Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “tactics

The use of ramming in naval warfare after the 16th century.

Outside of the resurgence of ramming which came along with the development of armored ships, arguably beginning with the ramming of the Cumberland at the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862, and continued throughout the riverine campaigns of the American Civil War before being picked up by foreign navies (see the Battle of Lissa (1866) and the Battle of Iquique (1879) there is very little mention of ramming as anything but a last-ditch tactic.

In my opinion, the more interesting thing about this question is why ramming fell out of favor. Why does the battle-tried bread-and-butter tactic of great navies from at least 535 BC until the Dark Ages1 simply vanish from use following the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 (the last instance of galley warfare as we generally think of it) and remain more or less completely unused for the next 300 years?

To understand this, we need to look at the differences between galley warfare and the naval warfare of the Age of Sail. Galley warfare is what might be termed “consolidated” warfare- it almost always occurs between large fleets and has as its goal the destruction of the enemy fleet. In a fleet engagement such as this, there is a great deal more support available than in a smaller engagement, so the risk of accidental death due to ramming (i.e. sinking one’s own ship by ramming another) is perceptually reduced. The battles during this time also take place in fairly calm seas with which the participants are familiar; this also makes ramming ‘safer’ from a psychological perspective. From a technological perspective, there is no really effective anti-ship weaponry available (even ballistae are incredibly difficult to fire accurately at a moving target while pitching and rolling in the sea) at the time, so ramming has de facto standing as the most effective anti-ship tactic simply because it is pretty much the only anti-ship tactic.

Warfare in the Age of Sail is much different, it is primarily “distributed” warfare. Mostly small engagements over a wide area in all weathers, with various goals. Prize money becomes an increasingly important factor in this era, so the goal of engagements becomes less about destroying the enemy fleet en masse and more about capturing the individual ships that made up the enemy fleet in small chunks, to increase the size of one’s navy and inflate one’s pockets. In a tactical climate like this, ramming carries a very low cost-benefit. For one thing, ships in the Age of Sail were designed to carry lots and lots of guns, not a ram; this being the case, ramming is far more dangerous to both ships than it would have been in the days of galley warfare. If you ram someone and either ship sinks, you’ve lost out on a lot of potential prize money. The fact that battles often took place in varied locales and weathers also contributed to the deprecation of ramming, as sailing ships are bound to the wind whereas oared vessels are not. There exist a great many battle scenarios where actually positioning in such a way as to be able to ram the enemy would be more or less impossible- in these situations, guns provide an advantage, because they increase the area in which you are able to fight your enemy. Instead of having to be right up against them, you can be right behind them and chasing them while fighting. The increased use of guns also made ramming less desirable in that even in ideal ramming conditions, ramming would require you to run straight into the enemy’s fire, risking heavy damage to your ship and crew. Worse, at the end of the day, if you decided to pull alongside in the same conditions and exchange point-blank broadsides with the enemy instead of ramming, you’d probably do more damage than you would if you rammed them.

One other reason that navies in the Age of Sail did not ram might have to do with the development of European naval warfare. For a large portion of history, European navies fought naval battles by tying their ships together and fighting what amounted to a land battle at sea (see the Battle of Svolder (1000) and the Battle of Sluys (1340)). Because of this, tactics developed in a much different way in the European naval tradtition than the Medeterranean/Arabic tradition (i.e. the fo’c’sle or forecastle was basically an attempt to copy the effectiveness of a fortress on land for application at sea during battles of the lash-the-ships-together-and-thunderdome-it-out type, and ships themselves grew out of this to be mobile, long range fortresses capable of supporting populations (almost like little towns) rather than purely offensive weapons like galleys, which were short range, crewed by comparably few men, and pretty much disposable).

The reason you see the move back to ramming with the onset of the Civil War is because the tactical climate shifts back to “consolidated” warfare of a slightly different kind. In this case, combat doesn’t occur between large fleets because ironclads can just annihilate any wooden ship you throw at them- instead, it occurs between high value targets- the most important ships in the fleet. Just as in the days of galley warfare, you have the factors of localized combat, predictable weather/seas, and the ultimate goal of destroying the enemy’s ships- what is really interesting, though, is that once again we see that there is no effective anti-ship weapon. Ironclads are highly effective against wooden ships, but they can’t do anything to one another ( for the most part the cannonballs just bounce off the armor), and since this is the case, ramming once again becomes a viable tactic. Since being chewed up by the enemy’s guns on approach isn’t an issue anymore because of armor, and since due to the advent of steam wind position and current are trivial aspects of a typical engagement (i.e. captains no longer needed to wait for the wind to shift just right to be able to get into ramming position), it makes sense to start ramming once more, as it is a means of attack capable of piercing through armor and achieving the desired end result of destroying the enemy.


Winston Churchill and his reputation as one of Britain’s greatest leaders.


Firstly a little bit of leadership theory to put Churchill into context, specifically that of Transformational Leadership.

Transformational leaders inspire their followers to achieve more than would normally be expected by a combination of:

  • Looking after followers’ individual needs, acting as a coach or mentor and developing them.
  • Challenging followers intellectually. Asking them to consider complex problems and come up with solutions by conducting their own research.
  • Providing inspirational motivation. Articulating a vision of the future, setting lofty goals and being optimistic about the team’s ability to achieve them.
  • Being a role model. Exemplifying everything they want their followers to be, setting high ethical and behavioral standards thus gaining respect and trust.

f0748c6555d28511ba409ced1c8507eea49a4f3b131f45c9f1dcff6f11539dcdWhenever Churchill took charge of a government department, the work rate would increase considerably. He was a man of energy and ideas who was always keen to understand the latest innovation or cutting edge technology. For example, by the time the neutron had been discovered, he had already written about the potential of nuclear power, especially in the military context.

This energy was most apparent when he became PM in May 1940, coincidentally on the day that the German Invasion of Belgium and France was launched. Thus the first six weeks of his premiership saw one of the worst strategic set backs in British military history as the BEF was defeated and forced to abandon France. In the face of exceptional pressure form the French to stay in France and to commit further reserves, he trusted his commanders and accepted that a withdrawal was the best option. Throughout this period he did as best a job as he could to placate the French (possibly even lying to them) in order to give his commanders the space they needed to effect the withdrawal. He moved between the tactical, operational and strategic levels of command on an almost hour by hour basis in order to understand, support and decide.

Churchill_waves_to_crowdsWhilst all this was going on, he took the time to familiarise himself with Britain’s air defences knowing all too well that this was the next line of defence. He trusted Hugh Dowding and Charles Portal, he trusted the air defence system and he supported Dowding’s recommendation not to send any more spitfires to France, knowing it was a lost cause. He then set about instilling his confidence into the British public. The “finest hour” speech is not simply a masterpiece of rhetoric, it is the cornerstone of a concerted effort to reassure Britain that its Air Force, by this point untested in any major campaign for 22 years, was up to the job of defeating a highly capable, more numerous and more experienced Luftwaffe. Whatever went on behind the scenes, he maintained the high vision of victory and portrayed an almost relentless optimism, whilst reminding everyone of the gravity of the situation.

539wDeep down he knew that the Royal Navy would be the deciding factor in case of invasion, but the opportunity to stop the enemy before he even reached the shores was one he seized upon and a cause he triumphed as if it were his own.

This pattern repeats itself throughout Churchill’s tenure: the frenetic activity surrounding him, the detailed interest in an important area of responsibility, the campaign (supported of course by excellent speeches) to reassure the public that everything would be OK and then exploiting successes. Note too that he took very little credit for himself, instead focusing the public’s attention on the men and women fighting the war and crediting them with success.

So we can see that WSC was highly adept at challenging his followers intellectually and providing inspirational motivation, but what of the other two elements of Transformational Leadership?

Churchill’s weakest suit, in my opinion, was looking after individual followers. He had a terrible habit of befriending people, using them for what he needed and then dropping them. He could even do this to entire organisations and has been heavily criticised for abandoning Bomber Command in the face of criticism about the strategic bombing campaign which he had supported.dK1dn

He was, however, an excellent role model. The pugnacious, stoic face of defiance in adversity, portrayed famously as the archetypal British bulldog, he set the tone for the British public to adopt – he was the archetype for the stereotype of the down-trodden but bloody-minded blitz victim. His military experience, including some remarkable individual heroics as a young subaltern and command of a battalion during the Great War, set him in good stead and enabled him to wear the uniform and rank of a commodore/brigadier/air commodore credibly.

9781533_1He was not, however, perfect. He was a contrary character who wouldn’t ordinarily have become Prime Minister, let alone a successful one. He was prone to flights of fantasy and was prepared to allow incredibly risky activities. He would often be reeled in by the likes of General Hastings Ismay, his chief military assistant for most of the war, who maintained a well-informed, realistic brief and was able to recover him from his more audacious fantasies. He was also prone to depression, his “black dog” and there is immense credit to be found in his ability inspire people as he did despite his own personal demon. These two quotes do a good job of reflecting on WSC:

In 1940 the American journalist Ralph Ingersoll reported:

Everywhere I went in London people admired [Churchill’s] energy, his courage, his singleness of purpose. People said they “didn’t know what Britain would do without him.” He was obviously respected. But no one felt he would be Prime Minister after the war. He was simply the right man in the right job at the right time. The time being the time of a desperate war with Britain’s enemies

Field Marshal Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1941, wrote in his memoirs:

…..And the wonderful thing is that 3/4 of the population of the world imagine that Churchill is one of the Strategists of History, a second Marlborough, and the other 1/4 have no idea what a public menace he is and has been throughout this war ! It is far better that the world should never know, and never suspect the feet of clay of this otherwise superhuman being. Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again…….Never have I admired and despised a man simultaneously to the same extent. Never have such opposite extremes been combined in the same human being.

True genius treads a fine line between triumph and disaster. Churchill knew this line all too well.


Further Reading

Bass, B.M. & Avolio, B.J. (1994). Improving organizational effectiveness through transformational leadership

Bungay, S. (2009), The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain

Jenkins, R. (2001), Churchill: A Biography

Storr, A. (1997) Churchill’s Black Dog and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind

Thompson, J. (2009), Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory