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Military History
Saturation Bombing and Chemical Warfare
During the Napoleonic Wars, a British naval officer believed that desperate times called for desperate measures -- so he proposed the use of saturation bombing and chemical warfare.
by Robert Malcomson

In March 1812, Britain's prince regent, the future George IV, received from an officer in the Royal Navy a secret proposal aimed at undermining the power of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's military might in a manner guaranteed to revolutionize the rigid customs of warfare. At that time, General Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, was struggling through Spain. The strength of the Royal Navy was being sapped by the need to maintain a tedious blockade of the key French ports where Bonaparte's warships waited for an opportunity to escape into the Atlantic. The naval officer's proposal, which the prince turned over to his advisers, offered a radical scheme by which a beachhead on the coast of France could be gained quickly and decisively.

The author of the plan was Captain Sir Thomas, Lord Cochrane, a man whose exploits exceeded in fact what most of his progeny in naval fiction have been able to accomplish. His career began quite inconspicuously at age 17 in June 1793, when he joined his uncle, Captain Alexander Cochrane, aboard the 28-gun frigate Hind as a midshipman. His father, Archibald, the ninth Earl of Dundonald, was an unsuccessful inventor with disastrous pecuniary habits who provided his 6-foot-2-inch, redheaded heir with little beyond the necessities of life. Nevertheless, the young man was destined to set the naval world on its ear.

Within three years of his enlistment, Thomas Cochrane gained a lieutenancy, and in 1800 he was given command of His Majesty's Ship Speedy, a brig-sloop armed with 14 puny 4-pounder cannons, with which he nevertheless managed to capture the Spanish frigate Gamo in May 1801. Such an impressive feat, combined with a string of other captures, should have won Cochrane an immediate and splendid advancement to one of the sleekest greyhounds in the British fleet.

Cochrane, however, was by nature a supreme idealist who did not hesitate for a moment to point out problems to his superiors and to argue tenaciously for justice as he perceived it. As a result, it was not until 1804, when a change in governmental administration brought Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville and a fellow Scot, to Whitehall, that Cochrane finally was given the freshly built frigate Pallas (32 guns) and carte blanche to patrol the North Atlantic convoy route near the Azores.

Within two months, Cochrane had seized such a vast amount of enemy shipping and cargo that he alone earned 75,000 pounds sterling in prize money and returned to Portsmouth with 5-foot-tall candlesticks made of solid gold strapped to the mastheads. Cochrane's later raids on the Biscay Coast caused Napoleon to label him "le loup des mers" (the sea wolf), and raised his reputation among the British public to an exalted height.

Cochrane's star was fated to crash to earth, however. Following the mishandling of a British squadron under Admiral James Gambier in an action against a French squadron at Aix Roads in April 1809, Cochrane, who had attained partial success early in the operation, became embroiled in Gambier's resultant court-martial. The admiral was acquitted, but Cochrane lacked the skills in public debate that he demonstrated in combat, and he suffered personal humiliation as a result of the inquiry. That experience, combined with his election to Parliament as an independent but reform-minded member for the village of Honiton, helped to earn him numerous political enemies and to delay his reassignment to another command afloat. Cochrane did not sit around and stew, however. It was during that period of unemployment that Cochrane proposed to Prince George his unique approach for freeing the Royal Navy squadrons from their arduous blockades and for reducing the fortifications that protected the critical French ports.

Cochrane detailed for the prince regent the use of two innovative weapons systems, the "temporary mortar," or "explosion ship," and the "sulphur ship," or "stink vessel." An early version of the former device already had been used with only partial success during the opening phase of the Aix Roads action in 1809. Cochrane had been ordered by the Admiralty to employ fire ships against the 11 ships of the line and sundry frigates under Vice Adm. Comte Allemand, since Gambier had refused to employ such vile means to dislodge the enemy. Along with the conventional fire ships, Cochrane also had sent against the French three vessels crammed with 1,500 barrels of gunpowder topped with shells and grenades. The floating powder kegs, set off by fuses, were designed to vent their wrath against the enemy in colossal detonations, but a protective boom set up by the French to stop the fire ships also frustrated Cochrane's explosion ships.

In his thorough presentation to the prince regent in 1812, Cochrane modified the design of the original explosion ship. For each temporary mortar, a hulk, rather than a rigged vessel, was to be used. The decks would be removed, and an inner shell would be constructed of heavy timbers and braced strongly to the hull. In the bottom of the shell would be laid a layer of clay, into which obsolete ordnance and metal scrap were embedded. The "charge," in the form of a thick layer of powder, would next be placed, and above that would be laid rows and rows of shells and animal carcasses.

The explosion ship would then be towed into place at an appropriate distance from anchored enemy ships, heeled to a correct angle by means of an adjustment in the ballast loaded in the spaces running along each side of the hulk between the inner and outer hulls, and anchored securely. When detonated, the immense mortar would blast its lethal load in a lofty arc, causing it to spread out over a wide area and to fall on the enemy in a deadly torrent. Experiments conducted with models in the Mediterranean, during his layoff, convinced Cochrane that three explosion ships, properly handled, could saturate a half-mile-square area with 6,000 missiles--enough destructive force to cripple any French squadron even if it lay within an enclosed anchorage.

The follow-up to the explosion ship, or temporary mortar, would be an attack on land fortifications once again using hulks. As before, clay would be used to line the old hull, but the upper deck would remain intact so that it could be covered first with a layer of charcoal, then with an amount of sulphur equaling about one-fifth the volume of the fuel. It was intended to float such a potential stink vessel up against a shore battery or fortification when the wind blew landward, and then ignite the charcoal.

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