Trafalgar

Great naval battles are a thing of the past. War these days is not won and lost on the ocean, and it would be unthinkable to develop a navy without air support. Flight is the single most relevant contribution to this paradigm shift.

Interaction between ships and planes really took off, if you excuse the pun, during World War II, as evidenced by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the battle of Midway.

The history site operated by the U.S. Military describes Midway as a naval battle, but Admiral Yamamoto only had one objective: the destruction of the American aircraft carrier force—not because of the ships themselves, but due to their capability to provide airborne strike power.

Admiral Joseph Nimitz, who opposed Yamamoto at Midway, succeeded in destroying four Japanese aircraft carriers, and arguably changed the course of the Pacific War.

But to look for true naval engagement, with fighting at close quarters, we should let our thoughts wander to a different era.

Julius Caesar discusses the use of shipborne catapults in his book about the Gallic wars, De bello gallico.

 When Caesar observed this, he ordered the ships of war, the appearance of which was somewhat strange to the barbarians and the motion more ready for service, to be withdrawn a little from the transport vessels, and to be propelled by their oars, and be stationed toward the open flank of the enemy, and the enemy to be beaten off and driven away, with slings, arrows, and engines…

This passage from Chapter 25 of the fourth book refers to the invasion of Britain—if catapults (engines) were carried aboard, primarily to be used to lay siege on land, then their potential for shipboard deployment becomes obvious.

But Caesar was by no means the first to use these ‘engines.’ In 332 BC, Alexander the Great used torsion-catapults fired from his ships to breach the harbor walls of Tyre. The city of Tyre, or Sur, to use the original Phoenician name, was highly coveted by all the early empires, including Egypt and Rome.

The Assyrian general Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Tyre two hundred-fifty years before Alexander—without the benefit of artillery, he was there for thirteen years before he gave up.

The Trebuchet was a form of catapult used in naval warfare.

The Trebuchet was a form of catapult used in naval warfare.

Two thousand years ago, torsion catapults were the state-of-the-art: the Greeks developed a mathematical formula relating the diameter of the torsion spring to the mass of shot, and the devices used sinews, horsehair, or even women’s tresses as raw materials to provide the torsion—Rhodes exported two to six tons of sinews to Greece in 220 BC.

In this context, it’s worth noting that in 2014 the internet is now a much richer pasture for trustworthy primary sources than it was five years ago. In parallel, a greater amount of dross exists, mainly because websites systematically plagiarize content from each other—stupidity is more contagious than Ebola, as evidenced by Jean Marie Le Pen.

But sites such as Project Gutenberg now make available primary materials in digital. I’ve found several originals online that I’m using as I write Clear Eyes, my new book about Columbus—and these texts are not just in English, but in Brazilian Portuguese and other languages.

When I researched The India Road, some of the information I needed was only available in the Library of Congress, which I was lucky enough to visit—this is not within reach for most of us, so I welcome repositories of freely accessible digital works.

On that note, I apologize to anyone who has been unable to buy The India Road as an ebook over the past few months; the publisher decided to remove the digital version, without any explanation, and I only found out last week. They have since apologized, and we are working to resolve the problem—they’ve asked me to sign over distribution rights in perpetuity, but I don’t believe in everlasting life. Stay tuned.

The Chinese Navy were busy throwing gunpowder bombs in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but in the West, naval artillery came of age in the fifteenth century. Before that, ships were taken by boarding, a maneuver often involving grappling hooks, or sunk by ramming.

The Perfect Prince, King John II of Portugal, was one of the first to equip his ships with cannon. Vasco da Gama used them to good effect on his return from Calicut, blasting Mogadishu to caution the locals as he sailed south off the East African coast.

But perhaps the greatest naval battle of them all was Trafalgar—I was immensely privileged to attend a lecture by Capt. Malhao Pereira on October 21st, Trafalgar Day, where he explained many of the technical aspects of the battle.

I imagine he’ll publish his text at some point, so I will highlight only a few of the things I learned. First, it is obvious that to fight a naval engagement under the power of sail, position is paramount. Trafalgar is a particularly challenging area, with wind changes that can suddenly place you at a disadvantage.

The Straits of Gibraltar lead to swifter currents in the narrows, and extremely dangerous sailing, as the would-be African migrants learn when they try to bring an overcrowded skiff across to Spain. During the battle, a west wind, or poniente, blew inside the straits—however, near the Spanish coast the wind was variable both in direction and strength.

In the days of Nelson and Villeneuve, when ships typically had two rows of cannon firing from an upper and lower deck, the ship to windward would be at a disadvantage in terms of firepower.

If the wind is on her starboard beam, the vessel’s port side tilts so the cannon on the lower deck are unable to fire. Meanwhile, the enemy to leeward is in the opposite situation, blasting away with both rows of cannon from starboard.

Nelson’s double lines sailed in from windward to split Villeneuve’s fleet—they exposed themselves to the full blast of the leeward cannonade from the combined French and Spanish fleet. At the head of the British fleet, bearing the brunt of the fire, were Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, and Collingwood’s command, the Royal Sovereign.

Nelson effectively cornered the enemy fleet to leeward of his position, leaving no possible escape route—behind the opposing vessels there was only a shoal-ridden coastline.

The French defeat was a critical turning point in the Napoleonic War.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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