Monday, October 17, 2005


Nelson planned to use submarines and mines


Times Online
By John Crossland
October 16, 2005

HORATIO NELSON held secret talks at Downing Street on sinking Napoleon’s ships with submarines, mines and rockets, according to a newly unearthed record of the meeting. The plan involved towing the mines, referred to as “infernal machines”, across the Channel on high-speed catamarans and then detonating them beneath the French vessels.

The talks took place just weeks before Nelson boarded HMS Victory in September 1805 to sail to his death at the battle of Trafalgar, the bicentenary of which falls this Friday.

The meeting is described in a letter written by Sidney Smith, one of Nelson’s commanders, and included in The Pursuit of Victory, a new biography of the admiral by Roger Knight, visiting professor of naval history at Greenwich University.

Knight said this weekend that Nelson’s interest in new weapons, which came too late to affect Trafalgar, stemmed from his worries that the war against Napoleon was near deadlock.
“The war had reached a stalemate before Trafalgar,” said Knight. “Weapon research was developing very quickly and here was an idea that could give us a decisive edge.”

Celebrations of the bicentenary reach their climax this week. They have already included an international fleet review at Portsmouth in June and a re-creation of Nelson’s funeral on the Thames in London last month.

This week’s events include a wreath-laying followed by a reception held by the Queen on board Victory at Portsmouth on Friday. Next Sunday there will be a naval “spectacular” in Trafalgar Square, London, and a memorial service in St Paul’s, where Nelson is buried.

Knight found the letter describing Nelson’s meeting at the British Library while researching his book. It was among ministerial papers belonging to William Windham, secretary for war in 1806.
Smith wrote the letter to Windham on February 12, 1806, four months after Trafalgar, to lobby the new government to go ahead with the plans despite Nelson’s death.

Smith described how the Downing Street weapons meeting was attended by Nelson; William Pitt the Younger, the prime minister; Lord Castlereagh, secretary for war; Robert Fulton, an American submarine pioneer; and William Congreve, an army rocket inventor.

Smith then wrote that he had been “directed to explain to Lord Collingwood (Nelson’s successor) all that passed in Downing Street, when Lord Nelson, ‘Mr Francis’ (Fulton’s pseudonym), Mr Congreve and myself attended at Lord Castlereagh’s office and met Mr Pitt”.

Fulton gave the meeting expert advice on the use of catamaran-mounted torpedoes. Previously he had designed the first “submarine boat”, the Nautilus, in Paris, but when he approached Napoleon’s ministry of the marine with a plan to blockade the mouth of the Thames with them, it scornfully dismissed him. Fulton crossed secretly to England, where he demonstrated his design to Pitt.

Congreve’s weapons, which were fuelled with gunpowder and had exploding iron warheads, would have been mounted on batteries on specially adapted rocket boats.

In his letter, Smith told Windham that after Nelson’s death he had taken over the navy’s special operations. He wrote: “Mr Congreve’s rockets and Mr Francis’s submarine exploding ‘carcases’ with 12 double-canoes (catamarans) — galleys . . . calculated for rowing, sailing and landing field pieces and infantry in a surf are annexed to my command.”

Smith described how the Admiralty had ordered 10 large catamarans to be built at Dover and described how sailors for his force would be recruited: “The crew to be selected from among the smugglers on the coast who are allowed additional pay to induce them to relinquish their trade which is so injurious to the Revenue.”

Despite Smith’s lobbying, the Royal Navy’s interest waned with the deaths of Nelson at Trafalgar and Pitt three months later. In addition, two commando-style torpedo raids had earlier failed to inflict serious damage on Napoleon’s invasion flotillas anchored at Boulogne.

The torpedoes consisted of two 18in-diameter copper cylinders loaded with powder and weighing two tons. They were eased under a ship’s keel by a black-clad masked seaman in a fast rowing boat.

A watercolour of the battle of Trafalgar is depicted in six stamps issued this week by the Royal Mail to mark the 200th anniversary of the naval victory. The 32ft long work by William Heath was bought by the National Maritime Museum more than 60 years ago but then locked away until it was rediscovered in about 1980.

It has been exhibited only once, in 1988, because it is so delicate. Even the Royal Mail’s stamp designer, Dick Davis, who has “squeezed” the entire canvas onto the six stamps, was allowed only to work from photographs of it.


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