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Were a favourite weapon of the Chinese who used them from the earliest times, floating them downstream onto enemy ships. They liked to chain several together before setting them alight and letting them loose, so that they became entangled with the enemy's ships and it was very difficult, and dangerous, to clear them.

In Europe they were filled with combustibles and fitted with special ventilating ducts in order to ensure rapid combustion. The charge was ignited by a slow match and a train of powder, set to fire after a predetermined interval. An armament of around eight small guns was provided for defence when the vessel was not about to be used as a fireship. Its role in battle, or when attacking an enemy ship at anchor, was to secure itself to its victim with grapnels, and its crew would then light the slow match before escaping in a boat.

In 1588 fireships were used with great success by the British to drive vessels belonging to the Spanish Armada out of Calais into the English Channel where they were attacked by the English fleet. They were also used extensively in the battles of the three Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century. The last occasion they were employed by the Royal Navy was in 1811 when attacking French warships at anchor in the Basque Roads. The US Navy, which also called them ‘infernals’, used one, unsuccessfully, against the Barbary pirates in Tripoli harbour in 1804, an attack which resulted in the deaths of all those on board.

See also warfare at sea.

See also warfare at sea.

Subjects: Maritime History.

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