warfare at sea

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As soon as seafaring began ships were used for warlike purposes.

Ancient Tactics and Weapons.

By about the 7th century bc specialized warships were being used in the Mediterranean. These oared galley-type vessels, with considerable operational and tactical mobility, would be the major warship type in this region for the next millennium. Galley warfare was essentially about boarding and entering, a land battle at sea in which enemy ships were taken in hand-to-hand combat. Other weapons could be mounted in the bows, such as projectors or Greek fire and, later, guns. The ship itself could be used as a weapon, although ramming was better directed at the oars of hostile ships to deny mobility rather than sinking the enemy outright. Galley battles were fought bow to bow, in line abreast, and could be large-scale events with hundreds of ships on each side. To be powerful on land meant being powerful at sea as well.

In the Orient, too, maritime power became more important. ‘China must now’, wrote one commentator in 1131, ‘regard the Sea and the River as her Great Wall, and substitute warships for watch-towers.’ Within a century China had warships whose armament included trebuchets firing gunpowder bombs, and paddle-wheel boats protected with iron plates.

In northern European waters a very different type of oared ship originated. These longships and knarrs were capable of longer voyages under sail. Their oarless merchant ship derivatives and other northern cargo vessels, such as the cog, also began to be used for war, fitted with both after castles and forecastles to give a height advantage for weapon projection and entering. The expense of maintaining a Mediterranean-style galley navy was beyond all but the richest states, and ships that could double as warships and merchant vessels were at a premium. The treasure ships of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), which dominated the Indian Ocean, were both traders and warships, and with them China had, around 1420, a navy as powerful as any European nation.

During this early period naval battles took place in coastal waters and were parts of maritime campaigns in which the movement of troops and their supplies were the dominant objectives. Piracy on seaborne commerce was always endemic in a situation where state power at sea was limited. Rulers had to work with the pirates rather than against them, encouraging them to direct their activities against the political opponents of the day.

The Ship of the Line.

The 16th century saw the development of the ocean-going sailing ship armed with guns. Though guns were added to the castles of ships, and later through gunports in the sides, naval tactics remained dominated by galley thinking. Engagements were still bow to bow with the side-mounted guns trained as far fore and aft as possible, and well-handled gun-armed galleys and larger galleasses still had advantages. They were necessary complements to the sailing ships. Only with the development of the galleon, combining a galley's prow with a sailing ship's range and flexibility, did the oared fighting ship face obsolescence. The gun-armed sailing ship also gave Europeans the military superiority to spread over the world. Still, however, the expense of naval operations forced states, notably England, to attempt to utilize private enterprise both as an aid in waging naval war and as a way of raising additional income. Although large fleets could be mobilized for specific operations, naval power was still episodic and uncertain; the weather played a greater part in the defeat of the repeated Spanish attempts to invade England, including the Spanish Armada of 1588, than the English fleet.


Subjects: Maritime History.

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