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The first recorded naval expedition took place about 4,500 years ago in Egypt. Although naval power has existed for millennia, it assumed indisputable importance with the wave of European exploration and colonization that began in the fifteenth century. Naval warfare has developed under three distinct phases—oars, sails, and steam—although new technologies such as batteries and nuclear power continue to develop.
- Navies under Oars
- Navies under Sail
- Navies under Steam
- The Next Wave
Some form of naval power has existed since humans built their first cities along the great natural highways of the world: its rivers and seas. Navies developed to protect people, civilizations, and their waterways. When conflicts arose between nations, or when waterborne freebooters sought quick profit from those countries or their citizens, naval warfare often erupted.
Navies under Oars
The first record of a naval expedition is an Egyptian relief dating to 2450 BCE. Though each ship featured a large square sail, the vessel’s single row of oarsmen propelled it into battle. An Egyptian temple carving of 1190 BCE depicts scenes from a large naval engagement against the Sea People. Archers provided ranged fire, stout bulwarks protected rowers, and spearmen in armor waited to fight their way aboard enemy vessels. The Ugarit Tablet, also dated to 1190 BCE, contains the first written report of a naval battle, fought between the Hittites and the Sea People off Cypress.
Despite the fact that navies arose throughout the Mediterranean, the topic of sea power is typically associated with the rise of the Greek city-states because of the efforts of two early fifth century BCE historians, Herodotus, writing on the Persian Wars of the 490s and 480s BCE, and Thucydides, who wrote about the Peloponnesian War of 431–404 BCE. The navies described by Herodotus and Thucydides depended on galleys driven by one (unireme), two (bireme), or three (trireme) banks of oars. Also known as longships, these vessels featured high length-to-width ratios, relatively flat bottoms, bronze- or metal-sheathed wooden rams, and masts and sails for cruising. These galleys were extremely fragile and because of their shallow draught lacked holds to carry supplies. They typically operated within easy reach of land, both to shelter them from severe weather and to allow the crews to beach the vessels at night to forage, to water (the technical term for replenishing a ship’s supply of water), and to prepare food. The roundship, of deeper draught, smaller length-to-width ration, and driven by sail and oars, served as the auxiliary vessel of the day. Their larger hulls transported troops and supplies. Roundships were often the critical element of any invasion (for example, the destruction by storm of a Persian support fleet in 492 BCE delayed an invasion of Greece by two years).
Though archery and boarding occurred during battles, the chief tactic of the time appears to have been ramming enemy vessels. Specific maneuvers emerged to support ramming, such as the periplus (the extension of the line of battle to flank enemy vessels), the diekplus (an attack in column to shear enemy oars and split the enemy battle line), and the kyklos (a circular defensive formation). Greeks also pioneered naval strategy, especially the interdiction of enemy supply lines through raiding or blockades and the naval support of invasions. Over time, other cultures placed their stamps upon the Age of Oars. For example, the Phoenicians developed superb navigational skills, while the Romans made ramming secondary to boarding, turning their superb legions into marines through the use of the corvus (a boarding ramp) and harpax (a machine to fire grapples).
Naval engagements under oars stretched across over four thousand years of recorded history, from the battles of Egyptians and Sea People to the last large fleet action between galleys at Lepanto in 1571 and beyond. Two events sounded the death knell of the oar-driven warship, the venturing of Europeans across the stormy Atlantic and the introduction of cannons. Together they would usher in a new era in naval warfare.
Navies under Sail
The powerful waves of the Atlantic called for a hardier construction than the gentler waters of the Mediterranean. The clinker-built longships of the Vikings served for raiding and eventual exploration and settlement of Iceland and Greenland, but it was the roundship that rapidly came to dominate European navies. Ideally suited for trade with their deep hulls, nations converted these merchant ships to warships in times of conflict by adding a tower at the bow and stern. Soldiers supplemented the normal crew, ready to unleash arrows at the enemy before boarding; at Sluys in 1340, the English sent 250 ships against the French; all but three or four had formerly been merchantmen. Only with the development of the cannon would combat transition from an emphasis on melee to the use of the warship as a fire platform. The roundships stretched longer in relation to their beam, with cannons mounted along their sides to maximize firepower (thus firing “broadsides”). Cannons, mounted on naval carriages that could be drawn inboard for rapid reloading, fired through closeable embrasures cut in the side of the vessel. The resulting shift in tactics was most noticeable during the confrontation between an English fleet relying on firepower and maneuver and a Spanish fleet more dependent on the older boarding techniques. This pivotal campaign of 1588 saw the Spanish Armada driven from the English Channel by a combination of English cannon and adverse weather.
Naval vessels also played the key role in opening the remainder of the world to European hegemony. Beginning in the late 1400s, Portugal’s naval vessels rounded Africa and began an exploitation of India and Asia that would be continued by, most notably, Great Britain. In the Western Hemisphere, Spain’s arrival in the New World signaled the beginning of naval conflicts that lasted throughout the Age of Sail, as Spain struggled with England, France, and Holland for control of the new rich lands. As the Europeans squabbled among themselves, their American colonies rebelled, and in the process of rebellion found it necessary to rely on converted merchantmen, privateers (privately owned vessels sailing under a government commission known as a letter of marque), and allied naval forces to secure eventual victory.
The age of sail reached its apogee during the Napoleonic Wars of 1800–1815. Great Britain alone carried over a thousand vessels on its naval lists manned by more than 140,000 men and officers, and supported by the largest naval infrastructure in history. An estimated 20 percent of the adult population of England owed at least part of their livelihood to the British Admiralty by 1812, and the national treasury was rapidly depleted supporting that institution despite heavy tax rates and continued income from the largest merchant fleet in the world. The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 confirmed the ascent of Britain’s Royal Navy to world dominance. That dominance continued for another century, but the coal-fed fires of the Industrial Revolution soon eclipsed the Age of Sail.
Navies under Steam
Conservative naval hierarchies initially resisted use of the first steam engines, but by the mid-1800s, the advantages of an unwavering source of propulsion outweighed the disadvantages of dirty decks and space lost to coal bunkers. The Industrial Revolution created a pace of change in propulsion unheralded in earlier ages. In the 1830s steam engines driving side paddle wheels served as auxiliaries to sails. By the 1860s the navies of the American Civil War (1861–1865) developed ironclad hulls moved by steam-driven propellers. In the 1880s rapid improvement in steam engines allowed sails to drop to an auxiliary form of power. By the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, sails had disappeared from new warship classes. As World War I (1914–1918) approached, oil began to replace coal and the newest type of naval vessel, the submarine, used electric batteries for subsurface propulsion. Less than fifty years later, nuclear powered warships began to move across, and beneath, the waves.
The Industrial Revolution also permitted changes in metallurgy, chemistry, and other sciences, which in turn accelerated change in all other aspects of naval technology. Whereas the ironclads of the American Civil War engaged at ranges of a few hundred yards or less, in 1905 the Japanese opened accurate fire on the Russians at over 5,000 yards. By the 1940s ships engaged at ranges triple those of 1905, and aircraft launched from carriers extended that range to hundreds of miles. By 2000 the use of ship- and air-launched missiles, as well as air-to-air refueling, moved the hypothetical engagement range well beyond 1,000 miles. Faced with ever deadlier weapons, strategies for ship protection were continually revised. At first designers fastened armor to wooden and iron hulls (ironclads). Later, steel hulls incorporated protective belts of armor across vital machinery and magazines, as well as thick turrets for guns. Increasingly after World War I, effective defense became more a matter of specialized weaponry in combination with lighter armor: sonar and depth charges against submarines, fighters to intercept enemy bombers, antimissile missiles and rapid-firing guns to destroy incoming warheads, and electronic countermeasures to baffle guidance systems.
The Next Wave
Navies will continue to exist and to change. Warships already feature automated guns, and satellites guide rockets with near perfect accuracy. But the next wave of technological developments cannot be accurately predicted. On the other hand, it is certain that when international conflict threatens, navies will feature prominently in its resolution.
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