Episode 79 - Jib all Over the Place (Ships Week)
Updated: Oct 12
Sam's Notes: The Battle of Fimreite
Well, Tom, I'm back with a bang this week with one of the medieval periods most stupid naval battles. And it's a prime example of how you can bloody well forget to ride a bike, because it shows how in less than a century, the marauding Vikings of Norway straight up forgot how to boat.
It's known as the Battle of Fimreite, and it occurred in June 1184 near the village of the same name, along the Sognfjord, the largest and deepest in Norway.
Now, for a little bit of background, 1184 was around a century after the end of the Viking age. The church had gotten its dirty mitts onto Scandinavian culture, and it was less beards and battles and more boredom and Benedictine monks. Bastard sons of the Big Boss upstairs. Buggering boys with bishops blessings. Something alliterative beginning with B.
The problem with all being Christian and that is that it makes pillaging very difficult, although rape is still on the cards, so the Vikings found themselves rather short on silver and gold, and instead had turned to farming and manufacture, making flat-pack longhouses and Lego longboats. This in turn meant that market towns popped up, and with them came traders, merchants, and eventually centralised governments. As with most of these things, you ended up with the very rich, who owned stuff, and the very poor, who were owned by the rich and got very little back in return, as per the the early viking socialist theorist Carl Marxsonn.
This made the poor people very angry, and some of them decided that they didn't want a rich king to rule over them, they wanted to be free to be ruled by some other bloke, and so they rebelled under the leadership of that other bloke, a former priest named Sverre Sigurdsonn, and his male heir Don't Sverresonn, who was frightfully rude and constantly telling his dad to fuck off. He didn't exist.
Anyway, Sverre and his peasants were jokingly called the Birkbeiners by the upper classes, which translates as birch-shoed, on account they were so poor they could only afford to wear tree bark for shoes, because as history tells us, Tom, mocking the downtrodden man with a sword, gun or guillotine always ends well if you're posh.
The Birkbeiners took this as a compliment and adopted the name themselves to stoke the rebellion among their poor compatriots, and a full on civil war erupted between Sverre, and King Magnus Erlingsson, who, famously explained the action of the earth's poles causing the northern lights to his eldest male heir, It's Magnets-sonn.
Sverre was two things Tom, a tactical Genius who relied on guerilla tactics to defeat stronger enemies, and famously tiny. He was so small in fact that he had to sit on horseback in all his battles so he could see over the heads of his men. This, by the way, is attested to in Sverre's Saga, the official King Sverre sticker book and annual, which he apparently wrote the introduction to himself, so he was clearly pretty happy with his reduced stature.
Anyway, so we come to the silliest medieval naval battle of all time, in which Sverre and the Birkbeiners faced off against the fleet of King Magnus V. Magnus had the biggest fleet, of 26 large longboats. On the other side, Sverre, presumably riding a dolphin to get a decent view, had just 14 ships. One, however, was a huge longboat, one of the largest ever built, the Mariasuda. Unfortunately, it was built by a man who clearly had a lot of ambition but very little know-how, because it was unfeasibly large, impossible to steer, and useless outside of a sheltered cove.
However, not to be outdone in the stupidity stakes, Magnus had a genius idea. Ships had a bad habit of drifting wherever they wanted to, especially once you got down to the dirty business of boarding each other and stopping rowing to knock heads. So, to keep everyone together and try to counter the enormous Mariasuda, he tied all of his ships together. Which made them almost impossible to control, turn, or do anything else to - because they couldn't move move than a few metres against the ropes.
Sverre had a brainwave. He sent the Mariasuda right into the middle of Magnus' fleet, distracting them. One against 26 was hardly fair, but Sverre then took the rest of his fleet, and picked off Magnus ships one at a time, making it 13 against one.
Because the ships couldn't manoeuvre and were desperately trying to not bash into each other or the Mariasuda, it was really easy for Sverre to bundle on the exhausted stragglers at the rim of the big ball-o-longboat, boarding one at a time en-masse, and attacking the crew. Being hugely outnumbered and having forgotten their Viking roots, the crew of the attacked ship would jump overboard and swim to the next nearest friendly ship, which would then be attacked in turn.
Over time, this meant two things. Firstly, the king's men were surrounded and losing ships fast. Secondly, more and more men were piled into less and less ships, which were becoming more tangled up, even harder to control, and very top-heavy. Eventually, Magnus' ships became so heavy with sopping wet Scandinavians, that they began to sink all on their own, causing the survivors to cling to the few remaining ships, and so on.
And with the last ship, Magnus himself went down. The entire navy – some 2000 sailors, was wiped out with barely a man lost on Sverre's side.
Sverre went on to win the civil war and become one of Norway's most celebrated Kings, before finding himself excommunicated and forced to defend the throne against a series of aristocratic rebels known as the Baglers, presumably led by Salmon creamcheese-sonn, or possibly his cousin, Toasted wholegrain with seeds-sonn.
He more or less won the war, and quelled several other uprisings to boot, but unfortunately fell ill and died shortly after in 1202.
Tom's Notes; The Sinking of the HMS Victoria
A whole new world set-up
I can show you my trains
Pre-Beeching, vintage railway
Together we will skip leg day
Watching the Flying Scotsman go by
I’ve got a shipwreck for you! Hooray! One of Tom’s favourite topics!
Prior to our little break, I had chosen many medieval English topics and so I wanted to branch out into something more varied. I am still talking about British history, but it’s far less provincial than some of my previous contributions. I also promise to do something not British next week. Scouts honour.
This story is reasonably well-known but it’s a good one. I could easily tell the story in a ‘haha, weren’t they idiots! Point and laugh’ way, which I will still do a bit, but with a nod to the fact that as always, the reality is more complex than just one colossal act of stupidity.
Let me introduce you to the HMS Victoria, not to be mixed up with HMS Victoria, HMS Victoria or the earlier HMS Victoria. You see it is one of 4 naval ships to have been named after Victoria Beckham. Often seen sailing alongside HMS Dave. AMERICAN ACCENT: “Oh my god, Beckham has curled in a goal from all of 20 yards, down-town Miami, that’s got to be a three-pointer, what an excellent goal, I’m gonna need a time-out, we love soccer, aren’t home-run-goals great!”.
On the subject of funny names, here are some amusing Royal Navy ships names from this era.
HMS Rodney; or was it Marleen!
HMS Calypso; “day-o, day-o, daylight come and me want my ration of rum”.
HMS Inflexible; “ooooh I’ve never been able to touch me hull, and my mast is so stiff”.
HMS Shannon; “alright! Leave it out! Oi, HMS Hercules, smack ‘em will yer!”, “Hold me back Shazza!”.
HMS Inconstant. A bit of stop/start ship.
The HMS Victoria that we’re going to discuss was built in 1887; a time of rapid innovation in naval ships and tactics. Only 82 years earlier the Battle of Trafalgar has ushered in the period where Britannia ruled the waves and HMS Victoria was the most advanced naval ship of the time. Incidentally, Nelson flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar was HMS Victory (not Victoria) and can still be seen in Portsmouth. It was an ‘ironclad’ meaning it was, unsurprisingly, clad in iron or steel. It had huge steam engines, whopping great guns and it could sail at great speed. I chose not to go into too much detail with the specs for this ship because it’s very nerdy and exceptionally boring to most normal people. It will suffice to say that it was the naval equivalent of a polar bear, a bull elephant, an alpha alligator, a stacked squirrel, a buff bison, a voluptuous vole. It had a sister ship (there were only two of the kind) and they, together, were known by such a terrorising nickname, a nickname suitable for a wrestling tag-team duo, they were, “the slippers”.
HMS Camperdown had been completed 2 years earlier than HMS Victoria. It too was a cutting-edge ship for the era.
Let’s digress to why it was called the Camperdown.
Camperduin is a small coastal village on the Dutch coastline. In 1797 the British North Sea Fleet during the French Revolutionary Wars gave the Dutch Navy (The Dutch Republic had become a client state of the smelly Frenchies) a right royal spanking at the Battle of Camperdown. POSH ENGLISH ACCENT Bend-over the lap of Britannia and have your botty lashed raw with the wooden-spoon of King George III. The British fleet lost no ships and capture 11 Dutch ships.
So, what were HMS Victoria and HMS Camperdown doing together in the Mediterranean in 1893 that is so fascinating and amusing to us today? Well! It’s jolly good that you asked.
But before I explain this, I would like to introduce the most important character in our story; Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon. He was the daughter of a Trollope, Anne Trollope for that matter. He was a prestigious talent in the Navy, as you would expect from someone who attained the level of Vice Admiral. As has been mentioned, this was a time with the British Empire was huge, and Britannia had a reputation as the pre-eminent sea power, so it was quite a time to be in the Navy. Amongst other things, Tryon saw action in the Crimean War and spent time patrolling the waters around Australia. Fascinatingly, when reading up about this chap, I came across a number of Royal Navy manoeuvres that Tryon took part in. These were giant role-playing games usually involving two fleets of ships (real fleets, crews, ships, captains etc.) that took place around the British Isles. The two teams would have different objectives and the games would last months, with ships sailing everywhere, pretending to raid towns, sink merchant ships and all the other things you’d find in real war, much to the enjoyment of the British public who would follow them in the papers.
In 1891, Tryon was appointed Fleet Commander of the Mediterranean Fleet; Britain’s most powerful fleet. We’ve just talked about preparations for war. Tryon was at this point in his career concerned that the practice of war was too different to the real thing. In particular, he believed that the Royal Navy’s system of innumerable flag combinations to communicate between boats would become unworkable in a real battle when the adrenaline is flowing, gunpowder smoke is in the air and there’s a fair chance the part of the boat where you place the flag has been blown to smithereens. It’s difficult in the heat of the battle to sit calmly down and peruse your book of flag combinations to interpret what you commander is communicating. Tryon wanted to encourage captains to use their initiative a bit more and so he simplified the flag system. That said, he was still a stickler for rules and someone who insisted on respect for authority and disciplined following of commands, he just believed that there were times when a captain should be willing to do things their own way to achieve the desired end goal (for example, if the instructed course of action would lead to something bad that had been unforeseen – not blind obedience).
So, what were HMS Victoria and HMS Camperdown doing together in the Mediterranean in 1893 that is so fascinating and amusing to us today? Well! It’s jolly good that you asked that question again. We’ve set things up nicely.
In June 1893, the majority of the Mediterranean fleet, 11 ironclad warships, were exercising near Tripoli in Lebanon. The ships were arranged in 2 columns, one led by Tryon in the HMS Victoria, the other led by Rear Admiral Markham in the HMS Camp-Trousers-Down (The Rear Admiral has his Camp-Trousers-Down) Camperdown. The plan, that everyone was aware of, was to travel in these 2 columns before one by one, in pairs, turning 180 degrees inwards so that the whole column would be facing the opposite direction. Usually, this would require closer to 2km distance between the ships to allow for turning circles. Tryon wanted it to take place with 1km between the ships. This was half-heartedly questioned, but Tryon insisted.
When the order to turn was given, more exactly, “alter course in succession 16 points to port preserving the order of the fleet”, it was followed.
You can see where this is going.
Markham was confused by the order and delayed confirming that he understood it. Tryon sent him a semaphore message (so flags) saying “what are you waiting for man?!”. The two ships rapidly began turning towards each other, with Markham half-expecting a late command to resolve the issue, and low and behold, the two jewels in the Royal Navy, flagships of the most powerful fleet in the Royal Navy, and subsequently the world, smashed into each other. Even in the late, late moments when catastrophe could have been avoided, the captains of both ships awaited commands.
The ironclad ships of this era were designed to be cable of ramming other ships. This was naval tactic dredged from the salty seas of the past on account of the fact that ironclad ships were so damn difficult to destroy with artillery fire. In this situation, it meant that HMS Trousers-Down gave Victoria a good ramming, square in the side. The turning momentum of Camperdown removed the ship’s ram from the side of Victoria, letting in water before watertight doors in the hull of the ship could be closed to isolate the leak. Initially Tryon believed that the ship could still get to shore because the engine room was fully operational. Lifeboats sent by other ships were turned back. However, the sailors on board ship were having a torrid time controlling the spread of the leak, with men being locked behind closed doors and others being washed away. The situation rapidly got out of control and the ship was abandoned.
The ship capsized 13 minutes after the collision and went down horribly front first. The spinning propellers at the back of the ship were a horrifying site for men treading water as the sea frothed and swelled with buoyant parts of the ship shooting to the surface, lifeboats falling from a great height into the sea and explosions from the engine room as the funnels were drowned in sea water. The nearby lifeboats could no enter this hell for fear of capsizing. Men in the engine rooms did not receive the commands to abandon ship and must have died in a horrific manner.
HMS Camperdown narrowly avoided sinking herself and the ships in the columns performed comedic stops to prevent them ramming the ships in front.
Tryon went down with the ship, as did 358 men, half of the crew. Those who were saved owe it to another ship captain who ignored orders to withdraw the lifeboats.
What a fuck up!
And the moral of this story folks? Don’t turn around rapidly with your pants-down when your Rear Admiral is checking out Victoria because your ram might penetrate her fishy broadside and your gib might go everywhere.