Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022: The Final Figurehead
Above we see the Cadmus-class steel-hulled 10-gun sloop HMS Espiegle, shortly after she was commissioned around 1902. Note her fine lines and almost yacht-like appearance. You would be mistaken to think she had been built with lessons learned from the Sino-Japanese War or Spanish-American War. Still, she would prove herself under fire in a most unusual place.
The Cadmus class was one of the last gasps of British colonial gunboats with the “first” two (Clio and Cadmus) laid down on 11 March 1902 at Sheerness Dockyard after the “latter” four (Espiegle, Fantome, Merlin, and Odin) already afloat. Designed by Sir William Henry White, the Royal Navy Director of Naval Construction, they were based on the preceding class of six White-designed Condor-class sloops (980t, 204 ft. oal, circa 1898) but with several minor improvements.
Some 210 feet long with a broad (33 foot, 1:6 ratio) beam and a mean draught of just over 11 feet, they could put in at just about any port worthy enough to be termed such a place. Carrying a 1,400 hp engineering suite of four Niclausse or Babcock boilers and two VTE engines along with three masts equipped with an auxiliary barque rig (although some reportedly never received sails), they could make just over 13 knots on steam alone and maintain a stately 10 knots for 4,000nm. To protect those spaces, they carried an inch to an inch and a half of armor plate extending over the machinery and boilers.
Not built for speed, they carried six manually-trained 4″/40 QF Mark III 25-pounder guns (two aft, two amidships, and two forward, protected by armored shields of 6mm steel) along with a quartet of 3-pounder 47mm/40cal Hotchkiss Mark I guns and three .303 Maxim water-cooled machine guns, they carried all the armament of a large destroyer or small unarmored cruiser sans torpedo tubes.
In short, they were flag wavers, meant for economic foreign service, and looked more 18/19th Century than 20th as their arrangement was very, um, vintage, including figureheads (the last class built with such ornaments), a scrolled trail board, sloping sterns, and clipper bows with a long bowsprit spar– they were only 185 feet at the waterline. Their steel hulls were sheathed in timber, which helped them in terms of corrosion between dry dock periods but did nothing for speed and marine growth.
It was explained by Mr. Ernest George Pretyman, the Secretary of the Admiralty to Parliament in 1905:
“The Clio and Cadmus were both laid down on March 11th, 1902. The Clio was completed in January and the Cadmus in April of 1904. The first cost of these vessels is as follows: Clio, £80,796; Cadmus, £76,657. They were never designed for fighting purposes but for subsidiary work in peace or war, for which they are still available, and in which they are at the present moment engaged.”
They were the final “masted” sloops in the Royal Navy, a type of vessel the Admiralty would pause until 1915 when they recycled the classification for slow corvette/frigate-sized escorts.
The name Espiegle, Webster tells us, “Is a corruption of Ulespiegle, the French name for Till Eulenspiegel a peasant prankster of German folklore,” which would seem odd for a British man-o-war, but the Royal Navy was incredibly open to borrowing from folklore not of their own for ship names.
With that, our sloop was at least the seventh HMS Espiegle to serve the Admiralty since 1793 with the first two, logically enough, being French ships captured during the Napoleonic Wars and recommissioned under their previous names.
With all six class members were constructed side-by-side at Sheerness Dockyard between late 1900 and early 1904, all completed within months of each other, with Espiegle being the first to reach the fleet, commissioned on 21 January 1902.
Once commissioned Espiegle was sent to the China Station.
Dispatched to stand guard at Yingkou (Newchwang), she wintered on the Liao River 1903-04 protected in a mud fort/dry dock alongside the Russian gunboat Sivoutch (Sealion) and the American gunboat USS Helena (PG-9). The three vessels were landlocked there in the snow and ice when the Russo-Japanese War broke out in February 1904, making it kind of awkward as the British were allied to the Meiji Empire.
Once the ice melted, Espiegle made passage to the British treaty port of Wei-hai-wei, passing the disputed enclave of Port Arthur at daylight on 13 April 1904, witnessing the battle between Japanese and Russian ships there.
By 1914, with the class seen as useless or worse in the event of a modern conflict, two of the class, Merlin, and Fantome had been disarmed and seconded to the Royal Navy Survey Service Squadron, tasked with making Admiralty charts. They were joined by a Condor, a class that had similarly been sideline with one (Condor) lost and two others converted to submarine depot ships.
It should be noted at the time that Clio was laid up in Hong Kong in ordinary in August 1914. They had extensively been used in the years before the war for training, with Odin, for instance, tasked as drillship for South African Cape Naval Volunteer Corps in 1905-1910.
Espiegle— which had served as a cadet school ship back in England 1907-1910 at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth– at the time was assigned to the East Indies Station, shuffling from Colombo to Trincomalee and Mumbai (Bombay), where she was when Germany and England went to war. Her skipper from 1912 to 1916 was Capt. Wilfrid Nunn (passed out of Britannia in 1889) on his first command.
In early September, the Brits only had the wooden paddlewheel gunboat HMS Lawrence and Espiegle’s sister Odin based in the Persian Gulf with the latter was dispatched to keep an eye on the British Abadan Island oil refineries at the northern end of the Persian Gulf, ostensibly an Ottoman Lake of sorts due to the latter’s control of most of the Arabian Peninsula and Mesopotamia. And the Turks were making noises like they were going to shut down the strategic Shatt-al-Arab waterway to international traffic.
As detailed in the 1921 Naval Staff Monographs Vol.15:
At the time, tensions were heating up between the Turks and London as the Brits had seized the nearly-complete battleships Sultan Osman and Reşadiye from the builder’s docks at Vickers and Armstrong, sparking a scandal that was capped when German RADM Wilhelm Souchon’s Mediterranean Squadron– the battlecruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser Breslau— were allowed to be interned by (then “sold” to) the Turks in August 1914.
With rumors that the boogeyman cruiser SMS Emden was headed to the Persian Gulf to repeat what Goeben did by docking at Basra and joining the Ottoman fleet, Espiegle rushed to join sistership Odin off the Shatt-al-Arab by mid-September, in what would have been an interesting but hopeless battle had the German arrived to press the issue.
In case the Emden should arrive, a line of extempore mines was prepared by the Espiegle to stop her from coming up the Shatt-al-’Arab ; the Espiegle was to join the Odin in the Shattal-’Arab, and the two ships were to wait for the Emden in such a position as to neutralize the extra range of the German cruiser’s guns and force her to engage at close range.
There, protecting Constantinople’s interest, was the shiny new French-built 170-foot unarmored coast guard boat Marmaris, which, along with a modern 4-gun shore battery at Fort Fao (Al Faw) and a quartet of 60-foot Thornycroft-built motor patrol craft (armed with two 1-pr. Vickers-Maxim pom-poms—one forward and one aft), barred the Shatt-el-Arab entrance.
On 7 October, the Ottomans delivered a formal letter to Capt. Nunn on Espiegle advising the British sloops were violating Turkish sovereignty and must leave the Shatt-el-Arab. Pointing out that the east bank of the river belonged to Persia, where the British had a commercial grant for the oil fields worked by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP), the two sides maintained an uneasy peace for the rest of the month until Halloween, when a cable arrived detailing Souchon’s 28 October raid by the “Ottoman” Navy on Russian ports in the Black Sea, an event that would pull Turkey into the Great War whether they wanted to or not. The Turks sank two hulks in the river and started laying mines.
Espiegle and Odin were soon reinforced in early November by a motley scratch force made up of the old Canopus-class battleship HMS Ocean, the armed yacht Lewis Pelly, the armed launch-tugs Garmsir, Sirdar-I-Naphti, Mashona, Shaitan, and Miner; and HMS Dalhousie (a paddle-wheel powered troopship of 1,960 tons in service of the Royal Indian Marine), which were, in turn, carrying most of the embarked Anglo-Indian 6th (Poona) Infantry Division, the latter grandly classified as “Indian Expeditionary Force D” under the old colonial campaigner Maj. Gen. Arthur Barrett. To this force, Cadmus-class sister Clio and the armed tug Comet would join before the end of the year.
With that, the war came to Mesopotamia.
Starting on 6 November, the British forced the issue with Odin bombarding Fort Fao, killing the Turkish “Bimbash” in a 40-minute naval gunfire display, and a group of Royal Marines subsequently drove the battalion-strong Turkish force upriver. Meanwhile, Espiegle opened her guns on the Turkish trenches opposite their positions across from the British-controlled Barain oil refineries on Abadan Island, similarly scattering the Turks. She also sank a Thornycraft motor launch which was later raised and put to use by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and then taken into service as the HMS Flycatcher.
Marmaris likewise withdrew upriver. British casualties for the Fao Landing were light.
By 23 November, the British, with Espiegle up front, captured Basra after a ten-day envelopment that left some 1,300 Turkish casualties versus about a third that for the Anglo-Indian force.
The upriver campaign, with the British pressing everything from dhows and barges to old paddlewheels into use to carry troops and supplies, continued into early December when the expedition arrived at Kurnah/Al Qurnah, some 45 miles North of Basra at the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The five-day battle ended when Capt. Arthur Hayes-Sadler, commander of the battleship Ocean, accepted the surrender of the city by Colonel Subhi Bey, who then marched 1,000 of his men into captivity.
Moving into 1915, the Turks tried repeatedly to recapture Qurnah and Basra, as Odin, Espiegle and company formed the Euphrates Blockade Flotilla to block Ottoman traffic, destroying eight and capturing four local Turkish vessels. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Charles Townshend of Omdurman fame had arrived to take control of the land action, setting up his HQ on Espiegle. His opposite, Young Turk Maj. Gen. Süleyman Askerî Bey, was killed in a British ambush in April 1915.
Known today as the Battle of Amara (or Second Qurna), the largest set-piece battle thus far of the Mesopotamian campaign took place from 31 May to 3 June with the British amphibious attack moving up-river against a Turkish force at Amara that, in the end, suffered 120 killed against Anglo-Indian casualties of just 24. The British riverine amphibious force included the sistership sloops Clio, Odin, and Espiegle (flagship), the armed tug Comet, armed launches Lawrence, Lewis Pelly, Miner, Shaitan, Sumana, and the stern wheelers Muzaffari/Mozaffir, and Shushan, with Espiegle’s Capt. Nunn in general command of the fleet.
In this, Marmaris stopped running and stood her ground, err, river, next to the armed transport Mosul.
As detailed by George Fletcher MacMunn and Cyril Bentham Falls in the official history “Military operations, Egypt and Palestine.”:
[P]receded by the mine-sweeping armed launches Shaitan and Sumana, the Espiegle and Clio now moved up and anchored off Norfolk Hill to join in the bombardment of One Tower hill, and the Odin, Lawrence, and Miner also moved up in support. These warships continued to be the main target for the Turkish guns and both the Espiegle and Odin were hit by shells, without, however, sustaining much damage or loss.
In a short action along the river, Espiegle, Odin, Clio, and Shaitan stopped the Mosul and damaged the Marmaris so badly she was left abandoned, officially scuttled by her withdrawing crew.
From the Monograph:
MacMunn and Falls go on to point out that, Lt. Gen. Sir John Eccles Nixon, the overall commander, “could not speak too highly of the part played by the officers and men of the Royal Navy under the command of Captain Nunn.”
Some 1,700 surrendered Turks, the transport Mosul, and the hulk of the battered Marmaris were in British hands at the end of the scrap.
The offensive continued upriver and Nasiriyah fell on 25 July with the remaining Turkish troops retreating to Kut, where the Battle of Es Sinn on 28 September between Townsend’s troops and Nureddin Ibrahim Pasha’s 4th Turkish Infantry Division would leave Kut– and control over the lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers– to Townsend.
The Red Sea
With Townsend secure in Kut (which would later be the subject of the victorious Ottoman siege in 1916), and the river too shallow to continue their use, the sloops were withdrawn.
Espiegle and Odin would be tasked with a variety of operations in the Red Sea, in conjunction with Lawrence of Arabia’s local indigenous forces, throughout 1916 and 1917.
Speaking to which, on 21 January 1917 the two sloops joined the old cruiser HMS Fox and lent their guns to the capture of Wehj, then the next month, following reports from Ismailia that mines had been laid in the anchorage, landed Marines and Tars to drive the Turks out from that enclave.
On 11 June 1917, Espiegle and Odin engaged in the operation to remove the Turkish post at Salif, overlooking Kameran in what is now Yemen.
As the Turks fell back and ceded control of Arabia to the Arabians, the British (with lots of help from Indian troops and in conjunction with Archibald “Old Archie” Murray’s Siani-Palestine campaign) were again on top of things in the Mesopotamian campaign, the war in that part of the world wound down.
According to The London Gazette (25th May 1923), the modest prize money from the salvage of the hulk of Marmaris and the intact Mosul along with 14 barges and river vessels was ruled shared between the crews of Espiegle, Odin, Clio, and Shaitan. Our sloop was also deemed eligible for shares in two unnamed Thornycraft gunboats credited on 9 and 19 November, both of which were raised.
Espiegle, who returned to Far East Station after the war, was at the time of the prize announcement already paid off at Bombay, with her officers and ship’s company transferred to the P&O Steamer SS Syria for return to England on 12 May 1923. Her stripped hulk was sold on 17 September 1923 for breaking.
Of her fellow Cadmus-class sloops, Odin (who had caught the German auxiliary raider Iltis near Aden in March 1917) was sold at Bombay on 12 November 1920 on the same day as Clio.
Cadmus— who had been on the China Station during the entirety of the war– was listed as “unallocated” in Hong Kong and sold there on 1 September 1921.
Merlin, on survey duty, was similarly disposed of in Hong Kong in 1923.
Fantome, the last member afloat, was rearmed with a mixture of guns taken from the old cruiser HMAS Psyche and used by the Australians as a gunboat during the war, then returned to the Royal Navy for use as a survey ship until 1925 when she was disposed of. Her hulk remained afloat as a coaling and limestone barge in Tasmania, still with her fine lines, as late as 1956.
Espiegle’s famed 1912-1916 skipper, Capt. Wilfrid Nunn would go on to become commander of the Flotilla on the Tigris from December 1916 to March 1917 and end the war in command of the new light cruiser HMS Curlew. Invested with a C.M.G. and D.S.O. for his services during the war, in the 1920s he would command the battleship Ramillies and would be promoted to the rank of Vice-Admiral on the Retired List on 8 May 1930. While on the Retired List, he would assist with a variety of civilian efforts on the home front in WWII. VADM Nunn would pass in 1956, at age 82. He chronicled the campaign he knew first hand in “Tigris Gunboats: A Narrative Of The Royal Navy’s Co-operation With The Military Forces In Mesopotamia From The Beginning Of The War To The Capture Of Baghdad (1914-1917),” published in 1932.
During WWII, the British would recycle the names of many of these sloops for the large (110-ship) Algerine-class minesweepers. These included HMS Cadmus (J230), Fantome (J224), Odin (J460), and yes, Espiegle (J216).
Speaking of recycling, the masked figurehead for Espiegle, a wooden maiden whose eyes watched the siege of Port Arthur, sailed up the Tigris and Euphrates to battle the Turks and plied the ancient seas of the world, was saved and is preserved at the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard museum.
Displacement tonnage 1,070.
Length: 210 feet (oal) 185 wl
Beam: 33 feet
Load draught, 11’ forward, 11’ 6 aft.
Machinery: Four Niclausse water tube boilers, two White of Cowes triple expansion vertical engines, 1,220 IHP natural draught, 1,400 IHP forced draught. Twin screws by JS White & Co.
Coal bunkers, 222 tons. Water, 20 tons.
Speed: 13.2 sustained.
Endurance: 4,000nm @ 10knots.
Instruments: Adie mercurial barometer and aneroid, Negretti & Zambra/Hicks wet and dry screened thermometers on the chart house roof, sea thermometer.
Complement: 120-130, Typical peacetime establishment (115): 8 Officers, 24 Seamen, 4 Boys, 12 Marines, 30 Engine Room, 17 non-executive ratings.
Armor: 25mm-38mm over machinery, 6mm on gun shields
6 x 4″/40 25-pounder QF Mk III P1.
4 x 3 pdr 47mm/40 3-pounder QF Hotchkiss Mk I.
3 x .303 Maxims.
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