The Battle of Salamis (480 BC)

Greek cities vs. Persian Empire (480 BC)


Salamis (its Greek name) certainly the largest and most decisive naval battles of all times, and is often cited as the most preeminent naval battle of the antiquity. It is often associated in that regard to the sea peoples battles of the bronze age, Actium, Lepanto, Trafalgar, and closer to us, Jutland and Midway. Due to the time it happened and records of that time lost, we are not sure of the date, only of a general consensus allows to consider September as the month it happened.

What is certain however, it was massive in scale, just and like at Lepanto which is often compared, pitted against each others entire coalitions of nations and empires. On one side, Several Greek league city-states led by Athens, and on the other, the mighty Persian Empire, made of several nation’s fleets. At stakes, the future of Greece, its independence towards the Persian Empire, then on the rise, capitalizing on tired city-states rivalling against each others. After its defeat, Persia would only play the arbiter between Greek leagues during the Peloponnesian war which started in 430 BC. It was a decisive victory, showing the skills of the Greeks in their home waters, as well as some chance. It became a symbol for Athens, it immense pride, fuelling the prestige of its navy for the centuries to come, an heritage carried out by modern Greece.

Map of the Mediterranean around 480 BC – Greco Persian wars

Context of the battle

The Greek-Persian wars was the result of several factors:
-The recent and seemingly rise of the Persian Empire, greeted by particularly competent kings since the origins
-The ambiguous position of some city-states and diplomatic skills of the Persians
-The tolerance policy of the Persians, seductive for those not willing to commit to war
-The uneasy alliances of city states and rivalry between leagues

The Ionian revolt

Bronze age Greek settlers

The background of this conflict could be found in the the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, many Greeks fleeing eastwards, emigrating in Asia Minor, settling on the western coast. Soon, with links with the Aegean islands that made coasting with small cargo ships easier, and links to their homeland, they flourished through trade, connected to the eastern trade networks. This “Ionian invasion” is not however similar to the later colonization of the Mediterranean, with colonies and Emporions as far as Spain, North Africa or the Black sea. Among the settlers of this first migration were also Dorians and Aeolians. They urbanized Lydia and Caria, founding twelve city-states in Ionia, soon famous, but also Miletus, Myus and Priene in Caria and Ephesus, Colophon, Lebedos, Teos, Clazomenae, Phocaea and Erythrae in Lydia, plus later the islands of Samos and Chios. They soon crated a sacred place for yearly meetings, games and religious festivals at the Panionion. In all but form, they would create a ‘cultural league’, but this was still not a political entity, such as later greek leagues led by a strategos.

Athenian support of the Ionian city-states

Another point behind the war, was the relations between the new Empires and the city-states of Greece. In 507 BC, Artaphernes, brother of Darius I, was the Satrap of Asia Minor, ruled from Sardis. He received an embassy from Athens, under Cleisthenes, which just established its democracy and searched fir some support against Sparta. Artaphernes which did know about the Athenian alledged asked them for a symbolic offer of “Water and Earth”, Persian symbol of submission, for help, which Athenians probably baffled ambassadors accepted. However Artaphernes advised them to receive the back the tyrant Hippias they just threw out. The Athenians refused the ambassadors proposal and disavowed them back home. Under this promissed submission and rejection of the ambassadors, and later forceful intervention in the Ionian revolt, the Achaemenid King decided it was time for retaliation. This was the start of the war, taking place on the coast during the Ionian revolt.

greco persian wars

Lydian rule: Croesus campaign and fall

They remained independent until conquered by the Lydians. They themselves were at war with the Median Empire later, but reached a settlement. From 560 BC however, the famous Lydian king Croesus set about conquering the other Greek city states of Asia Minor. A few years after, a Persian prince, Cyrus led a rebellion against the Median King and won. The Persian Empire was born, and soon, led by bright and ambitious rulers, quickly became the greatest Empire known to man to that point. The border between Lydia and Persia, the river Halys, held, but perhaps because a misinterpretation of the oracle of Delphi, the Lydian King believed he would crush the Persian Empire with ease.
At the contrary, he was soundly defeated and his Empire was added to Persia. The latter had problems with the independent-minded Ionians. Cyrus tried to work with local aristocrats but they were squabbling between each other and had limited powers due to the more democratic regimes of these city-states. They found a way by sponsoring local would-be Tyrants (the title does not reflect their ancient nature, far less autocratic), which power was backed by Persian garrisons. This situation only made matters worse, and the Ionians rose in rebellion.

508 BC, Athenian ambassadors are presented a symbolic demand for earth and water by the Persians

The Ionian revolt starts

The first part of the war was the armies raised by Aeolis, Doris, Cyprus, and Caria under a military strategos to led a general revolt covering most of western Asia Minor, against Persian rule. It would last from 499 to 493 BC. This went beyond, as several tyrants were expelled, killed, or joined the rebellion, led by Milesian tyrants Histiaeus and Aristagoras. The latter gathered his armies and marched on Artaphernes, and started by conquering Naxos. This was a debacle and he instead tried to ignite a revolt in the whole of Ionia. One year into the war, in 498 BC, he received reinforcements from Athens and Eretria, and the Ionian army gathered and marched on Sardis, which was taken, plundered and burnt. This was quite a blow for Persia, which soon arrived, catch the Ionians on their way back and crushed them at the Battle of Ephesus. After this initial success in 497 BC, a new, massive Persian army arrived, headed by Darius, then separated in three, each targeting areas of rebel territories. However soon Caria joined the fight, and the largest, led by Darius rushed in Caria. However after initial success, he was ambushed at the Battle of Pedasus. The situation stalemated in 496-495 BC, with sweeps and skirmishes on both sides.

Another map showing Persian moves and battles of the war SRC

Persian all-out total war

By 494 BC the Persian forced came with a revenge, both a new, massive army assisted from the coast by an equally impressive navy. Regrouped, they headed straight for the epicenter of the rebellion at Miletus. The small Ionian fleet (in comparison) at first was deployed to defend Miletus by sea but it was crushed at the Battle of Lade. At the last moment, the Samians fleet defected (Persian gold ?). Miletus was besieged by sea and land and eventually captured: Its population was enslaved. This crippling blow as this was the Ionian revolt capital, ended the rebellion. The Carians surrendered soon afterwards. In 493 BC the Persians subdued the remainder of rebellious cities, installing garrisons and their own men in command as tyrants. The Greek west coast was now definitively under Persian rule. A peace settlement for the whole of Ionia, which largely depended on trade from these cities, was agreed for, estimated by Herodotus under “just and fair conditions”. The Ionian Revolt was however only the first phase of the Greco-Persian Wars.
Darius was now free to turn to the greatest support of Ionian cities, Athens, and Eretria in a second phase. At that time, the political situation in Greece was tense and city-states were divided. Darius estimated the time was ripe for conquest.

Naval Encyclopedia own map summarizing the Greco-Persian wars
Naval Encyclopedia own map summarizing the Greco-Persian wars

The Battle of Lade, 494 BC

This was the epic naval battle that pretty much decided for the fate of the Ionian cities.
This crushing Persian naval victory eliminated all hopes for the Ionians to protect their coast against Persian rampage and blocus, onlt the Athenian Navy could help (which it failed to do, embroiled in local disputes). Miletus was the theater of this titanic clash, on the southern side of a very large bay, at mouth of the Maeander River. Lade was an island off the coast, west of the city-state. Lade and Miletus were inland with a river running north of them.

Ionian leaders met at the Panionium, the sacred local sanctuary, located on the northern side of Mount Mycale, opposite side of the Maeander estuary. It was by then decided to create the largest navy under a single command, built and financed by all Ionian city-states and that the defeat of the Persian fleet was the condition to defend Miletus by land (as soon as the city could be supplied). In total, the Ionian funded the launch of 353 ships. Individual contingents depended of each one of them. The Milesians made the eastern wing of the battlefleet with 80 ships, a fourth of it, and Next was the Prienean fleet, only 12 ships, followed by Myous (3), Teos (18), Chios (100), Erythrae (8), Phocaea (3). Non-ionian cities provided an additional 70 ships from Lesbos (Aeolia) and the Samians at the western side (60 ships).

The burning of Sardis

Despite of this armada, the Ionians were outnumbered by the Persian fleet, estimated by ancient authors to be around 600 vessels, nearly twice as much. The bul was constituted from smal and relativly light Egyptian vessels while the most numerous and best were from Phoenicia. In addition, tyrants expelled from the Ionian cities returned wit their own small private fleets. At Miletus a stand-off battle started, with no clear victory in sight, lowering the morale of the Ionian fleet. Herodotus reported that Dionysius, the experienced commander of the Phocaean was given command of the fleet and ordered training, which was refused by the Ionian fleets, which refused to cooperate at any level after a week of intense exercizes, probably due to the small weight of the Phocanean fleet compared to the others.

Herodotus also reported an efficient Persian moral campaign, with messaged delivered by former tyrants to their relative cities, with the threat of enslavement and destruction if they decided to go on on this revolt. Only the Samians at first fell to this, believing the war couldn’t be won, provoked by the collapse of discipline in the Ionian fleet army and navy. The Persian fleet departed to attack the Ionians, which formed up into a single column. Herodotus provides no clues as what fleet was best among the Ionians, but the Persians had a decisive advantage as soon as
the Samians left the fleet and sailed away, only 11 ships staying behind to defend the cause. Still, with 50+ less warships, the situation was made even more difficult, compounded by the low morale. Following the defeat, Samos was spared by the Persians. But as they departed, the whole Lesbian contingent went with them.

Heorodotus also reported the rest of the Ionian fleet fought on with vigor, notably the Chian fleet, even inflicting heavy losses on the Persian fleet. Eventually they were all surrounded and overwhelmed by marines troops. A few surviving Chian warships fled towards the north across the bay, and ended on the beach of the southern shores of Mount Mycale. They soon departed for the Ephesian territory, but were ambushed there by the latter because of a long rivalry between Chios and Ephesus, or possible misidentification, but that’s dubious. For the Persian fleet it was not a promenade either but they simply overran the Ionian fleet, which allowed later to besiege Miletus by sea.

Second phase of the war (492-490 BC): Persian invasions

Mardonius campaign

492 BC Mardonius’ campaign: Darius’s son-in-law Mardonius took back Thrace (a part of the Persian empire since 513 BC). This backward area was divided between quarelling tribes, it was easy to pay some as mercenaries against others. Mardonius’s army then arrived at the gates of Macedon, and persuaded the king to become his client, formerly a vassal with more autonomy. Mardonius’s fleet however was destroyed by a storm off the coast of Mount Athos. Later his camp was raided by a Thracian tribe, forcing the remnant of his forces to sail back to Persia. Darius in 493 BC sent ambassadors to all Greek city-states, asking each time the same submission gifts. Only Athens and Sparta refused. Both instead executed the ambassadors, further infuriating Darius and took a year and a half preparing a military campaign, sending his trusted generals Datis and Artaphernes in 490 BC.

Datis & Artaphernes campaign

Both generals led a powerful amphibious invasion force from Cilicia, stopping first at Rhodes, besieging Lindos without success, then departing to Naxos. They easily overwhelmed the latter, and enslaved those which did not fled to the mountains, and burnt the city to the ground. The fleet then crossed the Aegean, stopping in many islands and ending in Eretria, taking hostages and troops along the way. The Eretrians were besieged but held for 6 days, but eventually the gates were opened by betrayal. The city was razed, temples looted and burned, population enslaved.

Battle of Marathon

Ten years before Salamis, this was the climactic battle of this war: The Persian fleet went along the coast of Attica and landed at Marathon, a bay roughly 40 kilometres from Athens. There, under General Miltiades, an Athenian veteran of previous battles with the Persians, an hoplitic army went there, camped and Stalemate for five days, before the Persians decided to re-embark their troops and sail directly to Athens. It was when they had loaded their cavalry that the Greek attacked. Some 10,000 Athenian charged down the hills and around the plain, crushed the weaker Persian foot soldiers, routing the wings and surrounding the center. What was left of the army fled one their ships, leaving 6,400 dead behind, for 192 on the Athenian side. As soon as it was over Miltiades sent a runner to Athens (the famous story which “invented” the Marathon) to warn the city to prepare for a siege and that reinforcements were coming.
Fortunately the Greeks, on forced march, arrived in time to to stop Artaphernes as he was to land and the latter had no other choice but to sail back to Persia. The Battle not only was a formidable boost for morale throughout Greece, and proved the superiority of hoplitic infantry over the Persian infantry.

Interbellum (490-481 BC)

After both his campaigns had failed, Darius started immediately to raise a much more massive, brand new army to subjugate Greece once and for all. He recruited troops in masses from all over the empire, promising glory, loot and slaves. In 486 BC however Egypt rebelled. The expedition was postponed, after three years of gathering troops. Darius preparing his army to fell on Egypt when he died. The throne passed to his son Xerxes I, which first action was to led his father’s army to crush the Egyptian revolt. Immediately after, when back home, her prepared for the invasion of Greece, a full-scale invasion with long-term planning. He started to stockpile ammunitions, food and water, clothing and herds to follow the army, and started a massive conscription, plus recalling satraps to send troops from all over the empire. He decided to cross Hellespont on a massive pontoon bridge, allowing cavalry, chariots, and elephants to cross. He also decided to dig a canal across the isthmus of Mount Athos. Those exceptional endeavour alone set the tone and showed the power of his Empire. However the expedition was delayed again to quell yet another revolt in Egypt and another in Babylonia. There were aces cards in Xerxes hands: His army was humongous, even by the time’s standards, and he had the sympathy of several city states, such as Argos, pledging to defect and Larissa in Thessaly which saw this as an opportunity to settle scores, while Thebes was ambiguous.

Xerxes Campaign (481-480 BC), prelude to Salamis

At last, the expedition was launched in 481 BC, after Herodotus 46 nations send troops, for which he takes the time of describing their appearance and armament. In the autumn the armies were gathered in Kritala in Cappadocia, joined by Xerxes to Sardis, staying there for the the winter. In spring Xerxes army moved to Abydos, to be joined by western satrapies own armies. He then crossed the Hellespont without resistance. Modern historians agreed the army was around 200,000 while ancient authors went as far as pretending they were million strong. It was assisted by a composite Persian fleet around 1207 ships strong (Herodotus), but modern historians rather sees something like 600 ships, like in Salamis.

Athens adopts Themistocles naval policy

The prime target of this seemingly unstoppable force was Athens. A year after Marathon Miltiades was incapacitated and and the Alcmaeonid family prosecuted him for the failed campaign at Paros. Instead, Themistocles, a politician with a network of partisans and large power base became the people’s champion and took back Miltiades’s shoes after he died. Quite an influential politician he strongly milited for the expansion of the Athenian naval power, in the light of the threat from Persia. His rival Aristides, was the champion of the zeugites (upper hoplitic society), trying to oppose him. By 483 BC, the sliver mines at Laurium were opened, sending rivers of cash to the city state. Themistocles proposed to built a fleet of triremes, notably in the context of a war with Aegina.

Ancient sources are unclear over how many were built, 100 or 200, perhaps as some suggests, in two separate votes. Aristides’s opposition to Themistocles led to the ostracism of 482 BC, for Aristides. Themistocles now had free hands to implement his naval policies, in the knowledge of Persian preparations. The Athenians voted for more ships than Themistocles first asked, reaching perhaps 300 ships. They were not all triremes however (see later). Meanwhile in Sparta, King Demaratus was replaced in 491 BC by his cousin Leotychides and went into exile, humiliated. He made his way to Darius’s court in Susa, and from then became his military advisor, later became Xerxes’s one for affairs. He was close to him all along the second Persian invasion.

The Greek alliance

Prior to the invasion, Xerxes sent ambassadors asking for tokens of their submission and avoided Athens and Sparta, after their previous refusal. Nevertheless, context had changed since Marathon and many city states chose to ally themselves with Athens and Sparta. A congress met at Corinth by late autumn of 481 BC. It was decided to create a confederate alliance which had powers to send envoys and oversee troops sent from the member states, after consultation. These Allies were led by Sparta and Athens to accept a defensive strategy as the best of interests. But this primitive “league” only counted one on then city states, 70 out of 700 city-states, still a remarkable success for a time of rivalry and unrelenting warfare since 200 years. This setup a precedent which will be confirmed in the Peloponnesian wars, but this time with Athens and Sparta as rivals and Persia as an arbiter.

480 BC: The land campaign

The second invasion of Greece could be separated in two stages: First, the northern campaign, in Thrace, Macedonia and Thessaly, and then the souther campaign and the battle of Themopylae and Artemisium. The third strong point of this year is of course, the naval battle of Salamis.

The northern campaign

After its crossing of the Hellespont, Xerxes planned a march to the Greek peninsula by land, 3 months being necessary to travel to Therme. The army stopped at Doriskos joined by the fleet and extra supplies, and Xerxes reorganized troops into more manageable, smaller tactical units composed of troops from every armies given their respective use, strength and weaknesses. Before that, Satrap’s national armies were just followed each others in columns and their own baggage train. They were all easy preys for ambushes, especially in mountainous terrain. The cavalry was assembled also in mixed units, using lighter ones to scout the regions crossed, sometimes days in advance.

Meanwhile the Allies met in the spring of 480 BC, and decided to defend the Vale of Tempe, bordering Thessaly to block Xerxes. This was a sound decision as this was a narrow point, and in Thessaly, the plains would have been a gift to the Persian’s immense superiority in cavalry. Alexander I of Macedon, albeit a client state of Persia, but Greek at heart, warned them however that the vale could be bypassed, allowing the Greeks to retreat. After it was reported the Hellespont was crossed, the allies devised another strategy. Themistocles suggested that to reach southern Greece, the peninsula’s regions of Boeotia, Attica and the Peloponnesus needed to cross the narrow pass of Thermopylae which can be easily be blocked by few Greek hoplites, negating Persian’s superiority in numbers. To prevent them bypassing Thermopylae by sea they also decided to block the straits of Artemisium with the fleet. There was however a back-up plan to defend the Isthmus of Corinth and to evacuate the Athenians to Troezen in the Peloponnesus.

The southern campaign

Xerxes’s troops arrived at the Thermopylae (the “hot gates”, after volcanic springs nearby), just as the Olympic Games and the festival of Carneia started. The Spartans were the closest to intervene, but warfare was subjected to religion and while they observed the festivities, as a compromise, they sent king Leonidas I with his personal bodyguard called the Hippeis, 300 men strong. At the time, since lycurgus’s reforms, Sparta had two kings, one charged of internal affairs, to other war and diplomacy. Leonidas’s 300 elite hopltes were however supported by Allied from other Peloponnesian city states and more on the way. The pass was occupied, the old Phocian wall rebuilt at the narrowest point, and the troops settled and waited.
The battle of Thermopylae happened in mid-August and at first, the Persian waited for three days, hoping the Allies would disperse. He then launched the attack. However for two days on end, this place was ideally suited for defensive, hoplitic warfare. Persian losses were tremendous despite launching waves after waves of troops, before Xerxes decided to send his Immortals. An elite corps named after the reserves it had, to produce a contingent always 10,000 strong.

Typical appearance of Persian troops of the time
Typical appearance of Persian troops of the time (Hat models)

Spartan Hoplites at the time of 480 BC

According to herodotus, our sole source on this, a local resident called Ephialtes revealed a narrow goats mountain trail leading behind the Allies. Wether it is true or an embelishment, what was called the Anopoea path was defended by about 1000 Phocians which fought and fled. Once it was known to Leonidas, he dismissed the Allies and decided to stay with those among allies who wanted to, around 2,000 men in all. A legend was created, perhaps the ultimate last stand in history, but it was certainly not “300 against a million” as often fabled.
As this event took place, the an Allied naval force, 271 triremes and smaller ships, arrived at the Straits of Artemisium to block the Persians, and protecting the flank of Thermopylae’s Greeks. The fleet rebuffed the Persians for three days but after news Leonidas and the pass were lost, and after its losses, the allied fleet withdrew to Salamis. From then on, the final chapter, the waterloo of this campaign, is about to take place. But before that, let’s have a look on this prelude, the battle of Artemisium (see later).

Ancient Sources

Sources: For this era, almost all rested on Herodotus works. The “Father of History” was born in 484 BC in Halicarnassus, by then in the Persian Empire. So he knew both cultures (Greek and Persians) and the motivations and peculiarities of the conflict he knew during his youth. The conflict ended in 449 and he wrote about it around 440 and up to 430 BC so supposedly fresh material. He is trusted on this because of its proximity to the sources, however he was not a traveller contrary to Thucydides or later Polybius, and only reported what he has heard, leading to some fabled-like accounts for distant countries. Thucydides in particular started over the siege of Sestor, where Herodotus left, and criticized his methods but found him accurate enough not to need re-writing or correcting. What happened after Salamis, between the end of the second Persian invasion of Greece and the Peloponnesian War in 479–431 BC, is however rather obscure due to the lack of known sources.

The greek side: A point on trieres

Prow of the Olympias
Before going into the meet of the battle, let’s see opposing forces, before Artemisium. As stated earlier, the Allied fleet, of which the bulk was Athenian, counted 271 triremes, or to be more precise “trieres”, the greek name. “Trireme” (“tri-remus”) was Roman. When things became touchy for the Romans in the first Carthaginian war (so 200 years later), they quickly built a fleet of triremes, meaning three men in a row, each with his own oar. But as they later adopted their own tactics, they swapped over a heavier type, already used by Hellenistic powers, called the quadrireme and quinquereme. These were heavier with 4-5 men respectively “per row”, meaning two men per oar at the higher level (typically 2+2+1 for the quinquereme). But this was still a “trireme” in appareance. In fact no ancient source, bas-relief or painting, never ever shows more than three rows on a military ship of the time.

Assyrian Bireme
Assyrian Bireme

The famous, mighty trireme seemed to have been equal to the invention of the broadside ironclad, the submarine, the dreadnought or the aircraft carrier, a game changer. But was it ? The idea of stacking rowers onto a slender, lightly-built ship, which is a proper military vessel, is related to naval warfare as it was practised since the late bronze age. This was when the first “two-stage galleys” first appeared, apparently invented by the Assyrians or Phoenicians in the east.

The triere has many fathers and we will probably never knew for sure. Bas reliefs after 3500 years had become hardly readable and records are scarce. One contender for invention, a serious one, was the Phoenicians. They created the first true modern, sturdy construction technique by using the classic keel and frame method, obtaining a ship that was able to sail in open sea and cope with heavy weather. At that time, Egyptian boats were so flexible that instead of a keel they had a ropes-based reinforcement called an “aerial keel”, and small parts sewn together. They were great for the nile but in open seas and heavy weather because of tensions on the main ropes they were prone to break and literally “spread” at sea. The Phoenicians also invented the first dedicated cargo ship, later copied by the Greeks, later their trade rivals in the Mediterranean. They also pioneered the military galley and its therefore not excluded they effectively created the first triere. Basically, three oars per section, each at a different level. On a diere, rowers sat just at different places, and is it possible the concept was just pushed further using the same system. Some authors traced back the triere to Sidon, Thucydides to the Corinthian naval architect Ameinocles.

But it’s really the Athenians which are credited as the progenitor of the Triere in its modern form, at least the one which was seen in action in 480 BC. To make it narrower, thus faster, the only way was to have the oarsmen sat in three much more pronounced stages, the lower one sitting more than the height of a man below the upper rank. They were called the Zygites, Thranites and Thalamites regarding their place, the latter being the lowest ones, just above the waterline. They were also the weakest and poorest of the lot, having to pull shorter oars, but lacking air being deep down. The best placed were not at the top but the middle. At least they were protected by the heat of the sun and water splashes while having more air, and the last were much more exposed, including from arrows and javelins in close melee. The upper oars were not that longer thanks to a 800 BC invention of parexeiresia (outriggers), allowing the lever point to be further out.

Just like the Egyptians, the trieres were so light they needed stiffening by using bracing, what was called the hypozomata. This undergirding was made of large rope cables 4.7 cm in diameter and each ship carried two spares. The design of the ships and disposition of rowers was so well and precisely crafted and balanced that changing any parameter would have compromise the ship ability to work correctly. The triere was, in short, a miracle of ancient engineering, the most technically advanced moving object ever made up to that point. The rule of the triere, which really started at that time, imposed itself until the Romans dominated the Mediterranean, and themselves still used them long afterwards, despite using different tactics.

What made the Greek triere such an ideal war machine compared to older galleys was a combination of factors:
-By keeping the ship narrow and light, it was faster by design
-The concentration or rowers was such that raw power compensating for the added weight of the hull
-The triere was not “aphraktoi” like previous ships but “hemi-aphraktoi” or semi-covered: There was a platform built over the rowers with a central trench to access the lower deck. This also protected the rowers from heat and sunburns, but the sides were still open, making the structure lighter. “kataphraktoi” ships appeared with the Hellenistic era around 300 BC. Their decks were enclosed completely, but they were no longer trieres but tetreres and penteres (‘4’ and ‘5’).
-The roomy deck allowed more troops to be carried, an advantage for melee combat.
-The heavy bronze ram, with a socket shape reminiscent of a spearpoint, strapped on the ends of the keel and largest timbers along the hull, made it stronger.
-The large square sail and small forward sail used for manoeuvring in harbour and close spaces.
-The hull was deep enough to be enclosed at its base, used for storage (notably water) and ballast.
-Made of light wood, the triere could be carried ashore by as few as 140 men

Olympias, from the reconstitution of a typical early Athenian triere of 480 BC. Very light (to the point it was common they broke in two when rammed), lots of air passing through the raised platform, few troops. They were the first to receive apparently bronze rams, earlier ships had wooden ones, bordering to the decorative.

Hellenistic-era triere, just here to show the difference with earlier vessels, 100 years prior. Innovations: Heavier, more solidly built, fully enclosed deck (but the central trench), and belt armour (against ramming) – The Romans went further and created iron belt armor worthy of a battleship. They dropped agility for protection and firepower.

A greek diere of the 7th-6th century BC. They were the main warships before the triere appeared and generalized in the 5th century.

Pentakonteros: With 25 rowers either side and a light and slender hull they were quite fast but carry few troops and were unstable. In 700 BC they were quite common, the first apparead during the bronze age. Thes were “aphraktoi”, open bridge vessels, with small platforms at the end of the rowing section. They were still around in many fleets due to their limited cost and crew in the 5th BC.

Greek Trikonteros – Its is unclear if this ship had 60 rowers or 30. The term of “cisoconter” is also found for these primitive, bronze age galleys, still used by minor fleets and used as supply scouts and dispatch vessels.

‘Monerei’, the generic term for small ships with a single row line (below a diere). The Argo is not strictly speaking a ‘diconteros’ as she had one less rower per side (18). Classifications were made in the classical age when city-states tried to manage their fleets.

Thucydides clearly stated that when the Persian Wars started, the Greek navies consisted of penteconters* and ploia makrá (“long ships”). The battle of Lade, which saw the Persian and Ionian fleet fight, probably were made primarily of dieres and smaller ships. Its only when Athens started its arms race with the rest of Greece under the patronage of Themistocles, that the triere became the dreadnought of her day. Every fleet wanted some. Trieres were costly in maintenance, and needed a dry storage everyday, if possible in a dedicated shed, which became the norm.
The typical triere crew (plērōma) comprised 200 men, for 37 m in lenght, 4 m in width (so a ratio of nearly 1/10). The captain was a wealthy Athenian called the trierarch, often coming from the pentakosiomedimoi. This was a prestigious position to be in, but came as a financial burden as well, whereas the ship was financed and built by the state.

He was assisted by the kybernētēs or helmsman, an experienced seaman, the prōreus or bow lookout, the boatswain (keleustēs), quartermaster (pentēkontarchos), shipwright/carpenter (naupēgos), about ten sailors manning the sails, and the piper (aulētēs) giving rhythm to the rowers and two superintendents (toicharchoi) which fed and watered the rowers. The latter were men aged probably in their thirties, and paid for the job. They were not slaves at any level. They were skilled, trained professionals and acted as mercenaries, coming with their own oar and cushion. In Athens, the fleet was so important they formed a class of themselves, called the thētai. These citizens were not the only recruitment source: Metoikoi (Metics) were accepted as well, as hired foreigners. In any case, the triere rower force comprised two levels of 62, 54 and 54 rowers respectively for a total of 170.

With 200 trieres, these were 34,000 men, not counting crews and troops. In any case, these rowers were taken great care of, and men in their late forties and even fifties still in near-athletic conditions were accepted and well rewarded. These veteran rowers were often placed at the top, the most difficult position. They often gave regularity and imposed stamina for the other ranks, just because their oars “framed” lower ranks ones. They were compelled to follow the rythm. They were not supposed to fight however, but their stamina was needed to avoid being rammed, and so their performed accordingly for their own safety. A bronze bow weighting a ton could penetrate deep inside any hull and do some gruesome damage along the way.

Cutaway of a triere such as the Olympias
Cutaway of a triere such as the Olympias (Osprey)

When themistocles ordered a fleet of triremes, Athens was embroiled in a conflict with Aegina, which at that time had quite a formidable navy. Woth the knowledge of Persian preparations for an invasion, in about 483 and 482 BC the assembly was persuaded to vote for the construction of 200 triremes and their baptism of fire was at the Battle of Artemisium. There, both sides suffered great casualties, and due to superior numbers, the greeks had to flee to fight another day. The decisive clash happened at Salamis, destroying Xerxes’ invasion fleet and preventing support and further advance of his armies. The Athenian trieres were just getting started as an instrument of power in the eastern Mediterranean: Next, they fought brilantly at Mycale, this time on the Ionian coast, defeating any attempt by the Persians to blockade coast. This essentially, helped to free the Ionian cities.

This, in fact, conducted Athens to form Delian League, the first of the Greek leagues, illustrating a new word: Hegemon.
The predominance of Athens became an Empire in all but name. This fleet of triremes (more has been built after the second Persian invasion, still thanks to the Laurion abundant silver production. Athens as a thalassocracy, the first of the kind, was born. It had a strong fleet always composed of more than 200 triremes, not counting smaller ships.
After controlling the Aegean Sea, they started a campaign against piracy in the whole area, securing trade routes and notably grain shipments from the Black Sea. This was Athens’ golden age, and as Themistocles said “he who controls the sea, controls everything”. This famous maxim was taken at heart in the XIXth by a new Thallassocracy and Empire: The British Empire. Instead of triremes, it had steam-powered ironclad and later dreadnoughts, enough to take on the two world’s best navies together; The nationalistic figurehead “Britannia” was basically the Goddess Athena, with a corinthian helmet and trident, representing sea power, and the British Lion nearby, representing the Empire. It’s not at random neoclassical architecture and style was back at the same time national identities were formed and new countries entered the Fray, such as Italy and Germany.

In addition to its political benefits, and prestige, the fleet provided permanent employment for the poorest citizens and promoted the Athenian democracy at a time many city-states were ruled by Tyrants, oligarchs or Kings. The Athenian maritime domination however was challenged by other city-states, notably Syracuse, Corfu and Corinth. Sparta had a small navy and did not invested much in it, before the Persians funded it to ensure victory over Athens during the Peloponnesian wars. Athens fall started in the ill-fated Sicilian Expedition, and ended decisively at the Battle of Aegospotami, but this is another story…

Origin and older vessels:
Ivlia, Ukrainian/Bulgarian reconstitution of an ancient Greek black sea diere (bireme)

To the west, the paternity of the diere came to Corinth, invented by possibly the Boeotian Greeks following the Trojan War or the Erythraeans of Asia Minor, 8th century B.C. This consisted in making the ship larger and wide to accomodate more rowers, up to 120 in four separate rows, two of 30 either side, seated on benches placed at various height, alternating. This way, they took less space and the ships stayed relatively small. This bring two advantages: The speed and weight authorized ramming for the first time, enabling a whole range of tactics, and the oarsmen could take arms if needed to defend the ship, added to the crew, in case of a pirate attack, which were common at the time and in the aegean sea. The most common vessel of this type was had 100 oars and was therefore called an “ekatontoros” with a lenght of 32m and 4,80 m in width. It was less narrow than previous ships, notably the infamous Pentekonteros, and this could carry more troops.

This was already a “massive” ship for the time and a completely different concept than the Assyrians and Phoenicians, ships later found in Persian’s inventory. Speed was really what mattered. She ships privileged ramming tactics over marine infantry tactics. For the Persians, peppering the enemy with arrows and later board with troops, whereas the diere’s open, narrow deck only allowed for a handful of troops. So at bot the battle of Salamis and Artemisium, diere would have been probably used by allied fleets, as triere were far less affordable. Only the richest city-states could afford to built a dozen of them, let along hundreds. Although slower, with less hitting power, and less troops, diere were still more manoeuvrable, and could perform the same tactics as the triere, to take a modern comparison, armoured cruisers vs battlecruisers.

The diere itself was preceded by much ancient ships:
It was suggested this ship had 30 rowers in all (15+15) but since it’s generally considered more recent than the pentakonteros, some authors assumed this was 60 rowers instead, making it larger than the latter. However it was less often cited than the pentakonter, so it must be assumed the type was less successful. Just as the previous ships, it was a monere, meaning, having just one row of oar per side. The idea of combining rowers in a new arrangement, doubling the configuration of a pentakonter or trikonter led to the diere.
Still around in the 5th century BC, the pentekonter, or “pentacotore”, pentakontecoros, from “50” as its name suggested seemed to have been the triere of its days, the staple of fleets in early Greek city-states, during the bronze age and the dark age, ans until the invention of the diere. It was a pure military ship, quite narrow and fast due to its single rower configuration, 25 on either side. The triconter however would have been even longer and therefore less manoeuvrable. Few warriors could take plane onboard, on the small platform behind the prow, acting as shield. The rear was occupied by the officer and navigator, manning two rudder oars at the stern. Due to their fine line, speed could have been close to the diere, but less agile. But without recreating these ships we would never know.
The older of the three types, these moneres were probably the first proper military ships. As their name suggest they carried only 20 men, ten either side. This was essentially a small boat made for versatile purpose. The term was related to the Cisoconter (15 per side ?). They were much smaller are would have been used as “naval dust” carrying personal and supplies between the coast and the ships, and be used as dispatch vessels. However in a battle, a dispatch vessel would have needed more raw power, so a triconter should have been used instead.

Factually, there is no mention in the battle as reported by Herodotus of these ships, but Trieres. The reason is perhaps that at that time trieres were the “capital ships” of their age, and smaller ships were seen as less interesting. If the Athenians committed all their fleet to the task, therefore about 200 trieres, this left 71 other trieres for allied fleets.

Prologue to Salamis: The battle of Artemisium

Just like the battle of Leyte in 1944, Artemision (Romanized as Artemisium) was a series of naval engagements over three days. It took place exactly during the battle of Thermopylae, either in August or September off the coast of Euboea.
This was the largest naval battle in Greece at that stage, a massive showdown between the Greek city states, underdogs including Sparta, Athens, Corinth and all that could send a fleet on one side, and the mighty Persian Empire of Xerxes I. The battle came from the idea of the Athenian general Themistocles, blocking the advance of the Persian army at Thermopylae and blocking the Persian navy at the Straits of Artemisium. Both were natural bottlenecks and that way, the fleet could not turn the flanks of the Greeks at Thermopylae. It is admitted that 280 triremes constituted this fleet, the first (and last time) long rival City states grouped all their ships under a single command. They were just sent to take position and wait for the Persians.

Respective forces

Greek Forces:
The fleet under Themistocles command comprised according to Herodotus, the following:
Athens: 127 (mostly triremes), Corinth: 40, Aegina: 18, Chalcis: 20, Megara: 20, Sicyon: 12, Sparta: 10, Epidaurus: 8, Eretria: 7, Troezen: 5, Styra: 2, Ceos: 2, Opuntian and Locris: 7. It showed a traditional power, Corinth, still managed to bring 40 vessels, probably trieres, but the participation of some was “symbolic” and we could assume they were the best ships of their fleets. Sparta’s weakness in ships is all but comprehensible, it was not a tradition. We can imagine also that risking their precious elite hoplites in an hazardous battle at sea was barely torelable. Herodotus does not tell if these were more “expandable” troops like Periokoi. Note, two Teos and all Locrian ships fled, lowering the count to 271.

Persian forces:
According to Herodotus, the fleet reflected the enormous scale of the Army, now attempting to breech Thermopylae and access southern Greece. Before the storm, it was a force of 1200 vessels (Herodotus reported the figure of 1207 as being the same as for the Trojan expedition). Modern scholars are sometimes leaning for a more modest figure of 600 ships, half. This still was twice the side of the allied fleet.
Herodotus brings us some details here:
Phoenicia, and Syria, the main supplied of warships of the Persian Empire had 300 ships, also considered to tbe the largest and best, probably many trieres among these. Egypt was the second contingent, bringing 200 , likely lighter ships, although their marine infantry was admitted to be the best in the Empire. Cyprus cold bring a fleet of 150 ships to the fray, Cilicia 100, Ionia (Greeks now under Persian rule) 100, Pontus 100 (black sea), Caria 70, Aeolia 60, Lycia 50, Pamphylia 30 and the Dorians 30. The Cyclades islands along the way brings 17 ships. For the latter, they would have been probably small, close to pirate ships.

The Persians not only outnumbering the Allies but as Herodotus reported had “better sailing” ships, referring to the better seamanship of the crews. There was no doubt about this: Both the Syro-Pheonicians and even the Egyptian had extended trade routes and emporions dotting the Mediterranean and beyond and considered themselves as the best mariners in the world, with some obvious reasons. The Athenian were “rookies” in comparison, and the crews lacked training. The classic tactic of ramming followed by boarding marines required excellent coordination, which took skills -and time. Meanwhile, the Persian fleets just were well trained in a brand new manoeuver called the diekplous, probably sailing into gaps ships line gaps, then turned to ram them. The Allies expected a defensive battle and planned for it. They also had total confidence in their hoplites and archers, they considered the world’s best in their respective categories.

Herodotus still went on suggesting the Allied ships were heavier, compounding their lack of skills, thus avoiding engaging the Persians in complicated, fast-paced manoeuvers. This could have been reference to the fully armoured hoplite marines instead. Indeed, the Allies could have stacked extra marines on board and that the Greeks probably intended to attempt a more “land-battle” approach and capturing ships for a possible future engagement rather than trying to sink them.

A fighting opportunity

The fifth day since the Persian army had arrived at Thermopylae, the Persian fleet appeared through the Gap of Sciathos, spotted by scouts, and they moored on the coast opposite Artemisium at Aphetae. It seems that lost (perhaps in the mist), 15 Persian ships ended in Allied lines, promptly captured. Despite its losses, the Persians still had a 3:1 advantage and it was considered not to engage them, or withdrawing entirely. Division between city-states resurfaced as the Euboeans bribed Themistocles be sure it will not happen, but the latter according to herodotus, used the bribe to convince to stay the Spartan and Corinthian admirals (Eurybiades and Adeimantus).

On the evening, a deserter came to the camp, from the Persian fleet: This Greek called Scyllias just swam to the shore, to inform them the Persians sent 200 seaworthy ships on the outer coast of Euboea, prevent the Allies to escape. The Allies voted to meet this detachment, over which they had chances of success, and planned to leave by nightfall, avoiding being spotted by the Persian scouts. Destroying a small chunk of the Persian fleet was indeed too tempting. The Alternate plan was the to ambush the detachment as it passed off Artemisium from Aphetae. But in any case, this was a demonstration to convince the Persians they planned to stay, and engaging these ships was a way to “probe” Persian tactics and capabilities. By late afternoon the fleet sailed.

This time, Persians spotted the Allied fleet and decided to attack, sure of their victory. As they were closer, the Allies turned their bows to them, and their sterns in the middle as described Herodotus, forming a circle, possibly called as manoeuvrer the “erinaplous” (from the hedgehog). A tactic aso used by infantry in the dark age, a defensive shieldwall/testudo against cavalry.
Thucydides reported also such tactics during the Peloponnesian war, so it’s not Herodotus divagation. Strictly speaking however, there was no way the 270 ships could form a circle, there was no time for this, more likely they formed a crescent formation, with wings drawn back to prevent another well-known tactic used by the Persians: The periplous. It consisted indeed in an encirclement manoeuvrer, the ship then turning to ram their opponents once they closed the perimeter. The crescent also allowed to counter the Diekplous, as the wings’s ships were likely to detach and fall on the Persian breakthrough column.

At a prearranged signal, the Allied fleet surged outwards and started to row at full speed for ramming, catching the Persians off guard. They lost 30 ships during this first phase, withdrawing to their lines. Nightfall called off operations and the Greeks returned to shore, probably in excellent morale. Meanwhile, the detachment of 200 ships that was en route to cut their retreat was to be stopped, but as the Greeks prepared to sail, a storm broke out, preventing them to do do. Fortunately for them it also hit the Persian fleet, and many ships, unfamiliar with this area, wandered off course, onto the rocks, called the ‘Hollows’ of Euboea, many were shipwrecked. That was another reason to feat at the Greek camp.

The following day, the Persian fleet had more ships to repair and avoided any attack. Meanwhile as the day went off without event, a runner brings news from Athens, that a reinforcement of 53 ships were coming, probably brand new trieres, or the remainder of those kept to defend the city in case.
In th late afternoon however the Allies received news of a patrol of Cilician ships either probing them for the Persians or survivors of the wrecked detachment sent around Euboea. They fell on them, destroying them, probably having another great feast at nightfall.

The third day however, the bulk of the Persian fleet has been repaired and was ready to attack in full strength. The Allies then sailed to attempted to block the Straits and waited for the main attack. The Persians adopted a semicircle formation, making a large scale periplous. Understanding it, the Allies rowed forward to try to pierce the center before the wings can envelop them. The battle this time, which started on the morning, was a bloodfest, raging all day long. When the fleets disengaged at nightfall, losses were even, but the Allies could afford more losses. In particular half the Athenian triremes were badly damaged, sunk or burnt. During this battle, a wild contest of ramming and boarding, Greek marine troops did their job well, but they also reported the prowesses of the heavily equipped Egyptians, a match for Greek hoplites. They were able to capture five Greek ships.

Xerxes troops: At the center, Egyptian marines (Osprey).

Back to Artemisium, the Allies made a conference. It was established given the odds they could not gamble the fate of Greece on another engagement and to hold the line the next day. Some wanted to withdraw immediately, other wanted to wait for new from Thermopylae. Themistocles ordered the slaughter and keep for themseves the Euboeans flocks, denying them to the Persian while Abronichus arrived from Thermopylae, telling them what happened at Thermopylae. There was no purpose in holding the area and the allies immediately voted to leave. Meawnile, they preserved at least half their force for a future engagement, not knowing if the Persians had repaired all their ships and how many were left.
The Allies withdrawned to Salamis. The Persians, seeing the place open to invasion, landed their troops and captured Phocis, Boeotia, and Attica. As a nightmare, their uncontested armies took Athens, pillaged and burnt. They however found few inhabitants to slaughter or enslave. Most already fled since days. The staff however estimated the job “was not done” as soon as there was navy and an army that needed to be soundly and decisively defeated. They prepared to follow the greeks at Salamis, later this year, in 480 BC. However, meanwhile Xerxes did not wanted to stay all the winter in Greece and withdrew his army. Mardonius was left to “finish off” the Greeks once and for all, quickly. They never could have guess Plataea and Salamis, superb examples of fortitude in the “fortunes of war”…

Aftermath of the battle

Artemisium has been a standoff, as the battle of Themopylae took place. The defeat of the first, as soon as it was learnt, trigerred a strategic retreat. Leaving the place to the Persians, which did not believed it at first and thought of an ambush, the latter saw it as a victory. This was not even a pyrrhic victory for the Greeks as they achieved nothing, but delaying for three days a landing in this area. Loosing half their forces was in any case a crippling blow, moreover given the size of the fleet that remained on the other side, but at least they measured their opponent strength and weaknesses.

The Greek fleet went off the coast of Attica to assist evacuating the remaining Athenians and Themistocles stopped en route to engrave inscriptions addressed to the Ionian Greeks, as they would probably stop there for the night, asking them to defect, as reported by Herodotus. The Allies on land, the bulk of which were Peloponnesian, prepared to defend the Isthmus of Corinth, cut the only road leading through and erected a wall there. Like at Thermopylae, they prepared for a last stand. This required an naval blockade across the Saronic Gulf to be effective. Themistocles however contested this strategy and persuaded the Allies to try to get a decisive victory by Luring the Persians into the Straits of Salamis, a natural bottleneck where they could negate the superiority of their fleet. Basically this was Thermopylae at sea.

The Battle: locations, leaders and respective forces

Prelude and Development

The Allied fleet as seen before, sailed from Artemisium to Salamis, in order to assist evacuatiing the last Athenians en route while Themistocles left inscriptions for the Ionian Greek. They learnt about how the Persian army ransacked Boeotian cities such as Plataea and Thespiae, which decided to resist, and marched on Athens, strengthening their resolve. The strategy to block the isthmus of Corinth soon appeared flowed unless the fleet was able to prevent a Persian landing in the Saronic Gulf. Naval commander Adeimantus asked the fleet to asembled off the coast of the Isthmus but Themistocles vehemently argued against it. He wanted a more offensive strategy rather than another passive stand-off, remembering the audience the losses at Artemisium. As he said, he wanted a “battle in conditions thats works to our advantage”. He eventually won the argument and the Allies remained off Salamis.

The battle time-line is contested by modern Historians. Herodotus is unclear about its date compared to the fall of Athens. It is generally admitted that at least three weeks passed in september after the battle of Artemisium. In addition, before going to Salamis, the Persian fleet needed to refit the ships and resupply. Xerxes held a war council at Phalerum, with Artemisia, queen of Halicarnassus, now commander of the elite naval squadron. She tried to convince him to wait for the Allies to surrender but Xerxes was convinced by his staff, which pressed for a decisive victory over what they thought as an half-vanquished fleet, divided and probably demoralized by now. Xerxes indeed knew perhaps by his spies, of the vivid discussion within the allied command as the Peloponnesians wanted to leave Salamis as they still could. The alleged rift however was perhaps a ruse, propagated be double crossing agent, just in order to lure the Persians by Themistocles. Whatever the case, the Allies waited quite patiently off Salamis for at least a week, using this time to refit the ship, supply and train. Meanwhile, the Persian army was seen marching against the Isthmus, perhaps to tempt the fleet and lure it to battle in turn.

Eventually Xerxes ordered his fleet patrol off the coast of Salamis, and to block the southern pass, only possible exit for the allies. At dusk, these ships were ordered to withdraw, perhaps again, to lure out the Greeks into open sea battle, where the fleet’s numbers played in it advantage. In the evening, Themistocles sent a servant, Sicinnus, to Xerxes, as a fake defector. He brings news from Themistocles that he was “on the king’s side and prefers that your affairs prevail, not the Hellenes” as reported Herodotus.
Themistocles went to say the allied command was in-fighting, and the Peloponnesians planned leave by nightfall. This clearly tempted the Persians, as they needed to block the straits as soon as possible.
With this subterfuge, Themistocles lured the Persian fleet into the Straits, and comforted Xerxes in his opinion. His staff knew that if the Athenian defected, and the Pelopponesian ships gone, there was no hope for the remainder of the fleet to stand his might. This very evening, the entire Persian fleet sailed out while Xerxes ordered his throne to be set up on the slopes of Mount Aigaleo, overlooking the straits to witness the battle at dawn, observing his commander’s banners are colors to see those who performed best. He allegedly said about Artemisia “my men has become women and my women, men”. Still according to Herodotus, the Allies meanwhile were still debating and the Peloponnesians still wanted evacuating. However, Aristides, the exiled Athenian general which previously joined the Persians went to the allied camp unexpected, followed by some deserters. He reported the deployment of the Persian fleet, which convinced the Peloponnesians to stay as it was too late to escape now. Themistocles’s stratagem ensured the Greeks stayed rested this night while the Persians fleet sailed all night, searching for an elusive alleged Greek evacuation. The next morning, they were into the straits, tired, and spotted the Greek fleet ranged in battle…

Tactics and technologies of the time

Battle formations

In open sea the Greeks were generally led by the commander’s ship and at first sight of the enemy, turn to starboard or port to form a battle line the ship being side by side, facing the enemy, contrary to the classic black powder age when ships presented their broadside. This abreast formation was meant to protect mutually the ships flanks, and basically was a repeat of hoplite phalanx at sea. It was both offensive and defensive and they could advance am forward, before picking their target and manoeuver for ramming. Defensively, this was a wall of rams presented to the enemy, and if necessary the ship would close together. A variation of it existed in case of numerical superiority of the enemy and the periplous manoeuver: No name is attached to it, but it was basically a tight circle, with the prows facing outwards. The vulnerable sides and stern were therefore in the inner circle.

A 1868 painting by Wilhelm von Kaulbach of Salamis
A 1868 painting by Wilhelm von Kaulbach of Salamis

Diekplous, the “arrow” formation

This abreast formation, with variation like the crescent and arrow, was used in most naval battles, except Naupactus. There, the Athenian navy was attacked before it could transition. This Greek battle formation was also so successful the Persians used it, and to stay ahead, the Greek navy needed to improve and search for new tactics.
The diekplous was a breakthrough manoeuver: A line was formed, a kind of arrow point, with ships, the lead thips at its head and others behind, to infiltrate the enemy line-of-battle. This was a line abreast which penetrated the enemy line, then would turn around for ramming.
The diekplous was considered quite effective and won the day at Lade, Chios, and Side. Counter tactics against it were soon developed, like retreating into a tight circle (as seen above). The “hedgehog counter-formation”. The tight circle prevented infiltrations. The circle could even be refine by leaving a few reserve ships that will row and ram any ship that would eventually break through. This was Themistocles formation at Artemisium, but despite of this, the circle began to disintegrate and turn to a general melee.

Periplous, the “crescent” formation

The periplous consisted in “sailing around” the enemy’s line, to expose the enemy’s stern for easy ramming. It was used at Artemisium, and was often a question of numbers superiority, which was the case here for the Persians. Thucydides also shown a good example at the second battle between the Athenians and Peloponnesians in the Gulf of Corinth. A single Athenian triere was pursued by a Peloponnesian triere until it circled around a merchant ship, and rammed the Peloponnesian vessel after coming out from behind. It was faster, a key element in this manoeuvre to succeed.
Ram evolved, from a fully wooden spear, to trireme’s early rams, which were essentually a large piece of timber, reinforced by bows pieces, and sheathed in an envelope of bronze. It was therefore not made entirely in bronze. This happened as the ships became heavier, not to shatter the wood. Of course ramming tactics imposed a skilled crew, rowing cadence and strength needed to be finely adjusted, which imposed professionals. Not only the ship needed to be very fast to have momentum for the schock, but also quickly disengage; not to be caught in the wreck. The stern was often the obvious target. The steering oars were indeed located there. Another tactic, if the other ship turned to avoid ramming, was to shear its flanks fast, breaking its rows in the process. This required the rowers to fast retreating the long rows inside the hull, not a small feat in a short notice. Centuries later, the Romans, and Hellenistic powers would just break the oars at a distance using catapults and ballistae. When the ship was nearly immobilized it was easy to ram and board.

typical Greek triere at Salamis
NE rendition of a typical Greek triere at Salamis, from a coin prow depiction

Marines and archers

The limited size of early penteconteroi and assimilar ships were narrow and combatants were a few, together at the front platform in general. Archers were systematically place there, protected by the bow’s structure. Heavier troops could be carried, just a few. Rowers were not supposed to fight. This was in stark contrast to the Pirates, which rowers were also all combatants. this way, it was easy to overcome ant vessel. With the arrival of the triere, fitted with a cover deck, a limited number of troops could be carried, limited to avoid the ships to be unstable. A fully-cladded heavy hoplite with its helmet, bronze body armor, bronze-backed aspis, weapons, greaves, could be 80 to 90 kgs of we assume the average Greek of the time was 1.65 m and 75 kgs.

Ten hoplites would represent close to one ton, placed way above the gravity point of the ship. Not something to take lightly. Stability was compensated however by the numeous oars at sea either side fortunately. The ships’ gravity also included the mast and sail, more so if the latter was soaked with seawater in heavy weather, and the crew dedicated to it, about ten men in a triere. It was not uncommon therefore to load more Marines troops “epibatai” on board when the rigging was absent, which was systematic before a battle. With time, Epibatai were developed specifically to board enemy ship and close combat. They differed both in their equipment and training from hoplites. The latter were tailored for a large battleline, defensive and offisensive, however on a narrow ship, there was no place for such tactic, and Epibatai needed to operate individually, and be fast and agile. They were lighter, greaves were optional or absent, but they had helmet and body armor, and an aspsis for protection (or hoplon, the classic bowl-shaped shield, one meter in diameter).

More importantly their armament differed: Instead of a three meters long dory, better suited for defense, they had one of several javelins instead, to throw before boarding. Their main melee weapon was therefore the sword, which could be either a straight one (xyphos), or more likely a curved one, eithe the Kopis or Machaira. The latter was cumbersome and mostly used by cavalry as a saber, so the lighter kopis would have been mainstream.
The kopis was an amazing sword related to many other slashing-first weapons of classical antiquity: The Spanish Falcata was the closest (perhaps derived from the kopis) and closest to us, the kukhri of the Nepalese. It had a protected handle, and had single curved edge, pitched forward towards the point. The “meat” of the sword was at 2/3 of its edge, it gets slimmer near the handguard. This way, its weight was concentrated forward, with excellent balance for slashing, but still able to do thrusting as well. The weight balance gave it the same force as any machete, alsmot as efficient as an axe. It was an in-between, and this was why it was beloved for melee combat. In time, during of after the Pelopponesian war, Marine troops adopted the lighter and more manageable thyreos as their main shield, ovale-shaped, thus offering better individual protection.

During the Peloponnesian War, the proportion was 4 archers and 10 Epibatai on deck, but this varied, Cimon for exemple reported as much as forty marines per triere during the battle of Eurymedon in 466 during the delian league war against the Persians. This figure became commonplace as war galleys became heavier ‘kataphraktoi’ in the latter hellenistic period. Due to their stronger construction and full deck, with shields attached to its sides, they could support much more troops and throwing weapons as well, even towers. Some Ptolemaic egyptian prestige ships had nearly a thousand troops on board.
The use of more Marine was dictated by the battle, in open sea and for manoeuvers, a commander wuuld want less marine troops to keep his ships light and agile. If the battle was in confined waters, more marines were carried for boarding. Essentally this was a land battle at sea. The rookie Romans during the first punic war avoid ramming tactics, they trusted their infantry instead and just found ways to board enemy ships by all means, while being protected from ramming themselves, making them slow and heavy.

An important point, worth repeating, was that when trieres were departing their harbor for battle, the same day, they did so without rigging and the men responsible for it. So all depictions of naval battles showing sailing galleys trying to ram each other is plain wrong.
Archers were also important in the opening, ramming phase, of the battle, and during the boarding phase as well. They also could pick off officers during the battle. Cretans mercenaries had the best range, effective at 160–170 meters and well beyond with the recurved composite bows of the Scythians, which could fire poisoned or flaming arrows as well.

Greek ships & tactics

Another innacrate depiction of a naval battle between galleys. They indeed displays their full rigging, something which would only happen if the fleet was in transit, then caught by surprise.

The trieres used a variety of tactics, but in 480 BC they were still in their infancy. Athens just ordered 200 trieres thanks to an influx of cash, and for the first time, numbers allowed large scale manoeuvers and tactical formations to be used. Prior to the triere standard, the fleets were composed of a variety of vessels, ranging from a few triere to many dieres, penteconters, and small moneres. They had different speeds and agility, and the lightest could not ram, thy were too light for this. So combat as it happened during the Ionian revolt at Lade probably including long range archery duels, then some ramming, and a general melee boarding contest as distances closed. Little is known about details of the fight, but fire, after the ram, was the ship’s worst nightmare and it’s not far fetch to think naphta pots and flaming arrows were used. Due to their high positive buoyancy, which imposed a lot of ballasting to lower the center of gravity, these ships never sank. They just partly disagregated for those rammed and broken, but most often they were captured. It was not uncommon for them to change hands several times. We don’t have precise informations about their length of service, but as long as they were kept dry when not used, and well maintained, they could last for dozens of years, depending of their building quality and the woods and process used.

battle of salamis

Fighting was the role of marine troops. Traditionally, archers were placed at the bow, relatively protected, and typical Athenian trieres of the 5th century BC carried a few warriors, up to 20 for the admiral ship if there was one. Typically in Salamis, 14 hoplites and 4 archers, the latter being usually Scythian mercenaries, which had great range and could be fierce warriors in melee with their shield and sagaris (battle axe). This meant at Artemisium, a potential of 1,080 archers (scythians and cretans), and some 3,800 hoplites, finely equipped and well trained with a sword, javelin and spear as should be epibatai. Practice could diverged however from fleet to fleet. The figure above is related to the Athenians, but Herodotus mention the Chiots trieres (City-state of Chios) carried 40 hoplites. The deck surely was large enough to accomodate them, but with their hevy equipments they would have compromised the ships’s stability, so these should have been wider, lower vessels, biremes or hybrids at the battle of Lade. Opposite them, the Persians had similar figures.

Persian ships & tactics

A phoenician two-stage diere, as shown in Assurpanipal’s bas relief. A precious depiction which showed how to stack combatants in a diere, probably all armed with arrows and javelins. This makes us wonder how it was possible to keep stability in this configuration. In any case, this gave the Assyrians, which benefited from their Poenician client-state navy, and edge in 600-700 BC. They had a ram-like point (probably decorative) and were low draught to carry horses, chariots and supplies across rivers.

In 480 BC howver, naval technology went ahead and both the Egyptian and Phoenician ships were more modern, not far away from Greek constructions, which they probably inspired. The real newcomers were the Atenians and their brand new lighweight galleys, innovative for their time.
Precise depictions are found in book 7 of Herodotus “histories”, for the ships in the Persian navy, their armaments of the marines troops (89-98), so just let’s have it plain, and then interpret the data (English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920. ):

“The number of the triremes was twelve hundred and seven, and they were furnished by the following: the Phoenicians with the Syrians of Palestine furnished three hundred; for their equipment, they had on their heads helmets very close to the Greek in style; they wore linen breastplates, and carried shields without rims, and javelins.

[2] These Phoenicians formerly dwelt, as they themselves say, by the Red Sea; they crossed from there and now inhabit the seacoast of Syria. This part of Syria as far as Egypt is all called Palestine.

[3] The Egyptians furnished two hundred ships. They wore woven helmets and carried hollow shields with broad rims, and spears for sea-warfare, and great battle-axes. Most of them wore cuirasses and carried long swords.

Such was their armor. The Cyprians furnished a hundred and fifty ships; for their equipment, their princes wore turbans wrapped around their heads, and the people wore tunics, but in all else they were like the Greeks. These are their tribes:1 some are from Salamis and Athens, some from Arcadia, some from Cythnus, some from Phoenice, and some from Ethiopia, as the Cyprians themselves say.

The Cilicians furnished a hundred ships. They also wore on their heads their native helmets, carried bucklers of raw oxhide for shields, and were clad in woollen tunics; each had two javelins and a sword very close in style to the knives of Egypt. These Cilicians were formerly called Hypachaei, and took their name from Cilix son of Agenor, a Phoenician.1 The Pamphylians furnished a hundred ships: they were armed like the Greeks. These Pamphylians are descended from the Trojans of the diaspora who followed Amphilochus and Calchas.

  • 1 Agenor appears to represent the Phoenician Baal.
  • 1 That is, the entire population contains everywhere these component parts; they are not locally separate.
  • The Lycians furnished fifty ships; they wore cuirasses and greaves, and carried cornel-wood bows and unfeathered arrows and javelins; goat-skins hung from their shoulders, and they wore on their heads caps crowned with feathers; they also had daggers and scimitars. The Lycians are from Crete and were once called Termilae; they took their name from Lycus son of Pandion, an Athenian.

    The Dorians of Asia furnished thirty ships; their armor was Greek; they are of Peloponnesian descent. The Carians furnished seventy ships; they had scimitars and daggers, but the rest of their equipment was Greek. I have said in the beginning of my history1 what they were formerly called.

    The Ionians furnished a hundred ships; their equipment was like the Greek. These Ionians, as long as they were in the Peloponnese, dwelt in what is now called Achaia, and before Danaus and Xuthus came to the Peloponnese, as the Greeks say, they were called Aegialian Pelasgians.1 They were named Ionians after Ion the son of Xuthus.

    The islanders provided seventeen ships and were armed like Greeks; they were also of Pelasgian stock, which was later called Ionian for the same reason as were the Ionians of the twelve cities,1 who came from Athens. The Aeolians furnished sixty ships and were equipped like Greeks; formerly they were called Pelasgian, as the Greek story goes.

    1 Herodotus generally uses the name “Pelasgian” for the oldest known population of Greece

    [2] Of the people of the Hellespont, the people of Abydos had been charged by the king to remain at home and guard the bridges; the rest of the people from Pontus who came with the army furnished a hundred ships and were equipped like Greeks. They were settlers from the Ionians and Dorians.

    Persians and Medes and Sacae* served as soldiers on all the ships. The most seaworthy ships were furnished by the Phoenicians, and among them by the Sidonians. All of these, as with those who were marshalled in the infantry, each had their native leaders, whose names I do not record, since it is not necessary for the purpose of my history.

    *Author’s note: Sacae are eastern scythians, also called “Royal Scythians”, armed the same way as the Greek Mercenaries, with long range double-recurved bows.

    [2] The leaders of each nation are not worthy of mention, and every city of each nation had a leader of its own. These came not as generals but as slaves, like the rest of the expedition; I have already said who were the generals of supreme authority and the Persian commanders of each nation.

    The admirals of the navy were Ariabignes, son of Darius, Prexaspes son of Aspathines, Megabazus, son of Megabates, and Achaemenes, son of Darius. Ariabignes, son of Darius and Gobryas’ daughter, was admiral of the Ionian and Carian fleet; the admiral of the Egyptians was Achaemenes, full brother of Xerxes; and the two others were admirals of the rest. The ships of thirty and of fifty oars, the light galleys, and the great transports for horses came to a total of three thousand all together.

    After the admirals, the most famous of those on board were these: from Sidon, Tetramnestus son of Anysus; from Tyre, Matten son of Siromus; from Aradus, Merbalus son of Agbalus; from Cilicia, Syennesis son of Oromedon; from Lycia, Cyberniscus son of Sicas; from Cyprus, Gorgus son of Chersis and Timonax son of Timagoras; and from Caria, Histiaeus son of Tymnes, Pigres son of Hysseldomus, and Damasithymus son of Candaules.

    I see no need to mention any of the other captains except Artemisia. I find it a great marvel that a woman went on the expedition against Hellas: after her husband died, she took over his tyranny, though she had a young son, and followed the army from youthful spirits and manliness, under no compulsion. [2] Artemisia was her name, and she was the daughter of Lygdamis; on her fathers’ side she was of Halicarnassian lineage, and on her mothers’ Cretan. She was the leader of the men of Halicarnassus and Cos and Nisyrus and Calydnos, and provided five ships.

    [3] Her ships were reputed to be the best in the whole fleet after the ships of Sidon, and she gave the king the best advice of all his allies. The cities that I said she was the leader of are all of Dorian stock, as I can show, since the Halicarnassians are from Troezen, and the rest are from Epidaurus.

    Here ends what I have said of the fleet. When his army had been numbered and marshalled, Xerxes desired to ride through and view it. Then he did this; as he rode in a chariot past the men of each nation, he questioned them while his scribes wrote it all down, until he had gone from one end to the other of the cavalry and infantry.”

    Back to the source and what we can tell from it:
    -Both the Phoenicians, equipped in the Greek style, and the Egyptians, with spears and battle axes, seemed to have been noted as dedicated marine troops. The rest of the combatants were equipped it seems like the land troops, therefore not specialized, not trained marine troops.
    -“most seaworthy ships”, meaning probably large covered cargo ships for the auxiliary fleet and triere and dieres. The Phoenicians were the distant relatives the Carthaginians, inheriting a long and proud shipbuilding tradition.
    -“ships of thirty and of fifty oars” meaning triaconters and pentaconters, small, old types of vessels
    -“light ships”, presumably cisoconters and moneres of 10 oars and more. Smaller boats were a hazard in the Mediterranean, they probably came from nearby islands, or captured from coastal cities to carry plunder and supplies.
    -3,000 ships seems enormous, but the largest part was not the “active fleet”, trieres and dieres seen at Salamis but essentially supply ships and transports, a naval “baggage train”.
    -Horses were in dedicated ships, 5th century BC hippagogues.
    -The king’s trusted admirals were men from the court, appointed to regional fleets for which loyalty has been dubious in the case of the Ionians in particular
    -Artemisia was remarked by Xerxes, as a woman in charge of a small fleet, and became a wise advisor, but he did not made her his supreme naval commander or even appointed her to a large squadron. Five ships was certainly not a game changer in this battle, how excellent they were. Her prominence in Herodotus’s work was probably a fascination, as this was unheard of for “civilized” greeks to have women appointed to military matters. The Sacae also had many women in their ranks, at least back home, so this was not unheard of to the Persians. The matter was again underlined with Polybius decribing the warrior queen Teuta of the illyrians. A fascination probably mixed with terror inherited from tales of the amazons.

    The Greeks had some reasons to fear this engagement, as they had only 378 “triremes” recounted as 371, since the Aeginetans “had other manned ships, sending at Salamis their thirty most seaworthy”. Two more ships defected to the Greeks, including one before Salamis, making 373. Athenian playwright Aeschylus cited 310 triremes, without the Athenian ships and Ctesias 110 triremes, Hyperides, 220. In any case, Themistocles was under overall command, but Spartan Eurybiades was elected his superior at the congress of 481 BC. The various city states kept their own command with some degree of independence.

    On the Persian side, the fleet which initially had 1,207 “triremes” lost one third off the coast of Magnesia, and 200 more off the coast of Euboea plus 50 ships at the Battle of Artemisium. Losses were replaced according to Herodotus, but amounted to only 120 ships from Thrace and nearby islands. Aeschylus (present at Salamis) claimed to see 1,207 vessels (still Homer’s Troy expedition’s fleet), and for his 207 were “fast ships” (so probably trieres), while Diodorus and Lysias also claimed 1,200 ships were assembled at Doriskos, a figure confirmed by Ephorus, but Ctesias talked of 1,000 ships, like Plato, “1000 and more”. This number 1,207 was recorded already in 472 BC, and from then the Greeks really thought they faced that many war vessels. Some modern historians accept ths figure as an initial figure, cited 600 warships, and some accept a figure going up to 800 coherent with the figure left after Artemisium, around 550, added with 120 reinforcements.

    The battle

    Herodotus left us with a confused timeline, presenting the battle as though it happened right after the capture of Athens, but logically they would have needed two or three weeks to capture the city, refit and resupply properly. Xerxes war council at Phalerum failed to convince him to wait for the Allies surrender; but the staff presse for an attack, and thanks to Themistocles clever “fake news”, luring eventually the Persian fleet into the Straits. Xerxes had its throne setup in the slopes of Mount Aigaleo overlook the battle, and so it started.

    The Persian strategy planned the conquest of Greece in a single campaigning season, before the winter. The Greeks knew their limited forces left them with few options but to take the best defensive spots, keep the Persians in the field for as long as possible. Xerxes never anticipated such resistance and now time played against him, giving cluse why he refused the attentist position Artimisia to avoid bloodshed. One reason was his huge army’s support was not infinite, and Thermopylae shown frontal assaults were pointless gainst well protected hoplites. The Greeks repetead this stand at the Isthmus, so the Greeks needed to be outflanked, requiring the Persian navy to deal with the Allied navy first. And possibly ask directly for a Greek surrender and conclude his campaign that season. On Themistocles side, he hope to crippled the Persian fleet enough to avoid a flaking landing, thus constraining the Persians to leave.

    1798 map engraving of the battle
    A 1798 map engraving of the battle, made for Diderot’s encyclopediae by the illustrator Barthélémy.

    The Persians therefore, had really no choice but to face the Greek fleet at Salamis. The Persian fleet’s size in addition allowed to bottle up the Allied fleet in the straits, at the same time landing troops in the Peloponnese. Outnumbering the Allies was an obvious advantage in addition to probably better crews (The Phoenicians notably) while Athenians were “rookie” and it’s not impossible to think many other city-states built triremes during this war, and were equally inexperienced. Nevertheless these Athenian triremes were light and tailored for ramming.

    When the Persioan fleet deployed, it started diekplous (a breakthrough) due to the narrows. There are various interpretations of the manoeuver, either creating a single column and penetrate the center of the Greek line or simply rowing into gaps between enemy ships. The better Persian crews would have been more likely to do it this way, having theeir Phoenicians and Egyptians in the first line. The Greek fleet had the Persians where they wanted, into a constricted area negate their numerical superiority. Straits of Salamis offered an even more constricted approach, so much so that archers could pepper the Persians from the shore. The Persians took the bait, confident of the Allied collapse, but it proved a disastrous mistake.

    There are still cinfusing tales of how precisely the events unfolds. The Allied fleet had the Athenians on the left, Spartans (or Megareans and Aeginetians) on the left, and all the other contingents in the center. This was sensible disposition as les resolute city-states could no longer back down, frame as they were, and at the same time, both the Athenians and Spartans were more likely to defeat an attempt of flanking. The Allied fleet probably formed two ranks, as a single line just would not fit in the narrow. This line ran north–south, probably from a point near modern-day Saint George’s Islet and south point off the coast of Cape Vavari. Diodorus however suggested a line running east–west spanning the straits between Salamis and Mount Aigaleo, dubious as one flank was controlled by the Persians, and archers could have been send there.

    moves of the persians
    Map showing the Persian fleet pivoting to meet the Greeks in the narrows (cc)

    The Persian fleet much probably sent a fleet to block the exit before the battle, but catching the allies by night was complicated due to the constricted waters and lack of knowledge of these. Blocking the exit and entering the straits in daylight was more sensible. The Persians had their fleet placed off the tip of Cape Vavari, from an east–west alignment blocking the exit to a north–south alignment and formed into three ranks according to Aeschylus. The Phoenicians were on the right, close to Mount Aigaleo, the Ionians on the left and the others in the centre.

    For Diodorus this was the Egyptian fleet which was chosen to circumnavigate Salamis and block the northern exit, but not Herodotus, at the contrary cited their presence in the main battle. Xerxes positioned also 400 troops on the island of Psyttaleia, in the middle of the straits exit possibly archers and some infantry to fell on shipwreck and grounding ships’s crews.

    The Persians waited until daylight whereas the Greeks spend the night to prepare for the battle, their morale roused after a speech by Themistocles, and they sailed at dawn to take their positions. Soon, both fleets were close enough for the Persians to hear the Greeks singing their paean according to Aeschylus. Herodotus reported that the first engagements started when the Corinthians hoisted their sails to sail away from the battle northwards, denied by others. They might have been -if true- a decoy to scout the northern exit if the Egyptians were coming, or their move incited the Persians to approach more decisively believing the Allied fleet was in effect, disintegrating. This was no defection, as the Corinthians were back.

    Due to their large scale manoeuver in three columns into the narrows, the complicated manoeuver saw the Persians disorganised and cramped, to see the Greeks well lined up and ready to attack. But the latter appeared to keep their ships back, to gain better position and time until the early morning wind according to one author. Herodotus embelished that by claiming that when the Greeks seemed to back away, a woman appeared and ask them “Madmen, how far will ye yet back your ships?” However he also described a single surging forward, ramming the nearest Persian ship, commanded by Athenian Ameinias of Pallene. The Aeginetans claimed they were first. In any case, as a rally cry, the whole Greek line followed and headed at force rowing towards the disordered Persian battle line.

    A modern aerial view of Salamis and the supposed positions of the fleets.

    Few details survives of what exactly happened during the battle and no one could have an enlightened overview for the entire battle. Ramming or shearing off banks of oars was difficult, due to the confined space, and the initial maneouver probably worked, but soon as it became more crowded with Persian ships advancing behind, boarding marines became the next step. Will a melee developming, this probably turned to a huge melee from deck to deck. The first Persian line was pushed back and rereated or collided with the advancing second and third lines, adding to the confusion and clogging their own movements. Thus, the manoeuvers and tactics on the Persians were not impossible. The Greek left advanced fast and apparently the Persian admiral Ariabignes, brother of Xerxes was killed*, leading to demoralization and further confusion. He was crucially heading the Phoenician squadrons, which, as reported, seemed to have been pushed back against the coast. The centre saw the Greeks forms a wedge, organized for a kind of Diekplous, and pushed their way through Persians lines. It went so far they allegedly split the fleet in two.

    *Plutarch said he was killed by by Ameinias and Socles of Pallene as he attempted to board on their ship, speared and thrust him into the sea under the eyes of the Persians, as also that Artemisia recognized his body floating among shipwrecks, bringing it back to Xerxes.

    “Ariamenes, admiral to Xerxes, a brave man and by far the best and worthiest of the king’s brothers, was seen throwing darts and shooting arrows from his huge galley, as from the walls of a castle. Aminias the Decelean and Sosicles the Pedian [Socles of Palene in reality], who sailed in the same vessel, upon the ships meeting stem to stem, and transfixing each the other with their brazen prows, so that they were fastened together, when Ariamenes attempted to board theirs, ran at him with their pikes, and thrust him into the sea…”

    Note: This would have been a foolhardy decision during the battle, so likely it happened afterwards.
    By then, she commanded the Carian contingent and was busy shooting arrows as reported by Herodotus. Artemisia was also pursued by Ameinias of Pallene which opened hostilities, andn still for Herodotus, in her will to escape, rammed another Persian vessel, probably blocking her way out (Needs caution). This move convinced she was an ally (an argument in favor of relativily similar ships and hard to read recoignition signs), convincing her pursuer she was an ally and letting her go.

    Xerxes, allegedly spotted what happened and believed she had successfully attacked a Greek ship, which, compared to the poor performance of his other captains famously commented “My men have become women, and my women men”. The victim of this ramming was a Calyndian ship, with the king Damasithymos on board, and the entire crew disappeared (…).

    “When the affairs of the king had come to great confusion, at this crisis a ship of Artemisia was being pursued by an Athenian ship; and as she was not able to escape, for in front of her were other ships of her own side, while her ship, as it chanced, was furthest advanced towards the enemy, she resolved what she would do, and it proved also much to her advantage to have done so. While she was being pursued by the Athenian ship she charged with full career against a ship of her own side manned by Calyndians and in which the king of the Calyndians Damasithymos was embarked.”

    William Rainey, Death of the Persian admiral at Salamis (1870-80)

    As the Greek breakthrough seemed to work, the Persian fleet started to retreat towards Phalerum, ambushed by the Aeginetans as they left the Straits, still according to Herodotus. The remaining ships limped back to Phalerum, under the protection of the Persian army. Athenian general Aristides as reported, sailed across to Psyttaleia with hoplites to finish off the garrison. Exact Persian casualties are unknown, but Herodotus claimed that in 479 BC, the Persian fleet was reduced to 300 triremes. If true, this was a staggering loss.

    -First off, not all the Persian fleet was engaged, there was indeed perhaps a diversion fleet on the other side of the strait to block it, which for whatever reason did not came in time (if it existed).
    -Second, ships were so cramped that the rear lines and those on the flanks perhaps never seen the Greeks, which basically were in the center of it;
    -These ships seeing the development of the battle probably retreated
    -Many Phoenician ships as reported by Herodotus, simply were beached and grounded on the coast after their admiral was killed.
    -Still according to Herodotus, the Persians did not know how to swim and many drawn.

    In any case, Xerxes saw the carnage from Mount Aigaleo and later received testimonies of some ship-wrecked Phoenician captains trying to blame the Ionians for cowardice, which ios not excluded given what Themistocles did before. Xerxes was not convinced apparently of this as he witnessed a Ionian ship capturing an Aeginetan one, beheaded them for slandering “more noble men”. For Diodorus this punishment was resented by the Phoenicians which lef his fleet and sailed to Asia at nightfall.

    After Salamis: The Greeks strikes back (479-478)

    As the battle ended, the Peloponnesian Allies also would try to lure Mardonius to battle, marching towards him in Attica. The latter avoided the fight, luring them in turn in open terrain for his cavalry to play its part. Both armies met near Plataea and engaged in a cataclismic clash in August 479 BC. There, the Greeks won a decisive victory, which ended all hopes of conquest while at the same time at Mycale, the fleet engaged what was Persian ships escaped from Salamis, and crushed them. With this double strike the war ended. No further invasion would be mounted for years a this point, at least under Xerxes. This changed the fate, not only of Greece, which would engage in a long and bloody war for or against Athens and its Delian league, but the western world, and democracy. The Greeks and Persians would fight again in what was called the Delian league wars, including a major naval battle, at the Eurymedon.

    On March 17, 2017, archaeologists announced they discovered submerged remains of the Greek anchorage prior to the Battle, and ancient mooring site on the island of Salamis, near Ambelaki-Kynosaurus today. A monument was erected at Kynosoura peninsula on Salamis Island by sculptor Achilleas Vasileiou, and a column

    How Salamis compares to other naval battles of the time ?

    Sources/read more

    Herodotus’ Histories, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius

    The models corner

    Zvezda 500788514 1:72 Greek Triere
    -Envy scale models 1:72 (hand built and painted)
    -Dusek ships kits 1:72
    -Amati 1:35 Bireme Salamis

    -Salamis – Christian Cameron
    -Charles River editors – The battle of Salamis
    The wooden walls that saved greece – MMD-Squadron Signal
    -The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece – and Western Civilization by Barry Strauss
    -Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John R. Hal
    -Salamis 480 BC – the campagn which saved greece, osprey Publishing, W. Shepherd, P. Denis
    -Osprey New Vanguard – Ancient Greek Warships – Nic Fields, Peter Bull
    -Osprey wargame: Poseidon’s warriors – John Lambshead
    -The Greco-Persian wars – Peter Green


    see also: BBC Podcast
    Bilge mode ?

    -Engineering an Empire (2005–2007), Episode: Greece (2006). Docu.
    -300: Zack Snyder’s Rise of an empire (from the comic, to take with a truck of salt)

    “Trireme commander”, a simulator of the battle of Salamis
    Activision’s Rome Total War II: Same, as part of the global strategy game

    scuttling of the hochseeflotte (1919)

    Scutting of the Hochseeflotte (1919)

    And the fate of other Central Empires Navies

    German delegates hochseeflotte
    The arrival of German delegates of the Hochseeflotte on HMS Queen Elisabeth in 1918.
    The end of the second largest European Navy: Today, 11 November 2018, we remember the sacrifice of an entire generation throughout Europe, four years of a fratricide war that changed the geopolitical maps of the world, toppling empires but also setting up the conditions, unfortunately, for a second, even worst global conflict. This was 100 years exactly day for day.
    At that day exactly, German delegates signed in a Wagon at Rethondes, in a rush, an unconditional surrender for the German Army. This was the tipping point of several armistices already signed the previous days, taking out of the war the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
    All three countries will experienced internal troubles, seeing a toppling of regime or dissolution as a political entity. Germany was no exception, thrown into a revolution after the abdication of the Kaiser. But oddly, peace was not signed yet. It would take this first act on 11 November, and three prolongations until peace was officially ratified at 4:15 pm on 10 January 1920.
    Indeed, Europe was the object of civilian and military turmoil, with new borders drawn, new countries appearing (like Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Poland), and of course the Russian civil war. Allied troops were still fighting the “reds” in 1919. But in this article of course, we will focus on the naval aspects of this armistice.

    Painting of the signature of the armistice at Rethondes

    Previous armistices: The fate of Ottoman and Austrian navies

    Of the three central empires, Imperial Germany was the one with the largest navy and the cause of great concerns for the Entente. Together, the Ottoman Turk navy and Austro-Hungarian fleet accounted for a small fraction of this total. On the Entente side all along the conflict, as we saw the previous month and years, the central Empire were dominated head to toes by the entente navies: Not only the Royal Navy, but also the French, US, Italian, and Japanese navies to name a few. In ww2, the Japanese and Italians, both frustrated by the consequences of the armistice, swapped on the other side, which perhaps explains the duration, global character and ferocity of this conflict.

    In 1914, the few German squadrons that were not in the Baltic or safely in north sea ports were chased throughout the globe. This led to Graf Spee’s Pacific squadron flee the Pacific to literally roam the oceans, or Souchon’s Mediterranean squadron taking refuge at Constantinople, and swapping to the fez…
    For most of the war, the Austro-Hungarian navy was trapped into the Adriatic (hence the Otranto barrage and multiple attempts to destroy it) and the Turkish Navy trapped into the black sea, with a de facto blocus of the Dardanelles after 1915. Of course Germany on her side was trapped into the Baltic, and a blocus enforced, leading to submarine warfare in retaliation. The definition of a total war, as populations were severely affected.

    Fate of the Austro-Hungarian Navy

    Pola 1918
    Pola in 1918. notice the French armoured cruiser in the bottom left corner, guarding the fleet.

    It’s rare and notable when an old empire is dislocated and split between several new countries. Such was the case of the venerable Empire, and naturally, questions were asked about the future of its relatively strong fleet, counting by then three dreadnoughts and most of her high sea capital ships and cruisers still intact, spared for a large scale decisive battle like the Hochseeflotte.
    By the end of October 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Army was exhausted and on the verge of mutiny as some minorities rejected the war and commanders sought a ceasefire. The Battle of Vittorio Veneto has been a turning point and triggered a chaotic withdrawal, while discussions started from 28 October onwards. Augmenting pressure, seizing Udine, Trento, and Trieste the Italians threatened to break the truce and the Austro-Hungarians accepted to sign the surrender on 3 November followed the next day by a cease-fire. This was the Armistice of Villa Giusti.

    The armistice forced evacuation of South Tirol, Tarvisio, the Isonzo Valley, Gorizia, Trieste, Istria, or Dalmatia, German forces were ordered out, while the Italians would occupy Innsbruck and North Tyrol, followed after the war by an annexation of Trentino-Alto Adige (South Tyrol) (Treaty of London), Trieste and the Austrian Littoral. This, importantly, gave Italy a useful maritime facade for the fleet. Trieste, in particular, was of prime importance.

    Treaty of St Germain en Laye: The Empire was disbanded and the new Republic of German-Austria signed on 10 September 1919 a formal treaty of peace. This ratified Italy’s acquisitions of the Austrian Littoral such as Gorizia and Gradisca, Trieste and the March of Istria plus Dalmatian islands which ensure the control of both sides of the Adriatic.
    The Treaty of Trianon signed 4 June 1920 at Versailles, effective on 31 July 1921 was a peace treaty with the new Kingdom of Hungary. The Kingdom of Romania, the Czechoslovak Republic, and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia all benefited from large land acquisitions. The Austro-Hungarian navy was disbanded and the army of Hungary was to be restricted to 35,000 men, no conscription, Heavy artillery, tanks, and air force prohibited. Of course, no mention of a fleet was made as the country was landlocked.

    The fleet was mothballed since the 31 October. The Battleship Viribus Unitis, sank by Italian frogmen at anchor, was a freak event while the Empire just gave up the fleet to the newly created State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. Renamed Jugoslavija she was sunk indeed on 1st November.

    Indeed Raffaele Paolucci and Raffaele Rossetti, penetrated Pula with their Mignatta (“leech”), a manned torpedo during the night and their mission started before this transfer occured, so they were unaware of this and the neutrality of the new state (although there were considerable tension between Italy and the new state).

    Since both frogmen had no breathing apparatus they were spotted, captured, revealed to the captain the timing of the explosive charges but not their location, and the ship was evacuated. However since the explosion did not occured as planned but 15 min. later, some sailors believing the frogmen were lying, returned to the ship and became fatalities.
    The k.u.k. Kriegsmarine’s ships not given to the new state (later unified as the kingdom of Yugoslavia) were turned over to the Entente, that has them mostly scrapped. However many other ships stayed in service up to WW2. One of the longest in service was the monitor Bodrog, now a museum ship. Outside TBs which served with the Yugoslavian and Romanian navies, a handful of riverine patrol vessels survived until 1932. These were the only Austrian ships authorized through the Treaty of St Germain-en-Laye. In addition, three monitors were allocated to Hungary in 1927. The Stör distinguished herself in by greatly contributing to stopping the advance of the Soviet troops during the siege of Vienna in 1945. She survived until 1966.

    War Prizes & post war allocations:

    • Habsburg, Herzherzog classes: UK, BU Italy 1920-21
    • Radetzky class: US Navy control, >Italy BU 1921-26
    • Tegetthoff class: 1 Yugoslavia (V. Unitis sunk 1919), Italy BU 1924 (Tegetthoff), France (Prinz Eugen) sunk as target 1922.
    • Kronprinzessin coastal BBs class > Italy BU 1922-26
    • Monarch class coastal BBs >UK, BU Italy 1920
    • Cruisers Maria Theresa, Karl VI, Skt Georg > UK, BU Italy 1920-21
    • Cruiser Kaiser Fz Joseph > France, sank 1919
    • Panther class> UK, BU Italy
    • Tiger> Yugoslavia, scrapped Italy
    • Zenta class> UK, BU Italy
    • Zara class and other Torpedo Cruisers: Italy, BU 1920
    • Blitz class DDs> France BU Italy 1920
    • High seas TBs Python class> France BU Italy 1920
    • Admiral Spaun class cruisers> UK (BU), Italian Venezia, Brindidi (BU 1937), French Thionville (BU 1941)
    • Huszar class DDs > 1 Greece, 7 Italy, 2 France, BU 1920
    • Warasdiner> Italy
    • Tatra/Ersatz Tatra class DDs> Italy BU 1920
    • Kaiman class TBs> UK (BU 1920), Yugoslavia (4)
    • Tb 74 T> 4 Romania, Italy, Yugoslavia post-ww2
    • Tb 82 F> 3 Romania, 6 Portugal (sold), 3 Greece, 4 Yugoslavia (last BU 1963)
    • Tb 98 M> 3 Greece
    • Tb I> Italy BU 1920
    • Tb VII> Italy 1925-26 (customs)
    • Austro-Hungarian submarines: Italy, BU 1920 with exception of Curie (captured, renamed U 14 then ceded back to its original owners)

    Fate of the Ottoman Navy

    The fate of the Golden Horn Empire was fixed by the Treaty of Sèvres, signed 10 August 1920 by France and the entente countries on one side and Turly on the other. While the Ottoman Army was restricted to 50,700 men, the Ottoman Navy was authorized a force of seven sloops/gunboats and six torpedo boats whose armament was precisely limited. The treaty included an inter-allied commission of control and organisation to supervise the execution of the military clauses.

    Turkish signatories at Sevres.
    The new Turkish navy flagship, ex-Goeben, Yavuz Sultan Selim, was interned in Izmir under British control. The Yavuz, like the rest of the heavy ships, which were supposed to be given to Great Britain or Japan. But events had the wheel spinning an odd way:
    In 1922, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) made a coup that ousted Sultan Mohammed VI, starting a revolution and a civil war. Kemal’s own two gunboats took refuge in the Black Sea, then in the hands of “Reds” to avoid capture. While Greek victory was recognized by the Treaty of Lausanne on July 24, 1923, this allowed the release of the Turkish fleet interned in Izmir and saved the battleship Yavuz.

    The Yavuz was modernized twice in the interwar at the the Gölcük Naval Shipyard, in 1927 and refitted in 1938. Turkey remaining neutral during WW2, Yavuz was still in service during the cold war and not scrapped until 1973. Indeed, short of the budget to keep her as a museum ship she has been offered to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1963, but the latter declined her. So in short, the Republican Turkish fleet inherited from the prewar Ottoman Navy, but most of the ships were scrapped due to their age and worn-out conditions, not because of any transfer, war prize or obligation. Soon after Turkey started to purchase destroyers and submarines from Italy and Germany and in 1939 it emerged in a generally better shape than in 1914.

    Fate of the German Navy

    Of course the greatest concern for the Entente was the fate of the largest and most modern fleet within the central powers. This formidable Navy had been quite inactive after the battle of Jutland and maintained idle, but ready, amidst growing discontent and spread of communism.

    Last acquisitions of the Hochseeflotte

    The Hochseeflotte before the end of 1918 had received many new ships, mostly destroyers and submarines:
    -The battlecruiser SMS Hindenburg, completed in October 1917, and considered as one of the best, if not the best battlecruiser ever built and a prototype fast battleship. In addition, work was ongoing on new classes, the Mackensen (launched April and September 1917) and Ersatz Yorck class (four battlecruisers) laid down mid-1916 in Vulkan, Hamburg and other yards, which had their construction halted.

    -The new battleships of the Bayern class has been accepted already in June 1916 and February 1917, but the next Sachsen class (31,000 tons, 22 knots, 8 x15-in guns) construction was suspended in 1918. Both ships indeed have been launched in November 1916 and June 1917. But because of manpower issues and material shortages, work had stalled and stopped completely in 1918 and both were later scrapped at Kiel and Hamburg, respectively. No doubt they had been formidable battleships if completed and authorized by the treaty of Versailles. In some way, they were the only reference for engineers that started the Bismarck class design twenty years after.

    -Unlike capital ships, cruisers suffered less from late war shortages: The last class was the Cöln (Cologne), 10 ships ordered to various yards and laid down from 1915 to 1916. However if seven were launched, the last, SMS Frauenlöb II in October 1918, only two were completed, Cöln II and Dresden II, in January and March 1918. They saw little service. This new model of cruiser, 7500 tons fully loaded and capable of 28 knots served as an interwar model for the new KMS Emden, with few improvements.
    -The bulk of the efforts were seen in light ships, destroyers or “Hochseetorpedoboote“. The large and innovative S113/V116 class, B122, V125, G148, V158, H166, V170, S178 and H186 classes were either never completed, or cancelled.
    -The last classes of German WWI submarines were the U-115, 127, 142, 151, 213 and 229 cruiser submarines, or the large-scale UB 48 (which inspired clandestine interwar designs in Holland), of which 130 were planned and 92 delivered before the war ended, like the UC 80 minelaying type (25 out of 115 completed).

    The first mutiny: Scheer’s aborted last offensive

    Hochseeflotte’s last battle

    History retains Jutland as the last major naval battle for the Royal Navy and German Navies, but after month of inaction and idleness, sensing the crew’s morale were quite low after the bad news of the front, and under pressure of the general staff and the Kaiser planned an all-out, last-ditch offensive with all the Hochseeflotte. The plan was elaborated a bit like than for Jutland. This was still about drawing a part of the Royal Navy on an ambush laid by submarines, but seeking direct confrontation this time with the bulk of the fleet and not a single battlecruiser squadron for a decisive victory without waiting for capital ships to arrive. Confidence indeed has been restored after Jutland over German ships’ resilience and exposing also British deficiencies. It should be noted the Hochseeflotte performed three sorties since Jutland: one on 18–19 August 1916 (The RN lost two cruisers), 18-19 October 1916 (SMS Munchen shelling of Sunderland), and 22–25 April 1918 (SMS Baden failed convoy interception)

    The battle has been for obvious propaganda reasons presented as a German victory. Yet, the head of staff preferred not to risk the bulk of the fleet in another large battle. But by late 1918, desperation grew while morale sank, sailors, knowing about the suffering of the civilian population because of their inaction with the naval blockade and resenting their absence of commitment compared to the Infantry. Sensing this, and gradual consequences of the Soviet revolution and spread of communism in the Navy, added to a general discontent over the regime, Scheer planned the naval order of 24 October 1918.


    It happened just when notes were exchanged with the US Government about a cessation of hostilities, one conditions being the cessation of submarine warfare. Therefore all U-boats at sea were recalled on 21 October. However the day after, Scheer ordered Admiral Hipper to prepare for an attack on the British fleet, with the main battle fleet and using the available U-boats. Details and final plans were approved by Scheer on 27 October and the Hochseeflotte concentrated at Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven in preparation. In addition, the Germans had now fine-turned their intelligence and their communications were much harder to break. They had been in April 1918 able to launch massive surprise sorties against convoys off Norway.

    Hochseeflotte at sea
    The order implied the Hochseeflotte was to sail to Hoofden, due south, attacking combat forces and mercantile traffic on the Flanders coast and Thames estuary. This was supposed to draw the British Fleet toward the line Hoofden/German Bight. On day II of the operation, local forces were supposed to be engaged by torpedo-boats during the night of Day II or III while the northern grand fleet approach routes (from Scotland) up to the area of Terschelling were infested by mines and ambushing positions by submarines.
    In total, 25 U-boats were to be deployed in six lines in the southern North Sea. However the days of their deployment four U-Boats were sunk. The British Admiralty was soon informed of the concentration and prepared for a possible emergency sortie.

    Mutiny and Cancellation

    On the afternoon of 29 October the fleet was busy preparing for sailing the following day, 30 October. Official communications used in deception mentioned a training sortie. The raid on the Thames and the Flanders Coast were scheduled for 31 October. A large scale battle was expected in the afternoon to evening. However in the evening of 29 October unrest and serious acts of indiscipline multiplied: The men became convinced their commanders were intent on sacrificing them, to sabotage the Armistice negotiations.

    Battleship SMS Bayern, the most formidable German battleship

    Stokers failed to return from shore leave on two battlecruisers, while mass insubordination happened on four dreadnoughts and outright mutiny erupted in König, Kronprinz Wilhelm and Markgraf. On Baden also, officers were on their guard as the crew was restless and agressive. Mutiny indeed affected mostly large ships, whereas the crews remained quiet on smaller ships. Because of the fear of an all-out uprizing and the safety of officers, Admiral Hipper decided to cancel the operation on 30 October. He also ordered the fleet to disperse. On 3 November there was another large scale mutiny in Kiel, and ships of the 3rd battle squadron pointed their guns on the rebellious vessels. But this unrest was not over. The last act occured in 1919, in Scotland…

    The end of the Hochseeflotte

    SMS Hindenburg sunk
    Consequences of the Treaty of Versailles for the German Navy were not fixed when negotiations commenced on 18 January 1919 at the Quai d’Orsay, the diplomatic quarter in Paris. 70 delegates from 27 nations participated minus Russia, which had a separate peace signed at Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918. In addition to the loss of German colonies, Lloyd George wanted to neutralize the German navy, in order that the Royal Navy could keep her advantage.

    Soon however the new country was allowed to keep a glorified coastal naval force: Six pre-dreadnought battleships (of the 1904 Deutschland vintage) and six light cruisers (capped to 6,000 long tons (6,100 t)) plus twelve destroyers (capped to 800 tons) plus twelve torpedo boats (200 tons). Of course, strict interdiction to study and built submarines.

    Manpower was reduced accordingly to 15,000 men, which comprised not only the crews, but coastal defenses, signal stations, and administration with no less than 1500 officers. In addition, the remainder of the fleet was to be surrendered: Eight modern battleships, eight cruisers, forty-two destroyers, and fifty torpedo boats while thirty-two auxiliary ships were converted back as merchant vessels.
    On 12 November 1918, instructions were sent to the German HQ to ready the Hochseeflotte for a departure on 18 November to an indicated place where she could be on guard, pending her fate. The threat was for the British to occupy Heligoland. Three days after, Rear-Admiral Hugo Meurer (Hipper’s representative) went on board HMS Queen Elizabeth to see Admiral David Beatty and receive instructions. U-boats were to sail at Harwich, the closest convenient place for short-range subs, placed under supervision of Rear-Admiral Reginald Tyrwhitt’s Harwich Force. The surface fleet, the Hochseeflotte, was to sail with a reduced crew to the Firth of Forth at the Grand Fleet’s naval base of Scapa Flow north of Scotland.

    HMS Cardiff leading the Hochseeflotte main battle squadron to Scotland
    HMS Cardiff leading the Hochseeflotte main battle squadron to Scotland

    Hugo Meurer temporized, knowing the mood of the sailors. He did not want a refusal and outright mutiny. In the following days from 20 November until the next year, 176 U-Boats sailed and were interned to Harwich. The 21, the 70 most significant ships of the fleet destined to be handed over were led by light cruiser Cardiff to Scotland. That was an exceptional sight. However the battleship König and light cruiser Dresden were left behind because of engines problems; The last Hochseeflotte ship sank by a mine, yet in peacetime, was the V30, during the dangerous crossing. When the fleet eventually arrived at Scapa, they were guarded by an armada of about 270 British and allied ships. David Beatty signaled the Hochseeflotte to then anchor in respective sites along the bay and the German flag be hauled down. Battleships and cruisers were placed north and west of the island of Cava and later the König and Dresden joined in.

    Captivity was grim for the crews: The lack of discipline, poor morale, idleness, the terrible weather, poor food from seldom arriving Germany, lack of news from home, led to the ships to be in a state of “indescribable filth for some of the ships” according to British officers. At the head of this jailed fleet, Rear-Admiral von Reuter soon requested his flagship to the be the SMS Emden on 25 March 1919 as he was regularly prevented to sleep by the “red guard” sailors night rambling and stomping. To avoid further disturbances, crews were conducted back to Germany (only more loyal crews remained), at a rate of about 100/month. In total, only 4,815 men were left to take care of the ships.

    This was a skeleton crew in charge, pending the fate of the Hochseeflotte at the Paris Peace Conference. Crucially Article XXXI of the Armistice precised that the Germans were not permitted to destroy their own ships, that were to be either destroyed by the British or sent as war reparations. However Von Reuter started to prepare the scuttling o his ships, and effort in this sense redoubled after May 1919. Further instructions in this way came later from Admiral Erich Raeder.

    In June, when it was clear to Admiral Madden that the German intentions were precisely to scuttle the ships, he devised a plan to seize them. The date of the operation was planned to be midnight of 21/22 June, corresponding to the treaty of Versailles signed and entering the application. However, the first battle squadron departed for an exercise, planned to returned on 23 June in order to carry out the order, later than planned.
    It was precisely at this moment that Von Reuter gave the famous order to scuttle the fleet at 10:00 a.m. on 21 June 1919, when there were only a few destroyers left at Scapa Flow. This was immediately carried out. It was not performed by explosive charges but simply by opening seacocks and flood valves and let water flow in unrestricted by watertight compartment or doors. In addition, the crews bored holes through bulkheads to speed things up. British crews were not aware of this until seeing the Friedrich der Grosse starting to list heavily to starboard. Soon also, flags were hoisted to the masts, the old Imperial German Ensign. Crews were also ordered to abandon ships.
    Fremantle receiving news of the scuttling at 12:20 and immediately ordered the fleet to turn back. He arrived just when major ships were still afloat and immediately ordered the ships to be boarded and beached if possible. The last capital ship to sink was the battlecruiser Hindenburg at 17:00, which gently sat straight underwater, while Baden also sank in shallow waters and remained largely unaffected by the scuttling. A British crew was able to beach her soon after. Other ships sank in deeper waters and capsized, preventing any recuperation.
    Since this was in violation of orders and almost an act of war, German crews rowing to land were shot on sight by British ships. In all, nine Germans sailors were killed, sixteen wounded, the last “wartime” casualties of the Hochseeflotte which cased to exist as a fighting force. This would remain the largest fleet scuttling in history, and the largest fleet Germany ever had, the dream of grandeur of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

    SMS Baden in refloating operations. The battleship has been beached and was used afterward as a target practice, sank in 1921.[/caption]
    Reactions to the scuttling were mixed. The French were disappointed, counting on some recent ships acquisition, while some British officers saw it as a “blessing”, not willing to have long and painful negotiations for redistributions. Admiral Reinhard Scheer, of course, rejoiced about the regained honor. Not all the fleet was lost, however. 15 of the 16 capital ships were, 5 of the 8 cruisers and 32 of the 50 destroyers effectively sank, but the others were at least partially afloat and did not need a lot to be towed to safety and sailing again under a short notice.

    All these hulls did not hamper navigation that much since Scapa flow bight was quite large and the ships were relegated in a specific corner. But it would take time to recover these ships of possible and have them towed to breakers or broken in situ. Refloating them, even for the value of scrap metal, was not seen as interesting since so many ships already obsolete or useless war reparations were already sold for scrap.

    The only motivated endeavor was from entrepreneur Ernest Cox which managed to purchase and refloat 26 destroyers, two battlecruisers, and five battleships. The remainder of the hulls rested there until the 1980s, classed as archeological remains. They are laying in depths up to 47 meters (154 ft) and can be still visited today by divers if that was not for the poor weather and cold. Probably the most interesting remain had been the battlecruiser Hindenburg, which was visited by Royal Engineers and studied carefully. They discovered the quality of internal compartmentation and armor scheme. It is said that reports helped to design some details on following “super-dreadnoughts” or fast battleships after the Nelson.

    The SMS Hindenburg was later partially refloated and carefully studied by British Royal Engineers, in particular the internal compartmentation and armored bulkheads.

    War reparations:

    Since not all ships have been lost, war reparations were possible but concerned mostly cruisers, destroyers and submarines left home. Only the Baden survived only to be used by the UK as a target ship. However, France acquired the Emden, but she was in such poor state she was not repaired and broken up in 1926, as well as the destroyer V26 and V100. most surviving ships given to UK, USA, and Japan were soon broken up. However, there was still a flurry of intact U-Boats at Harwich, that ended in the French and Italian navies, including some U-Boats to the USA. The U-boats, in particular, had considerable design influences. The interdiction to built new ones was not respected very long: From 1926 onwards, Germans engineers installed a design bureau in the Hague in the Netherland, and planned export to finance their research. They secretly designed submarines for Sweden, Norway, the Soviet Union, Spain, Finland, and Turkey gaining valuable experience in the process, helping to design new models from 1937.

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    Battle of Elli and Lemnos (1912-13)

    Greek Navy Greek Navy vs Turkish Navy Turkish Ottoman Navy

    The Battles of the Aegean sea, a prelude to the great war at sea

    Eight years after Tsushima, and just before the Great war, Mediterranean naval powers clashed upon territorial and sovereignty questions. The Balkans separated from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, already in the XIXth century considered the “sick man of Europe”. There were two wars, one opposing the Greek and Turkish navy, while the other opposed the Regia Marina to the Turkish Navy. In 1912, both the battle of Elli and the battle of Lemnos showed speed was in itself a war-winning recipe.
    At Elli, a single armored cruiser, using the relatively new “crossing the T” tactic pummelled the Turkish line and set the fleet packing. At Lemnos, the same story repeated, but this time the main battle line was engaged, showing that an excellent rate of fire (on the Turkish side) was no substitute for a good accuracy (on the Greek side). At the end, it also showed that naval reconnaissance was not superfluous, as shown by the perilous long-range mission of two Greek aviators to locate the Turkish fleet after the battle, and ensure the Greeks they had the mistery of the Aegean.

    The Balkan Wars

    The Balkan wars in 1912 has been seen by some authors as a template for ww1, at least in some aspects. There were indeed trenches, artillery concentration, air warfare and use of armored cars. The Balkan wars, also called by the Turks Balkan Faciası or “the Balkan Tragedy”, raged on between 8 October 1912 and 18 July 1913 mostly for the control of the Aegean sea, and the coastal areas of Eastern Greece and Western Asia minor, historical a region that has been Hellenized since ancient time. but it mostly happened as Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia took their independence from the Ottoman Empire and formed the Balkan League in 1912. Contrary to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the “sick man of Europe” never succeed in reforming itself and dealing with the rising ethnic nationalism.
    Two Balkan Wars would emerge from this, since the league was certain to beat the Ottomans, provoked the eviction of ethnic Turks from these territories, and in the end delineated present-day Turkey’s western border. Needless to say, this psycho-traumatic event accelerated the fall of the Empire and the 1913 Ottoman coup d’état. It however already had been prepared by the 1908 Young Turk Revolution. This even saw Austria-Hungary annexing the Ottoman province of Bosnia-Herzegovina, raising tensions with Serbia. I any case, the Balkans were seen by major powers as a powder cake just waiting for a spark. It would just wait for one more year to explode. The balkan wars became in any case a traumatic event for the Turks, the great national tragedy.

    Naval Operations

    While independently from the Greeks, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro attacked Turkish positions in the theater of Sandjak, Macedonia and Thrace, and although the Turkish population was important, the issue of these land battles greatly depended from reinforcements from the homeland. So on the long-run, the fate of operations in the Balkans ultimately depended from the good will of the Greeks to intervene. The latter were too happy to oblige, also seeing an opportunity for some land grabbing in the Aegean. Naval battles between the Turkish and Greek navies in the Aegean would ensure this turn of event. The Ottoman fleet twice exited the Dardanelles to create a reinforcement convoy but was twice defeated by the Greek Navy, in the battles of Elli and Lemnos.
    This Greek naval domination of the Aegean Sea prevented therefore any of these crucial reinforcements from the Middle East on any fronts and according to E.J. Erickson the Greek Navy indirect role by neutralizing a significant portion of the Ottoman Army in Thrace at the beginning of the war. Now free-handed, the Greek Navy could liberate Aegean Island. Balkans league officers were also not long to recognize the strategic value of this help to secure victory.

    Before the battles: Fleets compared

    Diagram by French weekly L’Illustration, depicting the Greek and Ottoman fleets and the warships that participated in the Battle of Lemnos

    The Asia minor coast, east of the Aegean and the islands themselves under nominal control by the Turks, lacked any facilities for a large fleet and at best only a few patrol boats were present in this sector. The bulk of the Turkish Ottoman fleet was indeed stationed at Constantinople, which only access to the Aegean was through the Dardanelles strait. This was a blessing and a curse, as its narrows and fortifications along the way protected the fleet from any incursion, but it also was a very ominous way off for the Turkish Navy and could be blockaded. That’s basically what the Greeks did. They just waited for the Turkish Navy to exit and came to them in force, thus preventing them to reach the West coast of Turkey and escort or carry reinforcements.

    Turkish destroyer Muavenet

    In 1912, the Turkish Ottoman Navy was still impressive on paper:
    The consisted of two battleships, two cruisers, five destroyers (anchored in Beirut) while Izmir has been previously sunk by the Italian Navy.
    The “Young Turks” tried in 1909 to change Turkey’s attitude towards its fleet, announcing an ambitious 6 years plan including 6 battleships, 12 destroyers, 12 torpedo boats and 6 submersibles. Its realization was delayed until the war broke out in 1911 with Italy, leaving the “old Turkish fleet” completely unprepared. In emergency, two German battleships and 4 destroyers were ordered from Germany and a host of steamers converted as gunboats. British counter-admirals William and Gamble from the Istanbul naval commission at the head of the fleet in 1910 had been instrumental in this decision.

    Torgut Reis

    The Greek fleet on the other hand, was not so confident: In 1911, the admiralty was now also advised by British Royal Navy officers. The small navy was “saved” by the initiative of billionaire Giogios Averoff which purchased a ship in Italy, a powerful armoured cruiser loosely based on the Pisa class. She became de facto the Greek Navy flagship. But aside this, the Greeks were left with the three old Hydra class coast guard ships rearmed, 6 destroyers acquired, 2 submersibles and 6 torpedo boats started, while 9 freighters were converted into auxiliary cruisers. Greece lacked any battleship. Agreed, the two recently acquired from Germany were 1st generation Brandenbug class pre-dreadnoughts.

    Giorgios Averoff

    Start of the Operations

    In 1912 the first operations by the Greek Navy was to secure several objectives. The capture of the Turkish-held port of Moudros was the first step. Located on the southern coast of the island of Lemnos, it was assaulted on October 8, 1912. The fleet landed Greek marines which progresses quickly in combination with close naval support. They defeated the unique Turkish garrison and occupation of the port followed suite. Moudros became the cornerstone of the Greek fleet for all naval operations in the sector, blocking the Dardanelles, and a launching pad to secure the Aegean islands of Psara, Imbros, Tenedos, Chios, Lesbos and Samothrace.

    The Battle of Elli (1912)

    Turkish Ottoman Navy

    The Royal Hellenic Navy (Rear Admiral Pavlos Kountouriotis) onboard flagship Averof comprised in addition to the armoured cruiser the three coastal defence battleships Hydra, Spetsai and Psara and the four destroyers Aetos, Ierax, Panthir and Leon. Meanwhile, Captain Ramiz Bey commanded the Tukish fleet, the two battleships Barbaros Hayreddin and Turgut Reis, Mesudiye and Âsâr-ı Tevfik, the protected cruiser Mecidiye and four destroyers Muavenet-i Milliye, Yadigâr-i Millet, Taşoz and Basra.

    Heyreddin Barbarrossa

    He sailed just outside the entrance to the Dardanelles when spotting the fleet of Kountouriotis. The latter, frustrated by the poor speed of the coastal battleships hoisted the “Z flag” signalling “Independent Action”, raising his speed to 20 knots towards the Ottoman fleet. He soon closed the gap and placed his ship to cross the Ottoman’s “T”. He concentrated the Averoff’s fire against the lead ship, Hayreddin Barbarossa, which was badly hit, with 7 killed and 14 wounded, while soon the Turgut Reis was hit too (8 killed and 20 wounded) as well as the Mesudiye (3 dead and 7 wounded). The captain ordered to retreat, which was done in disorder. The Averoff tried to pursue them, but soon was distanced by the faster destroyers Aetos, Ierax and Panthir. The latter wen on skirmishing with the Ottoman flee rear-guard and stayed close to the formation from December 13 to December 26.

    Turkish battleship Messudieh

    The result of this victory was that the Ottoman navy retreated beyond the Straits and left the Aegean Sea to the Greeks. Soon the fleet proceeded to capture Lesbos, Chios, Lemnos and Samos. At the same time it allowed to free reinforcements by sea, which was crucial for the upcoming operations on land in the Balkans.

    The Battle of Lemnos (1913)

    After the losses of many Aegean Islands during the early phase of the 1912 war and defeat at the battle of Elli, the Ottoman Navy was pressured to act decisively and planned to destroy the Greek fleet anchored in the port of Mudros, on the island of Lemnos. They planned to send their fastest cruiser through Greek patrols, to shell islands in the hope hoping to draw a part of Greek ships including the Georgios Averoff in pursuit. Meanwhile the bulk of the fleet would fall on Mudros. The cruiser Hamidiye was chosen and set sail for the area, passing through the Dardanelles.

    Greek preparations

    At full speed by night on 13/14 January, she successfully evaded the Greek lookouts and sunk a transport ship at Syros at dawn, shelling the garrison and installations of the harbour. As the Turks planned, the Greek admiralty was ordered to depart with the telegraphic message “sail immediately in pursuit”. Rear Admiral Pavlos Kountouriotis however felt this was a possible Turkish rude and refused to obey. He prepared his fleet instead for the following phased against the bulk of the Ottoman Fleet. The Greek fleet’s pride, the 9,960 ton armored cruiser flagship Georgios Averof, already a victorious veteran of the 1912 campaign, was assisted by the three old ironclads Spetsai, Hydra and Psara, with the reinforcement of seven modern destroyers.

    Turkish preparations

    Meanwhile, behind the safety of the Dardanelles Straits, the Turkish admiralty tried to uplift the morale of the crews. As a symbolic gesture, the old, famous and original banner of the great corsair Hayreddin Barbarossa was raised on the flagship of the same name, greeted with cheers from the whole fleet. The Ottoman flotilla was led by Captain Ramiz Bey, hoisting his mark on the pre-dreadnought Hayreddin Barbarossa, assisted by her sister-ship Turgut Reis and the older Mesûdiye (a modernized ironclad), and the cruiser Mecidiye, plus five destroyers. The ironclad Âsâr-ı Tevfik remained in the Dardanelles as a backup defense in case the Greek would try to sneak in or surge in hot pursuit.

    The battle

    At 08:20 on January 5, Greek patrols spotted the Ottoman fleet and the signalled was received by the Greek Fleet of Mudros already prepared, all boilers hot and crews on board. Kontouriotis order the fleet to sail at 09:45 from Moudros Bay. The two fleets met off Mudros about 19.3 kilometers (12 miles) outh-east of the istald of Lemnos. Both were sailing southeast in converging columns. Both were led by their respective flagships. On paper, the Turks had the advantage both in firepower and protection. The gunnery exchange started at 11:34, under 8400 meters (9186 yards). The Greek column turned left and further closed the distance to allow its older ironclads to open a broadside fire.

    The Mecidiye and destroyers turned northeast, heading back towards the Dardanelles. They were followed by the Mesûdiye which also turned at 11:50. She has been badly hit by both the Hydra and Psara. Five minutes later, the Georgios Averof had some lucky hits on the lead ship Barbaros Hayreddin. The central axial turret was blow off. Her captain decided to withdraw towards the Dardanelles too, quickly followed by the Turgut Reis five minutes later. Soon during the battle the Georgios Averof broke off and signalled “independent action”, and sped up while maneuvering to engage the Turks with her artillery on both sides; Later she chased the retreating Ottoman ships, followed by the rest of the fleet. The chase stopped at 14:30, as the Ottoman Navy closed under the artillery umbrella of the Dardanelles.

    Lessons from the battle

    After the reports, it was shown the Ottoman ships had an excellent rate of fire, and spent around 800 shells. However accuracy was quite poor. During the whole engagement, Georgios Averof took only two hits for one injury and light damages. She was the only one which suffered. Barbaros Hayreddin on her side was more than twenty times, her artillery and direction was disabled while she suffered 32 dead and 45 wounded. Turgut Reis took a hit in the lower oart of the hull, creating a leaking, and 17 other hits on the superstructure, but suffered less damage. She deplored 9 dead and 49 wounded. Mesûdiye was also hit several times, and a 270mm shell destroyed the central 150mm gun platform which explosed and caused 68 casualties.

    The battle forced the Ottoman Navy to retreat beyond the Dardanelles for good, never attempting another sortie, giving free hands to the Greek Navy in the Aegean Sea. To ensure this, 1st Lieutenant Michael Moutoussis and Ensign Aristeidis Moraitinis on January 24, 1913 flew with their Maurice Farman hydroplane over the Nagara naval base. Not only their reported the position of all ships, but also dropped four bombs. Their 40 minutes observation round ended a 140 minutes trip over 180 kilometers (111.8 miles). Both aviators became instant heroes in the Greek and international press.

    After the war – epilogue

    The Greeks launched an ambitious program, ordering at the Vulkan shipyards a single 20,000-ton dreadnought to be named Salamis, and two 2 other battleships in options which ultimately would be puchased in the US. Also the Averoff left such impression that two sister-ships were started but the armistice of May 1913 put an end to these developments. The head of the British Naval Mission, Sir Mark Kerr, defined a new plan calling for 3 light cruisers, 34 destroyers, 20 submersibles, 2 airships and 12 seaplanes plus support ships. However, new naval Turkish ambitions led to the purchase of the Rio then in constructions for Brazil plus two more 23,000 ton dreadnoughts, 1 cruiser, 4 destroyers and a submarine, which never materialized as the great war broke out.

    A Parallel: Italian Naval Operations

    Between January and August 1912, the Regia Marina was deployed against the Turks, focusing on the middle east and red sea. Needless to say the Italians enjoyed a clear advantage, with seven times the tonnage of the Ottoman navy and had a better training. The first act was the Battle of Kunfuda Bay where seven Turkish gunboats (Ayintab, Bafra, Gökcedag, Kastamonu, Muha, Ordu and Refahiye) and a yacht (Sipka) were sunk and the Red Sea ports were blockaded in order to support the Emirate of Asir rebellion.

    The battle of Beirut
    The battle of Beirut

    On 24 February in the Battle of Beirut, an Ottoman casemate corvette and six steamers and a torpedo boat were either sunk of force to flee. in both engagements, the Italians suffered no hit nor casualties. The goal was then to secure the Suez Canal. The Ottoman naval presence at Beirut was completely annihilated and casualties on the Ottoman side were heavy.

    Complete naval dominance of the southern Mediterranean was achieved and later the Italian fleet shelled ports of the North African coast and gradually secured the 2,000 km of the Libyan coast in April-August 1912. However landings penetrations were limited to the umbrella of the naval artillery. In the summer, the Italians turned to the Aegean Sea in coordination with the Greeks, and occupied twelve islands, including Rhodes, although infuriating Austria-Hungary in the process and the last action was a combined attack of TBs in the Dardanelles in July. Nothing could really be gained of these engagements which were each time one-side, but that training was each time a major advantage.

    Read More/ see also:
    Conway’s all the world’s fighting ships 1860-1906
    On proceedings archives the battle of helles and lemnos
    on ageofsteelandcoal
    The Balkan Wars

    Battle of Coronel (1st November 1914)

    German Navy vs Royal Navy
    1st November 1914

    Graf Spee’s far east squadron in Valparaiso, Chile, about to sail afte the battle, Nov. 3, 1914

    The first British defeat since 100 years

    Long before the famous 1980s Falklands conflict, the Royal Navy had already crossed fire in this remote corner of the globe. This time it was against German forces, Graf Von Spee’s Far Eastern Squadron arriving from the Pacific, that was going to sail into the Atlantic and cause havoc on trade.

    Admiral Graf Von Spee Apart from the confrontation with Heligoland, which had limited results, the first battle of Coronel was the single greatest naval event before the end of 1914. Its main protagonist was a Prussian aristocrat of the old school, National hero in his country after his epic on the other side of the world: The Count (Graf) Maximilian Von Spee.

    Admiral Von Spee

    This man, born in Denmark in 1861 and who spent most of his career in Africa, had become rear-admiral at 49. He was 53 when he was about to deliver the two battles of his life in a few months. He was promoted Vice-Admiral in 1912 and was given the task of the Far East squadron, consisting of partly obsolete ships, light cruisers and cruisers, based at Tsing Tao, the old German trading post in China. In June 1914, far from the noises of war, the crew of the two armoured cruisers was all to the enthusiasm of a beautiful cruise in the turquoise waters of the South Pacific. Then by wireless, he is asked to return to the colony. At the time of the declaration of war, all that was not necessary for combat was landed, and the cruisers who had time were repainted in two shades of grey, the other retaining for some time their beautiful white colonial livery. But the squadron could not remain on the spot, for fear of being destroyed at anchor, or intercepted en route by Allied British, Australian, Russian and Japanese fleets.

    Armoured Cruiser SMS Scharnhorst, named after a Prussian General in the Napoleonic wars.

    Von Spee prepared to send part of his squadron, including the two cruisers of the Scharnhorst class cruisers (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau), light cruiser Nürnberg, two of the Dresden class (Dresden and Emden), and the old Leipzig. The rest of the squadron consisted of ships of lesser tonnage, four gunboats of the Iltis class, and three river gunboats, the Tsingtau, Otter and Vaterland, S90 torpedo boat and the tanker Titania.

    German light cruiser SMS Nürnberg. Late into the fight, she nevertheless caught the escaping, badly damaged HMS Monmouth almost by chance in the obscurity, trying to reach the Canopus.

    A trapped squadron

    After having assembled all the officers in the square of the Scharnhorst, which bore his mark, he discussed the best possible options. 1-He could tried to return to Germany and add his forces to the Hochseeflotte, but the risk was far too great in view of the proximity of the Grand Fleet and several closely guarded roads at the approach of the North Sea. 2-He could also attempt a privateer’s war to weaken allied traffic on all the seas of the globe, especially in the heavily defended southern hemisphere. This option seems the least risky and the most promising, and eventually pass Cape Horn and carry the war into the Atlantic. It was a real convoy of more than twenty ships which had taken shape, counting the 5 cruisers (the Emden had detached from the group on 14 August to deliver its own racing war in the Indian Ocean and make diversion). Von Spee measured the risks: He was to cross the vast South Pacific, but at 10 knots to save coal and keeping pace with the oldest, slowest steamers.

    From Samoa to Tahiti

    On board German ships, sailors were eager to fight. Von Spee confered one more time with officers and decided en route to attempt a raid on the Samoa Islands with his two armoured cruisers, to draw the attention of the British Navy, while hoping to find some enemy vessels at anchor. He fell on the islands at dawn, September 14th, but only to find the Apia’s wharf empty, and the Union Jack floating on the city. Apart a bombardment that would surely hurt his fellow citizens more than the British troops, he can not seriously consider taking back the city with his only two marines companies.

    Von Spee biopic – The Great War channel.

    Reluctantly, he resolve to change course and join Tahiti in order to shell Papeete, where a few French ships reside. He arrived on September 22 at dawn. German ships were not expected, they were no lookouts, and the two ships just maneuvered between the shallows to stand in battle line. Once spotted at last, the French evacuated the city and prepared the meager “coastal batteries” available: Guns of the gunboat Zelée, which have been landed and camouflaged previously. They fired a few warning shots, but remained silent to avoid being spotted when the two German vessels replied with their heavy artillery.

    Von Spee now seek to disembark a company, since he thinks he is dealing with a weak garrison – which is true. The French then maneuvered and scuttled the Zélée across the pass, obstructing it. The two German ships then open fire on the city, quickly set ablaze. Von Spee realized that he will no longer be able to land his troops, or proceed to supply coal and food, and retire. His ultimate goal became to return to Chile, refuel, and then cross Cape Horn before engaging in a much more fruitful trade war in the Atlantic. The British, who received report from the squadron’s position are preparing to block his way. Leaving the rest of the convoy and refueling, the three light German cruisers (Nürnberg, Leipzig, Dresden), joined the two armoured cruisers.

    Von Spee’s ships path

    Sir Cradock’s Falklands squadron

    Sir Christopher Cradock Meanwhile, miles apart in Port Stanley, a British Navy squadron is awaiting orders from Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock. Nicknamed the “old Gentleman”, he is also an old refined aristocrat. Von Spee even knew him well personally during his stopovers in peace time. The two men respect each other. But now both are about to do their duty. Cradock’s squadron is the only one that can oppose the German ships on their way in the Atlantic. It consists of the Good Hope, an armoured cruiser, the cruisers Monmouth and Glasgow and the Otranto, an auxiliary cruiser, converted liner. Unfortunately, this squadron also includes the old battleship Canopus, but the latter had a considerable delay to heat his boilers, and would not sail in time. She only could make 12 knots and therefore layed behind.

    Armoured cruiser HMS Good Hope

    Cradock has been informed since the beginning of October of the imminent arrival of the Germans. He asked the Admiralty repeatedly for reinforcements, refused: The only other ships available were ordered to be kept in reserve on the other side of Cape Horn, in case the Germans passed in force. The old Admiral has no illusions about his fate: He has his own grave dug in the Falklands’s governor garden, deposited his medals, knowing his true steel sepulture would be at the bottom of the sea soon. He wrote his Testament, bids farewell to his family and the sailed following day for the cape of Good Hope (Even more Ironically named in this occurrence). His squadron set sail on October 22, headed southwest, crossed Cape Horn, and then headed north to cross the Germans.


    He knows hen that Von Spee commanded two armoured cruisers, and that in the meantime his squadron was reinforced by the other three cruisers. This gives them a distinct advantage: HMS Good Hope had a more powerful artillery (240 mm) on paper, but these guns are old, with ancient sights, and can offer only one salvo for two for the Germans. As for the Monmouth, she was one of the least protected cruisers in the Royal Navy, an unfortunate experiment imposed by budget cuts. The HMS Glasgow was fairly well armed and fast, but less efficient in heavy weather. The Otranto has almost no military value. Worse still, Cradock’s ships are composed of reservists hastily mobilized and insufficiently trained…

    Prelude to the battle

    On 31 October, Von Spee was advised by wireless that an English cruiser had been seen entering the port of Coronel in Chile. Spee rallied directly the area from the northeast, leaving the Nürnberg behind off the Chilean coast, hoping to intercept the cruiser as it leaves. At the end of the afternoon (4:20 pm), Scharnhorst’s lookouts spotted three ships, later identified as British cruisers. HMS Monmouth and Glasgow are followed by the Otranto, sailing west-northwest, joined by the Good Hope at 17:20, taking the lead of the battle line, before changing course to present a broadside to the Germans. War pavilions are erected, and Von Spee prepares his ships for battle.

    Armoured cruiser HMS Monmouth

    A game of light and shadow

    There is nearly a gale, disturbing lookouts of the two fleets, and making fire more imprecise, but the initial configuration is not clearly to the advantage of the Germans: The British ships indeed come from the south, far at sea compared to the Germans, which are coming from the North and arranged in a line along the coast. It is then 18:20. With the falling darkness, the Germans still have sunlight blinding their telemetric sights, while the British can see the metallic silhouette of the German ships shining out on the dark cliffs of Chile. Von Spee knows it, and try to stay out of reach as long as he can. The British are approaching, but not fast enough, allowing the setting sun to finally reverse the situation completely: Now the German ships are plunged in the dark and merging with the cliffs, while on the contrary Cradock ships are showing in Chinese shadows on the horizon. they are now a target of choice for the gunners of the two armoured cruisers who pass for the best of the fleet.

    Rush hour

    At 6.34 pm, the Scharnhorst, at the head, opened fire on the Good Hope, while the Gneisenau immediately followed on the HMS Monmouth and the Dresden on HMS Glasgow. SMS Nurnberg was still way behind. Cradock by then still hope to left the German ships and join the Canopus, which would have given him a decisive advantage, but the Germans stand precisely between him and the coast. The fight quickly turns to the advantage of the Germans who in the third salvo put the front turret of the Good Hope ablaze. The Monmouth is also also, loosing both turrets. The Otranto, in order not to be a useless victim, moves away from the battle.

    As for the two light cruisers which clash at the end of the line, their salvos are lost at sea because of gale force waves. The struggle becomes fierce as the two British armoured cruisers takes more hits, burning wildly, all the communication lines destroyed. Gunners now shoot by view only. Distance soon fell to 6000 meters and the obscurity increase. Now the British ships are burning this makes the Germans firing much more precise and devastating. The secondary artillery of both English ships still cannot enter into action because or the high wave crests, and the main artillery soon silenced.

    At 19:00, the distance fell to 5000 meters. Von Spee decides to take some distance, fearing a possible torpedo attack. The Gneisenau is hit by the Monmouth (three casualties). At 19:20, the Scharnhorst gives the coup de grace: One of her shells lands between chimneys 2 and 3 on the Good Hope which explodes and sank rapidly with all hands. As he foresaw, the “old Gentleman” followed his crew to the end… On the HMS Monmouth sides, things are equally gloomy. She fled, taking advantage of the falling night, at low speed, dodging the last shells.

    British light cruiser HMS Glasgow

    The end

    The unequal battle is closing to its conclusion. The Monmouth takes advantage of the attention drawn for a while on the Good Hope, in an attempt to escape and extinguish its fires, as does HMS Glasgow in the dark. The commander of the latter then proposed to the Monmouth to take her in tow, but the latter refused, preferring to see the Glasgow escape sooner than risking to see both caught in such a bad posture. At 20:50, HMS Monmouth sails towards the coast at low speed, her blackened hull smoking, riddled with gaping holes through which yellow-orange lights still flickers.

    Battleship HMS Canopus. She never was ready on time to join the battle

    By then the Nürnberg just joined the fray, and by luck fall on the British ship, but she is unable to recognize the Monmouth and don’t open fire, fearing a friendly fire. Monmouth’s crew, rather than knocking down the flag and being rescued, decided to fight to the last man, despite having almost no cannon left but still one of their searchlights, which which they light their war pavilion. It’s an execution. The Nuremberg opens fire at point-blank range and achieve rapidly the sinking British ship. No survivors either. The Germans will later defend their non-assistance by pleading a nearly impossible rescue by night, in game winds and fearing possible British reinforcements (like the Canopus)… After this disaster the Otranto is left with HMS Glasgow, hit five times with low amage, that took a long loop in order to cross the HMS Canopus path.

    Details of the battle

    Night’s sorrow

    Although reunited, the two ships would not find Von Spee in the dark. The German squadron is retreating to Valparaiso. The Count squashed a champagne bottle in the square of the officers of the Scharnhorst while Schnapps flowed for sailors mad with joy. For the first time in more than a century, the Royal Navy is defeated at sea. Plus, the whole squadron had only three wounded to deplore (none fatally). As for damages, they could be repaired within a few hours. To do this, the squadron stops in Valparaiso from 2 to 3, to respect the 24 hours regulations for any belligerent in a neutral port, after refueling and gathering food. Von Spee regretted to not find the Glasgow and complete his destruction. Moreover he was afraid of the 12 inches armed Canopus still was looking for him. He then began a cautious run in the South Pacific, temporarily avoiding passage through the Cape Horn.

    Painting of the battle by Hans Bohrdt

    The British are Stunned

    On the British side, the battle results are appealing: On November 2, News Headlines all tells the Cape Horn squadron and its famous admiral final doom. The House of Commons is agitated, demands explanations from the Admiralty. But this one has changed minds since Lord Fisher is appointed on the eve of the battle, as first lord of the sea in place of the old prince of Battenberg. Teaming Sir Winston Churchill, he decide to “take things in hand”. Indeed, Von Spee threatens the Chilean nitrate (vital for English shells) route, and the Argentinian beef route, providing half the needs of the population. Von Spee fate is sealed. There will be a sequel, the second battle of the Falklands, in shape of a revenge…

    Battle of Yalu (1894)

    Battle of the yellow sea
    Japanese vs Chinese Navy, 17 September 1894

    The first major naval battle of the industrial era

    Less well known than Tsushima, the battle of Yalu River is nevertheless one of the few naval battles that occurred at the end of the Century, with relatively modern ships. Other contemporary examples had been the battle of Cuba, and of Manila Bay in 1898, opposing a young American navy and the old Spanish Empire.

    Yalu was not a prelude to Tsushima as adversaries were not judged -from the Japanese point of view- of the same caliber (The Russian navy vs. the Chinese one). But both were a mirror of the young, ambitious and aggressive Japanese Navy which was seen as an instrument of imperial challenge after the end of the Meiji era and the rise of nationalists. China, on the other end, was still mined by corrupted officials and had a too conciliant international policy that allowed foreign concessions and fed imperialist appetites from nearly all industrial nations, Japan included. The old empire indeed was seen largely as a large untapped industrial market, and Western commercial interventions were backed up by force if needed. Throughout the XIXth century several wars (with Britain, France, the USA) saw all-out easy victories, as the Chinese fleet mostly counted armed junks and few modern vessels.

    Context: The first Sino-Japanese war

    The first Sino-Japanese war was motivated over influence of Korea.
    The second one was of course set in the XXth century and lasted from the early 1930s to 1945. What happened was a shift in dominance from a weakened Qing Empire, unable to modernize its military to Japan’s after a successful Meiji Restoration. As a result of the war, China was humiliated, loosing Korea as a tributary state, and Japan only left with more resolve and confidence in its rising star.

    The war erupted after a casus belli, First Punic war style: On June 4, the Korean king, Gojong, seek help from the Qing government in suppressing the Donghak Rebellion, and the latter complied, sending general Yuan Shikai as its plenipotentiary before the main contingent of 28,000 men. But this was seen by the Japanese as a violation by the Convention of Tientsin, as they claimed to have not been informed. In response, the latter sent a 8,000-troop expeditionary force (Oshima Composite Brigade) in Korea. Any reform of the Korean government was refused, and later when the Koreans asked the Japanese troops to leave, the latter bluntly refusing. As events unfolded, in early June, the brigade occupied the Royal Palace in Seoul and replaced officials by a pro-Japanese government, which was understandably seen as an outrage by the Qing Empire.

    Opposing Forces


    On land, the Qing army has no national army. As a whole, there were separate forces based on ethnicity, and sub-divided into independent regional commands. There was however a local Beiyang Army, born from the Huai Army (experienced by dealing with the Taiping rebels), well-equipped with modernized equipment and well trained. This force would bear the bulk of the Japanese assault. However this forced was also largely unsupported as pleas for help from other regional armies failed. Despite of this, pronostics by International experts saw it crushing the Japanese.

    Battleship Ting Yuen. The Japanese has nothing equivalent in 1894.

    The local Beiyang fleet was also the best of the whole Empire, pat of the four modernised Chinese navies in the late Qing dynasty: Northern (Beiyang), Southern (Nanking), Foochow and Canton. From 1880, China started to order ships abroad, modernize its training, with the aid of a few British Officers. The modernized Foochow fleet however was entirely sunk by the French Navy over Indochina in 1884, and it’s later rebuilding was largely supported by British and Germans, while Japan was at that time purchasing ships from France. It should be noted also that the fleet lacked ammunitions and more modern ships, as funds were embezzled by corrupt officials (even during the war), the Empress Dowager Cixi even spending military funds on renovating the Summer Palace.

    Armoured cruiser Jing Yuan
    Armoured cruiser Jing Yuan (King yan class).

    In 1894, The Beiyang fleet was considered first-rate in Asia, largely supported by Li Hongzhang, Viceroy of Zhili. She counted two ironclads called “armoured turret ships” (Ting Yen class), 8000 tons German-built battleships, but also the armoured cruisers King Yuen, Lai Yuen, protected cruisers Chih Yuen, Ching Yuen, Torpedo Cruisers Tsi Yuen, Kuang Ping class, Chaoyong, Yangwei, and the coastal warship Pingyuan.


    On land, the Japanese infantry, first trained and formed by French officers, has been from 1885 onwards re-modelled after the Prussian model. This army was well equipped with German guns, had Western, high level standard doctrines, military system and organization. Mobility was improved by enhancing logistics, transportation, and structures. In 1894, 120,000 men and four divisions were mobilized.

    A bit like the American Navy in 1898, the Japanese Navy was seen largely as a young underdog in 1894. Officers has been formed by the British Navy, and an academy was set up for technical training and background by France. Therefore the Jeune Ecole came to influence largely Japan’s first fleet, largely based on cruisers supported by torpedo boats, that were in theory to render battleships obsolete.

    Matsushima, built by engineer Emile Bertin, flagship of the Japanese navy at Yalu.

    The first expansion bill was passed, ordering 46 vessels, including 2 cruisers in 1881. Orders were delivered mainly to French and British yards, while the Yokosuka yard was refit by French engineer Emile Bertin in 1886, allowing to built large all-iron hull ships. The first HTE engines were introduced in 1892 and the first VTE in 1890 (Cruiser Oshima). A new naval plan was passed in 1893, this time largely leaning towards British yards, but none of the ships would enter service before the war broke out.

    As of july 1894, the Japanese mustered virtually all their available warships into one combined force. This counted 9 Protected Cruisers, Matsushima (flagship), Itsukushima, Hashidate, Naniwa, Takachiho, Yaeyama, Akitsushima, Yoshino, Izumi, the cruiser Chiyoda, the Armored Corvettes Hiei, Kongō, and the old Ironclad Warship Fusō.

    25 July 1894, Battle of Pungdo

    Also called the sinking of the Kow-shing, it was a small scale engagement, between the cruiser Naniwa (detached from the Japanese flying squadron off Asan bay), and the Chinese cruiser Tsi-yuan and gunboat Kwang-yi, both at sea to reinforce the escort (gunboat Tsao-kiang) of the transport Kow-shing. Guns blazed for an hour, after which the damaged Chinese cruiser fled, the Kwang-yi ran aground to avoid sinking, and the Kow-shing sank, with nearly all hands. Some were rescued by the gunboats Itlis (German) and Lion (French). The Kwang-yi was a 2,134-ton British merchant vessel from the Indochina Steam Navigation Company of London, carrying 1,100 troops plus supplies and equipment and one Prussian officer. This led to a diplomatic crisis with Great Britain. However Naniwa’s captain Tōgō Heihachirō became a celebrity in Japan for this feat.

    Japanese cruiser naniwa
    Japanese cruiser Naniwa

    Meanwhile the Battle of Seonghwan and Battle of Pyongyang (1894) would make the headlines. After a first engagement at Asan in August, the Japanese had free hands to converge from four direction on Pyongyang. The city fell on 15 September. According to posterior accounts, the Chinese lost 2,000 killed and around 4,000 wounded. However, the bulk of the action would take place two years after at sea.

    17 September 1894, prelude to battle

    At that time, the Beiyang fleet was located off the mouth of the Yalu River. The latter was crossing the northern border between Korea and China, ending in the yellow sea. The name in Manchu, signified “the boundary between two countries”. It should be noted that there was a second battle of the Yalu, this time with the Russian Empire ground forces in 1904 and the site was also crucially nearby major battles of 1950. Japanese objective was simple, as command of the yellow sea would allow Japan to transport troops to the mainland. However the Chinese fleet was a tough nut to crack, with two battleships (the Japanese had none).

    Chinese armoured cruiser Chao Yong
    Chinese cruiser Chao Yong, as built, on the Thames (1880). She was armed with two 254 mm (10.0 in) cannons, four 120 mm (4.7 in) cannons and 12 smaller guns. She was very similar to the previous Chilean Arturo Prat.

    At some point Li Hongzhang recommended the Beiyang fleet to be kept safely in Lüshunkou (Port Arthur), a naval stronghold, safe from a naval engagement far at sea that would be at the advantage of the fast and agile Japanese. However the Guangxu Emperor insisted that convoys passed safely, and this required neutralizing the Japanese fleet in any case; In fact the battle occurred while the Beiyang fleet was back from the mouth of the Yalu River, escorting a convoy, and then intercepted by the Japanese.

    Japanese armoured cruiser Matsushima, Japanese flagship. She was badly burnt and nearly lost, showing this was never an easy fight.

    Respective Strengths

    On paper, the Chinese advantage with big guns and armour was completed by the presence of Western naval advisors: Prussian Army Major Constantin von Hanneken, appointed to Admiral Ding Ruchang and W. F. Tyler, (Royal Navy Reserve) his assistant. Philo McGiffin (former U.S. Navy ensign, Weihaiwei naval academy instructor) appointed to Jingyuan as co-commander. It seems however that the gunners did not had sufficient practice, a result of a serious lack of ammunition. The fleet was arranged in a line facing southward, with the two battleships in the center. There was another group of four ships, that had to catch up and would not be ready before 14:30.

    The Japanese Combined Fleet comprised, in addition of the flying squadron described above (Yoshino, Takachiho, Akitsushima, and Naniwa, under command of Tsuboi Kōzō), consisted in a main fleet: Cruisers Matsushima (flagship), Chiyoda, Itsukushima, Hashidate, ironclads Fusō and Hiei, under command of Admiral Itō Sukeyuki.

    Japanese Ironclad Fuso
    Japanese Ironclad Fuso (1877), after rebuilt at Yokosuka (July 1894). Slower, she was heavily engaged, hit many times by 6-inch (152 mm) shells, but none penetrated.

    Three protagonists of the battle: Baron Tsuboi Kozo (Jap. combined fleet), Admiral Ding Ruchang (Beiyang Fleet) and co-commander Philo Mc Giffin (here at the hospital after the battle). He became a national celebrity in the US after the war.

    Start of the battle

    When the two battle lines approached each other, the Chinese fleet formation had somewhat been broken into a rough wedge, due to bad signal interpretation, and diverging speeds. Admiral Sukeyuki Ito ordered the flying squadron to engage the Chinese right flank. The Chinese however opened fire at a range of 5,000 metres (5,500 yd), and missed because of extreme dispersion, while the Japanese waited patiently for twenty minutes, closing range for maximal effect. Their maneuver consisted in heading diagonally across the Beiyang Fleet at twice the speed, making them difficult to hit. They then headed straight for the center, then, puzzling the Chinese, moved around the right flank and started to pummel the weakest ships.

    The Beiyang Fleet at Weihaiwei.

    The Chinese right flank is dislocated

    After holding their fire until the last possible moment, the Japanese unleashed it on the Chaoyong and Yangwei, which were battered and soon rendered inapt for any further engagement. The squadron then turned northward to face Chinese reinforcements coming from the Yalu river, but doing this, it circled round the Chinese. Meanwhile, the Japanese main squadron starting the same manoeuver as the flying one, ended the other way, completing the encirclement of the Chinese fleet. Therefore, the Beiyang Fleet ended sandwiched between the two Japanese squadrons, a classic of the Royal Navy, giving a much-needed local superiority against the center battleships.

    Western Illustration of the Chinese battleships

    The Chinese center is fully engaged

    Dingyuan and Zhenyuan hulls, according to their excellent protection, suffered little damage, but following the French Jeune Ecole practice, the Japanese targeted the weaker superstructures. Soon, both ships were ablaze and suffered many casualties. Mostly the crews were cut to pieces by the numerous quick-firing secondary and tertiary guns of the Japanese, which were now close enough to have every single one speaking.

    Matsushima attacking Chinese warships (Shunsai Toshimasa)

    The Chinese left flees and partly escapes

    Meanwhile cruiser Zhiyuan broke the line and attempted to ram the Japanese cruiser, and latter tried to rally fleeing ships from the left wing. She was soon caught, battered and sunk by the flying squadron. The trap was not properly closed, as in chasing (and destroying) the cruiser Jingyuan, leaving other ships fleeing northwards unmolested. Eventually Admiral Itō completed the annihilation of what’s remained in the circle, targeting superstructures, but doing so, also taking serious damage: The Yoshino, Akagi, Hiei, Saikyō Maru were hit and/or put out of action. The Matsushima probably suffered most, as two 12-inch shells penetrated the deck, blasted ready rounds, putting the ship ablaze and forcing the admiral to carry his mark to Hashidate.

    “Battle of the Yellow sea” by Korechika

    End of the battle

    The engagement ceased at sunset, when most ships from the Beiyang fleet had been sunk, seriously damaged and fled, but the two battleships remained, although short of ammunitions. As a result, they were able to retire and fight another day. However ultimately the Japanese would sink the Ting Yuen (on February, 6, 1895), torpedoed by TB.26 at the battle of Wei Hai Wei, while the Chen Yuan was engaged heavily by Japanese army guns three days after, sunk in shallow waters and would be later refloated, repaired, and reused by the Japanese (renamed Chin Yen). She would be used as a flagship in 1904, but was retired eventually in 1910 and used afterwards for training in home waters.

    Both Chao Yung class protected cruisers were sunk, the Chi Yuan, badly damaged, would be captured later in February 1895, the Chih Yuan (namesake for the class) was also sunk and the Ching Yuan also captured in 1895, as well as the armoured cruiser Ping Yuen, while both King Yuan armoured cruisers would be sunk, one in this battle, the other at Wei-Hai-Wei.

    Yalu battle map 1894
    Global map of the battle, mid-day, afternoon and evening.

    Post battle analysis

    Admiral Ding’s decision not to change formation had been pointed out, but this was due to the unwillingness of Dingyuan’s captain to not change formation himself, pass the order to other ships, while the flying bridge of the flagship was later destroyed, Ding apparently injured and the mainmast later destroyed, leaving no way to signal orders. Meanwhile the Chinese fleet wisely reorganized itself in three-ships self-supporting formations. From some time, when distances fell below 3000 m, Chinese 12-inch (305 mm) and 8.2-inch (208 mm) guns apparently failed to score any hit. One of the “legends” of the battle was that Chinese heavily varnished and polished wooden decks burnt more easily.

    Jiyuan and Guangjia turned and fled as soon as the Japanese opened fire, therefore weakening the Chinese position, however the full encirclement never happened as the flying squadron was soon diverted to oppose the rallying Chinese ships, previously escorting a convoy (cruisers Kuang Ping and Pingyuan, Fu Lung and Choi Ti TBs). Slower Hiei, Saikyō Maru and Akagi had been severaly hit by the Chinese left, therefore diverting more ships in support. One of the Chinese heroes of the battle had been Zhiyuan’s captain: Whereas his ships was crippled and burning, rather than fleeing he decided to ram and opportunity target, the nearby cruiser Naniwa. However, the slow cruiser never made it. The Japanese immediately concentrated their fire and sank it.

    It has been said that the rapid-fire guns (and fast ships) has been a factor, as opposed to a relative lack of training and lack of ammunition from the Beiyang Fleet. Indeed, if the two battleships had been able to fire more, and with more precision, there was no doubt the Japanese would had been at a serious disadvantage as none of their ships was protected enough. The Matsushima (flagship) was seriously crippled, the Hiei would be in repairs for the duration of the war, the Akagi was burnt from stern to stem, and the converted liner Saikyō Maru, after taking four 12-in hits was definitely out of the way. It was a bold gamble and afterwards a major propaganda victory.

    Saikyō Maru, Japanese wooden block painting.

    The tactical result was indeed overall, and despite later analysis, favorable to the Japanese, which strictly lost no ship, and strategically “cleaned” the Yellow sea of Chinese escorts. On a strategic level, without Chinese reinforcement, the whole campaign’s ultimate fate made no doubt. Lessons for the Japanese has been to take battleships more into consideration (in fact the Chinese Chen Yuan became the first Japanese battleship), therefore departing a bit from French tactics, but keeping agility and maneuvering at heart. There is no doubt that some of the veterans were still present in 1905 with the confidence to undertake a whole new challenge: The destruction of two entire Russian fleets, then the world’s third largest naval power…

    Aftermath of the battle

    At first, the Chinese government denied this defeat, as a sizeable part of the fleet was able to retire at Weihaiwei. But Viceroy Li Hongzhang and Admiral Ding Ruchang served as scapegoats. International press praised the “rapid assimilation of Western tactics and training” by the Japanese that had taken a “much bigger adversary”. Some analysts however pointed out this battle as a near-draw.

    The battle of Yalu did not ended the hostilities: This victory secured the Japanese position, to launch a crossing of the Yalu, and invade Manchuria. This was followed by the Fall of Lüshunkou (Port Arthur) and the sack of the city and massacre of the whole population. In Jan-Feb. 1895, the Fall of Weihaiwei followed. This was a sea-land battle, with the navy actively participating, the Japanese operations against fortified positions behind the cover of the cruisers Yoshino, Akitsushima, and Naniwa of the “flying squadron”. This secured most coastal access to the route of Beijing. In March, the Japanese occupied the Pescadores Islands (west coast of Taiwan). The Treaty of Shimonoseki was eventually signed on 17 April 1895 and the war was officially over.

    Links & Sources

    SMS Emden’s Incredible True Odyssey

    SMS Emden

    The white pacific corsair: Her 1914 odyssey would deserve a big budget Hollywood movie*.

    The truly epic saga of SMS Emden and her crew began shortly after she entered into service in 1909. Sent to subdue the colony of Ponape, one of the Carolinas, she represented there the authority of the Kaiser. By the year 1914, she was detached to the colony of Tsing-Tao (SE China), an old Prussian historical trade post of the middle empire. On the day of the declaration of war in 1914, Commander Von Müller decided to leave the base quickly so as not to be cornered by a superior enemy.

    Captain Von Muller - SMS EmdenOther colonies (from the triple alliance) were close indeed, and the danger of Russian, French and English patrols was ever present. While joining Von Spee’s squadron in the Pacific through the Strait of Korea, SMS Emden boarded the Russian liner Riasan, whose crew was taken prisoner. However Admiral Jerram and his squadron arrived off Tsing tao, and Von Spee decided to try to return to the mainland and abandon the pacific. Fleeing south, because the Japanese entry into the war on 23 August, the Emden obtained to be able to stay and try a corsair war in the Indian Ocean.

    The Indian Ocean raider
    SMS Emden
    The SMS Emden at sea.

    By leaving Spee, the white cruiser rampaging and preying on British shipping at will was to work as a diversion, allowing Von Spee’s squadron to sail to the Cape Horn without attracting too much attention. Thus, Emden crossed the shores of Indonesia, with a fourth fake chimney to be taken for an English Weymouth class cruiser, which precisely operated in these waters. Not seeing the Markomannia assisted by modest junks and coasters on September 8th, she then met the Greek coaler Pontoporos, neutral. Von Muller compelled, by means of finance, to dissuade the captain of the latter from going to deliver his cargo to Bombay. She became the second Emden coal supply ship instead. On the 10th of September, Emden seized the freighter “Indus”, loaded with food, which was seen as a blessing by the crew, and added extra range to this makeshift squadron.

    However the ship was slow and her crew was transferred to the Markomannia, and sunk. The next day, the “Lovat”, a cargo, suffered the same fate. Later this day, it was the turn of the Kabinga, showing the English flag but carrying an American payload, bitterly seen by the boarding team when consulting the log book. In fact, it had not been sunk, but rather used to receive all prisoner crews, as well as later the small coaler Killin’s own cargo, also captured on the night of 14. “Von Müller’s squadron” counted by then four cargo ships in addition to the Emden herself. The Killin, after transfer of its cargo on the Kabinga, was sunk. The same day, it was the turn of the big “Diplomat” to be caught and sunk.

    The chase began
    However, Von Muller impunity had hitherto ceased the same day. Seizing the Italian cargo ship Loredano, and because of the triple alliance making the Italians allies of Germany, Von Muller was reluctant to let her go. Now on her guard, she made her way to her little squadron. Shortly after sending to the bottom the small coaster Trabboch, Von Müller finally intercepted by radio the message he most feared: The captain of the Loredano had spoken, and the hunt was now starting as since Von Muller’s position was known by the Admiralty.

    Raiding British Ports
    The Emden therefore leaved the Kabinga with all its crews on board and sailed at full speed. The news also caused maritime traffic to stop on this area, so no new prize will be taken. The Emden therefore attempted to attack the British ports on the Indian coast. On September 22, she raided the oil tanks of Madras, sending them volleys from 3000 meters. The weak English artillery could not counter-fire, leaving her to sail out unmolested, leaving all but burning wreckage, and replay this feat at Colombo. She gone as far as sinking a large transport of sugar in the harbour, wildly burning with a black panache kilometers high.

    The raid on Madras

    On Diego Garcia
    But such an uproar attracted the English squadron. As far, the diversion perfectly working so much that Von Muller decided to keep a lower profile by hiding on the small and remote British island of Diego-Garcia, one of the Mauritius islands. As expected, Islanders did not had any fresh news for weeks, in fact, from well before the war. Von Müller of course briefed his staff and crew to kept shut about the state of war. Indeed the Emden, also still in its peace white colonial livery, came as for a “courtesy visit,” bearing the German National peace pavilion, and was well received by the Governor.

    Emden's 1914 cruise map
    Emden’s 1914 cruise map

    She can replenish serenely to the delight of the crew. In the drydock, she begins to make a new life when the TSF received warning of the imminent arrival of English ships. She left the island precipitately, and during the subsequent hangout, lost the cargo ship Markomannia. She then went hiding behind the island of Minnikoy, surprising and sinking no less than five English steamers in the process. The rescued crews were all transferred to the sixth.

    Minicoy Island (Now Maliku, SW Indian Ocean).

    The British Admiralty was now at a standstill, for the national press was unleashed against German war prowess and feats at the expense of the Royal Navy, at the other end of the world. Numerous warships constantly patrolled these waters that Von Müller decided to leave and eventually rally Von Spee’s squadron via the Malacca strait. But this was barely the start of an amazing story for her crew…

    The Battle of Penang
    Battle of Penang 191 German postcard
    Battle of Penang, commemorative German postcard.

    The Emden presented herself on the 28th of October, just before dawn, off Georgetown, all lights shut. There were four French ships, at anchor, the Torpedo cruiser d’Iberville and three destroyers. One of these, the Mousquet, was patrolling all night long, and did not realized anything. There was also nearby at anchor the more threatening Russian cruiser Jemtchug. Arrived at point-blank range in the middle of the harbour, the commander order to hoist the flag of war. While crews were still asleep, a torpedo was launched, blowing up the Jemtchoug. The latter remaining afloat, and all the Emden artillery pieces went ablase, ripping off the unfortunate Russian ship from bow to stern.

    HMAS Sydney, Emden’s opponent. Its 152 mm, with greater range and caliber, left no chance to what was classed as a light cruiser, essentially.

    Commemoration postcard of Sydney’s first fight against the Emden.

    Her crew however managed to put some of her 120 mm pieces in battery and open fire. The Emden launched a second torpedo, hitting the Jemtchug just in the ammunition hold. The Russian cruiser blew up skyhigh and sank in tens of seconds. Having sent down his flag, Von Muller had the nearby D’Iberville believing the cannonade was a mistake, and sent a signal that the French ship is not to be worried. But when Jemchug exploded, D’Iberville captain observed Emden’s fourth artificial chimney to be a fake, and realizing its sent the alarm. But by then the Emden is already too far for the Aviso’s puny guns.

    Russian Cruiser Jemtchug. It has been already badly damaged at Tsushima a few years before.

    The Emden left for the other side of the harbour, boarding the steamer Glen Turret when the French destroyer Mousquet (Musket) returning from her patrol, surprised the German cruiser. However disproportion of armaments meant that the Mousquet was in very bad position. Too close to flee and too far to act effectively, Mousquet’s captain decided to take on the Emden with torpedoes. However Emden’s tremendous fire left her not chance to approach. After a quarter of an hour of struggle, and despite her agility, the Mousquet sank off the harbor. During this time, the second destroyer was ready to sail and open fire. However when the latter managed to launch her attack, it was too late. The Emden had all but disappeared, and after a few hours the French destroyer, soon short of coal had to renounce chasing her.

    Map of the Raid and battle of Penang
    Map of the Raid and battle of Penang

    The Cocos Islands Battle
    The Emden then joined the Cocos Islands. One of these islands had a radio station that Von Müller wants to destroy, in order to refuel without being worried. But a message was sent nevertheless when the German cruiser presented itself. The report is given to Australian cruisers HMAS Melbourne and Sydney, which escorted a convoy not far away. Japanese Ibuki, another escort, is order to remain guarding the convoy.

    Full speed ahead, the two ships arrived in sight of the Cocos just half an hour later. At this very moment, a German infantry company had disembarked, now attempting to cut the radio cables on Direction Island with improvised tools. Australian cruiser Sydney then fired a first burst of its 152 mm pieces, too long. Widely superior in artillery, it can only overwhelm the Emden which does not have now the resource to flee. Her captain would then try to get closer and open fire with her main lower range artillery. However this had no serious consequences for the Australian cruisers that countered her very effectively. The salvo that follows blew up the Emden telemetry station, disrupting her accuracy. When the Emden tried to come closer again, the Sydney evaded its range at full speed and replied without being worried.

    Emden’s wreck on North Keeling Island, took the day after.

    At each salvo that weakened the Emden, losses were not replaced. Indeed, Von Mücke’s company had disembarked with fifty men and did followed the unequal action from the beach, the action wen so fast they never had any chance to get back onboard. Emden scored sixteen hits on Sydney, killing three of her crew and wounding another thirteen. But here fate was sealed. When all gun is silenced, her chimneys tumbled, her machines pierced, her steering damaged and her speed down to near zero, the German corsair is condemned. HMAS Sydney indeed poured 670 rounds of ammunition, and claimed about around 100 hits. Making water from all sides, Von Muller decided to beach the wounded ship with all engine power remaining onto the reefs of North Keeling.

    Captain Glossop, from the observation deck of HMAS Sydney, ordered an approach, and after a first injunction to surrender, at first refused, and two warning salvoes, his face lightened up with satisfaction seeing at last the German white flag brought up. Meanwhile, 133 officers and enlisted men on the German ship died, out of a crew of 376. The remainder were either badly wounded or shocked, but still resolute: Von Muller indeed ordered to flood the engines and boilers, and throw overboard the breech blocks and torpedo aiming gear while and all signal books and secret papers were burned.

    Emden's 105 mm cannon trophy now in Hyde Park, Sydney
    Emden’s 105 mm cannon trophy now in Hyde Park, Sydney.

    The Sydney however leaved the beached Emden immediately after seeing the flag hoisted, going back to Direction Island, in order to land a company of riflemen to fight Von Mücke’s own men. But the latter meanwhile managed to storm the governor’s own schooner Ayesha, and sailed with all supplies available on board towards the island of Padang in the Dutch East Indies. Von Müller’s own men were taken prisoners the day after, the wounded men were interned in Australia while the uninjured were send to a POW camp in Malta. They only returned to Germany in 1920.

    Sailing to Sumatra
    Von Mücke’s infantry company, 50 strong, was then converted back as sailors, occupied by the rigging of the 95 metric tonnes schooner Ayesha all the way back to Sumatra. They crossed the path of rare ships in the process, unmoved by the white sailing ship showing a civilian flag. Eventually they managed to reach their destination on November, 7, but were refused all help by the Dutch. They waited and embarked in a German steamer which halted there, bound to Yemen. They disembarked a few days later near Bab-el-Mandeb, and Von Mücke’s leaved for an extraordinary journey back to Germany.

    Von Mücke's landing party at Direction Island
    Von Mücke’s landing party at Direction Island. The governor’s schooner can bee seen in the foreground.

    Von Mücke’s Arabian odyssey
    The German commander started the long trip on foot and camel fom Bab-El-Mandeb, crossing all the Arabian peninsula, part foot, part on camel, as Yemen and Arabia were part of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany. Well received by local tribes, they eventually managed after several weeks to join Constantinople in june 1915. There, they met fellow Vice-Admiral Souchon, head of the Turkish fleet onboard the Goeben. From there, they can finally, in June 1915, join the fatherland and embrace their family, being treated as heroes.

    In three month the Emden covered about 30,000 nautical miles (56,000 km; 35,000 mi), destroyed two Entente warships and sank or captured sixteen British steamers, one Russian merchant ship, plus Russian Cruiser Jemtchug and French warships d’Iberville and Mousquet, totaling 70,825 gross register tons. Von Muller succeeded in its main objective, creating a diversion in order to leave Von Spee’s own Pacific Squadron to reach the cape Horn. The latter however will met his fate in the Falklands, first with success, by destroying Admiral Cradock’s own British squadron, before being wiped out by a British fleet countering two battlecruisers in the second Falklands battle. This was the end for German’s oversea fleet.

    Emden wreck Keeling Island

    Kaiser Wilhelm II awarded the Iron Cross to the Emden, and announced that a new cruiser would be built to honor the original one. bearing a large Iron Cross on her bow to commemorate her namesake ship. It however was never achieved and instead a new one was built to serve with the postwar Reichsmarine. Under the Kriegsmarine flag and ww2, she managed herself to sink several Soviet destroyers, as the first of brand new Kriegsmarine cruisers. The named was honored in the Cold War with Köln-class frigate Emden (1959) and the Bremen-class frigate (1979) still in service. No doubt the legacy will endure for some time in the next Century.

    Movies about the Emden: How We Beat the Emden and How We Fought the Emden, 1928 The Exploits of the Emden, all produced in Australia. German, side 1926 silent Unsere Emden (footage) later incorporated in Kreuzer Emden, a 1932 feature film, and Heldentum und Todeskampf unserer Emden (1934). All three films were directed by Louis Ralph.

    More recently, in 2012,Die Männer der Emden (The men of the Emden) was released, but only covering how Von Mücke’s men made their way back to Germany after the Battle of Cocos.

    Read more:

    1st Battle of Heligoland (28 August 1914)

    British vs German Navy, 28 August 1914

    The first major naval battle of ww1

    helgoland Heligoland in the North Sea is a geological oddity, a block of harsh red cliffs laid in the North Sea. Successively Danish, English, and German, she locked the bay of the same name. Located on the west side of Denmark next to the mouth of the Elbe and 70 km from the coast this spot included two islands, the smallest of which was a simple dune.

    Ships anchored in Wilhelmhaven and Bremerhaven crossed its path at any outlet in North Sea. In addition, if the island had so far been mainly a stop for sailors and popular holiday resort thanks to its microclimate, Tirpitz soon contemplated its naval base potential and started to built two large piers and military installations.

    From the start of the war, British submersible watched moves and regular patrols of destroyers and light cruisers in the area. Commodore Roger Keyes, who commanded the force of British submersibles, formulated a plan that involved the Harwich Fleet commanded by Admiral Tyrwhitt.

    Initial Plans

    cdre-roger_keyes_1915 < Commodore Roger Keyes. The plan was to attract the bulk of the enemy light forces off the coast of Heligoland by a submersible curtain split into two groups, one of which was to play the role of decoy, and attract the enemy ships onto Harwich Fleet and the other to prevent reinforcements. It was planned a another force composed of heavier vessels (battle cruisers and armoured cruisers) within reach in case of massive reinforcements from Bremerhaven or even the Grand Fleet.

    Heligoland battle and ships involved (Postcard)

    But the staff at that time had other things in mind and provisionally dismissed the Keyes plan. The latter resurfaced when W.Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty and explained his views. Cheerful, boiling Churchill then requested a meeting and confered with Tyrwhitt, the Prince of Battenberg (1st Lord of the Sea), Sturdee (Chief of Staff of the Admiralty) and Hamilton (2nd Lord of the Sea). Sturdee opposed any mobilization of the Grand Fleet in support, but agreed to provide coverage of the operation with five cruisers, battleships of the force C and the two battle cruisers of the Force K.

    The Island of Helgoland circa 1890-1900

    Keyes’ submarines are deployed

    Both Keyes’s submersible groups were composed of E4, E5, E9 placed north and south of Heligoland to prevent the Germans reach to coast, while another line consisting of E6, E7 and E8 was sent 74 km from there to attract Germans to the west force. Finally the D2 and D8 were placed at the mouth of the Ems to intercept any reinforcements. The day was to be scheduled for 28 August. However John Jellicoe, the commander of the Grand Fleet was only informed of this in very vague terms, on the 26, just when Keyes was sailing his submarine force.

    Submarine HMS E4

    Cruisers are committed

    The latter finally offered the assistance of the Grand Fleet, worrying an exit so close to German coasts. Sturdee objected again, but nonetheless allowed to detach some battle cruisers, which could be quickly in the area. A force comprising the first squadron of battle cruisers under David Beatty and a squadron of light cruisers under Commodore Goodenough was established. But Keyes and Tyrwhitt had at that time almost reached their positions and were then could not be contacted. So they ignored this support force. Thus the unexpected meeting just before dawn on the Force of Harwich and Goodenough nearly turned to confrontation before the watchmen confirmed that they were friendly vessels !

    SMS Frauenlob
    SMS Frauenlob, Gazelle class

    German order of battle

    From their side, the Germans had sent a force of nine modern destroyers from the first flotilla of torpedo boats, 46 km west of the island. 22 km of the island was also posted the Third Division of minesweepers. In support, were the light cruisers SMS Hela, Ariadne, Frauenlob and Stettin, while the Mainz was still in the mouth of the Ems, and 7 other light cruisers were anchored at Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbuttel. No heavier ship was available. The Harwich force commanded by Tyrwhitt included no less than 31 destroyers led by light cruisers Arethusa and Fearless. In support, C Force counted five armoured cruisers, and Force K had six light cruisers and battle cruisers HMS Invincible and New Zealand.

    Heligoland Fortifications

    grman_rear-admiral-maass < German Rear Admiral Maass At the first light of dawn, the German destroyer E9 spotted the G194, and at 5:26, torpedoed, but missed the latter while is was proceeding at full steam for ramming. The German ship immediately signaled her position, and other destroyers of the flotilla aimed at full speed for this sector.

    Tyrwhitt’s destroyers at the vanguard

    Then Tyrwhitt Forces arrived with vanguard, Laurel and 3 other class “L” destroyers. The latter spotted the G194 at 6:50, and was pitted against Admiral Leberecht Maas, who hoisted his mark on the Cöln, the first to see the enemy. He echoed the new commander in chief of the defense of the bay of Heligoland, Rear-Admiral Franz Hipper. The latter, thinking it was just an isolated squadron of four destroyers, only authorized the departure as Stettin and Frauenlob in immediate reinforcement.

    HMS Loyal, 1913

    Tyrwhitt on his side feared for his too advanced destroyers, and unable to recall them, was obliged to sail at full speed to assist them. This is when the first flotilla of destroyers arrived. These spotted the cruisers and destroyers which did not joined the battle, preferring to retreat to the shelter battery of Heligoland. Detached, the first flotilla led by Fearless made its way north. The Third flotilla led by Arethusa, having mauled the S13 and V1, reached the second German line, composed of frail minesweepers.

    But at 7:57, the British watchers signaled the presence of two enemy cruisers: These were the SMS Frauenlob and Stettin. The 3rd fleet veered towards these ships, while the first in gunnery reach engaged combat. Soon the Fearless hit the Stettin, which came to support the destroyers veering towards the island. However, the Fearless was ordered to continue north of the island. Arethusa, meanwhile, heavily engaged the Frauenlob.

    HMS destroyer Laurel

    The ordeal of HMS Arethusa

    However because of the concentration of German Fire, the Arethusa was also hit several times, with its machinery damaged, flooded, its engine and transmission out of order, but especially its two main guns knocked off, the others quickly following. The Frauenlob on her side and conceded 10 impacts. But the British cruiser situation worsened with the arrival of the SMS Stettin, recently “released” from its duel with the Fearless, pulling northeast. At 8:30, the Arethusa, too badly damaged, broke off the fight and headed due west, with the Frauenlob on its tail.

    SMS V187 destroyer at Heligoland

    Meanwhile, a chase ensued between Keyes aboard HMS Lurcher and light cruisers of Goodenough, each thinking the other was the enemy, because of lack of communication. This confusion ended at 9:50. Goodenough then decided to detach the Lowestoft and Nottingham of the first squadron of cruisers. These crossed the path of V187, which was hit and pursued by several destroyers led by HMS Goshawk. The German destroyer was sunk at 9:10 am and survivors rescued.

    Maass’ cruisers arrives

    Just when these operations were underway, while two whaleboats were at sea, destroyers had to depart hastily when watchmen signaled the Stettin. The few English sailors left in their boats and German sailors were surprised when the submersible E4 surface. There was not enough room to collect them all, and only English sailors and three prisoners boarded while the remaining Germans were given compass, food, and the direction of Heligoland. Around 8:55, the Fearless and Arethusa were traveling southwest in concert.

    HMS Arethusa light cruiser

    The Hela and Ariadne, warned, were too far from the action and returned to their patrols, while the Strassburg, Mainz and Cöln had sailed towards the island and were now racing towards combat. Confusion still raged on when at 9:30, HMS Southampton of the Goodenough squadron was torpedoed unsuccessfully by the E6 which took her for a German cruiser. The latter in turn took her to a German submarine and started a ramming maneuver.

    Meanwhile, Tyrwhitt was trying to reform his squadron lost in the fog, which then began to rise. That’s when the Germans cruisers catch on. SMS Strassburg began shell the slow retreating, wounded Arethusa, despite and active defense from destroyers led by HMS Fearless. SMS Strassburg break off down, but the Cöln in turn started to pound the hapless Arethusa. Once again, she was saved by the bold defense of the British destroyers. In turn the Strassburg also tried to finish off te British Cruiser. Under pressure, Tyrwhitt demanded urgent intervention of David Beatty. The latter complied and came in support despite the presence of mines in the area at 11:35. Regarding the strength of Harwich, the battle raged between the English destroyers and the cruiser when the SMS Mainz arrived in turn. At 11:50 Goodenough’s squadron was reported by the Germans watchmen and the three cruisers changed course.

    Sinking of the Mainz at Heligoland

    Cruisers vs destroyers

    The Mainz had its rudder jammed by a lucky shot from the Fearless. She continued to drive on course by modulating the speed of its two screws, but was violently attacked by destroyers Laurel, Liberty and Laertes. The latter has been badly hit in return. The British cruisers then in turn pounded her until she was evacuated by her crew. She will sink in 40 minutes at 24:50. Meanwhile, Cöln and Strassburg took advantage of this diversion to re-attack the Arethusa (almost defenseless), its destroyers being dispersed.

    Beatty’s battle cruisers to the rescue

    It was then David Beatty’s turn to arrive timely with his battle cruisers. They opened fire from a distance, surprising the Germans cruisers that at last break the fight and change course. The distance dwindled rapidly during this maneuver, so the Cöln was quickly hit. Ariadne then arises, attempted a diversion by taking fire. A bold more, but she was immediately hit at close range by both the Lion and the Princess Royal, and quickly set ablase. The Strassburg took advantage of the confusion, still cruising between the two lines, and managed to escape, but the Cöln was spotted by the watchmen of the Lion, and at 13:25, the German cruiser, unable to fire back because of its shorter gunnery range, was sunk.

    SMS Ariadne, light cruiser path on the final phase of the battle


    At 14:00 it was all over. SMS Strassburg had escaped his pursuers, and the bulk of British forces has being folded. The latter deplored 36 victims while HMS Arethusa and three destroyers had to undergo lengthy repairs. But on their side the Germans deplored 1200 casualties or missing and prisoners, and had lost 3 cruisers and a destroyer. This battle showed firstly the serious shortcomings of the defense of the bay of Heligoland, since the German system had proved too light and that the attacks lacked coordination, reinforcements arrived too slowly. But on the other side the British showed a critical lack of communication of coordination between the different forces involved, which nearly ended in disaster. This does detract from the success of Beatty who will reap the greatest credit of this victory in the newspapers…

    Cruiser SMS Mainz


    Second phase of the Battle

    Last phase of the Battle

    SMS Mainz sinking


    Links and Sources

    The Battle of Heligoland bight on wikipedia
    The Battle of Heligoland bight on British-Battles
    The Battle of Heligoland bight on

    The Odensholm Action (August 26, 1914)

    German Navy
    26 August 1914


    Mining the Gulf of Finland

    Odensholm (currently Osmussaar, desolate island of 4.7 kilometers belonging to Estonia – where according to legend, Odin was burned at his funeral) was located 67 km southwest of Tallinn (59°17′30″N 23°23′30″E). By its strategic location, it closed the Gulf of Finland, gateway to the Baltic from St Petersburg. Upon declaration of war, it was entrusted to the care of the Hochseeflotte to lay mines at the entrance to the Gulf. On 25 August, were designated for this the cruisers Magdeburg and Augsburg. The first sailed from Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) and rallied the entrance to the Gulf during the night of August, 26.

    SMS Magdeburg, German light cruiser

    Return of fate

    Unfortunately the weather was foggy, and the Magdeburg ran aground on shoals north of the island of Odensholm, at only 200 m from the lighthouse at midnight past 38 minutes, when the starboard forward hit sand where water was only 2.5 meters deep. Escorting destroyer V26 tried to take her in tow for digging out, but in vain. However, from the nearby island Lighthouse, as the weather cleared up in the first lights, the Russian watchman gave the alarm to the headquarters of the Baltic Fleet. The naval base of Tallinn was only 50 miles away. Situation was now critical and Lieutenant Commander Habenitch orders the crew to evacuate the ship and prepare for scuttling.

    Russian cruiser Bogatyr


    Charges were laid, confidential archives are burned in a boiler. As the crew prepares to embark on the V26, a watchman signaled two Russians cruisers in sight. This was actually the Bogatyr, followed at a distance by the Pallada, that came through at 9.10 am. The V26 resumed abruptly boarding operations and left the area immediately, leaving the men left to their fate. The cruiser had not brought the colors yet, so the Russians cruisers opened fire in a blind spot: The German cruiser would not even have time or opportunity to replicate. After warning shots, seeing that the German cruiser failed to comply and bring the colors down, they shelled the ship at short range and quickly blown its superstructures up. A raging fire started, and the beginning of a panic seized the German crew. Moreover, charges at the front blown up at the same time, the back charges then being inactivated probably to left time to evacuate the ship. As a result, the ship essentially was left unscaved, as the Russians quickly stopped firing and sent a boarding party.

    Stranded SMS Magdeburg being evacuated (seen probably from a Russian cruiser’s bridge), as the front part has been blown up. The lighthouse can be seen 200m in the background. (Bundesarchiv)


    Ultimately, 56 sailors and Commander Richard Habenicht were captured, 17 dead, 21 wounded and 85 missing were declared. Captain Nepenin, chief of intelligence of the Baltic fleet sent a search team who to find a copy of the precious codes book of the Hochseeflotte, the Signalbuch der Kaiserlichen Marine (SKM), which was eventually discovered under a pile of clothes in the room of the commander. This document was indeed of paramount importance, giving precious intelligence to the allies.

    verlustliste-kleiner-kreuzer-magdeburg_2 - signal book of the Kriegsmarine Moreover two others were also found with their decoding manuals attached: The around maps (containing coded squares). Two of these copied code books were sent to the fleet of the Baltic and the Black Sea, and the third one sent to London by captains Kedrov and Smirnof that delivered these personally to Winston Churchill, then 1st Lord of the Admiralty. Discovered also were the 4977.73 Marks, maps with the registered German minefields and corresponding secret codes.

    German signal flags.

    These were immediately sent to the “Room 40” and intersected with other documents. From then on the Royal Navy and the Russian Navy will always have an edge over the Hochseeflotte. Indeed, the German staff ignored that the allies were now in possession of these ultra-secret documents, as the 56 men of the Magdeburg were held in Siberia until the capitulation. Moreover, in October 1914 the British also obtained the Imperial German Navy’s Handelsschiffsverkehrsbuch (HVB). This codebook was used by German naval warships, merchantmen, naval zeppelins and U-Boats. This case recalls another, which occur 19 years after: The seizing of enigma machines and breaking of the encryption code (which ultimately led to the invention of the computer).

    Links & resources

    Osmussar – Odensholm
    German signal flags from 1815 (pdf)
    The Code Bearers (Google book) By John Westwood
    Das Ende von SMS Magdeburg
    Room 40

    The Antivari Action (August 14 1914)

    Austro-Hungarian Navy
    14 August 1914

    Antivari A visual of the area and route taken by the Allied ships. Although this engagement was all but fair (a recent dreadnought against an old cruiser) the ultimate result was almost a year round of inactivity for the Austro-Hungarian Navy (K.u.K Kriegsmarine) in the Adriatic

    The Austro-Hungarians at war

    The war broke out because of the Balkans, the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand was followed by a rejected inquiry by Austro-Hungarian authorities to Serbia, followed by a rejected ultimatum and war. By the alliances game, Serbia had the support of its natural ally Russia, which in turn could count on France. In response, Austria-Hungary was able to count on the German Empire for backup. But the first engagements of the Austro-Hungarian Army against Serbia, despite clear advantages, was nothing of a promenade. The Serbs managed to block and even repel the initial attacks with massive payback.

    Situation in the Adriatic

    On the naval front however it was expected from the K.u.K Kriegsmarine to take advantage of a clear cut superiority in the Adriatic. At that stage, the Austro-Hungarian Navy was not to be taken lightly with three brand new dreadnoughts (a fourth in achievement), 12 pre-dreadnought battleships, 13 cruisers, 27 destroyers and 79 torpedo-boats, as well as 7 submarines and many monitors and auxiliary ships of all sizes and tonnage. It was based mostly in Pola harbour and could easily defeat a very weak Montenegrin navy (perhaps a single gunboat, no info could be found) whereas the Serbian “navy” only counted a single patrol boat Jadar, based on the Danube in 1915. Since Italy was neutral, and perhaps then more inclined to join the central powers, Austro-Hungary has free hands in this “private lake” bordering the Balkans. In the Mediterranean however, this was another matter.

    Austro-Hungarian Dreadnoughts and the fleet anchored at Pola
    Austro-Hungarian Dreadnoughts and the fleet anchored at Pola. Despite real assets, from 1915, it was dwarfed by the combined might of the French, British and Italian navies and mostly condemned to inaction, trapped in the Adriatic.

    At that time, since June 6, the proportion of the French fleet in the Mediterranean was such that the British thought fair to let the supreme naval command in the area to the French, the British naturally receiving supreme command of the Allied naval forces for the north sea. Thus, by treaty on June 6, the Royal Navy there was reduced to two armored cruisers (Defence and Warrior) and some light cruisers after by massive transfers to the North Sea,theoretically under the orders of Admiral Boué Lapeyrière. The latter, from the outset of the declaration of war, rallied Malta with the combined forces, then joined the Adriatic by executing an ostensible “naval review” in full strength and regalia to impress still undecided Italians.

    The battle

    On August, 14 the French fleet enters the Adriatic included 15 battleships (2 Courbet, 6 Danton and 5 Vérité), 6 armored cruisers (3 Léon Gambetta, Quinet, Renan, Michelet) and smaller cruisers. It was followed by British-armored cruisers from Gibraltar, the squadron of Admiral Troubridge. Alerted, the Austro-Hungarian fleet scrambled to rally in emergency the safe harbor of Pola. But Zenta had not been informed, and was still conducting operations of shelling of the small Antivari harbour.

    She was safeguarded by destroyer Uhlan and 2 others. None did noticed the Courbet, a recently built dreadnought which opened fired at 20 000 m range. Soon 305 mm plumes squared the Zenta, which had no artillery capable of replicate at such distance. In very little time, the Zenta was severely hit, immobilized, and rendered all but helpless and burning. Her crew evacuated the soon-to-be hulk on rafts. The Destroyer Uhlan and two destroyers managed to flee thanks to their speed. The Zenta sank in a short time, but most of its crew safely joined the coast.

    SMS Zenta and Ulan in august 14 Antivari battle
    A painting of the battle of Antivari, by Harry Heusser, 1914.


    This modest setback meant that the allies could now roam at will the Adriatic, blocking all the Austro-Hungarian initiatives. Initially at least, French presence dissuaded the naval forces stationed at Pola to start new coastal raids. But soon the allied forces departed and would be fully absorbed by operations in the Dardanelles. The Austro-Hungarian was then again free and ready for any action but only for a short time: Italy entered the war at about the same time. We will return on this chapter of the adriatic naval campaign soon. The “inaction” ended with a first major action Battle in Decemlber 1915, the battle of Durazzo, followed by by the Battle of the Strait of Otranto in 14-15 may 1917.

    Austro-Hungarian Fleet
    The Austro-Hungarian fleet

    The cruiser Zenta in 1914.