The Royal Navy’s small vessels and armoured cars in the Great War
This book has been created by Leonaur’s editors by bringing together historical accounts from Conrad Cato’s two books, ‘The Navy in Mesopotamia 1914-17’ and ‘The Navy Everywhere.’ Cato was a serving officer in the Royal Navy in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and drew on his own experiences for his first book which originally—and unusually—contained both non-fiction and fictional pieces. The fiction has been removed from this edition to allow the whole of the author’s second book, about the actions of the Royal Navy at war in East Africa and in the Cameroons, to be included here. Cato describes the activities of the first ‘kite-balloon’ ship, ‘HMS Manica,’ at Gallipoli and in East Africa, before dealing with the Tangistani Raids in the Persian Gulf , the Red Sea patrol, the Aden patrol and the little known activities of the navy’s armoured cars in Romania and in Serbia. Cato does not attempt to give a formal history, but instead informs us about these rarely reported campaigns through a series of related pieces, full of interesting information and laced with dialogue and anecdote, delivered in an entertaining, whimsical and occasionally humorous style. This is a unique Leonaur book about the naval war as it was fought by gunboats, sloops and other small vessels manned by small crews in exotic locations . The sailors of these vessels fought a war on rivers and lakes, they struggled through marshes and swamps or navigated inhospitable coasts in conflicts far removed from those experienced by the great battle fleets of the high seas. This book will be a pleasure to read for everyone interested in the period and is highly recommended. Includes useful maps to illustrate the text.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket; our hardbacks are cloth bound and feature gold foil lettering on their spines and fabric head and tail bands.
A dose of Mesopotamia on top of a dose of East Africa without a sugar-plum of leave in between is rather strenuous even for the R.N.A.S., and it is comforting to know that they were all sent home shortly afterwards for a rest and change of climate. To return to the three armed launches. Their job the first day was to keep up a bombardment of the enemy on the right bank, in pursuance of the scheme of creating the impression that the main attack was to be made there. On the second day they still confined their chief attentions to the right bank, with the idea of keeping down the enemy’s fire from that quarter against our brigades operating on the left bank. As soon as an aeroplane brought them word that the operations far inland to the north had been successful, they moved upstream, and engaged the enemy at close range.<br>
Here they found the enemy’s shells and rifle-fire made things rather warm for them, and the general sent word that they were not to advance any farther. So they hung on where they were, and secured themselves to the bank. At six o’clock in the evening another message came through from the general. It told them that our attack at the north end of the line on the enemy’s left wing had been completely successful, and that the Turks were retreating. The message went on to refer to an obstruction across the river near Kut. Unless this could be removed, it would be impossible for the flotilla to aid the cavalry in pursuing the enemy. The general therefore requested the senior naval officer to proceed upstream, examine the obstruction, and, if possible, destroy it.<br>
Lieutenant-Commander Edgar C. Cookson was acting S.N.O. at the time, in the absence of three officers senior to him, of whom two had taken their ships to Ceylon for health-recruiting purposes, and the third was in hospital. He ordered the flotilla to darken ship, and about seven o’clock the three launches crept upstream, followed by one of the motor-boats. As they approached the obstruction they were detected, and a heavy fire with rifles and machine guns was opened on them from the trenches on both banks of the river. They found that the obstruction consisted of a maheilah in the middle, and two iron lighters, one each side. These were placed across stream in a line and joined together by wire hawsers. The first idea was that, if the maheilah could be sunk by gunfire, there would be plenty of room for the ships to pass between the two iron lighters. Whether this theory would have proved correct, or whether the sunken maheilah would have been a worse obstruction than the floating maheilah, was never determined, because it is not such an easy thing as it looks to sink a maheilah by gunfire.<br>
It became clear that the only satisfactory way of removing the obstruction was to cut the moorings by which the craft were held together, and send the maheilah floating downstream with the current. The S.N.O. ordered the Comet, from which he was directing the operations, to proceed upstream and place herself actually alongside the maheilah.
No mere words can convey an adequate idea of the inferno of rifle-fire which greeted the vessel as she carried out this manoeuvre. To the Turks it was of vital importance that the obstruction should remain intact until they had time to get their army away; for their line of retreat for the first few miles lay within easy range of the river, and if the armed launches were able to go upstream at once, they would probably make the difference between an orderly retreat and a rout. Fortunately, all three of the launches were fitted with bullet-proof plating, and so long as a man’s duties allowed him to keep under cover he was fairly safe. But it was not always possible to keep under cover.<br>
For instance, there was Leading Signalman Gilbert Wallis, who had to get into an exposed position in order to make his signals visible. He was wounded at a very critical moment, and was unable to stand up; but he managed to prop himself against something and carry on with his signal. It was fortunate that he could do so, for without that signal there would have been worse calamities. Then there was Private A. G. May, R.M.L.I., who was working the Comet’s six-pounder from behind its gun-shield. He was working it single-handed, and was feeling quite happy at his job until his gun-shield carried away—and then he went on working it without feeling happy. The Comet’s guns were decidedly unfortunate, for the three-pounder on the port side was always in trouble. The bolts which were meant to hold the mounting to the deck got so loose that they threatened to draw out altogether. Leading Seaman Ernest Sparks, however, continued to fire the gun and to hope for the best, but it was rather like riding a thoroughbred with two broken reins patched up with a bit of cotton.
The Comet was brought alongside the maheilah to the musical accompaniment of bullets pattering on the steel plating like raindrops on a window-pane. They came in a thick shower from both sides of the river, and those which missed the ship went shrieking overhead like a swarm of harpies. Lieutenant-Commander Cookson peered through the darkness at the wire hawsers which held the maheilah in its place, and in a moment his mind was made up.
The captain of the Comet (Lieutenant W. V. Harris) heard him shout for an axe; but was too busy manoeuvring the ship to attend to him, and it was too dark to see from the bridge what actually happened. The eyewitnesses were the gun’s crew on the fo’c’sle. They saw the S.N.O., axe in hand, leaning over the Comet’s steel plating in an endeavour to reach the wire hawser. Then they saw him get over the plating and step on to the maheilah itself. Immediately afterwards they saw him fall between the ship and the maheilah, and they hastened to extricate him and bring him back into the ship. There were more bullet holes in him than they cared to count; he died within ten minutes.
The captain of the Comet found that no less than twelve men in the little ship were wounded, and wisely decided that it was impossible to do anything more under such a heavy fire at point-blank range, so he signalled to the other launches his intention of retiring. This was the signal which Leading Signalman Wallis managed to get through, although he was unable to stand up on account of his wound. All the flotilla got back safely, and anchored for the night in the Nakhailah Reach.
Next morning early they went upstream again, and found that the enemy had fled from their trenches abreast of the obstruction, leaving only two men with an old muzzle-loading cannon, which they fired off in the true comic-opera style.