Saturday, 27 December 2014

Christmas Day 1914: The Cuxhaven Raid

My blog this week is not only short but a bit late also due to Christmas travel and festivities but it would be pity to let the 100th Anniversary of the first-ever successful naval air strike on a land target to go unremarked.

On Christmas Day 1914 three Royal Navy seaplane carriers, Engadine, Riviera and Empress launched a total of seven floatplanes to attack the German Zeppelin base at Cuxhaven, some 25 km north of Bremerhaven. The force had been escorted to striking distance by vessels of “Harwich Force” of light cruisers and destroyers which was responsible for active – and indeed aggressive – patrolling of the Southern North Sea throughout WW1. 
One of the Short Folders used in the Christmas day raid
The aircraft were all of the Short  “Folder” Type though with engines of different power in the 100 – 200 hp range. As the name indicated the 67 ft span wings folded for ease of transport in the large hangars built on the after-ends of their carriers. 
HMS Engadine at anchor - note Short Folder at stern, ready for dropping
The seaplane carriers were converted Cross-Channel passenger ferries, chosen because their top speeds (in the 20 knot range) allowed them to keep up with the Harwich force’s cruisers. The aircraft could not be launched directly from the ships, but rather were lowered  by crane into the water once their wings had been extended, taking off thereafter on their floats. Recovery followed the same procedure, but in reverse, and it is obvious that for the ships at least the period of greatest vulnerability was during recovery, when it was essential to be stationary.
Contemporary postcard showing the Royal Navy surface force
Noe the famous light cruiser HMS Arethusa as flagship
The seven aircraft of the strike-force (engine problems held back two more) each carried a pilot and observer/navigator as well as three 20 lb. bombs. Though puny, the latter had the potential to destroy an airship filled with highly flammable hydrogen – indeed Zeppelin LZ37 was to be destroyed by  Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Warneford VC with such a weapon on May 15th 1915. 
A Short Folder with starboard wings still folded.
The Christmas Day attack was to be bedevilled by low cloud but the Folders nevertheless found the Cuxhaven base, though the sheds in which the Zeppelins were housed were obscured by mist. The aircraft dropped their bombs, though without causing any significant direct damage. The morale effect was however marked – notice being served that German homeland targets could be taken under attack and that resources would have to be diverted from elsewhere to protect them.

A fanciful artist's impression of the raid!
Alerted by the attack, German aircraft and Zeppelins set out to find the British surface force involved. Two Friedrichshafen seaplanes, and Zeppelin L7, detected the carrier HMS Empress, which due to boiler problems was lagging astern of the formation, dropping small bombs that failed to hit. German U-Boats stationed in the area were equally unsuccessful. All British vessels returned safely to base.

The British aircraft had been airborne for over three hours and all crews were to survive. Three aircraft managed to return to their carrier and three landed in the sea off the German island of Norderney. The crews of the latter were picked up by the British Submarine E11, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Martin Nasmith. (In the following year this commander, and submarine, were to have spectacular success operating against the Turks in the Sea of Marmara, action which earned Nasmith a Victoria Cross). The seventh aircraft was posted as “missing” but the pilot had indeed been picked up by a Dutch trawler and he managed to return to Britain a month later.

Robert Erskine Childers 1920
An interesting aspect of the Cuxhaven raid was that a key figure in the planning and navigation required, and who was  the observer on the lead aircraft, was a 44-year old Volunteer-Reserve Lieutenant, Robert Erskine Childers, better known as the author of the classic thriller “The Riddle of the Sands”. Published in 1903, this novel centres on German efforts to stage an invasion of Britain and it drew heavily on Childers’ experience as a yachtsman off the German North-Sea Coast – the scent of the Cuxhaven Raid. An Irish nationalist, Childers had run guns into Howth, North of Dublin, earlier in 1914, for arming volunteer forces supportive of Home Rule for Ireland, using his yacht Asgard for the purpose. He did however see it as ethically essential to support Britain in its death-struggle with Germany in WW1. Childers continued to serve in the British forces  until the end of the war, but thereafter devoted himself to the Republican cause in the 1919-21 Irish War of Independence. During the 1922-23 Civil War that followed signature of the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty, Childers supported the Republican faction against the newly-established Free-State government. Captured, and tried on which at was essentially a trumped-up charge, he was to be executed by a Free-State firing squad in November 1922. He characteristically insisted on shaking the hand of each member of the firing party. He also instructed his son, who would later be President of Ireland 1973-74 to seek out and shake hands in reconciliation with each man who had  signed his death warrant.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Old Salt Press: A growing presence in nautical publishing

Sharp-sighted followers of the Dawlish Chronicles will have noticed that the third novel in the series, Britannia’s Shark, has been published under the aegis of the Old SaltPress. This is an independent press, set up by an association of writers working together to produce the very best of nautical and maritime fiction and non-fiction. I was honoured by the invitation to be a member, joining four other authors who love ships and the sea, but who, individually, are focussed on different areas of interest.  Though we are very widely separately geographically we are united by a shared passion which results in work that spans a very wide range .

Below is an introduction to each of the authors and their work.

Rick Spilman is the founder and host of the superb  Old Salt Blog (see link in column to right) and has worked as a naval architect for several major shipping lines. Living alongside the Hudson River, he had extensive sailing experience as volunteer crew on the replica square-riggers HMS Rose and HMS Bounty. He has also sailed on both modern and period vessels along the New England coast, the west coast of Florida, the Caribbean, the Great Lakes and the southwest coast of Ireland. Rick’s fiction – such as Hell Around the Horn – is focussed on the great age of mercantile sail when large wind-powered vessels were in long retreat before the advances of steam power.

V.E. Ulett is based in California and her Captain Blackwell series novels are set in the classic period of naval fiction, that of the Napoleonic Wars. Her work is however fresh, and unusual , in that it reflects, but is not dominated by, a strong feminine viewpoint. It is indeed unflinching in dealing with just how uncomfortable it was to be a woman in this era. Her plotlines and settings are also out of the ordinary, making for very absorbing reads. Her series starts with Captain Blackwell’s Prize and the second, Blackwell’s Paradise, is already available while the third, Blackwell’s Homecoming has just been published.

Alaric Bond, British based, also writes novels set in the era of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, but his “Fighting Sail” series differs from most written in the genre in that they do not follow a single individual exclusively, but rather a wide range of characters. Alaric’s work reflects deep knowledge of the events, personalities of the period, as well as of the complexities of ship handling, as demonstrated in the sixth book in the series, The Torrid Zone, was published in 2014. Though not part of the series, Alaric’s Turn a Blind Eye, unusually featuring the Revenue Service than the Royal Navy, is similarly enthralling.

Joan Druett, who lives in New Zealand, covers the widest range of any of the Old Salt Press authors. She is also the most prolific, and is widely honoured and respected for her non-fiction work based on detailed historical research. By reference to hitherto untapped resources she has brought to life not only the extraordinarily active roles – now largely forgotten –  played by women at sea in the Age of Sail, but also other neglected aspects of 19th Century nautical activity such as sealing. Joan’s most notable fictional work is the Wiki Coffin series of period detective stories , built around the adventures  of a  half-Maori , half-American interpreter who accompanies the United States Exploring Expedition which was launched in 1838. I was particularly enthralled by the factual The Elephant Voyage – an amazing story of privation, of survival and of the legal imbroglio that followed, and by the Wiki Coffin mystery The Beckoning Ice. Joan’s latest book, the non-fiction Eleanor's Odyssey, is built around the journal of the wife of an East Indiaman’s captain from 1799 to 1801. Like Joan’s excellent World of the Written Word blog (see bar on right), this offers fresh insights to life at sea in the period.

And the fifth Old Salt Press author? That’s Antoine Vanner and you’re already familiar with him if you’re reading this blog!

Best Wishes to all my readers for Christmas 2014 and for a Happy and Successful 2015!
                                                                                     Antoine Vanner

Friday, 19 December 2014

Naval Artists of the 18th Century – Part 1

Earlier this week I posted a short blog about the cutting-out of the French corvette Chevrette in 1801. I had come on this incident through finding in an 1894 publication a most dramatic engraving depicting it. It was based on a painting by somebody referred to simply as “de Loutherbourg”. Given that the name was an unusual one for an apparently British artist I decided to find out more. Not only did I discover a quite fascinating and unexpected story, but the quest introduced me to a number of other artists of the 18th and early 19th Centuries who specialised in maritime subjects. Several of these had stories – and backgrounds – as unusual as de Loutherbourg’s and I’ll return to them in later blogs. It is through the eyes of these men that we have come to form our mental pictures of the Age of Fighting Sail. It came as a surprise to me to learn that many of these painters, far from being studio-bound, had direct experience of life at sea, and even of combat, as I’ll tell of in future posts.
de Loutherbourg's "The Glorious First of June"
Lord Howe's victory 1794
It was during the 18th Century that Britain gained the global-power status which was to be confirmed during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Through much of the period the performance of British land forces was patchy, and occasionally disastrous.  Where at all possible Britain avoided land campaigns and instead used the wealth accruing from her maritime trade to subsidise European powers – such as Prussia – to do the fighting on her behalf.  In establishing commercial as well as naval supremacy it was the Royal Navy which was to prove the decisive weapon, one unrivalled not only as regards power and size but as regards professionalism and bloody-minded dedication to victory.  This fact was widely recognised throughout British society and, even if there was reluctance to provide adequate remuneration and acceptable terms of service, the Navy and its personnel were held in high esteem. Songs such as Rule Britannia (1740) and Heart of Oak (1760), both still loved and heard, bore witness to this. It was therefore no great surprise that painters specialising in naval subjects should find a ready market for their paintings with the more affluent, and for engravings of them for the less prosperous. It is in this context that de Loutherbourg and other artists like him should be seen.

de Loutherbourg in laterlife
Of Polish extraction, Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg was born in Strasbourg in 1740 and at the age of 15 was apprenticed in Paris to the eminent and fashionable artist Charles-André van Loo. His talent was quickly recognised  and in 1767 he was elected to the French Academy, even though below the age normally set for this. His range of subjects was wide and already included sea storms and battles as well as landscapes. At an early stage however he was fascinated by the opportunities offered by stage productions and he experimented with a model theatre to produce effects such as running water, achieving this with clear sheets of metal and gauze.

de Loutherbourg’s increasing fascination with the theatre led him to accept an offer by David Garrick, the greatest actor of the day (who wrote Heart of Oak ) to move to London. Here, at the Drury Lane Theatre, de Loutherbourg designed scenery, costumes and, most significantly, stage effects of ever-greater sophistication. The latter depended heavily on coloured lantern-slides and lighting effects. de Loutherbourg was to spend the rest of his life in Britain, anglicising his name to Philip James. It is likely that, like many Frenchmen of his background, he would have found his country a most uncongenial place during and after the revolution.
de Loutherbourg's "The Battle of Camperdown 1797"
British victory over the Dutch fleet
In the midst of his theatre activities de Loutherbourg continued painting, encouraged by the friendship of Britain’s premier artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Though his range continued to be wide it was de Loutherbourg’s  naval paintings which were to be most prestigious. Several were commissioned to commemorate great naval victories such as the Glorious First of June (1794) and are now in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Not surprisingly, given his links to the theatre, these paintings are intensely dramatic. He made no attempt the fact that a degree of licence was taken for the sake of effect  and in the prospectus for the engraving of is painting of the Battle of Camperdown (1797) it was frankly stated that:

“Mr. Loutherbourg has availed himself of the privilege allowed to painters, as well as epic and dramatic poets, of assembling in one point of view such incidents as were not very distant from each other in regard to time. These incidents have been associated as fully as the limits of the distinct picture would admit; and although many principal events, in which particular ships distinguished themselves, may not have been brought forward, yet the artist is satisfied that the officers of the navy will be indulgent for whatever it was not practicable to introduce; especially as it has been Mr. Loutherbourg’s plan to compose his pictures with an adherence to the principles of the art not usually consulted in marine painting.”
"The cutting-out of the Chevrette, 1801"
It is notable that in the case of the picture that first roused my interest in de Loutherbourg, “The Capture of the Chevrette”, the drama may seem extreme, yet the work was based on sketches made by officers who were actually present, and many of the faces are portraits of them.  Given that his career had taken off under the Ancien Regime in France it is interesting to note that he was to live on to be fascinated by the very different world of the industrial revolution and to find it a challenging subject.

de Loutherbourg’s 1801 “Coalbrookdale by Night”: iron foundries in action.
de Loutherbourg continued to be interested in the technology of spectacle and one could well image that had he been born a century and a half later he would have flourished as a movie-director in the Abel Gance mould. His most notable achievement in this area was his invention of the “Eidophusikon”(Image of Nature), a small mechanical theatre that used lighting, stained glass, mirrors and pulleys to achieve spectacular effects. Shows were given to audiences as large as 130 and the subject matter was – as could be expected – spectacular in the extreme. The most spectacular appears to have been the scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost in which Satan marshals his followers on the shored of a lake of fire and the rising of the Palace of Pandemonium. Impressive and popular as it was, the venture could not justify its costs and it had to close, leaving de Loutherbourg to return to more conventional work. One can well imagine how, today, he would have gloried in the possibilities offered by CGI.
de Loutherbourg's “Eidophusikon"
de Loutherbourg died in 1812 and though his career had been a very unusual one it was not the only one in which great maritime art was to emerge in this period from an unlikely backgrounds. I’ll return in later blogs with some very surprising instances.

Friday, 28 November 2014

The Dawlish Chronicles “Conflict Archive”

 When I set up my “Dawlish Chronicles” website,,  some two years ago I included a section called “Steam, Steel and Strife”, which can be accessed via the “Conflict” button on the home-page.  In this section I intended to post articles related to naval history which were directly germane to the Dawlish Chronicles novels themselves. As time went on however, and as my researches continued, I found it regrettable that not all that I came across could be directly or indirectly used in my novels. It seemed a pity to let this information go to waste, the more so since it was likely to be of interest to a large number of naval and history enthusiasts.

From this was born the blog you are now reading, on which I have been publishing articles on a weekly basis, or sometimes more often. These cover a very wide range of events, personalities and technology related to naval history in the mid-18 th to early-20th  Century period. The majority of these articles have been transferred to my website’s “Conflict” section. At present there are over 50 such articles and more are added on a regular basis. The listing did however leave something to be desired, making it difficult to access articles as they were not classified by era, or in chronological order of occurrence. A “clean up” of the listing was obviously required.

I have now accordingly reorganised the listing. The “Conflict” page (click here to access) now represents a portal to listings of articles in three historical periods and sequence. These are:
The Age of Fighting Sail

The articles under this heading relate to naval and other history between 1700 and the early 1830s.  In this period sailing warships reached their zenith of perfection and the professionalism of naval officers and men was to be a determining factor in the fate of empires. Articles include accounts of battles, of shipwrecks and survivals and of unusual aspects of naval-related life.

The Victorian Era
This is the largest section. The period covered is from 1837 to 1901 and it was characterised by great political change, scientific discovery and technological innovation. As it started steam was still a novelty at sea and the Royal Navy was commanded by veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. When it ended, steam propulsion, steel construction, electricity, and the deployment of  armour, torpedoes and huge guns had resulted in ships which in many cases would live on to fight in World War 1. Articles cover topics as diverse as battles, biographies of leading figures, maritime disasters, weaponry, Arctic exploration and much else. It is the world in which Nicholas Dawlish makes his career.

The 20th Century

These articles are mainly related to the early decades of the 20th Century. Topics include the rise of the Imperial German Navy, conflict between Russia and Japan, the Balkan Wars and World War 1 itself, when naval warfare was to develop in ways not previously envisaged or possible. There was still a surprising role for sailing craft (in destroying U-Boats!) but aircraft had also arrived on the scene, playing an unexpected role following a mutiny on a Dutch warship.


The range of topic is huge and varied and out of over 50 articles I chosen some examples at random – I hope they’ll encourage you to explore further!

The Most Ferocious Frigate Action Ever? HMS Quebec  vs  Surveillante, 1779

Single ship actions, usually between frigates, are remembered as some of the most dramatic actions of the age of fighting sail and they figure as central elements in the naval fiction of Forrester, Pope, O’Brian and others. Perhaps the most dramatic of all single-frigate action was fought not during the Revolutionary or Napoleonic Wars, but when French was locked in conflict with Britain during the American War of Independence. ..

Lonely Lives and Deaths – French Napoleonic Prisoners of War in Britain 1793-1815

The plight of prisoners of war during the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars was particularly poignant. Over 100,000 of them were brought to Britain during the wars with France that raged from 1793 to 1815, with only a one-year break in 1802/03.The article tells how many ended up in a small Hampshire town and about the legacy they left behind

HMS Indefatigable vs. Droits de l’Homme 1797

The Royal Navy of the Victorian era was dominated by memories of what had been achieved in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and indeed up to the mid-19th Century the navy was still commanded by officers who had seen service in their youths under commanders such as Nelson. This article describes one of the most ferocious actions of those years.

The End of Fighting Sail – Sidon, Beirut and Acre 1840

Though steam propulsion was first applied to warships, on a small scale, in the late 1830s, it was to take another half-century before sail was finally abandoned by the world’s navies. 1840 was however to see the last major action by the Royal Navy in which a sailing wooden line-of-battle ship, of a type almost identical to those which fought under Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805, was to play the leading role.

Britain and France confront Argentina: The Battle of Obligdo 1845

Today, when one thinks of naval combat between British and Argentinian forces the Falklands War of 1982 is the case most likely to come to mind. An equally fierce engagement did however occur 137 years earlier and, though it is largely forgotten in Britain today, is commemorated annually in Argentina by a national holiday on each 20th November.

Mallet's Monster Mortar and the Birth of Seismology 1854/56

The need for massive weapons for breaching fixed land defences was dramatically illustrated during the Crimean War's Siege of Sevastopol in 1854/56. One response, by a forgotten Victorian genius, was the creation of the largest weapon constructed up to that time. Two examples remain and visiting one of them impelled me to write this piece. But there was more to the story than weapony alone, for the engineer responsible was to found the science of Seismology and to prefigure weapons used with devastating effect in WW2.

Coast Defence Ships - Big Bangs in Small Packets 1870-1951

For some eighty years from 1870 small, slow, powerfully armed and heavily armoured "Coast Defence" ships represented the backbone of many small navies, and even found limited use in much larger ones. This long article describes  this now largely-forgotten type of warship and the dramatic fates of some of them.

HMS Shah vs Huascar 1877 - an indecisive but significant single-ship action

An obscure single ship action off the coast of South America, though inconclusive, was of enormous significance for future naval warfare. It involved a British cruiser, HMS Shah, and the Huascar, a rebel Peruvian ironclad which still exists today, though in another navy.

The ramming of SMS Grosser Kurfürst 1878

For more than four decades from the mid-1860s almost all warships were built with bows designed for use of ramming as an offensive tactic. In practice the ram proved to be more of a hazard to friends than to enemies, and there were numerous cases of serious damage being inflicted, sometimes fatally, in collisions. One such incident occurred in sight of the English shore in 1878, resulting in sinking of the newly completed German ironclad Grosser Kurfürst with the loss of some 270 lives.

The wreck of HMS Wasp in 1884

Though it is likely that many in her crew disliked the task assigned them it is fair to say that the mission on which HMS Wasp was engaged at the time of her loss was one of the most inglorious ever undertaken by the Royal Navy.

Pride, Folly and Superb Seamanship - HMS Calliope at Apia 1889

The unlikely location of Samoa saw a confrontation between American and German naval forces in 1889, with a Royal Navy warship as neutral observer. This stand-off had the potential to launch a shooting war which would have had immense impact on subsequent world history. But then a hitherto unexpected player, Mother Nature herself, dealt the deciding hand...

The varied career of the Dutch protected cruiser Gelderland 1898-1944

In 1900 a young queen sent a cruiser to rescue a fugitive South African president. The vessel involved, the Gelderland, was to have a very varied career thereafter, culminating in a battle off Finland against the Soviets in 1944. It's quite an amazing story...

A sea battle you've never heard of: Elli 1912

... and it was in a war that's been largely forgotten. But the clash of the Greek and Ottoman Turkish navies at the Battle of Elli in 1912, and the savagery of the two Balkan Wars of 1912-13, were to give a foretaste of what was going to happen on a much larger scale a year later. A notable aspect of the battle is that it mixed outdated relics of the ironclad age with ultra-modern vessels, some of which were to go on to play active roles in both World Wars.

World War 1 in the North Sea: Sailing Craft versus the U-Boats

Though the “Age of Fighting Sail” ended around 1840 as regards major warships, small sailing craft were to play a very important role in World War 1 in Britain’s battle against Germany’s U-Boats. And some of the sailing craft were very small indeed and operating them demanded courage of the highest order.

The Mutiny on De Zeven Provincien - and its dramatic ending 1933

This event merits coverage since it is little known of outside the Netherlands and because its significance goes far beyond its immediate circumstances. The mutiny was to be terminated in a most unexpected way, by the aggressive deployment of air power at sea for the first time since the Great War.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Readying for launch: “Britannia’s Shark”

“Britannia’s Shark” is the third of the Dawlish Chronicles novels and is due for publication in paperback and Kindle formats in early December.

It’s 1881 and a daring act of piracy draws the ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, into a deadly maelstrom of intrigue and revolution.  Drawn in too is his wife Florence, for whom the glimpse of a half-forgotten face evokes memories of earlier tragedy. For both a nightmare lies ahead, amid the wealth and squalor of America’s Gilded Age and on a fever-ridden island ruled by savage tyranny. Manipulated ruthlessly from London by the shadowy Admiral Topcliffe, Nicholas and Florence Dawlish must make some very strange alliances if they are to survive – and prevail.

You may also recall that last month I invited readers to guess what the “X” would be in the title “Britannia’s X”. 

The only clues I offered were (a) that the action covers the period April – September1881, (b) that the adventure (and nightmare!) starts in the Northern Adriatic but shifts continents thereafter and (c) that Nicholas Dawlish’s intrepid wife, Florence, plays a key role.

Given this scant information, fans of the Dawlish Chronicles series responded with some splendid guesses, none of them actually “Shark” however. Here are the best:

Steve Cook:             “Britannia’s Secret”, hinting perhaps at what Florence might be wearing under her voluminous outer garments. As a gentleman however I could not possibly speculate about such a delicate subject, much less write about it. Dawlish would probably horsewhip me.

Robert Field:           “Britannia’s Argosy”, resulting from a really ingenious piece of reasoning. Robert identified Ragusa as an Adriatic port and “Argosy” as a Ragusan word. A splendid effort but, unfortunately, incorrect.

Ian Synge:                “Britannia’s Pig”, from another thread of ingenious reasoning. Again starting from the Adriatic setting, and knowing that there were tensions in this period between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Serbia on commercial trade in pigs, resulting in a tariff confrontation entitled the “Pig War”, Ian had suspicions that Dawlish might have been sent to represent British economic interests in this imbroglio. Great idea, but incorrect. Perhaps Lady Agatha’s diplomat brother Oswald would be better suited to sorting this one out.

Carl Ramsay:           “Britannia’s Victory” – a great title and one to be stored for possible future use.

Shaun White:          “Britannia’s Blockade” – another splendid title that invites a story to support it.

And most outrageous of all:

Gary Early deserves to be quoted verbatim, in an answer capable of inspiring Gilbert and Sullivan to create HMS Pinafore, had they not already done so:

“It is the Northern Adriatic (for no obvious reason, but possibly for tax purposes). Nicholas Dawlish is in line to take command of Her Majesty's latest and greatest warship. So, too, are several other contenders. There is nothing to separate these men in terms of maritime competence and martial skill. Thus, in its wisdom, the Admiralty declares that command will be given to the officer with the best singing voice!

The book is, of course, "Brittannia's Got Talent."

I’ll be announcing soon Britannia’s Shark exact publication date in early December.

I hope that readers who’ve already met the Dawlish couple will be glad to make their acquaintance again and join them in a desperate adventure. In Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Reach daring and initiative have earned Dawlish the advancement in the Royal Navy which he hungers for.  But is the price too high, for himself, for his principles and for the woman he loves?

Britannia’s Shark is being published through the Old Salt Press, an association of independent writers dedicated to publishing the finest in nautical fiction and non-fiction. I’ve been honoured by being asked to join founder authors Joan Druett, Rick Spilman, Alaric Bond and V.E. Ulett and hope that my continuing work will live up to the high standards they have already set.

Friday, 7 November 2014

China’s Zhongshan Gunboat – a splendid restoration

I was in Singapore last week and on my way from the airport to the hotel I saw a large banner-like announcement for an exhibition entitled “The Zhongshan Warship” and its treasures. I had not previously heard of this vessel but I was very keen to learn more. I found it of great interest and in this blog I’d like to share something of it.

The exhibition – which continues in Singapore until April 2015 – is organised by the Zhongshan Warship Museum of  Wuhan, China, and is held in the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. This is housed in what was the residence of one of Singapore’s most successful merchants and philanthropists in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Should you be visiting Singapore it is well worth visiting this splendid museum even should the Zhongshan exhibition be finished.  The museum covers not only the life of Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925), the revolutionary who brought about the fall of the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty in 1911 and who created the Chinese Republic that followed, but it also tells the story of the rise of the great Chinese business empires centred on Singapore. Sun’s story is dramatic in the extreme and I was not previously aware just what a large role was played in the revolution by the Overseas Chinese communities as regards funding and provision of support for political exiles and activists. The museum is splendidly housed and the organisation and range of exhibits make it a model of its kind.

The presence of the Zhongshan exhibition at the museum is explained by the fact that the vessel, named after Sun Yat Sen (his name in Mandarin being Sun Zhongshan), was strongly associated with him, as well as with a number of other significant events in the years 1911-1937.

The splendid Sun Yat Sen Nanyang memorial Hall, Singapore

 Initially called the Yongfen, the Zhongshan was one of two gunboats ordered by the Qing Imperial Government in 1910. They were built at the Mitsubishi yard at Nagasaki and their specifications were as follow:

Displacement:  830 Tons
Dimensions:     205 ft. long, 29.5 ft. beam and 15.3 ft. draught
Crew:               108-140
Armament:      1 X 105 mm at bow, 4 X 47 mm along sides, 1X 40 mm aft
                        2 X 39 mm Anti-Aircraft weapons added in 1920s/30s
Machinery:      1350 hp triple expansion, twin screws, max speed 13.5 knots.

Zhongshan, as seen in the 1920s or 30s

The design was well suited to operation either in coastal waters, or on China’s vast inland river system. By the time the Yongfen and her sister Yonhsiang were delivered the Imperial Government had fallen. The new republic was to face many challenges, not least an attempt by in 1915-16 by the first president, Yuan Shih Kai (1859-1916) to proclaim himself emperor. Sun Yat Sen was a major force in frustrating this attempt. In the “Warlord Period” which followed, in which central authority was challenged by local strongmen who controlled vast areas with their private armies, naval units allied themselves with the “Constitution Protection Movement” which was pledged to defend the republic. 
Sun Yat Sen and his wife, with crew, in 1922, when the Yongfen was his refuge

In 1922 during further internal strife, Sun Yat Sen, who was still actively attempting to unify the country, escaped danger by taking refuge on the Yongfen for a period of 55 days. This included running past the forts on the Pearl River, close to Guangdong (Canton), which were controlled by the warlord Chen Jiong Ming (1878-1933) with both Sun, and his protégée Chaiang Kai Shek on board. It was to commemorate this that the vessel was renamed Zhongshan.

Under its new name the gunboat continued to have an active career, which included coastal operations against pirates. In 1937 however, when Japan invaded China (in what was essentially the opening of WW2, though few in the west wanted to recognise this at the time) she was deployed in the Yangtze River to oppose the Japanese advance westwards from Shanghai.  On October 24th , near Wuhan, she was attacked and sunk by six Japanese aircraft, the captain and 20 of the crew being killed.

Hull seen on surface for first tine in almost 60 years

Zhongshan refloated in 1997 - and in remarkably good condition
The wreck was to lie undisturbed until 1996 when it was resolved to raise and refurbish her as  a memorial to Sun. The hull appears to have been in remarkably good condition and after an eight-man diving team removed some 1500 tons of silt from her it was possible to raise her, between two barges, in February 1997. The hull was was winched on to a slipway for work to proceed on her and transported thereafter by means of a floating drydock to the custom-built viewing hall built for her near Wuhan. Final fitting out was done there, where she is now on permanent display.The photographs below give and idea of the very comprehensive work involved. 

Work in progress on slipway

Completely restored hull en-route to the display hall near Wuhan
Zhongshan being moved into display hall
As Zhongshan is currently displayed

The exhibition covers all aspects of the vessel’s history and operation. There is a splendid 1:50 model and a large display of artefacts recovered in good condition from the silt, which probably acted as a preservative. Seen together they present a poignant view of what life would have been on board the Zhongshan as she patrolled the Chinese coast and penetrated deep into the interior on the country’s massive rivers.

1:50 model on display at exhibition

 For me the exhibition proved an unexpected joy. Due to the lighting however, and the fact that I had only a mobile ‘phone with me, and not  a proper camera. The photographs I took of the model are therefore hazy. I have also taken the liberty of scanning photographs from the splendid exhibition guide and hope that by doing so I have not infringed copyright.  I trust that my thanks to the Zhongshan Warship Museum and to the staff in Singapore, as well as  my desire to share the pleasures of the exhibition with readers who cannot visit  it in reality, may compensate for this.