Float, Fuel, Fight! was a Powerpoint presentation given to the World Ship Society Gloucester Branch on Monday 9 November 2015. Here is the text with accompanying pictures:
While researching my Dreadnought to Dreadnought powerpoint I made quite a few discoveries about fighting ships that I thought were too good not to share. The scope of these can be summed up in a phrase I recalled from a Royal Navy recruitment presentation I attended while at school. The naval officer said every warship has to float, to use fuel to move and to fight. But is naval architecture always that simple?
Let’s start with floating. Nobody knows who first had the idea of making a boat, but many indigenous cultures around the world began with tree trunks which were then hollowed out to create enough room for someone to sit down and paddle along through the water with another bit of wood. The natural buoyancy of the remaining timber kept the structure afloat while a seated position kept the centre of gravity low. It was literally easier than falling off a log. Experience also taught the early boat builders that a smooth, pointed shape offered least resistance to passage through the water and that an outrigger, as seen here, would further reduce the chance of capsizing.
However, a dugout canoe is always going to be limited in size to the original tree trunk and to the availability of large tree trunks in general. A more ingenious way of making a boat is to follow the Native American example and use pliable Birch Bark sewn around a frame of saplings tied together with roots. Any gaps and holes can be filled with the gum of the Spruce tree.
In the same way, the Old Testament tells us of how the mother of Moses saved her baby’s life by placing him in a basket woven from papyrus reeds and waterproofed with tar before hiding him in the bulrushes on the banks of the Nile – an early example of both hull design and camouflage.
And closer to home, a traditional Welsh coracle uses a similar woven structure covered with hide – just as an Inuit kayak can be made from carved whalebone ribs covered with seal skin. Once again, though, the size of the vessel is limited by the size of animal skin available. An Irish Curragh meanwhile uses withies covered in more abundant tarred calico cloth
But to build a bigger boat, capable of crossing large lakes and going to sea, construction had to embrace larger skeletal structures skinned with individual wooden planks. One example of this is the Gokstadskipet Viking long boat preserved in Oslo. However, large clinker – or later – carvel built ships would ultimately come to rely on the talents of professional shipwrights and yards and – even more importantly – on a reliable supply of suitable timber.
Indeed, timber became a vital strategic asset for a maritime power – hence one of the objectives of the Spanish Armada was to restrict the global influence of Queen Elizabeth by burning down the Forest of Dean. As it happened, the wooden walls of England were already too strong.
And by this time the Forest of Dean had also become well known for its iron making. Since the time of the Romans, iron ore deposits had been smelted into metal using charcoal made from small trees- in competition with the culture of growing trees for shipbuilding – but from 1811 Dark Hill Ironworks near Coleford saw Scottish metallurgist David Mushet perfect the Bessamer process of making large quantities of steel from iron, limestone and coke derived from coal.
Timber would still have a strategic value well into the Twentieth Century – as witnessed by the production and use of the de Havilland Mosquito as one of the fastest combat aircraft of World War Two – but cheap mass produced iron and steel had the advantages of not being limited to natural unit sizes. Although being poured from the furnace into pig iron to begin with, ferrous metal could be reheated, cast and wrought into shapes larger, stronger and more intricate than any wooden plank.
Similarly, although a plank of wood floated and a lump of iron sank, and although iron corroded in water – salt water especially – iron was not prone to rot or marine worms. Iron could also surpass the maximum size of a wooden hull in terms of structural strength as a beyond 300 ‘ long a wooden hull becomes prone to dangerous flexing – or “hogging” – as waves pass beneath it. The Cutty Sark, for example – although built with wooden planking on an iron frame – is only 212’ 6” long
The first iron boat – named “The Trial” was launched at Willey Wharf on the Severn on 6 July 1787, by ironmaster John Wilkinson, of Broseley, in Shropshire. This eight ton vessel was 70′ long, 6′ 8½” wide, drew between 8″ and 9″ water, and carried 32 tons of goods. It was constructed of 5/16” thick wrought iron plates bolted together in the manner of a boiler, its gunwale being trimmed with planks of elm. The first voyage of “The Trial” was to Birmingham, where she arrived before the end of July 1787 with a cargo of 22 tons 15 cwt of iron.
As was the case with railway wagons – and even the de Havilland Mosquito – wooden boats had the advantage of being easier to patch and repair when damaged than iron structures. As can be seen from this Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company picture, private owner coal wagons were still being built with wooden bodies on iron frames well into the Twentieth Century despite Britain’s first all-iron wagon having been outshopped from Bristol Road in 1862. It was also easier to repair wooden structures at a time when many carpenters were available and skilled labour relatively cheap
However, when used to create large structures, iron is a proportionately lighter and less bulky material than wood. Even more importantly when the first steam engines were being applied to ships, iron does not burn. The first sea going iron hulled steamship was the Aaron Manby, named after the master of Horsley Ironworks at Tipton, Staffordshire where she was built as a kit of parts in 1821. Assembled at Rotherhithe on the Thames, the Aaron Manby became the first iron hulled ship to cross the English Channel on 10 June 1822 and also made the first direct steam crossing from London to Paris. From a technical viewpoint, the Aaron Manby also drew one foot of water less than any other steamboat then operating.
From the Aaron Manby the leap to larger iron hulled steamships such as the SS Great Britain of 1843 and HMS Warrior of 1860 was not so great, and iron and steel were used in ever larger amounts on 19th century steam driven warships such as 1873’s HMS Devastation as naval architects added more armour to their hulls. This was prompted both by the advent of contact mines in 1855 and also, from 1870, by Robert Whitehead’s compressed air driven torpedo. French battleships were designed with a wide armour belt along the waterline while the Royal Navy favoured a “central battery” approach with armour protecting main armament and machinery spaces. Unlike the wooden warships that fought at Trafalgar, late 19th century iron warships were also built with watertight compartments separated by transverse bulkheads and connected by sealable doors.
However, this tradition of warship building was challenged when magnetic mines were first used in the Second World War, forcing navies to build their mine counter measures vessels initially from non ferrous metal or wood and later, when technology permitted, from plastic.
Commissioned on 14 July 1973 and in service until 1994, HMS Wilton – with the pennant number M1116 – was the World’s first warship to be constructed from glass reinforced plastic and is nowadays the home of the Essex Yacht Club based at Leigh on Sea. Since then, plastic and carbon composites have been used in many other ships as well as cars, aircraft and other vehicles.
Meanwhile, throwing back to the outrigger dugout canoe is the trimaran format: evaluated between 1998 and 2005 by the Royal Navy’s Research Vessel Triton which, since 2007 has been an Australian Customs Service patrol boat. Compared to a monohull warship, a trimaran has the advantage of a reduced radar signature and less drag when moving at speed, as well as increased stability and survivability, the option of a wide upper deck and the possibility of modular building at smaller shipyards.
However, although strong but light plastic can be used to displace water and make a surface vessel float, taking the pressure of the ocean depths still requires steel. Like most modern submersibles, the Holland craft which became the first submarines of the Royal Navy in the early years of the Twentieth Century, used ballast tanks which could be filled with either air or water to determine their positive or neutral buoyancy. In a more limited way, this concept of floodable internal spaces is also used by ships with stern docks used to launch and recover smaller vessels.
As an alternative to floating on water or sinking below it, Twentieth Century technology first allowed warships to rise above the surface. A hydrofoil has the advantage of higher speed compared to a conventional ship as the hull is out of the water on stilts – and also creates less wash to damage river banks. This concept was first explored by a French priest named Ramus around 1850 but it was only when airship designer Enrico Forlanini and Alexander Graham Bell of telephone fame added internal combustion engines in the Edwardian era that hydroplaning literally took off.
Saunders Roe’s R103 “Bras D’Or” seen here was launched from Anglesey in 1957 and was powered by two marinised Rolls Royce Griffon engines, as used in later marks of Spitfire. The front vee ladders were made of Monel metal, a corrosion resistant alloy of 65-70% Nickel, 20-29% Copper and 5% Iron and Manganese. However, Monel metal proved a hard alloy to machine or rivet. R103 was later evaluated by the Royal Canadian Navy and is now preserved in Canada
However, practical hydrofoil warships had to wait until the gas turbine era with the USS Tucumcari – powered by a Bristol Proteus engine – entering service in 1968. Following a successful tour of duty in Vietnam, the Tucumcari toured the World and was followed by the six strong Pegasus class of Patrol Missile Hydrofoil between 1977 and 1993. These included the USS Taurus, seen here, which could reach 51 knots, and were known as “the grey terror that flies” to the Caribbean drug smugglers that they patrolled against. However, despite providing a stable high speed platform for a 76mm gun and Harpoon missiles, these hydrofoils were replaced by more fuel efficient patrol craft.
Another disadvantage of the hydrofoil is their relatively deep draught and the special handling facilities needed to take them out of the water. The hovercraft, on the other hand, rides above either flat obstacle-free land or water on a cushion of air and can easily move from one to another. Like the hydrofoil, a well designed hovercraft also creates very little wake but also like the hydrofoil it needs power simply to stay above the waves and is thus relatively noisy. In this picture, the pioneering SRN1 hovercraft of 1959 shows its potential for landing troops, a promise now realised by much larger air cushioned landing craft operated by the USA and Russia. However, even large hovercraft cannot handle very heavy seas and are thus unsuitable for long ocean voyages.
If Christopher Cockerill was told by British shipbuilders in the 1950s that his hovercraft was not a ship and that he should try the aircraft industry, what would they have made of Russia’s ekranoplan? Although ekranoplan are neither completely ships or aircraft in the conventional sense, in 2005 they were recognised by the International Maritime Organization and are thus perhaps, like hovercraft that ride on a cushion of air that they make themselves, viewed as a development of hydrofoils. Ekranoplan use so called ground effect – the extra lift of large wings when close to the ground or the surface of a large body of water. When using ground effect, the amount of energy used to move in level flight is greatly reduced, which is why many ekranoplan – originally developed by the Soviet Union as high-speed military transports – mainly have so many engines on forward nacelles so that their efflux can flow over the wings and maximise lift.
Unlike a conventional aeroplane, an ekranoplan cannot fly efficiently above the influence of ground effect and is limited in performance by its wing size. It also needs to take off into the wind – and waves if it is on water – and turning too tightly or hitting a big wave or other obstacle at hundreds of miles an hour could easily be disastrous. However, like a hydrofoil, an ekranoplan with a boat shaped hull could still alight on water in the event of a power failure and limp to the nearest port.
Which brings us neatly to the topic of available power and fuel. As we have seen, the earliest and simplest boats were powered by human muscle. In the case of the coracle, the oarsman, navigator and captain were all the same person but as more advanced construction techniques allowed ocean going ships to be built greater numbers of crew allowed a division and organisation of labour. In the case of a Viking longboat for example, oarsmen would row in unison while a navigator might use a sun stone or the stars to navigate to new lands. In doing so, if the wind was behind them, the crew could also hoist a sail to help power their journey.
In fact ships similar in format to the Viking longboats were plying the River Nile in 4 000 BC, sailing upstream with the wind and being paddled back downstream faster than the current. More recently however, Egypt has become associated with the Dhow – a small single masted version of which is seen here. One of the most distinctive features of the Dhow is the lateen sail which, like the lug sail found on boats further west, allows the vessel to tack and run into the wind.
If the design of a ship’s hull – and its ability to float or otherwise move – was determined by a civilization’s available materials and technology, then advances in sailing skill were honed by a society’s desire to explore. Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator – who lived from 1394 to 1460 – sent expeditions ever further south along the west coast of Africa while in 1488 Bartholemew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope. 1492 saw Christopher Columbus follow the Vikings to North America while Vasco da Gama reached India by sea in 1498.
In 1577 Sir Francis Drake left Plymouth aboard the Golden Hind – seen here – and became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. En route he captured Spanish prisoners and treasure and laid the foundations for Britain’s maritime empire: trading, discovering and civilizing. As the years went by, Britain clashed with many rival European powers at sea and although well armed merchant ships of the Honourable East India Company could sometimes fool the French into thinking that they were a squadron of Royal Navy frigates, eventually Britain’s ships firmly divided between the merchantmen who brought home the wealth of distant lands and the warships that protected them.
Earlier I mentioned the Cutty Sark in terms of the limitations of wooden ship construction but I wanted to share this picture of her on the high seas to emphasise what a sailing vessel could achieve. Built to bring home the first annual tea crops from China, she could deploy 32 000 square feet of sail which drove her forward at 17 knots – making this Scottish built tea clipper one of the fastest ships that ever moved under the power of sail alone. Or put another way, an expert crew could harness the wind to the equivalent of a 3 000 horsepower engine – more than one power car of an InterCity 125 train. By the 1870s, too, a ship like the Cutty Sark would have needed a smaller crew than an equivalent ship from 1800.
And yet when she was launched at Dumbarton on the Clyde in 1869 the Cutty Sark was a contradiction. In the right hands and conditions faster and more powerful than Brunel’s propeller steamship SS Great Britain launched 26 years earlier – and seen here – but unable to move on her own through the Suez Canal which opened in the same year to avoid the long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. In fact the 289 feet long SS Great Britain relied on sail as much as steam and was converted into a pure sailing ship herself in 1882.
Similarly, Brunel’s 680 feet long Great Eastern – the largest ship afloat from 1858 to 1888 – was also driven by a mixture of steam power and wind. Her size was partly due to a desire to go to Australia and return without refuelling in an age when other steamships would have to stop several times on a long voyage to take on expensive coal. Because a single screw propeller – as used on the Great Britain – was considered unreliable for such a long voyage, paddles were added as a back up. This also allowed the 32 160 ton Great Eastern to reach Calcutta up the shallow Hooghly River but a clipper ship could keep on travelling using free wind – only needing to put into port for food supplies and exchanging cargo.
And yet as early as 1863 the London and South Western Railway were operating 2-4-0 well tank engines measuring just 26’ 2” over the buffers that could generate 11 050 lb tractive effort and handle suburban trains out of London Waterloo. So what was it that held the development of marine steam engines back?
For one thing, a lack of locomotive depots! At sea it was far harder for a steam powered vessel to find a supply of both coal and fresh water – meaning that both commodities had to be used to maximum effect. The optimum solid fuel was Welsh anthracite with maximum energy value per ton and once the steam had been created it was imperative that it was used in the most efficient way. By the same token, using sea water to feed the steam engine’s boiler – as used on the SS Great Britain – was soon avoided due to the rapid build up of scale. To create fresh water to feed the boiler, distilling plant was installed – although this had the penalty of requiring heat energy to work which placed further demands on limited fuel resources.
Compared to the conventional firetube boiler found on a railway locomotive, a compact Scotch boiler typically found on 19th Century steamships had more than one firebox – or combustion chamber – set inside the boiler barrel itself and sent the hot gases first to the back of the boiler and then back to the front through a number of small diameter fire tubes before the smoke was exhausted through the funnel. These small firetubes could have been fitted with yet smaller elements to superheat the steam passing to the reciprocating steam engine but steam pressure was often less than those found on railway locomotives. In fact the two 500 bhp engines aboard the SS Great Britain had 88 inch bores – about four times the cylinder diameter of a steam locomotive – 6’ strokes and worked at 18 rpm. Water tube boilers – specifically designed to produce superheated steam – only became common after 1900.
However, adding even the most efficient boiler fired by coal of the highest calorific value to a ship reduced its interior space and payload. Although a steam powered warship had a lower centre of gravity compared to one driven purely by sail, the price of freedom from the wind was the introduction of hungry stokers and engineers aboard and dependence on solid fuel stored and loaded either at ports or from other ships at sea. In both cases, fuelling a ship took time during which the vessel was vulnerable to attack and the smudge of smoke that a ship’s funnels left on the horizon was easily spotted by distant enemies.
The more complex the engine, too, the more likely it was to go wrong and unlike a depot full of railway locomotives a ship at sea would not have a constant influx of spare parts and machine tools for heavy repairs. Similarly, a dead engine was a useless load for sails to propel rather than a class member to be shunted into a siding. Even if a marine steam engine worked perfectly though, there was a need for its weight to be placed as low as possible in a ship and on a man of war for the mechanics to be low down too so as to minimise battle damage.
The Side Lever steam engine we have just seen was in fact from the Cunard paddle steamer “Persia” of 1855 and was developed from a static beam engine. Like the contemporary Grasshopper, Walking Beam and Steeple engines, these heavy, bulky prime movers were only suitable for paddle steamers and although the Royal Navy was happy to use paddle wheel tugs from 1820 to manoeuvre large warships in and out of harbours the Senior Service remained sail driven on the high seas.
More specifically, Naval commanders thought that engines and paddle-wheels were too unreliable to be used in the fighting ships. Similarly, the paddle-wheel and its protective cover did not allow a full broadside of cannon to be carried and would be vulnerable to the enemies’ shot. Officers also thought that steamships were just not smart enough! Despite this, new paddle wheel tugs – albeit diesel electric powered – joined the Royal Navy as recently as the 1950s – mainly to handle aircraft carriers.
The Battle of Navarino in 1827 was the last to be fought by the Royal Navy entirely with sailing ships and in 1843 – the same year that Brunels’s SS Great Britain was floated out in Bristol – HMS Rattler was launched. Arguably the first screw propelled warship in the World, the 9 gun wooden sloop was built at Sheerness Dockyard and powered by a four-cylinder vertical single-expansion steam engine developing 437 indicated horsepower. Although less than a quarter as powerful as a modern Voyager passenger train, HMS Rattler famously towed paddle steamer HMS Alecto backwards across Portsmouth Harbour in 1845, proving the worth of its design.
A further breakthrough in marine steam engine design came in 1881 when the cargo liner SS Aberdeen was launched at Govan on the Clyde. The 3 616 gross ton single screw vessel was the first to be fitted with a triple expansion engine, in which high pressure steam from the boiler passed straight to a small diameter cylinder and then exhausted not to the atmosphere or to a condenser but to a further pair of cylinders of increasing diameter which converted most of the lower pressure steam’s expansive nature into torque.
From the point of view of warships however, a greater revolution came in 1884 when the Honourable Charles Parsons invented the steam turbine and founded a company to develop it. Doing away with heavy, complicated reciprocating pistons, the steam turbine worked by a jet of steam turning a series of windmill like turbine blades which could then turn a propeller – either directly by means of a shaft or later through gearing or electric transmission. Compared to reciprocating engines, steam turbines could be smaller, lighter, yield less vibration and require less maintenance.
As a test bed for marine applications of the steam turbine, Parson’s company commissioned the three engined vessel Turbinia from Brown and Hood at Wallsend on the Tyne. Launched in 1894, it famously turned up unannounced at Spithead in 1897 – racing between lines of conventional warships at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee review, and almost swamping a Navy picket boat that chased after her. Following this cheeky demonstration in front of the Lords of the Admiralty, it was announced in 1905 that all future Royal Navy ships would be turbine powered – starting with HMS Dreadnought in 1906.
However, despite producing large amounts of power in a small space, the steam turbine was not without its technical challenges. The development of Turbinia itself was delayed while the problem of cavitation on its nine propellers was resolved and even when precision made gearing could reduce the revolutions of the turbine to a rate more acceptable to conventional ship’s screws, a steam turbine was only at its most efficient when under close to maximum load. For this reason, steam turbines have rarely been applied to railway engines. In addition, steam turbine blades could become pitted with water droplets when worked on saturated steam and so had to be fed with superheated steam. This in turn meant that ships had to be fitted with water tube boilers rather than railway locomotive type firetube boilers. In turn again, superheated steam was – as can be seen in this illustration – best generated by burning oil fuel rather than coal.
Although oil fuel has more calorific value than coal and is more cleanly, quickly and easily handled – especially when refuelling at sea – it does not come out of the ground ready to burn, has a much smaller presence onshore in Britain than coal once had and is often found in politically unstable or potentially hostile parts of the World. As such, the rising price of oil has become a key phenomenon in modern geopolitics and effectively supplanted oil fired boilers at sea in favour of diesel and gas turbine engines.
Steam turbines at sea today are mainly confined to nuclear powered ships and submarines, which heat water into steam by means of atomic fission, although they can also be used in bulk carriers of liquid natural gas, where gas boiling off from the cryogenic storage tanks is burnt to heat water. The last oil burning steam turbine warships in the Royal Navy was the assault ship HMS Fearless in 2002 and today steam turbine qualified engineers are increasingly rare, although at one point oil fired steam was used to power submarines
Built by Armstrong Whitworth in 1917, the K Class of Royal Navy submarines were designed to keep up with the Grand Fleet and so had steam turbines as well as diesel engines. When submerging, small electric motors lowered the twin funnels and closed watertight hatches over the funnel wells and although capable of 24 knots on the surface they could only manage nine knots submerged. Despite none being lost to enemy action, many were damaged or destroyed in accidents and the last was sold for scrap in 1926.
Having mentioned diesel engines, the concept of the compression-ignition reciprocating internal combustion engine was pioneered by Herbert Ackroyd Stuart in Britain from 1885 although Rudolf Diesel patented the prime mover that bears his name today in 1892. Simple to maintain and so needing less engineers on ship, robust and thermally efficient, diesel engines first powered river and canal vessels in 1903, a submarine in 1904,went to sea as an auxiliary source of power aboard a sailing ship in 1910 and powered an entire ocean going vessel in 1912.
As it happens, the death of Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel also had a nautical connection. On the evening of 29 September 1913, Diesel boarded the post office steamer Dresden in Antwerp on his way to a business meeting in London. He took dinner on board the ship and then retired to his cabin at about 10 p.m., leaving word to be called the next morning at 6:15 a.m.; but he was never seen alive again. In the morning his cabin was empty and his bed had not been slept in, although his nightshirt was neatly laid out and his watch had been left where it could be seen from the bed. His hat and overcoat were discovered neatly folded beneath the afterdeck railing.
Ten days later, the crew of a Dutch vessel found a heavily decomposed male body floating in the North Sea near Norway and personal items found on it confirmed that it was Diesel. Shortly after Diesel’s disappearance, his wife Martha opened a bag that her husband had given to her just before his ill-fated voyage, with directions that it should not be opened until the following week. She discovered 200,000 German marks in cash and a number of financial statements indicating that their bank accounts were virtually empty. In a diary Diesel brought with him on the ship, for the date 29 September 1913, a cross was drawn, indicating death.
Today the most powerful diesel engine – and the largest reciprocating engine in the World is the Finnish built Wärtsilä-Sulzer RTA96-C. This 14 cylinder behemouth first went to sea aboard the container ship Emma Maersk in 2006, weighs 2 300 tons and produces 107 390 horsepower at between 22 and 102 revolutions per minute. This speed of rotation allows the RTA-96C to be coupled directly to the Emma Maersk’s propeller and as the two-stroke prime mover is located at the stern of the 11 000 teu vessel its height is not an issue.
However, as space above the waterline is at a premium in passenger ships and ferries (especially ones with a car deck), these ships tend to use multiple medium speed engines resulting in a longer, lower engine room than that needed for two-stroke diesel engines. Multiple engine installations also give redundancy in the event of mechanical failure of one or more engines, and the potential for greater efficiency over a wider range of operating conditions.
In warship design, diesel propulsion was quickly embraced after World War I and one particularly interesting example was the German pocket battleship Graf Spee. Deliberately built to displace less than 10 000 tons in accordance with limits imposed by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles – the Graf Spee saved weight through electric arc welding rather than rivetting the hull plates together and eight 9-cylinder double-acting two-stroke MAN diesels delivered 52 050 bhp to two propellers – offering speed superior to that generated by equivalent steam turbines with power more instantly available. Also, the Graf Spee – commissioned in 1936 – used low-grade bunker fuel with a steam powered separating system pre-cleaning the oil before it reached the diesel engines.
However, pre-war Diesel engines running at low speeds tended to have poor power to weight ratios. As a result, highly flammable petrol was still the fuel of choice for fast attack craft such as the Royal Navy’s Motor Torpedo Boats. However, a lightweight two stroke aero engine – the Junkers Jumo 204 – had been developed in Germany which used opposed pistons, avoiding the need for a heavy piston head. The Junker Jumo 204 was been licence built by Napier in Britain as the Culverin.
In 1946 the Admiralty placed a contract with English Electric, the parent company of Acton based Napier engines, to develop a more powerful version of the Culverin. This featured three banks of paired opposed pistons rotating a crankshaft at each corner and, being shaped like a Greek letter D, was known as the Deltic. It weighed one fifth of a conventional Diesel engine of equivalent power and, being made from aluminium alloy, they had a low magnetic signature.
First tested in a captured German E-boat in 1952, Deltic engines went on to power the Royal Navy’s Dark Class fast attack boats as well as the Ton and Hunt Class of Mine Countermeasures Vessel – including HMS Ledbury seen here. Export success also came with Deltics powering the Norwegian Nasty class of patrol boats which were purchased by West Germany, Greece and the USA.
As railway buffs here tonight will also know, Deltic diesel engines powered English Electric’s 3 300 bhp prototype Deltic locomotive from 1955 and a production class of 22 improved locomotives which worked on the East Coast Main Line from Edinburgh to King’s Cross from 1961 to 1982. By then however, the leading edge of marine propulsion had moved on to gas turbine and nuclear propulsion.
Rightly proud as we are of Sir Frank Whittle patenting what we know as the gas turbine in 1930 and then producing the turbojet which powered the Gloster E28/39 in 1941, much of his work was anticipated by both Charles Parsons and even an Englishman named John Barber who patented but never built a gas turbine horseless carriage in 1791. In Switzerland Brown Boveri and Company were selling axial compressor and turbine sets as part of their steam boiler generating equipment in 1932 and the Royal Navy’s first gas turbine vessel was the gunboat MG2009, fitted with a Metropolitan Vickers gas turbine in 1947.
In 1961 HMS Ashanti was the first of the gas turbine powered Type 81 Tribal Class of Royal Navy frigates to be commissioned. These vessels in fact featured combined steam and gas turbine (COSAG) propulsion in which the waste heat from the gas turbine is used to boil water into superheated steam for a steam turbine. Such a system is more thermally efficient than using a gas turbine on its own, such geared gas turbines burning the most expensive fuel and only truly cost effective under constant heavy load. Also of interest in this picture is the Westland Scout on HMS Ashanti’s flight deck – F117 having been used for trials of this gas turbine helicopter.
Just like gas turbines, nuclear propulsion at sea can deliver vast amounts of heat power in a small space but is also expensive to build and fuel. In contrast though, they are silent and the highly enriched fuel lasts for decades – keeping the vessels powered by them at sea for as much time as possible. In the case of nuclear aircraft carriers, the space saved on engine fuel can be used for aviation fuel or other equipment while nuclear submarines can be more pleasant to serve in than their diesel electric forbears. The first American nuclear submarine – the USS Nautilus – was commissioned in 1955 and the concept was further developed in the 1960s by Britain’s Polaris submarines as seen here.
Having looked at floating and fuel, what about fighting? When warships were little more than floating wooden castles powered by either muscle or wind, the swordsman and the archer were the weapons – gradually gaining more precision and longer range as longbows were replaced by crossbows and then guns. Famously at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson was killed by a musket ball fired by a sniper in the rigging of an enemy ship. Like HMS Victory, this would have had its own muzzle loading cannon able to fire broadsides from the hull
Although Julius Caesar is recorded as having used ship-borne catapults against the Ancient Britons, the first use of naval guns was at the Battle of Arnemuiden, fought between England and France in 1338 at the start of the Hundred Years War. These early cannon were small, relatively weak and were fired from fore and aftercastles to deter boarders. Rams were still used by one ship to damage another, but as the idea of the broadside took hold heavier cannon replaced oar ports near the waterline.
In the early days of naval artillery, there was little standardisation of either guns or ammunition. Fast loading breech guns did exist, but could only take a small gunpowder charge compared to cast or fabricated muzzle cannon. Among these, bronze guns used cast iron shot and were more suited to penetrate hull sides while the iron guns used stone shot that would shatter on impact and leave large, jagged holes and send deadly wooden splinters flying. However, both cannon types could also fire a variety of ammunition, such as chain shot to destroy rigging and light structure or cannister shot – full of lead musket balls – to injure enemy personnel. By the 16th Century, a Culverin gun could fire a 17 pound iron ball one and a quarter miles.
And by the end of the 18th Century, a Royal Naval vessel could fire a broadside as many as three times in five minutes. However, as gunpowder was a rare and expensive commodity, it was only sparingly supplied by the Admiralty with none allocated to training. As such, only wealthy captains who bought their own gunpowder could afford to have crews well trained in live firing. Other captains would just get their crews to go through the motions of running guns in and out of their ports.
One of the earliest uses of explosive ordnance at sea was the bomb ketch, seen here bombarding Copenhagen in 1802. The bomb ketch had its masts and rigging aft of mortars throwing bombs on a ballistic trajectory – these mortars eventually being mounted on turntables to improve accuracy. From 1778, the Carron Ironworks in Scotland also produced the Carronade, a lightweight gun that was simple to use by a small crew but which could still fire the projectiles as heavy as older large artillery. The secret was precision manufacture cannon balls which fitted the gun barrel perfectly and so did not waste the energy of the gunpowder.
The first naval gun to fire explosive shells was invented by French General Henri-Joseph Paixhans in 1823 and the devastating effect of explosive and incendiary shells against wooden warships became very apparent during the Crimean War of the 1850s, even if the explosives used were still gunpowder rather than more modern high explosives. At the same time in Britain, William Armstrong of Newcastle built the first breech loading naval gun with a stronger and more accurate rifled barrel although this was not adopted by the Royal Navy on cost grounds until 1879.
The Armstrong gun – also useful in a shore battery – was more accurate than the old smooth bore cannon and could fire more sophisticated spin stabilised projectiles at higher velocities. It therefore made sense to be able to use fewer guns per ship, for the guns themselves rather than the whole ship to be able to be aimed to fire at specific targets and for the gunners and the shells to be more protected from returning enemy fire.
This led to the invention of the gun turret, both by Royal Navy Captain Cowper Phipps Coles during the Crimean War and independently by the Swedish engineer John Ericsson who worked for the Union forces in the American Civil War. Coles unfortunately drowned when a ship that he had built to demonstrate his ideas – HMS Captain, seen here – capsized in 1870. To keep the centre of gravity low and avoid interference with the sails, the turrets had been built into the side of the ship. This lowered the freeboard allowing rough seas to swamp the vessel.
John Ericsson’s USS Monitor was also to founder in heavy seas, but not before it had famously frustrated the attacks of the Confederate iron steamship Virginia at Hampton Roads in 1862. The CSS Virginia had been rapidly adapted from the steam frigate Merrimac with sloping armour and fixed gun ports while most of the USS Monitor was under water, later inspiring Jules Verne to write “20 000 leagues under the sea”.
What did protrude was an armoured pilot house at the bows and a cylindrical turret revolved by steam power. Although the guns of the USS Monitor could not fire directly forward, the shallow draught and more nimble design of the turret ironclad showed the way towards future warships.
With turret mounted guns becoming more widespread on ironclad steamships, armour piercing shells were developed to replace merely explosive ordnance. Major Sir William Palliser’s armour piercing shot of 1863 was supplanted by French steel Holtzer shot in 1885 and augmented in the 1890s by Russian designed Makarov tips – soft metal caps that reduced the risk of the shot shattering on impact. Even if the shot did not fully penetrate the armour of an enemy ship, the impact could send rivets and flakes of metal flying around the interior and as a result there was a constant race between armour and armour piercing shot.
In addition to artillery duels between steam powered ironclads though, a new dimension was to be added to naval warfare. On 9 June 1855, as an Anglo-French fleet bombarded the Russian stronghold of Kronstadt, HMS Merlin became the first ship to be sunk by an explosive contact mine. Although the concept was first mentioned in a 14th century Chinese document, this mine was one of a number designed Moritz von Jacobi and Alfred Nobel and marked the start of naval asymmetric warfare. Mines were relatively cheap – much less than the cost of a warship – and could be laid at a fraction of the time and money that had to be spent clearing them.
In the 1850s and 60s, the words mine and torpedo were interchangeable, with spar torpedos being used as explosive rams on the bows of warships and some explosive devices being towed behind ships. However, in 1856, Bolton born Robert Whitehead had found employment as the manager of an engineering firm in Fiume on the Adriatic – then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and nowadays Rijeka in Croatia – when he met a retired Austrian Navy engineer named Giovanni Luppis. Luppis had the idea of an unmanned boat filled with explosives, controlled from the shore by ropes and powered by a compressed air engine as coastal defence weapon.
Working with his son John, Robert Whitehead discarded the idea of shore launching and rope control and produced an elongated submerged vehicle which could maintain a given depth and reliably travel in a straight line. By 1870, a Whitehead torpedo could travel at 7 knots and hit a target 700 yards away and the invention was later sold to Vickers and Armstrong Whitworth in Britain. The first vessel to be sunk by self propelled torpedoes was the Turkish steamer Intibah on 16 January 1878 during the Russo-Turkish war.
In 1877 meanwhile HMS Lightning, seen here, became the first vessel specifically designed to fire torpedoes and also the first of many different types of launching platforms. These included ever faster and more powerful torpedo boats, battleships, submarines and eventually hydrofoils and aircraft. In fact few sea battles after 1880 were complete without the use of at least one torpedo and its appearance as a cheap yet powerful asymmetric weapon prompted a range of anti-torpedo strategies.
Apart from floating anti-torpedo nets around battleships in port, the first of these was the Torpedo Boat Destroyer – a title later shortened simply to Destroyer. Like the torpedo boats that they hunted, the Torpedo Boat Destroyers were built for speed and agility – unlike the slow, heavily armoured and armed ironclad battleships that they defended. In fact the TBDs were often armed with torpedo tubes themselves, as well as the quick firing guns that battleships now used to defend themselves from small nimble opponents. HMS Daring, seen here, was the first Torpedo Boat Destroyer, built by John I. Thorneycroft in Chiswick in 1892, and was powered up to 27 knots by a pair of triple expansion engines fed by water tube boilers.
Like the big calibre guns used on battleships, the Armstrong Whitworth quick firing 12 pounder introduced in 1894 took advantage of improved chemicals for both propellant and explosives. Gunpowder was replaced by Cordite – a British development of the French Poudre B – as a propellant in 1889 while the French explosive Melinite was badge engineered as Lyddite.
During the Second World War, quick firing guns were also brought to bear on aircraft attacking surface vessels with torpedoes and were similarly the deck armament of surfaced submarines. However, the development of anti-submarine aircraft increasingly kept patrolling submarines submerged. This in turn led to otherwise unguided torpedoes being fitted with acoustic seekers – homing in on the noisiest ships in an area – or even torpedoes being wire guided – a throwback to Giovanni Luppi’s original rope idea.
Perhaps the most sophisticated torpedo guidance system ever devised however was a pair of commando frogmen! Inspired by similar Italian exploits during the Second World War, the Royal Nay’s manned torpedoes – known as Chariots – were launched by a conventional submarine and allowed the frogmen to approach a ship in port from beneath and place limpet mines on the hull before retreating.
Less stealthy but faster though was Ikara. From the 1960s to the 1990s, this rocket propelled pilotless aeroplane could be launched from a surface warship and deliver an acoustic torpedo to an area 10 nautical miles away to intercept nuclear submarines detected by long range sonar. Developed in Australia and named after an Aboriginal throwing stick, Ikara could reach speeds of 443 mph and could also carry nuclear depth charges. This preserved example is in the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington near York, which also features other guided rocket and jet propelled guided missiles.
Although the Royal Navy’s jet propelled Tomahawk cruise missiles fly through the air to a distant target in the same way as Ikara, the most powerful missile in the Senior Service is the submarine launched Trident. Each Trident missile has three solid rocket motor driven stages and can deliver a nuclear warhead over 7 000 miles at a largely unstoppable 13 600 miles per hour on a ballistic trajectory. When given such range and destructive power, these missiles become not merely naval weapons, but instruments of geopolitical influence, either through use or, we hope, by deterence.
Having briefly mentioned Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles like this in the original presentation, I was then given a copy of The Daily Telegraph of Thursday 5 November 2015 with an article by Ben Farmer under the headline “Test missile shot down in space from Scottish coast”
“A ballistic missile has been shot down in space by a warship off the coast of Scotland in the first successful test in European waters of a sea based missile defence screen. A Royal Navy warship took part in the international exercise in which the American destroyer USS Ross [pictured below] knocked out a short range missile launched from a British range on the island of Benbecula at a very high altitude.
The drill took place late last month in an exercise off the Hebrides to prepare ships for attack from both high altitude ballistic missiles and sea-skimming anti-shipping missiles. The missile defence technology could one day be used to stop missile attacks from Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, defence sources said. Naval sources said that only the US currently has the weapons to shoot down such ballistic missiles from ships. Unitl now the missiles have not been tested in European ranges. Admirals hope one day similar technology will be added to British warships, but currently there are no plans or funding.
The exercise came after warships and aircraft came from America, Britain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain took part in days of anti-missile drills in the north Atlantic. A British warship practised protecting the allied fleet from sea-skimming anti-shipping missiles while the drill took place. A Naval source said: “We were keeping a look out for anti-shipping missiles. We were practicing co-ordination and when the Americans were concentrating at looking into the sky to shoot it down, we were looking at the risk of sea-skimming missiles.”
Naval sources said the ship based missile system could be deployed anywhere in the world to protect targets on land or at sea.
Sources said the potential threat from ballistic missiles had risen because of plummeting relations with Russia and tensions between America and China in the South China Sea. Last month the US stated Iran had tested a medium range missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, in “clear violation” of a United Nations Security Council ban on ballistic missile tests. Vladimir Putin earlier this year said he would put another 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles into service.
Vice Admiral James Foggo, Commander of the US 6th Fleet, said the exercise had shown “that with communication, collaboration and commitment, nations can come together and flawlessly defend against a complex threat.”
Which brought the presentation to aircraft at sea. While shells, torpedoes and guided missiles all leave a ship, naval aircraft ideally return or, at the very least arrive safely on land or touch down on floats or boat shaped hulls. The Royal Navy launched its first aircraft from a moving warship on 2 May 1912 when Commander Charles Sampson’s Short S27 left the battleship HMS Hibernia while she steamed at 10.5 knots during the Royal Fleet Review at Weymouth.
By the 1930s the Royal Navy had pioneered the concept of the flat topped aircraft carrier with arrester wires and went on to add angled flight decks, steam catapults and mirror landing systems, all seen here on the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) as it refuelled from the USS Ashtabula (AO-51) off the coast of Vietnam in early 1966. Just as carrier bourne aircraft had been used as flying artillery against other naval units in World War Two, the US Navy’s carrier fleet acted as invulnerable offshore aerodromes to launch attacks against North Vietnamese assets.
By the same token, when the United States was obliged to disengage with Vietnam its aircraft carriers became safe havens for South Vietnamese refugees extracted by helicopter – able to offer them hot food and shelter below decks. In this way, aircraft carriers can offer a nation not just floating sovereign floating real estate but the ability to participate in humanitarian operations, thereby gaining moral credibility and respect among the international community.
Meanwhile, the latest manifestation of naval air power is the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II which features a large swivelling exhaust for vectored thrust at the rear and a vertical fan just behind the air brake behind the cockpit turned by a shaft from the single engine. For take off and flight, the vertical fan is hidden under covers and the rear exhaust vectors as is needed to supplement conventional flying controls. For a vertical – automated – landing, the covers over and under the fan are extended, allowing the F-35B to hover on a cold efflux at the front and a hot exhaust at the back.
What will tomorrow bring for the navies of the World? Who can tell. But as long as ships continue to float, use fuel and fight, we wish the naval aviators happy landings. Thank you very much!
Or if you prefer to finish on a song, here is one from Pixie Lott which I am sure was inspired by the Norwegian Nasty class of patrol vessels – even if she and her songwriting team could not find a sensible rhyme for “deltic”.