Although largely overshadowed in naval history by battles such as Trafalgar, the Battle of Lissa in 1866 was for a time one of the most influential naval engagements of the 19th century. Also known as the Battle of Vis, it took place on July 20th 1866 in the Adriatic between the navies of Austro-Hungary and Italy and was one of the first major engagements between ironclad warships. Naval gunfire during the course of the battle, especially from the Italian fleet, proved largely ineffective due to the superiority of the target ship’s armour leading to a series rammings by opponents which proved far more destructive.
Observers the world over looked to the battle as an example of how modern naval warfare was to be conducted and concluded that while every effort should be made to address the problem with the guns, ramming would in the meantime become a major part of naval warfare. Even before Lissa, some naval leaders were already coming to this conclusion with the French proposing dedicated ram ships that took advantage of steam propulsion to propel them in to an enemy as early as 1840. However, it was not until after the battle that most navies began to take the tactic seriously in the industrial age leading to the retrofitting of rams to existing ships and the addition of a ram on nearly every new major warship then being designed or under construction. Most rams protruded several feet ahead of the ship and below the waterline, something that would cause more than one tragic collision over time.
Even in the wake of Lissa, few countries took the concept of dedicated ram ships seriously but the British Royal Navy saw great value in their application. Work began on designing such a vessel within a year of Lissa and the design for HMS Hotspur was finalised and authorised in 1868. A number of considerations were made regarding the mission of the vessel. With the ram being considered the principle means of attack, it was expected to survive more than one ramming during a major engagement and so was reinforced by an extension of the armour belt.
As well as the ram, Hotspur was designed to carry a single 12inch (305 mm) 25-ton muzzle-loading rifle forward of the superstructure. This weapon was intended to allow the Hotspur to rake a rammed enemy vessel with gunfire should the two ships become stuck on one another as happened on at least one occasion at Lissa. Alternatively, the gun could fire at a target the Hotspur had missed with its ram or defend itself against counter attack while the ram was brought to bear. While rotating turrets were becoming a common fixture on warships at the time, the designers of Hotspur were concerned that the bearings on which such turrets rotated would not survive the violence of an impact against another ship. Therefore they designed a static armoured gunhouse in which the weapon would be located on top of a rotating turntable. The gun would then be aligned to one of four gun ports to aim at the enemy – two to starboard and two to port – however the gun could not be fired directly ahead at the ship the ram was heading for. The 12inch gun was supported by two muzzle-loading 64-pounder (160mm) weapons in open mounts positioned aft.
Construction of the Hotspur was undertaken by Robert Napier & Sons of Glasgow in their shipyard at Govan on the River Clyde. The design featured a short but prominent forecastle that gave way to a waist with a railing before meeting the long main deck that extended to the stern. Hotspur had a typical complement of 209 men, displaced 4,331 tons and was powered by 3,500 indicated horse power Napier reciprocating steam engines that drove two propellers. The Royal Navy commissioned Hotspur in to the fleet on November 17th 1871 but quickly proved something of a disappointment. While the new warship displayed excellent manoeuvrability, something important for attacking a warship taking evasive action, the vessel was unfortunately significantly underpowered and was unable to overtake or often even match the speeds of the ships that were its intended target. Commissioned the same year as Hotspur, the 7,749-ton French ironclad Océan had a top speed of 13 knots compared to the British vessel’s best speed of 12.65 knots despite being over 3,000 tons heavier.
This fact cast an unfavourable light on the vessel since it was clear it could not adequately perform its intended mission namely supporting the main fleet in a major engagement. However, some suspected that the Royal Navy actually had a more aggressive role in mind for the vessel but had kept it to themselves so as to avoid the fury of the growing number of radical voices in Parliament such as John Bright who had staunchly opposed the Crimean War and and any foreign policy that was aggressive in nature. Once in service, one mission conceived for the Hotspur was to attack ships moored in port possibly in a preemptive strike. In this capacity, the ram ship’s relatively poor top speed was less of an issue but such an attack would have to be carried out with significant support from conventional warships to destroy or decoy enemy defensive fire. MPs such as Bright feared the development of such offensive weapons would provoke an arms race or encourage an opponent to make their own preemptive strike first.
Joining the fleet, Hotspur spent much of her early life in reserve or conducting trials to develop tactics for other ram ships then under construction such as HMS Rupert which was built along similar lines as Hotspur but featured a rotating turret. In the second half of the 1870s, Imperial Russia was expanding and under Tsar Alexander II had waged a series of conflicts with the Ottoman-Turks aimed at reclaiming lost territories and reestablishing a Russian naval presence in the Black Sea. The perceived threat this posed to British shipping in the eastern Mediterranean upon the outbreak of yet another Russo-Turkish War in 1877 was enough to warrant a significant build-up of British naval forces in the region and this included Hotspur.
On February 14th 1878, Hotspur and nine other ironclad warships were instructed by the British government to transit the Dardanelles with the aim of reaching Constantinople to protect British lives and ships that had gathered at the city. Under the command of Admiral Geoffrey Hornby, the force went in two waves with Hotspur and Rupert both being in the second wave. Poor weather helped conceal their journey from eyes on the shore and this included the Turkish defensive gunners who were on a war footing and Hornby’s force had not yet received permission from the Turkish authorities to sail through. In the end, Hotspur and its compatriots steamed through unmolested although one ironclad, HMS Alexandra, ran aground and had to be towed back to open water by HMS Sultan.
Being moored off Constantinople, the crew of Hotspur and the other British warships could actually see the tents of the Russian Army outside the city. The combined firepower of the British force was enough to discourage the Russian artillery units from engaging them but soon news filtered down that the Russians planned to float mines at the British ships as they operated in the Sea of Marmora should Britain join in the war. Fortunately, the Russian desire to negotiate grew stronger than the desire to sink British warships and the crisis began to wind down.
Hotspur returned to Britain and put in to Devonport, Plymouth where it sat waiting for a major reconstruction to be undertaken. The work finally began in 1881 and was undertaken by Laird & Sons of Birkenhead in Merseyside. The work was primarily concerned with up-gunning the ironclad to make it a more flexible warship and saw the addition of a second 12-inch gun. The two 64-pounders were replaced by two 6-inch rifled breechloading guns and these were backed up by eight 3-inch guns and eight machine gun mounts.
Two years after the reconstruction was completed, in 1885 war loomed with Russia once again. On April 7th 1885, news reached Britain that Russia’s troops had attacked an Afghan fort as they expanded across central Asia. With Aghanistan providing a buffer between the Russian Empire and the British Empire in India, the attack sparked a diplomatic crisis and the Royal Navy mobilised the Particular Service Squadron, again under Admiral Hornby and including the Hotspur. Hotspur, under the command of Captain Francis Durrant, expected to sail for the Baltic but mediation between the two superpowers by the Afghans themselves helped avoid war.
Shortly after the crisis passed, Hotspur found itself sailing off North Wales as it undertook guard duties for the port of Holyhead until 1893 after which it was once again put on the reserve list. It should have been the end for the ship at that point but it was given a new lease of life when it was reactivated in 1897 and made ready to sail to Bermuda to take up guard duties there. Hotspur remained at Bermuda throughout the last years of the 19th century and in to the 20th century when the ship would provide the backdrop to a tragic mystery.
Commander Frank Garforth assumed command on September 15th 1900. His career had been marred by an incident in which several sailors were injured and he was held responsible aboard another dedicated ram ship, HMS Conqueror, earlier that year. On November 7th 1901, his lifeless body was discovered floating in the sea and it remains unclear exactly how he died. He was replaced by Commander Robert H. Travers who remained in command until 1904 when the Hotspur was finally scrapped in Bermuda by which time the concept of dedicated rams was long dead as naval guns improved.