Thursday, May 30, 2013

From Now On, No More Defeats: The Siege, V: Mucking Around in Boats

Once upon a time in America, a union welding job at 1980s wages was such a horrible fate that you became a stripper to earn your way out. 


I'm going to throw it out there that there's something toxic going on here, and it is not redeemed by Jennifer Beals ending up in a corps de ballet. Because a few years earlier, welders were "building them by the mile and cutting them off by the foot at places like the Bison Shipyard of North Tonawanda, New York, the pride of the New York Barge Canal (at least in North Tonawanda), and a few years later, people would have been a great deal happier to have a few years invested in seniority in that welding job, even at the expense of happy memories of performing classical dance in front of audiences of desperately signalling would be social climbers. 

I would put up images of the Bison Shipyard in its prime here, but the New York Museum of History is uninterested in reducing its patrimony that way. The City of Buffalo is not. North Tonawanda is, well, not too far from the town that's a bit of a running joke for a certain generation of Torontonians."** 

This is not what it would look like if more people had treated unionised factory welding jobs as good jobs back when they needed to be defended. And I do not say this as a victim of nostalgia for a 1950s that never was. I have a more complicated story to tell, if I ever get it untangled.

The Landing Craft, Tanks built at the Bison Shipyard are only one of a number of wartime shipbuilding projects that featured prefabrication by unskilled ("diluted") labour taking advantage of the fact that with enough solder, you can (temporarily) stick pretty much any piece of metal to any other. And that's entirely unfair, since although it might be taken to imply (correctly) that some Liberty ships, escort carriers and landing craft were a bit of a mess, the rest of them worked just fine and won the war, and that was kind of the point of building them in the first place. The Allies raised very large armies that happened to be on the wrong shore to fight the Axis. A great many boats were needed to deposit them on a hostile shore and make it possible for them to sustain themselves there and even fight their way inland to total victory.

That does not, by even the smallest of margins, however, exhaust the interest one might take in landing craft, because there is a lot of submerged history in these little boats. Which is why I'm going to start by talking about triremes. Of course.

This is Olympias, built in 1985--87 to a design by John Coates on the advice of J. S. Morrison with the money of Frank Welsh. It is supposed to be a trireme. Now, it's beyond biting-the-hand-that-feeds to cite a typical Wikipedism here, but the enthusiast who writes the article cannot resist claiming that

She [sic] was subject to sea trials in 1987, 1990, 1992 and 1994, but one of the most informative was an exercise in 1987 when crewed by 170 volunteer oarsmen and oarswomen. Olympias achieved a speed of 9 knots (17 km/h) and was able to execute 180 degree turns within one minute, in an arc no wider than two and a half (2.5) ship-lengths. These results, achieved with an inexperienced crew, suggest that the ancient writers were not exaggerating about the capabilities of such vessels.

Which is a bit of purses and sow's ears, as in fact the trireme trust authors' own conclusion, buried at the end of the second edition of The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Antique Warship, is that the Olympias reconstruction is faulty. The longstanding criticism, that a  three-tiered oarred galley is too ergonomically implausible to have ever existed, applies for this design at least. What that does to the microscopic field of Antique Naval Architectural Military History, I do not know.  As an early modernist, on the other hand, I ask, one more time (for this is a book badly burned in its passage through the academy), of Guilmartin's Gunpowder and Gallies 

The argument here, which I find entirely convincing, is that we know exactly what a Venetian war galley of 1571 looked like. It was a single-tiered galley of 20 to 30 bays, with three rowers at each oar, the outermost rower being an experienced scolari, the other two pure human motive power. This arrangement was chosen because it was the most ergonomically efficient, and it has been a little weird, to say the least, to see Ancient historians ignoring the simple physics of this and arguing for the triple tier, which is far less well supported in ancient iconography than is sometimes reported. But never mind that, because the more important point is the nature of the armament, which was a fixed forward firing array of guns including short-barrelled, large calibre weapons that would be called carronades if that word were not linked to yet more patent trolling (specifically, the claim that the concept was "invented" at the Carron Iron Company of Scotland, which gave James Watt his first contract, and long-barrelled light guns of the "swivel" type. The mix aimed to combine antipersonnel fire with structure-destroying weight, and gave effective forward arc ship-destroying power. 

Oh. And fortress-smashing power. Which is kind of my point. The argument over the trireme begins, I suggest, at a profoundly mistaken point. It takes the rowed, long, thin, beaching ship as a technological stage on the inevitable progression from floating logs to gigantic cruise ships that can only safely dock at artificial ports (although when "safe" is left out, the sky's the limit), asks what incredibly smart and incredibly Edwardian-British-like ancient Athenians would have done within the limits of their technology to create the most efficient naval weapon possible (For Sea Power!), and ends, after an appallingly logical progression, with a vision of hydroplaning, three-rowed racing sculls backing-and-forthing as they try to put bronze rams through each others' sides. 

Except that the long, narrow, shallow-hulled rowed boat did not vanish from the Mediterranean until the coming of the internal combustion engine. And as soon as naval war returned to the Mediterranean, it brought with it a, you guessed it, long, narrow, shallow-hulled beaching warship.

Guilmartin argues that, while the impressive forward firepower of an Early Modern galley was a sensible substitute for an old-fashioned ram, the galley, as a weapon platform, came into its own as a weapon for attacking coastal fortresses. In his Safeguard of the Seas, N. A. M. Rodger takes it a step further. The appearance of this new weapon system ended the maritime anarchy of the Western Isles by bringing the king's artillery within reach of the island fortresses of the Lords of the Isles and their even-more-anarchic nominal vassals. Its appearance in the Narrow Seas at mid-century reflected a Habsburg attempt to use this new technology to change the balance of power in Europe, and the poorly-understood English corsair ships of the Elizabethan era were actually armed with a weird forward tier of guns that allowed them to fill the galley role at the expense of cruise radius, greatly reducing the reach of state power in the Atlantic at a crucial juncture in its plantation. 

This, of course, does not explain the trireme or the tank landing craft. I am not seriously proposing that it was designed to ram polis walls, although I bet Demetreios the Besieger gave it some serious thought, and the fortress-busting landing craft (Guns/Rockets/Mortars) of World War II came after the designs were in full-spate production, and in many, but not all, cases ended up being solutions in search of problems --tools that at great expense and sunk labour investment ended up doing jobs that could have been done more cheaply by more conventional, and flexible weapon systems. What does explain them is microgeography.

Here's the very simple explanation: Mediterranean beaches are formed through erosional processes that create long, shallow gradiants. The same erosional processes make for numerous beaches and relatively few sheltered harbours. Therefore, a beaching ship of a certain shape is the most efficient form of local marine transportation. Absent an engine, oars work better on a beaching ship than sails. That is not to say that you do not want sails on your beaching ship for long hauls in open water, but you have to have oars to beach and unbeach safely. Given oars, your crew is relatively large (but unskilled) and you need to land for water comparatively frequently. Marine warfare with such ships is thus coastwise point-to-point, and fortresses that control water supply (and good beaches) have the same strategic function as fortresses that control nodes in the road-and-river network, or that shelter the hay of a given oasis, in other economic geographies.

So the amphibious fleets of World War II emerged in a quite specific context. The original LCA  was prewar, and relatively short and wide. The concept here is to deliver the maximum amount of cargo on the minimum draft against any practical landing place.  Landing Craft, Tanks, were a development of this, constantly buffeted by competing demands for ever larger size, until the tipping point was reached at which it went from being too small to too large, without ever passing through the Goldilocks stage that the geography of the world's beaches sadly made impossible. It is really the largest and most important of them all that I am talking about here, the mighty Landing Ship, Tank.***

The relevance of this is that the Atlantic is not the Mediterranean. Atlantic beaches are created by different forces than Mediterranean. They are less common, although this issue can be handwaved away, given that you're not going to be invading Fortress Europe anywhere except where it is possible, and they are much more sharply sloped. Here's a stock photo of a Channel working boat on Dungeness beach: --I hope this is permissible use. We'll find out.
  Short, wide bilges, and a big mooring rope to keep the boat onshore at high tide, and to pull it out of the water in the first place. The idea that the working boats of the Atlantic littoral are different from those of the Mediterranean is an old one. It is axiomatic that Viking cargo ships were round and rolly.

Okay, I lied above, and I am going to Wikipedia's incredible power as a mine of received opinion again:

The technique of clinker developed in the Nordic (Germanic) shipbuilding tradition as distinct from the Mediterranean mortise and tenon planking technique which was introduced to the provinces of the north in the wake of Roman expansion. Overlapping seams already appear in the 4th century BC Hjortspring boat. The oldest evidence for a clinker-built vessel, dendrochronologically dated to 190 AD, are boat fragments which were found in recent excavations at the site of the famousNydam Boat.[3] The Nydam Boat itself, built ca. 320 AD, is the oldest preserved clinker-built boat.[4] Clinker-built ships were a trademark of Nordic navigation throughout the Middle Ages, particularly of the longships of the Viking explorers and the trading cogs of the Hanseatic League.

Nordic shipwrights have names like "Lenny," and Mediterranean shipwrights have names like "Carl." Okay, sometimes I amuse myself. I'm probably just reading a racialist subtext into that passage, anyway, when what I'm saying is tolerably close to what the author wants to say: different conditions (in this case, mainly beach slopes) determine function. The steeper the beach, the shorter and fatter the beaching boat that you're going to want to use on it. Which should occasion the question, as the amphibious climax of the Mediterranean war approaches: will this arsenal that we are building at such expense work in a cross-channel attack at all?

The answer, in case you are wondering, is "No." 

*So. Uhm. That was certainly a video, wasn't it?

**"Fire in North Tonawanda put out by twelve feet of snow;" it's hilarious because the Buffalo evening news was always featuring fires and snow in North Tonawanda. It's even more hilarious because the fires were so frequent because North Tonawanda was full of abandoned wooden houses, built during Buffalo's glory days as a manufacturing centre.

***This footnote will have to serve as a placeholder for Gordon, "Notes on the Development of Landing Craft," (Trans. Soc. Roy. Nav. Arch. 1947) or perhaps some other sources, as I am writing from memory here.


  1. So, how didn't they work? We won, after all, as you often say.

  2. Pff. We could have won more! But I have still got a year to prepare for the post series that starts to drop 6 June, 2014.