1. Shore Bombardment & the Genesis of the M20 Class Monitor

Plans for the M29 Class

“In accordance to your orders the Thunderer bomb was placed by the good management of Lieutenant Gourlay, her present Commander - - -within 2,500 yards of the walls of Cadiz, the shells were thrown from her with much precision,under the directions of Lieutenant Baynes, Royal Artillery”
Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson, aboard Theseus, to Admiral Sir John Jervis, 4 July, 1797

“Everything has a weak spot, and the first thing I do is to find out where it is, and pitch into it the biggest shell I have, and repeat the dose until it operates."
Rear Admiral David Farragut, USN, Commander of the Federal West Coast Blockading Squadron, 1864

In the early days of the American Civil War, the Union Navy had only 41 ships of all types in commission, wooden vessels incapable of subduing the enemy shore batteries commanding Hampton Roads. Furthermore, none of the available ships could match the dangerous steam driven Confederate Ironclad Virginian, the former frigate Merrimack converted and renamed, which threatened to obliterate the blockading forces. To provide an answer to their problems the Federal government turned to the Swedish naval architect John Ericcson, who offered to build for them an iron ship of revolutionary design. When asked by the Assistant Navy Secretary to suggest a name for his brainchild, Ericcson, no lover of the British, replied:

“In accordance with your request, I now submit for your approbation a name for the floating battery at Green Point. The impregnable and aggressive character of this structure will admonish the leaders of the Southern Rebellion that the batteries on the banks of their rivers will no longer present barriers to the entrance of the Union forces.

The ironclad intruder will thus prove a severe monitor to those leaders. But there are other leaders who will also be startled and admonished by the booming of the guns from the impregnable iron turret. “Downing Street” will hardly view with indifference this last “Yankee notion”, this monitor. To the Lords of the Admiralty the new craft will be a monitor, suggesting doubts as to the propriety of completing those four steel clad ships at three and a half millions a piece. On these and many similar grounds I propose to name the new battery Monitor”. (1)

Ericcsons’s bizarre little ship, built in 100 days, fought a memorable duel with the much larger Virginian in 1862. Despite an inconclusive outcome to the encounter, the power and originality of Ericcson’s design was admitted and by 1864 Rear Admiral Farragut had 4 “monitors” under his command in the West Coast Blockading Squadron. In the following decades coastal defence ships were built for many nations using Ericcson’s principles, but the term “monitor”, used to describe a bombardment vessel, was not employed by the Royal Navy until the Great War burst upon the world in 1914.

However, if the designation of the class of vessel to which M30 belonged was new to the Royal Navy of WWI, the principle of using especially designed ships against fortified positions was not – such craft were in action in the Mediterranean by the end of the 17th century. Against strong shore defences protected by shoal water even the majestic First Rate was impotent, and so the “bomb ketch” or “bomb” was developed for use in these particular circumstances, the first British example being built at Chatham in 1687.

The typical “bomb”, as used in the protracted wars of the 18th and early 19th centuries, was a small, beamy, shallow draft vessel in which the mainmast was stepped farther aft than in an orthodox craft, thus allowing room for 2 massive mortars to be mounted on the strengthened forward deck. The guns were fired from an anchored position, the whole vessel being pointed at the target by hauling in or veering the “spring” – a hawser leading out over the stern and attached to the anchor cable. The mortars fired an explosive, spherical shell fitted with a fuse which could be cut at any one of the elevation of the gun and the weight of powder in the charge. (2)

The inbuilt strength of the bomb ketches which enabled them to withstand the powerful recoil of the mortars, made them particularly well suited for peace time exploration and the young Nelson served in one, the Carcass, during the Arctic expedition of 1773. However, bomb ketches were never built in great numbers and their employment ended with the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, the last example being launched in 1830.

The Royal Navy entered the Crimean War without specialised bombardment vessels but the need for them was immediately apparent. Soon we followed the lead of our French allies in building steam powered floating batteries protected by wrought iron plates. These were the first “Ironclads” in the British service although they were merely self propelled rafts which were hardly ships at all. These clumsy craft were completed by April, 1855, but arrived in the Black Sea too late to join their French counterparts in the victorious attack on the Kinburn forts in October of that year. Meanwhile a more seaworthy and handier bombardment vessel was arriving at the battle front in quite large numbers – the “gunboat”, which, like the small monitors of WWI, was often used as a maid of all work. As the Russian Navy refused to leave its bases to give battle in open waters, the British fleets operating in the shallow waters of the Baltic and Black Seas were occupied in maintaining a blockade, assisting in sieges and supporting the troops on shore in any way that offered: the gunboat proved to be the perfect tool for the Navy in this reduced role.

The Crimean gunboats were flat bottomed, about 100 ft. in length and drew only 6 ½ ft of water. They were rigged with a peculiar mixture of square and fore-and-aft sails and perched between the fore and main masts (they were 3 masted) was a tall, thin, hinged funnel which carried away the smoke produced by an engine which could, if required in light or contrary winds, drive the shop along at a maximum speed of 8 knots. Mounted on traversing slides at bow and stern were 68 and 32 pdr. muzzle loading guns.

The gunboats were a great success; being versatile and cheap to build uses were found for them long after the Crimean War had ended. In the following decades, gunboats (and their larger but similar sisters, “gunvessels”), took part in the bombardment of Alexandria, fought Chinese on the Canton river, destroyed pirate lairs in Borneo, conducted anti-slavery patrols off Zanzibar, cowed West African tribesman, “assisted the civil power” in many parts of the Empire and generally demonstrated to foreigners the long reach of the Royal Navy. The political influence of the gunboat was out of proportion to the numbers employed (did they not give a name to a new style of diplomacy?) for by 1880- only 28 gunvessels and 18 gunboats were employed on the 8 overseas stations. Gunboats were quite popular with the young officers who disliked the obsessive discipline of the main fleets and who saw in them a quick route to early command. Prince George (later King George V) commanded Thrush on the North American Station in 1891 and, in her, loosed a rare, royal shaft of wit in replying “Not approved” to the cheerful signal of “Good morning” from one of the junior ships in company. (3)

Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher, First Sea Lord

It was Admiral Fisher, First Sea Lord, who brought the gunboat era to a close when, in 1904, determined to strengthen our defences in the North Sea, he set about eliminating, in his usual ruthless way, those ships which “could neither fight nor run away” (4) and which were maintained, expensively, abroad. Yet if “Jacky” Fisher killed the gunboat it was he who gave life to her successor – the “monitor”.

When Fisher was finally convinced that war with Germany was inevitable he conceived an audacious scheme which he was determined to implement when he began his second term as First Sea Lord in October, 1914. To Fisher the Army was a “projectile” which the Navy, using its command of the sea, would convey to a weak point in the enemy’s defences and would then “fire” to deadly effect, thus avoiding the dangers of a long drawn out continental war. Under the First Sea Lord’s plan, the Army, or that of our Russian Ally, would be transported to the coast of Pomerania from which it would be “fired” at Berlin which stood some 90 miles away. Fisher’s strategic views, which some critics have damned as harebrained, were never subjected to rigorous inter-service analysis and were in direct conflict with those of the Army staff who were committed, in advance of governmental approval, to the support of the French in the defence of their homeland. (5).

The main threat to the First Sea Lord’s plan was the German High Seas Fleet which, with the opening of widened Kiel canal in 1914, could be moved rapidly from the North Sea to the Baltic. Somehow, the enemy ships would have to be lured from their main base and destroyed or they would have to be confined in Wilhelshaven while the great landing was being made on the Pomeranian shore. While the possibility of capturing Heligoland, Terschelling or Borkum was examined so that an advanced base could be set up within striking distance of the German Navy’s main base, Fisher set about acquiring ships which were better suited to the shallow waters of the Baltic than the existing vessels of the British “Blue Water” Fleet. The great admiral was later to claim that he built 612 ships with the Pomeranian project in mind. (6)

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty

Fisher’s ideas were supported enthusiastically by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, who, from very early in the war, foresaw the possibility of a stalemate on the Western Front. For the Baltic landing specialised bombardment vessels would be required, but where were the guns for them to come from? British shipyards, public and private, could cope with the extended building programme which followed the declaration of war, but guns, and more particularly their mountings, could take longer to construct than the ships in which they were to be fitted. Ian Buxton describes how the bottleneck was widened:

“All these possibilities for coastal bombardment, some more practical than others, were at the back of Fisher’s and Churchill’s minds, when an important visitor called at the Admiralty on Tuesday, 3rd November, 1914. The visitor was Charles M Schwab, President of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, who had left New York a fortnight earlier in the White Star liner Olympic to try and sell arms and ammunition to Britain. In addition to steel and armour plate, Bethlehem manufactured ordnance as well as owning several shipyards, - - - , At the Admiralty the new construction programme was discussed and agreement reached with Schwab to build submarines for Great Britain in the United States. That evening Schwab was asked by Churchill and Fisher if he had any other naval material which might be of use to Britain. He then disclosed that he had four twin 14” turrets nearing completion for the Greek battleship Salamis, then building in Germany. As the British blockade would obstruct their delivery he was quite willing to sell them to Britain instead.

At that moment in time the British monitor was conceived.” (7)

To design an entirely new type of ship the Director of Naval Construction employed young Assistant Constructor, Charles Lillicrap, who was destined to become DNC himself in due time. Despite the wartime difficulties, 4 monitors – Abercrombie, Havelock, Raglan and Roberts – were completed by the end of June, 1915, each of them carrying 2 of the 14” guns originally intended for the Salamis. These ships were ponderous and slow; none of them managed a higher speed than 7 ½ knots on trial.

As the building of the 14” monitors progressed, a search was made for suitable guns and mountings around which further classes of monitor could be built – a strange procedure. 12” guns from the obsolete pre-Dreadnought Majestic class of battleship were removed and used in 8 new ships (8), all of them being completed between July and November 1915. Then, through a change of plan, 15" guns ordered for the battlecruisers Renown and Repulse became available and were fitted in the monitors Marshal Soult and Marshal Ney. But still those relentless drivers Fisher and Churchill were not satisfied; 9.2” guns from elderly cruisers in reserve were removed and poor Lillicrap was sent back to his drawing board once again.

With 14 M15 class 9.2” gun ships ordered, the Navy had 30 monitors in commission, building or in the design stage, including 3 ships built for the Brazilian Navy for use on South American rivers (9). However, Fisher’s dream of a strike in the Baltic was fading fast for as early as 27 January, 1915, Churchill was writing:

“Between the beginning of April and the end of July we shall also receive 14 heavily armoured, shallow draft Monitors, - - -. It is this force which it is proposed to use for special services and bombarding from time to time in furtherance of objects of great strategic and political importance, among which the following may be specifically mentioned:-

1. The operation in the Dardanelles. 2. The support of the left flank of the Army. 3. The bombardment of Zeebrugge; and later on 4. The seizure of Borkum. (10)

Clearly the Pomeranian scheme had not been abandoned totally, but the capture of Borkum, the necessary prelude, was now being postponed for an unspecified period while another operation against the enemy’s peripheral defences was mounted in the Middle East.

Admiral Fisher, carried along by his initial enthusiasm for the young Churchill (“He had courage and imagination! He was a war man!”) (11) despatched the Super Dreadnought Queen Elizabeth to the Dardanelles, agreeing that she should stay there until the “working up” process was completed and the guns calibrated. Soon after the ship arrived in the Mediterranean, however, it was found that 4 of the 6” guns of the secondary armament were sited in positions where they were unworkable except in the calmest of weather and, although 2 of these were re-positioned on the foredeck, adequate alternative space could not be found for the remaining pair. And so it came about that 2 x 6" guns from Queen Elizabeth, and from each of her 4 sisters then completing, were available for use in other ships. The Admiralty was quick to seize this unexpected opportunity and soon Mr Lillicrap was charged with designing a new class of monitor consisting of 5 ships, each of which was to be armed with 2 x 6” guns. Working under extreme pressure the young Assistant Constructor completed his task, remarkably, in under a fortnight. The fresh design bore a strong family resemblance to the 9.2” gun vessels and, indeed, the M29 class were to have the same overall length (170 ft) and breadth (31 ft) as their immediate predecessors but with 1 gun of the main armament placed forward and the other aft, the designer was able to give a more balanced and attractive profile to his new ships. The M15 class of monitor was driven by Diesel engines but, for his 6” guns ships, Mr Lillicrap reverted to more orthodox machinery specifying oil fired triple expansion boilers which, linked to twin screws, would drive the little ships along at a top speed of 10 knots.

Intending to produce ships which, despite their powerful weapons, would present the smallest possible target to enemy shore batteries or submarines, Lillcrap calculated that he could reduce the displacement of the new monitors to 355 tons and their draft to 4ft. In fact the young naval architect was in error, as will be shown later, and Ms. 29 to 33 were heavier and sat far deeper in the water than their designer intended.

1. Quoted by Davis, “Duel between the First Ironclads.”
2. There is a detailed description of a bomb ketch in action in Forrester’s novel “The Commodore” and in other books.
3. Lewis. “Fabulous Admirals.”
4. Fisher. “Memories.”
5. Fisher’s plan was revived and re-examined briefly in 1940 under the codename “Operation Catherine”.
6. Fisher. “Memories”.
7. Buxton. “Big Gun Monitors.”
8. Lord Clive, Prince Rupert, Sir John Moore, General Crauford, Prince Eugene, Earl of Peterborough, Sir Thomas Picton and General Wolfe.
9. Renamed Humber, Severn and Mersey, these ships were totally unfitted for service
at sea. Nevertheless, all 3 served in the Dover Patrol at the beginning of the war and Humber was off the Gallipoli beaches from June, 1915, onwards. Reverting to their riverine role Severn and Mersey ascended the Rufiji and sank the German cruiser Koenigsburg in July, 1915. Humber servived a voyage… to North Russia in 1919. 10. Churchill. “The World Crisis”.
11. Fisher. “Memories”.

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