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War in the Air 1914-45 (Smithsonian History of Warfare)
By Williamson Murray
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Williamson Murray
All right reserved.
The Organization of Navies
The shape of navies
Between 1650 and 1850 navies developed from small forces, largely reinforced with hired merchant ships in wartime, to vast bureaucratic standing services which imposed professional standards on officers and, increasingly, on men, and had large reserves of purpose-built warships, dockyards and arsenals devoted to their maintenance. Each state developed its own style of naval administration, but the basic requirement of sustained political and financial support, with informed political decision-making, was actually achieved by surprisingly few - essentially only the maritime powers.
Navies developed alongside the nation states that they served. Only strong, centrally controlled states had the tax-raising powers to fund standing navies, which, like contemporary armies, were invariably involved in revenue collection. Within those states, support for navies came from a variety of sources. In absolutist regimes the personal wishes of the monarch prevailed. Often prestige was more important than fighting strength, although the two requirements were not necessarily mutually exclusive. Republics and constitutional monarchies proved better able to sustain naval power, for the politics of such states reflected the interests of several groups that benefited from naval strength: merchants, coastal towns, colonial speculators and investors. That these states also tended to be maritime indicates a strong link between the economic life of the nation and the political system it develops. Through the power of the purse, these groups determined what type of navy was maintained, and often how it was used.
Each state built a navy to meet its individual needs. A close examination of the mixture of ship types, officers and men, infrastructure and administration that the major nations acquired is the most compelling evidence of their aims and ambitions. States with extensive maritime interests would try to control the seas for their own use, and to deny them to their rivals. The classic sea-control strategy of the sailing ship era required a superior battle fleet to secure command, either by defeating the enemy fleet in battle, or by blockading it in its base. When control of the sea was in doubt, navies could attempt to exert local or temporary sea control for specific purposes, such as escorting merchant ships. Spain and, after 1714, the Netherlands built cruiser navies to convoy their merchant shipping, because they depended on sea communications but lacked the economic power to achieve sea control. A state without vital maritime interests could resort to sea denial, attempting to limit the ability of the dominant navy to exploit the sea. This was usually accomplished by attacking merchant shipping, the French guerre de course (literally a 'war of the chase'), destroying commerce with naval vessels and privateers. The French also used their fleet for colonial operations, escorting troop convoys to attack isolated territories. The states with strong positions at maritime choke-points could use coastal forces to interrupt this traffic. In the Baltic, coastal forces were vital to integrate naval and military operations in an amphibious theatre, and elsewhere they were used to carry naval strength to the land, by bombardment and amphibious operations.
Naval battles in the age of the wooden sailing ship were rarely 'decisive', and so defeated fleets could easily retreat and refit, coming back within months to challenge the verdict of the last battle. It was only through the attrition of a succession of victories, allied to the administrative and economic collapse of the entire naval infrastructure, that a nation could be decisively defeated at sea.
The essential elements of warship design remained unaltered between 1650 and 1850. Ships were built of timber, and relied on canvas sails, controlled by hemp or manila ropes for motive power. Large ships used a three-masted rig with square sails on all masts. Smaller craft employed a variety of rigs, using one, two or three masts, with square and fore and aft sail plans. Each rig offered specific advantages of performance, ease of use, economy of manpower or suitability for particular conditions. Naval guns were smoothbore muzzle loaders cast from bronze or iron. Wrought-iron anchors with natural fibre cables were the usual ground tackle.
The largest ships, those intended for the 'line of battle' were properly called 'ships of the line', but the shorthand 'battleships' will be used here. They were intended to operate in fleets ands squadrons, emphasizing firepower and strength. Over time the base line for inclusion in the line of battle rose. In 1652 England and Holland used large numbers of hired merchant ships. By 1672 these had been removed, along with the smaller warships which lacked the structural strength to resist gunfire and the firepower to contribute to the fight. By the 1750s a 50-gun ship was a marginal battleship, but by the 1780s a 64-gunner was the lowest limit. Although the French and Spanish abandoned this type before the Revolutionary Wars, the British retained them, to keep up numbers and for trade defence. After 1805 the 74 was the smallest serious battleship, and by 1830 the basis for inclusion was 80 guns of the heaviest calibre.
Smaller units designed for superior speed were used for scouting and trade warfare. By the mid 1750s these had developed into the classic 'frigate', a single-decked warship. They were supported by diminutive sea-going types - sloops, corvettes and brigs. The basic requirement for a successful cruiser was the ability to capture a merchant ship. Although some merchant ships, the large 'Indiamen' trading in the pirate-infested Indian Ocean, retained a significant armament until 1815, they rarely had the crew or motivation to fight. Small privateers were designed for superior speed and handiness. Their success in capturing their prey by boarding demonstrated the limits of self-defence.
The balance between battleships and cruisers, the size of ships built for each role, their armament and overall layout were determined by national priorities. Navies were more distinctive than contemporary armies, where regiments of infantry and cavalry, and the tally of artillery pieces could be compared numerically. At sea there were major national differences between ships of the same basic type, notably in stowage and armament per ton.
Excerpted from War in the Air 1914-45 (Smithsonian History of Warfare) by Williamson Murray Copyright © 2005 by Williamson Murray. Excerpted by permission.
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