The Development of Navies During the Last Half-Century/Chapter 8
Frigates in Old Time—Speed an Essential—Early Steam Cruisers—'Inconstant' and others—Action between 'Shah' and 'Huascar'—Armoured Cruisers—'Imperieuse' and 'Warspite'—Development of Internally Protected Vessels—'Blake' and 'Blenheim'—'Royal Arthur' Class—Smaller Types—Scouting Duties—Necessity for High Speed.
In addition to the large vessels which, by the number of their guns, disposed in two, three, or even four tiers, were capable of taking their place in the line of battle, fleets have from very early days contained a number of smaller craft for the duties of scouting, conveying information, and the protection of commerce. We had frigates, corvettes, sloops, and brigs for such work, supplemented by privateers to whom letters of marque were granted. Pepys tells us the first frigate built in England was modelled from a French frigate which Pett the ship-wright had seen in the Thames. Attached to a squadron, frigates were relied on to obtain information of an enemy's movements, and being more nimble under sail than the heavier battle ships, could hover round them until their destination seem assured, when they would make off with the intelligence to their own squadron. They were often used also for convoying merchant-ships. The demand for them, therefore, was enormous, and admirals in command could not always obtain an adequate number. Nelson at a critical moment said the want of frigates would be found stamped on his heart, and we shall no doubt suffer from the same deficiency at some future time.
A frigate by itself hardly ever ventured to attack a two-decker except in expectation of the aid of a friendly battle ship, when it would endeavour to delay the enemy until its bigger consort came up. Cases have occurred of a frigate being sunk by a single broadside from a line-of-battle ship. Its most valuable quality was superiority in speed over the more powerful vessel, and as long as the wind remained the only motive power this characteristic was preserved. It even endured for some years after the introduction of steam, but then came a time when, having freely abandoned sail power in battle ships, we endeavoured to combine it with steam in cruisers, the result being that as a rule our small craft were of little value for war purposes. If they met a battle ship at sea they would have been overtaken in flight, while their steam speed was inferior to that of any merchant steamer converted into a commerce destroyer. This dangerous condition of affairs has now passed away. We have frankly recognised that a high speed under steam is the first essential for vessels which have to perform the duties I have mentioned, and it has been secured in those which we have recently built.
There have been fitful periods, however, when we produced steam frigates of high speed. Inspired by the example of the United States, which after the Civil War constructed some fast frigates, we built the 'Inconstant' in 1866, a vessel of nearly 6000 tons, in which the high speed of 16 knots under steam was obtained. She also sailed remarkably well. As the 'Warrior,' the first ironclad, had a speed of 14 knots, it may be considered that the extra 2 knots of the 'Inconstant' fairly maintained the old relative superiority of the class to which she belonged. But this vessel was too large and costly in maintenance to be adopted as a type; so two others, the 'Active' and 'Volage,' of just over 3000 tons and 15 knots speed, were built. We then reverted to the big ship idea, and produced the 'Shah,' of 6200 tons, by which 16 knots were again obtained. Like the 'Inconstant,' she was built of iron cased with wood and coppered. The armament consisted of two 12-ton guns, sixteen 6½-ton guns, and six 64-pounders. Thus the modern frigate, like the battle ship, carried few guns, but of greater power than had hitherto been mounted in this class of ship.
If any supposed that unarmoured frigates of this size could compete with and overcome even the smallest ironclad, the idea was dispelled when the 'Shah' fought and failed to subdue the small Peruvian monitor 'Huascar.' As corroborating my previous remarks on the relative strength of the frigate and the line-of-battle ship, a brief account of this action may here be given.In the early part of May 1877, during one of the periodical internal disturbances in Peru, the ‘Huascar’ was seized by a party of the disaffected, headed by Don Nicolas Pierola. The ship was taken out of Callao Harbour, and proceeded on a cruise to the southward. As she had committed an act of piracy in forcibly removing coal without payment from a British barque, Admiral de Horsey, then flying his flag in the ’Shah,’ as Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Squadron, determined to seize the ‘Huascar.’ In company with the ‘Amethyst,’ a corvette of 2000 tons, armed with 64-pounders, the admiral proceeded in chase. On the 29th of May the two ships met the ‘Huascar,’ and a boat was sent on board demanding her delivery, refusal to be followed by fire being opened upon her by the British vessels. The monitor was only a little over 2000 tons, and her armament consisted of two 12½-ton muzzle-loading guns, in a single turret, and two 40-pounders. But on the water line the ship was protected by 4½-in. iron plates, and the turret by 5½-in. Against this the guns of the ‘Amethyst’ were of little use, but those of the ‘Shah’ could, at close quarters and hitting direct, penetrate any portion. On the other hand, the guns of the ‘Huascar,’ loaded with common shell, would, if they hit, inflict great damage on the ‘Shah's’ entirely unprotected sides.
With a scratch crew, and against such odds, Pierola might have surrendered his little vessel without any great loss of honour. He preferred to fight, and at three P.M. the action began. A series of broadsides were fired from the ‘Shah,’ some of which struck the 'Huascar,' but without causing serious damage. The conditions of a sea fight and firing at an armour plate on shore to gauge penetration of projectiles differ widely. A direct blow on the armour of a ship in motion is the exception not the rule, consequently the 'Huascar' was able to endure a severe pounding from the 'Shah' without sustaining fatal injury. On the other hand, her own fire was so slow and inaccurate that the 'Shah' was not struck once. The 'Amethyst' also kept up a smart fire, but without result. The 'Huascar,' except in her gunnery, was well handled, and once or twice tried to ram the 'Shah,' which the superior speed of the latter enabled her to avoid. After a fight of nearly three hours darkness came on and firing ceased. During the night the 'Huascar' got away, and was given up next day by her commander to the Peruvian fleet. She was then uninjured in any vital part, and the water line had not been penetrated although the ship was struck (it was estimated) by about sixty or seventy projectiles. This showed the advantage of even thin armour against guns of moderate power, and tends to confute the opinion that unprotected vessels can under any circumstances take the place of battle ships.
Only a few frigates approaching the dimensions and speed of the 'Shah' were added to the fleet, and then we fell back on a smaller class called corvettes, with less speed but full sail power. For ordinary work in peace time they were well suited, but could not during hostilities have afforded much protection to commerce or been of great service to a squadron seeking intelligence. The same defect characterised our steam sloops and gun vessels which were distributed in all parts of the world. They were constructed to keep the sea under sail, relying only upon steam when the wind failed. The result was that as sea boats they were admirable, but steaming against a moderate sea they were easily passed by the 8-knot steam collier plodding steadily on for the Suez Canal. But still in a tentative sort of way we recognised the necessity for swift vessels, and while providing those above enumerated, built two vessels, between 1870 and 1880, with a steam speed of 18 knots. These were the 'Iris' and 'Mercury,' remarkable also for being the first vessels built wholly of steel. The hull was not cased in wood and coppered, but simply coated with a composition to prevent fouling and preserve the steel from the action of sea water. Having twin screws, only a light rig was provided, and the armament consisted of ten 64-pounders. The 'Mercury,' attaining on trial a speed of 18½ knots, was the fastest of the two. These ships were called despatch vessels, and for such service are admirably suited. Speed had been made the first consideration, and beyond subdivision of the hull no attempt was made to afford protection, which involved carrying additional weight. The success of the 'Iris' and 'Mercury' led to the construction of others, in which some speed was sacrificed to give a steel deck over the machinery and vital parts, to exclude fragments of shell which might explode within the ship. The displacement was the same, 3750 tons, as also the length, 300 ft., but the armament was made heavier, and hence they were regarded as cruisers. The old subdivision into frigates, corvettes, sloops, and gun vessels was now to pass away and give place to a general nomenclature. The term cruiser covers nearly all classes at the present time, as great and small are built much on the same lines, carrying a heavy gun at the bow and stern, and lighter pieces on the broadside.
A more powerful type has also sprung up called the armoured cruiser. The earliest vessels thus known were the 'Nelson,' 'Northampton,' and 'Shannon,' built between 1870 and 1880. They were of moderate dimensions, well armed, and carried a good supply of coal. Their function in war, as stated by the Controller of the Navy, was not to take their place in the line of battle, but to roam over the seas and drive off any future 'Alabama' acting against our commerce. Unfortunately they failed in the first essential for such work. In none of these ships did the speed exceed 14 knots, and hence they would be quite incapable of overhauling a moderately fast merchant steamer. This defect was remedied in two later vessels, the 'Imperieuse' and 'Warspite,' which combine a speed of 16 knots with a powerful armament and a partial belt of armour 10 in. thick. They carry 900 tons of coal, so are suitable for service in distant seas, and could cope, if occasion required, with any of the smaller ironclads of foreign powers.To the non-professional mind it may seem that such vessels might also fairly be classed as battle ships of the second or third class, as they carry four 22-ton guns and thicker armour than any of the early ironclads. It is more the service on which they are to be employed than any special form of construction which has put them in the cruiser category. No more ships of this type have been built. In this country the further development of the cruiser has been in the direction of giving up external armour, and devoting all weight we can give to protection to a steel deck for the whole length of the ship, varying in thickness according to her size. The extreme of this principle is seen in the 'Blake' and 'Blenheim,' our two latest and largest cruisers, each of 9000 tons displacement. The interior is roofed over so as to cover the machinery, magazines, etc., with a steel deck 3 in. thick. The sides of this deck slope down to about 6 ft. below the water line, till they meet the hull, the thickness being double that of the horizontal portion. This disposition of armour does not attempt to exclude hostile shells, but, it is assumed, will prevent their explosion from impairing either the buoyancy or motive power of the vessel. Opinions as to the comparative merit of external and internal armour are divergent, and I offer none of my own. It is one of the many questions which actual conflict can alone decide. But if in the 'Imperieuse' and 'Warspite' we marked a considerable increase of speed over the early armoured cruisers, this quality is developed to a still greater extent in the 'Blake' and 'Blenheim.' They are to be provided with machinery of sufficient power to drive them in smooth water at the rate of 22 knots an hour, when pushed to the utmost extent with forced draught. Their ordinary full speed will be 20 knots. Several merchant steamers traverse the ocean at this rate, and in the event of any being converted into hostile cruisers we must have war ships not inferior in this respect. In all our unarmoured vessels, up to a recent date, the deficiency in speed was in great measure due to their insufficient length. The least sea stopped their progress, while the merchant steamer, being much longer in proportion to beam, was only retarded in the same weather to a very small extent. We have now frankly admitted that length is indispensable for an efficient cruiser. Thus, while the 'Nelson' was 280 and 'Imperieuse' 315 ft. long, the extreme length of the 'Blake' and 'Blenheim' will be 400 ft. As their displacement is to be 9000 tons, a powerful armament can be carried. It consists of a 22-ton gun at bow and stern, three 6-in. guns on each side, and a number of machine guns. They will also be fitted to discharge torpedoes from above and below water. Besides these two, eight others are building, under the Naval Defence Act, of about 7500 tons, in which length and speed are to be somewhat less than in the 'Blake' and 'Blenheim.' The first of these, the 'Royal Arthur,' which was launched by Her Majesty early in the year, is rapidly approaching completion. Her construction is in most respects similar to that of the 'Blake,' but in lieu of a 22-ton gun forward she will carry two additional 6-in. guns further aft, but with command of fire right ahead.
It has always been customary to place a heavier gun than that carried on the broadside as a bow chaser, but the principle is exaggerated when guns of 14 tons and upwards, aggregating with carriage, etc., 20 tons, are placed in the fine bows of vessels not larger than the old frigates. Yet in the Mersey, Severn, Thames, and Forth, modern cruisers of 4000 tons, an 8-in. 14-ton gun has been placed in the bow and stern, the former of which must, with all its appurtenances, be a terrible weight to carry against a head wind or sea. How can we expect speed to be maintained when the vessel is thus handicapped? Such considerations have no doubt led us in the latest cruisers of similar dimensions, of which there are several now building, to limit the guns at the bow and stern to a calibre of 6-in. and a weight of 5 tons. Constructed of the length now necessary to obtain the full energy derived from improved powders, they have a long range for such a gun, and throw a shell capable of dealing terrible havoc to any unarmoured structure. No more need be demanded of vessels not primarily designed to fight ironclads.
The smallest type of cruisers, termed third class, is represented in the 'Medea,' 'Medusa,' 'Marathon,' and 'Melpomene.' Their principal armament consists of six 6-in. guns. They were designed to have an extreme speed of 20 knots, but a sustained speed of about 16 knots an hour on the ocean is probably the most that can be attained, A lighter armament would probably render these vessels more efficient as cruisers. There is no doubt, however, that we are in a better condition for protecting our vast commerce at the present time than we have been during any portion of the last half-century, independent of the aid we should receive from the conversion of some of the fastest merchant steamers into auxiliary cruisers. That other countries contemplate, in the event of war, an attack on our sea-borne trade has been clearly foreshadowed in the writings which have been published abroad, and received with favour by the nations to whom they were addressed. They will not be deterred from this action by the knowledge that the issue of a war cannot depend upon any success obtained in this way unless accompanied by a mastery, more or less complete, over the sea forces of the enemy. We may be harassed but not subdued in this fashion. Knowing the danger, it behoves us, however, to take adequate steps to guard against it, and this we are doing by at last adding to our fleet cruisers from which the modern 'Alabama' will find it difficult to escape. The career of this vessel has often been cited to show the damage that could be inflicted by a single vessel. But considering she was practically unmolested for eighteen months, it is no matter for surprise that the commerce under the stars and stripes, then carried chiefly in sailing ships, should suffer. The number of her captures during this period was under sixty, and only one was a steamer. Semmes was astonished at the absence of method displayed by the North in his pursuit. In his account of the cruise of the 'Alabama,' Semmes, referring to the Secretary of the Navy, said: 'The old gentleman does not seem once to have thought of so simple a policy as stationing a ship anywhere.' Vessels were certainly despatched in pursuit of the 'Alabama,' but generally arrived in one sea as she was leaving it for another, her commander calculating pretty accurately how long he could count on undisturbed possession. But her success was of little assistance to the South in delaying its final subjugation.
Vessels for the protection of commerce must not only be swift to run but also long to endure; that is to say, they should carry a large supply of fuel, or much of their time will be taken up in replenishing their stock of coal. I am of opinion that we should make an addition to the proportion of weight now allotted to this important item. Vessels attached to a squadron for scouting or despatch duties need not carry such an amount, or be of such large dimensions. If, as I am inclined to believe, no vessel under 3000 tons can be an efficient cruiser under modern conditions, I think 2000 tons will be sufficient for a despatch vessel or sea scout. A few years ago Messrs Palmer of Jarrow-on-Tyne built for the navy two excellent little ships of 1600 tons, called the 'Surprise' and 'Alacrity,' for this service. They have since done good work in China and the Mediterranean. Their speed is 16 knots, and they carry an armament of four 5-in. guns. For some reason we have built no more vessels like them, but by improving on their design, and increasing the displacement to 2000 tons, an additional ocean speed of 2 knots could be secured. There is a class of vessel, represented by the 'Archer' and a few others, of which the unfortunate ’Serpent' was one, of nearly 1 800 tons, which, though designated third-class cruisers, are more suitable for acting with a squadron. They are hampered, however, by carrying six 6-in. guns, too heavy an armament for such craft. Their speed and seaworthiness would be improved by substituting lighter ordnance. We have carried this out in a later class. The 'Barham' and 'Bellona,' of 1830 tons, have a speed of 19 knots and an armament of six 45-pounder quick-firing guns. The projectile of the 6-in. gun weighs 100 lbs.It will probably strike most people who remember our wooden steam frigates and corvettes how low in the water appear the steel cruisers of to-day. The demand on the naval architect for guns and ammunition, which exceed all former experience, the plea for torpedoes and other new weapons of naval warfare, the advantages of electric lights, the absolute necessity for torpedo nets, all these are impressed upon the constructor by the experts with resistless cogency, so that the vessel becomes like the stage soldier, overladen with weapons. Something must be given up, or dimensions in every class largely increased. A Plimsoll's mark for war vessels is not desirable, but I can conceive that it may become necessary, unless naval officers moderate their demands. Blame is often cast on the naval architect because ships after completion do not realise original expectations. In most cases it should more properly be laid on those who, during construction, have successfully pleaded for a heavier gun, extra torpedoes, and more numerous crew than the original design contained. This usually accounts for the vessel drawing more water than was intended.
If in a war with a powerful maritime state the patrol of the seas must require a large number of cruisers, the demand for swift vessels for other services will be equally pressing. Endeavours have been made from time to time to lay down the proportion that should exist between such craft and a battle squadron of given strength. Such calculations are futile, because no commander is likely to be satisfied when the time comes with the number allotted to him, in view of demands from all sides which cannot be neglected. Moreover, sufficiency will depend on the work to be done more than on the number of battle ships. But if hostile fleets are to be watched, as they often were of old, by a squadron of frigates, while the main force was out of sight but within speedy communication, the number of vessels required for this work in future will be very great. The coaling question then comes in. Formerly only shortness of fresh water drove ships into port. Their supply was usually sufficient to last for three months. To have some convenient locality where ships could water was an important matter in the old blockading days. Distillation of salt water now renders us independent of this consideration, but it is another demand on the coal supply, which is the measure of a steamer's capacity to remain at sea at the present time. It is difficult to estimate this endurance under the varying conditions of blockade. If position is maintained ordinarily under easy steam, there must be capability of passing to a high rate of speed at short notice, which will be not only a severe trial to the machinery but consume the stock of coal at a rapid rate. Moveable coal depots as close to the scene of operations as possible will be a necessity in cases where no Imperial coaling station is comparatively near, but probably only the experience of a war of some duration can demonstrate the best system for coaling a large fleet operating in all parts of the world.It is only of late years that the value of scouts to a squadron of battle ships has been recognised, and the method of utilising their services considered. For this and other invaluable experience we are indebted to our annual naval manœuvres. The ubiquity which steam confers in searching the ocean is an advantage which Nelson could not command, but which must in future relieve an admiral from all the anxiety of a foul wind when seeking information of an enemy which has escaped his vigilance. To have in addition one or two fast despatch vessels to warn detached squadrons of such movements, or return home with important intelligence—as Nelson sent a vessel home when he was satisfied that Villeneuve had left the West Indies—will be no less essential on some future occasion. They must be ready to run the gauntlet of the enemy's cruisers, and hence swiftness will be their chief security. They must not stop to fight unless brought to bay, and their armament should be of the lightest description. Up to the present time the development of this type of vessel is incomplete. It took centuries to produce the subdivision—or differentiation, as Admiral Colomb terms it in his Naval Warfare—of sailing ships into the several classes suited for the work then imposed on them. We cannot expect that, without the experience of conflict, the immense changes which the last half-century has seen in the composition of fleets will be found to have resulted in a series of types suited in all respects to the novel conditions of the next great naval war.