30 NOVEMBER, 1917: Active Service

There was plenty going on in the world at war a hundred years ago. Heavy fighting southwest of Cambrai on the Western Front, where the German Army was launching a counteroffensive; total chaos on the Eastern Front, where the Russian Army had quit the War; action in the Middle East, where British General Allenby was securing the approaches to Jerusalem; and important action on the Italian Front, where Austro-German forces menaced the outnumbered remnant of the Italian Army across the River Piave.

I’ve talked about all these places lately, and gateway anniversaries from more obscure areas are in short supply this week, so it’s back to basics.  On 30 November 1917, a Royal Navy monitor destroyed a floating bridge made of small boats at Passarella, on the Piave, about 8km upriver.  I’m not doing deep research today so that’s all I can tell you about the event itself, but it does offer me a way into naval matters I’ve been meaning to mention, and I’ll start with monitors.

A lot of warships performed a lot of operations in direct support of ground forces all through and all over the First World War, but the work doesn’t get a lot of attention from posterity.  This is understandable.  There was always a land campaign in progress to hog any limelight, and support work for ground troops was a fairly mechanical business, seldom offering much in the way of derring-do for a sensation-seeking heritage industry.

All the same, providing mobile artillery to back up troop landings, advances or defences was among the most tactically significant tasks allotted to warships throughout the conflict.  Coastal actions may have added little more than a few extra guns to the cacophony of artillery at the northern end of the Western Front, but they had a greater impact on the overall picture at the eastern edge of the Italian Front, were pivotal to some of the most important fighting in the Middle East and the Caucasus, and played a part in many other actions fought near coasts or around navigable rivers.

Bombardment operations of this kind were usually given to the biggest available surface ships that were considered expendable, so modern dreadnoughts and battlecruisers were kept at a safe distance while pre-dreadnought battleships and older cruisers got on with the support work.  Even these amounted to a very expensive way of bringing big guns to bear on a battlefield, and so the British Royal Navy – which was responsible for the vast majority of the world’s naval support actions during the War – revived an old idea to come up with something cheaper.

Monitors were light, shallow-draft warships, essentially gigantic rafts that provided stable platforms for naval artillery.  They had been used extensively for river work and coastal bombardment by colonial powers during the nineteenth century, and had played a significant role in the American Civil War (when the first of the type, the Monitor had made its appearance), but by the early twentieth most major navies had replaced them with faster, less heavily armed warships.  The exception was the Austro-Hungarian Navy, which had to deal with less sea and more river frontiers than the services of other European empires.  It used monitors with its flotillas on the Drina and the Danube, and to guard the Austro-Hungarian Army’s retreat from the Kolubara River in December 1914, by which time the British had rediscovered the type.

This shot of HMS Humber, a monitor originally intended for Brazil, shows off its raft-like quality.

Three light monitors under construction in British shipyards for the Brazilian Navy – then engaged in a regional naval arms race with Chile and Argentina – were requisitioned in the autumn of 1914 by the Royal Navy, which went on to order 35 new monitors before production was stopped in 1916.  Nineteen were light monitors, numbered M-15 to M-33 and mounting 9.2-inch guns or smaller, and the sixteen heavy monitors carried 12- to 15-inch guns otherwise used by battleships – but they were all relatively cheap and easy to build, while most were armed with weapons from captured or redundant warships.

Monitors generally carried a single, two-gun turret, along with smaller weapons against attack from land or air, and were bigger than you’d expect.  The heavy monitor Erebus, for instance, displaced 8,000 tons, was almost 130 metres in length and 27 wide, required a crew of 223 and could raise a sedate top speed of 12 knots.  Monitor production was briefly revived in 1918, when two Norwegian coastal defence ships were converted for Royal Navy use, and three new Lord Clive Class ships were equipped with modern 18-inch guns.

The Erebus: the outsize turret, too big for its ship, was typical of monitor design.

Royal Navy monitors saw plenty of wartime action, bombarding coastal positions on the Western Front, protecting British ports, and taking part in the Italian, East African and Middle Eastern campaigns.  Although five were lost to enemy action, and another was sunk by accident in Dover harbour, it would be fair to call them a success – and bearing in mind that even the most expensive cost around £350,000 to build and equip, they certainly gave the British better value for money than dreadnoughts at ten times the price.

So that’s a quick look at a type of warship revived to meet the requirements of war in artillery’s heyday, and largely forgotten today.  I’ll follow up with an equally brief examination of a type designed to meet the changing requirements of late nineteenth-century naval warfare, produced in unprecedented numbers during the First World War and lodged firmly in the public mind ever since.

There’s no great mystery about the destroyer’s enduringly high popular profile.  Destroyers were and are versatile, fast and useful for almost any kind of naval warfare, including crowd-pleasers like fleet actions, battles between swarms of destroyers and anti-submarine operations.  Many of the destroyers churned out by the dozen during both world wars, above all by US and British shipyards, were surplus to immediate requirements in peacetime – but they had a longer shelf life than most other weapons in a similar position and were more expensive to replace.

Most old tanks and aircraft, for instance, could be and were scrapped after both world wars, but destroyers were worth keeping, either in mothballs for future emergencies or as general-purpose warships, so they hung around for decades.  Like the only twentieth-century aircraft to outlast its wartime application by any distance, the Douglas Dakota, they were therefore available to reprise their crowd-pleasing adventures for movie audiences.  Add in the sexy name and the fact that, despite seismic changes in the nature of naval warfare, destroyers are still being built today, and it’s no wonder they’re a celebrity class among warships.

Although their ubiquitous involvement in the First World War made destroyers famous, they had been introduced to major navies in the late nineteenth century to protect battle fleets from the new threat of light, fast torpedo craft.  Originally known as Torpedo Boat Destroyers, and at first designed as long-range torpedo boats, they became steadily bigger and more seaworthy during the century’s last decades.  By 1914 modern examples carried between four and 12 torpedoes for use against larger warships, along with sufficient surface or anti-aircraft armament to deter anything smaller, and generally displaced between 500 and 800 tons – still small enough to be built in quantity by major powers, and cheap enough to form the backbone of minor navies.

At the beginning of the War most destroyers were rugged vessels designed for ocean-going work, with speed sacrificed for structural durability and armoured protection against encounters with larger fleet units.  Those modern navies centred on Mediterranean operations – the Italian, the Austro-Hungarian and to a lesser extent the French – took a different line, stripping down armour to produce fast, light destroyers designed for short-range raiding in calm waters.

Both breeds were generally deployed in flotillas, which typically comprised between four and eight ships, but sometime as many as twenty, and were usually led by a light cruiser or a large ‘leader’ destroyer.  Fleet flotillas functioned as fast scouts, and as strike weapons sent en masse to deflect enemy fleets, but were principally intended as a screen around battleships and battlecruisers, masking them from torpedo attack wherever they went.  No ship larger or slower than a light cruiser was considered safe without a destroyer screen, but protecting the big boys was just the tip of their operational iceberg.

Destroyers played an active part in most surface actions and coastal support operations, functioned as fast-response coastal protection craft, worked as fast minelayers and led flotillas of smaller craft. They also became more and more crucial to the protection of trade routes from submarines, so that Allied naval commanders (especially in the Mediterranean) were engaged in a constant internal scramble for destroyers, above all the large modern ships capable of long-range convoy protection.  The importance of long-range work was reflected in wartime destroyer design, which saw the ships become steadily larger, stronger, more heavily armed and more expensive, so that new vessels displaced more than 1,100 tons by 1918.

HMS Swift and HMS Broke – British destroyers on the Dover Patrol.

By the time the War ended, the Royal Navy had used almost 450 destroyers during the conflict, the German Navy more than 230, and the US Navy more than a hundred.  Russia managed to build 58 news destroyers during the War, Japan embarked on a production programme that would expand into the 1940s, and even the beleaguered wartime shipyards of France and Italy produced a few. This outpouring left the post-War world was awash with destroyers, and left a so far indelible mark on naval warfare.  Modern destroyers may be hunting missiles rather than torpedo boats or submarines, and they look very different to the ‘battleships in miniature’ of a pre-electronic age, but they are still a basic unit of worldwide naval currency– and I hope that’s given you an idea of where they came from.

A modern British Daring Class destroyer weighs in at around 8,000 tons and only shoots at the sky.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *