Coast defence - the ram

The term ‘ coast defence vessel,’ as applied to any craft larger than a gunboat, is, as far as this country is concerned, of modern growth. The principle of building special ships for operations confined to the coast found no favour with our ancestors, taught by the experience of long wars that a seagoing fleet is the best defence against any attempt on the part of an enemy to approach our shores. When, in 1804, Pitt brought forward a motion in the House of Commons condemnatory of the Government’s naval policy,—a portion of his indictment was the inadequate provision of gun vessels to act in shallow water against an invading flotilla.

Sir Edward Pellew—afterwards Lord Exmouth—then in Parliament, clearly formulated on this occasion the true policy to be pursued. He said: ‘I do not really see in the arrangement of our naval defence anything to excite the apprehensions of even the most timid among us. I see a triple naval bulwark, composed of one fleet acting on the enemy’s coast; of another, consisting of heavier ships, stationed in the Downs, and ready to act at a moment’s notice; and a third, close to the beach, capable of destroying any part of the enemy’s flotilla that should escape the vigilance of the other two branches of our defence. As to these gunboats, which have been so strongly recommended, this mosquito fleet, they are the most contemptible force that can be employed. I have lately seen half-a-dozen of them lying wrecked on the rocks. As to the probability of the enemy being able, in a narrow sea, to pass through our blockading squadrons with all that secrecy and dexterity, and by those hidden means that some worthy people expect, I really, from anything I have seen in the course of my professional career, am not disposed to concur in it.’ Lord St Vincent was equally emphatic that preparation should be rather directed to keeping the enemy as far from our coasts as possible, and attacking them the moment they come out of their ports, than to awaiting them at home.

It is only when the fleet has been suffered to decline from motives of economy that misdirected attention is turned to some such substitute as elaborate land defences or coast defence ironclads. Such a period was that following the Reform Bill of 1832, until in 1847 an alarm was raised that we were liable to invasion, which, it was stated, had been rendered easy by the introduction of steam. The Duke of Wellington pointed out the defencelessness of the country, and a Royal Commission, in 1859, recommended an expenditure of £ 10,000,000 on the fixed defences of our naval arsenals. There seemed no one to urge that, if the state of navy was such as to render an attack on any of these places other than a desperate undertaking, the first step should be to strengthen the fleet. But the naval voice was silent, or nearly so. The military element in the country had become predominant, while the words of St Vincent and Pellew were forgotten. We had almost accepted the situation of an inferior naval power. How far we had wandered from the principles that guided us in 1804 can be estimated on reading the debate in the House of Commons, in 1860, on the motion to fortify the ports. Lord Palmerston said on this occasion : ‘ I am not surprised that the gallant admiral should undervalue the strength of fortifications; but, nevertheless, I think the history of war shows that they do enable an inferior force to hold out for a certain time against a superior force.’ The ‘gallant admiral’ was Sir Charles Napier, who had said that ‘the only sure way to prevent invasion was to have always at hand a superior fleet to the French or any other nation.’ He quoted the saying of Mr Tierney, ‘give me a well-manned fleet and a full Exchequer and I will defy the world.’ But it was of no avail, and we embarked upon a system of elaborate fortification, based upon the assumed defeat, absence, or inferiority of the only line of defence which could not be neglected with impunity.

Tacit acquiescence in a view which apparently contemplates an enemy roaming over the seas without let or hindrance, and his appearance in force without warning on any part of our coast, seems to have led to the construction of vessels with a restricted radius of operation and incapable of service in distant waters. The desire to have within sight, as it were, a portion of the fleet becomes at times exceedingly strong. Each locality demands a squadron for its special protection, and failing to obtain it, urges extensive fortification. The Admiralty, on the other hand, has always had a strong objection to the localisation of any portion of its force. During the Crimean War some uneasiness was felt on the coast of the United Kingdom and India at the absence of British ships. It was then pointed out by the naval authorities that more efficient protection was afforded to this country by confining Russian ships to their own ports than by distributing the British fleet along the east coast of England and Scotland. A similar explanation demonstrated that India was more efficiently protected by our squadron acting in the Chinese Seas than by stationing British ships in the Bay of Bengal. Periodically the same demand is made for local defence, and when ships are denied, an alternative is found in forts and submarine mines, whose principal merit is that they cannot be removed.

It has been asserted that ships being no longer dependent on the wind for propulsion there is an advantage to the side that contemplates attack. Lord Palmerston, in 1860, said: ‘ The adoption of steam as a motive power afloat has totally altered the character of naval warfare, and deprived us of much of the advantages of our insular position.’ He quoted the opinion of Sir Robert Peel, ‘that steam had bridged the Channel, and, for the purposes of aggression, had almost made this country cease to be an island.’ It is not difficult to show that such views are entirely erroneous. No change in weapons or method of propulsion can alter the general principles of naval warfare. But this may be fairly advanced, that increased rapidity of movement, improved communications with distant stations, and augmented resources in war material, all tell in the favour of the stronger navy, whether for attack or defence. Squadrons thousands of miles away can now be concentrated at any point, reinforced if threatened, or recalled home, in so many days, while formerly as many months were required. If steam has bridged the Channel, in one sense, it has equally removed the space which intervened between one part of the United Kingdom and another, and has rendered a collection of vessels at any point threatened a matter of a few hours, whereas in former times a contrary wind might delay succour until it was too late. On the whole, therefore, it appears to me that steam would only tell against us in the event of our being completely overmastered at sea, a contingency it seems unnecessary to dwell upon.

In thus dealing generally with the question I by no means preclude the possibility of raids by single vessels that might escape the most complete system of blockade. At no time has it been possible to prevent such attacks by an enterprising enemy, and there is perhaps greater opportunity for them with steam than before. Under such conditions special vessels for coast service have some justification, and confidence is maintained wherever the rest of the fleet is employed. The weak point of the principle is that the best coast defence vessel is a firstclass battle ship, especially for an island subject at most periods of the year to weather that is not favourable to any but the most seaworthy craft.

For these reasons the coast defence ironclad, which is largely represented in other navies, is only found to a very limited extent in our own. The first of its kind, built about 1870, was designed with the idea that a type could be produced which might be equally useful for attack within a moderate distance from our shores and for defence in home waters. This was the ‘Glatton,’ a single - turreted monitor of 5000 tons. Her sides, which are very low, are protected with 12 in. of iron, and a similar thickness was placed on the turret.

This is 38 ft. in diameter, and contains two muzzle loading 25-t0n guns. When completed in 1872 an experiment was made to test the behaviour of the turret when struck by heavy projectiles. The ‘ Hotspur,’ another vessel with a 25-ton gun, was moored at a convenient distance from the ‘ Glatton,’ and a 600-lb. projectile fired at the turret of the latter. It failed to penetrate within or injure the rotating arrangements, the turret being found afterwards to revolve freely, and the guns it contained worked in the most perfect manner. Though a powerful ship in armament and armour, the ‘Glatton,’ in consequence of her low freeboard, has never been looked upon as capable of more than coast service. Her draught of water, 22 ft., detracts also in some measure from her value in this respect, and consequently in the next vessels designed all considerations but those of pure defence were abandoned. The ‘Cyclops,’ ‘Gorgon,’ ‘Hecate,’ and ‘Hydra’ were constructed to operate in shallow waters. The displacement was reduced to 3500 tons, armour to 8 in., and draught of water to 15 ft. As some compensation they were given two turrets each, containing a pair of 18-ton guns. The amount of coal carried was 120 tons, while the ‘Glatton’ stows twice that amount. These vessels, owing to their low freeboard and limited dimensions, were originally unsuited to contend with rough weather, and therefore their seagoing qualities have been improved by building up the sides in the middle portion. This does not diminish the fighting capabilities in the slightest degree, but adds considerably to their seaworthiness.

These vessels were built nearly twenty years ago, and that the principle of their construction is considered erroneous is evident from the fact that no others have been constructed for such special work in this country. Three of somewhat larger dimensions, the ‘ Cerberus,’ ‘Magdala,’ and ‘Abyssinia,’ were built here for our colonies. They are also double-turreted vessels, and a useful type for keeping off stray hostile cruisers which might reach our distant possessions with a view to requisitions under threat of bombardment. In the ‘Scorpion’ and ‘Wyvern’ we have two small turret vessels of 2500 tons, built by Messrs Laird of Liverpool. They were ordered by the Confederate States during the American Civil War, but were seized by our Govemment before completion and purchased. They were designed on the ideas of Cowper Coles, and Ericsson, and an interesting account of the history of these vessels until they passed into our hands is contained in a work called The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe, by James D. Bulloch, their representative over here. Had they crossed the Atlantic under his orders naval events might have run differently. Skilfully handled, they should have made short work of the Northern monitors, to which in all points of construction they were greatly superior.

But if we rightly do not spend money in producing vessels that are unable to accompany a fleet, and take part in any operation it may be required to undertake, other nations have always devoted a considerable portion of their naval estimates to ships for coast defence. In France vessels built under this head have so increased in size that they are quite capable of coping with our battle ships, and hence all comparisons of relative strength are inaccurate which do not take this into account.

Russia was so much impressed with the power displayed by the American monitor that for many years her ironclad navy was principally recruited by similar vessels. With the Crimean War fresh in her memory, the idea that powerful squadrons could be kept at a distance by small coast defence monitors was no doubt hard to resist, however fallacious, and hence the reconstruction of Russia’s seagoing ironclad navy is barely the growth of a decade. Absorbed in this view of a coast defence which might combine a fort and ship in one, the head of the Russian navy in 1870, Admiral Popoff, designed a vessel of which the breadth was

nearly equal to the length. These structures were afterwards more familiarly known as Popoffkas or circular ironclads. Two were constructed, called the ‘Novgorod’ and ‘ Admiral Popoff.’ The latter was the largest. Her dimensions were, length 120 ft., breadth 96 ft., and displacement 3550 tons. Being flat under water she only drew 14 ft. The circular form enabled thick armour to be carried on a comparatively small vessel.

On the sides at the water line it was 18 in., and on the deck 2% in. On the upper deck were two 4o-ton guns, mounted en barbette. To propel the vessel are four screws side by side, but the speed in favourable weather does not exceed 6 knots. The chief defect is difficulty of keeping them on a straight course. We have found the same in some of our vessels which have great beam in proportion to length, but with the Popoffkas the tendency is to revolve like a saucer on the water. On occasions all directive control over them disappears. As ships, therefore, they were soon discredited, and undiscriminating censure passed on their designer. But they should be regarded as sea forts with the power of shifting their position rather than as portions of the seagoing fleet. A fort rising out of the water, as we see at Spithead, may be regarded as a ship at anchor. It cannot advance to attack, or pursue if passed.

Beyond the range of its guns the smallest hostile cruiser may harass with impunity the approaching merchant vessels if opposing war vessels are not at hand. Not possessing the power of concentration at any point threatened, want of mobility in forts must be compensated for by an increase of numbers, until every avenue of approach is covered. If protection is sought by such means against an attack by a powerful ironclad squadron, 500 guns on land are soon absorbed, involving very large garrisons. We may then consider whether the same or better protection could not be afforded by a flotilla. The question is too big to be argued here, and it is only alluded to as some justification for the Russian circular ironclads. Their defective steering could no doubt be improved by building on light ends, so as to give them more resistance to side movement when the rudder is put over, and an armament of two 4o-ton guns renders such a type formidable to a battle ship of larger dimensions for ordinary seagoing purposes. Unfortunately, the value of these floating forts was not tested during the RussoTurkish War. Turkey, though most powerful at sea, abstained from coast attacks, and the circular ironclads were kept in their own waters. They are one of the abnormal growths of peace, and interesting as indicating to what lengths the theory may be carried ; but as one ship after another is cast aside, as these vessels have been, we only see more clearly that the vessel which is most efficient for all purposes best answers special requirements

In former days when wooden ships met in combat at sea there was no desire to bring vessels in contact with each other except for the purposes of boarding. However close the action, collision was avoided, as such an incident might cause the loss of masts and yards, placing the vessel at the mercy of her enemy, or allowing the latter to escape if so minded. When two fleets got so mixed up that manoeuvring was impossible, the simplest plan was to fall alongside the nearest vessel and secure the two together until one was subdued.

At such a time communication from an admiral to his subordinates was impossible, but everyone knew what had to be done. When Nelson had broken the line of the combined fleets at Trafalgar he ran alongside the nearest ship, with the result we all know. He did not attempt to run down any of his opponents, nor can we recall a single incident of one wooden ship deliberately ramming—as we now term it—another. The risk was too great of loss of spars, and the wooden bows were not suited for such an operation. When iron was substituted for wood the latter objection passed away, but the use of the ram as a weapon was chiefly brought about by the same cause that brought the torpedo into prominence. This was the fact that, while every effort had been made to protect ships above water from shot and shell, the most vulnerable part, that below the water line, was more open to attack than ever. Hence the old idea of subduing the fire of ships, and obtaining their surrender by such a disablement of the crew that they were unable any longer to fight their guns, gave place to the modern desire to effect their destruction in a more speedy manner by a blow under water. Should a ship be sunk immediately in this manner, no addition is made to the fleet of the victor, but that of the enemy is effectually reduced. Several incidents have shown this in a striking manner since the introduction of the ironclad . To these allusion will be made later. Hence, from the ‘ Warrior’ to the latest phase of battle ship the ram has been continually developed in the bows of ships with a view to its use in future actions. In the ‘Warrior’ this was carried out in an imperfect manner; the stern formed an obtuse angle of large dimensions with the apex or spur, such as it was, at the water line. When the power of the ram had been demonstrated in America, and afterwards at Lissa, we frankly recognised that this weapon was of great importance. All the later vessels had bows which terminated under water in a sharp spur, forming a powerful ram, securely fastened to the ship, and weighing several tons.

While all who were concerned in the construction of vessels in which iron was so largely employed, and those who had to manoeuvre them when completed, were soon convinced that the momentum of such a weight brought in contact with another ship must prove irresistible, a few were such enthusiastic champions of the ram as to desire that ships should be constructed specially for this purpose. They went so far as to say that to give guns in addition would diminish the efficiency of the ram by perhaps enshrouding the vessel in smoke at the critical moment. But in France and in England this conception has not been favourably received. Across the Channel small coast defence ironclads were constructed soon after the American Civil War in which the gun equipment was limited to a single turret in the fore part of the ship, and a strong ram added to the bow. The idea was to disconcert an enemy with heavy projectiles just previous to the charge. We carried out the same principle with two vessels, the ‘Hotspur’ and ‘Rupert,’ two small but serviceable ironclads, the former completed in 1871, and the latter in 1874. The dimensions of the ‘ Rupert,’ 3200 tons, were such as to ensure handiness in turning, while the vital portions were protected with 12 in. of iron. The gun power was only moderate, consisting of two 18-t0n guns in the turret, and two other smaller pieces in the after portion of the ship. It was on the ram that principal reliance was placed. '

There being much to commend itself in the ‘Rupert’ to naval officers, an extension of the same principle was carried out a few years afterwards in the ‘Conqueror’

and ‘Hero.’ In order to accommodate more powerful ordnance, and obtain an increased speed, it was necessary to increase the displacement to 6200 tons. This enabled two 43-t0n guns to be carried in her single turret, and improved machinery increased the speed to 15 knots. The defect of such vessels is the absence of stem fire, and with 6000 tons a second turret aft seems desirable. But strong pressure was all the time being put on the Admiralty to build a vessel in which guns should have no place, and the most persistent advocate was Admiral Sir George Sartorius, who appears to have formed an exaggerated view of the ram as a weapon.

The result was the construction of the ‘Polyphemus.’ The leading features of her design were a low hull, exposing but a small mark to an enemy’s fire, the portion above water being shaped like a turtle’s back, and covered with thin armour to deflect any projectile that might strike it; great speed, by the adoption of special machinery, a powerful ram, and a torpedo equipment. The only ordnance was to consist of a few light guns for repelling boat or torpedo attack. These are mounted on a superstructure necessary for carrying the boats and working the ship at sea. A special point in her design was the formation of the keel as a rectangular groove, in which are placed lengths of cast-iron ballast.

This extra weight, amounting to about 300 tons, is not permanently fixed, but can be dropped when required, so as to lighten the vessel if any injury is received reducing the buoyancy. All or portions of it can be released from the conning station. While the vessel is intact the ballast assists in keeping the greater portion of the hull immersed, making a difference of about 12 in. in the draught. Though the ‘Poly— phemus’ was commenced in 1878, difficulties with the boilers delayed her completion till 1882, and several alterations were then made to improve her qualities as a sea-keeping vessel, the original intention being that she should be capable of accompanying a fleet. She was for some years attached to the Mediterranean Squadron, and though no opportunity occurred to test her as an engine of war, she proved quite capable of such service if required. Up to a few years ago she was without a duplicate in our own or any foreign navy, but the United States have recently constructed a vessel on the same principles. It is called a coast defence ram, and consists of the following dimensions,—length 240 ft., beam 43 ft., size 2050 tons, and speed 17 knots. The ‘Polyphemus’ is 2500 tons, and speed 18 knots. The American ram cannot therefore be considered any material advance in this type. I venture to think, moreover, the principle is a mistake, for the following reasons.

When guns were the only weapons to contend with there was some reason to construct a vessel impervious to projectiles and relying solely on the ram. The torpedo alters this condition, as before the ram can be applied such a vessel must come within the radius of the torpedo’s range, and though above water she may be invulnerable, below the water line she is as open to attack as any other craft. Then I fail to see the advantage of denying a vessel guns on the plea that their smoke would be an encumbrance when ramming. A captain has the power of withholding his fire at all times, and presumably such an order would be obeyed. Lastly, a vessel without guns disabled in her machinery is at the mercy of any antagonist who can lay off beyond the range of torpedoes, if the ram has these weapons, and use his guns without fear of reply.

It appears to me that such an advantage should never be conceded; and for these principal reasons I think the gunless ram is a phase of construction based on erroneous assumptions which have a temporary hold on the imagination, but which disappear under practical consideration of the probabilities in war.

It is, moreover, fallacious to suppose that to ram a vessel under any circumstances is an easy operation even with a superiority of speed. Accidental collisions with disastrous results have, we know, not been unfrequent . The sinking of the ‘Vanguard’ off the Irish coast by the ‘Iron Duke,’ and the loss of the ‘Victoria’ in the Mediterranean from being accidentally rammed by a companion, are instances of this and examples of the power of the ram. To strike a ship at anchor as the ‘ Cumberland’ was struck by the ‘ Merrimac’ does not call forth any great exercise of skill.

When we examine, however, instances in which it has been desired to ram a ship in movement one is struck by the failures to attain this object which history records. In May 1879, during the war between Chili and Peru, the ‘ Huascar,’ a small turret ship then belonging to the latter power, engaged the Chilian wooden corvette ‘Esmeralda.’ The latter was, of course, quite overmatched , though it required forty shots from the ‘Huascar’ before her adversary was disabled. The ‘Huascar’ then attempted to ram. It was an unnecessary display of power, as the‘ Esmeralda’ could not escape, and was lying motionless on the water. But these nations are without mercy when at war. Twice the ‘ Huascar’ struck the ‘Esmeralda ’ with her stem, but failed to do serious injury, the captain having stopped the engines too soon. The third attempt was more successful. The ‘Esmeralda’ was struck on the beam and sunk. Two other ships, the ‘ Independencia’ and ‘ Covadonga,’ were also engaged in the same action, when the former made three ineffective efforts to ram the ‘Covadonga,’ but failed. At the last attempt she ran ashore and became a wreck.

In the action between the ‘Huascar’ and the Chilian ironclads ‘Blanco Encalada’ and ‘Almirante Cochrane’ several attempts were made to ram the Peruvian vessel, which she evaded, but eventually succumbed to the overwhelming fire of her two opponents. At the battle of Lissa, in 1866, between the Austrian and Italian fleets, there were numerous occasions when ships failed to ram each other. On the other hand, the fact remains that the ‘Ré d’Italia’ was sunk by the ‘Ferdinand Max,’ though this was facilitated by injury to the Italian vessel’s rudder.

A wooden ship, the ‘Kaiser,’ also rammed the ironclad ‘Portogallo,’ but sustained more injury herself than she inflicted. In another instance the attempt ended in a graze, the two vessels passing so close to each other that the rammers to the guns could not be used. From such experience we may conclude, and it is capable of mathematical demonstration, that with two ships well handled and free from injury it is only a slight difference of time and movement whether one rams the other or herself sustains the shock; that to bring the stem advantageously in contact with another vessel requires, under any circumstances, considerable skill, but that opportunities may occur in a general action which should be promptly seized. Experience, however, is far from showing that entire reliance should be placed on the ram, to the exclusion of weapons well tried in the past, and which have a much greater radius of action.