Stokes Bay

 

 

 

A Night Attack

 

The Times October 17th 1879

(The same event was also reported in The Illustrated London News on October 25th 1879)

Between 9 and 10 o'clock last night a singularly interesting and memorable battle was fought between the Royal Engineer submarine miners stationed at Fort Monckton, supported by infantry and imaginary artillery fire, and the naval torpedo forces of Portsmouth. The action had been long expected, having been postponed on two occasions. On the 22d of August the preparations had been all made and the time actually fixed for the firing of the first gun, when an ill-timed wind sprang up and produced too much fog in the Solent that Captain Doughty, of the Crocodile, who was one of the chief umpires, declined to take the responsibility of permitting the proceedings to be carried on. Nor were his apprehensions wholly groundless, for it must be remembered that the torpedo craft are for the most part mere steel shells, not more than half an inch in thickness, and that were they to run foul of a boom, a buoy, or each other, in the dark, they would moat certainly come to grief. The engagement was accordingly deferred for a fortnight, when it was found that the engines of the defenders had been injured, and that the moon shone with such brightness that no electric light was required to expose the obstructions with which the Channel had been covered. Another postponement was, therefore, decided upon, and last night the struggle was carried on under every advantage of wind and weather.

 

The operations were of great magnitude, and the engagement and its incidents were in their character the most real and dramatic which have ever taken place between friendly belligerents around our coasts, the effect as a spectacle being heightened by the cloud of night under which the attack and counter-attack, were conducted, and the manner in which the opposing forces on the walls and the water were apparently brought into existence by the searching rays of the electric light, which was made use of by both sides. A similar combat, but with an important difference, was held on the same ground last year, and the engagement which occurred between the land and sea forces last night may be considered as the sequel. On the former occasion the Navy was understood to have scored a victory, to have cleared away the obstructions to the entrance of an enemy's fleet and to have destroyed the dockyard and arsenal. But the Engineers very justly complained that the action was founded on a long series of assumptions which were not justified by the conditions of actual war, and that the result of the operations was not only useless as a practical lesson, but positively misleading and mischievous. The area covered by the action was not large, and the whole of the operations were carried out in broad daylight. The naval force knew exactly what the obstructions were which they had to destroy or render useless, and where they were placed, and were thus saved the trouble and risk of feeling their way as they proceeded. Save in one respect, that of actual fusillades, the conditions last night, on the contrary, approached as closely as it was possible for an imitation to approach the conditions of actual warfare. We have already said that the operations were carried on under cover of the night, the precise time, it is to be inferred, when the hazardous duty of destroying an enemy's defences will be attempted; and as a result, the approach and position of the torpedo boats and launches were to the defenders as much a matter of conjecture, which had to be verified by scrutinizing the horizon by means of the electric beam, as were the nature and situation of the mines and obstructions which the attacking party had to remove.

 

The realism of the combat was carried to the extreme length of allowing no communication between the contending parties, the intention being that the nature both of the defence and the attack should only become known by its practical development after the commencement of hostilities. Indeed,the nature of the attack was only communicated to the officers concerned during the afternoon on board the Vernon, and, to prevent the secret getting wind, the officers were not permitted to leave the ship until the approach of the time for their taking up their several positions. A general surmise could, of course, have been arrived at. It was known, for instance, that artillery and infantry would combine with the submarine miners to stave off the attack, while the preliminary rehearsals at Spithead with the electric light on board the Bloodhound and the torpedo flotilla could not fail to inform the defenders of the strength and equipment of the enemy. But while the plan of attack was kept a secret from one side, the plan of the defence, beyond certain necessary conditions, precautions; and limitations, was just as carefully concealed from the other side. The general idea of the battle, so far as it could be ascertained, was substantially the same, with modifications and improvements, as that which was fought out last year. The purpose of the operations was to demonstrate the possibility of a position, carefully prepared beforehand by submarine defence, being forced by an enemy.

 

From the mouth of Portsmouth harbour to its southern extremity, the Haslar peninsula is protected by a stone wall and causeway against the encroachments of the sea. At the harbour end is Blockhouse Fort, which commands the fairway, while at the other end Fort Monckton defends the entrance from the west and prevents a landing at any part of the wall. Now, it was supposed that a fleet of the enemy's ironclads had forced the passage of the Needles and run the gauntlet of Hurst Castle, and was preparing to make a night attack upon the dockyard and ships. Before the fleet, however, is able to command the yard it is necessary that a passage should be cleared through a channel which is known to be defended by submarine mines, supplemented by various kinds of obstructions, floating and fixed. The fort at Gilkicker and all batteries on the shore were supposed to have been silenced by the fire of the enemy's ships, the only heavy artillery remaining for the defence of the mines being the guns of Fort Monckton, which, however, had been partially dismantled. But in addition to these the defenders were supported by a battery of Field Artillery (the L Battery of the 4th Brigade from Hilsea, guard-boats, manned by Marines and bluejackets, under the command of Captain Dowding, of the Asia.

 

Torpedo Warfare demonstration at Portsmouth

Torpedo Warfare Demonstration at Portsmouth

Night Attack on Boom and Submarine mines by Naval Torpedo-Boats

The Illustrated London News October 25th 1879

 

At the moment of the attack the enemy was understood to have cleared a passage through the advanced mines 120 yards wide up to a point within range of the defenders' guns, and was about to despatch boats forward to remove obstructions and to open by countermining, or by other means, a channel for his fleet through the remainder of the defended approach. Hence the contest which we are describing between the Royal Engineers and the Navy, which latter force was represented by the Bloodhound, Vesuvius, and Lightning, and six launches from the Vernon and Hecla, the whole being under the command of Captain Gordon, R.N. The channel, the possession of which was so obstinately contested, was bordered on one side by the sea wall already mentioned, the coast on the other side being described by an imaginary line, which was indicated by the Speedy and Medina, tenders, which were moored at wide intervals, and exhibited lanterns in their rigging. The defended area, though not a perfect rectangle, may be said to have measured in round numbers 1,800 yards long and 800 yards broad, and the attacking vessels were obliged to pass over it, breaking out from it either at the end or the sides. In continuity with the farther or imaginary shore line there was supposed to be a channel 150 yards wide for the use of friendly or neutral craft entering or leaving the port. As this was a practical condition which must be taken into consideration by all defenders - since to prevent the entrance of friendly and neutral vessels would be only less disastrous to a country than to allow of the entrance of a hostile flee - the Engineers were obliged to preserve the freedom of the channel, at the same time that they secured its defence. This they accomplished by sinking a number of "observation" mines, which would not explode by either mechanical or electrical contact, but only from connexion with the shore after cross bearings had shown that the enemy had approached within the range of their energy. While these conditions rendered them dangerous only to an enemy, the depth at which they were sunk enabled vessels to pass over without coming into collision with them. The remaining breadth of the channel was closed against both friend and foe, and it was here that the most exciting part of the contest took place.

 

Torpedo Boat 75 of the type carried by Torpedo Deport Ship HMS Hecla

A torpedo boat of the type carried by HMS Helca

 

Close in shore a number of mechanical mines had been dropped as a precaution against the passage of small "creeping" craft, and as these torpedoes exploded by mere percussion, automatically, and without any assistance from the shore, their presence represented a very appreciable danger to predatory small craft on a dark night. Nearer the middle of the locked channel, and a little farther removed from the point of entrance, three nests of buoyant torpedoes bad been formed, having electrical connexion with the shore, and which were fired by electric contact the moment the enemy's boats completed the circuit by bumping against them. It may thus be imagined that the defences were of a very formidable character, the more especially when it is considered that their whereabouts could only be determined by the perilous process of "creeping." This is accomplished by means of grapnels, which are dragged over the ground where the mines are supposed to be, and as soon as the hook fastens upon the moorings of a torpedo or its cable a small charge of gun-cotton, which is contained in a canister fixed inside the grapnel, is exploded, and the engine is rendered impotent by the fracture of its connexions. Aware, however, of the facility with which the sting could be taken out of their defences, the Royal Engineers had adopted the unusual precaution of placing a colossal boom, about 600 yards long and ten inches square, across the closed channel, and so adroitly had they managed matters that none of the electric cables could be approached until this unexpected barrier had been removed. It was consequently at this point that the battle culminated; and as a brilliant ray of electric light was kept constantly playing upon the boom from a lantern worked by 70 Groves cells and stationed on board a boat moored at its shore extremity, the attacking small craft were supposed to be well peppered from the shore. For it must not be understood that the defending party trusted entirely to their concealed weapons and looked idly on while the blue-jackets leisurely destroyed them. On the contrary, nearly the whole of the disturbance was supposed to come from the land, the infantry, which were stationed on the right and left flanks of the fort, and also within the curtain, keeping up an imaginary fusillade, the moment a riband of electric light enabled them to obtain a sight of the enemy, while the guns and field pieces on the parapet directed an equally imaginary fusillade of case and shrapnel over the whole area covered by the operations.

 

A Torpedo Tug towing out Submarine Mines past Spitbank Fort - 1879

A Torpedo Tug towing out Submarine Mines past Spitbank Fort - 1879

 

Colonel Shaw, R.E., was in chief command of the land defences; Captain John Ramsay, R.E. (the officer in command of the submarine miners), being in special charge of the torpedo arrangements. As blue-jackets were engaged both in the attack and the defence, the Admiral had taken the wise precaution to take the guns out of the boats and confine the services of the sailors to the management of the vessels, the Marines only being allowed to retain possession of their rifles. But the fact is that, though the use of hyperbole has been long sanctified by use in describing sham fights, and it is impossible to adequately present the incidents and varying fortunes of mock encounters except by the phraseology which is adopted to describe actual engagements, it may not be superfluous to remark that the terrible nature of the defences and the formidable character of the attack were very much a matter of elaborate make-believe. The mines and countermines were harmless. The charges in each case were supposed to represent 600lb. of gun-cotton, end, to be therefore, worth £50 each. As the explosion of torpedoes of this size would, consequently, be not only extremely dangerous, but extremely expensive as well, the imagination was again largely brought into play. Both mine and countermine was provided with a "blowing charge" consisting of a couple of pounds of powder, the exploding of which, either by concussion or electrical contact, being visible, was sufficient to show that the engine was operative and had accomplished its work. Every boat, therefore, which detonated a charge was supposed to have been blown to pieces, and every boat which was found to be within a radius of 30ft. of the explosion was obliged to retire from the contest in a disabled condition. As the several crew belonging to the assailants and the defenders had expressed their determination to force the obstructions at all hazards, and also not to allow them to be forced, it had been deemed expedient to prevent them as far as possible doing each other serious injury during the excitement of the action, the more especially as it was known that during the rehearsals at Spithead the struggle at close quarters had occasionally become undesirably warm, and that oars and boat-hooks had been freely used. It was, therefore, agreed that if a guard-boat happened to grapple one of the attacking boats, or vice versa, both were considered to be injured, and were ordered outside the limits of the fighting ground. The Vesuvius, Bloodhound, and Lightning might be disabled by the artillery fire. but they could not be captured by guard-boats unless a preponderance of three were brought against them simultaneously, and even then only in the event of there being none of the boats belonging to the attack to grapple with them. Of course, a concrete obstruction in the shape of a boom could not be broken through except by the adoption of such concrete means as dynamite and gun cotton. Considerable charges of these were, therefore, attached to the booms by small craft, and supposed to be fired by means of electric batteries on board the Lightning and No. 55 Torpedo launch, every precaution, however, being taken to prevent accident. Any boat fixing a charge to a boom was required to attach a Holsne's safety-light as a danger signal, and to burn a blue light, whereupon all the craft on both sides were ordered to retire to a distance of at least 300 yards, the entire operations being suspended until a signal from the umpires' bastion authorized the resumption of the fight.

 

The umpires in chief were Colonel Graham, V.C., R.E., and Captain Herbert, of the Excellent gunnery ship, who were assisted by the following assistant umpires,representing all arms of the service :-Major Baikes, Captains Newcome and Perry, and Lieutenants Ord, Hare, Connolly, Hume, and Kelly, R,A.; Major Lord, and Lieutenants Noel, Glubb, Taffan, Lawson, Reynolds, Macarthy, and Pullerson, R.E.; Captains Roberts, Noble, Beresford, and Thomas, Royal Marine Artillery; Captains Bennett and Sugden, 24th Regiment, and Captains Peake and Innes, Royal Marines. These officers were stationed at each of the 16 guns, on board of each gunboat, steam launch, and pinnace, and with each detachment of infantry; and their duties were to see that the conditions were faithfully observed, to communicate with the chief umpires with respect to the fortunes of the action, and to take accurately the time of every event that came within their cognizance. Six imaginary hits, it was agreed, would put a gunboat, and three imaginary hits a launch, out of action; while if a row-boat came within the ray of electric light for one moment and became exposed to a musketry fire from a distance not exceeding 300 yards, it was at once ruled out of existence. The greatest precision was enforced upon the umpires. The officer ordering the supposed fire was under the obligation of naming the projectile and the length of fuze to be used, and he was furthermore required to carefully note the supposed gunshot and to record the distance and object at which it was fired. The assistant umpire at each gun was also instructed to note each imaginary round, and to state whether in his estimation the sights of the gun and the object aimed at could be seen with sufficient clearness to allow the shot to score.

 

It was at first agreed that all officers in uniform should be admitted within the precincts of Fort Monckton; but as even a sight of the sea could only be obtained from the flanking bastions, and as these were sufficiently crowded by the gunners and the electric gear, it was ultimately determined that none but those actually engaged should be admitted. A part of the outworks, however, was reserved for privileged spectators, and here it was that the bulk of the distinguished visitors, naval and military officers, foreign attaches, &co., congregated. Haslar wall itself afforded an admirable standpoint whence to view the operations, and the Portsmouth piers were kept open for the benefit of sightseers, though somewhat too removed from the field of battle to enable much to be seen. And as little else had been talked about for a week at Portsmouth the action attracted prodigious multitudes. To the unprofessional and uninitiated spectator the operations would seem simply startling, and weird-like, but to those who were enabled to follow the progress of the struggle much could be learned as to what could be attempted and performed under cover of the night. The electric light was very largely employed. The lights afloat were on the Wilde principle, while the two on the bastions of the fort were generated by a D Gramme and a Siemens machine. One of the guard-boats carried an MI Gramme machine, while the light at the boom was worked by a battery formed of Grove's cells.

 

The attacking flotilla, which had assembled at the harbour rendezvous at 8 o'clock, opened the ball at 9 o'clock by cautiously feeling their way into the protected waters from the south-west. The furnaces were screened as much as possible to prevent the glare of the fires being observed by the defenders, while the vibrations of their engines were so subdued as to make it difficult for the ear to detect their approach. The guard boats carried white flags at the stern, while the steam launches were distinguished from each other by boards being lashed across their funnels. Each hit was recorded by a prearranged code of signals. The flight of a single rocket announced that the Bloodhound had been struck by the artillery, and two arrows simultaneously discharged that the Vesuvius had been hulled, while the display of a distress "flare" signified that the Lightning was to retire, the injuries of the small craft being notified by the exhibition of coloured lights from the umpire's bastion. These hits were rendered more than usually a matter of imagination by a modification which had to be introduced into the arrangements at the last moment owing to the serious illness of Dr. Domville, the Inspector-General of Haslar Hospital, whose critical condition it was feared the firing would aggravate. It was even at one time agreed to again postpone the operations, but in compliance with the remonstrances of hundreds of distinguished visitors who had arrived at Portsmouth to witness the attack and defence, the duel was allowed to proceed, but without any gun fire from the shore.

 

Amongst those who would have been otherwise disappointed were Attaches from all the leading European Powers, Austria being represented by Lieutenant Count Oscar Cassini; France by Captain Gervais and Lieutenant Shilling, of the Navy, and the Marquis Ferron de la Rerronays, of the Military Service; Germany by Major von Vietinghoff; Italy by Captain Labrano and Major A. Leitenitz; Russia by Vice-Admiral Likchatcheff, Captain Linden, and Major-General Gorlofe; Spain by Commodore Don Jose de Carcauza and Captain Don Louis Herce; Portugal by Lieutenant-commander de Pinto da Fonseca Vez; and the English Admiralty by Admiral Sir Cooper Key, the senior Sea Lord; but, though little powder was consumed, the operations scarcely suffered in their dramatic and pictorial surroundings.

 

Each gun was provided with detonating fones, and the sharp, angry report which those gave out indicated the action of artillery with just as much practical effect as the roar of a discharge. The scene on the water was exceedingly confusing, and the gunners must have found it very difficult at times to distinguish between friend and foe; the shimmer of the various lights was continuous and bewildering, and it was only for brief intervals that an aim could be obtained at the small craft as they were discovered by the electric beam. The Bloodhound and the Vesuvius, which were painted of a leaden colour, could be distinctly seen, but the black hulls of the torpedo craft baffled even the lurid lights by means of which the horizon was searched, and it was almost wholly owing to the exceeding vividness and apparent solidity of their steam when illumined by the electric lights that they were brought under the volleys of the troops on the parapets.

 

The small-arm fire, to which the prohibition already mentioned did not apply, was kept up with great briskness, particularly from the southern flank, and it was not long before the whole of the six launches belonging to the enemy were signalled out of action. Before the whole flotilla, however, was placed hors de combat, one daring steam launch was observed to tow a row-boat alongside the booms, to which the inmates succeeded in attaching a charge of dynamite. This was at once exploded as soon as the hostile craft had retired to a safe distance. The injury was not immediately apparent, but it was subsequently demonstrated to have been sufficiently fractured to allow of the Bloodhound passing through the fissure. The Bloodhound itself was the first to begin dropping a line of counter-mines in the midst of the defenders' torpedoes. This was one of a projected double line which was intended to sweep a channel 700 yards in length, but as she afforded a clear and comparatively bulky target for artillery, she was disabled and compelled to retire before she could explode them. The Lightning was equally unlucky, notwithstanding her enormous speed and low hull; the Vesuvius, however, was perfectly successful, and was enabled not only to drop the second line of counter-mines, but to explode them; but whether they fell within the fatal radius of 30ft. remains to be determined by subsequent examination. At any rate, as the diameter of the destructive energy would only be 60ft., this was not considered sufficient to admit of the passage of an ironclad. Practically, therefore, the safety of the dockyard was not endangered by the enemy's operations. If it be asked what good came of the fight, we can only at present reply, as in the parallel instance of the Battle of Blenheim - 'Why, that we cannot tell,' said he; 'But 'twas a famous victory.'

 

The full results and significance of the operations, which lasted an hour, can only be determined after the umpires have fully estimated the important element of time, and their assistants have made their respective reports from the various points of the combat. The operations, however, cannot fail in being of great practical usefulness to those concerned in the study and practice of torpedo warfare.

 

Night Attack October 25th 1879

 

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