The British ships were more strongly built and more manoeuvrable. The total armament of the two squadrons was similar, but the British had a far higher proportion of carronades, very powerful but short ranged guns. The Americans had an advantage in calm weather, when they could stay at long range, but a disadvantage in strong winds.[1]

Yeo had the better of an engagement off Niagara on 10 August, whilst Chauncey had the advantage of one off the Genesee on 11 September. Neither was decisive.

On Lake Erie, which was initially completely controlled by the British, the Americans had to construct a fleet locally. The story of how they did so, under the direction of Dan Dobbin, a merchant navy captain, is told in this article by Rear Admiral Denys W. Knoll, USN (Ret.).

Oliver Hazard Perry took command of the US squadron on Lake Erie 26 March. The British squadron was commanded by Captain Robert Barclay. Both men were far more energetic and aggressive than Chauncey and Yeo.

Theodore Roosevelt notes that sources differ on the armaments and crews of the ships involved, but believes that the following figures are the most likely. Note that some guns could bear on either broadside, so the broadside is often more than half the total weight of fire carried.

American

Name Type Tons Crew Long guns Carronades Broadside lbs
Lawrence brig 480 136 2 18 300
Niagara brig 480 155 2 18 300
Caledonia brig 180 53 2 1 80
Ariel schooner 112 36 4 48
Scorpion schooner 86 35 1 1 64
Somers schooner 94 30 1 1 56
Porcupine schooner 83 27 1 32
Tigress schooner 96 30 1 32
Trippe sloop 60 35 1 24
TOTAL 9 vessels 1671 532 15 39 936

Only 105 of the Lawrence’s crew, 127 of the Niagara’s crew and 184 of the crews of the smaller ships were fit for duty, meaning that the US fleet had only 416 men available.

The Lawrence and the Niagara both swapped a long 12 pounder from their unengaged side for a 32 pound carronade of the engaged side, giving a total US broadside of 896 lb, split 288 lb from long guns and 608 lb from carronades.

British

Name Type Tons Crew Long guns Carronades Broadside lbs
Detroit ship 490 150 17 2 138
Queen Charlotte ship 400 126 3 14 189
Lady Prevost schooner 230 86 3 10 75
Hunter brig 180 45 8 2 30
Chippeway schooner 70 15 1 9
Little Belt sloop 90 18 3 18
TOTAL 6 vessels 1460 440 35 28 459

The British broadside split 195 lb from long guns and 264 lb from carronades. A comparison of the number of guns suggested that the British fleet was superior, but its largest guns were two long 24 pounders and a 24 pound carronade on HMS Detroit and 14 24 pound carronades on HMS Queen Charlotte.

The USS Trippe carried a long 24 pounder, and all the other US ships except the USS Ariel had at least one 32 pound long gun or carronade. The USS Lawrence and the USS Niagara each had 18 32 pound carronades, although only eight were carried on the engaged side during this action.[2]

Thus the Americans had a significant fire power advantage over the British regardless of range, but it was even more pronounced at short range than at long range.

The two squadrons encountered each other on 10 September near Put-In-Bay in light winds. Perry’s flagship, the USS Lawrence, flew a flag with the words ‘Don’t give up the ship’ on it. This phrase had famously been said by James Lawrence, Captain of the USS Chesapeake, just after he was mortally wounded. HMS Detroit opened fire at 11:45 am, first hitting the USS Lawrence at 11:50.

At the head of the line HMS Chippeway and Barclay’s flagship HMS Detroit were engaged with the USS Lawrence, Scorpion and Ariel, with the British fire concentrated on the USS Lawrence. HMS Queen Charlotte and Hunter were in a long range artillery duel with the USS Caledonia, Niagara and Somers. At the end of the line the USS Tigress, Porcupine and Trippe were exchanging long range fire with HMS Lady Prevost and Little Belt.

Source: Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 6th ed. (New York; G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1897)

Source: Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 6th ed. (New York; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897)

The USS Lawrence reached close quarters at 12:20. The USS Lawrence, Scorpion, Ariel and Caledonia were now in a bloody battle in at canister range with HMS Chippeway, Detroit, Queen Charlotte and Hunter. Roosevelt argues that this part of the action was roughly equal because the larger British crews cancelled out the heavier American guns.[3]

Captain Jesse Duncan Elliott kept his ship, the USS Niagara, at long range, a strange tactic for a ship armed mainly with carronades and possessing the largest crew of any of the US warships present.

Source: Roosevelt, p. 270.

Source: Roosevelt, p. 270.

At the end of the line the USS Somers, Tigress, Porcupine and Trippe were engaged at long range with HMS Lady Prevost and Little Belt. The British were outgunned in this segment of the battle.

Both sides concentrated on the largest enemy ships, resulting in heavy damage to HMS Detroit and Queen Charlotte and especially to the USS Lawrence. At one point Perry fired the last effective heavy gun himself, helped by only the purser and chaplain.

Source: Roosevelt, p. 270.

Source: Roosevelt, p. 270.

The USS Lawrence was too badly damaged to continue as the flagship. Perry had to switch his flag to the virtually undamaged USS Niagara. Perry, along with four seamen and his brother, took a rowing boat to the virtually undamaged USS Niagara, and transferred his flag to her at 2:30 pm. Perry had four brothers who all served in the USN. One of the others, Matthew, led the mission that opened up Japan to US trade in the 1850s.

Perry ordered the schooners USS Somers, Tigress and Porcupine to join the Niagara, and at 2:45 led an attack aimed at breaking the British line. The British ships were too badly damaged to manoeuvre or offer much resistance. Barclay struck his colours at 3:00 pm. All the British squadron was captured. The USS Lawrence also struck her colours, but the British were unable to take possession of her.

US casualties were 27 killed and 96 wounded, three of whom died. Most of them were on board the USS Lawrence, which suffered 22 dead and 61 wounded. British losses were 41 killed and 94 wounded. The Captain and second in command of every British ship was killed or wounded. Barclay was wounded.[4]

One consequence of the battle was a long-running feud between Perry and Elliott over the latter’s conduct during it.

This was a vital victory for the USA. It now controlled Lake Erie, protecting it from invasion in that region, and allowing it to later recapture Detroit. It also boosted US morale. However, like most naval actions of the War of 1812, it was won by the side that had the greater firepower, with the men on both sides fighting equally well.


[1] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2), pp. 287-88.

[2] Ibid., pp. 311-17.

[3] Ibid., p. 321.

[4] Ibid., pp. 325-26.

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The USS Constitution Captures HMS Java, 29 December 1812

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

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%.[6] Roosevelt claimed that the Constitution’s broadside was 684 tons in her earlier victory over HMS Guerriere, so 654 may be a typo.[7]

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.[8]

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. [9]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, p. 145

[3] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 2

[4] 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.

[5] Ibid. Kindle edition, location 1897 of 12307.

[6] Roosevelt, Naval War, p. 155.

[7] These figures come from an e-book edition, so it could be that a number scanned incorrectly from the print edition.

[8] Roosevelt, Naval War, pp. 156-57.

[9] Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle edition, location 1902 of 12307; Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. i, p. 158.

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Defeat on Land, Victory at Sea: The Hull Family and the USA in 1812

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.[1] 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.’[2]

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.[3]

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.’[4]

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.[5] 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[6]. Andrew Lambert describes the Constitution as being 50 per cent more powerful than Guerriere.[7] [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.’[8]

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.’[9]

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.[10] 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.


[1] Force sizes are from J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), pp. 61-64.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 64.

[3] Ibid., pp. 65-66.

[4] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012), p. 72.

[5] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i. p. 334.

[6] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, pp. 82-88.

[7] Lambert, The Challenge, p. 79.

[8] Ibid., p. 78.

[9] Ibid., p. 79.

[10] Ibid., p. 81.

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The Fall of Singapore – The Great Betrayal – BBC2

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.[1]

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.

At this stage, Sempill and Rutland had provided an ally with information as part of officially sanctioned missions. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was ended by the treaties signed at the 1921-22 Washington Naval Conference and the two countries became potential foes. Despite this, Sempill continued to supply information to Japan. He had asecret job that seemed to make him an international arms salesman for Britain. This gave him access to secret information and brought him into contact with foreign navies and air forces, including those of Chile, Brazil and Greece.

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.

In 1926, Sempill visited the Blackburn aircraft factory, ostensibly to inspect a new single-seater aircraft. He managed to obtain plans of the top secret Blackburn Iris flying boat. Soon after this, he was interviewed by the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, the Director of Public Prosecutions and a senior MI5 officer.

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.

During the 1930s Sempill became President of the Royal Aeronautical Society and succeeded his father as Lord Sempill, sitting in the House of Lords as a Conservative. He was a member of The Link, an organisation established in 1937 to promote Anglo-German friendship, and The Right Club, which aimed to rid the Conservative Party of Jewish influence.

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.


[1] Stephen Roskill, Naval Policy Between the Wars, vol. i (London: Collin, 1968), p. 529.

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