Tag Archives: navy

Singeing the King of Spain's Beard

An overview of Sir Francis Drake and the ‘Singeing the King of Spain’s Beard’

On the 29th April 1587, Sir Francis Drake entered the Bay of Cádiz and attacked the Spanish naval fleet in an event known as ‘Singeing the King of Spain’s Beard’.

Tensions between Protestant England and Catholic Spain had steadily increased due to a combination of religious, economic and political factors. Alongside ongoing religious conflicts that saw the excommunication of the English ruler Elizabeth I in 1570, the Spanish were frustrated by repeated raids from English privateers against their territories in the West Indies and of English support for the Dutch Revolt against Spain.

These tensions led to the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish War in 1585. The first months of the conflict saw Drake lead a series of attacks against Spanish possessions in the West Indies and the Americas, which prompted King Philip II of Spain to begin planning the invasion England and the restoration of Catholicism.

The Spanish king began to assemble his fleet, which was later to become known as the Armada, in the Spanish port of Cádiz and the Portuguese port of Lisbon. Meanwhile in England Queen Elizabeth put Drake in charge of a fleet that was to inspect and disrupt the Spanish preparations. He set sail on 12 April with four Royal Navy galleons and twenty smaller ships.

Drake’s fleet arrived at the Spanish port on 29 April and began to attack that evening. Having destroyed or captured numerous naval and merchant vessels Drake spent the next few weeks patrolling the coast between Cádiz and Lisbon and destroying every ship he encountered. Over one hundred ships in total were destroyed or captured, and Spanish plans for the invasion of England had to be put back for over a year.

Scapa Flow

Why did the Germans scuttle their fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919?

On the 21st June 1919, Admiral Ludwig von Reuter ordered the scuttling of the German High Seas naval fleet in Scapa Flow, a large natural harbor in the Orkney Islands in Scotland. The ships had been confined there under the terms of the Armistice that ended fighting in the First World War.


The launch of the Dreadnought

On the 10th February 1906 the British King, Edward VII, launched HMS Dreadnought – a revolutionary new type of battleship that made all other ships obsolete. She was the fastest and most heavily-armed ship in the world, and the name Dreadnought began to be used to describe a whole class of similar ships.

You might think that having the best ship in the world would make Britain the undisputed champion of the seas, but the launch of the Dreadnought arguably created more problems than it solved.  Ever since the British government adopted the Two-Power Standard as part of the Naval Defence Act in 1889, the Royal Navy had to have at least the same number of battleships as the next two largest navies in the world combined.  At that point it was France and Russia, but by 1906 Wilhelm II had become Kaiser of Germany and began aggressive military expansion and the development of a German Empire under his ‘World Policy’ or Weltpolitik.

But why was the Dreadnought a problem to Britain the Two-Power Standard?  The issue was that Britain now only had one more Dreadnought than every other country in the world.  With all other ships obsolete in the wake of the new design, it was too easy for other countries to catch up.  When Germany launched the first of its Dreadnought-style Nassau ships in 1908, Britain was forced to keep ahead by building more and more.  The naval arms race and the tension that followed was a major contributing factor to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

German navy attack Scarborough

The German naval bombardment of Scarborough in WW1

Shortly after 8am on the 16th December 1914, the German Imperial Navy attacked the British seaside towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. 137 people died, and another 592 were injured as a result of the bombardment – most of whom were civilians.

The smaller German fleet always sought to avoid direct engagement with the British. Instead they focused on targeted attacks and, after an earlier fast raid on the seaside town of Yarmouth, sought to increase the use of such tactics. The hope was that this would draw out parts of the British fleet and German U-Boats could pick them off one by one.

The Germans had determined that an attack on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby would be possible after a U-17 returned from a reconnaissance mission. It was identified that there were few mines in the vicinity, and no coastal defences, which made the towns an easy target since they were within easy striking distance of Germany.

British Intelligence had already decoded messages that indicated the German battle fleet would be mounting the raid. However, British Admiral John Jellicoe opted to allow the raid to happen and then intercept the German ships on their return. This proved catastrophic, as the British underestimated the size of the German attack, which saw over a thousand shells being fired, and then failed to engage the enemy.

The British public was outraged firstly that the Germans had attacked civilians, and secondly that the Royal Navy had failed to stop them. However, ‘Remember Scarborough’ soon became a key message of the British propaganda campaign and vengeance was used as an incentive for recruitment.

RMS Lusitania newspaper front page

The sinking of the Lusitania and its role in the First World War

The British ship RMS Lusitania sank after being attacked by the German U-boat U-20 off the coast of Ireland on  7 May 1915.

The Lusitania was launched by the Cunard Line in 1906 and was one of the largest ocean liners of its time. It undertook its first voyage in 1907 and went on to win the Blue Riband, the unofficial award for the fastest transatlantic crossing.

The outbreak of the First World War saw Britain impose a blockade on German ports, which prompted the German Navy to attempt the same on the British Isles. However, the Royal Navy limited the impact of Germany’s blockade so the Lusitania was able to continue its journeys between Liverpool and New York City.

On 4 February 1915 the commander of the German High Seas Fleet announced that German submarines would begin unrestricted warfare and sink allied ships in the waters around the British Isles. Prior to the Lusitania’s scheduled voyage from the USA on 1 May, the German Embassy in Washington took out newspaper adverts warning that passengers undertook the voyage at their own risk.

1,962 people and around 173 tons of war munitions were on board the Lusitania when it left New York under Captain William Thomas Turner. Having crossed the Atlantic, the ship was hit on its starboard side at 2.10pm by a torpedo fired by U-20. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes and 1,198 people lost their lives.

The German government attempted to justify the sinking, but it was met with outrage in the Allied countries. Despite the deaths of American civilians, President Wilson chose to remain neutral in the war. Germany abandoned unrestricted submarine warfare in August, but resumed it in early 1917. This, and the discovery of the Zimmermann Telegram, led to Wilson’s decision to declare war.

Attack on Port Arthur

What triggered the Russo-Japanese War? Overview of the attack on Port Arthur.

On the 8th February 1904, the Russian-controlled Port Arthur was attack by Japanese torpedos.

Port Arthur was a fortified naval base in the south of Manchuria that had been leased to Russia since 1898. After crushing the Boxer Rebellion as part of an eight-nation coalition, Russia infuriated Japan, which claimed parts of Manchuria within its own sphere of influence, by refusing to remove its troops. Japan was willing to recognise Russian dominance in Manchuria in return for access to Korea, but an agreement could not be reached and Japan broke off diplomatic relations on 6 February 1904.

Three hours before the Russian government received the declaration of war on 8 February, the Japanese Imperial Navy conducted a pre-emptive strike. Japanese Admiral Tōgō sent ten destroyers to Port Arthur where their torpedoes damaged two of the Russian fleet’s most powerful battleships as well as a cruiser. Although none of the ships were sunk due to the effectiveness of torpedo nets in the port, the Russian fleet was seriously weakened as the ships that had been hit were put out of action. The attack was halted at around 2am the following morning after the Russians turned on their searchlights and began to return fire.

At around 8am Admiral Tōgō sent a reconnaissance mission through the morning mist to inspect Port Arthur. With his observers reporting that the Russian fleet had been crippled by the previous night’s attack, the Japanese fleet were ordered to launch an attack on the port. In reality the reconnaissance was wrong and the Russians were prepared for battle. The Battle of Port Arthur resulted in ships on both sides suffering damage before the Japanese fleet retreated.

Mutiny on the battleship Potemkin

Russian mutiny on the battleship Potemkin

The crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin mutinied on the 27th June 1905, an uprising that was immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film.

Potemkin entered service in early 1905 after her gun turrets were fitted, and therefore did not take part in the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Instead, by the end of June she was off the coast of Ukraine completing maneuvers. It was here that rotten meat allegedly containing maggots was brought on board to feed the crew. Dissatisfied with the ship’s doctor’s opinion that it was fit for human consumption, the crew complained to the captain.

The ship’s second in command, Commander Giliarovsky, confronted the sailor’s delegation and killed spokesman Grigory Vakulenchuk. This triggered the mutiny, in which seven of the ship’s eighteen officers including Giliarovsky and the Captain were killed. The crew chose quartermaster Afanasi Matushenko to take control.

Having hoisted the red flag, the Potemkin set sail for Odessa where a general strike was underway. Here they brought the body of the revolutionary spokesman Vakulenchuk ashore and laid it on the Odessa Steps, where it acted as a focal point for locals to show their support for the sailors. However, by the evening the authorities received orders from the Tsar to take firm action. Estimates say that up to 2,000 civilians were killed.

The Potemkin left Odessa the next day and sailed for Constanța in Romania. The ship was surrendered to the Romanian authorities in return for the sailors receiving safe passage. Potemkin was handed back to the Russian navy, and was renamed Panteleimon.