Archives For Mediterranean Sea

Battle of the Nile

August 1, 2013 — 3 Comments
Aboukir Bay

Battle of the Nile by Thomas George Webster
CC Image Courtesy of Black County Museums on Flickr

The boy stood on the burning deck

Whence all but he had fled;

The flame that lit the battle’s wreck

Shone round him o’er the dead.

Two hundred fifteen years ago today, Admiral Horatio Nelson pounced upon the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, Egypt. By early morning the next day, Nelson and his fleet had captured or destroyed nearly every French ship and ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s dreams of a French Egypt and the destruction of Britain’s colonial holdings in India. Alternatively called the Battle of the Nile or the Battle of Aboukir Bay, the action would later be immortalized in the poem Casabiana by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, the first stanza of which is above.

For two months in the summer of 1798, Nelson fruitlessly tracked the French fleet across the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the French used the time to capture the island of Malta and land an army of troops and scholars in Egypt. Although the French troops eventually were defeated, the scholars scored a victory for the ages when they discovered the Rosetta Stone.

After finally catching up with the French fleet in Egypt, Nelson wasted no time in daringly dividing his forces and launching an attack on the French fleet. Dividing his forces allowed the British fleet to engulf the French in a deadly crossfire and after three hours much of the French fleet had been destroyed. Capping the battle was the violent destruction of the French flagship L’Orient caused by a fire reaching one of the ship’s magazines.

spy ship

USS Liberty
Photo Courtesy of US Navy

Today marks the forty-sixth anniversary of a tragic and deadly encounter between the US Navy and the Israeli Defense Force. Four days into the Six-Day War, the US Navy intelligence ship USS Liberty was operating off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula. The ship had been ordered to withdraw from the area, however, miscommunication had resulted in the ship keeping its station in an area hotly contested by Israeli and Egyptian forces.

Mistaking the vessel for an Egyptian warship, the Israeli Air Force and Navy launched an attack on the ship which left 34 American servicemen dead and 171 injured. In the years since the attack, anti-semites and conspiracy theorists have used the attack to paint the Israeli state as an enemy of the United States and a perpetrator of an assault on an unarmed vessel. Numerous investigations have refuted these allegations and, indeed, it would have been against Israeli interests to alienate the United States as the Israeli people faced threats from all sides. Ultimately, miscommunication and the fog of war resulted in a tragic loss of life and only fueled the fires of those who seek to wipe the nation of Israel from the map.

Greek Battleship

Greek Battleship Kilkis Sunk at Anchor
Photo: Wrecksite

On April 6, 1941, the Axis powers launched Operation Marita – an all out invasion of Greece. Two weeks later, on April 23rd, the Luftwaffe dispatched a swarm of Ju-87 dive bombers to strike Greece’s principal naval facilities at Salamis. Caught in port during the raid were the obsolete Greek battleships Limnos and Kilkis. The ships had originally been built for the US Navy in the early 1900s and were sold to Greece in 1914. At the time of the raid, Limnos was merely serving as a floating barracks; however, Kilkis had found more gainful employment as a floating battery to support Greek ground units. The Luftwaffe strike force made quick work of the battleships and by the end of the raid both were resting on the port’s shallow bottom. Following the war, both ships were salvaged for scrap.

Ramming Speed

April 4, 2013 — Leave a comment
battering ram

Athenian Trireme
CC Image Courtesy of Yannis on Flickr

Nearly 50 years ago, British divers off the coast of Libya discovered a metal object that turned out to be a 44 pound bronze ram from a Greek or Roman warship. Only recently, though, has a thorough analysis of the object, dubbed the Belgammel Ram, been conducted and the results have been published in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. Dr. Flemming of the UK’s National Oceanography Centre brought together a scientific team with skill sets ranging from radiocarbon dating to metallurgy to 3-D imaging.

The ram had been previously established as not the primary ram found at the waterline of a ship, but rather a secondary ram termed a proembolion which would have “served to break the oars of an enemy ship.” Through the use of radiocarbon dating, the team established that the ram had originally been attached to a ship dating from 100 BC to 100 AD. 3-D imaging by Dr. Jon Adams of the University of Southampton revealed decorative images of tridents with a bird motif on the ram. Additionally, metallurgical sampling of the ram helped further archaeologists understanding of casting techniques from ancient times. Following the study, the Belgammel Ram will be returned to a museum in Libya.


Photo: Wrecksite

Less than a hundred years ago, Austria wasn’t a landlocked central European nation, but a large empire with a coastline stretching from Trieste in the north to modern day Montenegro in the south. During this period, ocean liners of  Lloyd Triestino plied back between Austria-Hungary and other locales throughout the Mediterranean, Middle East, India and Far East. Among those liners was the SS Wien, a 7,767 ton liner built in 1911 and named for the Austrian capital of Vienna. Upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the ship was requisitioned by the Austrian Navy for service as a hospital ship. During the war she served in both the Austrian and German navies until a mere ten days before Armistice Day. On November 1, 1918, Italian frogmen launched a mission that resulted in the successful sinking of the Wien.

Raised in 1921 and renamed Vienna, the ship returned to service as a liner and had her name changed yet again to Po – a name change which better reflected her post-war Italian ownership. The Po was again requisitioned for service as a hospital ship, this time for the Italian Regia Marina. On March 14, 1941 the Po was sunk by British aircraft in Valona Bay off the coast of Albania. Thus the ship suffered the ignominy of having been sunk in both World Wars.

Cartagena Coastline

Coast off Cartagena, Spain
CC Image Courtesy of Begona Martinez on Flickr

Civil wars are always tragic affairs with brother turned against brother and a country ripped asunder over conflicting social, economic or political visions. The Spanish Civil War of 1936 – 1939 was especially tragic, though, as the country became a proxy battlefield for the two nastiest political philosophies of the 20th century – communism and national socialism. Units from the Soviet Union supported the Republicans while forces from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy operated in support of the Nationalists under Francisco Franco. All three outside actors used the conflict as an opportunity to hone the tactics they would employ in World War II, among them terrorizing civilian populations with airstrikes such as that of Guernica.

The largest naval battle of the war occurred on March 6, 1938 and flowed directly from international involvement in the conflict. Nationalist naval forces including heavy cruisers Baleares and Canarias were escorting a convoy of war material from Italy when they happened upon a Republican force of two light cruisers and five destroyers off the coast of Cartagena, Spain. At first it seemed as if a pitched battle would be avoided as the squadrons passed one another and made no serious effort to engage the other. The Republicans, though, later decided to pursue the Nationalist forces and around 2:15am the exchange of naval gunfire began.

Nationalist Heavy Cruiser BalearesPhoto: Wrecksite

Nationalist Heavy Cruiser Baleares
Photo: Wrecksite

Unbeknownst to the Nationalist force, the Republican squadron had detached its destroyer escort which launched a torpedo attack on the Nationalists’ heavy cruisers. Two or three torpedoes struck home on the Baleares and caused a catastrophic explosion in her forward magazine. The bow of the ship quickly sank, taking with her 765 crew and officers, while the stern remained afloat and sheltered her 441 remaining crewmen from death. The rest of the Nationalist force withdrew and two Royal Navy destroyers intervened to rescue the survivors.

Although not strategically significant, the battle, which came to be known as the Battle of Cape Palos, did serve as a propaganda victory for the waning Republican cause. During the 1970s, a second Baleares, a guided missile frigate,  joined the Spanish Navy and was recently retired.

Edward Pellew

Stephen Taylor’s latest book, Commander, documents the life of Edward Pellew, a British naval officer who rose to fame during the Napoleonic Wars. Taylor builds on the work of two previous biographies to present the most complete and balanced description of a man considered to be the greatest frigate captain of the Royal Navy. Most Americans, and perhaps many British citizens, associate Pellew with the same-named fictional commander of HMS Indefatigable in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. Pellew, though, is considered the inspiration (along with Sir Thomas Cochrane) for Forester’s Hornblower character as well as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey character.

Taylor meticulously documents Pellew’s entire life including his youth in Cornwall, his path to the sea, and his early service in the American Revolution on the Great Lakes. Relying on personal correspondence and the efforts of Pellew’s son at preserving his father’s legacy, Taylor reconstructs for the reader Pellew’s various single ship commands and joint operations, including his most famous command, HMS Indefatigable. Especially noteworthy is the behind the scene squabbles that occurred between Pellew and various members of the British nobility and naval establishment.

For instance, while serving as commander of the Indian naval station, Pellew engaged in rigorous conflict with the Admiralty in England as well as another commander on station. Taylor highlights how this particular conflict not only hurt Pellew’s career, but also prevented the taking of the French island of Mauritius (an idea Pellew was pursuing) until later in the war. As a result, French privateers and men of war continued to operate from Mauritius at great cost to British shipping. Taylor concludes with Pellew’s masterful victory over the Barbary Pirates at Algiers in August 1816 and his retirement in England.

Overall, Taylor presents the reader with a well-documented and readable account of Pellew’s life. While some readers may wish for more swashbuckling tales a la Horatio Hornblower, Taylor’s intent was to present a well-rounded account of Pellew’s entire life and not just the daring exploits for which he became famous. Commander is an excellent read and anyone wishing to better understand the Napoleonic Wars and a central figure from them would do well to purchase and read it.