May 3rd 1813 – Admiral Cockburn’s Raid on Havre de Grace

On June 18th 1812, the 4th President of the United States, James Madison Jr, bowed to pressure from those in Congress who wanted war with Britain and signed the declaration. The calls for war came as a result of a number of skirmishes between British and American ships the former of whom were enforcing a blockade against Napoleonic France and despite the US being officially neutral the British still stopped American ships and even press ganged American sailors in to the King’s service.

While it would last until February 18th 1815, the subsequent conflict is still remembered as the War of 1812. With the majority of British forces committed to fighting Napoleon in mainland Europe, the British had little choice but to initially adopt a defensive strategy against the Americans until they could bolster their numbers with troops from Europe and the enlistment of local native American tribes to carry out a guerrilla-style campaign against American troops.

Admiral Sir George Cockburn raid havre de grace 1813 war of 1812 Royal NavyAt sea, the British fleet was under the command of Admiral Sir John Warren who in November appointed the recently promoted Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn (pronounced Co-Burn, Right) as his second-in-command. Cockburn was an experienced officer having seen several actions throughout his career up to that time against the French and Spanish. Cockburn commanded a force of ships that were directed against disrupting US trade and naval/privateer operations along the northeastern US with the two-year old 36-gun fifth rate frigate HMS Maidstone carrying his flag.

On April 23rd 1813, Cockburn’s force captured Spesutie Island located in the Chesapeake Bay in the US state of Maryland. Recognising the fear his fleet had put in the local population he emphasized to them that as long as they did not oppose the British forces using the island as a base then they would be allowed to go about their daily lives. Reporting to Warren on April 29th following a raid on Frenchtown in which five American vessels were destroyed, he outlined his intention to attack any settlement along the American coastline in Chesepeake Bay which hoisted American colours or fired on his force.

A few days later, Cockburn was returning from Frenchtown, sailing to the north of Spesutie Island when he was fired on by US forces based in the town of Havre de Grace. In his report on the subsequent action which was reprinted in the London Gazette, Cockburn admitted that until he observed the gunfire aimed at him from the settlement he had largely disregarded it. Now, he decided that the settlement which was primarily defended by local militia groups should be punished for their resistance however the town was protected by shoal water that was too shallow for the larger of Cockburn’s fleet to sail over.

He therefore anchored his force off nearby Turkey Point on May 2nd 1813 and transferred over 150 Royal Marines to a flotilla of smaller boats that included a number of  rocket boats for fire support under the command of Captain John Lawrence of HMS Fantome. Lawrence and his men set off under the cover of darkness to carry out a dawn attack. HMS Dolphin (12-guns) and HMS Highflyer (8-guns), both former American privateers captured by the British and pressed in to service against their previous owners, attempted to sail with the boats to offer support but were only able to make it to six miles of the settlement because of the shallow waters.

As Lawrence and his men made their way towards the town, their presence was detected by the local population who warned the militia at Havre de Grace of the impending attack. The Americans decided to withdraw rather than fight a pitched battle with the British with less than 40 men remaining when Lawrence struck at dawn. The Americans manned a battery of cannons at Concord Point and it was here the main action was fought. Cockburn’s report describes what happened next;

Captain Lawrence, however, having got up with the boats, and having very ably and judiciously placed them during the attack, a warm fire was opened on the place at daylight from our launches and rocket boats, which was smartly returned from the battery for a short time, but the launches constantly closing with it, and their fire rather increasing than decreasing, that from the battery soon began to slacken, and Captain Lawrence observing this, very judiciously directed the landing of the marines on the left, which movement, added to the hot fire they were under, induced the Americans to commence withdrawing from the battery, to take shelter in the town.

Admiral Cockburn raid havre de grace 1813 war of 1812 Royal Navy

Lieutenant G. A. Westphal, who had taken his station in the rocket boat close to the battery, therefore now judging the moment to be favourable, pulled directly up under the work, and landing with his boats crew, got immediate possession of it, turned their own guns on them, and thereby soon obliged them to retreat with their whole force to the furthest extremity of the town, whither (the marines having by this time landed) they were closely pursued, and no longer feeling themselves equal to a manly and open resistance, they commenced a teazing and irritating fire from behind the houses, walls, trees, etc. from which I am sorry to say, my gallant first lieutenant received a shot through his hand whilst leading the pursuing party; he, however, continued to head the advance, with which he soon succeeded in dislodging the whole of the enemy from their lurking places, and driving them from shelter to the neighbouring woods, and whilst performing which service, he had the satisfaction to overtake, and with his remaining hand to make Prisoner,-and bring in a captain of their militia.

The captured American was Second Lieutenant John O’Neill who had put up a spirited defence which at one point included manning a cannon single-handedly until he was injured from the weapon’s recoil. He was captured along with two militia men as they attempted to escape to the nearby woods. During the entire attack there was only one fatality; an unfortunate resident of Havre de Grace who was killed when a British rocket exploded nearby.

Cockburn instructed his men not to pursue the Americans in to the woods. Instead they were to either seize or destroy American weapons that came in to their possession. Lawrence’s forces did however travel three miles north to destroy the ironworks centred around the Principio Furnace which was involved in manufacturing cannons for the American war effort. With Havre de Grace in British hands, the Royal Marines and sailors took to looting and vandalising the town, burning somewhere in the region of 60% of the entire settlement although the local church was spared.

The raid completed and Cockburn’s desire to punish the Americans satisfied, the British force then moved on up the Susquehanna River to attack an American supply depot. The residents returned to their gutted town, horrified at the destruction and accounts of the raid were widely circulated in the American press vilifying Cockburn especially. In response the British position argued that Cockburn and his men had done nothing the Americans had not done themselves in Canada, specifically the burning of York (modern day Toronto) a few days before the raid. Cockburn’s reputation for brutality amongst the Americans would later be solidified when over a year later he played a major role in the burning of Washington on August 24th 1814.



The Royal Navy’s Battle with Bolshevik Submarines in The Baltic, 1918 – 19

HMS Vindictive Royal Navy aircraft carrier Russian civil war 1918

Although she arrived halfway through 1919, HMS Vindictive played a major role in the last half of the fighting.

Even before the guns of World War I had fallen silent in Europe, the great powers were already finding themselves embroiled in another great conflict that was sparking up in the east. Having seemed constantly on the verge of revolution for two decades, the Great War finally broke the Russian Empire and on March 15th 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne and a provisional government was installed to replace him.

Then on October 25th, the socialist Bolsheviks under Lenin who had been in exile during the war rose up against the provisional government and seized power. Almost immediately, Russia descended in to civil war between the Bolshevik “Reds” and the “White Russians” – a loose alliance of factions each with their own goals but united in their desire to destroy Bolshevism. The old powers in western Europe such as Britain, France and Germany viewed the situation in Russia with horror, concerned that their own countries could be torn apart by their own Marxist uprisings. They therefore committed equipment, ships and troops to support the White Russians in fighting the Red Army and Navy.

Volk Bars-class submarine Bolshevik Navy

Russian Bars-class submarine

The Royal Navy had already been active in the Baltic Sea with a large submarine presence supporting their Russian Navy allies in preventing the import of iron ore from Sweden to Imperial Germany since 1914 but now those allies were likely to be hostile towards them if the Russian crews supported the Bolsheviks. Russian pride in their navy’s major surface combatants was still tainted by their defeat at the hands of the Japanese at Tsushima in 1908 and its ability to function had been further inhibited by the loss of experienced officers in the revolution and the general breakdown of discipline amongst the remaining crews. However, the Russian submarine force remained a significant threat with their smaller crews having a greater sense of loyalty to one another than in the bigger ships. They were also equipped with quite capable submarines built during the force’s expansion upon the outbreak of World War I such as the Bars-class which were armed with a single 57mm deck gun and eight 18inch torpedoes.

With Germany and the Bolsheviks negotiating for peace at the end of 1917, a flotilla of eight British submarines found themselves trapped between two hostile powers and were ordered to Finland where they remained until April 1918 when, with German forces closing in, they were taken to sea one at a time and scuttled. On November 11th 1918, World War I ended and the focus was now turned entirely to defeating the Bolsheviks including sending a British naval taskforce in to the Baltic. Dubbed Operation Red Trek and commanded by Rear-Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair, the taskforce sailed on November 28th and comprised of a number of fairly modern destroyers and cruisers as well as a number of submarines that had survived the First World War in the Baltic. Red Trek had four primary goals;

  • To contain Bolshevism.
  • To protect Britain’s interests in the region.
  • Maintain the freedom of the seas.
  • Prevent the newly declared independent states of Estonia and Latvia from being seized by Red forces or remnant German units.

Opposing Alexander-Sinclar’s taskforce was Russia’s Baltic Fleet that still included a number of capital ships such as the Gangut-class battleship Petropavlovsk but was seriously weakened by the manpower shortage and so did little to stop the British ships from landing troops and equipment in Estonia. The British did suffer their first casualty during this time however when the light cruiser HMS Cassandra struck a mine on December 5th near Saaremaa in the Gulf of Finland. The mine had been laid by the Germans during the war and the British were unaware of the minefield’s presence. Mines would prove to be the number one threat to the British in the coming year accounting for a number of losses.

Leaving five of his ships to support the Estonians, Alexander-Sinclair then sortied south to asses the situation in Latvia and lend support to that country’s security. The Bolsheviks decided to launch an attack against the weakened British force to punish them for meddling in Russian affairs sending a flotilla of their ships to attack them. This flotilla almost completely disintegrated as it sailed out to intercept the British due to a combination of poor leadership, even poorer discipline among the crews and generally low reliability amongst the ships to the point where only two destroyers – the Avtroil and Spartak –  made a valiant attack on their own. Unfortunately for the Bolshevik crews, courage did not translate in to success. During the engagement off Reval in Estonia, one crew got disoriented and ran aground while the other tried to make an escape but became surrounded and so elected to surrender rather than become martyrs.

The Bolsheviks worked hard over the next few weeks to address the problems typified by the whole affair and aware that if they were to succeed then they could brush away Alexander-Sinclair’s force with their battleships, the British sent the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Walter Cowan to the Baltic. Cowan was a forceful commander who wanted to exercise a more aggressive approach to tackling the Russians when he took over command of the mission in early 1919. His efforts were initially inhibited however by the harsh winter which slowed progress and lowered British morale considerably. The Bolsheviks put to sea again in May 1919 but were forced back by Cowan’s fleet leaving mines and submarines as the only real way they could fight the British.

One such Bolshevik submarine was the Bars-class Pantera under the command of 24-year old Alexander N. Bakhtin which left the port of Kronstadt on the night of July 23rd/24th. Bakhtin was one of the more experienced commanders amongst the Bolsheviks having served successfully aboard the Volk during the fighting with Germany. Bakhtin and his men had orders to attack British vessels off Kaporia Bight, the second submarine crew to be dispatched on this mission with the first, the Vepr, having been forced back to port with engine troubles. They did not have to wait long to encounter a British force spotting two British submarines travelling on the surface the next day. Keeping the sun at his back to conceal his position, Bakhtin launched an attack by firing a single torpedo at the furthest British submarine which spotted it early enough to evade it.

Pantera Bars-class submarine Bolshevik Navy

The Pantera (after the Russian Civil War)

Bakhtin then turned the Pantera on to the closer submarine, HMS E40, and launched two torpedoes in its direction. He then ordered his crew to turn away and dive deep in order to evade a counterattack. Again, Bakhtin’s efforts proved fruitless as the two torpedoes were quickly evaded by the E40 which continued turning until her bow was brought to bear on the diving Pantera. The E40 dispatched a torpedo towards the Pantera but had as much luck as the Russians with it passing alongside the Bars-class sub as it dived. A nearby British destroyer, HMS Watchman, conducted a depth charge attack but Bakhtin and the Pantera escaped back to Kronstadt.

Having been repaired, the Vepr made a second attempt to intercept the British a few days later on July 27th. Early the next day, the Vepr detected two British warships and fired a salvo of torpedoes towards them but without success. Having been detected, the Vepr attempted to escape as it was attacked with depth charges that inflicted significant damage on the submarine including to the electrics which plunged some of the crew in to absolute darkness. Despite having difficulty maintaining their depth due to damage, the crew of the Vepr managed to avoid destruction by the two destroyers – HMS Valorous and Vancouver – and later avoided an attempted attack by the British submarine HMS L15 to limp back to Kronstadt for repairs.

PLEASE NOTE – It is sometimes reported that the submarine involved was actually the Ersh but according to Geoffrey & Rodney Bennett in their book Freeing the Baltic 1918–1920 there is no evidence to suggest the submarine was in the area on July 28th 1919. Record keeping was not a priority in Russia at this time.

Despite the lack of success thus far on the part of the Russians, Rear Admiral Cowan was particularly concerned by the attacks and the potential they could have on his force which now included the aircraft carrier HMS Vindictive. As part of the effort to contain the Russian fleet, Cowan’s forces instigated a widescale mining operation around Kronstadt and neighbouring ports held by the Bolsheviks. Submarine nets were also deployed near his own harbours to protect his ships from being ambushed as they sailed in to the Baltic while the addition of the Third Destroyer Flotilla increased the number of British ships equipped with hydrophones to listen out for the submarines as they cruised submerged. Cowan committed most of his assets that were not directly supporting land operations to hunt and destroy the submarines including some of his cruisers and aircraft from Vindictive.

On July 30th, he ordered the planes from Vindictive to make a bold early morning attack on Kronstadt one of the aims of which was to target the submarine tender Pamiat Azova. Anti-aircraft fire over Kronstadt was very heavy but the pilots reported scoring a hit on the vessel and claimed a hit on a nearby drydock. It would later be learned that the pilots had mistook the oil tanker Tatiana for the submarine tender which remained undamaged. On August 18th, Cowan’s forces attacked the harbour with a force of coastal motor boats supported by Vindictive’s aircraft. This time they scored hits on the Pamiat Azova after which it sank and lay on its port side in the shallow water.

This aggressive reaction typified Cowan’s style as a commander and appeared to alarm the Bolsheviks to the point where their submarines didn’t venture out of port for the best part of the following month. In the wake of the attack on Kronstadt, it was late in the month when Bakhtin and the Pantera ventured out to face the British again. On August 31st, Bakhtin’s men sighted two British warships including the modern V-class destroyer HMS Vittoria under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Vernon Hammersley-Heenan and which had been configured for laying mines. Bakhtin and his men stalked the British ship for over a day spending much of the time submerged to avoid detection.

HMS Vittoria v-class admiralty destroyer Royal Navy

HMS Vittoria

Finally, the next day Bakhtin was presented with his opportunity to attack as the Vittoria and HMS Abdiel anchored off the island of Seiskari in the Gulf of Finland. Bakhtin fired a pair of 18inch torpedoes toward the British ship one of which missed but the other struck the side of the vessel blowing a hole in the hull. Less than five minutes after being hit, the 22-month old Vittoria had completely sunk taking eight of her crew with her. Bakhtin observed the Abdiel powering up and with depleted batteries, decided to withdraw rather than attempt to attack it too thus allowing the British ship to go to the rescue of their comrades who had survived the sinking of their ship.

Despite this victory, the Russian submarine threat was proving more of a concern for British sailors than their actual impact on the strategic situation. The main threat to British ships remained the many minefields that had been laid in the region with another V-class destroyer, HMS Verulam, being lost to one just three days after the Vittoria was sunk. Unfortunately for the British Admiralty and Cowan in particular, these losses had a profound impact on the already suffering morale of the British crews. The British government had repeatedly made claims that those British servicemen fighting in the Russian Civil War were volunteers but it seemed this did not extend completely to the Royal Navy. Many of the British sailors were quite sullen over the fact that the war they had joined up to fight was now over yet they were still being ordered to risk their lives in combat on behalf of a foreign nation. Added to this was the threat from the much-vaunted underwater menace that was the submarine which along with the hundreds of mines meant many sailors were left wondering if their ship would suddenly blow up from underneath them. This mood was only worsened by the freezing weather experienced in the early months of 1919, the poor conditions onboard many of the destroyers in which crews had to spend a considerable amount of time and Cowan’s repeated cancellation of shore leave in order to achieve his latest aims.

What started as a morale problem quickly escalated and even spread beyond the ships in the Baltic. The First Destroyer Flotilla was due to set sail for the Baltic Sea in early October 1919 but upon hearing this, over 150 seamen abandoned their posts and attempted to make their way to London to present their protests to Whitehall. Over 100 of them were arrested as they travelled by train but 44 of them made it to London although the effort was in vain and they too were arrested and imprisoned. The First Destroyer Flotilla was reinforced with volunteers from battleships and cruisers and set sail on October 14th although with only half the number of destroyers it had expected to have. Even if the crews reported to their ships there still seemed to be a conspiracy to stop them. Socialism was spreading amongst the working class in Britain after the Great War that was seen as a calamity brought upon them by the ruling classes. This led to support for the Bolsheviks and resulted in several refusals by dock workers to load ships headed for the Baltic.

Cowan’s biggest ships weren’t exempt from disruption by disgruntled sailors. In November 1919, discipline aboard Vindictive was seriously breaking down in the wake of cancelled leave during a stopover in Copenhagen, Denmark leading to Royal Marines having to break up a group of protesters. Later, two stokers were caught trying to sabotage the engines and when news of this got out it only encouraged further dissent leading to the captain enforcing harsh punishments on men he identified as ringleaders. The following month, aboard the cruiser HMS Delhi a quarter of the crew refused to report for duty.

By now the situation on land was becoming more and more hopeless for the White Russians and their foreign allies. While the Royal Navy had largely kept the Bolshevik fleet at bay, the failure of the White Russian General Nikolai Yudenich to capture Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and the continued collapse of anti-Bolshevik forces made the allies realise that the war was lost and in December 1919, Cowan began withdrawing his fleet. They had however secured the independence of Estonia and Latvia but it had cost 112 British sailors’ lives. Cowan would continue on in the Royal Navy commanding the Battlecruiser Squadron from HMS Hood before retiring as a full Admiral only to return to service in World War II. He was captured by the Italians in 1942 in Libya but was repatriated a year later. He retired a second time in 1945 and died in 1956 aged 85, the last of the Cowan Barons.

Alexander Bakhtin and his crew returned home as heroes with the Pantera itself finding a special place in the hearts of the revolutionary Russians, it being the first submarine of the Red Navy to sink an enemy vessel in combat. It later dispensed with its imperial-given name, instead adopting the name Kommisar and remained in service long after its surviving sisters had been withdrawn ending its days as a harbour training vessel.

Bakhtin however would not be so fortunate. His immediate fame was short lived when in 1924, two years after Lenin’s death and Stalin’s rise to power in the new Soviet Union, his noble heritage was made public and he was stripped of all his revolutionary accolades before being sent to the Solovki gulag in the Solovetsky Islands of the White Sea. There he endured five years of hard labour that seemed to considerably age him beyond his 34 years when he was released in 1929. Two years later he contracted tuberculosis and died almost unnoticed by the people of the revolution he had fought and killed for.

Smuggling the Consul’s Family

In early August 1816, a growing number of British warships were assembling under the command of Admiral Edward Pellow, Lord Exmouth aboard HMS Queen Charlotte in the Mediterranean. Among their number was HMS Prometheus, an 18-gun sloop commissioned nine years previously. Despite being a relatively young vessel in the Royal Navy at a time when it was not uncommon for ships to serve for several decades, the Prometheus had already seen a good deal of action in the service of King George III.

During the Anglo-Russian War 1807–12, the Prometheus was part of a force that on July 7th 1809 captured six Russian gunboats, sank a seventh and captured 12 cargo ships laden with supplies for the Russian Army. The Prometheus had also encountered a number of privateers – armed ships owned and crewed by private individuals holding a government commission to capture or sink merchant shipping – the first being the French vessel Messilina off the coast of Pillau, Russia on August 2nd 1810. The Prometheus then fought an action against the French privateer Vengeur off Belize in 1812 and against an American privateer off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1814.

In 1816, the British government had turned their attention toward the problem of the Barbary States of North Africa who frequently took to kidnapping Europeans and forcing them in to slavery. Known as “the White Slaves”, their plight was largely ignored during the Napoleonic Wars which had ended a year earlier in 1815 because the British had worked with the Barbary States such as Algiers against Napoleon. Now, the situation had become a source of embarrassment for the British who felt compelled to respond not just on behalf of Britain but of the Christian world itself.

Barbary DeyThe Barbary States were ruled by a series of Deys; a term given to those who ruled over their people. There were three Deys spread along the Barbary Coast in 1816 whom the British had to confront in their efforts to free the “White Slaves” and prevent further kidnappings. They were located at Algiers (modern-day Algeria), Tripoli (Libya) and Tunis (Tunisia). Lord Exmouth had undertaken a diplomatic mission to the three Deys in early 1816 to negotiate for the “White slaves” release. He took with him a small force of Royal Navy ships to show that the British were prepared to take action if necessary and this was enough to convince the Deys of Tripoli and Tunis but the Dey of Algiers was not so easily swayed. Nevertheless, he did agree to release British-born slaves but refused to abolish the practice of taking Christian slaves altogether.

Exmouth returned to England believing his mission was a success but those beliefs were seemingly destroyed when on June 20th the first reports began to reach London of forces belonging to the Dey of Algiers having massacred Italian fishermen at Bona the previous month. The Italians were under the protection of the British which the Dey knew and his agreement with Exmouth should have extended to them. It would later transpire that the soldiers who carried out the atrocity had received confused orders but by then the desire for retribution amongst the British people had to be satisfied. Exmouth himself had to make amends for what was seen as being the failure of his diplomatic mission and so he sailed in force from Portsmouth on July 28th 1816.

Royal Navy gibraltar battle of algiers bombardmentAs his fleet assembled, Exmouth began to realise that some sort of action against the Dey was unavoidable and he had drilled his fleet intensively to prepare but this did present him with a problem. The British had established a consulate in Algiers and it was feared that the British consul, Mr Hugh M’Donell and his family would suffer immediate and likely brutal retaliation once the British fleet began their bombardment. Exmouth therefore ordered that one of his ships should enter Algiers and essentially smuggle Mr M’Donell and his family out the day before hostilities began. He selected HMS Prometheus to carry out the operation since sloops were frequent visitors to African ports and would not attract as much attention as a larger type such as a cruiser.

Prometheus was at that time under the command of Captain W. B. Dashwood and with the last diplomatic efforts exhausted, the Prometheus sailed for the North African city. With hostilities having not yet broken out, the ship was allowed to make anchor without interference but Dashwood and his men could sense the Algerian’s suspicion of them regarding their sudden visit. Indeed, the Dey’s men had interrogated numerous merchant captains over the preceding days and one Dutch trader had even told them of a force of British ships assembling out at sea.

With little time to waste, Dashwood ordered his men to begin the operation and two boats were sent ashore with 18 men each including the ship’s surgeon. The family had been secretly briefed on what to do when the Prometheus arrived and Mr M’Donell, his wife, his eldest daughter and infant made their way to a prearranged location to meet the men from the British warship. There they were split in to two groups, one for each boat. The two ladies found themselves being handed male sailor’s clothes in order to disguise them as two midshipmen and as they made their way to their boat they tried their best to mingle in amongst the men. The deception worked and the two women made it to their designated boat where they were rowed out to the safety of the Prometheus.

It was not so easy for the second group however for they had to contend with a baby which would surely arouse suspicion from the Dey’s men around the city as they made their way to their boat. The Prometheus’ surgeon therefore gave the baby a tonic to make her sleep very soundly and hid her in a basket of fruit which they then carried down to the shore. However, as they neared their boat the baby woke up and started crying. The game was up and the men found themselves swarmed by the Dey’s men who seized the surgeon, Mr M’Donell, the baby and seventeen of the Prometheus’ crew.

The fact they had been caught trying to smuggle Mr M’Donell and his family out left the Dey with no doubt that the British planned to attack and he threw the Prometheus’ men in to prison while Mr M’Donell himself was chained up in his own house. It was suspected at the time that a Jewish nurse employed by the family had betrayed them to the Dey although this was unsubstantiated. The Prometheus remained anchored in Algiers overnight in the hope the men would be returned but in the morning the Dey sent out a single boat to the warship. The boat carried Mr M’Donell’s baby daughter alive and well and much to the relief of Mrs M’Donell she was handed over to them without hesitation but they did have a message for Dashwood; his men the Dey had seized and Mr M’Donell would not be released.

Knowing that the British fleet, now supported by a small Dutch contingent, would be sailing in to Algiers in the coming days, Dashwood sailed the Prometheus out of Algiers to report back to Lord Exmouth that his rescue mission had only been partially successful. He had however used his time at anchor to conduct reconnaissance on the Dey’s defences to make sure that Exmouth’s fleet had the most up to date intelligence.

Royal Navy night battle of algiers bombardment

On August 27th 1816, Exmouth’s force of 27 warships sailed in to Algiers and carried out an intensive bombardment of the Dey’s ships and the harbour’s defences. The Dey lost a sizeable portion of his fleet and sustained heavy casualties amongst his men (exact figures are unknown since there was little in the way of record-keeping in Algiers at that time but it is believed to be in the hundreds). The Dey was forced to concede to British and Dutch demands and over 3,000 Christian slaves were freed as well as promises by the Dey to end the practice. His supporters blamed him for the disaster and he was overthrown a year later; the first of several coups in Algiers through the 1820s until it was colonised by the French in 1830.

Mr M’Donell would return to Algiers after the bombardment to continue his role as Consul-General and would survive a rather creative assassination attempt by one of the Dey’s successors when he was draped in a cloak by a plague-stricken woman.


Slavers & Pirates – Midshipman Crawford’s Great Escape

The story of the abolition of slavery within the British Empire is one of forward thinking triumphs and deplorable setbacks. There can be no denying that slavery played a big part in the building of the empire in the first place especially when it came to colonising North America and other parts of the so-called New World but by the dawn of the 19th century a more enlightened British society demanded an end to the act at home and within the Empire. Other countries too tried outlawing slavery but there were always those who stood to lose from its abolition and often these people were the most influential in their countries which was a major obstacle to overcome.

slavery-abolition-ukIn Great Britain, the House of Lords repeatedly stood in the way of ending slavery in the Empire citing that the cost of first losing this abundance of cheap labour in the colonies and then having to employ the freed slaves would significantly weaken the Empire’s economy. They made it clear in the first quarter of the 19th century that they would block any effort to end slavery in Britain’s colonial possessions but they did make one important concession in 1807 with the passing of the Slave Trade Act. The act finally put an end to British vessels transporting slaves and a fine of £120 per slave (approx. £8,500 today) was put in place for any captain caught in such activity. It was hoped by the Abolitionists in Britain that the Slave Trade Act would itself lead to an end of slavery in the colonies since they would be denied fresh slaves from Africa and the Caribbean but this didn’t happen until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

In the meantime, as was often the case in the time of the British Empire, it fell to the Royal Navy to enforce the law across Britain’s vast colonial possessions. As such, in 1808 the Royal Navy established a dedicated patrol force to combat slavers still engaged in the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the Americas. The new tasking, while morally praiseworthy, was met initially with a level of consternation by the Admiralty who were concerned by the cost of maintaining such a patrol force especially given the ongoing conflicts with Napoleonic France. Nevertheless, the West Africa Squadron was formed although initially it consisted of just two ships – the 32-gun frigate HMS Soleby and the 18-gun HMS Derwent.

A special court was established in Sierra Leone to prosecute cases and Britain used its considerable political influence to force other imperial powers such as Portugal, Spain and Holland to either submit to the ban on the slave trade or as was the case with Portugal impose limits. French slave ships were often taken as prizes under the articles of war. Despite this unprecedented level of international legal cooperation, the Atlantic slave trade continued especially regarding South America. The risks involved in transporting slaves drove costs up increasing profits for captains who were looking to make their fortune which in turn kept the West Africa Squadron busy throughout the middle of the 19th century.

In 1826, the 18-gun brig-sloop HMS Elk stumbled upon two vessels, the Netuno and the Esperanza, from the newly independent nation of Brazil attempting to make it home from West Africa. Suspecting they were transporting slaves, the British warship boarded them and confirmed that their cargo consisted of around 200 African slaves. Interpreting the law of King George IV, the captain of the Elk elected to sail the two vessels and their cargo to Sierra Leone to release the slaves and put the two captains on trial; a potentially inflammatory act since slavery was still very much rife in Brazil forming a significant part of the economy and would continue to do so until 1888.

The incident that followed was recounted in Admiral Edward Giffard’s collected work Deeds of Naval Daring: Anecdotes of the British navy published after his death in 1910. The Netuno was assigned eight men from the Elk to act as prize crew and to command the captured Brazilian crew back to Africa. The prize crew were under the command of Midshipman R. R. Crawford, a promising young officer at the time and one who would later fulfil that promise having a successful career. On March 6th 1826, Crawford and the Netuno sailed for Sierra Leone in company with the Esperanza. However, it was quickly realised that the Esperanza was the faster of the two ships and the Netuno began to fall behind until both ships had effectively parted company.

The journey proved uneventful for the most part until the night of March 20th. Most of the Brazilian crew were kept below deck during the night hours to reduce the chance of them attempting to retake their ship under the cover of darkness. Crawford had retired for the evening but was suddenly awoken by the Brazilian captain who alerted him that they had spotted a vessel on the horizon, its large square rigged sails reflecting the low light enough for a keen eye to spot. Calling his men up on deck, Crawford reasoned that the vessel was HMS Redwing, a sister-ship of his own vessel the Elk and one that was very active in combatting the slave trade on the west of Africa. Having been at sea for almost two weeks he couldn’t have known that the Redwing was herself dealing with a Spanish illegal slave ship hundreds of miles away.


HMS Clio, sister to ship to Elk and Redwind

The pursuing ship fired a shot across the bow of the Netuno and still under the impression that it was the Redwing, Crawford ordered the British red ensign to be raised and that sail was to be reduced to allow them to come alongside. The pursuing vessel manoeuvred to sail parallel to the Netuno allowing Crawford and the Brazilian captain to take a good look at it. What they saw made them realise the predicament they now found themselves in. The vessel that had been pursuing them was in a rather poor condition, lacked any identifying colours and manned by a crew that were both loud and seemingly undisciplined; clearly not a warship of any of the imperial powers. It was however armed with at least 12 visible guns making her a formidable opponent to a vessel such as the Netuno that was armed with only two six pounders that were only useful for discouraging bandits.

The Brazilian captain turned to Crawford and repeatedly began saying the word “Ladrone! Ladrone!” over and over which loosely translated means “robber”. Realising that they were pirates, Crawford ordered his men to make sail and fire their only gun aimed at them to catch them off guard and make good their escape. However, discipline amongst his own hybrid crew of Royal Navy sailors and Brazilian slavers would be his undoing. The sails were unfurled but the gun crew were unable to load a shot quickly enough for many of them feared the consequences of taking on such a heavily armed opponent.

Seeing that the Netuno was attempting to escape, the pirate vessel fired a shot which sent a cannon ball between the masts of the Brazilian slave ship. To Crawford’s amazement he then spied them hoisting French colours before hailing the Netuno demanding that they stop and identify themselves as well as present their papers. Crawford nor the Brazilian captain were fooled but knowing that to attempt to run now would only invite a barrage of gunfire to which they had little response decided to comply if only to buy themselves time. The “French” captain ordered Crawford to come aboard his ship to present his papers which Crawford was unable to do because the Netuno lacked its own sea boat. Therefore, the “French” captain said he would provide him with his own boat and one was readied with five men commanded by what appeared to be an officer although to Crawford his attire was in poor order for a man claiming to be of such a position. The men rowed to the Netuno where the officer again repeated his captain’s demands that Crawford produce his papers. The officer spoke French to one of his men who then relayed the words in English to Crawford with a distinctly Irish accent. During the exchange of words the “French” officer revealed his true identity by accidentally breaking in to Spanish although Crawford feigned ignorance so as to not ignite the situation.

Crawford acknowledged that he would produce the papers and that he had to go to his cabin to get them. The pirates waited in their boat alongside the Netuno and Crawford ordered that under no circumstances were they to be allowed on board. In his cabin, Crawford readied two pistols and prepared himself for whatever was to come next knowing that whatever he did to appease the pirates they would try and take his ship at some point. He left his cabin with his hands behind his back clutching the two pistols and made his way towards where the pirate boat was positioned alongside his captured slave ship. He spoke to the officer and asked if the papers could be inspected by his captain without Crawford having to come aboard their ship but as they conversed the pirate spotted one of Crawford’s pistols and attempted to leap aboard and rush at him. Crawford’s hand was too quick however and he put one of the pistols to the man’s chest and shot him dead at point blank range. A second man then leapt aboard the Netuno and Crawford put him down with his other pistol.

The four remaining men in the boat including the Irishman threw their hands up and Crawford instructed them to get in the water and hold on to the sides of their boat. This was to prevent them from making similar attempts to board the Netuno. Suddenly, the air boomed with the sound of the pirate vessel opening up on the Netuno with their guns despite the fact they still had four of their own men in the water alongside it. Their aim was good enough to get several hits on the Netuno and despite the David and Goliath odds, Crawford had no choice but to return fire with his single six pounder gun pointing in the pirate ship’s direction. The gun was handled by Crawford, one of the prize crew and the Brazilian captain while efforts were made to get the vessel under sail. Once mobile again, the Netuno tried to pull away from the pirate ship hoping they would attempt to recover their men who were still clutching to their boat thus giving the Netuno time to escape but instead it gave chase.

Despite their superior firepower, the Spanish pirates were unable to inflict a mortal wound on the Netuno which managed to either escape from or survive barrage after barrage. Incredibly, Netuno’s six pounder scored a lucky shot that must have ignited the gun powder on board for it produced a large explosion that Crawford’s men speculated killed or wounded at least twenty of their number. Crawford put their lack of success down to poor discipline and training for he noted that many of the pirate’s guns were firing at high angles of elevation that sent the rounds flying between the Netuno’s masts.

For nearly two hours the two ships exchanged fire while Netuno attempted to make good her escape. Then, to the relief of the men aboard the Netuno the pirate vessel began broke off the engagement. Testimony from the Netuno’s men later claimed that as the pirate ship broke off, fighting between its crewmembers could clearly be seen up on deck. The captured slave ship had survived the encounter but did not come off entirely unscathed. A single shot had hit the slave hold killing a woman and taking off a young girl’s arm while up on deck Crawford himself had been severely wounded by splintering wood that struck him in the temple and hand. He collapsed on deck and had to be nursed back to health during the voyage to Sierra Leone but he made a full recovery.

During the investigation by the courts in Sierra Leone, Crawford was praised for his actions and was soon promoted for his deeds. The key piece of evidence came from the Brazilian captain of the Netuno who had nothing but praise for the British officer despite the fact Crawford’s own ship had seized his vessel a few weeks prior.

FINAL NOTE: HMS Redwind, the ship Crawford initially believed was the vessel approaching them before realising they were in fact pirates, would be lost at sea under mysterious circumstances just a few weeks after this incident. Pieces of the vessel would wash up on the African shore but it is still unclear what her fate was.



Aiming For The Ark


Revolutionary Organisation November 17 rocket mortar attack HMS Ark Royal

The story of how the Greek terrorist group November 17 tried to fire rockets at HMS Ark Royal.

On March 31st 1994, HMS Ark Royal steamed in to the Greek port of Piraeus located south-west of the centre of the capital city of Athens. The Invincible-class aircraft carrier, known to her crew as simply “The Ark”, was the fifth vessel in the Royal Navy’s history to carry the proud name which has long held an important place in the hearts of the British people. Commissioned in 1985, she was a great deal smaller than her predecessor operating a mix of helicopters and the revolutionary Sea Harrier Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing (VSTOL) combat aircraft. Nevertheless, she still carried 1,200 British sailors as they exercised British foreign policy around the world.

In 1994 that meant operations in the Adriatic to support NATO and UN peacekeeping operations over the former Yugoslavia. Operating under the banner of Operation Grapple (not to be confused with Operation Grapple; the British nuclear tests carried out in the mid-1950s) and then Operation Hamden, the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm provided logistical and fast-jet support to British troops on the ground in Bosnia via its helicopters and Sea Harriers respectively.

On January 28th 1994, HMS Ark Royal set sail from Portsmouth under the command of Captain Terry Loughran to rendezvous with her sister-ship, HMS Invincible. The two aircraft carriers met up on February 4th at Gibraltar where they completed a handover of duties before the Ark set sail for the Adriatic to assume her station.

The following interview was given by Captain Loughran during the operation and outlines the vessel’s mission as well as a brief glimpse of life aboard the carrier.

For the next two months the tempo of operations was high. The Ark proved so valuable that port visits to Naples and Toulon were cancelled to keep the vessel at sea. By the end of March, the carrier was given a reprieve from her duties and set sail for Piraeus where many of her crew were looking forward to shore leave. It was also an opportunity for the ship’s engineers to fully inspect the machinery that powered the vessel before they returned to the Adriatic. The visit to Piraeus was to be more than just a break for the crew with the customary tours for British and Greek delegates having been arranged during the stay. As the Ark steamed in to the picturesque Greek port her crew didn’t know of the plan that was being hatched against them on shore.

Greece’s post-World War II period was far more turbulent than most other western European countries. In 1967, the country was rocked by a military coup ‘d’état that would see seven years of dictatorship under the Juntas. In 1973, the general population and especially the Greek youth had become so frustrated with the Junta that they rose up in a mass demonstration of opposition. The Junta reacted harshly and on November 17th 1973 tanks burst through the gates of the National Technical University of Athens where a number of students and staff were on strike. 24 people were killed in the incident many of whom were young students.

The military dictatorship had survived the incident but their days were already numbered and the following year, as a result of pressure from members of the European Economic Community (European Union), the United States and as a result of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the Juntas fell. However, the legacy of the tragedy at the university remained. Many of the students protesting were advocates of socialism and were displeased with the pro-capitalist government that formed in the wake of the Juntas. They were especially unhappy about the influence foreigners were having on Greece’s internal policies especially regarding the United States and the UK; Britain had a significant military presence on Cyprus in the 1970s. With the Greek political establishment still rocky they formed themselves in to their own army in an attempt to seize power and they named themselves in honour of those who had fallen at the university. Thus, Revolutionary Organization 17 November (often referred to as simply “November 17” or “17N”) was born in 1975.

November 17 flag

Flag of November 17 (commons.wikimedia)

They immediately made a name for themselves by attacking the American Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) station chief in Athens, Richard Welch, gunning him down outside his Greek home in full view of his wife. The Greek government tried to downplay the group’s involvement and this resulted in November 17 leaving calling cards with many of their victims’ bodies in the future often outlining why they had targeted that individual. Over the next 27 years the group would conduct a number of high profile assassinations and attacks on government and foreign officials. In the late 1980s these attacks became more sophisticated as the group seized a number of obsolete yet still effective anti-tank weapons from a Greek army depot and configured them to fire from homemade launchers. These were then used to attack foreign businesses and government vehicles including an attack on an armoured riot police bus in 1991 killing one officer and injuring 14 others.

Despite the apparent escalation of the group’s activities, the early- to mid-1990s saw a decline in November 17’s fortunes. The popularity they had enjoyed in the late 1970s and 1980s amongst the Greek population was quickly evaporating thanks to a number of incidents where innocent bystanders were killed or maimed in their operations resulting in their activities becoming more sporadic and with fewer successes. By 1994, morale amongst the group was at an all-time low with members abandoning it in droves. The hardcore remnants therefore planned a series of spectacular and high profile rocket attacks aimed at restoring morale and bringing the group back to the attention of the world’s media. They would be carried out in relatively quick succession and be primarily aimed at foreign targets in Greece. So when Ark Royal, the most well-known warship in the British fleet, docked at Piraeus on March 31st it proved too tempting a target to pass up.

November 17’s operatives began scouting around the dock for a suitable place to launch the attack and spotted a desolate area near a timber yard approximately 200 yards away from where the ship was docked. Two 2.75in rockets were loaded in to metal tubes angled in the direction of the moored 22,000ton British warship which were to be triggered by a timer set to give the terrorists enough time to get a safe distance away from the area which no doubt would become swarmed by police and security services in the wake of an attack. Having returned to their safe houses the terrorists must have waited patiently for the news channels to start pouring out reports of a rocket attack on a British aircraft carrier. They knew the small rockets had little chance of inflicting serious damage on the warship by themselves but if they were lucky enough to have them ignite some of the aviation fuel for the vessel’s air wing or even detonate some of the weapons on-board the result could be catastrophic.

USS FOrrestal Fire 1967

The Forrestal fire in 1967 (

In July 1967, the US Navy carrier USS Forrestal was engaged in combat operations over Vietnam. Sailing through the Gulf of Tonkin, a strike mission was being prepared when a single Zuni 5.0in rocket inadvertently fired from its launcher beneath the wing of an F-4B Phantom II striking the external fuel tank of an A-4 Skyhawk getting ready for launch. The destruction of the Skyhawk resulted in a series of explosions aboard the vessel as fuel and weapons were ignited. By the time the resulting fire was brought under control 134 sailors were dead, 161 more were injured and US$72 million (equivalent to $511 million today) of damage had been inflicted. The threat posed to Ark Royal in 1994 from the two rockets was therefore very real.

Much to the terrorists’ frustration however, the news channels were not reporting an attack on the carrier. As the hours continued to tick by it was becoming increasingly obvious that the rockets had failed to fire either because of a malfunction or because they had been found by police and defused. Either way it was yet another blow to the group’s morale but undeterred they continued on with the attacks they had planned. On April 11th, the day Captain Loughran and his crew left the Greek port behind, November 17 detonated two bombs that exploded about three minutes apart in the northern suburb of Maroussi. The blasts damaged the offices of the American Life Insurance Company (Alico) and the Dutch insurance company Nationale Nederlande.

At around noon the local police in Piraeus received an anonymous phone call from a man claiming that he was passing the timber yard and had seen two strange tube-like objects inside. It has long been suspected that the caller was actually a member of November 17 because just a short while later a local radio station received a call claiming to be from November 17 taking credit for the bombings and an attempted rocket attack on the British aircraft carrier.

Police swooped in on the timber yard and located the two weapons before beginning the process of defusing them. An inspection of the two launchers showed that the triggering mechanism had failed as a result of shorting out during heavy rainfall. It is unclear exactly when the group had set the rockets to fire but the phone call to the radio station said that it had been planned for earlier in the week. In the end, bad luck on the part of November 17 had saved the Ark from attack.

HMS Ark Royal 1994 Adriatic



HMS Pearl and the “New Grenada” Incident, 1857

Commanding a ship in the Royal Navy of the 19th century was a role not confined to length and breadth of a single ship. A Royal Navy captain had to reflect in his decision-making the foreign policies of Great Britain with regards to nations outside of the British Empire and often this with little or no contact with London. There were regional governors and fleet admirals commanding operational areas but often it was not possible to communicate with them in a timely fashion and so it was down to the captain’s judgement to interpret what action British policy required in any given situation. With the Royal Navy enforcing Pax Britannica across the globe the Royal Navy’s ships often found themselves getting caught up in local disputes that if handled wrongly could drag them and the empire in to war.

Royal Navy captains were often men of privilege and aristocratic breeding in Britain. While frowned upon when viewed through modern eyes, the policy somewhat suited the Victorian-era mindset. Many men were raised in naval families where they were prepared for their role to eventually command a vessel in the Royal Navy and be on the frontlines of British foreign policy.

One such man was Edward Southwell Sotheby. The son of an admiral, Sotheby followed in his father’s footsteps and entered the Royal Navy at 13 in 1826. Reflecting the global nature of the Royal Navy at that time, Sotheby’s career saw him serve from postings as varied as being based in Portsmouth to the Mediterranean and eventually as far afield as China. In 1846 he was granted his first command, the colonial sloop HMS Racehorse, which was immediately dispatched to participate in the New Zealand War against the Māori before being deployed back to China the following year. In 1850 he took command of HMS Sealark, an eight-gun brig, and was deployed to the west coast of Africa to combat slave traders.

HMS Challenger Marianas Trench

HMS Challenger, sister of HMS Pearl (wikimedia)

While having held the post of captain he was finally afforded the rank of captain in 1852 and within three years he was assigned to command the newly completed 21-gun corvette, HMS Pearl. Pearl was the first of her class among which was the famous HMS Challenger which undertook the first global maritime research expedition between 1873 and 1876. During the expedition the vessel recorded the deepest sounding ever taken up to that point in history over the Marianas Trench and the spot is now known as Challenger Deep.

The Pearl and her sisters such as Challenger represented the technological changes taking place in the Royal Navy in the middle of the 19th century. At first glance she appeared like so many warships that had come before her with three tall masts covered in webs of ropes for the sails but upon closer inspection a short, stubby funnel between the fore and main masts revealed the technological revolution that was taking hold in warship design. Pearl was fitted with a two-cylinder trunk steam engine that drove a single propeller generating a maximum of 1,300hp that could propel the 2,100ton vessel along at 11.5 knots.

Steam propulsion was not new to the Royal Navy it having been used in British warships since the 1830s but it was still only serving a complementary role to sail which remained the predominant form of propulsion. Steam allowed the ship to leave port when the wind wasn’t favourable and was also used for increased speed and agility in battle. Pearl’s steam engine also allowed her to catch the faster sailing craft used by pirates and smugglers across the globe; something of high importance for being a Royal Navy corvette she was primarily used for policing the sea lanes that were the lifeblood of the British Empire.

HMS Pearl 21 gun screw corvette 1856

HMS Pearl after launch in 1856

When Pearl was first laid down at the Woolwich Dockyard on the River Thames the Crimean War was in full swing and it was expected that she would join the Royal Navy fleet in the Baltic to combat the Russians. However, the war ended in February 1856 before she was completed and so the Admiralty decided to relegate her to the Pacific via the South Atlantic and around Cape Horn. In the last days of May 1856 the vessel was outfitted for a long voyage and on May 30th 1856, Sotheby and his crew left Spithead, calling in at Plymouth for just a few hours the next day before setting off for the South Atlantic.

Over the coming months the vessel would put in at Madeira, an island off the Portuguese coast, before crossing the length of the Atlantic to reach Rio de Janeiro on July 12th. After a week and a half in Brazil the Pearl continued south before anchoring off the Patagonian coast of Argentina on August 8th where the ship’s company prepared to pass through the Straits of Magellan. The journey took Sotheby and his crew four days during which they noted the weather being uncharacteristically calm and favourable as the southern hemisphere’s winter was drawing to a close allowing the Pearl to enter the Pacific Ocean almost unchallenged by nature. After a brief stay at the Chilean military base at Sandy Bay the Pearl assumed her duties patrolling Latin America’s Pacific coast for the remainder of 1856 supporting British interests in the region and protecting the large numbers of trading ships traversing the sea lanes to the empire. For Sotheby and his men, the twilight months of 1856 would prove routine and largely uneventful but unknown to them events were taking place to the north that would have consequences for them later.

Arica has long been one of the most important port cities on the South American Pacific coast. Today it resides in northern Chile but in the middle of the 19th century it was under Peruvian control. Independence from Spain in the early 1820s had not been an easy transition for the Peruvian people many of whom had wished to remain loyal to the Spanish crown even when most of Peru’s neighbours had wrestled for their own freedom. Following a painful birth, the remaining aristocratic powers and rich land owners all turned on one another politically and often violently. By the 1840s these had largely subsided thanks in no small part to a growing economy under the on/off presidencies of Ramón Castilla y Marquesado. During this period the Peruvian Navy went through a period of expansion and modernisation courtesy of British shipyards which built capable and modern warships to help repel attempts by the Spanish Navy to recapture their lost colony.

Manuel Ignacio de VivancoHowever, Castilla had his rivals and one of the most important was Manuel Ignacio de Vivanco. Vivanco (right) had made several attempts to gain absolute power through both legal and violent means succeeding briefly in 1843 before two political opponents joined forces to oust him. In the 1850s he campaigned for the presidency again gathering significant support until in 1856 his forces became poised to seize power if necessary. In October 1856 Castilla passed the 1856 Constitution proposal in to law which granted more rights and services to the people but weakened the ruling class’ power forcing Vivanco and his followers to rise up in armed revolt.

On November 16th 1856, the Peruvian frigate Apurimac was anchored in Arica bay and her captain, José María Salcedo, went ashore for a meeting with the British consul. The Apurimac was one of a number of British-built warships sold to the Peruvians and was also the most advanced. Like the Pearl she had both sail and steam propulsion and was capable of reaching 14 knots. Due to the Peruvians inexperience with maritime steam technologies a number of their engineers were hired from Britain and her colonies, these engineers having often served in the Royal Navy. The Apurimac was also heavily armed with twelve 32-pounder smoothbore guns and eight heavier 68-pounder weapons.

Two young officers, Second Lieutenant Lizardo Montero and Lieutenant Miguel Grau, took advantage of the captain being ashore to seize the frigate and pledge the vessel’s support to Vivanco’s forces. The two Lieutenants led their men to release a number of Vivanco’s supporters being held on board two nearby vessels and then sailed the Apurimac out of Arica harbour before Captain Salcedo could organise a response. Castilla immediately ordered his navy to intercept the frigate which was sailing northwards from Arica. One such vessel was the gunboat Loa which intercepted the Apurimac a few days later. The Loa was no match for the rebel frigate being armed with just four 32-pounder guns and so her captain tried to reason with the rebel officers but for his troubles his crew, either through promises of profit or the threat of destruction, elected to join the rebel ship’s cause.

BAP Apurímac 1857

The Apurimac (Wikimedia)

Vivanco’s rebel fleet was growing and Castilla knew he had to act fast if he was to stop the spread of rebellion in the Peruvian fleet. He immediately declared the Apurimac and the Loa as pirate vessels and ordered more ships to intercept them but after losing the Loa he was understandably concerned about just how loyal the Peruvian sailors were to him. Therefore, to encourage their loyalty he offered a reward of 200,000 pesos for the capture of the Apurimac and the Lao; a figure that would be more than doubled by the end of the year. The next day two vessels went out after the “pirate ships” but one of them, the Tumbes, followed the Lao’s example and pledged support for Vivanco. The Tumbes, like the Lao, was an armed steam schooner although it was about half the size of the other ship and possessed only half the armament. Nevertheless, Vivanco now had a sizeable portion of the Peruvian fleet at his command and with the Apurimac he also possessed its most powerful warship with the only other vessel that could match it, the Amazonas, being across the globe in Hong Kong for repairs.

With the civil war between Castilla’s and Vivanco’s forces in full swing the three rebel ships went in to action bombarding Arica harbour when the garrison refused to resupply the rebels. The ships also captured a handful of ships carrying supplies intended for Castilla which only gave ammunition to his claim that the Apurimac, Tumbes and Loa were pirate ships. As 1856 ended the rebel fleet began a blockade of the port at Callao in an attempt to deprive Castilla of his money from exports but which also caused alarm in Great Britain and France whose interests lay in the Peruvian guano trade. As the blockade dragged on through January and February it was becoming obvious however that it was Vivanco who was running out of money to fund his war with Castilla. Many of his supporters were rich land owners who were promised profits from a successful civil war but their support began to wane as they repeatedly had to dip in to their own pockets to pay their troops. It was a situation Vivanco had to address quickly or he would lose the war.

Meanwhile, as March arrived Captain Sotheby and his men aboard HMS Pearl found themselves off the contested Peruvian coast as part of their patrol duties. Britain declared that it was neutral in the civil war despite having worked with the established government for many years and so was allowed to drop anchor near the disputed Callao port without opposition from either side. On March 24th 1857, the officers of the Pearl organised a soiree aboard their vessel inviting some of the more influential people from Callao and Lima as well as members of the British consul aboard for drinks, music and food.

HMS Pearl Peru New Grenada Incident

HMS Pearl (wikimedia)

As the night went on reports began to filter down that would potentially have serious consequences for Great Britain and the Royal Navy. The reports stated that a British supply ship, the New Grenada belonging to Pacific Steam Navigation Company, had been seized by the Loa and Tumbes at Lambayeque on Peru’s north-west coast. Among the New Grenada’s cargo was a sum of money equivalent to 32,000 dollars as well as personal and official dispatches and other assorted goods. The Admiralty continued to investigate the claims and when it was confirmed that a British ship had been taken by the rebels the Pearl was ordered to sail for Lambayeque and recover it, the crew and the cargo.

Sotheby and his men sailed north the next day to where the rebels were holding the captured merchant ship arriving there on the morning of March 28th 1857; something Sotheby had deliberately arranged to make use of the low morning light to surprise the rebels. Only Sotheby knows what he was truly feeling as he sailed to Lambayeque but the weight of responsibility on his shoulders must have felt enormous. On the one hand he had the law on his side since the rebel ships had indeed behaved like pirates as Castilla continued to refer to them but they and their supporters did not see it the same way. They were rebels fighting a government they opposed and if the British were financing their enemies then they were legitimate targets.

Sotheby knew if he handled the situation clumsily and the Pearl was forced in to action with the two gunboats then it risked drawing Britain in to the fighting. This was especially true if the Apurimac had joined its smaller ships and chose to engage the Pearl which would be totally outgunned. The theft of a British merchantman and the sinking of a Royal Navy corvette would guarantee British reprisals against the rebels. On the other hand, Sotheby knew he had to make an example of the rebels to deter any further acts of piracy against ships of the British Empire which he and his crew had sworn to protect. With all this in mind one has to question the wisdom of the rebel’s decision to attack the New Grenada. There is very little evidence to suggest that Vivanco ordered the seizing of the vessel himself although his forces did benefit from it. It is likely that the two crews of the gunboats, acting without their flagship that was still enforcing a blockade against Callao, carried out the attack independently.

Regardless of who was to blame the scene was now set and as the Pearl closed in on Lambayeque in the early daylight hours her lookouts spotted the New Grenada and the two gunboats. Sotheby instructed his crew to go to general quarters and under the sound of the bugle the men manned their cannons. The lookouts reported that upon sighting the Pearl the crews of the two rebel boats began cheering and waving. In the low light, the silhouette of the Pearl resembled that of the Apurimac and so they thought their flagship had come to join them perhaps to congratulate them on their capture. It was only as they spotted the white and red ensign of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy that they realised that retribution for their actions had arrived.

The two gunboats scrambled to get to their own action stations expecting the Pearl to start firing at any second but they were heavily outgunned by the British ship which was also already underway under her own steam power while the Loa and the Tumbes were sitting ducks. The firing they were expecting did not start and instead demands for surrender were made of them. Sotheby ordered the Pearl’s First Lieutenant, Nicholas E.B. Turmour, to take an armed boat to the Loa and speak to her officers. Turmour conveyed Sotheby’s demands that the New Grenada, her crew and her cargo be returned to British custody at once and that any officers and men involved in boarding the vessel be handed over to the law.

The captain of the Loa knew his tactical situation was hopeless and agreed to surrender his vessel. Additionally, being the most senior officer among the two Peruvian ships the Tumbes would also be ordered to follow suit. However, the British were dismayed to find that the New Grenada had been stripped of all its cargo which was already being distributed amongst Vivanco’s supporters (it has been reported that some of it was laundered through merchants who actually supported Castilla and if true then both sides in the civil war effectively profited from the seizing of the New Grenada).

Frustrated, Sotheby decided to seize both vessels and sail them to Callao. The two Peruvian captains went aboard the Pearl and presented their swords to Sotheby signalling that they formally surrendered to an enemy captain but Sotheby refused to take their weapons because in the Victorian-era such symbolism would only demonstrate that the Royal Navy considered itself at war with the rebels. Instead, Sotheby treated them as criminals he had apprehended and after interrogating the crews allowed a number of them to go ashore before they set sail for Callao if they so wished. Those who had been identified as having been directly involved in the seizure of the New Grenada and the senior officers were kept in British custody however. To the British warship’s surprise there were a small number of British sailors on both ships working in their engine rooms although they were treated no differently to the Peruvians who had hired them (like the Apurimac, the Loa and the Tumbes had been built in British shipyards for the Peruvian Navy).

The remainder of the two crews were split up with half of both being taken aboard the Pearl for the journey south. The other half remained on board their respective gunboats along with a number of British sailors to guard them. Sotheby appointed Lieutenant Seymom V.D. Radcliffe to command the prize crew sailing the Loa while Lieutenant Henry Duncan Grant was given command of the Tumbes. As was the custom the two gunboats had their flags removed and both took up position on either side of the Pearl as the three vessels set sail for Callao in the late afternoon. The two Peruvian crews aboard the Pearl gave little resistance to their captors but the British sailors noted that as the questioning continued they continually seemed to turn on one another. Few admitted their own guilt but were quick to testify to the guilt of their comrades which made the job of identifying the guiltiest persons all the more difficult. What was certain however was that the boarding of the New Grenada had been a violent and bloody affair.

As night set in the lookouts on the Pearl spotted the light of a ship on the horizon. Some of the Peruvian rebels had said they believed the Apurimac had been sailing to meet them, a report reinforced by the initially warm yet mistaken welcome the Pearl had received when they first sailed in to Lambayeque, and there was now the fear that she was in pursuit of the Pearl to free her comrades. Sotheby wasted no time and ordered his ship to assume general quarters once more. There was an air of apprehension amongst the British officers who knew that the Pearl was outgunned by the Apurimac and had the added problem of keeping their Peruvian prisoners in line who might try to take advantage of the chaos of battle and either escape or even attempt to take the ship. Nothing would come of it however as the light soon faded from view and the Pearl stood down from general quarters. The perceived threat from the Apurimac remained in Sotheby and his men’s minds as they continued their journey south to Callao. They had previously witnessed the firepower of the Apurimac earlier that year when the frigate attacked Callao while the Pearl was on a stopover and the ship’s surgeon was drafted in to help with local casualties.

HMS Pearl Peru New Grenada Incident 2

On March 31st 1857, HMS Pearl steamed in to Callao again unopposed by either side with her two captured vessels on either flank and took up position alongside another British warship, HMS Monarch. The local people who had previously greeted the Pearl warmly were infuriated by the treatment of the two Peruvian vessels whose national colours had been taken down and gathered along the harbour to express their fury. Sotheby still had the matter of restoring British naval honour and security regarding the whole incident; a situation not made easy by the fact he had to do so and remain neutral in the fighting. Had it not been for this fact he and his crew could have quite easily presented them to Castilla’s representatives on shore and claimed the prize money the Peruvian president had offered for their capture.

Representatives of Vivanco’s forces visited the Pearl to begin negotiations. Vivanco’s men agreed that it had been a mistake to attack the New Grenada but would only admit to the Tumbes being involved in the actual seizure. Satisfied that the British had at least an acknowledgement of guilt the decision was taken that the Pearl would release the Loa back to Vivanco but retain the Tumbes and her captured crew for the time being as a punitive measure to deter similar acts of piracy against the British crown.

For the Pearl it was the end of the story as the vessel left Callao on April 5th 1857 with orders to cross the Pacific and join the British fleet in the South China Sea. Later in the year her men would become famous when during the Indian Rebellion they left their ship and formed the Pearl Naval Brigade which provided artillery support for the Sikh and Gurkha soldiers fighting the rebels.

For Vivanco, his aspirations for a military victory in Peru were coming to an end. Thanks to the attack on the New Grenada and a handful of other ships from Europe and the United States the Royal Navy along with the French Navy sent warships to the region whose objective was to protect the merchantmen in the area from attack. This guaranteed that Castilla would receive money from his exports and effectively nullified the rebel fleet except in instances where they engaged Castilla’s naval forces. By mid-May 1857 nearly all the rebel fleet had returned to Callao to surrender as the civil war came to an end and in an act of humanity and to foster peace in his ravaged country the victorious Castilla granted pardons to nearly all the rebel sailors. As the fighting came to an end the Royal Navy released the Tumbes to Castilla’s forces bring the incident to a close.

Five Of The Most Significant Submarine Attacks In History


The development of the submarine changed the very nature of naval warfare forever. Suddenly, the huge fleets of yesteryear found their supremacy threatened by an unseen force and for a long time they were largely defenceless to the new weapon. However, it took a certain type of courage to volunteer for submarine duties especially in the early days when their vessels were often as dangerous to their crews as to the enemy. As a result of this courage submarine commanders and their crews were often exceptionally daring in their efforts to fight the enemy.

Here are five of the most significant submarine attacks in history.


  1. The First Ever Submarine Attack in History

Submarine Turtle Eagle 1776Largely thought of as a 20th century invention, primitive submersibles have actually been around since the 17th century. On September 7th 1776 the submarine Turtle designed by American inventor David Bushnell was given over to the American patriot cause for use against the British in the American Revolution. Piloted by Ezra Lee, the submarine approached the British 64-gun warship HMS Eagle and attempted to plant a bomb on it. However, he was unable to secure it to his target’s hull and it fell off the British ship before detonating which saved the Eagle from destruction. Although a failure, Lee’s mission is considered the first submarine attack in history.


  1. The Cressy Catastrophe

HMS CresseyUpon the outbreak of World War I, Britain’s Royal Navy had the most powerful surface fleet in the world and the British people were confident that they were safe on their island nation as a result. That confidence was shattered on September 22nd 1914 when German U-Boat U-9 attacked a formation of three Cressy-class heavy cruisers – Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue.

When the first ship, the Aboukir, was hit the crews of the other two cruisers believed that the explosion was caused by an accident onboard and went to assist them. Seizing the opportunity, U-9 attacked the Hogue and sank it. The remaining British ship, Cressy, attacked U-9 before returning to rescuing survivors of the other two ships. U-9 attacked again and sank Cressy. In all 1,450 British sailors were killed in what was at that time an unprecedented victory for a submarine.

For more on this read The Cressy Catastrophe


  1. The Submarine That Sent A Nation On The Path To War

RMS LusitaniaOn May 7th 1915 the British liner Lusitania was travelling south of Ireland on a route from New York to Liverpool when it was spotted by the German U-Boat, U20, which was taking part in an attempt to blockade Britain’s sea lanes. At the time the US was neutral in the First World War but despite being warned by the Germans that they reserved the right to attack any ship heading for British ports a large number of Americans were aboard believing that the Germans would never target an ocean liner with 2,000 people on it.

They were wrong.

Shortly after 2pm, U20 fired on the ship and in the resulting explosion and sinking, 1,198 people were killed including 128 Americans. The attack outraged the American people who were at that time largely oblivious to the war in Europe and pushed America closer to the Allies before they eventually declared war on Germany in 1917.


  1. Submarine vs. Submarine

HMS VenturerContrary to the myth perpetuated by Hollywood movies, submarines sinking other submarines has only happened in exceptionally rare cases. In all but one of these incidents the target submarine was on the surface when it was attacked. The exception occurred on February 9th 1945 when the British submarine, HMS Venturer, detected the German U-Boat U-864 on the surface with engine trouble. The U-Boat was actually on a highly secretive mission to deliver two scientists and several key jet engine components to Japan, Germany’s ally, for use in their own jet fighter program.

Realising he had been spotted by a British submarine the captain of U-864 dived to escape. The captain of Venturer, 25-year old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, attempted to match the U-Boat’s dive and by estimating the approximate position of the German vessel, fired a spread of six torpedoes in to its vicinity. One of the torpedoes successfully struck the U-Boat destroying it and its precious cargo. It remains the only time in history where one submarine has deliberately sunk another in combat while both were submerged.

For more on this read The Only Underwater Submarine-to-Submarine Kill in History


  1. The MV Wilhelm Gustloff

MV Wilhelm GustloffFrom the outbreak of World War II Germany’s navy, the Kriegsmarine, exercised a policy of unrestricted U-Boat warfare against the Allies. This in turn dictated a similar policy amongst the Allied navies and the oceans became a brutal killing ground as a result. In January 1945 this policy was about to reach its bloody climax and it would actually be the Germans who would be on the receiving end. The MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a cruise liner requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine for service as a hospital ship when the war broke out. When it became clear the vessel could no longer safely go to sea it was held in port at Gdynia in German-occupied Poland where it was painted in naval grey and used as an accommodation ship for trainee U-Boat crews.

By the start of 1945 the Soviet Red Army was pursuing the retreating German Army across Eastern Europe and so the ship was pressed back in to service to evacuate thousands of German troops, Gestapo officers, officials and civilians who had made a life in occupied Poland. On January 30th 1945, the ship along with another liner, the Hansa, and a torpedo boat made their breakout attempting to reach Germany through the Baltic. Official records show that over 6,000 people were onboard but the actual number was closer to 11,000 as a large number of civilians desperately crammed aboard and in the chaos of the boarding the crew simply gave up counting.

Shortly after leaving port the Hansa had to turn back because of mechanical problems but the Wilhelm Gustloff continued on before it was discovered by the Soviet Navy’s S-13 submarine. The S-13 torpedoed the overloaded vessel which quickly sank taking around 9,500 people with it of which nearly 5,000 were children.

It remains the biggest loss of life at sea in a single incident.