Naval Combat Strategies

Part I: Early Forms of Naval Combat (Hellenistic to Tudor Era)

The earliest forms of naval combat were generally primitive and uncomplicated, and it was simply an extension of land combat that relied on the quality of soldiers and marines rather than the particilar nautical qualities of the ship or the abilities of the commander or sailors and required little in the experise of manuevering or seamanship. 

Basically, it was a close boarding form of combat - where the ships simply provided a floating platform for soldiers to battle at close quarters in a traditional fashion. This type of combat had an enormous advantage in that ships received very little in the way of damage and it allowed the victor to increase the size of it's the fleet at little cost.

In the early days of naval combat, the primary fighting force was the military solider, and combat at sea was not significantly different from that on land.  Naval actions typically  took place near the land so they could eat, sleep, and stick to narrow waters to outmaneuver the opposing fleet. It was not uncommon for ships to beach and battle on land as well. 

About 4-5 century B.C., with the appearance of the ram, and then of the Trireme, the conditions of naval warfare were completely altered. It was no longer a matter of capturing, but rather destroying the adversary.

The Ram

During the classical and Hellenistic periods, the ram was a standard feature on all warships and it forced naval powers to develop sophisticated ship-to-ship combat tactics that utilized the best capabilities of their vessels, their sailing skills, and their fighting force.

A captain had basically two main options when confronted by an enemy, either to strike it or ram it with enough force as to disable it, or grappling it and boarding it to overcome it by force.

Ramming a ship head on was a risky business as the ram could become entagled in the enemy ship, thus allowing one to be boarded, or worse yet, fail to strike the target and allow one's own ship to be damage. The captain and helmsmen needed considerable skill and judegment to time the attack and the oarsmen would be need to be trained to be adept enough to allow for precise manouevering. 

The Trireme

Moreover, within a relatively short period of time, the Trireme had become the de facto standard warship across the Mediterranean. Liek its predecessor, the Trireme was a long galley, that could be rowed by about 150 to 170 oarsmen, arranged in three tiers which allowed for a speed of up to 9-10 knts.

The ships were built using softwoods such as pine, fir, and cypress for interiors and oak only for the outer hulls. Oars were made from a single young fir tree and measured some 4.5 metres in length. As a consequence of using lighter woods, the ship was highly manoeuvrable. The full-size reconstruction of a trireme, the Olympias built in the 1980's has demonstrated that a trireme could turn 360 degrees in less than two ship's lengths and turn a full 90 degrees in a matter of seconds in only a ship's length. The vessel also displayed impressive acceleration and deceleration rates.

In addition to oarsmen, the ship was equipped with two sails of papyrus or flax, used when cruising and taken down and stored on land when in battle conditions. Steering was achieved through two steering oars at each side of the stern and controlled by a single helmsman (kybernetes). Next to the helmsman stood the ship's commander (trierarchos), and both were protected by the upward curving structure at the stern known as the aphlaston. Other crew members were the rowing master (keleustes) who shouted instructions, the 'bow officer' (prorates) who relayed those instructions further down the ship, a piper (auletes) who kept time for the rowers playing a flute-like wind sintrument (aulos), a carpenter (naupegos), and deck crews to man the sails. In addition, they would carry various military personnel such as Hopelites and archers.



The Trireme

In open sea, the Greek navy would sail in a single file line, led by the commander's ship. However, at first sight of enemy ships, the Greek navy would turn to starboard or port to form its line for battle. The battle line consisted of ships lined up side by side, facing the enemy. This abreast formation acted as both an offensive and defensive tactic. Offensively, it allowed the ancient ships main weapon, the ram, to be easily accessible. With the entire fleet alongside each other, there were more rams available to attack the opponent. This formation also provided the Greek fleet with protection by shielding the most vulnerable parts of the ships, which were the sides and the stern. This abreast formation was used in almost all of the naval battles by the Greeks.
The Diekplous Manouver (sailing through)

One of the first naval battle tactics was known as diekplous (sailing through), and eventually became the preferred strategy of the Greek fleets during the fifth century. This involved lining up the ships to face each other, then the attacking side would do its utmost to plow throw the line of enemy ships at top speed. Then they would rapidly come about before the adversary had time to react and attempt to ram the enemy in the stern quarters where the ship was must vulnerable.


A diagram of Diekplous (sailing through) manouever.

In addition to attacking using the ram, the crew also sheared the enemy. Shearing occurred when the oars of one ship collided with any part of the opposing ship. During the collision, the wooden paddles shatter and often skew the rower and the men surrounding him. In addition to maiming, if not immediately killing, the enemy, the attacker is given another advantage to ram the opponent. This opportunity occurs while the attacked vessel stops rowing to evaluate the strength of each side of oarsman, leaving it in a standstill. The temporarily inoperative ship becomes victim to more ramming and spearing attacks

The Syracusans and Corithians perfected the technique by reinforcing the Trireme's sternpost, rams, and the projecting beams at the outrigger of the ships prow known as the Epotides (cathead). The Epotides have been described as two wooden long poles, 4-5m in length with pointy brass heads usually in the shape of cones, attached to both sides of the bow, which served to hold the anchor and for the purpose of increasing shearing damage during a diekplous manouever.

When attacked, the defending ship on the side attacked would withdraw the oars to the length of the Epotide and the handles hovered over heads of the rowers on the opposite side, and then once the opposing ship passed through the oars were then re-actuated. 

One of the difficulties of the strategy was in trying to maintain maximum velocity, and then pulling the oars in at right moment, and then actuating them again quickly,  thus gaining enough momentum as to avoid being driven by the opposing ships ram either broadside or from the stern. 

In one instance, a Greek commander, Dionysius of Phocae, while preparing to confront a superior Persian fleet at Lade in 494 B.C. insisted on drilling his inexperienced crews. Believing his men were unprepared for the impending battle, he called a general assembly among the camp and, in a speech to his men, said: "Now for our affairs are on the razor's edge, men of Ionia, wither we are to be free or slaves ... so if you will bear hardships now, you will suffer temporarily but be able to overcome your enemies." After seven days of hard practicing dissension began to appear within the ranks of the Samians and other officers . As the battle began, many of the Freek ships under the command of Dionysius  refused to engage with the Persians and eventually almost 120 of the 350 Greek warships abandoned the battle leaving the remaining Greek ships to be annihilated .

Despite this setback, Dionysius continued fighting the Persians sinking three warships before being forced to retreat during the final hours of the battle.

Returning to Phocaea, Dionysius attacked several trading vessels and seized their cargo before arriving in Sicily. During his later years, he would become involved in piracy against the Carthaginian and Tyrsenian merchants. However, in keeping with the friendship between Phocaea and Greece, he left travelling Grecian merchants alone.

If the distance permitted, Delphins, which were according to legend, extremely heavy large lead or iron weights in the shape of fish that were attached to the masts and were dropped with some force in the hopes of puncturing a hole in the bottom of the enemy's vessel. These "dolphins" appeared for the first time during the Sicilian expedition of the Peloponnesian War. As described by Thucydides, in The History of the Peloponnesian War, Book VII:

"At last, fighting hard in this fashion, the Syracusans gained the victory, and the Athenians turned and fled between the merchantmen to their own station. The Syracusan ships pursued them as far as the merchantmen, where they were stopped by the beams armed with dolphins suspended from those vessels over the passage. Two of the Syracusan vessels went too near in the excitement of victory and were destroyed, one of them being taken with its crew. After sinking seven of the Athenian vessels and disabling many, and taking most of the men prisoners and killing others, the Syracusans retired and set up trophies for both the engagements, being now confident of having a decided superiority by sea, and by no means despairing of equal success by land. "

In battle, the yards and square sails of the Trireme were deposited on shore, and the foremast was taken out and arranged for maneuvering the Delphins. It probable that these Delphins were not so heavy as legend supposes, and were actually more of a metallic cylinder terminating in sharp cones and were guided in their fall by the cordage on which they had been hoisted. In falling, they acquired great penetrating power, and entered the deck just as the sharp-nosed porpoise enters the water after one of his leaps.

In addition they used the Drepanum, a sickle on the end of a long pole to slice through the rigging and sails of a opposing ship.

Grappling hooks, known as "iron hands" were also used to secure the enemy ship at close quarters.

The Kyklos Manouever ("Hedgehog") defensive tactic

The Kyklos is a defensive tactic against the diekplous. In this strategy, the ships are brought into a tight circle with their bows facing out, it was paricularly effective when outnumbered or facing a faster fleet.

The tight circle prevented the opponent's squadron from infilitrating or destroying the fleet because if the navy used the diekplous, the galley would be encircled by its enemy and rammed.

It was first described in what has become known as the Battle of Artemisium, when a heavily outnumbered Greek fleet defeated the Persian navy. Herodotus of Halicarnassus chronicles the battle in 480 B.C. in book eight of his Histories.

He writes that in order to preserve the unity of the force, the Athenians, the most skilled of the Greeks in naval matters,  were led by the Greek commanders and had planned to meet the Persians off of Artemisium, a small cape north of Euboea, Greece. 

Hwoever, the Persians met the Greeks off the coast of Thessaly, at Aphetae, as a small contingent of Greek ships led by the Athenian commander was being evacuated. The Persians sent 200 ships around the south of Euboea, hoping to trap the Greeks in the channel, but a Persian defector  had warned the Greeks of this plan.  The popular story is that he swam 10 miles to bring the news but it is doubted by Herodotus.

In the first day of the battle, the Persian triremes surrounded the Greek ships, but although they were outnumbered they were able to defeat them by using the rams on their bows, with a retaliatory manoeuver invented by Themistocles known as Kyklos to prevent the diekplous from getting organized. Thetactic is described as "bows on to the barbarians, [and] they drew their sterns together in the middle""

This tactic placed the ships in a circle or more likely due the number of ships, a crescent shape with the bows facing out, and from this position they could pull out and attack any enemy ship careless enough to leave its flank unprotected. This formation also made it possible to overcome any large scale boarding operations. 

Kyklos naval tacic

The Kyklos defensive tactic: by drawing the ships into a circle it prevented ships from
"sailing through" or using a diekplous manouever

The Periplous (sailing around)

Another tactic attributed to the Greeks was the periplous. An example of this tactic is described by Thucydides during the second battle between the Athenians and Peloponnesian's in the Gulf of Corinth. During this engagement, a single Athenian galley was being pursued by a Peloponnesian ship until the Athenian ship circled around a merchant ship and rammed the Peloponnesian vessel and sank her. Other variants include lining up as in a diekplous, but rather than "sailing through" it involved sailing around the enemy, and then ramming the stern in a way so as to basicaly "outflank" the opposition. This was particularly useful when lighter and more manoueverable craft was engaged by a heavily armoured opponent. The Athenians were reknowned for efforts to lighten their triremes to make them more manoueverable than their Persian enemies and were often successful with this type of tactic.


The classic Periplous manouver as described by Thucydides


Youtube Video: Trireme - Deadnought of the Mediterranean

Naval Ordinance

During the classical and Hellenistic periods, naval combat still was characterized by an absence of recourse to the use of war machinery. However, this began to change as ships became much larger with "poly" decks known by the Greeks as "giants of the sea" appeared, and artillery became one of the prinicipal components of naval combat. This artillery was made up of the entire classic arsenal of antiquity -- ballistae, onagers, scorpions, and catapults that hurled heavy bolts, balls of stone or lead, containers fo flaming materials and even poisonous snakes upon the enemy. In addition, towers were added at the bow of the ship from which archers and javelin throwers could riddle their adversaries.

By the 9th century BC with frequent regularity incendiary arrows and pots containing combustible substances, including a number of sulphur-, petroleum-, and bitumen-based mixtures were used in  naval warfare.

The defense against this mechanism of warfare, was to put armour plating on the ship, and build strong screens above the planking to protect the crew. A ship equipped in this manner was refered to as a cataphract, or armoured ship.  With this, tactics changed again, as the heavy units acted as fortresses, as it were, with the smaller ships coming in around them to take cover, and the moving off again to attack. When it came to boarding procedures, fighting intensified by the increasing the number of fighters, and with a great the use of grapnel hooks, and "dolphins", which were heavy masses of lead hurled down on the decks of the enemy ship in the hopes of smashing it. 

New methods of ordiance were devloped and  Thucydides mentions that in the siege of Delium in 424 b.c a long tube on wheels was used which blew flames forward using a large bellows. In naval warfare, the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I (r. 491–518) is recorded by chronicler John Malalas to have been advised by a philosopher from Athens called Proclus to use sulphur to burn the ships of Vitalianus

Greek Fire

Around the time of the crusades, one of the most deadliest and technically advance uses of ordinance at sea was "Greek Fire" which was developed around 627AD. Often referred to by modern historians, as a "ship killer" the chief method of deployment of Greek fire, which sets it apart from similar substances, was its projection through a tube (siphōn), for use aboard ships or in sieges. Portable projectors (cheirosiphōnes) were also invented, reputedly by Emperor Leo VI. The Byzantine military manuals also mention that jars (chytrai or tzykalia) filled with Greek fire and caltrops wrapped with tow and soaked in the substance were thrown by catapults, while pivoting cranes (gerania) were employed to pour it upon enemy ships. The cheirosiphōnes especially were prescribed for use at land and in sieges, both against siege machines and against defenders on the walls, by several 10th-century military authors, and their use is depicted in the Poliorcetica of Hero of Byzantium. The Byzantine dromons usually had a siphōn installed on their prow under the forecastle, but additional devices could also on occasion be placed elsewhere on the ship. Thus in 941, when the Byzantines were facing the vastly more numerous Rus' fleet, siphōns were placed also amidships and even astern.

The Byzantines typically used it in naval battles to great effect, as it could continue burning while floating on water. It provided a technological advantage and was responsible for many key Byzantine military victories, most notably the salvation of Constantinople from two Arab sieges, thus securing the Empire's survival. The composition of Greek Fire was kept secret so it could not be used against them, even today we do not know exactly how Greek Fire was created or what the substance actually was.

greek fire
Greek fire in use in a naval battle involving the Romans against the rebel Thomas the Slav.
The inscription reads, " "the fleet of the Romans setting ablaze the fleet of the enemies"


Youtube video: A demonstration of Greek Fire

During the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, Arab fleets first appeared, raiding Sicily in 652, and defeating the Byzantine Navy in 655. Constantinople was saved from a prolonged Arab siege in 678 by the invention of Greek fire, an early form of flamethrower that was devastating to the ships in the besieging fleet. These were the first of many encounters during the Byzantine-Arab Wars.

Eventually, the Islamic Caliphate, or Arab Empire, became the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean Sea from the 7th to 13th centuries, during what is known as the Islamic Golden Age. One of the most significant inventions in medieval naval warfare was the torpedo, invented in Syria by the Arab inventor Hasan al-Rammah in 1275.

Hassan Al Rammah between 1270 and 1280,  worked in Syria after the Mongol destruction of Baghdad. He wrote a treatise on gunpowder and rockets called “The Book of Military Horsemanship and Ingenious War Devices”. This book included more than 100 recipes for gunpowder, as 22 of them could be used as rocket fuel. Experts state that at least one of these recipes is extremely close to the modern ideal mix for gunpowder. Al Rammah also designed an early torpedo, probably the first of its kind.

The torpedo was named Al-Rammah and it was a point-and-fire weapon far cheaper and more efficient than a fire ship. When activated, the torpedo’s built-in pair of rockets would push it through the water, and tail stabilizers would direct it to the target. A spear on the front would impale itself in the hull of an enemy ship, it also contained hooks on the side to snag if it was to miss head-on and then the whole first-of-a-kind torpedo would explode.

His torpedo ran on water with a rocket system filled with explosive materials and had three firing points. It was an effective weapon against ships. Hassan Al-Rammah describes the device as an 'the egg which moves itself and burns'. The illustration and text suggest at least that it was intended to move on the surface of water. Two sheet iron pans were fastened together and made tight by felt; the flattened pear-shaped vessel was filled with "naphtha", metal filings, and good mixtures (probably containing saltpetre), and propelled by a large rocket"

Al Rammah Torpedo
The Al-Rammah rocket "torpedo"


Youtube Video: Al-Rammah Rocket Torpedo in Action

Due to the use of rams, greek fire, and torpedos, naval warfare developed from "close range" hand to hand combat to include combat to that included using a longer range "artillery".

This developed considerably during the time of the first crusades in Europe. The Norman longships, invading England in 1066, are shown in the Bayeux tapestry with fortified platforms for archers at each end. They resemble small castles, and the notion of a castle from which to fight on shipboard becomes enshrined in naval terminology. Raised areas at the stern and bow are known as the sterncastle and the forecastle (often reduced to fo'c'sle). From these "castles" using seige machines and other weaponry such as the crossbow.

The Templar ships at the Battle of Acre used a "turret" -- that is archers and seige weapons protected by a "shell" of leather and wood.  From the 14th century these castles begin to be occupied by fighting men of a different kind.

The late Middle Ages saw the development of the cogs, caravels and carracks ships capable of surviving the tough conditions of the open ocean, with enough backup systems and crew expertise to make long voyages routine. In addition, they grew from 100 tons to 300 tons displacement, enough to carry cannons as armament and still have space for cargo.

The English at this time (14th century) did not  have a purpose-built navy. What they did have was a merchant marine ship known as a cog. The cog had a deep-draught and round-hull that was driven by a single great sail set on a mast amidships. These ships were requisitioned from the merchant service and converted into warships by the addition of wooden "castles" at the bow and stern, and the erecting of crow's nest platforms at the masthead, from which archers could use bows or drop stones on to enemy craft alongside. The cogs weighed two or three hundred tons and were well able to carry many fighting men. Their high freeboard made them superior to the oared vessels such as the gallese or trireme in close combat, particularly when they were fitted with the castles. The king by common law was supposed to pay for the ships that he impressed into service

In the north of Europe, the near-continuous conflict between England and France was characterised by raids on coastal towns and ports along the coastlines and the securing of sea lanes to protect troop–carrying transports. The Battle of Dover in 1217, between a French fleet of 80 ships under Eustace the Monk and an English fleet of 40 under Hubert de Burgh, is notable as the first recorded battle using sailing ship tactics.  The earliest reference to the word "artillery" in conjuction with a naval vessel is on a ship attacking Antwerp in 1336.

The battle of Arnemuiden (23 September 1338), which resulted in a French victory, marked the opening of the Hundred Years War and was the first battle involving artillery. However the battle of Sluys, fought two years later, saw the destruction of the French fleet in a decisive action which allowed the English effective control of the sea lanes and the strategic initiative for much of the war.

The Battle of Sluys involved the age old tactic of grappling, and using the tops, and "fighting platforms" known as castles in hand to hand melee combat. The artillery was provided by archers, and men in the tops throwing heavy objects on the troops below. The battle was essentially a land battle at sea. The two opposing ships would be lashed together and the men-at-arms would then engage in hand-to-hand fighting.  The use of artillery in the form of archers was considered one of the deciding factors in the battle. 

The dispositions of the French were made in accordance with the usual medieval tactics of a fleet fighting on the defensive. Quiéret and Béhuchet formed their forces into three or four lines chained together, with a few of the largest stationed in front as outposts. Admiral Barbavera, the experienced commander of the Genoese fleet, was concerned about this. He realised that they would lack maneuverability in their anchorage and be open to attack from the ship-based English archers. He therefore advised the French commander to put to sea. Béhuchet, who as constable exercised general command, refused to leave the anchorage as Barbavera suggested. Edward's intentions were well known, he wished to sail up the Zwin to Bruges and land his army to support his invasion plans. Historians believe that Béhuchet's intention was to bar Edward's way.

Edward sent his ships against the French fleet in units of three, two ships crammed with archers and one full of men-at-arms. The English ships with the archers would come alongside a French ship and rain arrows down on its decks, the men-at-arms would then board and take the vessel. It has been argued that the English archers, with their long bows, could accurately shoot twenty arrows per minute at a range of up to 300 yards (270 m), whereas the Genoese crossbowmen could only manage two. This may, however, be an exaggeration of the speed difference between the weapons. A test conducted by Mike Loades for Weapons That Changed Britain - The Longbow found that a belt-and-claw span crossbow could discharge 4 bolts in 30 seconds, while a longbow could shoot 9. A second speed test conducted using a hand-span crossbow found that the weapon could shoot 6 bolts in the same time it took for a longbow to shoot 10.


Battle Of Sluys
The Battle of Sluys as chronicled by Jean Froissart's, circa 14th century.

From the late Middle Ages onwards, warships began to carry cannon of various calibres. The Battle of Arnemuiden, fought between England and France in 1338 at the start of the Hundred Years' War, was the first recorded European naval battle using artillery. The English ship Christopher was armed with three cannons and one hand gun.  By the mid 15th century, Italian and English warships were routinely carrying guns.
The 16th century was an era of transition in naval warfare. Since ancient times, war at sea had been fought much like that on land: with melee weapons and bows and arrows, but on floating wooden platforms rather than battlefields. Though the introduction of guns was a significant change, it only slowly changed the dynamics of ship-to-ship combat. As guns became heavier and able to take more powerful gunpowder charges, they needed to be placed lower in the ship, closer to the water line.
From the 16th century, the cannon became the most important weapon at sea. Around the same time sailing warships began to carry an increasing number of cannons, most of them firing to the side. As the number of cannon steadily increased throughout the 16th and 17th century, tactics shifted and were no longer geared entirely to boarding.

Next: Tudor Naval Tactics