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Posts Tagged ‘Navy

A Gross of Pirates

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While there’s really no way I could claim to have read this for research, read it I did, and entirely for fun. I have written about pirates many times: the fictional Ghassan and Samir in Dark Empress, Kemal Reis and other Barbary sailors in The Priest’s Tale, and the Mauri pirates in my forthcoming fourth book in the Praetorian series (Lions of Rome), and so I thought I had a pretty good handle on pirates of all sorts of eras and cultures. Heck, I even own three textbooks on historical piracy.

This book opened my eyes. And gave me so many ideas for novel plots it’s untrue, to boot. A gross of pirates is exactly what it claims to be. I expected it to be another informative, and perhaps dry, history of piracy. This it is not.

What it is is a catalogue of real historical figures. A gross of them, in fact, categorised into eras and cultures. There are well-known names in there: John Paul Jones, Barbarossa, Morgan, Drake, Calico Jack. But with 144 pirates in there, clearly you are going to find names you’ve not discovered before.  For me, particularly fascinating were Jeanne de Clisson, Uluj Ali, and Henry Every.  In fact, of 144 pirates, I could say in truth that I knew less than 20, which is pretty good.

Each pirate is treated with a brief precis of their life – a mini but well-presented biography. With 308 pages and 144 pirates, you can immediately work out roughly how much page space is given to each character. As a writer, I can tell you that this is no bad thing. Having a word limit imposed makes you hone and pare down the text so that what you end up with is a really well-written and pertinent piece of writing, rather than perhaps a rambling account given to descriptive. The old Dragnet line leaps to mind: ‘Just the facts, ma’am’. And Breverton does an excellent job with this. Each account is engaging and informative.

In short, if you are an academic or writer with even a remote interest in the sea and its history, this book will give you endless resources. If you are just a lover of history or the sea, this will be an engaging and fascinating collection. If you simply like to read something fun, then this is actually for you too. Read. Enjoy. ’nuff said…

You can buy the book here, and I urge you to do so. 🙂

Written by SJAT

December 15, 2018 at 10:29 pm

Golden Lion

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2015-09-23 20.29.15

A fascinating book and one I was looking forward to reading. I’ve read a few of Smith’s novels in the past and he’s a recognised master of the pen and I’ve read everything Giles has written and have yt to be disappointed by him. So something written by both of them? Well it had to be a win.

The book is the latest in the Courtney series of which I had thus far read only one. Since Smith books tend to leap about a bit era-wise and the Courtney series more than most I didn’t know what exactly to expect.

The book is set in the reign of Charles II with characters who remember the civil war all too well. It takes place on the Indian Ocean and the shore of Africa around Zanzibar. It involves an earlier villain previously presume dead and a series of revenge plots. It is as action packed and evocative as you would expect from either writer.

There are echoes of pirate era tales and of Napoleonic naval books, of African adventure and of British Empire colonialism. There are aspects of religious conflict, of slave trading, of piracy and hunting of snares and rescues, of sea battles and duels. Essentially it should have something for every reader of action adventure.

Having recently involved myself in several different collaborations I am intrigued as to how this one was carried out. I have experienced alternating chapters, separate parts to one novel and even multiple viewpoints. This one bears the hallmarks of none of them.

The writing to me feels more like a Smith book, as though Smith has essentially written the prose right through. But most aspects of the plot feel very Giles Kristin to me, from the superb and chilling array of villains to the hairpin plot twists to the cameraderie of the sailors right down to the locations.

The combination has produced an excellent tale whatever the case, though I couldn’t help but feel that Giles’ part was somewhat downplayed in the novel’s paperwork, with his name in relatively small print, a scant mention and no picture on the flyleaf etc.

So the upshot… would I recommend it? Yes I would. I suspect that readers of both writers will enjoy it. I think readers will get most from it if they have at least some familiarity with the Courtney novels and in particular the one that comes chronologically immediately before this but that being said I had not read that one and the book still worked for me. A hearty slice of adventure in an unusual milieu I would say and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Written by SJAT

September 24, 2015 at 9:00 am

Pasha – Julian Stockwin

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I cannot tell you what a pleasure it is to be back at sea once again with Captain Thomas Kydd. Though the majority of my reading is of novels set in the ancient world or at most in the high medieval era, every now and then I like to dip into another era for a change, and Stockwin is fast becoming one of my absolute favourites.

If you’ve not read any of the Kydd series, I’d best warn you that you might not want to start with this volume, Pasha being the fifteenth book in the series. Of course, the bright side of that is that if you haven’t read any of them, I’m switching you onto not just one book, but 15.

Set in the late 18th to early 19th century, the series follows the nautical adventures of one Thomas Kydd, a low born southern Englishman who rises through the ranks of the British Navy, as well as those of his confidential secretary Nicholas Renzi. The first volume begins in 1793, meaning – those of you familiar with the era will probably already have thought of this – the reader has some of the most amazing and world-changing events to come.

So on to Pasha – Volume 15 – which takes place in 1807. After the disastrous debacle in South America from book 13 and the brief sojourn in the Caribbean in book 14, Kydd is called back to England. Fearing for his career and even legal repercussions after South America, our hero returns with his ship l’Aurore to face his doom. What he is returning to is far from what he expected.

More than any other book in the Kydd series I am fearful of giving anything away with Pasha. It is a book far too easy to spoil for the prospective reader, and so I shall attempt to tempt you without detailing too much plot.

As you might guess from the title, this book takes place in the Eastern Mediterranean – the domain of the Ottoman Empire. Sent east from the coast of Spain with orders to put himself at the disposal of the British ambassador in Constantinople, Captain Kydd finds himself at a critical moment in Ottoman history. Allied with both Britain and Russia, the Ottoman sultan is in the unenviable situation of being attacked by their Russian ‘friends’ while being wooed by their enemy the French. The British ambassador is desperate and nervous and on the verge of something precipitous, and Kydd is unable to do much more than do as he is told.

Throw into the mix a British nobleman acting as a spy and intriguer in the court of the Sultan, and things can only become more complex. At stake in this mess is the potential for Napoleon Bonaparte to secure an alliance with the Ottoman Empire and with it, a route for his forces into the wide world without having to break out past the British Navy. So no pressure, then?

Cue intrigue, races under fire, sea battles, imprisonment, escape, trickery, panic, land assaults and so much more in a switchback tale that is easily the best in the series and stands to be one of my top books of the year.

Incidentally, there is one scene in the book that will stay with me for a long time, because it reminds me very closely of one of my favourite movie moments of all time. Remember that scene in Das Boot, where the sub has been stuck on the bottom of the sea and manages to resurface but has to make a run through the Straits of Gibraltar on diesels, with the captain in the conning tower, yelling ‘Verdammt’ as he pounds his fist on the sub while guns blast from both sides? You don’t? Well now go out and watch that movie too! But there is a comparable scene in Pasha that held me with the same power.

Finally, I will say once again that Stockwin’s writing is among the most authentic in the field. Not only has he managed to get the feel of the era in his speech and descriptive, but his own history in the Royal Navy informs everything he writes and lends it an air of authority. Moreover, in addition to that wonderful prose and conversation, in this particular volume, he manages to add in the exotic heady culture of Ottoman Istanbul. It is a win, quite simply.

Kydd is back, and volume 15 is the best yet, full of surprises and excitement.

The book is out today. Go get it.

Written by SJAT

October 9, 2014 at 8:00 am

Nautical Meanderings

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Despite the fact that my books mostly revolve around land-cased military history, I have inevitably found myself involved in the retelling of naval actions from time to time. Given than my books centre on the Roman period and the later middle ages it is no surprise that the majority of what I have written involves the use of Galleys by one power or another. And so I have found myself studying the ‘galley’ (a ship with sails but also powered by banks of oars and largely designed for head-on ramming acts) in various locations, times and situations. And so I thought it might be nice as part of this great Nautical Blog Hop to recount some nuggets of interesting and fun facts rather than banging on about a specific era or location. And so, here we go… some fascinating facts about the galley:

There can be little doubt that the galley is the longest running design for a military ship in nautical history. With few critical changes, variations on the design existed from at least 3rd Millennium BC Egypt to 19th Century Eastern Europe. A lifespan in excess of four thousand years is pretty impressive.

The ‘Isola Tiburina’, the Tiber Island in the middle of Rome, has a curious connection with the galley-style vessel.  According to legend, the Roman people sent a deputation on board a ship to the Greek city of Epidauros to obtain a statue of the healing God Aesculapius. When it returned, a prophecy-laden snake indicated the island as the site for the proposed temple and one of the resulting aspects was that the island was formed into the shape of a quinquereme to bear the temple. A glance at an aerial photo will give you a good idea of the shape, and a visit to the place will reveal one remaining piece of carving hidden on the city side of the island:

513 Isola Tiburina

Galleys throughout history have taken much the same form: a forward firing platform, a rear housing, and between them row upon row of oar benches with a narrow passage between them. This design (especially taking into account the ram at the fore) made the front a powerful attacking force in combat, but the sides, with no defences and bearing only the oar banks was a vulnerable point. The result of this was a reliance upon formations among fleets that allowed multiple galleys to protect one another’s flanks, a tendency that informed the tactics of galley fighting for millennia.

One of the largest galley-type vessels ever built (according to Athanaeus) was that of the Graeco-Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy Philopator. This immense vessel was a catamaran-style twin-hull, 130m in length (as opposed to the largest Roman vessel, the quinquereme, at 45m), had 7 rams (as opposed to 1), 480 oars with 4000 rowers (as opposed to 180 manned by 300 rowers). Sounds info-dump and not exciting? Then picture a twin-hulled, catamaran-style oared galley twice the size of HMS Victory (Nelson’s flagship) and with a crew complement larger than any aircraft carrier ever built! Now, how’s it look?

The heights of galleys could vary. John of Austria had the beaks of his galleys removed so that his forward facing central guns could achieve a low enough trajectory to fire on his Turkish enemies. Worth noting here also is that young John was a tender 24 years of age when he commanded his fleet of 213 vessels against the power of the Ottoman navy in an engagement we will get to later on.

Back in 56 BC (and in Marius’ Mules III!), the Romans found themselves in war against the Veneti, a seafaring tribe on the Biscay coast of Brittany. In their first few engagements the Romans quickly discovered that the Veneti’s ships were too high and solid for Roman galleys to easily overcome by ramming, and their large sails and affinity with the sea allowed them to out-manoeuvre the Romans when needed. The Roman commander, Decimus Brutus, managed to solve the problem by attaching hooks to long poles so that when the ships closed, the Roman sailors reached up and raked the Gallic sails, rendering the Veneti ships immobile and helpless and allowing the ever-efficient Romans to board them and achieve victory.

The design of a galley left no room for leisure or comforts. The entire deck was taken up by rows of oar seats, fighting platforms, steering sections, artillery, masts and so on. This meant that there were no permanent above deck structures on a galley. The only shelter available was in the fairly limited hold below deck or temporary tent-like structures that were raised at the stern as required.

One of the most brutal and decisive galley-led battles in naval history occurred off the island of Djerba in southern Tunisia in 1560. The Ottoman fleet under Piyale Pasha and Turgut Reis, with 86 vessels, faced an alliance of Spanish, Maltese and the Italian city-states with in excess of 200 ships. The Turks took the Christians by surprise and achieved a resounding victory in a matter of hours, sinking 60 ships as opposed to only a small number of their own, the casualties being roughly 10 Christians to every Turk!

The different types of galley were more often than not defined simply by the number or oars, the number of oar banks, and the number of sailors on each oar. This has led to more than the well-known biremes, triremes, quadraremes and quinqueremes of the Roman world, but also the liburnian (a light bireme), the Ottoman kadirga (with single banks of oars and with varying rower numbers but with a unique sail configuration) and many others depending upon regional requirements.

A number of reconstructions have been attempted of galleys throughout history, but there is only one known surviving original galley in an intact condition and it survives in a museum in Istanbul. This Kadirga (which is the Turkish for galley) belonged to the Sultan Mehmet IV in the mid 17th century and is intricate and decorative, and yet still displays the brute basicness of an early-medieval galley. The entire vessel survives barring its masts and sails, and a video showing part of it can be found here:

Galleys were short range, day-trip vessels. The lack of living space and storage room for provisions meant that only essential supplies and water for the oarsmen could be kept aboard. This limited operation to a day, and therefore galleys rarely strayed far from the nearest coastline, putting in for the night.

Though it is tempting to think of galleys as either an ancient world phenomenon or a Mediterranean or Baltic thing, it will probably surprise most Brits to discover that Britain has been the target of numerous attacks and landings involving galleys over the centuries. Julius Caesar used them twice to land in Kent, several Spanish galleys were captured in battle at Winchelsea in Sussex in 1350, the French used them in the Battle of the Solent, which saw the sinking of the Mary Rose, were part of Spain’s armada in 1588, and even bombarded Penzance in 1595.

Polybius tells us of one of the most outlandish, peculiar and innovative anti-ship weapons in history. At the siege of Syracuse during the Second Punic War, the Roman galleys fell foul of ‘Archemedes’ claw’. This enormous weapon seems to have been a massive grappling hook on a crane that could grab attacking ships and haul them out of the water, tipping the up and sinking them. Archaeological evidence of this weapon has never been found, though some clever reconstructions have proved that such a thing could have existed and worked,

The most famous engagement of galleys since the end of the ancient world is the Battle of Lepanto, fought between the Ottoman Empire and the ‘Holy League’ of the western Mediterranean off the coast of Greece in 1571. A crushing victory for the Christians, this battle was the engagement that put a stop to Ottoman expansion to the west, and was also the last time a Mediterranean sea battle would take place between galley-based fleets. As an interesting side note, one of the Spanish combatants in the battle was Miguel de Cervantes, who would later find fame as the author of Don Quixote.

Galleys (or in Turkish: Kadirga) were the stock vessel of the infamous Barbary pirates, such as the dreaded Hayreddin Barbarossa. From the late 15th century until the 18th, these vessels were a feared and all-too common sight around the western Med. Operating from Ottoman controlled ports in North Africa (the Barbary coast), Turkish galleys raided so freely and with impunity that Spain went to the trouble of fortifying their coastal churches and building watchtowers around their entire coast at mile-long intervals. My novel The Priest’s Tale involves the first flowering of this feared force.

Polybius tells us of one Roman invention that dates from First Punic War. The ‘corvus’ (raven) was a hinged bridge fitted at the prow of a Roman galley, with a bird’s-beak-shaped spike beneath the outer edge. As the Roman vessel rammed a Carthaginian ship, the bridge could be lowered, the spike sticking into the deck and allowing a relatively-stable boarding platform to overcome the enemy ship. The effectiveness of the weapon is questionable, given the drawbacks on heavy swells, but it marks yet another Roman advance in galley-based war.

Salamis! No, not a collection of northern Italian sausages, but one of the most famous sea battles in world history. Fought off the coast near Athens, this entirely galley-based action between the Greeks and the Persians in 480BC, aided by the famous defence of Thermopylae by 300 Spartans, effectively ended the Persian invasion of Greece which until this point had looked unstoppable. Despite being outnumbered and outclassed, Greek tactics won the day as they lured the Persians into a small bay where the weight of numbers made no difference, and they resoundingly smashed the fleet of Xerxes.

One of the most feared weapons of the ancient world could be found on the prow of the Byzantine Dromon. ‘Greek Fire’, though its precise makeup is uncertain, was essentially the napalm of the ancient world. A liquid fire that burned even on water, such a weapon could be dangerous to the wielder on board a wooden vessel, but if used right (fired from a tube according to evidence) it was brutal and deadly against enemy shipping. Imagine the effect of napalm on a timber vessel!

Though they are easily considered ancient or medieval vessels, the last galleys built were surprisingly recent. In 1796 the last galley class vessels were constructed in Russia as part of Catherine the Great’s forces in the coalition against the French Empire, and these vessels were yet to see military action.

Polybius (that great and informative storyteller of the ancient world) has a last nugget for us. Those of you who have studied the Romans will recognise their tendencies toward innovation rather than invention, and this tendency was never better illustrated than in the case of war with Carthage. Rome had been repeatedly chastised by the Punic fleet, whose ships were bigger and better. Polybius tells us: “On this occasion the Carthaginians put to sea to attack them as they were crossing the straits, and one of their decked ships advanced too far in its eagerness to overtake them and running aground fell into the hands of the Romans. This ship they now used as a model, and built their whole fleet on its pattern”. In short: a shipwrecked Carthaginian quinquereme formed the blueprint for the new Roman fleet which would turn the tide of naval war against Carthage.

In the mid-15th century BC the Pharaoh queen Hatshepsut sent a five-galley fleet to exract taxes and oaths of allegiance from the fabled land of Punt somewhere south of Egypt (possibly in the Somalia/Eritrea area.) The images of these ships are still to be seen on her temple at Deir El-Bahri and are among the earliest recorded pictures of galleys.


The battle of Actium in 31 BC remains one of the most famous sea battles of the ancient world. It also marks the high point of the Roman fleet’s value as, from this point on, the Roman navy becomes more of a troop-transport and pirate-control force than a military fleet.  The final naval action of the Republic and the end of the civil wars, Actium saw a Roman fleet under Antony and Cleopatra thoroughly smashed – through a combination of misfortune, misinterpreted signals, betrayal and panic – by a roughly equal Roman fleet under Octavian and Agrippa. This victory heralded the rise to unrivalled power of the man who would become Rome’s first emperor.

Despite the early era of the majority of galley action, the last battle seen by a galley was actually surprisingly recent, in 1854. As part of Russia’s Baltic fleet, galleys were deployed in the abortive attacks on the Finnish port city of Turku.

As a last note of interest, it will no doubt surprise a few people to learn of the great mistake in the classic Charlton Heston movie Ben-Hur. Made a galley slave, our hero saved his commander when the ship sank. The problem here is that Roman galleys did not utilise slave labour on their oars. Despite the regularity throughout history with which slaves were made use of in oared ships, Roman galleys were rowed by freedmen except in times of dire emergency when manpower was lacking.

File:058 Conrad Cichorius, Die Reliefs der Traianssäule, Tafel LVIII.jpg

And so that concludes my bit of fun on the subject of galleys. Hope you enjoyed it and maybe found something that you hadn’t known before. If you’ve had a good time, please visit the other excellent blogs on this blog hop:

J.M. Aucoin

Helen Hollick

Doug Boren

Linda Collison

Margaret Muir

Julian Stockwin

Anna Belfrage

Andy Millen

V.E. Ulett

T.S. Rhodes

Mark Patton

Alaric Bond 

Ginger Myrick 

Judith Starkston

Seymour Hamilton

Rick Spilman

James L. Nelson

Prue Batten

Antoine Vanner 

Joan Druett

Edward James

Nighthawk News

Written by SJAT

September 17, 2013 at 8:00 am

Julian Stockwin? No Kydding…

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I’ll admit from the beginning that, despite this being the 13th Kydd novel, it is only the second that I’ve read, though I now realise that they are actually quite readable as standalone novels if the reader wishes.

I’ve recently been heavily devoted to reading ancient through medieval fiction, but I opened ‘Betrayal’ with enthusiasm. It has been a long time since I read Napoleonic era novels, but I was, to some extent, weaned on Forrester, Dudley Pope, and Alexander Kent. Having now read two of the Kydd novels I have confirmed for myself that Stockwin’s protagonist is easily the match for Bolitho, Hornblower or Ramage.

I won’t go too much into the specific plot of the book, as usual, to avoid spoilers, but the action begins in Africa, around Cape Town and with a magnificent opening chapter that evokes all the mystery and dangers of darkest Africa, the dangers of the French enemy, and the ingenuity and sheer daring of Kydd and his men. It also nicely introduces (or reintroduces) the main characters for those of us who have had time out from the series. Looking at a long period of excruciating boredom (and more importantly reduced chance of glory or advancement) patrolling the secure cape, Kydd’s commander, Popham, sets off on an unauthorized, outrageous and downright dangerous plan to try and subvert Spanish control of South America. Kydd, somewhat reluctantly agrees to join and is dragged into a little known action in history of which I had never even previously heard (thanks, Mr Stockwin, as I learned something new and particulary fascinating here.)

The action picks up very quickly and then sails along (pun intended) throughout the book. Checking the dust jacket I read of Stockwin’s history in the navy and realised whence one of the two things that impressed me most came. The author’s clearly first-hand and near-encyclopedic knowledge of all things ships and sailing combined with his obvious love of the period show through at every moment in the book without fail, bringing a depth of detail that adds to the read rather than stalling it. The other thing that impressed me most, even above the level of research that clearly went in, was the authentic feel just to the social aspect of the story. The speech is at once familiar and easy to read, and yet seems true to period and deeply atmospheric. The interaction between characters, particularly those of different classes or nationalities is wonderful.

But as in many good long-running series, one other thing worth mentioning is the clear growth of the characters and the ties that bind them together. As I said, I’ve only read one other Kydd novel before, and that was around six books ago. The result is that I could easily see how much Kydd has grown and changed over the books, while retainging those parts that make him the character people loved from the start. In addition the bond between he and Renzi is a joy to read.

In all, this was an excellent read as a standalone, so I can imagine that series devotees will love it. Stockwin stands up there with the best of Napoleonic and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

Well done, Julian. Now I must go back and fill in the blanks.

Written by SJAT

October 11, 2012 at 7:38 pm