Fort Gilkicker

 

 

Stokes Bay Warfare

 

Experimental Naval Attack

on Harbour and Fort Defences at Portsmouth

 

The Times August 11 1880


Naval demonstration at Portsmouth

The famous night attack by the naval torpedo forces of Portsmouth, on the 16th of October last year, upon the defences of the Royal Engineers in front of Fort Monckton, will still be remembered as a demonstration at once novel and impressive. The practical exigencies of an actual attack and counter-attack were respected as far as it was considered practicable; and the battle was so hotly contested both ashore and afloat that each side claimed to have won a grand naval victory. The contest, however, left much to the imagination, and in the result relegated many important questions for further consideration and experiment. Owing to the serious illness of Dr. Domville, Inspector-General of Haslar Hospital (which ended fatally a few days subsequently), the defenders were precluded from using their field and heavy ordnance except in the merest supposition, while one of the most important objects of the battle-viz., the ascertainment of the effect of smoke from guns upon the electric light- could not be determined. It was consequently resolved to repeat the attack and defence under more realiscic conditions, and the affair came off yesterday in the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Board of Admiralty, and a host of professional critics and spectators.

 

The plan and arrangements were substantially the same as last year, with the essential difference, however, that the attack was carried out in broad daylight instead of under cover of the night. On the former occasion the advantages were clearly on the side of the enemy, and against Captain Ramsay and his submarine miners, who had to search out the creeping and countermining craft by means of a Siemens projector, and who were only able to bring their artillery and musketry to bear by means of the brief and transitory glimpses of the attacking forces thus obtained. As the conditions were yesterday apparently reversed - the attack being exposed, while the defence was for the most part concealed- it might have been supposed that the conflict was certain to end in an easy victory for the land forces. This conclusion, however, was scarcely warranted in the circumstances, and was certainly not justified by the result. In the first place, the assault was more comprehensive in its character, and more vigorously conducted, while the rebutting mass at the command of the defenders were absolutely the same. An actual ironclad, the Glatton, which was assumed to represent the vanguard of a hostile fleet, was brought into requisition, and served as a cover and a base of operations for the torpedo attack upon the mined area. A fleet of gunboats also assisted in the attack, so that the gunners on shore, while endeavouring to destroy the small craft of the enemy, were themselves brought under the fire of the ships. The regulations as regards hits were also altered to the disadvantage of the engineers, the number requisite to put a boat out of action having been materially increased. The soldiers also laboured under the further disadvantage of having had their plan of defence discovered by an amateur Intelligence Department, the consequence being that the fleet of the enemy came upon the scene specially prepared for the obstructions which they had to assist in removing. It was also noticed that, owing to the proximity of the Glatton, there were no guard boats, which in other circumstances might have made it hot for the torpedo craft by means of machine-guns According to the "general idea," the object of the operations was primarily to ascertain the best means of forcing a channel defended by submarine mines and obstructions, supplemented by the fire of artillery and infantry.

 

This channel was the same important piece of water which had formed the scene of the two previous contests between the sea and land forces. It ran between the coast, extending from Gillkicker Fort, at the sea end of Haslar Wall, to Fort Blockhouse, at the harbour end, and an imaginary shore line opposite, and was defended by submarine mines, supplemented by obstructions, floating and fixed. While, therefore, the operations of the defence were limited to putting the attacking fieet (with the exception of the Glatton) out of action, the operations of the attack, on the other hand, were limited to breaking through booms and obstructions, countermining, removing and disabling mines, destroying cables, and putting guard boats and field guns hors de combat. The mine field was 700 yards in lengtb, but narower than on former occasions, being only about 500 instead of 800 yards wide. Between the channel and the forts was an apparently open space of water about 300 yards wide; but as it was supposed to be blocked by fixed and permanent obstructions, it was hermetically closed against all vessels. This was marked with buoys and red flags, and if any predatory craft was seen within the line it was at once ordered out of action. Spectators in boats were also warned out the debatable territory, and Admiral Ryder had taken the precaution to inform the public that any encroachment upon the defended area would be dangerous not only to boats, but to life.

 

The attacking force consisted of her Majesty's ship Glatton, which represented the leading iron- clad of a squadron, and carried two 25-ton guns and a brace of 20-pounder torpedo guns; four gunboats -the Medway, Spey, Vesuvius, and Manly -two of which carried their usual armament of three 64-pounders, the others being unarmed except for the purpose of destroying mines; 132 torpedo boats and steam launches, besides several rowing boats.

 

At the time the friendly action began it was supposed that the hostile force had silenced the heavy guns in Fort Gillkicker and the advainced batteries on the imaginary shore, and that the Glatton bad taken up a position at the head of a channel 120 yards wide, which had been cleared by the attack in previous countermining operations, and was in the act of despatching her attacking flotilla to remove the remaining obstruction and force the passage to the town and dockyard. In this extremity the only heavy artillery which remained for the defence were the guns in Fort Monckton, consisting of four muzzle-loading rifled 64-pounders, two small-bore 8-inch guns, and one breech loading rifled 7inch gun; the other available means at the command of the patriotic party being the field battery of the 3rd Brigade Royal Artillery (of which four 16-pounders were placed in position on the western side of the fort and a couple on the eastern side), under the orders of Colonel Hope Johnstone, a company of Royal Engineer Submarine Miners, and a battalion of infantry represented by three companies from the 1st Battalion 24th Foot, under the command of Captain Tongue. The defending forces were under the command of Colonel Schaw R.E., while the electric and mining operations for the protection of Fort Monckton and the channel were under the superintendence of Captain Ramsay, R.E., commanding the submarine miners. The attack was conducted by Captain Gordon and the officers of the Vernon. The chief umpires, Colonel Graham, R.E., V.C., and Captain Bosanquet, R.N., took up their position with the defenders on the western bastion of Fort Monckton, while the assistant umpires, Commander Beaumont, R.N., and Lieutenant-Colonel Ritchie, R.A, were placed with the enemy on board the Glatton. Sub-umpires, in pairs, from the Navy and Army, were also stationed at each gun ashore and afloat, in the test-room inside the fort, at the various firing positions, on board of each vessel engaged, and with the infantry on the flanks and curtain. To carry out these duties 11 officers of experience were drawn from the Royal Artillery, 10 from the Royal Marine Artillery, 15 from the Royal Engineers, two from the 2d Battalion 12th Foot, two from the 69th Foot, and one from the 108th Foot, the same number of naval officers being taken from the harbour squadron.

 

It was really upon the promptness and alacrity of the sub-umpires that the practical value of the operations depended. They were prohibited from taking part in any way on the side of the attack or the defence, either by giving advice or expressing an opinion during the progress of the engagement. Their duty consisted in recording, in tabular forms snpplied for the purpose, the facts that came under their observation, and in ruling the several guns, boats, and men out of action as soon as they became disqualified. The disqualifications were very stringent, but pressed more than usual severity upon the gunners in the fort. On the previous occasion six imaginary hits sufficed to put a gunboat, and three a torpedo launch, out of action; and it was agreed that if a row-boat came within the electric ray for one moment, whereby it became exposed to a musketry fire from a distance not exceeding 300 yards, it was to be ruled out of the fight. Yesterday, on the other hand, eight hits from large guns, or 16 from field guns, were required to disable a gunboat or first-class torpedo-boat, six hits from any gun being held sufficient to put all other craft oat of action. Inlikemanner ,four hits from an ironclad or a gunboat were understood to practically destroy a field gun. Even supposing, therefore, that almost every shot proved a hit, the swift torpedo boats and pinnaces bad an excellent chance of damaging the obstructions and connexions before they couild be ruled oat of action. The effect of the infantry fire upon the attacking flotilla, always a difficult matter to determine in mimic warfare, and of the fire of the attack upon the infantry of the defence, was left to be determined by the umpires at the close of the operations. Explosions of blowing charges within 30ft. of any vessel or boat were considered as disabling her. These charges, which were assumed for the purpose of the operations to represent ground and buoyant mines -mechanical, electro contact, and observation - and to spread corresponding destruction around, were not to exceed 21b. of powder when placed 24ft. or more under water; but if in shallower water they were not to exceed 4oz., and in no case were they to lie on the surface. It was also ruled that in case a boat succeeded in attaching a charge to any obstruction, she might claim immunity from being disabled, on the supposition that the charge, if fitted with a Bickford fuze, would explode whether, after liftng it, the boat- were captured or not. Having once, however, claimed immunity she could take no further part in the attack, and she was moreover, prohibited from replacing the charge in the event of its missing fire.

 

The wbole business, indeed, will remind the reader of the war scenes in Henry V and there were many spectators of the same opinion as Fluelen, that it was not good to come to the mines, "For, look you, the mines is not according to the disciplines of the war." In order, howvever, to minimize the danger it was agreed that before firing a charge an attacking boat should be required to hoist a red flag as a signal that all operations were to temporarily cease, and that all craft were to retire for purposes of safety to a distance of 300 yards until after the charge had exploded or a misfire had been proved. For it need scarcely be said that obstructions in the shape of booms and chains could not be broken through by make-believe detonations, but that it was necessary to remove them by practicable charges of powder and gun-cotton. When a countermining boat, again, was signalled out of action, she was ordered to ship all her mines and sheer out of danger from their explosion before anchoring, and the sub-umpires on board were requested to carefully note whether any electro-contact mines were exploded by her when moving away.

 

All vessels except "creeping" boats employed in the attack were distinguished by alphabetical flags, while the field guns were distinguished by numeral flags; and the sub-umpires wrere instructed that hits to be effective should be directed at the hull, and not at the flag, of the boat or vessel, and were to rule accordingly. Each hit was communicated at once to the chief umpires, who could alone role boats out of action from the shore, and to the assistant umpires on the Glatton, who alone could declare guard boats and field guns to be disabled. Time was advisedly an uncertain factor in the operations, for as the demonstration was supposed to he of a pre-eminently practical character, it was not to be supposed that the attacking side would commit the egregious folly of announcing beforehand the moment at which they proposed to make tne onslaught upon the works of the defence.

 

The sub-umpires mustered soon after 8 in the morning for the purpose of regulating their watches by signal, and it was understood that the attack should not be made before 9 o'clock. It might, however, bave been indefinitely delayed; and as there was no knowing at what moment the quick and snake-like torpedo boats might rush from the effective cover of the ironclad, the gunners and electricians in the fort were kept on the alert. At 9 o'clock it was evident that Captain Gordon was preparing to attack. Clouds of smoke arose from the funnels of his fleet, and soon after feathers of steam were seen ascending from the waste pipes. At this moment the launches, torpedo-boats, and creeping craft were all huddled together behind the turret-ship, while the Medway and the Spey (easily distinguished by her broken topmasts) were seen through the haze to be slowly drifting to the westward. The Vesuvius was standing considerably out to sea in the background. Admiral Ryder, in the Fire Queen, had taken up a position outside the line of buoys, where he was presently joined by the Lords of the Admiralty, who had just before arrived from Cherbourg in the Enchantress; by Air. Brassey, the Civil Lord, who came upon the scene in the Sunbeam, and at the end of the action by the Prince and Princess of Wales in the Osborne. It was, not, however, before 23 minutes past 9 that the first gun fired from the fort an- nounced that the attacking flotilla had emerged from the cover or the Glatton and were coming into action.

 

As on the occasion of the night attack, the efforts of the enemy were mainly directed to encompass the destruction of the formidable boom, which not only blocked the passage of the whole channel to be cleared, but served to protect the electric connexions between the shore batteries and the nests of sunken mines. This obstruction formed the object of as obstinate a struggle bstween the rival combatants as the famous bridge in Shakespeare between the French and English. There were, indeed, some very excellent services rendered at the " boom," and none the less so because the obstacle proved a very different thing from the one used at the previous conflict. On that occasion the boom consisted of an arrangement of spars joined to- gether in a way thought to be effective, and placed at right angles to the fort. As a matter of fact, however, the only difficulty experienced by the enemy was in approaching it, as it was commanded by the heavy ordnance and infantry from the shore. But the moment the blue-jackets succeeded in attaching to it a charge of gun-cotton, it was easily shivered and the Vesuvius and the Bloodhound steamed through the fissure. Yesterday, on the contrary, the boom was constructed after the manner of a gridiron, a number of balks of timber being placed parallel to each other and to the face of the fort, and with the ends consequently pointing in the direction of the attack. For the purpose of keeping the balks at a proper distance of 6ft. apart and securing them, and at the same time opposing obstructions to the passage of small craft through the interstices, three rows of chains were placed across them at regular intervals, thus forming the meshes of a rigid net, the whole being kept in position by mooring anchors placed fore and aft. It will thus be seen that the fracture of a chain, or even the destruction of one or more of the balks, would not open a passage for ironclads, but that the reticulations would have to be fatally injured in many places before the boom would cease to be operative. And when it is stated that the obstruction was so placed as to be under a concentrated fire from the defenders' guns, the hazardous nature of the enterprise will be self-evident. Both in front and in rear of the boom the passage was further impeded by nets floated by means of cork, the object being to foul the screws of the steam craft, - while in the rear of all a substantial spar was placed across the channel, the whole area being at the same time covered with sunken mines. The character of the defence was well preserved, but still not so completely as to prevent the other side from gaining a wrinkle. Both the timber and the chains were obtained by requisition from the dock- yard, and with so many balks for the first part of the puzzle and so many shackles of chain cable for the second it was no difficult matter for the navy to arrive at a pretty accurate idea of the obstacles to be surmounted. At all events, the main and the whole of the torpedo-boats launches, and pinnaces had their cutwaters specially protected, and as the protection took the shape of a spar descending obliquely to below the keel, it was admirably adapted for enabling the vessels to run over chains and floating debris.

 

 

Simultaneously with the despatch of the creeping craft the Glatton engaged the guns of the fort and thus served to distract the atteution of the defenders from the proceedings of the small fry. But nothing can excuse the wretched service of the four field guns on the right of the fort. These guns were placed in masked embrasures. concealed from the enemy by furze, and had they been well served it would have been impossible for the creeping craft to have reached the boom without being disabled. As it was, however, of the three first which attempted to force the passage, not one was apparently affected by the artillery fire. The first launch seemed to actually leap over the obstruction and to carry its attendant dingy with it. The second was hung-up high and dry in the chains, where it was subsequently succeeded by another creeper, the crews of which had to be taken out of danger by row-boats. The third boat succeeded in actually passing through the boom, but came to grief and sunk through the explosion of one of her own creeping charges. While this was going on the Glatton kept up a withering fire upon the fort, the whole ship being obscured in a cloud of smoke, during which it would have been compartively easy for a guard boat to have assailed her in a vulnerable part. How the sub-umpires were enabled to fufil their duties in the circumstances we know not, but when the gentle westerly breeze lifted the fog a couple or so of row-boats had suceeeded in attaching a charge of gun-cotton to the boom. The buglers blew a "Cease fire," and after the crews had betaken themselves to a plaoe of safety a majestic explosion ocourred, which seemed to shatter the boom for a considerable distance of its length. This, however, was not the case, for while the balks were destroyed, the chains remained intact and the passage continued to be disputed.

 

And now occurred the most interesting and exciting part of the combat. The Vesuvius and Medway, with "cow-catchers " lowered, came into action under a tremendous fire from the defenders with the evident intention of forcing a passage, the Medway at the same time engaging the fort with her 64-pounders. Both gunboats ranfull tilt against the chains, dragging what appeared to be countermining barges after them. As no men, however, were seen on board depositing the counter-mines, the defenders saw through the ruse. The barges were, in fact, dummies, and the shore artillery concentrated their fire upon the gunboats. But, notwithstanding the admirable target which they presented at short range, they were alloweed by the umpires to proceed, and they succeeded in breaking through the chains without being entangled in the nettings. They were afterwards followed by the Medway and Spey, the latter fighting her guns as she came along. Both passed through the obstruction in safety and without being under the necessity of striking their colours. This practically ended the engagement. Of the torpedo boats and launches belonging to the attacking party, no fewer than 11 were declared out of action by the umpires, one being destroyed by her own creeping charges, and another by a line of mines exploded from the miner. But the boom had been forced, and this was the object of the attack. It remains to be seen, however, whether a space was cleared sufficiently large for the passage of the Glatton. It is supposed that only about a 100yards had been cleared out of the 700 yards of channel, and that there were many mines still operative at the conclusion of the attack was apparent by the electrical explosion from the fort, after Captain Gordon had hoisted the "recall," at half-past 10. Indeed, as there were as many dummy connexions as real connexions in the disputed channel there is reason to think that the creeping craft exhausted a great part of their zeal in destroying cables which had been sunk for the express purpose of being destroyed, and thus of misleading them. This can only be determined by subsequent examination. Each line of countermines is supposed to be effective for 60ft., and hence a double line should clear a passage 120ft. broad. But in order to do this it is essential that they should be deposited in the midst of the defenders' submarine mines, otherwise they would prove harmless. All that can be said at present is that the gunboats and several small craft succeeded in forcing the boom and laying their countermines; but it is still uncertain whether the Glatton and the ironclad fleet which she was supposed to represent could have passed over the supposed space without bumping an electro-contact mine or being destroyed by observation charges.

 

HMS Glatton illustrated by Naval artist Frederick  Mitchell (Died 1914)  The Vesuvius, tender to the Vernon

HMS Glatton and Vesuvius, tender to the Vernon.

 

About half-past 9 o'clock there was a night demonstration on a limited scale, the purpose being to ascertain the effect which the smoke from the discharge of artillery exercised upon the beam of the electric light. As is well known, the steam from a torpedo launch illumined by a strong light appears solid and opaque, but the effect upon the light itself on amoving wreath of powder smoke had not been practically tested in action. The engagement accordingly resolved itself into an artillery duel, the Glatton, Medway, and Spey maintaining a tremendous cannonade upon the fort, while the field battery heavy ordnance and infantry of the defences responded with equal vigour. Between them an abundance of smoke was produced, and as there happened to be not a breath of wind blowing at the time the opportunity presented for observation was all that could be desired. There can be little doubt that the result was to diffuse the electric beam and to severely handicap the defence. The lamps used were Siemens's, each having the estimated illuminating power of 14,000 candles; yet notwithstanding this extraordinary energy, the smoke from the guns in their wake seemed to absorb the light to a great extent. Another effect of the diminished brilliancy appeared to be to bring out the figures of the men serving the guns and managing the lights into greater prominence. The object of the demonstration rendered the use of guard boats unnecesssry, so that except from the guns the torpedo craft had it all their own way. After the smoke had cleared off a little it was perceived that several small craft had in the meantime succeeded in attaching blue lights to the boom, representing imaginary charges of gun-cotton, to be followed by imaginary but irreparable injury to the obstruction. Subsequently several torpedo craft scrambled through. They were followed by the Medway, apparently through the break made by the morning attack. The Spey afterwards attempted to run the gauntlet, and the demonstration ended with her discomfiture.

 

NAVAL WARFARE EXPERIMENTS AT PORTSMOUTH. The Illustrated London News August 21 1880
On October last year we gave some Illustrations of the combined spectacle of natal and military or garrison artillery and engineer manoeuvres performed in front of Fort Monckton, opposite Portsmouth Harbour, in the rehearsal of a night attack and defence. On the Tuesday night of last week, in presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales, on board the Royal yacht Osborne, and of the Lords of the Admiralty, in their yacht, the Enchantress, a similar exhibition took place, of which we likewise present several Illustrations, from Sketches by an officer of the Royal Artillery.


The practical aim of these operations was chiefly to prove the best means of forcing a channel defended by submarine mines and obstructions, supplemented by the fire of artillery and infantry. This channel was represented by the same piece of water which had formed the scene of the two previous contests between the sea and land forces. It ran between the coast, extending from Gillkicker Fort, at the sea end of Haslar Wall, to Fort Blockhouse, at the harbour end, and an imaginary shore line opposite. It Was defended by submarine mines, supplemented by obstructions, floating and fixed. While the operations of the defence were limited to putting the attacking fleet (with the exception of the Glatton) out of action, the operations of the attack, on the other hand, were limited to breaking, through booms and obstructions, countermining, removing and disabling mines, destroying cables, and putting guard boats and field guns hors de combat. The space protected by mines was 700 yards in length and 500 yards wide. Between the channel and the forts was an apparently open space of water, 300 yards wide ; but it was supposed to be blocked by permanent obstructions, and was closed against all vessels, being marked with buoys and red flags.


The attacking force consisted of her Majesty's ship Glatton, armed with two 25-ton guns and a brace of 20-pounder torpedo guns ; four gun-boats—the Medway, Spey, Vesuvius, and Manly—two of which carried their usual armament of three 64-pounders, the others being unarmed, except for the purpose of destroying mines ; twelve torpedo-boats and steam-launches, besides several rowing-boats. At the time the friendly action begun it was supposed that the only heavy artillery which remained for the defence were the guns in Fort Monckton, consisting of four muzzle-loading, rifled 64-pounders, two small-bore 8 in. guns, and one breech-loading rifled 7-inch gun. The other available means at the command of the defence party were the 0 field battery of the 3rd Brigade Royal Artillery (of which four 16-pounders were placed in position on the western side of the fort and a couple on the eastern side), under the orders of Colonel Hope Johnstone, a company of Royal Engineer Submarine Miners, and a battalion of infantry represented by three companies from the first battalion 24th Foot, under the command of Captain Tongue. The defending forces were under the command of Colonel Schaw, R. E.; while the electric and mining operations for the protection of Fort Monckton and the Channel were under the superintendence of Captain Ramsay, R.E. commanding the submarine miners. The attack was conducted by Captain Gordon and the officers of the Vernon, torpedo training-ship.

 

Explosion and Fracture of Boom as seen from the Echo Torpedo-Tug - Illustrated London News - August 21st 1880. Fort Monckton can be seen on the right.

Explosion and Fracture of Boom as seen from the Echo Torpedo-Tug

Illustrated London News - August 21st 1880

 

It was nearly half-past nine when the attacking flotilla had emerged from the cover of the Glatton and were coming into action. Their efforts were mainly directed to encompass the destruction of the formidable boom, which not only blocked the passage of the channel, but served to protect the electric connections between the shore batteries and the nests of sunken mines. This boom was constructed after the manner of a gridiron, a number of baulks of timber being placed parallel to each other and to the face of the fort, and with the ends pointing in the direction of the attack while three rows of chains were placed across them at regular intervals, thus forming the meshes of a rigid net, the whole being kept in position by mooring anchors placed fore and aft. In front and in rear of the boom the passage was further impeded by nets floated by means of cork, to foul the screws of the steam craft, while in the rear was a substantial spar placed across the channel, the whole area being also covered with sunken mines.

 

While the Glutton engaged the guns of Fort Monckton, the launches and torpedo-boats forced their way through the boom, though with the loss of several, which were caught in the chains or otherwise disabled. Two rowing-boats succeeded in attaching a charge of gun-cotton to the boom and blowing it up, after which the Manly and the Spey passed through. The conflict finally resolved itself into an artillery fight between the guns of the three ships, on the one side, and the heavy ordnance and field battery of the fort and defences, with the fire of infantry, on the other. They made as much smoke as possible, there being no wind to clear it away, and this put to a severe test the power of the electric light, front Siemens' apparatus, to illuminate the entire scene of action.

 

 

Night Attack on Submarine Defences by H.M.S. Glatton and Gun-Boats - Illustrated London News - August 21st 1880 Fort Monckton can be seen at the left. Centre is the embankment between Forts Monckton and Gilkicker

 

Night Attack on Submarine Defences by H.M.S. Glatton and Gun-Boats

Illustrated London News - August 21st 1880

 

One of our correspondent's sketches, from on board the Echo, torpedo-tug, represents the scene of blowing up the boom; another shows the boats of the Glatton advancing to the attack. The interior of the military electricians' room at Fort Monckton, from which the submarine mines were tired, is represented in one of the Illustrations on another page; and it is accompanied by one of the scene in a tent on the ramparts, where Royal Artillerymen were employed in making up 350 extra rounds of cartridges for the guns.

 

Report of the 1879 Torpedo Warfare Demonstration

 

The Electrical Room at Fort Monckton: Submarine Miners at work. ILN August 1880 Preparing charges at Fort Monckton

 

 

 

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