Success breeds complacency. Few things are more devastating to an effective military than a long period without significant challenge. The US Army discovered this brutal lesson in Korea. The British Navy discovered this in the War of 1812.
By 1812 England had been at war nearly constantly for nearly 40 years. While British arms on land weren’t always victorious, indeed they suffered more than their share of debacles, the Navy had establish an estimable record of success against all odds and had achieved not only tactical supremacy but psychological ascendancy over it’s European foes.
This invulnerability was shattered in July 1812 when the USS Constitution beat the HMS Guerriere to a shambles in a 35-minute engagement that left 21 British sailors dead and 57 wounded. This was followed by the loss of HMS Macedonian in October and of HMS Java in December. To a Navy and a public used to victories in single ship engagements, this was an earth shattering development.
The pattern continued until June 1, 1813 just outside Boston Harbor.
Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke is an interesting character. In some ways he represents a watershed in British naval officers.
He was born in 1776 at Broke Hall, Suffolk. At age 12 he entered the Royal Naval Academy. This is an unusual departure as a young man of Broke’s social standing would more likely than not began his service, as did Edward Riou, as a member of an admiral’s retinue or as the servant to an admiral or well connected captain.
He went to sea at age 16 in HMS Bulldog. A small man o’ war was a great place for a young midshipman to learn his trade but it was a poor place for one with his eyes fixed on quick advancement. He seems to have impressed the captain of HMS Bulldog for when he was selected to take command of HMS L’Eclair he took young Broke with him as part of then nucleus of the crew. He served in a succession of frigates before being promoted as commander into HMS Shark, a 16-gun sloop in 1800. The next year he was promoted to captain and was promptly unemployed.
After three years, Broke was able to get back to sea in HMS Druid, a worn out 32-gun frigate vintage 1783. He sailed with barely enough men to maneuver the ship and pressed sailors from merchantmen en route to build up her complement. It was in HMS Druid that he chased a French privateer through the Channel Fleet at night. It was HMS Shannon, however, that he made his name.
The Royal Navy of the period was not an organization given to fads or experimentation. Seamanship was the be-all-end-all in the service to the extent it produced tactical and strategic myopia. While Broke was an accomplished seaman and drilled his ships to a high standard of performance on sailing evolutions, his passion was for gunnery.
Gunnery, beyond achieving a high rate of fire at “half pistol shot,” was not a highly developed skill in the Royal Navy of the era. Aiming cannon was a hit-or-miss affair as elevation was crudely adjusted by means of handspikes and quoins. Some sources say gunners aimed along the top of the gun tube, this had an inherent inaccuracy. Where the bore of the gun ran straight from the knob of the cascabel to the muzzle, the line running down the top of the tube sloped as the breech was thicker than the muzzle.
Only a small amount of power and shot was allocated for practice and there is evidence that as much as 2/3 of the Royal Navy at the out break of the War of 1812 did not use even this scarce allowance.
Indeed, senior officers, such as Nelson, scoffed at the idea of aiming guns and relied upon placing their ship close-by the enemy and relying on superior discipline and a higher rate of fire to carry the day. Or as Nelson wrote in rejecting the suggestion that a gunsight might be useful, “As to the plan for pointing a gun, truer than we do at present, if the person comes, I shall, of course, look at it, or be happy, if necessary, to use it; but I hope we shall be able, as usual, to get so close to our enemies that our shot cannot miss the object.”
Broke reckoned that the role of the ship was to carry guns within range of the enemy. He drilled his crew relentlessly on the great guns. He assigned midshipmen and ships boys to some small carronades he had installed on Shannon. Small arms practice and practice with the swivel guns in the fighting tops was carried out daily. Practice with live ammunition was done daily except Sunday.
In addition to drill, Broke had the arc of fire for each gun inscribe in the deck planks with points marked so that at a command he could have all guns pointed at the same point. He installed dispart sights on all gun, a sight welded to the top of the tube about on line with the trunions so the line of sight for the gunner was parallel to the bore. Most importantly, at his own expense he equipped each gun with a gunner’s level. The gunner’s level is a fairly simple device consisting of a scribed scale and a pendulum. What it allowed was for gun captains to receive aiming instructions much more explicit than had been possible in the past.
All his efforts came to fruition on June 1, 1813.
After a long patrol off Boston, Broke was rewarded on 1 June 1813 when the 38-gun frigate USS Chesapeake came out to challenge him. The ensuing battle was the finest single-ship action in the age of sail. Captain James Lawrence, the new commander of the Chesapeake, was confident in the ability of his veteran crew, but had reckoned without Broke and the Shannon.
As the Chesapeake approached, the Shannon fired her first devastating broadside at a range of about 35 metres. Lawrence was wounded, but ordered the Chesapeake to slow down to enable her to return fire. However, the American gunners did not have time to adjust their aim as the carronades of the British ship swept the Chesapeake’s quarterdeck and on her upper deck two-thirds of the gun crews were already casualties.
At a crucial moment the Chesapeake’s wheel was destroyed by a 9-pounder gun that Broke had installed on Shannon’s quarterdeck for that purpose. Out of control, the vulnerable stern of the American ship was exposed to raking British fire and in desperation Lawrence ordered his men to board as the Chesapeake drifted stern first towards the Shannon.
Instead it was Broke who seized the moment and led the boarding party in person onto the Chesapeake. Despite a final appeal from Captain Lawrence ‘Don’t give up the ship!’, the battle was effectively over. In a final act three American sailors, probably from the rigging, attacked Broke; he killed the first, but the second hit him with a musket and the third sliced open his skull before being overwhelmed.
The entire action lasted only 11 minutes, but its unequalled ferocity left 148 American and 83 English sailors killed or wounded. All the Chesapeake’s officers were casualties and Lawrence died of his wounds three days later.
Broke made a miraculous recovery and returned to England where he received a hero’s welcome for restoring the pride of the Royal Navy.
Google books has public domain biography of Admiral Sir Philip Broke.