02 Aug 22

These engaging illustrated texts provide an overview of ships and activities that have come to define late 19th century imperialism, the term ‘gunboat diplomacy’ commonly deployed when discussing coercive action against weaker states. China still refers to gunboat activity. A more nuanced usage would stress that great powers were able to exert influence in distant regions by deploying small, relatively weak naval assets because they were supported by altogether more impressive forces, which could be summoned by the latest communication technology, the submarine telegraph. In that respect very little has changed, while the term ‘gunboat’ no longer appears in the Navy List, small ships are still deployed at distance to support diplomacy.

Nineteenth century gunboats combined steam propulsion, relatively small size and an armament of one or two heavy guns. They were developed in the late 1840s, to attack hostile naval bases, and mass produced during the ‘Crimean’ War, 1854-56, a conflict dominated by coastal power projection, including a brilliant gunboat campaign in the Sea of Azov, cutting the logistics of the Russian army in Sevastopol.  When the war ended a gunboat fleet approaching 250 units was used to demonstrate why Britain had triumphed. Having dealt with Russia some of those vessels were redeployed to operate in Chinese waters, others were mobilised to deter Union aggression in December 1861.

Colonial patrolling was a secondary mission for gunboats, coastal offensive operations against major powers mission remained the primary war role. A distinct type were created in the 1860s, the ‘Flat Iron’ to carry 35 ton guns into hostile coastal waters. In 1914 one of them served on the Belgian coast, engaging German troops with a modern 9.2” gun. Using small, slow craft to represent the world’s greatest empire reflected the prestige that made every gunboat a placeholder for a large fleet. Their ubiquity should not disguise their consequence. When Britain went to war in 1914 the remaining obsolescent gunboats were either paid off or deployed into coastal and riverine campaigns, including in Iraq. Their roles were assumed by newly built small monitors, like M33 now at Portsmouth, and escort sloops.

The American experience of gunboats after 1885 reflected its’ rising consequence in the wider world, the emergence of a potent battlefleet, and the consistent failure to provide an adequate cruiser force before the 1920s. As American imperialism moved offshore the nation needed local assets for coastal patrols and counter-insurgency, notably in the Philippines after 1898, and then on the troubled rivers of inter-war China. The last pair of purpose-built gunboats, the Erie class of the 1930s, skilfully exploited the London Naval Treaty limits to create a 2,000-ton, 20 knot ship armed with four six-inch guns, capable of escorting the slow American battlefleet. While some American gunboats were mini-cruisers, others were extemporised from the steam yachts of the super-rich, an idea that might be revived, to meet the needs of war in 1898 and 1917-18. Gunboats served the United States well, but serving in them was never popular in a fleet dominated by big ships. Mahan, who commanded an old Civil War gunboat before he moved to command a writing desk, understood their critical role, but his disciples preferred the battlefleet.

While small slow ships primarily armed with heavy guns for surface combat and shore bombardment became obsolete in the age of aircraft and submarines, their mission, the projection of influence, supporting diplomacy and coastal offensives are as relevant today as they have ever been. These two handy guides might start some fresh thinking about minimalism and flexibility, just don’t call them gunboats!