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AAR, The Battle of Brest
In October 1904, the Russian Tsar dispatched the Baltic Fleet, to the Far East to relieve the beleaguered Pacific Squadron, then besieged by Japan in Port Arthur. No sooner had the Russians left the Baltic than they succumbed to fantastical fears and shot up a fleet of British trawlers on the Dogger Bank, believing them to be Japanese torpedo boats. Alcohol was rumored to have played a part in the misidentification, but that didn’t matter to Admiral Lord Charles Beresford commanding the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet.
Bitter over the promotion of his rival, Admiral Lord John Fisher, to 1st Sea Lord, Beresford was eager to make his mark and took his fleet to sea without orders against the Russians. While the action was no Trafalgar, it drove the Russians from the English Channel and into French ports. At which point the Tsar declared war on the British and cabled the French demanding they honor their alliance with Russia. April’s Entente Cordial was dead by November and Lord Beresford had been bundled off to a lunatic asylum, the official word being that he had suffered a stroke and taken leave of his senses in ordering the attack on the Russians. The Russians did not believe a word of it.
The balance between the British and French navies constituted a gross mismatch. Even if the battered Russian warships could be put back into service, the British far outnumbered the French in battleships and effectively every other type of warship. The French navy had fallen under the sway the Jeune Ecole late in the 19th Century and that “Young School” disparaged the battleship and claimed such mastodons could not blockade the French coast in the face of fast, torpedo-armed, light craft and submarines and commerce-destroying cruisers.
Alas, submarines were barely entering service and far from efficient units, and later governments had not necessarily funded the Jeune Ecole any more than the Navy’s ancien regime of battleship admirals after the brief term of defense minister Admiral Aube in 1886. Now the Jeune Ecole had reached the age of majority and its protagonists were desperate to prove it in action.
They were quickly frustrated. Rough winter weather in the Channel made it virtually impossible for torpedo boats to keep the sea in such a way that they could actually fire their weapons. Things were worse off the Biscay coast at the mouth of the Gironde, a region haunted by the disaster of Quiberon Bay. But while the sea was the enemy of the small fast ships in the north, in the south it was the fair weather that thwarted them. Time and again, the flotilla at Toulon raced out to attack, only to be taken under fire far beyond torpedo range and driven away.
Moving into the spring of 1905, the Jeune Ecole adherents were beginning to become desperate. The battle fleet was scattered, weak, and unable to sortie in strength, and the cruisers vaunted for the guerre de course were being systematically hunted down and eliminated by the more numerous British cruisers. And the blockade maintained by the British was beginning to hurt.
Finally, on a calm moonless night off Brest, a haze rolled in and the Jeune Ecole seized its chance, sending the entire Brest flotilla on a sortie. Six Arquebuse class destroyers, two Framee class destroyers, two Avant Garde class torpedo boats and two Mistral class torpedo boats proceeded south to where the local British squadron was known to steam a too-predictable circuit, searching for blockade runners and French cruisers.
Out to sea, the British squadron consisted of two second-class battleships of the Centurion class, and six battleships of the Duncan class. In the poor visibility (generally less than 2000 yards) the British admiral had eschewed any fancy formations. Centurion lead Barfleur a little to seaward and ahead of the flagship Russell, behind which followed the Montague, Exmouth, Duncan, Cornwallis and Albemarle at close interval.
The French flotilla formed a south-bound scouting line of the eight destroyers 7000 yards board, with the torpedo boats a thousand yards behind, one following between and behind each pair of destroyers by 1000 yards. As they reached the British operating area, the French boats began to accelerate, the two Avant Gardes—Zoave and Turco—topping out at 20 knots in the middle of the rear line. Flanking them the two Mistrals—Trombe on the left and Audacieux on the right—reached 26 knots. In the front, Pistolet, on the extreme left topped out at 28 knots, but her five sisters in order to the right—Mousquet, Javeline, Dard, Baliste and Belier—were good for 29 knots. The last two destroyers—Framee, and on the extreme right the Yatagan—touched only 26 knots.
Predictable as clock-work, the British appeared, steaming west at a steady 10 knots, travelling in French vision from left to right. Visibility ranged from 1,000 to 2,000 yards. And Pistolet made the first contact with Russell, at which point the chaos began. A century later historians were still at a loss to puzzle it all out, in part due to the fact that less than one Frenchman in five survived and not all of them told their tales. Much of the story had to be reconstructed from British observations.
Third in the French front line, the Javeline swung right to attempt a solution for her torpedoes. However, 6” fire from the Centurion and Barfleur quickly registered three hits, setting the ship ablaze fore and aft, stopping a shaft and smashing both boiler rooms and the engine room into rubble. Only five minutes into the action, the Javeline drove under, taking 52 of her 60 men with her.
The Mousquet found the Centurion and Barfleur looming out the mist ahead of her and turned to the right in an attempt to set up a torpedo solution. Despite her dark paintwork, the Mousquet was seen and attracted 6” fire. Two rounds smashed into her midships, wrecking half her machinery, stopping a shaft and flooding an engine room and a boiler room. At nine minutes into the action, the slowing Mousquet simply submerged bodily and disappeared, leaving only 9 of 60 men to be rescued.
The Pistolet found itself hurtling out of the mist straight at the British flagship but without time to set up a torpedo firing solution. Her captain turned hard left, to the east, racing parallel down the English line, but at 700 yards too far out for a firing solution. Laying a smoke screen, he again turned hard about to port, covered by his own smoke and more than reversing course. In an effort to not outrace the British ships and ruin his firing solution, he also decelerated. To his horror he encountered the British line cutting through his smoke and threw his helm violently to the right, slamming broadside into the third battleship, the Exmouth even as both vessels were pelted with 6” shells from the Duncan, fourth in line. Three fires erupted on the Pistolet, and shrapnel from five rounds exploding against Exmouth’s armor sprayed the destroyer which sank before the battleship could even pass it. Only 13 of the Pistolet’s 60 crew surfaced in Exmouth’s wake and lived to tell the tale of Pistolet’s ten minute combat career.
Torpedo boat Turco was second in the rear line and turned sharply east at contact, but her captain found himself paralleling the British line on an opposite course and too far out for his torpedoes, so he swung to starboard to close. Unfortunately the British line had become obscured behind Pistolet’s smoke screen and the battleship Montague abruptly drove through that screen on a northwesterly course and rammed Turco amidships even as the little ship launched two torpedoes. The Turco broke in half and sank ten minutes into the action, but 20 of her 27 crew survived.
The Audacieux, at the western end of the second French line was sighted by the Centurion and Barfleur paralleling them as they turned to the northwest. The little torpedo boat turned northwestward and was struck a glancing blow by Centurion, then hit by four 6” rounds before launching a pair of torpedoes 14 minutes into the action against the two sister-ships. Three fires were observed aboard the torpedo boat and it was moving at a low speed as it obliquely collided with Barfleur and was run down 16 minutes into the action. None of Audaciuex’s 30 men survived.
Well ahead of the British to the east, the Belier passed ahead of the British line and then turned to port until taking up a northeasterly heading and encountering the battleship Montague trailing behind the British line, which was now proceeding northwest in echelon. The British ship had been slowed by ramming the Turco and the Belier’s captain took advantage of the fact to set up a solid solution and launch two torpedoes from 400 yards. Both were observed to hit and detonate but with no apparent effect on that ship’s fire. As Belier launched and then turned away to reload, the enraged battleship twice found her with pairs of 6” rounds, sweeping the decks, smashing the bridge, and wrecking the engine room. Three fires broke out, two among the weapons which blossomed into raging infernos before the little destroyer vanished in a shattering explosion 18 minutes into the fight. Amazingly, 7 of her 60 men were pulled alive from the water the next day.
Easternmost of the French second line, the torpedo boat Trombe was sighted and taken under fire. The little craft turned westward and suffered a 10” hit at the moment the British were certain she would launch torpedoes. The little craft vanished to the south, but presumably came about at some point, next appearing from the south, trailing the Yatagan in a torpedo run against Centurion, Barfleur and Montague, launching two torpedoes from 600 yards, then turning away to reload at which point two 6” rounds struck home, igniting at least three blazes that rapidly took hold. Men were observed jumping overboard 21 minutes into the action, and the blazing wreck vanished 9 minutes later. None of the torpedo boat’s 30 crew survived.
Baliste was initially too far west, and wound up groping about for the enemy, particularly once the British altered course to the northwest. Noting the action seeming to disappear behind him to port, the Baliste’s captain turned east and began to gradually swing farther to port, groping for gun-flashes, but diffidently. Nonetheless he eventually arced around the entire southern perimeter of the battle until he crept up on the starboard quarter of the battleship Albemarle at the very rear of the British line, at which point crew members who had been grousing about their captain’s apparent cowardice began to accord him to be clever instead. Unfortunately, whether over-cautious or over-clever, the Baliste did not go unseen, and the Albemarle opened a 6” cannonade. Two rounds slammed home, the second smashing a boiler room. Fire broke out and the boat immediately began to slow and roll to port. With the tiny bridge a flaming shambles and no commands forthcoming, the crew began to go over the side as the deck edge of Baliste’s port bow ground obliquely into Albemarle’s starboard bow, driving the little French ship under, 24 minutes into the action. Surprisingly two thirds of the small ship’s 60 crew made it over the side and survived to be recovered.
The Dard initially seemed to lead a charmed life, cutting ahead of the battleship Centurion and launching two torpedoes straight “down the throat” at 400 yards. But both were observed to strike and go porpoising off to either side without detonating. The Dard then maintained course and sped out to sea as the crew frantically worked to reload the two torpedo tubes, while they worked the captain steamed a gentle circle to starboard and by the time the destroyer came around the tubes were reloaded and the British were farther north and west than they had been. Dard’s captain pursued them by the intermittent flash of gunfire directed at other French boats. One British ship sighted the Dard on approach and a 6” round slammed into the boat’s rudimentary superstructure, carrying away the helm and lee-helm and the voice tubes to the engine rooms and steering room. Unable to change course, the Dard inadvertently penetrated the British line, now in a right echelon and proceeding northwest. At 28 minutes into the action the battleship Cornwallis, fifth in the British main line abruptly loomed out of the mists and rammed the Dard, breaking her in half and leaving only 3 of her 60 men to be found the next day.
Torpedo boat Zoave, seeing the Centurion and Barfleur ahead of her in the mists, turned hard to port to parallel them, then angled to starboard to close, lunging between them, launching one torpedo against each about 10 minutes into the action from about 400 yards and taking a 6” hit which slowed the vessel to 16 knots. Zoave moved off in a southeasterly direction to deal with her damage and reload her torpedoes, arcing around gradually to port and stalking the action from behind on a northwesterly heading, catching occasional glimpses of a battleship silhouetted by the fight farther ahead. Correctly reasoning that he was closing on a cripple, the Zoave’s captain crept up on the vessel from behind until making positive visual contact. Unfortunately the English ship had seen him coming, and abruptly turned to starboard and opened a heavy 6” cannonade, Zoave too swung to starboard to avoid a collision but suffered two 6” hits, one of which tore open the port quarter of the torpedo boat, shearing off both propeller shafts and causing the little vessel to rapidly fill and sink 38 minutes into the action and leaving only one survivor of 27 men aboard.
At the extreme western limit of the French search line, Yatagan presumably missed the initial contact and turned back to the northeast, until encountering the battleships Centurion, Barfleur and Montague south of the main line and launching torpedoes about 20-22 minutes into the action. Yatagan attacked from port at the same time her sister Framee attacked from starboard and launched at about 400 yards before turning away to reload. The Yatagan seems to have survived this torpedo run unscathed, and reloaded torpedoes while working ahead of the British line and crossing to the north. The ship was sighted on a southwesterly course attempting a second run against the British line about 34 minutes into the action and suffered a hail of fire for the next six minutes. No less than four 6” rounds were observed to hit, and at least five fires broke out, leaving the entire topside abaze. Men were seen going over the side, some on fire, about 39 minutes into the action and the British report the light of the ship’s blaze vanishing at about 43 minutes elapsed. None of Yatagan’s 48 crew were ever recovered.
Framee apparently passed well ahead of the British line. Presumably with the evidence of gunfire and explosions to his left rear, the Framee’s captain came hard about to port and raced northeast until encountering the battleships Centurion, Barfleur and Montague trailing the British main line, when about 20-22 minutes into the action, he apparently launched torpedoes, then recklessly raced north through the British main line, seemingly headed back to Brest, but apparently reloading torpedoes. He turned back to the southwest and now came at the starboard side of the main British line. However, Framee was seen approaching and the boat’s apparent immunity to fire on the run north had expired as the Duncan and Albemarle pounded her. Five 6” rounds were observed to hit and fire swept the little vessel’s decks from stem to stern. One observer counted no less than seven discrete blazes before they merged into one. The vessel appeared un-navigable as it careened through the British line, its stern blown off and visibly slowing as the waves gradually closed over the red-hot hull from behind. The British reported the time of sinking as 50 minutes into the action. None of her 48 men were ever recovered and the British opined at all were dead before the blazing vessel went down.
The British experience was of a wild night of firing at whatever appeared in sight, not all of which was French.
The second-class battleship Centurion, leading her sister ship Barfleur in a line of two on the port bow of Russell opened fire on the French ships emerging from the mists and began to accelerate and turn to the northwest, per the admiral’s blinkered orders. She suffered a torpedo hit 14 minutes into the action that caused a list to port and progressive flooding of an engine room, slowing her to 10 knots, then two more torpedo hits to starboard at 22 minutes which knocked out electrical power and the main battery. However, by 26 minutes into the action Centurion had her damage under control and was on an even keel, the puny French 38cm torpedoes having run shallow and detonated against her belt armor.
The Barfleur’s experience paralleled her sister’s. At 22 minutes into the action she took two torpedo hits to port, one of which knocked out her bow turret and the other of which temporarily jammed her rudder, fortunately on the centerline. Within 8 minutes steering was restored and Barfleur maneuvered ahead of her sister and to rejoin the line.
The Russell suffered a torpedo hit to starboard ten minutes into the action, but flooding was quickly contained.
The Montague rammed and sank the Turco ten minutes into the action. The collision ruined the alignment of the main battery and also did some damage to the steering gear. Two torpedoes struck to port 16 minutes into the action knocking out electrical power and temporarily knocking out both the primary and secondary battery and starting a small fire which was quickly extinguished.
The Exmouth side-swiped the Pistolet without damage 10 minutes into the action, but at the same moment suffered six 6” hits from the Duncan. Five of the rounds exploded on contact with the armor; one penetrated the aft belt and caused flooding in the aft primary magazine and the starboard secondary magazine.
The Duncan suffered no damage.
The Cornwallis rammed and sank the Dard 28 minutes into the action and suffered damage to her plating but nothing of a significant nature.
The Albemarle ran down the Baliste 24 minutes into the action and like Cornwallis suffered some damage to her plating but nothing of a significant nature.
Centurion, Barfleur and Montague were dispatched to Plymouth at first light while the other five battleships kept the sea off Brest. Within a few days, the Admiral transferred his flag to the Duncan and dispatched Russell home as well.
Both Barfleur and Russell were quickly repaired and returned to action within a month, at which time the Cornwallis and Albemarle were sent home for brief yard periods to fix their hull plating. As both Centurion and Montague needed shafts replaced, they were forwarded on to other yards and did not return to the blockade for three months.
Once Cornwallis and Albemarle returned to the line, the Exmouth was sent home to recondition flooded spaces she had long since pumped out and replace ammunition ruined by being submerged.
The French knew little of the action, only that none of their destroyers or torpedo boats returned and there was still a British battle line off Brest. Various armored cruisers rotated through that squadron for several months, filling the gaps while battleships were repaired, so the French were not really aware of what they accomplished until a few discrete spies reported many months later the various hurts of battleships visiting certain dockyards. In the meantime, the Jeune Ecole was discredited. Twelve ships had gone out and none had returned, apparently with the loss of all hands.
Eventually it was learned the British had rescued survivors the next day, picking up 101 of the 570 men aboard the little ships. However, of four ships none survived and of the Zoave, only one man was picked up. Gradually piecing the results of the battle together, the Jeune Ecole attempted to claim success, pointing out that seven of the eight British ships had been damaged and three had been forced from the line, but they were met with stony silence.
Observers in various nations drew disparate conclusions.
The British officers in the fleet dismissed torpedo boats as an inconsequential threat, somewhat to the disgust of Admiral Lord Fisher who preferred them to costly battleships.
The French Admiralty rejected the Jeune Ecole and accelerated their dreadnought building program, while the Jeune Ecole concentrated on how to obtain torpedo firing solutions more rapidly, having noted a number of boats were unable to do so in time.
The Russians, having been the victim of Japanese torpedo boats in the Far East, and less than impressed by their French-designed battleships, concluded the problem was not with the Jeune Ecole’s ideas but with pathetic French weaponry. The 38cm (14.96") torpedo ran only 440 yards on its 28 knot setting and 660 yards on its 27 knot setting, whereas Japanese torpedoes were running four or five times as far, faster and carried better warheads.
The Germans considered the French torpedo salvoes too small, and thought they should have been able to engage targets dead ahead, so they concentrated on mounting more tubes and tubes that could fire ahead.
The Italians considered the French torpedo boats too large of targets, and concentrated on mounting torpedoes in motor torpedo boats.
The Japanese, like the Russians, condemned the French weapons and concentrated on making still longer-ranged and more powerful torpedoes.
The Americans concluded the French boats were too small, their torpedoes too feeble, their salvoes too limited and their inability to fire ahead a liability. The Americans focused on mounting twin and triple tubes, larger destroyers, 21-inch torpedoes and gyro angle firing.
As for the war, it ended like so many European wars before it in a stalemate. Belgium was laid waste by skirmishing British and French armies, while the French push into Alsace and Lorraine similarly turned those territories into a wasteland fighting with Britain’s opportunistic German allies. In the east, the Russians attacked the Germans after the Germans declared for the British, however several severe reverses stopped the Russian attacks and plunged the country into revolution and chaos. Italy attempted to attack France across the Alps but was decisively repulsed and an armistice concluded after which the Italians went back to fencing with the Austrians in the Balkans as the latter took advantage of Russia’s collapse. The Japanese concluded their war with the Russians successfully, but did not gain all they desired, largely exhausted by the war, but not so much so they could not take advantage of the French and seize Indochina. The acquisition proved an indifferent prize and a made the Americans hostile. American President Theodore Roosevelt achieved a Nobel Peace Prize negotiating an end to the conflicts at Portsmouth, to the gratitude of the British, the French and the Russians, the flamboyant disgust of the Germans, the resentment of the Japanese and the indifference of the Italians and Austrians.
The British found themselves possessed of a dismembered and prostrate ally with a scandalously badly run colonial empire (Belgium), an ambivalent and overly bellicose ally with colonial ambitions (Germany) and a vastly expanded colonial empire in Africa courtesy of defeats the French suffered south of the Sahara which was absorbing manpower at a frightening rate for military pacification and requiring deep administrative reorganization.
The French found themselves dispossessed of anything outside North Africa and the Caribbean other than the lonely Pacific outposts of New Caledonia, the New Herbrides and the Marquesas, and in possession of fractions of Belgium, Alsace, Lorraine and their pride.
The Germans found themselves with some small pieces of French African possessions, portions of Elsass and Lothringen, and all of Poland, along with a severe case of empire envy with respect to British colonies.
The Austrians found themselves rearranging the fractured puzzle of the Balkans in the absence of the Russians.
The Italians found themselves saddled with massive embarrassment after the failed Alpine campaign and massive envy over Austria’s gains in the Balkans.
The Russians found themselves in chaos everywhere but the Far East where their resurgent Army chafed at being stopped short by the diplomats of a counteroffensive against the played-out Japanese.
The Japanese found themselves in possession of Port Arthur and Manchuria, as well as Indochina, in all of which places they found themselves unwanted by the natives or the Americans.
The Americans found themselves with a jaundiced eye toward the Japanese and their British allies, and worse yet Britain’s dubious German allies, and with a massive fleet construction program thanks to navalist Roosevelt, including a commitment from Congress to fund four new dreadnought battleships each year (1906, 1907 and 1908) and beyond (or at least until Roosevelt left office in 1909…).
- Last edited Sun Aug 14, 2016 8:26 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Sat Jul 30, 2016 11:26 pm