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"Ramming Speed!"
Naval Battles of the Ironclad Emperor of the Pacific
A Story of bravery, honour, technology and bird droppings

Named after an Incan Emperor, the Peruvian Ironclad Huascar rams the Chilean Corvette, Esmeralda (Thomas Somerscales)
Named after an Incan Emperor, the Peruvian Ironclad Huascar rams the Chilean Corvette, Esmeralda at the Battle of Iquique (Thomas Somerscales)

Naval warfare had shifted for good: wooden ships and iron men had been replaced with iron ships and nerves of steel.  The development of steam-powered armoured warships had forever changed how combatants engaged at sea.  Steam power offered speed and maneuverability.  Armour provided protection for close-quartered movements and allowed the vessel to endure raking fire that would have destroyed a wooden ship.  In short, an ironclad ship could get up close and personal.  Interestingly, this technological leap also heralded the re-birth of the forgotten naval ram.

Ancient Greek and Persian ships using rams decorated as ravens and wild boars.
Ancient Greek and Persian ships using rams decorated as ravens and wild boars.

     

Introduced by the Greeks in the 8th Century BC, the wooden ram at the bow of a vessel was used to sink an enemy ship. The ram was useless during the ensuing age of sail and artillery.  Indeed, to point your bow at another vessel meant certain death as your ship was raked with cannon fire from enemy broadsides. For over two centuries, naval fleet battles essentially consisted in two lines of ships blasting away at each other, waiting for the wind to offer advantage to either side.  But on March 8, 1862, everything changed.

As the American Civil War raged on, the Confederate ship Virginia quietly slipped out of harbour.  Covered in iron and sporting a ram, the Virginia put the theories of contemporary naval tacticians to the test.  The USS Cumberland, a 38-gun wooden enemy frigate, was rammed and sunk at surprising speed.  Unfortunately for the Confederate crew, their poorly-secured ram went down with the enemy ship.  Still, by the end of the day, the Virginia had beached two other enemy ships with its artillery, while suffering minimal damage.

Ironclad CSS Virginia rams and sinks the USS Cumberland
Ironclad CSS Virginia rams and sinks the USS Cumberland

Sunrise brought the Union’s response: the ironclad USS Monitor.  The Virginia answered the call and the world’s first encounter between ironclads began.  The two ships fired at each other relentlessly over four hours, continually bouncing iron shot off the other’s haul, like armoured knights smashing each other with maces. A hull breach was not likely for either ship: stalemate. This thunderous artillery duo also sounded a death knell for the wooden warship.  It was only a matter of time before ironclads were designed to be sea worthy and ventured off the coastline.

     The CSS Virginia and USS Monitor bounce rounds off each other’s armour.  A frustrated Confederate officer commanding a gun said
The CSS Virginia and USS Monitor bounce rounds off each other’s armour.  A frustrated Confederate officer commanding a gun said
he did the same damage to the Monitor “by snapping his fingers at her every two and half minutes.”

     The pings of cannon shot hitting armour that day reverberated around the world as navies scrambled to adjust to this new tactical reality. Steam-powered wooden ships were faster, but it was certain death if they allowed an ironclad to close in on them.  Soon, mixed fleets of ironclad frigates and wooden ships challenged each other on the open sea.

Battle of Lissa, 1866. Italian Ironclad sinks. Marines on deck give a parting volley of defiance at the Austrian ironclad frigate that sunk their ship.
Battle of Lissa, 1866. Italian Ironclad sinks. Marines on deck give a parting volley of defiance at the Austrian ironclad frigate that sunk their ship.

     At war, the Italian and Austrian fleets met in combat off the Island of Lissa on July 20, 1866. Over forty vessels engaged. The Italian ironclads identified the towering Austrian three-decker, 90-gun wooden ship Kaiser (German for “emperor”) as the enemy’s flag ship and swarmed it.  Lacking maneuverability because of its size, the Kaiser was soon rammed and forced from the battle.  Ironclads had successfully engaged in open sea.

Like the great powers, smaller nations embraced the ironclad’s future.  Peru was one country to join the movement out of necessity.  Spain began to reassert itself over its former South American colonies. Spain’s dispute with Peru?  Strangely, it was bird dung. Millions of tons of bird droppings, called guano. High in nitrates, guano was a much-sought-after fertilizer, similar to potash today. There was a fortune in bird droppings to be had on the Peruvian Chincha Islands and Spain wanted it.

The Great Guano Heap, or a mountain of bird crap that started a war.
The Great Guano Heap, or a mountain of bird crap that started a war.

   

After trumping up a collection of excuses, Spain sent a fleet to occupy the islands in 1864.  Accompanying the Spanish naval expedition was the ironclad frigate Numancia.  After the war for the Chincha Islands, the Numancia would become the first ironclad to circumnavigate the globe.

 British Shipyard workers in Iron and Coal by William Bell Scott, 1860.
British Shipyard workers in Iron and Coal by William Bell Scott, 1860.

Hopelessly outgunned by the Spanish fleet, Peru turned to British shipbuilders for a solution.  Peru spent what would today be the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars to commission the building of two ironclads: a frigate and a turret ship. The latter ship’s design had a turret similar to the USS Monitor but mounted on an ocean-worthy ironclad ship.  The turret housed British state-of-the-art artillery: two Armstrong guns capable of firing 300lb rounds. Delighted at the strength of their turret ironclad, the Peruvians named it Huascar, after its most famous Incan emperor, and made it their flagship.

Barrel of a heavy Armstrong Gun being lathed in England.  1867.  The Huascar had Armstrong Guns with 10-inch muzzles.
Barrel of a heavy Armstrong Gun being lathed in England.  1867.  The Huascar had Armstrong Guns with 10-inch muzzles.

Completed in January 1866, the Peruvian ironclads set sail for their new home.  After a number of delays, the Huascar arrived in the war zone in June.  Meanwhile, having been denied access to coal along the South American coast, the Spanish broke off their half-hearted war with Peru and set sail for the Philippines. Peru and Chile contemplated an attack on the Spanish in the Philippines but the idea was ultimately abandoned.  Still “the Emperor” Huascar had arrived in the Pacific and ironically, its first real fight would be against its creators.

In 1877 political intrigue brought Peru to the brink of civil war.  Rebels wishing to overthrow the country’s president daringly seized control of the Huascar while at dock on May 6 and put it to sea with piracy in mind.  Their strategy was to destabilize Peru’s trade by commandeering the ship and showing the weakness of their reigning president. In its brief time as pirate, the Huascar interfered with a British mail steam ship and stole coal from another British vessel.  It was unacceptable to Great Britain that a small but well-armed rogue ironclad was preying on Pacific coast merchant vessels and the Royal Navy responded.

HMS Shah and HMS Amethyst engage the Peruvian Rebel Ironclad Turret Ram Huascar.
HMS Shah and HMS Amethyst engage the Peruvian Rebel Ironclad Turret Ram Huascar.

 

On May 29, two wooden British frigates, HMS Shah and HMS Amethyst confronted the Huascar off the southern coast of Peru near the town of Ilo.  The rebels were surprised to see British ships and even more astounded when they demanded the Huascar’s surrender.  The Huascar’s crew felt their infractions against British property verged on trivial.  Sensitive to any imperial interference, Peruvian rebels were insulted by the Royal Navy’s intrusion into what they saw as an internal affair.  The Huascar refused to surrender and the British open fired.

However, the British had built the Huascar well and the guns of the Royal Navy ships could not damage it.  To the relief of the British crews, the Peruvian rebels were terrible gunners and could not bring their lethal artillery to bear.   Superior Royal Navy training also allowed the British frigates to maneuver around the Huascar’s attempts at ramming.  After three hours of fighting, the small and rapid Huascar retreated, but the British had another card to play.

Whitehead Torpedo, 1877.  A.-B. The Charge Chamber of sheet iron. B.-C. Adjustment Chamber of sheet iron.
Whitehead Torpedo, 1877.  A.-B. The Charge Chamber of sheet iron. B.-C. Adjustment Chamber of sheet iron. 
C.-D. Air chamber and engine room of steel. E. Propeller  F. Vertical exploding Lever.

The British HMS Shah was fitted with a new weapon, never before used in combat by the Royal Navy: The Whitehead Torpedo. This self-propelled “locomotive” torpedo was sighted and launched at the fleeing Huascar.  In the end, the speed of the Peruvian ironclad and its distance from the Shah outmatched the British torpedo. The Royal Navy’s first battle in history with an ironclad ended. Soon after, the rebels surrendered the Huascar back to the Peruvian Navy.  As a strange twist in the story, even though the British had fought the rebels, the Peruvian government lodged a formal diplomatic complaint against Great Britain for their attack on the Huascar. Clearly Peru cherished both its independence and the HuascarBut another war lurked on the horizon, and Peru would need its little ironclad Emperor.

 

CONTINUE TO THE EXCITING FINAL PART >>>>>>

 

--- Author Robert Henderson enjoys unearthing and telling stories of military valour and sacrifice from across the globe. Lest we forget.

 

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