The screams could be heard for miles. Hundreds of frightened passengers and crew had heard the gut-wrenching screech of twisted metal as the two massive ships collided.
The Royal Navy battleship HMS Anson was blameless in the chaos on 17 March 1891, having been at anchor in the Bay of Gibraltar. But as the passenger liner SS Utopia passed by – too close – it received the full power of the battleship’s protruding ram.
The Utopia sank in 20 minutes, taking with her 562 souls. A news report of the time stated that ‘rescuers, blinded by the wind and rain, saw nothing but a confused, struggling mass of human beings entangled with wreckage’.
The ram, in one form or another, has been an integral part of military tactics for millennia, above all at sea. It has splintered and cracked the hulls of some of the mightiest warships, often enough turning the tide of battle.
The ram is usually associated with Greek and Roman warfare, where they were skilfully used in so many naval battles, perhaps most famously at Salamis and Actium.
Ancient military mariners harnessed the raw physical strength of oarsmen to propel their vessels at great speed against enemy hulls. The Greek trireme and the Roman quinquereme were essentially muscle-powered rams.
The Battle of Salamis in 480 BC saw the combined fleet of the Greek states, commanded by Themistocles, and that of the Persian Empire, under the banner of King Xerxes, clash in the straits between the Greek mainland and the island of Salamis in the Saronic Gulf near Athens.
The Greeks, facing a vastly superior invasion force, had failed to block the Persian advance at Thermopylae (on land) and Artemisium (at sea). The Persians had then taken possession of Boeotia and Attica, while the Athenians abandoned their city and took refuge on the island of Salamis.
Xerxes, seeking a war-winning victory, commanded his huge fleet to enter the narrow Straits of Salamis. Themistocles seems to have encouraged this, ordering his own forces to back water, drawing the Persian fleet into a constricted space, where it became bunched and unable to manoeuvre.
Then, with disorder at a peak, as they emerged into the more open water beyond the narrows, the Persian vessels were suddenly assailed by a concentric ring of Greek triremes. Ramming attacks smashed into the dense, sluggish, chaotic mass of the Persian fleet.
This battle, and another on land at Plataea the following year, marked a turning point in the Greco-Persian wars. Indeed, some historians suggest that Salamis was one of the most important battles in history, as it allowed the Greek civilisation to survive and flourish and, by extension, saw the creation of a distinct Western civilisation.
The ancient ram
The military use of naval rams goes back much further than Salamis, with the first recorded use of such weapons being during the Battle of Alalia in 535 BC. Just how rams came into existence is still conjecture, but many experts believe they evolved from cut-waters – structures, designed to support the keel stem joint, that give vessels greater speed through the water.
One of the most significant archaeological finds of 1980 was the Athlit ram, discovered off the coast of Israel and dated from between 530 and 270 BC.
On closer inspection, the ram was found to comprise heavy wooden timbers that had been shaped and attached to the hull. Around this, a bronze ram had been fashioned and fastened to the wooden structure.
The Athlit ram weighed 465 kilograms and was 226 centimetres in length. The skills necessary to construct such a weapon were considerable, as the ram consisted of three distinct parts: the driving centre, the bottom plate, and the cowl – the driving centre being the part designed to penetrate an enemy vessel’s hull.
On the ram were a number of ceremonial decorations – in the form of an eagle’s head, a helmet, and an eight-pointed star.
Rams continued to be used across Europe and Asia during the Middle Ages, though classic fleet actions like those of antiquity were relatively rare. The Battle of Lepanto, however, fought on 7 October 1571, proved to be just such an engagement. It was, in fact, the biggest naval encounter since Roman times, with more than 400 vessels engaged.
The battle pitted a Christian fleet of 206 galleys and 6 galliasses against an Ottoman fleet of 222 war galleys and 56 galliots. Most vessels on either side bore rams, though it was the superior firepower also carried by the Christian vessels that proved decisive.
As sail-power took the place of oarsmen, the use of ramming at sea rapidly declined. Only when the wooden-walled ships of the Napoleonic era began to be replaced by ironclads in the mid 19th century did naval engineers again consider the ram to be a potentially important weapon.
Sailing ships had been relatively fragile and had acted essentially as floating gun-platforms. But the iron hulls of the new generation of vessels, given their inherent structural strength, could, it was surmised, be used as weapons in addition to the array of guns on deck.
In 1840, French Admiral Nicolas- Hippolyte Labrousse first proposed building a ram into a new warship. Twenty years later, Dupuy de Lôme designed the French Navy’s first coastal battleship with a ram, the Taureau.
Her design was revolutionary in many ways, as she was built in 1863 with the aim of protecting narrow straits and attacking ships in port. She, along with many contemporaries, was given extra armour-belt protection to strengthen the hull against the great stresses imposed by ramming another vessel.
Taureau’s designers were so confident of their design that they were quoted as saying that the guns on her were there ‘with the sole function of preparing the way for the ram’.
One of the first examples of modern naval ramming occurred, of course, on 8 March 1862, when the Confederate armoured ship Virginia (formerly the Merrimac) rammed and sank the sailing sloop Cumberland at anchor a short distance from Newport News.The next day, Virginia attempted to ram the new Union ironclad Monitor, but only caused slight damage to her armoured hull.
The prevalence of ramming during the American Civil War proved anomalous. The war coincided with a moment in time when ships were protected by armour but the power of guns was limited. As the accuracy, range, and effectiveness of naval gunnery steadily improved throughout the 19th century, the short-lived revival of the ram came to an end.
The Battle of Lissa
Most encounters during the Civil War had been conducted in coastal waters, at contested entrances, and along rivers. The American experience drew the attention of European navies, and foreign officers and engineers were impressed by the duelling American warships.
They were not, however, convinced of the usefulness of the ram, as it did not fit their vision of large-scale fleet actions on the high seas. Close combat in confined waters was, generally, to be avoided.
The Battle of Lissa in 1866 proved to be something of a turning point. Austrian Rear-Admiral Tegetthoff realised his ships were inferior to those of the Italian fleet due to their poor guns. So he chose another tactic, one that he had seen used in the New World: ramming.
The Italian fleet was waiting for a conventional attack, but when the Austrians approached in line ahead at top speed – around 10 knots – it was anything but conventional.
The attack threw the Italians into disarray. The smoke from the Italian guns filled the sky with so much black cloud that the Austrians ships passed through the Italian line completely missing any enemy vessels.
They turned and made a second run. This time the Austrian Ferdinand Max struck a glancing blow on the Italian Re d’Italia.
The battle continued with gunshot and fast manoeuvring. Eventually, the burning Palestro was rammed and sunk by the Ferdinand Max.
The Italian Re d’Italia was then rammed after she stopped to fix her steering. The Ferdinand Max’s ram dug deep inside the Italian warship, penetrating up to six-and-a-half feet, the impact rolling the ship 25° off an even keel and leaving a hole measuring 300 square feet in her port side. The Re d’Italia sank within three minutes.
The Battle of Lissa also saw the Austrian Kaiser successfully ram the Re di Portogallo.
The success of the ramming tactic at the Battle of Lissa led many others to design ships with rams, including designers working for Britain’s Royal Navy. Sadly, their introduction also led to many accidental collisions and great loss of life.
Some of the more notable collisions between RN ships included Minotaur and Bellerophon in 1868, Warrior and Royal Oak in August 1869, Achilles and Alexandra in October 1879, and the disastrous Victoria/Camperdown collision of 22 June 1893.
Victoria and Camperdown collided as they turned to anchor at Tripoli. Camperdown’s ram struck Victoria and embedded itself between 9 feet and 12 feet into the unfortunate vessel.
The effect of the unexpected collision was exacerbated by the fact that all of Victoria’s scuttles, doors, and ventilation hatches were open to cope with the Mediterranean heat. Victoria’s low freeboard meant she was underwater within just nine minutes. Camperdown was also severely damaged in the incident.
The German Imperial Navy also suffered at the hands of the ram – and in full view of the citizens of Folkestone.
For local fisherman Richard May, Friday 31 May 1878 had been just like any other. He had just pulled in his nets onto the rolling deck of his small fishing lugger Emily. Three heavily armed German warships – König Wilhelm, Preussen, and Grosser Kurfürst – were making their way through the English Channel bound for Plymouth and then the Mediterranean to join the German Mediterranean fleet. The trio chose a course that would take them close inshore, to allow the people of Folkestone a splendid view of the naval spectacle.
The sinking of the Grosser KurfÜrst
Richard May, onboard the Emily, had the very best view of all, having to alter course to avoid the battleships. May would later tell the enquiry:
Just before ten o’clock, we were about two-and-a-half miles offshore, preparing to make for Folkestone Harbour, when we saw the three large ironclads bearing down on us, so we naturally slowed down to watch their proceedings.
The König Wilhelm and the Grosser Kurfürst were nearly abreast, the former leading by about a length. A barge was retching off and the Grosser Kurfürst altered course slightly to allow her to go clear.
Just at that instant, the König Wilhelm put her helm hard a port and, swinging round with great rapidity and going ahead, she struck her consort just before the mizzen mast, making a terrible hole in her side. Almost immediately she turned over and, within five minutes, she went down, turning keel uppermost.
The fisherman, seeing the horror unfold before him, turned his lugger into a makeshift lifeboat and headed to the scene of the disaster.
The cries and shrieks of the hundreds of human beings thus at a moment’s notice cast into the sea was appalling. About a hundred of the poor creatures, who were clinging together in one vast heap, sank en masse.
More than 300 men, including the captain of the Grosser Kurfürst, perished. The tide slowly deposited their bodies on nearby beaches. At the neighbouring village of Sandgate, so many corpses were washed ashore that the beach became known as ‘Sandgate souls’.
The First World War
In 1914 the German submarine U-15 was rammed and sunk by the British cruiser Birmingham, and a year later the new battleship Dreadnought became the only battleship ever to sink an enemy submarine in battle when, on 18 March 1915, she rammed U-29 in the Irish Sea.
During the First World War, 19 German submarines were dispatched with the use of ramming. At the time, the technology to detect, localise, and destroy submarines was rudimentary at best, and one of the quickest ways to deal with the threat of a periscope was to turn and run over the enemy at top speed.
It was not just warships that employed ramming. In June 1916 the steamer Brussels was captured by the Germans. Her master, Captain Fryatt, was subsequently tried and executed on 27 July 1916. He was regarded by the Germans as a combatant out of uniform for having attempted to ram U-33 on 28 March 1915.
It was by no means a one-way affair, since submarines were built strongly to resist water pressure at great depth. Sometimes the attacking surface vessel came off worst, as was the case in 1918 when the lightly built HMS Fairy attacked UC-75 and was badly damaged in the process.
Unarmed merchant vessels faced with the threat of a U-boat had no other weapon with which to attack the submarine than the sheer weight and speed of the ship. The Admiralty expected some captains to attempt such tactics.
The French steamer Molière attacked and sank UC-36 in 1917, while the British paddle-steamer SS Mona’s Queen did likewise in that same year. The following May, UC-78 was struck by the steamer Queen Alexandra.
That same month, in the early hours of 12 May 1918, U-103 targeted the sister-ship of the Titanic, the RMS Olympic. The great liner was carrying American troops to France.
The crew of U-103 were unable, however, to flood the two stern torpedo-tubes, and – tragically as it turned out for the submarine – they decided to surface to attack the liner. U-103 immediately came under fire from the Olympic’s gunners, while the captain swung his ship round to try to run the submarine down.
U-103 crash-dived to a depth of 30 metres, but almost immediately the liner’s port propeller sliced through the submarine’s pressure hull.
Miraculously, only nine members of the U-boat’s crew lost their lives. The survivors were rescued by USS Davis and taken to Queenstown in Ireland.
The Second World War
German losses to ramming in the Second World War included U-100, U-224, and U-655, while the Italians lost the submarines Tembien and Cobalto, and the Japanese I-1.
Another notable success was on 5 November 1942, when the Finnish submarine Vetehinen rammed and sank the Soviet submarine ShCh-305.
The Royal Navy lost the submarine Cachalot on 26 July 1941, when the Italian destroyer Achille Papa rammed her in the Mediterranean.
The US Navy’s destroyer USS Borie engaged the German U-boat U-405 in atrocious weather conditions on 1 November 1943, with 15-foot high seas, strong winds, and poor visibility.
The destroyer fired a pattern of depth charges that forced the submarine to the surface. USS Borie then attacked with 4-inch guns and 20mm gunfire from around 400 yards, killing every man on the deck as well as destroying the submarine’s deck gun.
USS Borie’s captain decided to turn to ram the submarine, but at the very last instant the heavily damaged U-boat turned hard to port and a huge wave lifted Borie’s bow onto the submarine’s foredeck.
The crews of USS Borie and U-405 exchanged small-arms fire at close range while the vessels were almost perpendicular to one another. The stress on the destroyer’s hull started to open seams in her forward sections, as well as flooding her engine room.
The bitter fighting continued and dozens of German sailors perished trying to man their remaining machine-guns. As each man emerged from the hatch, he was illuminated by USS Borie’s searchlights and mowed down.
Finally, the two vessels separated, and briefly U-405 tried to engage the American destroyer with torpedoes, but with only 14 of her crew still alive she had little chance.
Her captain, Korvettenkapitän Rolf-Heinrich Hopmann, manoeuvred his U-boat masterfully to avoid the destroyer’s main guns and started to speed away, only to be stopped by a 4-inch shell. The remaining sailors onboard signalled their surrender, before the boat sank, by the stern. At 02.57, she was seen to explode as she disappeared beneath the waves.
Victorious, the crew of USS Borie started to celebrate their success, but it was to be short-lived, as the extent of the damage to their own vessel quickly became apparent. Damage extended the full length of her starboard side underwater, both engine rooms and generators were flooded, and steam and water lines were broken.
She was too damaged to be towed to safety and, despite valiant efforts to save the ship, including the jettisoning of all unnecessary top-weight, including torpedoes, 20mm guns, and even the lifeboat, nothing worked.
At 16.30 hours, Captain Hutchins ordered ‘abandon ship’. During the rescue operation that followed, three officers and 24 men perished.
USS Borie remained afloat throughout the night, before a 500lb bomb dropped from a TBF Avenger from the aircraft-carrier USS Card finally sank the destroyer.
Naval ramming has a 2,500-year-old history. For much of that time, it has been a central feature of naval tactics. This was true in antiquity, in the Renaissance, and in the age of ironclads, when ships were designed for ramming and were fitted with specially constructed rams projecting from their prows at the waterline. Naval tactics largely revolved around attempts to position vessels for ramming attacks into the beams of enemy hulls.
The predominance of the ram tended to reflect the inability of naval firepower to inflict decisive damage on opposing vessels. This was obviously so in antiquity – when it was limited to torsion-powered artillery, archery, and hand-hurled missiles – but became so again, to a degree, in the mid 19th century when early ironclads proved virtually indestructible in the face of contemporary naval gunnery.
Grappling and boarding – turning ‘a sea battle into a land battle’, as one ancient historian once described it – represented an alternative to both ramming and firepower, and this was a major feature of naval warfare from antiquity until the 19th century; indeed, in the European Middle Ages, it was completely dominant.
Lepanto is exceptionally interesting because it involved elements of all three methods. Most of the vessels engaged were equipped with rams, but the fleets became locked together (many of them grappled) and largely incapable of manoeuvre, so it was superior Christian firepower – cannon and handguns – that then proved decisive.
Lepanto was a transitional battle in terms of naval technology and tactics. Much of it would have been familiar to Themistocles, while its basic form was that of medieval slugging matches like Sluys; but it was the limited use of firepower that pointed the way ahead. Just 17 years later, English gunnery alone (albeit helped by some English weather) would be sufficient to shatter the naval power of Imperial Spain. •
Patrick Boniface is a freelance journalist specialising in naval affairs. He is the author of a number of books profiling Royal Navy destroyers and frigates.
All images: WIPL.