Thursday, March 10, 2016

Chasing Napoleon

Accurate intelligence in the age of sail was a scarce commodity. Accurate intelligence is, of course, scarce at all times but the sea, in the years before radar and radio, let alone satellite surveillance, was an arena of the unknown. The horizon was an impenetrable barrier, the man-of-war, breasting the waves at six knots or so, a ponderous means of extending a captain’s field of vision beyond it. An admiral with a fleet under command could enlarge his supervision by disposing his men-of-war and their attendant frigates at intervals of a dozen miles or so, the maximum distance at which intervisibility and so intercommunication, masthead to masthead, was possible. Even thus, the transmission of news of a sighting was a haphazard business. Admiral Lord Howe, seeking to establish the whereabouts of a French convoy of 139 merchantmen he knew to be nearby, had to quarter the sea for eight days before he brought its escort to action on the Glorious First of June 1794. The interception was rightly regarded as remarkable. The battle took place 400 miles from land at a time when most sea engagements were fought, as they always had been, within fifty miles of the coast.

Admirals, moreover, did not like to disperse their capital ships for purposes of reconnaissance, needing to keep them concentrated for action lest the enemy were met unexpectedly. The need to gather information always had to be balanced against that of keeping firepower massed under the commander’s hand. The strength of a fleet lay not in that of its individual units but in the line of battle, formed bow to stern at intervals of a few hundred feet. Ships isolated were ships exposed to ‘defeat in detail’, or one by one, by superior numbers. Hence the importance of the capital ships’ scouts, the frigates, smaller and swifter sailers which could be sent to and beyond the horizon in search of the enemy.

No admiral ever had enough frigates. The calls on their service were manifold: as despatch vessels, as commerce raiders, as convoy escorts. Such duties chronically depleted the number available as scouts and ‘repeater ships’, which lay close to but outside the line of battle, copying the signals of the flagship, which were often masked by its near neighbours, so that they were visible from van to rear. The scarcity of frigates was odd. As they were much smaller than battleships, a third or a quarter by displacement, carried far fewer men, perhaps only 150 against 800, and cost only a fifth as much to build, it might be expected that they would have been turned out in much larger numbers. Such was not in practice the case. In 1793, at the start of the Wars of the French Revolution, the Royal Navy had 141 first-, second- and third-rates, battleships with between 100 and 74 guns; of fifth- and sixth-rates, frigates of between 44 and 20 guns, it had only 145;1 by 1798, there were still only 200. Little wonder that Nelson, then the Mediterranean admiral, warned that, if he died, ‘want of frigates would be found written on his heart’.

Essential though frigates were as scouts, their value was restricted by the limitations of the signal system then in use. It was not simply that flags – and flags were the principal means of communication – were difficult to discern at long distance, even with a telescope. No comprehensive system of arranging them to transmit information had yet been devised. Various conventions had been in use since the seventeenth century, such as then, for example, hoisting a red flag at the mizzen-top to order a particular manoeuvre. By the late eighteenth century there had been a great deal of elaboration and in 1782 Admiral Howe, then in command of the Channel Fleet, had issued a codebook, superseding many others, which allowed a commander to say 999 different things with three flags and 9,999 with four. Howe’s signal book was not, however, double-entry. The recipient could work out what a signal meant by looking it up, finding the flags picture by picture on the page. The sender, however, had to know what flags he needed to hoist before he composed his message.

Not until 1801, when Home Popham published his Telegraphic Signals or Marine Vocabulary, were sender and recipient put on equal footing. Popham, a sailor of great clarity of mind, simply had a flash of insight into the obvious which had evaded thousands of other sea officers before him. His achievement compares with that of his near contemporary Roget in compiling the first thesaurus. He analysed how language was used and saw that words might be given a numerical value, to be signalled by a set of numerical flags; 212, for example, could be made to stand for ‘cable’, with the numerical flags 2, 1 and 2. Adding a fourth numerical flag, 3, made the signal read ‘Can you spare a cable?’To make the first signal, the sender looked up ‘cable’ in his double-entry book and chose the appropriate set of flags or ‘hoist’; to read it, the recipient looked up 2123 and got the message. By the use of special indicators it could also be signified that flags had alphabetical rather than numerical value and should be read simply as letters, spelling out an unusual word not in the vocabulary. Popham’s final signal book allowed 267,720 signals to be made with twenty-four flags (of which ten doubled as numbers) and 11 special indicators.

His system remains in use to this day. It was not yet so in 1798, when the Royal Navy still sought to speak fluently between ships through the medium of Admiral Howe’s single-entry book. A great deal of time was wasted, therefore, in frigates closing up to each other or to the main body in order to transmit information unambiguously or to receive precise questions or clear orders. The days when a flag lieutenant could snap his telescope shut and confidently interpret to his superior the meaning of a flash of coloured bunting glimpsed at the extreme limit of visibility on a clear Mediterranean day lay well in the future.

The fallibility of signalling was not a crucial factor in the conduct of maritime operations in the last decade of the eighteenth century. It counted for much less than want of frigates. It counted as a factor, nonetheless, particularly to an admiral like Horatio Nelson, whose mind never rested, who calculated the relative positions of ships and shorelines as a master chess player does pieces and squares, who consumed information of every sort with the compulsion of an addict, who sought decision in battle with the relentlessness of a great financier poised to obliterate his commercial competitors. Home Popham’s signalling system would certainly have assisted him in his searches had it been available; when it became so a very few years later, Nelson enthusiastically embraced it; indeed, the most famous flag signal sent, ‘England Expects’, was made at the opening of the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, with eight Popham hoists and ‘Duty’ spelt out alphabetically.

On Trafalgar Day Nelson had the combined French–Spanish fleet clear in view. The encounter had come at the end of a long chase which had begun in May, taken him across the Atlantic to reach the West Indies in June, back again to the mouth of the Channel in August, and finally south to the Straits of Gibraltar in September, where he blockaded Cadiz until the enemy put to sea in October. He had had a number of false starts and followed a number of false trails but once Admiral Villeneuve had cleared the Straits of Gibraltar from the Mediterranean and set off into the deep Atlantic, Nelson had been able to make the assumption with some certainty that the French were heading for the West Indies. The campaign of Trafalgar was to prove a triumph of strategic manoeuvre. As an intelligence operation, it was not, at least in its later stages, one of complexity.

The contrast with Nelson’s earlier pursuit, discovery and destruction of a French fleet was extreme. In 1798 Nelson, recently promoted to independent command, was appointed to lead a British squadron back into the Mediterranean, from which it had been absent since late 1796, and to mount watch outside Toulon, the principal enemy naval base in the south of France. It was known that General Napoleon Bonaparte was in command of an army assembling there, that transports were gathering also, under the protection of a French battle fleet, and that an amphibious expedition was planned, directed against British interests. The question was which and where? Britain itself? Ireland? Southern Italy? Malta? Turkey? Egypt? All lay within Napoleon’s operational reach and some, Malta in particular, were stepping-stones to others. Beyond Egypt lay India, where Britain was rebuilding a substitute for the overseas empire lost in North America in 1783. If Napoleon could put to sea undetected, the Mediterranean would swallow his tracks and Nelson would discover where he had gone only when he had done his worst. The menace was guaranteed to perturb a watcher day and night. Nelson was perturbed. Before the French left port he was anticipating their departure for ‘Sicily, Malta and Sardinia’ and ‘to finish the King of Naples at a blow’ but also perhaps for ‘Malaga and [a] march through Spain’ to invade Portugal, Britain’s longest-standing ally. After they left, in late May, he was in hot pursuit, sometimes on the right track, sometimes the wrong, sometimes behind, sometimes ahead, sometimes in the wrong continent altogether. In the end he ran his quarry to earth. The scent had died in his nostrils several times, however, and his own false calculations had led him astray. Not until one o’clock in the afternoon of 1 August, when the lookout on HMS Zealous reported masts in Aboukir Bay, east of the Nile delta, had Nelson reassurance that the chase begun seventy-three days earlier had been brought to conclusion. How it had makes one of the most arresting operational intelligence stories of history.

The Indo-Pakistan Wars – the maritime point of view

Indian carrier Vikrant played a key role in enforcing a naval blockade over East Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Ghazi was the only long range submarine operated by either of the warring nations in 1965. The sinking of PNS Ghazi played a point of turning role in Indian Naval operations in East Pakistan.

INS Khukri was a British Type 14 (Blackwood-class) frigate of the Indian Navy. She was sunk off the coast of Diu, Gujarat, India by the Pakistan Navy Daphne-class submarine Hangor on 9 December 1971 during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. This was the first warship sunk in action by a submarine since World War II. It remains the Indian navy’s only warship to be lost in war to date.

The departure of the British from the subcontinent in 1947 had left the borders of India and Pakistan demarcated fairly well except in the west along the Rann of Kutch where the great Indus river loses itself in a giant swamp with only a few clearly marked outlets into the sea. The northern portion of the border has always been turbulent owing to the invasion of Kashmir’s territory by Pakistan-sponsored tribesmen in a bid to absorb the state, of which the ruler was undecided which way he should accede in 1947. The subsequent war in 1948 resulted in a cease-fire line which has been active ever since. Pakistan, which is a theocratic state, claims Kashmir on the grounds that the population is predominantly Muslim. India rejects this claim as absurd particularly as secular India has more Muslims than Pakistan. The attitude adopted by Pakistani leaders since 1947 has been to focus the attention of its people on Kashmir as a `burning’ issue, thereby attempting to weld them together as a cohesive small nation threatened by a big bullying neighbour.

In early 1965, the ill-demarcated border in the Rann of Kutch was the scene of a fire fight which was later taken to the world court for adjudication. By May of that year, the month before the monsoon breaks, it was clear to the armed forces of both countries that the possibility of a conflagration existed and normal states of readiness were raised by each service according to its own procedures. These realistic steps were taken by everyone with the full knowledge that the border question in the Rann of Kutch was a red herring, a minor diversion intended to distract attention away from the real issue, which was Pakistan’s attempt to annex Kashmir.

Immediately after the monsoon began to peter out in northern India, Pakistani infiltrators in large numbers slipped into Kashmir where their co-religionists promptly gave them up to the Indian authorities. This operation, which had been planned and executed in secrecy from Pakistan over a number of months, failed catastrophically. To pull the chestnuts out of the fire, a regular Pakistan army blitzkrieg was launched opposite Jammu, with the intention of cutting the only Indian road link to Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. The possibility that this strike would succeed was real. The Indian army leadership had to launch a counteroffensive opposite Lahore to outflank the Pakistani thrust and relieve the pressure on Jammu. The war, although anticipated to some extent as a possible long-term outcome, therefore actually occurred in a time and place that initially caught the Indians, and later the Pakistanis, by surprise. The war, as an instrument of state policy, in this instance, was far from the sea, was fought over disputed territory and neither side had great staying power economically or industrially. The stamina of both sides was further reduced by the consequent international arms embargo imposed at the outbreak of war.

What kind of a sea war could have influenced this conflict? The Pakistan navy had a modest destroyer force, was in the process of inducting one submarine from the US and had its own integral maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The Indians had a larger navy, centred around the small carrier Vikrant supported by new anti-submarine and AD frigates-a navy which was a miniature version of a sea-control navy, modelled around the British concepts of maritime strategy. Whatever may have been its operational directives, neither fleet saw action, being content to protect the areas in which their own merchantmen plied. A Pakistan destroyer which lobbed a few shells on to the Indian coast in a high speed night sortie was the one night sensation of the naval war. Naval control of shipping and contraband control was attempted, but was not stringent enough to cause substantial economic damage.

A debrief of the war, certainly in India, showed that the comparative lack of action at sea had been caused by certain automatic adherence to a maritime strategy which spoke of sea control, commerce protection and other well-established principles of maritime warfare, the tenets on which the sea war in World War II had been conducted. Having been taught by the British, the Indian navy had also accepted many of the precepts on which the British Commander-in-Chief of the Navy (on loan to India in 1947-48) had formulated his plans for building the future navy. Explanations to the non-naval authorities on the undramatic role of the navy in the war, which ran into arguments on sea control and commerce protection, were politely disbelieved. Questions on the relevance of sea power in the kind of conflicts that India would fight in the next 25 years were also raised. These queries could naturally be expected to have an adverse effect on the allocation of resources for the future navy. These facts need to be understood as the background for the war which occurred in 1971.

Pakistan, which had a western wing and an eastern wing separated by 1,000 miles of India, soon found itself fighting to preserve its unity as a nation, when the eastern wing wished to secede. The trouble erupted over the fact that the eastern wing felt economically neglected, a situation which they felt they could correct if their superior numbers could elect a majority in the combined parliament. This would influence the subsequent allotment of cabinet portfolios and allocation of central resources. West Pakistani elected representatives would not agree to a straightforward democratic parliament, and the civil strife in East Pakistan was suppressed with appalling brutality. Over ten million refugees migrated to India, a number far too large for India to absorb. When the United Nations and the world seemed unconcerned with the problem, the only solution appeared to be Indian intervention. This situation continued for the major part of 1971 after the initial suppression of civil revolt in the former East Pakistan occurred in March/April. In this instance, too, the armed contestants on both sides were fully aware of impending hostilities for almost six months and had sufficient time to work out detailed strategies.

The war broke out with a Pakistani attempt to carry out a preemptive air strike against Indian airfields in the west, and then both sides executed well-planned orders. All wars are unusual, but this one had its own special features, especially from the maritime point of view. The aim of the war would obviously be achieved only by soldiers in the eastern wing. However, an irrelevant land war would be fought in the west too, rather like a fishing expedition, to see what territories could be grabbed for use as bargaining tools at the end of the war. There were, therefore, two continental wars proceeding simultaneously, separated by 2,000 miles of ocean. For India it was therefore possible to exercise the classic role of sea control, encompassing sea denial, between the wings, but what could be the navy’s role in the wars in the wings themselves? For Pakistan, a successful defence in the east made sea communications between the wings an imperative, but this was so hopelessly impossible that it was not even attempted except by a couple of blockade runners which were captured and impounded.

The land war in the east lasted 11 days; the Pakistan navy fought, knowing it had no hope of help or reinforcement and no route of withdrawal. The fact that the sea was hostile must have played a major part in the psychology of Pakistani field commanders in the east. Although no major sea battle took place, Indian carrier-borne aircraft crippled or sank all available shipping in East Pakistani harbours.

The absence of major battles illustrates the classical Mahanian observation- that unobtrusive application of sea power achieves the end result in such an imperceptible fashion that the effect of sea power needs to be overemphasised for it to be understood. The Indian maritime strategy in the east was in sharp contrast to the strategy in the west, where an Indian flotilla of Petya class vessels towing Osa class missile boats attacked Karachi harbour and sank all vessels encountered there. The dramatic effect of the `enemy’ main base being battered so captured the imagination of the Indian government, the bureaucracy, the services and the people that the navy never had to explain what navies are for! The Pakistani navy, forever kept short of funds by the ruling army generals, eventually had a manpower ratio to the army of 1:45, making it the most unfavourable in the world. This statistic also proclaimed that in the strategic concepts prevailing in Islamabad in its pursuit to annex Kashmir, and in the inevitable bloody continental war with India, the Pakistani navy would play no role.

The Indians, on the other hand, have continued to build a balanced navy and should a continental war erupt once more, would have considerable time and experience in attempting to solve the question of how a navy can contribute to a continental war. From having learned that a pure ocean-oriented maritime strategy does not affect the outcome of a critical land war, India has learned that a pure Mahanian strategy is not relevant in the context of a land war over disputed territory. Then, what sort of strategy is? The uneducated section of the country can be satisfied by some action, any action. This takes care of the largest interest group- the people. What about the professionals? What about the pressures generated among the armed forces themselves over the pursuit and achievement of a common aim? This is a problem with which sea-going professionals in the subcontinent will have to grapple. It will be interesting to see what answers are found to all these questions; in fact, whether any answers will be found at all. What is evident is the need for a search, which may lead to the answer that other navies in similar situations also seek.