During WWI, maritime artist and naval officer Norman Wilkinson proposed that the answer to the growing U-Boat threat, rather than concealment, was for a ship to expose itself to the enemy.
At the commencement of WWI, anti-submarine warfare theory was still in its infancy. There were no instruction manuals on submarine tracking, nor had sub-surface weapons been developed to counter the threat posed by submarines. The initial German U-Boat campaign of 1914 against Britain’s Grand Fleet proved highly successful, resulting in the sinking of nine British warships by the end of the year, including the cruisers Aboukir and Cressy, and the battleship Formidable.
This disastrous beginning to the war forced the Royal Navy to seek safer anchorages off Donegal on Ireland’s North Atlantic coast. The following year, Germany’s campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare saw a dramatic escalation of attacks, and corresponding losses to the Allied merchant fleets. During the first six months of the war only 19 merchant vessels had been lost to U-Boat activity, however in January 1915 alone, the same amount of tonnage was sunk as was destroyed in the previous six months of conflict.
Allied navies resorted to arming trawlers and merchantmen, and some basic tactical instruction was disseminated detailing ideas to counter the U-boat threat, including heading into the line of attack, and attempting to ram hostile submarines.
It was not until 1917 that a Royal Navy officer wrote to the admiralty in London with what he considered might be a possible solution. Norman Wilkinson was a successful painter of maritime seascapes, and an artist for the Illustrated London News, who had set his career aside in 1915 to join the Royal Navy, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. After submarine service in the Mediterranean, he was transferred to mine-sweeping duties in home waters and it was at this point that his idea for a radical form of effective camouflage began to take shape.
Naval camouflage was not a revolutionary idea. The ancient fleets of the Greeks and Romans had experimented with painting their vessels in shades of blue and green to blend with the surface and horizon, and in the early 20th century, navies of the United States and Europe stipulated shades of grey or off-white in accordance with shipping regulations in an attempt to do the same.
Wilkinson’s idea for dazzle camouflage ran contrary to previous thinking. Instead of attempting to hide vessels from enemy view, he intended that they should be highly visible with the key aim of sowing confusion in the mind of the attacker.
During early submarine operations, the task of computing a fire control solution for a U-Boat commander was a manual process. The target intercept course for a torpedo was calculated using slide rules and based on visual tracking of the current position, course, speed, and range of the vessel to be attacked. This problem was further complicated by the fact that the average speed of a torpedo was between 35 and 45 knots, only moderately faster than most warships of the age, therefore plotting information from a visual fix could be inaccurate at best.
Wilkinson reasoned that geometric dazzle patterns painted on ships would take advantage of the complexity in gauging the optimum firing solution for a torpedo by masking a vessel’s true course and speed, thereby confusing the commanders of German U-Boats and deceiving them into miscalculating the submarine’s fire position.
The bold patterns and extremes of color used in his designs, particularly at the bow and stern would disrupt the visual shape of a vessel, distorting perspective and falsely suggesting that a ship’s smokestacks or superstructure pointed in a different direction than it truly was.
Painted bow curves suggested a bow wave and oblique lines in stripes at the corresponding angles of bow or stern could give the illusion of shortening the vessels length, again confusing the computations of a ship’s attacker. Wilkinson’s ideas borrowed from modernist art concepts of cubism (indeed Picasso, in conversation with the American poet and novelist Gertrude Stein, claimed that the Cubist movement should take credit for its invention), the school of futurism, and its short-lived offshoot, vorticism.
The admiralty initially considered a number of proposals for camouflage schemes, including those from U.S. artist Abbot H. Thayer, whose theories of what he termed “concealing coloration” and “counter shading” were published in 1896 in the Journal of the American Ornithologists Union and are now known as Thayer’s Law. This law was based on the scientist’s many years of observing fauna across the continents of North and South America and concludes that animals are generally dark on top with white under surfaces. Seen from a distance this tends to cancel out the bright sunlight from above and shadow beneath, thereby effectively concealing an animal from potential predators. Thayer demonstrated his ideas to the Department of the U.S. Navy in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, however hostilities came to an end before his proposals could be acted upon.
A Scottish zoologist, John Graham Kerr, developed a keen interest in Thayer’s theories and after meeting in London during the 1890s the two remained lifelong friends, with Thayer forwarding a copy of his book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom to Kerr in 1914. Kerr’s own approach focused on two main interpretations of his own zoological studies combined with Thayer’s. In compensated shading, a theory he elaborated as “All deep shadows should be picked out in the most brilliant white paint and where there is a gradually deepening shadow, this should be eliminated by gradually shading off the paint from the ordinary grey to pure white.” He suggested a further camouflage scheme he named “parti coloring” which anticipated modern “disruptive pattern” concealment by emphasizing the need to break up the outline of ships by using “strongly contrasting shades.”
While both Thayer and Kerr clearly pioneered the ideas that formed the basis of dazzle camouflage, it was the ideas of Norman Wilkinson that the admiralty board eventually adopted. In recognition of his efforts a post-war award of £2000 was given to him, acknowledging him as the inventor of dazzle camouflage.
The Second World War
Despite the evidence, there was at the time no consensus as to the advantage of using dazzle camouflage, however, Allied naval authorities were sufficiently impressed to continue to employ the idea on both warships and their respective merchant fleets in WWII. The Imperial German Navy had shown little interest in camouflaging their vessels during the Great War and it wasn’t until the Second World War during the invasion of Norway in 1940 that the Germans embraced the possibility of employing the dazzle concept. Photographic evidence of the period shows the hull of the Bismarck painted in a monochrome pattern of dark grey or black and white stripes continuing up onto the superstructure, with the prow and stern area painted black. The intention was to disguise the length of the battleship, creating the impression of a smaller vessel. The heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen was almost identically camouflaged along the waist with extremes of the bow and stern also painted in black, and the battleships Scharnhorst and Admiral Scheer adopted individual dazzle patterns to mask their identities from Allied naval forces. For whatever reason the Kriegsmarine returned to the format of light or dark grey overall for all warships after 1941, whether the senior staff of Oberkommando der Marine were skeptical of the capabilities of geometric camouflage, or whether there were other reasons for the return to pre-war coloring, remains open to debate.
While the German navy discarded dazzle camouflage in the early stages of the war, the Allied navies continued its widespread use throughout hostilities until 1945. After continued analytical and evaluative groundwork at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C., dazzle camouflage was deemed to be of merit and a phased roll-out was endorsed across respective fleets. In contrast to the Kriegsmarine’s employment of marine camouflage, as an anti-ship/submarine initiative, the U.S. Navy and to a lesser extent the navies of Britain and Canada attempted to use the bold patterns to disrupt attacks by enemy air assets as well as surface ships and submarines. By continuing the geometric shapes across the decks and superstructures of warships. Each ship was painted in its own distinctive camouflage to prevent the enemy from identifying a class of ship, resulting in a diverse array of patterns which made it considerably more difficult to evaluate its effectiveness.
The U.S. Navy implemented the scheme across most classes of vessel from minesweepers and patrol craft to aircraft carriers. Rigorous design, planning and testing was applied to each pattern and a standardized range of colors and shapes were instituted and applied across all theaters including the Pacific, specifically against the Kamikaze threat.
The Royal Navy’s use of dazzle commenced at the beginning of 1940 and was considerably less organised. The admiralty adopted a somewhat laissez-faire attitude to the idea and paint schemes were unofficial and individual to each vessel. It was not until later in the war that the admiralty saw fit to take a more serious view of dazzle camouflage and the navy’s concealment specialists devised geometric patterns which became known as the Western Approaches Schemes, to be employed against the sub-sea threat in the Atlantic. The initiative was developed, and the Admiralty Intermediate Disruptive Pattern was employed in 1942 and was superseded in 1944 by the Admiralty Standard Schemes.
The proliferation of black and white photographic images which have been left to historical posterity, while starkly delineating the vivid lines and curves of dazzle camouflage, are unable to convey the range of color and tone so important to the process of deception. Striking shades of blues, reds, greens and purples contrasted with the light and dark grays which made the experiment so effective.
Eventually post-war technological advances in rangefinding equipment and radar rendered dazzle camouflage largely obsolete, and it fell out of favor in post-war naval thinking.
Was Dazzle Camouflage Effective?
Establishing the effectiveness of Wilkinson’s ideas is almost impossible, not least due to the sheer number of variables to be considered such as color, pattern, and the combination of sizes of ships, vessel speed, and the anti-submarine evasion tactics used. An article in the April 1919 edition of Popular Science considered dazzle camouflage an effective tactic in confusing U-Boat commanders although only at short range and less so than what it termed “low visibility” camouflage.
Arguments continue into the present as to the results of gaudy geometric shapes in protecting ships at sea, but it might certainly be considered the most striking example of art being used to develop a solution in war.
While the United States Navy declared in 1918 that statistical evidence suggested less than one percent of merchant vessels painted in dazzle were sunk, these claims are difficult to substantiate. The testimony of U-Boat commanders who had launched attacks against merchant vessels painted in dazzle camouflage suggests that it was a highly effective countermeasure, even to the point of confusing the issue of the type of ships being attacked and the number of vessels in a convoy. Those convoys that were hit suffered less serious damage than those that were not camouflaged.
While debate over the capabilities of dazzle camouflage continues among naval historians, perhaps the final word should come from the man who officially invented the concept. In an article published in 1920 in the Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts, Norman Wilkinson stated that “The German Admiralty had dazzle painted a liner and had attached her to the submarine training depot at Kiel,” while at the close of hostilities, “a number of the surrendered submarines were painted in precisely the same manner as our merchant vessels.” It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it is this observation by Norman Wilkinson that may answer the question of the worth of dazzle camouflage.
Mark Wood served 15 years in the communications branch of the Royal Navy, with further service in HM Coastguard. After leaving the military he qualified as a history teacher and divides his time between the education sector and working as a freelance writer for military history magazines and websites. Mark is also currently engaged on the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea project as a volunteer with the UK’s National Archives.
Featured Image: French cruiser Gloire in dazzle camouflage. (Department of the Navy, Naval Photographic Center)
Peter Wessel was only 10 when the Great Northern War started, and he was 30 when it ended in 1720. In nine brief years he rose from naval cadet to Vice Admiral. I first learned of Peter Wessel, also known popularly known as Tordenskjold (Thunder Shield), in a Danish film, Satisfaction 1720. The film depicted Tordenskjold as a depraved and lecherous idiot exploiting wartime victories which were stumbled upon through accident, and pursues a novel theory into his untimely death in a duel. This film led me to further explore both the Great Northern War and the life of this remarkable naval officer. Unsurprisingly, the movie’s account of his personality vastly differs compared to the few English language books about him. Although Denmark and Norway share streets and warships named after Tordenskjold, his name and deeds are largely unknown in the English speaking world. His exploits along the Baltic coast deserve remembering.
Sweden’s main political goal of the 17th century was the establishment of Dominium maris baltici, or Swedish domination of the Baltic Sea. Sweden’s defense of Protestantism and its major military contributions to the outcome of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) had enabled Sweden to acquire a sizable portion of the Baltic coast and operate as the dominant power in the Baltic Sea. However, the British and Dutch prevented Sweden from exercising complete domination of the Baltic coast.
Sweden’s preeminence was resented by the other Baltic powers. In 1697 King Charles XI of Sweden died, leaving his fifteen year old son, Charles XII, on the throne. The other Baltic states saw their opportunities for territorial expansion. That year, Peter the Great, Emperor of Russia and Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, met in Dresden. The two men shared much in common; they were both tall, incredibly strong, and fond of drinking. They agreed to an alliance against Sweden. But despite their mutual desire for war, both needed time to prepare. Augustus had just been elected King of Poland with Peter’s help and needed more time to solidify his rule. Peter needed to conclude a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire before he could turn his attention to the Baltic. Both Peter and Augustus sought additional allies for war and found King Frederick IV of Denmark. The three nations formed an alliance to attack Sweden from all sides, overwhelm the boy-king, and divide the Swedish empire.
Unfortunately for the allied powers, despite Charles XII’s youth, he was no pushover. Charles XII demonstrated his military prowess by defeating each power in turn. Denmark was forced out of the war by August 1700, after the Swedes almost captured Copenhagen. The Saxon/Polish forces invaded Livonia, but were defeated, and Saxony/Poland was driven out of the war by 1706, with Augustus the Strong forced to cede the throne of Poland to a Swedish puppet. From 1702-1710, the Russians and Swedes fought over the coasts of Ingria and Karelia. Initially, the Swedes had the upper hand, winning victories at Narva (1700), but the Russians eventually pushed the Swedes back, and Peter established the city of Saint Petersburg in 1703 with the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress. After Sweden’s crushing defeat at Poltava (1709), Augustus the Strong and Frederik IV rejoined Peter the Great along with George I, Elector of Hannover. In 1714, George was crowned King of Great Britain, bringing Britain into the conflict. In 1712, Frederich William Elector of Brandenburg and King in Prussia also joined the conflict, setting the stage for a rapidly escalating war.
Peter Wessel joins the Navy
Peter Wessel was born the 14th child of a Trondheim merchant. His family owned multiple ships and several of his elder brothers served at sea in the Danish Navy or merchant marine. Peter wanted to follow in their footsteps, while his mother wanted him ashore either as a cleric or a member of whichever guild would accept him. School bored Peter, and he spent a great deal of time fighting bullies instead of studying his ablative absolutes. During the winter of 1704, at the age of 14, Peter ran away from apprenticeships as a tailor and barber-surgeon and set off on foot for Copenhagen to find himself an appointment to the Danish Naval Academy.
In 1704, King Frederick IV visited Trondheim, offering an opportunity. Peter Wessel hid himself amongst the royal retinue for the trip to Copenhagen. During the arduous trek across Norway, Peter observed how the king had cheerily received audiences of common people and spent time with them in stables and around campfires. Peter decided that he could reach out to the approachable king for help.
When Peter arrived in Copenhagen he called on his father’s old classmate, Dr. Jespersen, the King’s Chaplain. Peter told him his story, and asked for help getting into the Naval Academy. The king often visited Dr. Jespersen, and on one summer’s day in 1705, Peter asked the king for a naval academy appointment during his usual visit to Dr. Jespersen’s stable. Unfortunately, that year’s class had been shrunk by half to 52 cadets and there were no vacancies. King Frederick promised Peter that he would get a spot. While waiting for an appointment, Dr. Jespersen tutored Peter and taught him to channel his bountiful energy. Another year passed and still no appointment. Dr. Jespersen returned home from the palace one day with the king’s response, “no vacancies.”
Peter’s brother Henrik was a Danish Navy Lieutenant, although he had never actually served aboard a Danish warship, rather he had served on a Dutch man-of-war and was heading east to serve aboard a Russian warship. Henrik said Peter would benefit from time at sea aboard a merchant ship gaining experience until his appointment. Henrik had a Dutch shipmate who was Chief Mate aboard a Danish West Indiaman, Christianus Quintus, shortly bound for the West African coast for a cargo of slaves to sell in the Americas. Henrik got Peter a berth as the most junior of five cabin boys. Peter received valuable experience during the voyage in seamanship, gunnery, and navigation which prepared him for the Naval Academy and future voyages.
After two years at sea, Peter returned to Copenhagen. With still no naval academy appointment awaiting him, 18-year old Peter again wrote King Frederick detailing his experiences at sea and the king’s promise of an appointment. The letter failed to produce results, however, Peter was allowed to take the entrance exam and then join the Naval Academy as a volunteer with no pay or uniform until a billet opened in the class. Peter knew his father would pay his expenses and that he could continue to live with Dr. Jespersen.
Just as things were looking up, Peter received a letter from Trondheim. His family’s property had been destroyed during a fire. With no way to maintain himself at the naval academy, Peter signed on as a deck hand on a Danish East Indiaman bound for India. On October 5, 1708 Peter sailed for India, and during the journey his appointment as a cadet at the naval academy was signed by the king on January 11, 1709. During the voyage Peter was promoted to Boatswain’s Mate and then to 3rd Mate. In May 1710, Peter’s ship arrived off the Norwegian coast to learn that Denmark had re-entered the war against Sweden. The ship’s master was unwilling to risk the passage to Copenhagen through swarms of Swedish privateers and pulled into Bergen to await a convoy. Peter displayed the impatience which would bring him future battle glories and signed on as a sailor aboard a neutral British merchant ship bound for Germany via Copenhagen.
Again, misfortune followed Peter. The ship became wind-bound in the Kattegat and pulled into Marstrand, Sweden. Peter was a Danish officer, not in uniform and dressed in English clothing meaning Peter could have been hung as a spy. Peter decided to have a look at the town while the ship was in port. He posed as a Dutch sailor and spoke to sailors, soldiers, and townsmen in the taverns and waterfront and observed the placement of batteries throughout the area. Once the British ship put to sea, Peter found a Danish warship to carry him to the Danish squadron under the command of Admiral Barfoed carrying the Governor-General of Norway Baron Løvendal. Peter reported aboard and then made his report to the two leaders. Baron Løvendal was impressed with both Peter’s demeanor and his clear reports on Swedish dispositions at Marstrand. The Baron had Peter assigned to his personal staff until Peter was able to be delivered to the naval academy.
Peter started at the naval academy in September 1710. After three years before the mast, Peter found the curriculum boring. Again, he wrote to the king detailing his experiences and asking for a commission. In April 1711, Admiral Sehestad, the naval academy superintendent handed Peter his commission as a temporary sub-lieutenant and his orders to report to Postilion. Postilion’s executive officer billet was gapped, and Peter’s experiences at sea made him the most qualified officer aboard to fill the gapped XO billet. In less than a year, Peter had gone from naval cadet to XO of a frigate.
Postilion was a 26-gun frigate purchased from the French and assigned to convoy duty. The French had equipped Postilion with 26 twelve pounders, but the Danish Navy had downgraded them to six and eight pounders. The administrators of the Danish Navy preferred smaller cannon because they consumed less gunpowder which saved money. The tactical disadvantage was not a concern to them. The Postilion‘s convoy duties were slow, boring, and frustrating. Protecting merchant ships that might or might not want to stay in formation from one port to the next was not the exciting duty that an active junior officer sought.
After escorting a convoy to the town of Langesund, near Christiana, Peter went ashore with dispatches. He heard of a Norwegian, Jørgen Pedersen, constructing small ships called snows in Langesund for General Løvendal. Warships had not been constructed in Norway since the Vikings, but Peter was one of only two naval officers to visit the shipyard. The two Norwegians got along well, both because of Peter’s interest in the snows under construction and because Jørgen Pedersen had helped construct Postilion in France. The two discussed Peter’s current ship.
Peter knew that he would not make his name as XO of a frigate on convoy duty, but he had a plan. The new snows that Jørgen Pedersen was constructing needed captains. Who better than himself to take a small ship to harass the Swedes along the rock strewn coasts of Sweden? The governor general of Norway was still Baron Løvendal, whom Peter had served with before starting at the naval academy, and Peter brought him dispatches from Denmark. The two former shipmates discussed Peter’s rapid promotion, the Baron’s plans for the new snows being constructed, and the war in Norway. Peter left the Baron with an order to take command of one of Pedersen’s new snows, Ormen, which boasted a crew of 46 and mounted five cannons including two 4 pounders, two 2 pounders, and a single one pounder. After less than 12 months in the navy, Peter was captain of his own ship.
Jørgen Pedersen not only constructed four snows for the Norwegian defense forces, but he also constructed an 18 gun frigate. In typical Danish fashion, she was under armed, boasting 12 six pounders and 6 four pounder guns. When the frigate was completed, Baron Løvendal appointed Peter the captain. In honor of his friend and patron, Peter named the ship Løvendal’s Galei. Peter desired to continue his depredations along the Swedish coast, but his frigate was often busy supporting the fleet in the Baltic campaign against Stralsund and convoy duty in the North Sea.
Previously as captain of the Ormen, Peter operated along the Swedish coast, capturing Swedish privateers and scouting for Baron Løvendal. Later, on 26 July 1714, Peter earned his most famous exploit from his time as captain of Løvendal’s Galei; a single ship duel with the 28-gun Swedish privateer Olbing Galei. The Swedish privateer was English built and captained by an Englishman. The two ships both approached under false colors. Olbing Galei under the English flag, and Løvendal’s Galei under Dutch colors. Once the vessels had neared they replaced the false flags with the flags of Sweden and Denmark. Despite the disparity in broadside, Løvendal’s Galei hit Olbing Galei hard causing major damage to the rigging, and then the two ships fought for 14 hours until Peter ran out of powder and shot.
With ammunition gone, Peter sent a messenger to Olbing Galei stating that the only reason he was not discontinuing the action out of cowardice, but only because he was out of ammunition. Peter asked for powder and shot to continue the fight. Captain Bachtman declined to give him the ammunition, ending the fight. The two captains then toasted each other as they sailed away.
Peter wrote his dispatches to two people, General Hausman, now in charge of Danish forces in Norway, and King Frederik in Denmark. From Norway, General Hausman sent Peter his hearty congratulations. From Denmark came court martial proceedings. Peter’s rapid promotions had created many enemies in the Danish Navy. The dispatch for the king was taken by one of Peter’s enemies and subsequently distorted to damage his career. Peter was charged with recklessly endangering his command by fighting a ship superior to his own and for disclosing valuable military secrets by telling the enemy ship that he lacked ammunition, and other unspecified charges. The Judge Advocate General proposed demoting Peter to sub-lieutenant and forfeiture of six months’ pay.
On December 15, 1714 the court martial concluded. 10 of 14 members of the court voted for acquittal. The court martial was composed of eight admirals and six commodores and captains. The four most junior members voted for Peter’s demotion. This vote reflected the bifurcated reputation of Peter Wessel. His rapid rise threatened many of his peers from sub-lieutenant to captain, however, admirals approved of his victories. Upon conclusion of the court martial Peter visited King Frederik. He brought two documents with him; acquittal papers from the court martial and an application for promotion to captain, which the king accepted. On December 28, 1714 Peter Wessel was promoted to captain.
King Charles arrived in Stralsund, Swedish Pomerania in 1714 after having spent the past five years in Turkey. The city had been under siege since 1711. King Charles wanted to use Swedish Pomerania as a launching point for a renewed offensive against the Saxons and Russians. Unfortunately, Peter and the Danish fleet prevented Sweden from reinforcing Stralsund. Multiple times Peter’s ship fought larger more heavily gunned ships and prevented their relief of Stralsund. In December, 1715 the city fell to the Dano-Saxon-Prussian forces besieging the city. Charles XII might have been losing the war, but he was not going to make peace. Instead, he escaped from Stralsund and returned to Sweden to continue the war.
In October, 1715, in honor of Wessel’s work preventing the Swedish Navy’s reinforcement of Stralsund, he was knighted. His new name and title, Tordenskjold, meant thunder shield, in reference to his thundering attacks against the Swedes and his defense of Denmark.
In March, 1716, King Charles decided to invade Norway. He split his forces to simultaneously to attack Christiana and Frederikstad. The roads in this part of Norway were poor and often impassable, therefore Swedish supplies had to come by sea. Swedish forces took advantage of the rocky islands strewn across coastline between Marstrand and Frederikstad to run supplies from fortified point to fortified point to reach the army’s supply depots outside Frederikstad. The Swedes used shallow draft galleys that hid in inlets and coves where the deep draft Danish squadron could not go. If Denmark could sever the Swedish sea lines of communication (SLOCs) they could isolate the Swedish army and end the campaign. Danish Admiral Gabel wrote to Tordenskjold explaining the situation. Characteristically, he immediately sought action.
On 7 July 1716, Tordenskjold discovered a Swedish force at anchor behind a battery in deep in the Dynekilen Fjord, which featured between 14 and 29 Swedish transports as well as 15 escorts ranging from 24 to 5 guns each as well as a battery of 6 twelve pounders. Tordenskjold advanced into the fjord with four frigates and three galleys. Tordenskjold subsequently landed soldiers on the island to take the battery. The fire from his frigates overpowered the escorts; Stenbock surrendered, and the galleys crews attempted to ground and fire their vessels. Tordenskjold proceeded to take or burn as many transports as possible. Swedish soldiers began to arrive and threaten his position, but Tordenskjold calmly took his prizes and destroyed any ships he could not cut out and then sailed out of the fjord.
The battle was a decisive victory for Denmark. According to Danish records, Tordenskjold had captured seven warships and 19 transports, but Swedish records however list Tordensjkjold as having captured seven warships and 14 transports. The actual numbers are less important than the result of the battle. Swedish forces besieging Frederikstad halted the siege and withdrew. Sweden’s offensive capabilities were crippled until 1718. As a result of his success, King Frederik promoted Tordenskold to Commodore (Rear Admiral).
Between 1716 and 1720 Tordenskjold continued to fight the Swedes. He attacked Swedish forces in Stromstad, Marstrand, and Goteborg. In nine brief years he rose from a naval cadet to the rank of Vice-Admiral in the Danish Navy. His seamanship, calmness amidst chaos, and intrepid leadership created opportunities for victory. His men loved him for his demeanor, but his rapid rise created enemies in the Danish officer corps. He was not the buffoonish character as seen in the film Satisfaction 1720; that man would never have succeeded at sea.
In 1720, Denmark’s role in the Great Northern War ended. His heroism and seamanship played a major role in ensuring Denmark was on the victorious side of the conflict. Later, Peter contemplated marriage with an English aristocrat and service in the Royal Navy. But at the age of 30, Peter Wessel Tordenskjold was killed in a duel with Colonel Jacob Stael von Holstein over a game of cards. Tordenskjold’s second was Lieutenant Colonel Georg von Münchhausen, father of the famous Baron von Münchhausen. Today, Norway and Denmark both claim Tordenskjold as a hero. Both Denmark and Norway named warships after him, and today he is buried in Denmark.
Sweden began the war as a major European power, and ended the war reduced to the status of a second rate power. With the exception of Swedish Pomerania, Sweden lost the entire southern rim of the Baltic. Russia demonstrated her arrival as a leading European power, gaining dominance over the eastern Baltic and a window to the west: the port cities of Saint Petersburg, Reval, and Riga.
Although Denmark was on the winning side of the war, she did not achieve her objectives. Although Denmark occupied Swedish Pomerania for five years after Stralsund fell, the province was returned to Sweden at the making of peace. The territories of Bohuslen and Scania remained Swedish. The maritime powers of Great Britain and the Netherlands would not allow one nation to control Øresund, the Kattegat, and Skagerak. The Baltic trade included valuable commodities for sea power, including cordage, tar, and trees. In order to maintain their maritime dominance, the maritime powers of Britain, France, and the Netherlands would not let a single nation control the entrance to the Baltic Sea and monopolize the trade. Denmark won the war, but lost the peace.
LCDR JasonLancaster is an alumnus of Mary Washington College and has an MA from the University of Tulsa. He is currently serving as the N8 Tactical Development Officer at Commander, Destroyer Squadron 26. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.
Adamson, Hans Christian. Admiral Thunderbolt. Philadelphia and New York: Chilton Company, 1959.
Anderson, M.S. Peter the Great. New York: Longman Group, 1995.
Anderson, Roger Charles. Naval Wars in the Baltic during the Sailing Ship Epoch, 1522-1850. London: C. Gilbert Wood, 1910.
Bjerg, Hans Christian. “På kanoner og pokaler.” Dankse Tordenskjold Venner. July 24, 1964. https://archive.is/20130212170512/http://www.danske-tordenskiold-venner.dk/tordenskiold/artikler/02_kanon_pokal.htm (accessed October 12, 2019).
Denner, Balthasar. “Portrait of Peter Jansen Wessel.” Danish Museum of National History. Portrait of Peter Jansen Wessel. Frederiksborg, Denmark, 1719.
Jonge, Alex de. Fire and Water: The LIfe of Peter the Great. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 1980.
Molstead, Christian. On Guns and Cups, 1925.
Featured Image: “Paa kanoner og pokaler” (On guns and cups), depicting the episode 27th july 1714 where the danish frigate Lövendals Galley commanded by norwegian officer Tordenskjold encounters the swedish-owned, former english frigate De Olbing Galley on the swedish westcoast. After a long fight the danish ship runs out of gunpowder, and the ships part after a toast between the two opponents. (Book Strömstad : gränsstad i ofred och krig by Nils Modig, page 134, via Wikimedia Commons)
Part One discussed the U.S. Navy’s failures to effectively prosecute the war at sea and defend the maritime frontier during the War of 1812. The final objective, to maintain superiority on the lakes, stands apart from the rest of the U.S. Navy’s performance in the war. Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan recognized, “[t]hat even the defects of preparation, extreme and culpable as these were, could have been overcome, is evidenced by the history of the Lakes.”1 Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough’s preparation and execution on Lake Champlain stands in particular contrast to the greater Navy’s ability to demonstrate the value of enemy-oriented planning and shipbuilding.
An American defense from a Canadian attack (and, for the War Hawks of Congress, the invasion and annexation of Canada) relied on control of Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Champlain. Dense wilderness and mountainous terrain covered most of the U.S.-Canadian border in the early nineteenth century. The Lake Champlain Valley between the Green and Adirondack Mountains provided a corridor for a large army to transit, but passage required control of Lake Champlain for transportation and logistical support. The lake runs 107 miles long, but is only 14 miles at its widest, and drains north into the St Lawrence River via the Richelieu River.
Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton assigned Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough to command the U.S. Naval forces on Lake Champlain on September 28, 1812.2 The U.S. Navy controlled the lake until June 1813 when one of Macdonough’s lieutenants grounded the sloops Growler and Eagle while trying to chase down British gunboats. Once raised, the British rechristened the sloops Finch and Chubb, respectively. All Macdonough had left was another sloop in need of repair and two unmanned gunboats.3 The British, under Commander Daniel Pring, destroyed the American barracks and storehouses and captured the few remaining private vessels on the lake. Macdonough had to race to buy, build, and repair enough ships to reconstitute his fleet. On August 3, two British sloops and a galley attacked Macdonough’s squadron while moored for repairs at Burlington, Vermont. The British seized two small craft and departed. Macdonough, now a Master Commandant, suffered a serious shortage of officers, seaman, ships, and ordnance.4 Despite commanding the lake, Pring could not dislodge Macdonough from the bottleneck that prevented the British Army from advancing south. After spying the British bring several galleys from the St. Lawrence River to their base at Isle aux Noix, Macdonough convinced the new Secretary of the Navy, William Jones, to send men, supplies, and ordnance to build fifteen galleys of his own.5 Many of these resources, however, went to constructing something much more powerful than a galley.
The Arms Race
After Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory on Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, the Lake Champlain Valley became the British army’s best avenue for invasion.6 Anticipating the inevitable British attack, Macdonough’s shipbuilding accelerated while at winter quarters on the mouth of Otter Creek. In addition to more gunboats, Macdonough’s shipwrights constructed the 700-ton corvette Saratoga in only forty days. Saratoga carried eight 24-pound long guns and six 42-pound and twelve 32-pound carronades. Macdonough also purchased a steamboat that was under construction, but determined the machinery too unreliable and rigged it as a schooner instead. Named Ticonderoga, the almost-steamer carried eight 12-pound and four 18-pound long guns, and five 32-pound carronades. When the ice cleared in April, Macdonough launched Saratoga and six new gunboats, albeit lacking full armaments and crews.7
On May 14, British Captain Pring, with his new brig Linnet and eight galleys, attempted to obstruct the mouth of Otter Creek before Macdonough’s squadron could enter the lake but an American artillery battery at the site repelled him.8 Two weeks later Macdonough entered the lake with Saratoga, Ticonderoga, several galleys, and the sloop Preble, armed with seven 12-pound and two 18-pound long guns.9
Shortly after reclaiming superiority on the lake, four British deserters informed Macdonough that Pring laid a keel for a ship equal to Saratoga and expected the arrival of eleven more galleys. By July, news confirmed the new ship would be a frigate much larger than Saratoga. Macdonough intercepted spars intended for the frigate to slow construction, but feared that after its completion in early August Pring, “will make a bold attempt to sweep the lake.”10 Secretary Jones wished to avoid another, “irksome contest of ship building,” that doesn’t lead to a decisive action like on Lake Ontario, but Macdonough convinced him to send shipwrights and supplies for an eighteen-gun brig.11 Built in nineteen days, the new brig Eagle carried eight 18-pound long guns and twelve 32-pound carronades. On August 27, Macdonough gathered Saratoga, Eagle, Ticonderoga, Preble, Montgomery, and ten galleys near the Canadian border to blockade the British in the Richelieu River.12
Setting the Stage
Further north, British Governor-General Sir George Prevost assembled an army of 14,000 men to invade New York along the western bank of the lake. This was the largest army yet assembled in North America and included many experienced troops fresh from the Peninsular War. He merely waited for the British squadron to remove the Americans from the lake to enable his invasion south. With the addition of a frigate, the British squadron now rated a post-captain for command, so Captain Peter Fisher replaced Pring on June 24, 1814.13 Unsatisfied with Fisher’s slow progress, Admiral Sir James Yeo, the Commander of the Royal Navy on the lakes, replaced him after five weeks with Captain George Downie on September 2.14
In anticipation of the frigate’s arrival and to avoid Prevost’s advancing artillery, Macdonough moved his squadron south. He had more than two years on the lake to learn its geography and character. He determined the deep water of Plattsburg Bay near the middle of the western shore as the ideal site for his defense. Cumberland Head to the northeast and shoals to the south off of Crab Island enclosed the bay, while American artillery overlooking the bay and a six-pound cannon on Crab Island provided additional protection. Transit south to the American position required a north wind to fight the current. The geography of the Bay ensured that same north wind became a head wind upon rounding Cumberland Head to engage Macdonough’s squadron.15
Macdonough anchored Eagle, Saratoga, Ticonderoga, and Preble in a northeastern line from Crab Island to Cumberland Head on September 5. The gunboats formed a second line 40 yards back and spaced between the capital ships. The Eagle was so far forward that any attempt to flank had to negotiate the narrow passage along Cumberland Head, with a head wind, while under heavy fire. The shoals off Crab Island similarly protected the end of the American line. Macdonough forced the British into a vulnerable position if they came around Cumberland Head. Their unarmed bows would bear upon the American broadsides while navigating a cross or head wind. To increase stability for his firing platforms, Macdonough ordered spring lines attached to their bower, stern, and kedge anchor cables. Fighting at anchor presented a stationary target and limited Macdonough to half his firepower. However, with no need to work the sails and only one broadside available, Macdonough could better man his guns with his limited crew.16
For almost a week, Macdonough prepared his defense and rehearsed his crew while Downie raced to complete construction on the newly christened Confiance. At 1200 tons and 160 feet it was the largest ship on the lake. Downie armed it with twenty-six 24-pound long guns, another 24-pounder on a pivot, six 24-pound carronades, and four 32-pound carronades. The frigate also had an onboard furnace to heat shot for a greater lethality. Downie set sail on the morning of September 11, 1814 to seek out Macdonough’s squadron with sailors and carpenters still setting the Confiance’s rigging. He barely managed to assemble a crew, much less drill and train one. The rest of Downie’s force included the brig Linnet with sixteen 12-pound long guns; the sloop Chubb, with eight 18-pound carronades and three six-pound long guns; the sloop Finch, with six 18-pound carronades, one 18-pound and four 6-pound long guns; and twelve gunboats.17
In broadside weight, the two forces were almost identical. The Americans could throw 1,194 pounds to the British 1,192.i The British, however, had a distinct advantage at a long-range fight with long guns making up almost 60 percent of their cannons, compared to 40 percent of the American’s. The greatest disparity existed between the flagships. Saratoga was barely half the size and had only 70 percent as many guns as Confiance.18 Macdonough’s only chance was to engage the British at close range with his carronades, which he forced with his geographic selection.
The Battle of Lake Champlain
Once Downie spied the American position, he set his order of battle: Finch, Confiance, Linnet, and Chubb, followed by his gunboats. He planned to come around Cumberland Head, tack to starboard, and sail into the bay. He matched Linnet and Chubb against Eagle, Confiance against Saratoga, and Finch with the gunboats to harass Ticonderoga and Preble enough to keep them from the main action.19,ii
Eagle opened fire on Downie’s approaching squadron shortly after 9:00 A.M., but the rounds fell short. Linnet next engaged Saratoga as it sailed up to its position against the Eagle. It missed as well. After the failed bombardment, Macdonough opened fire with Saratoga and signaled the gunboats to advance and fire on Confiance. The frigate couldn’t answer the heavy barrage until it maneuvered into the bay. Once anchored about 500 yards from Saratoga, Downie fired his first double-shotted broadside. The shot injured or killed several men, and Confiance’s second broadside knocked loose a boom which struck Macdonough unconscious for several minutes. Eagle and the American gunboats shot away Chubb’s rigging before it could attack, and a midshipman from Saratoga recaptured the sloop as it drifted through the American line. Linnet anchored forward of Eagle’s beam and engaged. Finch and the British gunboats attacked Ticonderoga and Preble. An early American shot knocked a cannon from its carriage which fatally crushed Downie. In the carnage, the crew could not find Downie’s signal book to inform Commander Pring on Linnet that he now commanded the squadron.20
An hour into the battle, Ticonderoga crippled Finch, which then grounded on the shoal near Crab Island. The British gunboats forced Preble from its anchorage, but Ticonderoga kept them at bay. Before sustaining too much damage to continue, Eagle cut its anchor, turned about, and sailed south of Saratoga to engage Confiance. Linnet fought off the American gunboats at the head of the line and moved to fire on Saratoga’s bow. Confiance shot away several of Saratoga’s masts and most of the rigging, and twice set Saratoga ablaze.
Macdonough recounted that, “Our Guns on the starboard side, being nearly all dismounted, or not manageable, a Stern anchor was let go, the bower Cable cut, and the ship winded with a fresh broadside on the Enemy’s Ship.”21 To wind the ship, Macdonough ordered the crew to haul in the starboard kedge anchor, then bring the port kedge hawser forward, under the bow, and then aft again to the starboard quarter. The crew next hauled in the new starboard kedge while paying out the old to complete the 180° pivot.iii The feat took only a matter of minutes. Confiance hastily attempted a similar operation, but only managed half a turn. Already heavily damaged and now listing to port, the frigate could not maneuver to return the Saratoga’s fresh broadside. Confiance soon struck her colors and Saratoga quickly turned to engage Linnet, which struck about fifteen minutes later.22
The British defeat forced Governor-General Prevost’s army back to Canada and secured the American north for the rest of the war. In Mahan’s words, “The Battle of Lake Champlain, more nearly than any other incident of the War of 1812, merits the epithet ‘decisive.’”23
Why Macdonough Won
In many ways, the war on Lake Champlain was a counterexample to the rest of the War of 1812. In this case the British prepared improperly while the American commander did so admirably. Pring, Fisher, and Downie built, provisioned, manned, and trained the squadron—if at all—hastily. Once officers started dying on Confiance, so did order and discipline. Confiance’s inexperienced gun crews loaded cannons with multiple shots but no charges, charges with no shots, or the wadding loaded first. They also failed to replace the quoins that maintain the gun’s elevation. The battle started with guns leveled for point-blank range, but every shot pushed back the quoin and raised the gun higher. Every subsequent shot did less damage as the shots struck amongst the empty rigging rather than the hull. The increasing smoke from the battle obscured the gun captains’ view and left them ignorant to the lack of damage they inflicted.24
The U.S. Navy’s failure in the war and Macdonough’s success both derive from a consideration of the enemy. Congress and the U.S. Navy failed to prepare adequately for a known and much more powerful threat, and the U.S. forces at sea soon found themselves overwhelmed. The limited resources, manpower, and time shaped what Macdonough was capable of building, but he continued to design his fleet specifically to remove the British from Lake Champlain. Once complete, Macdonough fought his enemy-oriented force to great success.
To clear the British from the lake, Macdonough prepared his force by increasing capacity and matching capabilities. The small arms race on Lake Champlain was a struggle to outmatch the opponent’s capacity. Both sides needed to find or build a new ship for each addition on the other side. In order to increase his capacity, Macdonough assembled a fleet of purpose-built warships and converted merchantmen. He purchased and armed merchant vessels like Ticonderoga and Preble for a quick augmentation of his fleet. When he learned of the construction of Confiance and its strength, he rushed to build another ship. As a result, his shipwrights delivered Eagle in nineteen days. Macdonough couldn’t increase the capacity of his force in time to overwhelm the British, but the addition of the Eagle brought him nearly even in broadside weight and number of ships.
Macdonough exploited his time on the lake and his defensive position to set the parameters of the impending battle to make his capabilities most advantageous. The British had more long guns and square sailed ships. In response, Macdonough anchored at a site that nullified the British advantage in long range fire, limited their mobility, and benefited his short-range carronades. His preparations made on Saratoga best demonstrate the value of matching capabilities against the enemy. At 26 guns, Saratoga was significantly outmatched by the Confiance’s 37 guns. By forcing the battle to take place at anchor, Macdonough closed the margin to 13 guns against 19. By setting anchors and spring lines to rotate Saratoga, Macdonough made his full complement of guns available. Despite the initial appearances, Saratoga had the advantage. It was a 26-gun ship armed with heavy carronades at close range versus a ship of 19 the whole time.
Macdonough earned his victory at Lake Champlain with almost two years of preparation oriented on his enemy. He and his shipbuilders worked tirelessly to maintain a capacity on par with the British squadron. But more importantly, he aligned his fleet’s capabilities appropriately against his enemy’s to win the day. Despite this and other victories, the U.S. Navy still lost the war to a distracted adversary. Even while fighting Napoleon in Europe, the Royal Navy managed to destroy, capture, or neutralize by blockade most of the U.S. Navy.
The timeless lessons from the U.S. Navy’s failure to prepare for war are greater than those from Macdonough’s success at Lake Champlain. Military leaders must tailor their strategy to their enemy to create a force that is sized, capable, and deployed adequately against a perceived threat. Although increasing a navy’s size may appear to be appropriate posturing to an apparent threat, a larger navy does not necessarily make for a more effective navy. Even if Macdonough had more ships, it wouldn’t have mattered if they were still mostly armed with carronades. The British could have picked them off at long range in open water with their long guns. It was more important that Macdonough anchored his fleet in a position that nullified the British’s long-range advantage. Military leaders must evaluate their ability to fulfill required capabilities to defend against the enemy as Macdonough did. By understanding an enemy’s capabilities and exploiting their weaknesses, even an apparently disadvantaged force can have the upper hand.
William graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2009 and served for five years as an artillery officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, deploying to Afghanistan and afloat. He now writes with a focus on early American naval history.
i. See Figures 1 and 2
ii. See Figure 3
iii. See Figure 4
1. A.T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812 (London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Company, 1905), 1:295.
2. Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton to Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough, September 28, 1812, in William S. Dudley and Michael J. Crawford, eds., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History. 3 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1985), 1:319-320.
3. Macdonough to Jones, June 4, 1813, Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo to Croker, July 16, 1813, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 2:490-491, 502-506.
4. Jones to Macdonough, June 17, 1813, Macdonough to Jones, July 11, 1813, Macdonough to Jones, July 22, 1813, Major General Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe to Governor-General Sir George Prevost, 25 July, 1813, Instructions to Lieutenant Colonel John Murray, July 27, 1813, Macdonough to Jones, August 3, 1813, Commander Thomas Everard to Prevost, August 3, 1813, Macdonough to Jones, August 4, 1813, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 2: 512-520.
5. Macdonough to Jones, November 23, 1813, Jones to Macdonough, December 7, 1813, Jones to Macdonough, January 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 2: 603-605, 3:393-395.
6. Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 3:369-371.
7. Jones to Macdonough, February 22, 1814, Macdonough to Jones March 7, 1814, Governor Daniel D. Tompkins to Jones, March 10, 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 3:396-399; David Curtis Skaggs, Thomas Macdonough: Master of Command in the Early U.S. Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003), 117-120.
8. Macdonough to Jones, May 14, 1814, Commander Daniel Pring to Lieutenant Colonel William Williams, May 14, 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 3:479-483.
9. Macdonough to Jones, May 29, 1814, Macdonough to Jones, June 11, 1814, Macdonough to Jones, June 19, 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 3:504-508, 537-538.
10. Macdonough to Jones, June 29, 1814, Macdonough to Jones, July 9, 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 3:504-508, 537-538.
11. Jones to Macdonough, July 5, 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 3:539
12. Macdonough to Jones, August 12, 1814, Macdonough to Jones, August 16, 1814, Macdonough to Jones, August 27, 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 3:537-542; Skaggs, Thomas Macdonough, 119.
13. Skaggs, Thomas Macdonough, 100; W.M.P. Dunne, “The Battle of Lake Champlain,” in Great American Naval Battles, ed. Jack Sweetman, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998), 85.
14. Prevost to Captain George Downie, 9 September 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 3:598; Borneman, 1812, 204-205.
15. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 2:376-377; David Curtis Skaggs, “More Important Than Perry’s Victory,” Naval History 27, no. 5 (October 2013). https://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2013-09/more-important-perrys-victory.
16. Skaggs, Thomas Macdonough, 125-126; H.C. Washburn, “The Battle of Lake Champlain,” Proceedings 40, no. 5 (September-October): 1373, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/1914-09/battle-lake-champlain; Dunne, “The Battle of Lake Champlain,” in Great American Naval Battles, 94.
17. Skaggs, Thomas Macdonough, 117-120; Borneman, 1812, 205-206.
18. Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York: Putnam, 1902), 2:118-121.
19. Pring to Yeo, September 12, 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 3:609-614.
20. Skaggs, Thomas Macdonough, 129-130.
[xxi] Macdonough to Jones, September 13, 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, The Naval War of 1812, 3:614-615.
22. Skaggs, Thomas Macdonough, 133-134; Borneman, 1812, 210-213; Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2:124-135; Washburn, “The Battle of Lake Champlain,” Proceedings 40, no. 5 (September-October): 1383.
23. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812, 2: 381.
24. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2:127-128; Skaggs, Thomas Macdonough, 132.
Featured Image: Macdonough’s Victory on Lake Champlain, 1814. Watercolor by Edward Tufnell, depicting the U.S. Sloop Saratoga (left center) and the U.S. Brig Eagle (right) engaging the British flagship Confiance (center) off Plattsburg, New York, 11 September 1814. Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.
The Russo-Japanese War saw the Imperial Russian Navy soundly beaten by the Imperial Japanese Navy. While much of the analysis on the Russo-Japanese War focuses on the Battle of Tsushima and the success of the Japanese Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō, one can also look to understand the deficiencies present in the Imperial Russian Navy that contributed to this defeat. The causes for this shocking defeat can be compared with the challenges of the Russian Empire as a whole. Russian naval culture, like that of its civilian society, had been built on an outdated system of social class, with nobles (particularly nobles with partial German ancestry) rising as officers, while talented sailors languished in the conscripted ranks. Just as the Tsar’s attempts at reforming Russian society failed to fully solve the deep-seated cultural problems of the Empire, and prevent the 1905 Revolution, Russian attempts at naval reform through the 1885 naval qualifications statute would also fail creating a new class of risk-averse and bureaucratic officers. The initial naval battle outside Port Arthur, and the ultimate defeat of the Port Arthur squadron in the Battle of the Yellow Sea, reflect these failings.
A Fish Rots from the Head
Of all the weaknesses which the Imperial Russian Navy suffered from during the Russo-Japanese War, none were so glaring as the failings of the officer corps. These officers were generally more concerned with their own advancement rather than success in battle. Tellingly, they suffered from over-bureaucratization and a failure to encourage initiative among their ranks.
Before the war, the Russian Navy was more superficial than substantive, suffering from general disorganization, as well as shortcomings of its personnel. While Tsar Nicholas “was attracted to military traditions and pageantry” he was also uninformed, and willing to tolerate “the often unproductive interference of uniformed Grand Dukes in the running of the army and navy.”1 The role of the nobility in the navy was a pernicious problem for Imperial Russia. In 1881, the highest position in the Imperial Navy, the General Admiral, was given to Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, who was Tsar Nicholas’ uncle. Almost certainly his position was not given on his merit, as the Director of the Navy Ministry, Vice Admiral I.A. Shestakov, felt the Grand Duke was “not an efficient administrator, being more interested in external appearances and the opposite sex than tackling professional issues.”2 The professional problems of the Imperial Russian Navy also extended to the realm of strategic planning and discourse. Prior to the war, the navy had no general staff, and “until the outbreak of the war in 1904, the Navy Ministry had not issued a coherent official tactical doctrine.”3 There was almost no centralized planning at all in the navy, with operational strategy left to “makeshift fleet staffs in different geographical theaters” and subject to the “personal directions and whims” of regional commanders.4
In order to reduce nepotism in the advancement of naval officers and promote professionalism in the navy, the Russian state implemented the naval qualifications statute of 1885, under which “promotions were regulated by a rigid system hinging on specific terms spent at sea, available vacancies, and recommendations by superiors.”5 Ostensibly, this common-sense reform ought to have improved professionalism and efficiency within the fleet. Unfortunately, in most cases it had the opposite effect. The new promotion system “stifled talent and initiative”6 while encouraging officers to maintain a “bureaucratic temperament.” This meant that rather than adapting to the circumstances and seizing on enemy weaknesses, Russian officers “placed great stress on avoiding situations where they might attract criticism from above.”7 They focused on “external appearances and the superficial completion of service requirements.”8 In other words, captains and admirals spent more time inspecting brass pipes and white uniforms than they did testing the readiness of their men for war. This system meant that “the typical Russian officer seemed more at peace within himself when it was the enemy who had the initiative.”9 According to J.N. Westwood, “Russian naval officers were the product of a bureaucratic society in which avoidance of blame was more important than technical competence or imaginative enterprise.”10 This has been a common problem in naval history, perhaps most visible in the stagnation of the Royal Navy, laid bare in the Battle of Jutland.11
From the onset of the war, this failing reared its ugly head. The Commander of the Russian Pacific Squadron, Vice-Admiral Oscar Victorovich Stark, had recognized the dangers posed by Japan in light of the deteriorating diplomatic situation. He had repeatedly requested Admiral Yevgeni Ivanovich Alekseyev, Commander in Chief of Imperial Forces in Port Arthur and Manchuria, as well as Viceroy of the Imperial Russian Far East, “to permit him to prepare the fleet for war.”12 However, Alekseyev dismissed Stark’s fears on the grounds that they were “premature and escalatory.”13 Admiral Alekseyev did not see much of a threat from the Japanese, and a report from Vice-Admiral Wilhelm Withöft (a Russian-German noble) argued that the Russian “plan of operations should be based on the assumption that it is impossible for our fleet to be beaten.”14 Regardless, Vice-Admiral Stark did attempt to work around these restrictions, ordering his crews to put out torpedo nets and prepare for a Japanese surprise attack. However, he could not appear to undercut the noble Withöft or Alekseyev (who was a son of the Tsar), and in the end, “so low-key was the instruction in relation to the Supreme Commander’s known views that…nothing was done.”15 Captains and crews did not wish to contradict Admiral Alekseyev, regardless of the orders from the local commander, and few took any precautions.
There is a common misperception of soldiers and sailors as mindless automatons, following orders like pieces on a chess board. In this image, there is little wrong with the decision of the officers of the Pacific Squadron to yield to the will of Alekseyev and not that of Vice Admiral Stark. However, by the time the Russo-Japanese War began, this model was already outdated, and had largely been replaced with the relatively new concept of auftragstaktik (commonly translated as mission command in English).16 Mission command requires junior officers to “use their own initiative” and adapt to their own circumstances in order to achieve a mission defined by “a superior commander’s concept of operations.”17 Mission command is ultimately a superior model because it recognizes that those on the frontlines often have the best perception of their own situation, and that communication in war is susceptible to interruption, confusion, and misunderstanding (the fog of war). Allowing local commanders to maneuver as best suits them will allow them to minimize their casualties and complete their objectives more rapidly, while avoiding wasted opportunities or fatal miscommunications. In this context, as the local commander, Vice-Admiral Stark had a much clearer view of the threat posed by Japan, while Alekseyev, concerned with Russian objectives across all of Asia, did not. Admiral Alekseyev’s failure to defer to the local awareness of Vice Admiral Stark reflects Russia’s failure to adapt to modern military thought.
Admiral Alekseyev deserves special attention in considering the failures of the Russian officer corps. Directly beneath him in the chain of command were Vice-Admiral Makarov (after his replacement of Vice-Admiral Stark) and General Kuropatkin. It should be recognized that these two figures were viewed as “the two best officers for their respective posts.”18 Makarov in particular was “Russia’s most competent admiral” and “was certainly Tōgō’s equal.”19 Despite this, Russia’s cultural deference to the nobility left Makarov and Kuropatkin “under Alekseyev, whose ego far outstripped his energy and competence.”20 Stark, Makarov, and ultimately, Withöft all found themselves hamstrung by their superiors, while the Japanese left Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō free to operate as he saw fit. This was a critical difference, and it played a major role in Russia’s ultimate defeat.
That is not to say that Vice-Admiral Stark or any of his replacements should be absolved of blame. Frederic William Unger, an American war correspondent who followed and wrote extensively about the war, noted that when the first Japanese attack on Port Arthur began, “Many of the Russian naval officers were ashore, celebrating with appropriate festivities the birthday of Admiral Stark.”21 While others including J.N. Westwood dispute this claim, Richard Connaughton argues that the party was “entirely in keeping with his reputation as a fun-loving partygoer.”22 Perhaps more importantly, the party’s guests included Admiral Alekseyev himself, as well as several other critical officers. Thus, on the night of February 8th, when Admiral Tōgō launched his initial torpedo attack, the Russian pacific squadron was unprepared and leaderless. Within ten minutes a Russian cruiser, the Pallada, a battleship, the Retvizan, and worst of all, the pride of the Russian Navy and most powerful ship in the Pacific Squadron, the Tsarevitch, had all been hit by torpedoes and were at least temporarily disabled. The Retvizan in particular suffered badly. Having hit Retvizan in the bow, a Japanese torpedo was able to open “a hole through which a car could be driven.”23
The loss of these ships, although temporary, would prove critical. Over the next several months, the Japanese enjoyed total control of the seas, while the Russian Navy could only attempt to rebuild its capabilities. This allowed the Japanese a free hand to land vast numbers of troops in Manchuria, forcing the hand of the Russian Navy, and creating the circumstances for Japan’s ultimate victory.
Battle of the Yellow Sea: The Death of the Pacific Squadron
As Japanese ground forces fought their way closer to Port Arthur, they began raining artillery down on the Pacific Squadron, which for the last six months had failed to even attempt to contest control of seas.24 Petrified as they were of failure, the death of Admiral Makarov in the entrance to the harbor as his ship hit a mine, paralyzed all ensuing Russian officers. In August 1904, as the land battle continued to rage, Viceroy Alekseyev demanded that the most recently appointed commander of the Pacific Squadron, Rear-Admiral Wilhelm Withöft, take the remainder of the Russian Pacific Squadron to Vladivostok. Withöft stalled as long as he could, but before long he “received orders of a more peremptory tone from both the Viceroy and the Tsar.”25 Despite the urging of his superior, Withöft held several councils of war, and together he and his captains agreed that their position dictated they stay in port. Alekseyev ignored Withöft and repeated that this decision was not only in contradiction to his orders, but was also against the wishes of the Tsar.26 Finally, after yet more protests from Withöft, Alekseyev informed the Vice-Admiral that “if the Port Arthur squadron failed to put to sea despite his and the Tsar’s wishes, and was destroyed in Port Arthur, it would be a shameful dishonor.” Furthermore, Alekseyev reminded Withöft of the example of “the cruiser Varyag” which had “put to sea fearlessly to fight a superior force.”27 Of course, Alekseyev did not mention the fate of the Varyag, though Withöft doubtless knew it had been demolished by heavy Japanese fire and had been scuttled at great cost to its crew.
The refusal of the squadron to put to sea appears as cowardice, but in truth, there was good logic to Withöft’s decision to stay in port. Firstly, Withöft was still under the impression that the Russian Baltic Squadron would arrive by October. So reinforced, the Russian Pacific Squadron would be able to concentrate their force, allowing them to confront Tōgō with “overwhelming Russian battleship superiority,” forcing the Japanese admiral to either abandon the field or face near certain defeat. Port Arthur only needed to hold on for three months, and the war could yet be won. Furthermore, the ships of the Port Arthur squadron were contributing supporting fire to the defenders of the Port, and their mere presence prevented the possibility of a Japanese amphibious attack. In short, “an inert Russian squadron in Port Arthur was of far greater strategic value than a bold squadron at the bottom of the sea.”28
Withöft’s logic had one inherent flaw: the Baltic squadron would not arrive by October, in fact it would not even arrive for another nine months. Alekseyev was “probably aware”29 that this was the case, but neglected to inform the local commander, instead offering only strict and inflexible orders. Under these circumstances, bureaucratic Russian officers responded the only way they could, with fatalistic obedience. Accusations of cowardice on the part of Withöft and his captains are inaccurate: “they were more frightened of failure than death.”30
On August 10th, 1904, the Pacific Squadron put to sea with six battleships, four cruisers, and eight torpedo boats. The Japanese matched them with four battleships, six or seven cruisers, 17 destroyers, and 29 torpedo boats.31 While this did give the Russian fleet a nominal advantage in first-class battleships, two of the six “were the old, lumbering, Poltava and Sevastopol.”32 There seemed to be no doubt of the outcome in the mind of Admiral Withöft, whose last words before stepping onto his flagship were: “Gentlemen, we shall meet in the next world.”33 As the ships of the Port Arthur squadron began their flight for Vladivostok, they “displayed the unwelcome effects of a fleet cooped up in port.”34 Stricken with mechanical issues, Russian engineers worked frantically to achieve the maximal speed of the squadron, while their ships lagged and the formation was repeatedly forced to stop and wait for others to catch up. Later, the Russian gunnery would suffer from a lack of practice as well. As the Russian ships affected their repairs, the faster Japanese ships were also allowed to catch up, and the battle began in earnest at 12:30 PM.35
For the next five hours, the two fleets would shell each other from long range. For most of the battle, the Russians gave as good as they got, scoring powerful hits on the leading Japanese ships, Mikasa, Shikishima, and Asahi. As Mikasa took a number of hits, she, and the Japanese line, began to slow. Tōgō soon found himself trailing behind the Russian fleet. “He had been out-maneuvered” and Vice-Admiral Withöft “had secured the best position possible.”36 Then, as it so often does, pure chance completely changed the course of the battle.
At 5:45 PM, a pair of Japanese 12-inch shells slammed into the bridge of the Russian flagship Tsarevitch, killing Admiral Withöft and all of his staff, and jamming the wheel of Tsarevitch hard over, forcing the Russian flagship into a dramatic circle.37 It was at this point in the battle that the failings of the Russian officer corps became manifest. Contemporary accounts and modern historians agree that “the effort of the Russian ships to fight their way through the Japanese would probably have been successful…had it not been for the disaster to the battleship Tsarevich.”38 Without Withöft, chaos reigned in the Russian fleet. Withöft’s replacement as commander of the squadron was Prince Pavel Petrovich Ukhtomsky. Ukhtomsky’s immediate problem was that his signals mast and lines were shot away, forcing him to signal from the bridge, where only the ships nearest him could see them. However, this was probably the least of the Prince’s problems. As he signaled “follow me” to his ships, Prince Ukhtomsky turned back toward Port Arthur – a somewhat ironic decision given that he had been one of the officers pushing Vice Admiral Withöft to attempt a breakout to Vladivostok in the first place.
Ukhtomsky was not held in any high regard in the Russian Navy. Many in the fleet believed that “he owed his position to connections rather than ability” and he was derided as “a second rate man.”39 His decision to return to Port Arthur made little sense, as the Russian stronghold “could no longer offer a safe haven” and “there was a strong probability that that a significant part of the squadron could have reached Vladivostok.”40 Just as in the forthcoming 1905 revolution, some of the Russian ships simply refused to follow the orders of the nobility, personified by Prince Ukhtomsky. In particular, the light cruiser Novik made a dash for Vladivostok, but was finally defeated after being sighted by a Japanese freighter.41
While the majority of the Russian ships did return to Port Arthur, the Russian mission was a dramatic failure. Although it had lost only one battleship (Tsarevich was forced to shelter in a German port where she was interned), the Port Arthur squadron was so damaged that it would never put to sea again. Russian ground troops were disgusted by this failure, and according to a Russian correspondent, “there was nothing but abuse and curses for the naval officers, from the highest to the lowest.”42 Prince Ukhtomsky’s decision to turn around and return to Port Arthur was an enormous blunder. In so doing, he trapped himself and the squadron in the port, where they would be shelled and sunk, eliminating any value they could have offered to Admiral Rozhestvensky and the Baltic fleet. While he may have feared the loss of most of his ships, “even one battleship at Vladivostok would have been a serious embarrassment for Tōgō when he faced the oncoming Baltic squadron.”43 Instead, Ukhtomsky’s decision removed the Port Arthur squadron entirely from the playing field. This was an immense strategic victory for Japan, who could now use their artillery to sink the Russian ships, while allowing Tōgō and the Navy to prepare for the upcoming battle with the Baltic Squadron.
The Battle of Tsushima was decided well before the Russian and Japanese Fleets met. Admiral Rozhestvensky’s words on the expedition indicate his feelings on the prospects of the mission: “We are doing now what needs to be done still, defending the honor of the flag. It was at a previous stage that another course ought to have been taken….Sacrifice the fleet if need be, but at the same time deliver a fatal blow to Japanese naval power.”44 These words, so drenched in the presumption of defeat and complete fatalism, rival those of Admiral Villeneuve on the eve of Trafalgar as some of the least inspiring in naval history. Rozhestvensky was right of course, he had little hope of defeating the Japanese. His fleet was comprised of untrained officers and crews on brand-new ships, which were as yet untested. He had to sail across the globe, hardly stopping for shore, and having to deal with embarrassments such as the Dogger Bank incident, when his untested and nervous crews mistook British fishing trawlers for Japanese torpedo boats, and began pouring fire into them. This incident caused a great deal of enmity towards Russia, causing the Royal Navy to shadow Rozhestvensky for much of his journey, and a number of other nations to deny him access to their port facilities for resupply. When the time for battle finally came, the Russians were disorganized and unprepared. Untested in battle, their fire was “indifferent and ineffective.”45 The exhausted and overwhelmed Rozhestvensky was badly wounded and could only watch as the Japanese picked his fleet apart.
However, Russia’s naval failures in the Russo-Japanese War cannot be laid entirely on his account. Had the Tsar been able to consolidate his squadrons before giving battle to the Japanese, the outcome of the war would likely have been vastly different. However, without any fleet-wide strategic or operational planning, the Imperial Navy was left disjointed and dispersed, while the Japanese could concentrate their forces in their home waters. What little planning there was took place on a localized level, and was hampered by feckless, disinterested officers, parochial interests, corruption, and nepotism, wasting Russia’s quantitative advantages.
However, perhaps the decisive factor in the Russo-Japanese War was the bureaucratic and indecisive nature of the officers in the Russian Navy. Rather than encourage initiative and free their captains to adapt to the circumstances at hand, Russian naval culture rewarded paper pushers and officers whose crews spent more time cleaning their guns than firing them. Worse still, a gerontocratic Russian state meant that modern techniques and technologies were ignored in favor of the outdated practices of noble officers, who had little interest or ability in naval warfare. Russian officers were thus hesitant in the moments of crisis, incapable of decisive action. Meanwhile, their crews, filled with conscripts and trained for inspections rather than combat, were entirely outmatched by the remarkably professional and extremely well-motivated Imperial Japanese Navy.
Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War was undoubtedly the result of Japanese superiority in a number of critical areas. However, the most telling asymmetry between Japan and Russia in the war was the disparity between their leadership, laid bare in the heat of battle.
Aidan Clarke is an undergraduate student at Furman University, double majoring in History and Politics and International Affairs, with an interest in naval affairs. He has previously researched the U.S.-Soviet naval showdown during the Yom Kippur War, and is currently conducting a research project on the Russo-Japanese War.
1. Nicholas Papastratigakis, Russian Imperialism and Naval Power, Military Strategy and the Build-up to the Russo-Japanese War, 2011, (New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd), 45.
2. Ibid, 46.
3. Ibid, 47; Ibid, 42.
4. Ibid, 48.
5. Ibid, 53.
6. Ibid, 53; J.N. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05. 1986, (New York: State University of New York Press), 1.
7. Ibid 29
8. Papastratigakis, Russian Imperialism and Naval Power, Military Strategy and the Build-up to the Russo-Japanese War, 53.
9. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05. 29.
10. Ibid, 35.
11. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game, 2012, (Annapolis, MD, US Naval Institute Press).
12. Richard Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 1991, (New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, Inc.) 30.
14. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 37.
15. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 30.
16. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 117.
17. Ibid; “Concept of operations” should be understood as the overall strategic or operational objective.
18. Ibid, 38.
19. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 46.
20. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 38.
21. Frederic William Unger, The Authentic History of the War between Russia and Japan, 1904, (Philadelphia: World Bible House), 345.
22. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 31.
23. Connaughton,The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 32.
24. Unger, The Authentic History of the War between Russia and Japan, 344.
25. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 80.
26. Ibid, 81.
27. Ibid, 80.
28. Ibid, 81.
31. Unger, The Authentic History of the War between Russia and Japan, 391; “Japanese Win Naval Battle in Corean Strait,” Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1904, Pg. 1, Accessed via ProQuest Historical Newspapers; Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 172.
32. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 171.
33. Ibid, 172.
35. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 172.
36. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 83.
37. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 85; Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 173.
38. “Japanese Win Naval Battle in Corean Strait,” Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1904, Pg 1.
39. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 174.
40. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 86.
41. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 86; Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 174.
42. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 174.
43. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 86.
44. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 138.
45. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 266.
Connaughton, Richard. The War of the Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 1991.
Gordon, Andrew. The Rules of the Game. Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 2012.
Koda, Yoji. “The Russo-Japanese War—Primary Causes of Japanese Success.” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2.
Papastratigakis, Nicholas Papastratigakis. Russian Imperialism and Naval Power, Military Strategy and the Build-up to the Russo-Japanese War. New York, NY: I.B. Tauris, 2011.
Stone, David R. A Military History of Russia. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2006.
Unger, Frederic William. The Authentic History of the War between Russia and Japan. Edited by Charles Morris. Philidelphia, PA: World Bible House, 1904.
Westwood, J.N. Russia against Japan, 1904-05. New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986.
Featured Image: Print shows, in the foreground, a Russian battleship exploding under bombardment from Japanese battleships; a line of Japanese battleships, positioned on the right, fire on a line of Russian battleships on the left, in a surprise naval assault on the Russian fleet at the Battle of Port Arthur (Lüshun) in the Russo-Japanese War. (Torajirō Kasai/Wikimedia Commons)