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December 03, 2003

More on the Portsmouth visit ...

After visiting HMS Victory, we walked around to where HMS Warrior is berthed and the contrast between the "wooden walls" of Nelson and the technological leap forward of the armoured iron ship, is quite striking.


HMS Victory mounted 104 cannon in broadside batteries, ranging from 12 pounders on the upper tier, through 24 pounders on the middle gun deck and 32 pounders on the lower gun deck. She also had 68 pounder "Smashers" or Carronades on her fo'castle. These last were short range weapons firing a 68 pound hollow iron ball filled with musket balls or scrap iron. It burst on impact. I leave the rest to your imagination. Suffice it to say that one shot from one of Victories carronades struck the French flagships mizzen mast directly above the French Admirals staff. Its my guess that Villeneuve lost the battle at that point.

HMS Warrior, by contrast has fewer guns, but a heavier broadside. She is equipped with 68 pounder muzzle loading iron cannon and breech loading 110 pounder Armstrong guns at either end of the main battery and one of these monsters on the fo'castle and one one the quarterdeck. These can be trained through about a 150* arc. They are also rifled guns making them a great deal more accurate at longer range than the smooth bore muzzle loaders designed for close in smashing power.

But, it is in the engine room that the greatest contrast strikes you. Here there are ten boilers, producing steam for the huge two cylinder horizontal engine. It was this that made this ship the giant revolutionary leap forward. The engine develops enough power to drive this ship at a speed of 14 knots without the wind. Even under sail this ship could (and did) achieve speeds of up to 12 knots. This is four knots faster than ships like the Victory could achieve in ideal sailing conditions, and under her engines, 6 knots faster than most sailing vessels she was built to replace.

We then crossed the anchorage to Fort Blockhouse and the Submarine Museum. Here the contrast between the ships we had just seen was even more marked. Our first stop was with the preserved "Holland 1". The Royal Navy's first operational submarine. Ironically she survives because she sank on tow to the breakers yard and was not worth salvaging. A further irony is that she was built to a design by an Irish emigrant to America who hated the British and had developed his designs for the Fenian Society - a group dedicated to destroying the British Empire. Holland fell out with them and sold his designs to the British. Perhaps, when all is said and done, not such a rebel after all.

Having walked around this craft and gone into it, I am more than ever convinced that the men who sailed this tiny boat and her successors were either certifiably insane, or the bravest men imaginable. Alongside the preserved Holland 1 is an even tinier boat, X-24, one of the "midget" submarines developed for penetrating enemy harbours and planting two four ton "charges" under the hulls of enemy battle ships. It was three of these that irreparably damaged the Tirpitz and left her at the mercy of the RAF and their 12,000 pound "Tallboy" bombs, it was another of these that sank the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao in Singapore harbour in 1944.

When I looked around me at the obstacles that the men who manned these ships had surmounted and at the achievements of the nation and the peoples who made up that nation in creating the technology and the traditions, ethos, and heritage of which we are the inheritors, I felt an immense pride to be a part of that lineage.

I also felt a huge sadness at the the thought that all their hardship, all their achievement is today being denigrated and wasted by an ignorant and arrogant bunch of political wastrels and a civil service whose only purpose is to preserve to themselves the power they have seized from the electorate.

The men of HMS Victory would have had to sail their clumsy and demanding ship, in cramped conditions and living on one hot meal a day, made from dried vegetables and rotting salted meat, around the Cape for six to nine months to reach the Far East and Australia. It was no mean feat and explains a great deal about why the Europeans felt it necessary to secure their trading arrangments at the end of such a voyage. It was on their efforts to secure the trade, and upon their successors efforts to secure the freedom to trade that we all depend today. We dishonour them if we forget this, and we throw away a vast heritage if we become so self absorbed that we do not continue to build upon their achievements.

Where now are the inventors, the innovators and the madmen prepared to risk everything to try out their seemingly lunatic ideas?

It was stunning to see in the same dockyard, HMS Victory, HMS Mary Rose (Henry VIII's flagship!), HMS Warrior, Holland 1, HMS Alliance (Diesel electric submarine), HMS Invincible (Aircraft carrier) and assorted missile Frigates, Destroyers and Mine hunters, with, slipping quietly and unobtrusively into a berth, Holland 1's ultimate successor, a truly submersible Nautilis from Jules Vernes, one of the newest Nuclear Submarines, in port for a brief training visit.

Long may our Naval tradition survive, despite the ravages of politicians and self seeking civil servants.

Posted by The Gray Monk at December 3, 2003 12:49 PM