Saturday, 16 February 2013

Coastal defence artillery in action ... in fiction

One of my favourite books is Sir Winston Churchill's SAVROLA: A TALE OF THE REVOLUTION IN LAURANIA. It was his only novel, and it was written in the last years on the nineteenth century.

The book inspired me to 'create' my own version of Laurania, but it also contains the only fictional description of a battle between warships and coastal defences that I can remember reading. It forms part of Chapter XXI, entitled THE RETURN OF THE FLEET.
The Admiral, signalling for half-speed, picked his way towards the mouth of the channel cautiously. It was so contrived that a vessel in passing must be exposed to a cross-fire from the heavy guns in the batteries. The actual passage was nearly a mile wide, but the navigable channel itself was dangerously narrow and extremely difficult. De Mello, who knew every foot of it, led the way in the Fortuna; the two cruisers, Sorato and Petrarch followed; the gunboat Rienzi was next, and the other battleship, Saldanho brought up the rear. The signal was made to clear for action; the men were beat to quarters; the officers went to their posts, and the fleet, assisted by a favourable tide, steamed slowly towards the entrance.

The rebel gunners wasted no time in formalities. As the Fortuna came into the line of fire, two great bulges of smoke sprang from the embrasures; the nine-inch guns of the seaward battery were discharged. Both shells flew high and roared through the masts of the warship, which increased her speed to seven knots and stood on her course followed by her consorts. As each gun of the forts came to bear, it was fired, but the aim was bad, and the projectiles ricocheted merrily over the water, raising great fountains of spray, and it was not until the leading ship had arrived at the entrance of the channel, that she was struck.

A heavy shell, charged with a high explosive, crashed into the port-battery of the Fortuna, killing and wounding nearly sixty men, as well as dismounting two out of the four guns. This roused the huge machine; the forward turret revolved and, turning swiftly towards the fort, brought its great twin guns to bear. Their discharge was almost simultaneous, and the whole ship staggered with the violence of the recoil. Both shells struck the fort and exploded on impact, smashing the masonry to splinters and throwing heaps of earth into the air; but the harm done was slight. Safe in their bomb-proofs, the rebel gunners were exposed only to the danger of missiles entering the embrasures; while such guns as fired from barbette mountings were visible only at the moment of discharge.

Nevertheless the great ship began literally to spout flame in all directions, and her numerous quick-firing guns searched for the embrasures, sprinkling their small shells with prodigal rapidity. Several of these penetrated, and the rebels began to lose men. As the ships advanced, the cross-fire grew hotter, and each in succession replied furiously. The cannonade became tremendous, the loud explosions of the heavy guns being almost drowned by the incessant rattle of the quick firers; the waters of the harbour were spotted all over with great spouts of foam, while the clear air showed the white smoke-puffs of the bursting shells. The main battery of the Fortuna was completely silenced. A second shell had exploded with a horrid slaughter, and the surviving sailors had fled from the scene to the armoured parts of the vessel; nor could their officers induce them to return to that fearful shambles, where the fragments of their comrades lay crushed between masses of senseless iron. The sides of the ships were scored and torn all over, and the copious streams of water from the scuppers attested the energy of the pumps. The funnel of the Fortuna had been shot off almost level with the deck, and the clouds of black smoke floating across her quarters drove the gunners from the stern-turret and from the after-guns. Broken, dismantled, crowded with dead and dying, her vitals were still uninjured, and her captain, in the conning tower, feeling that she still answered the helm, rejoiced in his good fortune and held on his course.

The cruiser Petrarch had her steam steering-gear twisted and jammed by a shell, and becoming unmanageable grounded on a sandbank. The forts, redoubling their fire, began to smash her to pieces. She displayed a white flag and stopped firing: but of this no notice was taken, and as the other ships dared not risk going ashore in helping her, she became a wreck and blew up at three o'clock with a prodigious report.

The Saldanho who suffered least and was very heavily armoured, contrived to shelter the gunboat a good deal, and the whole fleet passed the batteries after forty minutes' fighting and with a loss of two hundred and twenty men killed and wounded, exclusive of the entire crew of the Petrarch who were all destroyed. The rebel loss was about seventy, and the damage done to the forts was slight. But it was now the turn of the sailors. The city of Laurania was at their mercy.
One incident that might have inspired Churchill's description was the Royal Navy's bombardment of Zanzibar on 27th August 1896. The fighting lasted thirty eight minutes, and it is reported to be the shortest war in history


  1. The Dancing Cake Tin,

    It is one of the things that has inspired me to carry on with this ship vs. coastal defence 'project'.

    All the best,


  2. Savrola available here:

  3. Pat G,

    Thanks for the link. I have a copy of the book, but others might like to read it online or to download it.

    All the best,