Turret Versus Broadside: An Anatomy of British Naval Prestige, Revolution and Disaster, 1860-1870

Reviewed by Dr. Joseph Moretz

In Turret Versus Broadside, Howard J. Fuller, a Reader in War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in Great Britain, relates the history of the Royal Navy’s struggle to retain maritime supremacy in the face of ironclad warships innovated by the U.S. Navy during the Civil War.

The engagement between ironclads in April 1862 off Hampton Roads might have ended in a tactical draw, but the strategic effects of the encounter between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia were of an altogether higher order. It represented a continuance of the Union Navy’s blockade against the Confederacy to be sure, but also across the sea there was a realization that England’s wooden walls might no longer suffice as Britannia’s sure shield. For a maritime empire singularly dependent on the sea, John Ericsson’s handiwork threatened to upend the presumed superiority of the Royal Navy in American waters if not on the greater seas. In view of the recent contretemps arising from the Trent affair when the screw-frigate USS San Jacinto had interfered with a British steamer on the neutral commons the risk was now ever present that an outcome ending to London’s satisfaction then might not necessarily be repeated. True enough in 1862 when the U.S. Navy remained a minor fleet and truer still three years later given the rapid rise in size and capability of that navy owing to four years of war. England itself might not be at risk, but Canada and British holdings in the Caribbean potentially were to a rambunctious polity that espoused national expansion at the expense of others.         

In hindsight, the risk to Canada remained largely theoretical if only because a most tumultuous and internecine war had reduced any American appetite to try conclusions with a power far more capable than the Confederate States. That may have alleviated one source of trouble for Britain, but others remained closer to home including France and Russia. The former had already presented a challenge when it commissioned the Gloire in 1859 and now the latter promised to create a fleet of gunboats akin to the Monitor to ensure a repeat of the Crimean War did not transpire. All this was deeply worrying to the British Admiralty and to the nation at large courtesy of a free-wielding popular press framing matters as a test of ‘turret versus broadside’. In truth, as Fuller reminds us,that formulation was altogether too narrow masking as it did elements of service ethos, geography, strategy, industrial capability, bureaucratic infighting, and professional interest groups which underpinned the period’s naval competitions.  

The Royal Navy countered the Gloire by launching a ship equal to its name—HMS Warrior—but answering the likes of the Monitor tested the British Admiralty severely as Ericsson’s prodigy did not aim to establish command of the broad seas but merely secure control of local waters. As such, the Monitor could forsake ocean-going attributes, such as range and speed which had resulted in ships of ever-greater dimensions, for a low-freeboard armored-platform bearing the largest guns and optimized to fight in shallow waters. Such vessels threatened to undermine a rival’s establishment of a close blockade or prohibit the projection of a military force ashore, thereby reducing two-key elements of offensive naval power. They could also be constructed more quickly and cheaply than a fleet of Warriors.

The modern reader will appreciate that the problem giving rise to the Monitor remained of a different sort than that which gave birth to the Warrior. Occurring in an age when maritime theory had yet to be codified by the likes of Alfred Mahan or Julian Corbett, that void doubtless made arriving at a sound, reasoned response the more difficult still. The assertions and assumptions underlining the alternatives proposed were not always voiced. More problematic, each represented a compromise and, at best, offered only a partial solution depending on components far from perfected. Needs must, however, and the Royal Navy rose to meet the latest challenge.

Unlike previous challenges which saw the Admiralty fashioning its response along known, established lines, the state of naval shipbuilding at this moment was undergoing profound changes owing to the scientific and industrial revolutions underway. A byproduct of the ensuing turmoil witnessed the font of naval engineering expertise seemingly shift from the Admiralty and its naval dockyards to Britain’s industrial and commercial concerns of more recent vintage. More than a question of ‘turrets versus broadside’, designers, statesmen, and practitioners wrestled with technological change of an unprecedented scale, be it armor, rifled-guns or large smooth-bore cannons. That they would not always decide wisely stood as a certainty. 

In a work thoroughly researched and persuasively argued, Fuller documents the threads of the multi-faceted problem facing the Royal Navy. Competing solutions were fielded and tested with most quietly giving way to the next ‘ideal’. HMS Captain, a masted turret-ship and the brainchild of Captain Cowper Phipps Coles, proved the exception. Coming to grief in a storm off the Spanish coast in September 1870, Coles and nearly 500 others went down in the Captain. Not even the Crimean War had proven so deadly to the British Navy and the ensuing court-martial established the essential failure as one of design. If the verdict absolved the Admiralty’s Controller Department which had fought tooth and nail against Cole and his radical design, then the challenge that had fostered the Captain still remained. In an otherwise excellent and highly recommended work, Fuller refrains from taking the story to its logical conclusion. That is a minor pity for the story of history is always one of context, with what follows being as important as what precedes.

Oscar Wilde might not have had the tragedy of the Captain in mind when he avowed ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing badly’, but the point remains that maintaining British naval mastery demanded a degree of risk-taking in the face of new and deadlier threats. Lavishly illustrated, Turret Versus Broadside will appeal to those attuned to nineteenth century naval affairs or the integration of new technologies in complex social and political environments.

Dr. Joseph Moretz is a member of the British Commission for Military History.

Turret Versus Broadside: An Anatomy of British Naval Prestige, Revolution and Disaster, 1860-1870 (Howard J. Fuller, Helion & Company, Warwick, Great Britain, 2021).

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