Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Wooden Ships, Iron Men, 'Splodey Shells

When we think of the tactics of the 18th Century running into the harsh reality of 19th Century industrial technology, we usually think of Union troops assaulting into the massed rifle fire of entrenched Confederates or Mahdists falling in windrows to British Maxim guns.

One example of this collision that's less well known is the Battle of Sinop, a naval engagement in the opening stages of what was to become called The Crimean War.

An expanding and industrializing Russia had been bumping up against an increasingly broke and sclerotic Ottoman Empire along their frontiers in the Caucasus and the Danube basin. They'd already resorted to fisticuffs in the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-'29, which resulted in a smarting defeat for the Ottomans.

In the wake of that war, finances caused the Turks to downsize their army and navy, and the Sultan became more dependent on loans from Britain and France to keep things going. Meanwhile, Russia was expanding their Black Sea flotilla with freshly-built men o'war with an eye toward keeping the sea a Russian lake. (Russia was, at the time allied with the other retrograde monarchies of Austria and Prussia in the anti-liberal Holy Alliance.)

When hostilities kicked off in 1853, the Black Sea squadron under Admiral Nakhimov went hunting and cornered a large chunk of the Turkish fleet anchored at Sinop, forming up for a supply convoy under the protection of the harbor forts.

Nakhimov's ships sailed right on in, maneuvered to put the Ottoman ships between his own and the guns of the harbor defenses, dropped anchor, and started blasting. 

On top of the fact that the eleven-ship Russian force included a half-dozen ships of the line versus a dozen Turkish frigates and corvettes, the new Russian ships were armed with the latest in high-tech naval weaponry: Paixhans guns. These were direct-fire, flat-trajectory naval guns firing explosive shells rather than solid shot, the forerunners of the famous Dahlgrens of the US Civil War.

The effect of these shells on the wooden Ottoman frigates and corvettes was devastating. By the time the smoke cleared, the Turkish fleet had blown up, burned to the waterline, or been run aground to keep from sinking. One paddle frigate, the Taif, managed to bolt for the harbor exit and escape, eluding Russian pursuers on a mad dash for the Bosporus.

The effect of Sinop was to demonstrate to the world's navies that unarmored warships were practically helpless, fragile and flammable deathtraps, in the face of shell-firing guns. Ironclads became increasingly common, and in less than a decade the Monitor and the Virginia would be bouncing Dahlgren shells off each other off Hampton Roads, marking the definitive end to the age of wooden ships and iron men.

My guilty nerdy pleasure: Wooden Ships & Iron Men