Follow by Email

Friday, April 3, 2015


Written for January-February 1995 Issue.
A Naval Wargame:
The Battle of the Balearic Islands, 1904
by Bruno Just
HMS Duncan
Following the Battle of Cape Tres Forcas, fought in the first hours of 1904, (see DESPATCH, Vol.17, No.5), the two antagonists, Great Britain and France, squared off, again, there having been no outright winner and both having been embarrassed by the result. You no doubt recall, dear reader, that Entente Cordiale was still far off, in early 1904, and the two Great Powers were in disagreement over their protectorates in Africa. Neither side wanted nor was prepared for an all-out war, but merely wished to elbow the other off their end of the bench. At the naval engagement off the Moroccan coast, near Cape Tres Forcas,[1] the Royal Navy took more punishment than it gave, losing a battleship in a magazine explosion (shades of Jutland). The fight was, nevertheless, deemed as being inconclusive. Subsequently, the two fleets were refitted, reinforcements included, and then despatched in a hunt for one another.
Naturally, after Tres Forcas, the Fleet Street Press hailed the result as a British victory over the uncouth
HMS London
French, the truth being a surmountable obstacle to the clever journalist, because the French Navy had not achieved their objective of discouraging the British. Rear-Admiral Sir Malcolm MacEntaire, K.B.E., D.S.O. & Bar, was immediately promoted to Vice-Admiral, and given command of the Western Mediterranean Station. (One must keep in mind that one's victory on the battlefield - or on the seas -  was not the sole, nor most important criterion for promotion in the British Senior Service. Position counted for much, as did good breeding, good connections and a good nose for wine). Sir Malcolm's Second-in-Command, Rear-Admiral Commanding Gibraltar Squadron, Donald, Viscount Islay, K.C.B.E., D.S.O. and (very well stocked) Bar was greatly disappointed at this turn of events. Viscount Islay knew, in his own mind, at least, and without the slightest shadow of a doubt, that he, being a lord, was eminently more qualified for the post than a mere knight. Sir Malcolm was even touted for the plum South Pacific Station, based on the West coast of South America. He would, indeed, be despatched there, if he had another such victory over the French.
HMS Drake
Spring was in the air. The green grass nudged gleefully through the brown soddy earth. Every European stream had enthusiastically thrown off its mantle of ice and become a torrent swollen with the melted snows, racing to the deep blue sea at the speed of a steam locomotive. Spring! Ah! the fragrance of a field of flowers! Liberating Spring! Bodies imprisoned inside bodices and woollen waistcoats finally freely exposed themselves to the natural heat of the sun and cleansing sweet water. And every youthful heart was bursting with passion for life and directed at the opposite sex, (except for one or two illogical variants). The biological necessity was paramount and drew human beings together, two by two, like the animals to Noah's arc, to romanticise and consummate an activity simply physical, that of Eros, made complicated by the psychological, Psyche.
In the vicinity of two uninhabited islands off the Balearics, south of Majorca, the huge, mechanical hearts of
HMS Hermes
great iron men-of-war throbbed out a symphony - a warlike clank and hiss of the age of steam, as two pre-Dreadnought[2] fleets attracted each other to consummate a different ritual, that of Thanatos.
The fleets looked magnificent skiing through the glass-calm sea at nine o'clock of the morning. The coal-black hulls set off the yellow brass fittings and muzzle rings of their numerous breech-loading cannon, ensconced in steel casemates. Their virgin white superstructures gleamed in the sun. Ochre-yellow funnels, ringed in red in the French Navy, poured forth billowing grey-black smoke, as they increased revolutions sufficient for a cruising speed the envy of the sailing men-of-war of the previous century: twelve knots.
HMS Hyacinth
Sailing around the Western side of the Northern island, on a heading of 150o, the Royal Navy steamed in two divisions, in line astern. The starboard line included the battleships "Duncan" (Fleet Flagship of Sir Malcolm MacEntaire)[3] and "London", the armoured cruiser "Drake" (Lord Islay's[4] Flagship), the light cruisers "Hermes" (Flag of Commodore Sir Shamus Hawkins, K.B.E.[5]) and "Hyacinth". The port division consisted of the Torpedo Boat Destroyer Flotilla, being  "Cygnet", "Cynthia", S100 and S101, under the iron hand of Captain Benjamin Seawole.[6] The French Navy was discovered steaming on a South-South-Westerly course, also in two divisions. The battleships "Suffren" (Flag of Vice-Amiral Marin)[7] and "Charlemagne" accompanied by the armoured cruiser "Gloire" (Flag of Commodore Marco Langehorst)[8], in line astern, were in the starboard line. The port line consisted of the light cruisers "Jurien de la Graviere" (Flagship of Contre-Amiral Count Breton de Bernadotte)[9] and "Guichen", and the Torpedo Boat Destroyer Flotilla, five vessels under Capitaine de Vaisseau Stefan Laine de Mer[10], assisted by Capitaine de Fregate Cheng Ho[11] (a brilliant Colonial recruit from France's Chinese possessions).
Having spied the French rear, disappearing in a curtain of coal smoke toward the South, the delight aboard
FS Suffren
the British Flagship was great. Immediately, Sir Malcolm gave the signal for a general chase. "After the fox!" was hoisted to be read by the Boatswains of the fleet to the Officers of the Bridge. This was followed by: "Maintain 12 knots and formation."
Lord Islay was sitting on a canvas chair in the stern of his Flagship, sipping his first Scotch of the day and quietly contemplating the white wake made by H.M.S. "Drake", when a young, out-of-breath Midshipman approached him at a gallop with the news. Milord observed the youth's o'erhasty approach and sighed in anticipation of having his quietude interrupted, even ended.
FS Charlemagne
"Sir! The French has been sighted, Sir! The Captain sends his compliments, Sir." It was as he had thought. Donald, Viscount Islay, fished out his fob-watch from the well of his waist-coat pocket. The sun reflected on the gold causing the Midshipman to whince. O-nine-thirty.
"At what distance?" he enquired.
"20,000 yards, Sir," was the reply.
"Then, my boy, we have time for another round. Give my compliments to the Captain and tell him that I shall join him on the bridge, presently." The young cadet retreated. Lord Islay held his crystal glass up to the sun as if admiring the golden colour of its liquid contents. The sun-light refracted through the crystal in myriad rainbow hues. He seemed to obtain much ocular pleasure from the effect. Self-congratulatory pleasure came, too, from his apposite resposte, clearly reminiscent of Sir Francis Drake, at bowls, waiting for the Spanish Armada to slowly, tack up the Maniche[12]. Synchronistically, the Admiral's command was the 1903-commissioned, armoured cruiser "Drake". Five hundred and thirty-three feet long, and capable of over 25 knots, "Drake" was the largest and fastest Navy vessel afloat, apart from the torpedo boat destroyers. At 14,150 tons, it was heavier than the "Duncan" class of battleship by 150 tons and was crewed by 900 men, exceeding the "Duncans" by 150. The extra size was due to the additional machinery needed to increase the speed. It made it into a vessel which could steam great distances and overhaul most warships. Then, its two, single 9.2" turrets and 16 x 6" guns could blow out of the water anything but a battleship of a major naval Power. Battleships of the Central Powers, originally belonging to the traditions of coastal navies, with their 9.4" main batteries, could still find themselves in the proverbial hot water when faced with the "Drake" class of panzer-kruizer.
The order for the French force was: "Turn in succession 90o. Increase speed to 18 knots." The French sailed
FS Gloire
majestically around the South Island and then steamed North parallel to the Royal Navy steaming South. As they drew closer, the big calibres boomed, chordite smoke rendering the ships invisible from time to time. At a range of 11,000 yards, the shells were plummeting down at a steep angle when the "Duncan" was hit in the forward magazine, through the decks, by a salvo of two, 12" shells from the "Suffren". A tremendous dark red flame and a huge pillar of smoke rose high up in the air as the "Duncan" was rent asunder by a shattering explosion. Within moments, all that could be seen of the brave ship were the prow and the stern pointing heavenward and a boiling maelstrom of water and hissing steam between. Miraculously, Sir Malcolm, having absented himself for a minute due to a call of nature, was, at the very moment that the shells hit, climbing an outside companionway and was thrown by the blast upon the merciful waters, the only survivor.
Lord Islay had his chance: he was now fleet commander! He unleashed the Torpedo Boat Destroyers and light cruisers, keeping a tight rein over his remaining battleship working in tandem with "Drake". Simultaneously, Amiral Marin gave his light forces their head as well. With heavy calibre shells passing overhead, the torpedo vessels made passes at each other and threatened the major units. At the end of the day, the Royal Navy had lost 1 battleship and 3 destroyers, while the French had had 2 destroyers sunk and 1 battleship badly damaged and the rest of the fleet requiring months of repairs.
Once more, the fight was inconclusive. There was nothing for it but to lick one's wounds and come out to do battle at a later date. Sir Malcolm was temporarily posted to the South Pacific and Amiral Marin was given an important desk post monitoring barge traffic on the River Seine - which he loved, as it gave him ample opportunity to visit the Moulin Rouge. Donald, Viscount Islay, on the other hand was given the onerous task of refitting and commanding the Royal Navy's West Mediterranean Station.

[1] You won't find this naval action recorded in the history books as this chapter was deemed too dishonourable for two honourable nations, who became firm friends a mere decade after, to record. This is nothing new; many things have been kept out of history books. Public scrutiny of national affairs is a modern prerogative seldom honoured, in any case.
[2] Naturally, they did not know that they were pre-Dreadnoughts and that they would spawn the Dreadnought battleship, of 1906, and a useless naval arms race which would not fulfil anyone's expectations..
[3] John McIntyre.
[4] Don McIntyre.
[5] Sean Matthews.
[6] Ben Woolmer.
[7] Bruno Just.
[8] Mark Brown-Longhurst.
[9] Brett Kvisle.
[10] Steve Woolmer.
[11] Dr Hiew Chee-Yan.
[12] It is known as the English Channel only in British atlases. They do share this sleeve of water with the French, you know.

No comments:

Post a Comment