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Change Comes Slowly, Except When it Comes in a Flood
For centuries uncounted the basic design of ships evolved very slowly, as the limits of the basic technology for commandeering – and commanding – the wind remained largely unchanged.
Even in ships of war, from the time of the Sea Peoples to the age of Nelson, the basic principles were much the same for centuries: smash the masts, shred the rigging, rake the decks and ram/board the ship in question. It transpires that, even in the middling years of the development of artillery, the ships of the period remained stubborn targets. It is, after all, rather hard to sink even a large wooden ship, and in the days before explosive shells which could penetrate the ‘wooden walls’ of the line, ships could blaze away all day at each other with no more expectation* of the engagement than wiping out the enemy crew through shrapnel and splinter damage.
* Unless one was ‘crossing the T‘ of course – in which a ship arrayed with a heavy broadside would sail directly across the bow or stern of an enemy and fire its guns, in turn down the center-line of the target, through the weakest points in the hull, much as Admiral Lord Nelson did at the battle of Trafalgar.
In any event, only once ships began mounting modern cannons (both breach and muzzle loading) capable of firing explosive, anti-armor, or incendiary rounds – such as the HMS Trincomalee – did the need to think about armoring up ships come to the minds of the governments of this world.
Though several nations had experimented with metal plating on ships as far back as the time of Athens (as a defense against ramming), it was only in 1859 that all bar one of the classic elements of the modern battleship came together in the French Ironclad Frigate, Glorie.
This was a time of technological experimentation and development, and it should not be thought of as odd that, as well as its plated armor and steam engine, the Glorie still carried a good complement of sail. Not merely out of traditional pride (for we all know how backwards looking the military mind can be it times), but as a simple necessity: the early engines, whilst turning out good speed, consumed huge quantities of fuel, and were prone to breaking at odd moments. Thus the wind served just as she always had and these transitional ships straddled two worlds, squaring up as of old, broadside to broadside.
The armor was there, the engine, and the modern weapons…
There lacked but one element to make the ‘ironclad frigate’ into the modern warship we know – the turret – and this would only be a few years coming…
On the March 8, 1862 a strange, low vessel crawled into the Hampton Rhodes, where several ships from the US fleet were blockading the Confederate cities of Richmond and Norfolk.
With most of the large federal ships falling into the hands of the Northern states, the naval blockade had stood unchallenged for a good few months, and forced the Confederate naval planners to think laterally…
When the war broke out, the federal shipyard of Gosport was seized by the Confederates, though only after many of the ships had been burned to the waterline, or grounded. However, even these ruined hulls, when raised, were pressed back into service, and some of them in rather unconventional ways.
Specifically, the steam frigate USS Merrimack was discovered to be totally sound beneath the waterline once she was raised and plans were laid by several designers to convert her into a Casemate Ironclad. Ultimately John Porter was put in charge of her reconstruction and, following the pattern of a casemate ship design – in which the vulnerable hull was cut almost to the waterline and the ship’s guns placed in a heavily armored sloped casemate bunker on deck – the Merrimack was rechristened the CSS Virginia and put to sea.
With only a half-dozen Brookes Rifles of heavy caliber, as well as some older cannon, the Virginia carried what one might consider to be an inadequate gun load, especially compared to the frigates it faced on March 8th, as it steamed into Hampton Rhodes.
However, as the the federal ships discovered, the smaller Confederate ship, with its reduced profile and its heavy armor, was able to brace through a formidable barrage to get to near point-blank range with its foes.
Indeed, racing ahead of her escorts (the Raleigh, Beaufort, Patrick Henry, Jamestown, and Teaser) the Virginia rammed the USS Cumberland amidships, crushing the hull so badly that the federal ship sank within a very few minutes.
Next, Virginia turned on the USS Congress, which had been run aground to avoid the fate of the Cumberland. The Virginia was able to stand off against the larger ship for over an hour repelling federal fire whilst eventually setting fire to the larger ship – a fire which burned down to her magazine and broke her back in a catastrophic explosion.
By the turn of the tide on the 8th, two federal ships had been sunk, two more had been run aground and critically damaged, whilst a fifth was was forced to withdraw, listing badly.
Over four hundred men had been lost, and the Virginia had suffered only minor damage and a handful of injuries.
The Confederate squadron anticipated easy pickings when it returned with the morning tide on the 9th.
When the Virginia returned to Hampton Rhodes to finish what it had begun, it was faced with an odd, squat-looking craft which, thanks to its low hull, appeared to be little more than a sea-going bunker, or pillbox…
What the Confederate sailors called ‘a tin can on raft’ was actually the a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Monitor” target=”_blank”> USS Monitor – the handiwork of John Ericsson and perhaps the first true modern warship – even though HMS Warrior predated it, the lack of turrets on the British Iron ship rather disqualifies it, though it certainly was the world’s first all-metal warship.
Though only mounting two guns, muzzle-loading 11″ Dahlgren cannons in its turret, the Monitor was able to bring its weapons to bear in mere moments, without having to reposition the whole ship.
As the ships closed with each other, exchanging fire all the while both captains discovered a basic flaw in their own thinking. As the Confederates had expected to encounter no other ironclads during the battle, the Virginia had not been equipped with any high velocity shot. Likewise, the federal ship was only equipped with ball rounds capable of damaging wooden hulls.
As a result, the ships spent hours pounding away at each other until dark forced the Virginia to withdraw.
A rather ignominious end to the battle, but the Monitor had served its purpose, the blockade was still intact and the modern warship had arrived.
What all this has to do with the lovely, little Japanese battleship Mikasa, we shall go into in the second part, in which we shall discuss the so-called ‘Pre Dreadnoughts’, the Russo Japanese War and, of course some nifty modeling (including wooden decking, which will be a first for me).
The Mikasa – Unboxing
I have always loved the the warships of the late transition era: the ships that had almost totally embraced the classic look of the modern warship, but which still hung onto fragments of history such as the Mikasa’s seemingly useless masts, or the small caliber guns which make up a vestigial form of broadside which seems rather inadequate when compared to the main guns in the turrets.
Here we are then… A build I have lusted after every since I was told that my Great, Great, Grandfather had been part of the Vickers team which had modified the Formidable class of warship into the Mikasa – one of a number of ships built for Japan in the UK in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese war.
I do wish more companies would produce ships from this ‘Victorian’ age, and if anyone out there knows of any in a decent scale (1/350 or 1/200), I wonder if you’d drop a comment here, that I might seek them out.
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